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Ethiopia: Right in Prison, Wrong on the Throne

EskinderLast April, I wrote a “Special Tribute to My Personal Hero Eskinder Nega”.  In that tribute, I groped for words as I tried to describe this common Ethiopian man of uncommon valor, an ordinary journalist of extraordinary integrity and audacity. Frankly, what could be said of a simple man of humility possessed of indomitable dignity? Eskinder Nega is a man who stood up to brutality with his gentle humanity. What could I really say of a gentleman of the utmost civility, nobility and authenticity who was jailed 8 times for loving liberty?  What could I say of a man and his wife who defiantly defended press freedom in Ethiopia, even when they were both locked up in Meles Zenawi Prison just outside of the capital in Kality for 17 months! What could anybody say of a man, a woman and their child who sacrificed their liberties, their peace of mind, their futures and earthly possessions so that their countrymen, women and children could be free!?

Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega is a special kind of hero who fights with nothing more than ideas and the truth. He slays falsehoods with the sword of truth. He chases bad ideas with good ones. Armed only with a pen, Eskinder fights despair with hope; fear with courage; anger with reason; arrogance with humility; ignorance with knowledge; intolerance with forbearance; oppression with perseverance; doubt with trust and cruelty with compassion. Above all, Eskinder speaks truth to power and to those who abuse, misuse, overuse and are corrupted by power.

Now almost a year since I wrote my tribute, I remember my great friend and brother Eskinder Nega as he languishes in Meles Zenawi Prison.  But I do not remember him in sadness or with heartache.  No! No! I remember Eskinder in the hopeful, faith-filled and resolute words of American poet James Russell Lowell (“The Present Crisis”): “When a deed is done for Freedom, through the broad earth’s aching breast…/ Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide…/ In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side… For Humanity sweeps onward: where to-day the martyr stands…/ Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne…/

Eskinder and his wife Serkalem did the right deed to defend the right of press freedom in Ethiopia. They spoke truth to falsehood in their newspapers and never backed down. They spoke right to wrong in kangaroo court. The man who tried for 20 years to right the wrongs of tyranny, today, like Lowell’s Truth, hangs on the scaffold in the belly of Meles Zenawi Prison, a place of  “wrath and tears where the horror of the shade looms”, with his head bloodied but UNBOWED!

Last week, Birtukan Mideksa wrote an opinion piece for Al Jazeera urging the release of Eskinder Nega and  other journalists including Reeyot Alemu (winner of the International Women’s Media Foundation 2012 Courage in Journalism Award) and Woubshet Taye (2012 Hellman/Hammett Grant Award) and all political prisoners in Ethiopia. Birtukan is the first female political party (Unity for Democracy and Justice) leader in Ethiopian history. Birtukan, like Eskinder, was the personal political prisoner of the late dictator Meles Zenawi.   Meles personally ordered Birtukan’s arrest and on December 29, 2008, a year and half after he “pardoned” and released her from prison, he threw her back in jail without even the usual song and dance of kangaroo court.  On January 9, 2010, Meles sent chills down the spines of reporters when he declared sadistically that “there will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” On January 15, 2010, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention adopted an opinion finding that Birtukan Midekksa is a political prisoner.

It is heartwarming to read Birtukan’s moving and robustly principled defense of Eskinder Nega and the other Ethiopian journalists and political prisoners. It is also ironic that Eskinder should replace Birtukan as the foremost political prisoner in Ethiopia today.

Few can speak more authoritatively on the plight of Eskinder and all Ethiopian political prisoners than my great sister Birtukan who also spent years in in the belly of Meles Zenawi Prison, a substantial part of it in solitary confinement. In her Al Jazeera commentary she wrote:

My journey to become a political prisoner in Ethiopia began as a federal judge fighting to uphold the rule of law. Despite institutional challenges and even death threats, I hoped to use constitutional principles to ensure respect for basic rights… [Ethiopian] authorities have detained my friend Eskinder Nega eight times over his 20-year career as a journalist and publisher. After the 2005 elections, Eskinder and his wife – Serkalem Fasil – spent 17 months in prison. Pregnant at the time, Serkalem gave birth to a son despite her confinement and almost no pre-natal care. Banned from publishing after his release in 2007, Eskinder continued to write online. In early 2011, he began focusing particularly on the protest movements then sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. Eskinder, who does not belong to any political party because of a commitment to maintain his independence, offered a unique and incisive take on what those movements meant for the future of Ethiopia. Committed to the principle of non-violence, Eskinder repeatedly emphasised that any similar movements in Ethiopia would have to remain peaceful. Despite this, police briefly detained him and warned him that his writings had crossed the line and he could face prosecution. Then in September [14], 2011, the government made good on that threat. Authorities arrested Eskinder just days after he publicly criticised the use of anti-terror laws to stifle dissent. They held him without charge or access to an attorney for nearly two months. The government eventually charged Eskinder with terrorism and treason, sentencing him to 18 years in prison after a political trial. Unfortunately, Eskinder is not alone; independent journalists Woubshet Taye and Reeyot Alemu also face long prison terms on terrorism charges.

Eskinder is a hero to the world but a villain to Meles Zenawi and his disciples 

Who really is Eskinder Nega? In Meles Zenawi’s kangaroo court, Eskinder has been judged a “terrorist”, a “public enemy”. In the court of world public opinion, Eskinder is celebrated as the undisputed champion and defender of press freedom.

When speaking of my brother Eskinder, I could be accused of exaggerating his virtues, hyperbolizing his singular contributions to press freedom in Ethiopia and overstating his importance to the cause of free expression throughout the world. Perhaps I am biased because I hold this great man in such high respect, honor and admiration. If I am guilty of bias, it is because seemingly in Ethiopia they have stopped making genuine heroes like Eskinder Nega, Woubeshet Taye, Anudalem Aragie, Temesgen Desalegn… and heroines like Birtukan Midekssa, Serkalem Fasil, Reeyot Alemu….

Let others more qualified and more eloquent than I speak of Eskinder Nega’s heroism, courage, fortitude, audacity and tenacity in the defense of press freedom.

On December 3, 2012, when Carl Bernstein (one of the two investigative journalists who exposed the Watergate scandal leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon) read at a public forum Eskinder’s last blog before he was arrested, he said:

… No honor can be greater than to read Eskinder Nega’s words. He is more than a symbol. He is the embodiment of the greatness of truth, of writing and reporting real truth, of persisting in truth and resisting the oppression of untruth… So let us marvel at and  celebrate Eskinder Nega. For who among us could write what I am about to read [a blog of Eskinder’s] spirit unbound, faith in freedom and the power of the word untrammeled

When Eskinder was named as the recipient of the prestigious 2012 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, Peter Godwin, president of PEN American Center said, “The Ethiopian writer Eskinder Nega is that bravest and most admirable of writers, one who picked up his pen to write things that he knew would surely put him at grave risk…”

Larry Siems, director of PEN Freedom to Write Award, at the award ceremonies groped for words trying to describe Eskinder Nega. “…[This year] one [journalist] really stood out, and that is Eskinder Nega. So tonight we recognize one of the world’s most courageous, most intrepid, most creative advocates of press freedom that I have ever seen…”

In awarding its prestigious Hellman/Hammett Award for 2012,  Human Rights Watch described Eskinder and the other journalists as “exemplifying  the courage and dire situation of independent journalism in Ethiopia today. Their ordeals illustrate the price of speaking freely in a country where free speech is no longer tolerated.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists declared, “The charges against Eskinder are baseless and politically motivated in reprisal for his writings. His conviction reiterates that Ethiopia will not hesitate to punish a probing press by imprisoning journalists or pushing them into exile in misusing the law to silence critical and independent reporting.”

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the American civil rights heroine and former CNN Johannesburg bureau chief defended Eskinder and travelled to Ethiopia to plead for his release:

The specific charge against Eskinder was that he conspired with a banned opposition party called Ginbot 7 to overthrow the government. At his trial, government prosecutors showed as evidence a fuzzy video, available on YouTube, of Eskinder at a public town-hall meeting, discussing the potential of an Arab Spring-type uprising in Ethiopia. State television labeled Eskinder and the other journalists as “spies for foreign forces.” There were also allegations that he had accepted a terrorist mission—what the mission involved was never specified.

United States Senator Patrick Leahy read a lenghty statement into the Congressional Record informing his colleagues that “7,000 miles from Washington, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia… a journalist named Eskinder Nega stands accused of supporting terrorism simply for refusing to remain silent about the Ethiopian government’s increasingly authoritarian drift…”

The U.S. State Department has condemned the imprisonment of Eskinder and the other journalists:

The United States remains deeply concerned about the trial, conviction, and sentencing of Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, as well as seven political opposition figures, under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. The sentences handed down today, including 18 years for Eskinder and life imprisonment for the opposition leader Andualem Arage, are extremely harsh and reinforce our serious questions about the politicized use of Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law in this and other cases.

Eskinder is a hero to the heroes of international journalism. In April 2012,  twenty international journalists who have been recognised as “World Press Freedom Heroes” by the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) stood by Eskinder’s side, condemned his unjust imprisonment on trumped up terrorism charges and demanded his release and the release of other journalists. These press freedom heroes minced no words in telling Meles Zenawi of their “extremely strong condemnation of the Ethiopian government’s decision to jail journalist Eskinder Nega on terrorism charges.”

On November 21, 2012, the U.N. Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a 9-page legal Opinion concluding:

The deprivation of liberty of Eskinder Nega is arbitrary in violation of articles 9, 10, 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articles 9, 14, and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights… The Working Group requests the Government to take the necessary steps to remedy the situation, which include the immediate release of Mr. Nega and adequate reparation to him.

In December 2012, 16 member of the European parliament demanded the release of Eskinder Nega and journalists Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye.

Who is (are) the real terrorist(s) in Ethiopia?

Meles said Eskinder and all of the journalists he jailed are “terrorists”.  If Eskinder Nega is a terrorist, then speaking truth to power is an act of terrorism. If Eskinder Nega is a terrorist, then advocacy of peaceful change is terrorism; thinking is terrorism; dissent is terrorism; having a conscience is terrorism; refusing to sell out one’s soul is terrorism; standing up for democracy and human rights is terrorism; defending the rule of law is terrorism and peaceful resistance of state terrorism is terrorism. If Eskinder Nega is a terrorist today, Nelson Mandela was a terrorist then. The same goes for all of the other jailed journalists and opposition leaders jailed by Meles Zenawi.

But the real terrorists know who they are. When Meles and his horde of guerilla fighters challenged military dictator Mengistu Hailemariam, they were officially branded as terrorists, bandits, mercenaries, criminals, thugs, murderers, marauders, public enemies, subversives, rebels, assassins, malcontents, invaders, traitors, saboteurs and other names.  Were they?

Let the evidence speak for itself. In an interview Meles Zenawi gave to an Eritrean magazine called Hiwot (which was translated into Amharic and published by Etiop newspaper, (Vol. 5 Issue No. 52), he presented himself as the Willie Sutton of Tigray pulling bank jobs all over the palce. Meles spoke proudly of the banks he and his comrade-in-arms robbed or attempted to rob to finance their guerilla war. Meles boasted of his “victorious” robberies in Shire and Adwa while regretting botched jobs in Axum. Today they own the banks!

The current ruling party, “Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Movement” (TPLF), is listed today in the Global Terrorism Database as a terrorist organization. Documented acts of terrorism by the TPLF include armed robberies, assaults, hostage taking and kidnapping of foreign nationals and journalists and local leaders, hijacking of truck convoys, extortion of business owners and merchants, nongovernmental organizations, local leaders and private citizens and intimidation of religious leaders and journalists.

An official Inquiry Commission established by Meles Zenawi to investigate the deaths that occurred in the post-2005 election period determined that security forces under the personal control and command of Meles Zenawi  massacred 193 unarmed protesters in the streets and severely wounded another 763. The Commission concluded the “shots fired by government forces were intended not to disperse the crowd of protesters but to kill by targeting the head and chest of the protesters.” On November 1, 2005, security forces in the Meles Zenawi Prison in Kality gunned down 65 inmates while confined in their cells. No one has ever been brought to justice for these crimes against humanity.

In September 2011, the world learned that “Ethiopian security forces (had) planted 3 bombs that went off in the Ethiopian capital on September 16, 2006 and then blamed Eritrea and the Oromo resistance for the blasts in a case that raised serious questions about the claims made about the bombing attempt against the African Union summit earlier this year in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.” Following its own investigation and “clandestine reporting”, the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa fingered “GoE (Government of Ethiopia) security forces” for this criminal act. If all other acts of state terrorism committed against Ethiopian civilians were to be included, the body count would be in the hundreds of thousands.

Who are the real terrorists and criminals in Ethiopia today?

Tale of the Good Wolf and Evil Wolf

The late Meles Zenawi and his apostles remind me of an old Cherokee (Native American) tale of two wolves:  A grandfather tells his young grandson that everyone has a Good Wolf and an Evil Wolf inside of them fighting with each other every day. The Good Wolf thrives on peace, love, truth, generosity, humility and kindness. The Evil Wolf feeds on hatred, anger, greed, lies and arrogance. “Which wolf will win, grandfather?” asked the boy. “Whichever one you feed,” replied the grandfather.

Meles and his disciples have been feeding the Evil Wolf for decades, and now the Evil Wolf sits triumphantly crowned on the Throne of Hatred and Falsehood. They have fattened the Evil Wolf with a lavish diet of inhumanity, barbarity, brutality, ignobility, immorality, depravity, duplicity, incivility, criminality, ethnocentricity, mediocrity, corruptibility and pomposity.

Eskinder, Reeyot, Woubshet, Andualem. Temesgen and the rest have managed to tame the Good Wolf and have followed the path of peace, love and truth. Their wolf thrives on a simple diet of humanity, unity, integrity, authenticity, civility, morality, incorruptibility, dignity, affability, humility, nobility, creativity, intellectuality and audacity.

It is hard for the reasonable mind to fathom why Meles and his disciples chose to embrace and follow the path of the Evil Wolf. Indeed, the Evil Wolf has been very good to them. The Evil Wolf has made it possible for them to accumulate great wealth and amass enormous power. They have unleashed the Evil Wolf to divide and rule the country along ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional lines. They have used the Evil Wolf to destroy not only the lives and futures of young professionals like Eskinder, Birtukan,  Reeyot, Woubshet, Temesgen and  Andualem but also the future of the younger generation. They have used the Evil Wolf to sell off the country’s most fertile lands for pennies and plunder its natural resources. They have used the Evil Wolf to convict the innocent in kangaroo courts. They have used the Evil Wolf to strike fear and loathing in the hearts and minds or ordinary citizens.

They have given new meaning to the ancient Roman playwright Paluatus’ aphorism homo homini lupus est  (“man is a wolf to his fellow man”).  They have used the Evil Wolf to create war from peace; strife from harmony;  wrong from right; vice from virtue; division from unity;  shame from honor;  immorality from decency; poverty from wealth; hatred from love; ignorance from knowledge; corruption from blessing; bondage from freedom and dictatorship from democracy.  In 21 years, Meles and his disciples have managed to jam a whole nation between the jaws of a snarling, gnarling and howling Evil Wolf.

How long before the Good Wolf wins over the Evil Wolf?

The great Nelson Mandela wondered when Apartheid would end. He told those who had unleashed the Evil Wolf of Apartheid,  “You may succeed in delaying, but never in preventing the transition of South Africa to a democracy.”

My friend Eskinder Nega warned the overlords of the Evil Wolf in Ethiopia, “Freedom is partial to no race. Freedom has no religion. Freedom favors no ethnicity. Freedom discriminates not between rich and poor countries.  Inevitably freedom will overwhelm Ethiopia.

But how long before freedom overwhelms Ethiopia? How long before Ethiopia transitions to democracy? How long before “truth crushed to earth rises again” in Ethiopia? How long before all Ethiopian political prisoners are set free? Before Eskinder is released and joins his wife Sekalem and their son Nafkot? How long before Reeyot, Woubshet, Andualem… rejoin their families? How long before the Good Wolf wins over the Evil Wolf?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. agonized over similar questions during the darkest days of the struggle for civil rights in America. His answer to the question, “How long?” was “Not long!”.

I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?”  Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men…?”

Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham… be lifted from this dust of shame…? … How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?”

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.”

How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.”

How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.”

How long before the Good Wolf wins over the Evil Wolf? Not long, because “once to every man and nation comes the moment” to decide between Good and Evil.

How long before wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Addis Ababa, Mekele, Adama, Gondar, Awassa, Jimma… is lifted from the dust of shame? Not long, “because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

How long before truth and right crushed to earth rise up again in Ethiopia? Not long, because truth and right will not remain forever on the scaffold nor wrong and falsehood nest forever on the throne!

I have no greater honor than to stand up, speak up and defend my friends, brothers and sisters Eskinder Nega, Serkalem Fasil, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Temesgen Desalegn, Andualem Aragie and all political prisoners held in Meles Zenawi Prison!

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:

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

Dreams of an Ethiopia in Peace

Madiba-003President Nelson Mandela turned 94 on July 18, 2012. May he live long with gladness and good health!

All who love and revere President Mandela call him Madiba. He is the ultimate symbol of human love, hope,  courage, charity, endurance, patience and perseverance. He is the personification of good will, tolerance, generosity, forgiveness and reconciliation.

In South Africa’s darkest hours, Madiba emerged from the darkest dungeons of Pollsmoor Prison wearing a big smile on his face and carrying a torch light in his hand to free all his people from a wretched prison called Apartheid. When South Africa’s fate dangled between the forces of good and evil, Madiba stepped in the middle and said, “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” He convinced those armed for war to disarm for peace, to bury the hatchet, dagger and arrow and to beat their swords into ploughshares, shake hands, hold hands and put their shoulders to the grindstone to build a new South Africa. When the world stood in awe of what he had done, he humbly reminded us: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” Don’t we all wish we had more sinners in high places in Africa who just keep on trying?

I have had many imaginary conversations with Madiba, but only one that I have dared to make public. In one of my weekly commentaries in May 2011, I reported on one such imaginary conversation. The topic was the triumphalism of African dictators. Somewhat impatiently, I asked Madiba: “What the hell is wrong with African dictators?!?” Madiba did not want to generalize, but he was very clear about Apartheid dictatorship and what needed to be done to restore South Africa to its timeless beauty. He said, “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another. If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.”

Nightmares and Dreams of a Beautiful Ethiopia

Among the few privileges of being a human rights advocate and an academic are telling the unvarnished truth to anyone who cares to listen, speaking truth to power and defiantly hoping (even against hope) for a future that is much better than the past. That privilege comes from the special nature of human rights advocacy. A true human rights advocate has no political ambition. The politics of human rights is the politics of human dignity, not ideology, political partisanship or the pursuit of political office. The committed human rights advocate thrives on hopes and dreams of a better future, not the lust for political power or craving for status, position or privilege. As Vaclav Havel, the late Czech Republic and human rights advocate put it, “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well,…  but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.” Defense and advocacy of human rights is something one does because it is good. As Havel said, “Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.” I have been relentlessly “sermonizing” (as some affectionately refer to my weekly commentaries) on human rights in Ethiopia and against dictatorship for many years now. I have done so not because I believed my efforts will produce immediate political results or expected structural changes overnight. I stayed in for the long haul because I believe defending, advocating and writing about human rights and righting government wrongs is right, good and the moral thing to do.

Lately, there has been much talk about nightmare scenarios and very little about dreams of a beautiful Ethiopia and the two roads that could take her to that place and moment in time where she “will not experience the oppression of one by another”. Some whisper of the nightmare of civil war if one man goes or stays? Is Ethiopia so insignificant in the eyes of man and God that her destiny is tied to or determined by what happens or does not happen to one man? Others bemoan the horrors of the past and seethe with anger and bitterness. They can only see the twilight of a vanishing order and are blinded to the sparkling new day dawning over the horizon.  Far too many exercise themselves with things that are divisive, disruptive and discordant. They seem to forget that we have strong bonds of family, history, culture, language and religion that bind us in a beautiful mosaic called Ethiopia.

There are some  who seem obsessed with speculation and rumors about the fate of a state built on the shoulders of one man. Would it not make more sense to be concerned about the plight and state of suffering of the other 90 million? Louis XIV, the absolute monarch of France who reigned for 72 years is reported to have said, “L’etat, c’est moi” (“I am the state”). Must we subject ourselves to the Sturm und Drang of  what could happen to Ethiopia after the fall of a one-man, one-party state that has been in power for 21 years? For all the speculation, guestimation and supposition on the part of the Ethiopian opposition and the secrecy, mystery, fudging, hedging and dodging by discombobulated regime officials, the answer may be the same as Mark Twain’s who upon reading his premature obituary quipped: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Should we really be concerned about a moribund regime?

Truth be told, we should be concerned about a nation that has been in intensive care and on life support for the past 21 years and beyond. We should pray for the healing, speedy recovery and and well-being of Ethiopia. We should be searching high and low in our hearts, minds and souls for the best medication to heal Ethiopia from the cancer of tyranny and dictatorship and the pathology of hate and narrow-mindedness. We should work tirelessly to detoxify the Ethiopian body politic from the poison of ethnic domination,  sectarianism and bigotry.

To restore Ethiopia to good health, we must begin national dialogue, not only in the halls of power, the corridors of the bureaucracy and the military barracks but also in the remotest villages, the church and masjid meeting halls and other places of worship,  the schools and colleges, the neighborhood associations and in the taverns, the streets and markets and wherever two or more people congregate.  We have no choice but to begin talking to each other with good will and in good faith.

Since the beginning of 2012, I have been penning special commentaries in a series I called “Ethiopia’s transition from dictatorship and democracy”. These commentaries were fragments of my dream that Ethiopia will soon make a transition from dictatorship to democracy. Of course, dreams could easily change into nightmares.  In one such commentary, I shared my nightmares about what could happen “on the bridge from dictatorship to democracy.” I wrote, “there is often a collision between individuals and groups doggedly pursuing power, the common people tired of those who abuse and misuse power and the dictators who want to cling to power.  The chaos that occurs on the transitional bridge from dictatorship to democracy creates the ideal conditions for the hijacking of political power, theft of democracy and the reinstitution of dictatorship in the name of democracy.” In another commentary last month, I pleaded for constitutional “pre-dialogue” (preparatory conversations) in anticipation of some potential roadblocks on Ethiopia’s inexorable march to a constitutional democracy.

Recent events seem to signal the imminence of a sea change in Ethiopia. While some are preoccupied with the nightmare of what could happen in Ethiopia if one man or one party stays or goes, my nightmares have been about what those opposed to the one man will do whether he stays or goes. History shows that political transitions in Ethiopia have been nightmares, a race to the bottom. The transition from monarchy to military socialism proved to be a colossal disaster. In the name of socialism, millions perished from famine and political violence. The transition from military “socialism” to “revolutionary democracy” led to the creation of a police state in Ethiopia unrivalled in the modern history of Africa. The flicker of democracy that was seen in 2005 was snuffed out in the blink of an eye. Now, the sun seems to be setting on the police state; and it could be curtain time for the chief of police. There is volcanic pressure building up slowly but surely in Ethiopia. We see small precursor eruptions here and there.  Public dissatisfaction with the status quo has turned to utter public desperation. People cannot afford the basic necessities of life as inflation and cost of living soar to new heights. Corruption, abuse of power, massive repression and poor governance are about to blast the dome on the grumbling volcano. The situation is deteriorating by the day. One has to assume that against the backdrop of the “Arab Spring”, Ethiopia’s iron-fisted rulers must be a little worried about the winter of discontent of the Ethiopian people being made glorious by a democratic Summer.

What the managers of the police state will do or not do concern me less than what those who profess to stand for democracy, freedom and human rights will do or not do. Will they do what they have always done in the past: Never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity? Continue to play the same old zero sum game (that is, they win and everybody else loses) of politics? Play games of one-upmanship trying to outdo,  outwit, outthink, outsmart, outplay, outfox, outmaneuver and outbully each other, while those in the saddle of power laugh at them? Play the blame game, finger pointing game and demonization game to show how bad everybody is and how good  they are? Will they invent new games?

Or will the opposition collectively be able to soar to new heights of greatness? Will they forgive each other for the injuries of the past and pledge to work for a secure and just future for all Ethiopians? Will they be able to forge a partnership to deal with the multiplicity of problems facing the people? Will they lead the people to consensus by prioritizing and focusing on things for which there is broad agreement, or will they nitpick their way into a stalemate over minutiae? Above all, will they have the courage to reach out to each other in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, shake hands, bury the hatchet and put their shoulders to the grindstone to work together in the cause of  freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia? Will they have the courage to walk in Madiba’s footprints?:

The sight of freedom looming on the horizon should encourage us to redouble our efforts. It is only through disciplined mass action that our victory can be assured. We call on our white compatriots to join us in the shaping of a new South Africa. The freedom movement is a political home for you too…

As freedom looms over the horizon in Ethiopia, do we all have the courage, humility and foresight to say to  those in power and out of power,  “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” Is it possible to create a broad partnership of justice, equality, freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia today? Could we say now to those who have a tight grip on power what Madiba said to his white compatriots then, “The freedom movement is a political home for you too…”

Hate the Sin, Not the Sinner

In his autobiography, Gandhi wrote, “Man and his deed are two distinct things.  Whereas a good deed should call forth approbation and a wicked deed disapprobation, the doer of the deed, whether good or wicked, always deserves respect or pity as the case may be. ‘Hate the sin and not the sinner’ is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world….” If one hates another because of race, color, religion, ethnicity or other factors, the result is more hate. Madiba said, “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” If hate is learned, it can also be unlearned. If love can be taught, it can be spread across the land.

We must follow Gandhi’s precept that if we must hate, we “hate the sin and not the sinner.” It is a tough precept to follow and live by. We have all been part of the problem and part of the solution at one time or another. If this is not true, then “He who is without sin should cast the first stone.” But now all of us have an opportunity  to become part of the grand solution to the political problems facing Ethiopia. It is a rare chance that comes once in generations. Let’s not squander it.

In William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, Mark Antony as part of his funeral oration following the death of Caesar said, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones…” Scripture teaches that “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.” Those who have lived in hate and done evil in their lifetimes will have a testament in history for their deeds which will live long after they are dead and gone. If we obsess with the sinners, we will surely inherit the wind of those who have troubled their houses. We will inherit a tornadic wind that will tear the basic fabric and foundation of the Ethiopian nation. But if we focus our attention on the sin and together  atone for it, we stand to inherit democracy from the ashes of dictatorship; human rights from the depths of human wrongs; freedom from oppression, love from hate; reconciliation from animosity and forgiveness from rancor. Such are the wages of good. Those who hold the reign of power should realize that things cannot continue the way they are now. They have a simple choice to make; and in the words of  Robert Kennedy: “A revolution is coming — a revolution which will be peaceful if we are wise enough; compassionate if we care enough; successful if we are fortunate enough — But a revolution which is coming whether we will it or not. We can affect its character; we cannot alter its inevitability.” Why is it not possible to have a revolution in Ethiopia where we can all win because we are all on the side of freedom, democracy and human rights?

So, What Time Is It In Ethiopia Now?

Scripture teaches that there is “A time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.” So, what time is it in Ethiopia now? I say it is time for peace–high time to dream for peace. It is time to replace bitterness with reconciliation; hate with love that heals the community; revenge with forgiveness; despair with hope; hurt with healing; fear with courage; division with unity; doubt with faith; shame with honor;  deceit with candor and sincerity; anger with reason; cruelty with kindness and caring; enmity with friendship; duplicity with openness; complacency with action; indifference with passion; incivility with gracefulness; suspicion with trust; selfishness with altruism; dishonesty with integrity; convenience with virtue; cunning  with scruples; ignorance with knowledge; benightedness with imagination; acrimony with civility, desire with fulfillment and sniping and carping with with broad national dialogue. The time to talk and act is now!

Dreams of an Ethiopia at Peace: Roads to Goodness and Forgiveness

Madiba had a great dream for Africa. He said, “I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself. I dream of the realization of unity of Africa whereby its leaders, some of whom are highly competent and experienced, can unite in their efforts to improve and to solve the problems of Africa.” Madiba said, “This must be a world of democracy and respect for human rights, a world freed from the horrors of poverty, hunger, deprivation and ignorance, relieved of the threat and the scourge of civil wars and external aggression and unburdened of the great tragedy of millions forced to become refugees.”

Madiba has always inspired me to have dreams of an Ethiopia at peace freed from the horrors of poverty, hunger, deprivation and ignorance and the scourge of civil wars. In September 2011, in one of my weekly commentaries I tried to pull together the pieces of my dream:

Ethiopia is today a dystopia–  a society that writhes under a dictatorship that trashes human rights and decimates all opposition ruthlessly. Last year, Zenawi told two high level U.S. Government officials what he will do to his opposition: “We will crush them with our full force.” All Ethiopians, regardless of ethnicity, language, religion, class or region must be able to imagine an Ethiopia where no petty tyrant will ever have the power or even the audacity to say he will “crush” another fellow citizen, or has the ability to use “full force” against any person just because he can. Ethiopians must be able to dream of a future free of ethnic strife, famine and oppression; and strive to work together for a little utopia in Ethiopia where might is NOT right but the rule of law shields the defenseless poor and voiceless against the slings and arrows of the criminally rich and powerful. It is true that Utopians aspire for the perfect society, but Ethiopians should aspire and work collectively for a society in which human rights are respected, the voice of the people are heard and accepted (not stolen), those to whom power is entrusted perform their duties with transparency and are held accountable to the law and people.

In my long-winded way, what I was trying to say was this: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”

This past January, I spoke of the paradox of being a utopian Ethiopian:

Even utopian Ethiopians know that as we work for unity, they will be working double overtime for disunity. For every act done to create trust, they will fabricate ten acts to create suspicion and distrust. It is said that a thousand mile journey begins with the first step. In making its declaration, the OLF has taken a giant leap for all Ethiopians. Each one of us must now take our own small steps for our Ethiopianity (humanity before ethnicity or nationality).

My dream of Ethiopia at peace is a dream based on the idea that all Ethiopians need to be a little bit utopian. Madiba is the greatest utopian in living memory. He was utopian enough to say, “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and — and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Yet, he was realistic  enough to warn that if discussions and negotiations fail to resolve issues, there could be alternatives dreadful to contemplate: “There are many people who feel that it is useless and futile for us to continue talking peace and non-violence – against a government whose only reply is savage attacks on an unarmed and defenceless people. And I think the time has come for us to consider, in the light of our experiences at this day at home, whether the methods which we have applied so far are adequate.” Is it futile to begin talking in Ethiopia now? To continue talking? To choose the path of nonviolence in the face of “savage attacks on an unarmed and defenceless people”? I think not.

It is plain to all that the present system of one-man, one-party, one-everything has no future in Ethiopia. It will come to an end peacefully or otherwise, sooner or later.  But we must learn from recent history. “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” That is what happened in Libya not long ago, and is happening in Syria today. There is no need to make the mistakes made in Libya or Syria.

Madiba understood that the transition from Apartheid dictatorship to majority democratic rule must involve all South Africans, not just the elites and others whose aim is to become power contenders. Madiba said:

The people need to be consulted on who will negotiate and on the content of such negotiations. Negotiations cannot take place — Negotiations cannot take place above the heads or behind the backs of our people. It is our belief that the future of our country can only be determined by a body which is democratically elected on a non-racial basis. Negotiations on the dismantling of apartheid will have to address the overwhelming demands of our people for a democratic, non-racial and unitary South Africa. There must be an end to white monopoly on political power and a fundamental restructuring of our political and economic systems to ensure that the inequalities of apartheid are addressed and our society thoroughly democratized.

All Ethiopian political and civic leaders must understand that “the people need to be consulted” and the future of our country can only be determined by a body which is democratically elected on a non-ethnic basis. It is delusional to think that the one-man, one-party model will continue unchanged. It is dumb to think that the  clever, cunning and shrewd could outwit and out power play the rest and seize political power and continue the same old game of one-man, one-party, one-everything rule. It is wise to remember the saying that “you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people ofall of the time; but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” These days it is hard to fooll anybody. Those who may be scheming to play this game should give it up and not waste their time.  It is foolhardy to think that anything other than genuine multiparty democracy fortified by the rule of law, reinforced by respect for human rights and sustained by the good will of the people could bring peace to Ethiopia. Regardless, the one-man, one-party party that has been going on for the past 21 years is now over!

It is a Tough Job, But All of Us Have to Do it!

When Madiba was released from Pollsmoor Prison in 1990, his first public words were about the unity of all South Africans, not the evils of Apartheid or the crimes and inhuman acts committed by one race over the other. Madiba said uniting the people is job one on day one:

The need to unite the people of our country is as important a task now as it always has been. No individual leader is able to take on this enormous task on his own. It is our task as leaders to place our views before our organization and to allow the democratic structures to decide on the way forward. On the question of democratic practice, I feel duty-bound to make the point that a leader of the movement is a person who has been democratically elected at a national conference. This is a principle which must be upheld without any exceptions.”

No individual leader or single organization in Ethiopia can take on the enormous task of uniting the people. It is the task of all leaders of political organizations, faith institutions, civic associations, youth and women’s groups and others to inspire the people to come together, to unite and to dream together about a new Ethiopia where no one shall again experience the oppression of one by another. It is impossible to unite the people without  detoxifying the conversation and abandoning the obsession about one man. To do what Madiba did in South Africa, we must commit to the important task now, and that is “uniting the people of our country.”

My Birthday Present to Madiba

Last week Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that “the  greatest gift we can give Madiba is to follow his  example.” So I shall give him Madiba his birthday gift by pledging to walk in his footsteps. I am eternally grateful to Madiba for what he has done for all humanity. His words and deeds have inspired me not only to speak truth to power and dream about a bright future for Ethiopia and Africa, but also to begin teaching, preaching and reaching out to all to begin a journey on the road to forgiveness and goodness. I understand Madiba’s way does not come with an iron clad guarantee of success, but I have yet to find another way that could lead to a durable peace in Ethiopia but the ways of forgiveness and goodness. I could be wrong, but I would rather take the wrong turn on Madiba’s road than take the road to nowhere because that is the alternative. Some may think I am just a naïve and gullible lawyer whose head swoons in the clouds of the ivory tower. I should like to think I have my feet firmly planted in the ground.

I do hope that there will be people who will agree with me that I am right in following Madiba’s example. Perhaps they may even consider joining me on that long and hard road despite their fears of being sneered and jeered along the way. But I shall travel that road in Madiba’s footsteps alone if I must. Henry David Thoreau said, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” And if I should get tired walking alone, I will just limp along behind the millions of Ethiopians who will be marching on Madiba’s way lockstep to the drumbeat of freedom, democracy, dignity and peace. But before rushing to judge me harshly or kindly, forget not that I am just a utopian Ethiopian. “Some men see things and say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’”.  Why not walk in Madiba’s footsteps? Why not dream of Ethiopia with her children at peace? Why not outdream each other about what is possible, viable and attainable in beautiful Ethiopia? Let us all become utopian Ethiopians! Why not?

Happy 94th Madiba! Long Live Madiba!  Long Live Nelson Mandela! Long Live Ethiopia!