Ethiopian Dreams for 2015 and Beyond [Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam]

dream_31420266367“Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,… [and] see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams”

A Happy New Year to all of my readers!!!

I get to celebrate New Year twice every year. The first on September 11, the Ethiopian New Year. The second on January 1. I also get to make two sets of New Year’s resolutions.

In my September commentary “Resolutions for the Ethiopian New Year (2007)”, I made a number of bold resolutions. Some of those resolutions may sound quite quixotic to some. I “resolved” to use my pen (computer keyboard) to help kindle the imagination of Ethiopia’s young people, fight creeping cynicism, help defang the gnawing hope(help)lessness and paralyzing despair of the people, teach and preach human rights in new and different ways and strive to change the public debate from the politics of hate to the politics of love, among others. No doubt, all of them are audaciously quixotic.  I believe New Year’s resolutions, by their very nature, must be overambitious, idealistic and even unrealistic and impractical.

When one is making “resolutions” in the cause of human rights for the New Year, it is important to anchor them in reasoned idealism because the struggle against tyranny and for human rights is itself a titanic struggle between good and evil. But “neither good nor evil can last forever; and so it follows that as evil has lasted a long time, good must now be close at hand”, wrote Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in “Don Quixote”, arguably  the “best literary work ever written.” I believe evil has prevailed in Ethiopia for so long that good must be around the corner in 2015!   Therefore, grand and grandiose resolutions and dreams for 2015 and beyond are in order.

One of the grandiose or grand resolutions I made for the Ethiopian New Year was to “articulate my version (not vision) of the Ethiopian Dream and challenge others to articulate theirs.” But first, what are dreams?  What does it mean to dream? What is the difference between dreams and nightmares?

Dreams are unique to the dreamer. The dreamer dreams his/her own dreams and creates meaning out of them and turns them into reality. Dreams are very important not only to individuals but also nations. Dreams drive individual ambition. Apple’s Steve Jobs had a dream of “putting a computer in the hands of everyday people.” He ended up creating the most desirable consumer electronic products of all time. To Jobs, his dreams were his life. “Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me… Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me,” declared Jobs.

Dreams are vitally important for nations and societies. The Framers of the American Constitution dreamed an impossible dream, a dream undreamt before they set themselves to dream. They dreamt of a republic with aim of “forming a more perfect union, establishing  justice and securing the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity.”

Unfortunately, their dreams left out Africans forcibly shipped to America and trapped in the nightmare of slavery. A descendant of those slaves by the name of Martin Luther King two centuries later demanded a share of the “American Dream” and immediate payment on the “promissory note” made at the inception of the Republic “that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’”

Sigmund Freud observed “dreams are the royal road to the unconscious,” the substratum below the conscious mind where we sweep and bury our less civilized thoughts and emotions. He also believed dreams are a form of “wish fulfillment”, a process by which the unconscious seeks to resolve deeply buried conflicts. I believe our nightmares are chained deep in our conscious and unchain themselves at will in the darkness of the night.

Dreams are the medium for divinity to pass on sacred revelation and prophecy.  In the Old Testament, God used dreams and visions (“walking dreams”) to make his commands known. God made Solomon an offer in a dream: “Ask what you wish Me to give you.” Solomon chose wisdom, “a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.” In Acts, God decreed, “… and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams…”

Some Native Americans believe good and bad dreams (nightmares) fly invisibly around in the darkness of the night.  They have  a tradition of  hanging “dream catchers”, a simple handmade object of knotted thread (web) over hoop, over their beds to trap and exclude bad dreams (nightmares) and let in only good dreams. The “dream catchers” symbolize the struggle between good and evil. If we dream of good things, when we wake up in the light of the day we do the right things. But if we choose the path of evil, we will have nightmares and find ourselves on the dark side. Good dreams are in harmony with Nature and the Great Spirit.

There are dreams and there are dreamers. Mahatma Gandhi was dreamer. He taught us to hold onto our dreams. “Always believe in your dreams, because if you don’t, you’ll not have hope,” preached Gandhi.  His advice to dreamers was to keep hope and the dream alive in a crucible of perseverance and determination. He counseled dreamers: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) followed in Gandhi’s footsteps and won. Dr. King’s dream was to see the descendants of “millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice” emerge into “a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.” His dreamt “that one day [America] will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’” Indeed, he believed it is a self-evident truth that all men and women are created equal.

MLK and Malcom X had profound differences about the “American Dream”.  Malcom said, for “twenty million [negroes] in America who are of African descent, it is not an American dream; it’s an American nightmare.” He was rightfully bitter about the long history of injustice, indignity, discrimination and segregation imposed on African Americans.

MLK advocated pursuit of the “American Dream by” using the “weapon of love” against which resistance is futile.  He promoted civil disobedience in the form of non-violent protests, peaceful non-cooperation with the oppressor and passive resistance as justifiable methods of fighting social injustice. Malcolm wanted to eliminate the “American Nightmare” “by any means necessary”. Then he went to Mecca and realized that what matters is not the color of the skin but the color of the heart. The color of love always outshines the  color of hate.

Nelson Mandela also won following in the footsteps of Gandhi and MLK. Madiba languished in apartheid prisons  for 27 years, head unbowed and unafraid, dreaming about a free South Africa. In his presidential inaugural speech, Madiba proclaimed his dream: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”

Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a great dreamer in her own right. She dreamt that all human beings wherever they may be have rights which should be protected by law. She dreamt up the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” [UDHR] (1948) which set a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” with respect to equality, dignity and rights. Mrs. Roosevelt chaired the committee that drafted the UDHR. She is the mother, the unsung she-ro, of the global modern human rights movement. Imagine! Without Eleanor, there would have been no UDHR; and without the UDHR, it is doubtful the plethora of subsequent human rights conventions and regimes would have come into existence.

The dreams of some people became nightmares for millions of others. Hitler’s dream of a superior master Aryan race to rule the world resulted in the deaths of untold millions of Jews and other peoples. Stalin’s dream of a Soviet superpower led to the deaths of millions of suspected opponents, deportations of millions of others into forced labor camps and forced induction of millions of peasants into collectivized farms.

The late Meles Zenawi dreamt of an Ethiopia permanently divided by ethnicity, split by language differences, antagonized by religion and separated by region or kililistans, a slightly modified version of apartheid Bantustans. He dreamt that he will rule with an iron fist for at least fifty years, and his Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) party for at least another one hundred. The Meles Nightmare has filled the official and secret prisons in Ethiopia with tens of thousands of political prisoners and earned Ethiopia the dubious distinction of being “one of the most notorious press freedom violators of the world.” Meles’ and his party’s dream proved to be a Kafkaesque nightmare for Ethiopians (a nightmare filled with real life kangaroo/monkey courts, a thoroughly corrupt bureaucracy and an oppressive and thieving gang of faceless, nameless, ruthless and conscienceless power-hungry thugs) operating as a state within a state.

Dreams are not limited to great political causes. Millions of people dream of personal gains every day. Some dream of fortune, others of fame. But for a few chasing a financial dream is not enough. They have deeper and grander aspirations. They are on a Quest.

Dreamers are not chosen; they are self-made. Ordinary people can be great dreamers.  Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu,  Woubshet Taye , Andualem Aragie and many others like them are ordinary young  Ethiopians who dared to dream. Eskinder dreamt of the inevitability of freedom in Ethiopia. He emphatically argued, “Freedom is partial to no race. Freedom has no religion. Freedom favors no ethnicity. Freedom discriminates not between rich and poor countries. Inevitably freedom will overwhelm Ethiopia.”

Reeyot was willing to pay the price for the courage of her dreams: “Shooting the people who march through the streets demanding freedom and democracy; jailing the opposition party leaders and journalists … preventing freedom of speech, association and the press; corruption and domination of one tribe are some of the bad doings of our government. I knew that I would pay the price for my courage [to report] and I was ready to accept that price.” She is paying for her dreams with a 14-year sentence.

Andualem Aragie, a brilliant and quick-witted lawyer and opposition party leader, proclaimed his dream of a collective struggle for a collective victory over oppression. He dreamt of leaving a legacy of freedom to the coming generations. “I ardently believe that there is nothing more precious in this world than freedom for which man could live and die… That the Ethiopian people are unable to be masters of their freedom is primarily the failure of the Ethiopian people themselves… We Ethiopians should wage a well-planned and strengthened struggle for our freedom in unison, undivided by politics, religion, age or economic class. The secret of our failure to be free lies in the fact that we individually or in unison have been unable to wage a struggle that gave priority to the wellbeing of the people and of the coming generations and to the future of the country as a whole. There is no concern for each of us and each of us has no concern for all.”

Bekele Gerba, a resolute opposition leader, dreamt of a country where there are no first class, second class… citizens. He stood against the nightmare of four classes of citizenship created in Ethiopia by the TPLF: “the first-class citizens are those who are in power to give away land; the second-class citizens are those who receive land; the third-class are those who are reduced to observer-roles of such illicit transactions; the fourth-class are those whose land is taken away from them by force.”

Abubaker Ahmed, a human rights advocate for religious freedom, dreamt of a country where the rule of law reigns supreme and the supreme law of the land is respected irrespective of who happens to be in power. “We are not opposed to any administration. All we are asking for is that the Constitution be respected. All we are saying is those bodies that say they respect the Constitution actually respect the Constitution.”

Dreams will not amount  to much without persistent and determined action to make them realities. To make dreams come true one must have absolute faith in one’s dreams, be passionate about them, create a plan of action and get busy. To give up on one’s dreams is like drowning in a sea of despair and hopelessness.

My Possible Ethiopian Dreams

I fancy myself a dreamer. Not like MLK, Mandela, Eskinder and the others.  Just an ordinary academic and lawyer who became an accidental dreamer.  Until the late Meles Zenawi personally ordered the massacre of hundreds of unarmed protesters following the 2005 election, I had only one dream, the American Dream (“California Dreamin’”). But I was not merely in partial pursuit of the American Dream seeking material fulfillment. I wanted the whole kit and caboodle of the “American Dream” for which MLK worked and gave his life. To me the American Dream is a point in spacetime, where, as Thomas Wolfe described it, “…to every man [and woman], regardless of his [her] birth, [has] his [her] shining, golden opportunity ….the right to live, to work, to be himself [herself], and to become whatever thing his [her] manhood [womanhood] and his [her] vision can combine to make him [her].”

The nightmare of the Meles Massacres of 2005 forced me to nurture a parallel Ethiopian Dream. It is a dream born of a nightmare of massacres and unspeakable crimes against humanity and the Almighty. It started as a dream deeply beset by visions of criminals against humanity brutalizing the people and pillaging and plundering the land of our ancestors. It became a dream driven by the moral imperatives of opposing brutality, barbarity and atrocity against humanity. Over the years, the dream born of a nightmare has become a happy dream of national unity, legal and moral accountability and democratic civility. It is a dream about the release of all political prisoners from captivity. It is a dream about a free expression, and of a free press and of an independent judiciary and of good governance and of…

In 2012, I wrote a commentary entitled, “Dreams of an Ethiopia at Peace” and tried to explain my qualifications for being a bona fide dreamer. I argued that a true human rights advocate is eligible to be considered a dreamer because s/he “has no political ambition. The politics of human rights is the politics of human dignity, not ideology, political partisanship or the pursuit of political office. The committed human rights advocate thrives on hopes and dreams of a better future, not the lust for political power or craving for status, position or privilege.”

As a dreamer, I am constantly haunted by the decades-old nightmare that has enveloped Ethiopia. My ultimate dream of Ethiopia at peace is sobered by Ethiopia’s recent history and politics. Political transitions in Ethiopia have been nightmares, a race to rock bottom. The transition from monarchy to military socialism proved to be a colossal disaster. In the name of socialism, millions perished from political violence and famine. The transition from military ‘socialism’ to ‘revolutionary democracy’ led to the creation of a police state in Ethiopia unrivaled in the modern history of Africa. The flicker of democracy that was seen in 2005 was snuffed out in the blink of an eye. Despite this nightmare history, I still dream of Ethiopia at peace with itself.

In my January 2010 commentaries, “Ethiopia: The Future of the Future Country, Part I and Part II, I saw visions of a nightmare to come in just a few decades — the Four Horses of the Apocalypse — as a result of the incompetence and crimes of the late Meles Zenawi and his the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front. Then as now, I am haunted by the nightmare of an environmental collapse in Ethiopia. I am haunted by the specter of overpopulation, deforestation and habitat destruction, soil degradation, decline in potable water supply and water pollution, overgrazing, desertification and so on as the unmistakable present warning signals of future collapse.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in less than 35 years, Ethiopia’s population will more than triple to 278 million, placing Ethiopia in the top 10 most populous countries in the world. Ethiopia’s population growth has been spiraling upwards for decades. In 1967, the population was 23.5 million. It increased to 51 million in 1990 and by 2003, it had reached 68 million. In 2008, that number increased to 80 million. By 2014, Ethiopia’s population is estimated at 98 million.  Since 1995, the average annual rate of population growth has remained at over 3 percent. Even if the population doubled by 2050, how can Ethiopia survive without decisive, planned and massive intervention now?  The environmental and demographic catastrophe that is likely to take place in Ethiopia in a little over three decades not only gives me nightmares at night and in broad daylight, it plain out scares the hell out of me.

I am haunted by the nightmare of all nightmares: What is the end of a regime that has styled itself along apartheid South Africa?  Would it end as poet T.S. Eliot  predicted in the last stanza of his poem, “The Hollow Men”: /…/This is the way the world ends/This is the way the world ends/This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper. What is the likely end of the “hollow men” of the TPLF?

I have also been (pipe)dreaming of Africa. In my April 2014 commentary, “Is There Any Hope for Africa”, I wrote about my “pipe dream that one day in Africa government wrongs will be redressed by human rights; and that African governments will fear their people and the people will forever  cast off their fear of their governments. Such are the pipe dreams (daydreams) of a utopian Ethiopian for Africa.”

I dream because a dreamless life is not worth living in much the same way as the unexamined life, as Socrates taught.

I believe George Bernard Shaw best explained why it is necessary to dream. Heartbroken by the poverty and malaise in Europe following  WW I, Shaw in Act I of his play “Back To Methuselah”, poses the question to end all questions: “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’” (lines sometimes incorrectly attributed to Robert F. Kennedy).

For me “dreamers” are people with above average imagination, the key ingredient in any dream. As Einstein observed, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Dreamers are intellectual factories of imagination.  They imagine possible dreams from impossible dreams. Dreamers see hills and mountains to climb and eagerly and enthusiastically ask how many more hills and mountains there are left to climb. They keep on climbing hill after hill, mountain after mountain “Step by step, bit by bit, stone by stone, brick by brick, day by day, mile by mile they go on [their] way,” as Whitney Houston would sing it.

I have listened to the speeches and interviews of countless Ethiopian political, cultural and religious leaders over the years. Frankly, I hear them speak words but I do  not see them dream. I do not see dreams in their   words. I do not even see silhouettes of hope and confidence in the future in their words. I only hear words that accentuate the  “jangling discord of our nation” but not “transform into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood”, to echo MLK.

I have even followed the narrative of the late not-so- “great visionary leader.” I have yet to figure out what his vision (“dream?”) was or is supposed to be. His disciples swear up and down that they will follow his “vision”.  Perhaps vision is in the eyes of the beholder. A nightmare dreamt up in cauldron of hate is mistaken for vision. For some, fantasy and delusions are the equivalent of a dream.

I have heard all sorts of world leaders talk about their dreams.  I followed Chinese President Xi Jinping speak of the  “Chinese Dream”. It is a dream of “national rejuvenation, improvement of people’s livelihoods, prosperity, construction of a better society and military strengthening.” He urged the young people of China to “dare to dream, work assiduously to fulfill the dreams and contribute to the revitalization of the nation.”

There is no reason why Ethiopians cannot have their own “Dreams”; or why Ethiopians from all walks of life, and particularly those in leadership positions or aspiring to same and those blessed with learning cannot articulate their own versions of the “Ethiopia Dream.”

So what are my “Ethiopian Dreams” for 2015 and beyond?

I dream of Ethiopia at Peace.

I dream of Ethiopia as nation united by its history and suffering of its people.

I dream of brotherhood and sisterhood in Ethiopia.

I have a dream that Ethiopians will find unity in their humanity instead of their ethnicity .

I have a dream that all Ethiopians regardless of ethnicity, religion and region will subscribe to the creed, “I am my brother’s, my sister’s keeper.”

I have a dream that the Truth shall rise from the ashes of lies and lead all Ethiopians on the path of reconciliation in Ethiopia.

I have a dream that human rights will one day extinguish government wrongs in Ethiopia.

I have a dream that Ethiopians will come to understand the futility of war and conflict and the utility of collaboration and cooperation in nation-building  despite differences.

I dream the rule of law will forever banish the nightmare of rule by outlaws in Ethiopia.

I have a dream that Ethiopia will rid itself of tyranny and dictatorship and enjoy a true multiparty democracy with iron clad protections for human rights.

I dream of Ethiopia’s learned men and women using their intellectual powers to teach, preach and touch the people.

I have a dream that Ethiopians in my generation will one day wake up from the slumber of fear, despair, self-doubt and self-interest and dream of lasting legacies for the next generation.

I dream of tolerance and civility among all Ethiopians.

I have a dream that all Ethiopian political prisoners will be released and rejoin their families.

I have a dream that all criminals against humanity in Ethiopia will be brought the bar of justice.

I have a dream that this generation will leave a lasting legacy of peace, freedom and democracy to the coming generations.

I have a dream that Ethiopians will be blessed with the wisdom to believe in themselves and disbelieve those who seek to gain political advantage by manipulating and dividing them.

I have a dream that Ethiopia’s young people will put their shoulders to the wheel and take full charge of their country’s destiny; leave behind the politics of hate and ethnicity; turn their backs on those wallowing in moral bankruptcy and create a New Politics for a New Ethiopia based on dialogue, negotiation and compromise.  I dream they will  learn from the wisdom of their ancestors: “Tomorrow belongs to the [young] people who prepare for it today.”

I promised in my Ethiopian New Year Resolution that I hoped to articulate my version (not vision) of the Ethiopian Dream and challenge others to articulate theirs. So I challenge my fellow “Ethiopian Dreamers” once again to stay true to their dreams in the poetic words of Langston Hughes:  “Hold fast to dreams,/ For if dreams die/ Life is a broken-winged bird,/That cannot fly.” Or soar!   But…

“What happens to a dream deferred?” Does it become a nightmare?

Dreams often come true. Some dreams turn into nightmares. The dreams that are deferred are the most enigmatic ones. That is why Langston Hughes poetically asked,

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore– / And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat? /Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load
Or does it explode?

The possible Ethiopian Dream is my Quest

Am I chasing impossible dreams?

In the opening sentences of this commentary, I noted that my “resolutions” for the Ethiopian New Year may sound grandiose and quixotic. I even made a cryptic reference to Cervantes’ great work, “Don Quixote, Man of La Mancha”.  That was not merely a literary trope. For I, like the Man of La Mancha, am on a Quest, a pursuit of a possible dream locked inside an Impossible Dream. In the lyrics of The Quest (composed by Mitch Leigh, with lyrics written by Joe Darion) in the Broadway musical “Man of La Mancha”, I dream…

The Impossible Dream (The Quest)

To dream the impossible dream/To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow/And to run where
the brave dare not go/To right the unrightable wrong
And to love pure and chaste from afar/To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star/This is my quest
To follow that star/No matter how hopeless
No matter how far/To fight for the right
Without question or pause/To be willing to march,
march into hell/For that heavenly cause
And I know/If I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest/That my heart
Will lie peaceful and calm/When I’m laid to my rest
And the world will be/better for this
That one man, scorned /and covered with scars,
Still strove with his last /ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable, /the unreachable,
The unreachable star/And I’ll always dream
The impossible dream/Yes, and I’ll reach
The unreachable star

A life without dreams, like the unexamined life, is not worth living.


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