By Prof. Alemayehu G Mariam
I wish all of my weekly Ethiopian readers throughout the world a happy and prosperous Ethiopian New Year*. I join you joyfully in ringing in 2007 and ringing out 2006.
For many of my Ethiopian readers in the United States, September 11 (Ethiopian New Year’s Day, Meskerem 1) is a festive day of celebration as well as a day that shall live in infamy. On September 11, 2011, the terrorist group al-Qaeda coordinated four attacks in the United States causing the deaths of over 3,000 innocent civilians and property damage in untold billions. In the new Ethiopian year, I pray and hope for understanding, harmony and peace in Ethiopia, the United States of America and the world. “When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace,” said Jimi Hendrix. It is my fervent wish that in 2007 Ethiopians, particularly young Ethiopians, will use their power of love to overcome those who love power, abuse, misuse and are corrupted by power.
As I look back on 2006, I see forward the rays of light at the end of the tunnel which shine more brightly than ever. For nearly a quarter of a century, indeed for four decades, Ethiopia once known as the “Land of 13 months of Sunshine” has been transformed into the “Land of 13 Months of Darkness”. Today, the flames of an independent free press have been extinguished; Ethiopia’s best and brightest young Ethiopians are languishing in prison dungeons; and the glimmer of hope that had uplifted the hearts of the people from the abyss of military dictatorship is once again swallowed by the darkness of thugtatorship. The oxygen of freedom has been vacuumed from the hearts of the tens of millions of Ethiopians yearning to breathe free. In 2007, I believe the sun of freedom will shine brightly than ever and banish the darkness that has enveloped Ethiopia for so long.
Whether one subscribes to dialectical materialism or historicism, human history is subject to certain immutable laws. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) taught, “What appears at the moment to be evil may have a purpose that our finite minds are incapable of comprehending. So in spite of the presence of evil and the doubts that lurk in our minds, evil contains the seeds of its own destruction. History is the story of evil forces that advance with seemingly irresistible power only to be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. There is a law in the moral world – a silent, invisible, imperative, akin to the laws in the physical world – which reminds us that life will work only in a certain way. The Hitlers and the Mussolinis have their day, and for a certain period they may wield great power, but soon they are cut down like the grass and wither as the green herb.” I believe the tyrants in Ethiopia will succumb to the same silent, invisible and imperative laws of history.
Looking forward to 2007, I am more hopeful than ever that brighter days are ahead for all Ethiopians and that the best days of Ethiopia are yet to come. I see a sea change taking place in Ethiopia. I would say a massive silent and invisible revolution is taking place among Ethiopia’s young people. Young Ethiopians have completely repudiated any notion of supremacist ethnic ideology and one party rule. From the hinterlands to the cities, these young people are quietly but defiantly asserting their universal human rights to be treated with dignity and due process of law. They are sick and tired of being treated as criminals by hardened criminals against humanity. These young people are an integral part of a homogenized global youth community driven by social media. Their values are openness, creativity, entrepreneurship, idealism and activism.
I believe Ethiopia’s young people have turned on to the message of human rights and freedom, tuned in to their own hopes and aspirations for the future and dropped out of a system of oppression that denies them basic human rights and dignities. The revolution may be invisible to those who have eyes but cannot see and those whose eyes are blinded by power and ambition for power. But I see Ethiopia’s youth silently and defiantly refusing to cooperate with a system that relentlessly dehumanizes them; benights them and deprives of the opportunity to enlighten themselves and expand and apply their creativity. In their silent and invisible revolution, their principal weapon is non-cooperation with an evil system. I hope they will continue to be inspired by MLK’s declaration: “I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”
I have concluded that the future of Ethiopia will be determined by its youth and no one else. They will be the tip of the spear of any meaningful and lasting political and social change. In the New Year I wish to remind them of an important eternal truth articulated by MLK: “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. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.” Ethiopia’s youth must continue their silent struggle of peaceful noncooperation with the system that oppresses, criminalizes and dehumanizes them. They must organize politically, economically, socially, culturally and spiritually to resist all who aim to deprive of their human rights and act to affirm their human dignity using all nonviolent methods.
With good wishes for the New Year to all Ethiopians and special wishes to Ethiopia’s youth, I pledge to practice and promote the following resolutions in my commentaries and other advocacy efforts in 2007. I share my new year’s resolutions with my readers not because I am confident I will be able to achieve some or all of them, or because I believe I can set some sort of high moral example for others to follow. I outgrew such pretentious vanities long ago. My reasons are much simpler than that. In the same spirit of my commentary The Hummingbird and the Forest Fire, I am sharing my New Year’s resolutions as a demonstration of the tiny contribution to the cause of human rights in Ethiopia. In declaring my resolutions, I am inspired by a very simple idea: “You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation.”
Here are the New Year’s resolution of “one flea against injustice” for 2007.
Teach and preach human rights in new and different ways. For the past 8 years, I have done my teaching and preaching of human rights primarily through my commentaries, occasional radio and television interviews and public speeches. In 2007, I hope to use social media much more than I have previously. As my message gets greater resonance with Ethiopians and more broadly with Africa’s youth (and that is my principal target audience), it makes sense for me to reach out to that audience using the media they use the most. The potential for targeted connectivity using social media is massive. I have long topped out my regular Facebook account and can hardly add any new friends but I have an unlimited “fan page” at https://www.facebook.com/Profalmariam . In 2007, I hope to utilize the broad spectrum of social media connectivity to get out my message of human rights to young Ethiopians and Africans.
Help change the public debate from the politics of hate to the politics of love. I believe the political debate in and outside Ethiopia today dwells too much on the politics of ethnicity whose fuel is the politics of hate. Ethnic bigotry is only skin deep even among some of the most sophisticated Ethiopians of my generation. The occasional shocking off the cuff comments provide a glimpse of the tip of that iceberg.
The politics of ethnicity is the 800 pound gorilla in the room (country) few want to talk about openly and critically. There is much Sturm und Drang and glossing over the issue of ethnic identity. As I have declared previously, I do not believe in the concept of ethnicity (which is a social construct, a category created by people), but in a person’s humanity. The politics of ethnicity has been a metastasizing cancer on the soul of Ethiopia and for that matter Africa. The wages of ethnic politics in Africa have often been hate-driven wanton killings, crimes against humanity and genocide. The politics of ethnicity is often the politics of hate.
In 2007, I hope to tailor my messages to Ethiopia’s youth and urge them to condemn the politics of ethnicity which thrives in a miasma of hate. It must be understood in its proper context and handled with extreme care. As MLK sermonized, hate is “even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates. You just begin hating somebody, and you will begin to do irrational things. You can’t see…, walk straight when you hate. Your vision is distorted. There is nothing more tragic than to see an individual whose heart is filled with hate. For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful; the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good; the true becomes false and the false becomes true.”
That is why young Ethiopians must be self-introspective at all times and first fight their own demons of hate that may be lurking in their hearts before fighting the demons of others. As Friedrich Nietzsche aptly warned, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” I hope to do my part in clearing the “distorted vision” of hate so that we can all see the beautiful and the good. In 2007, I shall strive to promote the politics of humanity which is the politics of love.
Promote truth and reconciliation. Ethiopians need to establish a truth and reconciliation process. I believe that process must begin at the individual and small group level. If Ethiopians as individuals cannot talk openly about the truth and reconcile, it is a pipe dream to hope for national reconciliation. I am saddened by the fact that those who have committed crimes against humanity and atrocities have written books purporting to document an accurate historical account of events without taking real personal responsibility for their role in the evil they helped perpetrate. They offer half-truths and hide behind the other half trying to project themselves as victims. They should strive to take a leadership role in telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and serve as bridges of reconciliation.
A truth and reconciliation process provides societies with a painful past to come to terms with the crimes and atrocities committed in the name of the state and take individual and collective action to prevent its future repetition. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Practicing truth and reconciliation is the only way to escape the doom of history. In 2007, I hope to promote such a process at every opportunity I get.
Encourage young people to get more involved in the debate over the fate of their country. It is unfortunate that many young talented, well-educated, creative and entrepreneurial young Ethiopians have opted not to get involved in the debate over the fate of their country. Many have told me that they do not want to fully engage because they want to avoid “toxic” political debates where the combatants’ choice of weapons include mudslinging, name-calling and character assassination instead of facts, logic and analysis.
I believe the burden is still on these talented young people to establish their own forums and open debates and discussions on the fate of their country relying on their own ideas and resources. I believe there is a real generation gap between the Cheetah and Hippo Generations in Ethiopia. The sooner the young Ethiopians realize that fact and proceed on their own, the better it will be for themselves and their country’s future. I hope to challenge young Ethiopians in general, and those I interact with in the Diaspora, to get more actively involved in shaping the future of their country on their own terms in 2007.
Vigorously advocate the release of all Ethiopian political prisoners. Over the past several years, the ruling regime has used its so-called Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to arrest and jail, without due process of law, thousands of political prisoners including journalists, opposition party leaders and members. The regime reflexively labels and categorizes any person or organization that opposes it as “terrorist”. According to Human Rights Watch, the regime has even cannibalized its own. It has engaged in “mass roundups” and jailed on terrorism and other charges “former members of parliament, long-serving party officials, and candidates in the 2010 regional and parliamentary elections.” Among some of the high profile political prisoners in Ethiopia today include Eskinder Nega, a journalist who has won nearly every major international press award; Andualem Aragie, a young, brilliant young lawyer with dazzling and prodigious forensic skills; Reeyot Alemu, a young woman who has received various international press awards; Woubshet Taye who has also won various international press awards; Bekele Gerba an educator and academic and Abubekar Ahmed, a young human rights advocate for religious freedom. I hope to give vigorous advocacy to the cause of all political prisoners in Ethiopia in 2007.
Shine the light on harmful cultural practices in Ethiopia. Over the past eight years, I have done practically nothing to bring to the court of international public opinion the prevalence of certain harmful cultural practices in Ethiopia. I have read many major reports by human rights organizations on such practices as female genital mutilation, child brides and forced marriages, marriage by abduction and the hushed topic of domestic violence against women in Ethiopia. Just last week, I expressed my outrage on the practice of marriage by abduction commenting on the film DIFRET on the same topic.
Yet, I have not addressed any of these issues in a meaningful way over years of uninterrupted weekly commentaries. I have no defense for not paying attention to these issues, nor do I have a reasonable explanation. My failure to comment and speak truth to evil cultural and social practices, glaring human rights violations, is simply inexcusable. No human rights advocate worth his salt should have been so negligent. I offer my deepest apologies to my readers for my failure. I have resolved to correct this negligent mistake on my part by giving much greater attention to these harmful practices in 2007. I also hope to address other cultural issues relating to intolerance and incivility in public debates and the need for decency in how we conduct ourselves in the public forum.
Kindle the imagination of Ethiopia’s young people. I believe I have a substantial following among Ethiopia’s young people in the country and in the Diaspora. My evidence is certainly anecdotal but cumulative and substantial. I believe I have a duty to inspire and challenge the imagination of Ethiopia’s young people to the best of my ability. For I believe as did Joseph Conrad that “only in men’s [I’d add women’s] imagination does every truth find an effective and undeniable existence. Imagination, not invention, is the supreme master of art as of life.”
I see a lot of Ethiopian “leaders” who make claims to political, cultural, economic and even spiritual leadership. I see fewer leaders who have taken steps to inspire the next generation of young political, economic and cultural leaders. I see even fewer leaders who aim to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs, human rights advocates, academics, literary and artistic creators, civil society organizers, dissidents and others.
There are untold numbers of imaginative, creative, ingenious and visionary young Ethiopians. By and large, they are finding their way on their own, which is a very good thing. In 2007, I hope to challenge Ethiopia’s young people to become “imagineers”. I hope to challenge them to use their creativity to dream up and propose new ideas, ideals and solutions to old social and political problems; to come forward with new ideas to deal with the old issues of poverty, ignorance, intolerance, gender discrimination, homelessness, violence and so on.
Articulate my version (not vision) of the Ethiopian Dream and challenge others to articulate theirs. I have listened to the speeches and interviews of countless Ethiopian political, cultural and religious leaders over the years. I have even followed the narrative of the late “great visionary leader.” I have yet to figure out what his vision was or is supposed to be now that it is in the hands of his disciples. Perhaps vision is in the eyes of the beholder. A morbid imagination is sometimes mistaken for vision. For some, fantasy and delusions are accepted as vision.
I am talking about a special “Ethiopian Dream”. Everyone has heard of the “American Dream” of which MLK spoke of with soaring and electrifying rhetoric. Today there is even the “Chinese Dream”. President Xi Jinping described that dream as “national rejuvenation, improvement of people’s livelihoods, prosperity, construction of a better society and military strengthening.” He urged the young people of China to “dare to dream, work assiduously to fulfill the dreams and contribute to the revitalization of the nation.”
There is no reason why Ethiopians cannot have their own “Dream”; or why Ethiopians from all walks of life, and particularly those in leadership positions or aspiring to same and those blessed with learning cannot articulate their own versions of the “Ethiopia Dream.” In 2007, I hope to articulate my version (not vision) of the Ethiopian Dream and challenge others to articulate theirs.
Fight creeping cynicism, gnawing hope(help)lessness and paralyzing despair. Not infrequently, I hear from many well-intentioned people that I should walk away from the struggle for human rights advocacy and should not feel ashamed for doing so because I have “done more than my part”. They say, “let others do their part.” They have given into resignation.
Others say, there is little one man can do and I am just wasting my time talking to the deaf, mute and blind. They are afflicted by defeatism and indifference.
Still others tell me they do not care one way or the other as long as their personal interests are protected. I should also not care and look out for my personal interest. They have sold out.
As I perceive it, they have all resolved to save themselves and do not much care about saving anybody else. So they have all given into cynicism, hopelessness and paralyzing despair.
I think they ask the wrong questions and give me the wrong advice. The right question is, “Why do I think I am my brother’s/sister’s keeper?” It is part of my core belief that I must care for the welfare of others less fortunate than myself. That is the major reason I decided to become a lawyer after I had achieved my principal academic objective. I am always for the underdog. It could be the homeless veteran at a freeway exit asking for spare change or the throngs of young people I have never met in Ethiopia who are unjustly imprisoned merely because they spoke their minds or expressed their opinions in a publication. I guess I was born that way. That is why I never get discouraged even if others believe my efforts are ultimately in vain.
I believe in MLK’s teaching that as moral beings each person must have an “audacious faith in the future of mankind” and “refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history.” We must “refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him… [or succumb to the belief that] the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.” We must believe that “nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. ‘And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.’ I still believe that We Shall Overcome!” To those afflicted by creeping cynicism, gnawing hope(help)lessness and paralyzing despair, I say fight on brothers and sister for in 2007 we shall overcome… or in 2008 or…! But have no doubts that we shall one day overcome those who love power with the power of love!
Speak truth to abusers and misusers of power, those seeking power and the powerless. In July and August 2010, I wrote five successive commentaries in the Huffington Post under the tagline, “Speaking Truth…” In that series I addressed women’s and youth issues, the problems of those in power and out of power seeking to get into power and foreign powers dealing with the powers that be in Ethiopia.
I have kept on speaking my version of the truth to all lured and imprisoned by the demon of power not because I enjoy talking to a brick wall, but because, as George Orwell observed, “In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Call me naïve, but I really believe that telling my version of the truth among political hypocrites, tricksters, double-dealers, hucksters, crooks, con artists, imposters and charlatans is a truly revolutionary act. In 2007, I hope to speak truth to those possessed by the demon of power more loudly than ever. But I am also ever mindful of Einstein’s admonition as I speak my version of the truth: “The search for truth is more precious than its possession.”
I invite all my weekly readers to join me in these resolutions in standing up against tyranny, hate and injustice and for human rights and dignity. History will not judge us on the fact that we failed to achieve our aims but by the level of commitment and effort we put out to achieve them. We just need to be fleas against injustice and act collectively and strategically to make the biggest, richest and meanest dogs uncomfortable and transform Ethiopia. The mighty United States Marines are always “looking for a few good men” to fight wars. Me, I am just looking for a few good fleas to join me in the fight against injustice and for human rights in Ethiopia in 2007!
Happy New Year, Everyone!!! La luta continua!
“If you ever think you’re too small to be effective, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito!” (or fleas?) – Wendy Lesko
*Postscript: The Ethiopian calendar follows its own complex chronological system. For a detailed explanation, click here.
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:
By Prof. Alemayehu G Mariam