Thank you all for coming this afternoon. And thank you Seattle Ethiopian Millennium Celebration Committee for inviting us to join you here today. And Happy Ethiopian New Year to all of you!
It is a great honor and privilege for me to be here with you today. This is my third time to be back in Seattle this year. The last time I was here, we celebrated the prodigious achievements of the Inquiry Commission in the cause of truth and justice. Judge Frehiwot Samuel, Attorney Teshome Mitiku, and Judge Wolde Michael Meshesha, and the former deputy attorney general, Alemayehu Zemedkun, were here with us.
You will recall the Commissioners spent months traveling from one prison to another dungeon, from one hospital morgue to another graveyard in search of the truth about the citizens who were massacred and imprisoned following the May 2005 elections. They documented and revealed to the world the monstrous crimes of Zenawi’s regime: 30,000 political prisoners held without due process of law, 193 innocent men, women and children massacred in the streets, and 763 individuals shot and grievously injured. That was just the tip of the iceberg!
And every time I think of Seattle, I think of these courageous young men and the heroic welcome you gave them; and the love, honor and respect you showed them. They remember it all, very fondly even today.
I mention these individuals not only because of their heroic deeds in exposing the truth about Zenawi’s killing machine and killing fields, but also because they brought us a strong and unified message of legal accountability. That message was pretty straightforward: The killers of innocent citizens and abusers of human rights must be held to account before the bar of justice. Today, these murderers walk the streets as free men; and the souls of the martyrs cry out for justice!
The Commissioners urged us in the Diaspora to be united and to make sure the lives of those victims of human rights abuses will live in history as a glorious testament of the Ethiopian peoples’ yearning for democracy and freedom. They asked us to work tirelessly to find ways of institutionalizing human rights safeguards in Ethiopia so that no man, no official however high, no government, however powerful, will ever have the arrogant confidence to go out into the streets and mow down its people like blades of grass; or sweep innocent citizens off the streets and dump them in corrals that pass off for prisons and jails.
Just this past week, we celebrated the arrival of the official Kinijit Delgation in the United States. W/zt Birtukan Midekssa, Dr. Berhanu Nega, Eng. Gizachew Shiferaw, Dr. Hailu Araya and Ato Brook Kebede received a welcome unprecedented in the history of Ethiopians in America. Yesterday, Eng. Hailu Shawul arrived in Washington to a very warm welcome. We are truly blessed to have them all here, together. And we should do everything in our power to keep them together.
And in a couple of weeks or so, I believe, you will have an opportunity to meet and greet the Delegation.
Like the members of the Inquiry Commission, the Delegation, I believe, will bring you a unified message of political accountability, national unity and reconciliation, and peace.
We should all rejoice in the message of the Delegation. All Ethiopians of goodwill, like yourselves, want to hear a message of hope, accountability, reconciliation, unity and peace in Ethiopia. We all believe those who hold the reins of power should be held accountable for their malfeasance and crimes in office.
All of us want to hear a message about the end of the era of tyranny, and the beginning of the epoch of democracy in Ethiopia. We want to know how we can overcome artificially created divisions in our society, and strengthen our common bonds of family, culture, religion and tradition. We want democracy and human rights to reign supreme in Ethiopia so that we may pass on to the next generation a legacy of hope and harmony. These are the things that are on the minds of the good people of the Ethiopian Diaspora. And the Delegation is prepared to have a conversation with you.
I should let you know that everywhere I go, people tell me they want to see the House of Kinijit become a Light House that guides the Ethiopian ship of state away from the dangerous shoals of ethnic strife and political instability in the New Millennium, and help the people find their way out of the House of Darkness that Ethiopia has become today. We shall all gaze at the Light House with great expectation!
So get ready to welcome the Delegation! It is a very long way from Kality jail to Seattle.
Welcome them, and make them feel at home, away from home.
But please, don’t welcome them into a divided house. Because as Abe Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself can not stand.”
Ethiopia’s Children in America
This a good place for me to segue to my brief remarks. I was asked to reflect on Ethiopian Diaspora politics in America, and suggest ideas about what we can do better or differently. I will try to do that in the next few minutes by touching upon some of the main issues.
I have been in this country now for over three decades; and if you were to believe my daughter, she’d tell you that I arrived at Plymouth Rock with the first pilgrims on the Mayflower. That’s not quite true, but most Ethiopians like myself came to the United States over the past three decades.
Though we have lived in America for years, many of us still show the equivalent of a post traumatic shock syndrome, which could be called Ethiopia Separation Shock Syndrome. Far too many of us remain preoccupied, traumatized and tormented by politics in our homeland. When we meet each other on the streets, we talk about Ethiopia. We talk about Ethiopia in the restaurants. We organize panel discussions such as this one, and talk about Ethiopia. And every day we spend hours circumnavigating the internet for information about Ethiopia. For so many of us, neither the narcotic of materialism and consumerism nor the comforts and amenities we enjoy in America have succeeded in severing our primal attachment to our homeland; and we are wistfully nostalgic about our birthplace.
This may appear rather odd to the outside observer because many of us came to America fleeing political persecution. We found refuge in America, and we managed to avoid not only the grinding daily realty of poverty, disease and repression that challenge so many of our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia, we also achieved a good measure of material prosperity and success.
Many of us acquired American citizenship; and as citizens our rights are protected by the American Constitution. Our liberties in America are, by and large, secure. But we do not live in a perfect society. Not by a long shot. But, thank God, we thrive in a society where none of us lives in fear and loathing of our government; and none of us is afraid to speak truth to power.
But therein lie some big questions. When life is such a bowl of cherries for many of us here in America, why should we be concerned with the pits in Ethiopia?
Who are we really in America? Are we Americans in America? Or Ethiopians who happen to be living in America? Are we Ethiopian Americans? Or are we Diaspora Ethiopians who are living in the U.S. until it is time to pack up and go back home?
I would like to touch upon these questions because the answers may help us better understand our place in America, define our identity, crystallize our political attitude and focus our activism so that we can become effective political participants and advocates of the Ethiopian cause in the American policy process.
Ethiopian Diaspora Identity
First, let me say that many of us feel a bit uncomfortable about our identity in America. I know some people shy away from labeling themselves as “Ethiopian Americans” even though they have acquired U.S. citizenship and have lived here for decades. I guess they feel a sense of betrayal in accepting such a “hybrid” identity, Ethiopian by birth and American by citizenship. The fact of the matter is that we are both Ethiopians and Americans. And in the Land of Immigrants, the Land of the Melting Pot, that’s just the way it is!
But linked to our dual sense of identity is our adjustment to the American landscape, the American reality.
Many of us, I believe, have fully embraced the American Dream, and made it part of our dream. We toil everyday to maintain that dream. Some of us have had difficulty becoming part of that dream, and we keep chasing it as it recedes and fades over the distant horizon. But we struggle mightily to keep up with the faint signal of that dream. And some of us, unfortunately, are barely aware that there is such a thing as the American Dream. We maintain a bare existence on the outer fringes of American society. But we do not lose hope. We keep on keeping on because we believe, in the Land of Opportunity, that someday we can rise up above our circumstances and become part of the great American Dream.
What is a bit disappointing about most of us who have adjusted reasonably well to American life is the fact that we live and work in America, but we don’t really understand how America works.
We don’t know very much about the inner workings of American political institutions, the essential nature of its great Constitution, the Bill of Rights that guarantees our individual liberties, the processes of national government or the role of political and civic organizations in American democracy.
As a result, for a very long time, we have excluded ourselves from becoming part of the mainstream of American life. Many of us do not vote regularly even though we are citizens; few of us participate in party politics, and even fewer engage in grassroots political advocacy. The effect of this self-imposed detachment has been self-marginalization, political fragmentation, and self-consignment to immigrant life on the periphery of American society.
By default, we have sought support and comfort in our own small communities where we speak our own language, eat our ethnic foods and enjoy our own entertainment. Of course, there is nothing wrong with any of these except for the fact that by wrapping ourselves tightly in an ethnic band, we have been unable to develop the skills and attitudes that will enable us to impact mainstream American institutions to help ourselves in America, and our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia.
Stranded and Fragmented?
There are a few facts that are noteworthy in our social and political adaptation in the U.S. The vast majority of us who came to America in the early 1970s and did not expect to be around much beyond the completion of our educational pursuits. Indeed, we were very eager to go back and serve our country.
We maintained our Ethiopian identity, and we were convinced that our stay in America would be short and sweet. And to that end, it did not matter much to us if we had to wait tables, wash dishes, park cars, drive cabs or whatever was necessary to complete our education and return home.
But political changes in Ethiopia in the mid-1970s turned the world upside down for most of us here, and in Ethiopia. The so-called Red Terror campaign and the massive and indiscriminate political violence and persecution in the country led to the creation of a large refugee population. Many Ethiopians managed to gain admission into the U.S. as refugees.
This created an interesting dichotomy in the Ethiopian community in America: the “elites” who wanted to return but were afraid for their lives, and those who barely escaped with their lives by the skin of their teeth and wanted to stay away at any cost. There was a division between those baptized in the fires of the Red Terror, and those who could imagine the fire from a safe distance in America.
This dichotomy, I believe, aggravated the underlying marginalization process, and for the most part, we ended up doing politics with like-minded individuals and groups in the Diaspora Ethiopian community. Ethiopian students jumped on the Marxist bandwagon, and preached the dogma of socialism to other Ethiopians. Those who had escaped Marxist repression knew better, and avoided political entanglements altogether.
Until recently, I do not believe there has been a unifying message to bring Ethiopians of all stripes together. Indeed, in the past the political message in the Ethiopian Diaspora has been more divisive than cohesive. There was greater emphasis on ideological, ethnic, political and class differences. There were many shrill voices that magnified narrow differences, and few tempered voices that sought to appeal to the broader Diaspora community on the basis of the common bonds of history, culture and tradition.
Awakening of the Ethiopian Diaspora Giant: Human Rights Becomes the Message
Over the past three years or so, there has been a distinct change in political attitude and activism among Diaspora Ethiopians in America. It was as though the Ethiopian Diaspora Giant had awakened from a 30-year slumber. Much to our surprise, we have recently discovered that we have formidable political muscle to organize and promote human rights, democracy and freedom in Ethiopia. We found out the doors to the offices of the highest elected officials in the U.S. were open to us. We could even propose ideas, and demand action.
But there was a slight problem. Though the halls of government were wide open to us, we were not well equipped to take advantage of the opportunities. One of the shocking facts about our newly discovered political power was that most of us lacked an elementary understanding of the American political system and rules that govern it. Most of us did not have a clue about the legislative process. Many of us struggled to understand what a bill is and how it becomes law. We could not articulate our message effectively to policy makers, or work effectively as grassroots advocates for policy change. We could not appreciate the importance of local politics in impacting the national political process.
As a result, we flailed all over the political landscape. Individuals and groups purportedly supporting the same cause would visit American policy makers and legislators time and again, and undercut each other. They would ignore good counsel from policymakers’ offices that they can be more effective if they banded together and articulated the same position. But the “credit instinct” — that irrepressible feeling to grab credit and make headlines– was far too overpowering for many of us, and so the same mistakes were made over and over.
Revolt of the Ethiopian American Tax Payer and the Battles of H.R. 2003/5680/4423
But for novices in the American political process, we have done a magnificent job. We were able to clear a human rights bill from a major committee in less than 18 months, and have it ready for floor action. But our efforts were intercepted by one of the most powerful lobbying firms in the world. But we did not put our tails between our legs and run; we came back in blazing glory to confront the wicked army of lobbyist arrayed against us in Congress. In H.R. 2003, we declared the revolt of the Ethiopian American taxpayer.
Every year Zenawi gets $500 million courtesy of American Joe (Yosef) Taxpayer. Instead of saying, “Thank you”, Zenawi insolently complains that America is trying to run him like a banana republic. He wants American money, but he does not want any strings attached to it. But human rights is the heart string of America. America was built on the idea of individual freedom, liberty and democracy. He can never understand or appreciate that because he has never lived in America, in a free country. But he has no problems panhandling the American taxpayer, and receiving billions in handouts.
But now as Ethiopian American taxpayers, we are revolting against the misuse of our tax dollars. What we are saying in H.R. 2003 is that we work very hard in America — washing dishes, driving cabs, working in the halls of government and academia, in the boardroom, the classroom, the courtroom, the operating room, the boiler room and other places — and we pay taxes. We are proud and privileged to pay our fair share into the general treasury. But we’d damned if we are going to send our tax dollars to Zenawi so that he can kill, torture, maim, imprison and mistreat our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia!
The Message and Our Credo
So, in H.R. 2003, Ethiopians American taxpayers are speaking directly to Zenawi, and sending him a clear message.
If you want American tax dollars, Ethiopian American tax dollars,
Release all political prisoners in the country, NOW.
Leave the judges and courts alone to administer justice. You can not dress up your party hacks in judicial robes and pretend they are administering justice.
Arrest and prosecute those cold-blooded cutthroats you call security personnel who massacred citizens by the thousands before and after the 2005 elections, NOW!
Leave the print and electronic media alone. Freedom of the press means just that — an independent press free from official censorship, prior restraint and restrictive laws. License independent radio and television to the public on a competitive basis, not just deliver it to your buddies and cronies on a silver platter. Leave the internet alone so that citizens can freely communicate with free peoples throughout the world.
Restore the democratic rights of the people so that they can speak freely, protest peaceably, and associate with each other without fear of official harassment.
Reconstitute the National Election Board so that it represents all political parties, not just your buddies and cronies.
Let international human rights organizations monitor human rights in Ethiopia. Let local human rights advocates do their work in an environment free of harassment, intimidation, and persecution.
So, if Zenawi wants our tax dollars, these are the conditions he must meet. But there will be no American tax dollars for him as long as he coddles killers of peaceful demonstrators. No tax dollars for him as long as he sneers at the rule of law and tramples upon the democratic liberties of the people. No American tax dollars for him as long as he jails and exiles journalists, reporters and editors. No tax dollars if he insists on rigging elections. And absolutely no American tax dollars for him to buy bullets to kill our Ethiopians brothers and sisters. This is the deal: Take it or leave it!
And this Message is our credo, the consensus of the Ethiopian Diaspora the world over. It is a unifying credo which emanates from the gospel of human rights. We regard H.R. 2003 as a statement of faith based on the dignity of Man and Woman. It is our reaffirmation that Ethiopians deserve what other human beings in civilized societies enjoy — the right to free speech, free press, free association and peaceable assembly, petition for grievance, and guarantees of due process of law before any person is deprived of life, liberty or property.
Ethiopian Diaspora Politics and the Special Role of Intellectuals
I recently read a thoughtful analysis by an author who made some very perceptive points about the role of Ethiopian Diaspora intellectuals. The author argued that Diaspora Ethiopian intellectuals historically have played a profoundly negative role in domestic Ethiopian politics. He alleged that these intellectuals facilitated the rise of dictatorship under the guise of advancing equality and social justice under a communist system. He blamed them for spreading ideas about secessionism and self-determination, which he claims have resulted in the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia, chronic political instability and long-term economic decline. He condemned Ethiopian intellectuals for being Oreo cookies — liberal democrats on the outside, and on the inside, intolerant, authoritarian, undemocratic, power-hungry and incapable of uniting Diaspora Ethiopians. The author concluded ominously that “if these people were to get the opportunity to hold real power in Ethiopia, they would not be any different from the current dictators of our country.”
This analysis can not be easily dismissed. There is a real question on the role of Ethiopian Diaspora intellectuals in the struggle for democracy, freedom, equality, human rights, economic and social justice and other issues. Are they playing their part educating Ethiopians? What is their vision for the future of Ethiopia? Or will they remain a permanent part of the problem driving other Ethiopians deeper into political disillusionment?
I can admit, with great embarrassment, that many of us in the legal profession and academia have failed to play a significant part in the search for justice or in articulating a vision for justice in Ethiopia. There are criminals who have engaged in gross abuses of human rights in Ethiopia walking the streets of America today. You see them in the streets of Seattle, and Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, and Dallas…
We have done nothing. There are avenues of legal redress under American law, but we have not used them effectively. We are aware of remedies against those who commit crimes against humanity under international law, but we have yet to stretch out the long arm of the law to hold them accountable.
And as we speak here today, a full-blown genocide is taking place in the Ogaden. The population is slowly being starved to death, and indiscriminate violence continues to be unleashed against the people of the Ogaden. It is a shame that we hear more about this “new African genocide” from Amnesty International and the other human rights organizations than Ethiopian lawyers and political scientists.
As intellectuals, we have failed. And as I point an accusatory finger outward, be mindful the other fingers are pointing to me.
But Ethiopian intellectuals, whether trained in the liberal democracy of the West or elsewhere, have a duty to promote democracy, freedom and human rights in Ethiopia, to educate the people about the objective conditions there, to unite Diaspora Ethiopians with a unifying message, to help those in leadership positions with professional expertise, to counter the false propaganda of the practitioners of tyranny, to become bridges towards greater understanding, to teach and practice democratic tolerance, and to accept our shortcomings and correct the errors of our ways.
There is one questions we can not avoid: If we do not take a leading role in championing the cause of democracy, freedom, human rights and accountability in Ethiopia, who will?
When Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, God told him to gather the 70 elders of Israel to help him guide the Jews out of slavery. Let us be those 70 elders for Ethiopia, multiplied a thousand fold, so that we can help free Ethiopia from the clutches of tyranny and deliver her into a new Millennium of freedom, democracy and human rights.
The Ultimate Message — United We stand, Divided We Fall!
The upshot of all of my remarks here today is simple: We must all unite to bring about positive and lasting change in our homeland. Whether we came to the U.S. as students, tourists or refugees, and even if we are visiting the U.S. for just a few weeks, we must band together in the holy cause of human rights and march into the New Millennium to the drumbeat of democracy.
In as much as we were an Awakening Giant in America, we face other formidable giants in their own right — the Cyclops known as D.L.A. Piper and its master Tyrannosaurus Zenawi. We face the power of Big Money in the halls of Congress. They will outspend us by a thousand-to-one any day of the week to defeat H.R. 2003.
But our adversary can not defeat us or our cause if we stand together as one, united in one cause, for one indivisible nation. His millions of dollars will be no match for our collective resolve and determination to forge ahead with an agenda of democracy, accountability and human rights in Ethiopia in the New Millennium.
But our strength is also our weakness. And that’s where our adversary will try to strike a hard blow. He will scheme day and night to divide us, weaken our resolve and create great discord amongst us. We should not help him by becoming unwitting allies in our own undoing. We must fight him back tooth and nail. Where he sows discord, we should plant harmony; where he seeks to divide us, we must fight him back with unflinching unity in a common cause; where he tries to provoke us into anger against each other, we should fight back with tolerance and understanding. It is time to close ranks!
I can imagine that over the past week or so our adversary has been belly-aching with laughter, listening to us as we engage in frivolous recriminations and pointing accusatory fingers at each other. He is probably telling his public relations people to take advantage of the spectacle of our self-inflicted humiliation to make the point that we can not even talk to each other let alone assume the responsibility of governance.
And no doubt he will try to capitalize on recent events and tell members of Congress and other U.S. policy makers, “See! See! What did I tell you? There is no responsible opposition in the country. They are divided and at each other’s throats. I am the only choice. I am! I am! There is no leader to keep the country together, but me. Without ME the country will go to hell in a hand basket!”
If we continue to magnify our minor differences and forget to see the big picture — democracy, freedom, human rights, accountability and so on– we would have delivered the biggest victory to the adversary on a silver platter. Is that what we want?
That is why we should all pledge to do our part to bridge the divide that seems to be looming in the horizon. Now, more than ever, with the fate of Ethiopian democracy in the balance, we must stand together, act together, work together and pray together to root out tyranny and plant the seeds of democracy.
United We Stand, Divided We Fall!
Thank you very much.