When President Obama recently visited Africa, he announced a “Power Africa” initiative. In his Cape Town University speech, he proclaimed, “I am proud to announce a new initiative. We’ve been dealing with agriculture. We’ve been dealing with health. Now we’re going to talk about power: Power Africa, a new initiative that will double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa. Double it. We’re going to start by investing $7 billion in U.S. government resources. We’re going to partner with the private sector, who themselves have committed more than $9 billion in investment.”
In the speech, President Obama used the word “power” 21 times in a variety of contexts. He philosophized about “power that comes from acting on our ideals” and the “power of human beings to affect change”. He urged Africans to act “through the power of your example”. He encouraged support for programs “that empower women”. He mildly chided “those in power who make arguments to distract people from their own abuses.”
He puzzled over “what it will take to empower individual Africans” and enable Africans to have the “power to feed themselves.” He pleaded for “unleashing the power of entrepreneurship and market” and the creation of “partnership that empowers Africans.” He spoke about “the power to prevent illness and care for the sick” and “the power to connect their people to the promise of the 21st century.”
He lamented “Africa’s lack of access to power” and the need “to have power.” He “talked about power — Power Africa” and “doubling access to power in sub-Saharan Africa.” He pitied those Africans who “live currently off the power grid.”
He wistfully spoke about Nelson Mandela “leaving power” which “was as profound as his ability to claim power”. He spoke of Mugabe’s “corruption of power” and Zimbabwe’s economic collapse.
To power Africa or to empower Africans, that is the question
Africa has a power problem. There is no question about that. Africa needs protection from thugs-cum-leaders who abuse power, misuse power, confuse power and excuse and justify their abuse and misuse of power. President Obama is already powering Africa. Every year, he hands out billions of dollars to Africa’s worst dictators (excuse me, he calls them “partners”) who abuse power in countries like Ethiopia. Africa needs people power not thugs in power.
On second thought, Africa does not have a power problem. Africa has a problem of powerlessness. The people are powerless against thugtators who use power to abuse their human rights. Africans are powerless against the powerful forces of corruption – officials and their cronies who “illicitly transfer” (steal and stash) tens of billions of dollars in foreign banks. For instance, “Ethiopia lost $11.7 billion to outflows of ill-gotten gains between 2000 and 2009” and “in 2009, illicit money leaving the country totaled $3.26 billion.” Africans are powerless and disempowered against powerful election thieves who claim electoral victory by 99.6 percent. Africans are powerless against powerful warlords who seek to divide them along ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional lines. Yes, Africa’s powerless have a big problem with Africa’s powerful thugtators.
President Obama does not seem to get it. The question is not whether to power Africa but how to protect powerless Africans from those dictators America has powered and empowered by doling out billions of dollars in aid, loans and technical assistance every year. If he wants to power Africa, he should begin by empowering ordinary Africans against those who abuse and misuse their power. He should power up the youth grid that remains unused, abused and disused by those who manage the political power grid. He should use the billions of dollars of annual aid to disempower the few powerful African thugtators and empower the hundreds of millions of African youth.
If Obama wants to power Africa, let him empower African youth
President Obama has been talking about empowering African youth for years. In August 2010, he talked about launching “the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) as a signature initiative that supports young African leaders as they work to spur growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across the continent.” In June 2012, some “60 young African leaders” participated in “the Innovation Summit and Mentoring Partnership with Young African Leaders” for a “three-week professional development program”. To support the “empowerment of young African leaders” and provide them “significant and ongoing professional training, access to mentorship, and networking opportunities in Africa”, USAID “awarded two grants totaling $1.3 million to support the core principles of Young African Leaders Initiative.” In his Cape Town speech, President Obama told Africa’s young people: “You get to decide where the future lies. Think about it — over 60 percent of Africans are under 35 years old. So demographics means young people are going to be determining the fate of this continent and this country. You’ve got time and numbers on your side, and you’ll be making decisions long after politicians like me have left the scene.” But Africa’s young people do not have the numbers on their side. They got $1.3 million from America while Africa’s dictators get billions every year.
In June 2013, President Obama talked about “launching a new program” called the “Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders” which is “going to give thousands of promising young Africans the opportunity to come to the United States and develop skills at some of our best colleges and universities.” A lot of nice talk and promises for African young people; but promises and talk are more convincing when one puts money where one’s mouth is. Since YALI, there has been more talk than action.
But there is another side to the African youth story. President Obama in Cape Town said, “And I’ve traveled to Africa on this trip because my bet is on the young people who are the heartbeat of Africa’s story. I’m betting on all of you.” Which segment of the African youth is he betting on? The Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders promises to “give thousands of promising young Africans” the “opportunity to come to the United States and develop their skills.”
Along the same lines, what does President Obama offer Africa’s young freedom fighters? In 2009, in Accra, Ghana, he warned, “Now, make no mistake: History is on the side of these brave Africans, not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”
Does President Obama know of brave young Africans in prison named Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Andualem Aragie, Olbana Lelisa, Bekele Gerba, Abubekar Ahmed, Ahmedin Jebel and so many thousands of Ethiopian political prisoners? President Obama needs to live up to the standards he set for Africans and answer one question: Is he, like history, on the side of brave Africans or is he on the side of Africa’s strongmen. President Obama must choose between making brave young Africans strong or African strongmen stronger.
Would $7 billion make a difference?
Lighting the dark continent is a daunting task. Enlightening the benighted “leaders” of the dark continent is an even more daunting fact. Over 130 years after the invention of the light bulb, the vast majority of Africans remain in total darkness. It is a historical enigma that as technology enlightens the world, Africa is enveloped in darkness. For instance, Ethiopia got a functioning telephone system in 1894 and over the past decade “invested some USD$14 billion in infrastructure development” including communications. Yet today Ethiopia has the worst telecommunications system in Africa and quite possibly the world.
Power outages and blackouts are common in every part of Africa. In June 2012, as U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton began her speech at the African Union, she experienced firsthand what Africans face every day. She had to stop her speech because of power outage.
Africa’s electrical power problem is not merely low access and insufficient capacity; it also involves poor reliability and extremely high costs. The regime in Ethiopia windbags day and night about a pie-in-the-sky dam on the Nile. They say it will be the largest dam in Africa and cost USD$6-7 billion. This fantasy dam is supposed to resolve the power supply problems of not only Ethiopia but also the region and beyond. The fact of the matter is that the regime aims to export much of the power produced from the dam and not use it for domestic power self-sufficiency. It is also ironic that the regime seeks to convince the population and the world that it can run the “largest dam” in Africa when it cannot even manage efficiently the few dams that are currently in existence. Yet the regime in Ethiopia keeps on windbagging the Nile dam canard to create the grand illusion of development, hoodwink the population and panhandle China and the international banks for more and more handouts.
The World Bank says Africa needs USD$43 billion annually to improve its power infrastructure. Would dropping USD$7 billion in American tax dollars plus $9 billion from the private sector over five years to “double” the power capacity make a difference in lighting Africa or enlightening Africans? Throwing USD$3 billion a year to help “Power Africa” for 5 years sounds like chicken feed. According to IMANI, the Ghanaian Center for Policy and Education, “If all the electricity generated in Africa was shared equally, each household would have enough to power a normal light-bulb for about 3.5 hours a day per person. With President Obama’s new initiative, this can increase by roughly 18 more minutes if implementation was perfect.”
President Obama cannot power Africa by empowering Africa’s strongmen. To power Africa, he must first help empower Africa’s youth. He cannot empower Africa’s youth with promises and silky words. He cannot power Africa by empowering a few of Africa’s “best and brightest” by providing them leadership training or skills. It is said that more than 600 million of Africa’s one billion population is below the age of 25. The vast majority of these youth are poor, undereducated and with little prospect for lifetime economic viability. Vast numbers of these youths are forced to work in whatever capacity to help their families survive while losing educational opportunities that could free them from poverty. He must come up with a different plan for Africa’s not-so-promising youth. They are the majority of Africa!
The real answer to Africa’s problems lies in creating a power grid among its youth. Any program that is narrowly targeted to Africa’s talented youth will merely perpetuate existing inequalities and keep the sons and daughters of the rich and privileged at the top. The masses of youths at the bottom will not accept this condition. Sooner or later, they will rise, power up and disempower the strongmen who abuse their power. That’s how Africa will be powered and empowered, President Obama!
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:
(This week my regular Monday commentary is presented for the second time in the form of a “flash drama” on Obama (a sub-genre of theatrical play sometimes described as a “ten minute one-act play”). The first “act” of this “flash drama” was presented in my June 23 commentary, “Obama is Coming! Obama is Coming to Africa!!”
The scene in the second act is a neighborhood tearoom somewhere in Africa. The two young African college friends two weeks later have a chance meeting. Their conversation shifts from the critical health condition of President Nelson Mandela to President Obama’s departure from Africa after he completed his “Africa Visit”. (I have opted to use “flash drama” to add creative range to my commentaries and expand my reach to the younger generation of Ethiopians and other African youth. The names of the characters have special meaning.)
Duma: Ethiopia? Nigeria? They are America’s best partners in Africa.
Shudi: Not even Kenya! He says he’s “got three and half years to come back to Kenya.”
Duma: Hope he had a better reception than his first Africa visit in Accra, Ghana in 2009.
Shudi: Someone told him in Soweto, “the euphoria that engulfed this continent when President Obama was elected is fading.”
Duma: Yeah! The thrill is gone with the Obama drama.
Shudi: He visited three countries in one week, you know.
Duma: What’s up with that? Is he making campaign stops?
Shudi: With all the promises and pledges he made, you could say he was stumping.
Duma: He is the best at making promises.
Shudi: And not keeping them?
Duma: And breaking them. What did he promise this time?
Shudi: He promised to “launch a new program that’s going to givethousands of promising young Africans opportunity to come to the United States and develop their skills at some of our best colleges and universities.”
Duma: “Brave citizens around the world and those who would abuse them.”
Shudi: Will the U.S. be watching the brave, suffering and not-so-promising young Africans?
Duma: They are on their own. They don’t matter.
Shudi: You mean it’s mind over matter?
Duma: I mean Obama don’t mind and they don’t matter!
Shudi: Do you think Mandela will make it through?
Duma: Why not? He pulled through 27 years of hard labor and solitary confinement.
Shudi: Mandela is a man of courage. He can do anything!
Duma: Isn’t that what Obama said? “Nelson Mandela showed us that one man’s courage can move the world.”
Shudi: The man imprisoned for 27 years and on life support today can move the world but…
Duma: Why can’t the most powerful man in the world be able to move Africa?
Shudi: Obama says, courage is “the power that comes from acting on our ideals. That’s what Mandela understood.”
Duma: Why can’t Obama act from his ideals?
Shudi: Maybe he lost them. Maybe he doesn’t have any.
Duma: When he accepted the Nobel Prize, didn’t he say: “We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it’s easy, but when it is hard.”
Shudi: Did Obama compromise his ideals?
Duma: Did he lose himself?
Duma: He wants young Africans to act from their ideals?
Shudi: He wants them to “think of how many times ordinary people pushed against those walls of oppression and resistance, and the violence and the indignities that they suffered; the quiet courage that they sustained. Think of how many ripples of hope it took to build a wave that would eventually come crashing down like a mighty stream.”
Duma: What does that mean? A mighty tidal wave of angry youth crashing on African dictators?
Shudi: And hungry youth? Don’t know what it means.
Duma: It’s “Obamanese”. Empty words always sound good.
Shudi: Just like cotton candy tastes good?
Duma: Just like the sight of floating butterflies make you feel good.
Shudi: Obama said, “The struggle against apartheid, for freedom, Madiba’s moral courage, his country’s historic transition to a free and democratic nation, has been a personal inspiration to me.”
Duma: Obama was once an inspiration to me too.
Shudi: “Yes We Can!” “We are the change we have been waiting for.” “Hope is what led a band of colonists to rise up against an empire; what led the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation…” “If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists – to protect them and to promote their common welfare – all else is lost.”
Duma: “History is on the side of brave Africans.” “I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.”
Shudi: Where do you get courage?
Duma: The same place you get your ideals.
Shudi: Obama said, “Africa is rising”.
Duma: From tyranny? Dictatorship? Corruption?
Shudi: From “poverty to a growing, nascent middle class.”
Duma: Are the 80 percent of Africans living under less than $2 a day rising or falling?
Shudi: You can’t fall if you’ve always been down.
Duma: Only way is up.
Shudi: Up from tyranny. Injustice. Abuse of power.
Duma: And the not-so-promising young Africans?
Shudi: They are on their own and down?
Duma: They are all down and out.
Shudi: Obama said, “there is no question that Africa is on the move”?
Duma: I have a question. Which Africa?
Shudi: The African middle class is on the move.
Duma: How about the African “80 percenters”?
Shudi: They can’t move.
Duma: Well, the “80 percenters” are like the “47 percenters”, if you know what I mean.
Shudi: Don’t know what you mean.
Duma: “They depend on government handouts; they believe that they are victims; they believe government has a responsibility to care for them; they believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”
Shudi: Didn’t the 47 percenters elect Obama?
Duma: Obama wasn’t elected in Africa.
Shudi: Shouldn’t the real question be if democracy is on the move in Africa?
Duma: And human rights are rising and dictatorships falling?
Shudi: Obama says, he will “partner with governments and regional organizations here in Africa and foundations and civil society to amplify your voices as you stand up for democracy and equality.”
Duma: Partner with the foxes guarding the henhouse?
Shudi: Partnership of eagles and foxes?
Duma: Eagles and hyenas.
Shudi: Amplify the voices of silenced civil society institutions? I don’t understand…
Duma: What’s there not to understand? Silence is the voice of the voiceless.
Shudi: Obama says Africa is not moving fast enough “for the protester who is beaten in Harare [Zimbabwe], or the woman who is raped in Eastern Congo”?
Duma: And for the unfortunate and untalented 80 percenters?
Shudi: Them too.
Duma: But moving fast enough for young, talented and jailed Ethiopian journalists like Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, opposition and civic society leaders and dissidents Andualem Aragie, Olbana Lelisa, Bekele Gerba, Abubekar Ahmed, Ahmedin Jebel and so many thousands of Ethiopian political prisoners…?
Shudi: Are there good and bad African dictators?
Duma: You mean does Obama think there are good and bad African dictators?
Shudi: Obama said, “Governments that respect the rights of their citizens and abide by the rule of law do better, grow faster, draw more investment than those who don’t. That’s just a fact.”
Duma: As a matter of fact, which African governments respect the rights of their people?
Shudi: You’re missing the point, Duma. Obama told the South Africans, “Just look at your neighbor, Zimbabwe, where the promise of liberation gave way to the corruption of power and then the collapse of the economy.” Zimbabwe is on the move with a new constitution and new elections.
Duma: An elected constitutional democratic dictatorship!
Shudi: Just a promise of an elected constitutional democratic dictatorship?
Duma: Mugabe is a dictator.
Shudi: And a thief. He has been stealing elections for decades. How can Zimbabwe move forward with a thieving dictator?
Duma: The dictators in Ethiopia have been stealing elections for decades too, but they are America’s best partners in Africa.
Shudi: But Mugabe is a dictator and an S.O.B.?
Duma: And those guys in Ethiopia?
Shudi: They are dictators too. “But they are our S.O.B.s”?
Duma: You sound like President Franklin Roosevelt.
Shudi: Obama said 85 percent of Africans need power and he is going to give it to them?
Duma: Power? Africans have all the power they need, if it weren’t stolen by the dictators…
Shudi: I meant electric power, not real power. You know what I mean?
Duma: What do you mean?
Shudi: He said, Africans “must have the power to connect their people to the promise of the 21st century.”
Duma: Another promise?
Shudi: He said, “Now we’re going to talk about power — Power Africa — a new initiative that will double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa. Double it.”
Duma: Talked about Africa. Talked about brave young Africans.
Shudi: Now, talk about power? Doubletalk about power?
Duma: Why not talk about the absolute power of African dictators?
Shudi: Obama said, “We’re going to start by investing $7 billion in U.S. government resources. And in partnership with African nations, we’re going to develop new sources of energy.”
Duma: The youth are the new sources of energy. Why not develop them?
Shudi: Develop the not-so-promising young Africans?
Duma: They are on their own.
Shudi: He is going to take “$7 billion in U.S. government resources” and give it to stinking rich African dictators?
Duma: Who are “U.S. government resources”?
Shudi: American taxpayers?
Duma: Take from toiling American taxpayers and give to stinking rich African dictators.
Shudi: Reverse Robin Hood for Africa.
Duma: That’s not fair…
Shudi: You mean…
Duma: Detroit needs the money more than African dictators. Don’t you agree?
Duma: I am not worried.
Shudi: Why not?
Duma: It’s all talk. Doubletalk. Empty promises. Cotton candy for African dictators!
Shudi: Obama said, “If anyone wants to see the difference between freedom and tyranny, let them come here, to South Africa. Here, citizens braved bullets and beatings to claim that most basic right: the ability to be free, to determine your own fate, in your own land.”
Duma: That’s an odd thing to say?
Shudi: What do you mean?
Duma: Is he saying that if Africans want to end tyranny and get their freedom, they should be “brave” enough to “brave the bullets and beatings”?
Shudi: I think he meant what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. meant: “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.”
Duma: I got no problems with that.
Shudi: Obama told Africans as it is.
Duma: What did he say?
Shudi: “These are things that America stands for… We don’t tell people who their leaders should be, but we do stand up with those who support the principles that lead to a better life. And that’s why we’re interested in investing not in strongmen, but in strong institutions: independent judiciaries that can enforce the rule of law — honest police forces that can protect the peoples’ interests instead of their own; an open government that can bring transparency and accountability. And, yes, that’s why we stand up for civil society — for journalists and NGOs, and community organizers and activists — who give people a voice… I want you to know that you will always find the extended hand of a friend in the United States of America. ”
Duma: Give me a break!! He said exactly the same thing in Accra in 2009.
Shudi: He did?
Duma: Same exact thing! “Good governance is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That’s the change that can unlock Africa’s potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans. History offers a clear verdict: Governments that respect the will of their own people, that govern by consent and not coercion, are more prosperous, they are more stable, and more successful than governments that do not. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny. I know there are those who argue that ideas like democracy and transparency are somehow Western exports. I disagree. Those in power who make those arguments are usually trying to distract people from their own abuses. In the 21st century, capable, reliable, and transparent institutions are the key to success — strong parliaments; honest police forces; independent judges; an independent press; a vibrant private sector; a civil society. Those are the things that give life to democracy, because that is what matters in people’s everyday lives. Now, make no mistake: History is on the side of these brave Africans, not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”
Shudi: Obama told Africa’s youth to use their “imagination, your optimism, your idealism. The future of this continent is in your hands. Don’t lose those qualities of youth, the imagination, the courage, the ‘yes, we can’ attitude of young Africans like you.”
Duma: The future of Africa in the hands of Africa’s youth? Don’t think sooo!
Shudi: What do you mean?
Duma: The future of Africa is in the hands of China, India, Saudi Arabia…
Shudi: China came, saw and conquered.
Duma: India and Saudi Arabia too.
Shudi: Not America?
Duma: America is chasing terrorists in Africa.
Shudi: It should be chasing after Africa’s youth?
Duma: The promising and the not-so-promising ones.
Shudi: What do you say to Africa’s youth?
Duma: Obama came, Obama saw but did he conquer Africa’s youth?
Shudi: But really…
Duma: I’d say to them what Percy Bysshe Shelley said poetically to those young people who faced impossible odds:
Let a vast assembly be,
And with great solemnity
Declare with measured words, that ye
Are, as God has made ye, free!
And if then the tyrants dare,
Let them ride among you there,
Slash, and stab, and maim and hew,
What they like, that let them do.
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many — they are few”
Rise and shine African Cheetahs and Lions!! And Hippos too?!
(The meaning of the names of the characters: “Shudi” in the Hausa language (Nigeria) means Blue. “Duma” in Swahili means Cheetah. Blue Cheetahs!)
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:
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, said Edmund Burke. But what happens when evil triumphs over a good young woman journalist named Reeyot Alemu in Ethiopia? Do good men and women turn a blind eye, plug their ears, turn their backs and stand in silence with pursed lips?
In an extraordinary letter dated April 10, 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalists pled with Berhan Hailu, “Minister of Justice” in Ethiopia, on behalf of the imprisoned 32-year old journalist urging that she be provided urgent medical care and spared punishment in solitary confinement at the filthy Meles Zenawi Prison in Kality just outside the capital Addis Ababa.
Prison authorities have threatened Reeyot with solitary confinement for two months as punishment for alleged bad behavior toward them and threatening to publicize human rights violations by prison guards, according to sources close to the journalist who spoke to the International Women’s Media Foundation on condition of anonymity.CPJ has independently verified the information. Reeyot has also been denied access to adequate medical treatment after she was diagnosed with a tumor in her breast…
In December 2012, Reeyot, along with three other courageous independent journalists, received Human Rights Watch’s prestigious Hellman/Hammett Award for 2012 “in recognition of their efforts to promote free expression in Ethiopia, one of the world’s most restricted media environments.”
Reeyot’s trial in Meles’ kangaroo court was a template for miscarriage of justice. She was held in detention for three months with no access to legal counsel. She was denied counsel during interrogation. The kangaroo court refused to investigate her allegations of torture, mistreatment and denial of medical care in pre-trial detention. The evidence of “conspiracy” consisted of intercepted emails and wiretapped telephone conversations she had about peaceful protests and change with other journalists abroad. Her articles posted on various opposition websites were “introduced” as “evidence” of conspiracy.
Human Rights Watch was confounded by the idiocy of the terrorism charges: “According to the charge sheet, the evidence consisted primarily of online articles critical of the government and telephone discussions notably regarding peaceful protest actions that do not amount to acts of terrorism. Furthermore, the descriptions of the charges in the initial charge sheet did not contain even the basic elements of the crimes of which the defendants are accused….”
Amnesty International denounced the judgment of the kangaroo court: “There is no evidence that [Reeyot and the other independent journalists] are guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. We believe that they are prisoners of conscience, prosecuted because of their legitimate criticism of the government. They must be released immediately and unconditionally.”
PEN American Center “protested the harsh punishment handed down to” Reeyot and Woubshet and demanded their “immediate and unconditional release.” PEN asserted the two journalists “have been sentenced solely in relation to their peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression, in violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, to which Ethiopia is a signatory.”
The International Women’s Media Foundation saw the kangaroo court trial as an intimidation tactic against all independent women journalists: “The fact that the Ethiopian Government pursues and persecutes courageous, brave and professional women journalists does not bode well particularly for young women who may be interested in journalism. As a result, women’s voices (as reporters, editors, journalists, decision-making chambers) are rarely heard and women’s issues are often relegated to secondary position.”
Following Reeyot’s kangaroo court conviction, her father told an interviewer his daughter will not apologize, seek a pardon or apply for clemency. “As a father, would you rather not advise your daughter to apologize?”
This is perhaps one of the most difficult questions a parent can face. As any one of us who are parents would readily admit, there is an innate biological chord that attaches us to our kids. We wish nothing but the best for them. We try as much as humanly possible to keep them from harm…. Whether or not to beg for clemency is her right and her decision. I would honor and respect whatever decision she makes… To answer your specific question regarding my position on the issue by the fact of being her father, I would rather have her not plead for clemency, for she has not committed any crime.
Meles offered Reeyot her freedom if she agreed to snitch on her colleagues and help railroad them to prison. She turned him down flat and got herself railroaded into solitary confinement. Even in prison, Reeyot remained defiant as she informed IWMF: “I believe that I must contribute something to bring a better future. Since there are a lot of injustices and oppressions in Ethiopia, I must reveal and oppose them in my articles.”
The problem of evil in Ethiopia
Over the hundreds of uninterrupted weekly commentaries I have written over the years, I have rarely strayed much from my professional fields of law and politics. I make an exception in this commentary by indulging in philosophical musings on evil, a subject that has puzzled me for the longest time (and one I expect to ruminate over from time to time in the future) but one I never considered opining about in my public commentaries. I am mindful that there is the risk of sounding pedantic when one reflects on “Big Questions”, but pedantry is not intended here.
My simple definition of evil is any human act or omission that harms human beings. For instance, convicting an innocent young journalist on trumped up “terrorism” charges, sentencing her to a long prison term and throwing her into solitary confinement is evil because such acts cause great physical and psychological pain and suffering. Ordering the cold-blooded massacre of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators is evil because that act arbitrarily deprives innocent people of their God-given right to life. Forcibly displacing indigenous populations from their ancestral homes and selling their land to outsiders is evil because that act destroys not only the livelihood of those people but also their history and social fabric. Trashing the rights of individuals secured in the law of nations is evil because it is a crime against humanity and an affront to human decency and all norms of civilization. Discriminating against a person based on ethnicity, language and religion is evil because it deprives the victims of a fundamental right of citizenship. Albert Camus argued evil is anything that prevents solidarity between people and disables them from recognizing the rights or values of other human beings. Stealing elections in broad daylight and trying to deceive the world that one won an election by 99.6 percent is evil because such an act is an unconscionable lie and theft of the voice of the people. Stealing billions from a poor country’s treasury is evil because such theft deprives poor citizens vital resources necessary for their survival.
The evil I struggle to “understand” is that evil viciously committed by ordinary or sub-ordinarypeople in positions of political power. Such persons believe they can cheat, rob, steal and kill with absolute impunity because they believe there is no force on earth that can hold them accountable.
I am also concerned about the evil of passive complicity by ordinary and extraordinary people who stand silent in the face of evil. What is it that paralyzes those “good men and women” who can stand up, resist and defend against evil to cower and hide? Why do they pretend and rationalize to themselves that there really is no evil but in the eye of the beholder? What evil binds the blind, silent and deaf majority? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
I should clarify my use of the word “understand” in the context of evil. One can never understand evil. The Holocaust and the Rwanda Genocide are evils beyond human understanding and reason. To “understand” the deaths of millions or hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings is to implicitly justify it and somehow diminish its enormity. To “understand” the deliberate and premeditated murder of 193 unarmed protesters is beyond understanding because there could never be adequate reason, explanation or argumentation to justify it. “Understanding” such evil is tantamount to suggesting that there are or could be justifications for its occurrence.
When I use the word “understand”, I mean to suggest only that I am trying to get some insight, a glimpse of the moral makeup of people who live in a completely different moral universe than myself. It is impossible for me to see the world through the eyes of those in power who perpetrate evil in Ethiopia. When I speak of the triumph of evil in Ethiopia, I realize that there is nothing I can say by way of reasoned argument or presentation of evidence to persuade those in power to forsake their evil ways and deeds. I have concluded that those in power in Ethiopia live on a planet shielded by the equivalent of a moral Van Allen radiation belt that keeps out all cosmic rays of virtue, decency and goodness.
Let me also clarify what I mean when I speak of the audacity of evil in Ethiopia. The evil I am talking about is not the evil that Aquinas’ wrestled with in Questions 48 and 49 of Summa Theologica. Nor I am concerned about the evil Spinoza determined originates in the mind that lacks understanding because it is overwrought by fickle emotions. Neither am I concerned with evil that, for most of us, is associated with the Devil and his lesser intermediaries. I am not concerned about inanimate non-moral evil which manifests itself in the form of famine, pestilence and plague. I am also not referring to that evil lurking deep in the nihilistic being of those soulless, heartless and mindless psychopaths who are so disconnected from the rest of humanity that they feel justified in slaughtering innocent people at a sports event.
I am concerned about the evils of ordinary human wickedness and bestial human behavior that Aristotle alluded to in Nicomachean Ethics. I am concerned about gratuitous evil (pointless evil from which no greater good can be derived) committed by ordinary and sub-ordinary wicked people whose intellect is corrupted, and their bestial counterparts who are lacking in intellectual discernment. Such evil is cultivated in the soil of arrogance, ignorance, narcissism, desire for domination, self-aggrandizement and hubris. Those who commit gratuitous evil do so audaciously, willfully, recklessly and impulsively because they feel omnipotent; because they fear no retribution; because they anticipate no consequences for their evil deeds. They know they are committing evil and inflicting unspeakable and horrific pain and suffering on their victims but nonetheless go about doing evil with calculation and premeditation because they believe they are beyond morality, legality, responsibility and accountability. Hubristically relying on their power, they have exempted themselves from all rules of civilized society. They believe that their stranglehold on power gives them a license to commit evil at their pleasure and therefore make a habit of doing evil for evil’s sake. They are incapable of remorse or regrets because they have made evil their guiding “moral” principle.
My musings on the audacity of evil in Ethiopia are not intended to be abstract philosophical reflections but observations with practical value for victims of evil. I have an unshakeable belief that there will come a time in Ethiopia when the demands of punishment, blame and justice would have to be weighed against the greater good of peace, harmony and reconciliation. There will come a time when the open wounds of ethnic division, hatred and sectarianism must be healed and safeguards put into place to prevent their future recurrence. I believe insight into the nature of gratuitous evil is an important step in the healing process. By “understanding” (gaining insight) why individuals and groups in power commit gratuitous evil, it may be possible for Ethiopians to develop the courage, perseverance, fortitude and spiritual strength to move towards a reconciled and peaceful society. That is exactly what the South Africans did by instituting their Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) after Apartheid ended. Perpetrators of gratuitous evil were given the option to come to a public hearing and confess the evils they have committed and seek not only amnesty and immunity from civil and criminal prosecution but also forgiveness from their victims and the survivors of their victims. The Commission largely succeeded in that mission. The Rwandan “Gacaca courts” (traditional grassroots village courts composed of well-respected elders) which were established to administer justice to those alleged to have committed genocidal acts similarly sought to achieve “reconciliation of all Rwandans and building their unity” by putting justice partially into the hands of the surviving victims or victims’ families who are given the opportunity to confront and challenge the perpetrators in the open. The Rwandans also achieved a measure of success.
What has been learned from the TRC of South Africa and Rwanda’s Gacaca courts is that the act of forgiving can be an activity that victims of evil can find enormously helpful and beneficial. By publicly confronting the perpetrators, victims gain a sense of psychological satisfaction, moral vindication and physical well-being. The victims are no longer tormented by the desire for revenge and retribution. Coming to terms with the enormity of gratuitous evil makes it easier for a society to reconcile and prevent the recurrence of such evil.
Touched by evil
The Socratic thesis is that no one does evil intentionally. In other words, men and women commit evil out of ignorance which blinds them from doing right and good and deprives them of the practical wisdom to know the difference between right and wrong and good and evil. Evil doers are morally blind and unable to value other human beings while overestimating their own value and worth.
Why do those in power in Ethiopia commit the gratuitous evil of throwing into solitary confinement an innocent young woman who has been internationally honored and celebrated for her journalistic courage? Could it be the evil of misogyny that makes powerful men derive sadistic pleasure from the humiliation, degradation, dehumanization, depersonalization, demoralization, brutalization and incapacitation of strong-willed, intelligent, defiant, principled and irrepressible women who oppose them?
The gratuitous evil that is inflicted on Reeyot by those in power in Ethiopia is only the latest example. The exact same evil was inflicted on Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, who was thrown into solitary confinement for months at Meles Zenawi Prison because she stood up and opposed him. The same evil in different form was inflicted on Serkalem Fasil, another world-renowned female Ethiopian journalist who was imprisoned and forced to give birth in prison. The common denominator between these three women is that they are strong, self-confident, determined and principled and risked their lives to stand up to a brutal dictatorship. Because they refused to back down, they suffered the most inhumane treatment at the hands of powerful men.
Solitary confinement in Meles Zenawi Prison is used as a psychological weapon to drive the victims mad. By depriving victims of all human contact and by denying them access to any information about the outside world, the aim is to make them feel lost and forgotten. Solitary confinement for women is a particularly insidious from psychological torture intended to humiliate and breakdown their physical, psychological, spiritual and moral integrity. Those in solitary confinement in Meles Zenawi Prison are not allowed to visit with friends. They are denied access to books. They are not allowed to meet their legal counsel. Family visits are interrupted even before smiles are exchanged; and even hugs and kisses with family members are forbidden. Solitary confinement is a dirty psychological game played by those in power to plunge the victims into the depths of despair, sorrow and confusion and make them feel completely helpless and hopeless.
When Meles threw Birtukan into solitary confinement, he just did not want her to suffer. That would be too easy. He wanted to humiliate and dehumanize her. When she was in solitary confinement, he used a cruel metaphor describing her as a “silly chicken who did herself in”. While in solitary confinement, he mocked and took cheap shots at her telling the press that that she is “in perfect condition” but “may have gained a few kilos”. He wanted her to suffer so much that he told reporters, “there will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” He wanted Birtukan to be the living dead in solitary confinement. Providence had a different plan.
We are banned Ethiopian journalists who were charged with treason by the government of PM Meles Zenawi subsequent to disputed election results in 2005, incarcerated under deplorable circumstances, only to be acquitted sixteen months later; after Serkalem Fasil prematurely gave birth in prison.Severely underweight at birth because Serkalem’s physical and psychological privation in one of Africa’s worst prisons, an incubator was deemed life-saving to the new-born child by prison doctors; which was, in an act of incomprehensible vindictiveness, denied by the authorities. (The child nevertheless survived miraculously. Thanks to God.)
Do those who slammed Reeyot and Birtukan in solitary confinement and forced Serkalem to give birth in one of the filthiest prisons in the world realize what they are doing is evil? Do they care about the suffering of these young women?
Birtukan has survived and continues to thrive. Serkalem struggles to survive every day as she agonizes over the unjust imprisonment of her husband Eskinder. Reeyot, I believe, will survive in solitary confinement because she is a strong woman of faith and conviction. Solitary confinement to persons of faith and conviction is like fire to steel. It brings out the best in them. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years; but is there a man alive who is more compassionate, humane, kindhearted and forgiving than Mandela?
Sigmund Freud wrote about the kind of sadistic gratuitous evil driven by deep-seated hatred and aggression against women. Other psychologists see the root of gratuitous evil in personality “fragmentation” caused by feelings of rejection and inferiority. They say those who commit gratuitous evil seek to “defragment and hold themselves together” by degrading and feeling superior to their victims. Others have argued that beneath the gratuitous evil that perpetrators commit lies a profound emptiness filled by sadistic rage, anger, and hatred.
I believe those in power in Ethiopia commit gratuitous evil to obtain absolute obedience and respect. As Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments (and in other aspects the Zimbardo (Stanford) experiments) have shown, those in authority seek to secure obedience by establishing social models of compliance. In other words, those in power aim to teach by harsh example. If you are an independent journalist and do your job, you will be jacked up on bogus terrorism charges, held in detention, thrown in solitary confinement and tortured. If you challenge a stolen election and protest in the street, you will be shot in the streets like a rabid dog. By using extreme violence, those in power in Ethiopia seek to create not only an atmosphere of fear but also a culture of terror. The experiments have also shown that resistance can also be taught by example. Reeyot, Serkalem, Birtukan, Eskinder, Woubshet, Andualem are social models of resistance.
Hanna Arendt observed Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, at his trial in Jerusalem and found him to be “medium-sized, slender, middle-aged, with receding hair, ill-fitting teeth, and nearsighted eyes, who throughout the trial keeps craning his scraggy neck toward the bench.” He appeared to be a common man incapable of monstrous crimes. The banality of evil is the capacity of ordinary people to commit monstrous crimes. The audacity of evil is the capacity of ordinary and sub-ordinary people to commit evil not out of necessity, obedience to authority or even adherence to ideology; it is evil committed by those who are absolutely convinced that they will never be held accountable for their crimes.
Doing evil, doing good
I have many unanswered questions. Are the individuals in positions of power in Ethiopia evil by nature? Was evil thrust upon them by a demonic power? Were they victims of evil themselves and now seek to avenge the actual or perceived evil done to them and ended up being evil themselves? Did they become the very monster they slew? Are there persons who are innately incapable of doing good because they are bad seed and are born with a natural disposition to do only wrong and evil? Is gratuitous evil a psychological illness, an incurable sickness of the soul?
My questions do not end there. No one is immune from evil. Those of us who rise up in self-righteous indignation and denounce evil should look at ourselves and ask: If we were shown “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor”, would we succumb to that offer and choose the path of evil? Nietzsche said, “When you look long into an abyss, the abyss looks into you.” When we raise our lances at the windmills, do we really see monsters? Let us not forget that “He who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster.” Are we also brutes, like those we criticize, costumed in a veneer of civilization and morality untested and unseduced by the corrupting power of power? Are human beings innately good, and evil people merely mutations of good ones?
The evil that men do lives after them
The late Meles Zenawi has left a dark and bleak legacy of gratuitous evil in Ethiopia. The evil he has done shall continue to live in the prisons he built, the justice system he corrupted and the lives of young good Ethiopians he destroyed like Reeyot, Eskinder, Serkalem, Birtukan, Woubshet, Andualem and countless others. In Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar, Antony speaks: “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Ceasar.”
When I speak of Meles, I speak not of the man but of the wretched legacy he left and of the pious devotion of his disciples to that legacy. His disciples today speak of his great achievements and his great vision with Scriptural certitude and apostolic zeal. Their mantra is, “We will follow Meles’ vision without doubt or question.” One must speak out against pre-programmed robots; but raging against the machine should not be mistaken for raging against the man.
I remain optimistic that in the end good shall triumph over evil because the ultimate battle between good and evil in Ethiopia will not be waged on a battlefield with “crashing guns and rattling musketry”; nor will it be fought and won in the voting booths, the parliaments, the courts or bureaucracies. The battle for good and evil will be fought, won or lost, in the hearts and minds of ordinary Ethiopian men and women who have the courage to rise up and do extraordinary good.
Elie Wiesel, a prisoner in the Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald concentration camps, and Nobel peace laureate said “indifference is the epitome of evil” and
“swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.
I have taken the side of Reeyot Alemu, Eskinder Nega, Serkalem Fasil, Birtukan Midekssa, Woubshet Taye, Andualem Aragie…. and made them the “center of my universe”.
(to be continued….)
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:
Last April, I wrote a “Special Tribute to My Personal Hero Eskinder Nega”. In that tribute, I groped for words as I tried to describe this common Ethiopian man of uncommon valor, an ordinary journalist of extraordinary integrity and audacity. Frankly, what could be said of a simple man of humility possessed of indomitable dignity? Eskinder Nega is a man who stood up to brutality with his gentle humanity. What could I really say of a gentleman of the utmost civility, nobility and authenticity who was jailed 8 times for loving liberty? What could I say of a man and his wife who defiantly defended press freedom in Ethiopia, even when they were both locked up in Meles Zenawi Prison just outside of the capital in Kality for 17 months! What could anybody say of a man, a woman and their child who sacrificed their liberties, their peace of mind, their futures and earthly possessions so that their countrymen, women and children could be free!?
Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega is a special kind of hero who fights with nothing more than ideas and the truth. He slays falsehoods with the sword of truth. He chases bad ideas with good ones. Armed only with a pen, Eskinder fights despair with hope; fear with courage; anger with reason; arrogance with humility; ignorance with knowledge; intolerance with forbearance; oppression with perseverance; doubt with trust and cruelty with compassion. Above all, Eskinder speaks truth to power and to those who abuse, misuse, overuse and are corrupted by power.
Now almost a year since I wrote my tribute, I remember my great friend and brother Eskinder Nega as he languishes in Meles Zenawi Prison. But I do not remember him in sadness or with heartache. No! No! I remember Eskinder in the hopeful, faith-filled and resolute words of American poet James Russell Lowell (“The Present Crisis”): “When a deed is done for Freedom, through the broad earth’s aching breast…/ Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide…/ In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side… For Humanity sweeps onward: where to-day the martyr stands…/ Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne…/
Eskinder and his wife Serkalem did the right deed to defend the right of press freedom in Ethiopia. They spoke truth to falsehood in their newspapers and never backed down. They spoke right to wrong in kangaroo court. The man who tried for 20 years to right the wrongs of tyranny, today, like Lowell’s Truth, hangs on the scaffold in the belly of Meles Zenawi Prison, a place of “wrath and tears where the horror of the shade looms”, with his head bloodied but UNBOWED!
Last week, Birtukan Mideksa wrote an opinion piece for Al Jazeera urging the release of Eskinder Nega and other journalists including Reeyot Alemu (winner of the International Women’s Media Foundation 2012 Courage in Journalism Award) and Woubshet Taye (2012 Hellman/Hammett Grant Award) and all political prisoners in Ethiopia. Birtukan is the first female political party (Unity for Democracy and Justice) leader in Ethiopian history. Birtukan, like Eskinder, was the personal political prisoner of the late dictator Meles Zenawi. Meles personally ordered Birtukan’s arrest and on December 29, 2008, a year and half after he “pardoned” and released her from prison, he threw her back in jail without even the usual song and dance of kangaroo court. On January 9, 2010, Meles sent chills down the spines of reporters when he declared sadistically that “there will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” On January 15, 2010, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention adopted an opinion finding that Birtukan Midekksa is a political prisoner.
It is heartwarming to read Birtukan’s moving and robustly principled defense of Eskinder Nega and the other Ethiopian journalists and political prisoners. It is also ironic that Eskinder should replace Birtukan as the foremost political prisoner in Ethiopia today.
Few can speak more authoritatively on the plight of Eskinder and all Ethiopian political prisoners than my great sister Birtukan who also spent years in in the belly of Meles Zenawi Prison, a substantial part of it in solitary confinement. In her Al Jazeera commentary she wrote:
My journey to become a political prisoner in Ethiopia began as a federal judge fighting to uphold the rule of law. Despite institutional challenges and even death threats, I hoped to use constitutional principles to ensure respect for basic rights… [Ethiopian] authorities have detained my friend Eskinder Nega eight times over his 20-year career as a journalist and publisher.After the 2005 elections, Eskinder and his wife – Serkalem Fasil – spent 17 months in prison. Pregnant at the time, Serkalem gave birth to a son despite her confinement and almost no pre-natal care. Banned from publishing after his release in 2007, Eskinder continued to write online. In early 2011, he began focusing particularly on the protest movements then sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. Eskinder, who does not belong to any political party because of a commitment to maintain his independence, offered a unique and incisive take on what those movements meant for the future of Ethiopia. Committed to the principle of non-violence, Eskinder repeatedly emphasised that any similar movements in Ethiopia would have to remain peaceful. Despite this, police briefly detained him and warned him that his writings had crossed the line and he could face prosecution. Then in September , 2011, the government made good on that threat. Authorities arrested Eskinder just days after he publicly criticised the use of anti-terror laws to stifle dissent. They held him without charge or access to an attorney for nearly two months. The government eventually charged Eskinder with terrorism and treason, sentencing him to 18 years in prison after a political trial. Unfortunately, Eskinder is not alone; independent journalists Woubshet Taye and Reeyot Alemu also face long prison terms on terrorism charges.
Eskinder is a hero to the world but a villain to Meles Zenawi and his disciples
Who really is Eskinder Nega? In Meles Zenawi’s kangaroo court, Eskinder has been judged a “terrorist”, a “public enemy”. In the court of world public opinion, Eskinder is celebrated as the undisputed champion and defender of press freedom.
When speaking of my brother Eskinder, I could be accused of exaggerating his virtues, hyperbolizing his singular contributions to press freedom in Ethiopia and overstating his importance to the cause of free expression throughout the world. Perhaps I am biased because I hold this great man in such high respect, honor and admiration. If I am guilty of bias, it is because seemingly in Ethiopia they have stopped making genuine heroes like Eskinder Nega, Woubeshet Taye, Anudalem Aragie, Temesgen Desalegn… and heroines like Birtukan Midekssa, Serkalem Fasil, Reeyot Alemu….
Let others more qualified and more eloquent than I speak of Eskinder Nega’s heroism, courage, fortitude, audacity and tenacity in the defense of press freedom.
… No honor can be greater than to read Eskinder Nega’s words. He is more than a symbol. He is the embodiment of the greatness of truth, of writing and reporting real truth, of persisting in truth and resisting the oppression of untruth… So let us marvel at and celebrate Eskinder Nega. For who among us could write what I am about to read [a blog of Eskinder’s] spirit unbound, faith in freedom and the power of the word untrammeled…
Larry Siems, director of PEN Freedom to Write Award, at the award ceremonies groped for words trying to describe Eskinder Nega. “…[This year] one [journalist] really stood out, and that is Eskinder Nega. So tonight we recognize one of the world’s most courageous, most intrepid, most creative advocates of press freedom that I have ever seen…”
In awarding its prestigious Hellman/Hammett Award for 2012, Human Rights Watch described Eskinder and the other journalists as “exemplifying the courage and dire situation of independent journalism in Ethiopia today. Their ordeals illustrate the price of speaking freely in a country where free speech is no longer tolerated.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists declared, “The charges against Eskinder are baseless and politically motivated in reprisal for his writings. His conviction reiterates that Ethiopia will not hesitate to punish a probing press by imprisoning journalists or pushing them into exile in misusing the law to silence critical and independent reporting.”
The specific charge against Eskinder was that he conspired with a banned opposition party called Ginbot 7 to overthrow the government. At his trial, government prosecutors showed as evidence a fuzzy video, available on YouTube, of Eskinder at a public town-hall meeting, discussing the potential of an Arab Spring-type uprising in Ethiopia. State television labeled Eskinder and the other journalists as “spies for foreign forces.” There were also allegations that he had accepted a terrorist mission—what the mission involved was never specified.
The United States remains deeply concerned about the trial, conviction, and sentencing of Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, as well as seven political opposition figures, under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. The sentences handed down today, including 18 years for Eskinder and life imprisonment for the opposition leader Andualem Arage, are extremely harsh and reinforce our serious questions about the politicized use of Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law in this and other cases.
The deprivation of liberty of Eskinder Nega is arbitrary in violation of articles 9, 10, 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articles 9, 14, and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights… The Working Group requests the Government to take the necessary steps to remedy the situation, which include the immediate release of Mr. Nega and adequate reparation to him.
Meles said Eskinder and all of the journalists he jailed are “terrorists”. If Eskinder Nega is a terrorist, then speaking truth to power is an act of terrorism. If Eskinder Nega is a terrorist, then advocacy of peaceful change is terrorism; thinking is terrorism; dissent is terrorism; having a conscience is terrorism; refusing to sell out one’s soul is terrorism; standing up for democracy and human rights is terrorism; defending the rule of law is terrorism and peaceful resistance of state terrorism is terrorism. If Eskinder Nega is a terrorist today, Nelson Mandela was a terrorist then. The same goes for all of the other jailed journalists and opposition leaders jailed by Meles Zenawi.
But the real terrorists know who they are. When Meles and his horde of guerilla fighters challenged military dictator Mengistu Hailemariam, they were officially branded as terrorists, bandits, mercenaries, criminals, thugs, murderers, marauders, public enemies, subversives, rebels, assassins, malcontents, invaders, traitors, saboteurs and other names. Were they?
The current ruling party, “Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Movement” (TPLF), is listed today in the Global Terrorism Database as a terrorist organization. Documented acts of terrorism by the TPLF include armed robberies, assaults, hostage taking and kidnapping of foreign nationals and journalists and local leaders, hijacking of truck convoys, extortion of business owners and merchants, nongovernmental organizations, local leaders and private citizens and intimidation of religious leaders and journalists.
An official Inquiry Commission established by Meles Zenawi to investigate the deaths that occurred in the post-2005 election period determined that security forces under the personal control and command of Meles Zenawi massacred 193 unarmed protesters in the streets and severely wounded another 763. The Commission concluded the “shots fired by government forces were intended not to disperse the crowd of protesters but to kill by targeting the head and chest of the protesters.” On November 1, 2005, security forces in the Meles Zenawi Prison in Kality gunned down 65 inmates while confined in their cells. No one has ever been brought to justice for these crimes against humanity.
Who are the real terrorists and criminals in Ethiopia today?
Tale of the Good Wolf and Evil Wolf
The late Meles Zenawi and his apostles remind me of an old Cherokee (Native American) tale of two wolves: A grandfather tells his young grandson that everyone has a Good Wolf and an Evil Wolf inside of them fighting with each other every day. The Good Wolf thrives on peace, love, truth, generosity, humility and kindness. The Evil Wolf feeds on hatred, anger, greed, lies and arrogance. “Which wolf will win, grandfather?” asked the boy. “Whichever one you feed,” replied the grandfather.
Meles and his disciples have been feeding the Evil Wolf for decades, and now the Evil Wolf sits triumphantly crowned on the Throne of Hatred and Falsehood. They have fattened the Evil Wolf with a lavish diet of inhumanity, barbarity, brutality, ignobility, immorality, depravity, duplicity, incivility, criminality, ethnocentricity, mediocrity, corruptibility and pomposity.
Eskinder, Reeyot, Woubshet, Andualem. Temesgen and the rest have managed to tame the Good Wolf and have followed the path of peace, love and truth. Their wolf thrives on a simple diet of humanity, unity, integrity, authenticity, civility, morality, incorruptibility, dignity, affability, humility, nobility, creativity, intellectuality and audacity.
It is hard for the reasonable mind to fathom why Meles and his disciples chose to embrace and follow the path of the Evil Wolf. Indeed, the Evil Wolf has been very good to them. The Evil Wolf has made it possible for them to accumulate great wealth and amass enormous power. They have unleashed the Evil Wolf to divide and rule the country along ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional lines. They have used the Evil Wolf to destroy not only the lives and futures of young professionals like Eskinder, Birtukan, Reeyot, Woubshet, Temesgen and Andualem but also the future of the younger generation. They have used the Evil Wolf to sell off the country’s most fertile lands for pennies and plunder its natural resources. They have used the Evil Wolf to convict the innocent in kangaroo courts. They have used the Evil Wolf to strike fear and loathing in the hearts and minds or ordinary citizens.
They have given new meaning to the ancient Roman playwright Paluatus’ aphorism homo homini lupus est (“man is a wolf to his fellow man”). They have used the Evil Wolf to create war from peace; strife from harmony; wrong from right; vice from virtue; division from unity; shame from honor; immorality from decency; poverty from wealth; hatred from love; ignorance from knowledge; corruption from blessing; bondage from freedom and dictatorship from democracy. In 21 years, Meles and his disciples have managed to jam a whole nation between the jaws of a snarling, gnarling and howling Evil Wolf.
How long before the Good Wolf wins over the Evil Wolf?
The great Nelson Mandela wondered when Apartheid would end. He told those who had unleashed the Evil Wolf of Apartheid, “You may succeed in delaying, but never in preventing the transition of South Africa to a democracy.”
My friend Eskinder Nega warned the overlords of the Evil Wolf in Ethiopia, “Freedom is partial to no race. Freedom has no religion. Freedom favors no ethnicity. Freedom discriminates not between rich and poor countries. Inevitably freedom will overwhelm Ethiopia.”
But how long before freedom overwhelms Ethiopia? How long before Ethiopia transitions to democracy? How long before “truth crushed to earth rises again” in Ethiopia? How long before all Ethiopian political prisoners are set free? Before Eskinder is released and joins his wife Sekalem and their son Nafkot? How long before Reeyot, Woubshet, Andualem… rejoin their families? How long before the Good Wolf wins over the Evil Wolf?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. agonized over similar questions during the darkest days of the struggle for civil rights in America. His answer to the question, “How long?” was “Not long!”.
I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men…?”
Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham… be lifted from this dust of shame…? … How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?”
I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.”
How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.”
How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.”
How long before the Good Wolf wins over the Evil Wolf? Not long, because “once to every man and nation comes the moment” to decide between Good and Evil.
How long before wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Addis Ababa, Mekele, Adama, Gondar, Awassa, Jimma… is lifted from the dust of shame? Not long, “because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
How long before truth and right crushed to earth rise up again in Ethiopia? Not long, because truth and right will not remain forever on the scaffold nor wrong and falsehood nest forever on the throne!
I have no greater honor than to stand up, speak up and defend my friends, brothers and sisters Eskinder Nega, Serkalem Fasil, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Temesgen Desalegn, Andualem Aragie and all political prisoners held in Meles Zenawi Prison!
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:
2013 shall be the Year of Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation.
“The Cheetah Generation refers to the new and angry generation of young African graduates and professionals, who look at African issues and problems from a totally different and unique perspective. They are dynamic, intellectually agile, and pragmatic. They may be the ‘restless generation’ but they are Africa’s new hope. They understand and stress transparency, accountability, human rights, and good governance. They also know that many of their current leaders are hopelessly corrupt and that their governments are contumaciously dysfunctional and commit flagitious human rights violations”, explained George Ayittey, the distingushed Ghanaian economist.
Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation includes not only graduates and professionals — the “best and the brightest” — but also the huddled masses of youth yearning to breathe free; the millions of youth victimized by nepotism, cronyism and corruption and those who face brutal suppression and those who have been subjected to illegal incarceration for protesting human rights violations. Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation is Eskinder Nega’s and Serkalem Fasil’s Generation. It is the generation of Andualem Aragie, Woubshet Alemu, Reeyot Alemu, Bekele Gerba, Olbana Lelisa and so many others like them. Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation is the only generation that could rescue Ethiopia from the steel claws of tyranny and dictatorship. It is the only generation that can deliver Ethiopia from the fangs of a benighted dictatorship and transform a decaying and decomposing garrison state built on a foundation of lies into one that is deeply rooted in the consent and sovereignty of the people.
Ethiopia’s Hippo Generation should move over and make way for the Cheetahs. As Ayittey said, Africa’s “Hippo Generation is intellectually astigmatic and stuck in their muddy colonialist pedagogical patch. They are stodgy, pudgy, and wedded to the old ‘colonialism-imperialism’ paradigm with an abiding faith in the potency of the state. They lack vision and sit comfortable in their belief that the state can solve all of Africa’s problems. All the state needs is more power and more foreign aid. They care less if the whole country collapses around them, but are content as long as their pond is secure…”
Ethiopia’s Hippo Generation is not only astigmatic with distorted vision, it is also myopic and narrow- minded preoccupied with mindless self-aggrandizement. The Hippos in power are stuck in the quicksand of divisive ethnic politics and the bog of revenge politics. They proclaim the omnipotence of their state, which is nothing more than a thugtatorship. Their lips drip with condemnation of “neoliberalism”, the very system they shamelessly panhandle for their daily bread and ensures that they cling to power like barnacles on a sunken ship. They try to palm off foreign project handouts as real economic growth and development. To these Hippos, the youth are of peripheral importance. They give them lip service. In his “victory” speech celebrating his 99.6 percent win in the May 2010 “election”, Meles Zenawi showered the youth with hollow gratitude: “We are also proud of the youth of our country who have started to benefit from the ongoing development and also those who are in the process of applying efforts to be productively employed! We offer our thanks and salute the youth of Ethiopia for their unwavering support and enthusiasm!”
The Hippos out of power have failed to effectively integrate and mobilize the youth and women in their party leadership structure and organizational activities. As a result, they find themselves in a state of political stagnation and paralysis. They need youth power to rejuvenate themselves and to become dynamic, resilient and irrepressible. Unpowered by youth, the Hippos out of power have become the object of ridicule, contempt and insolence for the Hippos in power.
Ethiopia’s intellectual Hippos by and large have chosen to stand on the sidelines with arms folded, ears plugged, mouths sealed shut and eyes blindfolded. They have chosen to remain silent fearful that anything they say can and will be used against them as they obsequiously curry favor with the Hippos in power. They have broken faith with the youth. Instead of becoming transformational and visionary thinkers capable of inspiring the youth with creative ideas, the majority of the intellectual Hippos have chosen to dissociate themselves from the youth or have joined the service of the dictators to advance their own self-interests.
The shameless canard is that Ethiopia’s youth “have started to benefit from the ongoing development.” The facts tell a completely different story. Though the Ethiopian population under the age of 18 is estimated to be 41 million or just over half of Ethiopia’s population, UNICEF estimates that malnutrition is responsible for more than half of all deaths among children under age five. Ethiopia has an estimated 5 million orphans; or approximately 15 per cent of all children are orphans! Some 800,000 children are estimated to be orphaned as a result of AIDS. Urban youth unemployment is estimated at over 70 per cent. Ethiopia has one of the lowest youth literacy rate in Africa according to a 2011 report of the United Nations Capital Development Fund. Literacy in the 15-24 age group is a dismal 43 percent; gross enrollment at the secondary level is a mere 30.9 percent! A shocking 77.8 per cent of the Ethiopian youth population lives on less than USD$2 per day! Young people have to sell their souls to get a job. According to the 2010 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report, “Reliable reports establish that unemployed youth who were not affiliated with the ruling coalition sometimes had trouble receiving the ‘support letters’ from their kebeles necessary to get jobs.” Party memberships is the sine qua non for government employment, educational and business opportunity and the key to survival in a police state. The 2011 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report concluded, “According to credible sources, the ruling party ‘stacks’ student enrollment at Addis Ababa University, which is the nation’s largest and most influential university, with students loyal to the party to ensure further adherence to the party’s principles and to forestall any student protest.”
Frustrated and in despair, many youths drop out of school and engage in a fatalistic pattern of risky behaviors including drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse, crime and delinquency and sexual activity which exposes them to a risk of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases including HIV. Poor youths (the overwhelming majority of youth population) deprived of educational and employment opportunity, have lost faith in their own and their country’s future. When I contemplate the situation of Ethiopia’s youth, I am haunted by the penetrating question recently posed by Hajj Mohamed Seid, the prominent Ethiopian Muslim leader in exile in Toronto: “Is there an Ethiopian generation left now? The students who enrolled in the universities are demoralized; their minds are afflicted chewing khat (a mild drug) and smoking cigarettes. They [the ruling regime] have destroyed a generation.”
Unchain the Cheetahs
Many of my readers are familiar with my numerous commentaries on Ethiopia’s chained youth yearning for freedom and change. My readers will also remember my fierce and unremitting defense of Ethiopia’s Proudest Cheetahs — Eskinder Nega, Serkalem Faisl, Andualem Aragie, Woubshet Alemu, Reeyot Alemu, Bekele Gerba, Olbana Lelisa and so many others — jailed for exercising their constitutional rights and for speaking truth to power. But in the Year of the Cheetahs, I aim to call attention to the extreme challenges faced by Ethiopia’s youth and make a moral appeal to all Hippos, particularly the intellectual Hippos in the Diaspora, to stand up and be counted with the youth by providing support, guidance and inspiration. In June 2010, I called attention to some undeniable facts:
The wretched conditions of Ethiopia’s youth point to the fact that they are a ticking demographic time bomb. The evidence of youth frustration, discontent, disillusionment and discouragement by the protracted economic crisis, lack of economic opportunities and political repression is manifest, overwhelming and irrefutable. The yearning of youth for freedom and change is self-evident. The only question is whether the country’s youth will seek change through increased militancy or by other peaceful means. On the other hand, many thousands gripped by despair and hopelessness and convinced they have no future in Ethiopia continue to vote with their feet. Today, young Ethiopian refugees can be found in large numbers from South Africa to North America and the Middle East to the Far East.
In this Year of the Ethiopian Cheetahs, those of us with a conscience in the Hippo Generation must do a few things to atone for our failures and make amends to our youth. President Obama, though short on action, is nearly always right in his analysis of Africa’s plight: “We’ve learned that it will not be giants like Nkrumah and Kenyatta who will determine Africa’s future. It will be the young people brimming with talent and energy and hope who can claim the future that so many in previous generations never realized.” We, learned Hippos, must learn that Ethiopia’s destiny will not be determined by the specter of dead dictators or their dopplegangers. It will not be determined by those who use the state as their private fiefdom and playground, or those who spread the poison of ethnic politics to prolong their lease on power. Ethiopia’s destiny will be determined by a robust coalition of Cheetahs who must unite, speak in one voice and act like fingers in a clenched fist to achieve a common destiny.
I craft my message here to the Hippos out of power and the intellectual Hippos standing on the sidelines. I say step up, stand up and be counted with the youth. Know that they are the only ones who can unchain us from the cages of our own hateful ethnic politics. Only they can liberate us from the curse of religious sectarianism. They are the ones who can free us from our destructive ideological conflicts. They are the ones who can emancipate us from the despair and misery of dictatorship. We need to reach, teach and preach to the Cheetahs to free their minds from mental slavery and help them develop their creative powers.
We must reach out to the Cheetahs using all available technology and share with them our knowledge and expertise in all fields. We must listen to what they have to say. We need to understand their views and perspectives on the issues and problems that are vital to them. It is a fact that we have for far too long marginalized the youth in our discussions and debates. We are quick to tell them what to do but turn a deaf ear to what they have to say. We lecture them when we are not ignoring them. Rarely do we show our young people the respect they deserve. We tend to underestimate their intelligence and overestimate our abilities and craftiness to manipulate and use them for our own cynical ends. In the Year of the Cheetah, I plead with my fellow intellectual Hippos to reach out and touch the youth.
We must teach the youth the values that are vital to all of us. Hajj Mohamed Seid has warned us that without unity, we have nothing. “If there is no country, there is no religion. It is only when we have a country that we find everything.” That is why we must teach the youth they must unite as the children of Mother Ethiopia, and reject any ideology, scheme or effort that seeks to divide them on the basis of ethnicity, religion, gender, language, region or class. We must teach to enlighten, to uncover and illuminate the lies and proclaim the truth. It is easier for tyrants and dictators to rob the rights of youth who are ignorant and fearful. “Ignorance has always been the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of tyrants.” Nelson Mandela has taught us that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Educating and teaching the youth is the most powerful weapon in the fight against tyranny and dictatorship. In the Year of the Cheetah, I plead with my fellow intellectual Hippos to teach the Cheetahs to fight ignorance and ignoramuses with knowledge, enlightenment and intelligence.
We must also preach the way of peace, democracy, human rights, the rule of law, accountability and transparency. No man shall make himself the law. Those who have committed crimes against humanity and genocide must be held to account. There shall be no state within the state. Exercise of one’s constitutional rights should not be criminalized. Might does not make right! In the Year of the Cheetah, I plead with my fellow intellectual Hippos to preach till kingdom come.
We need to find ways to link Ethiopian Diaspora youth with youth in Ethiopia in a Chain of Destiny. Today, we see a big disconnect and a huge gulf between young Ethiopians in the Diaspora and those in Ethiopia. That is partly a function of geography, but also class. It needs to be bridged. We need to help organize and provide support to Ethiopian Diaspora youth to link up with their counterparts in Ethiopia so that they could have meaningful dialogue and interaction and work together to ensure a common democratic future.
The challenges facing Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation are enormous, but we must do all we can to prepare the youth to take leadership roles in their future. We need to help them develop a formal youth agenda that addresses the wide range of problems, challenges and issues facing them. All we need to do is provide them guidance, counsel and advice. The Cheetahs are fully capable of doing the heavy lifting if the Hippos are willing to carry water to them.
Ethiopian Youth Must Lead a National Dialogue in Search of a Path to Peaceful Change
I have said it before and I will say is again and again. For the past year, I have been talking and writing about Ethiopia’s inevitable transition from dictatorship to democracy. I have also called for a national dialogue to facilitate the transition and appealed to Ethiopia’s youth to lead a grassroots and one-on-one dialogue across ethnic, religious, linguistic and religious lines. I made the appeal because I believe Ethiopia’s salvation and destiny rests not in the fossilized jaws of power-hungry Hippos but in the soft and delicate paws of the Cheetahs. In the Year of the Cheetahs, I plead with Ethiopia’s youth inside the country and in the Diaspora to take upon the challenge and begin a process of reconciliation. I have come to the regrettable conclusion that most Hippos are hardwired not to reconcile. Hippos have been “reconciling” for decades using the language of finger pointing, fear and smear, mudslinging and grudge holding. But Cheetahs have no choice but to genuinely reconcile because if they do not, they will inherit the winds of ethnic and sectarian strife.
In making my plea to Ethiopia’s Cheetahs, I only ask them to begin an informal dialogue among themselves. Let them define national reconciliation as they see it. They should empower themselves to create their own political space and to talk one-on-one across ethnic, religious, linguistic, gender, regional and class lines. I underscore the importance of closing the gender gap and maximizing the participation of young women in the national reconciliation conversations. It is an established social scientific fact that women do a far superior job than men when it comes to conciliation, reconciliation and mediation. Dialogue involves not only talking to each other but also listening to one another. Ethiopia’s Cheetahs should use their diversity as a strength and must never allow their diversity to be used to divide and conquer them.
Up With Ethiopian Cheetahs!
Africans know all too well that hippos (including their metaphorical human counterparts) are dangerous animals that are fiercely territorial and attack anything that comes into their turf. Every year more people are killed by hippos (both the real and metaphorical ones) in Africa than lions or elephants. Cheetahs are known to be the fastest animals, but their weakness is that they give up the chase easily or surrender their prey when challenged by other predators including hyenas. A group of hippos is known as a crash. A group of cheetahs is called a “coalition”. Only a coalition of cheetahs organized across ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional lines can crash a crash of hippos and a cackle of hyenas and save Ethiopia.
In this Year of Ethiopian Cheetahs, I expect to make my full contribution to uplift and support Ethiopia’s youth and to challenge them to rise up to newer heights. I appeal to all of my brother and sister Hippos to join me in this effort. As for the Cheetahs, I say, darkness always give way to light. “It is often in the darkest skies that we see the brightest stars.” Ethiopia’s Cheetahs must be strong in spirit and in will. As Gandhi said, “Strength does not come from physical capacity”, nor does it come from guns, tanks and war planes. “It comes from an indomitable will.” Winston Churchill must have learned something from Gandhi when he said, “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Ethiopian Cheetahs must never give in!
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:
Over the past six years, I have written numerous columns defending press freedom in Ethiopia. In a 2009 commentary entitled, “The Art of War on Ethiopia’s Independent Press”, I expressed astonishment over the heavy handed treatment of the free press: “Use a sledgehammer to smash a butterfly! That is the exquisite art of war unleashed on Ethiopia’s independent press by the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi today.”
In a 2007 column entitled “Monkey Trial in Kangaroo Kourt“, I wrote about the Kafkaesque use of the courts by the dictatorship in Ethiopia to crush dissent and suppress criticism. Franz Kafka’s famous novel, The Trial, begins with the sentence, “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” K., is ordered to stand trial before know-nothing judges who do the bidding of their invisible puppet masters. K’s guilt is a foregone conclusion. Everything about the trial is a secret — the charges, the court procedures and the judges. K cannot defend himself because he is never told what crimes he has committed. He is denied access to the evidence against him. K’s trial is delayed time and again. His lawyer is unable to help him in a system where there is neither law nor procedure.
Such is the stark portrait of Zenawi’s prosecution and conviction of journalists, dissidents and opposition political leaders in his Kafkaesque Kangaroo Kourts in Ethiopia (KKK) today. He uses lies, damned lies and loathsome lies as evidence to convict opponents and those who disagree with him under his cut-and-paste anti-terrorism law. To add political drama and add insult to injury, “sentencing” is scheduled for mid-July.
Human Rights Watch documented that the “convictions” last week, together with others over the past six months, “bring the total known number of individuals convicted of terrorism-related charges to 34, including 11 journalists, at least 4 opposition supporters and 19 others.” Zenawi can now beat his chest in triumph and do a few victory laps for “convicting” Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Swedish journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, and opposition party leaders and dissdents Andualem Arage, Nathnael Mekonnen, Mitiku Damte, Yeshiwas Yehunalem, Kinfemichael Debebe, Andualem Ayalew, Nathnael Mekonnen, Yohannes Terefe, Zerihun Gebre-Egziabher and many others.
None of this is new even to the casual observer. Over the years, Zenawi has been using his KKK to railroad into prison independent journalists, opposition leaders and dissidents. So say the U.S. Government and various international human rights organizations using diplomatic language. The 2010 U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices on Ethiopia 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 significant political intervention and influence.” Human Rights Watch concluded in its 2007 report: “In high-profile cases, [Ethiopian] courts show little independence or concern for defendants’ procedural rights… The judiciary often acts only after unreasonably long delays, sometimes because of the courts’ workloads, more often because of excessive judicial deference to bad faith prosecution requests for time to search for evidence of a crime.”
Condemnation of the KKK Verdicts
There has been an outpuring of condemnation against the KKK verdicts and demands for the immediate release of the “convicted” journalists and others from various soruces. The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement asserting that “The Ethiopian government has once again succeeded in misusing the law to silence critical and independent reporting. Ethiopia will not hesitate to punish a probing press by imprisoning journalists or pushing them into exile.” Human Rights Watch expressed dismay: “This case shows that Ethiopia’s government will not tolerate even the mildest criticism. The use of draconian laws and trumped-up charges to crack down on free speech and peaceful dissent makes a mockery of the rule of law.” Amnesty International condemned the “trumped up” charges and declared: “This is a dark day for justice in Ethiopia, where freedom of expression is being systematically destroyed by a government targeting any dissenting voice. The verdict seemed to be a foregone conclusion.”
U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, Donald Booth said, “I find the convictions of predominantly journalists and politicians raises questions about the compatibility of the anti-terrorism law with constitutional guarantees for freedom of expression.” According to the Embassy’s posted statement: “The arrest of journalists has a chilling effect on the media and on the right to freedom of expression. We have made clear in our ongoing human rights dialogue with the Ethiopian government that freedom of expression and freedom of the media are fundamental elements of a democratic society. A U.S. State Department spokesman explained that even though the U.S. works with the regime in Ethiopia “on certain things, you can be straight with them when you disagree with their policies in other areas, as we always are with Ethiopia with regard to press freedom.”
U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, who two weeks ago in his statement in the Congressional Record, noted that the ruling regime in Ethiopia has made it impossible for “journalists like Eskinder Nega to do their work of reporting and peaceful political participation”, issued a strongly worded press release condemning the travesty of justice:
The Ethiopian Government’s use of vague anti-terrorism laws to silence the press has been widely and rightly condemned. The conviction of Eskinder Nega and other journalists, who are accused of nothing more than the peaceful exercise of rights clearly recognized under international law, is the work of a regime that fears the democratic aspirations of its own people. Over the years, United States administrations have provided Prime Minister Meles a veneer of legitimacy due to our shared interest in countering real terrorist threats, but he has exploited the relationship for his own political ends. It is time to put the values and principles that distinguish us from terrorists, above aid to a government that misuses its institutions to silence its critics.
Eskinder and Andualem, Invictius!
Unlike Kafka’s Joseph K. who met his end helplessly bleating out the words, “like a dog”, Eskinder and Andualem returned to their prison cells like two roaring lions sauntering to their cages. (I say, one caged lion commands more respect than a thousand free hyenas.) They knew long ago that their “conviction” was inevitable and a foregone conclusion. No journalist, dissident or opposition party leaders has ever been found not guilty by Zenawi’s KKK. Eskinder Nega, a man whose name is synonymous with the word dignity and the irrepressible symbol of press freedom not only in Ethiopia but throughout the world, had a few words of wisdom to share with the unprincipled hacks in robes: “I have struggled for peaceful democracy, and I have never disrespected any individual and I didn’t commit a crime. My conscience is clear.” The hacks tried to silence him, but as always Eskinder spoke truth to power: “You have to stand for justice, you have to allow us to say what we want… you have no right to limit our freedom of speech.”
Eskinder is a hero of a special kind. He is a hero who fights with nothing more than ideas and the truth. He slays falsehoods with the sword of truth. He chases bad ideas with good ones. Armed only with a pen, Eskinder fights despair with hope; fear with courage; anger with reason; arrogance with humility; ignorance with knowledge; intolerance with forbearance; oppression with perseverance; doubt with trust and cruelty with compassion.
It is a crying shame that Eskinder, who is a hero to so many heroes of press freedom throughout the world, should be judged by an unholy trinity of benighted, scheming and pusillanimous judicial puppets.
Andualem Aragie, the dynamic and courageous young opposition leader was defiant and unbowed:
The last six months that we have spent are days when the people of Ethiopia have struggled for their human dignity and human rights. But the people have not been fortunate enough to enjoy their democratic rights. In my generation, I have tried to struggle to the best of my ability for my children and for all the people of Ethiopia. In doing so, I did not start with malice [or ill will]. In doing so, I did not commit a crime. In doing so, I did not aim to undermine the interests of my poor country. In what I have done, I do not believe I have offended my Creator, the people of Ethiopia or my own conscience. I am in total peace. Why I am standing here is because of my yearning for freedom. This is not the first time that I have sought justice in Ethiopian courts and been denied jusitce. I will not ask for mercy [from this court] for I have committed no crime. I will graciously drink from the cup of oppression my persecutors have prepared for me for my conscience will not allow me to do anything else.
Why Does Zenawi Persecute and Prosecute the Free Press and Dissidents?
Why does Zenawi go through hell and high water to crush the few struggling independent newspapers, dissidents and opposition leaders in the country? Why does he shutter newspapers that have a circulation of just a few thousand copies when he owns ALL of the printing presses and radio and television media in the country? What is he afraid of?
The answer is simple: The Truth! Zenawi can’t handle the truth. He hates the independent press because it reflects the corruption, repression and oppression of his regime. He fears criticism and genuine expression of public opinion because he does not want to see his reflection in the true mirror of the peoples’ eyes. He much prefers to wallow in his own delusional, imaginary and virtual image of the “Great Leader of the Renaissance” reflected in the glazed and bulging eyes of his Yes-men. But as the recent history of the “Arab Spring” has shown, dictatorships are like castles built of sand which dissolve and are washed away when struck by a single sweep of the ocean’s wave. Regardless of how long dictators keep cracking down on the free press and terrorize the people, in the end they are always swept and vacuumed into the dustbin of history by the tornadic force of the people’s fury. Think of it, always!
It has to be remembered that AlShebab has assigned me secretly to make propagation activities in Ethiopia, Somaliland, Kenya and Uganda. To accomplish the task we have agreed with you through your representative Ato Mamush Sentie in Eritrea to publish propaganda articles against the Ethiopian government, against the interest of the Ethiopian people and the American government…”
Give us a break!
But we have seen it all before. Zenawi’s MO goes through three stages. First, he demonizes his adversaries. Then he criminalizes them. In the third stage, he dehumanizes them.That is how he did it to Eskinder Nega, Andualem Aragie, Dawit Kebede and so many others.
Temesgen and Feteh are now undergoing the demonization stage. In a few weeks or less, a full scale campaign will be waged against them in the regime owned media. They will be called “terrorists”, “insurrectionists”, “agitators”, “foreign agents” “spies” and whatever else the dirty tricks department can manage to fabricate. There will be frenzied “calls” to the regime from “ordinary citizens” to take action against them.
The criminalization stage will begin in a couple of months or less with a videotaped arrest of Temesgen and possibly other Feteh members in the street in much the same way as they did Eskinder Nega and Andualem Aragie. (Someone must really enjoy watching the videotape of those arrests.Eskinder’s official captors videotaped the whole arrest and laughed boisterously as Eskinder’s traumatized six year old child cried his eyes out for his daddy.)
Then, the dehumanization stage takes place in jail as they await “trial” in the KKK — torture and beatings, denial of medical care, denial of family visits, daily insults, humiliation and degradation, solitary confinement and on and on. In the end, there will be a show KKK trial for Temesgen Desalegn et al with ambassadors, representatives of international organizations and family members sitting in the gallery. The verdict and sentnece will be the same as always: Guilty, guilty, guilty… 15 years at hard labor… 20 years at hard labor… life in prison…
It is all so pathetically predictable.
Losing the Battle, Winning the War
This is the unfinished story of the war on the independent free press in Ethiopia, and the victors and the victims in that war. The final struggle between the dictators who wield swords and the journalists who wield pens, pencils and computer keyboards will be decided in a war for the hearts and minds of the Ethiopian people. I have no doubts whatsoever that the outcome of that war is foreordained. In fact, I believe that war has already been won. For as Edward Bulwer-Lytton penned in his verse, in the war between swordholders and penholders, final victory always goes to the penholders:
‘True, This! –
Beneath the rule of men entirely great,
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! – itself a nothing! –
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyze the Caesars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! – Take away the sword –
States can be saved without it!’
But if the paramount question is to save the Ethiopian state or to save Ethiopia’s free press, I would, as Thomas Jefferson said, save the latter: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
The Actions of Our Enemies, the Silence of Our Friends
Dr. Martin Luther King said, “We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” I would add that we will remember and forgive the words and actions of our enemies for they know not what they say and do; but the cowardice, indifference, apathy, disinterest and cold neutrality of our friends who know or should know better but stand in the face of evil with their heads bowed, eyes closed, ears plugged and lips muted, we can neither forgive nor forget!!!
I believe nothing is more important and uplifting to political prisoners than knowledge of the fact that they are not forgotten, abandoned and forsaken by their compatriots. We must stand with Eskinder Nega, Andualem Aragie, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye and the countless political prisoners in Ethiopia. Every day, they are beaten down and brought to their knees. We cannot hear their whimpers of pain and the silence of their desperation. Because they have no voice, we must be their voices and speak on their behalf. Because they are walled behind filthy prisons, we must unfailingly remind the world of their subhuman existence.
We must all labor for the cause of Ethiopian political prisoners not because it is easy or fashionable, but because it is ethical, honorable, right and just. In the end, what will make the difference for the future of Ethiopia is not the brutality, barbarity, bestiality and inhumanity of its corrupt dictators, but the humanity, dignity, adaptability, audacity, empathy and compassion of ordinary Ethiopians for their wrongfully imprisoned and long-suffering compatriots. That is why we must join hands and work tirelessly to free all political prisoners in Ethiopia.
FREE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA!
FREE THE FREE PRESS IN ETHIOPIA!
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: