Ethiopia: Shame and dignity

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Dec 16th, 2013

By Shiferaw Abebe

As street protests against the inhuman treatment of Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia subside, with tens of thousands of them already deported back to their home country, what have we achieved and what has changed fundamentally? Have our protests addressed the root cause that precipitated the indignity of our sisters and brothers in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else in the Middle East? Where is our indignation and sadness to go from here?

I would like to believe our protest rallies have made a difference in exposing the barbaric acts of the Saudi security forces and the lacklustre response from the TPLF regime. I would also like to believe the suffering of our sisters and brothers in the last few days before their departure was tempered, as a result. Some have said the Saudi incident has brought Ethiopians of different political and ethnic persuasions closer. This may be true to an extent; only time will tell if this will translate into a long-term bond to do the things that will matter more.

On bigger issues, however, nothing has changed for the better. Returnees are back to a home country that is ill-prepared to receive them, let alone resettle them. As soon as the TPLF regime lifts the travel ban, more Ethiopians will flock to the same Arab countries and the cycle will repeat itself; it cannot come as a surprise if the same Ethiopians who went through the recent ordeal in Saudi Arabia attempt to get back to the same country. The reason is simple: even if the pull factors in these Arab countries get weaker, the push factors will only get stronger in the years ahead as long as the country is ruled by the same thugs who created a social, economic and political system that produces hopelessness and desperation for millions of Ethiopians.

The question is, therefore: what are the chances the Saudi incident will be a catalyst for our determination to bury our shame for once and for all and become a dignified people once again? Is our collective shame displayed in broad daylight in the streets of Saudi Arabia humiliating enough for us to say “enough is enough” and reclaim our God-given dignity that was protected by our ancestors for millennia and passed on to us? How do we go about doing that? Where should we wage our war to take our dignity back?

To be exact, our shame didn’t start a few weeks ago when the Saudi security forces treated our brothers and sisters like dogs. We have had our shame for a long time. Our shame as a people started when we established a professional agency decades ago to beg food from the world community because we proved time and again that we were unable to feed ourselves. The best progress we made in forty years, i.e., since the first famine in 1973, is to become more efficient in the collection and distribution of food aid, a feat the current regime trumpets a great deal about. Otherwise, in a relatively well endowed agricultural country tens of millions still live on the border with starvation.

We had our shame when we, as a people, cowardly allowed a handful of military officers terrorize the whole nation for 17 years, dragging tens of thousands of youth out of their parents’ house and killing them on the spot or without any due process; when we shamelessly came out to the streets to curse the dead bodies of our children, sisters and brothers. Even when the officers’ rule ended when it did, it was not because we challenged it, but because it ran its course.

When the current rulers came out of the bushes, literally, we didn’t put up any resistance from day one even when we knew they were fundamentally un-Ethiopian. They turned the country landlocked overnight, mocked our great history and heritage, undermined our identity and unity openly and brazenly, killed hundreds in broad day light, and arrested tens of thousands. With half the brain we have, they despise us, they ridicule us, they degrade us, and they laugh at us. At this point they don’t see anything by way of stopping them from doing anything they want with the country or its 90 million residents. They are a handful; we are too many to count. Yet our best, shameful, response has been to live with all of this indignity for 23 years.

What is left of us? We are not just poor. We have not just become a migrating nation. We are a despised people. We are despised by the thugs at home. We are despised by uncivilized Arabs whose goats we herd, whose food we cook, whose washrooms we clean. Saudi Arabia committed those heinous crimes in the open because it knows it can get away with it. Our best response to this humiliation is to come out to the streets and shed our tears and curse the Saudis from the top of our lungs. Because, we have not formed a government that would have moved mountains to defend its citizens, mend our broken hearts and cover our shame. Instead, we have allowed ourselves to be ruled by an anti-Ethiopian entity that defends our tormentor.

To be sure, again, what happened in Saudi Arabia is nothing new either in its scale or in its barbarity. More Ethiopians have lost their lives in Yemen in more agonizing manners. More Ethiopians have lost their lives in many Arab households throughout the Middle East by suicide because they were dehumanized and brutalized by their slave masters to their limit. Hundreds of Ethiopians girls are committed to Arab penitentiary institutions each year for a deplorable and sad existence.

What is new with the Saudi incident and forced us to come out in great numbers to the streets of Europe, North America and elsewhere is perhaps the fact that we cannot hide from our shame and indignity for it was on display to the whole world in broad daylight. And, if truth be told, our anguish and indignation was more of an expression of helplessness than a fierce determination to see our shame no more. After we did our protests, most of us have gone back to our selfish existence. In the city I live there was an ESAT fundraising event a week after our protest rally. There were some 200 people at the protest rally, but when we held the ESAT fundraising, only 15 people signed up for the meagre $20/month pledge. This is not unique and perhaps relatively “respectable” compared with many other cities in North America or Europe. ESAT’s campaign target was 1000 worldwide which I thought was very low when they announced the campaign. Sadly, the actual number of signers turned out to be far below that target.

Where do we go from here for our redemption? How do we mend our brokenness? Would suing the Saudi kingdom do the trick, as some are suggesting? Or should we organize ourselves to seek and defend the rights of Ethiopian immigrants in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East (which is, in a way, the equivalent of establishing a food aid collection agency)? Or should we keep on talking, overanalyzing our predicament, be it in Saudi Arabia or Israel, South Africa or anywhere else in the world? Will any of these things bear meaningful results? More importantly, will these efforts, even if successful, address the root cause of our shame and tragedy in the Arab world?

Our shame begins in our home country and it only can end there. We cannot repair our dignity in the Middle East or on the streets of Europe and North America or in front of Saudi Embassies anywhere in the world. What we will achieve in all of these places is earn one more label – protesters – to a long list of unflattering labels of whom and what we became to be.

Yes, the thugs who are ruling the country like a mafia business have made us full-time protesters. That is all we do. Instead of taking protests as one of several means to get to the end we desire, we have made them an end, so much so we now measure our success with the number of people that show up for a protest rally. We have protested for 22 years. When will that end? Can we expect a different outcome by doing the same thing over and over again? Is that not the definition of insanity?

Tomorrow, December 15, 2013, the leader of Semayawi Party will hold a public meeting in Washington DC. This is the same party whose leaders, members and supporters were beaten up by TPLF security forces for staging a protest rally in front of the Saudi Embassy in Ethiopia. Again, here is another test case for our commitment. Are we planning to come out and attend this public meeting and show our support morally and financially? This is where we can make a material difference. We can talk and protest until Kingdom Come, yet the TPLF regime will not go anywhere unless courageous parties like Semayawi, Andinet, and others get our support to challenge it.

One thing is also certain. We cannot redeem our dignity as divided as we are politically and ethnically. The call of the moment to opposition political leaders like Engineer Yilkal Getnet is so loud that they cannot pretend not to have heard it. The call of the moment to all of us who have willingly served as fertile grounds for divisive politics is unmistakable unless we willfully ignore it. We have to unite at any cost to remove from power those who are profiting from our disunity, from our shame, from our tattered dignity. Let our shame in the Middle East be the catalyst for redeeming our dignity as a people, as a nation. Let Ethiopian opposition forces come together and lead us to reclaim our dignity.

Shiferaw Abebe can be reached at

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