Barely two months into his new job as a Prime Minister, Dr Abiy Ahmed has managed to simultaneously excite and alarm pretty much everybody. In Ethiopian political leadership, this is no small feat, where offending the public has been the norm than the exception. During his judiciously sequenced marathon cross-country check-up, he delivered a cautious message in the west while hitting a conciliatory tone in the east. In the capital, Addis Abeba, he forcefully challenged the youth and business owners to â€œdo their fair share.â€� Yes, his bid to steer away from the political landmines got him some troubles, generating an instant fury on the front lines of social media, but many seem to get over it quickly.
Perhaps the most drastic of all changes so far is the announcement on Tuesday of the two major policy shifts: Eritrea and the economy, which need separate reflections. All of these happened in just two months. Of course, it is not yet the same as Leninâ€™s â€œthere are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.â€� However, given the fact that a few months ago the country seemed on the verge of catastrophe, incremental as one might think of these changes, the steps the new prime minister endeavors are laudable and praiseworthy.
The intricate challenges facing the new prime minister are overwhelming. Among the challenges that hold the PMâ€™s immediate attention are the tasks of deconstructing the political, economic and social narratives, structures and institutions. The primary approaches employed by the TPLF dominated ruling party EPRDF over the last three decades have been divisive and polarizing. By inflating identity and manipulating real and imaginary historical events, the ruling cliques have created walls between the countryâ€™s diverse ethnic groups as a strategy to consolidate and monopolize power, both political and economic. Deconstructing institutions and replacing them with an inclusive structure could take some time. However, at least in his speeches Prime Minister Abiy has already given priority to deconstructing these divisive narratives. […] CONTINUE READING
In my commentary last week, “Interpreting and Living MLK’s Dream”, I discussed, among other things, Dr. Martin Luther King’s (MLK) philosophy of nonviolent social change. MLK argued that the “crucial political and moral question of our time” is the “need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.” I believe the crucial political and moral question for Ethiopians today is how to transform Ethiopia into an oasis of democratic governance in the middle of a sub-Saharan desert of African tyranny in a nonviolent struggle.
MLK dreamt about creating the “Beloved Community”– a community that has rid itself of racism, poverty and militarism. He said, “The end of nonviolent social change is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends.”
The question I seek to address here is whether and how Ethiopians, particularly young Ethiopians, could use MLK’s “diplomacy” of love, brotherhood, sisterhood and nonviolence in their struggle against an entrenched and depraved dictatorship in their country. I use the word “diplomacy” here advisedly to signify the importance of dialogue, negotiations, compromise, bargaining, concessions, accommodations, cooperation and ultimately peace-making and reconciliation. (I plan to offer my views on the “diplomacy of nonviolent change” in Ethiopia on a regular basis in the future.)
Recent clampdown on Semayawi (Blue) Party
According to a BBC report, last week “some 100 members of Ethiopia’s opposition Semayawi party were arrested and some badly beaten.” In June of this year, Semayawi (Blue) Party (BP), a political party comprising of young people and openly committed to nonviolent social change, had organized its first major street demonstration against the ruling regime demanding the release of political prisoners, journalists and human rights activists. Regime police raided the BP headquarters to prevent a scheduled “rally” by the party to demand political reforms. According to BP chairman Yilekal Getachew, regime police assaulted party members and confiscated sound systems, computers and other equipment. The rally has been rescheduled for September 21.
Regime official Shimeles Kemal “denied there had been a crackdown” and explained that the BP party could not engage in protest activity because the “venue had already been booked by a group condemning religious extremism.” The pro-government counter demonstration was organized by the “Addis Ababa Inter-Religious Conference”, a regime front organization.The regime-staged counter-demonstration was an effort aimed at showing the “vehement opposition of Addis Ababa resident against [religious] radicalism recently observed in the country”.
MLK’s “first step” in nonviolent social change
How relevant are MLK’s teachings in undertaking a nonviolent moral and political struggle in Ethiopia? Can Ethiopians inform their struggle against tyranny with MLK’s ideas of nonviolence, love, civil resistance and disobedience? I believe MLK’s teachings are relevant to any society suffering under tyranny, dictatorship, racism, poverty and militarism.
MLK taught that the first step in a nonviolent struggle is a commitment to truth which requires “information gathering”. He understood that a struggle based on facts (in contrast to propaganda and ideological indoctrination) is a struggle based on truth. He believed that one must thoroughly and methodically research, investigate and gather vital information on the scope, magnitude and severity of problems facing the community before contemplating action. More importantly, one must gain understanding and insight into the lives of the people who are impacted by conditions of oppression and work with social, civic and political organizations engaged in seeking to bring about change. Without fact-finding and community support, the struggle for nonviolent social change is likely to lead not only to uninformed and erroneous decisions but also end up in counterproductive and ineffective actions driven by anger, resentment and impatience.
MLK’s prescription for “gathering information” is consistent with the old adage that there is power in “information” and “knowledge”. Nelson Mandela said it best: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Education is ultimately about acquiring, imparting, accumulating and disseminating systematized knowledge and information. In as much as formal education is important, as Albert Einstein said, “imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
Yet there can be neither information, knowledge, education nor imagination if the human mind is gripped and made captive to the tyranny of fear and ignorance. Before taking the first step of “information” gathering, those committed to nonviolent change must overcome their fear of tyrants and dictators.
The regime in Ethiopia has ruled by fear (not the rule of law) for over two decades. Dissenters and members of the opposition are harassed, intimidated, arrested, placed in prolonged pre-trial detention, tortured and put on show trials and subjected to extrajudicial killings. As I argued in my commentary “Edu-corruption and Mis-education in Ethiopia”, the regime has used “ignorance as its most powerful weapon to prevent change and cling to power. They have long adopted the motto of George Orwell’s Oceania: ‘Ignorance is Strength’. Indeed, ignorance is a powerful weapon to manipulate, emasculate and subjugate the masses. Keep ‘em ignorant and impoverished and they won’t give you any trouble.”
Overcoming the tyranny of fear: Precursor to MLK’s first step in nonviolent social change
MLK said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Oftentimes, the oppressed are too fearful, too traumatized and too confused to demand their freedom. For 30 years, Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt by spreading fear and loathing among the population. Invoking a “State of Emergency (“Law No. 162 of 1958”), Mubarak wielded unlimited power and imposed his iron will through a vast network of secret police, spies, informants and honor guards who used torture, intimidation and extrajudicial killings to make sure he stayed in power and his opposition decimated. By the time he was thrown out of office in 2011, he held an estimated 20,000 persons under the emergency law; and according to human rights organizations, he held over 30,000 political prisoners. When Egyptian youth overcame their fears of Mubarak and stood up to his secret police, spies, informants and bloodthirsty thugs, it was all over for him and his kleptocratic regime. In less than three weeks, Mubarak’s empire of fear, terror and torture crumbled like an Egyptian ghorayebah cookie.
Most of the nonviolent social and political changes we have seen over the past three decades were the direct result of the people losing their fear of the tyrants who oppress them. The Poles succeeded in their nonviolent struggle when they lost their fear of their communist tyrants. 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. The crackdown drove the opposition underground. Where the jailed union leaders left off, others including priests, students, dissidents and journalists took over. Unable to meet in the streets, the people gathered in their churches, in the restaurants and bars, offices, schools and associations. 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. In December 1990, Lech Walesa became the first popularly elected president of Poland. It took nearly a decade to complete the Polish nonviolent revolution. When Poles overcame their fears of Jaruzelski and his Soviet backers and stood up to his secret police, spies, informants and bloodthirsty thugs, it was all over for him and his iron-fisted regime.
Nonviolent social and political change came to many of the former Soviet republics and post-communist countries in Eastern Europe through the so-called “color revolutions” (people wearing symbolic colors to show their demand for change) over the past decade. In Serbia (2000) Georgia (“Rose Revolution” 2003), Ukraine (“Orange Revolution” 2004) and Kyrgyzstan (“Tulip Revolution” 2005), ordinary people engaged in defiant massive nonviolent street protests which culminated in the removal of oppressive and corrupt regimes. Not long ago, the “Arab Spring” dawned in the Middle East when Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia was swept away in the “Jasmine Revolution.” The one common element in the “color revolutions” was the fact that they were led by youth who had lost their fear of their tyrannical oppressors.
How do the people lose fear of their oppressors?
The history of nonviolent social and political change shows that people lose the fear of their oppressors when the burden of their material conditions outweigh the fear of their oppressors. Simply stated, people lose their fear of their oppressors when they just can’t take it anymore. They come to a point where they stand up and say, “Enough is enough!”
During the civil rights movement, African Americans lost their fear of police thugs, police dogs, police informants and police brutality when they became sick and tired of the dehumanization, discrimination and segregation they faced daily. When the bus driver threatened to have Rosa Parks arrested if she did not go to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, her answer was, “You may [have me] arrested.” She ain’t moving; and she will no longer accept second class citizenship. MLK’s essential message at the 1963 March on Washington was the same. It was equality and justice for black people under the Constitution or escalating civil resistance, civil disobedience and protest. He announced, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality… and our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity…”
Gandhi launched the salt march of 1930 to protest the British salt tax which charged ordinary Indians for a basic necessity of life. Instead of paying the tax submissively, Gandhi engaged in a massive act of civil disobedience leading tens of thousands of people to the sea to make salt. The British arrested over 60,000 people, but thousands more took the places of those arrested forcing the British to come to terms with Gandhi’s demands.
In the past two years, the youth that led the “Arab Spring” mustered the courage to confront their long-standing dictatorships because they felt hopeless, helpless and futureless. The Middle East, like much of Africa, is experiencing a youth bulge (large segment of the population comprised of children and young adults). Neither the leaders nor the political economy of those countries is capable of accommodating the needs of this burgeoning population. There are few productive employment opportunities for young people. The vast majority of the people could no longer afford the basic essentials of life while the ruling elites and their cronies wallowed in a sea of corruption, oil revenue and Western aid.
I have long and repeatedly argued that Ethiopia’s youth will be the tip of the spear of nonviolent social change in Ethiopia (no pun intended). The youth bulge is estimated at 70 percent of the population. According to a 2012 USAID study, “Ethiopia has one of the highest urban youth unemployment rates at 50 percent and there is a high rate of youth underemployment in rural areas, where nearly 85 percent of the population resides.” Another 2012 youth unemployment study in Ethiopia reported that the “current 5 year [Ethiopian] development plan 2010/11-2014/5, the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), does not directly address the issue of youth unemployment, but rather implicitly through improved performance of the various sectors in the economy.” The study found that “in 2011, 38 percent of youth were employed in the informal sector” which “often provides low quality, low paying jobs.” The study reported high underemployment rates; “approximately 50 percent of youth reported being available and willing to work more hours.” There is a substantial segment of the youth population that is not only unemployed but also unemployable because they lack basic skills. On the other hand, access to public sector jobs depends not so much on merit or competition but connections and party membership. The youth will no doubt demand greater economic justice and radical political reforms that will enable them to have increasing input in governance.
It is unlikely that the regime can remain indefinitely in power by using repression and violence, particularly against the youth. No amount of force can crush or subdue a rising tide of young people in the population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2050, Ethiopia’s population will more than triple to 278 million, placing that country in the top 10 most populous countries in the world. Demographic changes, persistent unemployment and galloping inflation, limited educational opportunities, ever increasing cost of living and expanding social media will make the youth in Ethiopia a powder keg on short fuse.
Overcoming fear together and finding courage together
I do not want to suggest here that fear and loathing resides only in the hearts and minds of the oppressed. Fear strikes not only the victims but also the victimizers. Those who run the regime in Ethiopia and their cronies have their own fears and tribulations. As I argued in great detail in my commentary, “Terminal Paranoia”, regime leaders have used fear to cement their ugly and divisive ethnic politics. By setting one group against another and inspiring distrust and hatred, they have managed to cling to power for a long time. Today, the façade of political institutions they have created for the various ethnic groups to maintain their control no longer works. Their appeal to ethnic loyalty inspired by fear of what other groups might do to one group no longer holds sway. They are overwhelmingly rejected by every single ethnic group in the country, bar none. The people have come to the obvious realization that the regime’s “ethnic federalism” (Bantustan-style regions) has only served the interests of a few kleptocratic ruling elites and their cronies. Thus, the ruling elites fear “payback” for their nasty games of ethnic division.
The innermost fear of the regime operators is the likelihood of a spontaneous mass uprising. Regime leaders are terrified by the prospect of a sudden popular uprising breaking out and literally consuming them. They have deep fears of accountability and retribution. They know they have committed unspeakable crimes against humanity, war crimes and serious crimes punishable under their own criminal laws and the Constitution. They also know that they will be held accountable for their corruption and abuse of power if a mass uprising takes place. The specter of prosecution and punishment for crimes they have committed keeps them in a state of high anxiety and sleeplessness. In the final analysis, the regime’s problem is the same as the proverbial tiger rider’s. They have been riding the Ethiopian tiger for over two decades. They know one day they have to dismount; and when they do, they will be looking straight into the angry eyes, gleaming teeth and pointy nails of one big hungry Ethiopian tiger!
Truth and Reconciliation
MLK dreamed about creating a “Beloved Community”. Ethiopians cannot aspire to create a “Beloved Community” permeated with fear. My understanding is that many regime leaders and their supporters are gripped by fear and desperately seek an “exit strategy”. They seek assurance that they will not face extreme retribution in the event of change; indeed, they hope to get some accommodation that will allow them to retain their wealth while having an opportunity to play a role in the future of the country. The victims of the regime fear the use of indiscriminate violence to cling to power as seen after the elections in 2005 where hundreds of people were gunned down in the streets.
Perhaps there is a way to “negotiate fear itself.” Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk managed to negotiate their fears in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mandela had to make distasteful moral choices and tough political compromises. de Klerk had to convince his diehard Apartheid racists that change is not easy but their choice was to abandon their ways and come to terms with the new reality or lose everything. He told his people, “In order for change to happen, you must really accept the need for change. Yes, it’s scary.” By negotiating their fears, Mandela and de Klerk made significant strides to create their “Beloved South African Community.” South Africans have a long way to go; and two decades later, they are still struggling with the economic and political legacy of Apartheid.
If Ethiopians are to create their own “Beloved Community”, they must begin to “negotiate their fears”, which requires a reckoning with the history of the past 22 years and an open and honest discussion of their innermost fears. MLK said, “The end of nonviolent social change is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved which transforms opponents into friends.” I believe it is time to invent a “new diplomacy of nonviolence” which facilitates the creation of a Beloved Community in Ethiopia. It is a diplomacy that stresses dialogue, negotiations, compromise, bargaining, concessions, accommodations, cooperation and ultimately peace-making and reconciliation. MLK said, “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated.” It has also been said that the “only thing to fear is fear itself.” I believe the only thing to fear is fear of each other; and the only thing to be courageous about is to communicate with each other without fear, with honesty and in good faith.
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:
Arkebe Equbay, a one-time rising star of the Tigrai Peoples Liberation Front and former mayor of Addis Ababa, has fled to the United States seeking asylum, according to reliable sources. Also defecting is Getachew Equbay, Arkebe’s brother and former executive of Mesfin Engineering. The brothers are said to have escaped along with their families.
According to Wikileaks, in 2008, the majority of TPLF leadership had voted for Arkebe to lead the politburo. Arkebe is said to have wisely chosen not to antagonize Meles. Arkebe was nevertheless unceremoniously purged from the politburo by the vindictive former prime minister two years later.
Just last year, Arkebe was thought to be the heir apparent to the throne following the demise of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Unconfirmed reports are also circulating about the defection of many frightened TPLF biggies who refused to return home after traveling to the US.
An Open Letter to John Kerry: Tell Ethiopia to Release Eskinder Nega and Stop Imprisoning Bloggers
September 4, 2013
“Individuals can be penalised, made to suffer (oh, how I miss my child) and even killed. But democracy is a destiny of humanity which can not be averted. It can be delayed but not defeated… I sleep in peace, even if only in the company of lice, behind bars.” – a letter attributed to imprisoned blogger Eskinder Nega, serving 18 years for journalism in Ethiopia
Dear Secretary of State John Kerry,
This month marks the second anniversary of Eskinder Nega’s imprisonment. When you visited Ethiopia in May, Eskinder Nega had already been imprisoned – and thus silenced – for over a year. It’s time for the United States to use its considerable influence to vigorously and directly advocate Nega’s freedom and, in the process, to promote free expression and independent journalism throughout Ethiopia.
Now is a crucial moment for the Secretary to speak out. Over the weekend, Ethiopian security forces in Addis Ababa brutally suppressed a demonstration calling for political reforms and the release of jailed journalists and dissidents.
Eskinder Nega is an internationally recognized Ethiopian reporter-turned-blogger. His award-winning journalism on political issues in Ethiopia – and his refusal to stop publishing or flee the country – has made him the target of persecution by the Ethiopian government for many years. Nega was arrested in September 2011 and then convicted under a new, extremely broad anti-terrorism law in Ethiopia. Nega’s so-called crime was writing articles and speaking publicly on topics such as the Arab Spring and Ethiopia’s poor record on press freedom. For that, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
In July, the New York Times published a letter from Eskinder Nega in prison, who explained that Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law “has been used as a pretext to detain journalists who criticize the government.” He elaborated on the actions that landed him in prison on charges of terrorism:
I’ve never conspired to overthrow the government; all I did was report on the Arab Spring and suggest that something similar might happen in Ethiopia if the authoritarian regime didn’t reform. The state’s main evidence against me was a YouTube video of me, saying this at a public meeting. I also dared to question the government’s ludicrous claim that jailed journalists were terrorists.
As Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said, “The use of draconian laws and trumped-up charges to crack down on free speech and peaceful dissent makes a mockery of the rule of law.”
EFF has joined other free speech advocates and human rights organizations around the world in calling for Nega’s release. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has joined the movement calling for Nega’s freedom. And Amnesty International has rightly declared Nega a prisoner of conscience and is petitioning for his release.
Journalists and human rights organizations around the world have condemned Nega’s sentence and called for his release. It’s time for the United States, and especially the State Department, to do the same.
We’re writing today to urge you to use your relationship with Ethiopia to campaign for Eskinder Nega’s freedom and the freedom of all peaceful bloggers in Ethiopia.
We appreciate the public statements that the State Department has made about Nega’s imprisonment, but that’s not enough. Nega has already spent two years in prison, and other bloggers in Ethiopia have also been silenced by similar unjust imprisonments.
A free and independent media is vital to democracy and justice. We are calling on you to speak out on behalf of Eskinder Nega and raise his case with your contacts within the Ethiopian government. We urge you to more strongly tie American economic and political support for Ethiopia to its record on press freedom. The Ethiopian government should understand that the imprisonment of Eskinder Nega has real and continuing consequences to the health of its global diplomatic and financial relationships with its partners.
The United States has deep ties with Ethiopia. Please use this access and influence to champion the rights of free expression and press freedom that are guaranteed by the Ethiopian constitution and international law.
On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech for the ages from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. A quarter of a million people stood in rapt attention and listened to that speech. It was the crowning moment of the March on Washington for jobs and freedom.
Fifty years later, MLK’s speech continues to captivate the imagination and deeply penetrate the souls and consciences of people the world over. MLK was not only a dreamer but also a man of extraordinary vision, unlimited imagination and hope in the infinite capacity of humanity to be humane while acutely aware of “man’s inhumanity to man”. At the 2013 commemorative celebrations of the March on Washington, President Jimmy Carter ranked MLK at the pinnacle of American leadership. “In my Nobel Prize speech of 2002, I said ‘My fellow Georgian [MLK] was the greatest leader in my native state, and perhaps my native country has ever produced. And I was not excluding presidents and even the founding fathers when I said this.’”
As MLK envisioned in 1963, the March on Washington went down “in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of [the United States]”. Its success was assured by the guidance, participation and involvement of courageous civil rights, labor, and religious leaders and organizations and the determined and collective efforts of countless men and women of all backgrounds. There was A. Philip Randolph, a pioneer of the civil rights movement and labor leader who spearheaded the organizing effort. Bayard Rustin, a leading civil rights activist who challenged segregation beginning in the late 1940s, was the leading organizer. Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who led the legal challenges which resulted in major court victories helped develop strategies for the March.
John Lewis, the youngest leader and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who was jailed over 40 times and often brutalized by racist police, resonated the voices of youth at the March. He made an impassioned plea: “I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.” James Farmer, the chief organizer of the 1961 Freedom Ride which eventually led to the desegregation of inter-state transportation in the U.S. and co-founder of the Congress on Racial Equality was in jail in Louisiana for organizing a demonstration and could not attend. He sent a speech which read in part, “We will not stop until the dogs stop biting us in the South and the rats stop biting us in the North.” Many other civil rights leaders attended.
A number of the most famous members of the entertainment industry were brought to the March by the indefatigable Harry Belafonte including actors Sidney Poitier, Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis Jr., Paul Newman, author James Baldwin, singer Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary and others.
An unpleasant truth must also be told. Women were the backbone of the March on Washington, but none were given the opportunity to speak on the issues. The incomparable Mahalia Jackson and Marian Anderson sang. Daisy Bates, who played a central role in school desegregation in Arkansas spoke, for just over a minute. Many other pioneer women of the civil rights women including Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women and Rosa Parks were present but were not allowed to speak. Rosa Parks later vowed that “women [in the future] wouldn’t stand for being kept so much in the background.”
The March had a number of specific objectives and demands, including passage of a robust civil rights law, elimination of segregation in public education, job training and public programs for the unemployed, use of federal law to prohibit discrimination in public or private hiring, denying federal funds to programs that practice or tolerate discrimination, expansion of workers’ protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act and robust enforcement of constitutional prohibitions on the states under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Interpreting MLK’s Dream
MLK was first and foremost a Baptist minister and then a civil/human rights leader. His life and works were anchored in the teachings of Christ. He was ultimately a moral and not a political leader. So the question today is how one should interpret for oneself the dreams of an inspired moral leader whose appeal to justice, equality and fairness cuts across race, religion, ethnicity or language? What was MLK’s dream?
We all dream about things we feel are important in our lives. Most of us often dream of acquiring fortune, fame or power. Such dreams are fleeting and often without much consequence. Isaiah spoke of a hungry and thirsty man who dreams about eating and drinking but when he wakes up “his soul is empty”. Sometimes we have nightmares instead of dreams. For ages, Americans and others who have come to America from every corner of the world have sought the American dream. Some have found it, others have not. Malcom X did not find the American dream: “I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream–I see an American nightmare.”
What was MLK’s dream? Did he dream the “American dream? Could we and coming generations interpret his dreams?
I believe MLK’s “dream” was different from the dreams of ordinary men and women. I believe his dream was akin to that written in Numbers: “Hear now my words: If there be a prophet among you, [I] the Lord will make myself known unto him in a vision, [and] will speak unto him in a dream.” MLK saw a vision and spoke. MLK’s dream was like Jeremiah’s, the “weeping prophet”, who forewarned of the dream of false prophets who use “lies” to tell the people, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed” while holding “deceit of their own heart”. I believe MLK was America’s “weeping” moral leader who held truth and love in his heart. Zechariah said “diviners see visions that lie; they tell dreams that are false, they give comfort in vain. Therefore the people wander like sheep oppressed for lack of a shepherd.” I believe MLK became a shepherd to oppressed people and a moral guide to the oppressors in America. Fifty years after the March, I believe MLK’s life and works illuminate the path for the oppressed and oppressors of the world.
MLK dreamed of leading “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners” to the Promise Land out of the captivity of hatred, segregation and discrimination. Like Moses, MLK died within sight of the Promise Land. He said, “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
MLK talked about the long nightmare of slavery that African Americans had to endure and the millions of slaves “who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice” before he spoke about his dream of freedom for those “crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination” living “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” He felt the urgency of now. He said the marchers had come “to our nation’s capital to cash a check”, a “promissory note” which “guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to every American. He announced African Americans could no longer wait for their freedom any longer and challenged those in power to live out the true meaning of the nation’s creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” He demanded, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
MLK was crystal clear about the process and method of righting racial injustice and achieving the promises of American democracy. His prescription was not “an eye for an eye”. That “would make everybody blind”. He warned, “In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” In Ephesians is written, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” The Apostle Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote that Epistle. Such was the essential message of MLK.
MLK understood that oppressors and the oppressed share the same destiny. The struggle for the freedom for African Americans could not be separated from the freedom of those whites who oppress them. He urged understanding. “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
MLK pled for courage and hope. “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.” He challenged us all to dream of things and ask why not. He had the audacity to dream like John Kennedy, who during his visit in Ireland two months before the March said, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”. It is true John Kennedy was not present at the March on Washington.
MLK had “a dream” for all Americans despite living daily the nightmare of racism, segregation, inequality and indignity. He had “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” His “American dream” was “a dream that one day [America] will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” It was a dream about the “sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners” sitting “down together at the table of brotherhood.” It was a dream about states “sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression” being “transformed into oasis of freedom and justice.” It was a dream about his “four little children one day living in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” It was a dream about brotherhood, sisterhood and childhood where “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
MLK also had hope, not only dreams. He wanted to “go back to the South” with “faith” that “we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope, transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” He had an abiding “faith” that Americans “will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.” He believed that we are “all God’s children”. He proclaimed to the world, “let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire… the curvaceous slopes of California… and hill and molehill of Mississippi…” He saw freedom as inevitable and foreordained by the Almighty, unstoppable by any human force or agency.
MLK’s dreamed of creating the “Beloved Community” out of the nightmare of the triple evils
MLK’s dream was ultimately about creating the “Beloved Community”. He said, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” MLK’s Beloved Community is a society free of racism, poverty and militarism. It is a community of love and justice where brotherhood and sisterhood founded on the principle of compassion and caring define the meaning of social life. For MLK, the evil of poverty has a thousand faces. Poverty is visible in the lives of the unemployed, the homeless, the hungry, the dispossessed and those consigned to the ghettoes. “There is nothing new about poverty,” said MLK. “What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it.” What is lacking is not resources but basic compassion and caring by those who have the means to eradicate poverty. It is their indifference that makes poverty so destructive. “It is not only poverty that torments the Negro; it is the fact of poverty amid plenty.”
MLK understood that racism with its ideology of racial superiority, inferiority and domination was not only wrong but also a violation of God’s law. He believed all humans were “God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics.” They must free themselves by “joining hands and singing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
MLK opposed all forms of violence and militarism in its varied manifestations. He opposed the Vietnam War much to the dismay of President Lyndon Johnson who felt personally betrayed by MLK. “Somehow this madness must cease,” said MLK. “We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam.”
MLK believed only nonviolence and love had the power to break the unending cycle of violence and create lasting peace through reconciliation. Love restores community, hate destroys it. MLK had a complex understanding of “love”. He was not talking about romantic love (eros), nor was he talking about “affection between friends” (philia). Hi s idea of love is captured in what he termed “agape”, which is “love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it’s what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen.” Agape is the practice of what Jesus taught, “Love thy enemy.” Agape is the core value of MLK’s “Beloved Community” where “justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” That is why MLK insisted, Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Nonviolence is the means by which we achieve the “Beloved Community”. MLK said “nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
MLK taught about the “Six Principles of Nonviolence” and the use of love for nonviolent social change.” One must first accept the principle that nonviolence is a way of life. It is the preferred weapon in confronting the forces of injustice by awakening the conscience of people by appealing to their higher selves. The aim of nonviolent social change is not the destruction of the “enemy” but reconciliation through higher moral understanding. The nonviolent path to social change requires us to act against evil deeds and not the person committing them. We should focus on conditions, laws, policies and practices that perpetuate injustice, not the color, race, ethnicity, religion of the perpetrator. In seeking nonviolent change, one must accept suffering without retaliation because theer is redemption in suffering.
One must live out the six principles in practice, not just talk about them. In using nonviolence as a means of social change one must first ascertain facts. That requires gathering of information about the particular problem in the community, identifying the range of options available and determining when to optimally apply pressure. It is necessary to educate and prepare leaders who are not only dedicated to the cause but also knowledgeable about the issues so that they can teach and inform the community. This requires educating neighbors, relatives, friends, co-workers, community groups and others of the actual problems in the community.
One who is committed to nonviolent social change must make a personal commitment for a long term nonviolent campaign. The aim of a nonviolent campaign is to persuade one’s opponent of the justice of one’s cause, not to destroy or humiliate one’s opponent. In simple terms, the aim is to make a friend and a partner out of an enemy. One must also develop the skills of negotiation to reconcile viewpoints and arrive at a just resolution. Ultimately, the nonviolent social agent must be prepared to take direct nonviolent action when negotiations do not produce a just outcome. Such action could include street demonstrations to economic boycotts and beyond.
Reconciliation is the ultimate outcome of a nonviolent social struggle. MLK said, “The end of nonviolent social change is “reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
Living the dream
MLK’s dream is not about an imaginary utopia. It is also not about “hero worship” and giving lip service to lofty ideas. MLK’s dream is about having each individual help create a real flesh and blood “Beloved Community” in America and elsewhere. America does not have a monopoly on its creed that “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” Those words written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 in the American Declaration of Independence now belong to the entire human family because those truths are “endowed by the Creator” so that all humans have the “unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
MLK’s dream has come to pass in many ways. The March on Washington became a turning point in the civil rights movement and led to the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other legislation. Much progress has been made in America over the past five decades. Countless millions have come from every corner of the world seeking the “American dream”. But we would be foolishly selfish and sorely mistaken if we believe that our individual pursuit of the American dream has any meaning at all when millions of our fellow Americans can only dream about the American dream. It is not about individual success and achievement in the Promise Land. As MLK said, what we should know and strive for is “that we, as a people, get to the promised land.” It is really about what we as individual human beings do to make our corner of the earth a Promise Land. We must all do our part, however small or large. MLK said, “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” I shall continue to strive towards terminal “creative maladjustment”.
We shall overcome…
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:
“Wolahi, Wolahi…” swears 85 year old Totolamo village barley farmer and cattle herder Hajji Abdinur Shifa when a reporter asked him if he know any terrorist hiding in his village. His face looks like a paint of sorrow and grief. His wife affectionately called by the villagers, Adiyo, was too fragile to talk about the August 3 2013 blood bath that turned their agriculture and livestock rich village into an inferno.
“My son took three bullets and died a day later at Sashemene general hospital. The body that was weakening by fasting could not respond well to treatment and he succumbed to his wounds without saying goodbye. His killers (federal police commandos) did not allow us entry to the hospital. My son Abdulkarim is dead but he will live in my heart until I join him in paradise…,” the respected elder said wiping his tears with a piece of garment.
On that fateful day, 3 August 2013, Abdulkarim Abdinur Shifa, 39, was at Erob Gebeya mosque loading onto his van sacks of barley, corn, and potato donated by farmers to be distributed among the needy in the city of Sashemene for Eid celebration.
When he was about to leave, bullets started raining down and the scream of women and children filled the salubrious air of Totolamo. Tigre people Liberation Front gunmen in police uniform massacred eleven people including an elderly imam and an infant.
The tragedy touched every household from Totolamo to Kofele in southwest oromyya.
In the land famed for its sylvan beauty, despite the aroma of ripe corn, the stench of death still hangs in the air. The approach of the delightful month of September did not lift the gloom of the August blood bath. According to our sources from Sashemene general hospital, currently the death toll stands at sixteen- all Muslims and close relatives.
The Horn Times manage to obtain the names of 14 victims of the August 3 slaughter…
1. Adam Jamal
2. Lenco Jilcha
3. Habib Wabe
4. Gachano Tuse
5. Muhammad Debel Ouse
6. Jamal Arsho Arsi
7. Muhammad Eidao
8. Amman Buli
9. Muhamud Hassan
10. Rashid Burka
11. Abush Ebrahim
12. Mamush Ebrahim
13. Tuke Besso
14. Abdulkarim Abdinur Shifa
Furthermore, two hundred young men arrested on 3 August 2013 are still languishing in Kofele town police prison without any charges.