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Ethiopian Intellectuals

Ethiopia: Unfree to Speak or Write?

Alemayehu G Mariam

Free to Speak

To paraphrase an old expression, “There are two things that are quintessentially important in any society. The first is free speech and I can’t remember the second one.”

Free speech is the bedrock of all human freedoms. In my view, the value a society gives to freedom of expression determines whether that society is free or unfree. A society is unfree if individuals are afraid to speak their minds, to think unpopular thoughts, to criticize government, or to dispute ideas and opinions. Expressive freedoms were so paramount to the founders of the American Republic that they provided constitutional protections unrivalled in the history of mankind. In breathtakingly uncompromising, unambiguous, and sweeping words that could be found in the English language, they declared: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”

There are many reasons that justify sweeping protections for free speech in any society. Without freedom of speech, the person is like a corked bottle, keeping under pressure his/her ideas, views or feelings about politics, government or society. Leaders and institutions could not be criticized or held accountable where free speech and the press are criminalized. There is little room for any meaningful artistic, literary or intellectual pursuits where free expression is censored or sanctioned. In short, without free speech, “self-development is crippled, social progress grinds to a halt, and official lies become the only ‘truth.’”

I am not writing here to discuss the abstract virtues of or government infringement on free speech. Many of my readers know that I take an uncompromising view on the practice of free speech. When dictator Meles Zenawi came to speak at Columbia University’s  World Leaders Forum in September 2010,  I defended his right to speak despite strong disapproval and scathing criticism from friends, colleagues and others. Yes, even Zenawi, who has the dubious honor of being called the “second-leading jailer of journalists in Africa” by the Committee to Protect Journalists, has the right to engage in free speech. When the 500+ page memoir of former Ethiopian junta leader and dictator Mengistu Hailemariam was electronically scanned this past January in violation of copyright laws and posted online because Mengistu was a “mass murderer”  who should not “benefit from the sale of his book”, I defended his right to write and express himself. In defending the free speech rights of these two brothers-in-dictatorship, I was practicing Noam Chomsky’s axiom that “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” I venture to add that by not defending the rights of those we despise, we risk becoming their clones.

Free speech encompasses not only the right to speak (and not to speak) to others but also the right to hear (or not to hear) from others. It is a decision for each individual to make. I like to keep an open and critical mind; and therefore listen very attentively to those with whom I disagree strongly. It is logically impossible for me to agree or disagree (or even to disagree disagreeably) without listening to those with whom I agree or disagree. If I suspect a claim to be false, I contest the  facts. If I find the truth shrouded, I undress the lies. If I disagree with an idea, I challenge it. If I agree with a point of view, I bolster it. But to do all these, I have to tolerate the right of free expression of those with whom I agree or disagree. But free speech is not only about my right to expression, but also the right of others to do the same. 

The Fierce Urgency of Now for the Unfree to Speak, to Write, to Advocate… Freely

All of the foregoing discussion is intended to provide a springboard for a more specific discussion of  the plight of those I characterize as “unfree” to speak or write publicly. There are legions of Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian scholars involved in the study of Ethiopian society, commentators and intellectuals who feel unfree to speak or write on matters of great public importance to Ethiopians. Many scholars in Ethiopia are silenced by official threats of employment termination, summary dismissals and even arrest and prosecution. The fear of “censorship by mudslinging and public vilification” keeps many Diaspora Ethiopian scholars silent. Many of these scholars often point to the barrage of personal attacks they face whenever they write or speak on matters that do not conform to the prevailing orthodoxy. If they say something politically incorrect, they are jumped on.  If they express views that oppose one group or another at a conference, their names are dragged in the mud. If they write a historical analysis, they are vilified as apologists of a bygone era. They are intimidated and unnerved into silence by  the self-appointed and self-righteous censors of democracy. As a result, many learned and experienced Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian scholars who have spent years studying Ethiopia have completely withdrawn from participation in the vital public debates of the day.

But all scholars involved in the study of Ethiopia face the fierce urgency of now. They must renounce the vows of silence they have imposed upon themselves or has been imposed upon them by the self-appointed and self-righteous censors of democracy and come forward to help the people of Ethiopia transition from dictatorship to democracy. Ethiopia today stands at the crossroads. The signs of change are plain to see. The dawn of freedom and democracy that enveloped North Africa and the Middle East is ever slowly swallowing the darkness of dictatorship and tyranny. The best days of Ethiopia’s dictators are long gone. These are the desperate days of desperate dictators who are playing out their end game by resorting to desperate measures.  We see them stoking the flames of sectarianism. They are clamping down on all avenues of free expression. They are unleashing unspeakable violence to cling to power. They are finally facing the music; they are now beginning to understand the true meaning of Gandhi’s message: “There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall – think of it, always.” So in the end game, the tyrants and murderers will pull out their trump card, their long-planned final solution: “Après moi le deluge (after me the flood)!” (or in the words of the proverbial donkey, “after me, no more grass”). But they seem to forget that floods, fires and earthquakes do not discriminate; they consume and destroy everything in their path.

But these are also hopeful days for the people. They can finally see a flickering light at the end of the long dark tunnel of tyranny. They can see a beacon of light pointing in the direction of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. The tables are turning in plain view. The people are losing their fear of the tyrants; and the tyrants are showing their fear of the people. They are worried sick of what the people might do. The people are also angry and hungry. Anger leads to bitterness, hatred and violence. Hunger destroys not only the body but also the soul. A hungry man is an angry man. That is what the tyrants fear as the last chapter of the end game is being written.

The times they are a-changing. Ethiopian scholars can no longer stand on sidelines as spectators in these trying times. They cannot afford to be “summer soldiers, sunshine patriots” and fair-weathered fans of freedom, democracy and human rights, as Thomas Paine might have put it. They must be actively engaged in the struggle against tyranny now; and not prepare to struggle for power later. They must stand with the people now, and not stand by them later.

Ethiopian scholars and intellectuals must share their expertise and knowledge to overcome not only the tyranny of man but also the tyranny of hunger, disease, ignorance and poverty. Tyranny must be confronted on all fronts. It is up to the agricultural experts to make battle plans to defeat the tyranny of hunger and famine. According to the Legatum Index, “Ethiopia’s education system is poor at all levels and its population is deeply dissatisfied.” Ethiopia’s educational scholars must rise to challenge the tyranny of a hopelessly decayed educational system. “On most health outcomes, Ethiopia performs very poorly.” According to Foreign Policy, “There are more Ethiopian physicians practicing in Chicago today than in all of Ethiopia, a country of 80 million and Africa’s second-most populous country.” Shouldn’t Diaspora Ethiopian physicians gather their forces to confront the tyranny of disease that afflicts our people? Shouldn’t Ethiopian economists, engineers, scientists, lawyers, historians, artists, researchers, etc., come forward and forge alliances to confront tyranny in all its manifestations?

Writing and speaking in their fields of expertise is only the beginning. I plead with members of the Ethiopian academic and scholarly community to also become public intellectuals. The internet has become the great equalizer not only between citizens and all powerful governments but also between the intelligentsia and “ignorigentsia” (the willfully ignorant or woefully uninformed). In many ways, the internet has given free speech its ultimate expression. The learned scholars and academics and those spewing words of provocation, hatred and intolerance potentially have equal access to the hearts and minds of millions. But for all of the information and resources available on the internet, there is precious little that is relevant, enlightening and actionable. Ethiopian intellectuals need to organize themselves to bridge the information and knowledge gap and come up with fresh and creative ideas to help transition Ethiopia from dictatorship to democracy.

Nearly two decades ago, the late Prof. Edward Said of Columbia University in a series of lectures argued that the role of the intellectual in society is not merely to advance knowledge and learning but also human freedom. He made his arguments even more compellingly for exiled intellectuals. Prof. Said urged scholars to aspire to become public intellectuals connecting their scholarship to issues and policies that impact the lives of ordinary people. He argued that intellectuals must advocate and work for progressive change while remaining vigilant over those who abuse and misuse their power. Above all, the intellectual has an obligation to always speak truth to power and the duty to stand for and with the voiceless, the powerless and the defenseless:

 … The intellectual in my sense of the word, is neither a pacifier nor a consensus builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clichés, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do. Not just passively unwilling, but actively willing to say so in public. This is not always a matter of being a critic of government policy, but rather of thinking of the intellectual vocation as maintaining a state of constant alertness, of a perpetual willingness not to let half-truths or received ideas steer one along…”


And this role [the intellectual’s] has an edge to it, and cannot  be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them) to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under  the rug.

In the same vein, the late Czech president, human rights advocate and playwright Vaclav Havel wrote,

The intellectual should constantly disturb, should bear witness to the misery of the world, should be provocative by being independent, should rebel against all hidden and open pressure and manipulations, should be the chief doubter of systems, of power and its incantations, should be a witness to their mendacity.”

I believe Ethiopia’s intelligentsia could play the roles described by Said and Havel, and even go beyond their prescriptions and serve as consensus-builders, bridge-builders, facilitators, promoters and pacifiers. I would like to urge them to become Ethiopia’s eyes, ears and mouths and teach and preach to the younger generation and the broader masses. They do not have to be concerned about dumbing down their messages to the people, for when speaking truth to power the people get the message loud and clear.

These are different times. A new age is dawning without the old virtues that infused public dialogue and discourse. Civility, decency and respect in the public sphere were once considered necessary. The virtue of civility made it possible to disagree without being disagreeable; decency demanded that we agree to disagree without becoming mortal enemies. But the internet offers a convenient refuge of anonymity and unaccountability to the cacophonous and intolerant hordes whose mission is to drown out these virtues. But there is one surefire solution. Follow George Bernard Shaw’s wise admonition: “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, but the pig likes it!”

As one does not avoid going to sleep for fear of having nightmares, one must not disengage from public debate on the vital issues that affect Ethiopia today for fear of mudslinging and censorship by public vilification. Regardless, Ethiopian scholars and intellectuals must answer the urgent question of the day: Are they prepared to “bear witness to the misery” of the Ethiopian people by speaking truth to power?

Now is the time to stand up and be counted! 

(to be continued in a future commentary…)

Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: and

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:  and


Ethiopia: Speaking Truth to the Truth-Seekers

Alemayehu G. Mariam

This is my third commentary on the theme, “Where do we go from here?”, following the rigged elections in Ethiopia last month.[1] In this piece, I urge Ethiopian intellectuals to exchange their armchairs for the public benches and leave their comfort zones of passivity and silence to become advocates of peaceful change and democracy in their homeland.

Where Have the Ethiopian Intellectuals Gone?

The Greek philosopher Diogenes used to walk the streets of ancient Athens carrying a lamp in broad daylight. When amused bystanders asked him about his apparently strange behavior, he would tell them that he was looking for an honest man. Like Diogenes, one may be tempted to walk the hallowed grounds of Western academia, search the cloistered spaces of the arts and scientific professions worldwide and even traverse the untamed frontiers of cyberspace with torchlight in hand looking for Ethiopian intellectuals.

Intellectuals — a term I use rather loosely and inclusively here to describe the disparate group of Ethiopian academics, writers, artists, lawyers, journalists, physicians, philosophers, social and political thinkers and others — often become facilitators of change by analyzing and proposing solution to complex problems and issues facing their societies. Their stock-in-trade are questions, endless questions about what is possible and how the impossible could be made possible. There are engaged and disengaged intellectuals. Those engaged are always asking questions about their societies, pointing out failures and improving on successes, suggesting solutions, examining institutions, enlightening the public, criticizing outdated and ineffective ideas and proposing new ones while articulating a vision of the future with clarity of thought. They are always on the cutting edge of social change.

The purpose of this commentary is not to moralize about the “failure of Ethiopian intellectuals”, or to criticize them for things they have done, not done, undone or should have done. The purpose is to begin public discussion that will make it possible to find ways of making them a powerful force of peaceful change in Ethiopia. I make no attempt here to conceal my agenda with the Ethiopian intellectual community; in fact, I proudly proclaim it. I believe Ethiopian intellectuals have a moral obligation not to turn a blind eye to the government wrongs in their homeland, and an affirmative duty to act in the defense of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. I see many of them religiously practicing self-censorship and self-marginalization. I would like to see them enter the public arena and take on the issues. I see an artificial deficit in the supply of transformational and visionary Ethiopian thinkers, with revolutionary ideas to re-invent Ethiopian society. Such thinkers are out there but have chosen to remain disengaged. I would like to see them engaged more. At this critical time in Ethiopia’s history, I believe Ethiopian intellectuals must take a leading and active role in the public debate to shape the future of their homeland. I am unapologetic in demanding their intense involvement in teaching, inspiring and preparing Ethiopia’s youth within and outside the country to build a fair and just society and forge a united Ethiopian nation. I always pray that Ethiopian intellectuals will never become “whores” to dictators as the distinguished Ghanaian economist George Ayittey has warned of African intellectuals in general.

As a member of the Ethiopian “intelligentsia” and now its humble critic, I do not want to sound “holier-than-thou”. I will admit that I am just as guilty as any other for the sins of commission or omission I ascribe to others. Truth be told, I was just as invisible and silent on the issues in Ethiopia as those with whom I plead here until dictator Meles Zenawi slaughtered 196 unarmed demonstrators, and shot and wounded nearly 800 more in the streets after the 2005 election in Ethiopia. That act of total depravity, cold-blooded barbarity and savagery, vicious inhumanity and pure evil was a pivotal point in my own transformation from a complacent armchair academic to an impassioned grassroots human rights advocate, as the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 in which apartheid policemen opened fire on a crowd of unarmed black protesters killing 69 was a transformational event in the lives of so many South Africans

Role of Intellectuals in Africa

An old Jewish saying teaches that “A nation’s treasure is its scholars (intellectuals).” Unfortunately, in Africa that “treasure” has taken a decidedly loathsome character. Well over a decade ago, George Ayittey, the distinguished Ghanaian economist, and arguably one of the “Top 100 Public Intellectuals” worldwide who “are shaping the tenor of our time”, likened African intellectuals to “hordes of prostitutes.”[2]

Time and time again, despite repeated warnings, highly “educated” African intellectuals throw caution and common sense to the winds and fiercely jostle one another for the chance to hop into bed with military brutes. The allure of a luxury car, a diplomatic or ministerial post and a government mansion often proves too irresistible…

So hordes of politicians, lecturers, professionals, lawyers, and doctors sell themselves off into prostitution and voluntary bondage to serve the dictates of military vagabonds with half their intelligence. And time and time again, after being raped, abused, and defiled, they are tossed out like rubbish — or worse. Yet more intellectual prostitutes stampede to take their places….

Vile opportunism, unflappable sycophancy, and trenchant collaboration on the part of Africa’s intellectuals allowed tyranny to become entrenched in Africa. Doe, Mengistu, Mobutu, and other military dictators legitimized and perpetuated their rule by buying off and co-opting Africa’s academics for a pittance. And when they fall out of favor, they are beaten up, tossed aside or worse. And yet more offer themselves up.

The Crises of Ethiopian Intellectuals

Perhaps Prof. Ayittey takes poetic license in his analogies to provoke serious debate over the role of intellectuals in Africa. I much prefer to think of Ethiopian intellectuals as their country’s “eyes” in the sense of the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The office of the scholar (intellectual) is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amid appearances. He plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation. He is the world’s eye.” Though I will not challenge the fact that some Ethiopian intellectuals have “sold themselves off into prostitution and voluntary bondage”, I do not believe that the vast majority of them are the wretched members of the world’s oldest profession ready to “hop” in bed with the dictators lording over Ethiopia. I do believe, however, that many of us in the Ethiopian intellectual community could be fairly accused of turning a blind eye to the injustices in our homeland, not having a vision for our people and walking with blinders on so as to avoid making eye contact with the unpleasant facts of the current dictatorship in Ethiopia.

Many of us in the Ethiopian intellectual community have lost our “eye” sights because we are in crises. Some of us are mired in a moral crisis of knowing what is right but being afraid to do the right thing, and ultimately doing nothing. When Zenawi massacred hundreds of unarmed protesters and jailed tens of thousands more, few of us stood up to publicly protest. When elections are stolen in broad daylight and the country sold in bits and pieces and given away, far too many of us stood by in silent indifference. It seems many of us have developed titanium-clad consciences to keep out the reality of corruption and brutality of the dictatorship in Ethiopia.

Some of us suffer a crisis of critical thinking. We are quick to make conclusions based on hunches and speculations than rigorous analysis based on facts. We are given more to polemics and labeling than evidence-based analysis. We rarely examine and re-examine our assumptions and beliefs but cling to them as eternal truths and propagate them as such. It is embarrassing to admit that the rigorous intellectual challenge to Zenawi’s neatly packaged lies has come not from Ethiopian intellectuals but from the empirical research and analysis of foreign social scientists, researchers, journalists and human rights organizations. By failing to take a rigorous approach to the study and analysis of the myriad issues in Ethiopia, we have made it possible for Ethiopia’s dictators to write a gospel of lies and erect monuments to celebrate the living lies of non-existent accomplishments.

In one form or another, many of us in the Ethiopian intellectual community suffer a crisis of self-confidence and a deficit of intellectual courage. We criticize and castigate the dictatorship in private but are afraid to repeat our strongly-held views in public. Even in the Diaspora, some of us feel compelled to use pen names to express our opinions in the blogosphere. We would like others to admire us and accept and act on our ideas while we hide our real identities behind aliases and fictitious names. Many of us are afraid to make our views known because we fear the ridicule and ostracism of our associates and peers. We are afraid to take ownership and responsibility for our ideas for fear of being proven wrong and mask our intellectual cowardice with meaningless dogmas and abstractions. Lacking self-confidence, many of us have resolved to live out our lives quietly and anonymously on remote islands of self-censorship and self-marginalization.

Most of us also suffer from a crisis of foresight. We can argue the past and criticize the present, but we do very little forward-thinking. As Ethiopia’s “eyes”, we are ironically afflicted by myopia (nearsightedness). We can see things in the present with reasonable clarity, but we lack the vision to see things in the distance. We can see the potential problems of ethnicity in Ethiopia, but we are blinded to its solutions in the future. We see the country being dismembered in pieces but lack the vision to make it whole in the future. We can see ethnic animosity simmering under the surface, but we have been unable to help create a new national consciousness to overcome it. We can articulate a present plan for accession to political power but we lack the foresight and contingency planning necessary to ensure democratic governance.

We have a serious crisis of communication. Many of us talk past each other and lack intellectual honesty and candor in our communications. We pretend to agree and give lip service to each other only to turn around and engage in vile backbiting. We speak to each other and the general public in ambiguities and “tongues”. Often we do not say what we mean or mean what we say. We keep each other guessing. We do not listen to each other well, and make precious little effort to genuinely seek common ground with those who do not agree with us. We have a nasty habit of marginalizing those who disagree with us and tell it like it is. We hate to admit error and apologize. Instead we compound mistakes by committing more errors. We tend to be overly critical of each other over non-essentials. As a result, we have failed to nurture coherent and dynamic intellectual discourse about Ethiopia’s present and future.

We have a crisis of intellectual leadership. There are few identifiable Ethiopian intellectual leaders today. In many societies, a diverse and competing intellectual community functions as the tip of the spear of social change. In the past two decades, we have seen the powerful role played by intellectual leaders in emancipating Eastern Europe from the clutches of communist tyranny and in leading a peaceful process of change. No society can ever aspire to advance without a core intellectual guiding force. The founders of the American Republic were not merely political leaders but also intellectuals of the highest caliber for any age. They harnessed their collective intellectual energies to forge a nation for themselves and their posterity. Their conception of government and constitution has become a template for every country that aspires for the blessings of liberty and democracy. Despite some major shortcomings, the Americans got it right because their founders were visionary intellectuals.

Ethiopian Intellectuals Through Zenawi’s Eyes

Zenawi regards himself to be an intellectual par excellence based on the available fragmentary corpus of his written work, numerous public statements and anecdotal narratives of those who have interacted with him. In August 2009, the Economist magazine described him as silver-tongued conversationalist with a “sharp mind, elephantine memory and ability to speak for two hours without notes. With his polished English, full of arcane turns of phrase from his days at a private English school in Addis Ababa, the capital, he captivates foreign donors.” Jeffrey Sachs, the celebrated shaman of Western aid to Africa and Columbia University professor, often patronizes Zenawi for his “intellect” and “vision”. (In January 2008, Sachs expressed euphoric fascination over “Ethiopia’s 11 or 12 percent economic development year after year [which makes] people say oh…what’s going on there?” under Zenawi’s leadership. Zenawi is said to be an assiduous autodidact. He reputedly harbors much distaste and contempt for the Ethiopian intellectual community in much the same way he does for his political opposition. His attitude is that he can outwit, outthink, outsmart, outplay, outfox and outmaneuver boatloads of Ph.Ds., M.Ds., J.Ds. Ed.Ds or whatever alphabet soup of degrees exist out there any day of the week. He seems to think that like the opposition leaders, Ethiopian intellectuals are dysfunctional, shiftless and inconsequential, and will never be able to pose a real challenge to his power.

Regardless of the merits of Zenawi’s purported views, the fact of the matter is that few Ethiopian intellectuals have bothered to scrutinize his ideas or record in a systematic and rigorous manner. When he made manifestly false and outrageous claims of “economic growth” and “development”, few Ethiopian economists challenged him on the facts. It took foreign scholars, researchers and journalists to undertake an investigation to expose Zenawi’s fraudulent claims of success in health, education and social welfare programs. Few Ethiopian historians, political scientists, sociologists and others have come forward to challenge his bizarre theory of “ethnic federalism”. Nor have there been any rigorous analyses of the slogan of “revolutionary democracy” palmed off as a coherent political theory. Few Ethiopian lawyers have examined his constitution and demonstrated his flagrant violation of it. Given these facts, all that can be said in defense of Ethiopian intellectuals is: “If the shoe fits, wear it!”

The Challenge: Becoming Public Intellectuals

The challenge to Ethiopian intellectuals is to find ways of transforming themselves into “public intellectuals.” In other words, regardless of our formal training in a particular discipline, we should strive to engage the broader Ethiopian society beyond our narrow professional concerns through our writings and advocacy efforts. We should strive for something far larger than our disciplines, and by speaking truth to power metamorphosise into “public intellectuals.” Here are a few ideas for this enterprise:

Get involved. I hear all sorts of excuses from Ethiopian intellectuals for not getting involved. The most common one is: “I am a ‘scholar’, a ‘scientist’, etc., and do not want to get involved in politics.” Albert Einstein was not only one of the most influential and best known scientists and intellectuals of all time, he was also a relentless and passionate advocate for pacifism and the plight of German-Jewish refugees. Others plead futility. “Nothing I do could ever make a difference because Ethiopia’s problems are too many and too complex.” The answer is found in an Ethiopian proverb: “Enough strands of the spiders’ web could tie up a lion.” Let each one do his/her part, and cumulatively the difference made will be enormous.

Articulate a Vision. Ethiopian intellectuals need to articulate a vision for their people. It is ironic to be the “eyes” of a nation and be visionless at the same time. What are our dreams, hopes and aspirations for Ethiopia? What are the values we should be collectively striving for? Why are we not able to come up with an intellectual framework that can provide a bulwark against tyranny, and restore good governance to a nation of powerless masses and broken institutions? As the old saying goes, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.”

Create and Maintain a Think Tank. Think tanks are “policy actors in democratic societies assuring a pluralistic, open and accountable process of policy analysis, research, decision-making and evaluation.” There are thousands of them worldwide. It is necessary to establish such organizations for Ethiopia to conduct research and engage in advocacy and public education. On various occasions, I have publicly called for the establishment of an informal policy “think tank” to research and critically evaluate current and emergent issues in Ethiopia. Would it not be wonderful if there could be union of concerned Ethiopian scholars, scientists, intellectuals and professionals who could come together as the tip of the spear in seeking to institutionalize democracy, human rights and rule of law in Ethiopia?

Create a Legal Defense Fund. Frequently, I am asked why Ethiopian lawyers do not get together and from a legal action group to study and litigate human rights issues. Wherever I give a speech, I am always asked the question about why “you Ethiopian lawyers are not doing something about human rights, political prisoners, violations of international law….in Ethiopia? There are many examples in the U.S. of global campaigns for human rights undertaken by groups of dedicated lawyers supported by dozens of cooperating attorneys across the country. Ethiopian lawyers need to step up to the plate.

Establish Expert Panels. We have few experts available to serve as resources on issues affecting Ethiopia. Many Ethiopian experts are unwilling to come forward and give interviews to the media or to offer testimony in official proceedings. We need a roster of experts to represent Ethiopia on the world stage.

Teach the People. Zenawi often claims that Ethiopian intellectuals, particularly in the West, do not really understand the situation in the country and are merely speculating about conditions. He says our notions of democracy based on Western models are fanciful, desultory and inappropriate for Ethiopia and an “ethnic basis of Ethiopia’s democracy [is necessary] to fight against poverty and the need for an equitable distribution of the nation s wealth: peasants must be enabled to make their own decisions in terms of their own culture. Power must be devolved to them in ways that they understand, and they understand ethnicity….” It our role as intellectuals to discredit such manifestly nonsensical political theory by teaching the people the true meaning of democracy based on popular consent. We must teach the Ethiopian people that it is a travesty and a mockery of democracy for one man and one party to remain in power for 25 years and call that a democracy. We must find ways to empower the people by teaching them.

Act in Solidarity With the Oppressed

As intellectuals, we are often disconnected from the reality of ordinary life just like the dictators who live in a bubble. But we will remain on the right track if we follow Gandhi’s teaching: “Recall the face of the poorest and the most helpless man you have seen and ask yourself whether the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he be able to gain anything by it? Will it restore to him a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj (independence) or self-rule for the hungry and spiritually starved millions of your countrymen? Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.” Let us always ask ourselves if what we do and whether our actions will help restore to the poorest and most helpless Ethiopians a control over their own life and destiny.

As I point an index finger at others, I am painfully aware that three fingers are pointing at me. So be it. I believe I know “where all the Ethiopian intellectuals have gone.” Most of them are standing silently with eyes wide shut in every corner of the globe. But wherever they may be, I hasten to warn them that they will eventually have to face the “Ayittey Dilemma” alone: Choose to stand up for Ethiopia, or lie down with the dictators who rape, abuse and defile her.


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