by Alemayehu G. Mariam
President Nelson Mandela turned 94 on July 18, 2012. May he live long with gladness and good health!
All who love and revere President Mandela call him Madiba. He is the ultimate symbol of human love, hope, courage, charity, endurance, patience and perseverance. He is the personification of good will, tolerance, generosity, forgiveness and reconciliation.
In South Africa’s darkest hours, Madiba emerged from the darkest dungeons of Pollsmoor Prison wearing a big smile on his face and carrying a torch light in his hand to free all his people from a wretched prison called Apartheid. When South Africa’s fate dangled between the forces of good and evil, Madiba stepped in the middle and said, “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” He convinced those armed for war to disarm for peace, to bury the hatchet, dagger and arrow and to beat their swords into ploughshares, shake hands, hold hands and put their shoulders to the grindstone to build a new South Africa. When the world stood in awe of what he had done, he humbly reminded us: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” Don’t we all wish we had more sinners in high places in Africa who just keep on trying?
I have had many imaginary conversations with Madiba, but only one that I have dared to make public. In one of my weekly commentaries in May 2011, I reported on one such imaginary conversation. The topic was the triumphalism of African dictators. Somewhat impatiently, I asked Madiba: “What the hell is wrong with African dictators?!?” Madiba did not want to generalize, but he was very clear about Apartheid dictatorship and what needed to be done to restore South Africa to its timeless beauty. He said, “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another. If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.”
Nightmares and Dreams of a Beautiful Ethiopia
Among the few privileges of being a human rights advocate and an academic are telling the unvarnished truth to anyone who cares to listen, speaking truth to power and defiantly hoping (even against hope) for a future that is much better than the past. That privilege comes from the special nature of human rights advocacy. A true human rights advocate has no political ambition. The politics of human rights is the politics of human dignity, not ideology, political partisanship or the pursuit of political office. The committed human rights advocate thrives on hopes and dreams of a better future, not the lust for political power or craving for status, position or privilege. As Vaclav Havel, the late Czech Republic and human rights advocate put it, “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well,… but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.” Defense and advocacy of human rights is something one does because it is good. As Havel said, “Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.” I have been relentlessly “sermonizing” (as some affectionately refer to my weekly commentaries) on human rights in Ethiopia and against dictatorship for many years now. I have done so not because I believed my efforts will produce immediate political results or expected structural changes overnight. I stayed in for the long haul because I believe defending, advocating and writing about human rights and righting government wrongs is right, good and the moral thing to do.
Lately, there has been much talk about nightmare scenarios and very little about dreams of a beautiful Ethiopia and the two roads that could take her to that place and moment in time where she “will not experience the oppression of one by another”. Some whisper of the nightmare of civil war if one man goes or stays? Is Ethiopia so insignificant in the eyes of man and God that her destiny is tied to or determined by what happens or does not happen to one man? Others bemoan the horrors of the past and seethe with anger and bitterness. They can only see the twilight of a vanishing order and are blinded to the sparkling new day dawning over the horizon. Far too many exercise themselves with things that are divisive, disruptive and discordant. They seem to forget that we have strong bonds of family, history, culture, language and religion that bind us in a beautiful mosaic called Ethiopia.
There are some who seem obsessed with speculation and rumors about the fate of a state built on the shoulders of one man. Would it not make more sense to be concerned about the plight and state of suffering of the other 90 million? Louis XIV, the absolute monarch of France who reigned for 72 years is reported to have said, “L’etat, c’est moi” (“I am the state”). Must we subject ourselves to the Sturm und Drang of what could happen to Ethiopia after the fall of a one-man, one-party state that has been in power for 21 years? For all the speculation, guestimation and supposition on the part of the Ethiopian opposition and the secrecy, mystery, fudging, hedging and dodging by discombobulated regime officials, the answer may be the same as Mark Twain’s who upon reading his premature obituary quipped: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Should we really be concerned about a moribund regime?
Truth be told, we should be concerned about a nation that has been in intensive care and on life support for the past 21 years and beyound. We should pray for the healing, speedy recovery and and well-being of Ethiopia. We should be searching high and low in our hearts, minds and souls for the best medication to heal Ethiopia from the cancer of tyranny and dictatorship and the pathology of hate and narrow-mindedness. We should work tirelessly to detoxify the Ethiopian body politic from the poison of ethnic domination, sectarianism and bigotry.
To restore Ethiopia to good health, we must begin national dialogue, not only in the halls of power, the corridors of the bureaucracy and the military barracks but also in the remotest villages, the church and masjid meeting halls and other places of worship, the schools and colleges, the neighborhood associations and in the taverns, the streets and markets and wherever two or more people congregate. We have no choice but to begin talking to each other with good will and in good faith.
Since the beginning of 2012, I have been penning special commentaries in a series I called “Ethiopia’s transition from dictatorship and democracy”. These commentaries were fragments of my dream that Ethiopia will soon make a transition from dictatorship to democracy. Of course, dreams could easily change into nightmares. In one such commentary, I shared my nightmares about what could happen “on the bridge from dictatorship to democracy.” I wrote, “there is often a collision between individuals and groups doggedly pursuing power, the common people tired of those who abuse and misuse power and the dictators who want to cling to power. The chaos that occurs on the transitional bridge from dictatorship to democracy creates the ideal conditions for the hijacking of political power, theft of democracy and the reinstitution of dictatorship in the name of democracy.” In another commentary last month, I pleaded for constitutional “pre-dialogue” (preparatory conversations) in anticipation of some potential roadblocks on Ethiopia’s inexorable march to a constitutional democracy.
Recent events seem to signal the imminence of a sea change in Ethiopia. While some are preoccupied with the nightmare of what could happen in Ethiopia if one man or one party stays or goes, my nightmares have been about what those opposed to the one man will do whether he stays or goes. History shows that political transitions in Ethiopia have been nightmares, a race to the bottom. The transition from monarchy to military socialism proved to be a colossal disaster. In the name of socialism, millions perished from famine and political violence. The transition from military “socialism” to “revolutionary democracy” led to the creation of a police state in Ethiopia unrivalled in the modern history of Africa. The flicker of democracy that was seen in 2005 was snuffed out in the blink of an eye. Now, the sun seems to be setting on the police state; and it could be curtain time for the chief of police. There is volcanic pressure building up slowly but surely in Ethiopia. We see small precursor eruptions here and there. Public dissatisfaction with the status quo has turned to utter public desperation. People cannot afford the basic necessities of life as inflation and cost of living soar to new heights. Corruption, abuse of power, massive repression and poor governance are about to blast the dome on the grumbling volcano. The situation is deteriorating by the day. One has to assume that against the backdrop of the “Arab Spring”, Ethiopia’s iron-fisted rulers must be a little worried about the winter of discontent of the Ethiopian people being made glorious by a democratic Summer.
What the managers of the police state will do or not do concern me less than what those who profess to stand for democracy, freedom and human rights will do or not do. Will they do what they have always done in the past: Never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity? Continue to play the same old zero sum game (that is, they win and everybody else loses) of politics? Play games of one-upmanship trying to outdo, outwit, outthink, outsmart, outplay, outfox, outmaneuver and outbully each other, while those in the saddle of power laugh at them? Play the blame game, finger pointing game and demonization game to show how bad everybody is and how good they are? Will they invent new games?
Or will the opposition collectively be able to soar to new heights of greatness? Will they forgive each other for the injuries of the past and pledge to work for a secure and just future for all Ethiopians? Will they be able to forge a partnership to deal with the multiplicity of problems facing the people? Will they lead the people to consensus by prioritizing and focusing on things for which there is broad agreement, or will they nitpick their way into a stalemate over minutiae? Above all, will they have the courage to reach out to each other in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, shake hands, bury the hatchet and put their shoulders to the grindstone to work together in the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia? Will they have the courage to walk in Madiba’s footprints?:
The sight of freedom looming on the horizon should encourage us to redouble our efforts. It is only through disciplined mass action that our victory can be assured. We call on our white compatriots to join us in the shaping of a new South Africa. The freedom movement is a political home for you too…
As freedom looms over the horizon in Ethiopia, do we all have the courage, humility and foresight to say to those in power and out of power, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” Is it possible to create a broad partnership of justice, equality, freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia today? Could we say now to those who have a tight grip on power what Madiba said to his white compatriots then, “The freedom movement is a political home for you too…”
Hate the Sin, Not the Sinner
In his autobiography, Gandhi wrote, “Man and his deed are two distinct things. Whereas a good deed should call forth approbation and a wicked deed disapprobation, the doer of the deed, whether good or wicked, always deserves respect or pity as the case may be. ‘Hate the sin and not the sinner’ is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world….” If one hates another because of race, color, religion, ethnicity or other factors, the result is more hate. Madiba said, “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” If hate is learned, it can also be unlearned. If love can be taught, it can be spread across the land.
We must follow Gandhi’s precept that if we must hate, we “hate the sin and not the sinner.” It is a tough precept to follow and live by. We have all been part of the problem and part of the solution at one time or another. If this is not true, then “He who is without sin should cast the first stone.” But now all of us have an opportunity to become part of the grand solution to the political problems facing Ethiopia. It is a rare chance that comes once in generations. Let’s not squander it.
In William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, Mark Antony as part of his funeral oration following the death of Caesar said, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones…” Scripture teaches that “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.” Those who have lived in hate and done evil in their lifetimes will have a testament in history for their deeds which will live long after they are dead and gone. If we obsess with the sinners, we will surely inherit the wind of those who have troubled their houses. We will inherit a tornadic wind that will tear the basic fabric and foundation of the Ethiopian nation. But if we focus our attention on the sin and together atone for it, we stand to inherit democracy from the ashes of dictatorship; human rights from the depths of human wrongs; freedom from oppression, love from hate; reconciliation from animosity and forgiveness from rancor. Such are the wages of good. Those who hold the reign of power should realize that things cannot continue the way they are now. They have a simple choice to make; and in the words of Robert Kennedy: “A revolution is coming — a revolution which will be peaceful if we are wise enough; compassionate if we care enough; successful if we are fortunate enough — But a revolution which is coming whether we will it or not. We can affect its character; we cannot alter its inevitability.” Why is it not possible to have a revolution in Ethiopia where we can all win because we are all on the side of freedom, democracy and human rights?
So, What Time Is It In Ethiopia Now?
Scripture teaches that there is “A time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.” So, what time is it in Ethiopia now? I say it is time for peace–high time to dream for peace. It is time to replace bitterness with reconciliation; hate with love that heals the community; revenge with forgiveness; hope with despair; hurt with healing; fear with courage; division with unity; doubt with faith; shame with honor; deceit with candor and sincerity; anger with reason; cruelty with kindness and caring; enmity with friendship; duplicity with openness; complacency with action; indifference with passion; incivility with gracefulness; suspicion with trust; selfishness with altruism; dishonesty with integrity; convenience with virtue; cunning with scruples; ignorance with knowledge; benightedness with imagination; acrimony with civility, desire with fulfillment and sniping and carping with with broad national dialogue. The time to talk and act is now!
Dreams of an Ethiopia at Peace: Roads to Goodness and Forgiveness
Madiba had a great dream for Africa. He said, “I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself. I dream of the realization of unity of Africa whereby its leaders, some of whom are highly competent and experienced, can unite in their efforts to improve and to solve the problems of Africa.” Madiba said, “This must be a world of democracy and respect for human rights, a world freed from the horrors of poverty, hunger, deprivation and ignorance, relieved of the threat and the scourge of civil wars and external aggression and unburdened of the great tragedy of millions forced to become refugees.”
Madiba has always inspired me to have dreams of an Ethiopia at peace freed from the horrors of poverty, hunger, deprivation and ignorance and the scourge of civil wars. In September 2011, in one of my weekly commentaries I tried to pull together the pieces of my dream:
Ethiopia is today a dystopia– a society that writhes under a dictatorship that trashes human rights and decimates all opposition ruthlessly. Last year, Zenawi told two high level U.S. Government officials what he will do to his opposition: “We will crush them with our full force.” All Ethiopians, regardless of ethnicity, language, religion, class or region must be able to imagine an Ethiopia where no petty tyrant will ever have the power or even the audacity to say he will “crush” another fellow citizen, or has the ability to use “full force” against any person just because he can. Ethiopians must be able to dream of a future free of ethnic strife, famine and oppression; and strive to work together for a little utopia in Ethiopia where might is NOT right but the rule of law shields the defenseless poor and voiceless against the slings and arrows of the criminally rich and powerful. It is true that Utopians aspire for the perfect society, but Ethiopians should aspire and work collectively for a society in which human rights are respected, the voice of the people are heard and accepted (not stolen), those to whom power is entrusted perform their duties with transparency and are held accountable to the law and people.
In my long-winded way, what I was trying to say was this: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”
This past January, I spoke of the paradox of being a utopian Ethiopian:
Even utopian Ethiopians know that as we work for unity, they will be working double overtime for disunity. For every act done to create trust, they will fabricate ten acts to create suspicion and distrust. It is said that a thousand mile journey begins with the first step. In making its declaration, the OLF has taken a giant leap for all Ethiopians. Each one of us must now take our own small steps for our Ethiopianity (humanity before ethnicity or nationality).
My dream of Ethiopia at peace is a dream based on the idea that all Ethiopians need to be a little bit utopian. Madiba is the greatest utopian in living memory. He was utopian enough to say, “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and — and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Yet, he was realistic enough to warn that if discussions and negotiations fail to resolve issues, there could be alternatives dreadful to contemplate: “There are many people who feel that it is useless and futile for us to continue talking peace and non-violence – against a government whose only reply is savage attacks on an unarmed and defenceless people. And I think the time has come for us to consider, in the light of our experiences at this day at home, whether the methods which we have applied so far are adequate.” Is it futile to begin talking in Ethiopia now? To continue talking? To choose the path of nonviolence in the face of “savage attacks on an unarmed and defenceless people”? I think not.
It is plain to all that the present system of one-man, one-party, one-everything has no future in Ethiopia. It will come to an end peacefully or otherwise, sooner or later. But we must learn from recent history. “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” That is what happened in Libya not long ago, and is happening in Syria today. There is no need to make the mistakes made in Libya or Syria.
Madiba understood that the transition from Apartheid dictatorship to majority democratic rule must involve all South Africans, not just the elites and others whose aim is to become power contenders. Madiba said:
The people need to be consulted on who will negotiate and on the content of such negotiations. Negotiations cannot take place — Negotiations cannot take place above the heads or behind the backs of our people. It is our belief that the future of our country can only be determined by a body which is democratically elected on a non-racial basis. Negotiations on the dismantling of apartheid will have to address the overwhelming demands of our people for a democratic, non-racial and unitary South Africa. There must be an end to white monopoly on political power and a fundamental restructuring of our political and economic systems to ensure that the inequalities of apartheid are addressed and our society thoroughly democratized.
All Ethiopian political and civic leaders must understand that “the people need to be consulted” and the future of our country can only be determined by a body which is democratically elected on a non-ethnic basis. It is delusional to think that the one-man, one-party model will continue unchanged. It is dumb to think that the clever, cunning and shrewd could outwit and out power play the rest and seize political power and continue the same old game of one-man, one-party, one-everything rule. It is wise to remember the saying that “you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people ofall of the time; but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” These days it is hard to fooll anybody. Those who may be scheming to play this game should give it up and not waste their time. It is foolhardy to think that anything other than genuine multiparty democracy fortified by the rule of law, reinforced by respect for human rights and sustained by the good will of the people could bring peace to Ethiopia. Regardless, the one-man, one-party party that has been going on for the past 21 years is now over!
It is a Tough Job, But All of Us Have to Do it!
When Madiba was released from Pollsmoor Prison in 1990, his first public words were about the unity of all South Africans, not the evils of Apartheid or the crimes and inhuman acts committed by one race over the other. Madiba said uniting the people is job one on day one:
The need to unite the people of our country is as important a task now as it always has been. No individual leader is able to take on this enormous task on his own. It is our task as leaders to place our views before our organization and to allow the democratic structures to decide on the way forward. On the question of democratic practice, I feel duty-bound to make the point that a leader of the movement is a person who has been democratically elected at a national conference. This is a principle which must be upheld without any exceptions.”
No individual leader or single organization in Ethiopia can take on the enormous task of uniting the people. It is the task of all leaders of political organizations, faith institutions, civic associations, youth and women’s groups and others to inspire the people to come together, to unite and to dream together about a new Ethiopia where no one shall again experience the oppression of one by another. It is impossible to unite the people without detoxifying the conversation and abandoning the obsession about one man. To do what Madiba did in South Africa, we must commit to the important task now, and that is “uniting the people of our country.”
My Birthday Present to Madiba
Last week Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that “the greatest gift we can give Madiba is to follow his example.” So I shall give him Madiba his birthday gift by pledging to walk in his footsteps. I am eternally grateful to Madiba for what he has done for all humanity. His words and deeds have inspired me not only to speak truth to power and dream about a bright future for Ethiopia and Africa, but also to begin teaching, preaching and reaching out to all to begin a journey on the road to forgiveness and goodness. I understand Madiba’s way does not come with an iron clad guarantee of success, but I have yet to find another way that could lead to a durable peace in Ethiopia but the ways of forgiveness and goodness. I could be wrong, but I would rather take the wrong turn on Madiba’s road than take the road to nowhere because that is the alternative. Some may think I am just a naïve and gullible lawyer whose head swoons in the clouds of the ivory tower. I should like to think I have my feet firmly planted in the ground.
I do hope that there will be people who will agree with me that I am right in following Madiba’s example. Perhaps they may even consider joining me on that long and hard road despite their fears of being sneered and jeered along the way. But I shall travel that road in Madiba’s footsteps alone if I must. Henry David Thoreau said, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” And if I should get tired walking alone, I will just limp along behind the millions of Ethiopians who will be marching on Madiba’s way lockstep to the drumbeat of freedom, democracy, dignity and peace. But before rushing to judge me harshly or kindly, forget not that I am just a utopian Ethiopian. “Some men see things and say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’”. Why not walk in Madiba’s footsteps? Why not dream of Ethiopia with her children at peace? Why not outdream each other about what is possible, viable and attainable in beautiful Ethiopia? Let us all become utopian Ethiopians! Why not?
Happy 94th Madiba! Long Live Madiba! Long Live Nelson Mandela! Long Live Ethiopia!