Monday, July 25, 2005

That Thing They Call Honor

I’ve been thinking these days about political awareness—specifically, my initiation into political awareness—very specifically, my initiation into Ethiopian political awareness.

I am a child of a communist Ethiopia. My adolescent memories of Ethiopia and her tumultuous politics is solidly anchored by memories of a perennially belligerent, original Axis of Very Evil Mengistu Haile Mariam and his fire-‘n-fury speeches excoriating imperialism and capitalism- the ‘c’ word of my youth. The only excitement in Mengistu’s tirade that kept us young’uns glued to the television was the possibility of witnessing one of our favorite Mengistu stunts: the part where he hurls a bottle of blood from the high dais of Abiyot Adebabi and watching the bottle crash on the sidewalk while our parents gasped in horror. What did we know? The sheer atrociousness of adding yet another layer of blood to the already blood-soaked sidewalks of Addis Ababa never struck us as being inappropriate. Hell, we were looking for something other than weird Soviet films to pass the time. (Boy did I have flashbacks when Colin Powell very ominously thrust back and forth a vile of Anthrax during his speech at the UN as many delegates shifted uncomfortably in their seats.)

Ethiopian politics, to those of us growing up during those times, was something only evil people who looked okay in blue kahki uniforms got involved in. It never occurred to us that we could ever have a right to demand that our leaders treat us halfway decent. It is an amazing power to have: the ability to terrorize a whole generation into apathy and compliance.

I washed my hands off of Ethiopian politics after the EPRDF took power in 1991and I had the misfortune of being first hand witness to its base behavior. Whatever hopes I had of being part of an Ethiopian renaissance was indubitably quashed by the pervasive perversity of the unholy alliance between the TPLF and the EPLF in the early 90s. Again, the culprit was communism, except that this time it was masked with a thin veneer of “progressiveness” that both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton endorsed. I came back to the States, totally bereft of hope.

I don’t know how well any of us in my generation have really explored just how much of a total mindfuck (please excuse the French) communism was on us, or have tried to delve into its long-lasting impact. Surely, a generation raised on the enduring fear in its parents’ eyes, a generation that equates politics with political malfeasance and torture, a generation that wanted nothing more than to escape from Ethiopia… surely we have issues. Hell, our issues have issues!

Communism was the quintessential opium of the people—so debilitating and humiliating, and we had O.D.ed on it. I don’t know if we have ever taken the time to examine the root cause of our apathy and detachment, or care to endeavor to deconstruct our learned helplessness. How can we be successful immigrants and rally for equal rights in America while the thought of advocating the same rights in Ethiopia would not even cross our minds?

That, my friends, is what communism did to a generation. Even though we are not old enough to have blood on our hands, we have been royally opium-ized: we have made it chic to be politically inactive—not, mind you, generally politically inactive, but Ethiopian politics-inactive. Even as we fancy ourselves to be fearless citizens of the world, what we fear foremost is Ethiopian politics because it has done nothing but burn our parents.

Ahhh. Who do we blame?

At the Los Angeles Times Book Festival last spring someone asked a panel of politicos why the current American generation was so apathetic. The answer: “There is nothing that this generation is suffering from that a good old-fashioned draft won’t cure.”

For my generation, the Ethiopian elections of May 2005 was our draft. It awoke us from a comfortable slumber. I will leave it to sociologists to examine why. For me personally, I didn’t want my son to grow up thinking that Ethiopia was a distant place his parents had to escape. I didn’t want him to think that Ethiopia was not an option. Most of all, I didn’t want him to see the same fear in my eyes I saw in my parents’.

So there! I never thought, not in a million years, that I would be writing about Ethiopian politics.

Whether I like it or not, I am grateful to the EPRDF and its quest for legitimacy that made it experiment with democracy. I have not been shy about my disagreement with (and recently, aversion to) the politics of the EPRDF. But whatever it was, delusion of grandeur or hubris, that made it flirt with the concept of democracy, thank you. Only the EPRDF could have destroyed the EPRDF (see “Suicide Watch”).

But there is something else that has fascinated me these days. What does it take for someone to take on the EPRDF? Few things about the opposition intrigue me as much as its cahones to stand up to the EPRDF. For the first time in Ethiopia, we have an opposition that is staring at a political Goliath and not blinking. I don’t want to canonize the opposition, but whether I like it or not, I am also grateful to it for the path it has cleared.

Prime Minister Meles has this tendency of saying that the May 2005 elections were “the most free and fair, not just by African standards, but by any standards.” I am left wondering if the prime minister knows anything about democracies at all.

To illustrate its point, the EPRDF is fond of throwing around the fact that the state media gave time to the opposition. Well, ya-ha! Wouldn’t that be at the core of democracy: that the opposition, um, presents its case? That’s what democracies do, except, Mr. Prime Minister, the state in other democracies, does not control most of the mass media, but let’s not let facts get in the way.

From that simple fact, which is really very basic, to the greater picture of an impartial National Board of Elections, and countless of facts in between, the EPRDF has shown that the way it conducted itself was not democratic, not only by world standards, but even by the EPRDF’s depleted standards.

But those are broad, cerebral concepts—democracy, rule of law, legitimacy. From the onset I have been much more fascinated by a more basic concept: at the core of political parties are people, men and women who run the political machine, and to me, they make for a more fascinating subject.

Concepts of how these men and women translate and apply honor and morality to politics has fascinated me more than policies and manifestos. That’s because I believe policies can always be changed. Personalities and core values, however, are much more entrenched.

By definition, Mengistu’s personality was so vile and murderous, that none of his policies, no matter what, could produce long-lasting peace and prosperity.

Similarly, Prime Minister Meles has proven to us time and again that he is either incapable of, or unwilling to embrace truth and honor. Whatever you say about the prime minister, not even his staunchest supporters can say that he is an honorable man. If anything, he is proof that honor is an afterthought in Ethiopian politics. That’s what Mengistu and communism did to us, and that’s the baton that Ato Meles picked up.

At this point, to me, whether the opposition controls the next parliament has become a second-tier priority. The primary is the re-introduction of honor in the Ethiopian political topography. We desperately need honorable men and women who are accountable and responsible, who keep their word and who have reverence for human life either as the opposition or as a ruling party.

I have given up on the EPRDF to take on the cause of honor and I look now to the opposition.

Overhauling the deeply ingrained mentality of mistrust, battling the manifestations of artificial ethnic divisiveness and restoring the Ethiopian peace of mind is an august responsibility and the opposition has its work cut out for it. If the past 30 years have taught us anything, it is that most of us have stopped believing in Ethiopia. It’s not lack of economic policies, certainly not lack of money (cash from donor countries still pour into Ethiopia) and lack of political rhetoric that has ailed Ethiopia. It is lack of spirit. Colonialism spread easier in Africa the minute we Africans started to believe that we were the people that the colonialists told us we were: inferior, uncivilized and unintelligent. They realized that seizing our minds was much more effective than seizing our land.

The psychological manifestations of oppression are intriguing. Mengistu made us live it, and Ato Meles almost made us believe it.

I am not sure how it did it, but the opposition managed to stir up the dormant spirit of Ethiopia, and that’s what’s surprised and angered the prime minister and his party. Look back at the 2000 elections and the farce that it was. (By the way, it is the same NEB that ratified the 2000 elections as free and fair that the international community is depending on to conduct an impartial investigation into the 2005 elections. Hm. The track record of the NEBE, I hate to tell ya’ Jimmah Car’ra, not so, how do you call it, sane.)

That the opposition has managed to wake us up, inspire us and, most importantly, give us back hope shall forever be its crowning glory. Who would have thought even two years ago that people from Desse to Gonder, Bunga to Bahr Dar would have dared to stand up to the EPRDF? Somehow, the opposition managed to tap into that undefeatable part of the Ethiopian psyche that refuses to bow to tyranny. Not a shabby start.

There have been a couple of defining moments for the opposition, the major one being when uber-sexy, primo baby-daddy Ato Lidetu Ayalew left his position as the spokesperson of the CUD. Zany-brainy King of Econ-Geeks Non Engineer Berhanu Nega addressing the issue ,very calmly said something to the effect that it was Lidetu’s right to openly oppose policy he did not agree with, and that he should not be forced to accept everything that the CUD does. Hold up! Hollll-d up! A political party that tolerates differences within its ranks? Sorry. An Ethiopian political party that tolerates differences within its ranks? Whatever happened to the tradition of secretly assassinating your detractor, or, at the very least, calling him/her a traitor “hager asedabbi” in a public rebuke? Ah, times are a changin'.

I told you. This is not our fathers’ opposition. A lot of people could not swallow the mere possibility that Lidetu can still believe in the core values of the CUD but disagree with some of its policies. (EPRDF supporters were circling the wagon with glee. Tewachew, miskeenoch nachew.) But it was nothing short of honorable for Lidetu to step down from a position that required him to defend policies he does not believe in. And it was nothing short of honorable for another member to say that differences in opinions were… okay. This is what I mean by changing the fundamental way we look at politics, and nurturing the spirit of democracy from the ground up. What kind of message would the CUD have sent if it censored Lidetu?

Can you imagine if… oh, formerly chatty foreign minister Seyoum Mesfin (whatever happened to him, by the way?) declared that the EPRDF’s little trigger happiness on June 8 was wrong and that he disagreed with it? Hm. They’d have eventually named the west wing of Zwai Camp after him after he languishes there on “corruption” charges… (Is Siye Abraha still in prision?)

Changing minds without the use of guns and renewing spirits is a far more challenging endeavor and more honorable calling. So far, the opposition (I think Beyene Petros in particular) seems to be the one which understands that what we need is honor in politics. For that, we should be grateful.

I’ve been trying to summarize my thoughts on this matter, but Ethiopundit said it best (still my favorite quote):

Ethiopians will remember who they have always been and not what they have been told to be at the point of a gun.

Okay, that’s what I’ve been trying to say in four pages. That’s where the opposition succeeded: not because it has some super-duper economic or political solution, but because it reminded us of who we have always been, and what we can become. We are a resourceful people who don’t actually like to be seen as charity cases for guilt ridden donors. In us somewhere, underneath the layers of faux “zeraf” and emaciated pride, is the indefatigable spirit that can rise above what we have been told by Mengistu and Meles: that we should be grateful for what little we are given and that aspiring to more is treachery.

Whatever its next steps, the opposition shall always get the credit for smashing that glass ceiling and showing Ethiopians that there is, indeed, honor in Ethiopian politics, and that 2005 was when the true Ethiopian Renaissance started.

No, really, thank you.

[For evidence of the fundamental differences between the EPRDF and the opposition read this interview held with Mega Mouthpiece Ato Bereket Simon and Non Engineer Berhanu Nega conducted on May 24, 2005. Have I apologized enough for ever suggesting that the EPRDF fire Ato Bereket? Defining moment for the EPRDF:

Let me paint the other scenario. With the EPRDF being a ruling party and the opposition being the governing party in Addis Ababa, what approach would you take in dealing with them? Will you make life hell for them or try to cooperate?

If there is one thing that we worship, it is the people. No matter what they decide, we worship the people. Any decision that is passed by the people democratically and out of their free will be respected. People have the right to choose whatever they want; otherwise we would not have opened things up. The fact that we did had its own risks, including that of losing the game.

Um. Can someone wake me up when the "worshipping of the people" starts?


Anonymous gonTe said...

Thank you for the incredibly inspiring piece. Honor and CHewanet have been missing from the Ethiopian political landscape for far too long. I hope Kinjit and Hibret will, not only bring them back, but also maintain them in the face of adversity. What they do when the final results are announced will forever define the ET politics.

Honor and CHewanet.......


8:11 PM, July 25, 2005  
Blogger kuchiye said...


Yes indeed,"the opposition shall always get the credit for smashing that glass ceiling and showing Ethiopians that there is, indeed, honor in Ethiopian politics.."

But the opposition should also continue to display forsight and fortitude and never succumb to the increasingly loud call (most calls sponsored by EPDRF)for moderation and compromise. There is no room for compromise with an evil regime that is, among many other attrocious deeds, passing laws from its death bed that make even tabling of agenda in the next paliament impossible. We are, at a defining moment in our history where the fate of future generations is at stake. The opposition has neither the moral nor mandated authority to engage in dialogues that derail the democratic tide. Besides, doing so is perilious as the next five years will afford EPRDF another chance to add fuel to its sworn policy of polarizing Ethiopia among ethnic lines - all to benefit a minority rule. It shudders me to think about the inevitable revenge campagn EPRDF and its mercinary army will unleash against those who freely expressed their wishes on the May 5 election.

Fortitude & forsight is the call of the day!


10:34 PM, July 25, 2005  
Anonymous mamo begebeya said...

"...never succumb to the increasingly loud call (most calls sponsored by EPDRF)for moderation and compromise"

No room for moderation and compromise? ok. For the first time, meche leta, I started to wonder if I should have stayed in bada ager like you all.

The city goes on like NOTHING ever happened. Yigermal. Yemote siyasazzinnnn, yeQerut will, like, always totally move on, tilalech ye bole lij.

On one corner we have a pissed off government on the other hand we have ashaferegne yale opposition. Democracy? No
Compromise? No
Tolerance? No
Moderation? no

honor? DV dersot enante ager kehede bizu gize honotal.

I guess it's on.

be zihon til sigoda saru.. zim ayilim yayal e'gzerim..

6:16 AM, July 26, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


9:12 AM, July 26, 2005  
Anonymous asylum seeker said...

I hope the budding flower of democracy and acceptance of differences in opinion will blossom with CUD. May be, just may be it might be contagious and EPRDF will become infected with it too (I live in hope).

May God bless you Wonqit

10:32 AM, July 26, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice piece.

Asylum Seeker,

While your wish is really great - I really, really doubt anything contagious with the exception of AIDS will infect EPRDF let alone honorable deeds and thoughts.

10:47 AM, July 26, 2005  
Anonymous Yohannes said...


i *needed* this blog. *need* yigebashal?

Lost in most political discussions is “who is a better person?” among all the “what do I get out of it?”’s. (is compromise the new ‘c’ word of our generation?) Ato Mamo be Gebeya hoi—“addis qess ke PaPPas ybisal” hone yante neger. Or is it “Addis expatriate ke hagereNaw sew yibisal.”? Not Genni raised a good point last time: is it only the opposition’s responsibility to wrangle with the question of compromise or do you also serve up your terets for the EPRDF?

No doubt someone has to blink, and it will probably be the opposition because they have more sense. And that’s why I trust the opposition.

Kuchiye, going into this with a “no compromise- zeraff, yeTiql ashker” is gonna be futile. A more interesting conversation will be the art of compromise with a gangsta. If the opposition can handle that then I will sign up to be their slave…. (Not Genni… tell ‘em I have experience.)

10:49 AM, July 26, 2005  
Anonymous bole peoples liberation front said...

Everything is irritating me…

-the eprdf (whooof! generally love paranoid, sociopath bullies, but meles has weaned me off of that pleasure)

-eng. hailu shawel (generally engineers who try to tackle anything other than engineering aggravate my gout, but now it’s really giving me dry skin

-- hardline pro-eprdf supporters (pointlessness: always debilitatingly annoying)

-- hardline opposition supporters (as Wonq says, what’ev’r!)

--the EU, whishy-washy international organizations—generally make me pound a nail up my nostrils: they were asked a simple question: has the eprdf “made drastic moves towards democracy” since the memo came out? answer: no! enough already take a stand!

-- Jimm’ih… Jimm’ih Ca’hra… needs ex-lax mixed in with his politics…

-- preachy, trite, judgmental expats who throw out inanity like “honor? DV agnto innante gar meTwal”, and who admit they didn’t vote even when they had the opportunity? always good to have around as a show-and-tell piece-- “when good expats go bad.”

just finished watching non-henJJ’nirr berhanu nega in sweden. okay a little less irritated now.

(upside: i love yohannes—in a very non-communist, mengistu f***’ed up my childhood way.)

11:39 AM, July 26, 2005  
Anonymous faraw said...

Just name one honorable Ethiopian politician...ofcourse other than Wonkit!!

Somebody must be dreaming.. honorable politicians.. what a joke!!

12:47 PM, July 26, 2005  
Anonymous David said...

Something that struck me as I read this post: I did an informal survey of my ET friends who are also active in Ethiopian politics during the 2004 American Elections. 70% supported Kerry. Can anyone explain this to me? Jimmy Carter, Clinton, Albright, Cohen.... which left wing US Administration has been good to Ethiopia? (And of course there is Blair in the UK who is Meles' godfather.) Yet, those of us who can vote, vote for them! I have yet to understand this.

2:18 PM, July 26, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the name of compromise; I afraid that some members of the opposition might hand their wife to members of EPRDF!

2:19 PM, July 26, 2005  
Anonymous gg said...

hmmmm.... that might be one way of getting out of paying alimony.

2:21 PM, July 26, 2005  
Blogger INEHO? said...

my oh my, the sarcasm is flowing isn't it? And what was mamo begebeya's wenjel except pointing out the situation exactly? Did I miss something here?

david, the answer to your question is simple. Ethiopians are a very intuitive group of people. They can smell a rat from far off places like Crawford Tx.

4:34 PM, July 26, 2005  
Anonymous ye filwiha said...


Answering your question, I say, Berhanu Nega without thinking twice. Anything dishonorable you know about him that we don't know? Everything I read, watched, and heard about him is more than honorable for a politician not by Ethiopian politics standard but by any other country's politics standard (as our squirrel PM might say) that I know of - true that I know little.

p.s. sometimes dreams come true, ya know!

6:07 PM, July 26, 2005  
Anonymous megaparticles said...

honorable politicians...put honor in politics....tikelijalesh woys.....honorable people don't make good politics, good politics (laws, check and balance, tranparency etc) make honorable people...and oh to have good politics from the get go, it don't need no honorable people....

1:34 PM, July 28, 2005  
Anonymous Dr. Shaleqa Engineer said...


From the mouth of babes... mean that both to your 'hotness' as well as in reference to your age.

By far your greatest piece. Those of us who have studied political science have long forgotten that more basic than theory, there is humanity. Tyrants, by definition, cannot make good policies. Honor is the forgotten detail in politics. Good laws might prevent bad leadership, but good laws can only be made by good leaders. Your blog was the topic of much discussion in the academic circle I frequent. Good job!

Ke adnaqot gar.

12:45 AM, July 29, 2005  
Anonymous mehayim said...

speaking of Dergue’s atrocities, why are people shy talking about EPRP's mayhem. Is it still that intimidating?
EPRP did eliminate lots of promising and accomplished intellectuals both within and outside its party. if there is a desire for genuine democratization, all aspects of what happened should be brought to light and given a commensurate judgment. Selective condemnation is not only unfair - it also leaves those still lurking in the dark unaccountable.. A fair assessment of ethiopian history need not omit the huge blunders of EPRP.

1:38 PM, July 31, 2005  

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