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obama accra

Obama is Coming! Obama is Coming to Africa!!

Obama Accra (This week my regular Monday commentary is presented in the form of a “flash drama” on Obama (a sub-genre of theatrical play sometimes described as a “ten minute one-act play”).  

The scene is a barbershop somewhere in Africa. Two young African college friends are talking soccer as they await their turn in the barber’s chair. Their conversation shifts from sports to international politics on the news that President Obama is scheduled to visit Africa in late June 2013.  

I have opted to use “flash drama” to add creative range to my commentaries and expand my reach to the younger generation of Ethiopians and other African youth. The names of the two characters have special meaning.)

Shudi: By the way, have you heard?!

Duma: What?

Shudi: Obama is coming!

Duma: Where?  Here.  To Africa?

Shudi: Here. To Africa! How cool is that?

Duma: For summer vacation?

Shudi: No, man. To make glorious summer of the winter of discontent in the dark continent! Ha ha… ha…

Duma: Who was that African prince in “Coming to America”? Eddie Murphy?

Shudi: That’s right. American President Obama is “Coming to Africa”.

Duma: Ah! Xi Jinping was here.

Shudi: Who?

Duma: China’s new president. A day late, a dollar short for Obama!

Shudi: Aren’t you excited, Duma?!

Duma: Obama coming?!  Obama came. Obama saw. Obama conquered! Obama promised!  That was in ’09. Accra, Ghana.

Shudi: He is coming to…

Duma: Wait, wait, don’t tell me!  He is coming to go on a safari?

Shudi: Yes, but that was cancelled. In Tanzania.  But he is going to Robben Island!

Duma: But Nelson Mandela is no longer there? Long Live Nelson Mandela!!!

Shudi: Of course he is not.

Duma: Let me guess. He  is coming to visit Nigeria and Ethiopia? And Kenya, his “father grew up there herding goats in a tiny village…”

Shudi:  No, Duma. He is not going there.

Duma: Not going to Ethiopia!? America’s no. 1 African “partner” in the “war on terror”! Not going to Nigeria!? America’s biggest oil supplier in Africa!  Not going to Kenya…

Shudi: Not even…

Duma: Rwanda, Uganda, Liberia, Libya, Namibia, um…?

Shudi:  Try Cape Verde, Senegal, Tanzania, South Africa.

Duma: What!? Cape Verde? Senegal? Big oil suppliers to U.S.A.?

Shudi: No, no. Not that.

Duma: Tanzania, South Africa? Big partners in the war on terror?

Shudi: No, man.

Duma: Why is he going to Cape Verde and…?

Shudi: To “reinforce” how much Africa means to America.

Duma: Africa means something to America?

Shudi: He wants to tell Cape Verdeans, Tanzanians and… he will be working to “expand economic growth, investment, and trade in Africa.”

Duma: China has that locked up! A day late and a dollar short again.

Shudi: But not for “strengthening democratic institutions and investing in the next generation of African leaders.”

Duma: In South Africa, Senegal and…

Shudi: But the South Africans, Senegalese, Tan…

Duma: Already have the next generation of African leaders?

Shudi: Sort of…

Duma: What is the population of Nigeria and Ethiopia, Shudi?

Shudi: Don’t know.

Duma: 255 million.

Shudi: That’s a quarter of a billion people.

Duma: And Cape Verde, Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa?

Shudi: Maybe 70 million.

Duma: Barely 100 million.

Shudi: Cape Verde has only half a million people… tiny island.

Duma: What’s the percentage of young people in Africa, Shudi?

Shudi: Don’t know.

Duma: Seventy percent!

Shudi: Hmm! Oldest continent. Youngest people?

Duma: No, Shudi. Africa is the Continent of Young People.

Shudi: What are you saying, Duma?

Duma: If Obama wants to talk to the “next generation of African leaders”, wouldn’t it be better to go to a place where you have the largest number of young Africans?

Shudi: Or talk to your best and closest partners in Africa?

Duma: That’s right. Preach the gospel of democracy in the jungles of African tyranny.

Shudi: Or where democracy is an elaborate corruption game?

Duma: Is Obama ashamed to be seen in public with America’s best friends and partners in Africa?

Shudi: What do you mean?

Duma: Ethiopia, Nigeria. He can do business with them, but can’t be seen in public with them?

Shudi: If you must put it that way… Well, can’t be seen going into a bordello.

Duma: Aah! Obama is coming back to his African roots, that’s good Shudi.

Shudi: No, coming to talk to Africans.

Duma: Talk… Sweet talk. Tough talk. Small talk. Talk peace. Talk war. Walk the talk. Don’t walk the talk. Talk the talk. Talk sense. Talk nonsense. Talk is cheap. Money talks, bull_ _ _ _ walks.  Talk, talk, talk…?

Shudi: You know…

Duma: I know. Heard the talk before.  “Africa is a fundamental part of our interconnected world.” “Africa’s future is up to Africans.” “This is a new moment of promise.  It will not be giants like Nkrumah and Kenyatta who will determine Africa’s future… It will be the young people…”

Shudi: What do you want him to talk about, Duma?

Duma: Talk about… no. Talk to us.

Shudi:  Us. Who is “us”?

Duma: We, the young people of Africa. We, the future of Africa. We, the next generation of African leaders. We, the  70 percenters.

Shudi: We, the African Cheetahs!!

Duma: Let him tell us which one of the promises he made in Accra, Ghana he’s kept?

Shudi: He promised “us” in Accra? “This is a new moment of promise…”

Duma: We Africans say, “A promise is a cloud; fulfillment is rain.”

Shudi: But he…

Duma: He promised  to “support strong and sustainable democratic governments.” He promised to support “strong parliaments and honest police forces; independent judges and journalists; a vibrant private sector and civil society.” Where is the rain?

Shudi:  Cape Verde, Senegal, Sou…?

Duma: Maybe?

Shudi: He wants to preach to the choir?

Duma: And sing and dance with them too.

Shudi: That don’t make sense.

Duma: Obama prefers silent diplomacy.

Shudi: What’s that?

Duma: Silent diplomacy, Shudi, is like expecting rain without clouds, without thunder and lightning.

Shudi: No omelet without cracking eggs? They should call it diplocrisy.

Duma: Is that  diplomacy by hypocrisy?

Shudi: It’s the diplomacy of silence.

Duma: With your friends and partners, Shudi, you speak in the language of silence?

Shudi: Only when you speak with them behind closed doors and the light’s off.

Duma: In the end, we will remember not the words and promises of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

Shudi: Or those who say are our friends? Who said that?

Duma: Martin Luther King.

Shudi: The hypocrisy of the powerfully silent!

Duma: Don’t you remember Shudi how we felt when Obama said in Accra, “We must stand up to inhumanity in our midst. We need for an international system where the universal rights of human beings are respected, and violations of those rights are opposed.”

Shudi: Maybe I shouldn’t remember those words.

Duma: No free expression, unending press suppression, religious persecution, dissident intimidation, detention… in Africa.

Shudi: Gender discrimination, tribalization, ethnic subjugation…

Duma: Didn’t we chant “Oh! Bama, Oh! Bama” when he told it like it is: “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions. Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans, and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power.”

Shudi: If history is on the side of few brave young Africans, who is on the side of Africa’s strongmen?

Duma: Obama?  Did he make a mistake?

Shudi: Who is on the side of the millions of frightened Africans living in misery and quiet desperation?

Duma: Under the boots of Africa’s strongmen?

Shudi:  With iron fists.

Duma:  God. Ask Obama. No, tell him.

Shudi: What?

Duma: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Shudi:  I know somebody said that.

Duma: Desmond Tutu.

Shudi:  Is Obama on the side of the elephant or the mouse?

Duma: He is on the side of history.

Shudi: What should he tell Africa’s elephants, I mean strongmen?

Duma: Shudi, to tell or not to tell Africa’s strongmen to take their foot off the mouse’s tail, that’s the question.

Shudi:  Tell them what?

Duma: They are doing a good job.

Shudi: A good job?!!!

Duma: Fighting terrorism, of course.

Shudi: Not fighting corruption, human rights violation?

Duma: Fighting the independent press and winning a crushing victory. Smashing civil society organizations. Trashing elections, how about that? African strongmen are doing a great job!

Shudi:  Then on whose side is Obama?

Duma: History, of course.

Shudi: But is history on the side of Obama?

Duma: History is on the side of the brave…

Shudi: I don’t understand.

Duma:  Shudi. There is nothing to understand from history. To learn or not to learn, that’s the question with history. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Shudi: What do you mean?

Duma: History is not about remembering. It is about forgetting.

Shudi: Promises?

Duma: Forgetting mistaken promises.

Shudi: Don’t you care about what Obama has to say when he comes to Africa?

Duma: I care only about what he does. Let him speak with his actions.

Shudi: But…

Duma: What has Obama done for Africans lately?

Shudi: “My fellow AfricanCheetahs, ask not what Obama can do for Africa, ask what you can do for your Africa.”

Duma: That’s JFK. Kennedy said something like that to Americans.

Shudi: What do you say to Africans.

Duma:  Make a choice.

Shudi: Like Obama?

Duma: That’s right. Choose between African elephants and African mice.

Shudi:   Between African Cheetahs and Hippos.

Duma:  Between human rights and government wrongs.

Shudi: Obama has made his choice?

Duma:  Might trumps human rights. Wrong is right if the choice is between brave young Africans who march for the love freedom and African strongmen who chase terrorists for the love of power. Only the strong survive, the brave…

Shudi: I think the brave survive and thrive more than the strong. You know why Duma? There is a brave new young Africa rising, rising like the sun on the dark continent. When the sun rises and shines on the brave new young Africa, right shall make might, Duma.

Duma: When the sun rises and shines on the brave new Africa and the darkness is lifted from the dark continent Shudi, human right shall make human might.

Shudi: What do you dream for the brave new young Africa, Duma?

Duma: “I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself.”

Shudi: Like Nelson Mandela?

Duma: Yes, Nelson Mandela, the Dreamweaver of Africa. I dream of a brave new young Africa at peace with itself.

Shudi: Peace, truth and reconciliation for Africa. May he live a thousand years!

Duma: A thousand long years! Long Live Nelson Mandela!!!


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:


Ethiopia: The Bedtime Stories of Meles Zenawi

Alemayehu G Mariam










At the “World Economic Forum Meeting” in Ethiopia last week, dictator Meles Zenawi lectured:

…. My view is that there is no direct relationship between economic growth and democracy historically or theoretically. But my view is that democracy is a good thing in and of itself irrespective of its impact on economic growth. And my view is that in Africa most of our countries are extremely diverse, that may be the only possibility, the only option of keeping relationships within nations sane. Democracy may be the only viable option for keeping these diverse nations together. Sowe need to democratize but not in order to grow. We need to democratize in order to survive as united sane nations. That’s my view. But I don’t believe in this nighttime, you know, bedtime stories and contrived arguments linking economic growth with democracy. There is no basis for it in history and in my view no basis for it it in economics. And there is no need to have this contrived argument because the case for democracy and can stand and shine on its own…

While visiting Ghana in 2009, President Obama told the following “contrived bedtime story linking economic growth with democracy” to Africans:

Development depends on good governance. History offers a clear verdict: Governments that respect the will of their own people, that govern by consent and not coercion, are more prosperous, they are more stable, and more successful than governments that do not. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves. 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 that style of governance to end…. In the 21st century, capable, reliable, and transparent institutions are the key to success — strong parliaments; honest police forces; independent judges; an independent press; a vibrant private sector; a civil society. Those are the things that give life to democracy, because that is what matters in people’s everyday lives…. History is on the side of these brave Africans, not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions. With better governance, I have no doubt that Africa holds the promise of a broader base of prosperity….

My Favorite Bedtime Stories

I enjoy bedtime stories as much as the next guy. My favorite is “Pinocchio in Africa”. The wooden puppet wanted to become a human boy but could not stop telling lies and tall tales. Whenever Pinocchio lied, his nose grew longer.

I like the story of “Puff the Magic Dragon and the Land of Living Lies”. Puff took a little girl called Sandy, who lies a lot, to the Land of the Living Lies where honesty and truthfulness are prosecuted. She meets the famous fibbers Pinocchio and the boy who cried wolf; and saw the famous purple cow that no one has ever seen and a pink elephant.

I also enjoy the morality tales of Aesop, the ancient Ethiopian storyteller. Once upon a time there was a wolf who schemed to snatch sheep grazing in the pasture, but could not because the shepherd was vigilant. One day the wolf found the shorn skin of a sheep and dressed himself in it and joined the flock. Soon he began dining on the sheep one by one until he was discovered by the shepherd.  That was the end of the wolf; he could no longer steal, kill and eat the sheep.

George Orwell’s allegorical stories of doubletalk and doublespeak told in “political language” are rather delightful because they “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” So, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” George could have added, “dictatorship is democracy. Tyranny is liberty. Poverty is wealth. Famine is plenty. Censorship is press freedom. Brutality is civility. Mendacity is veracity. Opacity is clarity. Shadow is reality. Depravity is morality and greed is good.”

Oh, Yes! I like children’s rhymes too:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall                                                                                            Humpty Dumpty had a great fall….

Sane Nations, Insane Dictators and Democrazy

Zenawi said “democracy is the only option of keeping relationships within nations sane”. Here are some true stories of democrazy from the Land of Living Lies:

Freedom House/U.S. State Department (2010)

In April 2008 local elections were held throughout Ethiopia. Freedom House and USDoS report that opposition candidates were subjected to intimidation and arrest by the government prior to the elections making it difficult for them to compete, leading to the opposition boycotting the elections and resulting in a massive victory for government supporters.  The ruling party won 99% of the more than three million seats contested.

World Bank (2012)

The May 2010 parliamentary elections resulted in a 99.6 percent victory for the ruling EPRDF and its allies,reducing the opposition from 174 to only two seats in the 547 member lower house… Ethiopia is the second-most populous country in Sub-Saharan… At US$390, Ethiopia’s per capita income is much lower than the Sub-Saharan African average of US$1,165 in FY 2010, ranking it as the sixth poorest country in the world.

Amnesty International (2009)

The Ethiopian parliament has adopted a potentially repressive new law which could criminalise the human rights activities of both foreign and domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The Charities and Societies Proclamation law (2009) is designed to strictly control and monitor civil society in an atmosphere of intolerance of the work of human rights defenders and civil society organisations. The law’s repressive provisions are believed to be an attempt by the Ethiopian government to conceal human rights violations, stifle critics and prevent public protest of its actions ahead of expected elections in 2010.

Human Rights Watch (2010)

Ethiopia’s citizens are unable to speak freely, organize political activities, and challenge their government’s policies—through peaceful protest, voting, or publishing their views—without fear of reprisal. Democracy’s technical framework will remain a deceptive and hollow façade so long as Ethiopia’s institutions lack independence from the ruling party and there is no accountability for abuses by state officials.

Global Financial Integrity/Wall Street Journal (2011)

Ethiopia lost $11.7 billion to outflows of ill-gotten gains between 2000 and 2009. That’s a lot of money to lose to corruption for a country that has a per-capita GDP of just $365. In 2009, illicit money leaving the country totaled $3.26 billion, double the amount in each of the two previous years. The capital flight is also disturbing because the country received $829 million in development aid in 2008. Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries on earth as 38.9% of Ethiopians live in poverty, and life expectancy in 2009 was just 58 years. The people of Ethiopia are being bled dry. No matter how hard they try to fight their way out of absolute destitution and poverty, they will be swimming upstream against the current of illicit capital leakage.

Committee to Protect Journalist (2011) 

Ethiopia trails only Eritrea as the foremost jailer of journalists in Africa. Ethiopia’s repression of the independent press has also driven into exile the largest number of journalists in the world. Yet Zenawi told Aftenposten [Norwegian paper] that ‘We have reached a very advanced stage of rule of law and respect for human rights. Fundamentally, this is a country where democratic rights of people are respected.’

Human Rights Watch (2011)

The Ethiopian government is exploiting its vaguely worded anti-terror law to crush peaceful dissent.  The anti-terror law itself is a huge problem. The international community, especially the European Union, United States, and United Kingdom, should ask the Ethiopian government hard questions about why it is using this law to crack down on peaceful independent voices.

Committee Statement of Congressman Donald Payne (2007)

H.R. 2003 (Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007, sponsored by Cong. Payne passed the U.S. House of Representatives on October 2, 2007) requires the secretary of state to support human rights by establishing a mechanism to provide funds to local human rights organizations. The bill supports democratization by directing assistance to strengthen democratic processes, prohibits non-humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia if the ruling party obstructs United States efforts to provide human rights, fosters accountability for the actions the Ethiopian Government has taken that undermine rule of law and fundamental political freedoms…. and holds security forces accountable for human rights abuses related to the demonstrations of 2005…

Statement of U.S. Senators Russ Feingold and Patrick Leahy on Senate Bill 3457 (2008)

Mr. FEINGOLD. Mr. President, today I am pleased to introduce the Support for Democracy and Human Rights in Ethiopia Act of 2008. Senator LEAHY joins me as an original cosponsor. The purpose of this bill is to reaffirm policy objectives towards Ethiopia and encourage greater commitment to the underpinnings of a true democracy–an independent judiciary and the rule of law, respect for human and political rights, and an end to restrictions on the media and non-governmental organizations…. As we turn a blind eye to the escalating political tensions, people are being thrown in jail without justification and non-government organizations are being restricted, while civilians are dying unnecessarily in the Ogaden region–just like so many before them in Oromiya, Amhara, and Gambella….

2010 European Union Election Observer Commission Report on May 2010 Election 

The separation between the ruling party and the public administration was blurred at the local level in many parts of the country. The EU EOM directly observed cases of misuse of state resources in the ruling party’s campaign activities. The ruling party and its partner parties won 544 of the 547 seats to the House of Peoples Representatives and all but four of the 1,904 seats in the State Councils…. As a result, the electoral process fell short of international commitments for elections, notably regarding the transparency of the process and the lack of a level playing field for all contesting parties.

Zenawi’s response to the 2010 European Union Election Observer Commission Report:

The EU report is trash that deserves to be thrown in the garbage. The report is not about our election. It is just the view of some Western neo-liberals who are unhappy about the strength of the ruling party. Anybody who has paper and ink can scribble whatever they want.

 Such are the nightmarish bedtime stories of Meles Zenawi’s Democrazy in Ethiopia!

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

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:                                            and