Originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 12/27/2010
Groundhog Year in Prison Nation
In December 2008, I wrote a weekly column entitled “Groundhog Year in Prison Nation” summarizing some of my weekly columns for that year. I used the “groundhog year” analogy following the title of the motion picture “Groundhog Day” in which a hapless television weatherman is trapped in a time warp and finds himself repeating the same day over and over. I wrote:
2008 in Ethiopia was Groundhog Year! It was a repetition of 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004… Everyday millions of Ethiopians woke up only to find themselves trapped in a time loop where their lives replayed like a broken record. Each “new” day is the same as the one before it: Repression, intimidation, corruption, incarceration, deception, brutalization and human rights violation. Everything that happened to them the previous day, the previous week, the previous month, the previous 18 years happens to them today. They are resigned to the fact that they are doomed to spend the rest of their lives asphyxiated in a Prison Nation. They have no idea how to get out of this awful cycle of misery, agony, despair and tribulation. So, they pray and pray and pray and pray… for deliverance from Evil!
It is December 2010, the end of the first decade of the 21st Century. Are Ethiopians better off today than they were in 2009, 2005…2000?
Does bread (teff) cost more today than it did a year ago…, five years ago? Cooking oil, household fuel, beef, poultry, gasoline, housing, water, electricity, public transport…?
Are there more poor people today in Ethiopia than there were a year ago… five years ago? More unemployment among youth, less educational opportunities, less health care?
Is there more corruption, more secrecy, less transparency and less accountability in December 2010 than in December 2009…?
Are elections more free and fair in 2010 than they were in 2008, 2005?
Is there more press freedom today than five years ago? More human rights violations?
Is Ethiopia more dependent on international charity for its daily bread today than a year ago…?
Is there more environmental pollution, habitat destruction, forced human displacement and land grabs in Ethiopia today than there was in 2005?
Are businesses paying more taxes and bribes in Ethiopia today than in years past?
Is Ethiopia today at the very bottom of the global Index of Economic Freedom (limited access to financing, inefficient government bureaucracy, inadequate supply of infrastructure)?
Let the reader answer these self-evident questions. Suffice it to say, “It is what it is!”
Montage of Scenes From 2010 Time Loop
So here we are in Ethiopian Groundhog Year 2010. As a year-end overview, I decided to select and highlight a few of my columns from the multiple dozens of weekly and other commentaries I wrote in 2010 and published on the various Ethiopian pro-democracy websites, and the Huffington Post where all of my commentaries for the year are readily available.
January 2010 – Looking Through the Glass, Brightly
“Ethiopia is the country of the future,” Birtukan Midekssa would often say epigrammatically. Ethiopia’s number 1 political prisoner is always preoccupied with her country’s future and destiny. Her deep concern for Ethiopia is exceeded only by her boundless optimism for its future… To be the country of the future necessarily means not being the country of the past. Birtukan’s Ethiopia of the future is necessarily the categorical antitheses of an imperial autocracy, a military bureaucracy and a dictatorship of kleptocracy. Her vision of the future Ethiopia is a unified country built on a steel platform of multiparty democracy. Birtukan would have been pleased to explain her vision and dreams of the future country of Ethiopia; unfortunately, she cannot speak for herself as she has been condemned to “rot” in jail.
February 2010- Putting Lipstick on a Pig
Ethiopia’s dictators think we are all damned fools. They want us to believe that a pig with lipstick is actually a swan floating on a placid lake, or a butterfly fluttering in the rose garden or even a lamb frolicking in the meadows. Put some lipstick on hyperinflation and you have one of the “fastest developing economies in the world”. Put lipstick on power outages, and the grids come alive with megawattage. Slap a little lipstick on famine, and voila! Ethiopians are suffering from a slight case of “severe malnutrition”. Adorn your atrocious human rights record by appointing a “human rights” chief, and lo and behold, grievous government wrongs are transformed magically into robust human rights protections. Slam your opposition in jail, smother the independent press and criminalize civil society while applying dainty lipstick to a mannequin of democracy. The point is, “You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper and call it ‘democracy’ but after 20 years it stinks to high heaven!”
March 2010- Waiting for Godot to Leave
The politics of “succession” to Zenawi’s “throne” has become a veritable theatre of the absurd. The personalities waiting in the wings to take over the “throne” (or to protect and safeguard it) bring to mind the witless characters in Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy play Waiting for Godot, arguably the most important English play of the 20th Century. In that play, two vagabond characters anxiously wait on a country road by a tree for the arrival of a mysterious person named Godot, who can save them and answer all their questions. They wait for days on end but Godot never shows up… and the two characters keep returning to the same place day after day to wait for him; but they cannot remember exactly what happened the day before. Godot never came. Waiting for Zenawi to leave power is like waiting for Godot to arrive. It ain’t happening. He is not only the savior and the man with all the answers, he is also the Great Patron who makes everything work.
April, 2010- C’est la Vie? C’est la Vie en Prison!
When Meles Zenawi, the arch dictator in Ethiopia, was asked about Birtukan’s health in his prison on March 23, 2010, he was comically philosophical about it. He said Birtukan health is in “perfect condition”, except that she may be putting on some weight. “The health situation of Birtukan, the last I heard, is in perfect condition. She may have gained a few kilos, but other than that, and that may be for lack of exercise, I understand she is in perfect health… I am not surprised that they [U.S. State Department] have characterized Birtukan as a political prisoner, because I understand they have also characterized Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Oromia Liberation Front (OLF) terrorists… as political prisoners… But that is life; I think the French say, ‘C’est la Vie.’
May, 2010- Speaking Truth to Power
For the past year, I have been predicting that the 2010 Ethiopian “election” will prove to be a sham, a travesty of democracy and a mockery and caricature of democratic elections. Without my literary and rhetorical flourish, that is now the exact conclusion of the international election observers. The “Preliminary Statement” of the European Union Election Observation Mission- Ethiopia 2010 stated: “The electoral process fell short of certain international commitments, notably regarding the transparency of the process and the lack of a level playing field for all contesting parties.” … Johnnie Carson, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the State Department told the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee that “we note with some degree of remorse that the elections were not up to international standards… The [Ethiopian] government has taken clear and decisive steps that would ensure that it would garner an electoral victory.” Even Herman Cohen, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State who served as “mediator” in the so-called May 1991 London Peace Talks which resulted in the establishment of the Zenawi regime decried the outcome: “… I don’t think it was a fair election.”
June, 2010- Speaking Truth to the Powerless
Now that the hoopla around Meles Zenawi’s “election” is over, it is time for the Ethiopian opposition to take stock and re-think the way it has been doing business. We begin with the obvious question: “What happened to the Ethiopian opposition in the make-believe election of 2010?” Zenawi will argue vigorously that he defeated them by a margin of 99.6 percent (545 of 547 parliamentary seats). If that were the real “defeat” for the opposition, I would not worry much. Losing a sham election is like losing one’s appendix. But there is a different kind of defeat that I find more worrisome. It is a defeat in the eyes and hearts of the people. I am afraid the opposition collectively has suffered considerable loss of credibility in the eyes of the people by making a public spectacle of its endless bickering, carping, dithering, internal squabbles, disorganization, inability to unite, pettiness, jockeying for power, and by failing to articulate a coherent set of guiding principles or ideas for the country’s future.
July, 2010- Hummingbirds and Forest Fires
World history shows that individuals and small groups — the hummingbirds — do make a difference in bringing about change in their societies. The few dozen leaders of the American Revolution and the founders of the government of the United States were driven to independence by a “long train of abuses and usurpations” leading to “absolute despotism” as so eloquently and timelessly expressed in the Declaration of Independence… The Bolsheviks (vultures in hummingbird feathers) won the Russian Revolution arguably defending the rights of the working class and peasants against the harsh oppression of Czarist dictatorship. They managed to establish a totalitarian system which thankfully swept itself into the dustbin of history two decades ago… Gandhi and a small group of followers in India led nationwide campaigns to alleviate poverty, make India economically self-reliant, broaden the rights of urban laborers, peasants and women, end the odious custom of untouchability and bring about tolerance and understanding among religious and ethnic groups. Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo led ANC’s Defiance Campaign and crafted the Freedom Charter which provided the ideological basis for the long struggle against apartheid and served as the foundation for the current South African Constitution. In the United States, Martin Luther King and some 60 church leaders formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, becoming the driving force of the American civil rights movement.
August, 2010 – Steel Vises, Clenched Fists and Closing Walls
U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton gave a speech in Poland… and singled out Ethiopia along with Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo and others to warn the world that “we must be wary of the steel vise in which governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit.”… She pointed out: “Last year, Ethiopia imposed a series of strict new rules on NGOs. Very few groups have been able to re-register under this new framework, particularly organizations working on sensitive issues like human rights.”… Secretary Clinton said the acid test for the success or failure of U.S. foreign policy is whether “more people in more places are better able to exercise their universal rights and live up to their potential because of our actions?” By this measure, U.S. policy in Ethiopia has been a total, unmitigated and dismal failure. The evidence is overwhelming and irrefutable…
September, 2010- Indoctri-Nation
Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education issued a “directive” effectively outlawing distance learning (or education programs that are not delivered in the traditional university classroom or campus) throughout the country… Wholesale elimination of private distance learning programs by “directive”, or more accurately bureaucratic fiat, is a flagrant violation of Higher Education Proclamation No. 650/2009. Under this Proclamation, the Ministry of Education and its sub-agencies have the authority to regulate and “revoke accreditation” of a private institution which fails to meet statutory criteria on a case-by-case basis following a fact-finding and appeals process…. I believe the regime has a long term strategy to use the universities as breeding grounds for its ideologues and hatcheries for the thousands of loyal and dependent bureaucrats they need to sustain their domination and rule. The monopoly created for the state in the disciplines of law and teaching (which I will predict will gradually include other disciplines in the future) is a clear indication of the trend to gradually create a cadre of “educated” elites to serve the next generation of dictators to come.
October, 2010- Birtukan Unbound!
Birtukan was held for months in a dark room with no human contact except a few minutes a week with her mother and daughter. Fear, anxiety and despair were her only companions. Heartache knocked constantly on the door to her dark room needling her: “Did you do the right thing leaving three year-old Hal’le to the care of your aging mother?” Self-doubt kept her awake in that dark room where time stood still asking her the same question over and over: “Is it worth all this suffering? Give up!” But a voice in her conscience would echo thunderously, “Like hell you’re going to give up, Birtukan. Fight on. Keep on fighting. ‘Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.'” In the end Birtukan signed Zenawi’s scrap of paper making exception to convictions of honor and good sense. We expected nothing less from such a great young woman…. Prisoners can be brainwashed to say anything by those who control them. Prisoners who have endured torture, extreme degradation and abuse have been known to do shocking things to please their captors and ease their own pain and suffering. Abused prisoners have been known to deceive themselves into believing the cruelty of their captors as acts of kindness. It is called the “Stockholm Syndrome.” When the victim is under the total and complete control of her captor for her basic needs of survival and her very existence, she will say and do anything to please her captor.
November, 2010- Remember the Slaughter of 2005
November is a cruel month. Bleak, woeful, and grim is the month of November in the melancholy verse of Thomas Hood:
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member–
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,
And no justice for the hundreds massacred in Ethiopia in November (2005).
No redress for the countless men, women and children shot and wounded and left for dead.
No apologies for the tens of thousands illegally imprisoned.
No restitution for survivors or the families of the dead.
No trace of those who disappeared.
No atonement for the crimes of November.
No absolution for the slaughter of November.
November is to remember.
December, 2010- “So What!”
So what are the lessons of Groundhog Year 2010? The first decade of the 21st Century?
Lesson I. Crush your opponents with full force. Alternatively, vegetate them forever.
Lesson II. If you get into America’s face and stick it to her, she will always back down. Always!
Lesson III. “Democratization is a matter of survival.” If democracy stays alive in Ethiopia, Zenawi cannot survive. If Zenawi survives, democracy cannot stay alive.
Lesson IV: If you want democracy, you must struggle and sacrifice for it.
Lesson V. If your rights are being violated, defend them!
Lesson VI. Elections are like children’s marble game where everybody can play as long as the guy who owns the marbles wins all the time.
Lesson VII. If you want to win, you need to organize, mobilize and energize your base. You need to teach, preach and reach the people.
Lesson VIII. You want funding, don’t beg for it; dig deeper into your own wallets.
Lesson: IX. There is one law, one regime, one ruler, one circus master and only one man who runs the show in Ethiopia.
Lesson X: The greatest lesson of 2010 and the first decade of the 21st Century:
DESPAIR NOT! “THERE HAVE BEEN TYRANTS AND MURDERERS AND FOR A TIME THEY SEEM INVINCIBLE BUT IN THE END, THEY ALWAYS FAIL — THINK OF IT ALWAYS.” Mahatma Gandhi.
RELEASE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA