Alemayehu G. Mariam
In February 2011, at the onset of the Libyan Revolution, Moamar Gadhaffi trumpeted to the world, “They love me. All my people with me, they love me. They will die to protect me, my people.” He called the rebels fighting to oust him from power “rats and cockroaches”. He believed it was his birthright to rule Libya as “king of kings” and remained in total denial of his own doom until the bitter end in a sewer tunnel. In the end, in an ironic twist of fate, Gadhaffi was served poetic justice. He was trapped like a sewer rat and smashed like a cockroach as he begged for mercy: “Don’t shoot me!”
The man who had played God in Libya for 42 years died a wimpy thug. The man with the absolute power to decide who shall live and who shall die was shot down like a rabid dog in the street by a nameless rebel. The man who had tortured and abused so many thousands of his people in secret prisons and dungeons was himself tortured and abused with unspeakable inhumanity broadcast for the world to see. The man who slaughtered thousands of his people ended up in the meat locker of a slaughterhouse where his victims gloated over his bloodied and half-naked body discarded on a filthy mattress like big game hunters inspecting their kill on an African safari. The man with the golden gun died from a lead bullet. The man-turned-monster who once called himself “brother leader,” “guide of the revolution,” “king of kings,” “Great Leader,” and “keeper of Arab nationalism” was escorted to his unmarked grave in the featureless desert by a swarm of hungry maggot-bearing flies. Only one question remained: Is it possible for Gandhi’s warning about dictators to have momentarily flashed before Gadhaffi’s eyes or echoed in his ears as he prepared to meet his Maker: “I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it–always.”
Gadhafi boasted he will die a hero and a martyr, but died a hated villain and a coward. But the manner of his death left an ugly blotch on the glorious record of the Libyan Revolution. Gadhaffi’s young captors, unable to contain their pent up rage, treated him with such unspeakably inhumanity that their actions spoke very poorly for all of humanity. His execution in the street was an ugly public testament to man’s inhumanity to man. Even the most wicked and depraved dictator is entitled to basic human dignity. But in the euphoria of the moment, Libyans erupted with celebration at the news Gadhaffi’s dehumanization and death. With muted jubilation and a sigh of relief, acting Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril declared: “We have been waiting for this moment for a long time.” President Obama followed, “This marks the end of a long and painful chapter for Libya.”
Gadhaffi was the ultimate personification of the adage, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Over four decades, he became convinced that he was a god and untouchable by any man or law. He became an egomaniac, a megalomaniac, and a monomaniac. Gadhaffi and members of his family believed that they had a divine right to own Libya and Libyans as their personal property. His son Saif al-Islam threatened to dismember the country and plunge it into a civil war that “will last for 30 or 40 years” if anyone tries to oust his family. The young thug promised a bloodbath: “We will fight to the last minute, until the last bullet. I will fight until the last drop of my blood. We have a Plan A which is to live and die in Libya. Plan B which is to live and die in Libya…” Gadhaffi refused to resign and leave the country peacefully. He would not listen to reason and defiantly declared he would never negotiate, mediate, compromise or surrender. He urged his supporters to fight to the last man and watched Libya burn in a civil war holed up in the sewer. As many as thirty thousand Libyans are estimated to have died as a result of Gadhaffi’s futile attempt to cling to power.
The African People Do Not Love Their Dictators
They say love is blind. That is especially true for dictators. Dictators are so blind that they believe the people love them. Long before Gadhaffi announced to the world “my people love me”, his brother-dictator Saddam Hussien of Iraq told the interrogators who snatched him out his spider hole, “The Iraqi people will always love me.” He even authored a romantic novel and spoke through his main character (king): “I’m a great leader. You must obey me. Not only that, you must love me.”
Long before Saddam, the Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini pontificated, “With every beat of my heart, I give service to the Italian people. I feel that all Italians understand and love me.” Idi Amin of Uganda was less sentimental: “The people should love their leader!”; and if they don’t he had his own tough love methods to get the job done. Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire would often chuckle and tell foreign correspondents that not only do his people love him, they want him to stay in power because the “people need me.” Mengistu Hailemariam believed that he ruled with an iron fist out of patriotic duty and love of country. No doubt he loved Ethiopia to death, and proved it for seventeen years by killing thousands of its citizens wantonly. Last May, in a victory speech, Meles Zenawi said he won the election by 99.6 percent because the Ethiopian people love his party and implicitly himself as the party leader. He said the people “consider themselves and the EPRDF [Zenawi’s party] as two sides of a coin” and “nothing can ever shake their unwavering support for our organization.” He returned the love by congratulating them for their “high sense of judgment and fairness” and for “giv[ing] us the mandate through your votes.”
African dictators are so tone-deaf that they just don’t get the message no matter how many times it is repeated to them. Perhaps they might understand if told in sign language: T-H-E P-E-O-P-L-E D-O-N-’T L-O-V-E Y-O-U! In fact, they loathe you. It is a raw and visceral feeling that is manifest in the eyes, thoughts and words of the people. African dictators love having absolute power and boundless privilege. They worship at the altar of money. They love themselves and no one else because they are narcissistic. Every day they look into the ghostly mirror in their minds seeking reassurance: “Mirror, mirror!! Who is the smartest, cleverest, boldest, cruelest, wickedest, trickiest, slickest, shrewdest, quickest, savviest, cunningest… of them all? The answer is always the same.
African dictators are all self-delusional and spend most of their time on Planet Denial. In the face of total repudiation by their people, they invent their own mythology of self-grandeur. They reassure themselves that even if the people don’t love them, “history will one day vindicate me”. To avoid facing the truth, they categorically claim that they have “never killed even a fly and all the crimes I’m accused of are all lies perpetrated by my enemies.” They justify their cruelty by making the excuse that “my country is better off under me” than the previous regime. They brag about their accomplishments “successfully managing the transition from military dictatorship to an emerging democracy” and put themselves out as messiahs who “rekindle hope through a renaissance” and “chart a course of optimism” on a “trajectory of fast economic growth.” African dictators are as loveable as an African scorpion.
Perhaps it is a bit of an overstatement to say African dictators do not love their people. They do. They love to kill them; they love to jail them and torture them. They love to intimidate them, and most of all they love to crush them like cockroaches. How they love to rob, steal and cheat them! They thrive on the blood, sweat and tears of their people. African dictators love their people in much the same way as vampires love people. They love the sound of their own voices which resonate with lies, echo with deceit and jangle with hate: Those who oppose them are “rats and cockroaches” and “terrorists and insurrectionists”.
Did Gadhaffi Cheat the Libyan People in Death as He Did in Life?
It was jarring, confusing and troubling to hear acting Libyan Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril declare on the confirmation of Gadhaffi’s death that “We have been waiting for this moment for a long time.” I wish he had said, “The day we have been waiting for was the day Gadhaffi is brought to the bar of justice.” I wish the rebel fighter who shot Gadhafi in the face would have said the same thing that young fighter who captured the dictator Laurent Gbagbo of Cote d’Ivoire said a few months ago. “We attacked and forced in a part of the bunker. Gbagbo was there with his wife and his son. He was slapped by a soldier, but was not otherwise hurt.”
The moment to wait for would have been that precious moment when Moamar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi stood in the dock in a Libyan court or at the International Criminal Court in the Hague listening to the long list of criminal charges as his victims paraded in one by one wagging an accusatory finger at him. That would have been a historic moment worth waiting for no matter how long it took.
Gadhaffi is one of the top ten worst human rights abusers and criminals of the post-World War II era. I personally believe he is the apotheosis of evil. Regardless, I fully respect his human rights, including his right to a presumption of innocence and unabashedly defend his basic human right to proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law based exclusively on legally admissible evidence. This I believe to be the true meaning of human rights. Even monsters walking amongst us in human skin are entitled to due process (fair trial) and must be protected from lynching or street, mob or vigilante justice. The line that separates the rule of law from the rule of one man or the rule of the mob is a mighty slender one; and the rule of law must be defended at all costs against those who seek to breach it. It is easy to defend the human rights of Eman al-Obeidy, the courageous Libyan woman who was gang-raped by Gadhaffi’s thugs or Gadhaffi’s revenge killing victims. But it is infinitely more difficult to stand up for monsters like Gadhaffi; but the ironic truth is that the brand of human rights that fully protects Eman al-Obeidy also protects fully the monster once known as Moamar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi.
But I am afraid Gadhaffi in his death, as in his lifetime, got away with murder and torture and all sorts of crimes against humanity. He cheated al-Obeidy and the Libyan people out of justice. He cheated them out of the TRUTH. Now, al-Obeidy will never get the chance to confront Gadhaffi in a court of law, wag her delicate fingers at him as her tears roll down her cheeks and scream with all her might, “Gadhaffi! I accuse of rape and torture!” Her tears which testified before the court of world opinion and seared the conscience of all humanity will never get the chance to testify against Gadhaffi in a court of law and have him held accountable.
The truth is now buried with Gadhafi’s corpse and lost forever in the featureless sand dunes of the Sahara. His humiliation will give no satisfaction to al-Obeidy or the thousands of other innocent victims in Libya or those he blew up on Pan Am flight 103. The ghoulish public display of his corpse as a trophy game animal and all the gloating that went with it might give momentary satisfaction to some but it will never quench Libyans’ thirst for justice that could have come only from bringing Gadhaffi to trial. By taking the truth to his grave, Gadhaffi had the last laugh. He took his last revenge on the Libyan people for he knew that there could be no reconciliation in Libya without the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth laid bare before the people. It is too bad that Gadhaffi was given the easy way out!
The End of African Dictators
Winston Churchill said, “Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry.” President John Kennedy cautioned us to “remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” He warned the “new states” liberated from colonialism that “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
The people of Africa are beating the drums of change and democracy and encircling the mud walls of African dictatorships. The die is now cast and African dictators will have to make a choice. The smart ones will read the writing on the wall and beat feet to enjoy their stolen loot in comfort and luxury in the sanctuary of well-known “dictatordoms”. Ben Ali and Mengustu are doing just that now as did Idi Amin before them. The stubborn ones will stick around and face the scales of justice. Mubarak is doing that now as did Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the self-proclaimed Emperor of the Central African Republic, before him. The self-delusional ones like Gadhaffi and Laurent Gbagbo of Cote d’Ivoire and Samuel Doe of Liberia before them will cause a civil war to cling to power only to find themselves at the mercy of their ferocious and vengeance-thirsty adversaries. The rest will try to hide and hope their crimes will not catch up with them. Like Robert Mugabe and Omar al-Bashir, they will always be looking over their shoulders for the long arm of international law or the sharp tiger claws of the people that will one day surely hook them. African dictators who make peaceful change impossible will make vigilante justice possible as they peek straight through the barrel of a gun whimpering, “Don’t shoot me! Please don’t shoot me!” African dictators, there is a better way. Show your people some love. LEAVE THEM!
African Dictators! T-H-E P-E-O-P-L-E D-O-N-’T L-O-V-E Y-O-U!
Release all political prisoners in Ethiopia, NOW!
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/
[This commentary is based on talk I gave at the first annual University of California, Los Angeles Habesha Student Association Networking Night event held at Ackerman Union on May 14, 2011.]
I have been asked to comment on youth political apathy and how to transform apathy into constructive action. That is a very tall order, but I am glad to be able to share with you my views on a subject that has defied and puzzled political scientists and pundits for generations.
The general allegation is that young people are uninterested, unconcerned and indifferent about matters of politics and government. Political apathy (crudely defined as lack of interest and involvement in the political process and general passivity and indifference to political and social phenomena in one’s environment) among youth is said to be the product of many factors including lack of political awareness and knowledge, absence of civic institutions that cultivate youth political action and involvement and the prevailing cultural imperatives of consumerism and the media. Simply stated, young people are said to be self-absorbed, short attention-spanned and preoccupied and distracted by popular culture, social networking, leisurely activities and the ordinary demands of daily life to pay serious attention to politics.
Longitudinal studies of youth political apathy in the U.S. suggest that many young people are politically disengaged because they believe politics is about “money and lying and they don’t want to involve themselves in it.” Many young Americans complain that politicians ignore young people and have little youth-oriented communication. They accuse politicians of being in the back pockets of big money and that their votes are inconsequential in determining the outcome of any significant issues in society. Feeling powerless, they retreat to cynicism and apathy.
In contrast, in the 1960s, young Americans led the “counter-culture revolution” and were the tips of the spear of the Civil Rights Movement. The Free Speech Movement which began at the University of California, Berkeley was transformed from student protests for expressive and academic freedom on campus to a powerful nationwide anti-war movement on American college campuses and in the streets. Young African Americans advanced the cause of the Civil Rights Movement by employing the powerful tools and techniques of civil disobedience staging sit-ins and boycotts to desegregate lunch counters and other public accommodations. On May 4, 1961, fifty years to the month today, young inter-racial Freedom Riders set out to challenge local laws and customs that enforced segregation in public transportation in the American South, and succeeded in eliminating racial segregation in public transportation at considerable personal risk. Young people in the Black Power Movement in the late 1960s demanded racial equality dignity, economic and political self-sufficiency and advocated black nationalism.
A similar pattern of youth activism is evident for African youths. In many African countries, students and other young people have been in the vanguard of social forces demanding political changes. University students in Ethiopia agitated and mobilized for the revolution that overthrew the monarchy in 1974. It is ironic that the very individuals who hold the reins of power in Ethiopia today were among those university students who fought and died for democracy and human rights in the early 1970s. In 2005, these former university students ordered a massacre which resulted in the killing of at least 193 unarmed largely youth protesters and the wounding of 763 others. In 1976 in South Africa, 176 students and other young people protesting apartheid were killed in Soweto. In recent months we have seen young people leading nonviolent uprising in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other countries to remove decades-old dictatorships. In Uganda today, the young followers of Kizza Besigye, (Museveni’s challenger in the recent elections) are at the center of the Walk to Work civil disobedience campaign protesting economic hardships and a quarter century of Museveni’s dictatorship.
The African Youth Charter
Africa has been described as the “youngest region of the world”. The African youth population is estimated to be 70 percent of the total population (nearly 50 percent of them under age 15). Virtually 100 percent of the top political leadership in Africa belongs to the “over-the-hill” gang. Robert Mugabe still clings to power in Zimbabwe at age 86. It is manifestly hard to demand higher levels of political participation and involvement among African youths when they come of age in societies controlled and stifled by dictators long in the tooth. But there is no question that youth apathy is the greatest threat to the institution and consolidation of democracy in Africa.
There may be a glimmer of hope for African youths in the African Union’s “Youth Charter”, which provides comprehensive protections for Africa’s young people. Article 11 (“Youth Participation”) is of special significance. It requires signatory states to ensure “every young person” has the “right to participate in all spheres of society.” This requires state parties to “guarantee the participation of youth in parliament and other decision-making bodies”, access to “decision-making at local, national, regional, and continental levels of governance” and requires “youth advocacy and volunteerism” and peer-to-peer programmes for marginalised youth”. States are required to “provide access to information such that young people become aware of their rights and of opportunities to participate in decision-making and civic life”. Africa’s youths should hold their doddering dictators accountable under the Charter.
Transforming Youth Apathy Into Youth Action?
I have no ready prescriptions to convert youth apathy into youth action. My view of the issue is very simple. The word apathy has roots in a Greek word “apathea” denoting lack of emotion. Young people in America, Africa or elsewhere are apathetic because they are “not fired up and raring to go.” They lack that “fire in the belly”. They find themselves in a state of political paralysis unable to act. So, how can African youth escape the political doldrums of apathy on a sea of cynicism, pessimism, negativism and disillusionment? The short answer is that they need to find the issues in society they care about and pursue them passionately. The long answer revolves around a few basic principles:
Be idealistic. Robert Kennedy said, “There are those who look at things and ask why. I dream of things and ask why not.” Nelson Mandela said, “I dream of an Africa at peace with itself.” Bob Marley said, there will be no peace until “the philosophy which hold one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned”, “there no longer are first class and second class citizens of any nation” and “basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all.” Young Africas should dream of an Africa free from the bondage of ethnic politics, scourge of dictatorship, debilitating poverty and flagrant human rights violations. Why are these youthful dreams not possible? As Gandhi said, when you are idealistic, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Examine your lives. When Socrates was put on trial for encouraging his young students to question authority and accepted beliefs, he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It is important for Africa’s young people to question their beliefs and actions. If they are indifferent to the suffering of their people, they should question themselves. Part of that self-examination is knowing if one is doing the right or wrong thing, and making corrections when mistakes are made. Unless we question our values and actions, we end up doing things mechanically, impulsively and blindly.
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Gandhi said these simple but powerful words. The revolution we want to see in the world begins with us when we strive to relate to others on the basis of high moral and ethical standards. If we want to see a just, fair and compassionate world, we must begin by practicing those values ourselves. I want to congratulate the UCLA Habesha Student Association for bringing together young Ethiopians and Eritreans in one organizational setting to work cooperatively and harmoniously on issues of common interest and concern. Such collaboration sets an extraordinary example for all young people in the Horn of Africa to follow because the UCLA students have been able to relate with each other at the most fundamental human level instead of as members of opposing camps nursing historical enmities. It is a great mindset to be able to see beyond ethnicity and national boundaries; and most importantly not to be sucked into the vortex of historical grievances kept alive by the older generation.
Be independent thinkers and empower yourselves. Always ask questions and follow-up questions. One of the things those of us in the older generation do not do well is ask the right questions. Often we do not base our opinions on facts. Africa’s young people should think for themselves and creatively. The Buddha said, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” It is easy and comfortable for others to do the thinking for us. The alternative is for the older generation to do the thinking for the youth. Do Africa’s youths want that? To think independently means to keep an open mind and tolerate opposing viewpoints. Africa’s dictators fear young independent thinkers because the young trumpet the truth.
Stand for Something. Rosa Parks, the great icon of the American Civil Rights Movement, is credited for modifying the old adage by saying: “Stand for something or you will fall for anything. Today’s mighty oak is yesterday’s nut that held its ground.” Young people of courage, character and determination today are the seeds of great leaders tomorrow. Africa’s young people need to take a stand for human rights, democracy, freedom and peace. They also need to take a stand against all forms of violence, ethnic politics and the politics of intolerance, hate and fear.
Network with other young people and learn techniques of grassroots organizing. The UCLA HSA is committed to self-help through networking. That is important and very useful. But networking can be used for political activism and advocacy as well. Using technology and social media, young people can create effective virtual and actual communities to enhance their political participation and be more actively engaged in the political process. Grassroots organizing is the most elementary and one of the most effective methods of youth political action. Youth grassroots organizing won the day during the Civil Rights Movement fifty years ago, and it won the day in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria.
Become a voice for the voiceless. There are hundreds of millions of Africans whose voices are stolen at the ballot box every year and remain forgotten as political prisoners in the jails of Africa’s dictators. Corruption, abuse of power, lack of accountability and transparency are the hallmarks of many contemporary African states. Young Africans must raise their voices and be heard on these issues. The great international human rights organizations are today the voices of the voiceless in Africa. They investigate the criminality of African regimes and present their findings to the world. Africa’s youths must take over part of the heavy lifting from these organizations. It is not fair to expect international human rights organizations to be the voice boxes of Africa’s masses.
Never give up. It is important for young people to appreciate and practice the virtues of tenacity, courage, determination and perseverance. In 1941, Winston Churchill speaking to young people at a school inspired them with these timeless words: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Churchill’s words ring true for every generation of young people everywhere. For Africa’s youth, the message is simple: “Never yield to force.”
Cause looking for Rebels
If I have any words of wisdom, it is that young Africans must rebel against apathy itself through a process of self-examination. I believe a successful rebellion against one’s own apathy will be the defining moment in the pursuit of the greatest cause of this generation, the struggle for human rights. The cause of human rights in Africa and elsewhere needs armies of young rebels to stand up in defense of human dignity, the rule of law and liberty and against tyranny and despotism. To stand up for free and fair elections is to stand up for human rights. To fight for women’s rights is to fight for human rights. To defend children’s rights is to defend human rights. To uphold human rights is to uphold ethnic rights, religious rights, linguistic rights, free press rights, individual rights….
Ralph Nader, the implacable American consumer advocate warned: “To the youth of America, I say, beware of being trivialized by the commercial culture that tempts you daily. I hear you saying often that you’re not turned on to politics. If you do not turn on to politics, politics will turn on you.” That can be said equally of African youths. I say defend human rights, speak truth to power!
Think global, act local. Think local, act global.
 The HSA “aims to bring together people of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent (a/k/a Habeshas) at UCLA “by jointly organizing and sponsoring “cultural events, college workshops and community activities that promote the success of Habeshas at UCLA and the surrounding community.” It also aims to provide a “forum to discuss issues, share ideas and simply connect on a peer-to-peer level.” I thank the UCLA-HSA for the opportunity to dialogue with them.]
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/
Alemayehu G. Mariam
A specter is haunting Africa and the Middle East – the specter of an awesome army of youths on the move, in revolt, marching for freedom, chanting for democracy and dying for human rights and human dignity. Millions of youths are standing up and demanding dictators to stand down and leave town. They are fed up with despotism, totalitarianism, absolutism, authoritarianism, monarchism, fascism and terrorism. They are sick and tired of being told to wait and wait and wait as their future fades into nothingness. They are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Youths rose up like the morning sun to brighten the long dark night of dictatorship in Tunisia and Egypt. They dictated to the great dictators: “Mubarak, irhal (go away).” “Degage, Ben Ali!” (Get out, Ben Ali!). When Mubarak refused to budge like a bloodsucking tick on a milk cow, they brandished their shoes and cried out, “Mubarak, you are a shoe!” (a stinging insult in Arab culture). Mubarak finally got the point. He saw 85 million pairs of shoes pointed at his rear end. In a 30-second announcement, the House of Mubarak dissolved into the dust bin of history.
The Beautiful Egyptian Youth Revolution
What makes the Egyptian youth revolution so beautiful, wonderful, absorbing, hypnotizing and inspiring is that they did it with moral courage, steadfast determination and without resorting to violence even when violence was visited upon them by Mubarak’s thugs. They did not fire a single shot, as Mubarak’s thugs massacred 300 of their own and jailed several thousands more. Egypt’s youths fought their battles in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere, but they won their war against dictatorship and for freedom, democracy and human rights in the hearts and minds of their people. How they went about winning their revolution is a testament to a people whose civilization is the cradle of human civilization. They transformed their oppression-seared nation into a molten steel of freedom-loving humanity: Muslims and Christians prayed together in Tahrir Square for the end of the dark days of dictatorship and the beginning of a new dawn of freedom. Civilians held hands with soldiers who were sent out to shoot them. Religious revivalists locked arms with secularists, socialists and others to demand change. Rich and poor embraced each other in common cause. Young and old marched together day and night; and men and women of all ages raised their arms in defiance chanting, “Mubarak, irhal.”
Victory of Courage Over Fear
For 30 years, Mubarak ruled with fear and an iron fist under a State of Emergency. He established a vast network of secret police, spies, informants and honor guards to make sure he stayed in power and his opposition decimated. Under an emergency law (Law No. 162 of 1958), Mubarak exercised unlimited powers. He banned any real opposition political activity and unapproved political organizations, prohibited street demonstrations, arrested critics and dissidents and clamped down on all he thought posed a threat to his rule. Mubarak had the power to imprison anyone for any reason, at any time and for any period of time without trial. Some he tried in kangaroo military courts and sentenced them to long prison terms. Mubarak held an estimated 20,000 persons under the emergency law and the number of political prisoners in Egypt is estimated at 30,000. Mubarak’s brutal (secret) police are responsible for the disappearance, torture, rape and killing of thousands of pro-democracy campaigners and innocent people. A cable sent to Washington by the US ambassador to Cairo in 2009 revealed: “Torture and police brutality in Egypt are endemic and widespread. The police use brutal methods mostly against common criminals to extract confessions, but also against demonstrators, certain political prisoners and unfortunate bystanders.” When Egyptian youth overcame their fears and stood up to the notorious secret police, spies, informants and bloodthirsty thugs, it was all over for Mubarak and his kleptocratic regime. In less than three weeks, Mubarak’s empire of fear, terror and torture crumbled like an Egyptian ghorayebah cookie left out in the Sahara sun.
All Dictators End Up in the Dustbin of History
These must be days of worry and panic for African and Middle Eastern dictators. No doubt, some are in a state of total depression having sleepless nights and nightmares when they catch a wink. They brood over the questions: “What if IT (the “unspeakable”) happens to me? What am I going to do? How many can I kill to suppress an uprising and get away with it? A thousand, ten thousand?”
African and Middle Eastern dictators who have abused their power must know that sooner or later their turn will come. When it does, they will have only three choices: justice before their national or international tribunals, the dustbin of history, or if they can make it to the airport fast enough to Dictators’ “home away from home”, Saudi Arabia (at least until their turn comes). There will be no place for them to run and hide. Let them learn from the fates of their brothers: Al Bashir of Sudan has an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court hanging over his head. Old Charley Taylor of Liberia is awaiting his verdict at the ICC. Hissien Habre of Chad will soon be moving into Taylor’s cell at the ICC. A gang of Kenyan state ministers which instigated the violence following the 2007 presidential elections should be trading their designer suits for prison jumpsuits at the ICC in the not too distant future. Mengistu, Ben Ali, Mubarak, Al Bashir and others will be on the lam for a while and evade the long arm of justice. Justice may be delayed but it will always arrive as it did a couple of days for Pervez Musharraf who has warrant out for his arrest in connection with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
All dictators are doomed to an ignominious downfall. No African dictator has ever left office with dignity, honor, respect and the adulation of his people. They have all left office in shame, disgrace and infamy. History shows that dictators live out their last days like abandoned vicious dogs– lonely, godforsaken and tormented. Such has been the destiny of Mobutu of Zaire, Bokassa of the Central African Republic, Idi Amin of Uganda, Barre of Somalia, El-Nimery of the Sudan, Saddam of Iraq, Pol Pot of Cambodia, Marcos of the Philippines, the Shah of Iran, Ceausescu of Romania, Pincohet of Chile, Somoza of Nicaragua, Hoxha of Albania, Suharto of Indonesia, Stroessner of Paraguay, Ne Win of Mynamar, Hitler, Stalin, Mussollini and all the rest. History testifies that these names will forever be synonymous with evil, cruelty, atrocity, depravity and inhumanity. It is ironic that Mubarak (which in Arabic means “blessed one”) was born to live as the blessed one; but he will forever be remembered in Egyptian history as the “cursed one”.
The Power of Nonviolence Resistance
As Gandhi said, “Strength does not come from physical capacity”, nor does it come from guns, tanks and planes. “It comes from an indomitable will.” Winston Churchill must have learned something from Gandhi when he said, “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
As odd as it seems, violence is the weapon of the weak. To shoot and kill and maim unarmed protesters in the streets is not a sign of strength, it is a sign of fear and cowardice. To jail wholesale opposition leaders, journalists, critics and dissidents is not a demonstration of control but the ultimate manifestation of lack of control. One speaks the language of violence because one cannot speak the language of reason. Violence is the language of the angry, the hateful, the vengeful, the ignorant and the fearful. Dictators speak to their victims in the language of violence because their raison d’etre (reason for existing) is to hate and spread hate. Their very soul stirs with hatred often damaged by childhood experiences and feelings of inferiority. Hitler and Stalin exhibited strong hatred towards Jews from childhood, and because they felt woefully inadequate, they did things to try and show everybody that they have power. Violence never resolves the issues that triggered the violence; and as Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Dr. Martn Luther King explained it further: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate…” To reciprocate in violence is to become one with the perpetrators of violence. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
But the nonviolent resistor is strong, very strong. S/he is willing to sit down and reason with the one brutalizing her/him. Gandhi, Martin King, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Rosa Parks and many others have proven to be stronger than those whose heartbeats stroked to the metronome of hate. Gandhi drove the British colonialists out of India without firing a single shot. They mocked him as the “little lawyer in a diaper.” In the end, the British saluted the Indian flag and left. More recently, Eastern Europe shed its totalitarian burden through nonviolent resistance. Now we have seen it happen in Tunisia and Egypt.
But there are some who believe that nonviolent resistance will not work in the face of a morally depraved, conscienceless and barbaric adversary who will mow down in cold blood children, men and women. Others say nonviolence resistance takes too long to produce results. Such views have been articulated since the time of Gandhi, but the historical evidence refutes them. As we have recently seen in Tunisia and Egypt, two of the most brutal and entrenched dictatorships in the world unraveled in less than a month through nonviolent resistance.
As to a long-term nonviolent struggle, there are many instructive experiences. Let’s take Poland as an example. In 1981, the Soviets put General Wojciech Jaruzelski in charge to crackdown on Solidarity, a non-communist controlled trade union established a year earlier. Jaruzelski immediately declared martial law and arrested thousands of Solidarity members, often in in the middle of the night, including union leader Lech Walesa. Jaruzelski flooded the streets of Warsaw, Gdansk and elsewhere in Poland with police who shot, beat and jailed strikers and protesters by the tens of thousands. By the beginning of 1982, the crackdown seemed successful and most of Solidarity top leaders were behind bars. But Jaruzelski’s campaign of violence and repression did not end the nonviolent resistance in Poland. It only drove it underground. Where the jailed union leaders left off, others took over including priests, students, dissidents and journalists. Unable to meet in the streets, the people gathered in their churches, in the restaurants and bars, offices, schools and associations. A proliferation of underground institutions emerged including Solidarity Radio; hundreds of underground publications served as the medium of communication for the people. Solidarity leaders who had evaded arrest managed to generate huge international support. The U.S. and other countries imposed sanctions on Poland, which inflicted significant hardship on Jaruzelski’s government. By 1988, Poland’s economy was in shambles as prices for basic staples rose sharply and inflation soared. In August of that year, Jaruzelski was ready to negotiate with Solidarity and met Walesa. Following the “Polish Roundtable Talks”, communism was doomed in Poland. In December 1990, Lech Walesa became the first popularly elected president of Poland. It took nearly a decade to complete the Polish nonviolent revolution. History shows that nonviolent change seems impossible to many until people act to bring it about. Who would have thought two months ago that two of the world’s worst dictators would be toppled and consigned to the dust bin of history in a nonviolent struggle by youths?
The Wrath of Ethiopian Youth
In June 2010, I wrote:
The wretched conditions of Ethiopia’s youth point to the fact that they are a ticking demographic time bomb. The evidence of youth frustration, discontent, disillusionment and discouragement by the protracted economic crisis, lack of economic opportunities and political repression is manifest, overwhelming and irrefutable. The yearning of youth for freedom and change is self-evident. The only question is whether the country’s youth will seek change through increased militancy or by other peaceful means.
Youths always inspire each other. Ethiopia’s youths seek the same things as their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts: a livelihood, adequate food, decent housing and education and basic health care. They want free access to information – radio, newspaper, magazines, satellite and internet — as they are absolutely and unconditionally guaranteed in their constitution. Above all, they want to live in a society that upholds the rule of law, protects human rights and respects the votes of the people. They do not want corruption, nepotism, cronyism, criminality and inhumanity. That is not too much to ask.
When the uprising took place in Tunisia and Egypt, it was not the “leaders” that led it. Youth power became the catalyzing force for a democratic revolution in both countries. Africa’s dictators should understand that people do not rise up because it is in style or fashionable, but because their conditions of existence are subhuman, inhuman and intolerable. It is possible to stop the satellite transmissions, jam the radio broadcasts, shutter the newspapers, close the internet cafes, grab a young journalist and human rights advocate as he walks out of an internet café and interrogate, threaten, intimidate and terrorize him, but it is far more difficult to quiet the hungry stomachs, mend the broken hearts, heal the wounded spirits and calm the angry minds of the young people. Youths united in Ethiopia and elsewhere on the African continent can never be defeated.
Power to Africa’s Youths!
Zenawi, irhal! Bashir, degage! Mugabe, irhal! Gbagbo, degage! Ghaddafi, irhal! African dictators, irhal!…. degage!