The Raw Machismo of Dictatorship

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

It was a remarkable display of raw machismo: “My way or the highway… or jail!” It was a one-man political theatre, a monologue about absolute power, domination, toughness, brawn and pugnacity. It was a demonstration of sang froid machismo calculated to taunt and sneer at the opposition, and bombard them  with contempt and derision. It was an ostentatious public vindication of the ignoble principle “might makes right.”

In a recent two-minute and forty-three second video[1] of an exchange in Ethiopia’s rubberstamp parliament, Meles Zenawi, African dictator extraordinaire, ridiculed and lambasted his political opponents. He unsparingly tongue-lashed Birtukan Midekssa, the iconic Ethiopian political prisoner and first female political party leader in Ethiopia’s 3,000-year history. He caricatured the imprisoned leader of the Unity, Democracy and Justice opposition party as a faddish hen that hanged herself.

In the 103 seconds, Zenawi lectured with the sternness of school martinet. He berated with the coarseness of a drill sergeant. He taunted with the polish of a schoolyard bully. He explained why he had jailed Birtukan with the warped logic of a kangaroo kourt judge. His words and phrases were measured and calculated like those of a crooked accountant. His demeanor was armored in stone-cold arrogance and hubris. It was a study in political psychology, a glimpse of the cognitive process and personality of a dictator and the pathos that drives him.

As Zenawi deftly switched the topic to speak about Birtukan as an object lesson to his parliament, he could barely conceal his loathing for her. In a calculated act of public humiliation, he began talking about her in the form of a silly chicken who ultimately did herself in because she did not know the limits of her modest abilities and his overwhelming and boundless might. He sermonized:

As our parents say, ‘A hen once heard of a fad and hanged herself trying to follow it.’ They [the opposition] heard about the Kenya and Zimbabwe [“orange revolution”] model and decided to try it in our country. By doing so, they were exposing themselves to harm. But it was not only they who will suffer from harm, but unavoidably, all Ethiopians will suffer from it at different levels also.  The bad thing is that many of our folks who got into this way of thinking were not ready to learn from their mistakes.

If we take Ms. Birtukan as an example, she said she did not ask for a pardon. We sent elders, ambassadors [to plead with her]. She said, ‘I will not listen to them. I will not change what I have said outside of the country. I will not take it back.’ She said that thinking the chaos created by her supporters or through external pressure she will get out of prison in a short time. She had a strong position on that.

At the time, she was repeatedly told that it was a mistake [for her to deny having received a pardon]; and that once she is put back in prison, she will not get out. So the main thing is it would be better before she got in. So the main thing is that it would have been better for all that she did not have to go back to prison.  She was told this repeatedly. It would have been good for all of us. For one month the government begged her in direct and indirect ways. If we ask why, who will benefit from this? The government does not get five cents profit from this. So the harm goes beyond the individuals to everyone. I suggest that one ought not choose to dream of such things. But as I think of their experiences, their ability to learn from their mistakes is very limited.

Zenawi’s choice of a hen to caricature Birtukan Midekksa was dastardly and plain wrong. Birtukan ain’t no chicken. She is the Lioness of Ethiopia! She is a woman of conviction and principle. In “Q’ale” (My Testimony), a public statement she released two days before Zenawi imprisoned her on December 29, 2009, Birtukan boldly declared, “Lawlessness and arrogance are things that I will never get used to, nor will cooperate with.” Only a lioness would say something like that facing overwhelming odds. Birtukan is a woman of extraordinary intellect, dignity and honor. She does not lie, cheat or rob. She does what she does not out of expediency or in the eternal pursuit of self-enrichment on the public coffers. Rather her actions are guided by a commitment to the advancement of the causes of freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. After all, what greater sacrifice could this young single mother make to her people and country than leave her precious four-year old child in the custody of her aging mother while serving out a life term? Birtukan shows the quintessential trait of a proud lioness, not a clucking frightened hen. (For the record, the proverbial reference to the “hen that hanged herself” is misstated. The adage properly rendered is: “Silu semta, doro motech chis wust gebta.” Roughly translated, “A hen having heard that others have walked through thick smoke tried to do the same and died.” Chickens are believed to have low pulmonary tolerance for smoke.)

Zenawi repeatedly slammed Birtukan for refusing to acknowledge her “mistakes” and publicly declare that she had indeed been granted a pardon. The indisputable fact is that she never denied receiving a pardon. She merely explained the legal and political circumstances under which she received it. She wrote in Q’ale. “I have not denied signing the document which the elders persuaded us to sign on June 22, 2006 for the sake of national reconciliation. How could it be said that I denied a pardon document I signed, and whose content I accepted? How is that a crime? Where is the mistake?”

Zenawi also tried to portray Birtukan as a stubborn, ill-tempered and quarrelsome woman. He speculated that she acted foolishly believing that the “the chaos created by her supporters” or others exerting “external pressure” could get her released from prison quickly. Birtukan knew exactly what Zenawi was likely to do regardless of what she may or may not do. She told the “federal police commissioner” as much days before she was imprisoned. She summarized that conversation in Q’ale: “But what they found to be funny and perplexing is something great that I will forever live for, stand for, and sometimes get jailed and released for – it is the rule of law and abiding by the constitution.” In other words, Birtukan did not risk prison because she was stubborn. She was imprisoned because she stood up for her constitutional rights and in defense of the rule of law.

Zenawi argued that Birtukan was under some sort of fantasy about leading an “orange revolution” modeled after Kenya or Zimbabwe. He used the opportunity to warn his opposition that they too will fail and suffer the same fate should they try to bring about political change through acts of peaceful civil disobedience. His unambiguous message to everyone is clear: Peaceful resistance to his dictatorship is futile. But Birtukan did not try to launch any kind of revolution. She registered her party and overcame numerous political roadblocks placed in her way by the regime so that she could have an opportunity to engage and participate in the political process “abiding by the country’s constitution.” She was under no illusions that the regime will play fair; in fact, she expected they would play dirty and incapacitate her somewhere along the line, as they in fact did. In Q’ale, the former judge made it crystal clear: “The message [of the government] is clear and this message is not only for me but also for all who are active in the peaceful struggle. A peaceful and law-abiding political struggle can be conducted only within the limits the ruling party and individuals set and not according to what the constitution allows. And for me it is extremely difficult to accept this.” Zenawi thinks this is a “mistake”. No, this is telling it like it is!

The 103-minute video monologue offers insight into Zenawi’s thought process. He repeatedly insisted that his opposition is simply incapable of learning from their experiences and have a bad habit of compounding  their mistakes. But what exactly are their mistakes? He seems to believe that his opposition’s challenge of the stolen 2005 election was a mistake. The independent press’ insistence on offering an alternative medium of communication is a mistake. Insisting on observance of the “Constitution of Ethiopia” is a mistake. Demanding compliance with international human rights treaty obligations is a mistake. Having free and fair elections is a mistake. The gathering of opposition political parties under one umbrella is a mistake. Insisting on accountability is a mistake. Exposing corruption is a mistake. Anything that challenges dictatorship is a mistake!

The wages of making mistakes is rotting in jail. Zenawi did not mince words. Birtukan will rot in jail; and he has already thrown away the key to her cell. That does not surprise anyone. For nearly two decades, he has been doing just that. His own official Inquiry Commission in 2006 documented that over 30,000 individuals were rounded up and jailed following the stolen elections in 2005.  An additional 196 individuals were massacred and nearly 700 wounded by security thugs. International human rights organizations and others have documented the cases of countless political prisoners rotting in the regular and secret jails.

It is also clear that Zenawi has little familiarity with the concept of the rule of law. His understanding of that principle is that he makes the rule and that is the law. Everyone must follow his rules or they will rot in jail. Simple zero-sum game everyone can understand!

The unvarnished truth about Birtukan’s incarceration is that Zenawi was afraid she could easily win in a free and fair election in May 2010.  All of the chaff about denying a pardon, mistakes and the other nonsense are part of a smoke screen designed to distract attention from the real issue. It is a classic case of the Ethiopian proverb, “Aya jibo satamehagn belagn. (“Mr. Hyena, if you must eat me, do so without giving too many excuses.) He will keep Birtukan in jail just until he makes his victory lap at his already-won May 2010 “election”. He would have no logical reason to keep her in prison thereafter. Should he keep her jailed after the “election”, it would be to satisfy some deep-seated sadistic pleasure that comes from seeing her suffer, or because of a repressed psychological need to dominate strong-willed women.

The machismo of power is that it gives the one who has it a sense of exhilarated and exaggerated sense of strength and self-confidence. Machismo makes a man a compulsive bully who, because of an inner fear of looking weak, must dominate everything around him. The macho man in any potential conflict situation overreacts, swaggers, boasts and rushes to destructive action as proof of his intelligence, audacity and courage. He rarely stops to think things through; that would be dithering and flip-flopping to his way of thinking. He will stay the course even though that course is manifestly perilous, silly or absurd.

Real men don’t whine. They debate real women in the court of public opinion and challenge them in the voting booths.


(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.)