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Ethiopia Mandela

Ethiopia: Time for Radical Improvements

Alemayehu G Mariam

pp2It is time to bury the hatchet and move forward in Ethiopia! Nelson Mandela taught that “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” I would add that your enemy also becomes your friend and your ally. Historically, when warring nations of Native Americans made peace with each other, they would bury their axes (hatchets) into the ground as a symbolic expression of the end of hostilities. I say today is the perfect time for all Ethiopians to bury the hatchet of ethnic division, religious sectarianism, regional conflict and human rights violations. It is the perfect time to shake hands, embrace each other and get our noses to the grindstone to build a new democratic Ethiopia where the rule of law is upheld and human rights and democratic institutions respected.

Today, not tomorrow, is the best time to put an end to historic hatreds and resentments and open a new chapter in Ethiopia’s history. Today is the best time to unchain ourselves from the burdens of the past, close the wounds that have festered for generations and declare to future generations that we will no longer be prisoners of resentments of the past. Nelson Mandela said that “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Mandela did not drink from the poison of resentment and managed to outlive most of his “enemies” and is still alive and kicking at 94. But today there is a lot of resentment going around in Ethiopia and in the Ethiopian Diaspora. There is the quiet and despairing resentment of those who feel wounded and defeated by loss. There is the gloating resentment of those who feel victorious and morally vindicated by the loss of others. Then there is the resentment of those who are indifferent because they just don’t care. Today is a great day to say good-bye to historic animosities. Today is a great day to end bitterness, not tomorrow. Reaching out to our adversaries must begin today, not tomorrow. Reconciliation must begin today, not tomorrow. Most importantly, “radical improvements in good governance and democracy” must begin today, not tomorrow.

Let’s Begin Radical Improvements in Good Governance and Democracy Today 

In 2007, the late Meles Zenawi expressed his “hope that [his] legacy” would be not only “sustained and accelerated development that would pull Ethiopia out of the massive deep poverty” but also “radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy.”  Today is the day to begin in earnest radical improvements in good governance and democracy. These improvements must begin with the release of all political prisoners, repeal of anti-terrorism, civil society and other oppressive laws and declaration of allegiance to the rule of law.

All political prisoners in Ethiopia must be released. Their situation has been amply documented for years in the reports of the U.S. Government, U.N. agencies and various international human rights organizations. The 2011 U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Ethiopia (April 2011) documented  “unlawful killings, torture, beating, and abuse and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, especially special police and local militias, which took aggressive or violent action with evident impunity in numerous instances; poor prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention, particularly of suspected sympathizers or members of opposition or insurgent groups; detention without charge and lengthy pretrial detention…”

In its 2010 World Report-Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch (HRW) concluded that “torture and ill-treatment have been used by Ethiopia’s police, military, and other members of the security forces to punish a spectrum of perceived dissenters, including university students, members of the political opposition, and alleged supporters of insurgent groups… Secret detention facilities and military barracks are most often used by Ethiopian security forces for such activities.”

A report of the U.N. Committee Against Torture (November 2010) expressed “deep concerns about numerous, ongoing and consistent allegations concerning the routine use of torture by the police, prison officers and other members of the security forces, as well as the military, in particular against political dissidents and opposition party members, students, alleged terrorist suspects and alleged supporters of insurgent groups such as the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). It is concerned about credible reports that such acts frequently occur with the participation, at the instigation or with the consent of commanding officers in police stations, detention centers, federal prisons, military bases and in unofficial or secret places of detention.”

It is difficult to accurately establish the number of political prisoners in Ethiopia. International human rights organizations are not allowed  access to political prisoners or to investigate their situation. But various reports provide estimates that vary from several hundreds to tens of thousands. Recent estimates by Genocide Watch peg the number of political prisoners at around one hundred thousand. Political dissidents, critics and opposition leaders continue to be arrested and detained every day. In the past year, an undetermined number of members of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) and the Oromo People’s Congress (OPC) have been detained for political reasons. Other opposition parties have reported similar arrests of their members. Alleged members of the Oromo Liberation Front continue to be arrested and detained without charge. In just the past few months, journalists, opposition political leaders and activists, including Andualem Arage, the charismatic vice chairman of the opposition coalition Medrek, Natnael Mekonnen, an official of the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, the internationally-celebrated journalists Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu, and editor Woubshet Alemu have been sentenced to long prison terms.

Radical improvements in good governance and democracy also require repeal of the so-called  “Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009”.  Over the past few years, this “law” has been used to round up and jail dissidents, journalists and opposition party political leaders as “terrorists.” The law has been condemned by all international human rights organizations.  Human Rights Watch criticized the law as “potent tool for suppressing political opposition and independent criticism of government policy.”  The vaguely drafted  “anti-terrorism law” in fact is not much of a law as it is a velvet gloved iron fist used to smash any opponent of the regime. Speech aimed at “advancing a political, religious or ideological cause” and intending to “influence the government”, “intimidate the public”, “destabilize or destroy the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social institutions of the country” is classified as “terrorism”. Making or publishing statements “likely to be understood as encouraging terrorist acts” is a punishable offense under the “law”.  Anyone who provides “moral support or advice” or has any contact with an individual accused of a terrorist act is presumed to be a terrorist supporter. Anyone who “writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicizes, disseminates, shows, makes to be heard any promotional statements encouraging, supporting or advancing terrorist acts” is deemed a “terrorist”.  A person who “fails to immediately inform or give information or evidence to the police” on a neighbor, co-worker or others s/he may suspect of “terrorism” could face up to 10 years for failure to report. Two or more persons who have contact with a “terror” suspect could be charged with conspiracy to commit “terrorism”.

Under the “anti-terrorism” law, “The police may arrest without court warrant any person whom he reasonably suspects to have committed or is committing terrorism” and hold that person in incommunicado detention. The police can engage in random and “sudden search and seizure” of the person, place or personal effects of anyone suspected of “terrorism”. The police can “intercept, install or conduct surveillance on the telephone, fax, radio, internet, electronic, postal, and similar communications” of a person suspected of terrorism. The police can order “any government institution, official, bank, or a private organization or an individual” to turn over documents, evidence and information on a “terror” suspect. A “terror” suspect can be held in custody without charge for up to “four months”. Any “evidence” presented by the regime’s prosecutor against a “terror” suspect in “court” is admissible, including “confessions” (extracted by torture), “hearsay”, “indirect, digital and electronic evidences” and “intelligence reports even if the report does not disclose the source or the method it was gathered (including evidence obtained by torture).

As I have previously commented, the “anti-terrorism” law criminalizes democratic civic existence itself: “Thinking is terrorism. Dissent is terrorism. Speaking truth to power is terrorism. Having a conscience is terrorism. Peaceful protest is terrorism. Refusing to sell out one’s soul is terrorism. Standing up for democracy and human rights is terrorism. Defending the rule of law is terrorism. Peaceful resistance of state terrorism is terrorism. But one must be reasonable about “terrorism”. Nelson Mandela was jailed for 27 years as a “terrorist” by the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Following his release, he said, “I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists. I tell them that I was also a terrorist yesterday, but, today, I am admired by the very people who said I was one.” The “antiterrorism law” must be repealed.

The so-called  Charities and Societies Proclamation No. 621/2009 must be repealed. This “law” has been severely criticized by all of the major international human rights organizations.  Among its draconian elements include prohibitions on foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from engaging in human rights and democratic advocacy activities in Ethiopia including advocacy of gender and religious equality, conflict resolution or justice system and electoral reform. A local NGO that receives more than ten percent of its funding from foreign sources is considered “foreign”. Since few Ethiopian NGOs are financially self-sufficient, the vast majority depend significantly on foreign sources for their funding. This law has effectively put them out of business. The law allows an administrative body to have final authority over NGO disputes by granting it broad discretion to deny, suspend or revoke the registration of any NGO. Criminal sanctions and fines are also provided for violations of the law exposing NGO officials, members, volunteers and service recipients. Moreover, this law flagrantly violates various sections of the Ethiopian Constitution dealing with freedom of expression, assembly and association as has been pointed out by various human rights organizations.

Ethiopia today stands at the crossroads. It can march forward into democracy by taking confident steps that begin radical improvements in good governance and democracy. Or Ethiopia can continue to slide backwards and deeper into the vortex of dictatorship. Or it can free fall into chaos and strife. The choice is ours to make. There are important lessons to be learned by all. Those in power should be mindful that “making peaceful revolution impossible is making violent revolution inevitable.” Others should heed the message of Dr. Martin Luther King who once told the great Harry Belafonte his concerns about racial desegregation and its potential consequences: “I fear, I am integrating my people into a burning house,” wondered Dr. King metaphorically referring to the potential for racial conflict and strife that could result from outlawing discrimination. Belafonte, somewhat taken aback asked Dr. King, “What should we do?” Dr. King told him that we should “become the firemen [and] not stand by and let the house burn.’” We all need to be Ethiopian firemen and firewomen and begin “radical improvements in good governance and democracy” today, not tomorrow!!

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

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:  and


Ethiopia: The Truth About the Hummingbirds

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

Note: This is my sixth and final commentary on the theme “Where do we go from here?” following the rigged May 2010 elections in Ethiopia in which the ruling dictatorship won by 99.6 percent [1]. In this piece, I emphasize the importance of individual commitment and effort to help establish democracy, protect human rights and institutionalize the rule of law in Ethiopia. I argue that there is today a struggle between a host of hummingbirds trying to save Ethiopia’s soul and a voracious wake of vultures that have devoured her body.  I predict ultimate victory for the hummingbirds following Gandhi’s timeless exhortation that “There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they may seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail. Think of it: always.”

The Hummingbird and the Forest Fire

In March 2007, I wrote an allegorical commentary during our grassroots advocacy efforts to pass H.R. 5680 (later H.R. 2003 “Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007) entitled “The Hummingbird and the Forest Fire”.[1] It was a  tale which took creative license on a story once told by Dr. Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist and 2004 Nobel Prize laureate for peace.  In Dr. Maathai’s story,

One day a terrible fire broke out in a forest – a huge woodlands was suddenly engulfed by a raging wild fire. Frightened, all the animals fled their homes and ran out of the forest. As they came to the edge of a stream they stopped to watch the fire and they were feeling very discouraged and powerless. They were all bemoaning the destruction of their homes. Every one of them thought there was nothing they could do about the fire, except for one little hummingbird. This particular hummingbird decided it would do something. It swooped into the stream and picked up a few drops of water and went into the forest and put them on the fire. Then it went back to the stream and did it again, and it kept going back, again and again and again. All the other animals watched in disbelief; some tried to discourage the hummingbird with comments like, ‘Don’t bother, it is too much, you are too little, your wings will burn, your beak is too tiny, it’s only a drop, you can’t put out this fire.’

In my version of the story, the hummingbird never stopped humming. Indeed, my hummingbird is miraculously multiplied into battalions of young forest firefighters putting out the flames of oppression and dousing out the smoldering ambers of ethnic hatred and division in Ethiopia, while planting the seeds of freedom and  democracy. My young hummingbird firefighters take on a single mission: Help build a new democratic society  guided by a national vision which embraces the indivisible unity of the Ethiopian people, the territorial integrity of the Ethiopian nation and governance based on democratic principles, the rule of law and protection of human rights. My hummingbirds totally and completely reject the bankrupt and deceitful ideas of those who claim that Ethiopia is no more than a mishmash of competing and antagonistic ethnic, tribal, linguistic, religious and regional groups who must be kept corralled in their own Bantustan-style homelands or “kilils”.

Can Hummingbirds Really Stop the Forest Fire?

It is often heard in some Ethiopian circles that the efforts of a few individuals or groups will not amount to much in bringing about political change. They say the dictatorship is too rich, too powerful and too entrenched to oppose. Some have given up hope having surveyed the systematic looting of the country over the past two decades. Others argue for the violent overthrow of the dictators in the belief that those who seized power through the barrel of the gun can be removed only through the barrel of the gun. In other words, fight a forest fire with fire. It is an age-old idea with a predicable outcome: Everybody gets burned in the ensuing conflagration. But suum cuique (to each his own).

History shows that hummingbirds not only can stop fires, they can also start them. The chief architects of the current dictatorship in Ethiopia were originally formed as a small group of “ethno-nationalist” students who were inflamed by what they believed to be injustice and oppression. They were young hummingbirds long before they became old buzzards. As Dr. Aregawi Berhe wrote in his recent book[2]: “On 14 September 1974, seven university students… met in an inconspicuous cafe located in Piazza in the center of Addis Ababa… The aim of the meeting was to (a) wrap up their findings about the nature and disposition of the Dergue’s regime with regard to the self-determination of Tigrai and the future of democracy in Ethiopia, (b) discuss what form of struggle to pursue and how to tackle the main challenges that would emerge, (c) outline how to work and coordinate activities with the Ethiopian left, which had until then operated according to much broader revolutionary ideals.” They set out to “dispose” of the Derg (military junta that rules Ethiopia after the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie) and replaced it with a one-man, one-party dictatorship. In other words, tweedle dee replaced tweedle dum!

World history shows that individuals and small groups — the hummingbirds — do make a difference in bringing about change in their societies. The few dozen leaders of the American Revolution and the founders of the government of the United States were driven to independence by a “long train of abuses and usurpations” leading to “absolute despotism” as so eloquently and timelessly expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Their vision was founded not only on the need for independence from the yoke of British colonial rule but also the necessity of perfecting the unity of the American people after independence. They formed a constitution for one nation to be governed under one constitution of the United States of America (which had some significant imperfections), which has endured for 223 years. The Bolsheviks won the Russian Revolution arguably defending the rights of the working class and peasants against the harsh oppression of Czarist dictatorship. They managed to establish a totalitarian system which thankfully swept itself into the dustbin of history two decades ago.

Gandhi and a small group of followers in India led nationwide campaigns to alleviate poverty, make India economically self-reliant, broaden the rights of urban laborers, peasant and women, end the odious custom of untouchability and bring about tolerance and understanding among religious and ethnic groups. He launched the Quit India civil disobedience movement in 1942 culminating in Indian independence in 1947. Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo led ANC’s Defiance Campaign and crafted the Freedom Charter which provided the  ideological basis for the long struggle against apartheid and served as the foundation for the current South African Constitution. In the United States, Martin Luther King and some 60 church leaders formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, becoming the driving force of the American civil rights movement.

Social change depends a great deal on the circumstances of social forces in a given society. Political change in Ethiopia today seems improbable not because of the invincibility of the dictatorship but because of the lack of unity and commonality of purpose among the opposition. This calls for the establishment of a new political culture of cooperation, collaboration and coalition-building among anti-dictatorship elements, who now seem to have retreated into passive spectatorship of the dictatorship. The political history of contemporary Ethiopia could best be summarized in the words of V.I. Lenin: “One man with a gun can control 100 without one.” There is no doubt that the handful of core leaders of the dictatorship will cling to power at any cost. Though Lenin may be partly right, his empirical observation is countered by the irrefutable logic of the old Ethiopian saying: “The gathered strands of the spider’s web could tie up a lion.” (Dir biaber anbessa biasir.)  If one hundred unarmed hummingbirds could come together as one with a commonality of purpose and determination, they could overcome one vulture no matter the width of his wingspan or the sharpness of his claws. In the absence of such a ratio of hummingbirds to vultures and the widespread disillusionment with the dictatorship and disarray in the opposition, the self-empowerment of individuals and action by small committed groups of individuals as one of the most viable means of effecting change and bringing about democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia. Simply stated, to bring about change, citizens as individuals must be active by being active citizens.

Hummingbirds Must Keep on Humming

The morality tale of the hummingbird is instructive to all Ethiopians. Despite the ferocity of the forest fire, the hummingbird did not stop carrying its droplets of water. Dictatorships are analogous to a forest fire. They consume everything in their societies. Like the raging forest fire, they also seem unstoppable. But as Gandhi taught, the fires of dictatorship are always stopped by the waterfall of truth and love: “When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they may seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail. Think of it: always.” The reasons are simple[3]. In the end tyrants always fail because though they have guns and tanks, they lack ideas and vision. They lose because they live in a world of darkness and ignorance. They are incapable of transforming themselves or their societies because they are trapped in their own cycle of repression that feeds off their ignorance and wickedness. And like Dracula, the legendary bloodsucker, they can only live on the blood — and sweat and tears — of their victims. They can not survive otherwise. Dictatorships use brutality because they can not convince their people with the strength of their political or philosophical arguments, the persuasiveness of their logic or the abundance of their good will. They fail because they can not withstand the force of truth and always slip and fall on the pile of lies and deceit that is their foundation.

Though dictators are destined to the dustbin of history, they will delay their inevitable rendezvous by proclaiming to be anointed by the masses. They put themselves out as the saviors of the very masses they oppress ruthlessly. They claim to have special qualities that give them the right to rule the masses forever and exhort the “herd” to follow them blindly and unquestioningly. In concluding his May 2010 “election” victory speech (a/k/a a public demonstration against Human Rights Watch for its critical report), dictator Meles Zenawi expressed gratitude effusively to the Ethiopian people for re-appointing him and his party to complete a quarter century on the throne.  “Once again we, over five million EPRDF members, on behalf of our martyrs and our selves solemnly express our gratitude to day, standing before you, the Ethiopian people, who have the sovereign right and power to appoint or dismiss your leaders. We salute you!” An old Ethiopian saying teaches us to beware of a “wolf priest praying in the midst of a flock of sheep.” No doubt the wolf will “salute” and “express gratitude” to every sheep he devours. But do the sheep return the salutation and gratitude?

All of us committed to democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia have choices to make and actions to take as individuals. That choice is between good and evil; that is between joining the host of hummingbirds that carry droplets of water to put out the fires set by a ruthless dictatorship, or siding with the wake of vultures that use their enormous wings to fan the flames of ethnic hatred and division to perpetuate themselves in power. Those who play with the fires of ethnic politics to cling to power should beware the backdraft.


Alemayehu G. Mariam is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on,, and other sites.


[2] Aregaw Berhe, A Political History of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (1975-1991) (Los Angeles: Tsehai Publishers, 2009), p. 38.

[3]See footnote 1.