Millennium on ice: reflections on promises deferred

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / September 8, 2008
 Fall from Grace: From New Breed of African Leader to “Vicious Dictator”
Vicious Dictator
What a difference a year makes in a Millennium! A year ago, almost to the day, we celebrated a moment of triumph. It was the 9th of September. A day I will always remember. It was our day of jubilation. A day of pride. It was a day that embodied the strivings of the millions of Ethiopians who came out to vote in May 2005, hoping to build a free and democratic Ethiopia for the first time in history. It was also a solemn day of remembrance of the sacrifices of the innocent sons and daughters of Ethiopia who were cut down like blades of grass protesting stolen elections. It was a day unlike any other in the history of Ethiopians in America. On that glorious September day, we mustered a mighty force of humanity in a caravan of freedom riders that stretched from Dulles Airport in Virginia to Washington, D.C.

A year later, that auspicious beginning had withered on the vine of promises yet to be fulfilled. Shattered dreams of a democracy deferred lie scattered like sawdust on the floor our memories. Those jubilant voices of September 9 are but a faint echo now. That glorious day a distant and fading memory. The weeds of cynicism and disillusionment have strangled the seedlings of hope and optimism planted that glorious September day. It is pointless to even try and explain what happened over the past year. It does not matter. We managed to “rain on our own parade”. We snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. We blinded ourselves and lost sight of the Grand Prize. In the end, we found ourselves trapped in the Tower of Babel -- unable to speak the same language of democracy, freedom and human rights, unable to engage in constructive political dialogue, unable to set aside differences for the greater cause and for ultimate victory over the demonic forces of dictatorship. We insisted on playing a zero-sum game where only one side can win and the other must necessarily lose. None of us won. Only Zenawi Inc. won, and mightily, courtesy of pro-democracy forces. They walked away with their greatest trophy: a fragmented democratic opposition, and the equivalent of a long-term employment guarantee. Their work done for them, now they just stir the opposition pot from time to time while feasting at the lavish table of dictatorship.

From Dictatorship to Freedom?

“When the people fear the government, you have tyranny. When the government fears the people, you have freedom,” said Thomas Paine, one of the inspiring figures of the American revolution. No one can say in the first year of the New Millennium that the “government” in Ethiopia fears the people. Some of us even entertained the polyannish hope that the New Millennium will usher a teeny-weeny transition from dictatorship to freedom. We could not have been more wrong. We witnessed the “legalization, legitimization, judicialization, sanctification and beatification” of dictatorship in Ethiopia in the first year of the New Millennium. A snapshot of the current dictatorship in the first year shows a bogus “election” taking place, not as a democratic exercise of popular participation in self-government, but as strategic move to entrench the tentacles of the regime at the neighborhood level while tightening the noose on political life of the country. The regime ran 4 million candidates (out of some 76 million) for office. The opposition managed to register (not run) a mere 16 thousand.

A bogus “Charities and Societies Proclamation” was passed to stamp out the faintest trace of opposition, and thwart the possibility of a resurgence of democratic impulses in the country. After decimating opposition political parties and the press, the regime targeted civil society organizations in the name of “monitoring” them. Amnesty International described this “law” as “part of a broader effort to silence the few independent voices that have managed to make their criticisms of the government heard in an increasingly repressive climate.”

They also passed a press “law” billed by Zenawi as “on par with the best in the world”. Bulcha Demeksa, leader of the opposition Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement described its passage as “a dark day in the annals of Ethiopian history.” The “law” is so loony that it criminalizes criticism of politicians. It does not matter whether the criticized politician feels his reputation has been damaged by a press report. The “government” will prosecute “even if the person against whom they were committed chooses not to press charge.” Since we are talking about a law “on par with the best in the world”, it may be instructive to learn how the truly best in the world deal with the issue. In the United States (where there is real freedom of the press), there could be no defamation or libel of a public official by a journalist unless that official could prove “actual malice”, that is, proof that the reporter made the statement with knowledge of its falsity or in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity. Obviously, the aim of the “law” is to instill fear and institutionalize self-censorship, and “dampen the vigor and limit the variety of public debate.” In the first year of the Ethiopian New Millennium, we find that there are no opposition political parties. No civil society organizations. No free press. No justice. No peace. No problems!!!

From Poverty to Prosperity?

We were also deafened by claims of economic growth and deluged by platitudes about economic prosperity in Ethiopia in the first year of the New Millennium. We were invited to join in euphoric celebrations of Ethiopia’s magnificent economic strides and achievements in an endless series of great emancipatory speeches, interviews and declarations. We were told the economy has been growing by 10 per cent over the past five years. Just a couple of weeks ago, we were told in a Financial Times interview that “agriculture has been growing at double-digit rates for five years now. Agriculture has been the key driver of growth as a whole and of export growth.” As the famine (which is officially called “severe malnutrition”) ravages the country, we were assured: “There are more people in Ethiopia who have benefited from the high food prices than those who have lost out from them.” Perhaps someone ought to tell the “benefits of high food prices” and the great agricultural prosperity to the 4.5 million (regime estimate) and 10 million (international estimate) people who are starving, or to be more politically correct, undergoing “severe malnutrition”. It is all surreal. The truth is there is nothing to brag about Ethiopia’s economy. In its 2007-08 report, the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Index (which quantifies not just the “rise and fall of national incomes” but assesses “the environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive lives”) ranked Ethiopia 169th out of 177 countries. Only 7 other countries were worse off than Ethiopia. No one can deny that the so-called agricultural-led industrialization has benefited a small group of politically-connected individuals and made it possible for them to live on exquisite islands of wealth on a vast ocean of poverty where the overwhelming majority of Ethiopians live under $1 USD a day. But please give us a break: The old voodoo economics about wealth trickling down to the unwashed masses has long been discredited.

From Human Wrongs to Human Rights

Human wrongs continued in the first year of the New Millennium. In June, 2008, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in its 130-page report "Collective Punishment: War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity in the Ogaden Area of Ethiopia's Somali Regional State," that “ in eastern Ethiopia’s Somali Region, Ethiopia's army has subjected civilians to executions, torture, and rape.” The widespread violence amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to HRW. In Oromia, suspected sympathizers of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) continue to be imprisoned, harassed, and physically abused, including school children.

Castles in the Sand

The history of dictatorships shows that dictators are very good at building castles in the sand. One need only look at the “castles” built by the most notorious dictators of the last century. Hitler built his “1000 Year Reich”, but it lasted barely 12 years. Pol Pot terrorized Cambodia for 4 years before he was driven out. Saddam Hussien ruled Iraq with an iron fist for over three decades, and died a broken, deeply humiliated and defeated man. Mullah Omar’s Taliban ruled Afghanistan for 5 years before they were routed into the caves. Robert Mugabe, once a liberation hero today clings to power by electoral fraud and brute force. Mengistu Haile Mariam and the Derg are gone leaving behind only a legacy that made it possible for the current occupants of power to continue in their footsteps. Even the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the Soviet Union and elsewhere has vanished from the face of the earth after 70 years.

It is easy to fall prey to despair and hopelessness in the face of an unrelenting tyranny that rules with an iron fist. It is easy to believe that one is condemned by destiny to live in fear and oppression under such dictatorial rule. But there is an eternal truth about all dictatorships. As Gandhi said, “There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fail -- Think of it always.” One need not doubt that the current dictatorship in Ethiopia is rushing blindly to its impending doom. It may pretend not to hear the distant thunder of the approaching storm. But all the signs that portend of its inevitable end are evident. Deep-seated and prolonged discontent has seized upon the people. Grinding poverty, inflation, high prices, unemployment, pent-up resentments, frustrations and rising anger, widespread misery and “severe malnutrition” (a/k/a famine) (in the land of the Blue Nile and many of the great rivers of Africa), tell the tragic story of suffering of a people as the dictatorship’s end draws near. The truth is that regime is out of solutions. They are playing for time in their endgame haunted by fears for their own survival, which they can prolong by becoming more and more repressive everyday. They know they do not have the support of the Ethiopian people. A Gallup poll conducted in July 2007 “reveals that relatively few Ethiopians express confidence in their country's social and political institutions. Religious organizations are the only national entities to garner trust from a majority of respondents (68%). The national government garners trust from just 28% of Ethiopians… But participatory politics prompt the lowest levels of trust, as only 13% of Ethiopians have confidence in the honesty of elections.” Imagine a “democratic government” based only on the consent of 13 percent of the people! Have no doubts. The current dictatorship will go the way of all other dictatorships. The real question is: What happens after the dictators are gone?

The answer to this question is too frightening to contemplate. But we can take lessons from recent history. Take Saddam Hussien, for instance. Saddam engineered himself into dictatorial power and ruled Iraq with an iron fist for over three decades. He used policies designed to divide and paralyze Iraq’s ethnic groups. He used his ubiquitous military, security and intelligence apparatus, paramilitary security forces, tribal militias and emergency force units to ensure that he remained unchallenged and in absolute control. He packed the leadership of the Baathist party with Tikriti-based clan members and coerced, bribed and corrupted other ethnic and clan leaders to submit to his rule and party’s dominance. Those who did not belong to Saddam’s club or were considered hostile to him -- Kurds, Shia, Marsh Arabs -- were targeted for repression and savage persecution. Saddam was merciless even against his relatives, his best friends and clan members. His long-time comrade-in-arms who helped him come to power were singled out for the harshest treatment.

But what happened to Iraq after Saddam was toppled by the Americans? It was bedeviled by ethnic and regional fragmentation. Each of the three major ethnic groups claimed their own territory. Local warlords, Al-Quieda and homegrown terror cells, tribal leaders, and government security forces controlled separate areas and territories. Powerful clan and religious leaders became power brokers. Tragically, the post-Saddam era offered many Iraqis limitless opportunities to exact revenge for actual and perceived past grievances. Today, Baghdad is nothing more than clusters of ethnic enclaves divided by high concrete walls, each ethnic group flying its own flag. Few could have predicted the present reality of an imploded Iraq. What is seen in today’s Iraq was beyond the comprehension and imagination of the average Iraqi during the time of Saddam. The writing is on the wall in the form of a question for all Ethiopians to read: “What do we do the morning after all the dictators are gone?”

The Challenge of the New, New Millennium

I do not believe the challenges of the New Millennium are exclusively and necessarily related to the removal of a particular regime or individual from power. Regimes and dictators come and gone. The real challenge, as I see it, is preparation for a post-dictatorship society, NOW. “What is to be done the morning after the dictators are gone? What should a post-dictatorship Ethiopia look like?” I am not sure many of us have reasonable answers to these basic questions. But we avoid answering them at our own risk.

My humble personal view is that to understand what can happen “the morning after”, one has to clearly understand the present state of affairs in Ethiopia. The foundation of politics in Ethiopia today is ethnicity and the elimination of unity of the people in all forms by accentuating historical, social, political, economic, regional, etc. differences. Ethnic identity and loyalties are glorified, and identity in a common nationality mocked, scorned and ridiculed. The governing principle is “Ethnicity before one’s humanity, and definitely before one’s nationality.” The evidence on the current dictatorship for the last 17 years unambiguously shows that they have succeeded to some extent in “atomizing” Ethiopia into ethnic enclaves. As a result, the country has outwardly become an archipelago of ethnic and linguistic “homelands” or bantustans. People are structured and encouraged to relate to each other on the basis of ethnic affiliation; and with those who are not part of the same ethnic group, to relate on the basis of past of historical grievances, suspicion of their present intentions and fear and loathing of a shared national identity. This policy and practice has spawned a culture of distrust, and forced people to develop deeply embedded habits of fear, loathing, doubt and suspicion that will have serious consequences in a post-dictatorship democratic society.

A post-dictatorship society must first find effective means to neutralize and purge the poison of ethnic politics from the Ethiopian body politics and overcome the atomizing effects of ethnicity. We must find ways to build trust to overcome the structural and psychic damage done over the past 17 years. As Francis Fukuyama perceptively argued, trust is the most important “social capital” in a society: “A nation’s well-being, as well as its ability to compete, is conditioned by a single, pervasive characteristic: the level of trust inherent in the society…. Trust is the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, and cooperative behaviour, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of other members of the community… Social capital is what permits individuals to band together to defend their interests and organize to support collective needs; authoritarian governance, on the other hand, thrives on social atomization.” Though Fukuyama’s theory of “trust” focuses on “economy-building”, his ideas have equal applicability in nation-building as well. It seems that Ethiopians of all ethnic origins are afflicted by a significant deficit in the “social capital” of trust. This is evident in the fact that few people pool their resources to work together for common purposes in groups and organization across ethnic, regional, linguistic, etc., lines.

While political parties can play an effective role in cultivating public trust in institutions as well as the future, in their enforced absence, civil society organizations are best situated to pick up the slack. It is hard to imagine democracy taking root in any society without vigorous and vibrant civil society (voluntary civic and social organizations and institutions and groups) institutions. The regime understands that where there are healthy and vibrant civil society institutions there also blooms participatory democracy. That is the reason the regime has gone to such great lengths to legally suppress civil society institutions. We have to develop and utilize effective civil society institutions as means to develop the social capital of trust if we are to overcome the deeply embedded culture of distrust and map out a vision of a post-dictatorship democratic society in Ethiopia.

It is clear that civil society organization in Ethiopia do not stand a chance of functioning with any degree of effectiveness under the so-called charities law. But a great deal of work can be done in the Ethiopian Diaspora. I believe we can play an exemplary role by creating and sustaining civil society institutions that function on a culture of trust. We can engage large numbers of people in diverse civil society organizations to work together and cooperate on common issues of democratic institution building, defense and advocacy of human rights, support for press rights and free speech, support for the institutionalization of the rule of law, improving inter-ethnic relations and communication, and other similar things essential for the establishment of a viable democratic society. It is an object less for us all to recall the tireless work done by diverse civil society groups -- grassroots organizations – which resulted in the successful passage of H.R. 2003. In that effort, we worked together as a single force for a common cause in a matrix of trust. The greatest challenge for the Ethiopian Diaspora in the New Millennium is our ability to serve as incubators for “social capital” (trust) that will ultimately transform the arid political landscape of dictatorship in Ethiopia into a breadbasket of democracy, civil liberties and human rights. If we fail to acquire the needed “social capital”, democracy, freedom and human rights will remain elusive to us, and generations to come will be doomed to an endless cycle of dictatorships.

But All Is Not Lost…

In the first year of the New Millennium, the transition from tyranny to freedom is nothing more than a distant and receding mirage on the arid political landscape Ethiopia has become. But all is not lost: Though the dictators have succeeded in crushing the hopes of millions and forced them to live in fear and misery, they have not been able to destroy that defiant indomitable Spirit that brought out the millions of Ethiopians to the polls in 2005. That Spirit of democracy, human rights and freedom remains intact and gets stronger by the day steeled in the oppressive furnace of dictatorship. That Spirit in the end will guide Ethiopians find their way out of the darkness of dictatorship into the promised land of democracy and freedom.

Let us consider the poetic wisdom of Langston Hughes for the New Millennium in the context of the question: “What do we do when the castles made of sand dissolve into the sea eventually?”

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

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