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Author: Alemayehu G. Mariam

Power Africa? Empower Africans!

youth powerPower, power, power…

When President Obama recently visited Africa, he announced a “Power Africa” initiative.  In his Cape Town University speech, he proclaimed, “I am proud to announce a new initiative. We’ve been dealing with agriculture.  We’ve been dealing with health. Now we’re going to talk about power: Power Africa, a new initiative that will double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa. Double it.  We’re going to start by investing $7 billion in U.S. government resources. We’re going to partner with the private sector, who themselves have committed more than $9 billion in investment.”

In the speech, President Obama used the word “power” 21 times in a variety of contexts. He philosophized about “power that comes from acting on our ideals” and the  “power of human beings to affect change”. He urged Africans to act “through the power of your example”. He encouraged support for programs “that empower women”. He mildly chided “those in power who make arguments to distract people from their own abuses.”

He puzzled over “what it will take to empower individual Africans” and enable Africans to have the “power to feed themselves.” He pleaded for “unleashing the power of entrepreneurship and market” and the creation of “partnership that empowers Africans.” He spoke about “the power to prevent illness and care for the sick” and “the power to connect their people to the promise of the 21st century.”

He lamented “Africa’s lack of access to power” and the need “to have power.”  He “talked about power — Power Africa” and “doubling access to power in sub-Saharan Africa.” He pitied those Africans who “live currently off the power grid.”

He wistfully spoke about Nelson Mandela “leaving power” which “was as profound as his ability to claim power”. He spoke of Mugabe’s “corruption of power” and Zimbabwe’s economic collapse.

To power Africa or to empower Africans, that is the question

Africa has a power problem. There is no question about that. Africa needs protection from thugs-cum-leaders who abuse power, misuse power, confuse power and excuse and justify their abuse and misuse of power. President Obama is already powering Africa. Every year, he hands out billions of dollars to Africa’s worst dictators (excuse me, he calls them “partners”) who abuse power in countries like Ethiopia.  Africa needs people power not thugs in power.

On second thought, Africa does not have a power problem.  Africa has a problem of powerlessness. The people are powerless against thugtators who use power to abuse their human rights. Africans are powerless against the powerful forces of corruption – officials and their cronies who “illicitly transfer” (steal and stash) tens of billions of dollars in foreign banks. For instance, “Ethiopia lost $11.7 billion to outflows of ill-gotten gains between 2000 and 2009” and  “in 2009, illicit money leaving the country totaled $3.26 billion.” Africans are powerless and disempowered against powerful election thieves who claim electoral victory by 99.6 percent. Africans are powerless against powerful warlords who seek to divide them along ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional lines. Yes, Africa’s powerless have a big problem with Africa’s powerful thugtators.

President Obama does not seem to get it. The question is not whether to power Africa but how to protect powerless Africans from those dictators America has powered and empowered by doling out billions of dollars in aid, loans and technical assistance every year. If he wants to power Africa, he should begin by empowering ordinary Africans against those who abuse and misuse their power. He should power up the youth grid that remains unused, abused and disused by those who manage the political power grid. He should use the billions of dollars of annual aid to disempower the few powerful African thugtators and empower the hundreds of millions of African youth.

Last week, in his New York Times opinion piece, Eskinder Nega, the symbol of press freedom in Ethiopia and Africa, made a simple but effective recommendation to President Obama: “I propose that the United States impose economic sanctions on Ethiopia (while continuing to extend humanitarian aid without precondition) and impose travel bans on Ethiopian officials implicated in human rights violations.” This proposal is in line with established U.S. policy. Beginning in 2001, the U.S. has imposed “targeted sanctions on the Government of Zimbabwe, including restrictions on U.S. support for multilateral financing, financial sanctions against selected individuals and entities, travel sanctions against selected individuals, a ban on transfers of defense items and services, and a suspension of non-humanitarian government-to-government assistance.” The official reason for these sanctions is the “Zimbawean Government’s increasing assault on human rights and the rule of law.” The human rights record of the regime in Ethiopia is far worse than the regime in Zimbabwe. That is a fact that can be demonstrated. President Obama should understand that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

If Obama wants to power Africa, let him empower African youth

President Obama has been talking about empowering African youth for years. In August 2010, he talked about launching “the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) as a signature initiative that supports young African leaders as they work to spur growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across the continent.” In June 2012, some “60 young African leaders” participated in “the Innovation Summit and Mentoring Partnership with Young African Leaders” for a “three-week professional development program”. To support the “empowerment of young African leaders” and provide them “significant and ongoing professional training, access to mentorship, and networking opportunities in Africa”, USAID “awarded two grants totaling $1.3 million to support the core principles of Young African Leaders Initiative.” In his Cape Town speech, President Obama told Africa’s young people: “You get to decide where the future lies.  Think about it — over 60 percent of Africans are under 35 years old.  So demographics means young people are going to be determining the fate of this continent and this country.  You’ve got time and numbers on your side, and you’ll be making decisions long after politicians like me have left the scene.” But Africa’s young people do not have the numbers on their side. They got $1.3 million from America while  Africa’s dictators get billions every year.

In June 2013, President Obama talked about “launching a new program” called the “Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders” which is “going to give thousands of promising young Africans the opportunity to come to the United States and develop skills at some of our best colleges and universities.” A lot of nice talk and promises for African young people; but promises and talk are more convincing when one puts money where one’s mouth is. Since YALI, there has been more talk than action.

But there is another side to the African youth story. President Obama in Cape Town said, “And I’ve traveled to Africa on this trip because my bet is on the young people who are the heartbeat of Africa’s story.  I’m betting on all of you.” Which segment of the African youth is he betting on? The Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders promises to “give thousands of promising young Africans” the “opportunity to come to the United States and develop their skills.”

What about the millions of not-so-promising African youths who waste away in the urban areas without educational and employment opportunities? What about those African youths mired in rural poverty unable to get even the most basic educational services? Those young Africans who have acquired college education but are unable to find employment because they are not connected to the ruling parties in Africa? Those young Africans who are leaving the continent for menial employment in the Middle East and elsewhere and are subjected to the most inhumane conditions and treatment. Recently, BBC reported the discovery of a grave in the desert of Yemen containing some 400 bodies of young Ethiopian immigrants escaping the oppressive conditions in Ethiopia. Do the not-so-promising youth matter to President Obama?

Along the same lines, what does President Obama offer Africa’s young freedom fighters? In 2009, in Accra, Ghana, he warned, “Now, make no mistake: History is on the side of these brave Africans, not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”

Does President Obama know of brave young Africans in prison named Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Andualem Aragie, Olbana Lelisa, Bekele Gerba, Abubekar Ahmed, Ahmedin Jebel  and so many thousands of Ethiopian political prisoners? President Obama needs to live up to the standards he set for Africans and answer one question: Is he, like history, on the side of brave Africans or is he on the side of Africa’s strongmen. President Obama must choose between making brave young Africans strong or African strongmen stronger.

Would $7 billion make a difference?

Lighting the dark continent is a daunting task. Enlightening the benighted “leaders” of the dark continent is an even more daunting fact. Over 130 years after the invention of the light bulb, the vast majority of Africans remain in total darkness. It is a historical enigma that as technology enlightens the world, Africa is enveloped in darkness. For instance, Ethiopia got a functioning telephone system in 1894 and over the past decade “invested some USD$14 billion in infrastructure development” including communications. Yet today Ethiopia has the worst telecommunications system in Africa and quite possibly the world.

Power outages and blackouts are common in every part of Africa. In June 2012, as U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton began her speech at the African Union, she experienced firsthand what Africans face every day. She had to stop her speech because of power outage.

Africa’s electrical power problem is not merely low access and insufficient capacity; it also involves poor reliability and extremely high costs. The regime in Ethiopia windbags day and night about a pie-in-the-sky dam on the Nile. They say it will be the largest dam in Africa and cost USD$6-7 billion. This fantasy dam is supposed to resolve the power supply problems of not only Ethiopia but also the region and beyond. The fact of the matter is that the regime aims to export much of the power produced from the dam and not use it for domestic power self-sufficiency. It is also ironic that the regime seeks to convince the population and the world that it can run the “largest dam” in Africa when it cannot even manage efficiently the few dams that are currently in existence.  Yet the regime in Ethiopia keeps on windbagging the Nile dam canard to create the grand illusion of development, hoodwink the population and panhandle China and the international banks for more and more handouts.

The World Bank says Africa needs USD$43 billion annually to improve its power infrastructure. Would dropping USD$7 billion in American tax dollars plus $9 billion from the private sector over five years to “double” the power capacity make a  difference in lighting Africa or enlightening Africans? Throwing USD$3 billion a year to help “Power Africa” for 5 years sounds like chicken feed. According to IMANI, the Ghanaian Center for Policy and Education, “If all the electricity generated in Africa was shared equally, each household would have enough to power a normal light-bulb for about 3.5 hours a day per person. With President Obama’s new initiative, this can increase by roughly 18 more minutes if implementation was perfect.”

President Obama cannot power Africa by empowering Africa’s strongmen.  To power Africa, he must first help empower Africa’s youth. He cannot empower Africa’s youth with promises and silky words. He cannot power Africa by empowering a few of Africa’s “best and brightest” by  providing them leadership training or skills. It is said that more than 600 million of Africa’s one billion population is below the age of 25. The vast majority of these youth are poor, undereducated and with little prospect for lifetime economic viability. Vast numbers of these youths are forced to work in whatever capacity to help their families survive while losing educational opportunities that could free them from poverty. He must come up with a different plan for Africa’s not-so-promising youth. They are the majority of Africa!

The real answer to Africa’s problems lies in creating a power grid among its youth. Any program that is narrowly targeted to Africa’s talented youth will merely perpetuate existing inequalities and keep the sons and daughters of the rich and privileged at the top. The masses of youths at the bottom will not accept this condition. Sooner or later, they will rise, power up and disempower the strongmen who abuse their power.  That’s how Africa will be powered and empowered, President Obama!

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:

Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:

Deconstructing Construction Corruption in Ethiopia

corruption ahead In my fifth commentary on corruption in Ethiopia this year, I focus on the construction sector. The other commentaries are available at my blogsite.

The cancer of corruption in the construction sector the World Bank (WB) documented in its “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia” is just as malignant and metastatic as in the land, education and telecommunications sectors. According to the WB report:

In the construction sector, Ethiopia exhibits most of the classic warning signs of corruption risk, including instances of poor-quality construction, inflated unit output costs, and delays in implementation. In turn, these factors appear in some cases to be driven by unequal or unclear contractual relationships, poor enforcement of professional standards, high multipliers between public sector and private sector salaries, wide-ranging discretionary powers exercised by government, a lack of transparency, and a widespread perception of hidden barriers to market entry.

Ethiopia’s “construction sector” falls into four categories: roads, water supply and irrigation, power, and other public works including construction of universities, schools, hospitals and markets. Annual spending on roads alone is estimated to be US$1.2 billion. The “government” totally dominates the construction sector. “Ethiopia is unusual compared with most other African countries, which have already fully privatized the design and construction of public works.”

There are multiple and “interrelated drivers of corruption in Ethiopia’s construction sector.” These drivers are “related to deficiencies in accountability (transparency based on clear performance criteria), capacity (availability of sufficient material and human resources and proper procedures), and trust (confidence in the market that allows businesses to invest in increasing their own capacity). In Ethiopia, “A lack of capacity makes corruption possible, a lack of accountability makes corruption happen, and a lack of trust allows corruption to take root.”

The WB report highlights corruption in Ethiopia’s construction sector along six dimensions. The policymaking and regulatory processes are at high-risk area of corruption. Such corruption has a major effect on sector governance.” Policies and regulations could “encourage, or help hide, corrupt practices” and unless corrected perpetuate corruption by groups or individuals. The Ethiopian “government” “controls the price of construction materials, access to finance, and access to equipment. It controls professional and company registrations. It maintains high-level, bilateral infrastructure deals with China and lacks independent performance audits.” According to the WB report, “Many stakeholders are concerned about the possibility of a connection between the dominant role of Chinese contractors in the road sector and high-level links between the Ethiopian and Chinese governments” and the “lack of effective competition, with Chinese contractors dominating the international market and a limited set of domestic contractors dominating the national market.” These problems are compounded by other factors such as poor quality control, weak enforcement of professional standards and overall lack of transparency. Professionals in the construction sector are reluctant to complain “for fear of being victimized” and believing there is no truly independent body to which they can appeal.” Since the “government is a major client”, “there is a reluctance to express dissent.”

The planning and budgeting (P&B) process is the second area of high corruption in Ethiopia’s construction sector.  When planning and budgeting “deviates from the use of a rational, objective basis for prioritizing the allocation of limited resources on the basis of need, anticipated rates of return, or other objective criteria,” it opens the floodgates of corruption. In Ethiopia, the P&B process is characterized by “lack of separation between policy making, budget allocation, and implementation functions” and “top-down planning by decree.” There are instances in which “projects that are not responding to a prioritized need and (when combined with weak procurement regulations) can sometimes be negotiated directly between a  corrupt official and a specific construction company.” Corruption also occurs in the form of “adoption of inappropriately high construction standards to enhance contract values, construction of new infrastructure while neglecting to maintain existing facilities, conflicts of interest for officials with a stake in the construction sector” and aiding “construction companies with party political allegiances.”

The third area of corruption is found in management and performance monitoring . According to the WB report, management weaknesses can lead to corruption in three main ways: “(a) Without basic good management controls, individuals (whether working for the client, the consultant, or the contractor) can find themselves free to take shortcuts that may cross the line into corruption. (b) Without good data management and reporting systems, the management information needed to identify and address corruption does not exist. (c) If the management is so incompetent that it gives rise to administrative or technical obstacles that are otherwise impossible to address, corrupt activities may be seen as the only realistic way for otherwise professionally minded individuals to deliver results.” In Ethiopia such corruption occurs for a number of reasons including “low remuneration of some managers and procurement staff”, “shortlisting of poorly performing companies and companies without capacity for new work”, “difficulty of obtaining public information about contracts,” and “lack of independent professional bodies and weak enforcement of professional standards”, among others.

The fourth area of corruption is manifest in the tendering and procurement (T&P) process.  Among the commonly encountered corruption risks in the T&P process include sale of inside bidding information by corrupt officials to prospective bidders to enhance the prospects for submitting a successful bid. It could also involve “collusion between contractors in the form of price fixing and intimidation of aspiring new entrants, unofficial quota system for the award of contracts on the basis of political affiliation of the companies involved and bribery.” In Ethiopia, the list of corrupt practices in the T&P process is mindboggling. In addition to the “general lack of transparency in procurement processes,” the “government” “shortlists companies known to be poor performers or lacking requisite experience or capability,” excludes “capable companies”, inconsistently applies procurement standards, imposes unfair selective restriction of access to advance information about bidding opportunities and distorts the bidding process to benefit favored bidders,  among others.

The fifth area of corruption is manifest in the operations phase. Generally, contractors who have paid bribes to secure contracts “try to recoup his outlay during the construction phase. This is most commonly achieved through various forms of fraud involving client’s staff or the supervising consultant’s staff, including supply of inferior materials, falsification of quantities, inflated claims, and concealment of defects.”  In Ethiopia, “contracts are rarely completed on budget”. Significant delays in contract completion are common. There is “often a problem with poor-quality construction” and “some contractors knowingly underbid then recoup costs through variations.” Contractors “conceal construction defects or improperly influence client or consultant to accept substandard materials”. In other cases, a “consultant or contractor submits falsified documentation” and “receives exaggerated payments as result of falsified utilization records.”

The sixth area of corruption in the construction sector involves payment and settlement of certificates. A client “can fabricate a justification for refusing or withholding payment as “a means of punishing companies that have refused to honor understandings.” In the absence of effective complaints adjudication or appeals process, this could result in corruption “related to legal advisers, including in dispute resolution. Such advisers may be implicated in the submission of incorrect claims, concealment of documents, the supply of false witness statements, bribery or blackmail of witnesses, or excess billing, all of which contribute to overall levels of corruption in the project.” In Ethiopia, it is “commonly reported that facilitation payments may be required to speed up settlement of certificates.” Alternatively, “contractors sometimes curtail progress because cash flow problems arise as a result of late payments.”

EthioConstruction Corruption, Inc.

The Ethiopian “government” is not only the single dominant construction client but also the singular policy maker and regulator of the construction sector. The “government” is in effect EthioConstruction Corruption, Inc. Though the WB report is timid in stating the facts as they are and frames the truth in the buttery language of bureaucratese, it is clear that the type of corruption in the Ethiopian construction sector covers the whole gamut including the policy making and budgetary process, project selection, tender specifications, procurement outcomes, contract negotiations and renegotiations and payments. It is manifest from the report that the bidding process is generally rigged and projects are often granted to companies that have more political ties to the ruling regime than qualifications. It is obvious that newcomers and those disfavored by the regime have little chance of securing public works project contracts. It is also manifest from the totality of the evidence in the report that public project money is ingenuously finds its way to the pockets of top regime officials.

The “tofu” road to Kombolcha

In June 2013, the “Ethiopian Roads Authority” signed another agreement with two Chinese companies to upgrade the 133 Km-long Kombolcha-Bati-Mille road to asphalt-concrete level. The Chinese companies will snag a whopping 2.8 billion Br. in the deal. Why aren’t Ethiopian construction companies getting these contracts? In other words, why are Chinese companies eating the lunches of Ethiopian companies? Why is there not an Ethiopia construction consortium organized (with the aid of the “government”) to bid for such construction jobs? Will there ever be Ethiopian construction companies with the capacity for large-scale infrastructure projects? How could the “government” talk about development when the “infrastructure development” is left entirely to foreign contractors?  How can the “government” justify use of international bank loans to bankroll foreign companies squeezing out homegrown ones? How is Chinese economic penetration and exploitation of Ethiopia different from the exploitation of the evil neoliberal, imperialist, neocolonial, globalist… exploitation?

There is one question that needs to be answered: Is Ethiopia getting its money’s worth by handing out contracts to Chinese companies?  In 2011, the Economist reported, “The Chinese-built road from Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, to Chirundu, 130km (81 miles) to the south-east, was quickly swept away by rains”. Will the 133 Km-long Kombolcha-Bati-Mille road also be “quickly swept away by rains”?

It is common knowledge that many state-owned Chinese construction companies engage in shoddy workmanship not only in Africa but also in China. After Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji saw the shoddy workmanship of flood dykes on the Yangtze River in 1998 which resulted in major loss of life and property, he described the work of these companies as “tofu” construction. There is much documented about corruption and shoddy workmanship in the Chinese construction sector. “All across China, everything from sidewalks to apartment buildings to mega dams are compromised corruption.” Chinese construction companies in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa will underbid any other local or international competitors because they are not interested in short-term profits but sector monopoly. They maintain low profits to increase market share (monopolize) at the expense of local companies while driving  out of international competitors. That’s how they do business. The blame for Chinese monopoly of the public works sector in Ethiopia should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the ruling regime in Ethiopia which manifestly lacks the technical capacity and competence and political will to do what needs to be done to ensure a reasonably corruption-free and high quality construction sector.

Reducing corruption through CoST accountability

The Construction Sector Transparency Initiative (CoST) launched by the British Department for International Development (DFID) and taken over by the World Bank in 2012  “seeks to help  (9 countries in a pilot program including Ethiopia) participating countries improve the value for money spent on the construction of public infrastructure.” The program aims to create a “multi-stakeholder initiative designed to promote transparency and accountability in publicly financed construction.” At the core of the program “is the belief that the processes involved in the construction of public infrastructure must be made more transparent. The public must be armed with the information they need to hold decision makers to account and to ensure better value for money in the construction sector.” CoST aims to “establish a public disclosure process for the construction sector that is viable and appropriate to country conditions, that is sustainable in the medium and long term as a government system, and that achieves a credible and substantial level of compliance in the relevant sector entities.” Ultimately, CoST seeks to “reduce waste in public budgets, enables fairer competition in the private sector and increased opportunities for investors.”

On November 17, 2012, a CoST consultancy agreement was “signed between Engineers Against Poverty (EAP) and Hagos Abdie (Individual Consultant)the consultant is selected as a preferred candidate among bidders invited through short listing.”  The aim of the consultancy agreement is to find ways of maximizing the capacity of government agencies to gather, verify and disclose information into the public realm. (It is unclear why Abdie was “selected as a preferred candidate among bidders invited through short listing” and how much he was paid for his consultancy services.) But the selection of Abdie lends irrefutable proof that only those closely allied to the ruling regime get plum contracts as the World Bank report amply documented in its massive study.

Close examination of Abdie’s 38-page “Assessment of procuring entity capacity to disclose project information in Ethiopia” shows that it is nothing more than a cut-and-paste of bureaucratic documents from a variety of sources. The report stylistically “collates and assembles information” on various projects, a task that could be done efficiently by an adroit college intern. One is hard pressed to show how the “collated and assembled” hodgepodge of information could “arm” the public in “holding decision makers to account and to ensure better value for money in the construction sector.” The recommendations at the end of each section of the “assessment” appear to be unoriginal, cut-and-paste boilerplate recommendations. There is no need to waste time discussing Abdie’s “assessment report”, but one cannot escape the irony of corruption even when corruption is being “assessed”.

Increasing transparency and accountability in Ethiopia’s construction sector

Corruption is dyed in the very fabric of the ruling regime in Ethiopia. It cannot be washed out with the detergent of make-believe anti-corruption programs designed by self-serving, sanctimonious and self-congratulating international poverty pimps. Neither could it be solved by corrupt anti-corruption crusaders. The simplest and most direct approach to dealing with corruption in Ethiopia requires massive involvement of civil society watchdogs and rigorous independent audits. Those countries that have been successful in controlling corruption in the construction sector have implemented have had rigorous compliance audits and made available to the public comprehensive and detailed information on bids, winning bids for government contracts and reports of procurement audits on a timely basis. Most of them disseminate up to date comprehensive public works contract  information on line. They also allow civil society representatives to observe the tendering process.

Ethiopia supposedly has a freedom of information law (Proclamation No. 590/2008 – A Proclamation to Provide for Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information.) Anyone who has carefully studied this proclamation will be impressed by the lofty platitudes, truisms and boilerplate legal clichés and verbiage cut and pasted from the laws of other nations. Under the proclamation, citizens supposedly have a right of “access, [to] receive and import information held by public bodies, subject to justifiable limits based on overriding public and private interests.” But the “justifiable limits” include non-disclosure of any Cabinet documents or information (Art. 24), any information relating to the “financial welfare of the nation or the ability of the government to manage the economy of the country” (Art. 25), and any information on the “operation of public bodies [including] an opinion, advice, report or recommendation obtained or prepared or an account of a consultation, discussion or deliberation… minutes of a meetings…” (Art. 26). Simply stated, no information may be released on the activities of government ministers and officials, banks or any other official financial institutions and the internal proceedings or external reviews of public institutions. To top it all off, any public body may refuse a request for information if it determines for any reason the “harm to the protected interest which would be caused by disclosure outweighs the public interest in disclosure.” (Art. 28.)

Corruption, like mushrooms, grows best in darkness. The benighted leaders of the ruling regime in Ethiopia have so far provided splendid husbandry to mushrooming corruption in all sectors of the Ethiopian political economy. What the people of Ethiopia need now are “sunshine laws” for their country of 13 months of sunshine!

To track corruption in Ethiopia, follow the money. It leads straight to the top!

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:

Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:

Thus spoke Eskinder, the drum major for Ethiopian democracy

By Alemayehu Gebremariam

Still drumming for democracy

Eskinder Nega is still drumming for democracy in Ethiopia. From inside the belly of the infamous Meles Zenawi Prison in Kality, just outside the capital Addis Ababa. Until recently, Eskinder was in solitary confinement. He was allowed to see only his wife and son and a couple of other relatives.

Eskinder is condemned to 18 years in prison.  His unspeakable crimes include speaking truth to power, writing the naked truth about the late dictator Meles Zenawi, standing defiant against the abuse of power and speaking his mind fearlessly as a free human being.

Shakespeare wrote, “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” The evil Meles Zenawi did when he lived still lives on in the shattered lives of  journalists Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye, opposition leader Andualem Aragie, activists  Olbana Lelisa, Bekele Gerba, Abubekar Ahmed, Ahmedin Jebel  and the many thousands of Ethiopian political prisoners. It is true evil never dies; it merely changes its form and shape. It takes a new name and puts on a new face.

Eskinder is one free Ethiopian in prison. Since September 2011, we have not heard his drumbeats for democracy. Meles Zenawi Prison is a virtual black hole. It is a place of total darkness. Not even the enlightened ones can escape.

But we need not hear Eskinder’s drumbeats of democracy. We can feel them. Like our heartbeats. Silently. Rhythmically. Rhapsodically. His enforced silence echoes in our minds and we amplify the sounds of his enforced silence to the world. We reverberate his message. Though we lack his supreme courage, fortitude and stamina, we are unrepentant members of his marching band, and he is our drum major. We all aspire to be Eskinder Nega. Eskinder Nega is us! We are Eskinder Nega! I am Eskinder Nega!

Eskinder Nega is my personal hero. I have written “special tributes for him”. It has been my great privilege to stand by Eskinder’s side, though from thousands of miles away;  and defend the honor, character and integrity of this great man with my pen (keyboard). It is an understatement for me to say Eskinder is my hero. He is much more than that. He is  my inspiration. Eskinder taught me the true meaning of courage— that capacity of to stand up for one’s beliefs and fight with the weapon of truth and ideas.

Eskinder taught me the true meaning of the expression that the  limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. Eskinder is a living example of the proposition that there can be no victory in the struggle for democracy, freedom and human rights without sacrifice, dogged tenacity and fortitude — that inner strength of mind and spirit to bear pain and adversity with courage and grace.  Eskinder challenged us to answer that difficult question which most of us seek to avoid: Will we define the defining moment in our lives or let the moment define us in that moment?

Eskinder, for me, is the personification of the audacity of faith  and hope that Ethiopia’s young people will rise triumphant in the end regardless of the brutality, inhumanity and barbarity of those who oppress them. For they are destined by Providence to be victorious over the inglorious. Ethiopia’s youth shall inherit an Ethiopia that is at peace with itself, with its neighbors and with Providence. Those who have troubled the House of Ethiopia shall be cast out and “scattered like chaff driven by the desert wind.”. They shall inherit the wind!

Eskinder Nega is not a hero to one man. He is a heroes’ hero. He is a hero to world renowned journalists who have themselves suffered at the hands of dictators including Kenneth Best, founder of the Daily Observer (Liberia’s first independent daily); Lydia Cacho, one of Mexico’s most famous journalists and noted author; Sir Harold Evans, editor of  The Sunday Times in Britain; Akbar Ganji, Iran’s foremost dissident; Amira Hass, one of the foremost independent journalists in Israel; Arun Shourie, one of India’s most renowned journalists and editor of the English-language daily Indian Express; Faraj Sarkohi, a long time Iranian writer and journalist persecuted by both the Shah of Iran and the Islamic Republic of Iran; Adam Michnik, editor in chief of the first independent (and bestselling) Polish daily foremost dissident and Polish human rights advocate and so many others. Eskinder is a hero to virtually every respected press and human rights organization in the world. In his own country, Eskinder is condemned as a criminal; but Eskinder Nega is an innocent man condemned by a gang of criminals.

Thus Spoke Eskinder Nega from Meles Zenawi Prison

It is heartwarming to read firsthand accounts of Eskinder’s condition in prison. Recent reports of journalists and others who visited him are encouraging and uplifting. No doubt, prison life for Eskinder and the other imprisoned journalists, opposition leaders and political prisoners is unbearably hard. The regime in Ethiopia maintains one of the most inhumane prison systems in the world. Such was the finding of an expert study commissioned by the regime itself.  Those who personally visited Eskinder and the young opposition leader Andualem Aragie said both had lost weight but their spirits were flying high as a kite.

Eskinder’s face radiated with serenity, the kind Reinhold Neibur talked about – “the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things which should be changed and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” He talked openly and fearlessly about how to help bring about a better and freer Ethiopia. He spoke passionately about the sacrifices and the price that must be paid to establish democracy and the rule of law in Ethiopia. They said Eskinder was at peace with himself and his circumstances in prison. But I am willing to bet my bottom dollar that  he will always be at war with injustice, hate, intolerance and  unfairness.

Eskinder’s wife, the incomparable Serkalem Fasil and winner of the prestigious “Courage in Journalism  Award”, was present during one of the visits and listened to her husband intently as their son Nafkot playfully made his presence known. It was a distressing sight for the journalists to see Nafkot’s life revolve around prison. Nafkot was born in prison in 2005 when mom and dad were imprisoned by Meles Zenawi “only to be acquitted sixteen months later. Serkalem prematurely gave birth in prison. Severely underweight at birth because Serkalem’s physical and psychological privation in one of Africa’s worst prisons, an incubator was deemed life-saving to the new-born child by prison doctors; which was, in an act of incomprehensible vindictiveness, denied by the authorities. The child nevertheless survived miraculously.” Such is the utter inhumanity of those who have persecuted this extraordinary Ethiopian family for years.

Like any human being Eskinder feels the loss of association with his wife and son. No doubt, he misses his friends and supporters throughout the world as much as they miss him.  He told one of his visitors:  “I am innocent. I will never ask for a government pardon. I won’t even think about it. But when I say this, I don’t mean that I do not miss my wife and son. Not being with them weighs heavily on my heart. Regardless, it is a high price I must pay for my people. That is the sacrifice I have to make.” That was exactly what Nelson Mandela said: “When your life is the struggle, as mine was, there is little room left for family. That has always been my greatest regret and the most painful aspect of the choice I made.”

I am confident Eskinder understands that the destiny of great men is in the hands of history and not tyrants. Mandela kept his appointment with destiny and emerged victorious from Robben Island and lifted the darkness that threatened to envelop South Africa. I have no doubts that Eskinder, Reeyot, Woubshet, Andualem, Olbana, Bekele, Abubekar, Ahmedin and the many thousands of Ethiopian political prisoners and the millions of youth will also emerge from Prison Nation Ethiopia victorious.

It is deeply saddening that Eskinder and the others have been subjected to all forms of humiliation and degradation in Meles Zenawi Prison. They really tried to break him down, and force him to his knees and beg for a pardon. They tried solitary confinement to break his spirit. They subjected him to personal humiliation, abuse and neglect to crush his unconquerable soul. These petty minded ignoramuses would not even allow him to get books, a right specially recognized under Article 40 of the United Nations, Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, 30 August 1955.)  Though Eskinder’s head is bloodied, it is also unbowed!

Eskinder told the visiting journalists, “There can be no change without sacrifice. Change comes through peaceful struggle.” He emphasized the need for peaceful struggle. He spoke of Kenya, Ghana and Malawi and how fortunate they were in being able to build democracy without paying too high a price.

He spoke unambiguously  of the need for civility and respect for each other. “Every Ethiopian who acts for the good of the country should be respected.” When the journalists told him that he has been dubbed the “Mandela of Ethiopia”, he humbly declined stating that he did not deserve such honor. But he remained defiant as ever: “I am sentenced to 18 years. What more can happen to me? I feel bad separated from my wife and child. The issue is not whether Eskinder is in prison or not, but how we can see a better and democratic Ethiopia.” He kept on repeating “Democracy, democracy, democracy…”

Why is Eskinder and the others still in prison?

There really is no rational explanation for keeping Eskinder and the rest of the journalists, opposition leaders and activists in prison. But there are many irrational ones. The first absurd reason for keeping them in prison is  the belief that releasing them will reflect badly on the name and legacy of the late Meles Zenawi. Releasing them so soon after Meles death would show that he had wrongfully imprisoned them.

The fact known to the whole world is that they are all political prisoners. They have committed no crimes.  Every major human rights organization and other governmental organizations involved in human rights have come to the same conclusions.

Meles was an angry man, a vindictive man. As I have often described him when he was alive, Meles opted for revenge when he could show mercy; depraved indifference when he could show compassion; intolerance when he could show understanding and impatience when he could show magnanimity. I shall never forget Meles’ sadistic words after he jailed Birtukan Midekssa in January 2008. “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” Birtukan, like these young prisoners, had done nothing wrong.

It is indeed a dead issue now. That was how Meles missed his rendezvous with greatness. As long as these young people remain in prison, they become Meles’ legacy and his name will be a symbol of shame and infamy. His name will be defiled and profaned, his character dishonored and his achievements depreciated and deprecated. Releasing them now would go a long way in rehabilitating his name and contributions in the eyes of all Ethiopians and court of world opinion. In all sincerity, is it not time to let Meles rest in peace? Is it not time to release these prisoners and let them live in peace?

The second absurd reason for keeping these young people in prison, I believe, comes from a misguided  thinking which equates admitting and correcting mistakes or doing the right thing as a sign of  profound weakness. There is nothing wrong in admitting mistakes, but there is a lot that is wrong in not correcting them. “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” When mistakes are not corrected, they accumulate and fester like a sore. In the end, those who fail to correcte their mistakes are buried by them. It was an egregious mistake to imprison these young people; it would be a magnanimous act of redressing a wrong by releasing them.

The third absurd reason for keeping these young people in prison flows from ignorant arrogance. I do not doubt that there are some among those in power who believe might is right. As long as they have the guns, tanks and planes, they can subjugate the entire country and remain on top forever. Such a view is logically and factually flawed. If guns and tanks would have endured eternal power, Mengistu Hailemariam at the peak of his power had $4 billion worth of it. The reason those who are now in power today were able to overthrow Mengistu’s regime was not because of their superior firepower or the refinement of their military strategy. They can deceive themselves into believing that if they want. The real reason they won is because the people of Ethiopia had totally and unreservedly rejected the regime of Mengustu Hailemariam. They had had enough of him, his brutality, his criminality and his ignorant arrogance. Those who seized power from Mengistu arrived at a defining moment in Ethiopia’s history. Ethiopians had to make a choice between a devil they knew and angel lookalikes they did not know. Well now they know!

The fact of the matter is that we live in a different world. It is a world that is coming under the increasing ownership of young people. They are very different from us, the Hippo Generation. They have different dreams, hopes, aspirations and priorities. What is important to us is laughably insignificant to them. When we talk to them about the politics of ethnicity and identity, they look at us as though we are raving lunatics. They could not care less about the ethnicity, region, religion or language of their fellow youth. They care about improving their lives through education and entrepreneurship. They care about the future and do not want to be bogged down in the quicksand of hatred and  ethnic rivalry we have created for ourselves. We made our beds in our Ethiopia, and we should lie in them if we must. But we have no right to demand that they lie in the bed of thorns we have made for ourselves. They won’t!

The other irrefutable fact is that there is a tidal wave of youth anger and dissatisfaction on the verge of explosion.  In my numerous commentaries in defense of Ethiopia’s youth, I have alluded to the wind of change that has kicked up a sandstorm of youth rebellion and revolt in North Africa someday reaching Ethiopia and the rest of Africa. Ethiopian youth, like Arab youth, are crying out for freedom, democracy, human rights and equal economic opportunity. The vast majority of the uneducated, under-educated and mis-educated Ethiopian youth have no hope for the future. Legions of them with college degrees, advanced professional and technical training waste away the best years of their lives  because they have few economic opportunities. They see a void in their futures.

I suspect there are many among those in power who have convinced themselves that the type of volcanic popular uprisings that swept North Africa cannot happen in Ethiopia. They have used every means at their disposal to keep the youth benighted, divided and antagonized. They have tried to prevent Ethiopian youth from accessing the Internet freely to learn new ideas and create cyber civic societies. They have tried to buy the loyalty of the best and the brightest of Ethiopia’s youth with cash, jobs, special educational opportunities and privileges. They have tried to brainwash them into believing that Meles is their demi-god and their savior. They have used a vast security network of informants, spies and thugs to suppress any youth or other uprising before it could gather momentum. They have spread in society so much fear and loathing that it is nearly impossible for individuals or groups to come together, build consensus and articulate a unified demand for change. They can fool (buy and sell) some of the youths all of the time, all of the youths some of the time  but it is impossible for them to fool (buy and sell) all of the youths all of the time.

That is exactly what Mubarak did in Egypt, Gadhafi in Libya, Ben Ali in Tunisia and Asad in Syria. The fire that consumed the Middle East was started by the match Bouazizi struck to immolate himself.

Ethiopia’s Cheetahs (youth) represent 70 percent of the population. They have a frightening majority, at least viewed from the perspective of a Hippo. Those in power today would be foolhardy to calculate that they can abuse, degrade, neglect and disrespect this majority and expect to remain in perpetual power. Without the wholehearted support of the youth, the regime is like a tree stuck in a bog which is swept away at the onset of the first flood.

From time to time, I have written about the quiet riot that is taking place in Ethiopia. Those in power today are completely blinded to the quiet riot that is raging in the hearts and minds of Ethiopia’s youth. In their bottomless greed and corruption, they have turned blind, deaf and mute to the despair and hopelessness of the masses of youth who lack of educational, employment and other opportunities for self-improvement and participation in the development of their country. For a time, the quiet riot of despair and hopelessness will fester and simmer. But when hopelessness and despair reaches the boiling point and Ethiopia’s youth overcome their fear of fear, their winter of discontent will be made glorious by an inexorable Ethiopian Spring. When that happens, the tables will turn and the hands that crafted the oppressive laws will be victims of their own hands.  Then they will learn the eternal truth: “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

The message of a great freedom fighter for Ethiopians and the message of the “great dictator” for humanity

The great Charlie Chaplin in the motion picture the “Great Dictator” gave a stirring oration for the ages when he declined to be the all powerful dictator of Tomania:

Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me, I say “Do not despair.” The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.”

We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way…

Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural. Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!

Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill their promise. They never will!

Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.

Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite!

Eskinder Nega’s Message to All Ethiopians (translation from Amharic)

Our country Ethiopia is in dire straits. She lies between remaining a united country and disintegration. Additionally, we her citizens continue to suffer under oppression. When those African countries that were created through European colonial machinations and whom we helped birth are today marching to  democracy as we continue our backwards march. It is ironic that we were at the head of Africa yesterday but today we are Africa’s tail.  This is national shame.

Therefore, in order to root out this problem, it is necessary for us to conduct a peaceful struggle. Related to this, the united movement for democracy and justice and other struggles that are underway by other political parties is very encouraging.  If the struggle continues along as it is doing now and there is broad participation, there is no doubt that we will be on the road to freedom. That is why it is necessary for all Ethiopians, regardless of time and location, should engage in a united struggle.

Do not be afraid! Do not be intimidated by the threats of tyrants? Fear is the weapon of tyrants. Reject it! Drive it out of your hearts. To be injured, jailed and abused is a sacrifice we must pay not to be nationless. We must struggle to  build a better country. Therefore, step up! Step forward! Participate in peaceful protests.

This is the time for those in the Diaspora to stand up for their country and show their good intentions. To support our cause, All Ethiopians in the Diaspora should participate in protest demonstrations especially the protests that are going on in Addis Ababa.

I am sure if Eskinder’s voice could reach the millions of Ethiopia’s youth he’d say, “Do not despair. The misery that is now upon Ethiopia is but the passing of greed and corruption, the bitterness of men who fear the truth, men consumed by hatred. Those who have watered and cultivated hate in Ethiopia will be consumed by it like a wild fire. Dictators have died. The truth shall live. The power they stole from the people will return to the people. Do away with kilil barriers! Do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! And so long as Ethiopians are imprisoned, tortured and die for their convictions and truth, liberty will never perish.”

So long as there are Ethiopians like Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Andualem Aragie, Olbana Lelisa, Bekele Gerba, Abubekar Ahmed, Ahmedin Jebel…, liberty will never perish in Ethiopia. These young people are held in a “place of wrath and tears”, a place called Meles Zenawi Prison. There they face the “menace of the years”, but we “shall find them unafraid”. It does not matter how much physical punishment and psychological pain is inflicted on them, they shall remain defiant. Why? Because all of them are masters of their  fate and captains of their souls.” Hail Ethiopia’s Youth. Ethiopia Youth Invictus!

Release all political prisoners in Ethiopia!

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:

  • Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:

Obama came and saw but did he conquer Africa?

Alemayehu G Mariam

Obama UCT(This week my regular Monday commentary is presented for the second time in the form of a “flash drama” on Obama (a sub-genre of theatrical play sometimes described as a “ten minute one-act play”).  The first “act” of this “flash drama” was presented in my June 23 commentary, “
Obama is Coming! Obama is Coming to Africa!!

The scene in the second act is a neighborhood tearoom somewhere in Africa. The two young African college friends two weeks later have a chance meeting. Their conversation shifts from the critical health condition of President Nelson Mandela to President Obama’s departure from Africa after he completed his “Africa Visit”.  (I have opted to use “flash drama” to add creative range to my commentaries and expand my reach to the younger generation of Ethiopians and other African youth. The names of the characters have special meaning.) 

Act I: Obama is Coming! Obama is Coming to Africa!!

Act II:

Duma: I am worried sick Mandela is sick.

Shudi: I just wonder what will happen to South Africa after Mandela is gone.

Duma: The same thing that will happen when the father of any family is gone.

Shudi: You mean there will be some family feud, discord and falling out…

Duma: But the family will survive. The South African family is strong.

Shudi: The Spirit of Mandela will keep the family together!

Duma: And guide South Africa as it always has.

Shudi: Guide the conscience of South Africans.

Duma: And their hearts and minds too.

Shudi: Mandela may be gone but his Spirit will live forever!

Duma: Africans say, “A good chief is a reward of God.”

Shudi: South Africa has been blessed!

Duma: “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (God bless Africa.)

Shudi: Obama has come and gone…

Duma: Obama came and saw but did he conquer?

Shudi: He came. He saw. He left.

Duma: Back to the U.S. of A?

Shudi: Where else?

Duma: Ethiopia? Nigeria? They are America’s best partners in Africa.

Shudi: Not even Kenya! He says he’s “got three and half years to come back to Kenya.”

Duma: Hope he had a better reception than his first Africa visit in Accra, Ghana in 2009.

Shudi: Someone told him in Soweto, “the euphoria that engulfed this continent when President Obama was elected is fading.”

Duma: Yeah! The thrill is gone with the Obama drama.

Shudi: He visited three countries in one week, you know.

Duma: What’s up with that? Is he making campaign stops?

Shudi: With all the promises and pledges he made, you could say he was stumping.

Duma: He is the best at making promises.

Shudi: And not keeping them?

Duma: And breaking them. What did he promise this time?

Shudi: Everything!

Duma: Everything?

Shudi: He promised to “launch a new program that’s going to givethousands of promising young Africans opportunity to come to the United States and develop their skills at some of our best colleges and universities.”

Duma: Too little, too late!

Shudi: What do you mean?

Duma: China has already snatched 12,000 young Africans.

Shudi: Promising ones?

Duma: The crème de la crème.

Shudi: What about the millions of not-so-promising young Africans?

Duma: They are on their own.

Shudi: Promises only for promising young Africans in the Promised Land?

Duma: But it’s all promises. Don’t mean nothing.

Shudi: What do you mean?

Duma: How many promises has Obama made?

Shudi: Too many?

Duma: How many has he broken?

Shudi: Too many.

Duma: Ever heard of the “talented tenth”, Shudi?

Shudi: No. What’s that?

Duma: It’s an old idea about one in ten black men becoming leaders of their race in the world and solving the “The Negro Problem”.

Shudi: How?

Duma: Through education, entrepreneurship, scholarship and direct involvement in social change.

Shudi: Talented tenth for the “African Problem”?

Duma: Bring the most promising young Africans to America and teach them about “civic leadership and public administration and business and entrepreneurship”.

Shudi: And solve the “African Problem”?

Duma: With the help of the “connections” they “make in America… Americans from all walks of life… leaders in business and nonprofits and government.”

Shudi: And the great African brain drain continues…?

Duma: That’s old school, Shudi. It is now called “human capital flight”.

Shudi: Young promising Africans taking flight to America…

Duma: Whatever happened to Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative in 2010?

Shudi: That’s an old promise. That was about “engaging young African leaders who will shape the continent’s future.”

Duma: How many young African leaders were engaged in the last three years?

Shudi: You’re always digging up old promises. Fresh promises about old broken promises are the best kind of promises, if you know what I mean.

Duma: Promises are bliss to youth. Africa’s “talented tenth” better watch out.

Shudi: Why?

Duma: Obama says, “The world will be watching what decisions you make.  The world will be watching what you do.”

Shudi: Does that mean the U.S. is watching too?

Duma: Secretary of State John Kerry said America is watching.

Shudi: Whom?

Duma: “Brave citizens around the world and those who would abuse them.”

Shudi: Will the U.S. be watching the brave, suffering and not-so-promising young Africans?

Duma: They are on their own. They don’t matter.

Shudi: You mean it’s mind over matter?

Duma: I mean Obama don’t mind and they don’t matter!

Shudi: Do you think Mandela will make it through?

Duma: Why not? He pulled through 27 years of hard labor and solitary confinement.

Shudi: Mandela is a man of courage. He can do anything!

Duma: Isn’t that what Obama said?  “Nelson Mandela showed us that one man’s courage can move the world.”

Shudi: The man imprisoned for 27 years and on life support today can move the world but…

Duma: Why can’t the most powerful man in the world be able to move Africa?

Shudi: Obama says, courage is “the power that comes from acting on our ideals.  That’s what Mandela understood.”

Duma: Why can’t Obama act from his ideals?

Shudi:  Maybe he lost them. Maybe he doesn’t have any.

Duma:  When he accepted the Nobel Prize, didn’t he say:  “We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it’s easy, but when it is hard.”

Shudi: Did Obama compromise his ideals?

Duma: Did he lose himself?

Shudi: But…

Duma: He wants young Africans to act from their ideals?

Shudi: He wants them to “think of how many times ordinary people pushed against those walls of oppression and resistance, and the violence and the indignities that they suffered; the quiet courage that they sustained.  Think of how many ripples of hope it took to build a wave that would eventually come crashing down like a mighty stream.”

Duma: What does that mean? A mighty tidal wave of angry youth crashing on African dictators?

Shudi: And hungry youth? Don’t know what it means.

Duma: It’s “Obamanese”. Empty words always sound good.

Shudi: Just like cotton candy tastes good?

Duma: Just like the sight of floating butterflies make you feel good.

Shudi: Obama said, “The struggle against apartheid, for freedom, Madiba’s moral courage, his country’s historic transition to a free and democratic nation, has been a personal inspiration to me.”

Duma: Obama was once an inspiration to me too.

Shudi: “Yes We Can!” “We are the change we have been waiting for.” “Hope is what led a band of colonists to rise up against an empire; what led the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation…” “If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists – to protect them and to promote their common welfare – all else is lost.”

Duma: “History is on the side of brave Africans.” “I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.”

Shudi: Where do you get courage?

Duma: The same place you get your ideals.

Shudi: Obama said, “Africa is rising”.

Duma: From tyranny? Dictatorship? Corruption?

Shudi: From “poverty to a growing, nascent middle class.”

Duma: Are the 80 percent of Africans living under less than  $2 a day rising or falling?

Shudi: You can’t fall if you’ve always been down.

Duma: Only way is up.

Shudi: Up from tyranny. Injustice. Abuse of power.

Duma: And the not-so-promising young Africans?

Shudi: They are on their own and down?

Duma: They are all down and out.

Shudi: Obama said, “there is no question that Africa is on the move”?

Duma: I have a question. Which Africa?

Shudi: The African middle class is on the move.

Duma: How about the African “80 percenters”?

Shudi: They can’t move.

Duma: Well, the “80 percenters” are like the “47 percenters”, if you know what I mean.

Shudi: Don’t know what you mean.

Duma: “They depend on government handouts; they believe that they are victims; they believe government has a responsibility to care for them; they believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

Shudi: Didn’t the 47 percenters elect Obama?

Duma: Obama wasn’t elected in Africa.

Shudi: Shouldn’t the real question be if democracy is on the move in Africa?

Duma: And human rights are rising and dictatorships falling?

Shudi: Obama says, he will “partner with governments and regional organizations here in Africa and foundations and civil society to amplify your voices as you stand up for democracy and equality.”

Duma: Partner with the foxes guarding the henhouse?

Shudi: Partnership of  eagles and foxes?

Duma: Eagles and hyenas.

Shudi: Amplify the voices of silenced civil society institutions? I don’t understand…

Duma: What’s there not to understand? Silence is the voice of the voiceless.

Shudi: Obama says Africa is not moving fast enough “for the protester who is beaten in Harare [Zimbabwe], or the woman who is raped in Eastern Congo”?

Duma: And for the unfortunate and untalented 80 percenters?

Shudi: Them too.

Duma: But moving fast enough for young, talented and jailed Ethiopian journalists like Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, opposition and civic society leaders and dissidents Andualem Aragie, Olbana Lelisa, Bekele Gerba, Abubekar Ahmed, Ahmedin Jebel  and so many thousands of Ethiopian political prisoners…?

Shudi: Are there good and bad African dictators?

Duma: You mean does Obama think there are good and bad African dictators?

Shudi: Obama said, “Governments that respect the rights of their citizens and abide by the rule of law do better, grow faster, draw more investment than those who don’t.  That’s just a fact.”

Duma: As a matter of fact, which African governments respect the rights of their people?

Shudi: You’re missing the point, Duma. Obama told the South Africans, “Just look at your neighbor, Zimbabwe, where the promise of liberation gave way to the corruption of power and then the collapse of the economy.” Zimbabwe is on the move with a new constitution and new elections.

Duma: An elected constitutional democratic dictatorship!

Shudi: Just a promise of  an elected constitutional democratic dictatorship?

Duma: Mugabe is a dictator.

Shudi: And a thief. He has been stealing elections for decades. How can Zimbabwe move forward with a thieving dictator?

Duma: The dictators in Ethiopia have been stealing elections for decades too, but they are America’s best partners in Africa.

Shudi: But Mugabe is a dictator and an S.O.B.?

Duma: And those guys in Ethiopia?

Shudi: They are dictators too. “But they are our S.O.B.s”?

Duma: You sound like President Franklin Roosevelt.

Shudi: Obama said 85 percent of Africans need power and he is going to give it to them?

Duma: Power? Africans have all the power they need, if it weren’t stolen by the dictators…

Shudi: I meant electric power, not real power. You know what I mean?

Duma: What do you mean?

Shudi: He said, Africans “must have the power to connect their people to the promise of the 21st century.”

Duma: Another promise?

Shudi: He said, “Now we’re going to talk about power — Power Africa — a new initiative that will double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa.  Double it.”

Duma: Talked about Africa. Talked about brave young Africans.

Shudi: Now, talk about power? Doubletalk about power?

Duma: Why not talk about the absolute power of African dictators?

Shudi: Obama said, “We’re going to start by investing $7 billion in U.S. government resources.  And in partnership with African nations, we’re going to develop new sources of energy.”

Duma: The youth are the new sources of energy. Why not develop them?

Shudi: Develop the not-so-promising young Africans?

Duma: They are on their own.

Shudi: He is going to take “$7 billion in U.S. government resources” and give it to stinking rich African dictators?

Duma: Who are “U.S. government resources”?

Shudi: American taxpayers?

Duma: Take from toiling American taxpayers and give to stinking rich African dictators.

Shudi: Reverse Robin Hood for Africa.

Duma: That’s not fair…

Shudi: You mean…

Duma: Detroit needs the money more than African dictators. Don’t you agree?

Shudi: Well…

Duma: I am not worried.

Shudi: Why not?

Duma: It’s all talk. Doubletalk. Empty promises. Cotton candy for African dictators!

Shudi: Obama said, “If anyone wants to see the difference between freedom and tyranny, let them come here, to South Africa.  Here, citizens braved bullets and beatings to claim that most basic right:  the ability to be free, to determine your own fate, in your own land.”

Duma: That’s an odd thing to say?

Shudi: What do you mean?

Duma: Is he saying that if Africans want to end tyranny and get their freedom, they should be “brave” enough to “brave the bullets and beatings”?

Shudi: I think he meant what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. meant: “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.”

Duma: I got no problems with that.

Shudi: Obama told Africans as it is.

Duma: What did he say?

Shudi: “These are things that America stands for… We don’t tell people who their leaders should be, but we do stand up with those who support the principles that lead to a better life.  And that’s why we’re interested in investing not in strongmen, but in strong institutions:  independent judiciaries that can enforce the rule of law — honest police forces that can protect the peoples’ interests instead of their own; an open government that can bring transparency and accountability.  And, yes, that’s why we stand up for civil society — for journalists and NGOs, and community organizers and activists — who give people a voice… I want you to know that you will always find the extended hand of a friend in the United States of America. ”

Duma: Give me a break!! He said exactly the same thing in Accra in 2009.

Shudi: He did?

Duma: Same exact thing! “Good governance is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That’s the change that can unlock Africa’s potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans. History offers a clear verdict: Governments that respect the will of their own people, that govern by consent and not coercion, are more prosperous, they are more stable, and more successful than governments that do not. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny. I know there are those who argue that ideas like democracy and transparency are somehow Western exports.  I disagree.  Those in power who make those arguments are usually trying to distract people from their own abuses. In the 21st century, capable, reliable, and transparent institutions are the key to success — strong parliaments; honest police forces; independent judges; an independent press; a vibrant private sector; a civil society. Those are the things that give life to democracy, because that is what matters in people’s everyday lives. Now, make no mistake: History is on the side of these brave Africans, not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”

Shudi: Obama told Africa’s youth to use their “imagination, your optimism, your idealism. The future of this continent is in your hands. Don’t lose those qualities of youth, the imagination, the courage, the ‘yes, we can’ attitude of young Africans like you.”

Duma: The future of Africa in the hands of Africa’s youth? Don’t think sooo!

Shudi: What do you mean?

Duma: The future of Africa is in the hands of China, India, Saudi Arabia…

Shudi: China came, saw and conquered.

Duma: India and Saudi Arabia too.

Shudi:  Not America?

Duma: America is chasing terrorists in Africa.

Shudi: It should be chasing after Africa’s youth?

Duma: The promising and the not-so-promising ones.

Shudi: What do you say to Africa’s youth?

Duma: Obama came, Obama saw but did he conquer Africa’s youth?

Shudi: But really…

Duma: I’d say to them what Percy Bysshe Shelley said poetically to those young people who faced impossible odds:

Let a vast assembly be,

And with great solemnity

Declare with measured words, that ye

Are, as God has made ye, free!

And if then the tyrants dare,

Let them ride among you there,

Slash, and stab, and maim and hew,

What they like, that let them do.

Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number,

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you-

Ye are many — they are few”

Rise and shine African Cheetahs and Lions!! And Hippos too?! 

(The meaning of the names of the characters: “Shudi” in the Hausa language (Nigeria) means Blue. “Duma” in Swahili means Cheetah.  Blue Cheetahs!)

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:

Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:


U.S. Double-talking Human Rights in Ethiopia, Again!

dt3As my readers know, I enjoy watchin’ American diplomats chillin’ out and kickin’ it with African dictators. I like watchin’ ‘em kumbaya-ing, back-pattin’ and fist bumpin’. I have trained myself to decipher their cryptic diplomatese spoken with forked tongue. I have also learned to chew on their indigestible words with a whopping spoonful of salt and pepper.

Despite years of relentless effort, I have been unable to fathom their mendacity. I am mystified and spellbound by the depth of their duplicity and height of hypocrisy. Bewildered and frustrated, I was compelled to engage in a neologistic exercise and create a word that captured their culture of mendacity. I coined the term “diplocrisy” to refer to the deliberate and calculated use of double-talk, double-speak and double-dealing to misrepresent facts and mislead the inattentive public about what the U.S. is doing to actively promote human rights in Africa.

Diplocrisy is diplomatic hypocrisy in “lights, camera and action”. For instance, the diplocrites say, “We will work diligently with Ethiopia to ensure that strengthened democratic institutions and open political dialogue become a reality for the Ethiopian people…” Yet they turn a blind eye (or pretend to be legally blind) to the complete “closure of political space” in Ethiopia. (The euphemism “closure of political space” is what used to be called in the old days, oppression, repression and suppression.) The diplocrites promise to “work for the release of jailed scholars, activists, and opposition party leaders…”, but when Africa’s ruthless dictators tongue-lash them, the diplocrites become tongue-less (or tongue-tied) and their lips are sealed.

The diplocrites say, “When a free media is under attack anywhere, all human rights are under attack everywhere. That is why the United States joins its global partners in calling for the release of all imprisoned journalists in every country across the globe and for the end to intimidation.” The truth is they plug their ears to avoid hearing the pained whimpers of heroic journalists like Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye and so many other political prisoners chained deep in the bowels of Meles Zenawi Prison in Ethiopia. When they proclaim, “History is on the side of brave Africans…” and conveniently position themselves on the right side of the bed with Africa’s brutal dictators, I marvel at the height of their diplocrisy.

On June 20, 2013, I had another distressing opportunity to witness American diplocrisy in lights, camera, action when Donald Yamamoto, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs (and former ambassador to Ethiopia) testified before the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations. Yamamoto presented testimony to answer a single question:  What is the U.S. prepared to do to improve the prospects for democracy and human rights in Ethiopia following the death of dictator Meles Zenawi?

Mr. Yamamoto’s answer, ungarnished with the sweet ambiguity of diplomatic argot, was “Not a damn thing!!!”

I find nothing surprising in U.S. inaction and aversion to action to help improve the human rights situation in Ethiopia or elsewhere in Africa. I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the Obama Administration does not give a rat’s behind about Ethiopian or African human rights. That does not bother me anymore. I am cool with it! I also do not mind if the diplocrites think we are “fools and idiots”, as the former U.S. U.N. Ambassador (currently National Security Advisor) Susan Rice chose to vicariously describe those of us who opposed the regime of Meles Zenawi. But I do mind when we are treated as “fools and idiots.” What I find outrageous is the audacity of diplocrites who give testimony under oath which insults our intelligence (or what little scrap of gray matter they think we have).

On January 20, Mr. Yamamoto gave testimony which went beyond insulting our intelligence. He testimony gave new meaning to the phrase “speaking with forked tongue.” When Mr. Yamamoto was an ambassador in Ethiopia in 2009, his position on what could and should be done to improve human rights in that country was crystal clear and radically different than was revealed in his testimony in 2013.

In June 2009, Mr. Yamamoto was confident, forthright, frank, veracious and scrupulous as he advised Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew about what could and should be done to promote human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia. In June 2013, Yamamoto’s testimony before the House Subcommittee on Africa  evasive, patronizing, platitudinous and clichéd and amounted to nothing more than an elaborate obfuscation of the truth about what the U.S. needs and has the capacity to do to help improve human rights in Ethiopia. In effect his entire testimony before the Subcommittee could be reduced to one simple proposition: The U.S. is not able, willing or ready to use its resources to help improve the human rights situation in Ethiopia!

Dateline: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (6/23/2009):

In June 2009, Mr. Yamamoto, assessing the political and human rights situation, instructed Deputy Secretary Jacob Lew:

Your visit to Ethiopia comes at a time when the Ethiopian Government’s (GoE) growing authoritarianism, intolerance of dissent, and ideological dominance over the economy since 2005 poses a serious threat to domestic stability and U.S. interests.  The GoE has come to believe its own anxieties about a fundamental shift in U.S. policy against it.  This self-induced crisis of confidence has exacerbated the GoE’s natural tendency of government control over politics, the economy and personal freedoms.  To pre-empt retaliation, the GoE has increasingly purged ethnic Oromos, Amharas, and others perceived as not supporting the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) from the military, civil service, and security services…

… The May 2005 elections and their aftermath continue to weigh heavily on Ethiopia’s domestic political scene, and as a result, the government is systematically closing political space in Ethiopia.  The U.S. Embassy has taken the lead in advocating for transparent and open national elections in 2010, the next major milestone in Ethiopia’s democratization process… Since 2005, the government has enacted laws which limit and restrict party politics, the media, and civil society… The April 2008 local elections saw the ruling party take over all but three of over three million seats

Dateline: Washington, D.C. (6/20/2013):

In assessing the political and human rights situation in Ethiopia in 2013 for the Subcommittee on Africa, Mr. Yamamoto stated:

Ethiopia’s weak human rights record creates tension in our relationship and we continue to push for press freedom, appropriate application of anti-terrorism legislation, a loosening of restrictions on civil society, greater tolerance for opposition views, and religious dialogue. The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) controls all aspects of government, including the legislative branch where the EPRDF and its allies hold 545 of 547 parliamentary seats. Political space in Ethiopia is limited and opposition viewpoints are generally not represented in government. In recent years, Ethiopia has passed legislation restricting press freedoms and NGO activities. 

Questions for Mr. Yamamoto:

Is the “Ethiopian government” less intolerant of dissent and less authoritarian and less ideologically dominant over the economy in 2013 than it was in 2009?

Does the “Ethiopian government” in 2013 have any “anxieties about a fundamental shift in U.S. policy against it”?

In the April 2008 local elections, the ruling party in Ethiopia took all but three of over three million seats. In 2010, the ruling party won 545 of 547 parliamentary seats (99.6 percent). What result does the U.S. expect in a “post-Meles” 2015 election?

In light of the “GoE’s natural tendency” to exercise total “control over politics, the economy and personal freedoms”,  when did the “GoE” stop its “preemptive retaliation of purging ethnic Oromos, Amharas, and others perceived as not supporting the ruling party from the military, civil service, and security services”?

In 2009, the “U.S. Embassy took a leading role in advocating for transparent and open national elections in 2010” which it described as “the next major milestone in Ethiopia’s democratization process”. The ruling party claimed victory in the 2010 election with a margin of  99.6 percent. Does the U.S. expect a 100 percent victory margin for the ruling party in the “next major milestone in Ethiopia’s democratization process” in 2015?

What specific measures or steps has the U.S. taken since 2009 in its “continued push for press freedom, appropriate application of anti-terrorism legislation, a loosening of restrictions on civil society, greater tolerance for opposition views, and religious dialogue” in Ethiopia?

Dateline: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (6/23/2009)

In 2009, Mr. Yamamoto advising Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew argued for swift, decisive and forceful action and urged a no-nonsense approach to dealing with the “Ethiopian Government” on the issue of human rights:

 …   Since 2005, the government has enacted laws which limit and restrict party politics, the media, and civil society… Laws have been passed regulating political financing, access to the press, and ability of civil society organizations (NGOs) to receive funding from foreign sources and participate in the political process… Without significant policy reform to liberalize the economy and allow mounting political dissent to be vented… [there could be] major civil unrest.  The United States can induce such a change, but we must act decisively, laying out explicitly our concerns and urging swift action.  Because the GoE has enjoyed only growing international assistance and recognition despite its recent record, it currently has no incentive to veer from the current trajectory to which the EPRDF is so committed.  If we are to move the GoE, we must be willing to use USG resources (diplomatic, development, and public recognition) to shift the EPRDF’s incentives away from the status quo trajectory….

If we are to move them, though, we need to deliver an explicit and direct (yet private) message that does not glad-hand them.  We must convey forcefully that we are not convinced by their rhetoric, but rather that we see their actions for what they are…  We should [assure them]… that we are not trying to promote regime change, and that we are delivering a similarly explicit message of the need for change to opposition groups.

Dateline: Washington, D.C. (6/20/13):

In June 2013, Mr. Yamamoto told the Subcommittee on Africa that the best the U.S. could do was to “encourage Ethiopia to improve its human rights record”:

Post-Meles Ethiopia presents the United States with a significant opportunity to encourage Ethiopia to improve its human rights record, liberalize its economy, and provide increased space for opposition parties and civil society organizations. Post-Meles Ethiopia also presents a significant challenge since Ethiopia plays an important role in advancing regional integration and mitigating regional conflict in Somalia and Sudan. Our partnership with Ethiopia balances these interests by focusing on democracy, governance, and human rights; economic growth and development; and regional peace and security.

Questions for Mr. Yamamoto:

What “significant policy reform” has been taken by the “GoE” since 2009 to liberalize the economy and allow mounting political dissent to be vented?

In what ways has the U.S. acted decisively to get the “GoE” to relax application of its draconian media, civil society and other repressive laws in Ethiopia?  Have any of the “laws enacted in Ethiopia after 2005 limiting and restricting party politics, the media, and civil society” been repealed, modified or in any way tempered or mitigated?

Since 2009, what “incentives” (or disincentives) (including “diplomatic, development, and public recognition”) has the U.S. used to “induce change” or redirect the “GoE from the status quo trajectory”? Alternatively, how has the U.S. “acted decisively, laying out explicitly our concerns and urging swift action” by the “Ethiopian Government”?

Could Ethiopia experience a “spark of major civil unrest” in 2013-14 if the “GoE does not undertake significant policy reform to liberalize the economy, allow mounting political dissent to be vented”, competently manage the economy and “control inflation”?

When and why did the U.S. stop trying to promote “regime change” in Ethiopia?

When did the U.S. stop “glad-handing” and start fist bumping with the leaders of the regime in Ethiopia?

Dateline: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 6/23/2009

In June 2009, Mr. Yamamoto told Deputy Secretary Lew that the “Ethiopian government” maintained a chokehold on the economy and that its claims of double-digit growth are fabrications:

Foreign investment restrictions are widespread, including key sectors such as banking, insurance, and telecommunications.  The state-owned Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation (ETC) is the only service provider in the sector, creating an environment of poor telecom service and access.  In a country of nearly 80 million people, there are only 920,000 fixed phone lines, 1.8 million cell phones, and 29,000 internet connections.  The GOE maintains a hard line stance on these key sectors…

The GOE publicly touts that Ethiopia has experienced double-digit real GDP growth of over 11 percent in recent years.  The GOE predicts real GDP growth of 10 percent this year.  Many institutions, including the World Bank and IMF, dispute the GOE’s growth statistics, stating that Ethiopia’s real GDP growth rate will most likely range between six and seven percent this year.

Dateline: Washington, D.C. (6/20/2013)

In June 2013, Mr. Yamamoto told the Subcommittee on Africa that

Ethiopia ranks among the ten fastest-growing economies in the world, averaging 10 percent GDP growth over the last five years. State-run infrastructure drives much of this growth. Our bilateral trade and investment relationship is limited by investment climate challenges and the lack of market liberalization… Currently about 100 U.S. companies are represented in Ethiopia. Total U.S. exports to Ethiopia in 2012 were $1.29 billion; imports from Ethiopia totaled $183 million.

Questions for Mr. Yamamoto:

Mr. Yamamoto: Which one of the following statements is false: 1) “Ethiopia ranks among the ten fastest-growing economies in the world, averaging 10 percent GDP growth over the last five years.” 2) Over the past five years, “Ethiopia’s real GDP growth rate  most likely ranged between six and seven percent.”

Why is “foreign investment” from China (instead of the U.S.) more widespread in Ethiopia in 2013?

Ethiopia has “invested some US$14 billion in infrastructure development between 1996 and 2006 and made “exceptionally heavy recent investment in its telecoms infrastructure” and made “exceptionally heavy recent investment in its telecoms infrastructure”? What accounts for the fact that Ethiopia has the worst “telecom service and access” in all of Africa and quite possibly the entire world?

Dateline: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 6/23/2009

In June 2009, Mr. Yamamoto advised Deputy Secretary Lew how to leverage U.S. aid to bring about human rights improvements in Ethiopia:

Ethiopia is now the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance in sub-Saharan Africa. However, the preponderance of this assistance is humanitarian, including food aid… of which a significant share supplements the Government of Ethiopia budget…. The increasingly difficult operating environment and growing transaction costs for non-budgetary foreign aid and, in particular, the proposed tight restrictions on non-governmental organization (NGO) implementing partners, call for a reassessment of the mix and effectiveness of U.S. assistance to Ethiopia in order to support U.S. foreign policy objectives…

Dateline: Washington, D.C. (6/20/2013)

In June 2013, Mr. Yamamoto told the Subcommittee on Africa one of the proudest achievements of U.S. human rights policy in Ethiopia:

On democracy and human rights, we recently secured agreements to do media development training and open two community radio stations.Mechanisms such as our bilateral Democracy, Governance, and Human Rights Working Group, bilateral Economic Growth and Development Working Group, and Bilateral Defense Committee are useful tools for advancing our policy objectives in our three focus pillars. At the same time, we are public in our support for an improved environment for civil society, those we believe to have been subjected to politically motivated arrests, inclusive democratic processes, and rule-of-law. Making progress on this area will continue to be challenging and will require a great deal of creativity…. Ethiopia is a significant recipient of U.S. foreign aid, having benefited from over $740 million in FY 2012 assistance…

Questions for Mr. Yamamoto:

In 2009, you stated that a significant amount of U.S. humanitarian aid “supplemented the Government of Ethiopia’s budget….” Doesn’t use of “humanitarian aid” to “supplement the Government of Ethiopia’s budget” flagrantly violate 22 USC § 2151n et seq. (Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, as amended) which provides in relevant part:

No assistance may be provided under subchapter I of this chapter to the government of any country which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights, including torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those persons, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, and the security of person, unless such assistance will directly benefit the needy people in such country.

Do you deny that the “Government of Ethiopia” has engaged and continues to “engage in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights”?

Is U.S. “humanitarian aid” still used in 2013 to “supplement the Government of Ethiopia’s budget”?

If the U.S. could use its aid leverage (through “a reassessment of the mix and effectiveness of U.S. assistance”) to bring about improvements in human rights in Ethiopia in 2009, why can’t it do the same in 2013?

You stated, “On democracy and human rights, we recently secured agreements to do media development training and open two community radio stations.” Is this the singularly proud outcome of “working diligently with Ethiopia to ensure that strengthened democratic institutions and open political dialogue become a reality for the Ethiopian people”?

Dateline: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 6/23/2009

In June 2009, Yamamoto cautioned Deputy Secretary Lew to understand the “Ethiopian Leadership’s Guiding Philosophy”:

Understanding Ethiopia’s domestic political and economic actions, and developing a strategy for moving the ruling party forward democratically and developmentally, requires understanding the ruling Tigrean People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) prevailing political ideology: Revolutionary Democracy. Hard-line TPLF politburo ideologues explain the concept in antiquated Marxist terms reminiscent of the TPLF’s precursor Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray…. As an extension of this philosophy, to the ruling party, development is their gift to Ethiopia, and their first priority.  While they accept assistance from the international community, they resent attempts by donors to tell them how development should be done.  The leadership believes that only they can know what is best for Ethiopia, and if given enough time, Ethiopia will transform itself into a developed nation.

Questions for Mr. Yamamoto:

Has the “Ethiopian leadership’s guiding philosophy” changed since the passing of Meles Zenawi?

Is the “Tigrean People’s Liberation Front’s prevailing political ideology of Revolutionary Democracy” compatible with the values of the Founders of the American Republic?

You stated that “while the GoE accepts assistance from the international community, they resent attempts by donors to tell them how development should be done.  The leadership believes that only they can know what is best for Ethiopia.” Does the TPLF “leadership” in 2013 believe that “only they can know what is best for Ethiopia”?

Does the U.S. share the TPLF “leadership’s” belief that “only the TPLF can know what is best for Ethiopia?

Of Fools and Idiots

I don’t mind them double-talking us as though we are “fools and idiots”. If they must relate to us as such, we demand to be treated as “Shakespearean fools”. Our silence in the face of outrageous lies may give the misimpression that we are ignorant, witless, fainthearted and without much sense or sensibility. But we know the simple truth; and that truth is human rights in Ethiopia is an afterthought for the Obama Administration. There is no need to double-talk us on human rights anymore. Just tell us straight that human rights in a world in which the U.S. is at war with terrorism is for the birds, not Ethiopians! We’d understand. In the final analysis, in the struggle for human rights in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa, we must draw our inspiration from our tower of power Nelson Mandela and keep walking that long road.  We keep on walking, let them keep on talking, double-talking…!

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:

Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:

Obama is Coming! Obama is Coming to Africa!!

Obama Accra (This week my regular Monday commentary is presented in the form of a “flash drama” on Obama (a sub-genre of theatrical play sometimes described as a “ten minute one-act play”).  

The scene is a barbershop somewhere in Africa. Two young African college friends are talking soccer as they await their turn in the barber’s chair. Their conversation shifts from sports to international politics on the news that President Obama is scheduled to visit Africa in late June 2013.  

I have opted to use “flash drama” to add creative range to my commentaries and expand my reach to the younger generation of Ethiopians and other African youth. The names of the two characters have special meaning.)

Shudi: By the way, have you heard?!

Duma: What?

Shudi: Obama is coming!

Duma: Where?  Here.  To Africa?

Shudi: Here. To Africa! How cool is that?

Duma: For summer vacation?

Shudi: No, man. To make glorious summer of the winter of discontent in the dark continent! Ha ha… ha…

Duma: Who was that African prince in “Coming to America”? Eddie Murphy?

Shudi: That’s right. American President Obama is “Coming to Africa”.

Duma: Ah! Xi Jinping was here.

Shudi: Who?

Duma: China’s new president. A day late, a dollar short for Obama!

Shudi: Aren’t you excited, Duma?!

Duma: Obama coming?!  Obama came. Obama saw. Obama conquered! Obama promised!  That was in ’09. Accra, Ghana.

Shudi: He is coming to…

Duma: Wait, wait, don’t tell me!  He is coming to go on a safari?

Shudi: Yes, but that was cancelled. In Tanzania.  But he is going to Robben Island!

Duma: But Nelson Mandela is no longer there? Long Live Nelson Mandela!!!

Shudi: Of course he is not.

Duma: Let me guess. He  is coming to visit Nigeria and Ethiopia? And Kenya, his “father grew up there herding goats in a tiny village…”

Shudi:  No, Duma. He is not going there.

Duma: Not going to Ethiopia!? America’s no. 1 African “partner” in the “war on terror”! Not going to Nigeria!? America’s biggest oil supplier in Africa!  Not going to Kenya…

Shudi: Not even…

Duma: Rwanda, Uganda, Liberia, Libya, Namibia, um…?

Shudi:  Try Cape Verde, Senegal, Tanzania, South Africa.

Duma: What!? Cape Verde? Senegal? Big oil suppliers to U.S.A.?

Shudi: No, no. Not that.

Duma: Tanzania, South Africa? Big partners in the war on terror?

Shudi: No, man.

Duma: Why is he going to Cape Verde and…?

Shudi: To “reinforce” how much Africa means to America.

Duma: Africa means something to America?

Shudi: He wants to tell Cape Verdeans, Tanzanians and… he will be working to “expand economic growth, investment, and trade in Africa.”

Duma: China has that locked up! A day late and a dollar short again.

Shudi: But not for “strengthening democratic institutions and investing in the next generation of African leaders.”

Duma: In South Africa, Senegal and…

Shudi: But the South Africans, Senegalese, Tan…

Duma: Already have the next generation of African leaders?

Shudi: Sort of…

Duma: What is the population of Nigeria and Ethiopia, Shudi?

Shudi: Don’t know.

Duma: 255 million.

Shudi: That’s a quarter of a billion people.

Duma: And Cape Verde, Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa?

Shudi: Maybe 70 million.

Duma: Barely 100 million.

Shudi: Cape Verde has only half a million people… tiny island.

Duma: What’s the percentage of young people in Africa, Shudi?

Shudi: Don’t know.

Duma: Seventy percent!

Shudi: Hmm! Oldest continent. Youngest people?

Duma: No, Shudi. Africa is the Continent of Young People.

Shudi: What are you saying, Duma?

Duma: If Obama wants to talk to the “next generation of African leaders”, wouldn’t it be better to go to a place where you have the largest number of young Africans?

Shudi: Or talk to your best and closest partners in Africa?

Duma: That’s right. Preach the gospel of democracy in the jungles of African tyranny.

Shudi: Or where democracy is an elaborate corruption game?

Duma: Is Obama ashamed to be seen in public with America’s best friends and partners in Africa?

Shudi: What do you mean?

Duma: Ethiopia, Nigeria. He can do business with them, but can’t be seen in public with them?

Shudi: If you must put it that way… Well, can’t be seen going into a bordello.

Duma: Aah! Obama is coming back to his African roots, that’s good Shudi.

Shudi: No, coming to talk to Africans.

Duma: Talk… Sweet talk. Tough talk. Small talk. Talk peace. Talk war. Walk the talk. Don’t walk the talk. Talk the talk. Talk sense. Talk nonsense. Talk is cheap. Money talks, bull_ _ _ _ walks.  Talk, talk, talk…?

Shudi: You know…

Duma: I know. Heard the talk before.  “Africa is a fundamental part of our interconnected world.” “Africa’s future is up to Africans.” “This is a new moment of promise.  It will not be giants like Nkrumah and Kenyatta who will determine Africa’s future… It will be the young people…”

Shudi: What do you want him to talk about, Duma?

Duma: Talk about… no. Talk to us.

Shudi:  Us. Who is “us”?

Duma: We, the young people of Africa. We, the future of Africa. We, the next generation of African leaders. We, the  70 percenters.

Shudi: We, the African Cheetahs!!

Duma: Let him tell us which one of the promises he made in Accra, Ghana he’s kept?

Shudi: He promised “us” in Accra? “This is a new moment of promise…”

Duma: We Africans say, “A promise is a cloud; fulfillment is rain.”

Shudi: But he…

Duma: He promised  to “support strong and sustainable democratic governments.” He promised to support “strong parliaments and honest police forces; independent judges and journalists; a vibrant private sector and civil society.” Where is the rain?

Shudi:  Cape Verde, Senegal, Sou…?

Duma: Maybe?

Shudi: He wants to preach to the choir?

Duma: And sing and dance with them too.

Shudi: That don’t make sense.

Duma: Obama prefers silent diplomacy.

Shudi: What’s that?

Duma: Silent diplomacy, Shudi, is like expecting rain without clouds, without thunder and lightning.

Shudi: No omelet without cracking eggs? They should call it diplocrisy.

Duma: Is that  diplomacy by hypocrisy?

Shudi: It’s the diplomacy of silence.

Duma: With your friends and partners, Shudi, you speak in the language of silence?

Shudi: Only when you speak with them behind closed doors and the light’s off.

Duma: In the end, we will remember not the words and promises of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

Shudi: Or those who say are our friends? Who said that?

Duma: Martin Luther King.

Shudi: The hypocrisy of the powerfully silent!

Duma: Don’t you remember Shudi how we felt when Obama said in Accra, “We must stand up to inhumanity in our midst. We need for an international system where the universal rights of human beings are respected, and violations of those rights are opposed.”

Shudi: Maybe I shouldn’t remember those words.

Duma: No free expression, unending press suppression, religious persecution, dissident intimidation, detention… in Africa.

Shudi: Gender discrimination, tribalization, ethnic subjugation…

Duma: Didn’t we chant “Oh! Bama, Oh! Bama” when he told it like it is: “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions. Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans, and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power.”

Shudi: If history is on the side of few brave young Africans, who is on the side of Africa’s strongmen?

Duma: Obama?  Did he make a mistake?

Shudi: Who is on the side of the millions of frightened Africans living in misery and quiet desperation?

Duma: Under the boots of Africa’s strongmen?

Shudi:  With iron fists.

Duma:  God. Ask Obama. No, tell him.

Shudi: What?

Duma: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Shudi:  I know somebody said that.

Duma: Desmond Tutu.

Shudi:  Is Obama on the side of the elephant or the mouse?

Duma: He is on the side of history.

Shudi: What should he tell Africa’s elephants, I mean strongmen?

Duma: Shudi, to tell or not to tell Africa’s strongmen to take their foot off the mouse’s tail, that’s the question.

Shudi:  Tell them what?

Duma: They are doing a good job.

Shudi: A good job?!!!

Duma: Fighting terrorism, of course.

Shudi: Not fighting corruption, human rights violation?

Duma: Fighting the independent press and winning a crushing victory. Smashing civil society organizations. Trashing elections, how about that? African strongmen are doing a great job!

Shudi:  Then on whose side is Obama?

Duma: History, of course.

Shudi: But is history on the side of Obama?

Duma: History is on the side of the brave…

Shudi: I don’t understand.

Duma:  Shudi. There is nothing to understand from history. To learn or not to learn, that’s the question with history. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Shudi: What do you mean?

Duma: History is not about remembering. It is about forgetting.

Shudi: Promises?

Duma: Forgetting mistaken promises.

Shudi: Don’t you care about what Obama has to say when he comes to Africa?

Duma: I care only about what he does. Let him speak with his actions.

Shudi: But…

Duma: What has Obama done for Africans lately?

Shudi: “My fellow AfricanCheetahs, ask not what Obama can do for Africa, ask what you can do for your Africa.”

Duma: That’s JFK. Kennedy said something like that to Americans.

Shudi: What do you say to Africans.

Duma:  Make a choice.

Shudi: Like Obama?

Duma: That’s right. Choose between African elephants and African mice.

Shudi:   Between African Cheetahs and Hippos.

Duma:  Between human rights and government wrongs.

Shudi: Obama has made his choice?

Duma:  Might trumps human rights. Wrong is right if the choice is between brave young Africans who march for the love freedom and African strongmen who chase terrorists for the love of power. Only the strong survive, the brave…

Shudi: I think the brave survive and thrive more than the strong. You know why Duma? There is a brave new young Africa rising, rising like the sun on the dark continent. When the sun rises and shines on the brave new young Africa, right shall make might, Duma.

Duma: When the sun rises and shines on the brave new Africa and the darkness is lifted from the dark continent Shudi, human right shall make human might.

Shudi: What do you dream for the brave new young Africa, Duma?

Duma: “I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself.”

Shudi: Like Nelson Mandela?

Duma: Yes, Nelson Mandela, the Dreamweaver of Africa. I dream of a brave new young Africa at peace with itself.

Shudi: Peace, truth and reconciliation for Africa. May he live a thousand years!

Duma: A thousand long years! Long Live Nelson Mandela!!!


Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

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