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Thus spoke Eskinder, the drum major for Ethiopian democracy

By Alemayehu Gebremariam

Still drumming for democracy

Eskinder Nega is still drumming for democracy in Ethiopia. From inside the belly of the infamous Meles Zenawi Prison in Kality, just outside the capital Addis Ababa. Until recently, Eskinder was in solitary confinement. He was allowed to see only his wife and son and a couple of other relatives.

Eskinder is condemned to 18 years in prison.  His unspeakable crimes include speaking truth to power, writing the naked truth about the late dictator Meles Zenawi, standing defiant against the abuse of power and speaking his mind fearlessly as a free human being.

Shakespeare wrote, “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” The evil Meles Zenawi did when he lived still lives on in the shattered lives of  journalists Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye, opposition leader Andualem Aragie, activists  Olbana Lelisa, Bekele Gerba, Abubekar Ahmed, Ahmedin Jebel  and the many thousands of Ethiopian political prisoners. It is true evil never dies; it merely changes its form and shape. It takes a new name and puts on a new face.

Eskinder is one free Ethiopian in prison. Since September 2011, we have not heard his drumbeats for democracy. Meles Zenawi Prison is a virtual black hole. It is a place of total darkness. Not even the enlightened ones can escape.

But we need not hear Eskinder’s drumbeats of democracy. We can feel them. Like our heartbeats. Silently. Rhythmically. Rhapsodically. His enforced silence echoes in our minds and we amplify the sounds of his enforced silence to the world. We reverberate his message. Though we lack his supreme courage, fortitude and stamina, we are unrepentant members of his marching band, and he is our drum major. We all aspire to be Eskinder Nega. Eskinder Nega is us! We are Eskinder Nega! I am Eskinder Nega!

Eskinder Nega is my personal hero. I have written “special tributes for him”. It has been my great privilege to stand by Eskinder’s side, though from thousands of miles away;  and defend the honor, character and integrity of this great man with my pen (keyboard). It is an understatement for me to say Eskinder is my hero. He is much more than that. He is  my inspiration. Eskinder taught me the true meaning of courage— that capacity of to stand up for one’s beliefs and fight with the weapon of truth and ideas.

Eskinder taught me the true meaning of the expression that the  limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. Eskinder is a living example of the proposition that there can be no victory in the struggle for democracy, freedom and human rights without sacrifice, dogged tenacity and fortitude — that inner strength of mind and spirit to bear pain and adversity with courage and grace.  Eskinder challenged us to answer that difficult question which most of us seek to avoid: Will we define the defining moment in our lives or let the moment define us in that moment?

Eskinder, for me, is the personification of the audacity of faith  and hope that Ethiopia’s young people will rise triumphant in the end regardless of the brutality, inhumanity and barbarity of those who oppress them. For they are destined by Providence to be victorious over the inglorious. Ethiopia’s youth shall inherit an Ethiopia that is at peace with itself, with its neighbors and with Providence. Those who have troubled the House of Ethiopia shall be cast out and “scattered like chaff driven by the desert wind.”. They shall inherit the wind!

Eskinder Nega is not a hero to one man. He is a heroes’ hero. He is a hero to world renowned journalists who have themselves suffered at the hands of dictators including Kenneth Best, founder of the Daily Observer (Liberia’s first independent daily); Lydia Cacho, one of Mexico’s most famous journalists and noted author; Sir Harold Evans, editor of  The Sunday Times in Britain; Akbar Ganji, Iran’s foremost dissident; Amira Hass, one of the foremost independent journalists in Israel; Arun Shourie, one of India’s most renowned journalists and editor of the English-language daily Indian Express; Faraj Sarkohi, a long time Iranian writer and journalist persecuted by both the Shah of Iran and the Islamic Republic of Iran; Adam Michnik, editor in chief of the first independent (and bestselling) Polish daily foremost dissident and Polish human rights advocate and so many others. Eskinder is a hero to virtually every respected press and human rights organization in the world. In his own country, Eskinder is condemned as a criminal; but Eskinder Nega is an innocent man condemned by a gang of criminals.

Thus Spoke Eskinder Nega from Meles Zenawi Prison

It is heartwarming to read firsthand accounts of Eskinder’s condition in prison. Recent reports of journalists and others who visited him are encouraging and uplifting. No doubt, prison life for Eskinder and the other imprisoned journalists, opposition leaders and political prisoners is unbearably hard. The regime in Ethiopia maintains one of the most inhumane prison systems in the world. Such was the finding of an expert study commissioned by the regime itself.  Those who personally visited Eskinder and the young opposition leader Andualem Aragie said both had lost weight but their spirits were flying high as a kite.

Eskinder’s face radiated with serenity, the kind Reinhold Neibur talked about – “the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things which should be changed and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” He talked openly and fearlessly about how to help bring about a better and freer Ethiopia. He spoke passionately about the sacrifices and the price that must be paid to establish democracy and the rule of law in Ethiopia. They said Eskinder was at peace with himself and his circumstances in prison. But I am willing to bet my bottom dollar that  he will always be at war with injustice, hate, intolerance and  unfairness.

Eskinder’s wife, the incomparable Serkalem Fasil and winner of the prestigious “Courage in Journalism  Award”, was present during one of the visits and listened to her husband intently as their son Nafkot playfully made his presence known. It was a distressing sight for the journalists to see Nafkot’s life revolve around prison. Nafkot was born in prison in 2005 when mom and dad were imprisoned by Meles Zenawi “only to be acquitted sixteen months later. Serkalem prematurely gave birth in prison. Severely underweight at birth because Serkalem’s physical and psychological privation in one of Africa’s worst prisons, an incubator was deemed life-saving to the new-born child by prison doctors; which was, in an act of incomprehensible vindictiveness, denied by the authorities. The child nevertheless survived miraculously.” Such is the utter inhumanity of those who have persecuted this extraordinary Ethiopian family for years.

Like any human being Eskinder feels the loss of association with his wife and son. No doubt, he misses his friends and supporters throughout the world as much as they miss him.  He told one of his visitors:  “I am innocent. I will never ask for a government pardon. I won’t even think about it. But when I say this, I don’t mean that I do not miss my wife and son. Not being with them weighs heavily on my heart. Regardless, it is a high price I must pay for my people. That is the sacrifice I have to make.” That was exactly what Nelson Mandela said: “When your life is the struggle, as mine was, there is little room left for family. That has always been my greatest regret and the most painful aspect of the choice I made.”

I am confident Eskinder understands that the destiny of great men is in the hands of history and not tyrants. Mandela kept his appointment with destiny and emerged victorious from Robben Island and lifted the darkness that threatened to envelop South Africa. I have no doubts that Eskinder, Reeyot, Woubshet, Andualem, Olbana, Bekele, Abubekar, Ahmedin and the many thousands of Ethiopian political prisoners and the millions of youth will also emerge from Prison Nation Ethiopia victorious.

It is deeply saddening that Eskinder and the others have been subjected to all forms of humiliation and degradation in Meles Zenawi Prison. They really tried to break him down, and force him to his knees and beg for a pardon. They tried solitary confinement to break his spirit. They subjected him to personal humiliation, abuse and neglect to crush his unconquerable soul. These petty minded ignoramuses would not even allow him to get books, a right specially recognized under Article 40 of the United Nations, Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, 30 August 1955.)  Though Eskinder’s head is bloodied, it is also unbowed!

Eskinder told the visiting journalists, “There can be no change without sacrifice. Change comes through peaceful struggle.” He emphasized the need for peaceful struggle. He spoke of Kenya, Ghana and Malawi and how fortunate they were in being able to build democracy without paying too high a price.

He spoke unambiguously  of the need for civility and respect for each other. “Every Ethiopian who acts for the good of the country should be respected.” When the journalists told him that he has been dubbed the “Mandela of Ethiopia”, he humbly declined stating that he did not deserve such honor. But he remained defiant as ever: “I am sentenced to 18 years. What more can happen to me? I feel bad separated from my wife and child. The issue is not whether Eskinder is in prison or not, but how we can see a better and democratic Ethiopia.” He kept on repeating “Democracy, democracy, democracy…”

Why is Eskinder and the others still in prison?

There really is no rational explanation for keeping Eskinder and the rest of the journalists, opposition leaders and activists in prison. But there are many irrational ones. The first absurd reason for keeping them in prison is  the belief that releasing them will reflect badly on the name and legacy of the late Meles Zenawi. Releasing them so soon after Meles death would show that he had wrongfully imprisoned them.

The fact known to the whole world is that they are all political prisoners. They have committed no crimes.  Every major human rights organization and other governmental organizations involved in human rights have come to the same conclusions.

Meles was an angry man, a vindictive man. As I have often described him when he was alive, Meles opted for revenge when he could show mercy; depraved indifference when he could show compassion; intolerance when he could show understanding and impatience when he could show magnanimity. I shall never forget Meles’ sadistic words after he jailed Birtukan Midekssa in January 2008. “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” Birtukan, like these young prisoners, had done nothing wrong.

It is indeed a dead issue now. That was how Meles missed his rendezvous with greatness. As long as these young people remain in prison, they become Meles’ legacy and his name will be a symbol of shame and infamy. His name will be defiled and profaned, his character dishonored and his achievements depreciated and deprecated. Releasing them now would go a long way in rehabilitating his name and contributions in the eyes of all Ethiopians and court of world opinion. In all sincerity, is it not time to let Meles rest in peace? Is it not time to release these prisoners and let them live in peace?

The second absurd reason for keeping these young people in prison, I believe, comes from a misguided  thinking which equates admitting and correcting mistakes or doing the right thing as a sign of  profound weakness. There is nothing wrong in admitting mistakes, but there is a lot that is wrong in not correcting them. “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” When mistakes are not corrected, they accumulate and fester like a sore. In the end, those who fail to correcte their mistakes are buried by them. It was an egregious mistake to imprison these young people; it would be a magnanimous act of redressing a wrong by releasing them.

The third absurd reason for keeping these young people in prison flows from ignorant arrogance. I do not doubt that there are some among those in power who believe might is right. As long as they have the guns, tanks and planes, they can subjugate the entire country and remain on top forever. Such a view is logically and factually flawed. If guns and tanks would have endured eternal power, Mengistu Hailemariam at the peak of his power had $4 billion worth of it. The reason those who are now in power today were able to overthrow Mengistu’s regime was not because of their superior firepower or the refinement of their military strategy. They can deceive themselves into believing that if they want. The real reason they won is because the people of Ethiopia had totally and unreservedly rejected the regime of Mengustu Hailemariam. They had had enough of him, his brutality, his criminality and his ignorant arrogance. Those who seized power from Mengistu arrived at a defining moment in Ethiopia’s history. Ethiopians had to make a choice between a devil they knew and angel lookalikes they did not know. Well now they know!

The fact of the matter is that we live in a different world. It is a world that is coming under the increasing ownership of young people. They are very different from us, the Hippo Generation. They have different dreams, hopes, aspirations and priorities. What is important to us is laughably insignificant to them. When we talk to them about the politics of ethnicity and identity, they look at us as though we are raving lunatics. They could not care less about the ethnicity, region, religion or language of their fellow youth. They care about improving their lives through education and entrepreneurship. They care about the future and do not want to be bogged down in the quicksand of hatred and  ethnic rivalry we have created for ourselves. We made our beds in our Ethiopia, and we should lie in them if we must. But we have no right to demand that they lie in the bed of thorns we have made for ourselves. They won’t!

The other irrefutable fact is that there is a tidal wave of youth anger and dissatisfaction on the verge of explosion.  In my numerous commentaries in defense of Ethiopia’s youth, I have alluded to the wind of change that has kicked up a sandstorm of youth rebellion and revolt in North Africa someday reaching Ethiopia and the rest of Africa. Ethiopian youth, like Arab youth, are crying out for freedom, democracy, human rights and equal economic opportunity. The vast majority of the uneducated, under-educated and mis-educated Ethiopian youth have no hope for the future. Legions of them with college degrees, advanced professional and technical training waste away the best years of their lives  because they have few economic opportunities. They see a void in their futures.

I suspect there are many among those in power who have convinced themselves that the type of volcanic popular uprisings that swept North Africa cannot happen in Ethiopia. They have used every means at their disposal to keep the youth benighted, divided and antagonized. They have tried to prevent Ethiopian youth from accessing the Internet freely to learn new ideas and create cyber civic societies. They have tried to buy the loyalty of the best and the brightest of Ethiopia’s youth with cash, jobs, special educational opportunities and privileges. They have tried to brainwash them into believing that Meles is their demi-god and their savior. They have used a vast security network of informants, spies and thugs to suppress any youth or other uprising before it could gather momentum. They have spread in society so much fear and loathing that it is nearly impossible for individuals or groups to come together, build consensus and articulate a unified demand for change. They can fool (buy and sell) some of the youths all of the time, all of the youths some of the time  but it is impossible for them to fool (buy and sell) all of the youths all of the time.

That is exactly what Mubarak did in Egypt, Gadhafi in Libya, Ben Ali in Tunisia and Asad in Syria. The fire that consumed the Middle East was started by the match Bouazizi struck to immolate himself.

Ethiopia’s Cheetahs (youth) represent 70 percent of the population. They have a frightening majority, at least viewed from the perspective of a Hippo. Those in power today would be foolhardy to calculate that they can abuse, degrade, neglect and disrespect this majority and expect to remain in perpetual power. Without the wholehearted support of the youth, the regime is like a tree stuck in a bog which is swept away at the onset of the first flood.

From time to time, I have written about the quiet riot that is taking place in Ethiopia. Those in power today are completely blinded to the quiet riot that is raging in the hearts and minds of Ethiopia’s youth. In their bottomless greed and corruption, they have turned blind, deaf and mute to the despair and hopelessness of the masses of youth who lack of educational, employment and other opportunities for self-improvement and participation in the development of their country. For a time, the quiet riot of despair and hopelessness will fester and simmer. But when hopelessness and despair reaches the boiling point and Ethiopia’s youth overcome their fear of fear, their winter of discontent will be made glorious by an inexorable Ethiopian Spring. When that happens, the tables will turn and the hands that crafted the oppressive laws will be victims of their own hands.  Then they will learn the eternal truth: “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

The message of a great freedom fighter for Ethiopians and the message of the “great dictator” for humanity

The great Charlie Chaplin in the motion picture the “Great Dictator” gave a stirring oration for the ages when he declined to be the all powerful dictator of Tomania:

Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me, I say “Do not despair.” The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.”

We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way…

Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural. Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!

Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill their promise. They never will!

Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.

Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite!

Eskinder Nega’s Message to All Ethiopians (translation from Amharic)

Our country Ethiopia is in dire straits. She lies between remaining a united country and disintegration. Additionally, we her citizens continue to suffer under oppression. When those African countries that were created through European colonial machinations and whom we helped birth are today marching to  democracy as we continue our backwards march. It is ironic that we were at the head of Africa yesterday but today we are Africa’s tail.  This is national shame.

Therefore, in order to root out this problem, it is necessary for us to conduct a peaceful struggle. Related to this, the united movement for democracy and justice and other struggles that are underway by other political parties is very encouraging.  If the struggle continues along as it is doing now and there is broad participation, there is no doubt that we will be on the road to freedom. That is why it is necessary for all Ethiopians, regardless of time and location, should engage in a united struggle.

Do not be afraid! Do not be intimidated by the threats of tyrants? Fear is the weapon of tyrants. Reject it! Drive it out of your hearts. To be injured, jailed and abused is a sacrifice we must pay not to be nationless. We must struggle to  build a better country. Therefore, step up! Step forward! Participate in peaceful protests.

This is the time for those in the Diaspora to stand up for their country and show their good intentions. To support our cause, All Ethiopians in the Diaspora should participate in protest demonstrations especially the protests that are going on in Addis Ababa.

I am sure if Eskinder’s voice could reach the millions of Ethiopia’s youth he’d say, “Do not despair. The misery that is now upon Ethiopia is but the passing of greed and corruption, the bitterness of men who fear the truth, men consumed by hatred. Those who have watered and cultivated hate in Ethiopia will be consumed by it like a wild fire. Dictators have died. The truth shall live. The power they stole from the people will return to the people. Do away with kilil barriers! Do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! And so long as Ethiopians are imprisoned, tortured and die for their convictions and truth, liberty will never perish.”

So long as there are Ethiopians like Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Andualem Aragie, Olbana Lelisa, Bekele Gerba, Abubekar Ahmed, Ahmedin Jebel…, liberty will never perish in Ethiopia. These young people are held in a “place of wrath and tears”, a place called Meles Zenawi Prison. There they face the “menace of the years”, but we “shall find them unafraid”. It does not matter how much physical punishment and psychological pain is inflicted on them, they shall remain defiant. Why? Because all of them are masters of their  fate and captains of their souls.” Hail Ethiopia’s Youth. Ethiopia Youth Invictus!

Release all political prisoners in Ethiopia!

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:

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