Rex Tillerson, Aboard the Ethiopia Freedom Train! [Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam]

“The answer to Ethiopia’s problems is greater freedom, not less…”

On March 8, 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson landed his jet at Bole Airport in Addis Ababa and hopped right on the Ethiopia Freedom Train.

At his press conference, Secretary Tillerson said for the problems faced by Ethiopians, “the answer is greater freedom for people, not less.”

Secretary Tillerson devoted a good portion of his press conference hammering the theme of “more freedom” as the way out of the current crises and as a precondition for democracy, good governance, societal harmony and prosperity in Ethiopia.

At least six times during his press conference, Secretary Tillerson underscored the importance of freedom, democracy and human rights.

He declared unambiguously, “We do firmly believe the answer is greater freedom for people, not less.”

He expressed his full support for efforts and actions leading to greater expressive freedoms in Ethiopia. “We welcome the proactive steps that have already been taken with the release of thousands of prisoners, including journalists and political leaders, and we encourage additional concrete measures to allow greater political freedom of expression.”

He proclaimed there can be no real democracy without freedom. “We believe ultimately giving people greater freedom gives them a greater investment in this democracy as well.”

He resolutely opposed the so-called state of emergency as inherently antithetical to freedom and “expressed [America’s] concerns with the [TPLF] government’s decision to impose another state of emergency, because it does put restrictions on fundamental rights like assembly and expression.”

He shared his vision of a free and prosperous Ethiopia. “We firmly believe that democratic reform, economic growth, and lasting stability are best addressed through an inclusive political process, rather than through the imposition of restrictions.

He pledged his commitment to advance freedom and democracy in Ethiopia. “The United States is a long-term friend and partner of Ethiopia. We look forward to working with you as the people of Ethiopia seek greater peace, democracy and prosperity.”

Of course, U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Michael Raynor got aboard the Ethiopian Freedom Train months before his jet even landed at Bole Airport on September 29, 2017.

Since his arrival in Ethiopia, he has been preaching a  message of love, hope, solidarity and faith to the Ethiopian people as they  struggle for freedom and democracy. He unhesitatingly  proclaimed, “The United States will stay the course in Ethiopia, and I hope I can count on each of you [Ethiopians] to do the same.”

It is said that “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Here is Ambassador Raynor standing with the Ethiopian people when they are literally facing gunfire and desperately needing a friend.

Ambassador Raynor’s “stay the course” diplomatic message has special meaning for me.

I believe his message to be this: “People of Ethiopia, America is with you all the way in your peaceful struggle for change exercising your constitutional and human rights. Don’t lose heart because peaceful struggle is not easy and takes time. Finish the peaceful struggle you have started and America will be right there with you at the finish line.”

That is what “staying the course” means to me.

On February 17, 2018, Ambassador Raynor put his money where his mouth is when he issued an extraordinary statement and condemned the state of emergency declared by the regime of the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF).

Let there be no mistake.

Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Raynor are on the same page and speak the same language when it comes to the solution for Ethiopia’s problems and the urgency of now to terminate the so-called state of emergency!

On February 17, 2018, Ambassador Raynor in his statement said:

…We recognize and share concerns expressed by the government about incidents of violence and loss of life, but firmly believe that the answer is greater freedom, not less…

…We strongly disagree with the Ethiopian government’s decision to impose a state of emergency that includes restrictions on fundamental rights such as assembly and expression…

…Restrictions on the ability of the Ethiopian people to express themselves peacefully sends a message that they are not being heard…

…The challenges facing Ethiopia, whether to democratic reform, economic growth, or lasting stability, are best addressed through inclusive discourse and political processes, rather than through the imposition of restrictions…

On March 8, 2018, Secretary Tillerson at his press conference said:

We recognize and share concerns expressed by the government about incidents of violence and loss of life. We do firmly believe the answer is greater freedom for people, not less..

…It is important that that the country move on past the state of emergency as quickly as possible. We hope that that can occur…

…We encourage additional concrete measures to allow greater political freedom of expression…

..We firmly believe that democratic reform, economic growth, and lasting stability are best addressed through an inclusive political process, rather than through the imposition of restrictions…

I am elated that Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Raynor should take such a bold stand on freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia, but I am not surprised.

As I have remarked in previous commentaries, I believe Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Raynor are honorable men who say what they mean and mean what they say.

The days of the forked tongue diplomats who talk the talk of “standing on the right side of history” while sleeping with those on the wrong side of history, thankfully, are long gone.

When the “little group of hysterical nabobs of negativism who live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington, D.C., and New York City” set out on a mission to condemn and discredit Secretary Tillerson as the “destroyer” of the State Department and portrayed him as the villain who said “good bye to human rights diplomacy”, I defended him because I believe him to be an honorable man who will stand for what is right and for core American values.

When push came to shove and his own job was on the line, Secretary Tillerson did not back down. He stood his ground come hell or high water. “We express America’s values from the State Department. We represent the American people. We represent America’s values, our commitment to freedom, our commitment to equal treatment to people the world over. And that message has never changed.”

On March 8, 2018, Secretary Tillerson expressed and pressed America’s values of freedom,  democracy and equality in Ethiopia. He said the State Department represents America’s commitment to freedom and marvelously did so in Addis Ababa. His message on American commitment to freedom did not change when he spoke in Addis Ababa. That is is why I am not surprised!

There was a time when America’s professed commitment to freedom was nothing but a joke and an insult to the intelligence of 100 million Ethiopians.

At a press conference in Addis Ababa in July 2015, Barack Obama spit on the faces of 100 million Ethiopians by telling them the TPLF regime, which claimed to have won 100 percent of the seats in parliament barely two month before Obama’s visit,  was “democratically elected”.

The truly sad, sad thing is that Obama and his close advisors, including Susan Rice and Gayle Smith, believed anyone or group opposing their TPLF buddies are terrorists, terrorist sympathizers or terrorists-in-training of one kind or another working with evil outside forces.

Obama’s solution to the problems of Ethiopia was NOT greater freedom.

Obama’s solution was intelligence cooperation and harder crackdown on those opposing the TPLF regime.

Obama said:

I know that there are certain groups that have been active in Ethiopia that, from the Ethiopian government’s perspective, pose a significant threat. Our intelligence indicates that while they may oppose the government, they have not tipped into terrorism…  But what I indicated to the Prime Minister is, is that in our consultations and deepening intelligence cooperation, we will look and see what evidence we have, where there are real problems, and where we see genuine terrorist activity. That’s something that we are going to want to cooperate with and stop.

… Our policy is that we oppose terrorism wherever it may occur. And we are opposed to any group that is promoting the violent overthrow of a government, including the government of Ethiopia, that has been democratically elected.

Obama was like the proverbial man with a hammer for whom everything looked like a nail. He had the uncanny ability to see “terrorists” everywhere in Ethiopia. Of course, Obama never met an African dictator he did not like!

The fascinating thing is that where Obama saw “terrorists” lurking behind every rock in Ethiopia threatening the TPLF regime, Tillerson saw ordinary people, young people, trying to peacefully exercise their constitutional and human rights to petition for redress of grievances and be heard.

Where Obama saw “terrorists” lurking behind every rock in Ethiopia, Tillerson saw peaceful freedom fighters fighting for their dignity, humanity, unity and Ethiopianity.

At his March 8, 2018 press conference Secretary Tillerson did not mention “terrorism” a single time.

Not once!!!

Secretary Tillerson was not buying the TPLF’s “terrorism” narrative. That is an old scam the TPLF ran for 8 years successfully wrapping American policy makers around their little finger. Every time the TPLF bosses cried wolf and shouted fire about terrorism,  American policy makers broke into cold sweat ready to please the TPLF bosses.

It was amazing to watch for 8 years the tail wagging the dog. Using the “terrorism” boogeyman, the TPLF scared the hell out of the Obama and George Bush administrations.

Secretary Tillerson went to Ethiopia carrying a message of hope, peace, freedom and democracy. That is because he knew beyond a shadow of doubt who the terrorists are in Ethiopia.

Is is not a fact that the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front is listed as a terrorist organization by the Global Terrorism Database with recorded acts of terrorism committed as recent as 8/26/2016?

I could only imagine the difficulty of talking terrorism with terrorists.

The principal focus of Secretary Tillerson’s message at his press conference was freedom, democracy, peaceful change and extreme restraint in the use of violence by the TPLF regime and encouragement to Ethiopian citizens to keep on keeping on with their peaceful exercise of their constitutional and human rights in their struggle for freedom:

…We recognize and share concerns expressed by the government about incidents of violence and loss of life. We do firmly believe the answer is greater freedom for people, not less…

…We discussed… the importance of ensuring that security forces remain disciplined in maintaining law and order…

…Democracy is not easy. It takes a lot of work. But staying with it, lasting change will come about, and to not resort to violence. Violence is simply never a solution…

…The citizens of Ethiopia have a responsibility as well to behave in a nonviolent way, and we hope the government allows that nonviolent expression to take place…

…We are here to support Ethiopia’s journey towards a democratic society and institutions…

What Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Raynor are saying in Ethiopia today is what I have been saying every week, sometimes multiple times a week, for the past twelve years, without missing a single week.

I wholeheartedly agree with Secretary Tillerson’s and Ambassador Raynor’s message of peaceful change and opening up of the political space so Ethiopian citizens could exercise their constitutional and human rights.

Indeed, before Official Day 1 of my involvement in the Ethiopian human rights struggle on July 3, 2006, I wrote a three-part commentary on civil disobedience and nonviolence and its relevance in the struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia.

I undertook that effort after the Tegbar League Addis Ababa Leadership Committee issued a statement in March 2006, exactly 12 years this month, indicating that it “will organize nonviolent actions such as blocking major roads, work slowdowns, boycott of schools, and boycott of products that are produced or sold by EPRDF-affiliated companies.”

I have remained true and fiercely advocated the cause of peaceful change in Ethiopia.

The TPLF’s characterization of the Tillerson visit and meeting  

At the March 8 press conference, TPLF foreign minister Workneh Gebeyehu said:

We discussed about our regional issues – the regional security, international issues, international politics – at the same time, how to boost our economic ties and investment between the United States of America and Ethiopia.

Geneyehu made no reference whatsoever to the various issues raised and emphasized by Secretary Tillerson during the press conference including his exhortation for a quick end to the state of emergency, his emphasis on greater freedom, not less and clear warning on the restraint in the use of violence by the TPLF.

Gebeyehu only vaguely referred to having discussed “the country’s situation [and] the transition that we are in the process”.

Gebeyehu thought if he glossed over it no one will notice and they can later crank up their disinformation machine and put out misleading and confusing information about their private meeting with Secretary Tillerson.

Those TPLF guys are too clever by half.

Recently, the TPLF bosses actually tried to generate disinformation following Ambassador Raynor’s statement expressing “strong disagreement” on the state of emergency.

According to TPLF disinformation, when Ambassador Raynor privately met with TPLF officials, he apologetically assured them that he “did not mean to cause any harm [with his official statement of strong disagreement] and [that] he will commit to closely work with the government in the future.”

The U.S. Embassy categorically dismissed the infantile TPLF disinformation.

But I would not be surprised if the TPLF bosses try to pull a similar disinformation campaign about their meeting with Secretary Tillerson. We shall remain vigilant!

Secretary Tillerson is known for his blunt speech even to the big powers of the world.

I have only one question for Gebeyehu: Did Secretary Tillerson read the riot act to the TPLF in the private meeting?  Tell you like it is. Like it’s gonna be.

Did y’all get a taste of that blunt speech about your indiscriminate violence and crackdowns and state of emergency in your private meeting?

I bet my bottom dollar you did. Ha, ha, ha…

My ruminations on U.S. policy in Ethiopia  

I do not know the contents of the private discussions of Sec. Tillerson and Amb. Raynor with the TPLF bosses. But careful analysis of public statements made and left out by omission could yield a treasure trove of valuable information about what could have likely occurred.

However, my suspicion is that the TPLF bosses were unsuccessful in hoodwinking and bamboozling Secretary Tillerson or arm-twisting him to do their bidding by threatening to refuse counterterrorism cooperation.

The TPLF bosses are very good at extortion and blackmail.

In October 2017, the TPLF bosses “threatened retaliation against the United States should [H.R. 128]  be passed”  and actually prevented floor vote on that resolution. They turned around and hired fat cat Washington lobbyist for nearly $USD 2 million to scuttle the resolution and ply their old trade peddling influence in the White House and the State Department. (Incredibly, at the time the TPLF was lavishing millions of dollars on fat cat Washington lobbyists, 5.6 million Ethiopians were starving. To add insult to injury, at the same time, the TPLF was panhandling the U.S. for $948 million handout.)

The extortion/blackmail scheme of the TPLF will simply not work on Secretary Tillerson. He just is not the type of guy the TPLF can con easily.

My impression, based on some research, is that Secretary Tillerson has dealt with some of the most corrupt con men and thugs in power on the African continent as head of ExxonMobil, which is one of the largest oil producers in Africa with holdings in Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Cameroon, Chad and the Republic of Congo. These countries are under the thumbs of some of the most corrupt and ruthless regimes in Africa.

ExxonMobil has tens of billions tied up in oil and gas development projects in Africa. I would imagine Secretary Tillerson is not only thoroughly familiar with the shenanigans of corrupt African regimes and leaders but also had to deal with them (holding his nose, I am sure) as ExxonMobil’s head. I believe he has substantial experience dealing and negotiating with African thug regimes with diplomatic skills to rival, if not exceed, any of Obama’s Secretaries of State. He knows what makes African thug regimes tick and where their pressure points are.

The TPLF scammed the Obama administration by talking about “terrorism”, al-Shabaab, regional instability and trotting out all sorts of boogeymen. Obama lavished praise on the TPLF regime calling it  “an outstanding partner in fighting terrorism”.

I believe I have proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the U.S. does not need the TPLF in its war on terror in the Horn of Africa. No one has challenged me on that argument.

But I never underestimate the TPLF con men. They are the most cunning con men I have had the displeasure to study over the years.

During the Obama administration, the TPLF con men literally ran U.S. policy in Ethiopia from inside the State Department and National Security Agency through their long time buddies including Susan Rice and Gayle Smith, Obama’s last Administrator of USAID and a former employee of the TPLF.

I have to say it again. I just don’t believe they can con the Trump administration as they did Obama’s.

Indeed, whatever may be said of Secretary Tillerson, I give him full credit for disrupting the cozy sweetheart relationships created and maintained over decades by elites of both parties in conducting U.S. foreign policy, particularly in Africa.

Truth be told, it was not much of a foreign policy system in Africa that was happening. It was a buddy system where elites in the State Department would hook up with mostly corrupt elites in Africa and do things that are mutually beneficial. Until Secretary Tillerson took the helm at the State Department, the policy was “Don’t ask, don’t tell”. The U.S. will not ask what African dictators did with U.S. aid and African dictators don’t have to tell what they did with it. In the process, U.S. taxpayers got the shaft in Africa, to use a pun.

That is why I was hopping with joy when Trump’s transition team held the feet of the State Department elites to the fire and asked the one all-important question I had been asking for 12 years: “With so much corruption in Africa, how much of our funding is stolen?”

There has been NO tentative or definitive answer to that question.

The Obama administration NEVER asked such a question!

Of course, the “nattering nabobs of negativism” moan and groan about “America First” foreign policy, which aims to protect the American taxpayer, not because it is demonstrably and inherently bad or harmful to the U.S. or other countries, but singularly because “American First” policy upset their apple carts, cut them off at the trough, took away their sinecure jobs like “special envoys”, eliminated fancy titles and declared, “NO MORE BUSINESS AS USUAL” in American foreign policy.

When Secretary Tillerson overturned and dumped the apple cart and sent many of them packing with a sharp kick in the rear end and tossed them off the gravy train, they cried out, “bloody murder”.

When they could not stop him, they started talking trash about him.

That is why I defended and supported Tillerson’s housecleaning at the State Department.

He wants to end the culture of corruption, cronyism and nepotism in the State Department. It is the culture of corruption that quintessentially defines the State Department elites’ relationship with African dictators. USAID has been the lifeline of African dictators for decades.

That is why I fiercely opposed Obama’s nomination of Gayle Smith to become the Administrator of USAID in May 2015 and demanded (and obtained) responses from Smith in April 2016 to my questions about her demonstrably false claims about famine in Ethiopia.

For decades, top brass in the State Department turned a blind eye to the daylight robbery of American tax dollars in Africa.

That is why the Trump transition team’s question, “With so much corruption in Africa, how much of our funding is stolen?”resonates with me so deeply.

What a shame for an incoming President of the United States to ask such a question of  the first executive department of the United Stated Government established in 1789!

The “nattering nabobs of negativism” complain today “at Tillerson’s State Department seven of nine top jobs are empty”. They make it sound like Secretary Tillerson is intentionally withholding referrals for appointments because he (un)wittingly wants to harm U.S. foreign policy.

Is it possible that Secretary Tillerson needs to drain the swamp of the culture of corruption at the State Department before he can reclaim the watershed?

Indeed, overall Trump has picked fewer nominees than his predecessors. According to the  Partnership for Public Service, the first six months of their respective administrations, Trump has named 206 nominees, while Obama had named 355, George W. Bush had named 313, Clinton had named 267 and George H.W. Bush had named 243.”

At the State Department, as of December 31, 2017, Trump had 61 nominees confirmed with 18 pending. For comparable period, Obama had 119 confirmed and 18 pending. Bush II had 139 confirmed and 14 pending.

I wonder if the numerical difference in speedy appointments could be explained by factors of cronyism, patronage and nepotism.

The “Tillerson Disruption” of business as usual at the State Department has turned the tables on the TPLF.

They can no longer pull off their scams.

GAME OVER at the U.S. State Department for the TPLF!

We must carry on with the heavy lifting, with a little help from our friends

American support for the Ethiopian people’s peaceful struggle for freedom is vital and decisive.

But in the final analysis it is entirely up to the people of Ethiopia to do all of the heavy lifting to get their freedom.

The history of the struggle for freedom teaches a singular lesson, a lesson learned well by many of the greatest freedom fighters in the world. “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” declared Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ethiopains must keep on demanding their freedom using the most powerful weapon known to mankind: Peaceful Resistance.

Dr. King’s predecessor and anti-slavery statesman Frederick Douglass understood the  oppressed must do all of the heavy lifting to get their freedom. He knew there could be “no progress without struggle” and “the limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress”

The endurance of the Ethiopian people suffering under T-TPLF ethnic apartheid rule has completely vanished. Today, they are on the move, agitating and mobilizing for peaceful nonviolent change.

But I am afraid the people of Ethiopia are condemned to carry a double burden, pull double duty.

They are condemned not only to free themselves but also their oppressors.

Their historic destiny has been prophesied by Paulo Freire in his “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (p. 44):

This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves.

This is the burden — liberating themselves and their oppressors — the people of Ethiopia must accept as a blessing on their long walk to freedom.

So, let us join hands — friends, enemies and frenemies — and ride the Ethiopia Freedom Train in the Motherland, Freedomland!

All Aboard the Ethiopia Freedom Train!

Choo! Choo! Make way for the Ethiopia Freedom Train.

Don’t be left behind. Get aboard the Ethiopia Freedom Train.

Choo! Choo!




Filed in: Articles & Opinions