Skip to content

Birtukan Midekssa

Mr. Zenawi Goes to College!

Alemayehu G. Mariam

Zenawi’s Charm Offensive in America?

Fresh on the heels of shutting down all private distance education, including distance higher education, and “winning” the parliamentary election in May by 99.6 percent, dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi is scheduled to speak at Columbia University on September 22 and trumpet his accomplishments as the guardian of democracy and prosperity in Ethiopia and provider of enlightened leadership to the African continent. The puffed up announcement for his appearance at Columbia’s World Leaders Forum, which was subsequently withdrawn by an embarrassed University administration, stated:

… Meles Zenawi of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia will present the keynote address on the topic of Ethiopia and African Leadership. His address will launch CGT’s the World and Africa series…. Zenawi has served as chairman of the Organisation of the African Union (1995-1996), as co-chairman of the Global Coalition for Africa, and was appointed as Chair of the African Heads of State and Government in Climate Change (CAHOSCC)… Zenawi was the co-chairperson of the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2006, which led to the adoption of the Beijing Action Plan for partnership in economic progress. Under the seasoned governmental leadership of… Zenawi…Ethiopia has made and continues to make progresses (sic) in many areas including in education, transportation, health and energy.

The event is designed to facilitate “conversations to examine Africa’s place in the world”. The “key subjects” of the conversation reportedly “include the future of African agriculture, the explosion of Asian investment on the continent, the evolving contours of global aid to Africa, and the impact of the financial crisis on the region.”

Allowing Zenawi to Speak at Columbia is “An Affront to His Victims” of Human Rights Abuses

Nowhere is the case for disallowing Zenawi the right to speak at Columbia University made more convincingly and compellingly than in the letter of two extraordinarily courageous Ethiopian husband and wife team of journalists, Eskinder Nega and Serkalem Fasil, to university president Lee Bollinger. They wrote[1]:

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.)

…While we acknowledge [Zenawi’s] right to express his views, it is an affront to his government’s numerous victims of repression to grant him the privilege to do so on the notable premises of Columbia…

Serkalem and Eskinder are absolutely right in their expressions of outraged disapproval of Zenawi’s speech at Columbia. These are two Ethiopian journalists for whom I have the highest respect and admiration. They are selfless patriots who could be described best in Churchillian terms: “Never in the field of journalism was so much owed by so many to so few.”

I have been approached by various groups and individuals to urge the leadership of Columbia to dis-invite Zenawi or have the university withdraw the offer of delivering the “keynote address”. The reasons are many. Some say mere invitation to speak at the world-class institution gives Zenawi a certain patina of legitimacy, which he could use to hoodwink Americans and camouflage his criminal history. Others say he will try to use the event as a soapbox to disseminate lies about his “accomplishments”, complete with wholly fabricated statistics about “double digit growth”[2] and fairy tales of a 99.6 percent election victory, and use the Forum as a bully pulpit to rag against his critics. There are those who suggest that Stiglitz staged the “keynote address” to give his “buddy Zenawi” an opportunity to clean up his image and build up some intellectual “creds”, which Zenawi could take back to Ethiopia for bragging rights. I respect the views of those who urge Columbia to disinvite Zenawi.

But as a university professor and constitutional lawyer steadfastly dedicated to free speech, I have adopted one yardstick for all issues concerning free speech, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” I underscore the words “everyone” and “regardless of frontiers.”

Alternatively stated, though I condemn Zenawi for his abuse, mistreatment and cruelty against Serkalem and Eskinder and other journalists, disagree with him on his repeated theft of elections, trashing of the human rights of Ethiopian citizens, boldfaced lies about economic growth[2], manipulation of the judiciary for political purposes, unjust incarceration of Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history and tens of thousands of other political prisoners, crackdown on the press and civil society organizations, subversion of the legislative process to mill out repressive laws and his completely bogus theory of “ethnic federalism” (an artifice of his divide-and-rule strategy) and so on, I shall vigorously defend his right to speak not just at Columbia but at any other public venue in the United States of America.

Right to Protest

Let me make it clear that I am not arguing here that those who wish to protest Zenawi’s speech at Columbia should not do so. They should; and I defend vigorously their constitutional right to protest and fully express their views about his actions and policies. My only plea to them is that we should strive to make this opportunity a teachable moment for Zenawi. In my view, it would be a crying shame for Zenawi to hop on his plane and go back to Ethiopia mumbling to himself something about the “extreme Diaspora” and so on because he is heckled, disrupted or somehow impeded from speaking. I say if we can tolerate racist and hate speech on university campuses, we can also tolerate the rant of a petty tyrant for an hour or two.

A Teachable Moment for a Tyrant

My reasons for defending Zenawi’s right to speak are principled, straightforward and myriad:

At the most elementary level, the American university is a traditional forum for the free exchange of ideas, whether silly or sublime. Every year, tens of thousands of speeches are given on American university campuses. Even the representatives of the Neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and motley crews of racists and fascists are allowed to speak on American university campuses. By the same token, Zenawi should be able to speak at Columbia.

I realize that this may not be a popular view to hold, but I am reminded of the painful truth in Prof. Noam Chomsky’s admonition: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” On a personal level, it would be hypocritical of me to argue for free speech and press freedoms in Ethiopia and justify censorship or muzzling of Zenawi stateside. If censorship is bad for the good citizens of Ethiopia, it is also bad for the dictators of Ethiopia.

But there is another set of reasons why I want Zenawi to speak at Columbia. I want the event to be a teachable moment for him. Perhaps this opportunity will afford him a glimpse of the clash of ideas that routinely take place in American universities. He may begin to appreciate the simple truth that ideas are accepted and rejected and arguments won and lost in the cauldron of critical analysis oxygenated by the bellows of free speech, not in prison dungeons where journalists and dissidents are bludgeoned and left to rot. By denying Zenawi the right to speak at Columbia, we also risk becoming prisoners of ignorance. That is why free speech is at the core of Nelson Mandela’s teaching: “A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness.” Free speech is the key by which one escapes from the steel bars and stonewalls of “prejudice and narrow-mindedness.” I sincerely hope Zenawi will find that key at Columbia and finally escape from his bleak and desolate planet of “prejudice and narrow-mindedness.”

On another level, to disallow Zenawi from speaking is an implicit admission that we fear ideas. Zenawi has muzzled and intimidated nearly all of his critics and shuttered newspapers in Ethiopia, jammed the Voice of America and the independent Ethiopian Satellite Television Service and enacted repressive press and civil society laws because he is afraid of ideas – ideas about freedom, democracy, human rights, accountability, transparency, the rule of law and so on. But the old adage still holds true: “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” In America, we cherish and embrace good ideas (not fear them) and put them into practice; we discard the bad ones in the trash.
But I have a reason that overrides all others. I believe in the power of truth. We can neither defend the truth nor championed it by muzzling the liar. Let Zenawi speak! Let him have his “conversation”!

A Few Topics for “Conversation”

Since Prof. Stiglitz is interested in having a “conversation”, here are a few topics he should ask Zenawi to talk about. How is it that Ethiopia, under his “seasoned” leadership, managed to rank:

138/159 (most corrupt) countries on the Corruption Index for 2010.

17 among the most failed states (Somalia is No. 1) on the Failed States Index for 2010.

136/179 countries (most repressive) on the 2010 Index of Economic Freedom.

107/183 economies for ease of doing business (investment climate) by The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in 2010.

37/53 (poorest governance quality) African countries in the 2010 Ibrahim Index of African Governance.

101/128 countries in 2010 on the Bertelsmann Political and Economic Transformation Index, and

141/153 (poorest environmental public health and ecosystem vitality) countries in the 2010 Environmental Performance Index.

Fables, Fairy Tales and Q&As

I can imagine Zenawi’s angst at the podium preparing to tell his fables and fairy tales about Ethiopia’s double-digit growth, democracy and leadership in Africa, globalization and its impact on Africa or whatever topic he chooses at the last minute to confuse his audience. It’s all good; fairy tales are entertaining. However, I suspect that the story-telling session will not be the usual cakewalk. At Columbia, unlike his rubberstamp parliament, Zenawi will not be able to scowl at, browbeat, belittle or mock anyone; and unless Stigliz and company rig the Q&A session to give Zenawi only softball questions, he is going to get some heavy duty drubbing from students and faculty. I would wager to say that his speech will not be the usual soporific monologue; it will be a real “conversation”where he will be asked questions that will make him cringe and wince.
I can imagine the audience asking these questions:

Mr. Zenawi, what is the special magical spell you used to win the May 2010 election by 99.6 percent?

Answer: “Say ‘abracadabra’ ten times while holding a rabbit’s foot in the left hand at the crack of dawn.”

When will you stop trashing the human rights of Ethiopian citizens?

Answer: “As soon as you tell me when they started having human rights.”

Why do you lie about double-digit economic growth by using cooked up numbers from your Central Statistics office?[1]

Answer: “There are ‘lies and plausible lies’. Our statistics are of the latter variety.”

Why did you shut down all distance education programs in the country?

Answer: “Because education is overrated.”

Why did you wipe out the private independent media in the country?

Answer: “Because they don’t like me.”

Do you really believe the Voice of America is the same as Rwanda’s genocide Radio Mille Collines?

Answer: “VOA, VOI (Voice of Interhamwe). It all sounds the same to me.”

What do you think of your critics in the U.S.?

Answer: “They are all friggin extremists in the Diaspora. I can’t stand them. Why? Oh! Why don’t they like me?!?”

Do you believe in the rule of law?

Answer: “Yep! I am it.”

When will you release Birtukan Midekssa, the only woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, from prison?

Answer: “‘There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.'”

“If there are no more questions, I am outta here!”

Just at that moment, I can imagine President Bollinger leaping to his feet with index finger wagging in righteous indignation and proclaiming: “Mr. Prime Minister, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.”

We are All Ears!

Let Zenawi speak! Let’s hear what he has to say. Will it be the usual cascade of lies, half-truths, buzzwords, platitudes, clichés and boiler plate economics hokum bunkum? I have no idea. Over the past several days, Stiglitz and crew have been playing the old switcheroo on the topics Zenawi will be talking about. First, they said Zenawi will speak on “Ethiopia and Africa leadership.” They changed that and said he will talk about “the current global economy and its impact”. Now they say he will be talking about “the current global economy and its impact on Africa”. It is not clear what expertise Zenawi has on globalization or what morsels of wisdom he may be able to impart, but Stiglitz should have no problems writing a nice scholarly-sounding speech for Zenawi to read. After all, the “impact of the global economy on Africa” is the snake oil Joe “The Globalizer” Stiglitz has been peddling for the past decade.

Regardless, Zenawi may have something worthwhile to say. I don’t know. We won’t know unless we hear him speak. The bottom line is that Zenawi would rather go blind than face the naked truth about his atrocious record over the past two decades, but we are not afraid to confront his best dressed lies at the World Leaders Forum. At the end of the day on September 22, when the fog clears over Columbia, Zenawi would have walked off the stage at the Low Library as he walked on it: An emperor with new clothes! So I say: Rap on, Emperor. Rap on!

Welcome to the land of the free and home of the brave!


[2] “The Voodoo Economics of Meles Zenawi”,

Open Letter to President Lee C. Bollinger, Columbia University

Alemayehu G. Mariam

September 17, 2010

President Lee C. Bollinger
Office of the President
Columbia University
202 Low Library
535 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10027

By Fax: (212) 854-9973 and
Email: [email protected]

Dear President Bollinger:
On September 22, 2010, Mr. Meles Zenawi is scheduled to deliver the keynote address at an event sponsored by Columbia University’s Committee on Global Thought. There is widespread belief among Ethiopian Americans that Mr. Zenawi’s invitation to speak at this event necessarily implies the University’s endorsement and support of Mr. Zenawi’s views, policies and actions in Ethiopia. I am writing to request your office to issue an official statement clarifying your position concerning Mr. Zenawi as you so eloquently did when Mahmood Ahmadinejad of Iran spoke on your campus on September 24, 2007.

Let me say at the outset that I believe Mr. Zenawi has a “right” to speak at your university, though he is not a United States citizen or lawful resident. I firmly believe, though others may reasonably disagree with me, that any individual who is present in this great country has the right to free expression under the protective umbrella of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. I make no exceptions for Mr. Zenawi.

In your prefatory remarks preceding Mr. Ahmadinejad’s speech in 2007, you offered an exposition on free speech that is instructive to all who believe in freedom of expression.[1] You said that the “genius of the American idea of free speech” is to empower us not “to retreat from engagement with ideas we dislike and fear” and “to have the intellectual and emotional courage to confront the mind of evil.” Nowhere is your statement true than in a university where the denizens “have a deep and almost single-minded commitment to pursue the truth.” I believe, as you do, that there must be no obstruction to the free exchange of ideas in the university setting. . As you correctly pointed out to Mr. Ahmadinejad, open inquiry, debate and dialogue are “required by existing norms of free speech in the American university.”

In your remarks you specified five substantive issue areas for which Mr. Ahmadinejad deserved just condemnation and censure. One of them was Mr. Ahmadinejad’s “brutal crackdown on scholars, journalists and human rights advocates” in Iran. Citing Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports, you deplored the execution of more than 200 persons in Iran in 2007, including at least two children. You also expressed just outrage over his denials and mockery of irrefutable facts about the Holocaust, his failure to adhere to international regimes on nuclear power and his support for terrorism. In righteous indignation, you told Mr. Ahmadinejad: “Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.”

Petty and cruel dictators, Mr. President, have also infested the African continent and threaten the lives of African peoples on a daily basis. In Ethiopia, for nearly two decades, Mr. Zenawi has lorded over one of the cruelest dictatorships in the modern world. Let the facts speak for themselves:

In 2005, security forces under the personal command and control of Mr. Zenawi massacred 193 unarmed protesters and inflicted severe gunshot wounds on 763 others.[2] Today, the murderers walk the streets free.

In May 2010, Mr. Zenawi made a travesty of democracy by claiming that his party won the parliamentary election by 99.6 percent. The European Union Election Observation Mission described the same election in its preliminary report as “marred by a narrowing of political space and an uneven playing field.”[3]

In December 2008, Mr. Zenawi arrested and reinstated a life sentence on Birtukan Midekssa, the only woman political party leader in Ethiopian history. He kept her under extreme conditions in prison. In describing Birtukan’s situation, the most recent U.S. State Department Human Rights Report stated: “She was held in solitary confinement until June [2009], despite a court ruling that indicated it was a violation of her constitutional rights. She was also denied access to visitors except for a few close family members, despite a court order granting visitor access without restrictions.”[4] Birtukan is considered to be a political prisoner by the various international human rights organizations. “Amnesty International considers her a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned for peacefully exercising her right to freedom of expression and association.”[5]

A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Zenawi shut down all distance education programs in the country, including those providing higher education and technical training to over 75,000 students in flagrant violation of the applicable laws of the country on the pretext that such programs were interested “only in collecting money.”[6]

For the past several years, Mr. Zenawi has misused the legislative process in Ethiopia to institutionalize repression and legitimize gross human rights violations. According to Human Rights Watch[7]:

In 2009 the government passed two pieces of legislation that codify some of the worst aspects of the slide towards deeper repression and political intolerance. A civil society law passed in January is one of the most restrictive of its kind, and its provisions will make most independent human rights work impossible. A new counterterrorism law passed in July permits the government and security forces to prosecute political protesters and non-violent expressions of dissent as acts of terrorism.

Mr. Zenawi has shuttered private newspaper in Ethiopia and effectively eliminated the independent press. The Committee to Protect Journalists in its recent report stated[8]:

The government enacted harsh legislation that criminalized coverage of vaguely defined “terrorist” activities, and used administrative restrictions, criminal prosecutions, and imprisonments to induce self-censorship… The government has had a longstanding practice of bringing trumped-up criminal cases against critical journalists, leaving the charges unresolved for years as a means of intimidating the defendants… Ethiopia as the only country in sub-Saharan Africa with ‘consistent’ and ‘substantial’ filtering of web sites…

In your remarks, you challenged Mr. Ahmadinejad on his abuse of the Press Law to ban writers for criticizing the ruling system and rhetorically asked: “Why are you so afraid of Iranian citizens expressing their opinions for change?” You need to pose the same question to Mr. Zenawi: “Why are you so afraid of Ethiopian citizens expressing their opinions for change?”

Mr. Zenawi has jammed the Voice of America, the official external radio and television broadcasting service of the United States Government, claiming that the 68 year-old service is the equivalent of the Radio Mille Collines, which coordinated the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Mr. Zenawi said: “We have been convinced for many years that in many respects, the VOA Amharic Service has copied the worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda in its wanton disregard of minimum ethics of journalism and engaging in destabilizing propaganda.”[9]

When Mr. Ahmadinejad outrageously denied the occurrence of the Holocaust, you told him without mincing words: “You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.” Mr. Zenawi needs to be similarly rebuked for equating the Voice of America with the wicked and loathsome Radio Mille Collines.

Mr. Zenawi runs one of the most repressive regimes in Africa. Human Rights Watch in its recent report stated[10]: “Ethiopia’s citizens are unable to speak freely, organize political activities, and challenge their government’s policies–through peaceful protest, voting, or publishing their views–without fear of reprisal.” The report described Mr. Zenawi’s regime as one masquerading in “a veneer of democratic pretension hiding a repressive state apparatus.”

Since 2006, a number of bills have been introduced in the United States Congress to restrain Mr. Zenawi from engaging in gross and sustained human rights violations, and to help him move towards democracy. H.R. 2003[11] (“Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007”) co-sponsored by 85 members passed the House of Representatives in 2007, but failed to clear the Senate. That bill sought to

support human rights, democracy, independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press, peacekeeping capacity building, and economic development in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia; strengthen U.S. collaboration with Ethiopia in the Global War on Terror; secure the release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Ethiopia; foster stability, democracy, and economic development in the region; support humanitarian assistance efforts, especially in the Ogaden region; and strengthen U.S.-Ethiopian relations.

Just last month, Senators Russ Feingold and Patrick Leahy introduced S.B. 3757[12] (“Support for Democracy and Human Rights in Ethiopia Act of 2010”) to

to ensure the autonomy and fundamental freedoms of civil society organizations, to respect the rights of and permit non-violent political parties to operate free from intimidation and harassment, including releasing opposition political leaders currently imprisoned; to strengthen the independence of its judiciary, and to allow Voice of America and other independent media to operate and broadcast without interference in Ethiopia [and] to promote respect for human rights and accountability.

It is vitally important for academics to speak truth to power. When you stood up and spoke truth to Ahmadinejad on September 24, 2007, you proved to the world the value of “hav[ing] the intellectual and emotional courage to confront the mind of evil.” On September 22, 2010, you have another golden opportunity to show the world that you and Columbia University will “confront the mind of evil” regardless of its origin on the planet. As millions of Iranians and others rejoiced hearing your words on September 24, 2007, so now millions of Ethiopians eagerly await your statement on September 22, 2010 that Columbia University condemns all violations of human rights, repression and theft of elections in Ethiopia by Mr. Zenawi and his regime.

Permit me to conclude my letter by paraphrasing your eloquent words when you expressed your disgust for Mr. Ahmadinejad’s actions: “I am only a professor and a lawyer, and today I feel all the weight of the Ethiopian people yearning to express their revulsion for what Mr. Zenawi has done to them over the past two decades.”


Alemayehu G. Mariam, Ph.D., J.D.
Professor and Attorney at Law
Department of Political Science
California State University, San Bernardino

Cc: Profs. Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, William Easterly (NYU)
Columbia Daily Spectator

[10] (Human Rights Watch, “One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure, Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia (2010)), pp. 2,3

Happy New Year Birtukan Invictus (Unconquered)!

Alemayehu G. Mariam

The great Nelson Mandela said, “In my country we go to prison first and then become President.” He assured the masters of the apartheid system, “You may succeed in delaying, but never in preventing the transition of South Africa to a democracy.” On the occasion of the Ethiopian New Year (2003) celebrated on September 11, I contemplate the words of Mandela as I admiringly think of Birtukan Midekssa, (Ethiopia’s No. 1 political prisoner and first ever political party leader), and the prospects of Ethiopia’s eventual transition from dictatorship to democracy.

In December 2008, Birtukan’s “pardon” from a kangaroo court conviction was revoked and her life sentence reinstated. She was literally snatched from the streets and thrown in solitary confinement for six months, despite a court ruling that such punishment was a violation of her constitutional rights. She is denied access to visitors except for her aging mother and five-year old daughter, despite a court order granting her visitor access without restrictions. She has been the object of ridicule by dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi who has characterized her as a “chicken” who did herself in and an idle prisoner sitting around and “putting on weight”.

Mandela said, “Prison itself is a tremendous education in the need for patience and perseverance. It is above all a test of one’s commitment.” It is comforting to know that Birtukan is receiving “a tremendous education” at Kality “Unversity” Federal Prison where she continues to face daily humiliation, isolation, degradation and dehumanization. But Birtukan perseveres and shall certainly overcome. To paraphrase William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus” (Unconquered), for nearly two years Birtukan has been shackled in Zenawi’s “pit of wrath and tears” and faced the “horror” of solitary confinement and degradation without “wincing or crying out loud.” Her “head has been bloodied, but unbowed.” Though she faces the “menace of the years” in prison, she remains unafraid because she is the “mistress of her fate and the captain of her soul.”

It was in prison that Mandela realized the true meaning of freedom:

It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.

The Prisoner of the Prisoners of Hate, Prejudice and Narrow-Mindedness

It is remarkable how Birtukan’s views mirror Mandela’s. In all of my conversations with her during her visit to the U.S. in the Fall of 2007, (when she led the official delegation of the Coalition of Unity and Democracy [Kinijit]), her Mandela-like compassion and understanding of her jailors and tormentors was instructive and humbling. Like Mandela, Birtukan has steely resolve and unflinching commitment to the rule of law, democracy and human rights. But her political convictions never overpowered her deep compassion for others, including those who continue to mistreat and abuse her. Like Mandela who showed good will to the apartheid masters, Birtukan also shows genuine empathy and understanding for the ruthless dictators who are themselves “locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness”. Like Mandela, that makes Birtukan one of the most unique prisoners on the planet: A prisoner of the prisoners of hatred, prejudice and narrow-mindedness. Like Mandela, Birtukan understands that she must first free the prisoners of hatred, prejudice and narrow-mindedness before she can free herself or her country.

Like Mandela, Birtukan also hungers for freedom. Her hunger for freedom is not just for herself; it is for the freedom of all the Ethiopian people regardless of ethnicity, language, religion and region. Above all, she knows all too well “that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed.”

My New Year’s Resolution

It is customary in free societies to make resolutions for the new year. Accordingly, I pledge to continue to call attention and raise awareness of Birtukan’s unjust imprisonment in the court of world opinion, unceasingly continue to demand her release and the release of all political prisoners in Ethiopia, and urge all freedom-loving people throughout the world to do whatever they can to help secure the release of all political prisoners in Ethiopia.

I am sure that Birtukan’s captors will snicker and giggle at the very idea of releasing her from prison. After all they have declared her release to be a “dead issue.” It does not matter if they giggle or heehaw; the truth about her unjust imprisonment and abject prison conditions will be told and re-told a million times to the world. I also do not believe that prisoners of hatred, prejudice and narrow-mindedness have the moral capacity or basic human decency to set Birtukan or any other prisoner free. Only the “truth shall set her free”; and if Birtukan were to read my words here, she would gently correct me and say: “The truth shall set them free too from nineteen years of solitary confinement behind the locked steel bars and stone walls of hatred, prejudice and narrow-mindedness”.

MELKAM ADIS AMET! HAPPY NEW YEAR! Our Great Sister and Ethiopia’s First Daughter Birtukan Invictus (Ayibegere)! The truth shall set you free!


Ethiopia: Indoctri-Nation

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

The Ministry of Indoctrination

This past week Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education issued a “directive” effectively outlawing distance learning (or education programs that are not delivered in the traditional university classroom or campus) throughout the country. According to reports, the directive of the Ministry’s Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency (HERQA) prohibits enrollment of new students in all distance education programs. It also creates a monopoly for state-controlled universities to administer the disciplines of law and teaching. There are said to be 64 private institutions serving some 75,000 students throughout the country that are impacted by the directive.

The reason for the sudden and radical change in policy is said to be concern for educational quality. Ministry spokesman Abera Abate painted all private distance learning institutions in the country with a broad brush by categorically condemning them as scams and diploma mills. “When the purpose is collecting money, it is not a good purpose. The only issue some universities have is collecting money.” Of course, the directive does not apply just to “some” universities whose “purpose is collecting money”; it applies to all distance education providers in the country.

The response from the various private educational service providers was swift. Wondwosen Tamrat, president of St Mary’s College and former chairman of the General Assembly of the Ethiopian Private Higher Education Institutions Association (EPHEIA) described the directive as “ridiculous. The [regime’s] inability to enforce the quality standards already set should not lead to these kind of measures… We have participated in the legal education reform programs, and our college issues a biannual law journal…In fact, in this area, it is public institutions that are suffering from a shortage of human resources, rather than the private sector.” According to Tamrat, “two-thirds of the students [in his university] are in the distance education division…If you are not offering this program, it would mean we would be losing what we have been working for the last 11 years. We have 140 distance education centers all around the country. We have people in all of these centers. We would be losing these.” Tamrat expects to layoff of more than 800 of his 1,200 employees.

Molla Tsegaye, president of Admas University College, expressed surprise and dismay for the complete lack of consultations in drafting the directive: “We did not expect this. As stakeholders in the sector, we should have been consulted before all this.” Mihreteab Workineh, vice chairman of the 50-member EPHEIA was outraged: “Our association sternly objects to this. It is not about public or private institutions, the concern for quality is our concern too. That is why we have already devised an audit mechanism to ensure quality education by private institutions.”

It may be recalled that in August 2009, the regime issued a directive which prohibited university “students graduating in the year 2008-2009 from all governmental higher learning institutions from collecting their academic credentials including the student copy until they find jobs which enable them to refund the cost sharing expenses utilized at the universities.” The Ministry of Education described that effort as a “new scheme the government might be able to raise back those expenses and handle human resources going abroad.”[1]

Higher Education Proclamation No. 650/2009

Wholesale elimination of private distance learning programs by “directive”, or more accurately bureaucratic fiat, is a flagrant violation of Higher Education Proclamation No. 650/2009. Under this Proclamation, the Ministry of Education and its sub-agencies have the authority to regulate and “revoke accreditation” of a private institution which fails to meet statutory criteria on a case-by-case basis following a fact-finding and appeals process. They have no legal authority to impose a summary wholesale ban of distance learning or other educational programs provided by private institutions. The Proclamation requires the Ministry to give such institutions a notice of deficiency and adequate time to correct the deficiency before taking de-accreditation action. The Ministry bears the burden of proof in showing that a particular private institution is in violation of the Proclamation in a fact-finding process that comports with standards of due process. A private institution has the right to appeal an adverse decision by the Ministry before it becomes final.

Higher Education Proclamation No. 650/2009, section 71 et seq., provides the statutory basis for the regulation and governance of higher education in Ethiopia. The Proclamation aims to ensure “accountability” and requires private institutions to “ensure the minimum curricula quality standards,… maintain a readily accessible list of accredited study programmes… and submit detailed plans on education, research and training on a five-yearly basis,…” Section 77 of the Proclamation provides that accreditation issued to a private institution “shall be valid for three years from the date of its issuance,” subject to renewal unless there is good cause for denying or withdrawing accreditation. A private institution may lose its accreditation and be legally prevented from providing educational services under section 81 of the Proclamation for three reasons:

The Agency may revoke the accreditation of a private institution on any one of the following grounds:

a) where it is found that the accreditation has been given on the basis of false information; b) where the institution fails to rectify defects within the time fixed in the warning given by the Agency for failure to satisfy the required standards or for contravening the provisions of this Proclamation, any other relevant law or regulations or directives issued for the implementation of this Proclamation. c) where the institution is dissolved or ceases its operations.

Section 82 of the Proclamation further provides appellate procedures to review “revocation of accreditation”:

1) Any institution may appeal to the Ministry for a review of the Agency’s decision on rejection of an application for accreditation or renewal of accreditation or on the revocation of accreditation, within 30 days of the receipt of the decision. 2) The Ministry shall establish an appeal committee to review the decision of the Agency and to make recommendations. 3) The Ministry shall grant the applicant the right to be heard before the final decision is given on the appeal.

The HERQA “directive” which de-accredits and bans all distance education programs provided by private institutions is demonstrably violative of the process specified in the Proclamation. First, section 81 authorizes HERQA to act against private institutions on a case-by-case basis. Second, HERQA can act against a particular institution only after it has made specific factual findings of violations of the Proclamation or other law and “given a warning” to the institution. Third, if HERQA does find specific deficiencies, it can only act to de-accredit only if the institution “fails to rectify defects within the time fixed in the warning given by the Agency…” Fourth, any HERQA’s de-accreditation decision is stayed or suspended until the particular institution is given the “the right to be heard before the final decision is given on the appeal (Section 82).” All of these mandatory requirements of the Proclamation were ignored or disregarded by HERQA when the directive was issued.

By summarily mandating a ban on all private distance education, HERQA has acted ultra vires (beyond their legal powers and authority) in flagrant violation of Proclamation 650. Article 40 of the Ethiopian Constitution guarantees the “right of every Ethiopian citizen to own private property,” which it defines it as “any property, both corporeal and incorporeal, produced by the labour, creativity or capital of an Ethiopian citizen, associations of Ethiopian nationals endowed with legal personality by law…” To enforce the arbitrary and capricious “directive” unconstitutionally deprives the property rights of the owners and operators of private distance education programs without due process of law.

The Politicization of Higher Education in Ethiopia

Many of my regular readers are aware of my interest in Ethiopian higher education. In February 2008, I wrote a commentary entitled “Tyranny in the Academy”[2] on the state of academic freedom at the Mekelle Law School following the dismissal of Professor Abigail Salisbury. She had published a commentary which painted a chilling portrait of fear and loathing at that law school. I observed: “The recent history of academic freedom and free intellectual inquiry in Ethiopian higher education is deeply scarred by political interference, political correctness, arbitrary purges of professors, harassment and persecution of faculty and students, and general intellectual repression.” The Salisbury episode, the regime’s “new scheme” introduced last August to hold the diplomas of university graduates hostage,[3] and the current directive and other facts reinforce my belief that higher education is overly politicized and manipulated in Ethiopia to ensure the domination and control of the dictatorship.

The regime’s approach to higher education reminds me of a passage in Dr. Carter G. Woodson book, The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933). Dr. Woodson argued that the greatest danger and challenge for the African-Americans of his day was the risk of indoctrination in the form of education:

When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his proper place and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.

The ruling regime in Ethiopia today is hell-bent to use higher education as a tool of indoctrination for a new breed of ideologues and party hacks that will support it blindly and unquestioningly.

Throwing Out the Baby With the Bath Water

For the past three decades, distance learning has been a valuable educational delivery form even in the most industrialized countries. Today many of the most prestigious universities in the world, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, UC Berkeley and Oxford, offer diverse distance learning courses and programs in a variety of settings. They maintain educational quality, program integrity and legitimacy through regional and national accreditation agencies that maintain and enforce rigorous pedagogical standards. High quality standards make the issue of “on site” versus distance learning unimportant. The question is no longer how students learn but what they actually do learn from their courses and programs. In quality distance programs, the course work and requirements are the same as the campus-based programs; the only difference is the method of content delivery.

If the aim of the regime in Ethiopia is to ensure high quality of educational content, the proper remedy is to enforce rigorous quality standards as mandated by Proclamation 650, and not to shut down each and every distance learning program in the country. By express declaration, the fundamental purpose of the Proclamation is to ensure “accountability” and “quality” and weed out the diploma mills and flight-by-night operations from the educational marketplace so that they will not victimize students with phony “degrees”. But the problem of quality control is entirely the regime’s. In a piece entitled, “Internal Quality Care Policy in Ethiopian Universities: Opportunities and Challenges,” Zenawi Zerihun W. Yohannes of Mekelle University in Ethiopia observed: “What is commonly employed in the higher learning institutions in Ethiopia as a way of checking quality is setting minimum standards on the educational process, such as the qualification of the academic staff, the organization of the curriculum, and other resources although differences in implementation and utilization are reported.”

It defies reason to argue that all private distance education providers in Ethiopia are diploma mills only “interested in money” and therefore deserve to be shut down collectively by disallowing them from enrolling new students. If these institutions are providing education and training to 75,000 students, they must be doing something right. Otherwise, they would have gone bankrupt for lack of students long before a directive is issued to wipe them out. The real question is why the regime has now decided to throw the baby out with the bath water.

What is Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander

It is ironic that the very people who now have decided to throw out the baby with the bath water are themselves graduates of distance learning programs. Dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi reportedly obtained a graduate degree from The Open University (OU) in England, a reputable distance learning institution founded and funded by the British Government, while presumably carrying on the affairs of state. OU has an “open entry policy” where traditional admissions requirements are suspended for students to take undergraduate and graduate courses. It is also said that many of the top leaders of the dictatorship obtained degrees and certification from various distance learning programs in academic and non-academic areas such as “transformational leadership”.

It has been argued by some that the ban on distance learning in the country is motivated by petty concerns of the regime leaders that wide access to such programs could somehow cheapen their own distance learning diplomas and degrees. I have seen no evidence to support this view. But the real question for me is a much simpler one: If distance education is good enough for Zenawi and Company, should it not be good enough for the average Ethiopian seeking to improve his/her lot in life? It seems only fair that what is good for the goose should be good for the gander. It is also wise to remember that those who live in glass houses should be careful not to throw stones. Blanket condemnation of the country’s private distance education could invite unwanted attention and scrutiny on the distance education programs the regime leaders claim to have attended to obtain their diplomas and certifications.

The World Bank Says More Distance Learning Institutions for Ethiopia

The World Bank has emphasized the great need for a network of “tertiary educational” institutions (e.g. private colleges, technical and vocational training institutes, distance learning centers, etc.,) to help support the “production of the higher-order capacity” necessary for Ethiopia’s development. In a 2003 sector study entitled “Higher Education Development for Ethiopia”, the World Bank recommended

expansion of private tertiary institutions be more actively encouraged in order to make the burden of higher education expansion borne by government more bearable. A near term goal might be to double the share of private enrollments from the current 21% to 40% by 2010. To help achieve this goal, the Bank team recommends that Government provide stronger incentives for the expansion of private tertiary education (e.g., access to land, more generous customs exemptions for the importation of educational materials) and also extend quality-enhancing support to private institutions identified as needing improvement (e.g., participation in the National Pedagogical Resources Center, leadership and management training, creation of a fund for remedial actions). Consistent with the recent Higher Education Proclamation, the Bank team recommends that structured quality assurance and accreditation activities be put in place to protect the public from fraudulent and questionable quality providers that may emerge in the midst of rapid private expansion. (Italics added.)

Seven years ago the World Bank recommended, “A near term goal might be to double the share of private enrollments from the current 21% to 40% by 2010.” In 2010, Zenawi has decided to reduce private enrollments to zero!

The solution for any educational quality problems that may exist in the distance educational sector in Ethiopia is not to drop a blanket ban on all private institutions, but to create a rigorous quality control process that will ensure the weeding out of diploma mills and fly-by-night operations. As Yohannes of Mekele University noted, the problem is that the regime’s notions of educational quality do not go beyond “setting minimum standards on the educational process, such as the qualification of the academic staff, the organization of the curriculum, and other resources.” It is unfair and a violation of Proclamation 650 to impose collective punishment on all private institutions providing distance learning services for the regulatory failures of the regime or to presumably weed out a few bad operators.

Indoctri-Nation, Not Education

One of the largest operators of private distance learning programs has argued that “the growth of private universities in Ethiopia has contributed to a five-fold increase in the country’s gross higher education enrollment ratio” and has increased the college enrollment rate from “one percent of Ethiopians a decade ago to 5.1 percent today”. If these data are accurate, the private institutions deserve praise not condemnation and excommunication from the field of higher education.

I believe the regime has a long term strategy to use the universities as breeding grounds for its ideologues and hatcheries for the thousands of loyal and dependent bureaucrats they need to sustain their domination and rule. The monopoly created for the state in the disciplines of law and teaching (which I will predict will gradually include other disciplines in the future) is a clear indication of the trend to gradually create a cadre of “educated” elites to serve the next generation of dictators to come. It is a well-established fact that the regime has used teachers, particularly in the rural areas, extensively as party recruiters, enforcers and representatives by providing them financial and other incentives. By ensuring access to these disciplines only to ruling party members and supporters, the regime hopes to extend its tentacles to every part of the country. State-certified teachers who are ruling party members could be used to play a decisive role in legitimizing the regime and in indoctrinating the youth in the regime’s ideology. The fact that teachers are viewed respectfully in rural areas as “educated” persons gives them special advantages in influencing and manipulating not only the young at an early age but also in playing a far larger political role in the community. The politicized role of teachers in the May 2010 election amply testifies to that fact.

Similarly, by monopolizing the law discipline, the regime could regulate the training of lawyers and judges who will administer “justice” in the country. Instead of training lawyers committed to the Constitution, the rule of law, principles of universal justice and ethical standards, graduates of state-monopoly law schools will largely be party hacks, hirelings and lackeys with ultimate loyalty to the dictator-in-chief. Simply stated, the regime will be able to control two of the most important professions that have the greatest impact on the lives of the people. I will predict that the current trend in tightening control over higher education will continue because it is a central element of the regime’s strategy to use higher education as a way of transforming the decades-old bureaucracy and re-creating government in its own image. The regime believes that the only way it can continue to rule indefinitely is by creating its own robotic jackbooted-army of “educated” elites marching in lockstep throughout the bureaucracy to the orders of the dictator-in-chief. It is an exquisitely diabolical strategy, but unlikely to work.

The regime’s thinking on higher education is simple: Indoctrinate, indoctrinate and indoctrinate some more until you forge an Indoctri-Nation. It is wise to remember Dr. Woodson’s words:

When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his proper place and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary…

That’s why I would recommend to anyone concerned about educational injustice in Ethiopia to read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy (teaching) of the Oppressed.


Ethiopia: Why Can’t We Just Get Along?

Alemayehu G. Mariam

A Comedy of Errors: (Act I)

Rodney King’s videotaped brutal beating by members of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) eventually triggered the L.A. riots of 1992. Rodney made a public appearance on the third day of the anarchy and pleaded in his inimitable style:

People, I just want to say, can we all get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids? It’s just not right…. Let’s try to work it out.

I never thought I would appeal to Rodney King for political wisdom and insight in seeking an end to the internecine warfare in the Ethiopian opposition and plead for reconciliation, understanding and common sense. True, Rodney King is no Martin King, but in this instance I am going to invoke Rodney while pleading Martin to get Ethiopia’s opposition leaders to re-think and re-examine their strategy of mutual assured destruction (MAD).

It was amusing to read this past week a story about criminal charges filed against one faction of the Unity and Democracy Party [UDJ] (Andenet) by another faction of the same party in Ethiopia. Charged with disturbing the peace this past April are some of the prominent leaders and members of the UDJ. It is alleged that the defendants threw rocks at the party office and created disturbances while party members worked inside. Several witnesses testified for the prosecution at a hearing and the matter was continued to a later date.

There had been prior confrontations between UDJ members. In late 2009 when UDJ held its Extraordinary Congress at the Imperial Hotel, it was alleged that certain “expelled” members had attempted to disrupt the meetings. The police were reportedly called to intervene, but failed to show up. The meeting was cancelled and there were no prosecutions. But state-controlled television was on hand to record the bizarre spectacle for broadcast.

I am sure the whole zany rock-throwing affair gave dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi and his crew much needed comic relief in the weeks before the May 2010 “election”. Today, Zenawi watches a command performance opera buffa of some of the champions of the Ethiopian opposition duking it out in kangaroo court. It is humiliating and embarrassing for many of us to see some of the giants of the opposition who have sacrificed so much of themselves pointing accusatory fingers at each other in the Zenawi’s Halls of Injustice. Of course, one would have expected all opposition leaders to get the message after the “election” and get their acts together. After all, Zenawi won by 99.6 percent, and they “lost” by 100 percent. But that is another matter. I only wish the accusers and the accused could see themselves from the outside as they spar in the three-ring circus of Zenawi’s kangaroo court.

Master Stroke of Public Relations (Act II)

The timing of the UDJ “prosecution” is curious, to say the least. The final report of the European Union Election Observation Mission Team [EU EOM] is expected to be released sometime in September. Staging a three-ring kangaroo circus over a rock-throwing incident to coincide with the release of the EU EOM report is a master stroke of public relations. It provides a nice distraction to the findings and conclusions of the forthcoming report. The criminal case will be dragged out to coincide with the release of the report and cushion the hard landing Zenawi is going to have in the report. We already know from the from the preliminary statements of EU EOM that the May 2010 “election” “failed to provide a level playing field”. Major donor governments have declared the election “does not meet international standards”. That is just diplomatic-speak for a stolen election. Regardless of what the final report will document, the incontrovertible fact is that an “election” that gave Zenawi a victory of 99.6 percent is not an election; it is a travesty of election.

But the sting of the EU EOM report could be lessened and world attention distracted by depicting opposition leaders as a bunch of bumbling and bungling lightweights (or worse) who are not only incapable of leading the country but are spending their time like children throwing rocks at each other. It is a brilliant public relations move by Zenawi to make a complete laughing stock out of some of the most respected leaders of the opposition. Let us just watch Zenawi showcasing the “rock throwers” freak show in his kangaroo court circus as the release date for the EU EOM report draws near: “Come one, come all to the greatest show in Ethiopia! Marvel and thrill at the rock-throwing Ethiopian opposition leaders! Stare in awe… Do you want these guys to run the country!?” Barnum and Bailey never had so much fun!

Justice in Kangaroo Court? (Act III)

Time was that opposition leaders were dragged in chains into kangaroo court to become victims of injustice. Some of the UDJ members in this criminal case were sentenced together to long prison terms in kangaroo court not long ago and served nearly two years before being “pardoned”. It is an eerie feeling to see them now standing on their hind legs pointing accusatory fingers at each other. UDJ members going to kangaroo court to seek justice is like Rodney King going before LAPD’s Internal Affairs to press charges against the cops who beat him to a pulp. It just makes no sense. I am dismayed and embarrassed by the sight of UDJ members brawling in a kangaroo cage match as Zenawi calls the count. What a low-down dirty shame for all whoare toiling for democracy, human rights and justice in Ethiopia to view this spectacle. What comic relief for Zenawi and his crew. Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

I want to laugh too, but it hurts to laugh. In fact, I would like to cry at the sight of these distinguished members of the opposition wagging fingers and exchanging verbal missiles in kangaroo court. What were they thinking?

But to add humiliation to a crying shame, I agonize over the possible outcomes of the criminal case. If the UDJ defendants are convicted and sentenced to jail, who wins? Zenawi does. He will step up to the podium and announce to the world that his justice system worked “fairly” and the criminal wrongdoers were held to account. He can walk up to his Western donors (a/k/a partners-in-crime) and smugly say, “Behold my opposition (chuckle)! See real justice at work!”

Who loses if they are convicted? The opposition does. The people will shake their collective heads in dismay and disbelief and ask: “What were they thinking? Why can’t they get along? If they can’t get along out of power, how could they get along if they get into power?”
Who wins if the UDJ defendants are acquitted? Zenawi does. He can show the world that justice was served in his court with impartiality and the innocent set free. Who loses if they are acquitted? The opposition does. The people will scratch their collective heads and ask: “Why did they do it? Was it worth their humiliation in kangaroo court?” In short, the kangaroo court criminal case is a win-win for Zenawi, and a lose-lose for the opposition!

But there is a less obvious conclusion to be drawn to the credit of the UDJ members. In the heat of the moment, certain party members may or may not have thrown rocks or exchanged harsh words. But to their collective credit, there was no shooting or extreme violence, as it often happens among opposition elements in so many parts of Africa. The UDJ members did not take to street justice to resolve their disagreements; they went to court (admittedly the kangaroo variety). I applaud them for that. They had the right idea, but went to the wrong place. Courts of law (in contrast to kangaroo courts) are the proper and civilized place to bring disputes for resolution. Independent judges (in contrast to hacks wearing judicial robes) can properly administer justice impartially and neutrally.

But the proper place for resolution of political disputes among Ethiopia’s opposition is never in kangaroo court, but in intra- and inter-organizational mediation and reconciliation processes or other civil society institutions. Throwing rocks or vilifying each other with abusive words is never justified. They do not need to beat each other up; they need to stand together and cover each other’s back. They need to shield each other from the ceaseless barrages of the slings and arrows of an outrageous dictatorship.

So I am going to “sermonize” a little bit here. If the bickering, name calling, rock throwing and all the other silly stuff continues, the opposition will end up in mutual assured destruction as the dictators look on with glee. It is mad to follow the path of MAD. The opposition has far too many important tasks to accomplish. They have already lost precious time in internal strife and fragmentation; they need to be doing more by way of uniting, mobilizing, motivating and inspiring the people with their ideas and plans. The people want to hear messages of hope and redemption from opposition leaders, not accusations and recriminations. The people want to be assured that it is possible, with dedication and effort, to overcome the seemingly insurmountable mountain of dictatorship; that change, peaceful democratic change, is possible and the people themselves hold their destiny in their collective hands. The people want to be shown these possibilities through leadership examples of optimism, dedication, tolerance, tenacity and patriotic zeal. That is the way to do it!

The kind of legal warfare we see in kangaroo court with opposition leaders and members is demoralizing; it is not uplifting for the people. It robs the people of their faith in the future and saps their energy, enthusiasm and hopes for democracy. Opposition leaders should be less concerned about their partisan interests and more engaged in addressing the needs of the masses of unemployed youth, the urban poor that have little to eat; the poor farmers scratching the earth for seedlings; the masses of women who face domestic violence daily; the educated professionals who can barely eke out an existence on salaries that are gobbled up by stratospheric inflation and the state workers who are forced to supplement their incomes by payments under the table. These people are looking for visionary leadership. They want to see clear-thinking and dignified opposition leaders charting the course to a better future. They do not want to see opposition leaders brawling in freak shows in a kangaroo circus court. Stated simply, opposition leaders and parties need consolidation, not fragmentation; they need reconciliation not accusation and recrimination.

Can’t We Just Get Along? (Act IV)

I see no need for opposition leaders to act in a vaudevillian comedy show directed by Zenawi. That is why I am asking them to develop and adopt a voluntary “code of conduct” to govern their relationships as they face a formidable common adversary. Such a code should address matters of civility, tolerance of dissent, non-use of inflammatory language, avoidance of personality clashes, constructive criticism of programs and policies, avoidance of personal attacks, establishment of formal and informal dispute resolution mechanisms, grievance complaint procedures and so on. Under no circumstances should they air their “dirty political laundry” in kangaroo court.

Political leaders and followers who are truly committed to democracy and human rights and work for the betterment of the Ethiopian people need to get along with each other and cooperate for a common purpose. They do not need to agree with each other on all issues or even the majority of issues. It is not even necessary for them to socialize and hang out together; but it is mandatory that they find effective ways of collaboration to advance their common causes of democracy, human rights, accountability, transparency and the rule of law.
Working together requires creating a harmonious working relationship founded on mutual respect, tolerance and understanding. If there are differences on issues, as there should be, all effort must be exerted to discuss and resolve them without degenerating into personal attacks. If issues cannot be resolved, it is best to agree to disagree and move on with other issues.

Teamwork and collegiality among opposition leaders are essential if dictatorship is to be defeated and real democracy established in Ethiopia. When opposition leaders attack and disrespect each other, they not only make themselves laughing stocks for the dictator and his crew but also look silly in the eyes of the public and set a bad example. The kind of dysfunctionality that is visible in the opposition today is not only pathetic but also harmful to the prospects of democracy in the future. Opposition leaders need to answer a simple question: How can they expect to work collaboratively in the interests of the country and fight dictatorship when they have hardened partisan politics among themselves so much? The road of hardened partisan politics leads to MAD. They may have been in separate boats before the May “election”, but now they are all in the same boat cruising up that famous creek without a paddle.

It is time now to transition to the politics of multi-partisanship, cooperation and collaboration. Practically, this means advancing the interests of the people over partisan politics or advancement of one’s agenda, status, career or ambitions. It means showing the people that the opposition is NOT the flip side of the ruling dictatorship. Stated simply, the people need to be reassured that in the opposition they are not swapping Tweedledee for Tweedledum. Democracy and dictatorship are not interchangeable. The most effective way of getting the trust and support fo the people is by proving to them what it means to work together harmoniously while opposition leaders and parties are on the outside, and before they have tasted the sweet intoxicating nectar of power.

That’s why I pose some simple questions to Ethiopia’s opposition leaders: “Why can’t you all just get along? Can you stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids? It’s just not right…. Why can’t you try to work it out?”

As the old saying goes, “Yesterday is gone and tomorrow is not ours, what we have is today.” Can we all begin to mend fences today and come together not only to oppose and defeat an ephemeral dictatorship, but most importantly, to put our collective shoulders to the grind wheel and work for democracy, justice and human rights in Ethiopia? Can we all get along!


Steel Vises, Clenched Fists and Closing Walls, (Part II)

Note: This is the second installment in a series of commentaries I intend to offer on U.S. foreign policy (or lack thereof as some would argue) in Ethiopia. In this piece, I argue that the price of U.S. lip service to human rights in Ethiopia without action is demoralization of the brave and dedicated Ethiopians who struggle everyday against dictatorship and tyranny, trivialization and crippling of efforts to build a strong human rights movement and disempowerment and discouragement of ordinary Ethiopians aspiring to a democratic future.

If the Silenced Majority Could Talk…

If the silenced majority inside of what has become Prison Nation Ethiopia (PNE) could talk, what would they tell President Obama and Secretary Clinton about U.S. human rights policy? Would they pat them on the back and say, “Good job! Thank you for helping us live in dignity with our rights protected.”? Or would they angrily wag an accusatory finger and charge, “You speak with forked tongue. You wax eloquent on your lofty principles to us in the morning while you consort with thugs and murderers in the afternoon.” What would the thousands of political prisoners rotting within the closed walls of dictator Meles Zenawi’s prisons say of America’s big human rights talk? “Practice what you preach, Mr. President!” What would Birtukan Midekssa, Ethiopia’s No. 1 political prisoner, first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history and the undisputed heroine of 80 million Ethiopians say to President Obama were she allowed to speak to him? “Mr. President, why do you turn a deaf ear when I have been silenced in solitary confinement?” What would the innocent victims gripped in the jaws of Zenawi’s steel vises say to Secretary Clinton in their faint whimpers from the torture chambers? I do not know. What I know for sure is that the silenced majority of Ethiopians does speak loud in bootless cries while gasping for air under the jackboots of a barbaric dictatorship. President Obama, can you hear their deafening silence?

The Belly v. The Ballot

The defenders of the dictatorship in Ethiopia argue that the masses of ordinary Ethiopians are interested in the politics of the belly and not the politics of the ballot. They do not care about human rights or democracy because they are concerned about finding their daily bread. The masses of poor, illiterate, hungry and sick Ethiopians in their view are too dumb and too damn needy to appreciate “political democracy”. “Economic democracy before political democracy,” they proclaim with certainty. They condemn free speech, free press, free elections, and indeed freedom itself as alien Western ideologies that are meaningless to the masses of poor and hungry Ethiopians. Ethiopia’s dictators are quick to stand on their hind legs and condemn the West for violating their sovereignty because the West insists on human rights observances in Ethiopia. Of course, these rights are not some bizarre imported ideas but core element of the organic law of Ethiopia which incorporates by reference all of the major international human rights conventions. All African dictators have been justifying their dictatorships for well over one-half century by claiming that there is democracy before democracy in Africa.[2]

I raise the belly v. ballot argument to contextualize American human rights policy in Ethiopia. The evidence suggests that the attitudes and perceptions of American (and other Western) policy makers may be latently contaminated by the view that human rights are not of concern or are not important to the tired, poor and huddled Ethiopian masses. I have heard it said artfully in moments of candor by those who have access to U.S. decision-makers, by some decision-makers themselves and even by certain of my learned friends that the majority of ordinary Ethiopians neither know of nor understand their human rights. Even if they are aware of their rights, they do not have a clue as to how to defend them. As a result, I am told, the interests of the ordinary Ethiopian citizens do not figure in the least in U.S. human rights policy calculations. Some have even pointed out to me (much to my disappointment, embarrassment and chagrin) that the lack of informed and vigorous human rights debate and sustained and organized human rights advocacy among Ethiopian elites within and without Ethiopia is clear and convincing evidence that human rights are not important to Ethiopians. I am advised to accept the fact that U.S. human rights rhetoric is primarily intended for international media consumption and to give moral support to the few human rights-minded Ethiopian elites while avoiding the scathing criticisms of the international human rights community for U.S. inaction and hypocrisy. “That is realpolitik for you,” said one of my erudite colleagues jokingly. “The U.S. would rather blather about human rights violations to the African masses in the morning only to sit down for a seven-course meal with Africa’s murderers and butchers in the afternoon.”

Introducing the Unsung Heroes of Ethiopian Human Rights to U.S. Policy Makers

I strongly disagree with those who sideline ordinary Ethiopians as too poor and hungry to be concerned about their human rights or good governance. I could not disagree more with the cynics who claim that ordinary Ethiopians do not know or care about their human rights as long as their bellies are full. In fact the contrary can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. When the 2005 elections were stolen by Zenawi in broad daylight and opposition leaders were hunted down, arrested and jailed, it was not the elites, the privileged and the degreed that came out to defend democracy and human rights. The people who stood up for democracy, freedom and human rights when it really counted were the poor, the urban laborers, the students, the unemployed, the slum dwellers, the retired and plain ordinary folks. The true unsung heroes of Ethiopian human rights are Tensae Zegeye, age 14; Debela Guta, age 15; Habtamu Tola, age 16; Binyam Degefa, age 18; Behailu Tesfaye, age 20; Kasim Ali Rashid, age 21; Teodros Giday Hailu, age 23; Adissu Belachew, age 25; Milion Kebede Robi, age 32; Desta Umma Birru, age 37; Tiruwork G. Tsadik, age 41; Admasu Abebe, age 45. Elfnesh Tekle, age 45; Abebeth Huletu, age 50; Etenesh Yimam, age 50; Regassa Feyessa, age 55. Teshome Addis Kidane, age 65; Victim No. 21762, age 75 and Victim No.21760, male, age unknown and hundreds more. These were the real defenders of human rights in Ethiopia. Their story is memorialized for history in the testimony of Yared Hailemariam,[3] an extraordinary human rights defender and investigator for the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), before the European Parliament Committees on Development and Foreign Affairs, and Subcommittee on Human Rights in May 2006 [Warning: The graphic content in Yared Hailemariam’s testimony cited in the link in footnote 3 may be disturbing to some readers. Reader discretion is strongly advised.] and the report of the official Inquiry Commission that investigated the violence in the post-2005 election period.

If American policy makers are giving lip service to human rights in Ethiopia to please the few elites or immunize themselves from criticism by the international human rights community, their concern is truly misplaced. Human rights in Ethiopia is not about the elites yapping about human rights, nor is it about fine intellectual discussions, philosophical debates, speeches, annual reports or legal analyses of the nature and importance of human rights. It is much, much simpler than that. It is about helping to bring to justice the killers and those who authorized the killings of Tensae Zegeye, age 14; Debela Guta, age 15; Habtamu Tola, age 16 and all the rest. It is not about a metaphorical “closing walls”; it is about getting released the thousands of innocent political prisoners languishing behind the prison walls. It is not about an imaginary clenched fist but the real iron fist of a dictatorship that crushes citizens mercilessly every day. It is not about metaphorical steel vises, but about those who cling to power like blood-sucking leeches on a milk cow.

American policy makers should not be dismissive of ordinary Ethiopians. They should not misinterpret their silence for consent to be brutalized by dictatorship. Ordinary Ethiopians may not know much about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the numerous protocols, resolutions and declarations. They may not even know of Article 13 of their Constitution which incorporates all of the major international human rights conventions as part of their rights. But there should be no doubt that all of them know that as human beings, no person has the moral or legal right to take their lives just because he wants to, jail them and throw away the key because he feels like it or rule them for decades against their will by training a gun to their heads. That is all the human rights knowledge they need to know to deserve the respect and support of the American government.

Stability v. Human Rights

It has been argued and anonymously reported in the media that “Western diplomats” in Addis Ababa believe that forceful U.S. action on human rights could create “instability” in the country. To talk about stability in a dictatorship is like talking about the stability of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl just before it suddenly exploded. But the whole U.S. “stability” subterfuge to do nothing, absolutely nothing, about gross human rights violations in Ethiopia is eerily reminiscent of a shameful period in American history. The principal argument against the abolition of slavery in the U.S., the ultimate denial of human rights, was “stability”. Defenders of slavery strenuously argued that if slavery ended, the American South would simply disintegrate and collapse because the slave labor-based economy would be unable to sustain itself. They predicted that there would be widespread unemployment and chaos leading to uprisings, bloodshed, and anarchy. To ensure the “stability” of the South, even the United States Supreme Court joined in with its most infamous decision and held that the U.S. Constitution protected slave-holders’ rights to their property. But history proved that keeping the institution of slavery became the very undoing of the American union when the civil war was fought. America came apart at the seams because slavery that denied fundamental human rights to African slaves was retained, not because it was abolished. American policy makers should see the historical parallels. The undoing and unraveling of Ethiopia will be the result of sustained and gross violations of human rights by the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi, not because of respect for and observance of human rights. Perhaps we can crystallize the issue for American policy makers in the language of the American Declaration of Independence: It is necessary for Ethiopia to go through a civil war to ensure that every Ethiopian has the “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it…”?

President Obama’s Challenge in Ethiopia and Africa

President Obama now faces a great challenge in Africa, and particularly in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. His African human rights rhetoric is being tested by the cunning dictators on the continent who are scheming to counter his every move. They are prepared to test his mettle to find out how far they can push him before he pushes back. So far, Zenawi has succeeded in cowering the U.S. into inaction and paralysis.

President Obama will soon have to make some tough decisions in his choices in the Horn of Africa. He can choose to let progress on human rights and democracy die on the vine by handing over American tax dollars to sustain bloodthirsty regimes to oppress their citizens, or use the same tax dollars to pressure for change. President Obama is said to be “a pragmatist” concerned about “problem-solving.” He has got a hell of a problem in Ethiopia and must make some tough choices. His major choice will not be between “stability” and human rights, nor will it be a choice between the forces of radicalism and terrorism and democracy in the Horn as the dictators want him to believe. The one and only choice he has is how to help Ethiopia become permanently stable by ensuring the protection of the human rights of its citizens. There will be neither peace nor stability in Ethiopia until the human rights of every citizen are protected.

Zenawi complains that the U.S. and the West in general interfere in Ethiopian affairs too much by insisting on human rights observances and demanding democratization. But by Zenawi’s measure, the U.S. has been “interfering” in Ethiopia for nearly two decades, handing out to him tens of billions of dollars in aid. But for U.S. aid and loans by multilateral institutions under U.S. control, his dictatorship could not last even a single day. If the U.S. is serious about progress on human rights, it will have to kink the aid hose line just a bit. It is guaranteed that someone will be shrieking at the receiving end, “Uncle! Please Uncle Sam!”

Giving lip service to human rights in Ethiopia without action is tantamount to demoralization of the brave and dedicated Ethiopians who struggle everyday against dictatorship and tyranny, trivialization and crippling of efforts to build a strong human rights movement and disempowerment and discouragement of ordinary Ethiopians aspiring to a democratic future. It has been said that, “Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope.” The most critical need in Ethiopia today is neither food nor water (though they are very much needed), but HOPE. The U.S. has a moral obligation to keep hope alive in Ethiopia by conditioning its aid on significant human rights improvements. Stated simply, the U.S. must practice what it preaches!





See also the list of names of massacred victims released by the official Inquiry Commission investigating the
post-2005 election at: