Close Ranks, Open Hearts and Minds, Shake Hands and Get Busy!

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / January 20, 2009
Vicious Dictator

Time to Close Ranks Against Dictatorship!

It is time to close ranks against an arrogant and abusive dictatorship in Ethiopia! It is time for all Ethiopians in the Diaspora to come together and stand up against Evil. As the old saying goes, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men and women do nothing."

Today Evil has triumphed in Ethiopia, and good Ethiopian men and women must forge solidarity to rescue their country from the clutches of a malignant dictator. A thuggish dictatorship in Ethiopia is on a crime spree: a leading opposition figure is snatched off the street and slammed into prison to serve out a life sentence. Ms. Birtukan Mideksa, President of Unity, Democracy and Justice Party (UDJP), is put back in prison because she expressed a personal opinion about the “pardon” she received following her conviction in a kangaroo court. Peaceful and lawful political parties and organizations are under the constant threat of dissolution, mindless bureaucratic control and regulation and vindictive prosecutions. Opposition political leaders and dissidents remain under 24-hour surveillance, relentless harassment and intimidation. Members of the independent press are subjected to police interrogation, constant harassment, arbitrary arrests, detentions and persecution. The charity work of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Ethiopia has been criminalized; and by “law”, they are prohibited from working on human rights issues in the country. Human Rights Watch predicted that this pretentious and asinine law “will make Ethiopia one of the most inhospitable places in the world for both Ethiopian and international human rights groups.”

Human rights violations in Ethiopia in the past year have intensified as thousands of political prisoners are held in detention facilities throughout the country in violation of the “laws” and “constitution” of the country and international law. The country’s limited resources continue to be squandered on a misbegotten war. The ruling thugs in Ethiopia have been accused of committing war crimes on a massive scale in Somalia, and crimes against humanity against Ethiopians. Famine threatens to destroy one-quarter of the Ethiopian population as the dictators sip on Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac and throw lavish balls and galas to entertain themselves. The cost of living in Ethiopia has reached astronomical levels, depriving the vast majority of Ethiopians the capacity to earn a living or feed their families. The corrupt and decadent plutocracy and its lackeys continue to rapaciously plunder the country’s economy and resources. Cumulatively, the ruling thugs have propelled Ethiopia to the top of the list of failed states in the world.

Against this background, pro-democracy Ethiopians in the Diaspora have remained organizationally fragmented, politically divided and remain incapable of working collaboratively with each other. Leaders and representatives of political parties have been unable to forge solidarity and common purpose to oppose a ruthless dictatorship. They have failed to provide adequate leadership, guidance and direction to the struggle. As a result, there is much disillusionment and disappointment among Diaspora Ethiopians. Some feel betrayed by those whose political or civic leadership has fallen short; they are turned off by politics. Many have reached a low point of pessimism and believe that it is impossible to create solidarity among Diaspora Ethiopians. They say it is impossible to unite the Ethiopian Diaspora because there are just “too many differences. They say we don’t like to admit our mistakes or to ask forgiveness for them. They say we are more concerned about getting credit for doing something than delivering results. They say we lack trust in each other, and we are quick to undermine each other’s efforts than building upon them. Others have vowed never to be involved in politics; others harbor contempt for those involved in it. There are also many who have vowed never to quit their efforts to resist dictatorship and defend democracy, freedom and human rights in Ethiopia. These Ethiopians reject the politics of self-defeatism and capitulation, and firmly embrace the power of collective action.

Then there is PERCEPTION. Ethiopians in the Diaspora have become the laughing stock of dictators who often remind us with contempt that we are a do-nothing group of whiners who can not even talk to each other civilly let alone unite and present a credible alternative to their brutal dictatorship. They taunt us “to go into the bush and fight our way to political power” as they did. They hold us insomuch contempt that they have the audacity to say publicly that we can be bought and sold for thirty pieces of silver -- or a promise for plot of land, a government job, duty-free imports and the illusion of access to power. They talk about our principles and integrity in the same manner as brokers talk about commodities on the Chicago Board of Trade. They insult our intelligence by telling us cock-and-bull stories about gold worth millions of dollars walking out of the front door of the banks and other stories fit for kindergartners. But perception is reality and what we believe about ourselves and what our adversaries think about us are important. We must deal with both perceptions and realities.

We have now come to the crossroads: We must close ranks and deal with the reality of a ruthless dictatorship and dispel perceptions of Diasporic impotence and dysfunctionality through collective, concerted and decisive actions.

Let’s Open Hearts and Minds!

One of the biggest realities today for Diaspora Ethiopians is the fact that we are in a lose-lose situation in opposing the ruling thugs in Ethiopia. Because of our fragmentation and inability to forge a common democratic front and maintain solidarity, we have been unable to act effectively and help our people in the motherland. Because we have been unable to learn from our past mistakes, make corrections and come to a collective resolution on an action plan to help overcome the challenges facing the Motherland, we find ourselves in a state of political paralysis. Because we have been locked into a zero-sum game where only one side wins and the other sides always loses, we find ourselves in an endless loop of lose-lose outcomes. Because we have been concerned with turf -- some political leaders want to maintain insularity and primacy, some civic society leaders run their organizations through a narrow field of vision, political and civic groups often compete for the same base of membership often resulting in conflict and antagonisms, etc. -- we have been unable to focus our collective energies on the enormous tasks before us.

We must transform this lose-lose situation into a win-win situation through a process of cooperation, collaboration, partnership and team work for the ultimate benefit of the Ethiopian people. But a win-win situation requires concerted, determined and relentless effort to change hearts and minds, beginning with each individual.

Change must first come in our hearts. Ethiopians in the Diaspora need to come to a new understanding that transcends the bitterness, petty grudges, personal animus and hatred, recrimination and distrust of the past. The reason is simple: the motherland is suffering! At a time when lawful internal opposition is crushed, dissent stamped out, human rights trampled upon, famine is spreading like wildfire, we cannot afford to stand by idly suspicious and distrustful of each other. We have a higher duty that requires us to purge our hearts of thoughts and feelings that weaken us as a unified democratic opposition. The time has come to take a stand, to make a public declaration that “our differences are far less important than the urgent need to work together in the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia.” We must replace the self-defeatism and self-doubt which weighs heavily on our hearts today with the courage of a can-do spirit and defiance in the face of Evil. We must stop practicing the politics of personal destruction of our allies and potential allies in the cause and embrace the politics of collective reconciliation and consensus-building. We must begin to cultivate a genuine sense of brotherhood and sisterhood.

We must also open our minds. Many of us in the Diaspora confuse symptoms in the Ethiopian body politics with the real disease afflicting the Ethiopian nation. Zenawi’s dictatorship is a symptom of a more fundamental disease of poverty of democratic culture, institutions and practices afflicting Ethiopian society. If Zenawi left tomorrow, the symptom that manifested itself in his dictatorship may be removed, but the disease of despotism, intolerance of dissent, narrow-mindedness and prejudice will not be gone with him. Zenawi replaced his intellectual mentor Mengistu; and in the end, he managed to refine his mentor’s reign of terror to a new level of cruelty and depravity. We must open our minds and develop rational approaches, long-term strategies and initiatives to create a win-win situation.

Opening our minds requires a number of steps. First, we must change the way we think about, understand and react to the problems of dictatorship and democracy in Ethiopia. We must critically examine our assumptions about our understanding of the current dictatorship and the dire situation it has created in Ethiopia today. We must ask fundamental questions: Who is in control of Ethiopia today? Alternatively, who is NOT in control in Ethiopia today? Can Ethiopians deviously fragmented into ethnic, regional, linguistic, etc., groups ever be able to control their country or destiny? How can Ethiopians rescue their country from the clutches of criminal thugs? 2) We must develop a new understanding of the issues and problems in a broader context. When a dictator arbitrarily jails leading opposition leaders, bans civil society, decimates the independent press and sneers at the rule of law, is that a triumph of dictatorship or failure of a united democratic opposition? Alternatively, if pro-democracy Diaspora Ethiopians could come to a consensus that a dictatorship of thugs is the central problem of governance in Ethiopia today, is it possible to oppose such thugs by relying on the old strategies of one-upmanship, duplicity, intrigue, turf-protection, recriminations and working at cross-purposes?

Second, we must also develop a new approach -- a new paradigm -- to the struggle for democracy in Ethiopia based on an express commitment to a set of core values and principles that will enable us to defer our differences for another time. Our core values must be built on two compelling philosophical principles: 1) Our humanity must always rise above our ethnicity, nationality, religiosity, Africanity or Ethiopianity. 2) No one can be truly free in Ethiopia unless ALL Ethiopians are free. If we subscribe to these two core principles, open our minds and hearts and collectively pull together, we will soon find ourselves in a win-win situation.

But let us be absolutely clear about our New Paradigm: We are not concerned about a particular dictator or his long criminal record. Our new paradigm is about the future of the country we would like our children to inherit. For that reason alone, our goal is to win the hearts and minds of Ethiopians both at home and in the Diaspora by appealing to their innate sense of humanity, decency, dignity, compassion, thirst for freedom and yearning for human rights and the rule of law. This is our turnaround. When thugs use force and violence to enforce their rule, we must use reason and truth to empower the people and liberate their spirits. When thugs use intimidation and harassment to control the people, we must use knowledge and facts to expand their intellectual horizons. When thugs make the people their enemies by acts of unspeakably cruelty, we must make friends with them by spreading the gospel of freedom and human rights among them, and forging a common bond in their suffering and yearning for democracy. Opposing dictatorship is not the problem. Everybody (except the dictators) agrees it is a bad thing. But what is needed is consensus to build a viable and effective pro-democracy movement in the Diaspora. In our new paradigm, the central issue will be how to get all Ethiopians who believe in freedom, democracy and human rights involved and engaged in a pro-democracy movement. That is why we are calling for a convention of Diaspora Ethiopians which is inclusive of all segments of society -- political leaders and their support groups, grassroots advocates and activists, civil society and religious organizations and their members, media representatives and concerned individuals -- to join in and facilitate this grand dialogue at a Diaspora convention.

Let’s Meet and Shake Hands!

So how do we begin this long and difficult journey? We begin by shaking hands and making a personal commitment to participate in the dialogue. We begin by working to create opportunities to meet and greet our “adversaries” in the pro-democracy movement with open arms, open hearts and open minds. We begin by accepting responsibility for past mistakes without playing the blame or victimhood game. We begin by acknowledging each other’s vital importance to the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia, and expressing genuine appreciation to each other for taking the first steps in the direction of consensus-building and concerted action. As we shake hands, it will be necessary to check in our egos, our past grudges, and the bitterness of the past at the gate. There is no place for them at the convention. We shall begin the enormous task ahead with a compassionate heart, clear conscience, critical mind, and liberated spirit.

A Diaspora Convention and Manifesto: Let’s Get Busy in 2009!

Our preliminary task is to establish a mechanism to facilitate the planning of an all Diaspora Ethiopians convention to develop an agenda which focuses on democracy, freedom and the protection of human rights in Ethiopia. There are preliminary steps to be taken in that direction. First, Ethiopian Diaspora communities throughout the world need to begin discussions on the viability, timeliness and appropriateness of an all Ethiopia Diaspora convention at this point in our history. We believe there is a groundswell of interest in such an effort based on the massive input we have received from many groups and individuals. Second, we need to initiate broad discussion about the core issues that bind Diaspora Ethiopians. We believe there is widespread support among Diaspora Ethiopians on the need to work together on the issues of democratic institution-building, institutionalization of basic freedoms and protection of human rights. Third, we need to prepare ourselves to come to an agreement on a Diaspora Ethiopian Manifesto which provides a clear statement of who we are and what we stand for. We believe it is necessary to provide a public declaration of principles and intentions of our efforts to ensure maximum transparency and accountability.

In taking these preliminary steps, we must be mindful of what it takes to do it right. First, the dialogue must be open to all who agree on the core issues of democracy, freedom and human rights in Ethiopia. There shall be no precondition for participation in the dialogue except for philosophical agreement on the two core principles mentioned above. Second, leadership and active participation in the dialogue must not be left entirely to the usual suspects -- the academics, the political and civic leaders and the partisan advocates. All segments of the Ethiopian Diaspora community must take ownership of the dialogue. Most of all, the involvement and participation of the younger generation of Ethiopians and women is paramount. Effective activism requires active involvement of these two segments of the population. Young people and women bring dynamism, energy, fresh ideas, and renewed commitment to the cause. If there is any doubt about the enormous role women can play in defending freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia, one need only look at the heroic contributions of Birtukan Mideksa. It is not surprising that Birtukan should be the ultimate symbol of courage and defiance against the thuggish dictatorship in Ethiopia. We should insist on the full engagement of women and young people in this dialogue.

The dialogue we hope to begin in earnest must be tightly structured. We must make a clean break with the troubled dialogue of the past which emphasized ethnic, linguistic and regional differences, historical grievances and political or ideological differences. We must make explicit commitments to defer for another time such issues and focus on the core issues freedom, democracy and human rights. If we can do that, I believe 2009 will prove to be a watershed year. In 2009 we may be able to get pro-democracy Diaspora Ethiopians to speak in one voice to defend democracy, freedom and human rights in Ethiopia. We have cause for great optimism. Where dictators draw their strength from the barrel of a gun, we draw our powers from the wisdom, compassion, goodness, spiritual and moral strength of our people and ancient culture. Our people are waiting for a new message of hope from across the seas. To date, they hear a cacophony of noises that grate their ears and ache their hearts. We have a duty to mend their aching hearts with a clear message that says Ethiopians in the Diaspora have resolved to speak in one voice for the cause of democracy, freedom and human rights in Ethiopia.

Past Mistakes and Future Greatness: A Call and a Plea to the Ethiopian Diaspora to Open Dialogue Only on One Question: What is Good for the Country Our Children Will Inherit?

President-elect Barack Obama recently posed a central question to the American people: “It is time to put good ideas ahead of the old ideological battles, a sense of common purpose above the same narrow partisanship, and insist that the first question each of us asks isn't ‘What's good for me?’ but ‘What's good for the country my children will inherit?’”

We must pose the same question to Diaspora Ethiopians: “What’s good for the country our children will inherit?” Put differently, is the Ethiopia that is good for Zenawi and his thugs the Ethiopia we would like our children to inherit? Barack obviously understood that Americans do not want their children to inherit an America that is good for the rapacious Halliburton, the mercenary army of Blackwater and the Wall Street crooks. He talked about a new American spirit, a can-do spirit that will enable Americans to rise above the problems of the day. “It is this spirit that will enable us to confront these challenges with the same spirit that has led previous generations to face down war and depression and fear itself. And if we do -- if we are able to summon that spirit again; if are able to look out for one another and listen to one another, and do our part for our nation and for posterity -- then I have no doubt that, years from now, we will look back on 2009 as one of those years that marked another new and hopeful beginning for the United States of America.”

We in the Ethiopian Diaspora can also look to our history and “summon that spirit” that led us to defeat a mighty European colonial power twice and the spirit that helped us withstand great trials and tribulations in our history. We can summon that great spirit which just three years ago that led to the massive electoral victory of Kinijt in the first free election in the history of Ethiopia. Today, in the Ethiopian Diaspora we do not have a poverty of spirit, only of personal and political will. Let us make 2009 a new and hopeful beginning for Ethiopia.

We must urgently open dialogue on what is good for the country our children will inherit.

The Fierce Urgency of Now to Fight for the Ethiopian Dream!

As Barack Obama thoughtfully reflected on the situation in America, “Our problems are rooted in past mistakes, not our capacity for future greatness.” One can make the same argument for Ethiopians. We must not be prisoners of past mistakes; rather we should use genuine dialogue and consensus-building as weapons of liberation and transform ourselves into a mighty force of democratic change in Ethiopia. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” And our beautiful dream for the Ethiopia that our children will inherit should be one where the rule of law is woven into the fabric of the society and permeates the deepest recesses of the consciences of every Ethiopian; where no person shall fear for their personal security and liberties; where government fears the people and the people hold government on a short leash; where rights guaranteed by constitutional and international law are observed and protected; where judges are independent of political control and perform their duties with fidelity to the country’s constitution and laws; where elections are free, fair and universal; where every man, woman and child shall have the freedom of opportunity; where there is full legal and social equality among men and women; where one’s ethnic, linguistic or regional origins are respected and protected by law; where the free press performs its natural office of informing citizens and serving as a watchdog on government corruption and abuse of power; and where no person will be imprisoned or persecuted because of their political ideas or beliefs.

These are my “beautiful dreams” for Ethiopia, as I hope they are for many Ethiopians in the Diaspora. That is why I have committed myself to the cause. I have no illusions about the enormity of the task and difficulty of the enterprise we are about to undertake. Some well-intentioned people might be skeptical of the call to dialogue and my urgent plea on behalf of this beautiful dream. They may consider it idealistic and impractical. No doubt, the wardens of Ethiopia Prison Nation, Inc., will laugh boisterously and wager our efforts will fail. As they have disdainfully questioned many times before, they will do so again: “How can they aspire to serious dialogue when they can not even talk to each other under ordinary circumstances." Let them laugh. But we should not be discouraged in our efforts to form a united Ethiopian Diaspora voice for freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. The true test of our success is in holding dialogue by putting the urgent needs of Ethiopia and Ethiopians above our own narrow interests. We must begin this dialogue with the fierce urgency of now. As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday today, it is important for us to heed to his prophetic words: “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time.” We must act now and begin the dialogue. Tomorrow is too late. That's why I am calling on all Ethiopians in the Diaspora to come together with the fierce urgency of now and act to rescue their country from chokehold of thugs.

Post Script: Doing Nothing is Not An Option!

We can’t afford to sit down with folded arms and wait for something to happen. We must act now as a unified Diasporic force. If we don’t, the nightmare of Zenawi’s brutal dictatorship could linger on for some time to come. In short, a bad situation could become dramatically worse. We did not arrive at our present predicament suddenly or by some accident of history. What we see today has been unfolding for the last 18 years. During this period, many Diaspora Ethiopians stood watching on the sidelines in silence, and did nothing. That option is no longer available to us.

We will come forward with specific and concrete proposals for a Diaspora Dialogue in the foreseeable future. For now, we plead earnestly with all Ethiopians in the Diaspora to close ranks, open hearts and minds, shake hands and prepare to get busy in 2009.

The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at