Time to declare war on dysfunctional behaviors
By Dessalegn Asfaw | September 21, 2006
recent controversy surrounding Kinijit supporters in the
diaspora--Kinijit USA (KUSA) and Kinijit International Leadership
(KIL) -- is
the latest in a history of feuding and infighting among Ethiopian political
interest groups and parties.
Indeed, over the past few decades, we have seen
countless political organizations created, only to be shortly disbanded,
or rendered ineffective, often because of intra-group conflict --
conflict among the membership -- and an inability to
I believe that these conflicts are a fundamental reason for the absence of
democracy in Ethiopia
today. Indeed, it is these conflicts, magnified to a
national level, that have resulted in dictatorship after dictatorship
Ethiopia. Endless feuding and infighting from the grassroots level on
upwards have made it difficult for Ethiopians
to attain the organic
solidarity necessary to build and sustain the institutions necessary for
democracy. I think it
is imperative that pro-democracy activists make
awareness of intra-group conflict a top priority in the struggle for
But before I make my case, I would like to describe the nature of
the problem in greater detail.
Here are a
few interesting points. First, the intra-group conflicts we see
in Ethiopian collectives are seldom caused by differences
organizational structure, or other substantive reasons. Nor are they
confined to organizations whose members
come from a wide variety of
backgrounds and perspectives. Indeed, the most virulent conflicts occur in
groups whose memberships have not only similar
ideologies, but similar frames of reference, perspectives, and interests.
current KUSA/KIL conflict, for the most part, is an example of this.
Another interesting point is that such conflicts
occur just as much in the
Ethiopian diaspora as they do in Ethiopia. This is interesting because, in
factors such as poverty, political oppression, lack of
education, etc., do not exist.
Finally, intra-group conflicts
are not restricted to organizations of a
political nature. They are found in all types of Ethiopian collectives. We
observe chronic feuding and infighting in families, extended families,
non-political civic organizations such as professional
churches, local community organizations, charity organizations, and others.
So, why is there so much
intra-group conflict, characterized by personal
feuds and infighting, in Ethiopian society? And when there is conflict,
is conflict resolution so difficult? One explanation is that we have been
brought up in an environment where certain
dysfunctional behaviours that
hamper effective communication and cause conflict are the norm. Below is a
list of some
of these behaviours that I have observed. I ask readers to
reflect on whether you have seen them in yourself; in others;
and other group settings.
Personalization of issues: This is when we are unable to conceptually
between people and their ideas or thoughts. For example, if
someone objects to a suggestion I make, I see the objection
attack, not as a simple difference of opinion. In response to the perceived
personal attack, I respond
with a personal attack, instead of discussing the
issues. Hence, the initial disagreement over ideas turns into a personal
and because it is a personal struggle where pride and survival are
at stake, we end up unable to constructively 'agree
to disagree'. Groups
whose members find it difficult to 'agree to disagree' become paralyzed by
feuding and infighting
and eventually collapse.
Parochialism (weganawinet): We tend to irrationally favour those from our
own kin or wegen--family,
village, team, ethnic group--no matter what the
cost. For example, if a person from my wegen has a conflict with a stranger
a person outside my wegen, I automatically favour my colleague, no
matter what the substance of the disagreement. Furthermore,
I extend the
conflict to a dislike of the stranger and his entire wegen--his family,
friends, place of employment, ethnic
group, etc. This is the root of blood
feuds (dem). Parochialism within organizations leads to ineffectiveness, as
are made based on who supports the decisions, rather than on their
merit. It also leads to organizations being split into
smaller and smaller
factions, and eventually collapsing. For example, an organization may split
into two main factions.
Factions will develop within those factions, and
further splitting will occur, until the organization fails.
suspicion and mistrust (teretaray): We view each other first and
foremost as potential threats. With such a heightened
threat-awareness, any idea or thought, no matter how innocuous, is quickly
considered to have negative ulterior
motives behind it. Even the most
innocent comments by the closest of friends can be misinterpreted as
in the breakup of fruitful relationships. This behaviour
is a fundamental cause of conflict in a group setting. By definition,
group can be effective without trust.
Paranoia: As we view everyone as a threat, we tend to disproportionately
a paranoid outlook in our interaction with others, with the 'threat'
foremost in our minds in all our interactions. This
paranoia, in a group
setting, results in organizational paralysis, with everyone looking over
their shoulder and hesitant,
instead of working towards the common goal.
Lack of empathy and empathetic understanding: Empathy, the ability to
with or understand others' situation, feelings, and actions, is
critical for effective communication and teamwork. However,
society, we are not sensitized to the importance of empathy. We do not ask
questions such as 'what in
his background might have caused him to react
this way', or 'what would I have done in his shoes'. This leads us to make
judgements based on incomplete understandings, which leads to
misunderstanding and conflict within groups.
suspending judgement or giving others the benefit of the doubt:
Suspending judgement is fundamental to effective communication.
the combination of chronic suspicion and lack of empathetic
understanding lead to the absence of awareness about the concept
suspending judgement and giving others the benefit of the doubt. If someone
does something we do not understand,
we do not ask, 'Perhaps there is
something he knows that I don't,' or 'Let me wait and see before making a
We judge hastily, without taking time to examine all
possibilities. This results in erroneous judgements and personal conflicts.
Character assassination (sem matfat and alubalta): Rather than addressing
conflict directly, we chronically spread
rumours and innuendo about those
with whom we disagree. We engage in character assassination because we know
is an effective weapon in our society. Since we do not give each
other the benefit of the doubt, we tend to believe bad
things about others!
A strategy of muddying someone's reputation will render them useless, as
people will simply have
had their existing suspicions confirmed. Obviously,
character assassination quickly leads to infighting and paralysis in
a scenario with which most of us are familiar.
Lack of openness: Openness facilitates effective communication.
Ethiopians, we are not open and forthcoming about our thoughts and expect
the same guarded approach from others.
This is related to our lack of
empathy, which makes us afraid of being judged hastily and incorrectly if we
This fear leads us to be initially vague, unclear, and
non-committal, which inevitably leads to communication gaps and
breakdown, as others persistently try to interpret the hidden
meaning of what we say, and often end up interpreting negatively
incorrectly. Lack of openness leads to misunderstanding and conflict.
Holding grudges (qim and mequeyem): We tend
to chronically hold on to
personal grudges. Understanding or forgiveness of perceived affronts is seen
as it is assumed that everyone is and remains to be a threat.
In a group setting, there are bound to be conflicts, and
if people hold on
to grudges, there can be no effective teamwork.
Envy (mequegnenet): We hate it when others are better
off than us in any
context, but instead of struggling to improve our own lot, we work to reduce
others'! This comes
from our ingrained perception that everything in life is
a zero-sum game. If someone is rich, it is because another is
someone is happy, it is because another is sad. It is as if the world has
been alloted a fixed amount of wealth,
happiness, etc., and it has been
ordained that everyone should have more or less the same amount. Failing
ones with more must have committed some kind of crime to improve
their lot and the ones who have less must be cursed.
and lack of compromise (getterenet): Because of our zero-sum
view of the world, compromise is seen as a weakness. We do
the concept of compromise as a building block for future win-win endeavours.
Instead, compromise is
seen as a loss forever.
I am sure that all of us have seen first hand these behaviours manifested in
We have also seen the resulting conflicts in our various
collectives, from families to religious groups to political organizations.
the other hand, most of us in the diaspora have been exposed to
non-Ethiopian collectives where, generally speaking, such
far less often. We have also observed that these collectives are, as a
result, far more effective and
efficient than Ethiopian collectives.
In order to bring Ethiopian collectives, including Ethiopian pro-democracy
human rights organizations such as KUSA and KIL, to this level, it is
crucial that we find a way to raise awareness that
intra-group conflict is a
fundamental barrier to democracy, to put an end to our dysfunctional group
to promote positive, constructive behaviours that reduce
conflict, increase our capacity for conflict resolution, and increase
consciousness and organic solidarity.
To this end, as a first step, I suggest that all organizations draft a code
conduct document. The aim of this document should be primarily to raise
awareness about dysfunctional behaviours, the problem
conflict, and the importance of effective communication. In addition, the
code of conduct should provide
guidelines of behaviour and conduct, along
with explanations for the guidelines.
My second suggestion is that there
should be a collective attempt to
stigmatize dysfunctional behaviours in our everyday lives. For example, we
it telek newur to attack anyone personally instead of addressing
issues. We must not only refuse to listen to character
openly chastise and correct those who do it. In a charitable and
constructive manner, of course--we
have to keep in mind that most of us
engage in such behaviour almost unknowingly, because of the culture we have
up in. Unless sensitized to the ramifications of such speech and
actions, we cannot become fully aware of the consequences.
believe that these two actions alone will result in a significant
reduction in the chronic feuding and infighting in our
organizations. The resulting increase in organic solidarity and collective
consciousness will, in due
course, crowd out dictatorship at all levels of
our society, including the political. The democratic culture at the
will end up being reflected at the national level.
Indeed, imagine diaspora pro-democracy groups devoid of feuding
infighting. They would make great strides in improving the prospects for
democracy in Ethiopia. Imagine that behaviours
such as suspicion and
paranoia were no longer the norm in Ethiopia. Dictatorship, which thrives on
suspicion and paranoia,
would disappear shortly.
Doing away with dysfunctional behaviours and intra-group conflict is the
only way to achieve
democracy. To those who believe in democracy for
Ethiopia, I say, we need an all-out campaign: Let us declare war on
The writer can be reached for comments at firstname.lastname@example.org