By Yilma Bekele
The last few months I have been inflicted with a Herman Cain (HC) moment. You remember his interview with a newspaper publisher and when asked his opinion regarding President Obama’s policy on the uprising in Libya? My good old friend was completely stumped. After crossing his legs, shifting in his seat, clapping his hands and squirming in his chair all he could come up was ‘I got all this stuff twirling in my head.’ and display a near meltdown situation. I found it to be very interesting. Let us just say it was ‘a revealing moment.’
It just so happened that things have been twirling in my head. It is not a good idea to have so many things twirling in your head. Lack of clarity is not a good state of mind to be unless one of course wants a certain amount of fogginess or blurred vision. It is possible we do that to avoid making hard decisions, shift responsibility or distance ourselves from our actions or choose to be comfortably numb to justify inaction.
It was the convergence of three unrelated happenings that yanked me out from that dark, wet, suffocating ‘Idiot Woyane’ state of mind. My friend Kirubeal’s constant nagging, Abebe’s timely revelations (I am still not over ‘Mamo kilo in Arat Kilo’), Professors Al’s relentless tickle of my discarded conscience, my dear hero’s ECADF’s energetic enthusiasm and Ethiopian Review’s smart ‘Policy Research’ papers was what kept me from going into deep freeze. Some folks don’t take no for an answer.
The four items that made me realize that all is not lost are the first Anniversary of ‘Arab Spring’, the death of Vaclav Havel of ‘Prague Spring’ and the passage of Kim Jung-il owner of ‘perpetual winter’ and a not so likeable human being and the sacrifice of Yenesew Gebre of Ethiopia.
A single spark starts a prairie fire was just another saying. Our hero Mohamed Bouazizi of Tunisia lit a single match to say ‘enough’, Beka! and set the world on fire. Gaddafi is poster boy for the ‘inferno’ Mohamed started. It engulfed the planet and still shows no sign of slowing down. The 99% are asking a fair share of the pie. Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, Sanna, Bahrin, Damascus, New York, Moscow, Wukan (China) have become battlefields. What happens the next year is bound to realign the balance of forces in society. There is no doubt the playing field will be leveled a little better in favor of the many. How each system works out the conflict depends on how it was designed to self- correct.
You drive south from Tunis, capital of Tunisia on Hwy 37 follow P3 South, take P13 and you are in Sid Bouzid. A little dusty town in the middle of nowhere. Nothing of consequence has ever happened in Sid Bouzid. Exactly a year ago Mohamed Bouazizi was selling produce when he was slapped by a Policewoman in front of everyone for not having a license for his vegetable cart. What he did next, for some reason, touched humanity. What he did was he went in front of Sid Bouzid City Hall, doused his cloth with petrol and set himself on fire. He said Tunisia is not fit to live for a person of dignity. It is a very unique, dramatic and loud response to injustice. He made his point and it echoed.
The question became how does a government deal with its population’s legitimate demands? Gaddafi’s way is definitely proven unacceptable, Mubarak’s blindness have him in the slammer, Ben Ali is in virtual prison, Assad is squirming, Saleh is finished, damaged and grasping, Putin is at a loss… the carrot or the stick is the dilemma and as a confirmed Marxist he can’t even pray to God for guidance. The Chinese Central Committee is mulling over on how to respond regarding Wukan, Gunadong Province, and Obama is watching, observing, waiting to see if ‘occupy’ is a real or virtual force. May all the Gods welcome Mohamed Bouazizi’s soul with drums and trumpets fit for a hero. I am sure those in authority have slapped many before him but the fact is Mr. Bouazizi said enough in a unique way in the age of Social Media and did it ever spread like a prairie fire!
The death of Vaclav Havel was another defining moment. He was the product of Prague Spring of 1968. Prague Spring was the forefather to Arab Spring. Things were different in 1968, the time of ‘Prague Spring’. Europe was divided between the Socialist East under Soviet influence and the Capitalist West under the US umbrella. Czechoslovakia was one of those unfortunates stringing along without due consent. The Soviet Union used Czechoslovakia as buffer. In 1968 Alexander Dubcek was elected as First Secretary of the Communist Party and set in motion reform polices granting the citizen certain Rights. The Soviet Union did not take such transgression lightly and used its Warsaw Pact forces to invade Czechoslovakia and end freedom.
The little open space granted by Dubcek inspired people like Vaclav Havel. His work was banned due to his opposition to the invasion. He was declared UN desirable person in his own homeland. He never wavered. His plays and poetry were published elsewhere and smuggled in. They were read on short wave radios. He was imprisoned. He persisted. In 1979 Havel and his comrades published Charter 77 Manifesto, a plea to the Communist Party and Government to abide by various International conventions including its own Constitution and open the space for political dialogue.
The Soviet puppet regime reacted angrily. The Charter was deemed ‘anti–state, anti-socialist and those who signed the document were branded ‘traitors and agents of imperialists’. The official press described the Manifesto as “an anti-state, anti-socialist, and demagogic abusive piece of writing,” and individual signatories were variously described as “traitors and renegades,” “a loyal servant and agent of imperialism,” “bankrupt politicians”. The regime also organized their own ‘anti-charter’ movement and used famous musicians and artists to denounce ‘the traitors.’
The problem percolated for twenty years and gave birth to what came to b e known as ‘The Velvet Revolution.’ On 19th of November, 1989 the fire was lit by student demonstrators in Prague and on November 28, 1989 the Communist Party withered away. In June 1990 the Czechoslovakian people have their first democratic election since 1946. Vaclav Havel was elected the first President and ushered in an era of peace and democracy to his beloved country. He did not use his newfound power to hound his enemies, settle score with his abusers or use his position to enrich family and friends. Vaclav Havel the playwright, the poet, the dissident and the first democratically elected President of Czechoslovakia died last week. He died in body but left such a beautiful legacy behind his people will talk about him for a long time to come. He was a beautiful human being.
My third wake up call was rung by no other than Comrade Kim Jung-il of North Korea. His life was shrouded in secrecy and he died mysteriously. In fact no one knows how and when he died. What he left behind is a life full of garbage that cannot be recycled because of its toxicity and a history that will be buried deep and denied by his people. North Korea has been ruled by the Kim family since its founding. The Kim family in consort with the Military and a few Hodams control the economy thus the nation. What Stalin envisioned, Mao attempted has been realized by the Kim family.
North Korea is where we see how fragile we humans are. The Kim family has been able to reduce twenty four million Koreans into walking zombies. Using denial of all outside input like Television and Radio using censoring and blocking, starvation, physical degradation like imprisonment, torture, televised confessions and bullying, the Kim family has proven to the world that they are worthy successors to Stalin. The little dictator fancied himself as an intellectual and his newspapers and propaganda outlets referred to ham as ‘The Dear Leader, The Fearless Leader, The General’ and other outrageous titles to bully his population. He left behind a legacy of fear, poverty and a people that were never allowed to enjoy the fruits of their existence. We Ethiopians familiar with that.
We say ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’ regarding Kim while we fondly remember Mohamed Bouazizi and Vaclav Havel. Their stories fill us with hope and love they have bestowed on us. Are they special or just like us? But they made their presence felt. They rose a little higher. Where did they find that inner strength to keep going when all seemed hopeless? Vaclav Havel had that quality. He was imprisoned. His work was banned. He was hounded by the security force. But he kept focus on his dignity and freedom. By fighting for his rights he stood for all of us. He named one of his essays ‘power of the powerless.’ Mohamed Bouazizi did not have an army. Not even an association. He was just trying to eek out living selling vegetables. A common man like the rest of us. He challenged us by his act. He was willing to end it all so we see what has been done to us. The people of Tunisia heard him. The world eavesdropped.
You probably don’t know what happened on Friday, November 11, 2009. A young Ethiopian named Yenesew Gebre, set himself on fire in Dawro, Waka Southern region of Ethiopia. It did not revebrate like Mohamed Bouazizi’s. It was not heard around the world. We Ethiopians the message was sent to heard it clear. In my opinion, Yenesew spoke to us very loud. It requires much courage and untold amount of rage to compel a young man to sacrifice himself. Death on behalf of others is the ultimate sacrifice.
If it mattered at all Yenesew was a very educated person. But that is not the issue here. He was a human being working hard to reach his potential and help himself and his family. He has done his part. By becoming a teacher he has acquired a skill that is in very short supply in Ethiopia. A job and a decent living is what come with such achievement. But Yenesew has that other quality that is also in short supply in repressive societies. Yenesew has conscience. Moral compass. Call it what you want, simply put, he cared about you and I. That made him very unhappy. That also made the authorities very unhappy. Yenesew can see and that is a crime in the village of the blind.
Like Vaclav Havel Yenesew dissented. He was fired from his job, his family hounded and his associates bullied. That is the way of ‘Revolutionary Democracy’ in Ethiopia. Like Vaclav Havel Yenesew was jailed, shunned and black listed. The more they bullied him the better he saw them. When they spoke he saw the lie they live, when they shouted he saw the fear that is wrecking their soul, when they stole and consumed to excess he saw the full but always hungry belly they carried, when they bullied he saw the insecurity lurking behind them. What he saw was not what he wanted for his homeland and his people.
Mohamed Bouazizi and Yenesew Gebre have become the conscience of humanity. The two felt the indignity they suffered in their country and home at the hands of those in authority made then realize life is meaningless without free will. If it is not worth living then why live. Thus they decided to make their death count. To their people they said ‘the pain is too much to bear’ for the rest of us they said ‘dignified death at your choosing is better than physical and mental slavery.’ They said the two countries Tunisia and Ethiopia were not conducive to human dignity. One of the seeds has sprouted and the other will too. No reason to think otherwise. The Prague Spring gave rise to the Velvet Revolution that begat The Orange Revolution that begat the Rose Revolution that led to Arab Spring – there is no end to human thirst for freedom and equality.
Yenesew saw beyond himself. He felt the pain and sorrow of his neighbor. What he was about to do goes against his religion, his value system and his culture but the importance and timeliness of the message must have outweighed all other considerations. It was not an easy decision. He was at a physical location where he was beaten down but mentally he knew there is more to life and as a teacher he should do his duty and teach. He went every legal way open to no avail. It was never about the law. Thus My dear little brother decided to use the planet as his wall board and write his message to humanity in general and his people in particular. This Human said Beka! Enough! Rest in peace my friend. Your people heard you.