Eskinder’s Wail from the Gulag irks ‘Tyrants on the Throne’

At a time when patriotic Ethiopians like Eskinder Nega are languishing in Gulag-style prisons for exercising their rights to express their opinions, those of us living beyond Woyane’s reach are blessed with the freedom to read books that stimulate the mind, shed light on our rich heritage, expose the treasonous policies of the Woyane regime in power, and, above all, enlighten us on the triumphs of those luminous sons and daughters of Ethiopia who built a country that was once Africa’s beacon of hope but is now being torn asunder by the treacherous TPLF cadres.

One such book is “Republicans on the Throne: A Personal Account of Ethiopia’s Modernization and Painful Quest for Democracy” by Tekalign Gedamu (Tsehai Publishers, 2011). To read the book is to go on a journey through time filled with traumatic events, dashed hopes, lost opportunities and excessive greed on one side, and patriotism, optimism, Ethiopian ingenuity and love of country on the other. The memoir, which has the mark of an unusual flare of literary brilliance and unmatched elegance, is punctuated with ubiquitous gems of trivia only an essayist of the author’s experience and intellect can muster and encapsulate in mesmerizing prose. More importantly, it offers a pragmatic roadmap for a democratic Ethiopia in which the philosophy of ethnocentrism will have no place, individual rights will be respected, and lasting peace and stability for the region will be secured.

As we read in this magnificently written book the gripping account of the journey Ethiopia has undertaken over the past several decades, we can’t help but wonder how from a land that had once produced such great leaders as Aklilu Habte-Wold, Yilma Diressa, Ketema Yifru and numerous others, including the author himself, could emerge tyrants and traitors in the likes of Mengistu Haile-Mariam, Meles Zenawi and his TPLF cadres, whose deviant policies have led the country to a path of destruction. Today’s Ethiopia is a country where ethnic politics is the official ruling party platform; corruption, nepotism and greed are instruments of anti-Ethiopianism; reading pro-democracy Websites is criminalized; and speaking truth to power is a certain ticket to the country’s Gulag. Nothing captures the sense of totalitarianism and hopelessness reigning in the country today better than the recent posting by Eskinder Nega in The New York Times (July 24, 2013):

‘I was arrested in September 2011 and detained for nine months before I was found guilty in June 2012 under Ethiopia’s overly broad Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, which ostensibly covers the “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt” of terrorist acts. In reality, the law has been used as a pretext to detain journalists who criticize the government. Last July, I was sentenced to 18 years in prison. … all I did was report on the Arab Spring and suggest that something similar might happen in Ethiopia if the authoritarian regime didn’t reform. … I also dared to question the government’s ludicrous claim that jailed journalists were terrorists.’

It is in the backdrop of such a horrendous and uncertain condition in the country that we are presented with Republicans on the Throne. This is a book that will put to shame our generation for ignorance of our heritage, and enlighten current and future generations about the heroic achievements of their forefathers and their obligation to fight and die for their proud and precious legacy.

In the early chapters of the memoir, the author reminiscences about his youth in Gore, one of the remotest provincial cities during Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign, and takes the reader back to an age of innocence when citizens were not categorized by their ethnicity but by the social bond that tied them closely together, and when leaders and followers revered the sanctity of our tricolor and the inviolability of our sovereignty. In contrast, the treasonous tyrants “on the throne” today denigrate the flag that countless generations protected with blood and sweat, parcel out precious land to foreigners at dirt cheap prices, aggressively promote inter-ethnic strives, and loot the cherished wealth of the country.

The subsequent chapters that depict Gedamu’s early life as a student in the US and the ensuing decades of career in the United Nations, successive governments in Ethiopia and eventually the African Development Bank, paint the picture of a man who epitomizes all the qualities of that unique Ethiopian we all grew up to venerate — one who values hard work over leisure, esteems public service over personal wealth, relishes integrity over treachery, and, above all, reveres love of country over caustic ethnic politics. In due course, the memoir elucidates the strengths and weaknesses of the Imperial system, the chaos that followed the 1974 revolution, and the emergence of successive brutal dictatorships.

The book is also a treasure trove of anecdotal accounts of important events and personalities that shed further light on the modus operandi of the time and the lives and moral fibers of some of the extraordinary leaders that ran the day-to-day business of the nation. As one flips through the pages one is frequently reminded of how little did most of us know about those leaders, not to mention the foibles of Aman Andom, the remarkable professionalism of Haddis Alemayehu, the statesmanship of Aklilu Habte-Wold or the gumption of Michael Imru.

As the writer transitions his focus to the post-Derg era, he momentarily leaves the reader with a sense of puzzlement as to why he would choose to return to Ethiopia and embark on major entrepreneurial projects under the tyrannical rule of Zenawi. In light of the stellar background of the author as an accomplished technocrat who had served under or lived through disparate systems of government, the reason for such seemingly foolhardy decision is hard to justify, and even more difficult to attribute to a manifestation of plain naiveté. However, a perceptive reader would soon be sympathetic on the knowledge that the sinister and elusive propaganda Zenawi perfected has hoodwinked many seasoned technocrats of Gedamu’s caliber and eventually landed them in prison. Even today, it is with a sense of unfathomable astonishment and compunction that we witness the tragic transfer of hard-earned Diaspora money into Woyane’s coffers, in the name of investing in the home country, by credulous Ethiopian émigrés in the West, who have yet to fully appreciate the true nature of the regime and the cancerous ethnic agenda it has espoused to irreparably harm the long-term viability of the nation.

While the book by and large abounds with a wealth of information about the recent past and present history of the country, some of the most significant contributions come in the last few chapters, in which breaking from tradition, the author tackles head on Woyane’s totalitarianism and duplicity, and masterfully analyzes the internal and external challenges that must be confronted to build a “promising future”. Unlike most writers of the same genre whose pens are woefully timid when it comes to underscoring the true nature of Woyane, Gedamu boldly exposes the most dangerous aspect of the regime, viz, its anti-Ethiopianism. “Closely wedded to ideology, perhaps even its principal raison d’être, is TPLF’s commitment to the politics of ethnic identity,” he affirms. He goes on to caution: “A one-dimensional perception of identity puts greater emphasis on the rights of groups and correspondingly less on the rights of the individuals that make up these groups; and lesser still on those outside the group.” He then reminds us of Amy Gutman’s wise words: “Subordinating individual [rights] to group [rights] is another name for tyranny.”

In debunking the anti-Ethiopia agenda that “extremist TPLF members” espouse, Gedamu warns them of the “… tragic backlash that is bound to ensue if they persist in their policy,” and notes:

“An independent Tigrai built on assets plundered from Ethiopia is the surest prescription for a potent reprisal that would be an unending source of conflict for the new state. More menacingly, Tigreans living in Ethiopia would be exposed to vengeful acts of violence too fearful to contemplate. The silent majority of Tigreans is doubtless conscious of this and will hopefully prevail upon the party fanatics to pursue a policy of multiethnic collaboration and accommodation.”

To those who try to find answers to the present predicament of Ethiopia, where totalitarianism, corruption and anti-Ethiopianism define the Woyane leadership, the author candidly expounds Woyane’s barricade against the struggle for democracy, fundamental freedoms, national cohesion and the fight against poverty. He authoritatively declares that “[N]either Marxism nor identity politics is likely to respond to the challenges facing Ethiopians today: autocracy, poverty, and communal antagonisms,” and boldly charts a pragmatic roadmap that can inform genuine dialogue to extricate the country from the current quagmire of ethnocentric rule, naked tyranny and gloomy prospects of national collapse.

Admittedly, Gedamu’s roadmap is only one of many admirable ideas put forth by many genuine Ethiopians to accelerate the victory for democracy and national salvation that has proved so elusive so far. Such a victory, however, can only be possible through the discreet activities of a strong organization that enjoys the participation of a well-informed membership about their heritage and the true nature of the regime. While the works of writers like Gedamu are a good start, it is the responsibility of every legitimate Ethiopian to ensure the messages are spread far and wide.

The enemy is well armed, superbly organized and lavishly financed, and has controlled the population through a Soviet- style security system and sinfully alluring entitlements that may make the tasks of pro-democracy forces exceedingly onerous. However, as the recent history of the Arab Spring has shown, no power can pent up the rage of an oppressed people for much too long.

The writer may be reached at [email protected]