Witness for Ethiopia’s Semayawi (Blue) Party
By Alemayehu G Mariam
In the days leading up to my speech at the first Semayawi (Blue) Party town hall meeting in Arlington, VA, just outside of Washington, D.C., on December 15, I was peppered with all sorts of questions. The one recurrent question revolved around my unreserved support for Semayawi Party after so many years of staying neutral and unaligned with any Ethiopian political party or group.http://youtu.be/i7sIB3dPg8E
As I explained in my interview on EthioTube, my support for Semayawi Party should be viewed as an expression of my total confidence in the power of Ethiopia’s young people to change the destiny of their country and their readiness to struggle for peaceful change. The percentage of Ethiopia’s population under the age of 35 today is 70 percent. The vast majority of the victims of human rights violations in Ethiopia today are young people. The targets of political persecution and harassment, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, abuse and maltreatment in the prisons are largely young people. Young Ethiopians are disproportionately impacted by pandemic unemployment and lack of educational and economic opportunities.
Here I record my “testimony” as a “witness” for Semayawi Party to affirm my unshakeable belief that Ethiopia’s youth shall overcome and rise above the dirty politics of ethnicity, pernicious religious animosity and audacious political mendacity to build a shining city upon the hill called the “Beloved Ethiopian Community.” This I believe to be the fixed historical destiny of Ethiopia’s young people today.
My “testimony” reveals only my personal views and opinions, and in no way reflects on any past, present or future official or unofficial position of Semayawi Party, its leadership or members. I have no role whatsoever in Semayawi Party. The only role I have is the one I have proudly conferred upon myself: “#1 Fan of Semayawi Party”. My steadfast “testimony” here may raise eyebrows. I have heard some “criticism” that by showing strong support for Semayawi Party I am in fact playing a game of dividing society by age not unlike the divisive ethnic game of the regime in power. I will let the young people be the judge of that. As George Orwell said, “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act.” I consider my “testimony” on behalf of Semayawi Party to be a “revolutionary act” against all of the political deceit, hypocrisy and chicanery in all around I see.
Why am I am the #1 cheerleader of Semayawi Party?
First, I support Semayawi Party because it is a political party of young people, for young people and by young people. It is a party that aspires to represent the interests of the vast majority of Ethiopians. I underscore the fact that 70 percent of Ethiopia’s population today is under age 35. (Life expectancy in Ethiopia is between 49 and 59 years depending on the data source.) Ethiopia’s Cheetah (young) Generation needs a party of its own to represent the majority of Ethiopians. The Cheetahs need to speak up, stand up and wo/man up for themselves. Only they can determine their country’s destiny and their own.
The political parties of Hippos (my generation), by Hippos and for Hippos are simply out of sync with the dreams, aspirations, ambitions and passions of Ethiopia’s restless Cheetahs. We Ethiopian Hippos simply do not understand our Cheetahs. So many of us have been rolling in the mud of ethnic and killil (“bantustan” or “kililistan”) politics, muck of communalism and sludge of historical grievances for so long that we have become completely paralyzed. Ethiopia’s Cheetahs do not want to be prisoners of antiquated identity politics nor do they want to walk around with the millstone of the past tied around their necks. They want to break free and choose their own destiny and invent their own Ethiopia.
As a not-so-loyal member of the “Order of Ethiopian Hippos”, I had great difficulty accepting the fact that Ethiopia’s Cheetahs are very different from Ethiopian Hippos. I had great difficulty accepting the fact that the time has come for me and my Hippo Generation to pass on the baton, stand aside and serve as humble water carriers for the restless Cheetahs. That is why I transformed myself from a Hippo to a Chee-Hippo, a transformation I documented in my commentary “Rise of the Chee-Hippo Generation”.
Second, I am deeply concerned about the future of Ethiopia’s youth. As I noted a few years ago, “The wretched conditions of Ethiopia’s youth point to the fact that they are a ticking demographic time bomb. The evidence of youth frustration, discontent, disillusionment and discouragement by the protracted economic crisis, lack of economic opportunities and political repression is manifest, overwhelming and irrefutable. The yearning of youth for freedom and change is self-evident. The only question is whether the country’s youth will seek change through increased militancy or by other peaceful means….” I believe Semayawi Party will play a significant role in channeling youth frustration into peaceful transformation in Ethiopia.
Third, I wholeheartedly believe in youth power. Youth idealism and enthusiasm have the power to change hearts, minds and nations. Youth power is more powerful than all the guns, tanks and war planes in the world. The American civil rights movement was carried on the backs of young people. The vast majority of the leaders and activists were young people. Dr. Martin Luther King was 26 years old when he organized the nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama. By the time John Lewis was 23 years old, he had been jailed 24 times and beaten to a pulp on so many occasions that he does not remember. On May 6, 1963, over 2000 African American high school, junior high and even elementary school students were jailed for protesting discrimination in Birmingham.
Young Americans stopped the war in Vietnam. The free speech movement that began at a California university transformed free speech and academic freedom in the United States for good. Barack Obama would not have been elected president without the youth vote. Youth have also played a decisive role in the peaceful struggle to bring down communist tyrannies and more recently entrenched dictatorships in North Africa and the Middle East. The tyrants in the seat of power in Ethiopia today were “revolutionaries” in their youth fighting against imperial autocracy and military dictatorship. In their old age, they have become the very evil they fought to remove.
I believe in the power of Ethiopia’s youth who have long played their part to bring about a democratic society and paid enormous sacrifices for decades. In 2005, the regime in power in Ethiopia today massacred hundreds of young people in cold blood in the streets and jailed tens of thousands. (I joined the human rights struggle in Ethiopia shocked and outraged by that crime against humanity.) Even today, Ethiopia’s young people continue to pay for democracy, freedom and human rights with their blood, sweat and tears. Ethiopia’s best and brightest have been persecuted, prosecuted, jailed, brutalized and silenced. At the top of the list are Birtukan Midekssa, Eskinder Nega, Andualem Aragie, Reeyot Alemu, Bekele Gerba, Abubekar Ahmed, Woubshet Taye, Olbana Lelisa, Ahmedin Jebel, Ahmed Mustafa, Temesgen Desalegn, the late Yenesew Gebre and countless others.
Last but not least, I am in broad agreement with the Semayawi Party Program. It is a well-thought out and practical program that can effectively address the multifaceted problems of the country. In my special area of concern focusing on the administration of justice, human rights and enforcement of the rule of law, I find the Party’s program to be particularly robust. The Party supports a fully independent and competent judiciary completely insulated from political pressure and interference. Judges shall have lifetime tenure subject to impeachable offenses. The Party supports the establishment of a Constitutional Court with full judicial review powers. The Party pledges to abide by and respect all international treaties and conventions to which Ethiopia is a signatory. The Party is committed to the full protection of individual rights, including the right to free speech and religion. There shall be strict separation of religion and state. The Party opposes any censorship of the press and curtailment of the activities of civic organizations and associations. The Party’s program emphatically states that the loyalty of the armed and security forces is to the country’s Constitution, and not to a political party, ethnic group, region or any other entity. The Party’s platform on economic, political, social and cultural issues is equally impressive.
Why I support Semayawi Party as a movement and true voice of Ethiopia’s Cheetah (young) Generation
It is my opinion that Semayawi Party is much more than a political organization concerned with winning votes to hold political office. I would find nothing unique in Semayawi Party if it were merely an organization preparing itself for mundane elections and parliamentary seats. In a country where there are over 80 “registered parties” (the vast majority of which are nominal ethnic parties) and the ruling “party” wins “elections” by 99.6 percent, it would be absurd to create another party such as Semayawi to compete for a miniscule less than one-half percent of the votes. That is why I believe Semayawi Party is indeed a movement of young people, by young people and for young people in Ethiopia.
I regard “Semayawi Party Movement” to be an organizational mechanism to articulate the dreams and ideals of Ethiopia’s young people about the country they want to build for themselves and pass on to the next generation. As a Movement, Semayawi Party serves in various capacities. It is as an “educational” institution enlightening young Ethiopians about the history, traditions and cultures of their diverse country. It teaches young Ethiopians that they are the proud descendants of patriots who united as one indivisible people to beat and route a mighty invading European army. Unlike today, Ethiopia was once the pride of all Africans and black people throughout the world. The Movement aims to regain Ethiopia’s pride in the community of nations.
I share in “Semayawi Party Movement’s” core values. Semayawi Party believes in peaceful nonviolent struggle against tyranny and injustice. I champion peaceful nonviolent struggle against tyranny and injustice anywhere in the world. Semayawi Party believes in the transformative power of Ethiopia’s youth. A compilation of all of the weekly commentaries I have written on Ethiopian (and African) youth over the past 7 years could easily form a book length apologia (defense) of the transformative power of Ethiopia’s youth. My slogan has always been and remains, “Ethiopia’s youth united can never be defeated. Power to Ethiopia’s youth!”
Semayawi Party Movement has only one goal: Creating the “Beloved Ethiopian Community” in the same vein that Dr. Martin Luther King dreamed of creating his “Beloved Community” in his long struggle for human and civil rights in America. Dr. King taught, “The end of nonviolent social change is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends.” I believe the “Beloved Ethiopian Community” shall soon rise from the ashes of the kililistan (bantustan) Ethiopia has become.
The foundation for Semayawi Party Movement’s “Beloved Ethiopian Community” is unity, peace and hope. A “Beloved Ethiopian Community” is united by its humanity and is immune from destruction by the divisive forces of ethnicity and communalism. It is a Community that strives to establish equality, equity and accountability. The “Beloved Ethiopian Community” is a society at peace with itself and its neighbors. I believe Semayawi Party aspires to invent a new society free from ethnic bigotry and hatred; free from fear and loathing and free from tyranny and repression. Semayawi Party aims to build a Community where all Ethiopians — rich and poor, young and old, men and women, Christian and Muslim — are free to dream, free to think, free to speak, to write and to listen; free to worship without interference; free to innovate; free to act and free to be free. I believe Semayawi Party Movement will use peace creatively to transform enmity, animosity and bellicosity in Ethiopian society into amity, cordiality and comity. I believe the Movement will choose dialogue over diatribe, negotiation over negation, harmony over discord and use principles that elevate humanity to defeat brutality, criminality and intolerance.
The “Beloved Ethiopian community” is a “land of hope and dreams.” It is a community where young people could look forward to equal opportunity, equal justice and equal rights. It is a community where Ethiopia’s youth can freely share their common hopes and dreams. I have faith in Ethiopian youth’s “audacity of hope”.
Let us ask what we can do for Semayawi Party
I encourage and plead with all Ethiopians, particularly those in my Hippo Generation, to stand up and be counted on the side of Semayawi Party Movement. I know many have legitimate questions, doubts and skepticisms based on unpleasant past experiences as they consider lending their support. I have been asked, “How can we trust these young and inexperienced leaders to do the right thing?” I answer back, “How well did our experienced and trusted Hippo leaders do?”
Surviving under the most vicious dictatorship in Africa brings out the very best in many young people. Semayawi Party Movement leaders, members and supporters have shown us what they are made of: courage, integrity, discipline, maturity, bravery, honor, fortitude, creativity, humility, idealism and self-sacrifice. They have been arrested, jailed and beaten. They did not stop their peaceful struggle. What more sacrifice must they make before they can convince us that they deserve our full support? They are young and passionate; and they have all of the experience they need to continue their peaceful struggle for change.
Some have asked me for assurances that Semayawi Party is not a front for the regime or other hidden forces. All I can say is that if Semayawi Party Movement leaders, members and supporters are regime lackeys, then so are Prof. Mesfin Woldemariam, Prof. Yacob Hailemariam, and to mention in passing, Prof. Al Mariam. If the regime is so clever as to use Semayawi Party to broadcast its commitment to the rule of law and democratic governance, I am all for it. If today the regime released all political prisoners (including those held in secret prisons), repealed its oppressive laws, stopped massive human rights violations and stealing elections, I will be the first one to go out in the street and sing them praises. It is not about the people in power; it’s about the evil done by people in power.
I have been told that nearly all Ethiopian political organizations that have been launched in the past decade or so have eventually failed. I have been asked, “How can you be sure Semayawi Party will not fail?” There are no guarantees Semayawi Party will not fail. If it fails, it will not be for lack of willpower, enthusiasm, dedication and sacrifice by Semayawi Party leaders and members. It will be mainly because of lack of support, lack of good will, lack of confidence, lack of generosity and lack of material and moral support from their compatriots inside Ethiopia and in the Diaspora. If they should fail and we feel arrogant enough to wag an index finger at them and say, “I told you so!”, let us not forget that three fingers will be pointing at us silently. Nelson Mandela pleaded, “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” Let us judge Semayawi Party not by the chances that it will slip and fall in the future but by how many times it is able to get back up after it falls, with our help and support.
Some have expressed concern to me that their financial contributions could be abused as has happened so many times in the past. They want assurances of strict accountability and transparency. They ask me, “How can we be sure Semayawi Party will not abuse our trust as others have in the past?”
The Semayawi Party Support Group in North America is a gathering of the most dynamic and disciplined group of young Ethiopians I have had the privilege to know and work with. These young Ethiopians have committed significant resources out of their own pockets to support the cause of Ethiopian youth. They are young professionals and private businessmen and women representing the ethnic, gender and cultural diversity of Ethiopia. They understand and appreciate the values of accountability and transparency. They relate with each other on the basis of honesty and integrity. For my money, I have no problems taking chances with them because I am convinced they will not let me down! I have full faith in the integrity of Ethiopia’s young people; that is my guarantee they will do the right thing.
In my speech at the first town hall meeting for Semayawi Party on December 15, I told the audience that Yilikal Getnet, the chairman of Semayawi Party, did not come to the United States to beg for support or panhandle for nickels and dimes. Semayawi Party does not want a handout or charity from us in North America. Yilikal came to America to share with us the trials and tribulations of his party, the challenges they face, their humble accomplishments under a brutal dictatorship and the dreams and hopes of Ethiopia’s young people for a free and democratic Ethiopia.
I believe that in all of the town hall meetings scheduled for Semayawi Party in the U.S., we should receive Yilikal, Semayawi Party members and supporters as heroes of a growing youth movement for peaceful change in Ethiopia. We must use the town hall meetings to celebrate not only the individual acts of heroism of youth leaders like Yilikal, Eskinder, Andualem, Reeyot and so many others but also to rejoice in the raw heroism of those young people demonstrating in the streets crying out “Anleyayim! Anleyayim!” (We will remain united!) or ‘Ethiopia, Agarachin! Ethiopia, Agerachin! (Ethiopia, our country!). (I always get a lump in my throat when I hear them chanting “Anleyayim! Agerachin, Ethiopia!)
For me, Yilikal’s presence in our midst as the leader of Semayawi Party is a reminder that the young people who were massacred in 2005 peacefully demonstrating a stolen election did not die in vain. He is a live witness that the peaceful struggle of those massacred for free and fair elections and the rule of law continues no matter what. So the question for us is: What can we do for Semayawy Party Movement? A better question is how do we show our appreciation, respect and admiration to our young heroes — the fallen ones, the ones in jail, the ones being tortured, those facing daily harassment, persecution and humiliation?
Semayawi Party Movement needs all the support they can get. They need our moral support. They need our encouragement; they need to know we have confidence in them. Most of all, they need material support to undertake their youth outreach, education and awareness programs. They need material support to expand and sustain their organizational presence throughout the country. They need material support to maintain a robust legal defense fund. They need our material support to stand up to the richest, most corrupt and ruthless dictatorship on the African continent.
Our financial gift to Semayawi Party Movement is merely a token of our appreciation and an indication that we are with them as long as they keep their peaceful struggle for justice, equality, democracy and human rights. Our gift to Semayawi Party Movement is an investment in an Ethiopia at peace with itself. We give so that the next generation of Ethiopians will live in a new Ethiopia unburdened by our mistakes and ignorance. It is our individual and social responsibility to support our young people. If we don’t support our children – all of the young people in Ethiopia – who will?
Let us ask what Semayawi Party can do for us
In August 2012, I asked, “Who can save Ethiopia?” in a commentary titled, “Cheetahs, Hippos and Saving Ethiopia”. I pleaded with Ethiopia’s youth to lead a national dialogue in search of a path to peaceful change. I have repeated my appeal to them in various ways since then.
I call upon Semayawi Party Movement to continue and intensify the reconciliation dialogue among themselves and launch a reconciliation dialogue in the broader Ethiopian youth community. I believe the dialogue on national reconciliation in Ethiopia must begin within Ethiopia’s youth communities. Ethiopia’s Cheetah’s must empower themselves, create their own political and social space, set their own agendas and begin multifaceted dialogues on their country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy through dialogue. They must develop their own awareness campaigns and facilitate vital conversations among youth communities cutting across language, religion, ethnicity, gender, region and so on. Their dialogues must be based on the principles of openness, truth and commitment to democracy, freedom and human rights. They must dialogue without fear or loathing, but with respect and civility. Above all, the Cheetahs must “own” the dialogue process. At a gathering of Cheetahs, Hippos should be seen and not heard very much; welcomed and encouraged to observe Cheetahs in action. The Cheetahs must keep a sharp eye on wily Hippos who are very skillful in manipulating youth. They should learn not to fall in the trap young people fell during the “Arab Spring”. The cunning Hippos outplayed, outmaneuvered and marginalized them in the end.
I believe reconciliation dialogues should begin among activist youth in informal and spontaneous settings. For instance, such dialogues could initially take place among like-minded activist youth at the neighborhood and village level. Activist youth could undertake an assessment of their capabilities, potentials, opportunities and obstacles in setting up and managing a community-based informal reconciliation youth dialogues. Youth activist could focus on creating broader youth awareness and involvement in the dialogue process by utilizing existing organizations, institutions, associations and forums.
Reconciliation dialogue involves not only talking but also actively listening to each other. Youth from Ethiopia’s multiethnic society have much to learn from each other and build upon the strengths of their diversity. Ethiopia’s Cheetahs should also learn from the mistakes of the Hippo Generation and the experiences of youths of other nations. I urge Ethiopia’s Cheetahs to be principled in their reconciliation dialogues. They should always disagree without being disagreeable. Disagreeing on issues should not mean becoming mortal enemies. Civility in dialogue, though lacking among Hippos, is essential for Cheetahs.
Silence of our…?
“In times of universal deceit,” silence speaks louder than words and pictures. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” As I end this commentary, I must speak up against the “silence” of our “friends” because sometimes silence is more eloquent than speech. When the leader of Ethiopia’s youth party came to Washington, D.C. for the very first time and spoke to a capacity crowd of Ethiopians unseen in the past several years, the Voice of America (VOA) was conspicuously absent. VOA did not send a single reporter to cover the event. I do not know why the VOA decided to absent itself from the event. I do know that the Semayawi Party event was no less important than the variety of Ethiopian sports, cultural, academic and community events and even book signings VOA routinely covers on weekdays and weekends in around Washington, D.C. Perhaps for the VOA Semayawi Party and Ethiopia’s youth are a simple issue of mind over matter; VOA does not mind and Ethiopia’s youth don’t matter.
I want VOA to know that when they faced the slings and arrows of Meles Zenawi, when Zenawi outrageously accused them of “promoting genocide in Ethiopia”, I stood up for them. I defended their integrity, professionalism and impartiality time and again. I expected the VOA to attend the Semayawi Party event and report on the proceedings with the integrity, professionalism and impartiality they have shown in the past. Perhaps Ethiopians will begin to ask whether the Voice of America is now the Silence of America (SOA). We will continue to listen to the SOA, but not in silence.
No more silence; let us shout out and show our support for Semayawi Party Movement
Let us be silent no more. Let us proudly proclaim our support for Semayawi Party Movement. Let’s stand tall and proud with them. Let’s show them we appreciate and support their peaceful and nonviolent struggle for change. Let’s assure them that no matter how long it takes to walk the long road to freedom, we will be with them. They will be victorious in the end. Let’s show Semayawi Party Movement we love them!
Ethiopia’s youth united can never be defeated. Power to Ethiopia’s Youth!