The Great Ethiopian Run to Freedom

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

In his epic autobiography, the great Nelson Mandela used the metaphor of the “long walk” to describe his decades-old struggle against apartheid and minority rule in South Africa. In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela described, among other things, his labor of love trying to steer his nation away from racial and fratricidal war by using dialogue and negotiation to achieve national reconciliation and build a multiracial, multiparty system. His long, hard walk to freedom across the veldt, the cities and townships eventually led South Africans to trade in their fears and tears for hope and faith in a free South Africa. In the process, Mandela became a formidable moral force and an exemplary teacher in the fight for human rights and racial equality throughout the world.

In the annual “Great Ethiopian Run” that was held last week in Addis Abeba, one can see a fitting metaphor for a long and hard run for freedom in Ethiopia. The organizers and sponsors may have seen a clever money making gimmick in the event, but for the Ethiopian runners it was their one and only chance a year to collectively breathe the fresh air of freedom. It was their annual festival and gathering of peaceful mass protest for freedom and justice, and against tyranny and dictatorship in Ethiopia. On the day of the Great Run, Ethiopians who could afford to pay at least 50 birr got to say out loud what has been burdening their hearts, distressing their minds, agonizing their souls and searing every fiber in their bodies for the past year. The assembled crowd of 35,000 runners did not mind paying. Each one of them knew the fresh air of freedom, however fleeting and momentary, is priceless.

In the “Great Ethiopian Run”, Ethiopians kept on running down the streets and up the boulevards of the capital. They ran for their own freedom, and the freedom of their countrymen and women. They ran for the true champion of Ethiopian freedom, Birtukan Midekssa. In a deafening crescendo of defiance and daring, they cried out: “Free Birtukan! Birtukan Mandela! Birtukan, the heroine!” Birtukan probably heard them chained in the bowels of Kality prison just on the outskirts of town. They called for the release of all political prisoners. The river of humanity that flash-flooded the city streets on the 10-kilometer stretch denounced the perpetrators of injustice. Thumping their way past the “Federal High Court”, they proclaimed, “In this temple of justice, there is no justice.” Rolling past the “Ministry of Justice”, they charged, “There is no justice in the ministry of justice.” Rumbling past the “Ministry of Defense”, they scoffed: “There are no men of courage in this building to defend the people.” The Great Ethiopian Run proved to be fundamentally an act of mass civil disobedience thinly disguised as a running event; and to the great credit and dignity of the runners, there was not a single incident of violence or breach of the peace.

The multitudes were not just running for freedom, they were also running away from tyranny and dictatorship, despair and hopelessness, and from their daily life of indignity and humiliation under a ruthless dictatorship. Sadly, they were all running in circles in the prison nation Ethiopia has become. But as we have learned from President Mandela, to achieve freedom one must take a long hard walk. For Ethiopians, it will require much more– a long hard run; and there is much Ethiopians runners can learn from one South African walker. Mandela said, “You may succeed in delaying, but never in preventing the transition of South Africa to a democracy.” The dictators in Ethiopia may temporarily thwart genuine multiparty democracy, but they can never, never prevent its ultimate triumph. Mandela defiantly told the masters of Apartheid: “Any man that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose.” The dictators in Ethiopia may temporarily succeed in robbing us of our dignity and human rights, but as long as we remain truthful, principled, fair and irrevocably committed to the cause of freedom and democracy, we shall prevail; and they shall find their rightful place in the dustbin of history.

On his long walk to freedom, Mandela discovered the defining truth about tyrants and dictators: “A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred.” The wardens of Prison Nation Ethiopia are prisoners of hatred that has churned and boiled in their hearts, minds and souls for their entire lives. They are consumed by it and driven to genocidal brutality. They deserve our pity for they can not help themselves. But we can help them, by showing them the truth about their evil ways and the path out of the misery of hatred to the ecstasy of brotherly and sisterly love. Mandela taught us that “The victory of democracy in South Africa is the common achievement of all humanity.” If we keep on running for freedom, we can make the triumph of democracy in Ethiopia the common achievement of all of Africa. As Ghana has transitioned from a military dictatorship to a genuine multiparty democracy and South Africa succeeded in establishing a tolerant multiracial society, so can Ethiopia forge a real multiparty system, free of the poison of ethnic politics, and one day to become the envy of Africa.

The 10-kilometer run is just a down payment for a long and difficult Marathon for Freedom. That is why each one of us must develop the defining quality of the marathon runner: Endurance. As she pounds the pavement for miles, the distance runner knows the route to the finish line is long, grueling and hard. But she is prepared to give it her best and endure for the long haul. The marathon runner does not say, “It is too long, too difficult… I could never do it.” He maintains a winner’s state of mind and never gives into self-pity and defeatism. He does not use his energy in bursts of speed, but in sustained steps and calculated spurts. The marathon runner has a plan to win and paces his every step along the way to achieve his goal. The distance runner does not allow herself to be overwhelmed by the miles she has yet to cover. She is committed and focused on the next milestone, the next hill and the next bend in the road until she reaches the finish line. Some of us would much prefer the race to be a quick sprint to the 10-kilometer finish line. We are discouraged and dispirited by the very thought of a long distance run. We are tired and ready to give up before taking the first step. But the Marathon to Freedom does not have a finish line. As Mandela said, “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”

We can’t sit idly by and expect freedom to run to us. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.” It could also be said that a man can’t ride your back if you keep on running and chase after your freedom.

Ethiopia’s great distance runners — Abebe Bikila, Mamo Wolde, Mirus Yifter, Haile Gebreselassie, Kenenisa Bekele, Elfnesh Alemu, Fatuma Roba, Derartu Tulu and Koreni Jelila and Tilahun Regassa and many others — gave their very best for the glory of Ethiopia. We are so proud of them! It is now our turn to run and win the Great Ethiopian Run for Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights. Let us not be fooled by their 10-kilometer run. Our course will be much more challenging; we will have to climb the great hills and descend the treacherous canyons and gorges and crisscross the low deserts and the highlands. And those who can’t or choose not to run with us should ready themselves to take a long walk…

(Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on Pambazuka News and New American Media.)