2012 is gone. 2013 is on the way. Let us ring in redress to all humankind.
I wish a happy and prosperous new year to all of my readers throughout the world. To those who have unwearyingly followed my columns for nearly three hundred uninterrupted weeks, I wish to express my deep gratitude and appreciation. I am thankful for all of the support and encouragement I have received from my readers in Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Diaspora and others throughout the world.
I ask my readers to ring in the new year with a firm resolution to seek redress for human rights violations in Ethiopia, other parts of Africa and throughout the world. As Dr. Martin Luther King taught, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…”
Let us bid farewell to the old year and greet the new one with the poetic words of Lord Alfred Tennyson:
Ring out the old, ring in the new,…
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,…
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws…
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good…
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,…
Ringing Out 2012
I thought I would ring out 2012 by extracting snippets from selected weekly commentaries I wrote during the year.
In January 2012, I wondered aloud if there will be an “African Spring” or “Ethiopian Tsedey (Spring)” in 2012. I cryptically answered my own question taking cover in Albert Camus’ book “The Rebel”. “What is a rebel?”, asked Camus. “A man who says no… A slave who has taken orders all his life suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command. What does he mean by saying ‘no’? He means, for example, that ‘this has been going on too long,’ ‘up to this point yes, beyond it no’, ‘you are going too far,’ or, again, ‘there is a limit beyond which you shall not go.’ But from the moment that the rebel finds his voice — even though he says nothing but ‘no’ — he begins to desire and to judge. The rebel confronts an order of things which oppresses him with the insistence on a kind of right not to be oppressed beyond the limit that he can tolerate.”
Africa’s Spring will arrive when enough Africans including Ethiopians collectively resolve to rise up from the winter of their discontent and make glorious spring and summer by declaring, “No! Enough is Enough!”
In February 2012, I pointed out the shame and humiliation in receiving a Chinese handout (“gift”) in the form of a gleaming “African Union Hall” to 50 plus African countries who could not afford the measly $200 million needed to build such a quintessentially symbolic continental edifice. I christened it “African Beggars Union Hall”.
The Chinese Dragon is dancing the Watusi shuffle with African Hyenas. Things could not be better for the Dragon in Africa. In the middle of what once used to be the African Pride Land now stands a brand-spanking new hyenas’ den called the African Union Hall (AU). Every penny of the USD$200 million stately pleasure dome was paid for by China. It is said to be “China’s gift to Africa.” Sooner or later China has to come to terms with three simple questions: Can it afford to fasten its destiny to Africa’s dictators, genociders and despots? How long can China pretend to turn a blind eye to the misery of the African people suffering under ruthless dictatorships? Will there be a price to pay once the African dictators that China supported are forced out of power in a popular uprising? To update the old saying, “Beware of Chinese who bear gifts.”
In March 2012, I boldly predicted that Ethiopia will transition from dictatorship to democracy. But I also cautiously suggested that dissolution of the dictatorship in Ethiopia does not guarantee the birth of democracy. There is no phoenix of democracy that will rise gloriously from the trash heap of dictatorship. Birthing democracy will require a lot of collaborative hard work, massive amounts of creative problem solving and plenty of good luck and good will. A lot of heavy lifting needs to be done to propel Ethiopia from the abyss of dictatorship to the heights of democracy. It will be necessary to undertake a collective effort now to chart a clear course on how that long-suffering country will emerge from decades of dictatorship, without the benefit of any viable democratic political institutions, a functional political party system, a system of civil society institutions and an independent press to kindle a democratic renaissance.
In April 2012 , I paid a special tribute to my personal hero Eskinder Nega, winner of the 2012 PEN Freedom to Write Award. Eskinder Nega (to me Eskinder Invictus) has been jailed as a “terrorist” by the powers that be in Ethiopia. But Eskinder is a hero’s hero. His cause was taken up by an army of world renowned journalists who have themselves suffered at the hands of dictatorships including Kenneth Best, founder of the Daily Observer (Liberia’s first independent daily); Lydia Cacho, arguably the most famous Mexican journalist; Akbar Ganji Faraj Sarkohi Iran’s foremost dissidents; Arun Shourie, one of India’s most renowned and controversial journalists and many others. Recently, Carl Bernstein (one of the two journalists who exposed the Watergate scandal leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon) and Liev Schreiber paid extraordinary homage to Eskinder Nega. Bernstein said, “No honor can be greater than to read Eskinder Nega’s words. He is more than a symbol. He is the embodiment of the greatness of truth, of writing and reporting real truth, of persisting in truth and resisting the oppression of untruths,…”
Eskinder Nega is my special hero because he fought tyranny with nothing more than ideas and the truth. He slew falsehoods with the sword of truth. Armed only with a pen, Eskinder fought despair with hope; fear with courage; anger with reason; arrogance with humility; ignorance with knowledge; intolerance with forbearance; oppression with perseverance; doubt with trust and cruelty with compassion. I lack the words to express my deep pride and gratitude to Eskinder and his wife, journalist Serkalem Fasil (winner of the 2007 International Women’s Media Foundation “Courage in Journalism Award”), for their boundless courage and extraordinary sacrifices in the cause of press freedom in Ethiopia. It is said that history is written by the victor. When truth becomes the victor in Ethiopia, the names Eskinder Nega and Serkalem Fasil will be inscribed in the Hall of Fame for unfaltering courage and steadfast endurance in the face of Evil.
In May 2012, Abebe Gelaw, a young Ethiopian journalist stood up in the audience at the Food Security 2012 G8 Summit in Washington, D.C. and cried freedom. The late Meles Zenawi sat in catatonic silence as the young journalist shouted out: “Meles Zenawi is a dictator! Meles Zenawi is a dictator! Free Eskinder Nega! Free Political Prisoners! You are a dictator. You are committing crimes against humanity. Food is nothing without freedom! Meles has committed crimes against humanity! We Need Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!”
The “heckler’s veto” is one of the most precious rights of American citizens. The idea is really simple. It is always governments who abuse their power to silence their critics and those who disagree with them. With the “heckler’s veto”, the individual silences the government and the powerful. The tables are turned. Zenawi was silenced by Abebe! In that moment, Abebe gloriously realized the true meaning of the tagline of his website addisvoice.com – “A Voice of the Voiceless”. Ironically, the voice of the voiceless rendered speechless the man who had rendered millions voiceless!
In June 2012, I joyously witnessed the unity of Christian and Muslim religious leaders against those seeking to divide them. Hajj Mohamed Seid, a prominent Ethiopian Muslim leader in exile in Toronto, made an extraordinary statement that should be a lesson to all Ethiopians: “As you know Ethiopia is a country that has different religions. Ethiopia is a country where Muslims and followers of the Orthodox faith have lived and loved each other throughout recorded history. Even in our lifetimes — 50 to 60 years — we have not seen Ethiopia in so much suffering and tribulation. Religion is a private choice, but country is a collective responsibility. If there is no country, there is no religion. It is only when we have a country that we find everything… They [the rulers in Ethiopia] have sold the land [to foreigners] and have kept the most arable land to themselves. The money from the sale is not in our country. It is in their pockets… Is there an Ethiopian generation left now? The students who enrolled in the universities are demoralized; their minds are afflicted chewing khat (a mild drug) and smoking cigarettes. They [the ruling regime] have destroyed a generation…
In July 2012, I held a private celebration on the occasion of the ninety-fourth birthday of President Nelson Mandela. May he live long with gladness and good health! Madiba has been a great inspiration for me very much like Gandhi. Madiba and Gandhi were lawyers who spoke truth to power fearlessly. For Madiba, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, true human rights advocacy was devoid of all political ambition. The politics of human rights is the politics of human dignity, not ideology, political partisanship or the pursuit of political office. The committed human rights advocate thrives on hopes and dreams of a better future, not the lust for political power or craving for status, position or privilege. I have been relentlessly “sermonizing” (as some affectionately refer to my weekly commentaries) on human rights in Ethiopia and against dictatorship for many years now. I have done so not because I believed my efforts will produce immediate political results or expected structural changes overnight. I stayed in for the long haul because I believe defending, advocating and writing about human rights and righting government wrongs is right, good and the moral thing to do.
In August 2012, I bade farewell to Meles Zenawi who passed away from an undisclosed illness. It was a difficult farewell to write. For over two hundred seventy five weeks, without missing a single week, I wrote long expository commentaries on the deeds and misdeeds of the man who was at the helm of power in Ethiopia for over two decades. Meles and I would have never crossed paths but for the massacres of 2005 in which some 200 unarmed protesters were shot dead in the streets and another 800 wounded by police and security officials under Meles’ personal command and control.
Meles was a man who had an appointment with destiny. Fate had chosen him to play a historic role in Ethiopia and beyond. He was one of the leaders of a rebel group that fought and defeated a brutal military dictatorship that had been in power for 17 years. In victory, Meles promised democracy, respect for democratic liberties and development. But as the years wore on, Meles became increasingly repressive, intolerant of criticism and in the end became as tyrannical as the tyrant he had replaced. In his last years, he created a police state reinforced by a massive security network of spies and surveillance technology. He criminalized press freedom and civil society institutions. He crushed dissent and all opposition. He spread fear and loathing that penetrated the remotest parts of the countryside. For over 21 years, Meles clutched the scepter of power in his hands and cast away the sword of justice he held when he marched into the capital from the bush in 1991. Meles was feared, disliked and demonized by his adversaries. He was loved, admired, idealized and idolized by his supporters. In the end, Meles died a man who had absolute power which had corrupted him absolutely. In his relentless pursuit of absolute power, Meles missed his appointment with destiny to become a peerless and exemplary Ethiopian leader.
In September 2012, I explained why I supported President Obama’s re-election. I tried to make an honest case for supporting the President’s re-election despite deep disappointments over his human rights records in Africa in his first term. Did President Obama deliver on the promises he made for Africa to promote good governance, democracy and human rights? Did he deliver on human rights in Ethiopia? No. Are Ethiopian Americans disappointed over the unfulfilled promises President Obama made in Accra, Ghana in 2009 and his Administration’s support for a dictatorship in Ethiopia? Yes. We remember when President Obama talked about the need to develop robust democratic institutions, uphold the rule of law and the necessity of maintaining open political space and protecting human rights in Africa. We all remember what he said: “Africa does not need strong men but strong institutions.” “Development depends on good governance.” “No nation will create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy.” Was he just saying these words or did he truly believe them? Truth be told, what the President has done or not done to promote good governance, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia is no different than what we, the vast majority of Ethiopian Americans, have done or not done to promote the same values in Ethiopia. That is the painful truth we must face.
In October 2012, I wrote about breast cancer awareness for Ethiopian women and men. There is a strange and confounding culture of secrecy and silence about certain kinds of illnesses among many Ethiopians in the country and those in the Diaspora. Among the two taboo diseases are cancer and HIV/AIDS. The rule seems to be hide the illness until death, even after death. We saw this regrettable practice in the recent passing of Meles Zenawi. Meles’ illness and cause of death remain a closely guarded state secret. It is widely believed that he died from brain cancer. This culture of secrecy and silence has contributed significantly to the needless deaths of thousands of Ethiopians. There is substantial anecdotal evidence that far too many Ethiopian women living in the U.S. have needlessly died from breast cancer because they failed or avoided to get regular breast cancer screening fearing a positive diagnosis. Secrecy and silence when it comes to breast cancer is a self-imposed death warrant!
In November 2012, I remembered. I remembered the hundreds of unarmed citizens murdered in the streets by police and security officials under the personal command and control of Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia on June 6-8 and November 1-4, 2005, following the Ethiopian parliamentary elections in May of that year. According to an official Inquiry Commission, “There was not a single protester who was armed with a gun or a hand grenade as reported by the government-controlled media that some of the protesters were armed with guns and bombs. [The shots fired by government forces] were not intended to disperse the crowd but to kill by targeting the head and chest of the protesters.” I also remembered Yenesew Gebre, a 29 year-old Ethiopian school teacher and human rights activist set himself ablaze outside a public meeting hall in the town of Tarcha located in Dawro Zone in Southern Ethiopia on 11/11/11. He died three days later from his injuries. Before torching himself, Yenesew told a gathered crowd outside of a meeting hall, “In a country where there is no justice and no fair administration, where human rights are not respected, I will sacrifice myself so that these young people will be set free.” I remembered why I was transformed from a cloistered armchair academic and hardboiled defense lawyer to a (com)passionate human rights advocate and defender.
In December 2012, I fiercely opposed the potential nomination of Susan Rice, the current U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. I argued that Rice has been waltzing (or should I say do-se-do-ing) with Africa’s slyest, slickest and meanest dictators for nearly two decades. Rice and other top U.S. officials knew or should have known a genocide was underway or in the making once RAF and interahamwe militia began killing people in the streets and neighborhoods on April 6, the day Rwandan President Juvenal Habyiarimana was assassinated. They were receiving reports from the U.N. mission in Rwanda; and their own intelligence pointed to unspeakable massacres taking place in Kigali and elsewhere in the country. Rice feigned ignorance of the ongoing genocide, but the irrefutable documentary evidence showed that Rice, her boss Anthony Lake and other high level U.S. officials knew from the very beginning (April 6, 1994) that genocide was in the making in Rwanda. On September 2, 2012 at the funeral of Meles Zenawi in Addis Ababa and at a memorial service for Meles in New York City on October 27, 2012, Rice delivered a eulogy that virtually canonized Meles. In her blind eulogy, Rice turned a blind eye to the thousands of Ethiopians who were victimized, imprisoned and killed by Meles Zenawi. Rice could not see the police state Meles had created. To literally add insult to injury, Rice called Meles’ opponents and critics “fools and idiots”. Truth be told, I was deeply offended by Rice’s hubristic remarks and her audacity, pomposity, nerve and insolence to insult and humiliate Ethiopians in their own country in such callous and contemptuious manner. Ethiopians have been robbed of their dignity for 21 years. But I will be damned if any foreigner, however high or exalted, should feel free to demean, dehumanize and demonize my people as “fools and idoits”. Recently, Rice explained: “I know I’m vilified for having said anything other than, ‘He [Meles] was a tyrant,’ … which would’ve been a little awkward, on behalf of the U.S. government and in front of all the mourning Ethiopians.” Rice has no qualms calling Ethiopians “fools and idiots” but she writhes in agony just thinking about calling Meles a tyrant?!? Some people just don’t get it!!!
In 1994, Rice was willfully blind to the genocide in Rwanda. In 2012, she was willfully blind to the long train of human rights abuses and atrocities in Ethiopia.
America does not need a friend and a buddy to African dictators as its Secretary of State. America does not need a Secretary of State with a heart of stone and tears of a crocodile. America does not need a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” Secretary of State. America needs a Secretary of State who can tell the difference between human rights and government wrongs!
Let us join hands to ring in redress to all mankind in 2013. Let us all work together for human rights for all and against all government wrongs!
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: