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Ethiopia: An Imaginary Conversation with Nelson Mandela

Alemayehu G. Mariam

The Triumphalism of African Dictators

There is nothing that is both amusing and annoying than the chest-beating triumphalism of Africa’s tin pot dictators. This past February, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda lectured a press conference: “There will be no Egyptian-like revolution here. … We would just lock them up. In the most humane manner possible, bang them into jails land that would be the end of the story.” That is to say, if you crack a few heads and kick a few behinds, Africans will bow down and fall in line. Museveni must have been a protégé of Meles Zenawi, the dictator-in-chief in Ethiopia. In 2005, troops under the direct control and command of Zenawi shot dead at least 193 unarmed demonstrators, wounded an additional 763 and jailed over 30 thousand following elections that year. That was the “end of the story” for Zenawi. Or was it?

In March of this year, Zenawi reaffirmed his 99.6 percent electoral victory in the May 2010 elections and ruled out an “Egyptian-like revolution” by proclaiming a contractual right (read birthright) to cling to power: “When the people gave us a five year contract, it was based on the understanding that if the EPDRF party (Zenawi’s party) does not perform the contract to expectations it would be kicked out of power. No need for hassles. The people can judge by withholding their ballots and chase EPDRF out of power. EPDRF knows it and the people know it too.” For Zenawi, electoral politics is a business deal sealed in contract. Every ballot dropped (and stuffed) in the box is the equivalent of an individual signature in blood on an iron clad five-year contract.

Following the recent uprisings, the delirious 42-year dictator of Libya jabbered, “Muammar Gaddafi is the leader of the revolution, I am not a president to step down… This is my country. Muammar is not a president to leave his post, Muammar is leader of the revolution until the end of time.” Simply stated: Muammar Gaddafi is president-for-life!

In 2003, Robert Mugabe, the self-proclaimed Hitler of Zimbabwe, shocked the world by declaring: “I am still the Hitler of the times. This Hitler has only one objective: Justice for his people. Sovereignty for his people. If that is Hitler, right, then let me be a Hitler ten-fold.” In Mein Kampf, the self-proclaimed leader (Der Fuhrer) of the “master race” wrote blacks are “monstrosities halfway between man and ape.” Africans have deep respect for their elders because they believe wisdom comes with age. Sadly, the 87 year-old Mugabe is living proof of the old saying, “There is no fool like an old fool.”

What makes African dictators so mindlessly arrogant, egotistically self-aggrandizing, delusionally contemptuous, hopelessly megalomaniacal and sociopathically homicidal? More simply: What the hell is wrong with African dictators?!?

Seeking to answer this question, I conducted an imaginary interview with Africa’s greatest, most respected and universally-loved leader, Nelson (Madiba) Rolihlahla Mandela. The answers below are quotations pieced together from President Mandela’s books, public statements, speeches, interviews, court proceedings and other publications and materials.

An Imaginary Conversation With President Nelson Mandela

Q. President Mandela, many African leaders believe they can cling to power forever by “locking up” their enemies and “banging” them in jail, shooting them in the streets and waging a sustained psychological campaign of fear and intimidation against their people. Is peaceful change possible in Africa?

A. “The government has interpreted the peacefulness of the movement as a weakness: the people’s non-violent policies have been taken as a green light for government violence. Refusal to resort to force has been interpreted by the government as an invitation to use armed force against the people without any fear of reprisals…

Neither should it ever happen that once more the avenues to peaceful change are blocked by usurpers who seek to take power away from the people, in pursuit of their own, ignoble purposes.

If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner. It always seems impossible until it is done.”

Q. Many African leaders “lead” by intimidating, arbitrarily  arresting, torturing and murdering their people. What are the leadership qualities Africa  needs?

A.  “I always remember the axiom: a leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind. Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front.

It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.

As a leader… I have always endeavored to listen to what each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own opinion. Oftentimes, my own opinion will simply represent a consensus of what I heard in the discussion.

This [first democratic election for all South Africans] is one of the most important moments in the life of our country. I stand here before you filled with deep pride and joy – pride in the ordinary, humble people of this country. You have shown such calm, patient determination to reclaim this count. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”

Quitting is leading too.”

Q. Many African leaders today believe they are “supermen” who have a birthright to rule their people as they wish. Does this concern you?

A. “That was one of the things that worried me – to be raised to the position of a semi-god – because then you are no longer a human being. I wanted to be known as Mandela, a man with weaknesses, some of which are fundamental, and a man who is committed, but, nevertheless, sometimes fails to live up to expectations.”

Q. You have spent  many decades in prison. Do you have any regrets for all the sacrifices you have made?

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for. But, my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Q. There are African leaders who say democracy and freedom must be delayed and rationed to the people in small portions to make way for development. Can freedom be rationed?

A. “There is no such thing as part freedom.”

Q. What is at the end of the rainbow of freedom?

A. “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”

Q. One African leader takes great pride in comparing himself to Adolf Hitler, the iconic symbol of hate in modern human history. Why are so many African leaders filled with so much hatred, malice and bitterness?

A.  “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Q. Do you believe an election is a contract between Africa’s iron-fisted rulers and the people?

A. “Only free men can negotiate, prisoners can’t enter in contracts.”

Q. What can Africans do to liberate themselves from the scourge of dictatorship?

A. “No single person can liberate a country. You can only liberate a country if you act as a collective.”

Q. Why are so many well-off Africans afraid to take a stand against dictatorship, human rights violations and  corruption on the continent?

A. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us: it’s in everyone. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Q. How can African intellectuals contribute to the struggle for democracy, human rights and accountability in the continent?

A: “A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”

Q. What is the one important thing young Africans need to guarantee a bright future for themselves and the continent?

A. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that a son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president…”

Q. What is you dream for Africa and humanity in general?

A.  “I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself. I dream of the realization of the unity of Africa, whereby its leaders combine in their efforts to solve the problems of this continent. I dream of our vast deserts, of our forests, of all our great wildernesses.

Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another. If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.

This must be a world of democracy and respect for human rights, a world freed from the horrors of poverty, hunger, deprivation and ignorance, relieved of the threat and the scourge of civil wars and external aggression and unburdened of the great tragedy of millions forced to become refugees.”

Q. What are the choices facing the people of Africa today?

A. “The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means within our power in defense of our people, our future and our freedom.”

Thank you, President Mandela. May you live for a thousand years!  Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. (God Bless Africa.)

Previous commentaries by the author are available at: and




WikiLeaks and orphan Ethiopia

By Yilma Bekele

Hopefully you have all heard or read about WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks is an international non-profit organization that publishes documents from anonymous news sources and leaks. It has been doing that since 2006. These past few days it has been publishing leaked US State Department diplomatic cables. The US is not amused. It is ironic to see the “Western Democracies” crying foul, hacking and forcing Amazon, Pay Pal, Visa and eBay from offering service to WikiLeaks. On the other hand those that abhor government secrecy are overjoyed.

Naturally I was curious to read what the US has to say about our country. I was eager to find out what our Ferenji ‘enablers’ think of their little ‘Kebele’ administrators. The Ethiopian people do not need WikiLeaks to know the ruthless nature of the ethnic based regime in power. They live the nightmare. I was more focused to see if the US Embassy assessment of Meles and company reflects reality on the ground.

I was not disappointed. Actually I was rather impressed by the richness, detail and frank reporting by the diplomats. They actually get it! Their analysis of Zimbabwe and Mugabe is brilliant to say the least:

To give the devil his due, he is a brilliant tactician and has long thrived on his ability to abruptly change the rules of the game, radicalize the political dynamic and force everyone else to react to his agenda. However, he is fundamentally hampered by several factors: his ego and belief in his own infallibility; his obsessive focus on the past as a justification for everything in the present and future; his deep ignorance on economic issues (coupled with the belief that his 18 doctorates give him
the authority to suspend the laws of economics, including supply and demand); and his essentially short-term, tactical style.

One can actually substitute Meles for Mugabe and the description will be right on target. The Embassy cables from Mr. Putin’s Russia is downright scary. Today’s Russia is described as ‘highly centralized, occasionally brutal and all but irretrievably cynical and corrupt. The Kremlin, by this description, lies at the center of a constellation of official and quasi-official rackets.’ Again the similarity with the Meles regime is eerie to say the least. The regime doesn’t seem to discriminate where it gets its arsenal of coercive ideas.

Well the cables from Addis Abeba are beginning to come out. I am not disappointed. We have seen two and they seem to bring everything we know about the banana republic into sharp focus. It gives us a clear picture of the nature of Meles and his relationship with his ‘enablers’. One can stretch the analogy and describe it as ‘mutually beneficial.’ The tricky part is answering exactly beneficial to whom? Yes my friend that is the gist of the matter.

I am going to concentrate on the meeting between Meles Zenawi accompanied by his advisor Gebretensae Gebremichael and US Assistant Secretary Maria Otero, Assistant Secretary Johnny Carson and NSC Senior Director Michelle Gavin in January of 2020. One thing the cables shows us is the fuzzy nature of ‘diplomatic speak.’ The language is very anemic leaving it open to various interpretations, the sentences are short and ideas are thrown in as suggestions to nudge the listener to a desired outcome.

This particular meeting was to get Meles, who represented Africa at the Copenhagen climate summit, to sign the Copenhagen accord. Although the summit was felt to be a failure due to the absence of a binding agreement, the US was convinced it serves its interest and was focused on forcing its friends and client states to sign on the doted line.

Mrs. Otero’s mission was to get the signature, Mr. Carson’s role was to point out President Obama’s ‘commitment’ to democracy and the rule of law while the NSC’s (National Security Council) representative was there to assure Meles to take Carson’s pronouncements with a grain of salt. As usual, language played a central role in the discussion. Please note that the US diplomats, in order not to be seen as clueless idiots, informed the regime their concern regarding the forthcoming elections, the so called charities law enacted by the regime and the situation regarding opposition leader Birtukan, and the Diaspora that is a constant headache. It was all done in a low-key manner.

There is no such thing as subtlety and finesse when it comes to Meles Zenawi. The description ‘a bull in china store’ is a perfect fit. He must have been in a euphoric mood. His words were very forceful and crude. His logic was clear only to himself. It requires cojones to lecture Assistant Secretary Carson regarding the true meaning of fighting for democracy. Assistant Secretary Carson was born when a Black American was a second-class citizen in his own country. He was part of the Civil Right struggle. He knows what it means to be denied freedom. I will quote the cable so you can feel the anger:

Meles said his country’s inability to develop a strong democracy was not due to insufficient understanding of democratic principles, but rather because Ethiopians had not internalized those principles. Ethiopia should follow the example of the U.S. and European countries, he said, where democracy developed organically and citizens had a stake in its establishment. When people are committed to democracy and forced to make sacrifices for it, Meles said, “they won’t let any leader take it away from them.” But “when they are spoon-fed democracy, they will give it up when their source of funding and encouragement is removed.” Referencing his own struggle against the Derg regime, Meles said he and his compatriots received no foreign funding, but were willing to sacrifice and die for their cause, and Ethiopians today must take ownership of their democratic development, be willing to sacrifice for it, and defend their own rights.

Please read it again. The statement does not make sense. The statement is full of holes and is based on lies and made-up facts. It is a product of a deranged mind. The Ethiopian people have internalized the true meaning of democracy. Based on the principle of one-person one vote the Ethiopian people stood all day to cast their ballot in May 2005. When Ato Meles tried to nullify their vote they came out and protested. They were met with an overwhelming force. Like any rational human being they retreated. Weakness should not be looked at as ignorance. No one has ‘spoon-fed democracy’ to our people; rather our rulers have shoved the bayonet down our throat. As for the struggle Ato Meles and his party waged, it is not a license to further abuse and ill govern. I thought Ato Meles and his party fought for our collective freedom then what is this talk about further struggle after they liberated us. Do we have to pick up arms to get rid of them too? It is doable but is it necessary?

I said Assistant Secretary Maria Otero came to collect a signature. The cables are a good example of big power using big stick diplomacy cushioned in diplomatic language:

U/S Otero urged Meles to sign the Copenhagen accord on climate change and explained that it is a point of departure for further discussion and movement forward on the topic.

You know what that means in simple everyday English? Unless you sign on the doted line there is no need to speak anymore. The record shows Meles protested that he has ‘personal’ assurance from Obama for releasing the money and it has not happened yet and Secretary Gavin assured him she ‘would look into it.’ It looks like Meles does not understand that Mr. Obama does not have the authority to make personal assurance. He has to talk to his experts, consult his allies and inform Congress. Only despots make personal decisions in the name of their subjects.

You know what came to mind when I read that? My son when he was a baby always wants to eat the desert before the meal and I tell him eat your dinner and then you can have your dessert. Here we are as a government and Meles wants his dessert before he delivers Africa. How pathetic.

You notice the title says orphan Ethiopia. I read Prof. Alemayehu’s analysis regarding our conflict with Somalia. I felt depressed. I read WikiLeaks cable regarding elections and climate change and I felt more depressed. We have President Obama, Secretary Otero, Secretary Carson and Secretary Gavin systematically advancing the national interest of their country. Sitting across the table from them we have a despot fighting for his family and friends communal interest. The US strategy is to fight the terrorist menace far away from American shores and they are willing to make friends with the devil as long as it keeps the battle far from the homeland. We have Meles and company using every trick to stay in power even if it means betraying their people, their country and their flag to stay in power one more day.

We ventured into Somalia to deflect attention from election theft; we support climate change accord for a fistful of dollars and may be a future job for Meles. In the mean time our country and people are on a forced march backwards into the past. The revelations from WikiLeaks are not done yet. What would tomorrow bring?

Confessions of a disappointed Ethiopian

By Yilma Bekele

Foreign policy magazine had an article by Professor George Ayittey titled “The worst of the worst-bad dude dictators and general coconut heads.” As an Ethiopian I was sold by the title. I knew I was in familiar territory. That is one category we can claim ownership. There are a few human experiences that are sort of associated with our country. It is like when you mention marathon or distance running the first thing that comes to mind is mother Ethiopia and her barefoot runners. That is good. On the other hand say famine or starvation the face presented is that of an Ethiopian. That is bad.

Thus I was sure that Professor Ayittey’s article was such a place where our country will outshine the competition. Yes sir, we will make them eat dust. Gentlemen rev your engines here comes the most important list. This special list contains 23 autocrats that control 1.9 billion people. Here is how he started his article:

I call these revolutionaries-turned-tyrants “crocodile liberators,” joining the ranks of other fine specimens: the Swiss bank socialists who force the people to pay for economic losses while stashing personal gains abroad, the quack revolutionaries who betray the ideals that brought them to power, and the briefcase bandits who simply pillage and steal. Here’s my list of the world’s worst dictators. I have ranked them based on ignoble qualities of perfidy, cultural betrayal, and economic devastation. If this account of their evils makes you cringe, just imagine living under their rule.

That is just page one. So I shout hurry up with the list and turn the page over. Number one is Kim Jung IL of North Korea. It is ok no surprise here. Kim Jung is a formidable tyrant with some sort of crude Nuclear weapon by his bedside. Guess who comes next. Freaking Mugabe, that is who. I was a little disappointed but continued turning the page. The picture was that of General Than Shwe of Burma. He looks like some character from Disney with all the self- awarded medals covering half his chest. No mention of us. Next is none other than our neighbor General Al Bashir of Sudan.

Well you should see my disappointment. Why do you do this to me Professor, I plead. Are you trying to take the only thing we got going for us? The professor is very cruel. He ranked some dentist turned tyrant from Turkmenistan as number six, followed by our neighbor from the north Isaiyas Afworki, coming at number eight is a ‘ruthless thug’ from Uzbekistan, and Ahmadinejad of Iran taking the number nine spot. Our dear leader for life, architect of 99.6% victory Prime Minister Meles is ranked number ten.

To say I was furious is an under statement. I was crushed. I Googled Professor George B.N. Ayittey’s name. I wanted to know what beef he got with mother Ethiopia. What is going on here? What kind of joke is the professor playing on us? I can understand number three, may be number four but number ten seems a little harsh to me.

This does not bode well to either the Prime Minister or his TPLF cadres. They have been sharpening their craft for the last twenty-five years and all they got to show for it is lousy number ten ranking? I do believe the Professor is trying to make them the laughing stock of the country if not the neighborhood. Have you ever heard of respect for number ten?
As a self-respecting loyal subject of number ten I fired off an email to the good professor. I told him in no uncertain terms that we take offense to that. I understand we might not brandish Nuclear weapons like ‘Dear Leader’ Kim but we make it up with other cowardly acts. Just take the ranking of those crude Generals from Burma as number two. What do they got that we don’t have? For starters they have the Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi but we got Bertukan Mediksa. That is a wash. On the other hand while Aung San Suu Kyi is under a house arrest, Judge Bertukan is in solitary confinement at the rat infested Kaliti Prison. Surely number ten gets extra points for that.

Number ten has sacrificed over eighty thousand subjects in the Eritrean war with another ten thousand or more in Somalia and various other conflicts, can the Burmese tyrants equal that? They don’t even have the balls to start a war with their neighbors. Give me a break professor. The lower ranking of Mugabe and Al Bashir is further insult that should not go un noticed. When it comes to terrorizing ones own population they can’t even hold a candle to number ten. We are talking about targeted shooting of unarmed peaceful demonstrators in broad daylight, imprisonment of over forty thousand suspected opposition sympathizers and incarceration of the entire opposition party leaders. None of the two tin pot dictators can boast of such a feat. A few unorganized acts of terror here and there but I doubt they have a well-equipped Agazi force at their disposal.

I am really surprised that of all the glorious achievements by number ten the Professor saw fit to mention the following:
Worse than the former Marxist dictator he ousted nearly two decades ago, Zenawi has clamped down on the opposition, stifled all dissent, and rigged elections. Like a true Marxist revolutionary, Zenawi has stashed millions in foreign banks and acquired mansions in Maryland and London in his wife’s name, according to the opposition

I tend to disagree. I would like to think murder and genocide will out rank simple thievery in the scheme of criminal acts. I also think those properties are a ruse to camouflage the real location of the retirement venue. As you know both countries have no qualms regarding shipping former tyrants to The Hague, thus I would think number ten is aiming for either Shanghai or Pyongyang.

Further more do you see any of the other contestants at the G20 meeting anywhere? No sir, it is number ten that shows up consistently. The fact that he has noting of value to contribute hasn’t stopped him from hobnobbing with elected leaders. It is not lost on the organizers that number ten’s presence gives vibrancy to a boring and uneventful gathering. It is also true that the organizers reserve a special section for the Ethiopian Diaspora to vent out while forcing number ten to crawl down in the back seat. Master Card is doing a commercial based on this true story. According to reliable sources the ad campaign goes like this:
Plane ticket to Toronto- $1500.00
First class Hotel- $2000.00/night
Limousine rental $500.00/day
The look on number ten hiding in his limo driving by angry Ethiopians: priceless.
There is some things money can’t buy, for everything else there is MasterCard!

In the name of fairness and decency we ask Professor Ayittey to revise his list and restore our well-deserved ranking. Number ten is getting ready to take the oath of office after the grueling campaign and we hope this ranking will not deter the Mugabes, Al Bashirs and other highly rated misfits from skipping the ceremony. Some are claiming that the lower ranking is a conspiracy by Ethiopian haters to discredit numbers ten’s glorious achievement, but I wouldn’t go that far. I urge the Professor to reconsider. You can read his article by clicking at the following site.,0