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vaclav havel public intellectual

Ethiopia: Unfree to Speak or Write?

Alemayehu G Mariam

Free to Speak

To paraphrase an old expression, “There are two things that are quintessentially important in any society. The first is free speech and I can’t remember the second one.”

Free speech is the bedrock of all human freedoms. In my view, the value a society gives to freedom of expression determines whether that society is free or unfree. A society is unfree if individuals are afraid to speak their minds, to think unpopular thoughts, to criticize government, or to dispute ideas and opinions. Expressive freedoms were so paramount to the founders of the American Republic that they provided constitutional protections unrivalled in the history of mankind. In breathtakingly uncompromising, unambiguous, and sweeping words that could be found in the English language, they declared: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”

There are many reasons that justify sweeping protections for free speech in any society. Without freedom of speech, the person is like a corked bottle, keeping under pressure his/her ideas, views or feelings about politics, government or society. Leaders and institutions could not be criticized or held accountable where free speech and the press are criminalized. There is little room for any meaningful artistic, literary or intellectual pursuits where free expression is censored or sanctioned. In short, without free speech, “self-development is crippled, social progress grinds to a halt, and official lies become the only ‘truth.’”

I am not writing here to discuss the abstract virtues of or government infringement on free speech. Many of my readers know that I take an uncompromising view on the practice of free speech. When dictator Meles Zenawi came to speak at Columbia University’s  World Leaders Forum in September 2010,  I defended his right to speak despite strong disapproval and scathing criticism from friends, colleagues and others. Yes, even Zenawi, who has the dubious honor of being called the “second-leading jailer of journalists in Africa” by the Committee to Protect Journalists, has the right to engage in free speech. When the 500+ page memoir of former Ethiopian junta leader and dictator Mengistu Hailemariam was electronically scanned this past January in violation of copyright laws and posted online because Mengistu was a “mass murderer”  who should not “benefit from the sale of his book”, I defended his right to write and express himself. In defending the free speech rights of these two brothers-in-dictatorship, I was practicing Noam Chomsky’s axiom that “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” I venture to add that by not defending the rights of those we despise, we risk becoming their clones.

Free speech encompasses not only the right to speak (and not to speak) to others but also the right to hear (or not to hear) from others. It is a decision for each individual to make. I like to keep an open and critical mind; and therefore listen very attentively to those with whom I disagree strongly. It is logically impossible for me to agree or disagree (or even to disagree disagreeably) without listening to those with whom I agree or disagree. If I suspect a claim to be false, I contest the  facts. If I find the truth shrouded, I undress the lies. If I disagree with an idea, I challenge it. If I agree with a point of view, I bolster it. But to do all these, I have to tolerate the right of free expression of those with whom I agree or disagree. But free speech is not only about my right to expression, but also the right of others to do the same. 

The Fierce Urgency of Now for the Unfree to Speak, to Write, to Advocate… Freely

All of the foregoing discussion is intended to provide a springboard for a more specific discussion of  the plight of those I characterize as “unfree” to speak or write publicly. There are legions of Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian scholars involved in the study of Ethiopian society, commentators and intellectuals who feel unfree to speak or write on matters of great public importance to Ethiopians. Many scholars in Ethiopia are silenced by official threats of employment termination, summary dismissals and even arrest and prosecution. The fear of “censorship by mudslinging and public vilification” keeps many Diaspora Ethiopian scholars silent. Many of these scholars often point to the barrage of personal attacks they face whenever they write or speak on matters that do not conform to the prevailing orthodoxy. If they say something politically incorrect, they are jumped on.  If they express views that oppose one group or another at a conference, their names are dragged in the mud. If they write a historical analysis, they are vilified as apologists of a bygone era. They are intimidated and unnerved into silence by  the self-appointed and self-righteous censors of democracy. As a result, many learned and experienced Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian scholars who have spent years studying Ethiopia have completely withdrawn from participation in the vital public debates of the day.

But all scholars involved in the study of Ethiopia face the fierce urgency of now. They must renounce the vows of silence they have imposed upon themselves or has been imposed upon them by the self-appointed and self-righteous censors of democracy and come forward to help the people of Ethiopia transition from dictatorship to democracy. Ethiopia today stands at the crossroads. The signs of change are plain to see. The dawn of freedom and democracy that enveloped North Africa and the Middle East is ever slowly swallowing the darkness of dictatorship and tyranny. The best days of Ethiopia’s dictators are long gone. These are the desperate days of desperate dictators who are playing out their end game by resorting to desperate measures.  We see them stoking the flames of sectarianism. They are clamping down on all avenues of free expression. They are unleashing unspeakable violence to cling to power. They are finally facing the music; they are now beginning to understand the true meaning of Gandhi’s message: “There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall – think of it, always.” So in the end game, the tyrants and murderers will pull out their trump card, their long-planned final solution: “Après moi le deluge (after me the flood)!” (or in the words of the proverbial donkey, “after me, no more grass”). But they seem to forget that floods, fires and earthquakes do not discriminate; they consume and destroy everything in their path.

But these are also hopeful days for the people. They can finally see a flickering light at the end of the long dark tunnel of tyranny. They can see a beacon of light pointing in the direction of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. The tables are turning in plain view. The people are losing their fear of the tyrants; and the tyrants are showing their fear of the people. They are worried sick of what the people might do. The people are also angry and hungry. Anger leads to bitterness, hatred and violence. Hunger destroys not only the body but also the soul. A hungry man is an angry man. That is what the tyrants fear as the last chapter of the end game is being written.

The times they are a-changing. Ethiopian scholars can no longer stand on sidelines as spectators in these trying times. They cannot afford to be “summer soldiers, sunshine patriots” and fair-weathered fans of freedom, democracy and human rights, as Thomas Paine might have put it. They must be actively engaged in the struggle against tyranny now; and not prepare to struggle for power later. They must stand with the people now, and not stand by them later.

Ethiopian scholars and intellectuals must share their expertise and knowledge to overcome not only the tyranny of man but also the tyranny of hunger, disease, ignorance and poverty. Tyranny must be confronted on all fronts. It is up to the agricultural experts to make battle plans to defeat the tyranny of hunger and famine. According to the Legatum Index, “Ethiopia’s education system is poor at all levels and its population is deeply dissatisfied.” Ethiopia’s educational scholars must rise to challenge the tyranny of a hopelessly decayed educational system. “On most health outcomes, Ethiopia performs very poorly.” According to Foreign Policy, “There are more Ethiopian physicians practicing in Chicago today than in all of Ethiopia, a country of 80 million and Africa’s second-most populous country.” Shouldn’t Diaspora Ethiopian physicians gather their forces to confront the tyranny of disease that afflicts our people? Shouldn’t Ethiopian economists, engineers, scientists, lawyers, historians, artists, researchers, etc., come forward and forge alliances to confront tyranny in all its manifestations?

Writing and speaking in their fields of expertise is only the beginning. I plead with members of the Ethiopian academic and scholarly community to also become public intellectuals. The internet has become the great equalizer not only between citizens and all powerful governments but also between the intelligentsia and “ignorigentsia” (the willfully ignorant or woefully uninformed). In many ways, the internet has given free speech its ultimate expression. The learned scholars and academics and those spewing words of provocation, hatred and intolerance potentially have equal access to the hearts and minds of millions. But for all of the information and resources available on the internet, there is precious little that is relevant, enlightening and actionable. Ethiopian intellectuals need to organize themselves to bridge the information and knowledge gap and come up with fresh and creative ideas to help transition Ethiopia from dictatorship to democracy.

Nearly two decades ago, the late Prof. Edward Said of Columbia University in a series of lectures argued that the role of the intellectual in society is not merely to advance knowledge and learning but also human freedom. He made his arguments even more compellingly for exiled intellectuals. Prof. Said urged scholars to aspire to become public intellectuals connecting their scholarship to issues and policies that impact the lives of ordinary people. He argued that intellectuals must advocate and work for progressive change while remaining vigilant over those who abuse and misuse their power. Above all, the intellectual has an obligation to always speak truth to power and the duty to stand for and with the voiceless, the powerless and the defenseless:

 … The intellectual in my sense of the word, is neither a pacifier nor a consensus builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clichés, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do. Not just passively unwilling, but actively willing to say so in public. This is not always a matter of being a critic of government policy, but rather of thinking of the intellectual vocation as maintaining a state of constant alertness, of a perpetual willingness not to let half-truths or received ideas steer one along…”


And this role [the intellectual’s] has an edge to it, and cannot  be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them) to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under  the rug.

In the same vein, the late Czech president, human rights advocate and playwright Vaclav Havel wrote,

The intellectual should constantly disturb, should bear witness to the misery of the world, should be provocative by being independent, should rebel against all hidden and open pressure and manipulations, should be the chief doubter of systems, of power and its incantations, should be a witness to their mendacity.”

I believe Ethiopia’s intelligentsia could play the roles described by Said and Havel, and even go beyond their prescriptions and serve as consensus-builders, bridge-builders, facilitators, promoters and pacifiers. I would like to urge them to become Ethiopia’s eyes, ears and mouths and teach and preach to the younger generation and the broader masses. They do not have to be concerned about dumbing down their messages to the people, for when speaking truth to power the people get the message loud and clear.

These are different times. A new age is dawning without the old virtues that infused public dialogue and discourse. Civility, decency and respect in the public sphere were once considered necessary. The virtue of civility made it possible to disagree without being disagreeable; decency demanded that we agree to disagree without becoming mortal enemies. But the internet offers a convenient refuge of anonymity and unaccountability to the cacophonous and intolerant hordes whose mission is to drown out these virtues. But there is one surefire solution. Follow George Bernard Shaw’s wise admonition: “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, but the pig likes it!”

As one does not avoid going to sleep for fear of having nightmares, one must not disengage from public debate on the vital issues that affect Ethiopia today for fear of mudslinging and censorship by public vilification. Regardless, Ethiopian scholars and intellectuals must answer the urgent question of the day: Are they prepared to “bear witness to the misery” of the Ethiopian people by speaking truth to power?

Now is the time to stand up and be counted! 

(to be continued in a future commentary…)

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

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:  and