Anyone who is following the current Ethiopian politics, especially news and developments in relation to the Oromo Protest in the last six months, would be familiar with who Dr. Tsegaye R. Ararssa is. In my view, Dr. Tsegaye is one of the more prominent intellectual faces of the Oromo Protest. Starting from this sentence, I address Dr. Tsegaye as Tsegaye, because of a friendship that spans over two decades that makes addressing a friend with a title awkward. Despite our disagreements in our views concerning Ethiopia, I have never ceased to regard Tsegaye as my friend. I address him in this piece as such.
The rationale for this piece: One of the key reasons for my decision to write this piece consists in my desire, which I hope Tsegaye shares, to see Tsegaye reorient his public engagement with people who are active participants in issues that affect and shape the future of Ethiopia. It is my desire to see a redemption of Tsegaye’s mode of engagement for his own sake and for the sake of the public good. It is my deep concern with Tsegaye’s subjecting people who disagree with him to public ridicule and humiliation that led me to address my concern in public. It is also my hope that other public intellectuals and participants in public discussions and debates regarding issues that affect Ethiopia would take a note that our culture of public engagement needs a lot of change and improvement.
I have witnessed Tsegaye violate the norms of public engagement with people who disagree with him, and this violation of the norms of public engagement is fast closing the public sphere. It is very likely that Tsegaye will end up being alone with no one being willing to engage him in a public arena, both in the social (Facebook) and the traditional media (TV and Radio). By “norms of public engagement” I mean to refer to (a) civility in dialogue with people with whom one disagrees on important issues, (b) respect to both the views and persons who present views that are in disagreement with one’s dialogue partner, and (c) charity in interpreting another person’s views. Some of the readers of this piece might be surprised to hear that Tsegaye has violated any of the norms of public engagement in his interactions with people who hold views with which Tsegaye disagrees. Below I present the evidence from his writings on his Facebook that shows his pre-emptive tactic for people who could and would want to engage him in a public forum. As the evidence shows, it becomes clear that when people avoid engaging him in a public forum, he would appear as the one who has issued an invitation for a public debate, but no one is willing to debate him in public. I show that Tsegaye’s mode of operation makes engaging him in a debate something like an invitation to engage in an exercise in an intellectual and moral morass. The one who is willing to debate him must also be willing to be the subject of personal attacks from Tsegaye in public, especially on Tsegaye’s Facebook. Who, in his/her right mind, would be willing to be the subject of Tsegaye’s public attacks for every disagreement in their views with his views? A person who issues an invitation to debate with others and at the same time engages in a public personal attack of the people who disagreed with him is like a person who enters a competitive sport alone and ends up being a winner, as it were. Next I present the evidence from Tsegaye’s Facebook posts and commentaries.
The Evidence: On his Facebook page Tsegaye has offered a commentary on the Wazema radio interview of Drs. Semahegn G. Abebe and Derese G. Kassa. His commentary was titled: “Arguing a non-issue, Answering a non-question.” The commentary was posted on May 6 at 7:47am. In that commentary Tsegaye writes, “Now, Deresse says Zewg is related to Zewd (to mean crown). (Does this guy know Amharic and the etymological roots of the word?)”. He adds, “Apparently, intermarriage absolves the state of all constitutive wrongs.”Yes, yes, there was conquest and violence. But there was also a unity we should celebrate! Yes, unity, because we started to inter-marry! You know!” [Note the sarcasm]. (What has marriage got to do with it? This guy must be insane.)” Furthermore, he adds, “And then, right then, he derides ethno-nationalists for being primordialists who talk of blood, genealogy, etc. Didn’t he just talk about inter-marriage and mixed births. (Truly, this guy doesn’t listen to himself. I think he needs friends who need to echo his voice to him….” He goes on to add, “The most hilarious part is that this Deresse fellow calls ethno-nationalists primordialists who lack imagination. Why?” And: “And then, Deresse waxes lyrical in praising nostalgia (longing for the past) and even arrogantly says that one can only long for the past. Really? (He doesn’t even know the difference between nostalgia and longing. How pathetic can you be, my friend?).” And he adds: “But, for now, I just can’t stop laughing at the recent tirade, this renewed scramble to generate a discourse of imperial counter-insurgency.”
Most recently, in his Facebook post titled, “Nothing is Uglier than a Poor Caricature–especially of EPRDF” (May 12 at 2:35am) among so many similar comments, Tsegaye writes, “Some self-appointed Ethiopisant ‘intellectuals’ (especially those who never read a book beyond the introduction) are trying to foment a (borrowed) hatred on the Oromo. They write from a space of (borrowed) Oromophobia to silence the discourse around the Oromoprotests. Those that dared to take their hateful and fear-mongering propaganda I have publicly engaged. I have even challenged to an open public debate. And none dared to do so. However, I am informed by friends that they are throwing their tantrums here and there on Facebook (until they re-group and come back through Wazema Radio or Sebat Kilo, etc). PS. A piece of advise [sic]: do your studies properly, read books AND finish them rather than running a thread of tantrums here and there. Tantrums don’t make up a PhD.”
In his Facebook post in which Tsegaye reposted his interview on Wazema Radio with Dr. Semahegn, he prefaces his post by writing the following: “For the sake of the bigoted Ethiopianists (or ‘Ethiopisants’ as Ullendorf says), who listen to the voice of the ghost in their head whenever an Oromo person speaks rather than to what the latter says; for the sake of those who never want to come out and debate issues of common concern in public; for the sake of those who comfort themselves with mooshy platitudes that pass for learned discourses; I have to share this again if only to irritate them infinitely more (for I don’t otherwise owe an explanation to the idiots, especially to the bigoted breed).” [April 15, 2016 at 12:31am]. If one thinks that Tsegaye’s personal attack is limited to those with whom he disagrees on issues he publicly engaged, the following quotation, again from his Facebook, shows that there is a pattern of his attack against almost anyone who holds different views than his, especially his interpretation of things pertaining to the Oromo people. For example, on his post on March 1, 2016 at 8:13am, 2016, Tsegaye expressed the following view regarding Menelik II and the significance of Adwa for black people, “This is also the Menelik that these nonthinking Ethiopians (averse to critical thinking while pretending to understand history or their country) are trying to celebrate as the man who fought Adwa to defend and secure the freedom of black peoples across the globe.” In this connection, in another of his Facebook posts, Tsegaye alluded to Bewketu Seyoum’s new book, Ke Amen Bashager, in which Bewketu discusses Menelink, as follows: “With all this in the background, when people come out to fetishize Adowa as a war fought and won for the emancipation of black peoples of the world, I cringe at the lie. When I see scholars, poets, lyricists, and wannabe historians (apologists of empire such as Psychologist turned poet Bewketu [Seyoum]) who seek to fabricate a new set of narratives that the old man [Menelink] himself would totally reject, I smile.” [March 1, 2016 at 1:03 pm]. Now, it is natural if some, who are familiar with Tsegaye’s media appearances on the TV and radios, would be puzzled by the evidence that is in conflict with the Tsegaye that is familiar for so many. I offer below an explanation that can mitigate the puzzling experience. Other explanations are also available, but I do not intend to pursue them for various reasons.
Two Tsegayes: Here is one way of understanding Tsegaye’s strategy that leads people to think that Tsegaye has not been observed violating the norms of public engagement or mistreating people who disagree with him. TSEGAYE OF THE TRADITIONAL MEDIA, the TV and Radio: In most of his TV interviews with ESAT and radio interviews/conversations with the VOA and Wazema, he restrains himself from violating the norms of public engagement or ridiculing and condescendingly dismissing others and their views. In my view, the reason for exercising restraint is easy to understand: The TV and radio interviews have a larger audience in Ethiopia, especially those who do not use the social media, and that is an important target for his purpose. Note that Tsegaye emerged as a public intellectual and an Oromo activist in the context of the Oromo Protest. So, in my view, Tsegaye acts in the traditional media appearances deliberately different posing as a public intellectual with little evidence that resembles what I presented above. TSEGAYE OF THE SOCIAL MEDIA (Facebook): Tsegaye adopts a completely different personality for his social media operation or mode of engagement. [Note that Tsegaye’s social media audience has access to the traditional media version of Tsegaye, but the majority of those Tsegaye targets as his larger audience in Ethiopia do not have access to the Tsegaye of the social media, and to the evidence as to how Tsegaye operates on the social media]. As the evidence above shows, on his Facebook page, he frequently belittles, ridicules people who hold different political views than his and he is condescendingly dismissive of the views of people who shared a platform, for example, on the Wazema Radio interviews. Next, I show negative effects of Tsegaye of the social media in the public arena in the current Ethiopian politics, which is a great disservice to Tsegaye as an active participant in current issues that affect Ethiopia and the broader culture of public engagement for the good of the Ethiopian people.
Tsegaye’s Media Strategy: Of the two Tsegayes, Tsegaye of the traditional media (TV, Radio) is an amicable, apparently respectful dialogue partner. But the Tsegaye of the social media is what the evidence shows. Note this: Those same people who are targets of his public ridicule, and humiliation are observed to be the same people whom he invites to the public debate. Does Tsegaye, it’s not clear which Tsegaye I’m talking about now, sincerely believe that his invitation is genuine, and he means what he says? Does he not have any idea what the effect of Tsegaye of the social media would have on his debate partners on the TV or radio? I bet that he does have a clear idea about the impact of his social media posts in which he engages in bullying and belittling his potential debate or discussion partners. If he has a good idea about the negative impact of his social media behavior, why does he engage in it? Here is one plausible explanation I can think of: When people who hold opposing views to his decline to engage him because of his abusive behavior, Tsegaye will appear like the only intellectual whose views no one could challenge. It is already clear that he is claiming, as I have quoted him above, that no one “dared” to engage him in a public debate despite his public invitation. I leave it to my readers to judge whether Tsegaye’s invitation is a genuine invitation for a public debate with people who hold different views in light of his public abusive behavior.
To be left without anyone to engaging him in a public debate to challenge his views seems to be the scenario he wants to emerge in the current public sphere. This unfortunately is exactly what happens when a regime like Ethiopia’s treats its citizens, dissidents as a result of which the state media becomes the only voice without other competing voices. Likewise, Tsegaye will emerge, apparently, as “the only unchallenged voice” when it comes to promoting his views in relation to Ethiopia and as an Oromo intellectual and activist. Strikingly, when public intellectuals act the way Tsegaye of the social media acts, the public arena, especially about the debate involving the Oromo intellectuals, of whom Tsegaye is a prominent one, will look like the composition of the parliament in Ethiopia. In this case, Tsegaye of the traditional media assisted by Tsegaye of the social media, would resemble the EPRDF parliament whereas people who disagree with his views would resemble members of the opposition party, which is zero. Note that I am just drawing a striking analogy between the composition of the Ethiopian parliament, familiar for the Ethiopian readers, and the most likely scenario that seems to portray what it is like to engage Tsegaye in a public forum. I believe the last person Tsegaye wants to look like in his public behavior is the late Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi who acted as if he knew everything and everyone else was wrong. To ensure that Meles must be listened to, and emerge right about almost everything, he had to use guns to silence dissident voices. Tsegaye uses abusive public behavior to silence those who disagree with him. [Interestingly and ironically, almost every view that is presented by people who disagree with Tsegaye’s in the current Oromo Protest, he interprets such views as being intended to silence the voice of the Oromo people. Even when those who disagree with him are Oromos themselves! I encourage readers to visit Tsegaye’s Facebook for evidence]. I think no one wants to see Tsegaye become “Meles Zenawi” # 2 in a public sphere where issues affecting the state of Ethiopia are being discussed, and debated without any respect to the norms of public engagement. Even though Tsegaye can manage to appear in a winsome manner in the traditional media, his social media behavior has proved to be abortive or pre-emptive of the realization of fruitful public debates and dialogues with Tsegaye in the traditional media. It is quite astonishing for me to see a public intellectual who is becoming one of the most prominent voices against the tyrannical government in Ethiopia act and operate in a much similar manner to that very government! It is to be noted that my conception of “two Tsegayes” is a suggestion I proposed to make sense of the two quite different modes of media operations by Tsegaye. I submit that this is a mode of media operation Tsegaye has intentionally adopted for reasons I offered above.
A plea from an old friend: Tsegaye has become a prominent champion of the value and the use of memory, and remembering past atrocities committed against the people of Ethiopia by various regimes, and people groups against other people groups in Ethiopia. Remembering is championed for the purpose of bringing about reconciliation between those who committed injustice and their victims. As an Oromo, he has become a key voice for this project. Reconciliation can come about when those who committed injustice acknowledge their role and ask their victims for forgiveness. As a champion of the project of remembering to bring about reconciliation, I urge Tsegaye to publicly acknowledge his unfair treatment of people in public as documented above and to apologize to whoever has been a victim of his public abusive behavior. Hence, I publicly issue a plea to my old friend, as a friend, to sacrifice (to say “no” to) his abusive public behavior for his own sake and for the sake of fruitful intellectual engagement with others to contribute ideas, visions, and perspectives that can positively affect the future of Ethiopia and the quest for justice for the Oromo people, for which Tsegaye is a champion. I implore my old friend to be a responsible and an exemplary public intellectual who deeply cares about the value of character in both a public sphere as well as in one’s personal treatments of others, even those who sharply yet respectfully disagree with one’s views.
I close this piece with a couple of excerpts from Tsegaye’s emails [to me] from 2011 so that Tsegaye can be sure that I do remember and cherish our longtime friendship, which I see no reason why we cannot continue to cultivate and cherish despite our disagreements regarding issues concerning Ethiopia: On July 25, 2011 Tsegaye wrote: “…I owe it to you to do it well, whatever it is that I choose to do. (You started me into writing, remember (?)– whether it is pieces, essays, papers, or articles, and hopefully books.) As I might have probably said it before, you are one of the folks for whose sakes I want to succeed in my academic or any other career. I owe it to you as much, my friend.” In another email the same date: “Thanks for your kind responses. No, I am not being kind. It is just my way of being grateful to you for investing in me through your books, through the long times we spent together, through the pieces we exchanged, especially when you were in Soddo [1994-1995], and through the life you modelled to me (a life of committed mind, committed passionately to the pursuit of the life of the mind). I hope your efforts will prove to be worth their whiles in the years to come.” Your wishes, my friend, have continued to be realized for quite some time and I want to say thank you, once again. I shared these couple of excerpts from Tsegaye’s old emails as a testament to our once great friendship that is now the source of my confidence that Tsegaye will take my appeal to him seriously so that he can exhibit an exemplary public presence in the days and in the years to come. Finally, I want to assure you (Tsegaye) that I’ve forgiven you of all the things you’ve said about me on your Facebook posts without mentioning my name. I do also ask you to forgive me for anything that was not proper that I said about you without mentioning your name on my Facebook posts. I am sure you, Tsegaye, can tell by now one more reason why I chose to write this piece in this manner. If I shared views that are in disagreement with Tsegaye’s views on my Facebook posts by mentioning his name, I could easily tell that Tsegaye would most likely say similar things he has said to others as I documented above, besides what he has said without mentioning me be my name. Since I do not want to engage Tsegaye in such a manner, I decided to seek another venue, this one, to address my concern. I am sure many others would share with me the concern I share in this piece. I have one more reason to choose to address Tsegaye in this manner: For many years Tsegaye and I were among the best of friends, and it is my heart’s desire to see Tsegaye continue to positively contribute to the public discussion and debate about a country, Ethiopia, that has shaped our lives in so many ways than we can say. I consider addressing Tsegaye in this manner, in public, as one way of recognizing him because he deserve a recognition for the kind of work he is doing and will do.
*Tedla Woldeyohannes is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at Saint Louis University in Saint Louis, Missouri. Tedla has taught Philosophy at Western Michigan University and Saint Louis University.