“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 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:
Educorruption and the miseducation of Ethiopian youth
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” said Nelson Mandela. For the late Meles Zenawi and his apostles (the Melesistas) in Ethiopia, the reverse is true: Ignorance is the most powerful weapon you can use to prevent change and cling to power. They have long adopted the motto of George Orwell’s Oceania: “Ignorance is Strength”. Indeed, ignorance is a powerful weapon to manipulate, emasculate and subjugate the masses. Keep ‘em ignorant and impoverished and they won’t give you any trouble.
For the Melesistas education is indoctrination. They feed the youth a propaganda diet rich in misinformation, disinformation, distortions, misguided opinions, worn out slogans and sterile dogmas from a bygone era. Long ago, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, “Father of African-American History”, warned against such indoctrination and miseducation of the oppressed: “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his proper place and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.” The rulers in Ethiopia continue to use higher educational institutions not as places of learning, inquiry and research but as diploma mills for a new breed of party hacks and zombie ideologues doomed to blind and unquestioning servility. “Zombie go… zombie stop… zombie turn… zombie think…,” sang the great African musician Fela Kuti. I’d say, “zombie teach… zombie learn… zombie read… zombie dumb… zombie dumber.”
For over two decades, Meles and his gang have tried to keep Ethiopians in a state of blissful ignorance where the people are forced at gunpoint to speak no evil, see no evil and hear no evil. Meles and his posse have spent a king’s ransom to jam international radio and satellite transmissions to prevent the free flow of information to the people. They have blocked internet access to alternative and critical sources of information and views. According to a 2012 report of Freedom House, the highly respected nongovernmental research and advocacy organization established in 1941, “Ethiopia has one of the lowest rates of internet and mobile telephone penetration on the continent. Despite low access, the government maintains a strict system of controls and is the only country in Sub-Saharan Africa to implement nationwide internet filtering.” They have shuttered independent newspapers, jailed reporters, editors and bloggers and exiled dozens of journalists in a futile attempt to conceal their horrific crimes against humanity and vampiric corruption. They have succeeded in transforming Ethiopia from the “Land of 13 Months of Sunshine” to the “Land of Perpetual Darkness”.
But my commentary here is not about the Benighted Kingdom of Ethiopia where ignoramuses are kings, queens, princes and princesses. I am concerned about the systemic and rampant corruption in Ethiopia’s “education sector”. The most destructive and pernicious form of corruption occurs in education. Educorruption steals the future of youth. It permanently cripples them intellectually by denying them opportunities to acquire knowledge and transform their lives and take control of the destiny of their nation. As Malcom X perceptively observed, “Without education, you are not going anywhere in this world.” Could Ethiopia’s youth go anywhere in this world trapped and chained deep in the belly of a corrupt educational system?
I will admit that in the hundreds of weekly commentaries I have written over the last half dozen or so years, I have not given education in Ethiopia the critical attention it deserved. I have no excuse for not engaging the issue more intensely. In my own defense, I can only say that when an entire generation of Ethiopian scholars, academics, professors and learned elites stands silent as a bronze statute witnessing the tyranny of ignorance in action, the burden on the few who try to become the voices of the voiceless on every issue is enormous.
…I was absolutely shocked, then, when I started reading my students’ work. Out of the hundred third-year students I teach, probably forty of them had inserted a special section, right after the cover page, warning me of what might happen to them were their paper to leave my hands. A number of students wrote that they would never give their real opinions to an Ethiopian professor because they fear being turned in to the government and punished. Others begged me to take their work back to America with me so that people would know what was going on…
In my September 2010 commentary, “Indoctri-Nation”, I criticized the Meles regime for politicizing education. The “Ministry of Education” (reminds one of Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” (Ignorance)) at the time had issued a “directive” effectively outlawing distance learning (education programs that are not delivered in the traditional university classroom or campus) throughout the country. The regime had also sought to corner the disciplines of law and teaching for state-controlled universities, creating a monopoly and pipeline for the training of party hacks to swarm the teaching and legal professions. I demonstrated that “directive” was in flagrant violation and in willful disregard of the procedural safeguards of the Higher Education Proclamation No. 650/2009. It did not faze them. (It was time to mint a new legal maxim: “The ignorant are entitled to ignore their own law and invoke ignorance of their own law as a defense.”)
The “directive” was at odds with the recommendations of the World Bank (which has been assisting the regime in improving education administration and delivery of services) for increased emphasis on the creation of a network of “tertiary educational” institutions (e.g. distance learning centers, private colleges, vocational training services, etc.,) to help support the “production of the higher-order capacity” necessary for Ethiopia’s development. In its 2003 sector study “Higher Education Development for Ethiopia”, the World Bank had recommended “a near term goal [of] doubl[ing] the share of private enrollments from the current 21% to 40% by 2010.” By 2010, the Meles regime had decided to reduce private tertiary institutions, particularly the burgeoning distance learning sector, to zero!
In my October 2010 commentary, “Ethiopia: Education Unbanned!”, I was pleasantly surprised but unconvinced by the Meles regime’s apparent change of strategy to abandon its decision to impose a blanket ban on distance learning and reach a negotiated resolution of instructional quality issues with distance learning providers. I pointed out a few lessons Meles and his crew could learn from the bureaucratic fiasco. (Is it really possible for the closed- and narrow-minded to learn?)
I focus on educational corruption in Ethiopia in this commentary for four reasons: 1) I was appalled by the corruption findings in the recent World Bank 448-page report “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia”. That report, with bureaucratic delicacy and hesitancy, demonstrates the cancer of corruption which afflicts the Ethiopian body politic has metastasized into the educational sector putting the nation’s youth at grave risk. 2) There is widespread acknowledgement that education in Ethiopia at all levels is in a pitiful condition. For instance, a 2010 Newsweek “study of health, education, economy, and politics” showed Ethiopia with a population of 88 million had a literacy rate of 43.3 percent, and ranked 98 out of 100 countries on education. 3) Few Ethiopian educators and scholars are examining the issue of educational corruption and its implications for the future of the country and its youth. Hopefully, this commentary could spur some of them to investigate corruption in education (and other areas) and conduct related policy research and analysis. 4) I had promised in my first weekly commentary of 2013 to pay special attention to youth issues in Ethiopia during the year. Nothing is more important to Ethiopia’s youth than education. Youth without education are youth without a future and without hope. Youth without education are emblematic of a nation in despair.
World Bank findings on corruption in the Ethiopian education sector
The WB report on the education sector alludes to an Ethiopian proverb in assessing the culture of corruption and impunity: “Sishom Yalbela Sishar Ykochewal” — roughly translates into English as follows: “One who does not exploit to the full his position when he is promoted will lament when he no longer has the opportunity.”
Ethiopia’s education sector has become a haven and a refuge for prebendalist (where those affiliated with the ruling regime feel entitled to receive a share of the loot) party hacks and a bottomless barrel of patronage. The Meles regime has used jobs, procurement and other opportunities in the education sector to reward and sustain loyalty in its support base. They have been handing out teaching jobs to their supporters like candy and procurement opportunities to their cronies like cake. “In Ethiopia’s decentralized yet authoritarian system,considerable powers exist among senior officials at the federal, regional, and woreda levels. Of particular relevance to this study is the discretion exercised by politically appointed officials at the woreda level, directly affecting the management of teachers.”
In “mapping corruption in the education sector in Ethiopia”, “the World Bank report cautions that “corruption in education can be multifaceted, ranging from large distortions in resource allocation and significant procurement-related fraud to smaller amounts garnered through daily opportunities for petty corruption and nontransparent financial management.” Corruption in the education sector is quadri-dimensional “affecting the selection of teachers for training, recruitment, skills upgrading, or promotion; falsification of documents to obtain qualifications, jobs, or promotions and fraud and related bribery in examinations and conflict of interest in procurement.”
The “selection of candidates for technical training colleges (TTCs)” is the fountainhead of educational corruption in Ethiopia. According to the WB report, “students do not generally choose to become teachers but are centrally selected from a pool of those who have failed to achieve high grades.” In other words, the regime’s policy is to populate the teaching profession with, for lack of a better word, the “dumber” students. Such students also make the most servile party hacks. But it is a spectacular revelation that the future of Ethiopia’s youth — the future of Ethiopia itself — is in the hands of “those who have failed to achieve high grades”. Ignorant teachers and ignorant students= Ignorance is strength. Could a greater crime be committed against Ethiopia’s youth and Ethiopia?
To add insult to injury, the selection of underachieving students to pursue teacher training institutes is itself infected by “bribery, favoritism and nepotism.” The most flagrant corrupt practices include “manipulation of the points system for selection of students to higher education.” The “allocate[on] of higher percentage points for results from transcripts and national exams than for entrance exams” has “enabled a large number of inadequately qualified students to join the affected institutes, sometimes with forged transcripts. This practice has affected the quality of students gaining entry to higher education and eroded the quality of the training program.” In other words, even among underachievers seeking to become teachers, it is the washouts, the duds and flops that are likely to become teachers!
Fraud and related corrupt practices in matriculation are commonplace. According to the WB report, there is
a significant risk of corruption in examinations…The types of fraudulent practices in examinations include forged admission cards enable students to pay other students to sit exams for them, collusion allowing both individual and group cheating in examinations, assistance from invigilators (exam monitors) and school and local officials (during exams), higher-level interference [in which] regional officials overturned the disqualification of cheaters, fraudulent overscoring of examination papers [by] teachers are bribed by parents and students, fraudulent certification of transcripts and certificates to help students graduate.
Although there are public officials who have considered reporting corrupt practices, they have refrained from doing so because there was “a strong sense that there is no protection to guard against possible reprisals directed at those who report malpractice.” There is no place for whistle blowers in Ethiopia’s edu-corruptocracy.
Recruitment and management of teachers is a separate universe of corrupt practices. “In Ethiopia, the overwhelming bulk of expenditure in education is taken up by salaries of teachers” and there is a “high risk of bribery, extortion, favoritism, or nepotism in selecting teachers for promotion, upgrading, or grants.” The WB report found “nepotism and favoritism in recruitment were broad and frequent—namely that, in some woredas, the recruitment of teachers (and other community-based workers) is based on political affiliation, including paid-up membership of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).”
What is shocking is not only the culture of corruption in education but also the culture of impunity — the belief that there are no consequences for practicing corruption. The WB report shows not only the “prevalence of fraud and falsification of teaching qualifications and other documents, reflecting weak controls, poor-quality documents (that are easily falsified), [but also] the widespread belief that such a practice would not be detected… For such falsification to go unnoticed, there is a related risk of the officials supporting or approving the application being implicated in the corrupt practice.”
The types of corrupt practices that occur at the management level are stunning. Managers manipulate access to “program of enhancing teacher qualifications through in-service training during holiday periods by using their positions to influence the selection of candidates. Hidden relationships are used in teacher upgrading, with officials at the zonal or woreda level taking the first option on upgradation programs.” The appointment of local education officials is not “competitive” but “politically assigned”. Collusion between local managers and teachers over noncompliance with curriculum, academic calendar, and similar practices is a relatively common practice and “reduces the provision of educational services.” This situation is made worse by “teacher absenteeism [which] is tolerated by head teachers, within the context of staff perceiving a need to supplement their income through private tutoring or other forms of income generation.” Poorly paid teachers supplement their incomes by “private tutoring [which] is widespread, with 40 percent of school officials reporting it as a practice.” Corruption also extends to “teachers paying bribes or kickbacks to management, mostly school directors, to allocate shorter work hours in schools so that they can use the freed-up time to earn fees as teachers in private schools.” The payola is hierarchically distributed: “Bribes received are likely to be shared first with superiors, then with a political party, and then with colleagues, in that order.”
Falsification of documents including forged transcripts and certificates occurs on an “industrial” scale and is “most prevalent in the provision of certification for completing the primary or secondary school cycles” and in generating bogus “documents in support of applications for promotion”.
Procurement (official purchases of goods and services from private sources) is the low hanging fruit. “In the education sector, a number of public actors maybe involved [in procurement], depending on the size and type of the task. These include national and local government politicians and managers.” Some people have a lock on the procurement system. Successful “tendering companies” are likely to have “family or other connections with officials responsible for procurement”. Procurement corruption also takes the forms of “uncompetitive practices” “including the formation of a cartel, obstruction of potential new entrants to the market, or other forms of uncompetitive practices that may or may not include a conspiratorial role on the part of those responsible for procurement.” Other procurement related corruption includes “favoritism, nepotism, or bribery in the short-listing of consultants or contractors or the provision of tender information.” There are some “favored contractors and consultants” who have a “dominant market position” and are “awarded contracts for which they were not eligible to bid.” Corruption also occurs in the form of defective construction, substandard materials and overclaims of quantities.
Construction quality issues are considered a significant problem in the construction of educational facilities, particularly in the case of small, remote facilities where high standards of construction supervision can be difficult to achieve. For example, a toilet block in a school collapsed a month after completion. The contractor responsible for building the facility was not required to make the work good or repay the amount paid, nor was the contractor sanctioned. The matter was not investigated. Such problems are a significant indicator of corrupt practices, particularly when the contractor is not ultimately held to account for its failures…
There is corruption in the “purchase of substandard or defective supplies or equipment. For this to go unchallenged by those responsible for procurement strongly suggests either a lack of capacity, corrupt practices, or both.” According to an example cited in the WB report, “a large fleet of buses purchased by the MOE [“Ministry of Education”] using Teacher Development Program funds and distributed to TTCs were found to be defective. The TTCs complained that the MOE had dumped the buses on them. The MOE subsequently sent auditors to determine whether the complaint was genuine.”
The amazing fact is that the regime reflexively decided to investigate those who filed the complaint, and not the reported crooks. They automatically assumed the technical training colleges were lying and sent their auditors to investigate them for possible false reporting of defective buses!! (Orwelliana: The criminals are the victims and the victims are the criminals.) There is evidence of theft and resale of school supplies or equipment. “One such indication relates to the alleged illegal sale of education facilities, with related allegations of nepotism. A city education office is alleged to have sold valuable heritage buildings in a secondary school to a private developer and then to have requested land to rebuild the school facilities.”
Changing the culture of corruption and impunity
The culture of corruption and impunity in Ethiopia must be changed. The WB report observes,
In Ethiopia, the pattern of perception suggests that outright bribery is perceived to be more corrupt than, for example, favoritism or the falsification of documentation. There is also a sense that some practices, such as expressing gratitude to a client through the giving of a small gift, are normal business practice and not necessarily corrupt. Finally, there is an underlying acceptance among many that the state has the right to intervene in the market if that is considered to be in the national interest, and there is little sense that such interventions could be at variance with ongoing efforts to promote the level playing field needed for effective privatization of service provision, including in the education sector.
It is unlikely that a corrupt regime has the will, capacity or interest to change its own modus operandi. As I have argued elsewhere, having the “Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission” (FEAC) investigate the architects and beneficiaries of corruption in Ethiopia is like having Tweedle Dee investigate Tweedle Dum. It is an exercise in futility and an absurdity. FEAC is a toothless, clawless and feckless make-believe do-nothing bureaucratic shell incapable of investigating corruption in its own offices let alone systemic corruption in the country.
Pressures for accountability and transparency could come from domestic civil society institutions, but as the WB report points out, a 2009 “civil societies law” has decimated such institutions. The only practical and effective mechanism for accountability and transparency in the education sector is the institutionalization of an independent and energetic teachers’ union. But the regime has destroyed the real teachers’ union. According to the WB report,
Teachers in Ethiopia have historically been represented by the Ethiopian Teachers’ Association (ETA), founded in 1949. Following a long legal battle, a 2008 court ruling took away the right of the ETA to its name and all of its assets, creating a different organization with an identical name. Most teachers are now members of this replacement organization, for which dues are deducted from teachers’ salaries. The original ETA, now reorganized as the National Teachers Association (NTA), considers the new ETA to be unduly influenced by the government and has complained of discrimination against its members. Such concerns have in turn been expressed internationally through a range of bodies including the International Labour Organization (ILO 2009).
The mis-edcuation of Ethiopia’s youth and stolen futures
Education of Ethiopia’s youth is a human rights issue for me and not just a matter of professional concern as an educator. Corruption in the education sector is so severe that the future of Ethiopia’s youth is at grave risk. As Transparency International admonishes,
Stolen resources from education budgets mean overcrowded classrooms and crumbling schools, or no schools at all. Books and supplies are sometimes sold instead of being given out freely. Schools and universities also ‘sell’ school places or charge unauthorised fees, forcing students (usually girls) to drop out. Teachers and lecturers are appointed through family connections, without qualifications. Grades can be bought, while teachers force students to pay for tuition outside of class. In higher education, undue government and private sector influence can skew research agendas.
It is true “ignorance is strength”. The Meles regime seeks to create an army of ignorant youth zombie clones who will march lockstep and follow their orders: “Zombie go, zombie stop, zombie think… zombie learn… zombie dumb… zombie dumber…” If ignorance is strength, then knowledge is power. When “ignorant” youth gain knowledge, they become an unstoppable force.
It may not be manifest to many but Ethiopia’s mis-educated youth are on the rise. A quiet riot is raging among the youth debilitated by overwhelming despair and anguish. The youth look at themselves and their lost futures under a corrupt tyranny. They know things are not going to get better. For now the despair simmers but it will reach a boiling point. Mohamed Bouazizi was a 26 year old Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in December 2010. Dictator Ben Ali did not see it coming, but the fire that consumed Bouazizi also consumed and transformed not only Tunisia but also led to an Arab Spring. Moamar Gadhafi, the great “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution of Libya” died at the hands of youth he miseducated for 42 years. Informed, enlightened and interconnected Egyptian youth brought down the Mubarak regime in less than two weeks!
Ethiopia’s youth will rise because there is no force that can keep them down. The only question is when not if. That is the immutable of law of history. In the end, I believe Ethiopia’s youth will remember not the deeds and misdeeds of those who miseducated them and robbed them of their futures, but the silence of the scholars, intellectuals, academics, professors and learned men and women who watched the tyranny of ignorance like bronze statutes. I am confident in my conviction that there will come a time when Ethiopia’s youth will stand up collectively, and each one pointing an index finger, shout out, “J’accuse!”
Ignorance is strength but knowledge is power! Fight the tyranny of ignorance. Educate yourself!
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:
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:
2013 shall be the Year of Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation.
“The Cheetah Generation refers to the new and angry generation of young African graduates and professionals, who look at African issues and problems from a totally different and unique perspective. They are dynamic, intellectually agile, and pragmatic. They may be the ‘restless generation’ but they are Africa’s new hope. They understand and stress transparency, accountability, human rights, and good governance. They also know that many of their current leaders are hopelessly corrupt and that their governments are contumaciously dysfunctional and commit flagitious human rights violations”, explained George Ayittey, the distingushed Ghanaian economist.
Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation includes 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.
Ethiopia’s Hippo Generation should move over and make way for the Cheetahs. As Ayittey said, Africa’s “Hippo Generation is intellectually astigmatic and stuck in their muddy colonialist pedagogical patch. They are stodgy, pudgy, and wedded to the old ‘colonialism-imperialism’ paradigm with an abiding faith in the potency of the state. They lack vision and sit comfortable in their belief that the state can solve all of Africa’s problems. All the state needs is more power and more foreign aid. They care less if the whole country collapses around them, but are content as long as their pond is secure…”
Ethiopia’s Hippo Generation is not only astigmatic with distorted vision, it is also myopic and narrow- minded preoccupied with mindless self-aggrandizement. The Hippos in power are stuck in the quicksand of divisive ethnic politics and the bog of revenge politics. They proclaim the omnipotence of their state, which is nothing more than a thugtatorship. Their lips drip with condemnation of “neoliberalism”, the very system they shamelessly panhandle for their daily bread and ensures that they cling to power like barnacles on a sunken ship. They try to palm off foreign project handouts as real economic growth and development. To these Hippos, the youth are of peripheral importance. They give them lip service. In his “victory” speech celebrating his 99.6 percent win in the May 2010 “election”, Meles Zenawi showered the youth with hollow gratitude: “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!”
The Hippos out of power have failed to effectively integrate and mobilize the youth and women in their party leadership structure and organizational activities. As a result, they find themselves in a state of political stagnation and paralysis. They need youth power to rejuvenate themselves and to become dynamic, resilient and irrepressible. Unpowered by youth, the Hippos out of power have become the object of ridicule, contempt and insolence for the Hippos in power.
Ethiopia’s intellectual Hippos by and large have chosen to stand on the sidelines with arms folded, ears plugged, mouths sealed shut and eyes blindfolded. They have chosen to remain silent fearful that anything they say can and will be used against them as they obsequiously curry favor with the Hippos in power. They have broken faith with the youth. Instead of becoming transformational and visionary thinkers capable of inspiring the youth with creative ideas, the majority of the intellectual Hippos have chosen to dissociate themselves from the youth or have joined the service of the dictators to advance their own self-interests.
The shameless canard is that Ethiopia’s youth “have started to benefit from the ongoing development.” The facts tell a completely different story. Though the Ethiopian population under the age of 18 is estimated to be 41 million or just over half of Ethiopia’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 are orphans! Some 800,000 children are estimated to be orphaned as a result of AIDS. Urban youth unemployment is estimated at over 70 per cent. Ethiopia has one of the lowest youth literacy rate in Africa according to a 2011 report of the United Nations Capital Development Fund. Literacy in the 15-24 age group is a dismal 43 percent; gross enrollment at the secondary level is a mere 30.9 percent! A shocking 77.8 per cent of the Ethiopian youth population lives on less than USD$2 per day! Young people have to sell their souls to get a job. According to the 2010 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report, “Reliable reports establish that unemployed youth who were not affiliated with the ruling coalition sometimes had trouble receiving the ‘support letters’ from their kebeles necessary to get jobs.” Party memberships is the sine qua non for government employment, educational and business opportunity and the key to survival in a police state. The 2011 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report concluded, “According to credible sources, the ruling party ‘stacks’ student enrollment at Addis Ababa University, which is the nation’s largest and most influential university, with students loyal to the party to ensure further adherence to the party’s principles and to forestall any student protest.”
Frustrated and in despair, many 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. Poor youths (the overwhelming majority of youth population) deprived of educational and employment opportunity, have lost faith in their own and their country’s future. When I contemplate the situation of Ethiopia’s youth, I am haunted by the penetrating question recently posed by Hajj Mohamed Seid, the prominent Ethiopian Muslim leader in exile in Toronto: “Is there an Ethiopian generation left now? The students who enrolled in the universities are demoralized; their minds are afflicted chewing khat (a mild drug) and smoking cigarettes. They [the ruling regime] have destroyed a generation.”
Unchain the Cheetahs
Many of my readers are familiar with my numerous commentaries on Ethiopia’s chained youth yearning for freedom and change. My readers will also remember my fierce and unremitting defense of Ethiopia’s Proudest Cheetahs — Eskinder Nega, Serkalem Faisl, Andualem Aragie, Woubshet Alemu, Reeyot Alemu, Bekele Gerba, Olbana Lelisa and so many others — jailed for exercising their constitutional rights and for speaking truth to power. But in the Year of the Cheetahs, I aim to call attention to the extreme challenges faced by Ethiopia’s youth and make a moral appeal to all Hippos, particularly the intellectual Hippos in the Diaspora, to stand up and be counted with the youth by providing support, guidance and inspiration. In June 2010, I called attention to some undeniable facts:
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.
In this Year of the Ethiopian Cheetahs, those of us with a conscience in the Hippo Generation must do a few things to atone for our failures and make amends to our youth. President Obama, though short on action, is nearly always right in his analysis of Africa’s plight: “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.” We, learned Hippos, must learn that Ethiopia’s destiny will not be determined by the specter of dead dictators or their dopplegangers. It will not be determined by those who use the state as their private fiefdom and playground, or those who spread the poison of ethnic politics to prolong their lease on power. Ethiopia’s destiny will be determined by a robust coalition of Cheetahs who must unite, speak in one voice and act like fingers in a clenched fist to achieve a common destiny.
I craft my message here to the Hippos out of power and the intellectual Hippos standing on the sidelines. I say step up, stand up and be counted with the youth. Know that they are the only ones who can unchain us from the cages of our own hateful ethnic politics. Only they can liberate us from the curse of religious sectarianism. They are the ones who can free us from our destructive ideological conflicts. They are the ones who can emancipate us from the despair and misery of dictatorship. We need to reach, teach and preach to the Cheetahs to free their minds from mental slavery and help them develop their creative powers.
We must reach out to the Cheetahs using all available technology and share with them our knowledge and expertise in all fields. We must listen to what they have to say. We need to understand their views and perspectives on the issues and problems that are vital to them. It is a fact that we have for far too long marginalized the youth in our discussions and debates. We are quick to tell them what to do but turn a deaf ear to what they have to say. We lecture them when we are not ignoring them. Rarely do we show our young people the respect they deserve. We tend to underestimate their intelligence and overestimate our abilities and craftiness to manipulate and use them for our own cynical ends. In the Year of the Cheetah, I plead with my fellow intellectual Hippos to reach out and touch the youth.
We must teach the youth the values that are vital to all of us. Hajj Mohamed Seid has warned us that without unity, we have nothing. “If there is no country, there is no religion. It is only when we have a country that we find everything.” That is why we must teach the youth they must unite as the children of Mother Ethiopia, and reject any ideology, scheme or effort that seeks to divide them on the basis of ethnicity, religion, gender, language, region or class. We must teach to enlighten, to uncover and illuminate the lies and proclaim the truth. It is easier for tyrants and dictators to rob the rights of youth who are ignorant and fearful. “Ignorance has always been the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of tyrants.” Nelson Mandela has taught us that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Educating and teaching the youth is the most powerful weapon in the fight against tyranny and dictatorship. In the Year of the Cheetah, I plead with my fellow intellectual Hippos to teach the Cheetahs to fight ignorance and ignoramuses with knowledge, enlightenment and intelligence.
We must also preach the way of peace, democracy, human rights, the rule of law, accountability and transparency. No man shall make himself the law. Those who have committed crimes against humanity and genocide must be held to account. There shall be no state within the state. Exercise of one’s constitutional rights should not be criminalized. Might does not make right! In the Year of the Cheetah, I plead with my fellow intellectual Hippos to preach till kingdom come.
We need to find ways to link Ethiopian Diaspora youth with youth in Ethiopia in a Chain of Destiny. Today, we see a big disconnect and a huge gulf 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. We need to help organize and provide support to Ethiopian Diaspora youth to link up with their counterparts in Ethiopia so that they could have meaningful dialogue and interaction and work together to ensure a common democratic future.
The challenges facing Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation are enormous, but we must do all we can to prepare the youth to take leadership roles in their future. We need to help them develop a formal youth agenda that addresses the wide range of problems, challenges and issues facing them. All we need to do is provide them guidance, counsel and advice. The Cheetahs are fully capable of doing the heavy lifting if the Hippos are willing to carry water to them.
Ethiopian Youth Must Lead a National Dialogue in Search of a Path to Peaceful Change
I have said it before and I will say is again and again. For the past year, I have been talking and writing about Ethiopia’s inevitable transition from dictatorship to democracy. I have also called for a national dialogue to facilitate the transition and appealed to Ethiopia’s youth to lead a grassroots and one-on-one dialogue across ethnic, religious, linguistic and religious lines. I made the appeal because I believe Ethiopia’s salvation and destiny rests not in the fossilized jaws of power-hungry Hippos but in the soft and delicate paws of the Cheetahs. In the Year of the Cheetahs, I plead with Ethiopia’s youth inside the country and in the Diaspora to take upon the challenge and begin a process of reconciliation. I have come to the regrettable conclusion that most Hippos are hardwired not to reconcile. Hippos have been “reconciling” for decades using the language of finger pointing, fear and smear, mudslinging and grudge holding. But Cheetahs have no choice but to genuinely reconcile because if they do not, they will inherit the winds of ethnic and sectarian strife.
In making my plea to Ethiopia’s Cheetahs, I only ask them to begin an informal dialogue among themselves. Let them define national reconciliation as they see it. They should empower themselves to create their own political space and to talk one-on-one across ethnic, religious, linguistic, gender, regional and class lines. I underscore the importance of closing the gender gap and maximizing the participation of young women in the national reconciliation conversations. It is an established social scientific fact that women do a far superior job than men when it comes to conciliation, reconciliation and mediation. Dialogue involves not only talking to each other but also listening to one another. Ethiopia’s Cheetahs should use their diversity as a strength and must never allow their diversity to be used to divide and conquer them.
Up With Ethiopian Cheetahs!
Africans know all too well that hippos (including their metaphorical human counterparts) are dangerous animals that are fiercely territorial and attack anything that comes into their turf. Every year more people are killed by hippos (both the real and metaphorical ones) in Africa than lions or elephants. Cheetahs are known to be the fastest animals, but their weakness is that they give up the chase easily or surrender their prey when challenged by other predators including hyenas. A group of hippos is known as a crash. A group of cheetahs is called a “coalition”. Only a coalition of cheetahs organized across ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional lines can crash a crash of hippos and a cackle of hyenas and save Ethiopia.
In this Year of Ethiopian Cheetahs, I expect to make my full contribution to uplift and support Ethiopia’s youth and to challenge them to rise up to newer heights. I appeal to all of my brother and sister Hippos to join me in this effort. As for the Cheetahs, I say, darkness always give way to light. “It is often in the darkest skies that we see the brightest stars.” Ethiopia’s Cheetahs must be strong in spirit and in will. As Gandhi said, “Strength does not come from physical capacity”, nor does it come from guns, tanks and war planes. “It comes from an indomitable will.” Winston Churchill must have learned something from Gandhi 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 honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Ethiopian Cheetahs must never give in!
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:
Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Time Magazine on its cover page asked two weighty questions about recurrent famines in Ethiopia: “Why are Ethiopians starving again? What should the world do and not do” to help them? In my commentary last week, I gave ten reasons in response to the first question; here I offer ten more for the second.
For the past one-half century, the “Western world” has been the principal source of charity and handouts in Ethiopia. For the last two decades, the West has been feeding the regime of dictator Meles Zenawi with billions of dollars of development and humanitarian aid while filling the stomachs of starving Ethiopians with empty words and emptier promises. Now that another famine is spreading like wildfire in that country, the question remains: “What should the Western world do and not do to help Ethiopians permanently escape the endless cycles of famine described in the sugarcoated language of the self-serving international aid agencies as “acute food insecurity, extreme malnutrition, green drought and food crisis”.
Ten Things the World Should Do and Not Do to Help Starving Ethiopians
Take the moral hazard out of Western aid in Ethiopia.
Western taxpayers have been footing the bill to provide a fail-safe insurance policy for the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi on the theory that he is too servile to fail (not unlike the notion of corporations that are too big to fail). Zenawi has proven to be a reliable proxy warfighter for the West in the Horn. He has received hearty congratulations for a “fantastic Somalia job” even though his invasion created the worst humanitarian crises in Africa in the last decade. Tony Blair appointed him to his Commission for Africa. He has been the West’s man in Africa on climate change. In return, the West has provided Zenawi billions of dollars in “safety net” aid, multilateral loans and a perpetual supply of relief handouts to insulate his regime from the natural consequences of a mismanaged economy, debilitating corruption and proliferating poverty and famine. The West should now stand back and let Zenawi face the consequences of chronic budget deficits, galloping inflation, corruption and empty grain silos. Turning a blind eye to gross human rights violations and Western complicity in the regime’s denial of democratic rights to Ethiopians presents not only a moral hazard but also irrefutable evidence of moral bankruptcy.
Put humanity and human rights back in Western humanitarian aid in Ethiopia.
The West should treat the starving people of Ethiopia as human beings, not as pawns in a strategic regional chess game or as pitiful objects of charity and handouts. The root cause of the food famine in Ethiopia is an underlying political famine of democracy, rule of law, lack of accountability and transparency and flagrant human rights abuses. More democracy and greater respect for human rights necessarily means less famine and starvation because a government that is not able, willing and ready to feed its people will be swept out of office by a hungry and angry electorate. The West should tie its aid to specific and measurable improvements in human rights observances and properly functioning democratic institutions. If Western aid and loans are decoupled from human rights and good governance, they become powerful tools of oppression, persecution and subjugation in the hands of dictators.
Promote and support a stable and healthy Ethiopian society through aid, not entrench an iron-fisted and malignant dictatorship.
Western donors believe that they can buy “stability” in the Horn of Africa region by spending billions of aid dollars to support the Zenawi dictatorship. But they remain willfully ignorant of the lessons of history. Supporting a dictator is as risky as carrying an open powder keg at a fireworks festival. As we have recently seen, the West for decades supported dictators Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubark in Egypt and Gadahafi in Libya. For a time, these dictators staged the illusion of stability, control and permanence for the West. But they all went up in smoke when young Mohammed Bouazizi torched himself to end a life of oppression and indignity. In the long run, the West knows no amount of foreign aid or loans could possibly buffer Zenawi’s dictatorship from a tsunami of popular upheaval. Shouldn’t they stand on the right side of history as President Obama often exhorts?
Never bankroll bad actions by dictators with good Western taxpayer money.
The West has a bad habit of rewarding the bad acts of African dictators with more and larger amounts of Western taxpayer-supported aid and loans. After Zenawi stole the 2005 elections in broad daylight, jailed nearly all of the opposition leaders, human rights advocates, civic society leaders in the country and mowed down nearly two hundred unarmed demonstrators and wounded nearly eight hundred, the West gave him billions in aid and loans. In 2008 alone, Zenawi received $3 billion, the largest amount of aid in Africa. Zenawi must indubitably believe that there is a linear cause and effect relationship between his human rights abuses and increased foreign aid and loans. It seems to be a simple case of operant conditioning in which behavior and actions follow a system of rewards and disincentives. If human rights violations are always reinforced by the positive reinforcement of increasing amounts of aid, there will be more and more outrageous abuses committed to obtain that outcome.
Make partnership with the Ethiopian people, not the Zenawi dictatorship.
There is documentary evidence from Wikileaks cablegrams to show that the West basically wants a “guy they can do business with” in Ethiopia. The core business of the West in Ethiopia and the Horn is counterterrorism. Zenawi invaded Somalia in 2006 and neraly three years later packed up and left. Today Al Shabab and the other warlords still operate in Somalia with impunity. A partnership with a dictator on a single issue is not only short-sighted but also counterproductive to the long-term strategic interests of the West in Ethiopia and the Horn. That is why the West should nurture a long-term partnership with the Ethiopian people based on a demonstrable commitment to good governance, the rule of law, accountability, anti-corruption practices, private sector development, basic education and health services and so on. The easiest way to sever a relationship with the people is to give a fat welfare check (free money) to a depraved dictatorship year after year.
Hold the local paymasters of aid accountable.
Zenawi’s regime today is accountable to no one for the famine that is spreading throughout the country or the aid that it receives from the West. The international aid bureaucrats dare not question Zenawi fearing his legendary torrent of scorn, mockery and insults. They are mere rubberstamps of Zenawi’s regime. Recently, when Ken Ohashi, the World Bank Country Director for Ethiopia said Zenawi’s economic plan (“Growth and Transformation Plan”) is unsustainable, Zenawi derided him as a neocolonial overseer: “The World Bank [country] director is used to having other developing nations simply listen to his orders and is not used to nations refusing implement policy based on their wishes.” Last year Zenawi called the European Union Election Observers’ report “garbage”.
Whenever questions are raised about the misuse and abuse of aid money, the international aid bureaucrats run for cover or get into high gear to deny any improprieties and wrongdoing. For instance, Human Rights Watch and more recently BIJ/BBC have made serious and well-supported allegations of political weaponization of the so-called “safety net” aid. In July 2010, the Development Assistance Group, a coordinating body of 26 foreign donor institutions for Ethiopia, issued a whitewash report which concluded that the administration of the aid programs is the “supported by relatively robust accountability systems.” In the past couple of weeks, USAID Deputy Administrator Gregory Gottlieb spoke to the Voice of America and declared, “There is no famine in Ethiopia.” Yet an audit report by the independent Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of US AID in March 2010 came to the distressing conclusion that USAID has no idea what is happening to its agricultural programs in Ethiopia. By rejecting the data generated by the regime and local USAID officials, the OIG implicitly indicts them for manufacturing data to make things look good. The West must call a spade a spade, insist on the truth and let the chips fall where they may!
Condition aid and loans on the implementation of comprehensive family planning programs in Ethiopia.
Recently, the U.S. Census Bureau had frightening predictions for Ethiopia. By 2050, Ethiopia’s population will more than triple to 278 million, placing that country in the top 10 most populous countries in the world. Ethiopia’s population growth has been spiraling upwards for decades. Since 1995, the average annual rate of population growth has remained at over 3 percent. Comprehensive family planning services are essential to avoiding the predicted doomsday forty years from now. Such services educate, train and prepare couples and families when and how many children to have, provide them contraceptive counseling and help them acquire skills to prevent and manage sexually transmitted diseases, among other things. A decade ago, the World Health Organization and the World Bank estimated that $3.00 per person per year would provide basic family planning, maternal and neonatal health care to women in developing countries, including contraception, prenatal, delivery and post-natal care and postpartum family planning and promotion of condoms to prevent sexually transmitted infections. A decade or two from now when it is too late, providing such services in Ethiopia will be prohibitively expensive.
To help the starving people of Ethiopia, help Ethiopian women.
The distressing status of women in Ethiopian society has been documented over the past decade. The U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (2000) reported: “Violence and societal discrimination against women, and abuse of children remained problems, and female genital mutilation (FGM) is widespread.” The situation remains pretty much the same in 2011. Western aid should seriously focus on improving the status of women and go beyond empty rhetoric. For instance, there is a lot of talk and window-dressing by the USAID about the empowerment and advancement of women in Ethiopia, but the rhetoric falls short of demonstrable outcomes. USAID claims to have helped thousands of rural women obtain microfiance, and through its extension services enabled hundreds of families adopt better technologies to improve their productivity. USAID also claims to have helped remove “road blocks to development” by improving gender integration, expanding educational opportunity, increased awareness of legal rights and so on and by “providing high-impact, results-oriented technical assistance that promotes participation and transparency.” There is little convincing evidence in the public reports of USAID to support any of these claims. In any case, given the chummy and cozy relationship between the local USAID operatives and Zenawi’s regime and the OIG’s audit referenced above, one would have to take USAID’s word not just with a grain but a big sack of salt.
To help the starving people of Ethiopia, help Ethiopia’s youth.
Seventy percent of Ethiopia’s population is said to be under the age of thirty. This past May, USAID announced that it will partner with Pact (an NGO) and UNICEF to implement five-year, $100 million program to benefit over 500,000 Ethiopian orphans and vulnerable children affected by HIV and AIDS. The program “will support efforts by the Ethiopian Government and civil society to standardize comprehensive care and support services for vulnerable children and their families.” Reliance on a combination of donor-funded NGOs, regime-managed and –owned civil society organizations and bloated bureaucracies to implement such a program is manifestly unconvincing. The fact of the matter is that Ethiopia’s youth need access to better educational and employment opportunities now. Youth alienation, joblessness, nihilism breed despair and anarchy which the country can ill-afford.
The West should know that aid and loans will not save Ethiopia.
The West should know that neither aid nor loans will save Ethiopia. Only Ethiopians, poor and famished as they are, can save Ethiopia and themselves.
The problem with foreign aid in Ethiopia is that both the Ethiopian government and its donors see the people of this country not as individuals with distinct needs, talents, and rights but as an undifferentiated mass, to be mobilized, decentralized, vaccinated, given primary education and pit latrines, and freed from the legacy of feudalism, imperialism, and backwardness. It is this rigid focus on the ‘backward masses,’ rather than the unique human person, that typically justifies appalling cruelty in the name of social progress.
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.
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!
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/