Hot Blog: Obama and Ethiopia: From Gloom to Leadership

By Donald N. Levine

Published: Monday, August 18, 2008

New York (Tadias) – What a season! In Ethiopia and in the United States, we hear similar laments: inflation brings miseries; rich/poor gap widens; sick people lack care; environments worsen; human rights burn; energy grows scarce; media cave in; schools are inadequate. And we face baneful consequences of invading another country in an ill-conceived quest to stamp out perceived security threats. It’s enough to make you feel gloomy.

So whence the mood of buoyancy, fresh determination, breakthrough ideas, and enlarged visions in the U.S.? It’s through a leader who works to bring folks together to address crippling problems in a forthright, competent, and consensual manner. Not a power-mongering demagogue, Barack Obama projected a vision when he told his followers: “This election victory is not about me. It’s about you!” It is about seeing how much good can come from harnessing the free proactive power of millions. In the words of Common Cause president Bob Edgar, “We are the leaders we have been waiting for.”

Barack Obama’s power stems also from identifying with figures who inspired us in dire times–Franklin Roosevelt, for calming a torrent of paralyzing fear; John F. Kennedy, for fostering idealism while facing down threats; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for incandescent dreams; even Ronald Reagan who, despite regressive economic policies, raised a dispirited public’s morale.

Ethiopians, too, recall many who brought inspiration in times of peril: Emperor Yohannes who fell fighting against invaders; Emperor Haile Selassie who stood tall at the League of Nations; and, among many who opposed Italian Fascism, heroes like Lorenzo Taezaz, Abuna Petros, and Mulugeta Buli. They remember Kifle Wodajo, who promoted democracy under a regime unschooled in its ways. They admire innovators, such as General Siye Abraha, who renounced ethnic chauvinism for multiethnic inclusiveness; Elias Wondimu, who built a publishing program of high standards and an institute for nonviolent solutions; Judge Bertukan Midekesa, who survived a horrendous prison with great forward-looking spirit; and Pastor Daniel Gebreselassie, who helped many thousands of prisoners and resolve Ethiopia’s political paralysis.

Barack Obama draws on his appeal to an empowered citizenry and his stock of inspiring figures to energize an audacious search for fresh solutions to current dilemmas. I’ll name but three.

Transforming energy use
In stunning contrast to a regime that denies global warming, reduces environmental protections, dismisses science, and favors expanded use of oil, Barack Obama vigorously promotes conservation, respect for science, and search for alternative energy sources. His bold new energy plans include ways to slash oil consumption, cut greenhouse gas emissions 80%, create five million green energy jobs, and expand renewable energy sources.

Transforming foreign policy
Invading Iraq, Americans now believe, was a disaster on every count: politics; ethics; economics; security. That invasion stemmed from a mindset that reduces international issues to a divide between good guys and evil guys, eager to use force against the latter. Already when campaigning in January 2000, Bush proclaimed: “When I was coming up, it was us vs. them, and it was clear who them was. Today, we are not so sure who the they are, but we know they’re there.” Obama’s early rejection of the Iraqi war option as leading inexorably to “an occupation of undetermined length, with undetermined costs, and undetermined consequences” reflects a mindset committed to analyzing what makes the U.S. truly secure. This includes promoting an international context in which we say, “to those yearning faces beyond our shores: ‘You matter to us. Your future is our future.’”

Reconfiguring political energy
The Bush administration has shown its blatant disregard of American citizens in so many ways. These include ignoring danger signals and providing pitiful relief for the Katrina disaster; squandering an opportunity to mobilize Americans for public service after 9/11 by asking Americans only to go shopping; and undermining democratic institutions by abrogating provisions of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In sharp contrast, Barack Obama’s fidelity to the Constitution was shown abundantly in his years of teaching Constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, and his commitment to reversing the politicization of the Bush Administration’s Department of Justice. Obama plans to expand opportunities for Americans to engage in national and community service and the Peace Corps, and to engage retiring Americans in service on a large scale. He has a stunning track record of listening to the voice of citizens, and understands that in democracy the press needs to censure government, rather than the government to censoring the press.

The Appeal to Ethiopians
Ethiopian Americans tell me they find the Obama candidacy worth supporting for one or more of three different reasons. Like other Americans, Ethiopian Americans find hope in a wide range of his policy proposals, like the sample listed above (and others; see They also see how the directions Obama promises for the U.S. may offer a model for Ethiopia. And many hope that an Obama administration might reorient American policy toward Ethiopia and the Horn in more constructive directions.

Forward-looking Ethiopians, including many in the Ethiopian Government, see promise in adapting advanced green energy technologies and thereby enabling Ethiopia to leap-frog the stage of industrialization that the West and East Asian countries have undergone. For the U.S. and other donor nations, this implies a shift from stopgap relief mentality and old-scale types of capital investment to technologies that harness solar energy, wind energy, geothermal energy, compact water turbines, and better waste management.

Forward-looking Ethiopians, including many in the Ethiopian Government, see the pitfalls of the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia and even more so the consequences of the scorched earth policy in the Ogaden. They prefer the sort of policy that Germame Neway pursued, working to integrate Ogaden inhabitants into the Ethiopian nation by offering them abundant life-enhancing services.

For the U.S., an Obama approach would avoid the shortcomings of basing African engagements so much on a trigger-happy counter-terrorist disposition, a change that former Ambassador David Shinn and former Chargé d’Affaires Vicki Huddleston have advocated.

Finally, Obama’s commitment to mobilizing citizens for public service and respecting human rights has conspicuous relevance to changing Ethiopia. It would imply support for empowering “the bottom of the pyramid.”

Regarding U.S. policies, it might expectably lead to more effective support for Ethiopians who want to promote a free press, including local radio that gives voice to people, and capacity-building for the advancement of nonviolent solutions and protection of human rights.”

Ethiopians can experience the same turn-around, in ye-bet agar as well as in ye-wutch agar, that Obama’s campaign for change promises. Awo Inchilallen!

For now, what better way than to join forces with Ethiopians for Obama? Or even join with neighbors from the larger Horn of Africa to set up a new support group: why not SEEDS [Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia]-Americans for Obama?”

About the Author:
Donald N. Levine served as the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. His research and teaching interests focus on classical social theory, modernization theory, Ethiopian studies, conflict theory and aikido, and philosophies of liberal education. He is a colleague of Senator Barack Obama from their teaching days at the University of Chicago.

Cover image: From a photo booth with Obama wearing a traditional Ethiopian shawl at D.C. Soccer Tournament 2008 (Tadias)

15 Responses to “Hot Blog: Obama and Ethiopia: From Gloom to Leadership”

  1. 1 Liku Dawit Aug 18th, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    Dear Professor,

    Thank you for your well thought out article. You are right on the money. I look froward to the Obama victory and better days ahead for all of us around the world, including Ethiopia and the rest of Africa.

    It would be great to hear from other experts as well.

    Thank you!

  2. 2 Nolawi Aug 18th, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    The Section in ” The Appeal to Ethiopians”

    “Forward-looking Ethiopians, including many in the Ethiopian Government, see the pitfalls of the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia and even more so the consequences of the scorched earth policy in the Ogaden.”

    I don’t think this has an effect either way- if it does- how and why so?

  3. 3 habib Aug 18th, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    Obama is a human being. It is good to be positive, but it is not good to go frenzy about him since he is imperfect human like everyone else.

    I just cannot handle why people are really high spirited because of Obama. We need to wait and see.

    Ayalew Kebede

  4. 4 Tazabiw Aug 19th, 2008 at 3:31 am

    Ayte Hayelom kebdom

    Obama is human? Yes he is and you will see.

    hummmmmm !!!!!

  5. 5 rahel.hagoss Aug 19th, 2008 at 6:22 am

    Good luck obama!

    With love from Ethiopia!

  6. 6 Tazabiw Aug 20th, 2008 at 11:56 am

    For those of us who are not yet on the Obama bandwagon, I have few questions how the presidency of Obama could alter U.S. policy towards Africa.

    As an Ethiopian with a strong Orthodox background, I can’t see how Obama’s support for gay rights and abortion rights, can benefit the U.S. or the world. His judgment to have had a long term associations with his pastor does not encourage voters either.

    As we say in Ethiopia, yemiyattegib injera kemittadu yastawikkal.

    Does Barack Hussein Obama has the experience or the character to become a fit president?.

    Finally, I ask the professor his views about the dictator who is ruining Ethiopia today.

  7. 7 Dave Tekle Aug 20th, 2008 at 12:39 pm


    Dude, you sound like you are not even a voter in our country. Are you concerned at all about the future of America? Obama is not running to be President of Ethiopia, he is running to be President of the U.S.

    As to your question, “Does Barack Hussein Obama has the experience or the character to become a fit president?.”

    Well, it depends how you look at it. Since you are anti-gay rights and women’s rights by way of abortion, since you are only concerned about your country in Africa, I suggest you root for the other guy.

    As to the dictator in Ethiopia. Who cares? The election is about replacing our own dictator bush.

    Good luck,
    Dave with respect from Boston

  8. 8 Ahmed Aug 20th, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    I think the people of Ogaden will have a great chance in the near future to be free.

  9. 9 simply thinking Aug 20th, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    I agree. As the esteemed Professor pointed out, hopefully the Obama administration will encourage “the sort of policy that Germame Neway pursued, working to integrate Ogaden inhabitants into the Ethiopian nation by offering them abundant life-enhancing services.”

    By the way, for those of you who don’t know who Germame Neway is, you should google him, as I did. He is the progressive brother of Mengistu Neway. The handsome Neway brothers attempted unsuccessful coup against Haile Selassie and were eventually put to death in the early 1960′s.

    Germame tried to pursue a policy of human decency. The people of Ogaden are Ethiopians and they should be treated and respected and integrated as such.

    As to the over all U.S. Policy towards Africa under an Obama administration, I think, again, the Prof is right on point.

    “Regarding U.S. policies, it might expectably lead to more effective support for Ethiopians who want to promote a free press, including local radio that gives voice to people, and capacity-building for the advancement of nonviolent solutions and protection of human rights.”

  10. 10 Woldegabriel Woldeghiorghis Aug 21st, 2008 at 7:05 am

    Dear Professor!

    Personally I think you are quite on point many points of the article. I wish Sen. Obama success in his presidential campaign; I am looking forward to giving him the honourable title of ” THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNTIED STATES OF AMERICA”.

    Highest Regards

  11. 11 Yared Aug 21st, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    Professor Levine Tena Yistilign,

    We are honored to have you as our mentor amongst us. I am in full agreement with your SEEDS idea. How about “American SEEDS for Obama”? This is “Wax & Gold” at its best.


  12. 12 Abebaw Tekle (FAKE Name) Sep 25th, 2008 at 10:01 am

    This is in response to DAVE TEKLE

    America protects or assists other foreign countries to the extent of what kind of return or benefit they might obtain from those countries. They do not donate a penny with out primarily analyzing the positive outcome of the donation. In the case of emergency, or natural disaster ( destruction by hurricane, earth quake, famine ), America with collaboration of other western countries, of course help other countries for the time being. Whoever seizes power, either from Republicans or Democrats, I do not believe, will have a great impact to wards the political and economical progress and development of our nations, Ethiopia. Who cares for America?

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