Just feeling proud and blue all over
“Everyday, everyday I have the blues” sang B.B. King on his faithful guitar Lucille. Everyday, everyday for the last eight years I’ve had the blues, the “193/763 Blues”. “Ain’t gonna stop until the twenty-fifth hour, ‘Cause now I’m living on blues power,” belted out Eric Clapton. I am feeling blue power too!
I am blue and happy as a blue lark. I mean blue as in the Blue Party (Semayawi Party) of young people in Ethiopia. They chose blue to symbolize their ideals of unity, peace and hope in Ethiopia. Just like U.N. blue for all nations united in peace and hope for the future. Like European Union blue, over two dozen states working for a more perfect economic and political union. Like Ethiopian blue — all Ethiopia united, peaceful and hopeful in the Twenty-first Century. Go Blues! Onward!
Follow the blue line
Y’all remember me talking, writing and raving about Ethiopia’s Cheetahs, the young generation, for years now. (How hip is it for a venerable member of Ethiopia’s Hippo Generation to rave about the Cheetahs?) Well, I want to make it official. I done crossed the generation gap and gone over to the Cheetahs’ lair. Yep! I sold out. Double-crossed them Hippos. Hippos ain’t hip enough for me no more. I am now a “Chee-Hippo” (A hip Hippo who likes to hang out with Cheetahs). Surprised?! Didn’t see it coming?
Here is the deal. I saw them Cheetahs leaping and rising, rising higher and higher. I recently watched them prowl the streets, but didn’t see them growl or howl. I said, “What a beautiful sight!”
I heard them purring though the streets. (Ever heard Cheetahs purr songs of justice, freedom and human rights?) I said, “What a beautiful sound! They are purring my song!”
I am with the Cheetahs. Well, actually, I am just tagging along. More like dragging behind the fast and furious Cheetahs.
Oooh! See them Cheetahs run! Watch ’em rise and shine like the sun. Watch them Cheetahs “soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Imagine rising, flying Cheetahs with a Hippo in tow! Funny, I know.
In my first commentary of the year, I declared 2013 “Ethiopia’s Year of the Cheetah Generation”. This is their year, I proclaimed. Some hippos disagreed. “Ignore the Cheetahs. They are into flash and cash.” I say look into the mirror.
I asked Ethiopia’s Cheetah’s, “What time is it?” “It’s Cheetah Time!”, they thundered. I can’t hear yoooou! “IT’S CHEETAH TIME!” Say it loud and proud! “IT’S CHEETAH TIME!” RIGHT ON!
I said in 2013 Ethiopia’s Cheetahs will rise and shine and soar to new heights. They will lift up and carry Ethiopia on their wings. They are doing just that. Just who are these Cheetahs?
Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation include not only graduates and professionals — the ‘best and the brightest’ — but also the huddled masses of youth yearning to breathe free; the millions of youth victimized by nepotism, cronyism and corruption and those who face brutal suppression and those who have been subjected to illegal incarceration for protesting human rights violations. Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation is Eskinder Nega’s and Serkalem Fasil’s Generation. It is the generation of Andualem Aragie, Woubshet Alemu, Reeyot Alemu, Bekele Gerba, Olbana Lelisa and so many others like them. Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation is the only generation that could rescue Ethiopia from the steel claws of tyranny and dictatorship. It is the only generation that can deliver Ethiopia from the fangs of a benighted dictatorship and transform a decaying and decomposing garrison state built on a foundation of lies into one that is deeply rooted in the consent and sovereignty of the people.
In January, I made my own solemn “Chee-Hippo Pledge”. “I promise to reach, teach and preach to Ethiopia’s youth in 2013.” I kept my promise. I kept faith with Ethiopia’s Cheetahs even when they were down for the count. 1-2-3… Rise Cheetahs, rise! Rise and shine bright on Ethiopia!
I made it “official” in late January and reclassified myself from a Hippo to a “Chee-Hippo”. I made my announcement in “Rise of the Chee-Hippo Generation”. I sent out an urgent SOS. “Emergency! Cheetahs in peril! Need help PDQ!” I was down on my knees pleading with them to restore faith with the Cheetahs:
Truth must be told: Hippos have broken faith with Cheetahs. Cheetahs feel betrayed by Hippos. Cheetahs feel marginalized and sidelined. Cheetahs say their loyalty and dedication has been countered by the treachery and underhandedness of Hippos. The respect and obedience Cheetahs have shown Hippos have been greeted with disdain and effrontery. Cheetahs say Hippos have misconstrued their humility as servility; their flexibility and adaptability have been countered by rigidity and their humanity abused by cruel indignity. Cheetahs feel double-crossed, jilted, tricked, lied to, bamboozled, used and abused by Hippos. Cheetahs say they have been demonized for questioning Hippos and for demanding accountability. For expressing themselves freely, Cheetahs have been sentenced to hard labor in silence. Cheetahs have been silenced by silent Hippos! Cheetahs have lost faith in Hippos. Such is the compendium of complaints I hear from many Ethiopian Cheetahs. Are the Cheetahs right in their perceptions and feelings? Are they justified in their accusations? Are Hippos behaving so badly?
Perhaps they thought SOS meant Silence Over Silence?
When I see Ethiopia’s Cheetahs today, I feel blue all over. Blue is my favorite color now. Blue Cheetahs of Ethiopia, the rarest Cheetahs in all of Africa. When I see the blue Cheetahs, I feel peaceful and hopeful. When I feel Cheetah blue, I don’t see division. I see one nation. I really like blue, but I love green, yellow and red in that order a thousand times more. Check it out. It’s green, yellow and red, all wrapped in velvet blue. I’m just loving it.
I say follow the blue line crowd. Get on the blue train, y’all! First stop, Justice. Second stop, Democracy. Third stop, Free Speech/Press. Fourth stop, Free Political Prisoners. Fifth stop, Religious Freedom. Sixth stop… Seventh stop… There is no stopping us now!
Them Cheetahs know where they are going. They got GPS. We got old maps. They have a destination. We have detour loops. We keep going in circles. Talk that way too. They walk and talk straight. We talk riddles with forked tongues. They were once lost, but now they are found. We are lost and never found. At the end of the rainbow, we look for a pot of gold bleary-eyed. They are just looking for a rainbow nation bright-eyed. Aarrgh! Old people, old times, old maps.
It’s a new day, a blue day. The day belongs to the Cheetahs with GPS. Let’s get the hell out of the way! Let’s follow the Cheetahs. Let’s get on the blue train. Onward, Blue Cheetahs. Onward!
Got to give credit where it is due
I have often been accused of being unfair to the regime in Ethiopia. I have been criticized for criticizing them “harshly”. They say I have never given the regime a break. Never given them credit for anything. If that were ever true, it has changed now. (A person who can’t change his/her mind can’t change anything.) Just as I may have been “harsh” when I felt they did wrong, I am unreservedly supportive when they do right. They did right by Ethiopia’s young people when they let them have their peaceful march on June 1. I give full credit to Hailemariam Desalegn and his team for making possible what many believed was impossible. I can’t imagine it was an easy thing to do. There must have been enormous pressure on them. I can imagine the prophets of gloom and doom saying, “Don’t do it! You’ll be sorry. If we let them protest, the sky will fall and the stars will come down crashing! It will open the door for more protests and there will be more trouble… Let’s crackdown like 2005. Let’s teach them a lesson they will never forget.”
I respect Hailemariam’s decision to let the peaceful protest take place. He and his team did the right thing. Fairness requires they be given full credit. (If I cannot be fair to those with whom I disagree when fairness requires it, then I don’t believe in fairness.) I commend Hailemariam and his team for having the courage, foresight, and will power to let the protest take place. It takes guts to do what they did. That’s what I call leadership. Doing the right thing when it is easier to do the wrong thing, that is real leadership! I wish them more power to do the right thing.
The leaders and supporters of the Blue Party deserve a whole lot of credit. The party leaders showed their mettle. They proved they know what they want. They proved they know how to do it. They were civil in delivering their messages. No angry denunciations or recriminations. They played it by the book, by the Constitution. Their attitude was not antagonistic or bellicose. They did not come to the protest with a chip on their shoulder. They carried their cause on their shoulder. They were not itching or sniffing for fights. They just wanted to defend their human rights.
The party leaders, members and supporters were exemplary in every way. They were well-disciplined and well-regulated. There was no mob unruliness or hooliganism. Not a single person threw rocks. Not a single fight occurred. Not a single window was broken. No property was destroyed. Not a single crime was committed. Not a single person carried a weapon. Protesters walked and assembled and sang patriotic songs and chanted freedom slogans. Even the police assigned to monitor them stood on the sidelines watching nonchalantly. Some of them appeared to be yawning, struggling to stay awake. That’s how peaceful the protests were. I lack the words to honor and complement the leaders, members and supporters of the Blue Party. They have shown the world it is possible to protest peacefully and with dignity. Yes, with dignity! They have affirmed my fundamental belief that the peaceful path is always better than the violent path. Always.
Think (human) right, do (human) right
I am on the side of right regardless of who does right. I am against the side of wrong regardless of who does wrong. For me, it is about the act, not the actors. It’s about the deed, not the doers. It’s about the “sin, not the sinners.” Good deeds deserve appreciation and encouragement. Bad deeds deserve condemnation and discouragement. On June 1, 2013, both the Blue Party and the regime did the right thing. Both deserve appreciation and encouragement. You can’t go wrong doing right by human rights!
I care about doing the right thing so much that I believe it is okay to do right even for the wrong reasons. I have my dear naysayers telling me I am naïve. They say I “don’t understand these people.” They are playing games. I should not trust this one gesture. I should sit, wait and see what they will do next. Hell, I am not going to wait. I call it as I see it, when I see it. If and when they crackdown, then I will speak my peace.
I say, “So, what if they are playing games?” Action speaks louder that thoughts, intentions or words. Perhaps this is their trial balloon to see how change on their part will be viewed by their own supporters and reciprocated by their opponents. I can speculate about their reasons for letting the Blue Party members and supporters have their protest until the cows come home, but won’t. That is their business. In my view, letting the Blue Party conduct its peaceful demonstrations is a good first step to build a teeny-weeny bit of confidence between those in power and those on the outside. Where absolute distrust and mistrust rules in the relations between opponents, the tiniest gesture that appear to dispel doubt and plant the seeds of trust should be nurtured. When Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the moon, his first words were, “One small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind.” I hope and pray that the fact the Blue Party protested peacefully on June 1, 2013 will be one small march for the Blue Party and a giant leap of faith for all parties in Ethiopia. “Hope always springs eternal in my breast”, to paraphrase a line from Alexander Pope’s verse.
When the Blue Party members successfully held their protest, it was a moment of truth for the Blue Party and the regime. They had their test and both passed with flying blue colors!
Plan for peace, not strife; plan for “radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy”
I take pride in speaking my mind and in speaking the truth. That’s why myblogsite proclaims, “Defend human rights. Speak truth to power.” The truth — as I see, hear, speak and feel it — is my sword and shield. The truth can sometimes be a bitter fruit. It can also be painful. It does not have to be that way. The truth can be sweet, liberating, enlightening and fulfilling. The truth can set us all free. In my farewell remarks on the passing of Meles, I put a truth challenge to Meles’ political heirs.
I have sought for some signs that Meles at least believed in human rights in the abstract. I shall give him the benefit of doubt that he did. In an interview with Al Jazeera in 2007, Meles said, ‘I’d hope that my legacy would be one of sustained and accelerated development that would pull Ethiopia out of the massive deep poverty that it was mired in, full and total stabilization of the country, radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy. I’d hope by the time I retire, we’d have made significant strides in all of those in the future.’
It is time now to make “radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy” had seen a radical regression into tyranny and despotism. The “future” Meles spoke of is now. We should all work collectively to implement his aspirations for “radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy” now.This is Meles’ legacy his surviving officials should acknowledge openly and work with others to implement as the ultimate tribute to Meles’ leadership. The ‘radical improvement in good governance and democracy’ begins with the release of all political prisoners, repeal of antiterrorism and civil society and other oppressive laws and declaration of allegiance to the rule of law. As the Ethiopian new year is just around the corner, we can all begin afresh on the road to “radical improvements in good governance and democracy.
The Blue Party seeks the same goal of radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy that Meles wanted. I have no doubts Meles’ successors want such improvements as well. So do all others in the opposition. There is perfect consensus about what needs to be done between those in power, those out of power, the powerful and the powerless and those who couldn’t care less about the powerful or the powerless. So, why is it not possible to put our collective noses to the grindstone, shoulders to the wheel and work for radical improvements in good governance and democracy?
The simple question is how to bring about “radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy”? How do we bring about change?
Change comes whether we like it or don’t want it. Change can come the right or wrong way. It is wiser to come to change before it comes to us. Change in Ethiopia is now inevitable because the young people are demanding it. They have changed their minds and hearts about their own situation. “They can’t take it anymore!” No force can stop them because they are commanded by history to take charge of the destiny of their country.
Change is unkind to those who fear it, reject it. Those who feared and rejected change ultimately became the architects of their self-destruction. H.I.M. Haile Selassie was advised to change and he steadfastly refused. His regime self-destructed. Junta leader Mengistu Hailemariam was advised to change. He turned arrogant. His regime also self-destructed. Meles was advised to change. He too refused. Now it is up to his successors to make the choice he wanted and yearned to make but couldn’t. Their choice is clear: Make radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy or face the verdict of history. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
It is in human nature to fear change. People once feared electricity and machines that fly in the air. Those riding horses and buggies said, “If man were made to fly, he would have wings.” Once they overcame their fears, they made those changes part of their lives.
Many of those in power in Ethiopia today are afraid of change because they feel they will lose their power and privilege. (Some truly believe they can remain in power for one hundred years by sheer force. What a pity!) They are not willing to take any chances. Those who are demanding change also have their own fears and anxieties. They don’t know what change will bring, but they are willing to take a chance. Neither those in power nor those out of power should be prisoners of fear of change. They must break out of their prison of fear and cross the threshold of courage holding hands with faith in their hearts.
Rarely does change come by accident. As Dr. Martin L. King said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.” Ethiopia’s Cheetahs have launched their peaceful struggle for rights and against wrongs. Change will not be easy, but “The harder the struggle [for change], the more glorious the triumph.” We cannot afford to be paralyzed by the fear of fear. We have brave young Ethiopians ready, willing and able to build a brave new Ethiopia. With them out in full force, we have nothing to fear but the fear in our own hearts.
Africa is littered with stillborn change. We see change without a difference all over Africa every day. African dictators come and go like the seasons. Some move like hurricanes destroying everything in their path. Others burn like the desert sun. A few hang around like blinding fog. But real change remains elusive in Africa. Real change is not mere regime change. It requires heart and mind change.
We must embrace change for the good, not fear it. Ethiopia’s young people are rising for good and necessary change. Today Ethiopia is poised for a special kind of change. It is change that flows form the fertile imagination of the youth. They are imagining a brave new Ethiopia. They don’t want the old Ethiopia built on a foundation of ethnic division, tribal affiliation, religious sectarianism and communalism. They want gender equality. They have their own blueprint for the kind of Ethiopia they want. Why shouldn’t they have their Ethiopia? We had ours, isn’t it time they have theirs? It’s just fair.
Regardless of what we do or don’t, the ultimate triumph of Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation is assured. The numbers are on their side. Seventy percent of Ethiopia’s population is under 35 years of age. History is on their side. Millions of young people before them spilled their blood and poured sweat and tears to build a democratic and just Ethiopia. The forces of our universe — justice, freedom, democracy — are on their side. We should be on their side too.
Change cannot be stopped by guns or tanks. “Nothing can stop an idea whose time has come.” The time for fresh ideas, fresh young faces, fresh leadership for a refreshed Ethiopia is now. Though change can be delayed, thwarted and deferred, it can never be stopped. To paraphrase one of my favorite poets, Langston Hughes:
What happens to a change (dream) deferred? Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Those who survive change are not those with the guns or the money. They are those who can adapt to change, roll with the punches and prevent an explosion.
I can spend my time thinking and worrying about things that can go wrong. Could there be a 2005 in 2013? It is easy to think about how things that can go wrong. It is far more difficult to think about how things can go right. We must think right not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Doing right is often harder than doing wrong.
It is my duty as a human rights advocate to promote and support right and oppose wrong. That is a choice one has to make in becoming a human rights defender. I care about human beings, not parties, politicians, ideologies or whatnot. Power is a means not an end in itself. It is neither good nor bad.
I believe in using power to do good; to protect the powerless from the powerful; to use power to prevent the abuse of power; to use power to bring together the powerless with the powerful; to use power to empower the youth. I believe in the irresistible power of ideas and have little faith in the power of gunpowder. I believe in the use of power to heal, not to kill or to steal. I believe in the power to give people hope. I believe in the power of peace.
I am told I will eat these words I have written soon enough when “they start cracking down”. If I am proven wrong in my optimism, it won’t be the first time. But I am an incorrigible optimist. I shall maintain a fixed gaze on the “long arc of the universe that bends towards justice.”
When I got involved in human rights advocacy headlong seven or so years ago following the killings of the young unarmed protesters, I gave the longest speech I have ever given (nearly eight thousand words). It was titled, “Awakening Giant! Can Ethiopians and Ethiopian Americans living in America make a difference in their homeland (also available here)?” I could summarize it all in one sentence. “We prove the righteousness of our cause not in battlefields soaked in blood and filled with corpses, but in the living hearts and thinking minds of men and women of goodwill.” I am still guided by those simple ideas.
There are great lessons to be learned from the Blue Party protests. The biggest one is: Peaceful protest need not be feared; it must be embraced. We may not be able to march the streets with the Blue Party members and supporters, but we should not hesitate to declare our solidarity with their peaceful movement. The young people in the Blue Party cannot do it alone. They need us all as partners and helpers. “We” are those in power and those out of power. We should not only rise with the rising Cheetahs, we should also stand by them!
Ethiopians are at the crossroads. We can choose to remain stuck in the crossroads nursing our bigotry, stewing in our hatred and sizzling in violence, conflict and strife. Or we can choose the blue line, join the blue crowd and head in the direction of reconciliation, accommodation and consultation. I say, we should all get on the blue line because it is the road less travelled, the road of the future. To paraphrase Robert Frost’s verse,
We shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and we—
We took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Ethiopia’s youth united can never be defeated. Power to the youth! Blue Cheetah Power!
“Those who make peaceful change impossible will make violent change inevitable.” JFK
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
The Silent World of Hippos on Planet Cheetah
In my first weekly commentary of the new year, I “proclaimed” 2013 “Year of Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation” (young people). I also promised to reach, teach and preach to Ethiopia’s youth this year and exhorted members of the Ethiopian intellectual class (particularly the privileged “professorati”) to do the same. I have also been pleading with (some say badgering) the wider Ethiopian Hippo Generation (the lost generation) to find itself, get in gear and help the youth.
The SOS I put out in June 2012 (Where have Ethiopia’s Intellectuals Gone?) and now (The Irresponsibility of the Privileged) has been unwelcomed by tone deaf and deaf mute “Hippogenarians”. My plea for standing up and with the victims of tyranny and human rights abuses has been received with stony and deafening silence. I have gathered anecdotally that some Hippos are offended by what they perceive to be my self-righteous and holier-than-thou finger wagging and audacious, “J’accuse!”. Some have claimed that I am sitting atop my high horse crusading, pontificating, showboating, grandstanding and self-promoting.
There seems to be palpable consternation and anxiety among some (perhaps many) Hippos over the fact that I dared to betray them in a public campaign of name and shame and called unwelcome attention to their self-inflicted paralysis and faintheartedness. Some have even suggested that by using the seductively oversimplified metaphor of cheetahs and hippos, I have invented a new and dangerous division in society between the young and old in a land already fractured and fragmented by ethnic, religious and regional divisions. “Methinks they doth protest too much”, to invoke Shakespeare.
My concern and mission is to lift the veil that shrouds a pernicious culture and conspiracy of silence in the face of evil. My sole objective is to speak truth not only to power but also to those who have calculatedly chosen to disempower themselves by self-imposed silence. I unapologetically insist that silently tolerating wrong over right is dead wrong. Silently conceding the triumph of evil over good is itself evil. Silently watching atrocity is unmitigated moral depravity. Complicity with the champions of hate is partnership with haters.
The maxim of the law is “Silence gives consent” (qui tacet consentiret). Silence is complicity. Silence for the sake of insincere and hollow social harmony (yilugnta) is tantamount to dousing water on the quiet riot that rages in the hearts and minds of the oppressed. Leonardo da Vinci said, “Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.” I say nothing strengthens tyranny as much as silence — the silence of the privileged, the silence of those who could speak up but choose to take a vow of silence. One cannot speak to tyrants in the language of silence; one must speak to tyrants in the language of defiant truth. Silence must never be allowed to become the last refuge of the hypocritical scoundrel.
There have been encouraging developments over the past week in the crescendo of voices speaking truth to power. Several enlightening contributions that shed light on the life and times of tyranny in Ethiopia have been made in “Ethiopian cyber hager”, to borrow Prof. Donald Levine’s metaphor. A couple of insightful analysis readily come to mind. Muktar Omer offered a devastating critique of the bogus theory of “revolutionary democracy.” He argued convincingly “that recent economic development in Ethiopia has more to do with the injection of foreign aid into the economy and less with revolutionary democracy sloganeering.” He demonstrated the core ideological nexus between fascism, communism and revolutionary democracy. Muktar concluded, “Intellectuals who are enamored with the ‘good intellect and intentions’ of Meles Zenawi and rationalize his appalling human rights records are guilty of either willful ignorance or disagree with Professor John Gray’s dauntingly erudite reminder: ‘radical evil can come from the pursuit of progress’”. My view is that revolutionary democracy is to democracy as ethic federalism is to federalism. Both are figments of a warped and twisted imagination.
An Amharic piece by Kinfu Asefa (managing editor of ethioforum.org) entitled “Development Thieves” made a compelling case demonstrating the futility and duplicity of the so-called “Renaissance Bond” calculated to raise billions of dollars to dam the Blue Nile. Kinfu argued persuasively that there could be no development dam when the people themselves are damned by the damned dam developers.
I am told by those much wiser than myself that I am pursuing a futile course trying to coax Hippos to renounce their vows of silence and speak up. I am told it would be easier for me to squeeze blood out of turnip than to expect broad-gauged political activism and engaged advocacy from the members of Ethiopia’s inert Hippo Generation. The wise ones tell me I should write off (and not write about) the Hippos living on Planet Cheetah. I should stop pestering them and leave them alone in their blissful world where they see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil!
Restoring Faith With the Cheetahs
We have a problem! A big one. “We” are both Cheetahs and Hippos. Truth must be told: Hippos have broken faith with Cheetahs. Cheetahs feel betrayed by Hippos. Cheetahs feel marginalized and sidelined. Cheetahs say their loyalty and dedication has been countered by the treachery and underhandedness of Hippos. The respect and obedience Cheetahs have shown Hippos have been greeted with disdain and effrontery. Cheetahs say Hippos have misconstrued their humility as servility; their flexibility and adaptability have been countered by rigidity and their humanity abused by cruel indignity. Cheetahs feel double-crossed, jilted, tricked, lied to, bamboozled, used and abused by Hippos. Cheetahs say they have been demonized for questioning Hippos and for demanding accountability. For expressing themselves freely, Cheetahs have been sentenced to hard labor in silence. Cheetahs have been silenced by silent Hippos! Cheetahs have lost faith in Hippos. Such is the compendium of complaints I hear from many Ethiopian Cheetahs. Are the Cheetahs right in their perceptions and feelings? Are they justified in their accusations? Are Hippos behaving so badly?
A word or two about the youths’ loss of faith in their elders before talking about restoring faith with them. Ethiopia’s youth live in a world where they are forced to hear every day the litany that their innate value is determined not by the content of their character, individuality or humanity but the random chance of their ethnicity. They have no personality, nationality or humanity, only ethnicity. They are no more than the expression of their ethnic identity.
To enforce this wicked ideology, Apartheid-style homelands have been created in the name of “ethnic federalism”. The youth have come to realize that their station in life is determined not by the power of their intellect but by the power of those who lack intellect. They are shown by example that how high they rise in society depends upon how low they can bring themselves on the yardstick of self-dignity and how deeply they can wallow in the sewage of the politics of identity and ethnicity. They live in a world where they are taught the things that make them different from their compatriots are more than the things they have in common with them. Against this inexorable message of dehumanization, they hear only the sound of silence from those quietly professing allegiance to freedom, democracy and human rights. To restore faith with Ethiopia’s youth, we must trade silence with the joyful noise of protest; we must unmute ourselves and stand resolute against tyranny. We must cast off the silence of quiet desperation.
But before we restore faith with the young people, we must restore faith with ourselves. In other words, we must save ourselves before we save our young people. To restore faith with ourselves, we must learn to forgive ourselves for our sins of commission and omission. We must believe in ourselves and the righteousness of our cause. Before we urge the youth to be courageous, we must first shed our own timidity and fearfulness. Before we teach young people to love each other as children of Mother Ethiopia, we must unlearn to hate each other because we belong to different ethnic groups or worship the same God with different names. To restore faith with ourselves, we must be willing to step out of our comfort zones, comfort groups, comfort communities and comfort ethnicities and muster the courage to say and do things we know are right. We should say and do things because they are right and true, and not because we seek approval or fear disapproval from anyone or group. George Orwell said, “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act.” We live in times of national deceit and must become revolutionaries by speaking truth to abusers of power, to the powerless, to the self-disempowered and to each other.
To be fair to my fellow Hippos, they defend their silence on the grounds that speaking up will not make a difference to tyrants. They say speaking truth to tyranny is a waste of time, an exercise in futility. Some even say that it is impossible to communicate with the tyrants in power with reasoned words because these tyrants only understand the language of crashing guns, rattling musketry and booming artillery.
I take exception to this view. I believe at the heart of the struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia is an unending battle for the hearts and minds of the people. In the battlefield of hearts and minds, guns, tanks and warplanes are useless. History bears witness. The US lost the war in Vietnam not because it lacked firepower, airpower, nuclear power, financial power, scientific or technical power. The U.S. lost the war because it lacked the power to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese and American peoples.
Words are the most potent weapon in the battle for hearts and minds. Words can enlighten the benighted, open closed eyes, sealed mouths and plugged ears. Words can awaken consciences. Words can inspire, inform, stimulate and animate. Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the greatest military leaders in history, feared words more than arms. That is why he said, “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” That why I insist my fellow privileged intellectuals and all who claim or aspire to be supporters of democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law to speak up and speak out and not hide behind a shield of silence. I say speak truth to tyranny. Preach faith in the divinity of humanity and against the bigotry of the politics of identity and ethnicity; champion loudly the causes of unity in diversity and practice the virtues of civility, accountability, amity and cordiality. Never stand silent in the face of atrocity, criminality, contrived ethnic animosity and the immorality of those who abuse of power.
It is necessary to restore faith with the Cheetahs. The gap between Cheetahs and Hippos is not generational. There is a trust gap, not generational gap. There is a credibility gap. There is an expectation gap, an understanding gap and a compassion gap. Many bridges need to be built to close the gaps that divide the Cheetah and Hippo Generations.
Rise of the Chee-Hippo Generation
There is a need to “invent” a new generation, the Chee-Hippo Generation. A Chee-Hippo is a hippo who thinks, behaves and acts like a Cheetah. A Chee-Hippo is also a cheetah who understands the limitations of Hippos yet is willing to work with them in common cause for a common purpose.
Chee-Hippos are bridge builders. They build strong intergenerational bridges that connect the young with the old. They build bridges to connect people seeking democracy, freedom and human rights. They build bridges across ethnic canyons and connect people stranded on islands of homelands. They bridge the gulf of language, religion and region. They build bridges to link up the rich with the poor. They build bridges of national unity to harmonize diversity. They build bridges to connect the youth at home with the youth in the Diaspora. Chee-Hippos build social and political networks to empower youth.
Are You a Chee-Hippo or a Hippo?
You are a Chee-Hippo if you believe
young people are the future of the country and the older people are the country’s past.
the future is infinitely more important than the past.
a person’s value is determined not by the collection of degrees listed after his/her name but by the person’s commitment and stand on the protection of the basic human rights of a fellow human being.
and practice the virtues of tolerance, civility, civic duty, cooperation, empathy, forgiveness, honesty, honor, idealism, inclusivity and openness.
You are a Chee-Hippo if you are
open-minded, flexible, and humble.
open to new ideas and ways of communicating with people across age groups, ethnic, religious, gender and linguistic lines.
unafraid to step out of your comfort zone into the zone of hard moral choices.
courageous enough to mean what you say and say what you mean instead of wasting your time babbling in ambiguity and double-talk.
prepared to act now instead of tomorrow (eshi nege or yes, tomorrow).
prepared to blame yourself first for your own deficits before blaming the youth or others for theirs.
eager to learn new things today and unlearn the bad lessons of the past.
committed to finding opportunity than complaining about the lack of one.
able to develop attitudes and beliefs that reflect what is possible and not wallow in self-pity about what is impossible.
fully aware that the world is in constant and rapid change and by not changing you have no one to blame for the consequences except yourself.
Any Hippo can be reinvented into a Chee-Hippo. Ultimately, being a Chee-Hippo is a state of mind. One need only think, behave and act like Cheetahs. The credo of a true Chee-Hippo living on Planet Cheetah is, “We must not give only what we have; we must give what we are.”
Damn proud to be a Chee-Hippo!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
Alemayehu G. Mariam
Note: This is my fourth commentary on the theme, “Where do we go from here?” following the rigged elections in Ethiopia last month in which the ruling dictatorship won by 99.6 percent. In this piece, I express deep anguish over the enormous problems and challenges faced by Ethiopia’s youth, and urge them to emancipate their minds and work collectively to build the “future country of Ethiopia” that Birtukan Midekssa, Ethiopia’s foremost political prisoner and first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, dreamed about.
Own the Youth, Gain the Future
In 1935, Adolf Hitler delivered a speech at the Reichsparteitag (national party convention) in which he declared, “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.” By impregnating German youth with Nazi ideology and unleashing them on the world, Hitler believed he could perpetuate the Third Reich for a thousand years. Creating an indoctrinated and brainwashed youth is the impossible dream of all dictators and tyrannical regimes. The Soviets created the Young Pioneers and Komsomols to integrate youth into the party structure and tighten their control over the population. In China, Mao’s anchored his theory of “permanent revolution” in the mass mobilization of youth; and in the late 1960s he formed the Red Guards to implement his Cultural Revolution.
During the 17 years of military dictatorship in Ethiopia following the overthrow of the imperial regime in 1975, much effort was done to convert the country’s youth to become supporters of the junta and its socialist revolution. That courtship ended in a so-called Red Terror campaign in which tens of thousands of young people were hunted down in the streets and in their homes and arrested or killed by junta cadres. In a monstrous act that will remain in infamy in the history of mankind, junta leader Mengistu Hailemariam forced the parents of Red Terror victims to pay for the bullets used to murder their children.
Today, the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi is busily implementing a master plan to “own” Ethiopia’s youth in a futile attempt to perpetuate itself for a thousand years. Zenawi’s strategy is straightforward. Force the best and the brightest of Ethiopia’s youth to make a Hobson’s choice: Become loyal party members or you will not have access to jobs, education, health care or social welfare programs. It is a simple Faustian bargain. The youth have the option of getting education, jobs, wealth, political power and social privileges in exchange for selling their souls and joining the party. Those who will not take the deal will be left to twist slowly in the wind. The political pressure on Ethiopia’s youth to join the ruling party is so staggering that young people who are not members or supporters of the dictatorship are routinely denied “support letters” from their kebeles (local districts) necessary to get public employment and other social benefits. To squeeze new college graduates into joining the party, the dictatorship has a “new scheme” in place: “Students graduating in the year 2008-2009 from all governmental higher learning institutions have been prohibited from collecting their academic credentials including the student copy until they find jobs which enable them to refund the cost sharing expenses utilized at the universities.” This policy is inapplicable to members and supporters of dictatorship’s party.
Only Slaves Can Be Owned
“Owning” the youth of a nation remains the Holy Grail of every tin pot dictator and tyrant from Albania to Zimbabwe. The concept of “ownership” of youth evokes the imagery of slaves and masters. The slave’s sole purpose in life is to serve the master. Slaves work exclusively for the benefit of their masters, and receive nothing in return. Slaves always work involuntarily and do so because they are fearful of the painful sting of their overseer’s whip. The history of slavery also shows that the master can only own the body of the slave and rarely the slave’s mind. But the master’s ultimate aim is to enslave and cripple the mind of the slave by making the slave feel totally dependent on the master and imposing an overwhelming sense of fear, powerlessness, hopelessness and despair in the slave.
Own-a-Youth or Rent-a-Youth?
In his “victory” speech celebrating his 99.6 percent win in last month’s “election”, Zenawi offered hollow gratitude to Ethiopia’s youth: “We are also proud of the youth of our country who have started to benefit from the ongoing development and also those who are in the process of applying efforts to be productively employed! We offer our thanks and salute the youth of Ethiopia for their unwavering support and enthusiasm!” Given the grim statistics on Ethiopia’s youth and children (below), it is not clear what “ongoing development” Zenawi is talking about.
Nonetheless, Zenawi’s message at the Third Annual Youth Conference in November 2009 provides some insights into his overall strategy to “own” (more appropriately “rent”) Ethiopia’s youth. Before a stage-managed hall full of young people sitting in numbed silence wearing party-issued baseball caps, purportedly representing Ethiopia’s youth, Zenawi laid out his over all youth strategy based on engagement of youth into his party structure. In sketching out his plan for “leadership succession” incorporating youth, Zenawi said that his party for the preceding three to four years had been engaged in preparing youth for political leadership by undertaking “broad recruitment, broad training and broad placement” efforts. His party has placed “no less than 30,000” youths in leadership positions at the local, district and even regional levels. Youth leaders that have shown potential for higher leadership positions will be “tried and tested” and elevated. The “main thing”, Zenawi said is to get youth — large numbers of them — enlisted in the party. In response to carefully crafted questions read out by apparently pre-selected youth, Zenawi assured the overwhelmingly male youth crowd that they have a much better chance of electoral participation than ever before, and have an “irreplaceable role” to play in ensuring “free and fair election” in the May 2010 “election”. He advised repeatedly to closely work with and report issues and problematic persons to the “authorities”.
The manifest aim of this youth strategy is to recruit and unleash hundreds of thousands of well-trained, loyal, bought-off robotic army of youths that will carry out the party’s programs, follow orders and serve as “shock brigades” in the implementation of party policies and Zenawi’s will. In time, the thirty thousand youths would proliferate to hordes of 3 million; and that way, the youth can be owned and the future gained. But the history of the 20th Century shows that many dictatorships have tried and failed in their efforts to recruit and enlist an army of brainwashed youths who could be cloned as successive generations of “True Believers” for the party.
Ethiopia’s Youth at Risk
In discussing Ethiopia’s youth here, I am not employing the standard quantitative age category of 15-24 years. In the context of the African economic realities, a broader swath of the age group under 30 is warranted. Article 36 of the Ethiopian Constitution enumerates a whole set of guarantees to ensure the health, education and welfare of the country’s children and youth. But the statistics on Ethiopia’s children in general is shocking. Though the population under the age of 18 is estimated to be 41 million or just over half of the country’s population, UNICEF estimates that malnutrition is responsible for more than half of all deaths among children under age five. Ethiopia has an estimated 5 million orphans or approximately 15 per cent of all children. Some 800,000 children are estimated to be orphaned as a result of AIDS. These children are highly vulnerable to all forms of exploitation, including child labor and sexual, and receive little educational services, social support or supervision. Urban youth unemployment is estimated at 70 per cent. According to a Population Council report “the vast majority of Ethiopian adolescents, 85 percent, live in rural areas. Levels of education are very low, especially for girls and for rural youth. A substantial proportion of adolescents do not live with their parents, especially in urban areas, where 33 percent of Ethiopian girls aged 10–14 live with neither parent. Some regions have extremely high rates of early marriage. For example, 46 percent of girls in the Amhara region were married by age 15.” There are also about 2.5 million children with disabilities receiving very little government assistance. Frustrated and in despair of their future, many urban youths drop out of school and engage in a fatalistic pattern of risky behaviors including drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse, crime and delinquency and sexual activity which exposes them to a risk of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases including HIV. There is a serious problem of child trafficking and highly publicized instances of adoption fraud and abuse cases have been documented in the international media in the past year.
Ethiopia’s Youth as Ticking Bomb
The wretched conditions of Ethiopia’s youth point to the fact that they are a ticking demographic time bomb. The evidence of youth frustration, discontent, disillusionment and discouragement by the protracted economic crisis, lack of economic opportunities and political repression is manifest, overwhelming and irrefutable. The yearning of youth for freedom and change is self-evident. The only question is whether the country’s youth will seek change through increased militancy or by other peaceful means. On the other hand, many thousands gripped by despair and hopelessness and convinced they have no future in Ethiopia continue to vote with their feet. Today, young Ethiopian refugees can be found in large numbers from South Africa to North America and the Middle East to the Far East.
The dictatorship in Ethiopia hopes to neutralize the youth by “buying” (renting) the “best and the brightest” to serve them. But they also see the writing on the wall clearly. When youth experiencing such high levels of frustration represent such a high percentage of the total population, the implications for a small repressive dictatorship without any broad societal support or acceptance are plain. The critical questions are: Will the frustration, hopelessness and despair push the youth to take a path away from peaceful change? Will the hand-selected and well-trained cadre of rent-a-youth be able to provide a buffer between the masses of locked-out youth and the dictators or demand change? Does the dictatorship really “own” the youth cadres, or merely “renting” them by offering them lavish rewards and incentives? The answers to these questions appear plain to the reasonable mind.
What Can Be Done?
Given the enormity of the problems facing Ethiopia’s children and youth, there are no easy answers or solutions. But the real and lasting solutions to the problems of youth will not come from self-serving cynical dictators, party hacks, academics or self-indulgent intellectuals. The search for solutions must begin with the youth themselves.
Ethiopia’s Youth Must Be Seen, Heard and Engaged
As I have observed and studied Ethiopian politics, it seems that the old adage holds true: “Children should be seen and not heard.” Though young people represent a significant segment of the Ethiopian population, they are marginalized and largely ignored in the governance process. A study of Zenawi’s speech and exchange with the youth “leaders” at the Third Annual Youth Conference provides an object lesson in how political leaders of all stripes have dealt with the youth in a condescending and patronizing manner. At that conference, Zenawi did not solicit the views of the youth “leaders”, he lectured them like school children. He did not allow them to interact with him freely, rather designated individuals asked specific written questions in apparent trepidation. It was obvious that they were not even allowed to improvise in asking questions or follow up with additional questions. The stage management of the questioners was so mechanical and robotic that the observer could easily tell that the youth asking the questions did not formulate the questions themselves. The very nature of the questions points to the fact that they were planted. One would reasonably expect a youth conference representing the interests of all of Ethiopia’s youth to focus largely on matters that have direct relevance to youth. It seems odd that such a conference should devote so much attention and time to questions of leadership succession, party organization of youth and placement of youth in local, state and national offices. The point is that all young Ethiopians, regardless of their party affiliation or ideology, should be encouraged to be actively engaged in the political process, become civically engaged, take volunteer and formal leadership roles in their communities and become active participants in the governance process.
We Must Listen to the Youth
It is necessary to listen to and understand the views and perspectives of Ethiopia’s youth on the issues and problems vital to them. They should not be marginalized in the discussions and debates. The older generation is always quick to tell the youth what to do and not do. We lecture them when we are not ignoring them. But rarely do we show them the respect they deserve. We tend to underestimate the intelligence of youth and overestimate our abilities and craftiness to manipulate and use them for our own cynical ends or in our political struggles with our adversaries. How many of us in the older generation have made the effort to interact with young people regularly and tried to understand their pain, despair, hopelessness? How many of us have taken the time to talk to small groups of them to find out the issues that are most important to them and what they desire in the future? How many of us in the older generation truly believe that the youth own the future and we do not own them?
Let’s Help Develop Youth Leadership and Inspire Them
One of the major problems of Ethiopia’s youth is that the older generation refuses to get out of the way. At the Third Youth Conference, Zenawi used an interesting analogy involving a “traffic jam” to describe his sense of the intergenerational leadership succession. He said it was necessary to create an orderly succession in the transfer of power from one generation to another in the same way as traffic on the highway should flow “smoothly” and in an “orderly process.” It is ironic that he does not see himself as the principal cause of the 20-year total traffic jam on the Ethiopian political freeway, but his analogy is instructive. Speaking particularly to the older generation opposition, we need to realize that we are cluttering and congesting the political highway with our old clunkers and jalopies. We need to graciously accept the fact that we need to get off the highway so that the youth driving their turbocharged cars can zoom to their destinations. The point is that the older generation can be most helpful by providing guidance and advice to the youth instead of getting on the highway and blocking the flow of traffic. Leadership is not limited to the political realm. Youth can be engaged in activism on community, environmental and human rights issues; they can participate in volunteer community service and take leadership roles in civic and cultural institutions. We can help enlighten, inspire and empower the youth. The basic challenge is not only to engage the youth in governance but also in preparing them to take diverse leadership in the future. Those in the opposition should seriously consider drafting a formal youth agenda with the significant input of youth addressing the wide range of problems and issues.
Link Diaspora Youth with Youth in Ethiopia
There is a big disconnect and a huge gulf that exists between young Ethiopians in the Diaspora and those in Ethiopia. That is partly a function of geography, but also class. It needs to be bridged. Youth in the Diaspora are in the best position to create linkages with their counterparts in Ethiopia using cyber-technology. Many young Ethiopians born in the West are often heard complaining and expressing concern over the enormous problems faced by young people in Ethiopia. Diaspora youth endowed with higher education and resources can use their creativity to create networks and linkages to help their counterparts in Ethiopia.
My Humble Message to Ethiopia’s Youth
I have no magic formula for any of the problems faced by Ethiopia’s youth. My humble message to all young Ethiopians is simple. Never give up. Never! Emancipate your minds from mental slavery. Develop your creative powers. Learn and teach each other. Unite as the children of Mother Ethiopia, and reject any ideology or effort that seeks to divide you on the basis of ethnicity, language, region or class. Study and acquire knowledge not only about the arts and sciences but also your legal, constitutional and human rights. It is easier for tyrants and dictators to rob you of your rights when you are ignorant and fearful. It has been said that “ignorance has always been the most powerful weapon of tyrants; enlightenment the salvation of the free.” Jamming the airwaves to keep information from reaching the youth and the larger population and maintaining a pall of darkness over society is the weapon of tyrants. Blocking access to the internet, banning the free press and exiling independent journalists are all weapons in the arsenal of tyrants who fear the truth and despair over their rendezvous with the dustbin of history.
President Obama was absolutely right when he said, “We’ve learned that it will not be giants like Nkrumah and Kenyatta who will determine Africa’s future. It will be the young people brimming with talent and energy and hope who can claim the future that so many in previous generations never realized.” The destiny of “the future country of Ethiopia” is in not in the clenched fists of dictators but in the palms of the likes of Birtukan Midekssa and all the youth like her yearning to breath free. Ethiopia’s youth owes a lot to Birtukan. She is in prison for life not only because she stood up for her rights; but most importantly because she wants her generation of young people and posterity to live free in the “future country of Ethiopia” that she often dreamed about. If the dictators do not own the youth, they can not own the future!
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 pambazuka.org, allafrica.com, afronline.org and other sites.