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The Diplomacy of Nonviolent Change in Ethiopia

eth demoIn my commentary last week, “Interpreting and Living MLK’s Dream”, I discussed, among other things, Dr. Martin Luther King’s (MLK) philosophy of nonviolent social change. MLK argued that the “crucial political and moral question of our time” is the “need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.” I believe the crucial political and moral question for Ethiopians today is how to transform Ethiopia into an oasis of democratic governance in the middle of a sub-Saharan desert of African tyranny in a nonviolent struggle.

MLK dreamt about creating the “Beloved Community”– a community that has rid itself of racism, poverty and militarism. He said, “The end of nonviolent social change is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends.”

The question I seek to address here is whether and how Ethiopians, particularly young Ethiopians, could use MLK’s “diplomacy” of love, brotherhood, sisterhood and nonviolence in their struggle against an entrenched and depraved dictatorship in their country. I use the word “diplomacy” here advisedly to signify the importance of dialogue, negotiations, compromise, bargaining, concessions, accommodations, cooperation and ultimately peace-making and reconciliation. (I plan to offer my views on the “diplomacy of nonviolent change” in Ethiopia on a regular basis in the future.)

Recent clampdown on Semayawi (Blue) Party

According to a BBC report, last week “some 100 members of Ethiopia’s opposition Semayawi party were arrested and some badly beaten.” In June of this year, Semayawi (Blue) Party (BP), a political party comprising of young people and openly committed to nonviolent social change, had organized its first major street demonstration against the ruling regime demanding the release of political prisoners, journalists and human rights activists.  Regime police raided the BP headquarters to prevent a scheduled “rally” by the party to demand political reforms. According to BP chairman Yilekal Getachew, regime police assaulted party members and confiscated sound systems, computers and other equipment. The rally has been rescheduled for September 21.

Regime official Shimeles Kemal “denied there had been a crackdown” and explained that the BP party could not engage in protest activity because the “venue had already been booked by a group condemning religious extremism.” The pro-government counter demonstration was organized by the “Addis Ababa Inter-Religious Conference”, a regime front organization.The regime-staged counter-demonstration was an effort aimed at showing the “vehement opposition of Addis Ababa resident against [religious] radicalism recently observed in the country”.

MLK’s “first step” in nonviolent social change  

How relevant are MLK’s teachings in undertaking a nonviolent moral and political struggle in Ethiopia? Can Ethiopians inform their struggle against tyranny with MLK’s ideas of nonviolence, love, civil resistance and disobedience? I believe MLK’s teachings are relevant to any society suffering under tyranny, dictatorship, racism, poverty and militarism.

MLK taught that the first step in a nonviolent struggle is a commitment to  truth which requires “information gathering”.  He understood that a struggle based on facts (in contrast to propaganda and ideological indoctrination) is a struggle based on truth. He believed that one must thoroughly and methodically research, investigate and gather vital information on the scope, magnitude and severity of problems facing the community before contemplating action. More importantly, one must gain understanding and insight into the lives of the people who are impacted by conditions of oppression and work with social, civic and political organizations engaged in seeking to bring about change. Without fact-finding and community support, the struggle for nonviolent social change is likely to lead not only to uninformed and erroneous decisions but also end up in counterproductive and ineffective actions driven by anger, resentment and impatience.

MLK’s prescription for “gathering information” is consistent with the old adage that there is power in “information” and “knowledge”. Nelson Mandela said it best: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Education is ultimately about acquiring, imparting, accumulating and disseminating systematized knowledge and information. In as much as formal education is important, as Albert Einstein said, “imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

Yet there can be neither information, knowledge, education nor imagination if the human mind is gripped and made captive to the tyranny of fear and ignorance.  Before taking the first step of “information” gathering, those committed to nonviolent change must overcome their fear of tyrants and dictators.

The regime in Ethiopia has ruled by fear (not the rule of law) for over two decades. Dissenters and members of the opposition are harassed, intimidated, arrested, placed in prolonged pre-trial detention, tortured and put on show trials and subjected to extrajudicial killings.  As I argued in my commentary “Edu-corruption and Mis-education in Ethiopia”, the regime has used “ignorance as its most powerful weapon to prevent change and cling to power. They have long adopted the motto of George Orwell’s Oceania: ‘Ignorance is Strength’. Indeed, ignorance is a powerful weapon to manipulate, emasculate and subjugate the masses. Keep ‘em ignorant and impoverished and they won’t give you any trouble.”

Overcoming the tyranny of fear: Precursor to MLK’s first step in nonviolent social change  

MLK said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Oftentimes, the oppressed are too fearful, too traumatized and too confused to demand their freedom. For 30 years, Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt by spreading fear and loathing among the population. Invoking a “State of Emergency (“Law No. 162 of 1958”), Mubarak wielded unlimited power and imposed his iron will through a vast network of secret police, spies, informants and honor guards who used torture, intimidation and extrajudicial killings to make sure he stayed in power and his opposition decimated.  By the time he was thrown out of office in 2011, he held an estimated 20,000 persons under the emergency law; and according to human rights organizations, he held over 30,000 political prisoners. When Egyptian youth overcame their fears of Mubarak and stood up to his secret police, spies, informants and bloodthirsty thugs, it was all over for him and his kleptocratic regime. In less than three weeks, Mubarak’s empire of fear, terror and torture crumbled like an Egyptian ghorayebah cookie. 

Most of the nonviolent social and political changes we have seen over the past three decades were the direct result of the people losing their fear of the tyrants who oppress them. The Poles succeeded in their nonviolent struggle when they lost their fear of their communist tyrants. In 1981, the Soviets put General Wojciech Jaruzelski in charge to crackdown on Solidarity, a non-communist controlled trade union established a year earlier. Jaruzelski immediately declared martial law and arrested thousands of Solidarity members, often in in the middle of the night, including union leader Lech Walesa. Jaruzelski flooded the streets of Warsaw, Gdansk and elsewhere in Poland with police who shot, beat and jailed strikers and protesters by the tens of thousands. The crackdown drove the opposition underground. Where the jailed union leaders left off, others including priests, students, dissidents and journalists took over. Unable to meet in the streets, the people gathered in their churches, in the restaurants and bars, offices, schools and associations.  By 1988, Poland’s economy was in shambles as prices for basic staples rose sharply and inflation soared. In August of that year, Jaruzelski was ready to negotiate with Solidarity and met Walesa. In December 1990, Lech Walesa became the first popularly elected president of Poland. It took nearly a decade to complete the Polish nonviolent revolution. When Poles overcame their fears of Jaruzelski and his Soviet backers and stood up to his secret police, spies, informants and bloodthirsty thugs, it was all over for him and his iron-fisted regime.

Nonviolent social and political change came to many of the former Soviet republics and post-communist countries in Eastern Europe through the so-called “color revolutions” (people wearing symbolic colors to show their demand for change) over the past decade. In Serbia (2000) Georgia (“Rose Revolution” 2003), Ukraine (“Orange Revolution” 2004) and Kyrgyzstan (“Tulip Revolution” 2005), ordinary people engaged in defiant massive nonviolent street protests which culminated in the removal of oppressive and corrupt regimes. Not long ago, the “Arab Spring” dawned in the Middle East when Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia was swept away in the “Jasmine Revolution.”  The one common element in the “color revolutions” was the fact that they were led by  youth who had lost their fear of their tyrannical oppressors.

How do the people lose fear of their oppressors?

The history of nonviolent social and political change shows that people lose the fear of their oppressors when the burden of their material conditions outweigh the fear of their oppressors. Simply stated, people lose their fear of their oppressors when they just can’t take it anymore. They come to a point where they stand up and say, “Enough is enough!”

During the civil rights movement, African Americans lost their fear of police thugs, police dogs, police informants and police brutality when they became sick and tired of the dehumanization, discrimination and segregation they faced daily. When the bus driver threatened to have Rosa Parks arrested if she did not go to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, her answer was, “You may [have me] arrested.” She ain’t moving; and she will no longer accept second class citizenship. MLK’s essential message at the 1963 March on Washington was the same.   It was equality and justice for black people under the Constitution or escalating civil resistance, civil disobedience and protest. He announced, “We  can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality… and our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity…”

Gandhi launched the salt march of 1930 to protest the British salt tax which charged ordinary Indians for a basic necessity of life. Instead of paying the tax submissively, Gandhi engaged in a massive act of civil disobedience leading tens of thousands of people to the sea to make salt. The British arrested over 60,000 people, but thousands more took the places of those arrested forcing the British to come to terms with Gandhi’s demands.

In the past two years, the youth that led the “Arab Spring” mustered the courage to confront their long-standing dictatorships because they felt hopeless, helpless and futureless. The Middle East, like much of Africa, is experiencing a youth bulge (large segment of the population comprised of children and young adults). Neither the leaders nor the political economy of those countries is capable of accommodating the needs of this burgeoning population. There are few productive employment opportunities for young people. The vast majority of the people could no longer afford the basic essentials of life while the ruling elites and their cronies wallowed in a sea of corruption, oil revenue and Western aid.

I have long and repeatedly argued that Ethiopia’s youth will be the tip of the spear of nonviolent social change in Ethiopia (no pun intended). The youth bulge is estimated at 70 percent of the population. According to a 2012 USAID study, “Ethiopia has one of the highest urban youth unemployment rates at 50 percent and there is a high rate of youth under­employment in rural areas, where nearly 85 percent of the population resides.”  Another 2012 youth unemployment study in Ethiopia reported that the “current 5 year [Ethiopian] development plan 2010/11-2014/5, the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), does not directly address the issue of youth unemployment, but rather implicitly through improved performance of the various sectors in the economy.” The study found that “in 2011, 38 percent of youth were employed in the informal sector” which “often provides low quality, low paying jobs.”  The study reported high underemployment rates; “approximately 50 percent of youth reported being available and willing to work more hours.” There is a substantial segment of the youth population that is not only unemployed but also unemployable because they lack basic skills. On the other hand, access to public sector jobs depends not so much on merit or competition but connections and party membership. The youth will no doubt demand greater economic justice and radical political reforms that will enable them to have increasing input in governance.

It is unlikely that the regime can remain indefinitely in power by using repression and violence, particularly against the youth. No amount of force can crush or subdue a rising tide of young people in the population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2050, Ethiopia’s population will more than triple to 278 million, placing that country in the top 10 most populous countries in the world. Demographic changes, persistent  unemployment and galloping inflation, limited educational opportunities, ever increasing cost of living and expanding social media will make the youth in Ethiopia a powder keg on short fuse.

Overcoming fear together and finding courage together

I do not want to suggest here that fear and loathing resides only in the hearts and minds of the oppressed. Fear strikes not only the victims but also the victimizers. Those who run the regime in Ethiopia and their cronies   have their own fears and tribulations. As I argued in great detail in my commentary, “Terminal Paranoia”,  regime leaders have used fear to cement their ugly and divisive ethnic politics. By setting one group against another and inspiring distrust and hatred, they have managed to cling to power for a long time. Today, the façade of political institutions they have created for the various ethnic groups to maintain their control no longer works. Their appeal to ethnic loyalty inspired by fear of what other groups might do to one group no longer holds sway. They are overwhelmingly rejected by every single ethnic group in the country, bar none. The people have come to the obvious realization that the regime’s “ethnic federalism” (Bantustan-style regions) has only served the interests of a few kleptocratic ruling elites and their cronies. Thus, the ruling elites fear “payback” for their nasty games of ethnic division.

The innermost fear of the regime operators is the likelihood of a spontaneous mass uprising. Regime leaders are terrified by the prospect of a sudden popular uprising breaking out and literally consuming them. They have deep fears of accountability and retribution.  They know they have committed unspeakable crimes against humanity, war crimes and serious crimes punishable under their own criminal laws and the Constitution. They also know that they will be held accountable for their corruption and abuse of power if a mass uprising takes place.  The specter of prosecution and punishment for crimes they have committed keeps them in a state of high anxiety and sleeplessness. In the final analysis, the regime’s problem is the same as the proverbial tiger rider’s. They have been riding the Ethiopian tiger for over two decades. They know one day they have to dismount; and when they do, they will be looking straight into the angry eyes, gleaming teeth and pointy nails of one big hungry Ethiopian tiger!

Truth and Reconciliation

MLK dreamed about creating a “Beloved Community”. Ethiopians cannot aspire to create a “Beloved Community” permeated with fear. My understanding is that many regime leaders and their supporters are gripped by fear and desperately seek an “exit strategy”. They seek assurance that they will not face extreme retribution in the event of change; indeed, they hope to get some accommodation that will allow them to retain their wealth while having an opportunity to play a role in the future of the country. The victims of the regime fear the use of indiscriminate violence to cling to power as seen after the elections in 2005 where hundreds of people were gunned down in the streets.

Perhaps there is a way to “negotiate fear itself.” Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk managed to negotiate their fears in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mandela had to make distasteful moral choices and tough political compromises. de Klerk had to convince his diehard Apartheid racists that change is not easy but their choice was to abandon their ways and come to terms with the new reality or lose everything. He told his people, “In order for change to happen, you must really accept the need for change. Yes, it’s scary.”  By negotiating their fears, Mandela and de Klerk made significant strides to create their “Beloved South African Community.” South Africans have a long way to go; and two decades later, they are still struggling with the economic and political legacy of Apartheid.

If Ethiopians are to create their own “Beloved Community”, they must begin to “negotiate their fears”, which requires a reckoning with the history of the past 22 years and an open and honest discussion of their innermost fears. MLK said, “The end of nonviolent social change is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved  which transforms opponents into friends.” I believe it is time to invent a “new diplomacy of nonviolence” which facilitates the creation of a Beloved Community in Ethiopia. It is a diplomacy that stresses dialogue, negotiations, compromise, bargaining, concessions, accommodations, cooperation and ultimately peace-making and reconciliation. MLK said, “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated.” It has also been said that the “only thing to fear is fear itself.” I believe the only thing to fear is fear of each other; and the only thing to be courageous about is to communicate with each other without fear, with honesty and in good faith.

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

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:

Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:

Ethiopia: Rise of the Blue Cheetahs!

Blue Party Ethiopia10


Just feeling proud and blue all over

“Everyday, everyday I have the blues” sang B.B. King on his faithful guitar Lucille. Everyday, everyday for the last eight years I’ve had the blues, the “193/763 Blues”. “Ain’t gonna stop until the twenty-fifth hour, ‘Cause now I’m living on blues power,” belted out Eric Clapton. I am feeling blue power too!

I am blue and happy as a blue lark. I mean blue as in the Blue Party (Semayawi Party) of young people in Ethiopia. They chose blue to symbolize their ideals of unity, peace and hope in Ethiopia. Just like U.N. blue for all nations united in peace and hope for the future. Like European Union blue, over two dozen states working for a more perfect economic and political union. Like Ethiopian blue — all Ethiopia united, peaceful and hopeful in the Twenty-first Century. Go Blues! Onward!

Follow the blue line

Y’all remember me talking, writing and raving about Ethiopia’s Cheetahs, the young generation, for years now. (How hip is it for a venerable member of Ethiopia’s Hippo Generation to rave about the Cheetahs?) Well, I want to make it official. I done crossed the generation gap and gone over to the Cheetahs’  lair. Yep! I sold out. Double-crossed them Hippos. Hippos ain’t hip enough for me no more. I am now a “Chee-Hippo” (A hip Hippo who likes to hang out with Cheetahs). Surprised?! Didn’t see it coming?

Here is the deal. I saw them Cheetahs leaping and rising, rising higher and higher. I recently watched them prowl the streets, but didn’t see them growl or howl. I said, “What a beautiful sight!”

I heard them purring though the streets. (Ever heard Cheetahs purr songs of justice, freedom and human rights?) I said, “What a beautiful sound!  They are purring my song!”

I am with the Cheetahs. Well, actually, I am just tagging along. More like dragging behind the fast and furious Cheetahs.

Oooh! See them Cheetahs run! Watch ’em rise and shine like the sun. Watch them Cheetahs “soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Imagine rising, flying Cheetahs with a Hippo in tow! Funny, I know.

In my first commentary of the year, I declared 2013  “Ethiopia’s Year of the Cheetah Generation”. This is their year, I proclaimed. Some hippos disagreed. “Ignore the Cheetahs. They are into flash and cash.” I say look into the mirror.

I asked Ethiopia’s Cheetah’s, “What time is it?” “It’s Cheetah Time!”, they thundered. I can’t hear yoooou! “IT’S  CHEETAH  TIME!” Say it loud and proud! “IT’S  CHEETAH  TIME!”  RIGHT ON!

I said in 2013 Ethiopia’s Cheetahs will rise and shine and soar to new heights. They will lift up and carry Ethiopia on their wings. They are doing just that. Just who are these Cheetahs?

Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation include 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.

In January, I made my own solemn “Chee-Hippo Pledge”. “I promise  to reach, teach and preach to Ethiopia’s youth in 2013.”  I kept my promise. I kept faith with Ethiopia’s Cheetahs even when they were down for the count. 1-2-3… Rise Cheetahs, rise! Rise and shine bright on Ethiopia!

I made it “official” in late January and reclassified myself from a Hippo to a “Chee-Hippo”. I made my announcement in “Rise of the Chee-Hippo Generation”. I sent out an urgent SOS. “Emergency! Cheetahs in peril! Need help PDQ!” I was down on my knees pleading with them to restore faith with the Cheetahs:

Truth must be told: Hippos have broken faith with Cheetahs. Cheetahs feel betrayed by Hippos. Cheetahs feel marginalized and sidelined. Cheetahs say their loyalty and dedication has been countered by the treachery and underhandedness of Hippos. The respect and obedience Cheetahs have shown Hippos have been greeted with  disdain and effrontery. Cheetahs say Hippos have misconstrued their humility as servility; their flexibility and adaptability have been countered by rigidity and their humanity abused by cruel indignity.  Cheetahs feel double-crossed, jilted, tricked, lied to, bamboozled, used and abused by Hippos. Cheetahs say they have been demonized for questioning Hippos and for demanding accountability. For expressing themselves freely, Cheetahs have been sentenced to hard labor in silence. Cheetahs have been silenced by silent Hippos! Cheetahs have lost faith in Hippos. Such is the compendium of complaints I hear from many Ethiopian Cheetahs. Are the Cheetahs right in their perceptions and feelings? Are they justified in their accusations? Are Hippos behaving so badly?

Perhaps they thought SOS meant Silence Over Silence?

When I see Ethiopia’s Cheetahs today, I feel blue all over. Blue is my favorite color now. Blue Cheetahs of Ethiopia, the rarest Cheetahs in all of Africa. When I see the blue Cheetahs, I feel peaceful and hopeful. When I feel Cheetah blue, I don’t see division. I see one nation. I really like blue, but I love green, yellow and red in that order a thousand times more. Check it out. It’s green, yellow and red, all wrapped in velvet blue. I’m just loving it.

I say follow the blue line crowd. Get on the blue train, y’all! First stop,  Justice. Second stop, Democracy. Third stop, Free Speech/Press. Fourth stop, Free Political Prisoners. Fifth stop, Religious Freedom. Sixth stop… Seventh stop… There is no stopping us now!

Them Cheetahs know where they are going. They got GPS. We got old maps. They have a destination. We have detour loops.  We keep going in circles. Talk that way too. They walk and talk straight. We talk riddles with forked tongues.  They were once lost, but now they are found. We are lost and never found. At the end of the rainbow, we look for a pot of gold bleary-eyed. They are just looking for a rainbow nation bright-eyed. Aarrgh!  Old people, old times, old maps.

It’s a new day, a blue day. The day belongs to the Cheetahs with GPS. Let’s get the hell out of the way! Let’s follow the Cheetahs. Let’s get on the blue train. Onward, Blue Cheetahs. Onward!

Got to give credit where it is due

I have often been accused of being unfair to the regime in Ethiopia. I have been criticized for criticizing them “harshly”. They say I have never given the regime a break. Never given them credit for anything. If that were ever true, it has changed now. (A person who can’t change his/her mind can’t change anything.) Just as I may have been  “harsh” when I felt they did wrong, I am unreservedly supportive when they do right. They did right by Ethiopia’s young people when they let them have their peaceful march on June 1. I give full credit to Hailemariam Desalegn and his team for making possible what many believed was impossible.  I can’t imagine it was an easy thing to do. There must have been enormous pressure on them. I can imagine the prophets of gloom and doom saying, “Don’t do it! You’ll be sorry. If we let them protest, the sky will fall and the stars will come down crashing! It will open the door for more protests and there will be more trouble… Let’s crackdown like 2005.  Let’s teach them a lesson they will never forget.”

I respect Hailemariam’s decision to let the peaceful protest take place. He and his team did the right thing.  Fairness requires they be given full credit. (If I cannot be fair to those with whom I disagree when fairness requires it, then I don’t believe in fairness.) I commend Hailemariam and his team for having the courage, foresight, and will power to let the protest  take place. It takes guts to do what they did. That’s what I call leadership. Doing the right thing when it is easier to do the wrong thing, that is real leadership!  I wish them more power to do the right thing.

The leaders and supporters of the Blue Party deserve a whole lot of credit. The party leaders showed their mettle. They proved they know what they want. They proved they know how to do it. They were civil in delivering their messages. No angry denunciations or recriminations. They played it by the book, by the Constitution. Their attitude was not antagonistic or bellicose. They did not come to the protest with a chip on their shoulder. They carried their cause on their shoulder. They were not itching or sniffing for fights. They just wanted to defend their human rights.

The party leaders, members and supporters were exemplary in every way. They were well-disciplined and well-regulated. There was no mob unruliness or hooliganism. Not a single person threw rocks. Not a single fight occurred. Not a single window was broken. No property was destroyed. Not a single crime was committed. Not a single person carried a weapon. Protesters walked and assembled and sang patriotic songs and chanted freedom slogans. Even the police assigned to monitor them stood on the sidelines watching nonchalantly. Some of them appeared to be yawning, struggling to stay awake. That’s how peaceful the protests were. I lack the words to honor and complement the leaders, members and supporters of the Blue Party. They have shown the world it is possible to protest peacefully and with dignity. Yes, with dignity! They have affirmed my fundamental belief that the peaceful path is always better than the violent path. Always.

Think (human) right, do (human) right

I am on the side of right regardless of who does right. I am against the side of wrong regardless of who does wrong. For me, it is about the act, not the actors. It’s about the deed, not the doers. It’s about the “sin, not the sinners.” Good deeds deserve appreciation and encouragement. Bad deeds deserve condemnation and discouragement. On June 1, 2013, both the Blue Party and the regime did the right thing. Both deserve appreciation and encouragement. You can’t go wrong doing right by human rights!

I care about doing the right thing so much that I believe it is okay to do right even for the wrong reasons. I have my dear naysayers telling me I am naïve. They say I “don’t understand these people.”  They are playing games. I should not trust this one gesture. I should sit, wait and see what they will do next.  Hell, I am not going to wait. I call it as I see it, when I see it. If and when they crackdown, then I will speak my peace.

I say, “So, what if they are playing games?” Action speaks louder that thoughts, intentions or words. Perhaps this is their trial balloon to see how change on their part will be viewed by their own supporters and reciprocated by their opponents. I can speculate about their reasons for letting the Blue Party members and supporters have their protest until the cows come home, but won’t. That is their business. In my view, letting the Blue Party conduct its peaceful demonstrations is a good first step to build a teeny-weeny bit of confidence between those in power and those on the outside. Where absolute distrust and mistrust rules in the relations between opponents, the tiniest gesture that appear to dispel doubt and plant the seeds of trust should be nurtured. When Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the moon, his first words were, “One small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind.” I hope and pray that the fact the Blue Party protested peacefully on June 1, 2013 will be one small march for the Blue Party and a giant leap of faith for all parties in Ethiopia. “Hope always springs eternal in my breast”, to paraphrase a line from Alexander Pope’s verse.

When the Blue Party members successfully held their protest, it was a moment of truth for the Blue Party and the regime. They had their test and both passed with flying blue colors!

Plan for peace, not strife; plan for “radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy” 

I take pride in speaking my mind and in speaking the truth. That’s why myblogsite proclaims, “Defend human rights. Speak truth to power.”  The truth — as I see, hear, speak and feel it — is my sword and shield. The truth can sometimes be a bitter fruit. It can also be painful. It does not have to be that way. The truth can be sweet, liberating, enlightening and fulfilling. The truth can set us all free. In my farewell remarks on the passing of Meles, I put a truth challenge to Meles’ political heirs.

I have sought for some signs that Meles at least believed in human rights in the abstract. I shall give him the benefit of doubt that he did. In an interview with Al Jazeera in 2007, Meles said, ‘I’d hope that my legacy would be one of sustained and accelerated development that would pull Ethiopia out of the massive deep poverty that it was mired in, full and total stabilization of the country, radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy. I’d hope by the time I retire, we’d have made significant strides in all of those in the future.’

It is time now to make “radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy” had seen a radical regression into tyranny and despotism. The “future” Meles spoke of is now. We should all work collectively to implement his aspirations for “radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy” now.This is Meles’ legacy his surviving officials should acknowledge openly and work with others to implement as the ultimate tribute to Meles’ leadership. The ‘radical improvement in good governance and democracy’ begins with the release of all political prisoners, repeal of antiterrorism and civil society and other oppressive laws and declaration of allegiance to the rule of law. As the Ethiopian new year is just around the corner, we can all begin afresh on the road to “radical improvements in good governance and democracy.

The Blue Party seeks the same goal of radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy that Meles wanted. I have no doubts Meles’ successors want such improvements as well. So do all others in the opposition. There is perfect consensus about what needs to be done between those in power, those out of power, the powerful and the powerless and those who couldn’t care less about the powerful or the powerless. So, why is it not possible to put our collective noses to the grindstone, shoulders to the wheel and work for radical improvements in good governance and democracy?

The simple question is how to bring about “radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy”? How do we bring about change?

Change comes whether we like it or don’t want it. Change can come the right or wrong way. It is wiser to come to change before it comes to us. Change in Ethiopia is now inevitable because the young people are demanding it. They have changed their minds and hearts about their own situation. “They can’t take it anymore!” No force can stop them because they are commanded by history to take charge of the destiny of their country.

Change is unkind to those who fear it, reject it. Those who feared and rejected change ultimately became the architects of their self-destruction. H.I.M. Haile Selassie was advised to change and he steadfastly refused. His regime self-destructed. Junta leader Mengistu Hailemariam was advised to change. He turned arrogant. His regime also self-destructed. Meles was advised to change. He too refused. Now it is up to his successors to make the choice he wanted and yearned to make but couldn’t. Their choice is clear: Make radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy or face the verdict of history. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

It is in human nature to fear change. People once feared electricity and machines that fly in the air. Those riding horses and buggies said, “If man were made to fly, he would have wings.” Once they overcame their fears, they made those changes part of their lives.

Many of those in power in Ethiopia today are afraid of change because they feel they will lose their power and privilege. (Some truly believe they can remain in power for one hundred years by sheer force. What a pity!) They are not willing to take any chances. Those who are demanding change  also have their own fears and anxieties. They don’t know what change will bring, but they are willing to take a chance. Neither those in power nor those out of power should be prisoners of fear of change. They must break out of their prison of fear and cross the threshold of courage holding hands with faith in their hearts.

Rarely does change come by accident. As Dr. Martin L. King said, “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.” Ethiopia’s Cheetahs have launched their peaceful struggle for rights and against wrongs. Change will not be easy, but “The harder the struggle [for change], the more glorious the triumph.” We cannot afford to be  paralyzed  by the fear of fear. We have brave young Ethiopians ready, willing and able to build a brave new Ethiopia. With them out in full force,  we have nothing to fear but the fear in our own hearts.

Africa is littered with stillborn change. We see change without a difference all over Africa every day. African  dictators come and go like the seasons. Some move like hurricanes destroying everything in their path. Others burn like the desert sun. A few hang around like blinding fog. But real change remains elusive in Africa. Real change is not mere regime change. It requires heart and mind change.

We must embrace change for the good, not fear it. Ethiopia’s young people are rising for good and necessary change. Today Ethiopia is poised for a special kind of change. It is change that flows form the fertile imagination of the youth. They are imagining a brave new Ethiopia. They don’t want the old Ethiopia built on a foundation of ethnic division, tribal affiliation, religious sectarianism and communalism. They want gender equality. They have their own blueprint for the kind of Ethiopia they want. Why shouldn’t they have their Ethiopia? We had ours, isn’t it time they have theirs? It’s just fair.

Regardless of what we do or don’t, the ultimate triumph of Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation is assured. The  numbers  are on their side. Seventy percent of Ethiopia’s population is under 35 years of age.  History is on their side. Millions of young people before them spilled their blood and poured sweat and tears to build a democratic and just Ethiopia. The forces of  our  universe  — justice, freedom, democracy — are on their side. We should be on their side too.

Change cannot be stopped by guns or tanks. “Nothing can stop an idea whose time has come.” The time for fresh ideas, fresh young faces, fresh leadership for a refreshed Ethiopia is now. Though change can be delayed, thwarted and deferred, it can never be stopped. To paraphrase one of my favorite poets, Langston Hughes:

What happens to a change (dream) deferred? Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore–

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over–

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Those who survive change are not those with the guns or the money. They are those who can adapt to change, roll with the punches and prevent an explosion.

I can spend my time thinking and worrying about things that can go wrong. Could there be a 2005 in 2013?  It is easy to think about how things that can go wrong. It is far more difficult to think about how things can go right. We must think right not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Doing right is often harder than doing wrong.

It is my duty as a human rights advocate to promote and support right and oppose wrong. That is a choice one has to make in becoming a human rights defender. I care about human beings, not parties, politicians, ideologies or whatnot. Power is a means not an end in itself. It is neither good nor bad.

I believe in using power to do good; to protect the powerless from the powerful;  to use power to prevent the abuse of power; to use power to bring together the powerless with the powerful; to use power to empower the youth.  I believe in the irresistible power of ideas and have little faith in the power of gunpowder. I believe in the use of power to heal, not to kill or to steal. I believe in the power to give people hope. I believe in the power of peace.

I am told I will eat these words I have written soon enough when “they start cracking down”. If I am proven wrong in my optimism, it won’t be the first time. But I am an incorrigible optimist. I shall maintain a fixed gaze on the “long arc of the universe that bends towards justice.”

When I got involved in human rights advocacy headlong seven or so years ago following the killings of the young unarmed protesters, I gave the longest speech I have ever given (nearly eight thousand words). It was titled, “Awakening Giant! Can Ethiopians and Ethiopian Americans living in America make a difference in their homeland (also available here)?” I could summarize it all in one sentence. “We prove the righteousness of our cause not in battlefields soaked in blood and filled with corpses, but in the living hearts and thinking minds of men and women of goodwill.” I am still guided by those simple ideas.

There are great lessons to be learned from the Blue Party protests. The biggest one is: Peaceful protest need not be feared; it must be embraced. We may not be able to march the streets with the Blue Party members and supporters, but we should not hesitate to declare our solidarity with their peaceful movement. The young people in the Blue Party cannot do it alone. They need us all as partners and helpers. “We” are those in power and those out of power. We should not only rise with the rising Cheetahs, we should also stand by them!

Ethiopians are at the crossroads. We can choose to remain stuck in the crossroads nursing our bigotry, stewing in our  hatred and sizzling in violence, conflict and strife. Or we can choose the blue line, join the blue crowd and head in the direction of reconciliation, accommodation and consultation. I say, we should all get on the blue line because it is the road less travelled, the road of the future. To paraphrase Robert Frost’s verse,

We shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and we—

We took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Ethiopia’s youth united can never be defeated. Power to the youth! Blue Cheetah Power!

“Those who make peaceful change impossible will make violent change inevitable.” JFK


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:

Ethiopia Has Arisen!

Ethiopia Youth Demonstration On Ginbot 20,  1983 (Ethiopian calendar; [5/28/1991]), Meles Zenawi and thousands of his guerilla fighters marched into Addis Ababa toting AK-47s, RPGs and hand grenades. They marched into the capital promising democracy, freedom and liberation from a brutal military dictatorship. The people of the capital welcomed them with some anxiety; but they were greatly relieved to see a regime that had brutalized them for 17 years finally consigned to the dustbin of history.

On Ginbot 25, 2005 (Ethiopian calendar; [6/1/2013]), over one hundred thousand young men and women marched in the streets of Addis Ababa demanding the release of political prisoners, religious freedom, respect for human rights and the Constitution and public accountability.  They demanded action on youth unemployment, inflation and corruption. They marched armed with cell phones, placards and banners. They cried out for justice.  They sang songs of unity: “Ethiopia! Our Country!” They marched for their rights and the rights of their brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers. What a sight to behold! Tens of thousands of young people demanding their rights in a peaceful demonstration.

The long youth march to freedom and dignity has begun in Ethiopia. It is beautiful. It is beautiful because it is peaceful. It is beautiful because it is motivated by love of country and love of each other as children of one Mother Ethiopia. It is beautiful because Ethiopia’s youth in unison are shouting out loud, “We can’t take anymore! We need change!” History shall record that on Ginbot 25, 2005 Ethiopia rose from the pit she has fallen into on the wings of her youth.

I do not know if those in power had ulterior motives in allowing the unprecedented demonstration. The last time there was a street demonstration to protest stolen elections held on Ginbot 7 , 1997 (5/15/2005), 193 people were shot dead in cold blood and 763 wounded.

I frankly do not care about the motives of those in power in allowing the protest demonstration. I do not question if the right thing is done for the wrong reason. It is never too late to do the right thing, but there is never a right time to do the wrong thing.

I hope those in power have learned some positive lessons from the youth protest. There is nothing to fear from our young people. They are our children. They are the future. How could we fear our children and the future? Young people express themselves by marching in the streets because they feel ignored, neglected and overlooked. They feel they are not being heard. When those in power today went into the bush in the 1970s, they did so because they felt exactly the same way as these young people do now. These young people marching in the streets are now hoping they might be heard in the gilded halls of power if they shouted loud enough in a chorus of one hundred thousand voices. Perhaps echoes of their bootless cries might faintly resonate on the eardrums of the powerful and mighty.  The fact of the matter is that young Ethiopians today feel the unbearable pain of their lives wasting away, their future fading into a chasm of despair and hopelessness. They need to be heard not just seen cowering before the baton of policemen and running away from the gunfire of security officials. Ethiopia belongs to her young people.

Gene Sharp, the founder of The Albert Einstein Institution, a man dedicated to advancing the study of nonviolent action said, “Dictatorships are never as strong as they think they are, and people are never as weak as they think they are.” Dictatorships rule only because the people they rule fear them and believe the dictators are all powerful and untouchable. Regardless of how powerful a dictatorship is, it cannot rule without some degree of genuine cooperation and support of the people. Popular support for the regimein Ethiopia, if there ever was one, evaporated long ago. Few recognize the legitimacy of the regime today. The regime cannot expect to remain in power indefinitely without accepting the need for change.

Change is inevitable. On balance, change is good. But there are eternal and inescapable truths about change.  Dr. Martin Luther King said, “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.” Ethiopia’s young people have straightened their backs and are struggling.  We should join and work together with them to bring about peaceful change through dialogue, openness, civil debate and consultations.

I believe real change begins in the hearts of individuals — the powerful and the powerless — not in political systems or ideologies. It is said that a person who cannot change his/her mind cannot change anything. I would add, a person who cannot change his heart — from hate to love, from anger to understanding, from indifference to compassion, from doubt to faith, from grief to forgiveness, from insincerity to honesty, from extremes to moderation, from pride to humility, from silence to righteous indignation, from intolerance to tolerance, from a belief in ethnicity instead of humanity — cannot change his/her mind and therefore can change nothing. The heart and mind must work together, but if we must make a choice, we should always strive to give the heart the right of way. Change is a choice we choose to make. As President John F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful change impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Let us always choose the peaceful path.

Every single week for years, I have argued that peaceful change is possible in Ethiopia. I have said that if Ethiopia is destined to rise and shine, it will be on the wings of her young people. I have an unquestioning faith in the intelligence, judgment and resoluteness of Ethiopia’s young people to continue their peaceful struggle.

On Ginbot 25, 20o5, Ethiopia’s youth flapped their colorful wings for the first time in two decades, with the resplendent colors of their ethnic, religious and linguistic heritage. They spoke in voice. They marched to the beat of the same drummer for human rights, democracy and freedom. You can no longer keep Ethiopia’s youth down. You can kick them and knock them down. But you can’t keep them down. They will get up and fight for their rights. Yilekal Getachew, chairman of the Semayawi (Blue) party, which organized the protests said, “We have repeatedly asked the government to release political leaders, journalists and those who asked the government not to intervene in religious affairs. If these questions are not resolved and no progress is made in the next three months, we will organize more protests. It is the beginning of our struggle.” The peaceful struggle will go on so that “justice will rise in Ethiopia like the sun, with abundance of peace forever.”

Ethiopia Has Arisen!

Ethiopia Africa’s bright gem

Shall rise up from the ashes of tyranny

Like the spring sun rising at dawn over the African horizon

Like the full moon rising over the darkness of the African night

Ethiopia shall rise and shine!

Ethiopia shall rise from the heights of Ras Dejen

To the peaks of Kilimanjaro

From the pits of the politics of identity

To the summit of national unity and diversity

Ethiopia shall rise and shine!

Ethiopia of the wise

Shall rise above the streetwise

Its people to galvanize, mobilize and organize

To humanize, harmonize and compromise

Ethiopia shall rise and shine!

Ethiopia Africa’s hope and destiny

Shall rise and its tyrants shall fall

Their lies, cruelty and corruption

Buried with them in the steel coffin of history

For “justice will rise in Ethiopia like the sun, with abundance of peace forever.”

Ethiopia shall rise by the sinews of her youth

Up-rise on the wings of her persevering children

Ethiopia shall rise and rise

Her youth will up-rise

Rise Ethiopia, up-rise.

(Poem from my commentary “Ethiopia Shall Rise”)

(My regular Monday Commentary will appear by mid-week.)

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: