by Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam
Author’s Note: This is the fifth installment in a series I have called “What Do WE Want and Do NOW?”. The serialized commentaries have three aims: 1) take stock of the impact of the recent uprisings in Ethiopia against the backdrop of the extreme repression (“state of emergency”) unleashed by the Thugtatorship of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (T-TPLF); 2) challenge Ethiopians, particularly Ethiopian intellectuals, to think outside the box, indeed with no box at all, about going forward, and 3) propose some ideas that maybe useful in charting a future course of action given current circumstances. “We” have met the enemy and he is us!
As I suspected, my commentary last week seems to have ruffled a few feathers. Did I air a bit of the dirty laundry in public?
Some suggested I appeared holier-than-thou in characterizing some of the “opposition”, especially in the Diaspora, as power-hungry and –thirsty. Others did not take well my exhortation to acquire “emotional intelligence”. Some said I should take personal responsibility and organize the Diaspora “opposition” into a unified political force instead of writing prescriptions about what needs and should be done.
I aim to address the foregoing points in this and future commentaries.
XIV. “WE” must speak of ourselves as “WE” are, nothing extenuate.
As my website prominently proclaims, I aim to speak truth to power. But that is not all. I aim to speak truth to the power-abuser, the power-hungry and –thirsty and even the powerless. I tell it as I see it. For a long time, I have held back and bitten my tongue in speaking about “US”, the “opposition”, for various reasons. I directed my energy and focus on that corrupt gang of criminal thugs known as the “Tigrean People’s Liberation Front” (T-TPLF) playing divide and rule “government” in Ethiopia. It was difficult to critique the “opposition” when there is no identifiable organized “opposition”. The late thugmaster Meles Zenawi used to threaten the amorphous “opposition” allegedly “plotting” and “hatching to incite protests and terror” that they would “pay a price.” By the thugmaster’s standards, anyone who does not like him or his T-TPLF are the disloyal and subversive opposition. He used to threaten “opposition leaders” that if they misbehave they will “vegetate in jail forever.” For Meles, his own shadow was also the opposition.
Barack Obama said he opposes any Ethiopian opposition “group” “that is promoting the violent overthrow of a government, including the government of Ethiopia, that has been democratically elected.” Obama must have been smoking something when he said that because the only “government” that used violence to seize power is the T-TPLF. Yesterday’s terrorists are today’s respectable governments. What Obama failed to understand was the fact that once a thug, always a thug. Obama himself said it when he was running for the presidency. “You know, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called ‘change.’ It’s still gonna stink after eight years.” Obama can put lipstick and nail polish on a cackle of hyenas, but at the end of the day, they are hyenas. After 25 years wrapping themselves in power, hyenas stink to high heaven.
“WE” have come to believe that a few individuals railing on social media, commenting in the blogosphere, convening conferences, and propagating information in cyberspace represent the “opposition”. I am afraid “WE” have confused the politics of dissent and dissidence with the politics of organized opposition. I find recent trends in the “hyper-ethnicization” of the “opposition” particularly disturbing; and in the long-term, I believe it will guarantee the perpetuation of thug rule in Ethiopia. “WE” in the “opposition” can do no greater favor to the T-TPLF than talking their mother tongue of ethnic division, hate and hegemony.
The fact of the matter is the there is no organized opposition inside or outside Ethiopia. The T-TPLF has made it impossible for any organized opposition to emerge in the country. Meles used to intimidate the opposition: “We will crush them with our full force.” The T-TPLF have jailed, tortured, disappeared, exiled and killed “opposition” leaders and members. They have bought off, blackmailed and intimidated others to stay out of “opposition” politics. They have persecuted and prosecuted those suspected of supporting the “opposition”. Obviously, the decimation of existing domestic “opposition” groups and elements in the country and making sure that no new ones emerge is in the self-interest of the T-TPLF.
However, it is a complete mystery to me why the Ethiopian Diaspora “opposition” cannot unify around a common agenda and present a clear alternative to thug rule. Every day the T-TPLF massacres and jails wholesale innocent citizens, and the Diaspora “opposition” is quibbling about ethnicity and jockeying for the illusion of power. This situation is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” to my mind.
Lately, I have observed that the Diaspora “opposition” is styling in earnest along ethnic lines. The “opposition” is all about ethnonationalism. Self-appointed and –anointed individuals and groups are spewing the toxic vocabulary of ethnic hate, division and chauvinism. Interestingly, it all seems to be a gabfest of parrots. I have no idea why the “opposition” wants to play the T-TPLF’s zero sum ethnic games. Only the T-TPLF could be the victor in the game of ethnic thrones whoever plays it. The tragedy is that some in the “opposition” are sleepwalking in the T-TPLF minefield of ethnic and identity politics. The outcome is predetermined. The T-TPLF guys are watching on the sidelines smiling ear to ear as their opposition commits the equivalent of hara-kiri before their eyes.
What “WE” have today in the Diaspora is an opposition unified against itself; an “opposition” resolute in its opposition against its own rational self-interest. “WE” have an “opposition” that seems to be unwilling, unable and unready to form a genuine inter-ethnic and inter-religious alliance willing to work together to defeat the gang of criminal thugs that are plundering the country and indiscriminately massacring citizens and lay a foundation for an egalitarian society based on the rule of law. This, in my view, is sheer madness.
I have often wondered why the Diaspora “opposition” will cut its nose to spite its face. The “opposition” talks the talks of being unified against the T-TPLF but it refuses to walk the talk. That is the crux of the problem.
As I indicated in my last commentary, “WE” do not ask the right questions as the “opposition”. “WE” should be asking how “WE” can organize around the common problems and issues that impact negatively on all Ethiopians regardless of their ethnicity, religion, language, gender or region. “WE” should unite in the cause of the tens of thousands of political prisoners who are languishing in T-TPLF jails. The T-TPLF torture chambers are in overdrive. The T-TPLF state of emergency is the official stamp certifying Ethiopia today is a totalitarian police state. “WE” must unite around the suffering of our people.
I must confess I do not know the priorities of the Diaspora “opposition”. Is it the removal of the T-TPLF and seize power? Is it the formation of new and improved ethnic homelands, the apartheid-style bantustans created by the T-TPLF and called “kilils”? Is the endless debate and recrimination about staking out positions for a post-T-TPLF era? Does it make any sense to play right into the dirty hands of the T-TPLF obsessing about ethnic politics?
The whole raison d’etre (the one and only reason) of the T-TPLF is the ethnic and communal fragmentation of Ethiopia. Is that what the “opposition” wants, particularly those who vow to see the dissolution of Ethiopia if they don’t get what they want? If so, why pretend to be the opposition? Why not openly join the T-TPLF and hasten the process of disintegration? Why put up the drama? Why torment oneself in a process of psychological projection?
My personal view on ethnic politics is well-known. I believe the T-TPLF created its apartheid-style homelands (kilils) to disempower the vast majority of the people and empower themselves as the sole masters of the Ethiopian people. The T-TPLF leaders know ten separate fingers flexing alone are powerless and useless. But when ten fingers come together and make a double fist, they can deliver a knockout. The T-TPLF created a Bantustan (kilil) of 9 regions (fingers). The T-TPLF cut the 10th finger, the thumb, and gave it away in 1994. Now, the T-TPLF is facing opposition from 9 fingers flexing separately. Is it possible to push even a wobbly T-TPLF to the ground with 9 fingers flexing separately with a thumb missing?
“WE” should face the facts as they are. WE” are doing the T-TPLF’s dirty jobs as the “opposition” by promoting the politics of ethnic identity and communalism. If only “WE” knew what the T-TPLF say about “US” in private. It’s like the old Ethiopian saying: “If you knew what they say about you, you would not go to market.” The fact of the matter is that the “opposition” is unwittingly allying itself with the T-TPLF and advancing its divisive ethnic agenda. The T-TPLF guys did not stay in power wielding absolute power for 25 years by being dumb. They stayed in power by skillfully playing one group against the other. Machiavelli would be proud of them.
What the “opposition” needs to clearly understand is the fact that the T-TPLF appears strong because the “opposition” is weak; they appear organized and monolithic because the “opposition” is fragmented and disoriented; they appear decisive and resolute because the “opposition” is unsure and shows very little self-confidence; they appear unified because the “opposition” is in disarray. In short, the “opposition” has met the enemy. The enemy is not the T-TPLF. The enemy is the “opposition”.
XV. Are “WE” really serious about working for political change, democracy, freedom or human rights in Ethiopia?
“WE” talk about democracy, freedom, human rights and the rest of it. “WE” gather and pontificate about the virtues of “unity” and “solidarity”. What I have observed over the past decade is that there is a lot of talk and a lot less walk the talk in the “opposition”. At best, there is half-hearted action towards collective action on the major issues.
The question that has puzzled me for long is determining the basis for “opposition” unity and solidarity. Is it ideological? Policy-based? Driven by vision and mission? Is it based on ethnic singularity? Nationality? Humanity? Or is it about elite unity and solidarity?
This question, I believe, has a three part answer. First, those who present themselves as the “opposition” or part of the “opposition” have a duty to articulate their vision, plans and programs and share them with the public in an educational campaign, and further engage the public in the discussions and debates. What are the “opposition’s” programs for political, economic and social change? What issues are to be given priority?
Second, the “opposition” must produce a comprehensive and systematic critique of the T-TPLF’s policies and programs, or what are palmed off as such over the past 25 years. That is easier said than done as the secretive T-TPLF hides everything. In my limited survey of the T-TPLF record, I have documented that the T-TPLF political economy is a statistical sandcastle. I have completely debunked the T-TPLF’s claims of double-digit growth over the past decade. It is a complete fabrication. I have demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that the T-TPLF cooks the economic statistics to make itself look good. On numerous occasions I have challenged the T-TPLF to disprove my claim that they manufacture statistics to inflate economic growth. I know for a fact that the bean counters are directed by T-TPLF bosses to prepare two sets of books; one containing the real data and the other for public consumption and public relations with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the so called Development Assistance Group (DAG). But it is all lies, damned lies and statislies.
How many in the “opposition” can honestly say they have taken time to study the T-TPLF’s economic programs, laws, regulations and administrative and bureaucratic practices? How can one propose changes without fully understanding the existing rotten system? When the T-TPLF guys marched out of the bush into the capital, they were clueless about governance or policy. Meles was so clueless he had to beg some guy from the U.S. embassy to get him introductory economic texts. Later he began putting on airs after he started hanging out with Jeff Sachs and Joe Stiglitz who showered him with praises as a smart cookie. They were just coddling his fragile ego. The point is “We” do not want a repeat of the Meles-type on the job training.
I urge the “opposition” to undertake a comprehensive assessment of T-TPLF policies, programs, laws, regulations, etc. I often ask myself how many in the “opposition” have taken the time to carefully study the T-TPLF’s so-called “Growth and Transformation Plan 2010-15” and 2005/10, which the T-TPLF touts as the best thing that happened to Ethiopia since the invention of injera and wot? Anyone who has carefully studied that compilation of slogans, catchphrases and buzzwords knows how that gang of ignorant thugs have laid waste to the country. But I would wager few in the “opposition” have taken the time to delve into that economic fairy tale.
On the question of human rights, nearly all of the work is done by international human rights organizations, not the “opposition”. I do not expect the “opposition” to take over the work of the dedicated human rights organizations. But I believe it is important for the “opposition” to undertake a modicum of human rights data collection and analysis even on an anecdotal basis. I am also distressed by the fact that very few in the “opposition” take the time to read, digest and disseminate the findings of the reports of the international human rights organizations for educational and advocacy purposes. I also see few “opposition” groups organized specifically to promote and advocate human rights in Ethiopia. So that I am not misunderstood, I want to make it clear that I fully support and applaud all who engage in demonstrations and protests actions whenever gross human rights violations are committed by the T-TPLF. It is vitally important to express moral outrage and be heard. My concern is more with the need for a Diaspora-based human rights effort operated by the “opposition”. How could human rights be promoted in a post-T-TPLF period if the seeds are not planted and allowed to grow now?
The nitty gritty work of human rights data collection and analysis and coordination with the various international human rights organizations is a time intensive and exhausting task. It may even be dangerous for those collecting data inside the country. But working closely with the international human rights groups and providing them support to do more must be a top “opposition” priority. Moreover, the “opposition” needs to make human rights education and advocacy a priority.
On the question of democracy and democratic governance, I do not see much headway either. I have tried to learn about the T-TPLF’s “revolutionary democracy”, but that has led me on a wild goose chase. The chief ideologue of “revolutionary democracy” did not leave much written work behind to study; and none of the Meles-worshippers have taken it upon themselves to expound on his “revolutionary democracy”. Like many things the T-TPLF leaders do, “revolutionary democracy” is a shell game with very little substance. Because the T-TPLF leaders are so sure that no one in the “opposition” will systematically challenge them on ideology and policy, they continue to recycle their tired and meaningless catch phrases, buzzwords and mumbo jumbo as “policy”, “vision” and “mission”.
But what is the “opposition’s” alternative for democratic governance? “Ethnic democracy”?
Over the years, I have seen a few drafts of “constitutions” circulating in cyberspace. They were good starting points, but they all seem to have died on the vine. I have even participated in conferences and meetings aspiring to explore constitutional and governance alternatives. So I wonder out loud: Why is it that the “opposition” has not drafted alternative versions of proposed constitutions and presented them for ongoing public debate? When thugmaster Meles assembled his “constitutional drafters”, he manipulated them to produce a document that served his divide and rule purposes. But Meles never had any intention of abiding by his own constitution. It was something he whipped out whenever he went panhandling for aid and loans. He would say, “Look I have a constitution that is better than the U.S.” Meles actually said his so-called anti-terrorism laws was the best in the world because he did a word-for-word cut-and pastejob from the world’s best anti-terrorism laws. That has always been Meles’ and the T-TPLF’s problem. They think all it takes is to copy someone’s ideas or steal business plans from unsuspecting license applicants and make it happen. I believe the “opposition” should engage in an ongoing constitutional discussions and work collaboratively to develop creative ideas to deal with age-old problems.
XVI. Why I write, teach and advocate instead of engaging in political organizing
As I have stated on numerous occasions, I came upon Ethiopian politics not by personal choice but by force of circumstances. After living in the United States for decades, I had little interest in politics in Ethiopia or in Diaspora Ethiopia. When the T-TPLF took power in 1991, I wrote a few articles (available on my website) which took a wait and see attitude. I was simply not interested and was quite busy with my own professional interests.
Everything changed for me in 2005 when the late Meles Zenawi personally ordered his goons to shoot and kill any protesters following the 2005 elections. I later learned from a singularly authoritative source that Meles had ordered the shootings to demonstrate to the opposition and the country as a whole that he could be ruthless against those who challenge his power. He wanted to send a clear message: Oppose me and I will crush you. It was a calculated shock and awe strategy; and it did work for several years as few dared to protest or oppose him in public.
The Meles Massacres of 2005, following the May election that year, transformed me from a disinterested casual observer of Ethiopian politics to a relentless and indefatigable human rights advocate. What deeply bothered me about Meles and his gang was not the fact that they used power to enrich themselves. I expected that from crass bush thugs. What enraged me was how Meles could feel so arrogant and so unaccountable that he could order a massacre and go on with business as usual without being challenged. Of course, I read and heard of African dictators massacring their citizens to cling to power. Those stories always saddened me and caused me to despair over the fate of Africa. But I was never enraged as I was when I saw the bloody pictures of the victims of the Meles Massacres. I decided to convert my rage and outrage by becoming the voice of all the Meles Massacres and all other victims of T-TPLF massacres and crimes against humanity. That was and remains my mission today.
Over the years, I have been sked why I have not joined a political group or party or participated in organized political activities. My answer is always the same. I am a teacher, a lawyer and a human rights advocate. I have absolutely no interest in the politics of power nor do I have any ambition for power. If I were to pursue politics, I would probably make a very bad one. A guy who proclaims to speak truth to power cannot be in power. It would be odd to speak truth to oneself. Truth telling and politics, like oil and water, don’t mix. So I leave the practice of politics to those who are experts in the art. I believe I can do a much better job speaking truth to those in power, abuse power, out of power, wanna get into power and dream about power and the powerless, than to be in power myself. I like the humorous definition of politics, which is derived from “poly” meaning “many” and “ticks” as in blood sucking ticks.
Over the past 11 years, I have sought to teach and preach on the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights every week. That I will continue to do. There are many who are inspired by my writings. Many find them educational and instructive. I suspect there are many others who blindly disapprove of my writings and views. I doubt many of those actually understand what I am writing. But no matter. There are T-TPLF supporters who believe that I am so obsessed with hatred for the T-TPLF that I would hound them to the gates of hell if I could. People can take what they choose from my writings and comments and interpret them any way they want. I do not write for public accolade and approval or to invite censure and disapproval. I speak my mind and exercise my right to free expression to the maximum. I do not apologize to those who are offended by my writings. They have the option not to read my commentaries and avoid the heartburn of my weekly sermons. My philosophy is simple: The dogs will bark and the camel will walk. But I will apologize and make immediate correction and amends if it is demonstrated to me that a falsehood or factual inaccuracies are included in my writings. In all of the years of writing I have done, I have not met a single person who has been able to prove to me that my opinions have been based on lies, damned lies and statistical lies.
But I regard myself to be an advocate, inside the courtroom and outside in the court of public opinion. I argue my points and use the evidence to cogently support my point of view and to persuade my readers to agree with me. I believe that to be my professional, ethical and advocacy obligation. I welcome criticism and debate. But those whose forensic skills is in ad hominem attacks, I say, “It’s water off a duck’s back. The dogs will bark and the camel will walk.”
Here I should like to note that my total contempt for the T-TPLF leaders should not be mistaken for hatred. I have no hatred for the T-TPLF leaders because I do not know any of them; nor do I care to know them. It is illogical to hate someone I have never met. I have tried to keep up with their publications to gain insights into their thinking and the kinds of persons they are. For the most part, I find them striving for academic, social and political respectability. They aim to present themselves as enlightened and visionary leaders. Many of them have purchased degrees from online diploma mills and now demand that they be called “Dr.” and so on. It is a source of comic relief for me. I don’t really care about their pretend games. The fact of the matter is that I have no antipathy for them; but they have earned my absolute contempt as criminals against humanity, murderers, war criminals and jailers of dissidents, opposition leaders and journalists. My only wish is to see them before the bar of justice and teach them a lifetime lesson in the rule of law.
But I don’t wish to avoid accountability on my part. Why can’t I organize a formal or informal group for the advancement of human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia? I don’t want to hide behind excuses, but I have tried so many times to put together informal groups and found no takers. Beginning in 2006, I have tried to organize Ethiopian lawyers and set up a legal defense fund, without much success. I have called for and volunteered to help in the establishment of an informal “think tank” on various occasions to no avail. I even offered the idea to established “opposition” groups who turned deaf ears to my plea. I have attempted a variety of collaborative efforts, but I have found no serious takers. It would take too long to list the reasons why my efforts have failed. Suffice it to say that making a long-term commitment and making the human rights struggle as part of one’s personal life may not be a choice for everyone. It may not make a lot of sense for many people to put out a lot of hard work on behalf of people who live far, far away and where the results are not immediately visible. Human rights advocacy is not as sexy as politics. But that is just the way it is.
That does not mean I have given up; quite to the contrary, I shall continue to challenge my fellow academics, lawyers, activists and others to start efforts where we could join forces to work on human rights issues and advocacy. I would hasten to add that to be successful in such an effort, participants must agree to check in their political ambitions at the door and roll up their sleeves, put their noses the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel and keep on plugging away….
To be continued….