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Speaking Truth to the Powerless

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Note: In my last commentary[1] on the theme, "Where do we go from here?" I suggested that the ruling dictatorship in Ethiopia following its 99.6 percent "victory" in the May 2010 parliamentary "election" will continue to do business as usual in much the same way as it has over the last two decades. In this commentary, I focus on the Ethiopian opposition collectively and argue that they must atone and reinvent themselves if they hope to play a significant role in that country's future.

Always speak truth to power; but sometimes it is necessary to speak it to the powerless too. Truth must be spoken not only because it renders naked the hypocrites and villains, but also because it has a cathartic (cleansing) effect on its defenders. Above all, it must be spoken because it is the quintessential requirement of freedom: "The truth shall make you free." It is in the spirit of freedom from the burdens of past political blunders and poor judgment and the freedom to invent a new spirit of democracy in Ethiopia that I offer this commentary to the Ethiopian opposition. My aim is not to lecture or to bash; I leave that job to the dictators who are the true experts. When I speak my mind freely about the Ethiopian opposition, it is merely to help "clean out the closet", as it were, so that we could begin afresh on the long walk to democracy. It is said that the "truth hurts", but I disagree. I believe the truth heals, empowers and liberates its defenders.

Holding a Mirror to the Ethiopian Opposition

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.

In the 2005 election, there was a unifying spirit among the opposition. For that reason, they were able to trounce the ruling dictatorship in a free and fair election. What was monumental about that election was not only the fact that the opposition thumped the ruling party, but they did so with overflowing and overwhelming public support. On May 7, 2005, a week before elections that year, the opposition was able to hold a rally in the capital for an estimated 3 million people. On May 15, over 26 million people voted freely giving the opposition a decisive victory in the parliamentary elections, including a clean sweep of seats in the capital. Of course, the elections were stolen by the current dictatorship after hundreds of unarmed protesters were massacred and shot in the streets and thousands more imprisoned and disappeared. The point is that in 2005 the Ethiopian people put everything on the line-- their lives, their livelihoods and their loved ones. Fast forward to 2010: "Where did the people go?" That was the question asked by Awramba Times, the only struggling independent paper in Ethiopia that is the regular object of the dictatorship's wrath and fury.

The people did not vanish merely because Zenawi had unloosed his trigger-happy goons on the streets. Perhaps they did not show up because they had lost faith in the leadership of the opposition. When Zenawi herded the opposition leaders into his dungeons after the 2005 election, the people kept faith with them. They kept them in their hearts and minds and thoughts and prayers. Did the opposition leaders keep faith with the people after they were "pardoned" and released from prison? That is perhaps the hardest truth for the opposition leaders to face and accept. I have heard it said anecdotally thousands of times. The opposition leaders have deeply and sorely disappointed the people. In their words, deeds and conduct, they have failed to uphold and sustain the people's dreams, aspirations and longing for justice and democracy. As best as I could summarize it, the people feel betrayed and abandoned by many opposition leaders in whom they placed so much trust.

The Opposition Through Zenawi's Eyes

Zenawi knows the opposition like the opposition does not know itself. He has studied them and understands how they (do not) work. Careful analysis of his public statements on the opposition over the years suggests a rather unflattering view. He considers opposition leaders to be his intellectual inferiors; he can outwit, outthink, outsmart, outplay, outfox and outmaneuver them any day of the week. He believes they are dysfunctional, shiftless and inconsequential, and will never be able to pose a real challenge to his power. In his speeches and public comments, he shows nothing but contempt and hatred for them. At best, he sees them as wayward children who need constant supervision, discipline and punishment to keep them in line. Like children, he will offer some of them candy -- jobs, cars, houses and whatever else it takes to buy their silence. Those he can not buy, he will intimidate, place under continuous surveillance and persecute. Mostly, he tries to fool and trick the opposition. He will send "elders" to talk to them and lullaby them to sleep while he drags out "negotiations" to buy just enough time to pull the rug from underneath them. He casts a magical spell on them so that they forget he is the master of the zero-sum game (which means he always wins and his opposition always loses).

For the first time in nearly twenty years, he is now changing his tune a little because the opposition seems to be wising up and Western donors are grimacing with slight embarrassment for supporting him. The kinder and gentler face of Zenawi is slowly being rolled out. After his "election victory", he extended an olive branch to the opposition wrapped in his inimitable condescending cordiality, magnanimity and paternalism. He solemnly "pledge[d] to all the parties who did not succeed in getting the support of the people... as long as you respect the will of the people and the country's Constitution and other laws of the land, we will work by consulting and involving you in all major national issues. We are making this pledge not only because we believe that we should be partners... [but also] you have the right to participate and to be heard." In other words, he will set up a "kitchen cabinet" for the nice opposition leaders to come in through the back door and chit-chat with him. But they will never be allowed to get out of the kitchen and sit at the dining table.

Who is the Opposition in Ethiopia, Anyway?

Opposition politics in the African political context is a tragicomedy. Beginning with Nkrumah -- the father of the one-man, one-party state in Africa-- opposition parties and groups in Africa have been staged, suppressed and persecuted by those in power. Just a few days ago, it was reported that "14 opposition political parties have declared the Meles Zenawi-led EPRDF party as a winner of the 2010 elections, conveying congratulatory message." This is like the chickens congratulating the fox who snacks on them for doing a good job guarding the henhouse. It is nutty, but quaintly African. Where else on earth could an election universally declared to be a sham and a fraud be blessed by lackeys organized to look like opposition parties? Are these 14 "parties" the Ethiopian opposition? How about those political parties that are permitted to run for elections just to window-dress the ruling party and make it look good and democratic? Is the opposition those parties that are handcuffed and chained at the starting line while the ruling party sprints to the finish line? Is the opposition that amorphous aggregation of weak, divided, squabbling, factionalized and fragmented parties and groups that is constantly at each other's throats? Or is it the grumbling aggregation of human rights advocates, civic society organizers, journalists and other media professionals and academics? Or are the groups committed to armed struggle and toppling the dictatorship by force the opposition?

What Is to Be Done by the Ethiopian Opposition?

Atonement and Reconciliation With the People: There is the well-known parable of the prodigal son who took riches from his father and squandered it all. He returned home believing his father will reject and disown him. But the son asked for his father's forgiveness. Filled with compassion and love, the father forgave his son. There may be a good lesson here for the opposition: They need to go back to the people and ask forgiveness for squandering their hopes, dreams and aspirations. They need to say to the people, "We did let you down. We are deeply sorry. We promise to do our very best to earn back your trust and confidence. We will correct our mistakes. " In my view, atonement is the first thing opposition leaders need to do before they can begin to reconnect with the people. I realize that many of us (including myself) find it exceedingly difficult to admit we have done wrong or made a mistake. We feel that it is a sign of weakness to say "I am sorry, I messed up." But the real and tragic mistake is to know one has done wrong and irrationally insist that wrong is right. The people deserve the unqualified and public apology of the opposition leaders. They will be forgiven because the Ethiopian people are decent, understanding and compassionate.

Work Collectively for the Release of Birtukan Midekssa and all Ethiopian Political Prisoners: Birtukan Midekksa is the symbol of the democratic opposition in Ethiopia. She is the one paying the ultimate price. Zenawi has made her his object of ridicule. But she is the personification of the spirit of the Ethiopian opposition. We must work tirelessly to get Birtukan and all of the thousands of political prisoners in Ethiopia released.

Learn From Past Mistakes: It is said that those who do not learn from past mistakes are doomed to repeat it. Many mistakes have been committed by opposition leaders in the past. They need to be identified and lessons learned from them.

Understand the Opposition's Opposition: The opposition's opposition should not be underestimated. Their strength is in dividing and ruling and in playing the ethnic card. If the opposition unites and acts around a common agenda, they are powerless.

Develop a Common Agenda in Support of Issues and Causes: The core issues democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law and the unity of the people and the physical integrity of the Ethiopian nation are shared by all opposition elements. Why not build collective agenda to advance and support these issues?

Agree to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable: Opposition leaders and supporters must abandon the destructive principle, "If you do not agree with me 100 percent, you are my enemy." There is nothing wrong with reasonable minds disagreeing. Dissent and disagreement are essential conditions of democracy. If the opposition can not tolerate dissent within and among itself, how different could it be from the dictators?

Guard Against the Cult of Personality: One of the greatest weaknesses in the Ethiopian opposition has been the cult of personality. We create idealized and heroic images of individuals as leaders, shower them with unquestioning flattery and praise and almost worship them. Let us remember that every time we do that we are grooming future dictators.

Always Act in Good Faith: Opposition leaders and supporters must always strive to act in good faith and be forthright and direct in their personal and organizational relationships. We must mean what we say and say what we mean. Games of one-upmanship will keep us all stranded on an island of irrelevance.

Think Generationally; Act Presently: The struggle is not about winning an election or getting into public office. The struggle is about establishing democracy, protecting human rights and institutionalizing accountability and the rule of law in Ethiopia. It is not about us. It is about the younger generation.

Give Young People a Chance to Lead: The older generation in the opposition needs to learn to get out of the way. Let's give the younger generation a chance to lead. After all, it is their future. We can be most useful if we help them learn from our mistakes and guide them to greater heights. Zenawi thinks he can mold the young people in his image so that he can establish a Reich that will last a thousand years. He will never succeed. If there is one thing universally true about young people, it is that they love freedom more than anything else. Let the older generation be water carriers for the young people who will be building the "future country of Ethiopia," as Birtukan would say.

Think Like Winners, Not Victims: Victory is not what it seems for the victors, and defeat is not what it feels for the vanquished. There is defeat in victory and victory in defeat. Both victory and defeat are first and foremost states of mind. Those who won the election by a margin of 99.6 percent project an image of being victorious. But we know they have an empty victory secured by force and fraud. The real question is whether the opposition sees itself as winners or losers. Winners think and act as winners, likewise for losers.

Never Give Up, NEVER: Sir Winston Churchill was right when he said: "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."

What is NOT to Be Done by the Opposition: "Fool Me once, Shame on You; Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me!"

There is talk now that Zenawi is shuttling his "elders" (shimagles) to do a deal with the opposition. It is even said that if the opposition leaders have been warned that if they do not negotiate and publicy accept the "election" results, they will soon be joining Birtukan. The last time Zenawi used his Trojan horse "elders" to deal with the opposition, he put a noose around their necks. Birtukan Midekksa is in prison today precisely because she took a "pardon" deal from the "elders". Now she is doing a life sentence because she allegedly violated the terms of her "pardon" deal. This is how she explained it a day or two before Zenawi threw her back to prison:

... Let me start with the negotiation by the elders; the basic spirit of the negotiation by the elders was to bring about an agreement acceptable to both parties and to create a spirit of reconciliation and to continue the political process. This is why its progress took several months. In this, regarding the problem that was created following the 2005 elections, instead of following the path of making one party wrong and another party right, the country elders mediated with the objective of having each party ask for forgiveness from the people and from each other, presented to both parties points that would bring about a spirit of reconciliation, mediated these points between the parties, toning down the parties' opinions as much as possible, and move forward by proving their determination to their political outlooks on fundamental issues.

The negotiation through the elders that was focused on reaching a negotiated agreement through a give and take deal was based on not only a willingness on the part of the government but also through its participation. ... Nonetheless, even at that stage, the spirit of reconciliation to which the negotiation was directed did not change. Even though other points of agreement were left behind, the elders expressed that if we signed that document which was crafted on the spirit of our country's culture to say to each other let it be settled, the matter would stop at that stage, the file would be closed, and pushed on with their elderly mediation.... In connection with this, agreement was reached "to release all prisoners in the country put in jail in matters related the CUD [Coalition for Unity and Democracy] without preconditions; to start direct discussions between the government and the former CUD leaders; for the parties leaders to continue their party's duties without restrictions....

Not only was there no follow up on the "negotiated agreement" and no political prisoners released, Birtukan herself ended up being the number 1 political prisoner in the country. For Birtukan, it was Faustian bargain: In exchange for walking out of prison and staying out, Zenawi demanded her soul. But she would never sell her soul, so she is now back in Zenawi's underworld. Just remember Birtukan when you see the slithering "elders" come bearing gifts and talk with forked tongues! "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me."

As I have argued before, much needs to be done to reinvent and revitalize opposition politics in Ethiopia. I raised some questions above about who the opposition is in Ethiopia. I will answer it now. The opposition is anyone who believes in and stands for genuine democracy, protection of human rights and institutionalization of the rule of law, accountability and transparency in government. The Ethiopian opposition is anyone who stands against dictatorship, tyranny and despotism.

Are you part of the opposition?

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/of-elections-and-diapers_b_595203.html