By Alemayehu G. Mariam
When I wrote Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed an open letter on June 3, 2018 on behalf of Diaspora Ethiopians in the U.S. asking him to “please, please be our guest”, I promised:
If you come to the U.S., I have no doubts you would victoriously declare, “I came; I saw; and I conquered the hearts and minds of Ethiopians and Ethiopian Americans in America.
I also promised he would be “treated like a rock star by the younger generation of Ethiopians.”
The Minneapolis-St. Paul Pioneer Press reported “10,000 give Ethiopian prime minister a rock-star greeting at Target Center”.
PM Abiy did not disappoint.
He came, he saw, and he conquered the hearts and minds of Diaspora Ethiopians with a powerful and irresistible message of love, forgiveness, reconciliation and peace.
The whole event felt like a revival meeting, a basketball game and a campaign rally rolled into one.
July! Oh, July and me!
July, what a strange month it is, for me!
To paraphrase the opening Lines of Charles Dickens’s “Tale of Two Cities”, it is the best and the worst of months, the season of Light and Darkness, the spring of hope and it was the summer of despair…”
On July 27, 2015 at 1:47 p.m., former U.S. President Barack Obama stood at the National Place in Ethiopia and said words that broke my heart, plunged me into deep despair and insulted the intelligence of 100 million people. It was my summer of despair.
I never forgave Barack Obama for his hurtful words, and never missed an opportunity to unleash the relentless fury of my pen on him from that day until July 27, 2018.
There is an old saying, “Stab the body and it heals, but injure the heart and the wound lasts a lifetime.”
What Barack Obama did in Addis Ababa on July 27, 2015 was stab me in the heart.
But I am alright now. Abiy Ahmed came to America on July 27, 2018 and mended my broken heart and transported me to the peak of the mountain of hope. It is now the spring of hope for me.
I have forgiven Barack Obama. The bitterness is gone. I have buried the hatchet. Peace be upon you, Barack Obama!
Abiy Ahmed in the City of Angeles!
For many of us in Los Angeles and Southern California and beyond, how sweet it was to have an angel of love in the City of Angles!
On July 29, 2018 at 9:30 a.m., Team Abiy Ahmed- Ethiopia literally descended (in their jetliner) on the City of Angels on a special mission to deliver their message of love, forgiveness, peace, reconciliation, unity and Ethiopiawinet to the tens of thousands of Ethiopians living in Southern California and the Western United States.
As the Ethiopian Airlines jetliner rolled to the VIP gate at LAX, I had the strangest feeling.
Standing along the red-carpet reception line, I did not feel I was there to receive a head of state with his delegation.
I felt I was there to receive members of my own family, my children, my brothers and sisters or cousins.
As PM Abiy and his delegation walked down the red carpet, I choked up. I could not speak, not even get the words “Welcome to LA” out.
It was just like parents would choke up meeting their children or siblings meeting each other after a long separation.
The strangest thing is that 6 months ago, I had no idea about PM Abiy or any one in his delegation. I may have seen 2 or 3 short videos clips of PM Abiy’s speeches, but I did not pay much attention.
For the last 13 years, I was too busy prosecuting the pre-PM Abiy regime every single week and convicting them in the court of world public opinion to notice anything else, least of all the rise of transformative young leaders.
As I saw Abiy, Lemma and the rest of the delegation coming down the red carpet greeting us, for the first time I felt like I was back in Ethiopia after 48 years, round it off to 50. That is one-half century.
It was an indescribable feeling of family re-union.
It’s like they knew I would never go back to Ethiopia, so they decided to bring Ethiopia to me in Los Angeles.
So, how is it possible for me to feel such deep family attachment to people I had never met in my life?
I just don’t know!
The other strange thing was that I could not explain the leadership styles of Abiy Ahmed and Lemma Megerssa, the Oromia state president. They seem so unreal as political leaders.
They don’t quack like politicians. They don’t walk like politicians. They don’t lead like politicians. These young men say what they mean and mean what they say. They so deeply believe in their conviction, they have a whole nation singing their song of love, forgiveness, reconciliation and peace.
But that’s not how it is done in politics! Anywhere in the world!
I have humored my students defining politics as “poly” meaning “many” and “ticks” meaning “bloodsucking insects.”
The hallmark of all politicians is their forked-tongue. Like snakes, politicians flick their tongues seeking the odor of money, votes or favors.
“Could it be that Abiy and Lemma are not politicians?”, I have asked myself from time to time.
If they are not, they must be statesmen? But to be statesmen, tradition requires a very long and honored career in public service.
So, if they are neither, what are they?
Well, my best answer is that they are the stuff dreams are made of. Mine and millions of others Ethiopian.
For the last 27 years, Ethiopians lived in an endless nightmare and dreamed of an end to their nightmare.
For the last 13 years, I had only two humble dreams to end their nightmare: Ethiopia at peace and Ethiopia led by her young people.
Every week, I kept marching on to the tune of the inspired words, “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,… [and] see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” It is written that “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
Six months ago, I saw a vision of Armageddon in Ethiopia. I was convinced Ethiopia was in the first stage of implosion.
In December 2017, I announced to the world Ethiopia sat on the “horns of a creeping civil war dilemma.”
Deus ex machina!
At the eleventh hour, 59 minutes and 59 seconds, two young visionaries named Lemma Megerssa and Abiy Ahmed came out of nowhere and pulled Ethiopia back from the precipice.
Not long ago, Herman Cohen, former U.S. Ambassador and United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs recently twitted:
For the first time in my professional life, I am nominating someone for the Nobel Peace Prize: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. If he brings multiparty democracy to #Ethiopia, the entire Horn of Africa will be transformed for the better.
What is mind blowing is the fact that Abiy Ahmed, age 42, has not been on the job even 6 months! He took office April 2. He is now touted as a Nobel Peace laureate by world leaders!?
Sweden is campaigning to get PM Abiy “most prominent speaker’s” status at the 2018 Convention of the United Nations General Assembly.
Ethiopia is truly blessed to have visionary leaders like Abiy Ahmed and Lemma Megerssa. What is not evident to the public eye is that they have been building an invisible generational bridge for quite some time.
Behold their handiwork now!
We, the older generation of Ethiopians, are blessed to see our dreams come true.
We have passed the torch to Abiy, Lemma and their generation. The changing of the guards of the generations is now underway.
“I know how men in exile feed on dreams of hope,” said Aeschylus, the playwright of ancient Greece.
I have been feeding on dreams of hope of the day when Ethiopia’s Cheetahs [younger generation] (Abo Shemanes) and Ethiopia’s Hippos (older generation) stand together and write the last chapter of the history of ethnic oppression, sectarianism and one-man, one-party rule in Ethiopia.
For the last 13 years, in pursuit of my dreams of hope, I have found myself in the valley of despair and occasionally at the peak of the mountain of hope.
Truth be told, I dreamed dreams but deep down I believed my dreams were daydreams, pipe dreams.
But seeing Ethiopia’s best and brightest at the helm guiding Ethiopia between Scylla and Charybdis — the six headed monster of ethnic hatred, abuse of power, civil strife, corruption, human rights violation and flagrant disregard for the rule of law — is a dream come true for me.
I am blessed to be able to keep the flames of hope flickering for the young people of Ethiopia over the past 13 years.
I just could not bear the thought of the younger generation wallowing in the morass of ethnic hatred, fratricide, sectarianism and lack of vision my generation had created.
PM Abiy has ended the secret life of exiled Ethiopians (the “diasporan”)
PM Abiy’s visit to America has ended our secret lives in exile. He came to America to lead us back home.
The exodus back has begun in the most astounding way!
The most die-hard opponents of the former regime in Ethiopia are heading back and joining up PM Abiy’s team.
Human rights and political activists that have been a source of unending headache for previous Ethiopian regimes are standing tall with PM Abiy and singing his “medemer” song.
I, of all people, have become the foremost defender of the Ethiopian government under PM Abiy Ahmed’s leadership.
Wonders never cease!
The excitement among Ethiopians of all walks of life going back and helping their people is simply electrifying.
If anyone had suggested we would see what we are seeing today, no doubt that person would have been involuntarily committed for prolonged psychiatric observation.
PM Abiy’s visit was described as an outreach to Diasporan Ethiopians in the U.S.
I went along with the use of the word “diasporans” but felt a certain sadness in calling those of us in forced exile “diasporans”.
The Greek word “diaspora” denotes dispersion, being scattered.
For decades, millions of Ethiopians have been scattered in the wind to the four corners of the earth.
How did we get scattered like wheat and chaff in the wind? Who is responsible for scattering us?
That does not matter now because the scattering has now been replaced by a gathering. A gathering of the young people and a gathering of the elders in exile.
Most of us diasporans lived in exile the life of the proverbial man who spoke of a cow he has in the sky whose milk he never sees.
We spoke of a country we had but never get to see. But we survived to see a new day in our homeland.
We survived in exile living a secret life. It was a life of protest against the beasts with feet of clay, The Fates and everything in between.
For many, it was a protest conducted in silent desperation.
For others, it was a life of defiant, resolute and relentless protest against injustice.
But it must be recorded for history and the generations to come. Life in exile is not merely physical existence. It is also a painful psychological and spiritual state of mind.
Mahmoud Darwish’s memorial poem bidding farewell to the great exile Palestinian American public intellectual Edward Said best expresses the true meaning of life in exile for me and perhaps others like me:
… On wind he walks, and in wind
he knows himself. There is no ceiling for the wind,
no home for the wind. Wind is the compass
of the stranger’s North.
He says: I am from there, I am from here,
but I am neither there nor here.
I have two names which meet and part…
I have two languages, but I have long forgotten
which is the language of my dreams…
But after 48 years, I heard another poet calling me and all “diaspora” Ethiopians out of exile.
Abiy Ahmed reminded us all, “You can take the Ethiopian out of Ethiopia, but you can never take Ethiopia out of his heart.”
In other words, PM Abiy proclaimed our days in the wilderness are finally over. We are free to come home and be with our people.
After nearly one-half century, for the first time, I no longer feel I am an exile. I am no longer “diasporan”.
I, Alemayehu Gebre Mariam, am proud Ethiopian. I thank Abiy Ahmed for this gift of returning my homeland back to me.
Ovid, the ancient Roman poet, added, “Our native soil draws all of us, by I know not what sweetness, and never allows us to forget.”
I also do not know how my native soil draws me, but I have been told by one Lemma Megerssa that I have an intergenerational addiction in my blood called “Ethiopiawinet”, for which there is no cure.
I gave my answer to Lemma Megerssa back in November 2017.
I told him if there’s a cure for this Ethiopiawinet addiction, I don’t want it. If there’s a remedy, I’ll run from it. I think about it all the time. Never let it out of my mind. No, I don’t want no cure, no cure…”
For the first time in nearly one-half century, I tasted the sweetness of my native soil when I hugged and embraced Abiy Ahmed, Lemma Megerssa and Team Abiy Ahmed-Ethiopia on July 29, 2018.
Today, I stand in awe as I witness the darkness that had enveloped Ethiopia for decades lifting, vanishing in the sunlight.
Today, “With malice toward none and with charity for all”, we Ethiopians are closer than ever “to achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
What was achieved in a 3-day visit in America?
It is absurd to even contemplate the question, “What did Team Abiy Ahmed achieve in America three days?”
But it is a valid question to ask of someone who has single-handedly moved mountains in less than 90 days with the power of love.
Where shall I begin?
1. PM Abiy’s visit brought a sea-change in Diaspora Ethiopian-Ethiopian Government relations.
PM Abiy has repeatedly declared Diaspora Ethiopians are vital to the future of Ethiopia because of their resources, skills and financial power. He urged full reconciliation with them in his inaugural speech. He took a variety of steps to integrate Diaspora Ethiopian into the political, social and economic processes of their country, including a general amnesty declaration. His trip to the U.S. was the icing on the cake.
I am probably the best witness to the sea-change that has taken place in the last few months.
For 13 years, I prosecuted the pre-PM Abiy regime in the court of world public opinion and convicted them every single time. I baited them to engage me in a public debate, but they never took the bait. The one time they did, I took the opportunity to build my Ethiopiawinet Movement on it. I coined more than a dozen English words to describe them in a relentless public relations campaign. I never recognized that regime as a “government”. If I did it was a slip of the pen.
When they said Abiy Ahmed is coming to town, I volunteered my legal services and other assistance unconditionally to the Consulate General in Los Angeles.
But it is not just me. Dozens of activists, grassroots advocates, opposition group members and leaders and others who have been at loggerheads with Ethiopian government officials and with each other, worked side by side to make the visit of the PM Abiy to LA a success.
PM Abiy’s visit marked a new era in the relationship between Diaspora Ethiopians and the Ethiopian Government. There will be a B.A. (before Abiy Ahmed) and an A.A. (after Abiy Ahmed).
Diaspora Ethiopians in America have no reason not to work together for the betterment of their people. None. If we can set aside our differences and toil to put together a successful event for PM Abiy, we should be able to do the same, only thousands of times more, for the people of Ethiopia.
2. PM Abiy’s visit created high level of civic engagement in the Ethiopian Diaspora in the U.S. It is incredible how PM Abiy set our souls on fire with his powerful message of love, forgiveness, reconciliation and peace. People I have known for decades who had given up on change in Ethiopia and look upwards taking comfort in God’s will (“Only God can solve Ethiopia’s problems”) today feel so empowered, they are singing PM Abiy’s “Medemer” song. They are willing to do whatever they can to be involved and make a difference. PM Abiy has moved people out of the comfort of despair and indifference into making a difference.
3. PM Abiy’s visit taught us a) our differences are skin deep, b) we’re not enemies but friends and c) the sources of our differences are our “leaders”. It is amazing how easy it is to insult and humiliate each other from a distance. But close, working together, the respect, civility and courtesy was simply incredible.
In my speech during the LA dinner, I told PM Abiy that our differences were skin deep. When push came to shove, and we had to deliver a successful event, we got it done, though at times it felt it was herding cats in organized chaos. It was clear to me that the sources of or differences are our leaders. When we got a leader who says the only way to go forward is by creating solidarity and commonality of purposes (“medemer’), we had no difficulty putting our shoulders to the wheel and our noses to the grindstone and pushing together.
4. PM Abiy’s visit taught us united we stand, divided we fall. In my speech during the LA dinner, I reminded PM Abiy that his idea of “medemer” was very similar to the metaphor of the fist used during the American civil rights movement. The pre-PM Abiy regime understood that when Ethiopians stand separated as the five separate fingers on a hand, they are powerless and could be easily manipulated. But when they come together like fingers in a fist, they pack devastating knockout punch. So, we learned that if we add (medemer) one finger to the others, we can knockout any adversary.
PM Abiy made possible the healing of the schism in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church after 27 years. In June 2012, I wrote a commentary, “Unity in Our Divinity”, about the role of religion in personal and social life among Ethiopians.
In May 2018, I wrote a commentary supporting PM Abiy’s call for the healing of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (ETOC) and exhortation of the Church fathers to reconcile. During his U.S. visit, the Church fathers had resolved their differences and went home with PM Abiy for a triumphant welcome. PM Abiy taught us that a church, a mosque divided cannot stand.
5) PM Abiy taught us to keep our eyes on the prize. The prize is multiparty democracy, human rights and dignity, free and fair elections, the rule of law, accountability, transparency and good governance. The politics of identity, ethnicity, sectarianism, hate and all the other destructive practices take our eyes from the big prizes. If we focused on each other’s ethnicity, we will surely lose the big prize of our unity in our humanity. He taught us not to sweat the small stuff. His simple message was, “Keep up the good fight and keep your eyes on the prizes.”
6) PM Abiy preached an extraordinary message of hope for all of Africa. PM Abiy had a powerful message that hearkens back to Mandela’s vision for Africa. “Change Ethiopia and you will change Africa.” PM Abiy has a vision of a new African identity rooted in Ubuntu (African humanity). He has hope and pride that Ethiopia will one day be the personification of Ubuntu for the rest of Africa.
7) PM Abiy made us proud in Los Angeles. I cannot express how proud I felt when Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson presented PM Abiy an “Ethiopia Day” declaration and said he was not only happy to officially welcome PM Abiy to the City of Los Angeles but also took great pride in his presence on behalf of American Americans. We now have a basis to launch a new tradition for years to come: “Ethiopia Day, July 29.”
8) PM Abiy taught us that a person must change him/herself before changing the world. PM Abiy’s principal message was that we must be the change we want to see. During the LA dinner, I told PM Abiy that what he was asking us to do was to upgrade our operating software. For decades, we have been operating on a software of hate, distrust, revenge, recrimination. Now, he wants to replace that with software that runs on code of love, forgiveness, reconciliation and peace.
I suspect there may be hardware incompatibility for some. There are too many neurons hardwired the wrong way. But we must change with the times. Change, like Father Time and the tide waits for no one. Those who resist change should heed the old saying, “You had better be ready to change your mind when needed, or your mind will change you.”
9) PM Abiy demonstrated to us the value of unity. All things are possible if we unite and work together in good will and good faith with a shared vision and common mission. Unity is not an idea. It is not political practice. It is a way of life. The United States of America is the envy of the world because it is united. The American Founders proclaimed their Constitution in 1787 with the words, “We, the people of the United States…” Their motto is, “E pluribus unum” (out of many one). Out of the original thirteen colonies, they formed a new single nation.
If the Americans can do it, so can the Ethiopians!
10) Love conquers all. The greatest lesson in PM Abiy’s visit to the U.S. is this: When the power of love overcomes the love of power, there will be love, forgiveness, reconciliation and peace.
Ethiopia’s best days are yet to come. The easiest way to build a bridge is by shaking hands, by counting up, adding up, or simply “medemer in love”.
A note of appreciation
In putting together the event for PM Abiy’s visit to Los Angeles, many individuals and organizations participated.
I first want to thank the general manager and staff of the Galen Center at the University of Southern California. It generally takes planning and coordination of 6 months to a year to organize an event of the type we had for PM Abiy. But the leadership and staff of the Galen Center did a phenomenal job in facilitating our efforts despite some concerns and differences in viewpoints. USC campus police also did an excellent job in maintaining a peaceful campus atmosphere.
The Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles Fire Department and emergency services, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation did an excellent job in ensuring a safe event environment and an orderly process for crowd access to the event venue. We are indebted to them.
I also thank the U.S. Secret Service for ensuring a secure environment for PM Abiy and his delegation. We appreciate their professionalism and meticulous attention to detail.
Most of all, I wish to thank the many individuals, organizations and groups who volunteered their services and resources and worked with the Ethiopian Consulate in Los Angeles to make the event a resounding success. They simply did an amazing job in making the event successful. It was amazing to see people with different political agendas and orientations coming together in common cause. Many thanks for their good will, good faith and good work.
But there were challenges. Getting together people who have seen each other as mortal adversaries for 27 years is not easy. The ghosts of distrust, suspicion, doubt and skepticism of yesteryears will always hover by invisibly. But that is to be reasonably expected.
I choose to focus on the good and the positive. I believe in the past month, the foundation has been laid for a future of vigorous and supportive relationship between the Ethiopian community at large and Ethiopian government officials in the U.S.
It is amazing to me that I, and many others like me, who relentlessly opposed the Ethiopian government for decades were able to work together with officials of the Ethiopian government by setting our differences aside to honor and celebrate the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. I congratulate Consul General Berhane and his staff for their efforts in making the event success.
In putting a public event of the type organized for PM Abiy’s event, there are many moving parts. What most people do not see are the many things that are done at the official level with university administrators, facility managers, campus police, city police, fire and transportation departments, permitting agencies, securing event insurance and making arrangements with City Hall.
During the dinner for PM Abiy, I made a special recognition of W/o Nigest Legesse who played a pivotal role in dealing with a variety of issues in city government and with officials at the University of Southern California.
I had never met or spoken to W/o Nigest until I had the opportunity to work with her on the PM Abiy event.
I was aware she is a businesswoman and City of Los Angeles Commissioner for Community and Family Services. I was also aware she was honored as “Woman of the Year” in the California State Senate in March of this year.
In my capacity as volunteer legal counsel for the Consulate in dealing with contractual and other issues, I worked closely with W/o Nigist. She played several critical roles in dealing with regulatory requirements and in meeting contractual obligations. She contacted and made the initial arrangements with the Galen Center, the most affordable of all the event locations under consideration. She was instrumental in making sure the Consulate was in contractual compliance by speedily securing multiple permits for street closures and utilization of public parks, obtaining certificates of event insurance, serving as liaison with the Mayor’s Office and the Office of the City Council President and in the issuance of the “Ethiopia Day” declaration by the LA City Council. She delivered event tickets to the Consulate with a high degree of accountability. I personally thank W/o Nigist for her professionalism, competence, civility and no-nonsense assertive approach in dealing with campus and city officials.
The unsung heroine in our midst!
I want to make a special recognition of First Lady Zinash Tayachew. We saw FL Zinash on stage, but we did not hear from her.
During the few hours I spent with PM Abiy and FL Zinash, I came to appreciate the wisdom of the old saying, “Behind every great man is a great woman.”
In their interactions, I could see how FL Zinash is the wind beneath PM Abiy’s wings.
Sometimes it is difficult to be noticed standing in the shadow of a great man.
But for a few hours, I saw PM Abiy and FL Zinash in bright light without shadows.
PM Abiy is blessed to have FL Zinash at his side. As the Good Book says, a man who has a “wife of noble character”
is respected at the city gate,/ where he takes his seat among the elders of the land…
A wife of noble character who can find?/ She is worth far more than rubies.
Her husband has full confidence in her/ and lacks nothing of value./ She brings him good, not harm,/ all the days of her life./… She is clothed with strength and dignity;/ she can laugh at the days to come./ Honor her for all that her hands have done,/ and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
I speak for all Ethiopians of good will and good faith when I say to FL Zinash, “We honor you for being the wind beneath Abiy’s wings, so he can soar higher than the eagles over the city gate!”