Connotations behind “Etyopia Lezelalem Tinur”

Thursday January 26th 2017

By Zecharias Zelalem

Timeless slogan shouted out loud with vocal unapologetic defiance and determination at rallies, quiet prayer mumbled under one’s breath. Translated from Amharic as “long live Ethiopia,” this statement prophesying love to the motherland whilst simultaneously reminding the divine above of their duties of constant surveillance over Ethiopia that they are said to be bound to, has been uttered over and over throughout the generations by the fiercely and the not so fiercely patriotic Ethiopian masses alike. Unlike many of Ethiopia’s nationalist slogans which are tied to a certain era, or regime, Ethiopia lezelalem tinur is free from political affiliations, and has been able to survive multiple power transitions. “Ethiopia Tiqdem,” is an example of another such expression bellowed by patriotic Ethiopians that has with time, seen its relegation to the dust bins of history due to its popular use by the Derg regime.

No one could possibly wish their country and countrymen/women an ill fate. Everybody aspires to see the blossoming of their lands and the inhabitants dwelling upon them reaping the benefits of prosperity. So with this in mind, it might be considered unthinkable to condemn one’s use of a term that couldn’t possibly signify anything other than one’s dedication and love for his/her ancestral land and compatriots. Nothing malicious in the phrase, right?

You could be forgiven for believing so. But anyone with some background knowledge on Ethiopian cultural inclinations would be able to comprehend how despite the sugar-coated pleasant outer layers, the statement can actually be misleading and deceptive, if not an outright declaration of war on ideas and the foundation of a nation we all claim to want to see last forever and a day.

2013: Ethiopians in the Canadian city of Calgary hold a demonstration condemning abuses of their compatriots in Saudi Arabia (Image: CBC)

It’s no secret that Ethiopians are some of the most fiercely opinionated Africans out there, when it comes to their nation’s domestic affairs and foreign policy. Whether at home or abroad, you will rarely encounter an Ethiopian familiar with the country’s political wrangling who will chose to remain completely objective, or is apolitical. It may appear to be heart soothing to see that so many Ethiopians are sincerely concerned with how their country is run and the direction it heads in, but the ideological divide between Ethiopians of different political leanings created by our cultural inclination to not only be highly opinionated, but to voice our beliefs at every given opportunity, has proven to be vast enough to create division and fuel endless feuding among Ethiopians, especially those abroad. At home, due to a government’s low tolerance for dissenting views, you will hardly see the sort of chaos among brethren that political beliefs have so often caused. Ethiopians in the diaspora have found it extremely difficult to create an atmosphere welcoming of voices from the other side of the political aisle.

So we must all keep in mind that your everyday opinionated Ethiopian will most likely want to see his/her country ruled a certain way. “My way or the highway,” is an idiom that can unfortunately be used to describe how many Ethiopians with a hint of knowledge on what makes the country tick, would react upon being told they need to compromise a tad on their ideals. No exaggeration here! Ethiopians have spent most of the 20th and 21st centuries crying foul over the injustices faced by citizens in the country, and screaming for greater freedoms, forums to air their views, speak freely without being shut down by insecure, authoritarian, religious, gavel banging, murdering power brokers. This despite the impossible to deny fact that we are culturally prone to being EXTREMELY ruthless to those who believe our ideas for a greater, stronger united Ethiopia are wide and off target.

There exists quite a sizeable contingent of somewhat elderly Ethiopians, aged in the range of the west’s baby boomers to senior citizens, who having spent the peak points of their lives during the Imperial rule of Emperor Haileselassie, drinking in the ideals of that era, who are completely disillusioned with what has happened to the country ever since. These elderly folk are out of touch with the youth of today and due to their inability to adjust to the total facelift our country has gone through over the last forty years, they have a tendency to groan and moan about everything they believe to be wrong with the country. These people popularized the “Ethiopia lezelalem tinur” expression. But the Ethiopia they remember ever so fondly is long gone, now nothing more than a topic of discussion among fellow silver haired stallions of the day, reminiscing about the swinging sixties, Tilahun Gessesse’s album releases, ice cream in Addis Ababa sold at 10 cents a pop and the arrival of the miniskirt on Addis Ababa’s streets. The conversations somehow manage to always steer clear of the fact that the majority of the country languished in starvation and plantation like living conditions. Many of these elderly statesmen, too miserable to relate with the country in anyway, may react with shocking hostility to hearing the term “Ethiopia lezelalem tinur.” To them, it’s tantamount to prolonging their pain and suffering and rubbing salt in the wounds they suffered when they and their entire world were turned upside down. This Ethiopia isn’t their Ethiopia. They are left without a country, in a sort of limbo. It’s a painful existence of sorts. The Ethiopia of today has long left them trailing light years behind in their memories. Today’s Ethiopia isn’t the one they would like to see last another three thousand years.

Addis Ababa during the “swinging sixties.” Unfortunately, the political ripening process for many Ethiopian nationals halted during this period (Image: Ethiopian Review)

Next we have our mid life crisis scraping ideologues from the days where the leverage and influence of Ethiopia’s rebel “shifta” armies, were overtaken by those of young, charming, charismatic, university students. The era of the student revolutions shaped the direction the country would head towards, and they hastened the demise of the oppressive imperial kingpins. It was an extremely promising generation full of readers, revolutionaries, the educated and those who were genuinely ready to make much needed sacrifices if they ultimately served the common good. Tragically, thousands of them would be killed in cold blood by the Derg regime, which chose to prop up their leadership with the dehumanized, bloodthirsty tools of the time. The Derg, a barbaric killing machine in practice whilst a motherland loving romantic nationalist on paper, was able to woo countless nationalist ideologues to dance with them. It only took convincing them of an ulterior threats to the country’s sovereignty and unity. It created a generation of hardened nationalists who preferred standing by the Derg regime to watching the EPRDF and EPLF rebel armies conquer Ethiopia and dismember the nation. It’s these Ethiopians, of the seventies and eighties humming patriotic war tunes and intoxicated on the victories over Somalia in the Ogaden war, who adopted the use of the phrase “Ethiopia tikdem,” alongside “Ethiopia lezelalem tinur.” “Ethiopia tikdem” had originally been “Yaleminim dem Ethiopia tikdem (ያለምንም ደም ኢትዮጵያ ትቅደም),” which roughly translates to, “Without the dropping of an ounce of blood, Ethiopia first!” That was edited after being rendered obsolete from the get go when the regime openly called on the murder of its critics. For this generation of patriots, anything less than an Ethiopia which stretched to the Red Sea and included the province of Eritrea was an Ethiopia they couldn’t bear to see become a reality. So Eritrea militarily earning her independence and severing Ethiopia’s access to the sea was a nightmare that many until this day still have difficulty processing. Ethiopia lezelalem tinur isn’t on the cards for a section of Ethiopian society which like their elderly forefathers, would rather reminisce about the good old days of the Ethiopian navy and the patriotic tunes being belted out on national TV and radio. An over militarized country glazed in Soviet hardware, feting the genius of the likes of Marx and Lenin. They will scowl upon hearing of any positive developments that occur in EPRDF led Ethiopia. When uttered by this class of Ethiopians, Ethiopia lezelalem tinur means much more than long live a prosperous Ethiopia. It is also wishing a speedy downfall to the current EPRDF regime in power and the installation of likeminded patriots who would seek out legal or even military means of regaining Ethiopia’s access to the sea via the port of Assab in the Red Sea Afar region of eastern Eritrea. Since the “Ethiopia” of these zealots includes two internationally recognized sovereign countries, ridding their “Ethiopia” of separatist elements, a non negotiable future demand, would mean that “Ethiopia lezelalem tinur” could be a declaration of another all out war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Having fallen prey to the Mengistu Hailemariam era of militarized propaganda where dissenting views and battleground cowardice alike are mercilessly dealt with by a military court marshal’s signing of an execution order, these Ethiopians tend to have a zero tolerance level towards verbal opposition to their patriotic yet outdated tirades. Alas, disarmed and no longer at the helm of armies and militias, they are unfortunately significant in number, and serve to create friction between the current generation and their own, lamenting the shortcomings Ethiopia’s up and coming masses apparently have. They tend to highlight the lack of “patriotism” many refer to this lack of nationalist fervour as cowardice. For our beloved revolutionary hotheads, Ethiopia isn’t something that must live on and on, it’s an idea that needs to be brought back from the brink of oblivion…by means of bloodshed and warfare if necessary.

Derg/communist era artwork portraying the Ethiopian people, fueled on nationalism, taking back their country from imperial elitists (Image: DW/J. Jeffrey)

Ethiopia’s dabbling with federalism has gone on for over two decades now, with current events confirming suspicions that the true extent of federalism is nowhere near what a generation of school text books have been feeding Ethiopian children. Despite arriving on the back of a tsunami of people struggles born out of a desire to end elitist exploitation and gain freedoms and autonomy, EPRDF’s Ethiopia has seen the emergence of yet another class of elitist adherents to the ruling clique. The cries of their fellow countrymen and women entrenched in the misery and woe of fleeing the country as refugees in search of economic opportunities and basic freedoms can be easily drowned out with the jackhammers and drills that are sending high rise after high rise soaring into Addis Ababa’s skies. For the current proprietors of the country, “Ethiopia” is a capitalist paradise, a place to do business in and a land of opportunities if you have connections. The whirlwind of resentment that sometimes threatens to engulf them is “anti Ethiopian” in nature and hell bent on “terrorizing” the elite few enjoying their sumptuous servings of everything cronyism has to offer. “Ethiopia lezelalem tinur” means little more than long live the paradise they currently live in, despite the ample evidence that the facade of social issues their class of people chose to turn a blind eye to, threatens to dismantle the foundations of the very country that millions of Ethiopians have long prayed to the heavens to watch over. For the ardent EPRDF supporter and the minority elite with shares in the upper echelons of power, Ethiopia lezelalem tinur is the preserving of a system where they remain on top of the food chain. A reversal of the roles or a reformatting of the system are ideas funded by the enemies of the country hell bent on destabilizing the federal democratic republic and stunting the developmental growth. All in all, Ethiopia lezelalem tinur, when articulated by these Ethiopians, is pretty parasitical in nature.

Dozens of EPRDF rebels in the immediate aftermath of their capturing the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in 1991. Many believe that their efforts were in vain, as their victory paved the way for the emergence of a dictatorial regime which has benefited an elite few and spilled the blood of those who exhibit dissent (Image: Getty Images)

So, as I have tried to articulate here, this often said timeless expression of love for the motherland isn’t always the pure hearted declaration of loyalty you assumed it was after all. Depending on your political leanings and your age among other things, the phrase can be in accordance with the interests of one Ethiopian, while completely trampling upon the aspirations of another Ethiopian. It can be as loving as it can be hostile. Quite frankly it is a double edged sword that can serve good and evil! If anything, the lack of ambiguity surrounding a person’s saying “Ethiopia lezelalem tinur” should be a cold shower for those of us who refuse to or haven’t yet realized that our cultural shortcomings and instinctive refusal to entertain clashing points of view will forever see us bickering at the slightest whim, unable to unite even for the sake of the country that everybody likes to claim they want to say thrive on and prosper for a million suns.

“Do I have an Ethiopia fit for me and my selfish desires? If yes, “Ethiopia lezelalem tinur! If not, nuke the lot to smithereens! My country has been stolen from me!”

Sounds brutal, but it’s one way of coherently decoding the hidden double meaning behind your politically hyper (that’s most of us) Ethiopian.

Are we able to bring about a societal change? Sure we can. Ideas long entrenched in the mind sight can evaporate into thin air, as the last forty years of Ethiopian history have taught us. And so, we must teach the up and coming generation of Ethiopians to do what their predecessors have failed time and time again.

We as Ethiopians have written poetry, songs and chants hailing our luscious green landscape, arable farming land, mountain peaks and endless resources. We rarely appreciate the inhabitants of the land. I’m talking about every inhabitant of every corner of the empire. Do we have a country suited for them? Do we have an Ethiopia accommodating their needs and wants? Do we honestly and sincerely believe that Ethiopians of differing ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, political affiliations and economical situations would be able to “retweet” our eternal declaration of “Ethiopia lezelalem tinur?”

The day we are able to look directly into each other’s eyes and truthfully answer “yes” three times is the day we know we have made one small step for the Ethiopian man and one giant step for Ethiopian men of every different kind.

Let’s not forget our women! We live in a patriarchal society. The exclusion was out of an attempt to remain true to the legacy of earth’s first ever moonwalker.

Ethiopian Hamer girl (Image: Ethio Helix)

We ought to be able to see this Ethiopia in our lifetime. It’ll take a communal mammoth effort, but hey, Ethiopians are supposedly being watched from above. In this day and age, a true “patriot” should work towards seeing this dream be brought to fruition.




My name is Zecharias Zelalem.

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