By Getachew Tedla Abebe
Recently while I was in Sweden, I was watching the local TV channel. I was drawn to what apparently was a political debate between an established liberal politician and a strikingly vibrant black woman.
She displayed confidence and a courteous pride as she competently and brilliantly fielded tough questions and counterarguments from both her opponent.
As I was wondering who this distinguished black woman could be, I learned that she was running for the leadership of the liberal party in an election just three weeks away. “What!” a black African woman aiming to lead a major political party? Here in Sweden? My mind reeled with conflicting thoughts.
To continue, I learned that this woman is from Burundi, a small land locked country sandwiched between Tanzania, Rwanda and DR Congo. Prior to independence in 1962 Burundi used to be known as ‘Ruanda- Urundi’. Its 27,834 sq Km make it quite small in contrast to Ethiopia’s 1,104,000 but with over 11million citizens, it’s one of the most densely populated states in Africa. The capital used to be Bujumbura before recently changing to Gitega. The main industries are leather, agriculture and paper products.
Our amazing protagonist is called Nyamko Ana Sabuni. The fifty year old was born in Bujumbura on March 31, 1969. Her Father, Maurice Sabuni a Congolese dissident and supporter of the late Patrice Lumumba was frequently arrested for his leftist convictions. Although a Christian he married a Muslim Burundian and Sabuni was raised as a Muslim by her mother. Being the offspring of two faiths the future politician seems to have been groomed early in assimilation. On a private level Sabuni does not profess to belong to any religion but is rather a disciple of the struggle for equality and the eradication of racism.
As her father’s left wing views made it increasingly difficult for him to stay in Congo, Sabuni’s father fled first to Rwanda and then to Tanzania. However, after numerous attempts on his life, he obtained the right of political asylum in Sweden.
A short time later, his family left Africa for good and arrived in Stockholm on March 24, 1981. Sabuni was 12 years old when she came to Sweden to reunite with her father.
Nyamko grew up in Kungsängen, a Stockholm suburb. Her primary school years enabled her to master Swedish. She took a course on migration policy at Mälardalen University in Eskilstuna, and information and media communications at Berghs School of Communication in Stockholm. She also graduated with LLB (Law degree) at the famous University in Uppsala (northern Sweden).
Multi-lingual in Kiswahili, English and Swedish she founded and ran the Afro-Swedish Association and learned about and solves problems affecting refugee communities. She went onto work at various organizations. Sabuni married Allan Bergquist in 2004 and they have twin sons.
She joined the Liberal party’s Youth Wing and rose rapidly, serving on the board from 1996 to 1998. She then entered parliament after she had been elected on the Folkpartiet (the Liberal People’s Party) ticket. Sabuni served as MP From 2001-2013 and she was appointed in 2002 to be minister of integration and gender equality, becoming Sweden’s first ever black African Cabinet Minister. Eleven years later, Sabuni resigned her post voluntarily in order to better serve her party. Sabuni is cheered and applauded as she delivers earnest speeches throughout Sweden. She also has few critics who accuse her of being a racist despite her African identity. Personally, I was particularly struck by these few lines from a speech she gave in recent times.
“Many refugees (immigrants) wrongly perceive their democratic rights. For instance, freedom of religion does not mean one has the right to commit anything he or she wants in the name of religion……. Therefore, as long as you are settled, live in Sweden; possess your home, raising children; you must integrate yourselves with Swedish society and its culture and values. This is imperative.”
Being quite eager to meet her, I phoned her office but was politely told that she would be available only after the campaign is completed. I did not want to reschedule my flight, and thus I did not meet her.
A day before I was to fly out I heard that Mrs. Sabuni had defeated the incumbent to become the new leader of Sweden’s Liberal Party. This is not merely remarkable but truly miraculous!
Some of you may say, “What’s so amazing about this naturalized Black Swedish woman being elected to be a leader of a prominent political party?” Well, it’s a reasonable question. Just imagine for a second whether Sabuni would have risen to where she is today had she been in Ethiopia. Perhaps she may have been crudely expelled from Ethiopia because she is a foreigner and not to mention she is from another tribe which does not ‘belong’ here, etc. etc …. . In truth, Mrs. Sabuni should have had better opportunities in an African state rather than the massive white majority of Nordic kingdom.
My thoughts keep on churning. Sabuni is as dark-skinned as it gets. Her brown eyes, hair, lips, her entire physical being is wholly black African. She was not born in Sweden and only arrived when she was 12, sufficient age for the hard wiring of an African consciousness. Yet she developed in mind and spirit, obtained an education, integrated with Swedish society’s lifestyles and culture and proudly declares herself to be a daughter of Sweden, her homeland.
At this point, we must all commend the people and government of Sweden for creating the socio-political conditions by which such boundless tolerance and respect for universal values has been emphatically demonstrated.
So, how could I help but be amazed at this given that here in Ethiopia we exist at the absolute opposite bottom of the spectrum. I was born, raised, educated and lived in my homeland Ethiopia. My ancestors, grandparents and all my relatives have deep roots in this our one and only country. I have married and raised children who bring joy to us at every gathering, holiday and family events. I have accumulated innumerable close friends and acquaintances and avidly participate in community and national affairs. In short Ethiopia lives in me, makes up my psyche and defines my identity. And yet today despite my inextricable Ethiopic being, I am labeled by my so called tribe. “You are Amhara; you are Oromo; or you are from the South; Tigre or such and such tribe – leave our land and go back to your region; you are a new comer to the region; this is not your home! Due to this unfortunate occurrence, many had been displaced; too many have been killed, maimed, raped and brutalized because of their different tribe. We should learn from countries like Sweden before Ethiopia’s reckless ethnic politics is tearing it apart.
So, would you still say I shouldn’t be amazed by Sabuni’s inspiring story? I think not. I wonder what she would say if she knew what was happening in my almost fractured country. This is why I penned this piece, So that the contrast will hopefully provide a valuable lesson to you and to all of us as it did to me.
I pray that peace prevails in Ethiopia. I pray that we return soon to our former inclusiveness, shared love and to our previous cooperative community spirit.
May a United Ethiopia live on forever and ever!