Part I: Rise of the Ethiopian Chee-Hippo Generation in 2014

In my first weekly commentary of 2013, I declared that year to be the “Year of Ethiopia’s Cheetah (young) Generation”. It was a great year for Ethiopia’s Cheetahs.

I declare 2014 “Year of the Ethiopia’s Chee-Hippo Generation”. A Chee-Hippo is a Hippo (member of the older generation) who thinks, behaves and acts like a Cheetah.  A Chee-Hippo is also a Cheetah who understands the limitations of Hippos yet is willing to work with them in common cause for a common purpose. Ethiopian Chee-Hippos are a special breed. By nature, they are bridge builders and force multipliers. They build strong intergenerational bridges that connect the young with the old. They build bridges to link up the rich with the poor. They build transitional bridges to transport people from dictatorship to democracy. They build bridges across ethnic divides; they build connecting bridges for people stranded on desolate “kilil” islands (ethnic homelands or ‘bantustans’). They bridge the gulf of language, religion and region. They build bridges over gorges of distrust, ravines of doubt and canyons of suspicion. They build bridges of national unity to harmonize diversity. They build bridges to connect the youth at home with the youth in the Diaspora. Chee-Hippos build bridges over troubled waters.

Ethiopian “Chee-Hippos” are also force multipliers. They optimize the energy, passion and dedication of youth with the knowledge, skills and experiences of Hippos to bring about lasting structural change. They use their creativity to operate within the rigid parameters of a ruthless dictatorship to maximize the effectiveness and capabilities of youth change agents at decisive points.

I am a Chee-Hippo and damn proud of it!

Ethiopian Cheetahs at grave risk

In my view, the problem of 21st Century Ethiopia is quintessentially the problem of Ethiopian youth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in less than 37 years, Ethiopia’s population will more than triple to 278 million, placing that country in the top 10 most populous countries in the world. Ethiopia’s population growth has been spiraling upwards for decades. In 1967, the population was 23.5 million. It increased to 51 million in 1990; and by 2003, it had reached 68 million. In 2008, that number increased to 80 million. In 2013, Ethiopia’s population was estimated to be over 94 million. Today, an estimated 70 percent of Ethiopia’s population is under 35 years old (66 million). Since 1995, the average annual rate of population growth has remained at over 3 percent.

Nelson Mandela observed, “Our children are our greatest treasure. They are our future. Those who abuse them tear at the fabric of our society and weaken our nation.” If Ethiopia’s youth are its greatest treasure, they are at extreme risk today; and so is the future of that country. Ethiopia’s greatest treasures are neglected, abused, squandered and wasted. “Ethiopia is one of the countries with the lowest primary school enrollment rates in the world… [L]ow quality of school and a high dropout rate, as well as gender and rural-urban disparities remain the major challenges of the country” according to a report of the African Population and Health Research Center. Those who manage to finish high school have vastly diminished opportunities for higher education or gainful employment.

According to a 2012 USAID study, “Ethiopia has one of the highest urban youth unemployment rates at 50 percent and there is a high rate of youth under­employment in rural areas, where nearly 85 percent of the population resides.”  Another 2012 study of youth unemployment by the International Growth Center reported that the “current 5 year [Ethiopian] development plan 2010/11-2014/5, the [ruling regime’s] Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), does not directly address the issue of youth unemployment…” That study found “in 2011, 38 percent of youth were employed in the informal sector” which “often provides low quality, low paying jobs.” There is a substantial segment of the youth population that is not only unemployed but also unemployable because they lack basic skills. Youth access to public sector jobs requiring training and skills depends not so much on merit or competition but political and social connections and party membership. Every young person in Ethiopia knows that a card verifying membership in the ruling party is more important than an honestly earned university diploma. Moreover, rural youth landlessness has contributed significantly to the chaotic and ever increasing pattern of youth urban migration, joblessness and hopelessness.

The risks faced by Ethiopia’s youth cover the gamut of social maladies. According to the humanitarian agency GOAL, there are 150,000 children living on the streets, some 60,000 of them in the capital. The average age at which children first find themselves homeless is between the age of 10 and 11 years. Health risks for youth from HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are on the increase. Large numbers of young people who lack opportunities are involved in drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution and other criminal activities. Without job or educational opportunities in the urban areas, large numbers of youth are rendered jobless, homeless, helpless and hopeless.

A decade ago, the ruling regime in Ethiopia issued its “National Youth Policy” and asserted that “44% of the population is below the absolute poverty line. Under this situation of poverty, the youth is the hardest hit segment of society… The fact that the majority of the unemployed youth constitute females indicates the magnitude to which young women are the main victims of the problem.” Taken as a whole, the so-called National Youth Policy is nothing more than a blueprint for the recruitment of youth to become supporters of the regime and the ruling party. The policy directs that the “Government shall have the responsibility to direct, coordinate, integrate and build the capacity for the implementation of this policy.” Yet, as the International Growth Center study showed, the “current 5 year [Ethiopian] development plan 2010/11-2014/5, the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), does not directly address the issue of youth unemployment The “National Youth Policy” has been sitting on the shelf for a decade gathering dust, a manifest fact ascertainable from an international data base of national youth policies.

A tale of two generations: Need for dialogue between Ethiopian Cheetahs and Hippos

What time is it in Ethiopia? It is now Chee-Hippo Time. It’s now high time for Ethiopian Cheetahs and Hippos to talk, to dialogue and to reconcile. It is now time for Ethiopia’s restless Cheetahs and progressive, enlightened and forward-looking Hippos to come together, to think and act decisively together. Now is 2014!

By dialogue I mean formal and informal conversation between Cheetahs and Hippos across all forums–  from the dinner table to the halls of academia, from churches and mosques to civic associations. The topic of the dialogue is unlimited but the aims are specific. We need to have dialogues to question old ideas, keep the good ones and discard the rest. Dialogue is needed to change old, narrow-minded and counterproductive patterns of thinking. We need to dialogue to generate fresh new ideas about politics, government and society. We want to dialogue and brainstorm and generate innovative and creative solutions to persistent socio-political problems.  We need to dialogue so that we can agree to disagree in a civil and respectful manner. We need to dialogue to persuade each other on how best to right wrongs. We need a “new generation” to shoulder the task of coordinating the dialogue. Broadminded Cheetahs and Progressive Hippos can facilitate the dialogue.

What is NOT the purpose of the dialogue? The proposed dialogue is not to engage in recrimination, accusation and finger pointing. It is also not about bellyaching, heart aching or teeth gnashing about what happened or did not happen in the past. The Chee-Hippo sponsored dialogues have two purposes: 1) to begin intergenerational reconciliation, and 2) to develop consensus on the roles and division of labor between Cheetahs and Hippos.

Intergenerational dialogue cannot happen when there is a “language” barrier. I believe there is a failure to communicate between Ethiopian Hippos who often speak with silence and Ethiopian Cheetahs who are deafened by that silence. Let’s look at a few examples. When many of us Hippos talk about change we are concerned about removing the current regime and installing ourselves. The guys in power are bad, we are good. No, we are better; actually we are the best. The Hippos in power think that they are the sole agents of change. When we Hippos talk about leadership, we want the young people to follow our commands because we have power, experience, skills and/or knowledge. We want Ethiopia’s Cheetahs to become a flock of sheep and to follow us, their good and benevolent Hippo shepherds. We have great difficulty accepting the fact that we have dynamic youth leaders with extraordinary abilities who can think critically and act decisively; we do not want them to have a separate and independent existence from us.  We look down dismissively on the youth in general. We say the youth have little discernment or depth of understanding and should sheepishly follow what we tell them. “Children should be seen not heard.” We belittle them with outmoded sayings. “When children cook, they won’t cook enough to last for dinner” (lij yabokaw lerat aybekam). We do not respect youth ideas nor do we lavish them with praise and encouragement for doing things better or differently; but we are  quick to criticize and condemn them.   

When we Hippos talk about power, we mean power for ourselves without much accountability and transparency. The Hippos in power use power to divide and rule; they abuse power to cling to power; they misuse power because they can. Hippos out of power want power because they don’t have it; and if they have it, it is because power is an end in itself. Hippos do not use power to empower the disempowered or the powerless. The youth in Ethiopia are the most disempowered and powerless segment of society. That means 70 percent of the country’s population (66 million) is disempowered.

I believe Ethiopian Cheetahs have lost faith in Ethiopian Hippos. That faith can be restored only when there is mutual respect and understanding and honest and civil communication.  We must restore faith and reconcile with them by treating and relating to them as our equals. We must fully accept that their views, hopes and aspirations for Ethiopia are no less important or valid than our own. We must dialogue with them as equals and with respect.

Hippos teaching Cheetahs

The Cheetahs need to dialogue with us Hippos because we could be very helpful to them. We can teach them by example.  The first lesson Cheetahs must learn is that those who do not learn from the mistakes of their elders are doomed to repeat them. We have made many mistakes. The second lesson is that Cheetahs must overcome the deficits of Hippos and make a fresh start of their own.  I wish Hippos could teach Cheetah’s the virtues of courage, trust, sacrifice, honesty, integrity, endurance, tenacity and fortitude. We suffer from a “virtue deficit”, but we could discover and practice these virtues together. We could most certainly teach our Cheetahs to avoid many of our vices including arrogance, anger, suspicion, bigotry, corruption, intolerance, incivility, fearfulness, malice, vengefulness and narcissism. We can help them learn the art of clear communication and the virtues of accountability and transparency in public and private life.

Cheetahs teaching Hippos

Cheetahs can teach Hippos that social and political problems could be solved in a peaceful and nonviolent manner. Young people could be educated and trained not merely as war fighters but most importantly as peacemakers. They have the capacity to build healthy human relationships and rid a society of the plague of ethnic and religious hatred and strife. They could teach Hippos that it is necessary and possible to create communities that value cooperation, amity, consensus, peace, unity and hope. They could show us that they have the capacity to construct a “New Ethiopia” where we can all  live in peace, equality and justice. Cheetahs could teach Hippos that if they are invited and made genuine partners and allowed to participate in social and political organs of society, they could play transformative roles. If we listen to them in earnest, they could save us from ourselves. Imagine that! They could help us breakout of the walls of our ethnic prisons, unchain ourselves from imaginary fears and escape the bigotry and prejudice that has closed our eyes so that we are blinded from seeing the “New Ethiopia” on the horizon.

If Ethiopians have a chance of survival as a nation and as a people, that survival will depend on the creativity, stamina, determination, goodwill, commitment and sacrifices of its youth. That places an extreme burden on the youth. They must do the lion’s share of the heavy lifting, the hard work and the sacrifices. Similarly, if Ethiopians have a chance of survival as a nation and as a people, that survival will also depend on the active and sustained support of the older generation to the upcoming generation. We Hippos must do all we can to make sure our Cheetahs will not falter and fail. If they do, we must help them get up, dust off and do it again and again. We must stand by them all the way, no matter how long it takes. We must dialogue with them and tell them we will support them and love them; we will gladly serve as water carriers so long as they remain on the construction site of the “New Ethiopia”.

Ethiopia’s youth force is unstoppable. There is no force on earth, no dictatorship strong enough to defeat Ethiopia’s rising Cheetahs. We Hippos are well advised to follow the old saying, “if you can’t beat them, join them”. Let’s join the Cheetahs in dialogue! Let’s talk to them and ask them what they need. If they need and seek our counsel, let’s give it to them freely and generously. If they seek our technical support, let’s provide it to them. If they need moral support, let’s offer it to them. If they need material support, let’s raise funds for them. If they are going to do the heavy lifting, the bridge building, the road mending and mountain climbing, let us be their humble water carriers. Let’s be force amplifiers for our youth.

(Part II will follow.)

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