by Alemayehu G. Mariam
On May 18, 2012, dictator Meles Zenawi learned a lesson he will not easily forget. In the land of free speech, he was rendered speechless.
Meles Zenawi is a dictator! Meles Zenawi is a dictator! Free Eskinder Nega! Free Political Prisoners! You are a dictator. You are committing crimes against humanity. Food is nothing without freedom! Meles has committed crimes against humanity! We Need Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!”
Zenawi was shocked, bewildered, flabbergasted and completely disoriented. It was as though 90 million Ethiopians had lined up pointing an accusatory finger at him and shouting in unison, “Meles Zenawi! You are a dictator!…” In that moment Abebe gloriously realized the true meaning of the tagline of his website addisvoice.com – “A Voice of the Voiceless”. Ironically, the voice of the voiceless rendered speechless the man who had rendered millions voiceless!
Silencing the Silencer: Zenawi Gets a Taste of His Own Medicine
Zenawi had just started pontificating about “agricultural transformation in Africa” and how a “partnership between the
farmer and the private sector” would have to be formed to meet the continent’s food needs. But he could only get out 30 words before he was shouted down. It was an incredible sight to behold. Zenawi’s head snapped to attention when he first heard his name and title. He probed the audience confusedly to locate the heckler. When he made eye contact with Abebe, he came unhinged: His eyes bugged out with sheer horror. His jaw dropped as if he had seen a ghost. He looked like the proverbial deer in a headlight; or to use an African metaphor, the vaunted guerilla hero froze like a frightened wildebeest looking into the eyes of a hungry lion. The expression on his face was total disbelief. “Is that Abebe Gellaw? It can’t be! I thought I had him canned in Kality Prison with Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye. What the hell is he doing here?!?”
It was a defining moment — the classic Kodak moment — for Zenawi. After the initial shock, Zenawi tried to quickly regain his composure and continue with his carefully rehearsed and memorized statement. He could not afford to lose his spot in the well-rehearsed statement so he kept on repeating himself like a broken record, “Seventy percent, ah…, seventy percent of the population in Africa…ah..” Nothing doing. He looked to the to the moderator mournfully for help. But the best the stunned moderator could do was bleat out, “security, help please.” For seven seconds, the mighty Zenawi zoned out into a catatonic trance like the patrons of opium dens. For a fleeting moment, he seemed almost comatose. His head was bowed, his back hunched, his chin drooped, his lips quivered and his eyes gazed vacantly at the floor just like the criminal defendant who got handed a life sentence or worse. A close-up video showed him breathing heavily, almost semi-hyperventilating. His pectoral muscles heaved spastically under his shirt. An imminent cardiac event?
Zenawi’s body language spoke volumes. He propped himself up on the edge of his seat. He tried to keep a stiff upper lip as he soliloquized his well-rehearsed monologue. He preteneded as if nothing had happened. He tried to give the impression that he is as cool as a cucumber and unshakable under fire.
After Abebe was escorted out of the hall, Zenawi droned on for just under two minutes arguing for “public investment” and the need for partnership between the smallholder farmer and the private sector. But his argument made no sense at all because smallholder farmers in Ethiopia do not own the land they “hold” as private ownership of land is prohibited by law and the state owns all land. Is it possible to partner with sharecroppers? That was what Zenawi was really talking about. Anyway, he cut to the chase, the real deal: “We want the $22 billion promised. We want the money promised to be delivered,” demanded Zenawi with the polish of a loan shark. He did not say if he wanted it delivered in a suitcase. But everyone got the message. As the old expression goes, “it’s all about money, ain’t a damn thing funny. You got to have a con in this land of milk and honey.”
As Zenawi robotically regurgitated his rehearsed statement, his hands flailed and fingers steepled to give the impression of imperturbable self-control and self-confidence, steadfast composure and resolute authority. But his past demeanor belied his present cool bravado. This is the same man with a short fuse who went into spontaneous self-combustion at the mere suggestion that he give a break to his opposition: “If opposition groups resort to violence in an attempt to discredit the  election,” Zenawi vowed frothing at the mouth, “We will crush them with our full force; they will all vegetate like Birtukan (Midekssa) in jail forever.” When ten thousand tons of coffee went “missing” in Ethiopia in 2011, Zenawi called a meeting of commodities traders and in a videotaped statement told them he will forgive them because “we all have our hands in the disappearance of the coffee”. But he issued a stern warning that if anyone should steal coffee in the future, he will “cut off their hands”.
Zenawi would have gladly crushed Abebe with his full force, have him vegetate like Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye and even cut off his hands, if he could. But the pompous, imperious, derisive and hubristic Zenawi whose lips usually hemorrhage with insolence, insults, cheap shots, sarcasm, acrimony, antipathy, contempt and slander was tongue-tied and speechless against his young accuser. The man who loves to bark, growl and snarl at his parliamentarians, mock and caricature his opposition, play clever semantic games with his interviewers and always eager to display his faux intellectual prowess and erudition to the world sulked and sat mute as a fish listening to his young accuser call him “dictator, a criminal against humanity…”
But there was not much Zenawi could do in America where “free speech is king” and “kings” dutifully bow and kneel before the altar of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He sat on the stage among the other dignitaries and absorbed a full blast of the raw truth in the face, “Meles Zenawi is a dictator….” “The Emperor has no clothes!”
For the first time Ethiopians witnessed Zenawi at his most vulnerable, outside his cloistered bubble unguarded by his yes-men and unsheltered by his gaggle of worshipping cronies. For some, Abebe’s confrontation of Zenawi represented a triumph of David over Goliath; but for others it was a pathetic and pitiful sight to behold the man who had silenced an entire nation for 21 years rendered speechless in 19 seconds flat!
The Power of Free Speech and Speaking Truth to Power
I am for free speech for all, including dictators. I fiercely defended Zenawi’s right to speak at Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum in September 2010 despite withering criticism from many in the Ethiopian opposition. But I also defend the right of hecklers to heckle the high and mighty into humility. Why not? President Obama is frequently heckled during his speeches. This past March, he was heckled at Ohio State University. He did not miss a beat talking back to the heckler: “Sir, I’m here to speak to these folks. You can hold your own rally. You’re being rude… don’t interrupt everybody else. Alright?” It did not faze him because he understands the role of hecklers in the comprehensive scheme of free speech.
The “heckler’s veto” is one of the most precious rights of American citizens. The idea is really simple. It is always governments who abuse their power to silence their critics and those who disagree with them. With the “heckler’s veto”, the individual silences the government and the powerful. The tables are turned. In other words, Zenawi was silenced by Abebe!
But as always, Zenawi never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Here he had the perfect chance to deftly respond to Abebe’s claim that “we need freedom more than food.” He could have paused for a few seconds and told him, as countless African dictators have since the early days of independence, that the masses of poor, illiterate, hungry and sick Africans are too dumb and too stupid to appreciate democracy. The African masses are interested in the politics of the belly and not in the politics of democracy. Africans live for and by bread alone. Elections, human rights, the rule of law and all the rest are figments of warped Western neoliberal imaginations. The fact of the matter is that Ethiopia for the last 21 years under Zenawi’s boots has had no freedom and very little food to feed its people. So the question is not food without freedom; the question is starvation under extreme oppression.
It is possible Zenawi may think that he should be treated with respect and deference as an African “leader”. Wikileaks cablegrams paint a portrait of a man who suffers from a chronic Adulation Deficit Disorder (ADD). Zenawi desperately seeks praise, adulation, flattery and acceptance in the West and in the Ethiopian Diaspora. He wants to be seen in the West as an African black knight in shining armor thrusting a lance into the heart of poverty, injustice and inequality. He wants to be praised by the Ethiopian Diaspora as a visionary modernizer, creative trailblazer and as a charismatic and transformative leader. He often harps about the failure of Diaspora Ethiopians in not recognizing and giving him credit for the roads he has built, the shiny glass buildings he has erected in the capital and for all of the fabricated improvements in education, health, energy and so on. In fact, that was the very point made by the brutish thug in his security detail who threatened to kill Abebe in the hallway of the food security conference: “Ethiopia has changed. It is because you have not been back and seen the changes [that you are complaining]. Ethiopia is in a very good situation. It is people like you who make noise from a distance.”
But Ethiopia is not in a “very good situation.” Though Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent country and has the second largest population, she is also the second poorest country in the world after Niger according to the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHDI) Multidimensional Poverty Index 2010 (formerly annual U.N.D.P. Human Poverty Index). Tens of millions of Ethiopians have managed to live for the past two decades only because of international food handouts. Transparency International (Corruption Perception Index) has ranked Ethiopia at the bottom of the barrel of countries ruled by the most corrupt governments for the past decade. The Legatum Institute in 2011 reported Ethiopia has the “sixth highest unemployment rate in the world… [It has a] communication infrastructure [that] is weak with only five mobile phones for every 100 citizens…The education system is poor at all levels and its population is deeply dissatisfied… Access to hospital beds and sanitation facilities is very limited, placing the country 109th and 110th (very last) on these measures of health infrastructure…”
Just last week the Economist Magazine reported: “The heart of the Ethiopian capital may be traversed by new concrete arteries and bridges, built by Italian and Chinese contractors with Chinese loans. But the rest of Addis Ababa is a patchwork of dirt paths lined by corrugated-tin dwellings that are the capital’s shantytowns and slums… Outsiders wanting to do business in Addis Ababa must forge good relations with Mr Meles and his ministers.” In other words, if you want to do business in Ethiopia, you better be prepared to grease some palms (that is, lay some serious cash on Zenawi and Co.) big time. These are the incontrovertible facts about Ethiopia’s “very good situation”.
A Teachable Moment
In 1798, the U.S. Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Act and imposed fines and imprisonment against anyone who “wrote, printed, uttered or published any scandalous and malicious writing” against the government. Various newspaper editors of the time were arrested and some imprisoned for criticizing President John Adams’ “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and self avarice”. Thomas Jefferson pardoned all of those serving sentences under the Act when he became president. In 1787 he wrote: “If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.”
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution offers no safe harbor from criticism to the president of the United States or to a tin pot African dictator visiting the United States. Withering and stinging criticism are the price of political office in America. Holding political office in America is a solemn constitutional duty and criticizing political leaders and institutions is a bedrock constitutional right of all citizens. All American politicians understand and live by one rule: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” It’s good advice Zenawi should heed.
Just as I am for free speech, I am also for civility, affability and cordiality. But Zenawi must understand that he cannot get what he cannot give. In his stage-managed dramatic appearances at his parliament, he harangues, berates, belittles and humiliates his timid rubber-stampers. He scorns, scowls at, threatens, browbeats and mocks his opposition. He desecrates the memory and scandalizes the names of past Ethiopian leaders who fought European colonialism with bows, arrows and spears and shed blood, sweat and tears to keep Ethiopia free and independent. Today, he has placed on the auction block the land those great leaders fought to keep free for the new colonial masters from India, China and Saudi Arabia. Wikleaks cablegrams even show that he manipulates, badgers, bullies and strong arms diplomats who interact with him and give him counsel to temper his vengefulness with reason and mercy. But in a country where free speech is a secular religion, he should expect that every word he utters will be challenged, every sentence scrutinized and every idea he introduces in the public forum sliced and diced on the chopping block of critical analysis. More specifically, when Zenawi comes to America on official visit, he has to come prepared not only to con the American public and snag billions in handouts but also defend his shameful record of massive human rights violations in Ethiopia.
It would be a crying shame for Zenawi to hop on his plane and go back to Ethiopia mumbling to himself something about the ‘extreme Diaspora’ and so on because he is heckled, disrupted or somehow impeded from speaking… Perhaps this opportunity will afford him a glimpse of the clash of ideas that routinely take place in American universities. He may begin to appreciate the simple truth that ideas are accepted and rejected and arguments won and lost in the cauldron of critical analysis oxygenated by the bellows of free speech, not in prison dungeons where journalists and dissidents are bludgeoned and left to rot… Free speech is the key by which one escapes from the steel bars and stonewalls of ‘prejudice and narrow-mindedness.’ I sincerely hope Zenawi will find that key at Columbia and finally escape from his bleak and desolate planet of ‘prejudice and narrow-mindedness.’
Hope, I hope, springs eternal in Ethiopia. I doubt Zenawi will draw a positive lesson from this trip to America, but I pray he will draw a much bigger lesson from history itself: “Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable.”
“Food is nothing without freedom! We Need Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” Abebe Gellaw
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found sat: http://www.ecadforum.com/Amharic/archives/category/al-mariam-amharic
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/ and www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/