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Meles Zenawi Dictator

Ethiopia: Meles, Speechless!

Alemayehu G Mariam

The Man Who Cried “Freedom!”












On May 18, 2012, dictator Meles Zenawi learned a lesson he will not easily forget. In the land of free speech, he was rendered speechless. Abebe Gellaw, a young Washington-based Ethiopian journalist, stood up in the gallery at the Food Security 2012  G8 Summit in Washington, D.C. and slammed Zenawi:         

Meles Zenawi is a dictator! Meles Zenawi is a dictator! Free Eskinder Nega! Free Political Prisoners! You are a dictator. You are committing crimes against humanity. Food is nothing without freedom! Meles has committed crimes against humanity! We Need Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!

Zenawi was shocked, bewildered, flabbergasted and completely disoriented. It was as though 90 million Ethiopians had lined up pointing an accusatory finger at him and shouting in unison, “Meles Zenawi! You are a dictator!…” In that moment  Abebe gloriously realized the true meaning of the tagline of his website – “A Voice of the Voiceless”. Ironically, the voice of the voiceless rendered speechless the man who had rendered millions voiceless!

Silencing the Silencer: Zenawi Gets a Taste of His Own Medicine

zen Zenawi had just started pontificating about “agricultural transformation in Africa” and how a “partnership between the farmer and the private sector” would have to be formed to meet the continent’s food needs. But he could only get out 30 words before he was shouted down. It was an incredible sight to behold. Zenawi’s head snapped to attention when he first heard his name and title. He probed the audience confusedly to locate the heckler. When he made eye contact with Abebe, he came unhinged: His eyes bugged out with sheer horror. His jaw dropped as if he had seen a ghost. He looked like the proverbial deer in a headlight; or to use an African metaphor, the vaunted guerilla hero froze like a frightened wildebeest looking into the eyes of a hungry lion.  The expression on his face was total disbelief. “Is that Abebe Gellaw? It can’t be! I thought I had him canned in Kality Prison with Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye. What the hell is he doing here?!?”

It was a defining moment — the classic Kodak moment — for Zenawi. After the initial shock, Zenawi tried to quickly regain his composure and continue with his carefully rehearsed and memorized statement. He could not afford to lose his spot in the well-rehearsed statement so he kept on repeating himself like a broken record, “Seventy percent, ah…, seventy percent of the population in Africa…ah..” Nothing doing. He looked to the to the moderator mournfully for help. But the best the stunned moderator could do was bleat out, “security, help please.” For seven seconds, the mighty Zenawi zoned out into a catatonic trance like the patrons of opium dens. For a fleeting moment, he seemed almost comatose. His head was bowed, his back hunched, his chin drooped, his lips quivered and his eyes gazed vacantly at the floor just like the criminal defendant who got handed a life sentence or worse. A close-up video showed him breathing heavily, almost semi-hyperventilating. His pectoral muscles heaved spastically under his shirt.  An imminent cardiac event?

Zenawi’s body language spoke volumes. He propped himself up on the edge of his seat. He tried to keep a stiff upper lip as he soliloquized his well-rehearsed monologue. He preteneded as if nothing had happened. He tried to give the impression that he is as cool as a cucumber and unshakable under fire.

After Abebe was escorted out of the hall, Zenawi droned on for just under two minutes arguing for  “public investment” and the need for partnership between the smallholder farmer and the private sector. But his argument made no sense at all because smallholder farmers in Ethiopia do not own the land they “hold” as private ownership of land is prohibited by law and the state owns all land. Is it possible to partner with  sharecroppers? That was what Zenawi was really talking about. Anyway, he cut to the chase, the real deal: “We want the $22 billion promised. We want the money promised to be delivered,” demanded Zenawi with the polish of a loan shark. He did not say if he wanted it delivered in a suitcase. But everyone got the message. As the old expression goes, “it’s all about money, ain’t a damn thing funny. You got to have a con in this land of milk and honey.”

As Zenawi robotically regurgitated his rehearsed statement, his hands flailed and fingers steepled to give the impression of imperturbable self-control and self-confidence, steadfast composure  and resolute authority. But his past demeanor belied his present cool bravado. This is the same man with a short fuse who went into spontaneous self-combustion at the mere suggestion that he give a break to his opposition: “If opposition groups resort to violence in an attempt to discredit the [2010] election,” Zenawi vowed frothing at the mouth, “We will crush them with our full force; they will all vegetate like Birtukan (Midekssa) in jail forever.” When ten thousand tons of coffee went “missing” in Ethiopia in 2011, Zenawi called a meeting of commodities traders and in a videotaped statement told them he will forgive them because “we all have our hands in the disappearance of the coffee”. But he issued a stern warning  that if anyone should steal coffee in the future, he will “cut off their hands”.

Zenawi would have gladly crushed Abebe with his full force, have him vegetate like Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye and even cut off his hands, if he could. But the pompous, imperious, derisive and hubristic Zenawi whose lips usually hemorrhage with insolence, insults, cheap shots, sarcasm, acrimony, antipathy, contempt and slander was tongue-tied and speechless against his young accuser. The man who loves to bark, growl and snarl at his parliamentarians, mock and caricature his opposition, play clever semantic games with his interviewers and always eager to display his faux intellectual prowess and erudition to the world sulked and sat mute as a fish listening to his young accuser call him  “dictator, a criminal against humanity…”

But there was not much Zenawi could do in America where “free speech is king” and “kings” dutifully bow and kneel before the altar of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  He sat on the stage among the other dignitaries and absorbed a full blast of the raw truth in the face,  “Meles Zenawi is a dictator….”  “The Emperor has no clothes!”

For the first time Ethiopians witnessed Zenawi at his most vulnerable, outside his cloistered bubble unguarded by his yes-men and unsheltered by his gaggle of worshipping cronies. For some, Abebe’s confrontation of Zenawi represented a triumph of  David over Goliath; but for others it was a pathetic and pitiful sight to behold the man who had silenced an entire nation for 21 years rendered speechless in 19 seconds flat!

The Power of Free Speech and Speaking Truth to Power

I am for free speech for all, including dictators. I fiercely defended Zenawi’s right to speak at Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum  in September 2010  despite withering criticism from many in the Ethiopian opposition. But I also defend the right of hecklers to heckle the high and mighty into humility. Why not? President Obama is frequently heckled during his speeches. This past March, he was heckled at Ohio State University. He did not miss a beat talking back to the heckler: “Sir, I’m here to speak to these folks. You can hold your own rally. You’re being rude… don’t interrupt everybody else. Alright?” It did not faze him because he understands the role of hecklers in the comprehensive scheme of free speech.

The “heckler’s veto” is one of the most precious rights of American citizens. The idea is really simple. It is always governments who abuse their power to silence their critics and those who disagree with them. With the “heckler’s veto”, the individual silences the government and the powerful. The tables are turned. In other words, Zenawi was silenced by Abebe!

But as always, Zenawi never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Here he had the perfect chance to deftly respond to Abebe’s claim that “we need freedom more than food.” He could have paused for a few seconds and told him, as countless African dictators have since the early days ofindependence, that the masses of poor, illiterate, hungry and sick Africans are too dumb and too stupid to appreciate democracy. The African masses are interested in the politics of the belly and not in the politics of democracy. Africans live for and by bread alone. Elections, human rights, the rule of law and all the rest are figments of warped Western neoliberal imaginations.  The fact of the matter is that Ethiopia for the last 21 years under Zenawi’s boots has had no freedom and very little food to feed its people. So the question is not food without freedom; the question is starvation under extreme oppression.

It is possible Zenawi may think that he should be treated with respect and deference as an African “leader”. Wikileaks cablegrams paint a portrait of a man who suffers from a chronic Adulation Deficit Disorder (ADD). Zenawi desperately seeks praise, adulation, flattery and acceptance in the West and in the  Ethiopian Diaspora. He wants to be seen in the West as an African black knight in shining armor thrusting a lance into the heart of poverty, injustice and inequality. He wants to be praised by the Ethiopian Diaspora as a visionary modernizer, creative trailblazer and as a charismatic and transformative leader. He often harps about the failure of Diaspora Ethiopians in not recognizing and giving him credit for the roads he has built, the shiny glass buildings he has erected in the capital and for all of the fabricated improvements in education, health, energy and so on. In fact, that was the very point made by the brutish thug in his security detail who threatened to kill Abebe in the hallway of the food security conference: “Ethiopia has changed. It is because you have not been back and seen the changes [that you are complaining]. Ethiopia is in a very good situation. It is people like you who make noise from a distance.”

But Ethiopia is not in a “very good situation.” Though Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent country and has the second largest population, she is also the second poorest country in the world after Niger according to the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHDI) Multidimensional Poverty Index 2010 (formerly annual U.N.D.P. Human Poverty Index). Tens of millions of Ethiopians have managed to live for the past two decades only because of international food handouts. Transparency International (Corruption Perception Index) has ranked Ethiopia at the bottom of the barrel of countries ruled by the most corrupt governments for the past decade. The Legatum Institute in 2011 reported Ethiopia has the “sixth highest unemployment rate in the world… [It has a] communication infrastructure [that] is weak with only five mobile phones for every 100 citizens…The education system is poor at all levels and its population is deeply dissatisfied… Access to hospital beds and sanitation facilities is very limited, placing the country 109th and 110th (very last) on these measures of health infrastructure…”

Just last week the Economist Magazine reported: “The heart of the Ethiopian capital may be traversed by new concrete arteries and bridges, built by Italian and Chinese contractors with Chinese loans. But the rest of Addis Ababa is a patchwork of dirt paths lined by corrugated-tin dwellings that are the capital’s shantytowns and slums… Outsiders wanting to do business in Addis Ababa must forge good relations with Mr Meles and his ministers.” In other words, if you want to do business in Ethiopia, you better be prepared to grease some palms (that is, lay some serious cash on Zenawi and Co.) big time.  These are the incontrovertible facts about Ethiopia’s “very good situation”.

A Teachable Moment  

In 1798, the U.S. Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Act and imposed fines and imprisonment against anyone who “wrote, printed, uttered or published any scandalous and malicious writing” against the government. Various newspaper editors of the time were arrested and some imprisoned for criticizing President John Adams’ “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and self avarice”. Thomas Jefferson pardoned all of those serving sentences under the Act when he became president. In 1787 he wrote: “If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.”

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution offers no safe harbor from criticism to the president of the United States or to a tin pot African dictator visiting the United States. Withering and stinging criticism are the price of political office in America. Holding political office in America is a solemn constitutional duty and criticizing political leaders and institutions is a bedrock constitutional right of all citizens. All American politicians understand and live by one rule: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” It’s good advice Zenawi should heed.

Just as I am for free speech, I am also for civility, affability and cordiality. But Zenawi must understand that he cannot get what he cannot give. In his stage-managed dramatic appearances at his parliament, he harangues, berates, belittles and humiliates his timid rubber-stampers. He scorns, scowls at, threatens, browbeats and mocks his opposition. He desecrates the memory and scandalizes the names of past Ethiopian leaders who fought European colonialism with bows, arrows and spears and shed blood, sweat and tears to keep Ethiopia free and independent. Today, he has placed on the auction block the land those great leaders fought to keep free for the new colonial masters from India, China and Saudi Arabia. Wikleaks cablegrams even show that he manipulates, badgers, bullies and strong arms diplomats who interact with him and give him counsel to temper his vengefulness with reason and mercy. But in a country where free speech is a secular religion, he should expect that every word he utters will be challenged, every sentence scrutinized and every idea he introduces in the public forum sliced and diced on the chopping block of critical analysis. More specifically, when Zenawi comes to America on official visit, he has to come prepared not only to con the American public and snag billions in handouts but also defend his shameful record of massive human rights violations in Ethiopia.

When Zenawi came came to speak at Columbia University at the World Leaders Forum in September 2010, I expressed the following sanguine sentiment:

It would be a crying shame for Zenawi to hop on his plane and go back to Ethiopia mumbling to himself something about the ‘extreme Diaspora’ and so on because he is heckled, disrupted or somehow impeded from speaking… Perhaps this opportunity will afford him a glimpse of the clash of ideas that routinely take place in American universities. He may begin to appreciate the simple truth that ideas are accepted and rejected and arguments won and lost in the cauldron of critical analysis oxygenated by the bellows of free speech, not in prison dungeons where journalists and dissidents are bludgeoned and left to rot… Free speech is the key by which one escapes from the steel bars and stonewalls of ‘prejudice and narrow-mindedness.’ I sincerely hope Zenawi will find that key at Columbia and finally escape from his bleak and desolate planet of ‘prejudice and narrow-mindedness.’

Hope, I hope, springs eternal in Ethiopia. I doubt Zenawi will draw a positive lesson from this trip to America,  but I pray he will draw a much bigger lesson from history itself: “Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable.”

“Food is nothing without freedom! We Need Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” Abebe Gellaw

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

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:  and

Delivering on Donald Payne’s Human Rights Legacy

Alemayehu G Mariam

Donald Payne Was a Drum Major for Democracy and Human Rights

Grassroots Ethiopian human rights groups and activists have been stunned by the death last week of  Donald Payne, our strongest ally and advocate in the U.S. Congress. His passing marks a major setback to the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia and Africa. But Don Payne has left us a rich legacy of human rights advocacy and legislative action spanning over two decades. It is now our burden — indeed our moral duty — to build, to expand and to deliver on that legacy.

Over the past week, many Ethiopians who have worked with Don Payne and followed his labor of love in Ethiopia and Africa over the years have been asking what Diaspora Ethiopians could do individually or as a community to honor his memory and legacy. They all have great ideas: We should set up a scholarship fund in his name at his alma mater. We should sponsor a human rights conference in his name. We should contribute money in his name to his favorite charity. We should have a special occasion named in his honor. We should have a special memorial church service for him and so on.

These are commendable things to do in his memory; but I believe the greatest honor we can bestow upon our friend Donald Payne is to deliver on his rich legacy with steely resolve. Don Payne’s legacy is the active promotion of democracy and human rights in Africa. His singular legacy in Ethiopia is his unrelenting effort to link human rights to such core American values as the rule of law, accountability and transparency.

Donald Payne lived a life of public service both in his congressional district in New Jersey and in his larger “continental district” of Africa. He crisscrossed the continent to stand up and speak up for Africa’s voiceless, faceless and namelesswho continue to suffer in quiet desperation under ruthless dictatorships. He never sought public recognition or accolade for what he did for Africans and in Africa. He never compalined about the hardships and risks he faced, and patiently deflected the slings and arrows of African dictators who never missed an opportunity to vilify and denounce him for his unwavering stand on democracy and human rights.

Don Payne was a person Dr. Martin Luther King would have described as a drum major for justice, for peace and for righteousness. We know him to be a drum major (leader) for democracy, human rights and freedom in Africa. He was a drum major for free and fair elections in Ethiopia. He was a drum major for an independent judiciary and for press freedom. He was a drum major for the unconditional release of all Ethiopian political prisoners from secret and regular prisons. He was a drum major for stability, democracy, and economic development in the Horn of Africa. He was a drum major for humanitarian assistance and economic development of Africa. He was a drum major for strengthening Ethio-American relations and collaboration in the war on terror. Donald Payne was a drum major for democracy and accountability in Ethiopia.

Delivering on Don Payne’s Legacy

Delivering on Don Payne’s legacy is delivering on America’s human rights promises in Africa, and particularly in Ethiopia.  In December 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton clearly set out the foundations of American human rights policy. She said “the idea of human rights and freedoms” is not a “slogan mocked by half the world” and “it must not be mere froth floating on the subsiding waters of faith.” Human rights are universal values. There are no Ethiopian, African, European, American or other national forms of human rights. “Democracy, freedom, human rights have come to have a definite meaning to the people of the world which we must not allow any nation to so change that they are made synonymous with suppression and dictatorship.” Secretary Clinton urged that the “basis of the new world order must be universal respects for human rights.” Those rights “are simple and easily understood: freedom of speech and a free press; freedom of religion and worship; freedom of assembly and the right of petition; the right of men to be secure in their homes and free from unreasonable search and seizure and from arbitrary arrest and punishment.” These rights are the bedrock principles of human existence anywhere. “Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of information, freedom of assembly–these are not just abstract ideals to us; they are tools with which we create a way of life, a way of life in which we can enjoy freedom.”

The key to democracy is the opportunity for people to make a free choice about their system of governance. Secretary Clinton said, “ The final expression of the opinion of the people with us is through free and honest elections, with valid choices on basic issues and candidates.” These principles are not mere platitudes; they are principles to be preserved, promoted and defended. In countries whose “governments are able but unwilling to make the changes their citizens deserve”, Secretary Clinton said, America “must vigorously press leaders to end repression, while supporting those within societies who are working for change…  and support those courageous individuals and organizations who try to protect people and who battle against the odds to plant the seeds for a more hopeful future.” She proclaimed that there are  four pillars that support the Obama Administration’s human rights policy:

First, a commitment to human rights starts with universal standards and with holding everyone accountable to those standards, including ourselves…. Second, we must be pragmatic and agile in pursuit of our human rights agenda, not compromising on our principles, but doing what is most likely to make them real…. When we run up against a wall we will not retreat with resignation but respond with strategic resolve to find another way to effect change and improve people’s lives…. Third, we support change driven by citizens and their communities. The project of making human rights a human reality cannot be just a project for governments. It requires cooperation among individuals and organizations—within communities and across borders—who are committed to securing lives of dignity for all who share the bonds of humanity…. Fourth, we will  not forget that positive change must be reinforced and strengthened where hope is on the rise and… where human lives hang in the balance we must do what we can to tilt that balance toward a better future.

Holding the Obama Administration Accountable for Human Rights

Secretary Clinton said that human rights accountability begins at home with “ourselves”. What has the Obama Administration done to preserve, protect and promote human rights in Africa in general and particularly Ethiopia? What did the U.S. do when Meles Zenawi claimed electoral victory of 99.6 percent in May 2010? Has the U.S. “vigorously pressed” Zenawi to hold free and fair elections? HAs the U.S. sought the release the thousands of political prisoners languishing in Zenawi’s secret and regular prisons? What did the U.S. do when Zenawi decimated the independent press in Ethiopia one by one and electronically jammed the Amharic broadcasts of the Voice of America to Ethiopia?

Responding With Strategic Resolve

Secretary Clinton said that “when we run up against a wall” of repression and see human rights trashed, “we will not retreat with resignation but respond with strategic resolve” to help victims of abuse. In his Statement celebrating World Press Freedom Day (May 2010), President Obama said, “Last year was a bad one for the freedom of the press worldwide.  While people gained greater access than ever before to information through the Internet, cell phones and other forms of connective technologies, governments like Ethiopia… curtailed freedom of expression by limiting full access to and use of these technologies.” Today, Zenawi’s regime has gone beyond limiting access to “connective technologies” to shuttering newspapers and disconnecting  broadcasts of the Voice of America from the people of Ethiopia. Has the U.S. responded with “strategic resolve” when it ran smack against Zenawi’s stonewall of press repression and free expression in Ethiopia?

Supporting Change Driven by Citizens and Their Communities

Secretary Clinton said that “human rights” cannot become “a human reality” unless it is possible for “individuals and organizations within communities and across borders” to work cooperatively in the cause of human rights. In February 2010, U.S. Undersecretary of State Maria Otero raised concerns with Zenawi over the so-called civil society organization law which Otero asserted “threatened the role of civil society” in Ethiopia. According to one report, as a result of this “law”, the “the number of CSOs [civil society organizations] has been reduced from about 4600 to about 1400 in a period of three months in early 2010.  Staff members have been reduced by 90% or more among many of those organizations that survive according to my informants.” What has the U.S. done to “support citizen driven change” in Ethiopia as CSOs are wiped out?What has the U.S. done to support “courageous individuals and organizations” in Ethiopia, including civic society and human rights organizations, “who try to protect people”?

Tilting the Balance Toward a Better Future

Secretary Clinton said the U.S. will weigh in and work towards a better future “where hope is on the rise and human lives hang in the balance”. In the May 2010 election, the U.S. had an opportunity to help steer Ethiopia towards a better future. Immediately after the election, the U.S. issued a strong statement:

We have a broad and comprehensive relationship with Ethiopia, but we have expressed our concerns on democracy and governance directly to the government… Measures the Ethiopian government take following these elections will influence the future direction of US-Ethiopian relations… To the extent that Ethiopia values the relationship with the United States, then we think they should heed this very direct and strong message… We will continue to engage this government, but we will make clear that there are steps that it needs to take to improve democratic institutions.

Nearly two years after that election, countless numbers of individuals have been detained under a so-called anti-terrorism law, the independent press has been stamped out and a full-fledged police state established. Is the U.S. tilting the balance in Ethiopia toward a better future or bending it backwards to perpetuate a vicious cycle of the past into the present?

H.R. 2003- Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act Redux

hr 2003Long before Secretary Clinton eloquently articulated America’s human rights policy, Donald Payne, and before him another New Jersey Congressman, Christopher Smith, were toiling away to make it a reality. In fact, H.R. 2003 (passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in October 2007) neatly and effortlessly combined all four pillars of the Obama Administration’s human rights policy. It is precisely the type of legislative action that could give real teeth to the lofty words of Secretary Clinton.

We can best honor Don Payne’s life and his legacy of human rights by re-committing ourselves to the re-introduction and passage of a bill that incorporates all of the elements of H.R. 2003. What was in H.R. 2003? The Congressional Research Service, a well-respected nonpartisan arm of the Library of Congress, summarized that the bill is intended to

(1) support human rights, democracy, independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press, peacekeeping capacity building, and economic development in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia; (2) collaborate with Ethiopia in the Global War on Terror; (3) seek the release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Ethiopia; (4) foster stability, democracy, and economic development in the region; (5) support humanitarian assistance efforts, especially in the Ogaden region; and (6) strengthen U.S.-Ethiopian relations.

Human rights accountability legislation for Ethiopia began in earnest in the U.S. Congress following the officially documented massacre of at least 193 victims and wounding of 763 others in the afteramth of the May 2005 elections. In November 2005, Congressman Christopher Smith of New Jersey, then-Chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa, introduced H.R. 4423 (“Ethiopia Consolidation Act of 2005”). That bill focused on, among other things, the use of United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and provision of resources to Ethiopia to support civil society institutions, independent human rights monitoring and democratic capacity building for political parties, police and security personnel, development assistance for the construction of dams and irrigation systems and suspension of joint security activities until certification is made that Ethiopia is observing international human rights standards. H.R. 4423 morphed into H.R. 5680 (“Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy, and Human Rights Advancement Act of 2006”). In 2007 when Congressman Payne chaired the Africa Subcommittee, the bill was renumbered to H.R. 2003 (“Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007”) and passed the House in October. It is manifest that the legislative language and provisions in H.R. 2003 offer the perfect vehicle for effective implementation of all four pillars of U.S. human rights policy in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa.

In concluding her human rights policy speech, Secretary Clinton described the work that is required to protect human rights with special poingancy:

In the end, this isn’t just about what we do; it’s about who we are. And we cannot be the people we are — people who believe in human rights—if we opt out of this fight. Believing in human rights means committing ourselves to action. When we sign up for the promise of rights that apply everywhere, to everyone, the promise of rights that protect and enable human dignity, we also sign up for the hard work of making that promise a reality.

Upon the death of Congressman Payne, we can rekindle life in H.R. 2003 and finally transform lofty words into practical and concrete actions that will advance American human rights policy in Ethiopia and Africa. We can certainly “opt out of the fight” for human rights in Ethiopia, but then we cannot pretend to believe in human rights. Or we can “sign up” to continue the fight for human rights and human dignity in Ethiopia.

Fighting for a bill patterend after H.R. 2003 will not be an easy task or a fair fight. It will be a steep uphill battle for us as the commanding heights are controlled by some of the mightiest lobbyists in the world who will defend any tinpot dictator for $50,000 a month. Fighting against a formidable invisible army of highly paid lobbyists from “K” Street who lurk and silently creep on the granite floors of Congress to peddle their influence will be very hard. But we faced off with that Army last time on Capitol Hill; and against all odds, we managed to win approval of H.R. 2003 in the House.But fighting in the cause of justice and righteousness has never been easy. It is always hard, very hard. So now Ethiopians, particularly those in the U.S., face a simple choice: sign up for the hard work — to do the heavy lifting — to make Donald Payne’s dream of an Ethiopia democracy and accountability act a reality; or “opt out of the fight” by cutting and running.

Keep Don Payne’s promise of an Ethiopia democracy and accountability act alive!

Previous commentaries by the author are available at: and

Amharic translations of recent Monday commentaries may be found at:

Ethiopia’s Awramba Times: More Powerful Than…

Alemayehu G. Mariam

 AT1Awramba Times: More Powerful Than Ten Thousand Bayonets

“Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets,” fretted Napoleon Bonaparte, dictator of France, as he summed up his determination to crush that country’s independent press. For dictator Meles Zenawi, Awramba Times, the tip of the spear of press freedom in Ethiopia, is more to be feared than ten thousand bayonets. Two weeks ago, Awramba Times, the last popular independent weekly, stopped publication after its outstanding managing editor and recipient of the 2010 Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award, Dawit Kebede, was forced to flee the country. Dawit was tipped off about  Zenawi’s decision to revoke his 2007 “pardon” for a bogus treason conviction and throw him back in jail.

Needless to say, all dictators and tyrants in history have feared the enlightening powers of the independent press. Total control of the media remains the wicked obsession of all modern day dictators who believe that by controlling the flow of information, they can control the hearts and minds of their citizens.  But that is only wishful thinking. As Napoleon realized, “a journalist is a grumbler, a censurer, a giver of advice, a regent of sovereigns and a tutor of nations.” It was the fact of “tutoring nations” — teaching, informing, enlightening and empowering the people with knowledge– that was Napoleon’s greatest fears of a free press. He understood the power of the independent press to effectively countercheck his tyrannical rule and hold him accountable before the people. He spared no effort to harass, jail, censor and muzzle journalists for criticizing his use of a vast network of spies to terrorize French society, exposing his military failures, condemning his indiscriminate massacres of unarmed citizen protesters in the streets and for killing, jailing and persecuting his political opponents. Ditto for Zenawi!

But enlightened leaders do not fear the press, they embrace it; they don’t condemn it, they commend it; they don’t try to crush, trash, squash and smash it, they act to preserve, protect, cherish and safeguard it. Enlightened leaders uphold the press as the paramount social institution without which there can be no human freedom. “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government,” asked Thomas Jefferson rhetorically, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” George Washington was no less enthusiastic in recognizing the vital importance of the free press in “preserving liberty, stimulating the industry, and ameliorating the morals of a free and enlightened people.” It should come as no surprise that the Frist Amendment to the U.S. Constitution imposes a sweeping prohibition: “Congress shall make no law…  abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” NO government, NO official and NO  political leader in America can censor, muzzle or persecute the press.

The American press, protected by the plate armor of the  First Amendment, dutifully serves as the peoples’ eyes, ears and voices. In America, government trembles at the prospect of press scrutiny. In Ethiopia, government terrorizes the press. In America, government fears the press. In Ethiopia, the press fears government. In America, the press censors government. In Ethiopia, government censors the press. In America, the press stands as a watchdog over government. In Ethiopia, government dogs the press. That is the difference between an enlightened government and a benighted one.

Faced with a Jeffersonian choice, dictator Zenawi decided there shall be no independent newspapers or any other independent media in Ethiopia; and the only government that will exist shall be his own enchanted kingdom of venality, brutality, criminality and inhumanity. For years now, Zenawi has been shuttering independent newspapers and harassing, jailing and exiling journalists who are critical of his dictatorial rule earning the dubious title of “Africa’s second leading jailer of journalists.” On September 29, 2011, The Economist reported:

An open letter by international journalists to the Ethiopian foreign minister highlights broader abuses: ‘Ethiopia’s history of harassing, exiling and detaining both domestic and foreign reporters has been well-documented. Ethiopia is the second-leading jailer of journalists in Africa, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Over the past decade, 79 Ethiopian reporters have fled into exile, the most of any country in the world, according to CPJ data. A number of these have worked as stringers for international news agencies. Additionally, since 2006, the Ethiopian government has detained or expelled foreign correspondents from the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, Bloomberg News, the Christian Science Monitor, the Voice of America, and the Washington Post. We are also concerned by the government’s recent decision to charge two Swedish journalists reporting in the Ogaden with terrorism.’

Zenawi has indefatigably continued to swing the sledgehammer of censorship and finally succeeded in smashing and trashing Ethiopia’s free press. On November 11, 2011, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported, “A judge in Ethiopia’s federal high court charged six journalists with terrorism on Thursday under the country’s antiterrorism law, bringing the number of journalists charged under the statute since June to 10.” On November 15, newspaper satirist Abebe Tolla, better known as Abé Tokichaw, fled Ethiopia fearing imprisonment in retaliation for critical news commentaries. On November 21, Dawit Kebede, was forced into exile. Zenawi had long dangled the bogus 2007 pardon as a Sword of Damocles over Dawit’s head.

3cOver the years, I have written numerous commentaries in defense of the free press and press freedom in Ethiopia. A year ago this month, I penned “The Art of War on Ethiopia’s Independent Press” predicting the eventual shuttering of Awramba Times and Zenawi’s final solution to his problem of press freedom in Ethiopia:

Against the onslaught of this crushing juggernaut [of press repression] stand a few dedicated and heroic journalists with nothing in their hands but pencils, pens and computer keyboards, and hearts full of faith and hope in freedom and human rights. The dictatorship is winning the war on the independent press hands down. Young, dynamic journalists are going into exile in droves, and others are waiting for the other shoe to drop on them. The systematic campaign to decimate and silence the free press in Ethiopia is a total success. One by one, the dictatorship has shuttered independent papers and banished or jailed their editors and journalists. The campaign is now in full swing to shut down Awramba Times. The dictatorship’s newspapers are frothing ink in a calculated move to smear and tarnish the reputation of the Awramba Times and its editors and journalists. For the past couple of years, Awramba Times staffers have been targets of sustained intimidation, detentions and warnings.

Today Zenawi stands triumphant over the ashes of Awramba Times; and the destruction of press freedom in Ethiopia is now complete. There is no doubt Zenawi has won the war on Ethiopia’s independent press by total annihilation. But Awramba Times and its  young journalists also stand triumphant. They have fought and won the most important war of all – the war for the hearts and minds of 90 million Ethiopians. Team Awramba Times fought Zenawi with pens and pencils and computer keyboards. They brought a ray of light into a nation enveloped by the darkness of dictatorship. They defended the truth against Zenawi’s falsehoods and exposed his lies and deceit. They stood up for the peoples’ right to know against the tyranny of ignorance. They  made Zenawi squirm, squiggle, wiggle, fidget, twitch and go through endless sleepless nights. Zenawi persecuted and prosecuted them as enemies of the state, but they shall forever remain the true and loyal friends of the people. Zenawi accused them of being terrorists. That is true: They struck terror with the truth in the dark heart of tyranny. They unleashed terror in the minds of tyrants with demands for legal and moral accountability.

In the title of his commentary in the very last issue of Awramba Times, Dawit asked a simple but profound question: “Frankly, whose country is this anyway?” In the piece, Dawit explored many issues of vital interest to all Ethiopians. But in some of the most stirring words ever written against tyranny, Dawit informed the world why he decided to flee the country he loved so much:

When a man cannot live in his own country in freedom, faces privation and feels completely helpless, and where government, instead of being a shelter and sanctuary to its people, becomes a wellspring of fear and anxiety, it is natural for a citizen to seek freedom in any place of refuge.

Long before Dawit, Benjamin Franklin, “The First American” and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and the man who declared, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God”, summed it all: “Where liberty is, there is my country.” So Dawit, welcome to America, the land of free press!

A Tribute to Awramba Times and Its Young Journalists 

I write this commentary not to denounce the wicked villains and enemies of press freedom in Ethiopia, but to praise and celebrate the heroes and heroines of Ethiopia’s independent press. I write this commentary not as a eulogy to the late Awramba Times but as a living and loving tribute to the heroic and dedicated young men and women who shed blood, sweat and tears and overcame daily fears to keep Awramba Times and press freedom alive in Ethiopia.

But how does one give tribute to the young heroes and heroines who risked their lives to defend press freedom and human rights in Ethiopia?

I wish I possessed the “eloquence of diction, that poetry of imagination or that brilliance of metaphor” to express my deep pride and joy in Awramba Times and its young journalists. I wish I possessed the talent, the insight and sensibility to tell the world of the sacrifices and contributions of these young people for the advancement of press freedom not just in Ethiopia but in all of Africa, and indeed the world.

Lacking that eloquence, I ask myself: What words can I use to express my gratitude and appreciation to these young people who toiled day and night to speak truth to tyranny? What can I possibly say to console these young truth tellers in a country that has been rendered the land of living lies? How can I show my respect, admiration and awe to these young people who soldiered for freedom and human rights in Ethiopia armed only with pens, pencils and computer keyboards? How do I acknowledge the historic contribution of the young journalists of Awramba Times and others like them who struggled beyond measure to keep the candle of press freedom flickering in the darkness of dictatorship?

Thank You Awramba Times!

AT3Team Awramba Times[1] 

Thank you Awramba Times! Thank you Dawit Kebede, Woubshet Taye (recently jailed by Zenawi), Gizaw Legesse, Nebyou Mesfin, Abel Alemayehu, Wosenseged G Kidan,  Mekdes Fisseha, Abe Tokichaw and Mehret Tadesse, Nafkot Yoseph, Moges Tikuye, Tigist Wondimu, Elias Gebru, Teshale Seifu, Fitsum Mammo and [not pictured] Ananya Sori, Surafel Girma and Tadios Getahun. I thank you all; but I thank you not out of  formality, obligation or courtesy.   No, I thank you for

being the voice of the voiceless, the powerless, the voteless, the nameless and faceless. You kept on preaching the good news even when the tyrant sought to replace the peoples’ courage with cowardice, their faith with doubt, their trust in each other with suspicion and their hopes with despair.

teaching us all the meaning of  responsible journalism. You pages shined with integrity, accuracy and truthfulness. You informed us of the most pressing issues of the day. You offered us critical but balanced perspectives to make us think and understand. You did it all with professionalism, with malice towards none.

teaching us the meaning of ethical journalism. You revealed the truth and told the story without sensationalism and distortions. You held yourselves accountable by maintaining high standards and being responsive to your readers. You showed supreme moral strength in the face of corruption, preached truth to tyranny and made superhuman efforts to open the minds of the narrow-minded.

showing Zenawi what it means to have and be a free press. You have taught him that a free press is a mirror to society. Whenever he looked in the mirror of Awramba Times, he saw the image of brutality, inhumanity, criminality and venality. But the mirror does not lie; it only reflects what it sees. Smashing the mirror does not obliterate the image; it only fragments it into 90 million pieces.

giving us a platform on which to exchange policy ideas and discuss problems of governance.

being a class act! When the pathetic, vulgar, pandering and pitiful state media launched its vilification and fear and smear campaign and brayed to have Awramba Times shuttered, you responded with decency, civility, dignity, propriety, honesty, integrity, rationality and humanity. You even treated the tyrants with respect, honor, dignity and courtesy. What a class act you all are! I have never been more proud!

All of the young journalists of Awramba Times are my personal heroes and heroines. As I write these words, I am overcome with emotion of admiration, pride and joy; but Team Awramba Times does not need my praise or recognition. Team Awramba Times does not need my words to document their heroic struggle; they have inscribed their own glorious history of press freedom on the calloused breast of tyranny. Because of Awramba Times, generations of young Ethiopians to come will learn and appreciate the true meaning of human freedom and the need to maintain eternal vigilance over tyranny.

Awramba Times shall rise from the ashes of tyranny, and press freedom will be reborn on the parched landscape of dictatorship in Ethiopia. A new world rising over the horizon as the sun sets on tyranny and dictators sweat to cling to power in the Middle East. The wind of freedom shall blow southward from North Africa. A brave new world of knowledge, information, ideas and enlightenment awaits young people all over Africa. In this new world, ignorance, the most powerful weapon in the hands of African tyrants, is useless. It is easy to misrule, mistreat and enslave a population trapped in ignorance. But “A nation of well-informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the religion of ignorance that tyranny begins.” It was the religion of ignorance and its high priests in Ethiopia that Awramba Times and its young journalists were sworn to oppose and expose.

I have never met any member of Team Awramba Times. But I have read every issue of Awramba Times since it became available online. Awramba Times was not only a source of news, informed analysis and opinion for me, I regarded it as the ultimate symbol of press freedom in Ethiopia. Those of us who are blessed to live in a land where press freedom is valued higher than government itself pledge to uphold our oath proudly inscribed on a frieze below the dome at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man [and woman].” Amen!

Thank You Awramaba Times! Thank you Dawit, Woubshet, Gizaw, Nebyou, Abel, Wosenseged, Mekdes,  Abebe, Mehret, Nafkot, Moges, Tigist, Elias, Teshale, Fitsum, Ananya, Surafel, and Tadios. I also thank the indomitable Eskinder Nega (recently imprisoned by Zenawi), Serkalem Fasil, the internationally acclaimed journalist, former political prisoner and wife of Eskinder Nega, Sisay Agena and so many others!

I salute you! I honor you! I stand in awe of  your achievements and struggle for press freedom in Ethiopia!

Long Live Awramba Times! 

[1] Photo Lineup: Standing R to L: Woubshet Taye (deputy editor of AT, recently imprisoned by Zenawi) , Gizaw Legesse, Nebyou Mesfin, Abel Alemayehu, Wosenseged G Kidan,  Mekdes Fisseha, Abe Tokichaw and Mehret Tadesse. Foreground: R to L: Nafkot Yoseph, Moges Tikuye, Tigist Wondimu, Elias Gebru,  Teshale Seifu and Fitsum Mammo.


U.S. Africa Policy: Empty Words, Emptier Promises

Alemayehu G. Mariam

(This is the second installment in a series of commentaries I pledged to offer on U.S. policy in Africa under the heading “The Moral Hazard of U.S. Policy in Africa”. In Part I,  I argued that democracy and human rights in Africa cannot be subordinated to the expediency of “engaging” incorrigible African dictators whose sole interest is in clinging to power to enrich themselves and their cronies.)

African Status Quo Broken

When U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made a brief stop at the African Union summit meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia a couple of weeks ago, she was talking my language: human rights, democracy, rule of law, accountability, transparency and the rest of it. She announced to the coterie of African dictators that the “status quo had broken” and she had come to talk to them about how they can regain democracy, achieve economic growth, and maintain peace and security.

Clinton said democracy in Africa is undergoing trial by fire despite a few successes in places like “Botswana, Ghana, and Tanzania.” She told the swarm of jackbooted African dictators that their people are gasping for democracy: “[W]e do know that too many people in Africa still live under longstanding rulers, men who care too much about the longevity of their reign, and too little about the legacy that should be built for their country’s future. Some even claim to believe in democracy – democracy defined as one election, one time.” She said Africa’s youth are sending a “message that is clear to us all: The status quo is broken; the old ways of governing are no longer acceptable; it is time for leaders to lead with accountability, treat their people with dignity, respect their rights, and deliver economic opportunity. And if they will not, then it is time for them to go.” The alternative for Africa’s “long standing rulers who hold on to power at all costs, who suppress dissent, who enrich themselves and their supporters at the expense of their own people” is to face the types of “changes that have recently swept through North Africa and the Middle East. After years of living under dictatorships, people have demanded new leadership; in places where their voices have long been silenced, they are exercising their right to speak, often at the top of their lungs.”

U.S. Sounding Like a Broken Record

For some time now, President Obama, Secretary Clinton and other top U.S. officials have been doing the same song and dance about dictatorship and poor governance in Africa.  In July 2009 in Ghana, President Obama declared, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” Today Secretary Clinton says: “Good governance requires free, fair, and transparent elections, a free media, independent judiciaries, and the protection of minorities.”

Two years ago, President Obama lectured African dictators: “No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end.” Today Secretary Clinton sarcastically notes, “Too many people in Africa still live under longstanding rulers… [who] believe in democracy – democracy defined as one election, one time.”

Two years ago, President Obama berated African dictators: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history.” Today Secretary Clinton warns the same dictators, “If you do not desire to help your own people work and live with dignity, you are on the wrong side of history.”

Two years ago, President Obama threatened African dictators: “I have directed my administration to give greater attention to corruption… People everywhere should have the right to start a business or get an education without paying a bribe. We have a responsibility to support those who act responsibly and to isolate those who don’t, and that is exactly what America will do.”  Today Secretary Clinton pleads with the same dictators: “We are making [corruption] a priority in our diplomatic engagement, and we look to our partners to take concrete actions to stop corruption.”

Last year, President Obama told a delegation of African youths: “Africa’s future belongs to its young people… We’re going to keep helping empower African youth, supporting education, increasing educational exchanges… and strengthen grassroots networks of young people…” Today Secretary Clinton laments, “A tiny [African] elite prospers while most of the population struggles, especially young people…”

When it comes to Africa, the Obama Administration is increasingly sounding like a broken record.

Empty Words and Emptier Promises

The U.S. has been talking a good talk in Africa for the last two years, but has not been walk the walk; better yet, walking the talk. Following the May 2010 “elections” in Ethiopia in which dictator Meles Zenawi claimed a 99.6 percent victory, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley said, “We value the cooperation that we have with the Ethiopian government on a range of issues including regional security, including climate change. But we will make clear that there are steps that it needs to take to improve democratic institutions.” The U.S. “clearly” took no action as Ethiopia has become a veritable police state behind a veneer of elections.

Following the rigged elections in Uganda in February 2011, Crowley said, “Democracy requires commitment at all levels of government and society to the rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly, independent media, and active civil society.” The U.S. promptly congratulated Yoweri Museveni on his election victory and conveniently forgot about the rule of law and all that stuff.

Following the elections in Cote d’Ivoire last November and Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to step down (calling it a “mockery of democracy”) Crowley said, “The U.S. is prepared to impose targeted sanctions on Ivory Coast’s incumbent President  Gbagbo, his immediate family and his inner circle, should he continue to illegitimately cling to power.” The U.S. imposed a travel ban, but that did not matter much since Gbagbo had no intention of leaving the Ivory Coast. Months later he was collared and dragged out of his palace like a street criminal.

In July 2009, the White House in a press statement said, “The United States is concerned about the recent actions of Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja to rule by ordinance and decree and to dissolve the National Assembly and the Constitutional Court as part of a bid to retain power beyond his constitutionally-limited mandate.” The U.S. took no action against Tandja, but Niger’s military did.

A couple of weeks ago, Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon visited the U.S. and received a warm reception at the White House which put out a press statement applauding the “the important partnership between the United States and Gabon on a range of critical regional and global issues.” Ali is the son of the notorious Omar Bongo who ruled Gabon with an iron fist for 42 years before his death in 2009.

Not long ago, Crowley called Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea a “dictator with a disastrous record on human rights.” Nguema’s son, Teodorin frequently travels to his $35 million-dollar mansion in Malibu, California flying in his $33 million jetliner and tools around town in a fleet of luxury cars. He earned a salary of $6,799 a month as agriculture minister. Forbes estimates his net worth at $600 million.

America Should Stop Subsidizing African Kleptocracies

The U.S. should stop subsidizing African kleptocratic thugtatorships through its aid policy and hit the panhandling thieves in the pocketbook.  In one of my weekly commentaries in November 2009 (“Africorruption, Inc.”), I argued that the business of African governments is corruption. Most African “leaders” seize political power to operate sophisticated criminal enterprises to loot their national treasuries and resources.   As Geroge Ayittey, the distinguished Ghanaian economist and arguably one of the “top 100 public intellectuals worldwide who are shaping the tenor of our time” recently noted, Africa’s “briefcase bandits” run full-fledged criminal enterprises. Sani Abacha of Nigeria amassed $5 billion, and the Swiss Supreme Court in 2005 declared the Abacha family a “criminal enterprise”. Omar al-Bashir of the Sudan has stashed away $7 billion while Hosni Mubarak is reputed to have piled a fortune of $40 billion. In comparison, Ayittey says, “The net worth of 43 U.S. presidents from Washington to Obama amounts to a measly $2.5 billion.”

Foreign aid is known as the perfect breeding ground for corruption in Africa.According to the Brussels Journal (“Voice of Conservatism in Europe”), “Most serious analysts of the failures of development aid [in Africa], including a number of government commissions, not only identified corruption in recipient governments as a reason the aid programs failed but, in fact, found the projects actually fueled additional corruption and increased the plight of the people.” Africa’s thugtators not only siphon off foreign aid targeted for critical school, hospital, road and other public works and community projects to line their pockets, they also use the aid they receive to fortify their regimes and suppress the democratic aspiration of the people. In its October 2010 report on Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch reported:

Foreign aid has become one of the government’s most effective tools in suppressing and punishing criticism. Human Rights Watch’s research found that local officials often deny assistance to people they perceive as political opponents – including many who are not actually involved in politics at all. Impoverished farmers know they risk losing access to aid which their livelihoods depend on if they speak out against abuses in their communities. Most respond by staying quiet; aid discrimination has made freedom of speech a luxury many Ethiopians quite literally cannot afford.

Simply stated, an endless supply of the hard earned cash of American Joe and Jane Taxpayer is making it possible for African thugtators to cling to power and crush the legitimate aspirations of African peoples. The thugtators know that as long as billions of American taxpayer dollars (free money) keep flowing into their pockets, they do not have to do a darn thing to improve governance, respect human rights or institute accountability and transparency.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told a gathering of African dictators in Uganda in 2010 that “the U.S. Department of Justice is launching a new Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative aimed at combating large-scale foreign official corruption and recovering public funds for their intended and proper use.” More power to Holder. It is great to grab the corrupt and thieving African dictators and their cronies in the U.S. as they launder hundreds of millions of dollars every year buying businesses and homes and making “investments”. But it is more important to hold them accountable for the billions of aid dollars they receive from U.S. every year.

If the Obama administration is committed to battling corruption as ‘one of the great struggles of our time’, as it has so often declared, it needs to undertake a thorough and complete investigation of aid money given to African dictators. In November 2009, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelley stated that the U.S. is investigating allegations that “$850 million in food and anti-poverty aid from the U.S. is being distributed on the basis of political favoritism by the current [Ethiopian] prime minister’s party.” There exists no official report in the public domain today concerning the outcome of that investigation. (If any such report exists, we are prepared to scrutinize it.) In the absence of evidence to the contrary, one must logically assume that no one for sure knows what happened to the USD$850 million handed over to Zenawi. Since the State Department does not seem to be up to the job of investigating aid-related corruption allegations in Ethiopia, it is appropriate for the General Accounting Office (the independent nonpartisan Congressional watchdog) to undertake a full investigation of the Human Rights Watch allegations.

When the U.S. hands out billions of dollars of free money to countries like Ethiopia without any meaningful accountability and discernable performance requirements, the effect on governance and observance of human rights is disastrous as evidenced in the fact that Zenawi used American aid money to suppress dissent and steal elections in 2010. In Ethiopia, where aid constitutes more than 90% of the government budget, establishing the scope of corruption in aid is absolutely necessary. Such accountability could have a huge impact not only on improving governance in Ethiopia but also in all other U.S. aid recipient countries on the continent.

Corruption is fundamentally a human rights issue. As Peter Eigen, founder and chairman of Transparency International has argued:

Corruption leads to a violation of human rights in at least three respects: corruption perpetuates discrimination, corruption prevents the full realisation of economic, social, and cultural rights, and corruption leads to the infringement of numerous civil and political rights. Beyond that, corruption undermines the very essence of the rule of law and destroys citizens’ trust in political leaders, public officials and political institutions.”

By turning a blind eye to endemic aid-related corruption, the U.S. is unintentionally promoting disregard for human rights protections and undermining the growth of democratic institutions and institutionalization of the rule of law and good governance in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa. When foreign aid provides 90 percent of the regime’s budget in Ethiopia, is it any wonder that Zenawi’s regime “won” the May 2010 “elections” by 99.6 percent?

As the old saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I regret to say that aid given to Africa with the best of intentions in the name of the most generous people in the history of the world has made the continent a heaven for bloodthirsty dictators and hell for the vast majority of poor Africans. I wonder if the American people would tolerate and approve of the the crimes that are being committed in Africa using their hard earned dollars year after year if we took it upon ourselves to educate them!

Previous commentaries by the author are available at: and



Ethiopia: The Truth About the Hummingbirds

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

Note: This is my sixth and final commentary on the theme “Where do we go from here?” following the rigged May 2010 elections in Ethiopia in which the ruling dictatorship won by 99.6 percent [1]. In this piece, I emphasize the importance of individual commitment and effort to help establish democracy, protect human rights and institutionalize the rule of law in Ethiopia. I argue that there is today a struggle between a host of hummingbirds trying to save Ethiopia’s soul and a voracious wake of vultures that have devoured her body.  I predict ultimate victory for the hummingbirds following Gandhi’s timeless exhortation that “There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they may seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail. Think of it: always.”

The Hummingbird and the Forest Fire

In March 2007, I wrote an allegorical commentary during our grassroots advocacy efforts to pass H.R. 5680 (later H.R. 2003 “Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007) entitled “The Hummingbird and the Forest Fire”.[1] It was a  tale which took creative license on a story once told by Dr. Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist and 2004 Nobel Prize laureate for peace.  In Dr. Maathai’s story,

One day a terrible fire broke out in a forest – a huge woodlands was suddenly engulfed by a raging wild fire. Frightened, all the animals fled their homes and ran out of the forest. As they came to the edge of a stream they stopped to watch the fire and they were feeling very discouraged and powerless. They were all bemoaning the destruction of their homes. Every one of them thought there was nothing they could do about the fire, except for one little hummingbird. This particular hummingbird decided it would do something. It swooped into the stream and picked up a few drops of water and went into the forest and put them on the fire. Then it went back to the stream and did it again, and it kept going back, again and again and again. All the other animals watched in disbelief; some tried to discourage the hummingbird with comments like, ‘Don’t bother, it is too much, you are too little, your wings will burn, your beak is too tiny, it’s only a drop, you can’t put out this fire.’

In my version of the story, the hummingbird never stopped humming. Indeed, my hummingbird is miraculously multiplied into battalions of young forest firefighters putting out the flames of oppression and dousing out the smoldering ambers of ethnic hatred and division in Ethiopia, while planting the seeds of freedom and  democracy. My young hummingbird firefighters take on a single mission: Help build a new democratic society  guided by a national vision which embraces the indivisible unity of the Ethiopian people, the territorial integrity of the Ethiopian nation and governance based on democratic principles, the rule of law and protection of human rights. My hummingbirds totally and completely reject the bankrupt and deceitful ideas of those who claim that Ethiopia is no more than a mishmash of competing and antagonistic ethnic, tribal, linguistic, religious and regional groups who must be kept corralled in their own Bantustan-style homelands or “kilils”.

Can Hummingbirds Really Stop the Forest Fire?

It is often heard in some Ethiopian circles that the efforts of a few individuals or groups will not amount to much in bringing about political change. They say the dictatorship is too rich, too powerful and too entrenched to oppose. Some have given up hope having surveyed the systematic looting of the country over the past two decades. Others argue for the violent overthrow of the dictators in the belief that those who seized power through the barrel of the gun can be removed only through the barrel of the gun. In other words, fight a forest fire with fire. It is an age-old idea with a predicable outcome: Everybody gets burned in the ensuing conflagration. But suum cuique (to each his own).

History shows that hummingbirds not only can stop fires, they can also start them. The chief architects of the current dictatorship in Ethiopia were originally formed as a small group of “ethno-nationalist” students who were inflamed by what they believed to be injustice and oppression. They were young hummingbirds long before they became old buzzards. As Dr. Aregawi Berhe wrote in his recent book[2]: “On 14 September 1974, seven university students… met in an inconspicuous cafe located in Piazza in the center of Addis Ababa… The aim of the meeting was to (a) wrap up their findings about the nature and disposition of the Dergue’s regime with regard to the self-determination of Tigrai and the future of democracy in Ethiopia, (b) discuss what form of struggle to pursue and how to tackle the main challenges that would emerge, (c) outline how to work and coordinate activities with the Ethiopian left, which had until then operated according to much broader revolutionary ideals.” They set out to “dispose” of the Derg (military junta that rules Ethiopia after the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie) and replaced it with a one-man, one-party dictatorship. In other words, tweedle dee replaced tweedle dum!

World history shows that individuals and small groups — the hummingbirds — do make a difference in bringing about change in their societies. The few dozen leaders of the American Revolution and the founders of the government of the United States were driven to independence by a “long train of abuses and usurpations” leading to “absolute despotism” as so eloquently and timelessly expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Their vision was founded not only on the need for independence from the yoke of British colonial rule but also the necessity of perfecting the unity of the American people after independence. They formed a constitution for one nation to be governed under one constitution of the United States of America (which had some significant imperfections), which has endured for 223 years. The Bolsheviks won the Russian Revolution arguably defending the rights of the working class and peasants against the harsh oppression of Czarist dictatorship. They managed to establish a totalitarian system which thankfully swept itself into the dustbin of history two decades ago.

Gandhi and a small group of followers in India led nationwide campaigns to alleviate poverty, make India economically self-reliant, broaden the rights of urban laborers, peasant and women, end the odious custom of untouchability and bring about tolerance and understanding among religious and ethnic groups. He launched the Quit India civil disobedience movement in 1942 culminating in Indian independence in 1947. Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo led ANC’s Defiance Campaign and crafted the Freedom Charter which provided the  ideological basis for the long struggle against apartheid and served as the foundation for the current South African Constitution. In the United States, Martin Luther King and some 60 church leaders formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, becoming the driving force of the American civil rights movement.

Social change depends a great deal on the circumstances of social forces in a given society. Political change in Ethiopia today seems improbable not because of the invincibility of the dictatorship but because of the lack of unity and commonality of purpose among the opposition. This calls for the establishment of a new political culture of cooperation, collaboration and coalition-building among anti-dictatorship elements, who now seem to have retreated into passive spectatorship of the dictatorship. The political history of contemporary Ethiopia could best be summarized in the words of V.I. Lenin: “One man with a gun can control 100 without one.” There is no doubt that the handful of core leaders of the dictatorship will cling to power at any cost. Though Lenin may be partly right, his empirical observation is countered by the irrefutable logic of the old Ethiopian saying: “The gathered strands of the spider’s web could tie up a lion.” (Dir biaber anbessa biasir.)  If one hundred unarmed hummingbirds could come together as one with a commonality of purpose and determination, they could overcome one vulture no matter the width of his wingspan or the sharpness of his claws. In the absence of such a ratio of hummingbirds to vultures and the widespread disillusionment with the dictatorship and disarray in the opposition, the self-empowerment of individuals and action by small committed groups of individuals as one of the most viable means of effecting change and bringing about democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia. Simply stated, to bring about change, citizens as individuals must be active by being active citizens.

Hummingbirds Must Keep on Humming

The morality tale of the hummingbird is instructive to all Ethiopians. Despite the ferocity of the forest fire, the hummingbird did not stop carrying its droplets of water. Dictatorships are analogous to a forest fire. They consume everything in their societies. Like the raging forest fire, they also seem unstoppable. But as Gandhi taught, the fires of dictatorship are always stopped by the waterfall of truth and love: “When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they may seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail. Think of it: always.” The reasons are simple[3]. In the end tyrants always fail because though they have guns and tanks, they lack ideas and vision. They lose because they live in a world of darkness and ignorance. They are incapable of transforming themselves or their societies because they are trapped in their own cycle of repression that feeds off their ignorance and wickedness. And like Dracula, the legendary bloodsucker, they can only live on the blood — and sweat and tears — of their victims. They can not survive otherwise. Dictatorships use brutality because they can not convince their people with the strength of their political or philosophical arguments, the persuasiveness of their logic or the abundance of their good will. They fail because they can not withstand the force of truth and always slip and fall on the pile of lies and deceit that is their foundation.

Though dictators are destined to the dustbin of history, they will delay their inevitable rendezvous by proclaiming to be anointed by the masses. They put themselves out as the saviors of the very masses they oppress ruthlessly. They claim to have special qualities that give them the right to rule the masses forever and exhort the “herd” to follow them blindly and unquestioningly. In concluding his May 2010 “election” victory speech (a/k/a a public demonstration against Human Rights Watch for its critical report), dictator Meles Zenawi expressed gratitude effusively to the Ethiopian people for re-appointing him and his party to complete a quarter century on the throne.  “Once again we, over five million EPRDF members, on behalf of our martyrs and our selves solemnly express our gratitude to day, standing before you, the Ethiopian people, who have the sovereign right and power to appoint or dismiss your leaders. We salute you!” An old Ethiopian saying teaches us to beware of a “wolf priest praying in the midst of a flock of sheep.” No doubt the wolf will “salute” and “express gratitude” to every sheep he devours. But do the sheep return the salutation and gratitude?

All of us committed to democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia have choices to make and actions to take as individuals. That choice is between good and evil; that is between joining the host of hummingbirds that carry droplets of water to put out the fires set by a ruthless dictatorship, or siding with the wake of vultures that use their enormous wings to fan the flames of ethnic hatred and division to perpetuate themselves in power. Those who play with the fires of ethnic politics to cling to power should beware the backdraft.


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.


[2] Aregaw Berhe, A Political History of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (1975-1991) (Los Angeles: Tsehai Publishers, 2009), p. 38.

[3]See footnote 1.