By Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam
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 in the streets 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 infinitely 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.
Eevery 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.
(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.