Power, power, power…
When President Obama recently visited Africa, he announced a “Power Africa” initiative. In his Cape Town University speech, he proclaimed, “I am proud to announce a new initiative. We’ve been dealing with agriculture. We’ve been dealing with health. Now we’re going to talk about power: Power Africa, a new initiative that will double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa. Double it. We’re going to start by investing $7 billion in U.S. government resources. We’re going to partner with the private sector, who themselves have committed more than $9 billion in investment.”
In the speech, President Obama used the word “power” 21 times in a variety of contexts. He philosophized about “power that comes from acting on our ideals” and the “power of human beings to affect change”. He urged Africans to act “through the power of your example”. He encouraged support for programs “that empower women”. He mildly chided “those in power who make arguments to distract people from their own abuses.”
He puzzled over “what it will take to empower individual Africans” and enable Africans to have the “power to feed themselves.” He pleaded for “unleashing the power of entrepreneurship and market” and the creation of “partnership that empowers Africans.” He spoke about “the power to prevent illness and care for the sick” and “the power to connect their people to the promise of the 21st century.”
He lamented “Africa’s lack of access to power” and the need “to have power.” He “talked about power — Power Africa” and “doubling access to power in sub-Saharan Africa.” He pitied those Africans who “live currently off the power grid.”
He wistfully spoke about Nelson Mandela “leaving power” which “was as profound as his ability to claim power”. He spoke of Mugabe’s “corruption of power” and Zimbabwe’s economic collapse.
To power Africa or to empower Africans, that is the question
Africa has a power problem. There is no question about that. Africa needs protection from thugs-cum-leaders who abuse power, misuse power, confuse power and excuse and justify their abuse and misuse of power. President Obama is already powering Africa. Every year, he hands out billions of dollars to Africa’s worst dictators (excuse me, he calls them “partners”) who abuse power in countries like Ethiopia. Africa needs people power not thugs in power.
On second thought, Africa does not have a power problem. Africa has a problem of powerlessness. The people are powerless against thugtators who use power to abuse their human rights. Africans are powerless against the powerful forces of corruption – officials and their cronies who “illicitly transfer” (steal and stash) tens of billions of dollars in foreign banks. For instance, “Ethiopia lost $11.7 billion to outflows of ill-gotten gains between 2000 and 2009” and “in 2009, illicit money leaving the country totaled $3.26 billion.” Africans are powerless and disempowered against powerful election thieves who claim electoral victory by 99.6 percent. Africans are powerless against powerful warlords who seek to divide them along ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional lines. Yes, Africa’s powerless have a big problem with Africa’s powerful thugtators.
President Obama does not seem to get it. The question is not whether to power Africa but how to protect powerless Africans from those dictators America has powered and empowered by doling out billions of dollars in aid, loans and technical assistance every year. If he wants to power Africa, he should begin by empowering ordinary Africans against those who abuse and misuse their power. He should power up the youth grid that remains unused, abused and disused by those who manage the political power grid. He should use the billions of dollars of annual aid to disempower the few powerful African thugtators and empower the hundreds of millions of African youth.
Last week, in his New York Times opinion piece, Eskinder Nega, the symbol of press freedom in Ethiopia and Africa, made a simple but effective recommendation to President Obama: “I propose that the United States impose economic sanctions on Ethiopia (while continuing to extend humanitarian aid without precondition) and impose travel bans on Ethiopian officials implicated in human rights violations.” This proposal is in line with established U.S. policy. Beginning in 2001, the U.S. has imposed “targeted sanctions on the Government of Zimbabwe, including restrictions on U.S. support for multilateral financing, financial sanctions against selected individuals and entities, travel sanctions against selected individuals, a ban on transfers of defense items and services, and a suspension of non-humanitarian government-to-government assistance.” The official reason for these sanctions is the “Zimbawean Government’s increasing assault on human rights and the rule of law.” The human rights record of the regime in Ethiopia is far worse than the regime in Zimbabwe. That is a fact that can be demonstrated. President Obama should understand that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
If Obama wants to power Africa, let him empower African youth
President Obama has been talking about empowering African youth for years. In August 2010, he talked about launching “the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) as a signature initiative that supports young African leaders as they work to spur growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across the continent.” In June 2012, some “60 young African leaders” participated in “the Innovation Summit and Mentoring Partnership with Young African Leaders” for a “three-week professional development program”. To support the “empowerment of young African leaders” and provide them “significant and ongoing professional training, access to mentorship, and networking opportunities in Africa”, USAID “awarded two grants totaling $1.3 million to support the core principles of Young African Leaders Initiative.” In his Cape Town speech, President Obama told Africa’s young people: “You get to decide where the future lies. Think about it — over 60 percent of Africans are under 35 years old. So demographics means young people are going to be determining the fate of this continent and this country. You’ve got time and numbers on your side, and you’ll be making decisions long after politicians like me have left the scene.” But Africa’s young people do not have the numbers on their side. They got $1.3 million from America while Africa’s dictators get billions every year.
In June 2013, President Obama talked about “launching a new program” called the “Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders” which is “going to give thousands of promising young Africans the opportunity to come to the United States and develop skills at some of our best colleges and universities.” A lot of nice talk and promises for African young people; but promises and talk are more convincing when one puts money where one’s mouth is. Since YALI, there has been more talk than action.
But there is another side to the African youth story. President Obama in Cape Town said, “And I’ve traveled to Africa on this trip because my bet is on the young people who are the heartbeat of Africa’s story. I’m betting on all of you.” Which segment of the African youth is he betting on? The Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders promises to “give thousands of promising young Africans” the “opportunity to come to the United States and develop their skills.”
What about the millions of not-so-promising African youths who waste away in the urban areas without educational and employment opportunities? What about those African youths mired in rural poverty unable to get even the most basic educational services? Those young Africans who have acquired college education but are unable to find employment because they are not connected to the ruling parties in Africa? Those young Africans who are leaving the continent for menial employment in the Middle East and elsewhere and are subjected to the most inhumane conditions and treatment. Recently, BBC reported the discovery of a grave in the desert of Yemen containing some 400 bodies of young Ethiopian immigrants escaping the oppressive conditions in Ethiopia. Do the not-so-promising youth matter to President Obama?
Along the same lines, what does President Obama offer Africa’s young freedom fighters? In 2009, in Accra, Ghana, he warned, “Now, make no mistake: History is on the side of these brave Africans, not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”
Does President Obama know of brave young Africans in prison named Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Andualem Aragie, Olbana Lelisa, Bekele Gerba, Abubekar Ahmed, Ahmedin Jebel and so many thousands of Ethiopian political prisoners? President Obama needs to live up to the standards he set for Africans and answer one question: Is he, like history, on the side of brave Africans or is he on the side of Africa’s strongmen. President Obama must choose between making brave young Africans strong or African strongmen stronger.
Would $7 billion make a difference?
Lighting the dark continent is a daunting task. Enlightening the benighted “leaders” of the dark continent is an even more daunting fact. Over 130 years after the invention of the light bulb, the vast majority of Africans remain in total darkness. It is a historical enigma that as technology enlightens the world, Africa is enveloped in darkness. For instance, Ethiopia got a functioning telephone system in 1894 and over the past decade “invested some USD$14 billion in infrastructure development” including communications. Yet today Ethiopia has the worst telecommunications system in Africa and quite possibly the world.
Power outages and blackouts are common in every part of Africa. In June 2012, as U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton began her speech at the African Union, she experienced firsthand what Africans face every day. She had to stop her speech because of power outage.
Africa’s electrical power problem is not merely low access and insufficient capacity; it also involves poor reliability and extremely high costs. The regime in Ethiopia windbags day and night about a pie-in-the-sky dam on the Nile. They say it will be the largest dam in Africa and cost USD$6-7 billion. This fantasy dam is supposed to resolve the power supply problems of not only Ethiopia but also the region and beyond. The fact of the matter is that the regime aims to export much of the power produced from the dam and not use it for domestic power self-sufficiency. It is also ironic that the regime seeks to convince the population and the world that it can run the “largest dam” in Africa when it cannot even manage efficiently the few dams that are currently in existence. Yet the regime in Ethiopia keeps on windbagging the Nile dam canard to create the grand illusion of development, hoodwink the population and panhandle China and the international banks for more and more handouts.
The World Bank says Africa needs USD$43 billion annually to improve its power infrastructure. Would dropping USD$7 billion in American tax dollars plus $9 billion from the private sector over five years to “double” the power capacity make a difference in lighting Africa or enlightening Africans? Throwing USD$3 billion a year to help “Power Africa” for 5 years sounds like chicken feed. According to IMANI, the Ghanaian Center for Policy and Education, “If all the electricity generated in Africa was shared equally, each household would have enough to power a normal light-bulb for about 3.5 hours a day per person. With President Obama’s new initiative, this can increase by roughly 18 more minutes if implementation was perfect.”
President Obama cannot power Africa by empowering Africa’s strongmen. To power Africa, he must first help empower Africa’s youth. He cannot empower Africa’s youth with promises and silky words. He cannot power Africa by empowering a few of Africa’s “best and brightest” by providing them leadership training or skills. It is said that more than 600 million of Africa’s one billion population is below the age of 25. The vast majority of these youth are poor, undereducated and with little prospect for lifetime economic viability. Vast numbers of these youths are forced to work in whatever capacity to help their families survive while losing educational opportunities that could free them from poverty. He must come up with a different plan for Africa’s not-so-promising youth. They are the majority of Africa!
The real answer to Africa’s problems lies in creating a power grid among its youth. Any program that is narrowly targeted to Africa’s talented youth will merely perpetuate existing inequalities and keep the sons and daughters of the rich and privileged at the top. The masses of youths at the bottom will not accept this condition. Sooner or later, they will rise, power up and disempower the strongmen who abuse their power. That’s how Africa will be powered and empowered, President Obama!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
By Alemayehu G. Mariam
Honor Thy Independent Journalists
I often write about the trials and tribulations of Ethiopia’s independent journalists, sometimes in tones of lamentation, other times in wistful philosophical reflection. I have always defended the constitutional and human rights of Ethiopian citizens “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through other media of their choice.” Unfortunately, I have had few opportunities to publicly celebrate and express my pride in the extraordinary deeds of Ethiopia’s emerging young and courageous journalists.
Courage, it seems, is fast becoming the common middle name for many young Ethiopian journalists. They are certainly racking up some of the most prestigious international journalism awards for courage. It is a special privilege for me to write a few words in honor of Ethiopian journalist Dawit Kebede and his young colleagues at Awramba Times (AT) and congratulate them for being the recipients of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) “2010 International Press Freedom Award”. This annual award is given to journalists who have shown extraordinary courage in defending press freedom in the face of attacks, threats or imprisonment. On November 23, Dawit, barely 30 years old, will accept the CPJ award on behalf of Team Awramba Times and all independent Ethiopian journalists who are still suffering and struggling in Ethiopia and others who have been forced into exile.
I am also privileged to congratulate another courageous young journalist, Sisay Agena, a former political prisoner and erstwhile publisher of Ethiop and Abay newspapers, for receiving the prestigious “Freedom to Write Award” from PEN Center USA. He will be honored in absentia on November 17 in Los Angeles. Last year this award was given to Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese writer and human rights advocate and the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. The PEN award honors exceptional international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising and defending the right to freedom of expression.
In October 2007, another young journalist, Serkalem Fasil, received the prestigious “Courage in Journalism Award” given by the International Womens’ Media Foundation to women journalists that have shown extraordinary bravery in the face of danger. Serkalem and her husband Eskinder Nega, (both former political prisoners and publishers of Menelik, Asqual and Satenaw newspapers) today serve as the personifications of journalistic courage and integrity in Ethiopia. This past March, the Supreme Kangaroo Kourt of Ethiopia ordered Serkalem, Eskinder, Sisay and two other journalists, Zekarias Tesfaye and Fasil Yenealem, to pay the largest fines assessed against journalists in Ethiopian history. These journalists have been denied licenses to publish their newspapers for the past three years.
Dawit Kebede, a former political prisoner, and his young team at Awramba Times are part of a new breed of courageous young journalists in Ethiopia who continue to risk their lives and livelihoods every day to speak truth to power by exercising their constitutional and human rights to free expression. The members of Team Awramba Times, like the other independent journalists, do not hide behind clever pen names or concealed identities to do their work. They are always out there in the line of fire facing intimidation, threats on their lives, harassment, interrogations and imprisonment. I take this opportunity to single out and honor, congratulate and thank each and every member of Team Awramba Times: Fitsum Mamo, editor-in-chief and one of the founders of AT (and not long ago a victim of trumped up charges of defamation of state-appointed church head Paulos); Woubshet Taye (forced to resign on the eve of election in May 2010 following official threats); Gizaw Legesse, deputy editor-in-chief; Wosenseged Gebrekidan (a former political prisoner with Dawit Kebede and the others); Abel Alemayehu, senior editor; Elais Gebru and Surafel Girma, senior reporters; Tigist Wondimu (arts and entertainment editor), Abebe Tola and Solomon Moges, columnists; Nebyou Mesfin, graphics editor; Teshale Seifu, Sisay Getnet, Teshale Wodaj, marketing and advertising and Mekdes Fisaha, computer technologist.
Dawit is the managing editor of Awramba Times. If one were to ask him to describe himself, he would simply say he is journalist. He will say he is not “in the opposition”. He is not a politician. He is not partisan to any political party or ideology; but like his AT colleagues, he is uncompromisingly partial to the truth. He will not hesitate to report or write the truth regardless of who is in power. He will solemnly promise to continue to do his job as a professional journalist by exercising his constitutional and human rights for as long as he can given the intensity of press repression in Ethiopia.
The State of Press Freedom in Ethiopia Today
When I wrote “The Art of War on Ethiopia’s Independent Press” last December, I argued that the regime of Meles Zenawi is conducting a search and destroy mission to completely wipe out the free press in the country. The history of the independent press in Ethiopia over the past five years is a chronicle of brutal crackdowns, arbitrary imprisonments and harassment of local and international journalists, shuttering of newspapers and jamming of international radio transmissions. In May 2009, the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFPJA) reported: “Over 101 journalists are forced into exile, 11 are still facing serious plight in Kenya, Uganda, Yemen, Japan and India… Journalists Serkalem Fasil, Eskindir Nega and Sisay Agena are still denied press licenses. Editors of weeklies: Awramba Times, Harambe, Enku and Addis Neger are suffering under frequent harassments and the new punitive press law, which has become the tool of silencing any criticisms against the ruling party.”
Zenawi like all depraved dictators preceding him fears and loathes the independent press more than anything else. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France expressed his deepest fears of the press when he said: “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” In Ethiopia, that could be translated as “one journalist is to be feared more than a thousand soldiers (‘ke shee toregna, ande gazetegna’). The informative powers of an independent press are so awesome that dictators and tyrants in history have lived in constant fear of having their crimes discovered by the press and reported to the people. As Napoleon explained: “A journalist is a grumbler, a censurer, a giver of advice, a regent of sovereigns and a tutor of nations.” It was the fact of “tutoring nations” — teaching, informing, enlightening and empowering the people with knowledge– that drove Napoleon “bat crazy”. He hated the press passionately because they exposed his vast network of spies that had penetrated every nook and cranny of French society and his failed military adventures. They relentlessly condemned his indiscriminate massacres of unarmed French citizens protesting in the streets and his killing, jailing and persecution of his political opponents.
Zenawi is no different. He wants to crush the few struggling independent newspapers in the country for the exact same reasons Napoleon wanted to crush the press. For Zenawi, the independent press is the mirror of truth that shows and tells it like it is. Whenever Zenawi looks into the press mirror, he asks the same old proverbial question: “Mirror, mirror on the wall/ Who in the land is the cruelest and wickedest of all?” The independent press is always there to answer that question for him truthfully. Zenawi fears and abhors criticism because he can’t handle the truth. His problem is that in the new breed of Ethiopian journalists he is facing his worst nightmare: the truth in the hands, hearts and minds of the youth. These young journalists have captured the hopes and aspirations of the millions of the young people in the country (which represent nearly 70 percent of the population). The youth armed with the truth and united can never be defeated!
Zenawi has used the “law” to crush these young journalists in much the same way as other dictatorships have crushed the free press in history. When the Nazis decreed the “National Press Law” in October 1933, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels crowed that the “law is the most modern journalistic statute in the world! I predict that its principles will be adopted by the other nations of the world within the next seven years. It is the absolute right of the State to supervise the formation of public opinion!” Another decree known as the Law Guaranteeing a Peace of Right was proclaimed immediately after the press law imposing the death penalty on anyone who imports, publishes or distributes in Germany “treasonable articles” and 5 years for importing, publishing or distributing “atrocity stories” about the Nazis or “endangering public security and order.”
Back in April 2008, in a Newsweek interview, Zenawi triumphantly declared that his new press law “will be on par with the best in the world.” His “law” provided: “Whosoever writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicises, disseminates, shows, makes to be heard any promotional statements encouraging… terrorist acts is punishable with rigorous imprisonment from 10 to 20 years.” Dr. Goebbels’ press laws are still alive and well 75 years after he introduced them in Germany. This is proof that history never repeats itself; it just finds a new theatre to play itself out.
Knowledge Will Forever Govern Ignorance
Zenawi lives to control everything around him. He has been pretty successful in monopolizing political power by wiping out the opposition. He controls the economy by controlling aid handouts and cornering the lucrative international panhandling business. He controls the daily lives of the people with fear and intimidation. But there are two things he has been unable to control: Ideas and the minds of the people. It is not for lack of effort. Zenawi has tried to control the flow of ideas by shuttering newspapers, jamming radio stations, filtering websites, jailing and harassing journalists and intimidating the people from expressing themselves. But he has not been able to control the flow of ideas or the minds of the people. No one can do that. A good leader inspires with sound ideas and lofty ideals. She encourages the people to freely shop in the marketplace of ideas. To play such a role, a leader needs to have vision, insight, foresight, hindsight, the ability to “look at things the way they are, and ask why” and the courage to “dream of things that never were, and ask why not.” A man blinded by hatred can have no vision. He can only think and ask, “How can I can make things so crooked and so warped that they can never, ever be straightened out again.” A man with no vision lives in darkness and ignorance. As the father the American Constitution James Madison advised: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” It is the free press, “the tutor of nations”, that will help the people gain the knowledge they need to govern ignorance.
Kudos to All Independent Ethiopian Journalists
Ethiopia’s young independent journalists are fighting the armies of darkness against overwhelming odds. The Dawits, Serkalems, Sisays, Eskinders and all the rest man the frontlines with nothing more in their hands than pens, pencils and keyboards. They fight with the written word to inform and educate citizens and help them find ways to effectively participate in their own governance. I admire these young journalists for doing something that has never been done in the history of press freedom in Ethiopia. They have taught us by personal example what it takes to defend freedom of expression. They are inventing for us a new culture of free expression, societal openness, official accountability and transparency in Ethiopia. They are developing a style of journalism based on truth-searching, truth-telling and exposition of lies costumed as truth. They keep the candle of liberty flickering in the darkness of oppression.
I believe all independent journalists in Ethiopia are bonded together by a common cause of press freedom. They suffer the slings and arrows of a vindictive dictatorship together; they fight together, they rise and fall together and in the end they win or lose together. The CPJ, PEN USA and IWMF awards honor all of them. As we celebrate these young journalists, we should remember what it is all about: Press freedom in Ethiopia is not about protecting the rights of newspapers, editors, journalists, reporters or foreign correspondents and radio broadcasters. It is quintessentially about the right of every Ethiopian citizen “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers and without interference.” Zenawi believes that by keeping Ethiopians in darkness his regime and hangers-on will thrive on forever. He needs to borrow a cup of wisdom. Only three things thrive and propagate rapidly in darkness: mushrooms, hate and anger. Mushrooms proliferate in dark caves; hatred and anger mushroom and smolder in the hearts and minds of men and women who are oppressed and subjugated. Let Zenawi ask himself these questions: What happens to hate and anger deferred, to paraphrase a poetic line of Langston Hughes? Do they just sag like a heavy load, or do they explode?
LET ETHIOPIANS “SEEK, RECEIVE AND IMPART INFORMATION AND IDEAS OF ALL KINDS, REGARDLESS OF FRONTIERS.”
RELEASE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA.
 See fn. 1
By Alemayehu G. Mariam
It was a remarkable display of raw machismo: “My way or the highway… or jail!” It was a one-man political theatre, a monologue about absolute power, domination, toughness, brawn and pugnacity. It was a demonstration of sang froid machismo calculated to taunt and sneer at the opposition, and bombard them with contempt and derision. It was an ostentatious public vindication of the ignoble principle “might makes right.”
In a recent two-minute and forty-three second video of an exchange in Ethiopia’s rubberstamp parliament, Meles Zenawi, African dictator extraordinaire, ridiculed and lambasted his political opponents. He unsparingly tongue-lashed Birtukan Midekssa, the iconic Ethiopian political prisoner and first female political party leader in Ethiopia’s 3,000-year history. He caricatured the imprisoned leader of the Unity, Democracy and Justice opposition party as a faddish hen that hanged herself.
In the 103 seconds, Zenawi lectured with the sternness of school martinet. He berated with the coarseness of a drill sergeant. He taunted with the polish of a schoolyard bully. He explained why he had jailed Birtukan with the warped logic of a kangaroo kourt judge. His words and phrases were measured and calculated like those of a crooked accountant. His demeanor was armored in stone-cold arrogance and hubris. It was a study in political psychology, a glimpse of the cognitive process and personality of a dictator and the pathos that drives him.
As Zenawi deftly switched the topic to speak about Birtukan as an object lesson to his parliament, he could barely conceal his loathing for her. In a calculated act of public humiliation, he began talking about her in the form of a silly chicken who ultimately did herself in because she did not know the limits of her modest abilities and his overwhelming and boundless might. He sermonized:
As our parents say, ‘A hen once heard of a fad and hanged herself trying to follow it.’ They [the opposition] heard about the Kenya and Zimbabwe [“orange revolution”] model and decided to try it in our country. By doing so, they were exposing themselves to harm. But it was not only they who will suffer from harm, but unavoidably, all Ethiopians will suffer from it at different levels also. The bad thing is that many of our folks who got into this way of thinking were not ready to learn from their mistakes.
If we take Ms. Birtukan as an example, she said she did not ask for a pardon. We sent elders, ambassadors [to plead with her]. She said, ‘I will not listen to them. I will not change what I have said outside of the country. I will not take it back.’ She said that thinking the chaos created by her supporters or through external pressure she will get out of prison in a short time. She had a strong position on that.
At the time, she was repeatedly told that it was a mistake [for her to deny having received a pardon]; and that once she is put back in prison, she will not get out. So the main thing is it would be better before she got in. So the main thing is that it would have been better for all that she did not have to go back to prison. She was told this repeatedly. It would have been good for all of us. For one month the government begged her in direct and indirect ways. If we ask why, who will benefit from this? The government does not get five cents profit from this. So the harm goes beyond the individuals to everyone. I suggest that one ought not choose to dream of such things. But as I think of their experiences, their ability to learn from their mistakes is very limited.
Zenawi’s choice of a hen to caricature Birtukan Midekksa was dastardly and plain wrong. Birtukan ain’t no chicken. She is the Lioness of Ethiopia! She is a woman of conviction and principle. In “Q’ale” (My Testimony), a public statement she released two days before Zenawi imprisoned her on December 29, 2009, Birtukan boldly declared, “Lawlessness and arrogance are things that I will never get used to, nor will cooperate with.” Only a lioness would say something like that facing overwhelming odds. Birtukan is a woman of extraordinary intellect, dignity and honor. She does not lie, cheat or rob. She does what she does not out of expediency or in the eternal pursuit of self-enrichment on the public coffers. Rather her actions are guided by a commitment to the advancement of the causes of freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. After all, what greater sacrifice could this young single mother make to her people and country than leave her precious four-year old child in the custody of her aging mother while serving out a life term? Birtukan shows the quintessential trait of a proud lioness, not a clucking frightened hen. (For the record, the proverbial reference to the “hen that hanged herself” is misstated. The adage properly rendered is: “Silu semta, doro motech chis wust gebta.” Roughly translated, “A hen having heard that others have walked through thick smoke tried to do the same and died.” Chickens are believed to have low pulmonary tolerance for smoke.)
Zenawi repeatedly slammed Birtukan for refusing to acknowledge her “mistakes” and publicly declare that she had indeed been granted a pardon. The indisputable fact is that she never denied receiving a pardon. She merely explained the legal and political circumstances under which she received it. She wrote in Q’ale. “I have not denied signing the document which the elders persuaded us to sign on June 22, 2006 for the sake of national reconciliation. How could it be said that I denied a pardon document I signed, and whose content I accepted? How is that a crime? Where is the mistake?”
Zenawi also tried to portray Birtukan as a stubborn, ill-tempered and quarrelsome woman. He speculated that she acted foolishly believing that the “the chaos created by her supporters” or others exerting “external pressure” could get her released from prison quickly. Birtukan knew exactly what Zenawi was likely to do regardless of what she may or may not do. She told the “federal police commissioner” as much days before she was imprisoned. She summarized that conversation in Q’ale: “But what they found to be funny and perplexing is something great that I will forever live for, stand for, and sometimes get jailed and released for – it is the rule of law and abiding by the constitution.” In other words, Birtukan did not risk prison because she was stubborn. She was imprisoned because she stood up for her constitutional rights and in defense of the rule of law.
Zenawi argued that Birtukan was under some sort of fantasy about leading an “orange revolution” modeled after Kenya or Zimbabwe. He used the opportunity to warn his opposition that they too will fail and suffer the same fate should they try to bring about political change through acts of peaceful civil disobedience. His unambiguous message to everyone is clear: Peaceful resistance to his dictatorship is futile. But Birtukan did not try to launch any kind of revolution. She registered her party and overcame numerous political roadblocks placed in her way by the regime so that she could have an opportunity to engage and participate in the political process “abiding by the country’s constitution.” She was under no illusions that the regime will play fair; in fact, she expected they would play dirty and incapacitate her somewhere along the line, as they in fact did. In Q’ale, the former judge made it crystal clear: “The message [of the government] is clear and this message is not only for me but also for all who are active in the peaceful struggle. A peaceful and law-abiding political struggle can be conducted only within the limits the ruling party and individuals set and not according to what the constitution allows. And for me it is extremely difficult to accept this.” Zenawi thinks this is a “mistake”. No, this is telling it like it is!
The 103-minute video monologue offers insight into Zenawi’s thought process. He repeatedly insisted that his opposition is simply incapable of learning from their experiences and have a bad habit of compounding their mistakes. But what exactly are their mistakes? He seems to believe that his opposition’s challenge of the stolen 2005 election was a mistake. The independent press’ insistence on offering an alternative medium of communication is a mistake. Insisting on observance of the “Constitution of Ethiopia” is a mistake. Demanding compliance with international human rights treaty obligations is a mistake. Having free and fair elections is a mistake. The gathering of opposition political parties under one umbrella is a mistake. Insisting on accountability is a mistake. Exposing corruption is a mistake. Anything that challenges dictatorship is a mistake!
The wages of making mistakes is rotting in jail. Zenawi did not mince words. Birtukan will rot in jail; and he has already thrown away the key to her cell. That does not surprise anyone. For nearly two decades, he has been doing just that. His own official Inquiry Commission in 2006 documented that over 30,000 individuals were rounded up and jailed following the stolen elections in 2005. An additional 196 individuals were massacred and nearly 700 wounded by security thugs. International human rights organizations and others have documented the cases of countless political prisoners rotting in the regular and secret jails.
It is also clear that Zenawi has little familiarity with the concept of the rule of law. His understanding of that principle is that he makes the rule and that is the law. Everyone must follow his rules or they will rot in jail. Simple zero-sum game everyone can understand!
The unvarnished truth about Birtukan’s incarceration is that Zenawi was afraid she could easily win in a free and fair election in May 2010. All of the chaff about denying a pardon, mistakes and the other nonsense are part of a smoke screen designed to distract attention from the real issue. It is a classic case of the Ethiopian proverb, “Aya jibo satamehagn belagn. (“Mr. Hyena, if you must eat me, do so without giving too many excuses.) He will keep Birtukan in jail just until he makes his victory lap at his already-won May 2010 “election”. He would have no logical reason to keep her in prison thereafter. Should he keep her jailed after the “election”, it would be to satisfy some deep-seated sadistic pleasure that comes from seeing her suffer, or because of a repressed psychological need to dominate strong-willed women.
The machismo of power is that it gives the one who has it a sense of exhilarated and exaggerated sense of strength and self-confidence. Machismo makes a man a compulsive bully who, because of an inner fear of looking weak, must dominate everything around him. The macho man in any potential conflict situation overreacts, swaggers, boasts and rushes to destructive action as proof of his intelligence, audacity and courage. He rarely stops to think things through; that would be dithering and flip-flopping to his way of thinking. He will stay the course even though that course is manifestly perilous, silly or absurd.
Real men don’t whine. They debate real women in the court of public opinion and challenge them in the voting booths.
FREE BIRTUKAN AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA
(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 Pambazuka News and New American Media.)