By Alemayehu G. Mariam
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:
By Alemayehu G. Mariam