10 June 2018

Ethiopia: Min Litazez - Funny Yet Dead Serious

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The power of political satires to help us see officials as public servants and government as an end to the state, is often underestimated. The significance of having a much overdue debate on politically hot-button issues cannot be overstated at this point. Min Litazez, a half an hour sitcom, has risen to the occasion and is doing so pretty humorously. Christian Tesfaye awards 7 out of 10 stars.

There are very few junctures in Ethiopia's history where politics is attentively followed. This is likely because citizens spend much time in abject resignation of the machinations of politics, which fails to consult with them. Political incumbents tend to stay in power for decades, or at least close to it, no matter what the economic situation is on the ground, resistance from organised parties or public discontent.

Politics is hotly discussed wherever friends and relatives are gathered, or even between encounters with strangers on the public transportation system. Lately, these discussions have crossed over to our TV screens.

It is not one of those amateurish roundtable debates I am speaking of. It is a new TV show on Fana Broadcasting Corporate called Min Litazez, which translates to, "How may I serve you?"

In the first episode we are treated to a meeting between three waiters and their new manager, Ayalqibet (Michael Tamre). He gives his crew a long-drawn-out lecture where he compares their tasks to the exercise of politics and the cafeteria to a logistics company.

He then looks at his watch to deliver one of the best lines in the entire episode, "those of you that did not understand what I have been saying for the past 27 minutes, raise your hands," to which they all do.

That just about sums up Ethiopia's politics of the past 27 years. Despite a political space dominated by a single party and a public media that has remained pro-status quo, it is still lost on many people that the ways of EPRDF are indeed the best way forward. This speaks to the unprecedented disconnect that has culminated in the unrests of the past three years.

The political commentary that Min Litazezprovides is a criticism of the incumbents, and not much is done to hide this. Ayalqibet, the star of the show, represents government and acts as the sole legislator, judge and executor of the law. He is accompanied by a jolly band of unquestioning waiters who blindly follow the hypocritical man who rules the roost with an iron fist, and whose own laws do not apply to him.

Is there a message here?

Perhaps, but there is a great deal of fun in the juxtaposition of a canteen to a state, which the creators of the show revel in. Early in the film and just after Ayalqibet becomes the new manager, the cafeteria is reorganized into three areas - North, South and the Middle.

An evident jab at the Federation of Ethiopia, the new management instructs the waiters not to cross "state lines." They are assigned as the administrators of their respective regions while Ayalqibet is the federal government, overseeing everything.

The cafeteria has many regular customers that resist the new rules and arrangements. There is one episode where reading is outlawed within the establishment that is until, at the end of the episode, when Ayalqibet discovers newspapers can indeed draw positive attentions that can promote the business.

Political satires are rare in Ethiopia, mostly delivered in the form of Facebook memes found on the web. We have not seen this genre before, well financed and supported by well-known actors weighing in on a touchy subject such as this.

Some may say that the show is exaggerated. But this being a political satire, and comparing it to Alec Baldwin's caricature of President Donald Trump, Min Litazezdoes not go far enough. There are no shortages of subjects that can feed the series - from the official federal language to the right of regions for self-determination - which I hope the show addresses. The show should tackle these issues without fear of accusations of subversion, as long as what is presented remains tasteful.

This is a show that can help us see politics and hot-button issues from a different perspective. It does not provide constructive discourse per se, but it normalises politics, an inconvenience that we have to wade through in order to be actively engaged with the direction the country is heading on.

It should help us grow a culture of constructive discourses, where criticisms can be used to improve government instead of incurring its wrath. It will be a delight to see how the show metamorphoses in the age of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD).

The show is not perfect. I like the satire, but there has to be a full-rounded story. The episodes are constructed as individual jokes patched together to make a whole.

The characters need to grow with each part. Arcs need to be developed, and episodes need to be able to stand on their own two feet. This is because time will inevitably pass and much of the politically-influenced ironies will be lost on future generations. In the end, what matters is good wholesome stories and memorable characters.

It is often the case that on Saturday Night Live - a television variety show that has given us some of the most famous political comedy sketches - United States presidential candidates have appeared as guest stars, often to mock themselves. This is to show that they too have human sides, which can endear them to the electorate.

It is perhaps naïve to hope, but what Abiy's style of leadership has shown us is that endearing one's self to the public can be fruitful. Our prominent politicians may begin to appear on the show to pock fun on themselves. Humour can indeed be a democratising factor.

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