The Powers of our Wisdom and Values

June 15, 2008

In the last few weeks, several important political events took place both globally and locally in the Horn of Africa region.

After Senator Barack Obama clinched the necessary number of delegates to win the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party in the U.S., Senator Hillary Clinton made a historical speech. She made a very important point during her speech by saying "I want us to be led by the power of our values." On his part, Senator Obama noted that his win marked the end of one historical journey and the beginning of another, in his speech following Senator Clinton's.

Donald Yamamoto, the U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia, stated that the stable political system in Ethiopia is of paramount importance for the peace and stability of the Horn of Africa. There is no reason to believe that the political relationship between the U.S. and the Horn of Africa will not get stronger if Senator Obama becomes the next president of the U.S., for the simple reason that he has roots in the region. There is also no reason to believe that this relationship won't stay at least as strong as it currently is if Senator John McCain becomes the next president of the U.S. because of his firm ideological fight and the current Ethiopian government's resonant position. Furthermore, the prudence for democratic values and experiences of our societies is not to be taken lightly.

On the other side of the political equation lie the strengths of the politicians and individuals of the countries in the Horn of Africa. The Ethiopian court sentenced Mengistu Hailemariam, the former Ethiopian President, to death seventeen years after he was ousted from power by the current rulers. Mengistu is exiled in Zimbabwe where he has been living since 1991.

Dr. Negasso Gidada, who became Ethiopia's President after Mengistu following a brief transitional period, admitted at a meeting in Minnesota in 2007 that he "participated in all decisions made by the ruling party" that have caused the deaths of many. In his own words, "How many have died ... are crippled ... in prison and how many have run away to other countries because of the brutality of the government, I do not know exactly. What I can only say at the moment is I am very sorry." He also stated that he is "prepared to accept personal and collective accountability for human rights violations."

We have no evidence that the Ethiopian government's prosecutor and court system that have seen the case of Mengistu Hailemariam, who lives in exile in a far away country, have made any attempts to bring to justice another former Ethiopian President who has admitted to his wrongdoings and continues to live in the reach of their legal arms.

Bekele Geleta, who was imprisoned for five years, presumably by Mengistu's regime, was posted to the helm of a very important global organization, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent. He was cautious, rightly so, in the appointment, which is likely to bring his way as many challenges as opportunities. However, the fact that the news of his appointment came at about the same time as the sentencing of Mengistu to death is an interesting story. This is a success story of an individual who was a dictator's political victim but rose to assume such a prominent post at the time when the dictator was told by the Ethiopian court that he is guilty.

The success stories of those affected by the decisions Dr. Negasso Gidada participated in are yet to become visible. What has become clear so far is that when he admitted about his wrongdoings in Minneapolis in 2007, he was confronted, among others, by a young man, Remedan Yuya, who stated that he is a victim of the decisions Dr. Negasso participated in. According to media reports, Remedan stated "My sisters, my brothers, my mom, my father, because of him [Dr. Negasso Gidada], disappeared."

Another story that was reported as an important success story by the media is that of Tamiru Atraga, who was ordained on May 25, 2008, by the Boston Archdiocese as the first Ethiopian priest. He is expected to be "a bridge to bring people facing adversity back to the church," having been "assigned to Immaculate Conception Parish in Malden." He has taken an assignment on a subject that has become a household debate.

At an international symposium on Africa's development organized by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's Prime Minister, denounced economic policies imposed on African countries in the 1980s by the World Bank. According to him, "Economic liberalization policies were a failure and delayed Africa's development. These choices neglected investments in infrastructure, education and training." He went on to add "There is no sustainable economic growth without reliable and performing infrastructure. Over the past few years, African countries have been achieving economic growth, but the inadequacy of infrastructure is likely to ruin their efforts."

The irony of this story is that in the 1980s, Meles was a leader of a guerrilla movement that Mengistu was fighting, accusing it as "dildiy sebari" in the Amharic language, which roughly means bridge destroyer. If the World Bank's economic policy in the 1980s neglected investments in infrastructure, his movement's practices of destroying bridges in Ethiopia could not have accelerated it by any stretch of the imagination.

Whatever lessons can be drawn from such reflections, Meles' political posture in criticizing from the pulpit of the so called "international conferences on Africa" organized, first by China, then by India, and now by Japan, is devoid of our wisdom and values. Our people not only stand against injustice, but they have also shown their determination to fight the right fight, including against colonialism. Their successes must have given us the prudence to know when and from where to criticize. For an Ethiopian Prime Minister to go to China for help and sending the criticism from a Chinese soil, to India for help and sending the criticism from an Indian soil, or going to Japan for help and sending the criticism from a Japanese soil are certainly not the wisdom and values of our society.

Meles is also facing questions about what is now believed by many to be a secret border agreement between Ethiopia and Sudan. In a long article, Seye Abraha, one of Meles' most important associates in their struggle to liberate Tigray from Ethiopia by leading the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), wrote recently in defense of Ethiopian sovereignty after the border issue came to the public fore. He mentioned the late Professor Asrat Woldeyes' knowledge of the border issue back in 1991 when the TPLF assumed power in Ethiopia. At the time, Meles and Seye were on one side of the political aisle against Professor Asrat.

In his long letter, Seye also tried to explain how Meles failed to bring the border issue to the Ethiopian parliament, noting that members of Meles' party would have voted uniformly for his motion. The irony of this story is that Seye, as the leader of the TPLF that created People's Democratic Organizations out of prisoners of war to form the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), is telling the world, without evident remorse, how the political grouping he helped create would vote uncritically on matters as critical as the sovereignty of the country this group is leading.

Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea's president, who led another guerrilla movement that helped Eritrea break away from Ethiopia, told the world through Al Jazeera TV interview that elections in his country could take three to four decades. During his movement's fight against Mengistu, he led it by accusing Mengistu of dictatorship while seeking support from the western governments. After 17 years of leading Eritrea as a nation state, he has come out to tell the world that elections in his country could take 30 to 40 years, which could go even against the force of nature.

It is human nature to err. However, there is no wisdom or value in finding oneself on the opposite ends of a political map. We as a society are not that devoid of wisdom and values. It is the cultivation of our society's wisdom and values that will have a meaningful contribution to the peace and stability of our region and the world.

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