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The intricate challenges facing the new prime minister

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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 “do their fair share.� 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 Lenin’s “there 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 PM’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 country’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

The Diplomacy of Nonviolent Change in Ethiopia

eth demoIn 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:

Interpreting and Living MLK’s Dream

MLK1On 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

MLK2MLK 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:


Abune Teklehaimanot remembered

Abune Teklehaimanot became the Patriarch of Ethiopia on this date, August 31, 1976. Ethiopian Review posts this article in remembrance of this great Ethiopian religious father.

By Dershaye Menberu

Abune Teklehaimanot’s name until he became patriarch was Mekuria WoldeMichael. He was born on September 18, 1917, in a small village called Wotebet located in Amanuel District of Debre Markos Town in Gojam Province. His father’s name was WoldeMichael Wondimu and his mother’s Zewditu Kassa.

When Mekuria came of age, he joined the Orthodox Church school in the area run by Merigeta (which means “mentor”) Begenaw Wassie. There he learned the Amharic alphabets, to read the Psalms, and to write. He also studied the church music called Wazema. When he had finished studying under this mentor, he went to Gojam’s Bichena District to a church village called Yerez Saint Michael and joined the school led by Memhir (“teacher”) LisaneWork and studied Qine.

When he was sixteen years old he left for Sidamo Province and settled in Wolayta District at Sodo (Southern Ethiopia). There he met a virtuous hermit monk called Desta at the Wolayta Sodo Debre Menkirat TekleHaimanot monastery. Before Mekuria’s arrival, this monk had prophesied to the monks that a great hermit would soon come to the monastery.

At this time Mekuria changed his name to Melaku because he did not want to be discovered by his relatives, who might try to bring him back to his village. At the monastery, he started to help Hermit Desta by bringing him water and dry food to keep him alive.

When his mentor died he replaced him in the monastery and continued his mentor’s work. He was responsible for teaching the people and building schools in the area. The Wolayta people loved and respected him as a father and they obeyed him. He led a life of purity and never begged for a living. He raised money to build many churches and schools in the area. The people’s contributions were the main source of income for these churches and schools.

When the Derg regime took over the government of Ethiopia, Aba Melaku was denied the necessary income to run the institutions because the laws had changed. So he went to Addis Ababa to get money and tabots (duplicates of the Ark of the Covenant) from Patriarch Tewoflos at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church headquarters to supply the most recent churches he had built. He was given two out of five tabots he requested and was told to return later for the other three.

Aba Melaku arrived in Addis Ababa on the day of his appointment to see Patriarch Tewoflos but, little did he know, the patriarch had been forced to leave his position and was under arrest. The main office had established a committee to find a replacement. Aba Melaku went into the office of the president of this nomination committee and gave him the traditional greeting of respect. As director and chairman of the board of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church office, Dr. Kinfe Regib, who was earnestly seeking a hermit monk as a nominee for the election of the next patriarch, was very happy to see Aba Melaku walk into his office as if driven by God. Dr. Kinfe Regib asked him the cause of his visit. When Aba Melaku told him that he had an appointment with Aba Tewoflos, he was told that Aba Tewoflos was away for a while and would meet with him at a later date. In the meantime, Dr. Kinfe Regib asked if he was willing to answer a few questions about himself, his job, and his responsibilities. Aba Melaku agreed and gave him the details he wanted.

Aba Melaku told the chairman that he had built sixty-four churches and twenty-four schools–all this without any salary from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church central administration office. When asked where he was born, he answered: “For a monk, is there any particular place? Any spot of Ethiopia where I live is my country.” He refused to identify his birthplace out of principle. Dr. Kinfe Regib, amazed by the divine providence that had brought him there, took notes on him and put them in an envelope. He then asked Aba Melaku to take the envelope to the main nomination committee secretariat office outside the office where they were meeting. So Aba Melaku obediently took the envelope and delivered it to the secretariat office but he had no clue what was going on at the time. The person in charge took the letter and opened it. Seeing the contents of the mysterious letter, he looked the monk over very carefully and then allowed him to leave.

The next morning Aba Melaku returned to the main office hoping to meet with the patriarch only to discover that he was no longer in charge and had been detained by the government. Shocked, he immediately returned to Wolayta. Soon after that, short profiles of two bishops and three monks, Aba Melaku included, were published and distributed in Addis Ababa. Everybody who read the short biography of Abba Melaku was touched by his personality. Soon everyone knew his name and was talking about him.

On the day of the election, Aba Melaku was elected patriarch by a very high number of voters. Up until that day, he had followed his routine lifestyle of praying, fasting, serving the church, and teaching his followers. Suddenly, he was ordered by the governor of Wolayta to go to Addis Ababa and report to the main church headquarters. He left immediately not knowing what the rush was about.

Upon his arrival, without even having a change of clothes and or any shoes on his feet, he was taken to the Menbere Tsebaot Kidist Selassie Cathedral, where all the bishops and thousands of Ethiopians were waiting for him. He wore a brown hand-sewn khaki robe over a wide pair of trousers and over that he had a folded bed-sheet as a shemma (shawl) and on top he had a hand-treated goat skin. This was his habit since he had become a hermit. When he arrived, everyone honored him with respectful applause and great shouts of joy known as elelta (“elelelelelel” is a shout of joy that Ethiopian women make when they are overjoyed), and Hotta (“hohohohohohoho” is a shout of joy for Ethiopian men). After a short introductory speech by Dr. Kinfe Regib, it was announced that Aba Melaku WoldeMichael had been elected patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church. Shocked, Aba Melaku’s eyes filled with tears and he cried. He made a short speech on the election and said: “How can this be? What strength do I have to fulfill the responsibility? However, if it is the will of the God of Daniel, who took him out of the pit of lions, what else can I do?”

This took place in July and August of 1976, and until the final day of celebration, Aba Melaku spent his time in prayer with others praying for him as well in St. Mary Church. They tried to persuade him to change his clothes and wear shoes but he refused.

On August 31, 1976, Abba Melaku was inaugurated as the third Ethiopian Partiarch of the Ethiopian Tewahdo Orthodox Church, taking the name TekleHaimanot.

The occasion was celebrated with prayer and special sermons at the Chair of the Almighty Holy Trinity Church in Addis Ababa.

Aba Melaku took his place of authority, and for some time continued to receive guests sitting on the Patriarch’s Chair in his common clothes. Later on, his hermit monk friends persuaded him to change his habit out of respect for the Orthodox Church. He finally agreed to wear a cotton cloth dyed yellow with a proper shemma over it and a pair of sandals.

Patriarch TekleHaimanot was very well accepted by the Derg regime and was allowed to visit Europe in sandals. He visited Greece, Poland, Austria, Germany, Rome, and Jerusalem. He ate only bread and drank only tea the whole time of his visit. The church people of Europe were amazed at his personality and considered his piety unique. As a result, it is said that the archbishop of Poland, out of respect for Patriarch TekleHaimanot, personally drove him around in a car during his visit to that country, instead of using a driver, in order to witness his piety and partake in his blessings.

The Ethiopian head of state, Mengistu HaileMariam, used these visits by the Patriarch as a political strategy to show the West that he was not against religion and had appointed to this important position a person who represented the workers. He also wanted to change international opinion who viewed him as a ruthless tyrant for removing and killing Patriarch Tewoflos when he came to power.

As Patriarch Tekle Haimanot was assumed to be have little administrative skills, one of his assistant officers tried to misappropriate church money that was supposed to go to the government. When the Patriarch opposed him, he began to defame him by saying that he was too old, did not know anything about administration, and should be replaced. The Patriarch informed Mengistu HaileMariam of this individual’s unscrupulous behavior and gave him an ultimatum, saying that if this man was not removed from office in three days, no one would prevent him from returning to his monastery. Mengistu immediately removed the officer.

The Derg regime’s high government officials, being anti-church communists, asked the Patriarch’s permission to convert several old churches located around the government offices in Addis Ababa into museums. He answered, “these churches are not my personal property for me to give permission, that they belong to all Ethiopian Christians. I will have to discuss the matter with church members and let you know.” This was a smart answer that the officials did not expect from him. Mengistu was aware that this monk is not an easy person to deal with and at the same time knew that if he pushed him harder, he would initiate a clash between the Derg regime and the Christian nation, so he dropped the idea. Thus, as it turned out, the Patriarch was not a person to be pushed bossed around like a puppet. Rather, he proved an able leader of the church for twelve years before he died in 1988.

Shortly before he died, the Patriarch went back to Wolayta to start construction on a church building that an outside donor agency wanted to erect. When he arrived, he gave his blessing and set a foundation stone in place. After the ceremony was over, he was ushered to a nice, comfortable residence that had been prepared where he could rest, but he refused to go in. Instead, he wanted to go back to his old hut. He went into the hut and rested. A short while later, he felt a sharp pain and collapsed into unconsciousness. He was brought back to Addis Ababa by helicopter and hospitalized. Shortly thereafter he died at the age of 71. He was buried at the Holy Trinity Church in Addis Ababa.

Corruption in the Ethiopian JUST US Sector

For the past several months, I have been commenting on the findings of the World Bank’s “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia”, a 448-page report covering eight sectors (health, education, rural water supply, justice, construction, land, telecommunications and mining). In this my sixth commentary, I focus on “corruption in the justice sector”. The other five commentaries are available at my blog site.

Injustice minsitry 3Talking about corruption in the Ethiopian “justice sector” is like talking about truth in Orwell’s 1984 Ministry of Truth (“Minitrue”).  The purpose of Minitrue is to create and maintain the illusion that the Party is absolute, all knowing, all-powerful and infallible. The purpose of the Ministry of Justice in Ethiopia is to create the illusion that the ruling regime under the command and control of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) masquerading as the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front (EPDRF) is absolute, all knowing, all-powerful and infallible.

I have long caricatured the “justice sector” of the TPLF/EPDRF as a kangaroo justice system founded on a sham, corrupt and whimsical legal process. What passes off as a “justice system” in Ethiopia is little more than a marketplace where “justice” is bought and sold in a monopoly controlled by one man supported by a few nameless, faceless and clueless men who skulk in the shadows of power. It is a justice system in which universal principles of law and justice are disregarded, subverted, perverted and mocked. It is a system where the poor, the marginalized, the audacious journalists, dissidents, opposition and civic society leaders are legally lynched despite the criticism and bootless cries of the international community. It is a system in which regime leaders, their families, friends and cronies are above the law and spell justice “JUST US”.

My first critique of the TPLF/EPDRF “justice system” appeared in 2006 when I wrote a 32-page analysis titled, “Keystone Cops, Prosecutors and Judges in a Police State.” It was written in the first year of what has become my long day’s journey into the dark night of advocacy against human rights violations in Ethiopia and Africa. The piece was intended to be a critical analysis of the trial of the so-called Kality defendants consisting of some 130 or so major opposition leaders, human rights advocates, civic society activists, journalists and others in the aftermath of the 2005 election. I tried to demonstrate that the show trial of those defendants was little more than a third-rate theatrical production staged to dupe the international community. I also tried to show how a dysfunctional and bankrupt judicial system was used to destroy political opposition and dissent. I described the “judicial proceedings” of the Kality defendants as “an elaborate hoax, a make-believe tribunal complete with hand-picked judges, trumped up charges, witless prosecutors, no procedures and predetermined outcomes set up to produce only one thing: a  monumental miscarriage of justice.”

A glossy “diagnosis” of corruption in the Ethiopian justice sector

The WB’s “diagnosis” of corruption in “Ethiopia’s justice sector” is based on “interviews of 60 individuals” including “federal judges and prosecutors”, police, private attorneys, etc. in the capital and at another location. No ordinary citizens were included in the interview panel or the smaller focus groups. The study is intended to “explore the incidence of corruption in Ethiopia’s justice sector (including not only the courts but also several other organizations).” The “justice sector” includes, among others, “courts, police, prosecutors, administrative agencies with quasi-judicial powers, and public and private attorneys, prisons, and those in the executive and legislative branches responsible for enacting the laws and regulations governing their operations”.

The report begins with unusual disclaimers and apologia. The author proclaims that “this report begins from an agnostic standpoint—attempting only to document reality in Ethiopia’s justice sector and to compare it… with the situation elsewhere in African and other countries…” It is not clear what she means by “an agnostic standpoint”, but her analysis is frontloaded with servilely apologetic language manifestly intended not to offend or appear to point an accusatory finger at the ruling regime in Ethiopia. The report appears to have been written with some trepidation; perhaps the author was afraid of a backlash (tongue-lash) from the regime. The author timorously tiptoes around well-established and notorious facts about corruption in the regime’s justice sector. In light of the many disclaimers, reservations and contingencies in the report, it is obvious that the author does not want to call a spade a spade, so she calls the spade a bucket. But corruption by any disclaimer is still corruption; and Ethiopia’s justice sectors reeks of corruption.

The author claims an examination of  “corruption in the justice sector is important because it undermines the peaceful resolution of conflicts, the control of corruption in other sectors, the strengthening of the normative framework underlying private and public actions (the rule of law), and the creation of a predictable environment for public and private transactions.” According to the study, corruption in the Ethiopian justice sector “takes one of two forms: (a) political interference with the independent actions of courts or other sector agencies, or (b) payment or solicitation of bribes or other considerations to alter a decision or action.” The study claims the “most common form of corruption involves bribes solicited by or offered to police to ignore a criminal offense, not make an arrest, or not bring witnesses or suspects to court (which can cause a provisional adjournment of the case). Traffic police are the worst offenders.” Another “common form of corruption” involves “payment of court staff to misplace case files or evidence” (a practice that has nearly disappeared because of new judicial policies on archive management introduced under a Canadian International Development Agency program”.

The author provides a catalogue of corrupt practices which she claims are disputed by various respondents in her study but include “(a) sales of judgments or other judicial actions in civil disputes; (b) lawyers’ solicitation of “bribes” that never reached the bench; (c) prosecutors’ misuse of their own powers, in response to bribes or political directives, to advance or paralyze a case; and (d) the corrupt actions of various officials entrusted with enforcement of judgments, especially in civil cases.” She attributes the divergence in viewpoints to a “likely gap between perceptions and reality [which] are partly a function of the persistent lack of transparency in personnel policies.”

What is remarkable about the WB “justice sector” study is the fact that the author, by focusing on the “most common form of corruption” (i.e. petty police, particularly traffic police, corruption), fails to critically probe grand corruption involving party officials and regime leaders and their cronies who routinely subvert the justice system through political interference and pressure to protect their political and economic interests. She circumvents serious inquiry into grand corruption in the “justice sector” by providing catalogues of “potential forms of criminal and civil corruption” and “corruption risks”. She appears averse to investigating high-level corruption that occurs in the process of judicial appointment of handpicked party loyalists and hacks, laws written to aid certain elites in society, or in the debasement and corruption of the integrity and independence of the judiciary. She ignores the type of justice corruption that occurs in “state capture” where economic elites develop cozy relationships with political and judicial officials through whom they obtain favorable judicial decisions to advance their own advantage. For instance, on the issue of political interference in the judicial process, the author demonstrates her “agnosticism” by reporting that “the one who came closest eventually admitted that ‘there was some [political interference], but it was very rare.’” Other responses ranged from ‘a moderate amount’ (limited to the bad apples) to the extreme of holding that ‘every civil judgment is sold.’”

Curiously, the author points an accusatory finger at petty corruption as the “most common form of corruption” distracting attention from the systemic and structural corruption in the justice sector. The importance of petty corruption must not be understated because of the serious impact it has on the lives and livelihoods of ordinary citizens interacting with police, prosecutorial and other petty judicial officials. There is ample anecdotal evidence of petty corruption in which ordinary Ethiopian citizens and businesspersons are “shaken down” by traffic cops or minor functionaries in the judicial or state bureaucracy seeking small bribes. However, though petty corruption may be easier to detect, the real focus should be on grand corruption which is systemic, structural and difficult to detect and nearly impossible to punish. Structural and systemic corruption in the legal institutions, rules, and norms and those who are practitioners in the system create, maintain and sustain a culture of corruption in the justice sector, which the author appears to overlook.

Justice corruption is primarily a systemic failure of judicial institutions, lack of political will and capacity to manage judicial resources, maintain integrity of institutions. The author makes abstract references to the usual catalogue of corruption variables but does not seek to gather data to illuminate the scope, breadth and gravity of the problem of political interference and lack of accountability in the justice system. Grand corruption in the justice sector stems from the fact that political officials have wide authority over judicial officials (from appointment to management of judicial functions); and political officials have little accountability and incentive to maintain the integrity of the justice sector. There are few functional formal systems of control in the relationship between the judicial and political processes in Ethiopia. If there ever were control systems, they have been broken for a long time making it nearly impossible to administer fairly the laws while maintaining accountability in the form of a robust reporting system and transparency in the form of robust management practices. Such institutional decay has promoted the growth of a culture of corruption in the justice sector and continues to undermine not only the broad adjudicatory role of justice sector institutions but also public confidence in the integrity of the justice system itself.

Justice sector in a police state?

Justice in a dictatorship is to justice as military music is to music. No reasonable person would consider martial law (military rule) to produce justice.  By definition dictatorship — a form of government in which absolute power is concentrated in the hands of a dictator or a small clique — is the quintessential definition of injustice. Any form of government that operates in flagrant disregard of the rule of law is inherently corrupt.

I have on previous occasions tried to expose such corruption in Ethiopia’s “justice sector” with anecdotal evidence of arbitrary administration of justice or denial of fair trial to those accused of  “terrorism”, “treason” and even “corruption”, opposition leaders, human rights advocates, journalists, etc. In the kinder and gentler police state that Ethiopia has become, any petty “law enforcement” official of the regime has the power to arrest and jail an innocent citizen. As I argued in my February 2012 commentary, “The Prototype African Police State”, a local police chief in Addis Ababa felt so arrogantly secure in his arbitrary powers that he threatened to arrest a Voice of America reporter stationed in Washington, D.C. simply because that reporter asked him for his full name during a telephone interview.  “I don’t care if you live in Washington or in Heaven. I don’t give a damn! But I will arrest you and take you. You should know that!!”, barked the impudent police chief Zemedkun. If a flaky policeman can exercise such absolute power, is it unreasonable to imagine those at the apex of power have the power to do anything they want with impunity. The regime in Ethiopia is the petri dish of corruption and living proof  that power corrupts and an absolute power corrupts absolutely.

In my view, denial of due process (fair trial) is the highest form of corruption imaginable in the “justice sector” because it results in the arbitrary deprivation of a person’s life, liberty and property. Could anyone (other than those politically connected) really expect to get a fair trial in the regime’s kangaroo courts or fair treatment in the pre-trial process?

The systemic corruption in the “justice sector” is that the law of the land is ignored, disregarded and perverted at the whim and fancy of those in power. For instance, the presumption of innocence (Eth. Const. Art. 20(3)) is openly flouted. The late leader of the regime used to routinely and publicly talk about the guilt of opposition leaders, journalists and others standing trial without so much of an awareness of the suspects’ right to a presumption of innocence or appreciation of the risk of prejudicial pretrial publicity emanating from such inflammatory statements which are prohibited under the Constitution and other international human rights regimes (e.g. Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 7(b) of the  African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR)). In 2011, the late leader of the regime proclaimed the guilt of freelance Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye on charges of “terrorism” while they were being tried and he was visiting Norway. He emphatically declared the duo “are, at the very least, messenger boys of a terrorist organization. They are not journalists.” Persson and Schibbye were “convicted” and sentenced to long prison terms.

Show trials by publicity and demonization are another hallmark of the regime’s justice system. Following the 2005 election, the late leader of the regime publicly declared that “The CUD (Kinijit) opposition leaders are engaged in insurrection — that is an act of treason under Ethiopian law. They will be charged and they will appear in court.” They were charged, appeared in “court” and were convicted. In December 2008, the late leader railroaded Birtukan Midekssa, the first female political party leader in Ethiopian history, without so much as a hearing let alone a trial. He sent her straight from the street into solitary confinement and later declared: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” In making this statement, the late leader proclaimed to the world that he is the law and the ultimate source of justice in Ethiopia. His words trump the country’s Constitution!

In 2009, one of the top leaders of the regime labeled 40 defendants awaiting trial as “desperadoes” who planned to “assassinate high ranking government officials and destroying telecommunication services and electricity utilities and create conducive conditions for large scale chaos and havoc.” They were all “convicted” and given long prison sentences.

Violations of the constitutional rights of those accused of crimes by the regime are rampant. Article 20 (2) provides, “Any person in custody or a convicted prisoner shall have the right to communicate with and be visited by spouse(s), close relatives and friends, medical attendants, religious and legal counselors.” Internationally celebrated Ethiopian journalists including Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye and many others were denied access to legal counsel for months. Ethiopian Muslim activists who demanded an end to religious interference were jailed on “terrorism” charges were also denied access to counsel.  They were mistreated and abused in pretrial detention. Scores of journalists, opposition members and activists arrested and prosecuted (persecuted) under the so-called anti-terrorism proclamation were also denied counsel and speedy trials and have languished in prison for long periods. Suspects are interrogated without the presence of counsel and coerced confessions extracted. Yet, Article 19 (5) provides, “Everyone shall have the right not to be forced to make any confessions or admissions of any evidence that may be brought against him during the trial.”

Article 19 (1) provides, “Anyone arrested on criminal charges shall have the right to be informed promptly and in detail… the nature and cause of the charge against him… Article 20 (2) provides, “Everyone charged with an offence shall be adequately informed in writing of the charges brought against him. Recently, the regime arrested members of its officialdom and their cronies on suspicion of corruption and kept the suspects in detention for months without informing them “promptly and in detail the charges against them”. Although the regime’s “top anti-corruption official” claimed that the corruption “suspects have been under surveillance for two years”, on their first court appearance, the prosecutors requested a 14-day continuance to gather more evidence! There is no judicial system in the world where suspects are arrested of committing crimes after being investigated for 2 years and then the prosecution asks for endless continuances to gather additional evidence.

Injustice impersonating justice

The 2012  U.S. State Department Human Rights report concluded, “The law provides for an independent judiciary. Although the civil courts operated with a large degree of independence, the criminal courts remained weak, overburdened, and subject to political influence.”  The WB could have done a much better job of “diagnosing corruption” in Ethiopia’s “justice sector”. Candidly speaking, any deficiency in the report should not reflect exclusively on the World Bank or its consultants but on Ethiopians, particularly the Ethiopian intelligentsia, who do not seem find it worth their time or effort to read, challenge and supplement such reports. It seems few, very few, Ethiopian scholars and analysts take the time and effort to locate, study and critically analyze such important studies done by international institutions and other private research institutions.

I doubt the WB justice sector study will be of much value to policy makers, scholars or the casual reader. Having said that, the burden is on Ethiopian scholars in Ethiopia and abroad to work collaboratively and carefully document corruption in Ethiopia’s justice and other sectors. No study of Ethiopia’s justice sector is worthy of the title if it does not rigorously evaluate the factors that are at the core of corruption in the “justice sector” – absence of the rule of law, lack of independence of the judiciary,  absence of due process, lack of impartiality and neutrality in the judicial process, the culture of corruption and impunity and the lack of accountability, transparency and confidence in the legal system. Such a study is the principal responsibility of Ethiopians, not the World Bank or its consultants. On the other hand, when the sword of justice is beaten into a sledgehammer of injustice, it is the supreme duty of ordinary citizens to expose it!

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:

Is America Disinventing Human Rights?


udhr In his 1981 farewell speech, President Jimmy Carter said, “America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it is the other way round. Human rights invented America.”

In a New York Times op-ed piece in June 2012, Carter cautioned, “At a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, basic rules of law and principles of justice enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends.”

Carter also raised a number of important questions: Has the U.S. abdicated its moral leadership in the arena of international human rights? Has the U.S. betrayed its core values by maintaining a detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and subjecting dozens of prisoners to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and leaving them without the “prospect of ever obtaining their freedom”? Does the arbitrary killing of a person suspected to be an enemy terrorist in a drone strike along with women and children who happen to be nearby comport with America’s professed commitment to the rule of law and human rights?

In 1948, the U.S. played a central leadership role in “inventing” the principal instrument which today serves as the bedrock foundation of modern human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1948, set a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” in terms of equality, dignity and rights. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, chaired the committee that drafted the UDHR. Eleanor remains an unsung heroine even though she was the mother of the modern global human rights movement. Without her, there would have been no UDHR; and without the UDHR, it is doubtful that the plethora of subsequent human rights conventions and regimes would have come into existence. Remarkably, she managed to mobilize, organize and proselytize human rights even though she had no legal training, diplomatic experience or bureaucratic expertise. She used her skills as political activist and advocate in the cause of freedom, justice and civil rights to work for global human rights.

Is America disinventing human rights?

It seems the U.S. is “disinventing” human rights through the pursuit of  double (triple, quadruple) standard of human rights policy wrapped in a cover of diplocrisy. In Africa, the U.S. has one set of standards for Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan. Mugabe and Bashir are classified as the nasty hombres of human rights in Africa. The U.S. has targeted both regimes for crippling economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure. The U.S. has frozen the assets of Mugabe’s family and henchmen because the “Mugabe regime rules through politically motivated violence and intimidation and has triggered the collapse of the rule of law in Zimbabwe.”

The U.S. calls “partners” equally brutal regimes in Africa which serve as its proxies. Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Yuweri Museveni of Uganda and the deceased leader of the regime in Ethiopia are lauded as the “new breed of African leaders” and crowned “partners”. Uhuru Kenyatta, recently elected president of Kenya and a suspect under indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity is said to be different than Bashir who faces similar ICC charges. In  2009,  Ambassador Susan E. Rice, then-U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, demanded Bashir’s arrest and prosecution:  “The people of Sudan have suffered too much for too long, and an end to their anguish will not come easily. Those who committed atrocities in Sudan, including genocide, should be brought to justice.” No official U.S. statement on Uhuru’s ICC prosecution was issued.

The U.S. maintains excellent relations with  Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea who has been in power since 1979 because of that country’s oil reserves; but all of the oil revenues are looted by Obiang and his cronies. In 2011, the U.S. brought legal action in federal court  against Obiang’s son to seize corruptly obtained assets including a $40 million estate in Malibu, California  overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a luxury plane and a dozen super-sports cars worth millions of dollars.  The U.S. has not touched any of the other African Ali Babas and their forty dozen thieving cronies who have stolen billions and stashed their cash in U.S. and other banks.

Despite lofty rhetoric in support of the advancement of democracy and protection of human rights in Africa, the United States continues to subsidize and coddle African dictatorships that are as bad as or even worse than Mugabe’s. The U.S. currently provides substantial economic aid, loans, technical and security assistance to the repressive regimes in Ethiopia, Congo (DRC), Uganda, Rwanda and elsewhere. None of these countries holds free elections, allow the operation of an independent press or free expression or abide by the rule of law. All of them are corrupt to the core, keep thousands of political prisoners, use torture and ruthlessly persecute their opposition. Yet they are deemed U.S. “partners”.

“Principled disengagement” as a way of reinventing an American human rights policy?

If the Obama Administration indeed has a global or African human rights policy, it must be a well-kept secret. In March 2013, Michael Posner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor said American human rights policy is based on “principled engagement”: “We are going to go to the United Nations and join the Human Rights Council and we’re going to be part of it even though we recognize it doesn’t work… We’re going to engage with governments that are allies but we are also going to engage with governments with tough relationships and human rights are going to be  part of those discussions.” Second, the U.S. will follow “a single standard for human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it applies to all including ourselves…” Third, consistent with President “Obama’s personality”, the Administration believes “change occurs from within and so a lot of  the emphasis… [will be] on how we can help local actors, change agents, civil society, labor activists, religious leaders trying to change their societies from within and amplify their own voices and give them the support they need…”

On August 14, according to Egyptian government sources, 525 protesters, mostly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were killed and 3,717 injured at the hands of Egyptian military and security forces. It was an unspeakably horrifying massacre of protesters exercising their right to peaceful expression of grievances.

On August 15, President Obama criticized the heavy-handed crackdown on peaceful protesters with the usual platitudes. “The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt’s interim government and security forces. We deplore violence against civilians.” His message to the Egyptian people was somewhat disconcerting in light of the massacre. “America cannot determine the future of Egypt. We do not take sides with any particular party or political figure. I know it’s tempting inside Egypt to blame the United States.”

In July 2009, in Ghana, President Obama told Africa’s “strongmen”, “History offers a clear verdict: governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable, and more successful than governments that do not…. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality… Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans [citizens and their communities driving change], and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”

President Obama has a clear choice in Egypt between “those who use coups to stay in power” and the people of Egypt peacefully protesting in the streets. Now he says, “We don’t take sides…” By “not taking sides”,  it seems he has taken sides with Egypt’s strongmen who “use coups to stay in power”.  So much for “principled engagement”!

Obama reassured the Egyptian military that the U.S. does not intend to end or suspend its decades-old partnership with them. He cautioned the military that “While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual while civilians are being killed in the streets.”  He indicated his disapproval of the imposition of “martial law” but made no mention of the manifest military coup that had ousted Morsy. He obliquely referred to it as a “military intervention”. He made a gesture of  “action” cancelling a symbolic military exercise with the Egyptian army. There will be no suspension of U.S. military aid to Egypt and no other sanctions will be imposed on the Egyptian military or government.

I am not clear what Obama’s human rights policy of “principled engagement” actually means. But I have a lot of questions about it: Does it mean moral complacency and tolerance of the crimes against humanity of African dictators for the sake of the war on terror and oil? Is it a euphemism for abdication of American ideals on the altar of political expediency? Does it mean overlooking and excusing the crimes of  ruthless dictators and turning a blind eye to their bottomless  corruption? Does “principled engagement” mean  allowing dictators to suck at the teats of American taxpayers to satisfy their insatiable aid addiction while they brutalize their people?

The facts of  Obama’s “principled engagement” tell a different story. In May 2010,  after the ruling party in Ethiopia declared it had won 99.6 percent of the seats in parliament, the U.S. demonstrated its “principled engagement” by issuing a Statement expressing “concern that international observers found that the elections fell short of international commitments” and promised to “work diligently with Ethiopia to ensure that strengthened democratic institutions and open political dialogue become a reality for the Ethiopian people.” There is no evidence that the U.S. did anything to “strengthen democratic institutions and open political dialogue to become a reality for the Ethiopian people.”

When two ICC indicted suspects in Kenya (Kenyatta and Ruto) won the presidency in Kenya a few months ago, the U.S. applied its “principled engagement” in the form of a robust defense of the suspects. Johnnie Carson, the former United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, said the ICC indictments of  Bashir and Uhuru/Ruto are different. “I don’t want to make a comparison with Sudan in its totality because Sudan is a special case in many ways.” What makes Bashir and Sudan different, according to Carson, is the fact that Sudan is on the list of countries that support terrorism and Bashir and his co-defendants are under indictment for the genocide in Darfur. Since “none of that applies to Kenya,” according to Carson, it appears the U.S. will follow a different policy.

President Obama says the U.S. will maintain its traditional partnership with Egypt’s military, Egypt’s “strongmen”. At the onset of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011,  Obama and his foreign policy team froze in stunned silence, flat-footed and twiddling their thumbs and scratching their heads for days before staking out a position on that popular uprising. They could not bring themselves to use the “D” word (dictator as in Hosni Mubarak) to describe events in Egypt then. Today Obama cannot bring himself to say the “C” word (as in Egyptian military coup).

Obama is in an extraordinary historical position as a person of color to advance American ideals and values throughout the world in convincing and creative ways. But he cannot advance these ideals and values through a hollow notion of “principled engagement.”

Rather, he must adopt a policy of  “principled disengagement” with African dictators. That does not mean isolationism or a hands off approach to human rights. By “principled disengagement” I mean a policy and policy outcome that is based on measurable human rights metrics. Under a policy of “principled disengagement”, the U.S. would establish clear, attainable and measurable human rights policy objectives in its relations with African dictatorships. The policy would establish minimum conditions of human rights compliance. For instance, the U.S. could set some basic criteria for the conduct of free and fair elections, press and individual freedoms, limits on arbitrary arrests and detentions, prevention of extrajudicial punishments, etc. Using its annual human rights assessments, the U.S. could make factual determinations on the extent to which it will engage or disengage with a particular regime. “Partnership” status and the benefits that come with it will be reserved to those regimes that have good and improving records on specific human rights measures. Regimes that steal elections, win elections by 99.6 percent, engage in arbitrary arrests and detentions and other human rights violations would be denied “partnership” status and denied aid, loans and technical assistance. Persistent violators of human rights would be given a compliance timetable to improve their records and provided appropriate assistance to achieve specific human rights goals. If regimes persist in a pattern and practice of human rights violations, the U.S. could raise the stakes and impose economic and diplomatic sanctions.

The ‘‘Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007’’ contained many important statutory provisions that could serve as a foundation for “principled disengagement”.

Obama’s “principled engagement” seems to be a justification for expediency at the cost of American ideals. Until he decides to stand for principle, instead of standing behind the rhetoric of “principled engagement”, he will continue to find himself on a tightrope of moral, legal and political ambiguity. The U.S. cannot “condemn” and “deplore” its way out of its human rights obligations or global leadership role. Yes, the U.S. must take sides! It must take a stand either with the victims of human rights abuses throughout the world or the human rights abusers of the world.  If Obama wants to save the world from strongmen with boots and in designer suits with briefcases full of cash, he should pursue a policy of “principled disengagement”. But he should start by reflecting on the words he spoke during his first inauguration speech:

Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

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

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Twitter:  Al Mariam@pal4thedefense