Teachable Moments for the Ethiopian Diaspora? By Prof. Alemayehu G. Mariam

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By Prof. Alemayehu G. Mariam
Stop the violence against Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia now!
teachable_moments_eth_diasp1385855011The ongoing human rights abuses of Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia have triggered massive expressions of outrage against the regimes in Riyadh and Addis Ababa and unprecedented outpouring of concern and support in Diaspora Ethiopian communities. Over the past several weeks, enraged and brokenhearted by the shocking video clips of dehumanization of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia, tens of thousands of Diaspora Ethiopians from Australia to the United States faced off cowering Saudi embassy and consular officials.  An estimated 6-7 thousand Ethiopians peacefully marched on the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C. to demand an immediate stop to the violence and abuse and to show their support and solidarity with their compatriots in Saudi Arabia. Tens of thousands rallied from Atlanta to Seattle. Thousands more marched throughout Europe.  Everywhere they carried banners and shouted, “Shame, shame, shame on you, Saudi Arabia!”
The evidence of abuse and mistreatment of Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia is incontrovertible. In its December 1, 2013 report, Human Rights Watch stated, “Ethiopian migrant workers have been the victims of physical assaults, some of them fatal, in Saudi Arabia following a government crackdown on foreign workers. Many workers seeking to return home are being held in makeshift detention centers without adequate food or shelter.”
Three factors explain the worldwide explosion of anger and outrage by Diaspora Ethiopians: 1) the unspeakable barbarity and ruthlessness of Saudi street and police thugs and vigilantes who literally yanked out  Ethiopian migrant workers from their homes to beat, rob and jail them; 2) the depraved indifference and silent complicity of the Saudi regime in the face of the unmitigated police and mob violence and 3) the bottomless incompetence and  obsequiousness of the regime in Ethiopia to their  Saudi benefactors.
The reactions of Diaspora Ethiopians and the regime in Ethiopia over the abuse and mistreatment of the migrant workers were in sharp contrast. As Diaspora Ethiopians stood up for their compatriots in Saudi Arabia, the regime in Addis Ababa was backpedalling, bending over backwards and falling head over heels to bootlick and apologize to the Saudis. It was nauseating!
Tedros Adhanom, the malaria researcher-turned-instant-foreign-minster and the man being groomed to become prime minister after the 2015 “election” had the nerve to state in public, “Ethiopia would like to express its respect for the decision of the Saudi Authorities and the policy of deporting illegal migrants.” He confessed he was “really depressed” by the mistreatment of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia and told off the Saudi ambassador have it. “It is unacceptable”, declared Adhanom with diplomatic panache. In an attempt to show how he and his regime have things under control, Adhanom bellowed, “I would like to assure you that we are ready to receive our fellow citizens home.”

It was a pathetic display of indifference, incompetence and inanity. How could one “respect” the policy of another country that condones the dehumanization of its citizens? How could any person in his right mind choose the meaningless diplomatic word “unacceptable” to describe the rape, murder, mutilation, torture and lynching of one’s brothers and sisters in a foreign land? How does one retreat into personal “depression” and “sadness” without lashing out with righteous indignation and outright diplomatic outrage and fury?
It is true that a picture is worth a thousand words. The Saudi abuse video clips were decisive in triggering the Diaspora outrage. What must not be overlooked is the fact that the same degradation, humiliation, torture and abuse inflicted on Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia has been inflicted on ordinary Ethiopians for the past two decades. By crushing the independent media, Adhanom’s regime has been largely successful in concealing and covering up its massive crimes against humanity from public view; but not all is hidden.There is plenty of shocking photographic evidence  — just as shocking, if not more shocking than the video clips of the Saudi atrocities — of crimes committed against ordinary Ethiopians by the regime in Ethiopia. What happened to Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia in November 2013 has been happening to ordinary Ethiopian in Ethiopia in October 2013, November 2012, and December  2011 and so on.  A couple of weeks ago, Human Rights Watch issued a report on forced confessions  which stated, “Detainees [at Maekelawi prison in Addis Ababa] are repeatedly slapped, kicked, punched, and beaten with sticks and gun butts. Some reported being forced into painful stress positions, such as being hung by their wrists from the ceiling or being made to stand with their hands tied above their heads for several hours at a time, often while being beaten.”
My most teachable moment: Watching an awakening and angry giant
Truth be told, the most “teachable moment” for me in the current Saudi situation was the massive worldwide mobilization Diaspora Ethiopians were able to achieve in such a short time. I must confess that I did not believe Ethiopians in the Diaspora could strategically coordinate furious global protest action with such efficiency, energy and enthusiasm. It was truly an “Aha!” moment for me. I have been watching Diaspora Ethiopians for a few years, and but for the usual activists, the majority seemed to me not only silent but also sleeping. But in November 2013, I watched an awakening Ethiopian Diaspora Giant in sheer amazement. Men and women, young and old came out by the hundreds and thousands to stand up for their brothers and sisters in Saudi Arabia. What suddenly caused the Giant to awaken? I am not quite sure. My deepest fear now is whether the Awakened Giant will fall back to sleep after the Saudi crisis is over.
Teachable moments for all of us
I believe the Saudi abuse and persecution of Ethiopian migrant workers and the callous indifference of the regime in Ethiopia present exceptional teachable moments for all Ethiopians, particularly those in the Diaspora. I define a “teachable moment” as a unique occurrence in history that has extraordinary instructive value for mass education, mobilization and individual engagement. In identifying the following few teachable and learnable lessons in allegorical form, my basic message is that crisis reaction is not a winning formula for the attainment of freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. We should reflect calmly on the things we did right to achieve such extraordinary global unity, solidarity and mobilization in responding to the Saudi crisis. We should use the mobilization “magic” in the Saudi crisis over and over again. We should be in a permanent state of human rights advocacy and mobilization in the Ethiopian Diaspora!
Looking in the Ethiopian Diaspora Mirror: A conversation
I am introducing an allegorical (imaginary) “Ethiopian Diaspora Mirror” to talk about some things we need to do and not do to transform ourselves from reactors to crisis to shapers of destiny. We need to devise strategies to keep the Awakened Giant permanently awake and eternally vigilant.
We all know what the problems and issues are in the Ethiopian Diaspora; some are minor and others more difficult to resolve. Unless we openly and honestly talk about and resolve them, we run the risk of putting the Awakened Giant back to sleep. I am also sick and tired of muddling from one crisis to another. We must humanize, organize, revitalize and mobilize Diaspora Ethiopian communities.  We must have conversations with ourselves and each other.
I look into the “Ethiopian Diaspora Mirror” I hang on the wall to have a conversation. It looks back at me and says:
Y’all can start stuff, but you never finish it. The Mirror reminds, “‘The late leader of the regime in Ethiopia used to say, ‘Diaspora Ethiopians can start a lot of things, but they never finish what they start.’ Was he wrong?’”
I grope for words trying not to answer the question. “Truth be told, we have started many, many things, but very few have we brought to a successful conclusion. I can testify from my limited personal experience. Since 2005, when I actively joined the Ethiopian human rights struggle, I have seen, heard of and personally participated in one capacity or another in hundreds of political or advocacy groups, task forces, conferences, forums, consultation and discussion groups, teleconferences and in person meetings, workshops, conventions, colloquiums, symposia and conventions. I regret to say, I have yet to see one brought to complete fruition.” Then I quickly corrected myself. “We brought one thing to partial success. Who’d forget HR 2003 (Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act) in the U.S. House of Representatives. Aah! That was a teachable moment. That bill gave the late regime leader a headache, heartache, stomachache, backache, toothache and earache! HR 2003 also kept divergent Diaspora groups glued together committed to a common purpose.”
The Mirror interrupted, “Bingo! Y’all can build an all-inclusive Diaspora organization on a solid foundation of Ethiopian human rights advocacy. After all, who would be in favor of torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, beatings, torture and stolen elections?” I decided not to give the obvious answer. If we start something, we much bring it to a successful resolution or keep on trying regardless of how long it takes.
Y’all (almost) always tend to react emotionally often punctuated by anger. The Mirror asks, “Why do y’all almost always tend to react emotionally and often angrily when the ignoble regime in Ethiopia does or does not do something?”  I quickly think of the Saudi situation. “There is nothing wrong in being emotional. To be human and not be emotional is to become a robot. How could we not be angry and outraged when we see and hear our brothers and sisters in Saudi Arabia being subjected to subhuman treatment.” The Mirror continues to patiently question.  “After you’ve let off steam and the anger subsides, what is left over? Despair, anguish, sorrow?  Do you fall into the iron grips of powerlessness, hopelessness and helplessness and apathy? Or do you tap into your creative energies to re-group and take decisive action?” I nod reflectively. “Indeed, anger often ends in paralysis and inaction. The energy we waste in venting our anger must be transmuted into constructive long-term and sustained advocacy and action.”  Our anger must give way to rational, calculated and deliberative collective action.
Y’all (almost) always tend to react to high profile crises situations, but completely ignore the equally important low profile ones.  The Mirror says, “Just over the past year, y’all have witnessed a number of tragic crises unfold. There was the systematic persecution and violent suppression of Ethiopian Muslims by the regime. There was the brazen takeover of Waldba monastery lands, the ancient and venerated religious site in Ethiopia, for a handover to foreign commercial sugarcane plantation developers. There was the forced deportation–  ethnic cleansing — of Ethiopian citizens from the Benishangul-Gumuz region, among others.” The Mirror continued. “There are many low profile but devastating ongoing crises situations y’all have ignored.  Despite the regime’s propaganda about “double digit growth”, some 10 million Ethiopians today face life-threatening hunger and starvation. It is only because of international handouts that Ethiopia today has not faced the Biblical famines of the 1970s and early 1980s. The number of Ethiopian refugees in neighboring countries and throughout the world continues to grow by the hundreds of thousands every year.  There are crises in the education and health care sectors. There is a crisis of corruption and so on.  The quality of elementary and secondary educations is so poor and lacking, it should be classified as a crime against youth and humanity. The universities are mismanaged, politicized and have been converted into nepotistic training grounds for the party faithful.” We must react massively not only to high profile crises but also the low profile ones.
Y’all in the Ethiopian Diaspora (almost) always play weak defensive games. The Mirror points out, “Y’all in the Diaspora are always reacting to what the regime in Ethiopia does, and less often to what it does not do. The late leader of the regime was so clever he exploited this weakness to the hilt and played y’all like a cheap country fiddle. He would say or do something outrageous just to create distraction and y’all would be bent out of shape reacting to him. He’d watch with that evil grin of his.”
I try to explain to the Mirror. “That man was clever as he was cruel. He was a master manipulator, schemer, scammer and wily provocateur. We didn’t have a choice.” The Mirror is not convinced.  “Are you going to let his henchmen continue to play you like a cheap country fiddle?” I have no answer. I pretend not to have heard the question. I muttered to myself, “No team can win without a strong offensive line.” We need to build strong Diaspora teams and play strong offensive games.
Y’all lack focus. The Mirror says, “Y’all lack focus and hop from one issue to another. You react explosively to a crisis event followed by a long stretches of inaction bordering on apathy.” I ask myself, “Why is that so? Could it be that it is difficult to be focused without organization and leadership? Why is it that we don’t have a clear and intelligible advocacy and action agenda?” I tell the Mirror, “We lack focus because we lack a clear vision; we lack vision because we lack the will; we lack the will because we lack faith in ourselves and confidence in our beliefs and convictions.” We should heed the old African saying, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.”
Most of y’all are onlookers. The Mirror says, “Most of y’all would rather look from the sidelines; others would prefer to criticize from the sidelines.” I interrupt. “The trick is to fire up the imagination of the spectators, to empower and give them hope, knowledge and the confidence to use both in the cause of human rights. Then they will be  transformed from onlookers to activists.” The Mirror teases, “Human rights is not a spectator sport. Human rights is a team sport. Everyone is needed on the field. Everyone has a position to play and score big.”We must inspire and mobilize from the bottom up.
Y’all must launch an Ethiopian Diaspora civic engagement campaign. The Mirror warns sternly. “Y’all can’t ad hoc, ad lib and ad hominem your way to victory. Y’all must educate, mobilize, organize and empower the Diaspora community for collective action.  Y’all need to get in gear and get civic engagement campaigns going.  Set up community committees for civic engagement, recruit volunteers, run leadership workshops, broadcast radio and television programs to empower and engage everyone from the bottom up. Civic engagement from the bottom up!
Y’all waste too much time flinging insults at the other side.The Mirror says, “Y’all waste too much time flinging insults and denouncing the regime. Y’all just don’t get it. It’s like the old saying, ‘Never wrestle with a pig (or a thug) in the mud. You get dirty and the pig (thug) enjoys it.’ There is no way y’all can out-insult, out-taunt, out-hustle or out-slander a thug.” I am quick to respond. “One must call a spade a spade!” The Mirror advises, “So call it and move on. Just remember, you can’t insult your way to democracy or freedom.”
I nod in agreement. “We must attack with the slings and arrows of truth; we must defend with shields of facts. We must march the long march to freedom speaking, singing and shouting truth to the abusers of  power.” Speak truth (not insults) to abusers of power.
Y’all need to pay attention to the 800-pound tiger in the room. The Mirror says, “Try to walk in the other guys’ shoes, not to understand them (because you never will) but to understand their fears and veiled tears. Your adversaries are conscienceless and ruthless, but they are not fearless. They live in fear; but they are not paranoid (irrational fear).  Their fear is as real as the ‘tiger burning bright, deep in the forest of the night” to paraphrase William Blake. They are trapped in what could be called a ‘Churchill-Kennedy fear paradox’: ‘Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry’, warned Churchill. President John Kennedy cautioned dictators to ‘remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.’ In other words, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” The Mirror continued. “They appear cocksure and arrogant, but that’s only to cover up their all-consuming fear that one day, any day, they could lose their grip on power and spiral down to the bottom of the very hell they created for others.”
I ask the Mirror, “Are you saying dictators live day to day? They will do anything today just to go on living until tomorrow and the day after and the day after that?” The Mirror corrects. “No. They live in fear hour by hour; minute by minute; second by second.” Hungry tigers?Awakening giant tigers!
Y’all can’t do it alone. A final word before you go says the Mirror. “Y’all can’t do it alone. Y’all have to reach out make friends and coordinate action with them.”
I started to think. “How many of us are friends to our best friends? How many of us are members of Human Rights Watch, that organization keeping eternal vigil on human rights violation in Ethiopia?  How many of us support the Committee to Protect Journalists which keeps the searchlight trained on Kality Prison and Eskinder Nega, Woubshet Taye and the other journalists illegally held there. How many of us appreciate the extraordinary work of International Rivers which has been defending the rights of indigenous groups and exposing environmental devastation in Ethiopia? How many friends do we have in the international and local media? It suddenly dawned on me. “Why didn’t CNN, BBC, ABC, CBS, Al Jazeera, the Washington Post, the LA Times… show up to cover our protest demonstrations? Could it be because we have not made friends with them?” We just can’t do it alone. The sky is not the limit to what we can do together!
Mirror, mirror on the…
The “Diaspora Ethiopian Mirror” could be telling the truth or lies. Maybe I see what we I want to see in the Mirror. Maybe the Mirror shows me what it wants me to see.  Maybe the mirror reflects what I project on it. Maybe the mirror has all the answers or none at all. Maybe the mirror is my conscience. Of course, none of that stops me from looking into the mirror at the beginning and end of the day and asking: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, what should the Awakened Ethiopian Diaspora Giant do after all?
To be continued…
Note to the Reader: “Conversations with the Ethiopian Diaspora Mirror” is a special series of commentaries I expect to write periodically to focus on particularly instructive events and occurrences. It should not be all that surprising for a teacher to seek out teachable and learnable moments!
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: