By Alemayehu G. Mariam
Groundhog Year in Prison Nation
2008 in Ethiopia was Groundhog Year! It was a repetition of 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004… Everyday millions of Ethiopians woke up only to find themselves trapped in a time loop where their lives replayed like a broken record. Each “new” day is the same as the one before it: Repression, intimidation, corruption, incarceration, deception, brutalization and human rights violation. Everything that happened to them the previous day, the previous week, the previous month, the previous 18 years happens to them today. They are resigned to the fact that they are doomed to spend the rest of their lives asphyxiated in a Prison Nation. They have no idea how to get out of this awful cycle of misery, agony, despair and tribulation. So, they pray and pray and pray and pray… for deliverance from Evil!
Montage of Scenes From a Time Loop
The Business of Corruption (Zenawi, Inc.): In 2008, corruption in Ethiopia was more rampant than ever. Theft and embezzlement of public funds, misuse and misappropriation of state property, nepotism, bribery, official favors to friends and acquaintances and other forms of abuse of public authority continued in much the same way as they did in previous years. Millions of dollars worth of gold literally walked out of the bank. Banks loaned millions of dollars to front and bogus ethnic enterprises owned by regime officials or their lackeys and supporters without sufficient collateral or accountability. We heard the tape recording of a high level official of the Zenawi regime shaking down a Chinese official for kickbacks. In short, the so-called leaders of Ethiopia were not unlike those described by Stokley Carmichael (a/k/a Kwame Ture), “honorary Prime Minister of the Black Panther Party”: “Leaders in Africa are so corrupt that we are certain if we put dogs in uniforms and put guns on their shoulders, we’d be hard put to distinguish them.”
Somalia War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity: Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Zenawi’s and his military of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Somalia and the Ogaden Region in Ethiopia. Zenawi said no civilians were killed in Somalia; “many of the claimed casualties have in fact been of fighters not civilians.” He said HRW is lying because his forces would never commit atrocities as the “the Ethiopian military would not deploy under-trained troops in a combat zone like Mogadishu and… training in human rights and humanitarian law is part of the core curricula of all the country’s military training institutions at all levels…” Such brazen deception was vintage Nazi Joe Gobbels: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
America is Back, on Track, with Barack: Ethiopian Americans participated in the historic election of Barack Obama. We joined Team Obama by the thousands, and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the campaign. Barack promised to repair the damage done by Bush’s unrestrained unilateralism and militarism. He promised to heal the racial, ethnic and class divisions and bring Americans of all backgrounds together in the spirit of E Pluribus Unum (out of many one) to deal with the enormous challenges. We believe as does Barack, “There’s not a liberal America, a conservative America, a White, Black, Brown,… America. There is the United States of America.” Likewise, we do not believe there is an Oromo, Amhara, Tigray, Gurage, Anuak… Ethiopia. There is one Ethiopian nation that belongs equally to all its people.
Remembered the Angels in November: We remembered the martyrs massacred by Zenawi’s goons in 2005. They were young and old; men and women, Christian and Muslim. They represented all ethnic and linguistic groups. Among the hundreds of victims are: ShiBire Desalegn, 20, Tensae Zegeye, 14; Debela Guta, 15; Habtamu Tola, 16; Binyam Degefa, 18; Behailu Tesfaye, 20; Kasim Ali Rashid, 21; Teodros Giday Hailu, 23; Adissu Belachew, 25; Milion Kebede Robi, 32; Desta Umma Birru, 37; Tiruwork G. Tsadik, age 41. Admasu Abebe, age 45. Elfnesh Tekle, age 45. Abebeth Huletu, 50; Etenesh Yimam, 50; Regassa Feyessa, 55; Teshome Addis Kidane, 65; Victim No. 21762, 75, female; Victim No.21760, male, age unknown. May God bless your souls and visit his wrath upon your evildoers!
Biting the Hand That Feeds Millions: The hands that fed millions were smashed by a hammer called the “charities law.” It was a “law” intended to intimidate and silence international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). They have become the new enemies of the state after opposition political parties and local civil society organizations were decimated by the regime. Amnesty International concluded: “Ethiopia’s draft [charities] law cannot be edited or further amended to make it acceptable; it is inherently abusive of basic human rights in that it seeks primarily to intimidate and dismantle the country’s already-beleaguered civil society actors and criminalize human rights-related work carried out by international organizations. The draft should be scrapped and either replaced with a bill that does not have the infringement of basic human rights as its primary aim, or else the idea of an Ethiopian NGO law should be abandoned altogether.” We said, “NGO’s of the World, Unite! Fight Back!”
The Quiet Riots in Ethiopia: Zenawi commissioned an internationally renowned British military expert to give him recommendations on modernizing his “internal security” forces (riot police). It seems British officers don’t like to mince words; they tell it like it is. Col. Michael Dewars told Zenawi his riot police have “perfectly acceptable set of personal equipment.” But they need something to do: “Riot Police appeared to be trained as riot police only so that most of their time is spent waiting for riots to happen.” He recommended “elements of Riot Control Divisions/ Battalions be ‘double-hatted’ by giving them other additional responsibilities.” Col. Dewars said the Director General of the Ethiopian Federal Police told him “As a direct result of the 2005 riots, he sacked 237 policemen.” Col. Dewars was appalled by what he saw: “Detention conditions of prisoners are a disgrace and make the Federal Police vulnerable to the Human Rights lobby.” He “recommended that the Government should investigate this situation with the intention of improving the current appalling conditions inside Ethiopian prisons, which must brutalise prisoners and their goalers equally. It is recommended that senior Ethiopian Ministers and Police Officers visit the prison that I visited.” We said give us the list of names of the 275 police thugs so that they can be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. Don’t forget to visit the stinking prisons!
Tyranny in Academy: Zenawi was bent out of shape when Abigail Salisbury, a law professor at Mekelle University, spilled the beans on the state of higher education at Mekele University Law School. Prof. Salisbury gave a vividly surreal account of fear and loathing in the classroom and on campus: Students plead with their professors not to snitch on them to the authorities on their studies and class work. Students solicit their professors to distribute their academic papers abroad because they are scared they will be punished or persecuted if they were to do so locally. We learned that students starving for knowledge are literally deprived of their daily bread if they dared to voice a complaint. Students scramble to learn in an arid intellectual wasteland where the walls have ears and the light fixtures can talk. And professors are afraid to teach because they have signed loyalty oaths disguised as contractual terms of employment, which prohibits them from ever saying a single word of criticism against the regime. They unleashed a vicious personal attack on Prof. Salisbury, but we all knew she was telling the truth. We thank Prof. Salisbury for telling the truth.
To be, or not to be prime minister in 2010?: Not everything was serious in 2008. There were some hilarious moments. Zenawi told Newsweek: “This is likely to be my last term.” We rolled over. We heard him say: “Yeah, sure! Keep on day dreaming — keep hope alive — this will be my last term! Right, this is likely to be my last term as prime minister before I retake office as president.” Zenawi and his crew have been running Ethiopia as their private estate since 1991. They replaced a military junta which had murdered, tortured and imprisoned tens of thousands during its brutal 17 years in power. They continued that bloody tradition, deceptively waiving the holy flag of DEMOCRACY, for another 18 years until the present day. We asked: Why would Zenawi even consider the probability or possibility of leaving office?
The Enemy: There was interesting discussion about “THE ENEMY” among pro-democracy Diaspora elements. Some said Zenawi’s regime is “The Enemy.” Others said it is not. We consulted Pogo, the cartoon character, and learned much to our surprise we had known the enemy all along: It is us. Zenawi did not stop us from uniting and organizing as a global force for justice and human rights advocacy in Ethiopia. He did not stop us from building strong bridges across ethnic lines and use the language of human rights to communicate with each other. He did not stop us from protesting when the human rights of our Oromo brothers and sisters are trampled; or defend the Amharas when they are maligned as the persecutors of “Tigreans, minority groups and Muslims”; or speak unreservedly against those who seek to paint all Tigreans with a broad brush of ethnic hatred; or force us to pretend to be deaf-mute when the people of the Ogaden were being massacred. There is no enemy out there, we said. Look in the mirror!
Ethiopian Territory for Sale?: We were outraged when we learned that Zenawi had auctioned off parts of Ethiopia to the Sudan. The terms of the secret “agreement” with Al Bashir were never made public. We reminded him of his phony and sanctimonious defense of Ethiopian sovereignty when he berated the U.S. House of Representatives for passing a bill to improve the human rights situation in Ethiopia. Pawning off Ethiopian territory does not offend Ethiopian sovereignty? We said we will take back in the open courtroom what was given secretly in the backroom.
Sending Cash Home: In 2008, we were gratified to learn that Ethiopian Americans contributed $1.2 to the Ethiopian economy. The Reserve Management and Foreign Exchange Market of Ethiopian National Bank fretted over “a cut in vital remittances from Ethiopians in the United States.” Apparently, Ethiopian Americans were almost singularly responsible for the “10 percent a year economic growth” for which Zenawi was taking credit. There seemed to be real alarm in Zenawi’s officialdom that the Ethiopian-American goose may not be laying as many golden eggs as it has been previously because of the sub-prime mortgage debacle and the creeping recession in America. The preliminary evidence suggests that Ethiopian Americans with houses and other investments in Ethiopia are putting on fire sales in record numbers today to obtain liquidity for their operations in America. The usual vultures are said to be picking them clean.
The Feingold-Leahy Ethiopia Human Rights Bill (HR 3457): Senators Russ Feingold and Pat Leahy sponsored Senate Bill 3457 (“Support for Democracy and Human Rights in Ethiopia Act of 2008’’). The bill shares the same legislative intent and objectives as Congressman Don Payne’s H.R. 2003. H.R. 3457 condemns “violations of human rights and international law by the Ethiopian military in Mogadishu and other areas of Somalia, as well as in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia.” The bill disapproves the use of “unjustifiably brutal tactics [by the ‘government’ of Ethiopia] against its own citizens in Oromiya, Amhara and Gambella regions.” The bill calls on the ruling regime to take “additional steps to support the implementation of democracy and governance institutions and organizations in Ethiopia,” including support for civil society organizations, fundamental freedoms, bolstering the independence of the judiciary and full international access to the Ogaden, among other things. We are lucky to have the Feingold-Leahy team on our side.
Hand That Rocks the Cradle: We were horrified to learn the story about two toddlers adopted by a couple in a small south central French town of Yssingeaux in the Haute-Loire region. Medical evidence showed the children had been sexually abused. The reaction of the adoption bureaucrats in Addis Ababa to the tragedy was cold and emotionless. Their attitude was “S_ _ _ happens! Deal with it!” But as we investigated further we got a glimpse of other related issues: child trafficking and women trafficking. Both are very profitable businesses. As much as $800 USD could be had for a child, and much more for the thousands of girls and women trafficked into various Middle Eastern countries. We learned that many underage girls end up in prostitution despite promises of work as maids; and quite a few of those employed as maids are subjected to sexual and physical abuse by their employers. A number of them have committed suicide, according to recent reports. Such trafficking is said to be facilitated by a cottage industry of document fabrication which cranks out false birth certificates, identity cards, and other bogus official documents. None of it fazed the regime.
Time to Fold ‘em for Musharaaf and Mbeki: Parviz Musharaaf and Thabo Mbeki left office. We thought their departure would provide an object lesson to the dictators in Ethiopia. Musharaaf was incredibly patriotic in his farewell speech: “This is not the time for individual bravado, but for serious thinking,” he reflected. He said he had done no wrong to be impeached; “Whatever I did was in [putting] Pakistan first.” In his parting words, Musharraf showed the qualities of a statesman: “I am sad that Pakistan is going down fast, poor people are being pressed by price hikes. For the people my heart is weeping.” Thabo was “recalled” from the South African presidency by the ANC six months before his term was to expire. It must have been an agonizing decision for the man who came to office trying to fill Mandela’s gigantic shoes. Thabo made some significant strides in domestic economic policy and regional politics. But his policy orientation on HIV/AIDS was bizarre and indefensible: “A virus cannot cause a syndrome. A virus can cause a disease, and Aids is not a disease, it is a syndrome,” he said. While African dictators clung to power like barnacles on a wrecked ship, Thabo simply accepted the judgment of his party, bowed to the will of the people and left office.
The Gold That Walked Out of the Bank in Broad Daylight: In 2008, the crackerjack “bankers” in Ethiopia finally disproved good ole William Shakespeare: “All that glitters IS gold.” They said they bought millions of dollars worth of “gold” that proved to be iron bars painted gold! They said they were conned by scam artists. We wondered: How likely is it for the biggest con men on the African continent to be conned by other small time con men? In any case, we would like to sell these angelic “pretend-to-be-bankers” the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco for $12 million, the price they reportedly paid for the painted gold bars. (Sorry, the Brooklyn Bridge is already sold.) Obviously, it is called the Golden Gate Bridge because it is made of 24 carat gold. (P.S. The fake gold crooks were reportedly arrested but none were prosecuted. We knew all along it was an inside job!)
Teddy Afro in Zenawi’s Kangaroo Court: We learned in 2008 that bank robbers, fraudsters, extortionists, thieves, commercial burglars and con artists never get prosecuted. But the greatest musical artist of his generation, Tewodros Kassahun (Teddy Afro) was jailed for six years on bogus charges of vehicular manslaughter and failure to assist the injured and driving without a license. Teddy told the truth: “I did not kill anyone! God is my witness. I did not kill anyone! God’s powers are above all powers. I appeal to the sense of justice of all those who are sworn to serve this country. Without just cause, I have been caged in a lice-infested jail.” Teddy is a genuine Ethiopian patriot. His music is about compassion and reconciliation and love and helping each other. He would NEVER, NEVER, NEVER leave a human being he had accidentally struck with a car on the street as road kill. That is the kind of thing thugs would do. There is not a thuggish cell in Teddy’s body. We honor Teddy everyday for his undying love for the lady in his life, Ethiopia. We thank him for his songs and lyrics that glorify the Ethiopian people; for his principled stand against mercenaries and thugs; for speaking truth to power; for refusing to sell out or be corrupted; and for being a symbol of defiance against ruthless dictators. Teddy: Your voice, your lyrics, your melodies make millions of us happy everyday! You may not hear us sitting in the dungeon, but we hear you loud and clear! “Yastesereyal!”
Judicial Independence or Decadence?: The National Judicial Institute (NJI) of Canada in collusion with the Zenawi regime issued a 209-page report on the “Independence, Transparency and Accountability in the Judiciary of Ethiopia”. That report was intended to humanize Zenawi’s justice system with a façade of academic and scholarly respectability. But we reminded the Canadians that the police and the court system in a dictatorship are merely tools of repression and control, not mechanisms for the administration of justice. They needed to be honest with themselves: There can be no independent judiciary in a land where the “The King can do no wrong.” When the King is the law, there is no need for the rule of law. No need for a constitution. No need for courts and judges and lawyers. We reminded the Canadians of the words of the eminent Paksitani jurist Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim: “If the constitution is the soul of a nation, then the judiciary is its heart. Our nation is without a heart and a soul just now.” Before the Canadians enlighten us on the virtues of an independent judiciary, they should take note that our Ethiopia is without a heart and soul.
Millennium on Ice: The first year of the Ethiopian Millennium was inauspicious. The weeds of cynicism and disillusionment strangled the seedlings of hope and optimism planted that glorious September day in 2007 when the Kinijit leaders began their North American tour. We managed to “rain on our own parade”. We snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. We blinded ourselves and lost sight of the Grand Prize. In the end, we found ourselves trapped in the Tower of Babel — unable to speak the same language of democracy, freedom and human rights, unable to engage in constructive political dialogue, unable to set aside differences for the greater cause and for ultimate victory over the demonic forces of dictatorship. We insisted on playing a zero-sum game where only one side can win and the other must necessarily lose. None of us won. Only Zenawi Inc. won, and mightily. They walked away with their greatest trophies: a fragmented, weak and incapacitated democratic opposition, and the equivalent of a long-term employment guarantee to continue to do business as usual. Now they just stir the opposition pot from time to time while feasting at the lavish table of dictatorship.
From Famine to Prosperity?: In 2008, we were deafened by claims of economic growth and deluged by platitudes about economic prosperity in Ethiopia. We were invited to join in euphoric celebrations of Ethiopia’s magnificent economic strides and achievements. We were told the economy has been growing by 10 per cent, that “agriculture has been growing at double-digit rates for five years now.” We were told there is no famine in Ethiopia, only “severe malnutrition.” The truth lay elsewhere. In its 2007-08 report, the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Index (which quantifies not just the “rise and fall of national incomes” but assesses “the environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive lives”) ranked Ethiopia 169th out of 177 countries. The majority of Ethiopians live under $1 USD a day. How is that possible if the “the economy has been growing by 10 per cent and agriculture by double-digit rates for five years now.” Voodoo economics?
The Free Press Squeezed Hard by Zenawi: A press “law” billed by Zenawi as being “on par with the best in the world” was enacted. Bulcha Demeksa, leader of the opposition Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement described its passage as “a dark day in the annals of Ethiopian history.” Intimidation and persecution of journalists is a daily event. A few weeks ago, Eskinder Nega, a victim of Zenawi’s crackdown on the free press in Ethiopia, wrote:
“In October 2005 the Ethiopian government closed down all independent publications in the country, following two days of low level street protests against election results (which was also disputed by credible international observers), to which the authorities deliberately and wantonly reacted with deadly vengeance. To date, three years later, none of those publications have yet been allowed to resume work. And almost all the journalists that worked for them are either in exile or remain unemployed. In fact, this year marked the illegal denial of new press licenses, in contravention of both the constitution and press law, to owners of the two largest publishers of private newspapers in the country before the crackdown in 2005. After fifteen years of unrestricted press licensing, PM Meles Zenawi’s government, true its standing as Africa’s star backslider, has this year restricted press licensing for the first time. A press license, the only means to independent media the country has ever known, is no more a right exercised by all citizens but a privilege accorded to few. But what bad news I have relayed to you cannot raze the good news from our continent. We have ample reason to be optimistic, to look forward to the future we only need to look at the hope embodied in Africa’s 23 democracies, no doubt prelude to a new epoch in the history of Africans, when we will at long last be full-fledged partakers.”
Eskinder, Serkalem and all of the other free press defenders, we salute you! “Never have so many of us owed so much to so few of you!”
Groundhog Year 2009!
Will 2009 be a repeat of 2008, 2007…. Very likely, it will be. But that is no reason to despair if we understand some irrefutable facts: The history of dictatorships shows that dictators are very good at building castles in the sand. One need only look at the “castles” built by the most notorious dictators of the last century. Hitler built his “1000 Year Reich”, but it lasted barely 12 years. Pol Pot terrorized Cambodia for 4 years before he was driven out. Saddam Hussien ruled Iraq with an iron fist for over three decades, and died, after being dragged out of a spider hole, a broken, deeply humiliated and defeated man. Mullah Omar’s Taliban ruled Afghanistan for 5 years before they were routed into the caves. Robert Mugabe, once a liberation hero today clings to power by electoral fraud and brute force. Mengistu Haile Mariam and the Derg are gone leaving behind only a legacy that made it possible for the current occupants of power to continue in their footsteps. Even the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the Soviet Union and elsewhere has vanished from the face of the earth after 70 years.
It is easy to fall prey to despair and hopelessness. It is easy to believe that one is condemned by destiny to live in fear and oppression. But there is an eternal truth about all dictatorships. As Gandhi said, “There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fail — Think of it always.” One need not doubt that the current dictatorship in Ethiopia is rushing blindly to its impending doom. It may pretend not to hear the distant thunder of the approaching storm. But all the signs that portend of its inevitable end are evident. Deep-seated and prolonged discontent have seized upon the people. Grinding poverty, inflation, high prices, unemployment, pent-up resentments, frustrations and rising anger, widespread misery and famine tell the tragic story of suffering of a people as the dictatorship’s end draws near. There is grumbling among the king’s men. The truth is that regime is out of solutions. They know they do not have the support of the Ethiopian people. A Gallup poll conducted in July 2007 “reveals that relatively few Ethiopians express confidence in their country’s social and political institutions. Religious organizations are the only national entities to garner trust from a majority of respondents (68%). The national government garners trust from just 28% of Ethiopians… But participatory politics prompt the lowest levels of trust, as only 13% of Ethiopians have confidence in the honesty of elections.” Imagine a “democratic government” based only on the consent of 13 percent of the people!
The current dictatorship will try to remain in power through brutality and intimidation. But they will eventually go the way of all other dictatorships. The real question is: “What do we do the morning after the dictators are gone?” We can appreciate the enormity of this question only if we clearly understand the pernicious ideology of the regime and our own inability to unite and organize as a democratic force. The foundation of politics in Ethiopia today is ethnicity and the elimination of unity of the people in all forms by accentuating historical, social, political, economic, regional, etc., differences. Ethnic identity and loyalties are glorified, and identity in a common nationality mocked, scorned and ridiculed. The governing principle is, “Ethnicity before one’s humanity, and definitely before one’s nationality.” The evidence on the current dictatorship for the last 18 years unambiguously shows that they have succeeded to some extent in “atomizing” Ethiopia into ethnic enclaves. As a result, the country has outwardly become an archipelago of ethnic and linguistic “homelands” or bantustans. People are forced to relate to each other on the basis of ethnic affiliation; and with those who are not part of the same ethnic group, to relate on the basis of past of historical grievances, suspicion of their present intentions and fear and loathing of a shared national identity. This policy and practice has spawned a culture of distrust, and forced people to develop deeply embedded habits of fear, loathing, doubt and suspicion that will have serious consequences in a post-dictatorship democratic society.
On the other hand, we have shown time and again that we lack unity of purpose and a commitment to work together for the cause of democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. The regime will do everything in its power to make sure we remain divided, disunited and disorganized. But the key is in our hands, not theirs. When we unite and organize, then we will be able to find effective means to neutralize and purge the poison of ethnic politics from the Ethiopian body politics and overcome the atomizing effects of ethnicity. Anyone who doubts the truth of this proposition should study Kinijit’s history. Kinijit came together as fingers on a clenched fist. In May 2005, Kinijit delivered a blow for democracy in Ethiopia. We must recapture once again the spirit that led to the formation of Kinijt. That spirit will help us rebuild trust and democracy in Ethiopia. The alternative is Groundhog Year, every year.