Skip to content

Birtukan Midekssa Political Prisoner

Political Prisoners Inside Ethiopia’s Gulags

Alemayehu G Mariam

The Plight of Andualem Aragie and Other Political Prisoners in Ethiopia 

The “Gulag” prison system in the old Soviet Union was infamous for warehousing and persecuting dissidents and opponetns. The gulags were used effectively to weed out and neutralize opposition to the Soviet state. They were the quintessential tools of  Soviet state terrorism. Some called them “meat-grinders” because of the extremely harsh and inhumane conditions. Torture, physical abuse by prison guards, solitary confinement, inadequate food rations and officially instigated inmate-on-inmate violence were the hallmarks of the gulags.

Ethiopia’s prison system today are reminiscent of the Soviet gulags in their abuse and mistreatment of political and other prisoners. Let the facts speak for themselves: In a recent column on two Swedish journalists arbitrarily held in one of the Ethiopian prisons  near the capital, N.Y. Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristoff described the prsion conditions as

filthy and overridden with lice, fleas and huge rats… a violent, disease-ridden place, with inmates fighting and coughing blood… 250 or so Ethiopian prisoners jammed in the cell protect the two [Swedish] journalists, pray for them and jokingly call their bed ‘the Swedish embassy’.

The U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Ethiopia (April 2011) documented:

…Human rights abuses reported during the year included unlawful killings, torture, beating, and abuse and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, especially special police and local militias, which took aggressive or violent action with evident impunity in numerous instances; poor prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention, particularly of suspected sympathizers or members of opposition or insurgent groups; detention without charge and lengthy pretrial detention… Numerous reliable sources confirmed in April 2009 that in Maekelawi, the central police investigation headquarters in Addis Ababa, police investigators often used physical abuse to extract confessions.

In its 2010 World Report-Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch (HRW) concluded that

… torture and ill-treatment have been used by Ethiopia’s police, military, and other members of the security forces to punish a spectrum of perceived dissenters, including university students, members of the political opposition, and alleged supporters of insurgent groups… Secret detention facilities and military barracks are most often used by Ethiopian security forces for such activities.

The U.N. Committee Against Torture (November 2010) validated HRW’s conclusions.

The Dewar Report on an Ethiopian Gulag

The regular and secret prisons maintained by the ruling regime in Ethiopia today are among the most inhumane, primitive, barbaric and sadistic in the world. In July 2008, the regime of dictator Meles Zenawi secretly commissioned retired British colonel Michael Dewars, an internationally recognized security expert, to undertake an assessment of the prison system and make recommendations. In his report, Col. Dewars expressed total horror and shock over what he witnessed in one of the prisons he visited in Addis Ababa. He recounted:

I asked to go into the compound where the prisoners are kept. This consisted of a long yard with a shed to one side which provided some sort of shelter. The compound had a wall around it and a watchtower for an armed sentry overlooking it. Inside must have been 70 – 80 inmates, all in a filthy state. There was insufficient room for all these people to lie down on a mat at once. There was no lighting. The place stank of faeces and urine. There appeared to be no water or sanitation facilities within the compound. There was a small hut in an adjacent compound for women prisoners but there had been no attempt by anybody to improve the circumstances of the place. The prisoners were mostly on remand for minor crimes, in particular theft. Some had been there for months….

Col. Dewars concluded:

Detention conditions of prisoners are a disgrace and make the Federal Police vulnerable to the Human Rights lobby…. The prison I saw was a disgrace. No one is recommending a Hilton Hotel, but, if any human rights organization were to get inside an Ethiopian jail, they would have enough ammunition to sink all our best efforts.

Col. Dewars

recommended that the Government should investigate this situation with the intention of improving the current appalling conditions inside Ethiopian prisons, which must brutalise prisoners and their goalers equally… and that senior Ethiopian Ministers and Police Officers visit the prison that I visited.

Over the past several years, I have written extensively on torture and mistreatment of political prisoners in Ethiopia. In my numerous columns on the incarceration of former judge Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, and other political prisoners, I have pointed out the “soft torture” techniques used to crush her spirit and break her body. She was subjected to prolonged solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, visitation deprivation, daily humiliation and mindless interrogation. Birtukan faced untold suffering in prison. Zenawi could not bear the thought of Birtukan going free; and in a moment frustrated defiance declared: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” In the end she prevailed and became free. Just last week in Washington, D.C., she presented her study on the challenges confronting the Ethiopian opposition and offered specific recommendations for strengthening multi-party democracy in Ethiopia as a Reagan-Fascell Fellow with the National Endowment for Democracy.

Andualem Aragie Inside the Belly of the Beast

Andualem Pix Zenawi has replaced Birtukan by another young Ethiopian leader, to be sure several dozens of young opposition leaders, journalists, activists and others. Last week, the former Ethiopian President and current leader of the Unity and Democracy Party (UDJ) Dr. Negasso Gidada reported that Andualem Aragie was severely beaten by a death-row-inmate-turned-lifer while confined in his cell. The facts of Andualem’s abuse are shocking. According to Dr. Negasso, Andualem was held in a “windowless cell for 14 people with a number of other political prisoners including Bekele Gerba, Olbana Lelisa and Tilahun Fantahun.” About a month ago, a convicted murderer whose life sentence had been commuted to life in prison was allowed to join Andualem’s cell. This criminal savagely assaulted Andualem inflicting severe injuries to his head. He was reported to lost consciousness following the assault.The Voice of America reported that “Relatives who have seen Andualem say his head injury appears to have affected his ability to maintain his balance.”

This inmate is notorious for his assaultive behavior inside the prison.  He has a long record of violence and abuse of inmates.  He is known to receive special accommodations for being a prison enforcer for the authorities.  Rumors are rife that prison authorities paid the criminal a substantial sum for beating Andiualem.

Prior to his arrest on bogus terrorism charges, Andualem was a rising leader in the UDJ and served as its  spokesperson and external relations officer. Andualem is among a new breed of young Ethiopian political leaders, journalists and civil society advocates who are widely respected and accepted. In the months leading up to the May 2010 “election” in which Zenawi claimed a 99.6 percent victory, Andualem demonstrated his unflinching commitment to democracy and the rule of law. With breathtaking clarity of thought, razor-sharp intellect, incredible courage, mesmerizing eloquence, piercing logic, stinging wit, masterful command of the facts and steadfast adherence to the truth, Andualem made mincemeat out of Zenawi’s vacuous lackeys in several televised pre-“election” debates.  It was a sight to behold.

In September 2011, Andualem and 23 other individuals were “accused under the anti-terrorism law of being members of a terrorist network and abetting, aiding and supporting a terrorist group.” Earlier this month, a group of independent United Nations human rights experts (U.N. Special Rapporteurs) condemned the so-called anti-terrorism law and diplomatically cautioned that “the anti-terrorism provisions should not be abused and need to be clearly defined in Ethiopian criminal law to ensure that they do not go counter to internationally guaranteed human rights.” Andualem and the others are expected to have their day in kangaroo court on March 5.

Torture, Abuse and Plausible Deniability

Plausible deniability is the ability to deny a fact or allegation, or previous knowledge of a fact by shifting blame on someone else.  In Andualem’s case, plausible deniability allows Zenawi’s regime to deny any awareness or knowledge of a criminal or criminally negligent act by its officials or unofficial agents in the prison. By allowing a notoriously violent criminal to assault Andualem, they aim to plausibly avoid responsibility. In other words, they have sought to remove their fingerprints, handprints, palmprints and footprints from the cowardly criminal act perpetrated on Andualem. But their MO (modus operandi) is well known. Whether they acted through their goons uniformed as prison guards or their deputized convicted thugs, they are exclusively responsible for the safety of all pretrial detainees like Andualem. Regardless of how one looks at it, what happened to Andualem, and has happened to other political prisoners countless times, represents a clear case of extrajudicial punishment (torture) in violation of  Ethiopia’s Constitution and international human rights conventions.

Speaking of Constitutional and International Law…

The Ethiopian Constitution provides specific safeguards for the safety and protection of pre-trial detainees awaiting trial. Article 16 guarantees that “Everyone has the right to protection against bodily harm..” Andualem has the constitutional right to be secure from violence while awaiting trial. Article 110 of the Ethiopian Criminal Code (Proclamation No.414/2004) specifically requires that “prisoners who are sentenced to rigorous imprisonment or special confinement shall be kept separate from prisoners who are serving a sentence of simple imprisonment or awaiting judgment.” The criminal thug who assaulted Andualem should have never been allowed in the area reserved for pre-trial detanees. Article 18 provides, “Everyone has the right to protection against cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The savage beating of Andualem in plain sight of prison guards constitutes “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. Article 20 provides that, “During proceedings accused persons have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law…” Since Andualem has not been found guilty “according to law”, he is innocent of the charges and should have been accorded his rights consistent with that presumption. Article 21 guarantees that “All persons held in custody and persons imprisoned upon conviction and sentencing have the right to treatments respecting their human dignity.”

International law protects all prisoners, and particularly political prisoners, from inhumane and barbaric treatment. Under Article 13 of the Ethiopian Constitution, the “fundamental rights and freedoms enumerated… shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR], international human rights covenants and conventions ratified by Ethiopia.” Article 5 of the UDHR (incorporated by express reference in Art. 13 (2) of the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia) prescribes that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (ratified by Ethiopia on June 11, 1993 and similarly incorporated) provides that “all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”

The U.N. Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment (1988) (Principle 8) specifically provides: “Persons in detention shall be subject to treatment appropriate to their unconvicted status. Accordingly, they shall, whenever possible, be kept separate from imprisoned persons.” Article 1 of the Declaration Against Torture (1975) defines torture as “… any act by which severe pain and suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted by, or at the instigation of a public official on a person for such purposes as …punishing him for an act he has committed; or intimidating him or other persons…” Article 16 of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (acceded to by Ethiopia on April 13, 1994) mandates that signatories “shall undertake to prevent… acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment…” Article 5 of the African [Banjul] Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ratified by Ethiopia on June 15, 1998) prohibits, “all forms of exploitation and degradation of man particularly… torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment.” The U.N. Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners (1990) provide that “all prisoners shall retain the human rights and fundamental freedoms set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other Covenants. Articles 7 and 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court include torture as a crime against humanity and a war crime.

I write about the law on the protection of the rights of political prisoners to set the record; for I know that preaching the law to outlaws is like pouring water over granite.

Free those who are wrongly imprisoned…

In August 2009, I spoke at a town hall meeting organized by “Gasha for Ethiopia”, a civic organization, on the importance of  remembering Ethiopian political prisoners:

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” said Dr. Martin Luther King… Nothing is more important and uplifting to political prisoners than knowledge of the fact that they are not forgotten, abandoned and forsaken by the outside world. Remembrance gatherings at town hall meetings such as this one serve to remind all of us who live in freedom the divine blessings of liberty and the unimaginable suffering of those trapped in the darkness of dictatorship.

Andualem Aragie and countless political prisoners in Ethiopia reamin trapped in the darkness of dictatorship. They have been beaten down and brought to their knees. We cannot hear their whimpers of pain and desperation. Few, other than their tormentors, will be able to see their mangled bodies. Because they have no voice, we must be their voices and speak on their behalf. Because they are walled in behind filthy and subhuman prison institutions, we must unflaggingly remind the world of their suffering. We must all labor for the cause of Ethiopian political prisoners not because it is easy or fashionable, but because it is ethical, honorable, right and just. In the end, what will make the difference for the future of Ethiopia is not the brutality, barbarity, bestiality and inhumanity of its corrupt dictators, but the  humanity, dignity, adaptability, audacity, empathy and compassion of decent Ethiopians for their wrongfully  imprisoned compatriots. That is why we must join hands and work tirelessly to free all political prisoners held in Ethiopia’s public and secret gulags. “Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people.”

Uncage Andualem Aragie and All Political Prisoners in Ethiopia!

Previous commentaries by the author are available at: and


Loving Ethiopia to death – the teacher

By Yilma Bekele

The last few months I have been inflicted with a Herman Cain (HC) moment. You remember his interview with a newspaper publisher and when asked his opinion regarding President Obama’s policy on the uprising in Libya? My good old friend was completely stumped. After crossing his legs, shifting in his seat, clapping his hands and squirming in his chair all he could come up was ‘I got all this stuff twirling in my head.’ and display a near meltdown situation. I found it to be very interesting. Let us just say it was ‘a revealing moment.’

It just so happened that things have been twirling in my head. It is not a good idea to have so many things twirling in your head. Lack of clarity is not a good state of mind to be unless one of course wants a certain amount of fogginess or blurred vision. It is possible we do that to avoid making hard decisions, shift responsibility or distance ourselves from our actions or choose to be comfortably numb to justify inaction.

It was the convergence of three unrelated happenings that yanked me out from that dark, wet, suffocating ‘Idiot Woyane’ state of mind. My friend Kirubeal’s constant nagging, Abebe’s timely revelations (I am still not over ‘Mamo kilo in Arat Kilo’), Professors Al’s relentless tickle of my discarded conscience, my dear hero’s ECADF’s energetic enthusiasm and Ethiopian Review’s smart ‘Policy Research’ papers was what kept me from going into deep freeze. Some folks don’t take no for an answer.

The four items that made me realize that all is not lost are the first Anniversary of ‘Arab Spring’, the death of Vaclav Havel of ‘Prague Spring’ and the passage of Kim Jung-il owner of ‘perpetual winter’ and a not so likeable human being and the sacrifice of Yenesew Gebre of Ethiopia.

A single spark starts a prairie fire was just another saying. Our hero Mohamed Bouazizi of Tunisia lit a single match to say ‘enough’, Beka! and set the world on fire. Gaddafi is poster boy for the ‘inferno’ Mohamed started. It engulfed the planet and still shows no sign of slowing down. The 99% are asking a fair share of the pie. Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, Sanna, Bahrin, Damascus, New York, Moscow, Wukan (China) have become battlefields. What happens the next year is bound to realign the balance of forces in society. There is no doubt the playing field will be leveled a little better in favor of the many. How each system works out the conflict depends on how it was designed to self- correct.

You drive south from Tunis, capital of Tunisia on Hwy 37 follow P3 South, take P13 and you are in Sid Bouzid. A little dusty town in the middle of nowhere. Nothing of consequence has ever happened in Sid Bouzid. Exactly a year ago Mohamed Bouazizi was selling produce when he was slapped by a Policewoman in front of everyone for not having a license for his vegetable cart. What he did next, for some reason, touched humanity. What he did was he went in front of Sid Bouzid City Hall, doused his cloth with petrol and set himself on fire. He said Tunisia is not fit to live for a person of dignity. It is a very unique, dramatic and loud response to injustice. He made his point and it echoed.

The question became how does a government deal with its population’s legitimate demands? Gaddafi’s way is definitely proven unacceptable, Mubarak’s blindness have him in the slammer, Ben Ali is in virtual prison, Assad is squirming, Saleh is finished, damaged and grasping, Putin is at a loss… the carrot or the stick is the dilemma and as a confirmed Marxist he can’t even pray to God for guidance. The Chinese Central Committee is mulling over on how to respond regarding Wukan, Gunadong Province, and Obama is watching, observing, waiting to see if ‘occupy’ is a real or virtual force. May all the Gods welcome Mohamed Bouazizi’s soul with drums and trumpets fit for a hero. I am sure those in authority have slapped many before him but the fact is Mr. Bouazizi said enough in a unique way in the age of Social Media and did it ever spread like a prairie fire!

The death of Vaclav Havel was another defining moment. He was the product of Prague Spring of 1968. Prague Spring was the forefather to Arab Spring. Things were different in 1968, the time of ‘Prague Spring’. Europe was divided between the Socialist East under Soviet influence and the Capitalist West under the US umbrella. Czechoslovakia was one of those unfortunates stringing along without due consent. The Soviet Union used Czechoslovakia as buffer. In 1968 Alexander Dubcek was elected as First Secretary of the Communist Party and set in motion reform polices granting the citizen certain Rights. The Soviet Union did not take such transgression lightly and used its Warsaw Pact forces to invade Czechoslovakia and end freedom.

The little open space granted by Dubcek inspired people like Vaclav Havel. His work was banned due to his opposition to the invasion. He was declared UN desirable person in his own homeland. He never wavered. His plays and poetry were published elsewhere and smuggled in. They were read on short wave radios. He was imprisoned. He persisted. In 1979 Havel and his comrades published Charter 77 Manifesto, a plea to the Communist Party and Government to abide by various International conventions including its own Constitution and open the space for political dialogue.

The Soviet puppet regime reacted angrily. The Charter was deemed ‘anti–state, anti-socialist and those who signed the document were branded ‘traitors and agents of imperialists’. The official press described the Manifesto as “an anti-state, anti-socialist, and demagogic abusive piece of writing,” and individual signatories were variously described as “traitors and renegades,” “a loyal servant and agent of imperialism,” “bankrupt politicians”. The regime also organized their own ‘anti-charter’ movement and used famous musicians and artists to denounce ‘the traitors.’

The problem percolated for twenty years and gave birth to what came to b e known as ‘The Velvet Revolution.’ On 19th of November, 1989 the fire was lit by student demonstrators in Prague and on November 28, 1989 the Communist Party withered away. In June 1990 the Czechoslovakian people have their first democratic election since 1946. Vaclav Havel was elected the first President and ushered in an era of peace and democracy to his beloved country. He did not use his newfound power to hound his enemies, settle score with his abusers or use his position to enrich family and friends. Vaclav Havel the playwright, the poet, the dissident and the first democratically elected President of Czechoslovakia died last week. He died in body but left such a beautiful legacy behind his people will talk about him for a long time to come. He was a beautiful human being.

My third wake up call was rung by no other than Comrade Kim Jung-il of North Korea. His life was shrouded in secrecy and he died mysteriously. In fact no one knows how and when he died. What he left behind is a life full of garbage that cannot be recycled because of its toxicity and a history that will be buried deep and denied by his people. North Korea has been ruled by the Kim family since its founding. The Kim family in consort with the Military and a few Hodams control the economy thus the nation. What Stalin envisioned, Mao attempted has been realized by the Kim family.

North Korea is where we see how fragile we humans are. The Kim family has been able to reduce twenty four million Koreans into walking zombies. Using denial of all outside input like Television and Radio using censoring and blocking, starvation, physical degradation like imprisonment, torture, televised confessions and bullying, the Kim family has proven to the world that they are worthy successors to Stalin. The little dictator fancied himself as an intellectual and his newspapers and propaganda outlets referred to ham as ‘The Dear Leader, The Fearless Leader, The General’ and other outrageous titles to bully his population. He left behind a legacy of fear, poverty and a people that were never allowed to enjoy the fruits of their existence. We Ethiopians familiar with that.

We say ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’ regarding Kim while we fondly remember Mohamed Bouazizi and Vaclav Havel. Their stories fill us with hope and love they have bestowed on us. Are they special or just like us? But they made their presence felt. They rose a little higher. Where did they find that inner strength to keep going when all seemed hopeless? Vaclav Havel had that quality. He was imprisoned. His work was banned. He was hounded by the security force. But he kept focus on his dignity and freedom. By fighting for his rights he stood for all of us. He named one of his essays ‘power of the powerless.’ Mohamed Bouazizi did not have an army. Not even an association. He was just trying to eek out living selling vegetables. A common man like the rest of us. He challenged us by his act. He was willing to end it all so we see what has been done to us. The people of Tunisia heard him. The world eavesdropped.

You probably don’t know what happened on Friday, November 11, 2009. A young Ethiopian named Yenesew Gebre, set himself on fire in Dawro, Waka Southern region of Ethiopia. It did not revebrate like Mohamed Bouazizi’s. It was not heard around the world. We Ethiopians the message was sent to heard it clear. In my opinion, Yenesew spoke to us very loud. It requires much courage and untold amount of rage to compel a young man to sacrifice himself. Death on behalf of others is the ultimate sacrifice.

If it mattered at all Yenesew was a very educated person. But that is not the issue here. He was a human being working hard to reach his potential and help himself and his family. He has done his part. By becoming a teacher he has acquired a skill that is in very short supply in Ethiopia. A job and a decent living is what come with such achievement. But Yenesew has that other quality that is also in short supply in repressive societies. Yenesew has conscience. Moral compass. Call it what you want, simply put, he cared about you and I. That made him very unhappy. That also made the authorities very unhappy. Yenesew can see and that is a crime in the village of the blind.

Like Vaclav Havel Yenesew dissented. He was fired from his job, his family hounded and his associates bullied. That is the way of ‘Revolutionary Democracy’ in Ethiopia. Like Vaclav Havel Yenesew was jailed, shunned and black listed. The more they bullied him the better he saw them. When they spoke he saw the lie they live, when they shouted he saw the fear that is wrecking their soul, when they stole and consumed to excess he saw the full but always hungry belly they carried, when they bullied he saw the insecurity lurking behind them. What he saw was not what he wanted for his homeland and his people.

Mohamed Bouazizi and Yenesew Gebre have become the conscience of humanity. The two felt the indignity they suffered in their country and home at the hands of those in authority made then realize life is meaningless without free will. If it is not worth living then why live. Thus they decided to make their death count. To their people they said ‘the pain is too much to bear’ for the rest of us they said ‘dignified death at your choosing is better than physical and mental slavery.’ They said the two countries Tunisia and Ethiopia were not conducive to human dignity. One of the seeds has sprouted and the other will too. No reason to think otherwise. The Prague Spring gave rise to the Velvet Revolution that begat The Orange Revolution that begat the Rose Revolution that led to Arab Spring – there is no end to human thirst for freedom and equality.

Yenesew saw beyond himself. He felt the pain and sorrow of his neighbor. What he was about to do goes against his religion, his value system and his culture but the importance and timeliness of the message must have outweighed all other considerations. It was not an easy decision. He was at a physical location where he was beaten down but mentally he knew there is more to life and as a teacher he should do his duty and teach. He went every legal way open to no avail. It was never about the law. Thus My dear little brother decided to use the planet as his wall board and write his message to humanity in general and his people in particular. This Human said Beka! Enough! Rest in peace my friend. Your people heard you.

Ethiopia: Beware of Those Bearing Olive Branches!

Alemayehu G. Mariam

Beware of Those Who Bear Olive Branches

“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” goes the old saying. I say beware of those bearing fake olive branches. In many societies, “extending an olive branch” symbolizes an act of reconciliation, goodwill and peace. In ancient Greece and Rome, people gave each other olive branches as tokens of their intention to bury the hatchet and make up. The ancient Greeks are also remembered for the hollow wooden horse they used to outwit their Trojan enemies and destroy their city.

Following his 99.6 per cent “election victory” this past May, Ethiopia’s dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi gave a speech offering the opposition  a bouquet of olive branches. He solemnly “pledge[d] to all the parties who did not succeed in getting the support of the people… as long as you respect the will of the people and the country’s Constitution and other laws of the land, we will work by consulting and involving you in all major national issues. We are making this pledge not only because we believe that we should be partners… [but also] you have the right to participate and to be heard.” Basically, he promised to set up a special “kitchen cabinet” for the opposition to come in and chit-chat (“consult and get involved”) with him after hours.

Last week, Zenawi singled out two opposition organizations and signaled his intention to move from confrontations to “consultations” and “negotiations”:

… Concerning negotiations with the OLF (Oromo Liberation Front), Ginbot 7, the main thing has to do with principles. The first principle is peacefully resolving differences which is a civilized and appropriate strategy. Second, the way we can bring peace to our country is to accept the Constitution and the constitutional process and to be ready to pursue one’s aims peacefully. We are ready to negotiate with any organization, group or even disgruntled individual that accepts these principles and is prepared to return to the constitutional fold.

Is Zenawi’s offer of olive branches a Trojan Horse to finally put an end to all those who oppose his dictatorial rule?

A Trojan Horse Through the Looking Glass

In a recent commentary entitled, “Speaking Truth to the Powerless”[1], I observed:

Zenawi knows the opposition like the opposition does not know itself. He has studied them and understands how they (do not) work. Careful analysis of his public statements on the opposition over the years suggests a rather unflattering view. He considers opposition leaders to be his intellectual inferiors; he can outwit, outthink, outsmart, outplay, outfox and outmaneuver them any day of the week. He believes they are dysfunctional, shiftless and inconsequential, and will never be able to pose a real challenge to his power. In his speeches and public comments, he shows nothing but contempt and hatred for them. At best, he sees them as wayward children who need constant supervision, discipline and punishment to keep them in line. Like children, he will offer some of them candy — jobs, cars, houses and whatever else it takes to buy their silence. Those he cannot buy, he will intimidate, place under continuous surveillance and persecute. Mostly, he tries to fool and trick the opposition. He will send “elders” to talk to them and lullaby them to sleep while he drags out “negotiations” to buy just enough time to pull the rug from underneath them. He casts a magical spell on them so that they forget he is the master of the zero-sum game (which means he always wins and his opposition always loses)… For the first time in nearly twenty years, he is now changing his tune a little because the opposition seems to be wising up and Western donors are grimacing with slight embarrassment for supporting him. The kinder and gentler face of Zenawi is slowly being rolled out.

Why “Negotiations” Now?

It is not clear why Zenawi is calling for “negotiations” now. For nearly twenty years, he has recoiled with disdain at the very suggestion of negotiations with the opposition. He apparently sees the need for it now. Why? Could it be because he understands the status quo is unlikely to hold much longer? Is it his way of recapturing some international legitimacy for his rule and regime? Surely, he must know that his Western patron saints who pour billions of dollars to prop up his regime regard him as just another tin pot African dictator who must be tolerated and humored to facilitate their interests in Africa. Long gone are the days of adulation of Zenawi as one of the “new breed of African leaders”. It is possible that there is quiet donor pressure? The intelligence services of the various donor countries have mapped out alternative scenarios for Ethiopia’s future as Zenawi begins his third decade of dictatorship; and none of them looks pretty.

It may be that Zenawi feels the heat of the long smoldering ambers of collective anger and outrage percolating to the surface? Maybe he realizes that he cannot crush all of his opposition forever, and the tables could turn any day. Maybe he wants to use negotiations tactically to divide and destroy his opposition by co-opting some of them and letting the others self-destruct in dogfights over the bones he will throw at them. Maybe he sees the despair of 80 million people and is gripped by a gnawing sense of anxiety and feels he must do something before it is too late for him and his regime. It is possible that he may be sending up a trial balloon to see if the opposition will take the bait? Maybe he is just grandstanding. He wants to impress his sugar daddy Western donors that he is a reasonable man of peace, and the opposition leaders are just a bunch of “extremists” and “terrorists” uninterested in peaceful dispute resolution. Maybe he is playing one of his silly “gotcha” games as he did during the so-called “election code of conduct” negotiations. When leaders of the major opposition parties showed up in good faith to negotiate, he laughed in their faces and told them to take a hike. Subsequently, he threatened to throw them in jail for not abiding by a “code” they did not sign. Maybe he is convinced that he can outwit and outfox the opposition at the conference table. Maybe, just maybe, he is really genuine and wants a negotiated settlement in the “best interest of the nation.” There are recent precedents for such things in Africa. The mule-headed octogenarian Robert Mugabe snagged a deal with Morgan Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe. Emilio Mwai Kibaki cut a deal with Raila Odinga in Kenya. Maybe it is all or none of the above. I don’t have the foggiest idea why Zenawi is now calling for negotiations, but the whole exercise seems absurd to me.

Can One Reasonably Negotiate With “Terrorists, Amateur Part-time Terrorists and Lifers”?

Zenawi’s offer to negotiate face to face (not in his usual backdoor elder-style negotiations) with the OLF and Ginbot 7 Movement seems disingenuous. For years, he has characterized the OLF as a “terrorist” organization whose “main objective is to create a rift between the government and the people of Oromiya.” He has demonized OLF leaders and jailed anyone vaguely suspected of involvement or association with that organization. He has contemptuously characterized Ginbot 7 as an organization of “amateur part-time terrorists.” In kangaroo court, he recently sentenced to death various alleged “members” of Ginbot 7; and in absentia, movement leaders Dr. Berhanu Nega and Andargachew Tsigie, among others. His deputy is on record publicly comparing “opposition” parties with the genocidal Rwandan interhamwe militias. That comment invited sharp censure by the 2005 European Union Election Observation Mission which called it “unacceptable and extremist rhetoric”. Zenawi has jailed Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, and unquestionably the most important political prisoner on the African continent today, for life. Last December when he was asked if there is a chance Birtukan could ever be released, he categorically and absolutely ruled out any possibility of freedom for her: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” It seems totally illogical and downright dishonest for Zenawi to propose good faith negotiations with opposition leaders and organizations allegedly sworn to remove him from power by force while being so deadest against any negotiation or agreement for the release of one harmless innocent young woman!

What Could Be Conceivable Outcomes of Negotiations?

Assuming there are negotiations, Zenawi has given no indications on the negotiable issues. Regardless, what are some conceivable outcomes of any negotiations? Release of Birtukan? Release of all political prisoners? Legalization of the OLF? Commutation of the death sentences of Ginbot 7 members and movement leaders? Fresh free and fair elections? Free functioning of the private press? Establishment of a fully independent elections board? An Independent judiciary? Aha! How about power-sharing a la Zimbabwe and Kenya? (Just kidding!)

A Faustian Negotiation?

The old saying goes, “Give the devil his due.” Zenawi deserves credit for being a masterful zero-sum game player. Political scientists and economists use special analytical models to understand the behavior of negotiators in different settings. In a “zero-sum” negotiation, both “players” (negotiators) desire one particular outcome, but only one of them can have it. One player wins everything and the other loses everything. Stated differently, a zero-sum game is “like arguing over a pie (or injera, the traditional bread of Ethiopia): if one person gets a piece of injera, then the other person gets nothing.” For the past 19 years, Zenawi has been keeping all of the injera to himself, and denying others even a small piece. Now he wants negotiations to share the injera with the rest of the peons who have been watching him eat gluttonously at the dining table of power?

I have tried to logically decipher the type of negotiation Zenawi has in mind, without success. Generally, when someone calls for negotiations, it means that person has formulated his negotiating points and positions and is prepared to give some indication of the negotiable issues to the other side. Zenawi’s offer of negotiation is so vague and cryptic that it seems to be almost an afterthought in his press conference. But there is nothing vague about his zero-sum style of negotiation over the past two decades. Everyone who has “negotiated” with him knows that he has two principles of negotiation (and not the two he mentioned as preconditions for negotiations with the OLF and Ginbot 7): 1) “You are gonna do it my way, or you’re gonna hit the highway! Period.” 2) “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable. Period.” These are the two bedrock principles of negotiations Zenawi has followed for the last twenty years in dealing with his opposition both within his own party and those on the outside. Why would he change now?

Surely, Zenawi must realize that no one will negotiate with him on a zero-sum basis. It is irrational for anyone to negotiate one’s own vanquishment? It is illogical to negotiate in a “winner takes all” setting when the winner is already known before the negotiations begin. It is not unlike someone running in an election where the winner has been predetermined and the winning margin of victory (say 99.6 percent) already preordained. Why bother?

A real negotiation is a process of give and take, compromise, good will and even empathy for the other side. It does not seem that Zenawi is capable of such negotiating style. He has always looked at his opposition with contempt. He has never regarded them as his legitimate political opponents with whom he disagrees; rather he has always viewed them as mortal enemies that must be totally and completely vanquished. Political negotiations in Ethiopia can succeed only when there is mutual recognition by all parties of their shared humanity, nationality, commonality of interests, sensitivities, and above all that rapturous spiritual feeling called “Ethiopianity”. There is little room for negotiation and compromise with an “enemy” that one considers a “terrorist”, a “genocidal” maniac or a “criminal”.

Negotiations in the Best Interests of the Nation

I believe in negotiations not because someone could misuse it as tactical weapon in a public relations campaign, but because negotiation to me is the art of the possible. Only principles are non-negotiable. I believe it is possible to have negotiations in the “best interests” of Ethiopia and its people. These “best interests” are, among others, avoiding the long term consequences of ethnic conflict, reduction in political tensions, guaranteeing a better future for Ethiopia’s youth who represent over three-quarters of the population, ensuring respect for human rights, institutionalization of the rule of law, accountability and transparency in government, economic development for society and free personal development for citizens and the like. Negotiations in the “best interests of the nation” require “principled negotiations”, which means the parties must be committed to “win-win” (instead of win-lose zero-sum) outcomes. The parties focus on issues and not personalities; they strive to work around common interests and avoid imposing their hardline positions on each other. Principled negotiators generate and consider a variety of possibilities and solutions before deciding what to do. Above all, they work toward a solution cooperatively and come to an agreement that takes into account not only their individual needs but also optimizes their collective outcomes. Principled negotiators understand that they can attain their goals if, and only if, the others also attain theirs. In sum, principled negotiators cooperate more and compete less, build more trust and work actively to lessen suspicion about each other. It is very possible to negotiate an agreement among those with polarized interests if they can manage to keep their eyes on “best interests of the nation” instead of their partisan and individual interests.

“Respecting the Country’s Constitution?”

As a teacher, practitioner and student of constitutional law, I was mildly amused when Zenawi said he is ready to negotiate with anyone who “respects the country’s Constitution”. When one wags an accusatory index finger at others, it is easy not to notice the three fingers that are pointing to oneself. Before one can pontificate about the constitutional high ground, one must command it. Zenawi must not just demand the opposition to respect the Constitution, he must also respect it. In fact, he should teach the opposition respect for the Constitution by example. But he has not been a good teacher: Article 9 (4) of the Ethiopian Constitution provides, “International agreements ratified by Ethiopia are an integral part of the law of the land.” Zenawi has trashed all human rights conventions as documented for years in the annual reports of the world’s most respected human rights organizations. Article 12 (1) requires that the “activities of government shall be undertaken in a manner which is open and transparent to the public.” Zenawi has concluded dozens of secret international agreements to give up the country’s land and resources without any transparency or accountability. Article 17 (2) guarantees that “No one shall be arrested or detained without being charged or convicted of a crime except in accordance with such procedures as are laid down by law.” Birtukan Midekssa and thousands of political prisoners remain in detention without due process of law. Article 20 (3) requires “Everyone charged with an offence shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty by a court of law…” In practice, every suspect is presumed guilty, and hundreds of thousands of citizens presently languish in prison without charges. Article 29 (2) guarantees that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression without interference…. regardless of frontiers…” Independent journalists in Ethiopia are threatened and jailed by the dozens, and newspapers shuttered. The public media has been reduced into becoming a propaganda machine for the ruling party; international radio and television broadcasts are jammed and internet service kept at the most primitive level to keep citizens from exercising their freedom of expression. Article 38 (1) (b) guarantees, “every citizen the right to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections… ” Zenawi won the May 2010 election by 99.6 percent. There is no greater respect that can be shown for the Constitution than respecting the people’s vote!

Confidence Building Measures Before Negotiations

Negotiations require the art of dialogue. Zenawi can only monologue. I really would like to believe he is sincere about negotiations, and his offer of olive branches is genuine. But he has no credibility. His own words and actions betray him. How can anyone in their right minds negotiate with a man who said: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” A man who can take such a frighteningly inflexible, uncompromising, unyielding, unbending, rigid and unswayable position on an innocent young woman who has done ABSOLUTELY nothing wrong is incapable of negotiating with “terrorists”, “genocidal” maniacs and “extremists” purportedly sworn to remove him from power. Zenawi is willing to sit down “with anyone” and “negotiate” an agreement to deal with the super-complex problems of Ethiopia but he will never, ever, agree to even consider discussing the simple case of an innocent young woman?

Birtukan’s case is full of ironies. In 2007 she signed a pardon agreement negotiated over several months by a group of “elders” at Zenawi’s direction. A year and half later, Zenawi used the very agreement she negotiated with him for her release from prison as the basis for her summary re-commitment to life in prison. Is it not equally ironic that Zenawi is now extending olive branches to those he believes are sworn to remove him from power by force while keeping imprisoned for life the one person who can negotiate with him in good faith on the very same principles of constitutionalism and peaceful dispute resolution that he talks about? But as the great Mandela said, “Only free men (and women) can negotiate; prisoners cannot enter into contracts.” If Zenawi wants to negotiate with the opposition, he must let Birtukan go free because she is the lioness share of the opposition.

I do not want to be misunderstood. I plead Birtukan’s case not for any particular political outcome, but because she is innocent and has done nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong. She has committed no crime. She has caused harm to no one. She is a threat to nobody. She played meticulously by the very constitutional rules Zenawi extols as his “principles” of negotiation. It is time to let her join her little daughter and aging mother for the Ethiopian new year in September. Why not also let the others who have languished in prison for years on suspicion of “involvement” with the OLF, and Ginbot 7 “members” who were recently jailed, to go free and rejoin their families for the new year? Why not unjam the Voice of America and stop jamming ESAT (Ethiopian Satellite Television)? Let the people hear and see and make up their own minds. I know some will laugh at my naivete for suggesting these obvious ideas for it has been said that “fire, water and dictators know nothing of mercy.” But if one cannot take simple steps to build confidence, mere talk of “principles of negotiations” sound hollow and unconvincing. Perhaps Otto Von Bismarck was right: “When a man says that he approves something in principle, it means he hasn’t the slightest intention of putting it in practice.” As an afterthought, is it possible to shake hands with a man who has fake olive branches in one hand and a gun in the other?



Steel Vises, Clenched Fists and Closing Walls, (Part III)

Alemayehu G. Mariam

Note: This is the third installment in a series of commentaries I intend to offer on U.S. foreign policy (or lack thereof as some would argue) in Ethiopia. In this piece, I argue that while some credit is due to the Obama Administration for rhetorically promoting human rights throughout the world giving hope to millions suffering under tyranny and dictatorships, lack of follow up action could transform that hope into despair and anti-Americanism. I further suggest that the U.S. needs to take actions to improve human rights in Ethiopia or risk moral condemnation for prolonging and sustaining the rule of a criminal dictatorship.

The Human Rights Ledger of the Obama Administration

President Obama has been sharply criticized for his “inability” to deliver on his human rights “promises.” Some say his support for the cause of human rights and those struggling against oppression has been rhetorical, and lukewarm at that. He has been unable to translate lofty words into concrete actions to improve human rights. They say his basic approach is flawed because he is trying to reform and rehabilitate nasty dictators into wholesome democrats. A few have suggested that in the post-9/11 world, President Obama has made it his mission “to atone for America’s sins” instead of re-asserting a strong leadership role for the U.S., particularly in the area of human rights. He has been charged with “hypocrisy” for not speaking out against China, Hosni Mubark’s three-decade rule of Egypt under a state of emergency, the fizzling of human rights activism in Iran following the elections last year and the military coup in Honduras. His critics say that he has gone out of his way to accommodate the bloodthirsty Burmese military dictators despite the fact that the democratically elected leader of that country, Aung San Su Kii, has remained in detention for two decades. The vast majority of Ethiopians are disappointed in President Obama’s silence over the unjust imprisonment of Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, and arguably the most important political prisoner on the African continent today.

Although President Obama and his administration could have done a lot more in the field of global human rights, I am not inclined to join the ranks of his critics and blame him for everything that has gone wrong in human rights worldwide during his eighteen months as president for two reasons. First, his administration has been weighted down by a domestic agenda of epic proportions and distracted by a variety of policy crises of unprecedented severity. Moreover, he had to manage two major ground wars and the global war on terror. Second, I do not expect decades of official neglect of human rights to be addressed in a span of eighteen months. Rather, I am inclined to telescope his overall involvement in the human rights field and make some inferences on his potential to make a great “human rights president” in his first term. I find some encouraging evidence that he could play an extraordinary role in global human rights.

Few would argue the fact that over the past eighteen months, President Obama has restored considerable credibility to U.S. global human rights leadership following gross abuses of human rights in Iraq. He banned the use of torture (or “enhanced interrogation techniques”) immediately after taking office. His speeches and public statements in Ghana, Egypt and Turkey and other places promoting human rights and accountability have given hope to millions. His Administration has fully supported the work and activities of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and even Kenya where the prosecutor acting on his own initiative for the first time is investigating that country’s 2007 post-election violence. (A similar ICC investigation into the massacres of hundreds of people in Ethiopia after the 2005 elections is overdue and fully warranted.) In a symbolic but unprecedented act, President Obama in a special White House ceremony honored women human rights activists from Zimbabwe by awarding them the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for their struggle against the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe. He has thrust human rights as a central part of the debate on U.S. policy around the world. These facts in my view are significant in light of his predecessor’s ritualistic obsession with elections regardless of whether they were rigged or stolen. As Secretary Clinton’s recent human rights speeches demonstrate, the Obama administration is emphatic on the issues of free expression, free press, clean elections and civil society. Overall, the evidence from diverse opinion surveys worldwide suggest that that in numerous countries opinions about the United States are about as positive today as they were before 9/11, principally because of the emphasis on human rights.

I am also mindful of Senator Obama’s successful sponsorship of the “Democratic Republic of Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act” in 2006. That Act aims to help promote and reinvigorate the political process in the Congo and meet the basic needs of Congolese citizens and targets the elimination of sexual violence against women and children. I recall the fact that Senator Obama would have fully supported H.R. 2003 (Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act) had it been brought for a vote on the Senate floor following its passage in the House of Representatives in 2007. On a personal level, I have confidence in Mr. Obama that he will stand up for human rights not because he is president but because he is first and foremost a constitutional lawyer. Challenging those who abuse power, flout the rule of law, sneer at justice and thumb their noses at due process is encoded in the DNA of every genuine American constitutional lawyer. None of the foregoing should be viewed as an “apology” for any failures on the part of President Obama or his administration. I will not hesitate to challenge the Administration’s human rights policy in Ethiopia (or elsewhere) as I have done in these series of commentaries.

The Insanity of Doing Nothing

It was Albert Eisnsten who said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It could equally be said of U.S. human rights policy in Ethiopia over the past decade that doing NOTHING over and over again and expecting results is insanity, sheer madness. The fact of the matter is that the U.S. for all of the billions it has given to the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi over the past two decades has been unable to curb his gross human rights violations. Indeed, the U.S. has shied away from strong and sustained criticism of Zenawi’s dismal human rights record. The Obama Administration must realize, if it has not already, that the current status quo – rigged and stolen elections, warehousing of large numbers of political prisoners, intimidation of opposition parties and leaders, decimation of the independent press, the climate of fear and loathing for the citizenry, denial of expressive freedoms, enactment of repressive anti-civil society laws, jamming of Voice of America broadcasts, provocative accusations of the U.S. Government as the soul mates of the genocidal thugs of Rwanda’s interhamwe — cannot and must not go on so long as American tax dollars are being used to bankroll Zenawi’s dictatorship. It should also be crystal clear to the Obama Administration that quiet diplomacy, soft-pedaling on human rights and attaching human rights as an afterthought to negotiations on counterterrorism, security, etc., will not work. The status quo will be damaging both to U.S. strategic interests in Ethiopia and the Horn and undermine the democratic development of Ethiopia.

The dilemma that President Obama is facing today over human rights in Africa is the same one that his predecessors have faced over the decades. The U.S. has never really developed an African policy that tethered human rights, security, trade and governance issues. Historically, U.S. policy in Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular has been haphazard and episodic dominated by a concern with the role of colonial powers, containment of communism, and now defeating global terrorism. “Realpolitik” has always trumped Wilsonianism. It was President Woodrow Wilson who during and after WWI undertook the mission “to make the world safe for democracy”. He believed international peace and America’s pre-eminent role in the world could be secured by promoting democracy and human rights and spreading the virtues of individual freedom, limited government, and popular sovereignty.

The Cold War threw cold water on Wilsonianism after WW II as the struggle to contain totalitarian communism became the core ideology in U.S. foreign policy. It was the Carter Administration that gave human rights a real boost by emphasizing democracy and human rights as practical objectives of U.S. foreign policy. Not unlike President Obama, President Carter raised the hopes of millions around the world. President Carter followed up with action imposing export and import restrictions on South Africa , Ethiopia, and Uganda and by linking economic and military aid to human rights violations. But “realpolitik” caught up with him quickly and the specter of communist insurrections forced him to negotiate for military bases in Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan despite the poor human rights records of the ruling regimes. The Reagan Administration showed interest in human rights at the cusp of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it was the administration of the senior George H. Bush that elevated the human rights rhetoric to new heights by unapologetically declaring that the world was not divided along an east-west axis but “between those committed to democracy and liberty and those against.” President Bill Clinton dubbed Africa’s dictators “new breed” of African leaders and built his “strategic initiative in Africa” so that Africans could serve as U.S. military proxies while using development aid and the international lending institutions to promote democratization.

President Obama is facing the same dilemma his predecessors have faced. His challenge now is to develop an effective strategy to transition his moral advocacy of human rights to practical application of human rights principles in U.S. foreign policy. If he fails to make the transition, he will be criticized for dashing the hopes of millions around the world and judged harshly by history for perpetuating American “hypocrisy” and spreading cynicism and despair.

Walking the Human Rights Talk: Accountability

It is high time for the U.S. to begin walking its human rights talk in Ethiopia. No doubt, striking the right balance between human rights concerns and “pragmatic” strategic interests will be no easy task. For the past decade, the U.S. has thrown human rights in Ethiopia under the bus in its pursuit of the global war on terror. Despite gruesome revelations of gross human rights abuses in Ethiopia by the official U.S. global human rights watchdog, the U.S. has consistently dismissed, ignored, disingenuously deferred, or promised action which never came to pass. It is time for the U.S. to fish or cut bait in Ethiopia.

U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in her recent speech in Poland said there are four elements to the Obama Administration’s approach to “putting our principles into action” in American global human rights policy. The first pillar is accountability, which means “governments [must] take responsibility by putting human rights into law and embedding them in government institutions; by building strong, independent courts, competent and disciplined police and law enforcement.” Over the past decade, the U.S. has shown an almost pathological and reflexive aversion to the very idea of holding dictator Zenawi accountable. When Zenawi came out and declared that he had won the May 2010 election by 99.6 percent, the White House put out a statement bleating, “We are concerned that international observers found that the elections fell short of international commitments [and ] U.S. Embassy officials were denied accreditation and the opportunity to travel outside of the capital on Election Day to observe the voting.” Over the past five years, the U.S. has soft-pedaled gross violations of human rights. When Zenawi slaughtered hundreds of protesters following the 2005 elections, the U.S. made the mind-numbing statement: “The deaths as a result of the actions surrounding these protests are senseless. The United States calls upon both side to engage in a peaceful dialogue.” When Zenawi jailed tens of thousands of people that same year, the U.S. said, “We urge the government to respect the rule of law, international principles of human rights, and due process with regard to those arrested or detained.” This is not “accountability.” It is pusillanimity.

Accountability means holding someone responsible for their acts or omissions against a clear standard. Someone must be held accountable for the deaths and severe injuries of hundreds of peaceful protesters in 2005, the massacre of hundreds of Anuak people in Gambella in 2004 and the untold deaths and destruction  in the Ogaden. The Obama administration must take the same moral leadership in Ethiopia as it has taken in Kenya by supporting the International Criminal Court investigations in Kenya for the deaths that occurred in the post-2007 election period and the genocide in Darfur. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. If ICC action is good enough for Kenya and the Sudan, I say it is good enough for Ethiopia.

By Secretary Clinton’s own words, accountability applies not only to the tin pot dictators of the world but also the U.S. That is why Ethiopians in the U.S. must hold the Obama Administration itself accountable under Section 116.75 (a) of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act. That provision plainly states:

No assistance may be provided under this part 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 de-grading 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.

Similarly, Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1976 mandates:

[E]xcept under extraordinary circumstances no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of 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 denials of the right to life, liberty, and the security of the person.

Is there a country that cries out more for the rigorous application of these provisions than Ethiopia?

Walk the Human Rights Talk Softly and Carry a Big Stick

President Obama has raised the hopes and democratic aspirations of millions around the world. He will have to give human rights the importance it deserves in U.S. foreign policy. Whether in Ethiopia or elsewhere, the issue of human rights could not be left to some embassy functionary who juggles other duties. Human rights should be given the same attention and importance given to counterterrorism, security, development and trade with African dictatorships. It must not be a side issue or an afterthought to other policies. President Obama in his speeches has awakened the world’s oppressed masses; and they fully expect that he will stand up with them and not those who oppress them. In Africa, he has a clear choice: Africa’s tin pot dictators bound for the dustbin of history or Africa’s youth. In his own words, “it will not be giants like Nkrumah and Kenyatta who will determine Africa’s future. Above all, it will be the young people – brimming with talent and energy and hope.” I am hopeful that the Obama administration will use creative approaches to put American “human rights principles into action” in the foreseeable future.


Speaking Truth On Behalf of Ethiopian Women

Note: This is my fifth commentary on the theme “Where do we go from here?” following the rigged May 2010 elections in Ethiopia in which the ruling dictatorship won by 99.6 percent [1]. In this piece, I express deep regrets over the never-ending subjugation of women in Ethiopian society and call for a movement for the advancement of Ethiopian women’s human rights. I urge Ethiopian women to join hands in building the “future country of Ethiopia” that Birtukan Midekssa, Ethiopia’s foremost political prisoner and first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, dreamed about.

Women in the “Present Country of Ethiopia”

Birtukan Midekssa, Ethiopia’s foremost political prisoner and first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history enjoyed talking about an allegorical “future country of Ethiopia” that would become an African oasis of democracy and a bastion of human rights and the rule of law in the continent. In Birtukan’s “future Ethiopia” women and men would live not only as equals under the law, but also work together to create a progressive and compassionate society in which women are free from domestic violence and sexual exploitation, have access to adequate health and maternal care, and are provided education to free them from culturally-enforced ignorance, submissiveness and subjugation. But if the situation of women in the “present country of Ethiopia” is any indication, Birtukan’s “future country” is in deep, deep trouble.

Article 35 of the Ethiopian Constitution (1995) guarantees women not only full equality but also preferential treatment “in the political, economic and social fields both within public and private organizations.” Women are provided sweeping constitutional protections from “all laws, stereotyped ideas and customs which oppress women or otherwise adversely affect their physical and mental well-being.” They have guaranteed property rights and “the right of access to education and information on family planning” to “prevent health hazards resulting from child birth.” Article 34 secures matrimonial contractual rights for “women attaining the legal age of marriage.” It mandates that “Marriage shall be based on the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” Even before the rights of women were “constitutionalized” in 1995, the ruling dictatorship of Meles Zenawi took the lead by issuing a National Policy on Women in 1993 with the aim “to institutionalize the political, economical, and social rights of women by creating an appropriate structure in government offices and institutions so that the public policies and interventions are gender-sensitive and can ensure equitable development for all Ethiopian men and women.” After a lapse of seventeen years, the evidence on the status of women in Ethiopia society is horrifying and shocking to the conscience.

The 2000 U.S. State Department Human Rights Country Report on Ethiopia[2] described the status of women in appallingly disheartening terms:

The Constitution provides for the equality of women; however, these provisions often are not applied in practice. Furthermore, these provisions often are in conflict with the 1960 Civil Code and the 1957 Penal Code, both of which still are in force. The 1960 Civil Code is based on a monarchical constitution that treated women as if they were children or disabled. Discriminatory regulations in the civil code include recognizing the husband as the legal head of the family and designating him as the sole guardian of children over 5 years old. Domestic violence is not considered a serious justification under the law to obtain a divorce. Irrespective of the number of years the marriage has existed, the number of children raised and the joint property, the woman is entitled to only 3 months’ financial support should the relationship end. However, a husband has no obligation to provide financial assistance to his family and, as a result, women and children sometimes are abandoned when there is a problem in the marriage. All land belongs to the State; however, land reforms enacted in March 1997 stipulate that women may obtain government leases to land. Discrimination is most acute in rural areas, where 85 percent of the population lives. In urban areas, women have fewer employment opportunities than men do, and the jobs available do not provide equal pay for equal work. As a result of changes in the Labor Law in 1998, thousands of women traveled to the Middle East as industrial and domestic workers. There were credible reports that female workers were abused, and even killed, in these positions.

A decade later, the 2010 U.S. State Department Human Rights Country Report on Ethiopia[3] described the status of women in similar stark terms:

The constitution provides women the same rights and protections as men. Harmful Traditional Practices (HTPs) such as FGM (female genital mutilation), abduction, and rape are explicitly criminalized; however, enforcement of these laws lagged. Women and girls experienced gender-based violence daily, but it was underreported due to shame, fear, or a victim’s ignorance of legal protections. Domestic violence, including spousal abuse, was a pervasive social problem. The 2005 Demographic and Health Survey found that 81 percent of women believed a husband had a right to beat his wife. Prostitution was legal for persons over age 18 and was commonly practiced around the country. Sexual harassment was widespread [and] harassment-related laws were not enforced. The law sets the legal marriage age for girls and boys at 18; however, this law was not enforced. For example, a 2006 Pathfinder International study found that in the Amhara region, 48 percent of women were married before the age of 15, the highest early marriage rate in the country. Limited access to family planning services, high fertility, low reproductive health and emergency obstetric services, and poor nutritional status and infections all contributed to high maternal mortality ratio… Discrimination against women was most acute in rural areas, where 85 percent of the population was located. There was limited legal recognition of common law marriage. Irrespective of the number of years the marriage existed, the number of children raised, and joint property, the law entitled women to only three months’ financial support if a relationship ended. A common-law husband had no obligation to provide financial assistance to his family, and as a result, women and children sometimes faced abandonment. In urban areas women had fewer employment opportunities than men, and the jobs available did not provide equal pay for equal work.

It is manifest that in 2010, the vast majority of Ethiopian women, particularly in the rural areas, enjoy very little personal security against violence and degradation. In fact, these women believe that violence and degradation is an appropriate form of treatment for women. According to the 2005 Ethiopian Demographic and Health Survey (“a nationally representative survey of 14,070 women age 15-49 and 6,033 men age 15-59”) “81% of Ethiopian women believe their husbands have the right to beat them if they burn food, refuse sex, or go somewhere without their husband’s consent”[4]. Ethiopian women are not only lacking personal security but also social security. Seventy- five percent of all Ethiopian women are illiterate, and consequently bear the heaviest burden of poverty. Maternal deaths from childbirth for Ethiopian women is among the highest in the world[5]. High HIV infection rates, child marriages and the devastating health consequences associated with them and many other risk factors have left Ethiopian women in a state of misery and despair facing a daily ordeal for survival.[6] With one of the highest birth rates in the world, Ethiopia’s population is projected to increase by 20 million in the next 10 years and double to 160 million by 2050.

Thanks for Nothing!

Dictator Zenawi, in a “victory” speech celebrating his 99.6 percent win in the May 2010 “election”, thanked Ethiopian women “boundlessly”:

We, the members of EPRDF, with great humility offer our gratitude and appreciation to the voters who have given us their support freely and democratically. We also offer our thanks to the real backbone of our organization, the women of Ethiopia who are committed to our struggle due to their realization of our track record on gender equality and who want to forge ahead on this path of peace, development and democratization. Our admiration to the women of Ethiopia is indeed boundless!

It is disconcerting to think of the vast majority of Ethiopian women who suffer in absolute misery and wretchedness becoming a “backbone” to anyone. But if we must resort to anatomical analogies, women can best be described as the rump of Ethiopian society, little valued and appreciated. Their backbones, spirit and will have long been shattered by official neglect and indifference and the daily reality of domestic violence, illiteracy, sexual exploitation, underage marriages, lack of education and grinding poverty. It is adding insult to injury to patronize them as the “backbone” of a potbellied dictatorship when they can barely stand up on their own two feet. If we are to offer “admiration” to Ethiopian women (and they deserve it all), it is only because of their incredible capacity to withstand unimaginably “boundless” suffering, degradation, cruelty and indifference. Even illiterate women know when they are being patronized by crocodilian words of “humility”, “gratitude” and “appreciation”.

Misogynistic or Chauvinistic?

I am not sure of the qualitative difference between misogyny and male chauvinism. Misogynists hate and have total contempt for women. A male chauvinist just believes women are naturally inferior to men and do not deserve equal treatment. If it is not misogyny or male chauvinism, what on earth could possibly explain the fact that “81% of Ethiopian women believe their husbands have the right to beat them if they burn food, refuse sex, or go somewhere without their husband’s consent”? This deeply disturbing fact was historically observed only among slaves. The slave was absolutely terrified of his master and always lived in fear of his master’s whims and fancy. The slave believed his master could do whatever he wanted to him because he understood himself to be his master’s property. The slave, totally dependent on his master for his very existence, pinned the blame for his master’s cruelty and depravity on himself. The slave believed that mistreatment and abuse by his master is his divinely foreordained destiny. Could it be that long after the odious institution of slavery has been abolished in the world, the overwhelming majority of women shackled by domestic violence, inequality, sexual exploitation, destructive traditions and customs and poverty continue to believe themselves to be chattel property (personal property) to their husbands and men?

Ethiopian Women’s Human Rights

If 81 percent of Ethiopian women believe they are the property of their husbands, it seems obvious that they are not aware of their human rights secured under international law. Since 1948, there have been at least ten major international conventions and protocols protecting the human rights of women throughout the world. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, ratified by Ethiopia in 1981, prohibits as discrimination a variety of actions that compound the subjugation of women, and requires state parties to take action to eliminate them. Governments are required to act and eliminate “social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.” A special legal duty is imposed upon governments to “take into account the particular problems faced by rural women and take all appropriate measures to ensure the application of the provisions of the present Convention.” Women have the “right freely to choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and full consent.” Children can not give free and full consent to marriage. As parents, women shall have equal rights “irrespective of their marital status, in matters relating to their children.” It is discriminatory to arbitrarily deny women spousal support and equal custody rights at divorce. Various other conventions ensure that women are protected from involuntary servitude, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Domestic violence can not be ignored as simple “family misunderstanding” but must be prosecuted as a serious crime. The Convention on the Rights of the Child protects young girls from being forced to undergo the painful and degrading practice of genital mutilation and rape in the form of child marriages.

Calling for a Movement for Ethiopian Women’s Human Rights

It is manifest that the vast majority of Ethiopian women are trapped in a patriarchal and paternalistic system that exploits them sexually, socially, politically and in every other way. For centuries, Ethiopian law has “treated women as if they were children or disabled.” Discrimination, abuse and mistreatment against Ethiopian women has continued for so long that it is time to end the silence and stand up and speak up against their dehumanization. All Ethiopians, and particularly the educated ones and those in power, should publicly condemn the brutal practice of female genital mutilation. It is an atrocious and dreadful custom. All educational and informational efforts must be employed to eliminate it. The rampant violence against women must not be tolerated. It must be combated through a combination of education, information and rigorous prosecutions of abusers. If actions or lack of action speaks louder than words, it is obvious that Ethiopian men do not think much of their women’s lives and dignity and could be straddling that thin line between misogyny and male chauvinism. A broad social movement needs to be established to challenge all practices that degrade women and challenge cultural and social patterns defining the lopsided power relationship between men and women in Ethiopian society.

A New Culture of Women’s Activism and Assertiveness is Needed

Throughout the Western world and elsewhere, women have organized effectively to form political, cultural, and economic movements aimed at establishing greater rights and securing effective legal protection for women. In some part of the world, the label “women’s liberation” has been given to describe the campaign for women’s rights. Those who advocate for women’s rights have been called “feminists” because of their efforts to change traditional perspectives on a wide range of issues covering domestic violence, sexual harassment and exploitation, economic equality and elimination of all forms of gender discrimination against women.

Labels and designations for Ethiopian women’s activism are unimportant in describing the need for activism. What is important is the realization that effective activism and advocacy on behalf of Ethiopian women is long overdue. Well-educated and well-placed Ethiopian women are in the best position to engage in activism to stop violence against women, help teach them to assert their legal and human rights and research and document the condition of women in society for informed policy-making. They are also in the best position to challenge Ethiopian men to reconsider their long held beliefs about women and encourage and show them how they can change their outdated beliefs and unhealthy behavior towards women. In other words, it is possible to help Ethiopian men gain new awareness and consciousness about the plight of their women and help protect their dignity and value in society. In this regard, I believe Diaspora Ethiopian women bear special responsibility to articulate Ethiopian women’s issues in international forums.

Young Ethiopian Women Need Female Role Models

I often wonder if many Ethiopian fathers seriously ponder whether our daughters have good role models in strong, ethical and assertive Ethiopian women. It pains me to think that the vast majority of girls growing up in Ethiopia today will absorb the beliefs from their mothers and society that domestic violence and sexual exploitation are acceptable; that male supremacy is the natural order of things and that they will likely be married off in childhood and have children while they are themselves children and very likely die an early death from complications of childbirth.

I truly hope that all of the young Ethiopian girls will look up to Birtukan Midekssa and understand that she stood up not only for her rights and theirs, but also that she represents the new Ethiopian woman who stood up to the arrogance of power and male chauvinism. I have no doubts that if Birtukan dropped on her knees, bowed down and begged for mercy from her captors, as do women who face the daily reality of violence and physically abuse, she would be out of prison in heartbeat. We need more Ethiopian women like Birtukan who set new moral and ethical standards for the newer generation of women who in turn can change the attitudes and beliefs of the newer generation of men so they can together build “the future country of Ethiopia.”

The Question: To be or Not to be…. Birtukan

When I write about my heroine Birtukan Midekssa, I often refer to her as “Invictus” (unconquered).[7] Some wonder why I defend Birtukan passionately and ferociously against those who have unjustly imprisoned her and take every opportunity to humiliate and degrade her despite the universally recognized fact that she is innocent of any wrongdoing. I do so because Birtukan to me is the model of the new self-confident and dignified Ethiopian woman I hope to see in the “future country of Ethiopia.” Birtukan chained in prison stands taller for the cause of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia than any man I know. She sacrificed motherhood to her 4-year old child so that the millions of little girls in Ethiopia could grow up in dignity, without physical abuse by men, educated and equal in every way to Ethiopian boys. Birtukan has shown more backbone and spine in standing up to dictatorship than anyone I know.

We can thank Ethiopian women until the cows come home, but so long as they have little personal and social security and are valued less and subjected to violence, there will be neither development, progress nor justice in Ethiopian society. The real question is not whether Ethiopian women can be the “backbone” of a political party or even society. It is whether Ethiopian men can be the backbone, indeed have the backbone, to lift their women out of the misery, suffering, degradation, insecurity and value them for their inestimable worth.

In my flights of fancy, I let myself imagine millions of young Birtukan clones growing up in Ethiopia. I imagine these young women standing up to male chauvinism and defending their rights to be free from physical abuse, sexual exploitation and discrimination. I imagine them demanding accountability from their leaders and government. I imagine them taking leadership in vast numbers in society. Then I realize that I am not really lost in imagination. I had just taken a brief detour to Birtukan’s “future country of Ethiopia”.

I will now say of Ethiopian women collectively what I have said of Birtukan individually:

Ethiopian women condemned to abuse, exploitation and indifference, but unconquered.
Ethiopian women subjected to the wrath of men and tearful, but defiant.
Ethiopian women beaten, bludgeoned and bloodied, but unbowed.
Ethiopian women mocked, ridiculed and disrespected, but gracious.
Ethiopian women vilified, strong-armed and manhandled, but unafraid.
Ethiopia under the crushing boots of soldiers of fortune.
Ethiopian women, Invictus!
Birtukan, Invictus!


Alemayehu G. Mariam is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on,, and other sites.

[4] ; p. 244 (final report, 2006)

Ethiopia: Speaking Truth to the Powerless

Alemayehu G. Mariam

Note: In my last commentary[1] on the theme, “Where do we go from here?” I suggested that the ruling dictatorship in Ethiopia following its 99.6 percent “victory” in the May 2010 parliamentary “election” will continue to do business as usual in much the same way as it has over the last two decades. In this commentary, I focus on the Ethiopian opposition collectively and argue that they must atone and reinvent themselves if they hope to play a significant role in that country’s future.

Always speak truth to power; but sometimes it is necessary to speak it to the powerless too. Truth must be spoken not only because it renders naked the hypocrites and villains, but also because it has a cathartic (cleansing) effect on its defenders. Above all, it must be spoken because it is the quintessential requirement of freedom: “The truth shall make you free.” It is in the spirit of freedom from the burdens of past political blunders and poor judgment and the freedom to invent a new spirit of democracy in Ethiopia that I offer this commentary to the Ethiopian opposition. My aim is not to lecture or to bash; I leave that job to the dictators who are the true experts. When I speak my mind freely about the Ethiopian opposition, it is merely to help “clean out the closet”, as it were, so that we could begin afresh on the long walk to democracy. It is said that the “truth hurts”, but I disagree. I believe the truth heals, empowers and liberates its defenders.

Holding a Mirror to the Ethiopian Opposition

Now that the hoopla around Meles Zenawi’s “election” is over, it is time for the Ethiopian opposition to take stock and re-think the way it has been doing business. We begin with the obvious question: “What happened to the Ethiopian opposition in the make-believe election of 2010?” Zenawi will argue vigorously that he defeated them by a margin of 99.6 percent (545 of 547 parliamentary seats). If that were the real “defeat” for the opposition, I would not worry much. Losing a sham election is like losing one’s appendix. But there is a different kind of defeat that I find more worrisome. It is a defeat in the eyes and hearts of the people. I am afraid the opposition collectively has suffered considerable loss of credibility in the eyes of the people by making a public spectacle of its endless bickering, carping, dithering, internal squabbles, disorganization, inability to unite, pettiness, jockeying for power, and by failing to articulate a coherent set of guiding principles or ideas for the country’s future.

In the 2005 election, there was a unifying spirit among the opposition. For that reason, they were able to trounce the ruling dictatorship in a free and fair election. What was monumental about that election was not only the fact that the opposition thumped the ruling party, but they did so with overflowing and overwhelming public support. On May 7, 2005, a week before elections that year, the opposition was able to hold a rally in the capital for an estimated 3 million people. On May 15, over 26 million people voted freely giving the opposition a decisive victory in the parliamentary elections, including a clean sweep of seats in the capital. Of course, the elections were stolen by the current dictatorship after hundreds of unarmed protesters were massacred and shot in the streets and thousands more imprisoned and disappeared. The point is that in 2005 the Ethiopian people put everything on the line– their lives, their livelihoods and their loved ones. Fast forward to 2010: “Where did the people go?” That was the question asked by Awramba Times, the only struggling independent paper in Ethiopia that is the regular object of the dictatorship’s wrath and fury.

The people did not vanish merely because Zenawi had unloosed his trigger-happy goons on the streets. Perhaps they did not show up because they had lost faith in the leadership of the opposition. When Zenawi herded the opposition leaders into his dungeons after the 2005 election, the people kept faith with them. They kept them in their hearts and minds and thoughts and prayers. Did the opposition leaders keep faith with the people after they were “pardoned” and released from prison? That is perhaps the hardest truth for the opposition leaders to face and accept. I have heard it said anecdotally thousands of times. The opposition leaders have deeply and sorely disappointed the people. In their words, deeds and conduct, they have failed to uphold and sustain the people’s dreams, aspirations and longing for justice and democracy. As best as I could summarize it, the people feel betrayed and abandoned by many opposition leaders in whom they placed so much trust.

The Opposition Through Zenawi’s Eyes

Zenawi knows the opposition like the opposition does not know itself. He has studied them and understands how they (do not) work. Careful analysis of his public statements on the opposition over the years suggests a rather unflattering view. He considers opposition leaders to be his intellectual inferiors; he can outwit, outthink, outsmart, outplay, outfox and outmaneuver them any day of the week. He believes they are dysfunctional, shiftless and inconsequential, and will never be able to pose a real challenge to his power. In his speeches and public comments, he shows nothing but contempt and hatred for them. At best, he sees them as wayward children who need constant supervision, discipline and punishment to keep them in line. Like children, he will offer some of them candy — jobs, cars, houses and whatever else it takes to buy their silence. Those he can not buy, he will intimidate, place under continuous surveillance and persecute. Mostly, he tries to fool and trick the opposition. He will send “elders” to talk to them and lullaby them to sleep while he drags out “negotiations” to buy just enough time to pull the rug from underneath them. He casts a magical spell on them so that they forget he is the master of the zero-sum game (which means he always wins and his opposition always loses).

For the first time in nearly twenty years, he is now changing his tune a little because the opposition seems to be wising up and Western donors are grimacing with slight embarrassment for supporting him. The kinder and gentler face of Zenawi is slowly being rolled out. After his “election victory”, he extended an olive branch to the opposition wrapped in his inimitable condescending cordiality, magnanimity and paternalism. He solemnly “pledge[d] to all the parties who did not succeed in getting the support of the people… as long as you respect the will of the people and the country’s Constitution and other laws of the land, we will work by consulting and involving you in all major national issues. We are making this pledge not only because we believe that we should be partners… [but also] you have the right to participate and to be heard.” In other words, he will set up a “kitchen cabinet” for the nice opposition leaders to come in through the back door and chit-chat with him. But they will never be allowed to get out of the kitchen and sit at the dining table.

Who is the Opposition in Ethiopia, Anyway?

Opposition politics in the African political context is a tragicomedy. Beginning with Nkrumah — the father of the one-man, one-party state in Africa– opposition parties and groups in Africa have been staged, suppressed and persecuted by those in power. Just a few days ago, it was reported that “14 opposition political parties have declared the Meles Zenawi-led EPRDF party as a winner of the 2010 elections, conveying congratulatory message.” This is like the chickens congratulating the fox who snacks on them for doing a good job guarding the henhouse. It is nutty, but quaintly African. Where else on earth could an election universally declared to be a sham and a fraud be blessed by lackeys organized to look like opposition parties? Are these 14 “parties” the Ethiopian opposition? How about those political parties that are permitted to run for elections just to window-dress the ruling party and make it look good and democratic? Is the opposition those parties that are handcuffed and chained at the starting line while the ruling party sprints to the finish line? Is the opposition that amorphous aggregation of weak, divided, squabbling, factionalized and fragmented parties and groups that is constantly at each other’s throats? Or is it the grumbling aggregation of human rights advocates, civic society organizers, journalists and other media professionals and academics? Or are the groups committed to armed struggle and toppling the dictatorship by force the opposition?

What Is to Be Done by the Ethiopian Opposition?

Atonement and Reconciliation With the People: There is the well-known parable of the prodigal son who took riches from his father and squandered it all. He returned home believing his father will reject and disown him. But the son asked for his father’s forgiveness. Filled with compassion and love, the father forgave his son. There may be a good lesson here for the opposition: They need to go back to the people and ask forgiveness for squandering their hopes, dreams and aspirations. They need to say to the people, “We did let you down. We are deeply sorry. We promise to do our very best to earn back your trust and confidence. We will correct our mistakes. ” In my view, atonement is the first thing opposition leaders need to do before they can begin to reconnect with the people. I realize that many of us (including myself) find it exceedingly difficult to admit we have done wrong or made a mistake. We feel that it is a sign of weakness to say “I am sorry, I messed up.” But the real and tragic mistake is to know one has done wrong and irrationally insist that wrong is right. The people deserve the unqualified and public apology of the opposition leaders. They will be forgiven because the Ethiopian people are decent, understanding and compassionate.

Work Collectively for the Release of Birtukan Midekssa and all Ethiopian Political Prisoners: Birtukan Midekksa is the symbol of the democratic opposition in Ethiopia. She is the one paying the ultimate price. Zenawi has made her his object of ridicule. But she is the personification of the spirit of the Ethiopian opposition. We must work tirelessly to get Birtukan and all of the thousands of political prisoners in Ethiopia released.

Learn From Past Mistakes: It is said that those who do not learn from past mistakes are doomed to repeat it. Many mistakes have been committed by opposition leaders in the past. They need to be identified and lessons learned from them.

Understand the Opposition’s Opposition: The opposition’s opposition should not be underestimated. Their strength is in dividing and ruling and in playing the ethnic card. If the opposition unites and acts around a common agenda, they are powerless.

Develop a Common Agenda in Support of Issues and Causes: The core issues democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law and the unity of the people and the physical integrity of the Ethiopian nation are shared by all opposition elements. Why not build collective agenda to advance and support these issues?

Agree to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable: Opposition leaders and supporters must abandon the destructive principle, “If you do not agree with me 100 percent, you are my enemy.” There is nothing wrong with reasonable minds disagreeing. Dissent and disagreement are essential conditions of democracy. If the opposition can not tolerate dissent within and among itself, how different could it be from the dictators?

Guard Against the Cult of Personality: One of the greatest weaknesses in the Ethiopian opposition has been the cult of personality. We create idealized and heroic images of individuals as leaders, shower them with unquestioning flattery and praise and almost worship them. Let us remember that every time we do that we are grooming future dictators.
Always Act in Good Faith: Opposition leaders and supporters must always strive to act in good faith and be forthright and direct in their personal and organizational relationships. We must mean what we say and say what we mean. Games of one-upmanship will keep us all stranded on an island of irrelevance.

Think Generationally; Act Presently: The struggle is not about winning an election or getting into public office. The struggle is about establishing democracy, protecting human rights and institutionalizing accountability and the rule of law in Ethiopia. It is not about us. It is about the younger generation.

Give Young People a Chance to Lead: The older generation in the opposition needs to learn to get out of the way. Let’s give the younger generation a chance to lead. After all, it is their future. We can be most useful if we help them learn from our mistakes and guide them to greater heights. Zenawi thinks he can mold the young people in his image so that he can establish a Reich that will last a thousand years. He will never succeed. If there is one thing universally true about young people, it is that they love freedom more than anything else. Let the older generation be water carriers for the young people who will be building the “future country of Ethiopia,” as Birtukan would say.

Think Like Winners, Not Victims: Victory is not what it seems for the victors, and defeat is not what it feels for the vanquished. There is defeat in victory and victory in defeat. Both victory and defeat are first and foremost states of mind. Those who won the election by a margin of 99.6 percent project an image of being victorious. But we know they have an empty victory secured by force and fraud. The real question is whether the opposition sees itself as winners or losers. Winners think and act as winners, likewise for losers.

Never Give Up, NEVER: Sir Winston Churchill was right when he said: “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

What is NOT to Be Done by the Opposition: “Fool Me once, Shame on You; Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me!”

There is talk now that Zenawi is shuttling his “elders” (shimagles) to do a deal with the opposition. It is even said that if the opposition leaders have been warned that if they do not negotiate and publicy accept the “election” results, they will soon be joining Birtukan. The last time Zenawi used his Trojan horse “elders” to deal with the opposition, he put a noose around their necks. Birtukan Midekksa is in prison today precisely because she took a “pardon” deal from the “elders”. Now she is doing a life sentence because she allegedly violated the terms of her “pardon” deal. This is how she explained it a day or two before Zenawi threw her back to prison:

… Let me start with the negotiation by the elders; the basic spirit of the negotiation by the elders was to bring about an agreement acceptable to both parties and to create a spirit of reconciliation and to continue the political process. This is why its progress took several months. In this, regarding the problem that was created following the 2005 elections, instead of following the path of making one party wrong and another party right, the country elders mediated with the objective of having each party ask for forgiveness from the people and from each other, presented to both parties points that would bring about a spirit of reconciliation, mediated these points between the parties, toning down the parties’ opinions as much as possible, and move forward by proving their determination to their political outlooks on fundamental issues.

The negotiation through the elders that was focused on reaching a negotiated agreement through a give and take deal was based on not only a willingness on the part of the government but also through its participation. … Nonetheless, even at that stage, the spirit of reconciliation to which the negotiation was directed did not change. Even though other points of agreement were left behind, the elders expressed that if we signed that document which was crafted on the spirit of our country’s culture to say to each other let it be settled, the matter would stop at that stage, the file would be closed, and pushed on with their elderly mediation…. In connection with this, agreement was reached “to release all prisoners in the country put in jail in matters related the CUD [Coalition for Unity and Democracy] without preconditions; to start direct discussions between the government and the former CUD leaders; for the parties leaders to continue their party’s duties without restrictions….

Not only was there no follow up on the “negotiated agreement” and no political prisoners released, Birtukan herself ended up being the number 1 political prisoner in the country. For Birtukan, it was Faustian bargain: In exchange for walking out of prison and staying out, Zenawi demanded her soul. But she would never sell her soul, so she is now back in Zenawi’s underworld. Just remember Birtukan when you see the slithering “elders” come bearing gifts and talk with forked tongues! “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

As I have argued before, much needs to be done to reinvent and revitalize opposition politics in Ethiopia. I raised some questions above about who the opposition is in Ethiopia. I will answer them now. The opposition is anyone who believes in and stands for genuine democracy, protection of human rights and institutionalization of the rule of law, accountability and transparency in government. The Ethiopian opposition is anyone who stands against dictatorship, tyranny and despotism.

Are you part of the opposition?


Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on,,