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Ethiopia: Dictator With a Conscience?

Alemayehu G. Mariam

Ethiopia, Famine and the Oxford Dictionary

Oxymorons (figures of speech that combine contradictory terms) can sometimes provide unique  insights into the cognitive process. Consider, for instance, the phrase “honest politician”. Is there such a thing? It sounds so comical to talk about “efficient government”? How about an “emerging democracy”? That’s like saying a “little bit pregnant.”  If there is such a thing as a “benevolent despot/dictator”, then there are hyenas that do not eat carrion.  How about “dictator with conscience”?

Recently, dictator Meles Zenawi responding to an interviwer’s question made a public confession of shame and regret over the fact that the Oxford Dictionary uses Ethiopia as a prime  example of famine.

Interviewer: In the mid-1960s something was revealed in our country. Many people were waging struggles. You were in the struggle. In the Oxford dictionary, for the word famine, the example given is Ethiopia. How does that make you feel as an Ethiopian?

Zenawi: It is a mixed up situation. On the one hand, like any citizen, I am very sad. I am ashamed. It is degrading. A society that built the Lalibela churches some thousand years ago is unable to cultivate the land and feed itself. A society that built the Axum obelisks some 2-3 thousand years ago is unable to cultivate  the land and feed itself. That is very sad. It is very shameful.  Of all the things, to go out begging for one’s daily bread, to be a beggar nation is dehumanizing. Therefore, I feel great shame. In the end though these things are not the mistakes of a single individual. They have their own long history, and cannot be eliminated through anger or regrets. In a similar way, it requires a long struggle and determination and defiance of not just one but 3 or 4 generations. I understand that is what it takes. Until that is removed and eliminated, until I finish playing my role in it, all I can do is say Amen and accept this shame and degradation.  This is the kind of feeling it creates in me.

In 1995, Zenawi was self-effacing but cocky about his vision of a nation that is well-fed and -clothed in a decade or two with people dancing in the streets, at least living not too far from paved streets. Responding to a question from what appears to be an audience of friends and supporters, Zenawi envisioned:

Questioner: In 10 or 15 years from now, is there a vision that you see that would make you happy. Can you tell us two or three things about that?

Zenawi: Ten years from now (laughter).  Let me start with ten years from now. One big thing I think will happen and dream about is that all Ethiopians will get three meals a day (applause). After that may be, if everything works out well, my hope is that Ethiopians will have two or three changes of clothes. If everything works out, all Ethiopians will live within two hours of a paved road. If we do this, we would have done a miracle (laughter). If we go to twenty years, we would have clinics, schools, access to roads of less than two hours, not just eat three times a day. We may even have a choice of foods and selection of clothes. I hope in twenty years, we will have good outcomes (applause).

Sixteen years later in 2011, the Black Horseman is standing at the gate. Zenawi stands alongside  with folded arms feigning shame for the fact that Ethiopia is perceived to be synonymous with  famine. Recently, the U.N. predicted the “worst drought in the last 60 years” for Ethiopia and neighboring countries. UNICEF warned “millions of children and women are at risk from death and disease unless a rapid and speedy response is put into action.”

The world dreads to see once again the haunting skeletal figures of Ethiopian famine victims splattered across the television screen reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s. Blame history Zenawi bleated philosophically: “In the end though these things are not the mistakes of a single individual. They have their own long history….”

Shame Without Guilt

Zenawi’s declaration of shame and regret for famine and chronic food shortages in Ethiopia is reminiscent of those American televangelists who publicly confess their sins when caught in a shameful scandal but take no responsibility for their transgressions. The devil did it or made them do it. For Zenawi, the blame should be placed on history, drought, climate change, heartless donors and divine retribution. Famine is not something he could have anticipated or planned to prevent. Famine just happens. No one is responsible.

Shame and guilt are often trivialized in the modern world. After the fall of the Third Reich, few came forward to express shame for their callous indifference to the acts of inhumanity committed in their name, and even fewer felt or admitted guilt for their own criminal acts. They conveniently dissociated themselves from the inhuman acts by adopting a shockingly matter-of-fact attitude: “It was what it was.” Nothing more. Of course, they had their regrets. The super-state that was to last a thousand years lasted only twelve.

During the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in South Africa, many of the officials who  perpetrated atrocities “felt” ashamed for torturing and mistreating black South Africans, but few openly admitted guilt and took full responsibility for their actions. They said they were acting in the name of the government or simply following official orders. They were not personally responsible.

The street criminal also feels shame for robbing or assaulting his victim, but rarely admits legal guilt, and even more rarely moral guilt and take responsibility. He too feels regrets, for getting caught.

It is common for dictators to acknowledge the fact of their wrongdoing without feeling shame or guilt. Stalin unapologetically declared, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” In 1959 during China’s Great Famine Mao casually remarked in a speech:  “When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” After the massacre of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators following the 2005 elections in Ethiopia, Zenawi feigned pangs of conscience: “I regret the deaths but these were not normal demonstrations. You don’t see hand grenades thrown at normal demonstrations.”  When his own handpicked Inquiry Commission determined after a meticulous investigation that the demonstrators were unarmed and carried no weapons of any kind, Zenawi ignored the report and did nothing. Today, 237 killers still roam the streets free.

In the final analysis, when famine consumes hundreds of thousands of  people or untold numbers of people die for simple lack of food, it is the responsibility of the man at the helm, the guy in the driver’s seat. But never in Ethiopia. Emperor Haile Selassie said he did not know about the famine in 1974 until it was too late. He was not responsible. Junta leader Mengistu Hailemariam said he was not responsible for the famine in 1984 because there was no famine. Over a million people died in that famine. Zenawi says the famine in Ethiopia today is not the responsibility of any one individual. No one in leadership position has ever taken responsibility for the recurrent famines in Ethiopia.

One must have a conscience to feel shame, admit guilt and take responsibility. To say dictators have conscience is like saying snakes have legs. Dictators are the quintessential narcissists who care about and love only themselves. They are incapable of feeling shame, guilt, compassion or appreciation. Their raison d’etre (reason for existence) is the pursuit of power at any cost to dominate and control others.

Our conscience is that “inner voice” or “inner light” that helps us distinguish right from wrong, good from evil, guilt from innocence, love from hate and virtue from vice. Guilt is the flip side of shame. The bifurcation of shame from guilt is the clearest manifestation of the lack of conscience. But if one feels shame and admits guilt (moral or legal) for the actions (or omissions) producing the shame, he experiences an inner transformation which compels him to make amends. The painful feeling of dishonor, disgrace, humiliation and self-criticism transforms the shameful act into an honorable act or at least produces genuine atonement. Real admission of guilt is always followed by moral self-redemption and salvation.

Eastern philosophy teaches that “when the mind is face to face with the Truth, a self-luminous spark of thought is revealed at the inner core of ourselves and, by analogy, all of reality.” When we come face to face with the truth of our shameful act and our conscience is awakened, we naturally and effortlessly make efforts to make amends.

Confession Time?

While we are on the subject of shame, regrets, guilt and all that, I have my own confession to make. I am ashamed Ethiopia is a country

that has become the butt of famine jokes (not just an entry in the Oxford Dictionary).

known primarily for its poverty.

where elections are stolen in broad daylight.

where the rule of law and human rights are trampled every day with impunity.

where 237 security thugs walk free after killing 193 unarmed demonstrators and wounding nearly 800.

with the worst prison system in the world.

classified as the world’s worst backslider on press freedom.

with lowest internet penetration in the world after Sierra Leone.

I am ashamed Ethiopia is classified together with the worst countries in the world on the

Corruption Index (most corrupt countries).

Failed States Index (most failed states).

Index of Economic Freedom (economically most repressive countries).

International Bank for Reconstruction and Development Investment Climate Assessment (most unfriendly to business).

Ibrahim Index of African Governance (most poorly governed African countries).

Bertelsmann Political and Economic Transformation Index (most in need of reform).

Environmental Performance Index (poorest environmental and public health indicators).

But I am also proud, mighty proud. I am proud of the unity of the Ethiopian people despite the efforts of those who toil day and night to divide them by ethnicity, region, religion, language and whatever else. I am proud of Ethiopia’s culture of respect, compassion and tolerance. Most of all, I am super proud of Ethiopia’s young people. They are the only lifeline to the survival of that nation.

I wear a badge of shame on the left and a badge of pride on the right. But between my pride and shame lies my overwhelming sense of gnawing guilt. It is guilt that manifests itself in a moral quandary about what I could have done, can do now and in the future, particularly for the young people of Ethiopia to reclaim their destiny. The solutions to Ethiopia’s famine, poverty, disease, illiteracy and the rest of it will not come from self-adulating, forked-tongue dictators who cling to power like ticks on a milk cow, but from Ethiopia’s young men and women.

Zenawi says he is ashamed of the recurrent famine in Ethiopia and is resigned to accepting it  with an “Amen.” The crocodile also sheds tears. But a dictator professing shame without admitting guilt is, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “an evil soul producing holy witness, a villain with a smiling cheek, a goodly apple rotten at the heart.”

But can you hear the silent screams of the starving Ethiopians? Can you see their quiet riots against tyranny?  If you can’t, what a crying shame!

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