Confessions of an Ethiopian-American blogger or notes of a native son on tyranny?
AUGUST 17, 2014
By Alemayehu G Mariam
This commentary, perhaps confession is a better descriptor, has been long in coming. Why have I written lengthy weekly Monday commentaries for hundreds of weeks without missing a single week? Why are my “commentaries so long”? Why am I so critical of the ruling regime in Ethiopia and hypercritical of the policies and actions of its late leader Meles Zenawi? What do I expect to achieve with my weekly commentaries? Why do I do what I do? I have heard these and many other similar questions over the years. My readers are entitled to answers that are truthful, honest, forthright, and without any purpose of evasion. (An early warning: This commentary will be longer than my usual “long commentaries”. I hope you will bear with me.)
First a point of clarification. Though I “blog” every week, I consider myself a “chronicler of and pamphleteer against tyranny”. Before the “Age of the Blog”, there was a great tradition (genre) of “pamphleteering” and “chronicling” by men (and a few women) of strong opinion who shared their observations of their times with the broader community, with an eye for preserving the record for posterity. I should like to think that my weekly commentaries build on that time-honored tradition using modern information technology. I prefer to call my commentaries “Blogphlets” (more about my neologisms later). I hope my blogphlets will inform this generation of Ethiopians and offer future generations a “chronicle” of tyranny and oppression in our times from the perspective of one man irrevocably committed to speak truth to the deaf ears of ignorant tyrants.
Let me explain briefly how I got involved in the “blogphleteering” business (a bit of a tongue twister, eh?). In the early 1990s, I served as a senior editor for the monthly Ethiopian Review Magazine and contributed occasional pieces on various topics. Until 2005, my interest in Ethiopian politics was marginal and principally academic and scholarly. For the preceding three decades, I had not only physically detached myself from Ethiopia but also psychologically. It was so much easier for me to write off Ethiopia than to write about Ethiopia, and Africa. It just seemed all too hopeless to me –famines, civil wars and corruption that had metastasized in the African body politics. Buffoons, ignoramuses and criminals were riding high in the saddles of power all over Africa. It was heartbreaking and dispiriting.
I found a great hiding place from the Ethiopian and African reality in the American Ivory Tower. There I and my fellow academics could self-righteously pontificate about injustice, oppression, inequality, poverty, disease, illiteracy, corruption, all the –isms and even human rights in the exquisitely abstract language of the law and academia. We were privileged to explain away and nicely sweep within the pages of academic journals and books all of Africa’s problems. Few of us had the courage or inclination to directly speak truth (even scholarly ones unvarnished by “scientific” jargon) to abusers and misusers of power.
From the top floors of the Ivory Tower, I followed events in Ethiopia from time to time but always with nonchalant intellectual detachment. I knew very little (and did not care to know much) about the late Meles Zenawi and his regime. I was generally indifferent and viewed Meles and his crew with benign neglect. During the 2005 election, I became more attentive. I was impressed by Meles’ apparent commitment to clean competitive elections. I was astonished by the wide opening of political space which facilitated energetic political participation by opposition parties, civic society organizations and human rights advocates. I was impressed and excited by Meles’ rhetoric about democracy and thought that he may indeed be the “new breed of African leader” that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair had been talking about. It even crossed my mind that Meles could be that historic transformational leader Ethiopia had been waiting for all these decades. (Call me naïve; I don’t mind.)
My re-invention as a blogger-cum-Ethiopian human rights advocate was fortuitous and unforeseen. The 2005 post-election massacres of unarmed demonstrators by security and police forces under the direct command and control of Meles Zenawi and the incarceration of opposition, human rights and civic leaders and journalists created a “perfect storm” in my life. An official Inquiry Commission established by Meles himself definitively established in 2007 that Meles’ troops had massacred 193 unarmed protesters and wounded nearly 800 others. It was a contrast in irony for me, and a historical deja vu. It dawned on me that the Meles Massacre of 2005 was much worse than the infamous Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 in apartheid South Africa where police slaughtered 69 unarmed black protesters and wounded 180 in the township of Sharpeville. The Sharpeville Massacre shook the conscience of the world in 1960; the Meles Massacres of 2005 barely raised an eyebrow. Perhaps this may give you insight into the volcanic outrage that still simmers in me. Today, at least 237 named and identified killers in the massacres still walk the streets in Ethiopia! Their victims cry put for justice from the grave.
The Meles Massacres forced me to question deeply the social and political responsibility of Western-trained African intellectuals, particularly Ethiopian-Americans like myself. I pondered what I should like to call the “Freireian Paradox” (from Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”). Freire argued, “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” What am I to do? Become a “scholarvocate” (the scholar as a human rights advocate)?
The Meles Massacres turned out to be a defining moment in my life, and I vaguely suspect in Meles’ as well. After the massacres, Meles literally became the Biblical Beast in my eyes. For the longest time (I make no exception to the present), I was tormented by one question: How can one man in the 21st Century be able to amass so much power that he could order the massacre of hundreds of unarmed people and get away with it? It was a madding question.
The Meles Massacres stirred deep emotions in me. For the first time in decades, I realized that though I had left Ethiopia, Ethiopia had not left me. The Meles Massacres made me realize that even though I had moved away from Ethiopia permanently, Ethiopia had not moved out of me permanently. It is a feeling that is hard to explain even today. I can only say that the massacre of those unarmed citizens (and the shocking photographs posted online) triggered in me an emotion of volcanic outrage (that some say still flows unabated; I will not argue with them). I was not merely shocked and appalled; I was shaken to the core. It has been said that in desperate times, we either define the moment or the moment defines us. It was at this time that I resolved to define my moment by “blogphleteering” against the tyranny of Meles Zenawi and his gang of outlaws in designer suits.
I began “blogphleteering” by writing occasional op-ed pieces for the few Ethiopian websites in existence at the time. I was not much into the blogosphere though I followed a few informative blogs online. I began my first blog page on Blogspot in 2006 (http://almariamforthedefense.blogspot.com ) . The blogs and occasional op-ed pieces evolved into unsigned “editorials” on various websites and began appearing on a bi-weekly basis. That led to blog pages on the Huffington Post and Open Salon.
Now I will turn to some of the questions I have been asked repeatedly by my readers over the years. Why have I continued to write my Monday Commentaries for so many years? I have tried to answer that question in my 2007 “essay”, “The Hummingbird and the Forest Fire: A Diaspora Morality Tale.” My short answer comes in the words of Marion Wright Edelman, the great African American lawyer and founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund who said: “You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation.” So it is the hummingbird/the flea against The Beast! (In 2011, a lady by the name of Maggie Hakala set up a blog page entitled, “An Ethiopian Humming Bird”. She wrote, “This story was applied to the fight for democracy in Ethiopia, but I’m using it here to inspire some courage in myself. Be relentless and steadfast.”) I am deeply humbled.
What is the nature of my commentaries? I follow one principle in my commentaries: Speak truth to power and abusers and misusers of power. Why? 1) The truth shall set us all free. The truth is liberating. It is by accepting the truth that we atone for our wrongs and aspire to do the right thing. The truth enlightens us. Speaking truth to power is like taking a cold shower in the winter; it feels miserable initially but in due course one becomes invigorated, enlivened and empowered by it. 2) Abusers of powers fear the truth above all else. Why do tyrants jail journalists and shutter newspapers? Because they are afraid of the truth! The French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte rightly observed, “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” All dictators fear the informative powers of an independent press and so live in constant fear of having their crimes discovered and reported to the people. Of course, no one has a monopoly on truth, wisdom and virtue. That is why it is necessary to have an unfettered marketplace of ideas for the exchange of truths. It has been said, “The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions.” Let us have a free press to have a clash of opinions; let the bloggers (and blogphleteers) clash in their blogs; let the journalists report in their newspapers and the authors write their books; let the commentators clash with their comments. Let us clash with ideas; let us not clash with Kalashnikovs. Let the People judge what is the truth!
Why are my commentaries so “unfair” to and critical of the regime and its leaders in Ethiopia? Those who disagree with my views and opinions say I write to attack, demean and always put in negative light the regime and its leaders. They say I am harsh on the regime and will never miss a chance to ding them and make them look monstrously bad. They say I have never given credit for a single thing they have done or any of their stellar achievements – all of the shiny buildings they have built, the roads (“infrastructure”) they have constructed, the schools and universities they have erected and so on. They say, I have made every effort to “discredit the economic growth and development” of the country under the regime.
Those who agree with my views find my analysis and arguments spot on.
The fact of the matter is that I am not a public relations officer for the regime. I set out writing my commentaries to speak truth to those who abuse and misuse power in Ethiopia, not to sing their praises. If documenting the truth is “unfair”, then so be it. But let us look at the undisputed facts. The regime claims to have achieved “double-digit economic growth over the past decade”. I have demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that Meles and his regime “cooked the books” to show double-digit growth in a number of commentaries beginning with my commentary, “The Voodoo Economics of Meles Zenawi.” Those shiny buildings in Addis Ababa do not impress me much because there is substantial evidence to show that a great many of them suffer from substandard construction and craftsmanship, and were built corruptly in violation of code ( Ethiopian Building Proclamation No. 624/2009). Most of the buildings lack the basic amenities for high rise buildings including water, power and other utilities. People are forced to hoof multiple flights of stairs because elevators services are either unavailable or deliberately disabled by building owners.
There are no sewer or drainage systems in the capital city (a vital infrastructure). The regime has only the Chinese to thank for the “Tofu roads” which crumble and wash out at the first sign of a hard rain. The evidence of poor road construction is demonstrated in recently posted photos and videos available by clicking here.
How about giving the regime credit for all of the universities and colleges they have built? As I demonstrated in my commentary “Tyranny in the Academy”, the dizzying state of intellectual absurdity and moral bankruptcy in the Ethiopian higher educational system is evident in the way students are mis-educated and intimidated at Mekele Law School, one of the premier higher educational institutions in the country.
Forgive me if I do not believe everything that glitters in Ethiopia is gold!
My opposition to Meles was never personal. I never hated the man because I never knew him. It is irrational to hate a man one has never met or spoken to. However, I have studied the man through his deeds, policies, public statements, speeches and videotapes of his public appearances. I passionately loathed and condemned many of the things he did — the massacres he ordered, the lives of young journalists he ruined, the corruption he spread and the Bantustans (“kilils”) he created in Ethiopia.
Meles was a manifestly intelligent, shrewd and articulate man (according to Wikileaks, some American diplomats who had contact with him admired his meticulous preparations and singularly focused advocacy for his preferred issues). I thought Meles was intellectually pretentious and incessantly craved intellectual respectability. He always seemed to carry a chip on his shoulder. He was irascible and quick to lash out. When his opponents got under his skin, he always seemed to go into spontaneous self-combustion. To me these manifest traits painted a portrait of a man tormented by unremitting feelings of inferiority. He tried to cover his feelings of inferiority by wearing masks of arrogance, conceit and insolence. But he did not have to; he could stand his ground robustly, though I disagreed with him on practically every ground.
Meles was shockingly foul-mouthed. He brought himself down when he ruthlessly demeaned his opponents publicly and trashed international election observers and human rights organizations. It is hard to respect a man who curses like a street thug. That is why I coined the word “thugspeak”.
Without question, Meles was the pick of the litter in the regime; and as facts have shown over the past two years, without Meles, the regime has been running in circles like a chicken with the head cut off. There is no doubt Meles was the brains of the operation. Having said all that, what I want to make crystal clear to my readers is the fact that my raging against the Meles Machine should not be mistaken for my raging against Meles the man.
As I wrote in my commentary “Farewell to Meles Zenawi”, Meles had an appointment with destiny to walk in Mandela’s shoes and follow Mandela’s footsteps on the long walk to freedom. Like Mandela, he could have been a unifier. He could have forged a strong and united Ethiopian nation. He had the chance to build bridges that connected people across ethnic lines and roads that linked hearts and minds. Like Mandela, he could have chosen the path of forgiveness and reconciliation after the Inquiry Commission presented the truth on the 2005 massacres to the world. Instead, Meles orchestrated a propaganda attack on the Commission and its report. All Ethiopians owe that Commission, particularly its leadership, a heavy debt of gratitude. They are my heroes because they refused to sell their souls for a few pieces of silver.
Instead of walking in Mandela’s footsteps, Meles chose to walk his own path into the abyss of ethnic division, national fragmentation and hate. Meles understood power, more precisely the abuse of power, which I believe put him on an irreversible trajectory of evil. As Shakespeare observed in Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them.” Meles Zenawi did a lot of evil when he was alive and his bleak legacy of evil lives and breathes in Ethiopia today. Meles’ deeds shall continue to live in the architecture and infrastructure of evil he devised and imposed on Ethiopia — the ethnic bantustans which he called “kilils”, the vast prison system he built, the justice system he corrupted and the lives of young Ethiopians he destroyed like Reeyot, Eskinder, Serkalem, Birtukan, Woubshet, Andualem and countless others. Whatever good Meles has done is now “interred with his bones.” Make no mistake. Meles still rules from the grave. He speaks and acts through his pre-programmed robots, wannabes and clones marching lockstep to the tune, “Onward Cadres to Meles’ Vision!” If you don’t believe me, listen attentively to the audio and video recording of his disciples and clones. Meles comes alive in their voices and their body language!
Could I write my commentaries in “English that is simple to understand”? In other words, could I “dumb down” my commentaries? Watering down my commentaries, I believe, would be an insult to the intelligence of my readers. Beyond that, I deal with many complex issues involving law and public policy in my commentaries. Often it is not possible to water down discussion of such issues without completely distorting their meaning. On the other hand, I am heartened by reports from university students (and generally young people) in Ethiopia telling me that my commentaries have helped expand their vocabulary, improved their critical thinking abilities and sharpened their analytical and argumentation skills. Law of unintended consequences at work? I believe it is much better to lift every voice than to dumb down a single voice for the dubious benefit of a few.
My commentaries are great but could I make them shorter? That is an interesting question. I hope it is evident from the foregoing observations that I do not write my commentaries for entertainment or amusement. I am not a newspaper commentator or columnist seeking to line up a following to sell advertising. I write my commentaries to 1) passionately advocate for my causes and principles, 2) to educate and enlighten my readers on controversial topics and issues, 3) to present convincing, evidence-supported and persuasive analysis of important contemporary (and some historical) political, legal and social issues that can withstand critical and factual scrutiny, and 4) to inspire young people to engage in human rights advocacy.
I mean no disrespect to those who want me to write shorter commentaries when I say that they should read them at their leisure, read them in parts or not read them at all only because they are too long. Frankly, I personally find it very hard to believe how some people can complain about reading 2500 or 3000 words. I believe reading should be an important, if not a central, part of the intellectual life of the democratic citizen of the 21st Century. Without much (long hours of) reading, there is little learning. Superficial reading results in superficial learning which itself results in the substitution of substantive knowledge for phrase mongering. Frederick Douglass, the African American abolitionist leader rightly noted, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” Intellectual curiosity is the flickering flame of that freedom. Knowledge is power particularly when it is applied, and the source of its power is reading. To remain free, one must read often and extensively.
I am aware most people are too busy and distracted by a variety of things. In the Internet Age, everyone is socially networked and linked up and down. Information overload is the governing law of cyberspace. There is the inexorable push to chase the sound bite and avoid heavy evidence-laden analysis. In a provocative article entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid”, Nicholas Carr observed, “We are evolving from cultivators of personal knowledge into hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest.” What I am trying to say is that my commentaries are of little value to the “hunters and gatherers of the electronic forest.” Those who are hungry for sound bites will find little that is food for thought in my commentaries.
So many questions to answer. I need to speed it up. Why do I write every week? Because the week is there. How do I choose topics and issues to comment on every week? I don’t. The topics and issues choose me. Who are the audiences for my commentaries? I’d say anyone interested in the truth as I speak it. Perhaps abusers and misusers of power? Only the almighty Google knows. Who am I not writing for? Those who are not interested in engaging in serious, provocative, evidence-based and even opinionated discussion of human rights and government wrongs in Ethiopia because they are “so busy with life”. Who am I really, really writing for? The next generation of Ethiopians (the “E” stands for enlightened).
What do I really like to write about? Causes and principles. Dictators and democrats come and go, but those principles that uphold and uplift human dignity and liberty shall live until the human race is no more. How long does it take me to write an average commentary? You’d be surprised. Is there one fundamental principle, a quintessential value that my commentaries represent at their core? Yes, freedom of speech. I wholeheartedly agree with the maxim, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
How difficult is it for me to write a commentary? Well, how difficult is it to eat ice cream? Do I expect my commentaries will amount to a hill of beans? I can only say that I am inspired by the words of Robin Williams, the greatest comedian since the great Charlie Chaplin, who passed away last week: “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.” Do I have a cadre of researchers digging up facts for my commentaries? I don’t like cadres.
Will I ever stop writing Monday commentaries? Yes. When the regime in Ethiopia stops telling lies every day, I will stop telling the truth about them every Monday. Will I ever say nice things about the regime? Yes, when they begin accepting responsibility for their abuses and misuses of power.
What is my pet peeve when I write my commentaries? The fact that there are not enough Ethiopian scholars and intellectuals with the passion, commitment and dedication to write and advocate human rights in Ethiopia. Do I have special gifts or skills to write commentaries? No. Anybody can do what I do. But there is a catch. One must be irrevocably and courageously committed to speak truth to those who abuse and misuse power. Those who are committed will soon find out that ideas will flow from their minds and passions from their hearts like pure spring water, endlessly.
Do I get responses and comments from my readers. Yes. Thank you all. I regret I am unable to respond to you individually. Do I respond to the mindless comments and ad hominem obloquies? No. To respond to the mindless is to become mindless. Like George Bernard Shaw, “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”
Who translates my commentaries into Amharic? Only they know who they are. Will my commentaries come out in book form? Stay tuned.
Do I harbor a secret wish for my commentaries? Yes. I secretly wish my commentaries will inspire young Ethiopians and Africans across the issue and ideological spectrum to fight with the power of their ideas and declare the winner not because s/he carries an AK-47 but because s/he can articulate 47 reasons to convince the people of the rightness of their ideas. I secretly hope my commentaries will inspire a new generation of young Ethiopian visionaries, idealists and thinkers who will transform the way all of the people in Ethiopia think about themselves, each other, their country and their common destiny.
I believe to change any country, one must change the way the young people think about themselves, their country and their future. I secretly wish my commentaries will one day inspire an “army” of young utopian Ethiopians to march against ethnic division, fight against repression and oppression and practice compassion and freedom of expression. I know there is a generation of Ethiopians yet to come which will take pride not in its ethnic identity or nationality, but rejoice in its common humanity. (Well, a utopian Ethiopian has the right to wish, right?!?)
What do I think is the source of solutions to Ethiopia’s political and social problems? Truth, forgiveness and reconciliation. These are the bedrock principles in my human rights advocacy in Ethiopia. I have neither a hidden political agenda nor hidden affiliations with any group. I have no political ambitions whatsoever. From long years of study, I have learned that power is seductive and absolute power seduces absolutely. I have seen what political power has and can do to people of good will and ill will. My only concern is the well-being and the liberty of the Ethiopian people. They deserve to live like any other free people on the planet. That is why I am passionate, persistent and relentless about my human rights advocacy.
There are certain types of “power” I like. I think it is the obligation and within the power of every citizen to speak truth to abusers and misusers of power. Every individual must use his/her God given power to bring people together and oppose those who use their power to tear the people apart. There is no place in my mind or heart for a philosophy or ideology that extols the power of revenge and an eye-for-an-eye retribution, which makes everybody blind.
Do I face special challenges when writing commentaries? A few. One of them is finding the rights words, concepts and phrases to express exactly what I mean. I solved the problem creatively. I invent my own words and phrases when I need to. I have indulged in numerous neologistic exercises (minting new words) for my commentaries. I coined “thugspeak” (the vulgar language of thugs) and “gutterese” (the language of the gutter) to describe the political use of language to shock and horrify, to intimidate and harass, to badger and to verbally bludgeon, to bully and to browbeat, to disarm and disconcert, to stun and to stupefy, to demoralize and to demonize, to unnerve, to outrage and to distract one’s adversaries. Meles was an expert in these “languages”. I introduced “thugtatorship” to describe “the highest stage of African dictatorship.” There is “corruptitioners” which I used to describe the professional practitioners of corruption in Ethiopia. To describe the culture of official secrecy and corruption of the regime in Ethiopia, I coined the phrase “culture of secrruption”. I once asked all Ethiopians to strive for a special kind of unity, which I called “humunity” and “younity”. “Huminity” is unity based not on ethnicity or nationality but on a blend of the core universal values of human dignity and the African ethic of “ubunity” (Ubuntu). My conception of “younity” is a simple idea about you and I together standing up to tyranny, corruption and abuse of power. There is “diplocrisy”, a word I coined to describe the U.S. practice of human rights diplomacy by hypocrisy. Of course, there is “blogphleteering”. There are a few others; but I don’t expect the editors at Webster’s Dictionary to adopt any one of them any time soon.
Is it enjoyable to write commentaries? No, it is exhilarating!
I better end here. I am way, way over my weekly limit of words. I don’t want to overtax my reader’s time or patience. I hope the foregoing offers my readers insights into why I write every week.
The struggle for human rights in Ethiopia shall continue (La luta continua!). To slightly paraphrase Omar Khayyam, “The Moving Finger writes (every Monday); and, having writ,/Moves on (to write the next Monday, and the one after that…): nor all thy Piety nor Wit/Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,/Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
My very special thanks goes out to all of the Ethiopian web editors who have featured my commentaries every week for so many years. They are special. Without their support and encouragement, I would not have been able to connect with my vast readership. They are my unsung heroes. We need to support them in every way we can.
Of course, my heartfelt thanks goes to all of my long-suffering readers who have patiently labored long and hard pouring over my long commentaries for all these long years.
So long until next Monday!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: