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Of Shimagles (Elders) And Snake Oil Salesmen
By Prof. Al. Mariam:
The idea of (shimagles) elders getting involved in conflict and dispute resolution impresses me as wholesome and desirable. Even in advanced societies, the trend today is increasingly away from hard-nosed litigation to mediation, arbitration and other forms of non-adversarial dispute resolution. Before we opt to take the “shimagle” road, we must know what it is and where it could possibly take us.
In my view, the current articulation of the “shimagle” institution by Prof. Isaac is incoherent, superficial and contemptuously exclusionary of non-Ethiopians (almost to the point of being xenophobic); at best, it is hopelessly romantic and anachronistic. He exaggerates the value of indigenous Ethiopian traditions and lifestyles and illegitimatizes Western culture and technology. He contrives an exotic morally superior Ethiopian tradition of dispute resolution, and condescendingly patronizes Western society and traditions.
His notions of the “shimagle” institution and process seem to be rather simplistic and folkloric. He appears to suggest that there is a body of conventional Ethiopian wisdom in the “shimagle” institution in which sagacious, judicious, insightful, prudent, tactful and understanding community figures angelically intervene to resolve disputes, which could not be resolved by modern constitutional, legal or other political means.
In one of his seminal pieces on the institution of the elders “Only An ‘Elder’s Council’ Can Lead the Way,” (Harvard African Law Association, February 11, 2006), Prof. Isaac wrote: “The road that could lead us to lasting peace and democracy is in our own hands, the Ethiopian peoples, not in the hands of mediators from outside. Outside mediators can be well-meaning but often add confusion to conflict in the process.” He cited a prime example of the negative role of foreigners:
“Competing foreign negotiators from every corner of the world converged on the respective capitals of Ethiopia and Eritrea trying to solve what they said to be a border dispute [1998-2000]. What have they achieved?… The result was what amounted to an African World War… In the recent clash between the Ethiopian Government and the opposition groups, several international organizations such as the European Union and other foreign governments rushed in to solve the problems. The result has again been a dismal failure.”
Prof. Isaac explained that “councils of trusted native elders” are “superior modes” to Western-style mediation because “elders profoundly understand the human dimension or the psychology and history, not just the ideology, of the combatants or political party contestants. Elders feel personally the blood of their own kin on both sides that will flow if they fail.
The warring peoples or political parties generally consider them venerable moral guides (Saint Kristos Samra would agree and witness the conciliation between the 19th century rulers Yohannes and Menelik.) When all things are considered, it is with the native local elders that in the end the warring parties have to live as fellow citizens/ neighbors.”
Many Ethiopians have conceptual and practical problems with Prof. Isaac’s formulation and articulation of the “shimagle” institution, and his recent operation of the “shimgelena” process. While I bear no personal malice towards Prof. Isaac (as I have never met or spoken with him except for the radio interviews over the past week), it is undeniable that his role and intentions in the “shimgelena” process is viewed with considerable suspicion by many Ethiopians.
Here are some of the reasons for his lack of credibility:
First , he is viewed as a snake oil salesman peddling the “shimagle” institution inside and outside Ethiopia as a special remedy for all kinds of political and social ills and conflicts. Regrettably, to many Ethiopians in the U.S., he conjures up the image of that old stock character in Western movies who travels as a “doctor” from town to town selling some cure-all medicine (snake oil) with marketing hype and pseudo-scientific evidence to back up his claims.
Second, a great many Ethiopians who have followed the professor’s efforts believe the whole “shimgelena” idea at this stage of the political debate smacks of “pulling a rabbit out of a hat”. They feel Zenawi backed himself into a corner with the Kality prisoners of conscience and needed a graceful way out; so he pulled the “shimgelena” thing out of the hat and saddled Prof. Isaac with it. They doubt Zenawi’s sincerity in the “shimagle” institution, and suspect that he is merely using it to deflect the enormous international pressure that has been exerted against him lately, and buy more time to pull out more tricks from his hat.
Third, neither Prof. Isaac nor the other “shimagles” are viewed as neutral, impartial and fair mediators. They are regarded, at best, as Zenawi’s unwitting and hapless stooges who perform on the domestic and international stage like puppets on a string. They do and say what they are told. They have no institutional independence or integrity; and Prof. Isaac is viewed as Zenawi’s lackey and “go-fetch-it guy”.
Fourth, many Ethiopians believe the “shimgelena” efforts are disingenuous because there are more efficacious mechanisms readily available to resolve the political and legal disputes, if Zenawi is really interested in serious dispute resolution. For instance, they question why the country’s “constitution” and criminal laws and procedure are not being applied fairly to resolve the issue of the prisoners before jumping on the “shimagle” bandwagon.
Fifth, there is a widely-shared belief that Zenawi is trying to use the “shimagle” institution to distract and disarm his opponents, and hoodwink the international community into thinking that there are special homespun mysterious remedies to the political and social problems of Ethiopians that Westerners do not know about. As Prof. Isaac stated, there are traditional Ethiopian methods that are “superior modes” of dispute resolution. (Of course, this pure nonsense. Ethiopians have no monopoly on some secret wisdom for dispute resolution that no other society has, least of all Westerners.)
Sixth, many Ethiopians believe that Zenawi is trying to hoodwink the people and opposition elements by outwardly trying to appear traditional and reasonable, and someone who listens and follows the voices of the elders. They believe he does not give a hoot about “shimagles” or peaceful resolution of disputes. Listen to every word he says in his public statements, they say. His lips drip with words of malice and scorn for his opposition, bravado for his followers and deceit and deception for the international community.
He will clutch on to the “shimagle” business like a man holds to a branch in a flooding river, they say. It is ironic that not so long ago Zenawi rejected the “shimgelina” institution as applicable only to disputes between a husband and wife, and not fit for national dispute resolution.
Seventh, many Ethiopians believe the “shimagle” process as initiated and conducted by Prof. Isaac is doomed to failure because it is not genuine, and only a window-dressing version of the real “shimagle” institution. In a real “shimagle” process, they say, all parties get a fair hearing, are given opportunities to explain their grievances and positions, respond to and ask questions, come to terms on the basis of a clear understanding and agreement on the issues, ask forgiveness of each other and seek to formulate a balanced and even-handed resolution. Such is not the view shared of the “shimgelena” process undertaken and led by Prof. Isaac.
Real “Shimgelena” Has Its Place: Elected or Appointed “Shimagles”?
I do not claim to know much about the formal institution of “shimgelena” in the Ethiopian context. There does not appear to be much scholarship on the subject, at least I have not been able to identify any (and I would appreciate receiving a bibliography if anyone is willing to share). I have more experience in the hard-nosed adversarial system of the American legal system where lawyers battle in the courtroom before an impartial fact-finder and obtain desirable results for their clients. But I have had some experience in mediation and arbitration in various simple and complex civil matters. I suspect there are some basic similarities between the American mediation and Ethiopian “shimgelena” institutions.
Let me also add that I have had limited opportunities to observe the application of the “shimgelena” process at the family, neighborhood, church and community levels. I believe it could be an effective dispute resolution mechanism provided it operates on certain universal mediation principles such as neutrality, impartiality, nonpartisanship, independence, spirit of conciliation, honesty, fairness, directness, sincerity, integrity, truthfulness, even-handedness, balance, candor, equitableness, open-mindedness and so on.
I thought it was rather quaint and amusing for Prof. Isaac to roll out 19th Century Ethiopian kings to demonstrate his notions of the effectiveness of the “shimagle” institution. Ironically, not long ago, Ethiopian kings were vilified as oppressive, militaristic and feudal leaders who forcefully forged the modern Ethiopian state through successive wars. Today, they are being lionized as peacemakers in whose faint footsteps we are urged to walk. Yohannes, Menelik and Haile Selassie must be rolling in their graves!
In my view, a modernized version of the “shimagle” institution would reflect the broad diversity of the Ethiopian mosaic. For instance, I strongly believe that there is a vital need for a substantial number of women (instead of tokens) to be included among the “shimagles”. The traditional “shimagle” institution that Prof. Isaac talks about is really a bastion of male chauvinism where women may be seen, but not heard. I do not recall any instances in the public statements of Prof. Isaac where women (queens or otherwise) have played a decisive “shimgelena” role in Ethiopian history.
In my experience, whether is in the family, the neighborhood or the larger community, women generally tend to be the peace-makers. They have a natural impulse for conciliation, harmony and peacemaking. At the risk of sounding sexist, when men act from “machismo”, women reason from compassion and empathy. Right or wrong, as a generalization, I have a lot of confidence in the uncanny ability of women to peacefully resolve disputes. Suffice it to say that if women were represented in social institution proportional to their numbers in society, we would not be in the mess that we are in today. But we will leave that for another day.
The same argument can be made for increased participation of youth in any “shimagle” institution. Though the word “shimagle” indicates the attainment of “elderly” status, but I do not think the institution is necessarily reflective of chronological age as it is indicative of the wisdom of the ages. I have known many young people of wisdom, and learned a great deal from them. But there is a compelling case to be made for the increased representation of young people in such an institution.
First, young people have fresh ideas. This may come as a surprise to members of the older generation like myself, but the vast majority of the young Ethiopians I have been fortunate enough to interact with are dynamos bursting with ideas. Second, they have critical minds, unburdened by old and tired ideas. Third, they ask sharp and relevant questions, and will not accept evasive answers in “wax and gold.” Fourth, they are direct in their approaches and cut to the chase. Their real wisdom comes from not accepting the opaque and even discredited wisdom of the older generation; and from rigorously applying logical analysis and critical thinking. They are resolute in rejecting the worn out dogmas of their elders. That is why I think young people can be excellent “shimagles”. Let’s include them, and in large numbers in future “shimagle” institutions.
Now, to the forgotten people of God. I don’t see a lot of poor people (the wretched of the earth) among the “shimagles” that have been assembled by Prof. Isaac. Why is that? Have they no wisdom? Are the people with wisdom and understanding only college professors, lawyers, sports figures, businessmen and religious and political leaders? Have poor people nothing to contribute in resolving disputes in society.
In Psalms 37: 11-15 is written, “But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace…but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming. The wicked have drawn out the sword, and have bent their bow, to cast down the poor and needy, and to slay such as be of upright conversation. Their sword shall enter into their own heart, and their bows shall be broken.”
It is hypocritical to talk about a “shimgelena” institution that does not include poor people. They must be represented equally in all “shimagle” forums. So, what kind of a “shimagle” institution is needed? I am not really sure at this time. I am, however, very sure that “shimagles” should not be appointed or self-appointed. I am suspicious of “shimagles” who are tools for one side or another, or are guided by their own agenda and self-interests. Such “shimagles” have every incentive to distort the process to obtain politically convenient results, instead of pursuing the truth and seeking a lasting solution.
I venture to say that if we were to institutionalize a real “shimagle” institution” in Ethiopia, we might be able to make the most significant and qualitative improvement on the institution of democracy in 2500 years. Imagine a new form of democracy in Ethiopia based on the “shimagle” institution where women, young people and the poor participate equally in their self-government and actively participate to resolve disputes at the local, regional and national disputes! Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Just imagine that!
“Go and Gather the Elders”
Prof. Isaac, a practicing Jew, and a man once obsessed with the potential consequences of H.R 2003 to usher “slavery” and “colonialism” in Ethiopia disserves us by not teaching us about the true message and tradition of the original elders appointed by God to help take the tribes of Israel out of slavery in Egypt.
In Exodus 3:16-17 is written :
“Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, a land flowing with milk and honey.”’ In Numbers 11:16-17, the Lord said to Moses:
“Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone.”
Prof. Ephriam should have taught us that the true calling of “shimagles” is to “bear the burden of the people” and to lead them to a “land flowing with milk and honey.” Sadly, he has proven to us that the role of the elders is to be a messenger, an emissary, an errand boy and flag bearer for Pharaoh who holds the people in bondage.
Let the Elders of Ethiopia “bear the burden of the people”. Like Moses and the “seventy men of the elders of Israel”, let them take the Ethiopian people out of 16 years of darkness into a bright millennium overflowing with freedom, democracy and human rights.
“A Way Out!”
Prof. Al Mariam