“What if they were really set free?”
That was the question The Economist asked in the headline of its article last week about Ethiopians.
Its response was equally breathtaking:
“If the government let people breathe, they might fly.”
These sixteen words brought tears to my eyes, joy to my heart and resolute optimism to my mind.
I have been asking myself the same question and repeating the same answer every single day for the past 10 years.
But my question was slightly different. It is a difference that makes a world of difference to me.
What if Ethiopia’s young people were really set free?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could really think freely?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could really speak freely?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could really write, blog and report freely?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could really worship freely?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could really assemble and participate in political parties and civic organizations freely?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could really petition for redress of their grievances freely?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could own their own land freely, farm it, lease it or sell it freely?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could live and travel anywhere in their country without feeling they are bobbing and weaving out of ethnic homelands (kililistans, the contemporary version of apartheid Bantustans)?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could work freely without an ethnicity litmus test?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could make a living without submitting to corruption, extortion and oppression?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could learn freely, without being spoon-fed propaganda diet of ethnic hatred?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could be free to choose and join their own choice of political party, union or other civic organizations?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could be free from arbitrary arrest and detention?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could be free from bogus “anti-terrorism” charges?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could be free to enjoy their human rights?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could be free to enjoy the due process of law?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could be free to enjoy the equal protection of the laws?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could be free to vote in a free and fair election?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could live freely in a country where the rule of law, instead of the rule of thugs, is supreme?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could be judged by the content of their character rather than their ethnicity?
What if Ethiopia’s young people could be free to aim for the sky?
What if Ethiopia’s young people were free from oppression, free from ethnic discrimination, free from domination by a criminal gang, free from subjugation, free from persecution, free from coercion, free from intimidation, free from tyranny, free from thugtatorship…
What if the “government” let Ethiopia’s young people breathe free?
What if Ethiopia’s young people were free, free, free… ?
By God! Ethiopia’s young people would fly, fly, fly, fly high in the sky like millions of butterflies.
They would soar like eagles.
“They will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
The Economist gave a host of reasons why Ethiopians cannot fly:
There are thousands of political prisoners. Torture is routine.
All land belongs to the state, so it cannot be used as collateral for borrowing.
The standard family plot has shrunk to less than a hectare.
At least 25m Ethiopians are still deemed to be ‘extremely poor’.
The service sector here is one of the most restrictive in the world.
The government’s refusal to liberalise mobile-telephone services and banks is patently self-harming.
A university graduate in biology seems happy to get a monthly wage of $26. A labourer earns a lot less.
Ethiopians have one of the lowest rates of mobile-phone ownership in Africa.
Fewer than 4% of households have a fixed-line telephone and barely 3% have access to broadband.
If the government opened the airwaves to competition, as Kenya’s has, it could probably sell franchises for at least $10 billion, and reap taxes and royalties as well; Safaricom in Kenya is the country’s biggest taxpayer.
Many of these annoyances could be removed—if only the government were brave enough to set the economy free.
Roads and railways are also being built apace. Driving east from the town on a dirt track to join a paved road 80km or so away, your correspondent saw not a single other vehicle in two hours.
It was notable, at a recent Economist conference in Addis, that virtually no businessman, Ethiopian or foreign, had the nerve to disparage any of the government’s policies. In public Ethiopians tend dutifully to echo the government line; in private, though, they can be franker.
Imports for such essentials as kitchen spares are often held up at the airport, where tariffs are sky-high: a recent batch of T-shirts with logos for the staff ended up costing three times its original price.
The opposition is crushed, fragmented and feeble. Prominent dissenters have fled or are behind bars.
If the ruling party had the courage to open up the economic and political system, the pace of Ethiopia’s progress towards prosperity and stability would quicken.
Imagine if Ethiopia’s young people could fly:
If they could fly, they would not have to take to the sea to die.
If they could fly, young Ethiopian women wouldn’t have to fly to the Middle East to become virtual slaves.
If they could fly, young Ethiopians would not have to cross the desert and become victims of bloodthirsty terrorists.
If they could fly, they would not have to go into exile.
If they could fly, they would soar like the African fish eagles.
If they could fly, they would glide like the African seagulls.
If they could fly, they would ascend like the great African pelican.
If they could fly, they would lift their wings high, high into the sky.
If they could fly, they would flutter like the humming bird.
But Ethiopia’s young people can’t fly.
How can they fly, soar like eagles when you are caged by turkeys.
How can they fly when they are caged in a Gangstas’ Paradise.
So they sing, they cry and scream caged in Gangstas’ Paradise.
Why does the Caged Bird sing?
The caged bird sings of and for freedom, said Maya Angelou.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
But why does the caged bird cry? Weep? Scream? Shriek?
I know why the caged bird cries.
The caged bird cries for it has no country. Just a cage. A kilil.
The caged bird weeps today for its tomorrow is stolen.
The caged bird screams in the streets because it is hurt, because it is in pain.
The cage bird shrieks because it has become a sitting duck in a police shooting gallery.
I know why the caged bird is angry when they take its land and trees.
I know why the caged bird is impatient because it does not want to spend one more day caged.
I know why the caged bird feels so desperate and hopeless.
I know why the caged bird cannot sing songs of freedom.
I know. Do I know!!!
I know the caged bird cannot fly or sing because it is caged and its wings are clipped.
For now, the caged bird can only cry, weep, scream and shriek for freedom.
I know the caged bird, like the sleeping giant, has suddenly awakened.
I know the caged bird has arisen, never to fall asleep again.
Rise! Caged bird! Rise! Rise from your slumber!
Break out of your cage and fly,
Rise! Spread your wings and fly till you can touch the sky.
Break out of your cage and breathe the fresh air of freedom.
There is no one, no wind, under your wings to help you fly free.
That is why you must believe in yourself that you can fly free.
Believe in yourself despite the strong head winds.
Believe in yourself despite the fog, rain and hail.
Believe in yourself! Believe the Almighty is on your side!
Rise, rise and fly free, fly free… because that is your destiny!
Breathe free. Be all you can be. Free!
Be free, Caged Bird! Free as a bird! Free as the wind and the sea! Free as the morning sun!
Rise! Caged Bird! Rise!
Rise and breathe free!
Rise and be free because that is your destiny!