Deserting a sinking ship or doing the right thing?

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / August 3, 2009
Escapees of conscience or deserters from a sinking ship?

Over the past month, there has been a spate of reported official “defections” from Ethiopia. The alleged “defectors” said to be seeking asylum in the U.S. include a high level official attached to the “State Minister of Government Communications Affairs”, an individual identified as the “Director of Ethiopian Telecommunication Agency” and another person said to be a member of Ethiopia’s rubber-stamp parliament. A well-known Ethiopian novelist is also reported to be seeking asylum in the U.S. Three officially sponsored Ethiopian “exchange students” sent to England for a three-month program “vanished during a trip to the Houses of Parliament” and are believed to be seeking asylum there. The grapevine in certain circles is abuzz with rumors that a number of the head honcho’s ambassadors in various countries have either refused to return to Ethiopia or are forestalling their return. Over the past few years, dozens of diplomatic officials are reported to have deserted the crippled ship of state of the dictators in Ethiopia.1

The question is whether the recent defections signify the proverbial desertion of a sinking ship, or are simply episodic instances of individual “escapees of conscience”.

Why Defect?

There is a long tradition of individuals fleeing tyranny and despotism in their homelands. Over the past three decades, thousands of Ethiopians have escaped oppression, persecution and dictatorial rule in their homeland and obtained political asylum in various countries. Receiving asylum in a host country does not necessarily make an individual a “defector”. There is no formally cognizable status of “defector” under international law. Such persons are generally treated as “refugees” under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. The U.S. Government in its administrative manuals defines a “defector” as a “person who repudiates his or her country when beyond its jurisdiction or control.” When the Soviet Union existed, a “defector” was an individual who “committed treason by cooperating with a hostile foreign intelligence service”.

There is no single prototype of a defector. Defectors from the former communist countries have included generals, diplomats, scientists, artists, musicians, atheletes, and even children of supreme dictators. For instance, among well-known Russian defectors to the U.S. include KGB general Oleg Kalugin; pianist Dmitry Shostakovich, Olga Korbut, the four gold and two silver medal winning gymnast and chess grandmasters Viktor Korchnoy and Boris Spassky. In 1967, Stalin's daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, defected to the U.S. In 1993, Fidel Castro’s daughter, Alina Fernandez Revuelta, did the same after entering the U.S. disguised as a Spanish tourist. Far fewer numbers of Americans have defected to the Soviet Union, mostly for ideological reasons.

Individuals defect for a variety of reasons. Some do so for purely personal reasons; and others for moral, philosophical, political, intellectual or ideological ones. Soviet defector interview data and autobiographies suggest that among the major factors motivating defections included strong beliefs and perceptions that: 1) the Soviet regime lacked popular legitimacy and mandate and rules by means of lies, intimidation and violence; 2) communism as an ideology is bankrupt and that the Soviet regime uses it to justify its monopoly on power; 3) basic human rights and the rule of law are disregarded and violated routinely by communist officials, and 4) since no legal opposition to the Soviet regime is allowed or tolerated, defection is one of the few ways for individuals to show their opposition and rejection of the communist system. Others have described Soviet defectors as “cynical people who understood the corruption of the Soviet system, used it to their advantage and turned against it only when it failed them in their self-centered pursuits or somehow victimized them.”

Life as an Official of the Ruling Dictatorship

Anecdotal evidence obtained from some Ethiopian defectors paints a portrait of the inhumanity, depravity, cruelty and decay of the dictatorial regime there, and the existential trap in which the defectors found themselves. These defectors reported facing a variation on the excruciating question: “How could I serve in good conscience a brutal, corrupt and ruthless dictatorship?” Witnessing injustice, abuse of power, unfairness, exploitation and outright criminality everyday, yet being part of a system that perpetrates and perpetuates it, created a hellish situation for many of these defectors. They reported being tormented by the proverbial little voice in their consciences telling them: “This is so wrong. Don’t do it. Don’t be a part of it!” They described facing an endless struggle between their consciences and the harsh reality they faced servicing the dictatorship. They lived each day overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness and helplessness. They felt they had sold out their consciences to make a daily living and put food on the table for their families. Dependent on the dictatorship for their daily bread, a number of these defectors reported living a life of self-loathing, duplicity and quiet desperation: They were afraid to speak up against the injustices they witnessed for fear of retribution; they were tormented by guilt because they felt completely powerless to change their circumstances; they felt they had to live a life of pretension just to survive and not to arouse suspicion of disloyalty; they were overcome by unrelenting anxiety and insecurity about possible official retaliation for something they had done on not done; and they seethed with anger for being bossed around by a herd of ignoramuses.

These defectors also reported seeking escape from a daily existence of humiliation, shame and self-loathing before defecting. Many withdrew into the world of alcohol and self-indulgence to escape their misery and contain their moral outrage. Some waited and schemed in secrecy for that one opportunity to travel to the West for some training program or a diplomatic assignment. When they got that chance, they quietly slipped away from their delegations to seek political asylum. Others not fortunate enough to travel and not drowning themselves in alcohol are said to seek alternative relief by consorting with opposition elements, or seeking solace in prayer and other spiritual pursuits. Those who could not take it anymore treaded the risky waters of opposition politics, and soon find out there is a huge price to pay for standing up against the dictatorship. They found themselves out of a job or worse. Some are said to be so overcome by fear and anxiety about their personal well-being that they simply want to drop out the officialdom and be left alone. But dictatorships are like the devil; and as the old saying goes, once the devil catches you by a single strand of hair, you are his forever until you save yourself or are redeemed.

Defection as a Moral Act of Outrage and Redemption

Defection made for the right reasons could be a supreme act of moral redemption for the defector. Those who have been involuntary agents of oppression and criminality have the ability to morally purify themselves by openly and publicly repudiating their previous official life. But the moral duty of defectors transcends self-atonement; it includes a collateral duty to help those who suffer under the yoke of dictatorship. As Victor Kravchenko, one of the early Soviet defectors observed, it is the duty of a defector to speak his mind once in freedom because “an understanding of the Russian reality by the democratic world is the precondition for my country’s liberation from within.” It is because of the work of Soviet defectors who exposed the brutality and depravity of the Soviet system that an underground dissident and human rights movement in the Soviet Union was able to take root in the 1980s.

Defectors, Duties and the Diaspora: Doing the Right Thing

Foreign officials who defect in most Western countries have legal rights to seek political asylum. It is the duty of all Ethiopians in the Diaspora who believe in freedom, democracy and human rights to help those escaping oppression and persecution as victims of human rights abuses. It is commendable that many Ethiopian legal professionals in the U.S. particularly, and other charitable institutions, have offered or extended assistance to those who have sought asylum in the U.S. as defectors or otherwise. Many individuals and American civic organizations deserve gratitude for their efforts in facilitating the social integration of those fleeing persecution in Ethiopia.

Until we walk a mile in the defectors’ shoes, we have little moral basis to prejudge them for taking the courageous act of defecting from a ruthless dictatorship. Fundamental fairness requires that we give them the benefit of the doubt: They shall all deemed escapees of conscience doing the right thing until proven otherwise!

We do not know if we are witnessing the tip of a defection iceberg from the reports of this past month. Perhaps these defections will open the floodgates for an exodus of officials escaping oppression and persecution, or such defections will continue to trickle. Regardless, we must be careful not to malign these official defectors, or arbitrarily impugn their motives as some may be inclined to do. It may be that these individuals are abandoning a slowly sinking ship, or just doing the right thing and cleansing themselves. It does not matter. In the struggle for the hearts and minds of Ethiopians, it is the duty of those in the Diaspora to lend aid to such individuals as victims of human rights abuses. It is the moral duty of all well-intentioned defectors to name and shame their former masters and tormentors. Above all, it is their supreme moral duty to speak their minds once they find themselves in freedom; and, to paraphrase Victor Kravchenko, bear witness against injustice and human rights violations because “an understanding of the Ethiopian reality by the democratic world is the precondition for our country’s liberation from within.”

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