Ethiopia: Dictator With a Conscience?


Alemayehu G. Mariam

Ethiopia, Famine and the Oxford Dictionary

Oxymorons (figures of speech that combine contradictory terms) can sometimes provide unique  insights into the cognitive process. Consider, for instance, the phrase “honest politician”. Is there such a thing? It sounds so comical to talk about “efficient government”? How about an “emerging democracy”? That’s like saying a “little bit pregnant.”  If there is such a thing as a “benevolent despot/dictator”, then there are hyenas that do not eat carrion.  How about “dictator with conscience”?

Recently, dictator Meles Zenawi responding to an interviwer’s question made a public confession of shame and regret over the fact that the Oxford Dictionary uses Ethiopia as a prime  example of famine.

Interviewer: In the mid-1960s something was revealed in our country. Many people were waging struggles. You were in the struggle. In the Oxford dictionary, for the word famine, the example given is Ethiopia. How does that make you feel as an Ethiopian?

Zenawi: It is a mixed up situation. On the one hand, like any citizen, I am very sad. I am ashamed. It is degrading. A society that built the Lalibela churches some thousand years ago is unable to cultivate the land and feed itself. A society that built the Axum obelisks some 2-3 thousand years ago is unable to cultivate  the land and feed itself. That is very sad. It is very shameful.  Of all the things, to go out begging for one’s daily bread, to be a beggar nation is dehumanizing. Therefore, I feel great shame. In the end though these things are not the mistakes of a single individual. They have their own long history, and cannot be eliminated through anger or regrets. In a similar way, it requires a long struggle and determination and defiance of not just one but 3 or 4 generations. I understand that is what it takes. Until that is removed and eliminated, until I finish playing my role in it, all I can do is say Amen and accept this shame and degradation.  This is the kind of feeling it creates in me.

In 1995, Zenawi was self-effacing but cocky about his vision of a nation that is well-fed and -clothed in a decade or two with people dancing in the streets, at least living not too far from paved streets. Responding to a question from what appears to be an audience of friends and supporters, Zenawi envisioned:

Questioner: In 10 or 15 years from now, is there a vision that you see that would make you happy. Can you tell us two or three things about that?

Zenawi: Ten years from now (laughter).  Let me start with ten years from now. One big thing I think will happen and dream about is that all Ethiopians will get three meals a day (applause). After that may be, if everything works out well, my hope is that Ethiopians will have two or three changes of clothes. If everything works out, all Ethiopians will live within two hours of a paved road. If we do this, we would have done a miracle (laughter). If we go to twenty years, we would have clinics, schools, access to roads of less than two hours, not just eat three times a day. We may even have a choice of foods and selection of clothes. I hope in twenty years, we will have good outcomes (applause).

Sixteen years later in 2011, the Black Horseman is standing at the gate. Zenawi stands alongside  with folded arms feigning shame for the fact that Ethiopia is perceived to be synonymous with  famine. Recently, the U.N. predicted the “worst drought in the last 60 years” for Ethiopia and neighboring countries. UNICEF warned “millions of children and women are at risk from death and disease unless a rapid and speedy response is put into action.”

The world dreads to see once again the haunting skeletal figures of Ethiopian famine victims splattered across the television screen reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s. Blame history Zenawi bleated philosophically: “In the end though these things are not the mistakes of a single individual. They have their own long history….”

Shame Without Guilt

Zenawi’s declaration of shame and regret for famine and chronic food shortages in Ethiopia is reminiscent of those American televangelists who publicly confess their sins when caught in a shameful scandal but take no responsibility for their transgressions. The devil did it or made them do it. For Zenawi, the blame should be placed on history, drought, climate change, heartless donors and divine retribution. Famine is not something he could have anticipated or planned to prevent. Famine just happens. No one is responsible.

Shame and guilt are often trivialized in the modern world. After the fall of the Third Reich, few came forward to express shame for their callous indifference to the acts of inhumanity committed in their name, and even fewer felt or admitted guilt for their own criminal acts. They conveniently dissociated themselves from the inhuman acts by adopting a shockingly matter-of-fact attitude: “It was what it was.” Nothing more. Of course, they had their regrets. The super-state that was to last a thousand years lasted only twelve.

During the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in South Africa, many of the officials who  perpetrated atrocities “felt” ashamed for torturing and mistreating black South Africans, but few openly admitted guilt and took full responsibility for their actions. They said they were acting in the name of the government or simply following official orders. They were not personally responsible.

The street criminal also feels shame for robbing or assaulting his victim, but rarely admits legal guilt, and even more rarely moral guilt and take responsibility. He too feels regrets, for getting caught.

It is common for dictators to acknowledge the fact of their wrongdoing without feeling shame or guilt. Stalin unapologetically declared, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” In 1959 during China’s Great Famine Mao casually remarked in a speech:  “When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” After the massacre of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators following the 2005 elections in Ethiopia, Zenawi feigned pangs of conscience: “I regret the deaths but these were not normal demonstrations. You don’t see hand grenades thrown at normal demonstrations.”  When his own handpicked Inquiry Commission determined after a meticulous investigation that the demonstrators were unarmed and carried no weapons of any kind, Zenawi ignored the report and did nothing. Today, 237 killers still roam the streets free.

In the final analysis, when famine consumes hundreds of thousands of  people or untold numbers of people die for simple lack of food, it is the responsibility of the man at the helm, the guy in the driver’s seat. But never in Ethiopia. Emperor Haile Selassie said he did not know about the famine in 1974 until it was too late. He was not responsible. Junta leader Mengistu Hailemariam said he was not responsible for the famine in 1984 because there was no famine. Over a million people died in that famine. Zenawi says the famine in Ethiopia today is not the responsibility of any one individual. No one in leadership position has ever taken responsibility for the recurrent famines in Ethiopia.

One must have a conscience to feel shame, admit guilt and take responsibility. To say dictators have conscience is like saying snakes have legs. Dictators are the quintessential narcissists who care about and love only themselves. They are incapable of feeling shame, guilt, compassion or appreciation. Their raison d’etre (reason for existence) is the pursuit of power at any cost to dominate and control others.

Our conscience is that “inner voice” or “inner light” that helps us distinguish right from wrong, good from evil, guilt from innocence, love from hate and virtue from vice. Guilt is the flip side of shame. The bifurcation of shame from guilt is the clearest manifestation of the lack of conscience. But if one feels shame and admits guilt (moral or legal) for the actions (or omissions) producing the shame, he experiences an inner transformation which compels him to make amends. The painful feeling of dishonor, disgrace, humiliation and self-criticism transforms the shameful act into an honorable act or at least produces genuine atonement. Real admission of guilt is always followed by moral self-redemption and salvation.

Eastern philosophy teaches that “when the mind is face to face with the Truth, a self-luminous spark of thought is revealed at the inner core of ourselves and, by analogy, all of reality.” When we come face to face with the truth of our shameful act and our conscience is awakened, we naturally and effortlessly make efforts to make amends.

Confession Time?

While we are on the subject of shame, regrets, guilt and all that, I have my own confession to make. I am ashamed Ethiopia is a country

that has become the butt of famine jokes (not just an entry in the Oxford Dictionary).

known primarily for its poverty.

where elections are stolen in broad daylight.

where the rule of law and human rights are trampled every day with impunity.

where 237 security thugs walk free after killing 193 unarmed demonstrators and wounding nearly 800.

with the worst prison system in the world.

classified as the world’s worst backslider on press freedom.

with lowest internet penetration in the world after Sierra Leone.

I am ashamed Ethiopia is classified together with the worst countries in the world on the

Corruption Index (most corrupt countries).

Failed States Index (most failed states).

Index of Economic Freedom (economically most repressive countries).

International Bank for Reconstruction and Development Investment Climate Assessment (most unfriendly to business).

Ibrahim Index of African Governance (most poorly governed African countries).

Bertelsmann Political and Economic Transformation Index (most in need of reform).

Environmental Performance Index (poorest environmental and public health indicators).

But I am also proud, mighty proud. I am proud of the unity of the Ethiopian people despite the efforts of those who toil day and night to divide them by ethnicity, region, religion, language and whatever else. I am proud of Ethiopia’s culture of respect, compassion and tolerance. Most of all, I am super proud of Ethiopia’s young people. They are the only lifeline to the survival of that nation.

I wear a badge of shame on the left and a badge of pride on the right. But between my pride and shame lies my overwhelming sense of gnawing guilt. It is guilt that manifests itself in a moral quandary about what I could have done, can do now and in the future, particularly for the young people of Ethiopia to reclaim their destiny. The solutions to Ethiopia’s famine, poverty, disease, illiteracy and the rest of it will not come from self-adulating, forked-tongue dictators who cling to power like ticks on a milk cow, but from Ethiopia’s young men and women.

Zenawi says he is ashamed of the recurrent famine in Ethiopia and is resigned to accepting it  with an “Amen.” The crocodile also sheds tears. But a dictator professing shame without admitting guilt is, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “an evil soul producing holy witness, a villain with a smiling cheek, a goodly apple rotten at the heart.”

But can you hear the silent screams of the starving Ethiopians? Can you see their quiet riots against tyranny?  If you can’t, what a crying shame!

Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/

 

 


9 thoughts on “Ethiopia: Dictator With a Conscience?

  1. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised on

    The genocidal killer Meles Zenawi reminds me of the man who killed his parents and begged for mercy because he is an orphan.

  2. Beya on

    Zenawi has no concerns about the people of Ethiopia or the country.

    The man who said, Axum is no concern for amhara or Wolayta, the man who has dismissed the Ethiopian flag as a piece of rag, the man who incites and encourages ethnic and relegious violence and uses division among the people as a means to rule the country cannot be expected to do any thing good to Ethiopia.

    -Zenawi is a man who rules by muzzling the people, harassing and intimidating citizens.

    -There is poverty in Ethiopia in every aspect of life. The fabric of the country is made up of famine everywhere. There is famine in the political , socal, economic life of the country. Famine is not just associated with the fact that people have no food to eat.

    -By the way zenawi has been selling millions of acres of fertile land the size of Wales, according to the latest report, to Arab, Pakistani, Indian and Chinese landlords by uprooting the local population in western and southern Ethiopia. The ethiopian people are being herded up like cattle and placed in settlement camps like refugees waiting for handout from the UNHCR.
    This is how zenawi is manufacturing famine in Ethiopia by a deliberate policy of uprooting people from their lands, inciting tribal warfare, dividing communities , starving them of education, jobs and means of livelihood. No one can get a job in present day Ethiopia unless you support TPLF/eprdf. this is how famine is being manufactured. that is why we say famine is man made in Ethiopia.

  3. Yegermal on

    Weyanne should be given a sanction to buy Military Hardware (Tanks)
    No western nation speakes about $100,000,000 money spent by Weyane.

    Instead of working hard for devlopement & reject dependency like Eritrea, they are jelouse about Eritrean economy and are praying to see starved Eritrean children. Weyanee is a poster boy for famine.
    They do not care about the Ethioian people. They have to be exposed!!

    3 times a day meal?? where is the promise??

  4. Anonymous on

    The famine is exclusively a northern problem. The last person to pretend to feel sorry about the starvation would be Meles because he is the cause in reverse of the horrific reality. His and his father’s rebellion was what brought the drought and the signature famine up North in the first place. By continiuing his evil schemes, he became the ruler of the entire country (God purposely gave it to him to test him) thus the drag and dropper of the curse to cover the land. He and his friends and their children will never be able to pay back Ethiopia, therefore, the Creator, considering all, will make an end of them in time.

  5. abbay on

    Weyanne is responsible for the current famine and 1984 famine as well as a gorilla fighter starved their own people in order to buy weapons so is now recently they bought $100 million dollar worth old thanks from ukraine no country condemend the action. god bless ethiopia one day we will feed our selves like Eritreans.
    good job Elias

  6. Beza on

    The World Health Organization is warning of an increased risk of disease outbreaks in the Horn of Africa. It says it is particularly concerned about the spread of measles and water-borne diseases, such as acute watery diarrhea in Ethiopia and Kenya.

    The World Health Organization says communicable diseases already are spreading throughout the Horn of Africa. It says disease outbreaks are likely to worsen because of extensive population movements in drought-affected areas, which have poor health care systems, low immunization coverage, and lack of clean water and sanitation.

    WHO Spokesman Tarik Jasarevic says the situation in Ethiopia is particularly critical.

    “Taking into account the size of the population in the worst hit areas in Ethiopia, WHO estimates that two million children under five are at risk of measles, and already since the beginning of the year, there were 5,000 cases reported of measles,” said Jasarevic. “More than three million of children under five should be screened for malnutrition and given vitamin A supplements.”

    The World Health Organization says nearly nine million people in the worst affected areas are at risk of water-borne diseases, such as acute watery diarrhea. Although no cholera cases, so far have been detected, it warns some five million people are susceptible.

    The U.N. refugee agency is caring for tens of thousands of refugees, mainly from Somalia in camps at Dollo Ado in southeast Ethiopia. Spokesman, Adrian Edwards, says one in every two children below the age of five who is arriving at the camp is malnourished. He says this is adding to life-threatening conditions there.

    “The data we have from Dollo Ado is still incomplete at the moment,” said Edwards. “But, at the worst incidents we are seeing-the mortality rates are at the Kobe camp at the moment, where we are registering 7.4 deaths per 10,000 people per day. To give you a sense of what that means, the normal baseline is below one.”

    Aid agencies report health conditions in Kenya also are deteriorating. They say in all areas where large numbers of people are gathering, health facilities are overwhelmed and this is leading to shortages of medical and other supplies.

    The World Health Organization reports in Mwingi districts and in the Dadaab refugee camps, 462 measles cases are confirmed and so far, 11 related deaths are reported.

    It says population movements increase the risk of the spread of infectious diseases especially of polio, cholera and measles.

    The U.N. Children’s Fund and WHO, along with the Kenyan Ministry of Health will begin vaccination campaigns at the end of the month along the Somali-Kenyan borders and in the Dadaab refugee camps. More than 200,000 children under five will be immunized against polio and measles and they will receive vitamin A supplements and de-worming tablets.

    WHO says it is stepping up its disease surveillance systems in Ethiopia and Kenya. It is training more health workers and providing medicines and medical supplies to the drought-stricken areas.

  7. We're The Children/World on

    Recently i was reading ato Fikre Tolossa’s highly informative about our common history and some comments following it such as “an abusive person is more likely to have a tendency abusing others…indivituals who don’t have self-respect and by extention they don’t respect thier history”, etc. In short, the good prof’s excellent article of our human bonding above all encouraged me to have my own worth of 5-cent say, on this honorable voice of the downtrodden voiceless ER forum, too.
    Ofcourse, these dear above bloggers jsut to mention few are reffering to the former MLLT fellowship diciples who used having contempt the ancient land’s proud long history its flag as well as one of its widely spoken Amharic national language which now turned their ill-gotten fortune making tool.
    As we all know,the narrow-minded local dedebit cadres suddenly hit mega jack pot lottery beyond thier wildest fantacies in the hitoric 1991 mostly advised and directed on the back of their thankless x-manager, shaebia. The reason is b/c they don’t want to risk seeing as weak and unnationalists on the eyes of the unsuspecting some gillible Ethiopians. This is a typical tendency of minority dictators with minus and shaky confidence; one of an easy prey for controlling and exploiting strategies by external forces.
    Needless to say, aftermaths of the demise of junta derg, everyone at that time hoped with some reservations from then on our unfortunate chapter of misery might finaly be terminated for good. However, the reality on the ground only got worse than before. To mention just one example, while the elite Tgreans are enjoying their luciorious life syles, millions are suffering and dying of starvation, by the very reason they were preaching in the bush wedging gurella warfare to eliminate it. This is now taking place entirely b/c of thier misguided greedy policies.
    To add injury to the wounds, they are even in the midst of military purchasing spree in order to protect thier self-interst and investors. This is against the geniune concened united prodemocrat nationalists for justice and human right freedom advacates who are falsely accused under pretention of imaginary ‘terrorism’. It’s also intended adding more endless chaoes, a fertile breeding ground of innocent blood sucker opportunist satlite warlord puppets. What another shameful vicious sycles of misplaced priority!
    When the MLLT cadres were in the jungle they used to bombarding the poor Tgrean peasants with propaganda hate that goes “Every thing that has been happening to you, our golden Tgrean people is b/c of your colonizers emperor Janhoy and facist Mengstu dictators dominated by their amhara chuavinists”. To be fair at the risk of sounding hypocrat for being former shaebia ykalo/veteran, i must admit that the previous regimes were at leat believing in eqully unity for all, not separated/aparthied Ethiopia; fron the begining to the end w/out playing differnt tunes and principles in-between according to where the fortune wind flows.
    Now, jumping forward to the 21st cenury, after the allegedly colonized accidentaly found themselves crowned as modern colonizers of Ethiopia, the new MLLT but with a different tricky, racist, genoicidal corrupt aparthied dictatorship, dressing cosmetic make-up as EPRDF is once again recycling the same old lie; only at this era to a different hungry audiences with a differnt language, that the bad governace-made starvation is being blamed to the usual suspect. I wish the poor nature could speak to defend itself!
    Becouse the wicked woyanes are envious of Eritrea’s can-do sprit and well-deserved stablity, they’re praying to throw her under the bus or else enlisted her in the roster of panhandler nations which unabled to accomplish on their own. Obviously, they are threatened that Ethiopians might demand like thier next door cousins.
    It’s an open secret that against all odds, peaceful Eritea is getting economically prieter than the crooked woyane’s Ethiopia. For some strange reasons, such promisning move instead of actracting praising and worthy of posetive siting (especially factoring the current global financial meltdow) is frown upon in this part of our world. This looks like classical Geogre Owle’s Animal Farm that some animals are more equal than others.
    It’s really ironic and facinating to watch that how fast yesterday’s playing victims have turned today’s true victimizers. The stranger Tgrean warmongering super rich guests main concern seems just never letting go easily by any means necessary to this delicious humble kitfo, a treature once in a life time opportunity which unexpectedly discovered after venturing from the resourceless self-declared kingdom called Clil Tgray…
    Peace&Love

  8. We're The Children/World on

    …By the way, prof. Al, i hope i’m not invading into the private territory of your beloved family in congrautating you for heading your bright doughter to one of the finest higher institutions of the entire world. i wish i could figure out the secret (ofcourse, beside the basic prerquites of hard working with having normal brain) so my medicore wild teenage daughter can be the next lucky rhodes scholar or for that matter why not all our precious habeshan/african princesses as well.
    In fact, heeding your advice to our youth, ‘the only survival to a nation’… “never give up, never give in, against dictatorships and unjustice…” would be just enough; a priceless leture worthy of pursuing for the interest of common good.
    Peace&Love

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