Memorandum No. 1: To PM Abiy Ahmed and Ethiopia’s Cheetahs/Abo Shemanes (Youth) [Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam]

Author’s note: In my last “commentary” (My Personal Letter to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed), I promised to focus my future observations on issues and topics that will serve to promote peace, reconciliation, unity and the general well-being of the Ethiopian people. The time for recrimination, denunciation and diatribe is passed. The time now is to build up, to stand up and be counted, to give a hand up, to match up, to set up, to clean up, to let up, to link up, to shape up, to start up and to make up.

Back in my day, we used to sing, “Up, Up with People”.

I am old school. After all these years, I am still signing that same old song, with only a slight change to the lyrics:

“Up! Up with the Ethiopian people!
You meet ‘em wherever you go,
Up! Up with the Ethiopian People!
They’re the best kind of folks we know.

It is time to stand up with the Ethiopian people!

In his inaugural speech, PM Abiy invited Diaspora Ethiopians to join him in helping address the myriad social, political and economic problems Ethiopians face and make their rightful contributions in the struggle against poverty, disease and ignorance. That is a great challenge many of us in the Diaspora are willing to accept. We are willing, able and ready to walk the talk.

For the past nearly 13 years, my principal concerns and efforts have been directed at improving the general human rights conditions in Ethiopia, advocacy on behalf of Ethiopia’s youth, which represent at least 75 percent of the population, and promoting unity, peace and national reconciliation. We now have an opportunity for all of us to be on Team One Ethiopia.

As a political scientist, academic, lawyer, human rights advocate and even as a practitioner of the bureaucratic arts, I hope to share ideas in a variety of fields in my “Memoranda Series”. It is a professional hazard for professors to profess, teachers to teach and advocates to advocate. But my aim in the Series is not to lecture or be didactic. My aim is to provoke insightful, intelligent and critical discussions on a wide variety of subjects and topics relevant to the future of Ethiopia.

In Memorandum No. 1, I hope to spark thoughtful discussion and debate around the question, “What kind of leadership does Ethiopia need today?”

It is a timely topic because there are those who question PM Abiy’s competence, fitness and sincerity to serve in office.

Suffice it to invoke the Amharic saying, “It is a simple thing for some one sitting down to point at the sky” and declare it is easy to fly.

Leaders make a world – a country – of difference. For instance, as the 1994 election approached in South Africa, the country was at the crossroads. Its fate was a toss-up. White supremacists sought to spark a race war by engaging in terrorism and plunge South Africa into a destructive civil war. Ethnic factions were on the warpath. One man stood between civil war and civil peace.  Nelson Mandela saved the day and peace and reconciliation reigned in South Africa. It is doubtful that any other person would have been able to do what Mandela managed to do.

Good leaders in Africa are as rare as hen’s teeth. They may come once in a few generation if a society is blessed enough to have one. Many African leaders begin by aspiring to be good, fair and just. But good leaders become bad after they get a taste of power and get intoxicated. Power becomes a drug to them and they become addicted. They will do anything to cling to power. As their addiction becomes terminal, they assert absolute power. That is how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

In my study of leadership, I have learned that many new leaders begin with good intentions and in time get tunnel vision and lose sight of their original mission. They become complacent, arrogant, imperious and autocratic. The last 27 years are object lessons in this regard.

I have also learned that new leaders experience self-inflicted and external pressures and expectations. I believe such pressures are more intense on younger leaders. I do not believe 41-year old PM Abiy will be spared such pressures. Performing under pressure and conflicting expectations often results in mistakes, frustrations and even demoralization  ultimately resulting in failure.

In offering my answer to the foregoing leadership question, I touch upon various issues, particularly those that I believe are likely to impact new leaders.

I am hopeful others will also address this question and share their views in the market place of ideas.

My blueprint for leadership in Ethiopia: The Mandela Model

As I ponder over the types of leaders Ethiopia has had in the past, I cannot help but be distressed.

Historically, Ethiopian kings have assumed leadership by divine authority. They proclaimed they are subject to no earthly power nor will submit to any man-made rule of law because they were accountable only to divine will. They considered themselves the supreme earthly lawgivers. The common Ethiopian saying was, “one cannot accuse a king or plough the sky” (negus aykeses, semay aytares).

In recent history, military officers assumed leadership proclaiming “dictatorship of the proletariat” guided by the gospel and dogmas of the unholy trinity – Marx, Lenin and Engels – plunged the country into civil war and secession.

For the past 27 years, those in power have been preaching a sermon of leadership based “nation, nationalities and peoples” and used a strategy of divide and rule to cling to power. They have practiced the maxim, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” They declared, “No one will take away the power we got shedding our blood in the bush by dropping a ballot in an election box.”

Now, we have a chance to have young leaders in Ethiopia who can break the old mold and make a new one forged out of a simple principle:

Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.

Yes, Ethiopia is blessed today to have young Nelson Mandela clones everywhere peacefully asserting their rights. They are using civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance to demand their rights and hold those in power accountable.

I believe PM Abiy Ahmed and Lemma Megerssa are Mandela-clones as is the million-man/woman army of nonviolent revolutionaries.

My dream and wish for the past 13 years has been to see Ethiopia awash with Mandela-clones. Today, I see and hear them everywhere signing patriotic songs of Ethiopiawinet and preaching unity, peace, reconciliation, equality and justice for all.

My love and admiration for Nelson Mandela, the “saint who was a sinner” is boundless.

Mandela born in 1918 spent the best years of his life (1964-1990) in prison. He was in prison until he was 72 years old, when most people fade out into their golden years. Mandela never lost hope. He led South Africa to freedom, peace and democracy while he was in his 70 and 80s. It is true that age is nothing but a number.

Mandela had a wicked sense of humor getting his message across: “I went for a long holiday for 27 years” he said talking about his prison days. “It was a time to stand away from myself and to look at our work although it was a tragic experience. But it was very helpful because we were able to greatly reassess our work and the mistakes that we have made, and our achievements and we came out better prepared.…”

Mandela prepared South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy while he was in prison.

I wish I had a chance to meet Nelson Mandela. I had so many questions to ask him, particularly about the poverty and bankruptcy of political leadership in Africa.

I “actually” met Nelson Mandela and interviewed him.

It was, unfortunately, in an imaginary conversation I had with him on May 11, 2011.

That was a conversation entirely about leadership and why Africa is cursed with dictators, autocrats and despots.

When Mandela passed away in December 2013, I cried my eyes out.

I reached deep into my soul to express what he meant to me personally as a role model for a civic warrior and what he represented to Africa’s youth in my “Farewell, My African Prince”:

Nelson Mandela was a bridge builder. He built bridges across racial, ethnic and class divides. Nelson Mandela was a fireman. He saved the South African house by dousing the smoldering embers of racial and ethnic strife with truth and reconciliation. Nelson Mandela was a pathfinder. He built two roads named Goodness and Reconciliation for the long walk to freedom, and walked the talk.  Nelson Mandela was an architect. He built a magnificent tower of multiracial democracy on the ashes of apartheid. Nelson Mandela was a magician. He pulled a white and a black dove out of a hat at once and let them fly free. Nelson Mandela was the greatest alchemist who ever lived. He transformed hate into love, fear into courage; doubt into faith; intolerance into compassion; anger into understanding, discord into harmony and shame into dignity.

As always, I frame my questions with what has become my obsession, Ethiopia’s youth in particular and Africa’s youth in general. “What would the wise Lion of Africa say to the restless young  Cheetahs of  Ethiopia?”, I asked myself.

I believed his message to the young people would be dare to be great.  Change yourselves first before you change society. Keep trying and never, never give up on the promise of creating a brave new Ethiopia. Come together.  Be virtuous.  Be patriotic.  Be courageous.  Dream big.  Lead from behind.  Expect trials and tribulations.  Make peace with your enemy.  Fight poverty.  Never compromise on principles.  Be optimistic and determined. Mandela would tell Africa’s youth to be optimistic because Africa’s best days are yet to come. Learn and educate the people. Never be indifferent. No easy walk to freedom, democracy, human rights. Always try to do good, to forgive, to reconcile…

I believe the gold standard for leadership in Africa is Nelson Mandela.

PM Abiy and Ethiopia’s Abo Shemanes: What is your blueprint for leadership?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in an inspirational speech entitled, “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” (excerpted audio here) to high school students in Philadelphia in 1967 said:

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.

Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.

So, the question for PM Abiy Ahmed and Ethiopia’s Cheetahs is, “What should be the blueprint for leadership for a man called to be a prime minister? What should be the blueprint for leadership for Ethiopia’s Abo Shemanes?”

My quick answer is PM Abiy should be a transformational leader. Just like Nelson Mandela. The world today proclaims Mandela was the best moral and political leader just like MKL’s humble street sweeper. Mandela too was a street sweeper. He swept the streets of South Africa of the curse of apartheid, racialism, discrimination and injustice. In my view, Mandela was the best street sweeper Africa ever had.

Let me briefly digress. If I were to answer my own question from a purely personal point of view, I would give the same answer Henry David Thoreau gave in “Civil Disobedience”. “That government [leader] is best which governs [leads] least.”

Thoreau distrusted government and had strong views on the moral obligations of the individual to determine right from wrong. He wrote, “The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.”

I believe the character inherent in the Ethiopian people — their ethos, values, beliefs and practices — has done all that has been accomplished over millennia. They would have been able to accomplish so much more but for their leaders who have abused and oppressed them invoking divine right, ideological right or right by military conquest.

Like Thoreau, I am not for “no government” or no leaders, but for “a better government [and better leaders]. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.”

Just as Thoreau believed that the best government is one which governs least, I believe the best leader for Ethiopia is one who commands the respect of the people and leads the least. Just like Nelson Mandela who let the people lead from the front while he followed them from the rear. He said, “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”

I believe the best leader for Ethiopia is one who lets the young people lead in the front as s/he follows them from the rear.

As to governments and leaders who do not fear their people and command their respect, I, like Thoreau, would urge civil disobedience as I have done for the past nearly 13 years.

So much for my personal preferences about governments and leaders.

The question is what kind of leadership and government could command the respect of the people of Ethiopia and earn their trust and confidence today?

Those of us whose professional occupation is to study government, politics and leaders know leaders come in different packages and follow different principles.

Nicolo Machiavelli, “the father of modern political science”, argued (The Prince, Ch. 17) that  “it is better for leaders to be feared than loved.” He believed the love of power was more powerful than the power of love. He believed the Prince had only two choices, benevolence and destruction. He believed the power of destruction was more powerful in maintain the state than the power of love.

Gandhi had an answer to Machiavelli. “Remember that all through history, there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they seem invincible. But in the end, they always fall. Always.”

In our time, we know the opposite is true. The power of love trumps the love of power.   MLK and Mandela have proven the truth of that statement.

For that matter, so has Teodros (Teddy Afro) Kassahun, the musical evangelist of “love conquers all”in Ethiopia.

There are many leadership models from which PM Abiy and Ethiopia’s Abo Shemanes can choose. After all, it is their time to take control of their destiny and the destiny of their country. They are free to choose.

For the past 27 years, they have been forced to suffer under authoritarian rule and dictatorship. They don’t like leaders who rule by brute force and fear and with little governance skills. They could cultivate motivational leaders who inspire, excite and galvanize public opinion. They can choose technocratic leaders with expertise in different fields. They are free to choose because it is their lives, their futures and their destiny.

A true leader rises when people choose to follow : Nelson Mandela as the archetypal leader for Ethiopia and Africa

I believe Nelson Mandela should be the model of leadership, the gold standard, for Ethiopia.

Mandela was a transformational leader. His leadership style and purpose was to transform not only South Africa as a nation but also black and white South Africans through personal example for generations to come.

Mandela worked against impossible odds. All the prophets of doom and gloom predicted a blood bath in South Africa.

How did Mandela beat the impossible odds? He overcame by practicing certain principles, cherishing certain beliefs and maintaining certain attitudes.

Mandela practiced inclusiveness. He overcame the dead weight of apartheid by including everyone in his vision of one South Africa. Zelda la Grange, a young white woman raised in the bosom of apartheid, was Mandela’s personal assistant, and confidant, not only during his presidency but after he left office. She said, “He wanted to show the world that all people in South Africa would have a future. It helps show the world we’re one people.”

Mandela respected the people. He understood the people collectively are far wiser than he alone or his leadership collectively could ever be. That is why he said lead the people from behind.

Mandela had dreams beyond a vision of good governance. His greatest was a“dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself.”

Mandela believed in the power of knowledge. He said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Mandela had the courage of his convictions. “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

Mandela practiced forgiveness: He held no grudges. “I am working now with the same people who threw me into jail, persecuted my wife, hounded my children from one school to the other… and I am one of those who are saying: Let us forget the past, and think of the present.”

Mandela believed in truth and reconciliation: One of his major preoccupations after he was released from prison was to launch an effort promoting national healing through truth telling. South Africa’s model of truth and reconciliation has been copied all over the world.

Mandela believed in democracy: “It is not our diversity which divides us; it is not our ethnicity, or religion or culture that divides us. Since we have achieved our freedom, there can only be one division amongst us: between those who cherish democracy and those who do not.”

Mandela believed in fairness and equity: He said, “I detest racialism, because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black man or a white man.”

Mandela believed in the power of love but he had no power of love as he quit after one term. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Mandela had high “emotional intelligence”. He was at peace with himself and others. He had empathy. He had risen above his ethnicity and cherished his humanity. He had overcome the powerful emotion of hate: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Mandela was a listener. He listened to all and was never quick to judge. He was a humble man.

Mandela was a critical thinker: He was able to examine problems many perspectives. He coudl see both the small and big picture.

Mandela was a man of conviction. He walked the talk. “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mandela was a master communicator. He said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Mandela never lost hope in humanity: He said, “There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

Mandela was inspired by the youth: “Young people are capable, when aroused, of bringing down the towers of oppression and raising the banners of freedom.” How true indeed!

Mandela was a man of action: He was a rebel, a warrior and a leader. After 27 years in prison, Mandela came out, saw and conquered apartheid.

Mandela had a can-do attitude and always remained hopeful and optimistic.

Mandela was a man of magnanimity: Incredibly, he invited the very prosecutor who sought a death penalty against him in 1964 at the Rivonia Trial and his jailer at Robben Island as his VIP guests during his inauguration as president as well as others who caused him so much suffering. He said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Mandela was a man of integrity: He advised, “Make sure people can trust you. Let them know that you care about them and that everything you do is based on integrity and concern for them. Build your team on a foundation of trust.”

Abiy Ahmed as a Mandela-clone?

There is and will always be one Nelson Mandela.

The rest of us can only aspire to follow in his footsteps, and if we are lucky, become his clones.

I see so many Mandela-esque qualities in PM Abiy.

I have seen him speak on video. He is a master communicator. He speaks three of the major languages in Ethiopia fluently. Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” I must say he talked to the hearts of Ethiopians everywhere he went.

Some criticized him for speaking in Tigrinya, one of the major languages of Ethiopia. The good thing is that “Small minds just like small stones can never create giant waves.”

He told them like it is everywhere he went. He told them about his limitations, what the regional governments must do and the role of the federal government.

I have had ample opportunity to evaluate him in his speeches and public appearances just as lawyers study and evaluate witnesses scheduled to testify at trial.

From what I have seen over the past two weeks, I see PM Abiy striving to be a bridge builder, a peacemaker, a facilitator across ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional lines. He seems even handed to me. He has the same message for all regardless of ethnicity or religion, unity, peace, freedom and democracy. We are one people. Our unity is not open to question. The problem-makers are the leaders in power. The solution is in the hands of the people. The destiny of Ethiopia is in the hands of the people of Ethiopia. If leaders do have the trust of the people, they deserve to be thrown out of power.

I like his straight talk. He cuts to the chase. I like a person who says what s/he means and means what s/he says.

I am supremely encouraged by what I have seen and heard.

In his recent discussion in Mekele, on a listening tour which some call a “charm offensive”, PM Abiy demonstrated Mandela-esque qualities.

He spoke truth to power, which is odd because he and his colleagues are in power.

He said the problem is not with the people of Ethiopia but with the leaders who pretend to be leaders of Ethiopia. “The problem is with the leaders in power who disregard their oath of office and are unable to lead without stealing, without stealing (double emphasis)”.

He said many in power are thieves. “If some people rob and get rich and others starve, there will be no peace in Ethiopia.” He explained, “the people who get rich by robbing the people are acquiring poison. It will destroy our children. To rob the poor and bring the money home is like feeding poison to our children.”

PM Abiy said job #1 is working together to build national unity. We “waste too much time on our identity instead of our unity”. It is “absolutely necessary to teach young people about Ethiopiawinet so we don’t look at each other as strangers [enemies].”

He said there are those who benefit financially from creating strife and conflict among the people. “There are those amongst us who trade and benefit from division and discord. That’s how they make their daily bread.”

He acknowledged the people of Ethiopia are the bosses. “If we don’t do our jobs right and just talk, they should throw us out and give it to others who will get the job done. There can’t be power by creating conflict and division among people. The people don’t want those who divide and create strife among them. They are the judges.”

He acknowledged the people are far wiser than those who claim to be leaders. “The people know their own problems. Farmers know the problems of other farmers. Poor people know the problems of poor people. But leaders have forgotten our role. It is our problem and our fault.”

He warned his own leadership, “The disease is with us (leaders). When we straighten out ourselves, the people will continue with their long-held traditions and solve their problems. The people have lived with each other. They are intermarried.”

He laid out his conviction without ambiguity. “The only way to govern Ethiopia is through peace and democracy because Ethiopians are loving people but also stubborn. If they are abused and oppressed, they will resist. They don’t like those who abuse them and steal from them.”

He said love conquers all. When the people overcome the division and hatred sown among them by those claiming leadership, they “will return to their tradition of respect for each other, hospitality and sharing. My fear is that we [leaders] will be in big trouble then. We will no longer be able to pull off our tricks.”

He invited Diaspora Ethiopians to come, visit and see for themselves. “The people need, schools, roads and clinics.  People are in need. They need help.”

Gandhi taught, “Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.”

I like PM Abiy’s beliefs because they mirror my own. I like his words because he talks like me, straight talk. I have no doubts that his words will be his actions because if they are not he will fail, and he knows failure is not an option for him or for us. I am confident that his values of Ethiopiawinet, unity, equality and justice for all, peace, reconciliation, human rights, rule of law and democracy will become his and our destiny.

A leader’s (thankless) work is never done…

Mandela is a global hero who has inspired millions.

Mandela said, “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”

I am afraid at his most successful PM Abiy will find there are an infinite number of hills and mountains for him to climb and many more uncharted valleys and deserts to cross.

But that is his cross to bear. We have an obligation to help him bear his cross as he crosses the valleys and climbs the mountains.

Abiy has the distinct privilege and good fortune to become a true Ethiopian hero by following in Mandela’s footsteps. Better yet, an African hero.

But walking in Mandela’s footsteps  will not be easy.

Walk he must. He has a long walk on the road to peace, democracy and freedom.

The only question is, “Will he will walk those roads alone, with Ethiopia’s Cheetahs and the spirit of Mandela, the exiled Ethiopians in the Diaspora, the tired, the poor and the wretched huddled masses of Ethiopia yearning to breathe free or…?




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