The right and wrong sides of history

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / January 26, 2009
The Right Side of History and the Audacity of Hope

History has two sides. A right and a wrong side. Barack Obama is on the right side of history. He is on the right side of history because he was elected rightfully by the American people and became president in a peaceful constitutional transfer of power. But his on the right side of history for many other reasons: He has chosen to lead the American people on the right moral principles: “Hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord," reconciliation and new ideas over “petty grievances, false promises, recriminations and wornout dogmas that have strangled American politics for so long”; and he has resolved to “set aside childish things and reaffirm America’s enduring spirit.” Barack has chosen the right path to lead Americans as ONE PEOPLE with a common history, common dreams and common destiny so that they can weather “the gathering clouds and raging storms” of two major wars, international terrorism, a badly weakened economy and declining social services at home.

You know Barack is on the right side of history, when the American people -- black, white, red, yellow, brown, Christians, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, young and old, men and women -- look up to his leadership and cry a river of tears of joy, and travel thousands of miles just to see him take the solemn oath of office as prescribed by the supreme law of the land. You know Barack is on the right side of history when the whole world wishes him well as he captains the American ship of state from the turbulent seas of international strife and military confrontation to the safe harbors of American founding ideals of democracy, freedom and human rights. Barack is right on point when he made the historic declaration to the world that he rejects “as false the choice between our safety and our ideals” and that “the rule of law and the rights of man” are the basis for any free society. Barack is right and on the right side of history because he believes right makes might, and tells the whole world in no uncertain terms that “America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.” Barack is the right man, at the right time and on the right side of history!

The Wrong Side of History and the Cowardice of Fear

All dictators are on the wrong side of history because they “cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent.” They are on wrong side of history because they have no legitimacy: they seize power by force and without the consent of the people, cling to power by brutal repression, stealing elections and suppressing democratic opposition. They fill their prisons with hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens, snatch opposition leaders from the streets, make a travesty of democracy by stage-managing a rubberstamp parliament, debase justice by prostituting the judicial system, criminalize freedom of speech and of the press, impose their rule by brute force, fear and terror, sow hatred and discord among the people by setting one tribe against another, village against hamlet, city against town, community against the commonwealth for the sole purpose of clinging to power. Those dictators who watch with depraved indifference the destruction of one-quarter of their population by famine, war, pestilence and economic privations and take sadistic pleasure in their suffering are on the wrong side of history.

Those who have sanctified and consecrated corruption, graft, bribery, racketeering, fraud, extortion and malfeasance in office are on the wrong side of history. Those sycophants who throw lavish parties in the world’s capitals for the glorification of dictators at the cost of millions of dollars a year on liquor and exotic caviar while their people are dying by the thousands for lack of food, water and simple medicines are on the wrong side of history. When the faces of the people are etched with tear tracks of sorrow from years of suffering witnessing their children die and those who survive live without a future, you know their oppressors are on the wrong side of history. When your ship of state is pirated by criminal thugs and its crew and passengers forced headlong into the raging storms of ethnic hatred, the gathering clouds of famine and the mighty tide of war, you know those who are on the wrong side of history are on the cusp of receiving the verdict of history. Those who sneer at international law and public opinion, give away a nation’s territory in a secret transaction, hammer the people with a clenched fist and infect them with a lingering sickness of fear and despair, you know it is just a matter of time before the judgment of history falls upon them and they are swept into its dustbin.

The Promise of America, The Promise of Ethiopia

We are on the right side of history! Barack said the promise of America was made by “men and women who struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life.” He said, “America is bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions.” He said, “We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

Ethiopia was also built by our forefathers and foremothers who struggled and sacrificed so that we might live free and better. They shed their blood for centuries to keep our country free from colonial rule; secured our culture and civilization in religion, literature, music and art; maintained our unity and identity as a people and sowed religious and ethnic harmony among them; looked beyond our borders to promote African unity and solidarity; made Ethiopia the center of continental African affairs; pled the cause of international law and justice before the League of Nations and made Ethiopia a founding member of the United Nations. Like America, Ethiopia was hewn from the granite of sacrifices made by ordinary men and women. We must also pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking Ethiopia.

The United States of America and a United Ethiopia

Barack said, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America. There's the United States of America.” He also said, “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.” Ethiopia is no different. There is no Oromo, Amhara, Tigray, Gurage, … Anuak Ethiopia. There is only ONE ETHIOPIAN NATION, indivisible under God. Ethiopia belongs to all its people. Its history is shaped by all its people, and its culture and traditions reflect longstanding ties of family, kinship and ancestry. The destiny of Ethiopians and Ethiopia is not shaped by petty and small-minded dictators but by the courage and sacrifices of its people. That is why Ethiopia and Ethiopians are on the right side of history.

Long Journey on the Right Side of History

The journey on the right side of history is long and difficult. It is a journey that begins in the hearts and minds of every Ethiopian. It is a journey that take us out of the darkness of ethnic hatred into the sunshine of humanity; from insensitivity and indifference to the suffering of each other to compassion and sympathy to our common humanity; and from ignorance and blind faith to knowledge and enlightenment. It is also a journey that requires a lot of hard work. Barack counseled the American people that they need “lay a new foundation” and “build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.” Ethiopians face a much greater challenge because they have to build bridges of tolerance and goodwill across ethnic divides; they have to build roads, highways and freeways to every part of the country to plant and grow the seeds of democracy; they have to cultivate gardens of personal liberties so that every individual can unleash his/her creative and intellectual powers, build hallowed cathedrals for justice and equality, and along every street and bridge erect monuments to the rule of law.

The Question for Us, The Answer for Them

The questions we should ask of ourselves today is not whether a petty dictator will go or stay, but what we are prepared to do when the rising tide of freedom carries out the flotsam of dictatorship out to sea. Then, what choices are we prepared to make? Will we choose, as Barack did, hope over fear? Humanity over ethnicity or political party? Unity and strength over division and weakness? Truth over falsity? Hatred over understanding? Magnanimity over the petty? The dictators know their fate. That is why they have careened out of control on the turnpike of history. The answer we give them is the same answer Barack gave the cynics: They “fail to understand the ground has shifted beneath them -- that the stale political arguments of ethnic division, hatred, that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.” We must believe as does Barack that “the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.”

This is our time to answer the questions for this and coming generations, to stand up and declare to ourselves and to the world that the stale political arguments of ethnic division and hatred that have consumed us for so long no longer apply; that the lines of tribe, ethnicity, language, region, class will be deleted from our hearts and our minds. It is time for all Ethiopians to embrace the politics of unity and practice the divine arts of reconciliation, respect, mutual concern, appreciation and love for each other. This is our time. Let us seize it!

Human Rights and the Spirit of Service

Barack said the founders of the American Republic “drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man”. He said “those ideals still light the world” from the “grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born.” Our home is only a stone’s throw away from the small village where Barack’s father was born. We also believe in the timeless and universal principles announced to the world in the Declaration of Independence over two centuries ago: That all men and women are created equal; that the ONLY purpose of government is the protection of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Barack also said “what is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world.” That responsibility begins with each one of us dedicating ourselves to serve humanity; to be “willing to find meaning in something greater than themselves.” He said, it is “it is precisely this spirit of service that must inhabit us all.” It is in the spirit of service we must unite as Ethiopians and promote and defend the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights. In is in the spirit of service to the coming generations that we must take individual and collective responsibility to build bridges across ethnic lines, breakdown linguistic barriers and create bonds of friendship and change hearts and minds.

The Thousand Mile Journey and the Search for A Roadmap

Ancient wisdom says a thousand mile journey begins with the first step. We have taken the first step along this journey. We do not have a complete road map yet, but we have a good sense of the direction we want to take. We know that as long as our compass points in the direction of freedom, democracy and human rights, we are heading to the right destination. We are very encouraged at this early stage. In just a few days, the outpouring of support we have received, the profusion of creative ideas for Diaspora unity that have been sent to us and the good will we have received for a renewed Diaspora effort has been heartwarming and humbling. We now know for sure that we are not alone on this journey; indeed there are hundreds of thousands of fellow Ethiopian travelers all over the world who are -- ready to walk the talk -- ready, willing and able to take the journey with us, and help us chart the road map. We feel we are getting off to a right start. We know from past experience that laying a strong foundation is necessary so that what we build as we go along will not topple at the sudden winds of discord and disharmony blow in. We have learned from the lessons of those who till the land that the success of autumn crops depends upon the conscientious groundwork done in the spring. And so in this beginning spring of our Diaspora renewal, we appreciate the importance of well thought out beginnings.

We are ever mindful of the fact that even with a seemingly good start, failure and delay sometimes occur. We understand that there will be false starts, missteps, misunderstandings and miscommunication as we begin our efforts. We realize that some along this journey will feel frustrated because we are not able to arrive at our destination quickly enough. They may lose confidence and their spirits may flag. They may even lose sight of the cause and the struggle and the sacrifices that are needed to get to our destination. We are mindful that insignificant details could present themselves as insurmountable obstacles and undermine our initial resolve. We are mindful that our present enthusiasm -- “We are fired up and ready to go!” -- could wane in time as each one of us is called to take that first step, that first act individually and collectively. But such is the nature of struggle for hearts and minds. But as long as we are convinced that as individuals we have the power to change ourselves and others for the greater good, we can overcome any adversity that may come our way.

We are also mindful that our adversaries expect us to fail miserably because they believe fundamentally that we too weak, too polarized and too self-centered to come together for united action. They will wish that our good intentions will wither and die on the vine, and not bear fruit. Let them believe what they will. Our destiny is shaped by ourselves, by our own will, and not their intrigue and machinations. We are from this day on in charge of the Freedom Train and everyone is welcome to come aboard or be left back with the wretched of the earth at the station. We stand at the portal of a new day, a day that will go into a long night of personal sacrifice, hardship and adversity. We are not assured of success in our endeavors; and so we must try, and try to the best of our abilities to make it work because we know the self-evident truth that doing nothing in the face of a brutal dictatorship is not an option for us. Let us embrace Barack’s message to the American people: “Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it).” Let’s stand together as the children of Mother Ethiopia against the common danger of dictatorship! Let history record that as Diaspora Ethiopians we rose up against dictatorship with nothing in our hands, hope and love in our hearts, truth in our minds and the indomitable spirit of free men and women!

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