Thursday, October 11, 2007

Truth Fest In L.A.

They said Ethio-Angelinos are apolitical, depoliticized and disengaged from politics. It stings a little when it is said by former Ethio-Angelinos: “When it comes to Ethiopian politics, Los Angeles is rarely mentioned. It is a city with the second or third largest number of Ethiopians, but it is a place where the least political activity goes on. South Dakota is mentioned more often than Los Angeles when it comes to Ethiopian politics.” Ouch, ouch, ouch!

“A place where the least political activity goes on.” May be. Of course, they were not in L.A. with us on October 7 when we had our Revival Meeting, like the ones they have down South. They did not join us in fellowship to hear the 5 missionaries from Ethiopia preaching the gospel of freedom, democracy and human rights. And they did not see the hundreds of holy rollers of human rights and democracy rocking the house at Hollywood Park. No, they did not see us going through the ecstasy of the Second Great Awakening when Truth was spoken to power. Nor did they see us stomping our feet on the ground and waiving our hands in the air enraptured by hymns of freedom. No, they were not there to see green/yellow/red flag-waiving, V-signing and Ethiopia Hagere-singing Ethio-Angelinos swaying side to side. Too bad, they were not there to witness a Truth Fest in L.A. for 6 hours straight! And now they have to eat their words, or eat boiled crow because we raised the roof in L.A. on October 7. And
here comes the judge! Birtukan laid down the law. “Yes, we were imprisoned in body,” she opened her remarks, “but you and millions of our supporters were imprisoned with us in spirit.”

But there were no imprisoned spirits in that hall that afternoon. Only free spirits celebrating freedom and democracy. And you could feel the spirit of joy, and of brotherhood and sisterhood everywhere. You could see the spirit in the faces and smiles of the young and old. And all of us made joyful noises to express our love, respect and appreciation for those who have traveled from the hellish dungeons of Kality prison to the City of Angles.

“We thank you our compatriots (yager lejoch) who have been the voice of the voiceless, for carrying the torch of freedom and for the warm welcome you have shown us. The respect and love you have shown us reflects your love and respect for democratic liberties and the rule of law. We promise you we will continue the peaceful struggle for democracy.” These awesome words of gratitude, appreciation and determination filled the hall effusively. These were words spoken with judicial authority by a young woman barely in her thirties. When the judge spoke, everybody was listening. Court was in session. No doubt many thought, “Such humble words of gratitude, such steely determination coming from a young lady. We really have hope after all.” I just wanted to bust out and shout, “More power to the young people!” But I restrained myself. “It’s not going to look too cool,” so I just muttered it to myself.

Birtukan preached on: “The Ethiopian people have decided they want change, and there is no power that can stop them from having change.” I wanted to chime in, “Preach on Sister!” She pressed on, “It is the peoples’ voice that matters ultimately. Our peaceful struggle is for a pluralist democracy where we can discuss our differences peacefully and come to terms on issues that divide us.” She was not mincing words. She was telling it like it is, no embellishments. Just the raw message.

She argued forcefully that democracy is the key to political and social viability of Ethiopian society. “We need democracy to get us out of the problems we face today.” We can’t expect to overcome famine, poverty, disease or ignorance unless we manage to build a pluralist democratic system. There can be no human rights without a democratic foundation. Then she talked about the spirit that moves her: “No amount of repression can stamp out Kinijit because Kinijt lives in the hearts and minds of the people. We hate no one, even those who hate and revile us,” said Birtukan unapologetically.

But she was not about to preach democracy to others only. She brought it straight home. “Kinijit itself must practice what it preaches,” she declared with judicial authority. “There are differences of opinion in Kinijit, and that’s healthy. We resolve our differences through open discussion and dialogue, not in the rumor mills.” She hammered the theme of vigorous debate as an essential element of organizational growth and maturity. She reiterated her basic tenet, “Every Kinijit member and leader has the right to ask questions, comment and make suggestions on what happens in the organization. If we can’t practice democracy within our own organization, how can we expect to practice it in the country,” she asked rhetorically to a thunderous applause. She pleaded with those rumor mongers who spread misinformation and fan the flames of discord to refrain from their hurtful practices. She warned, “If we insist on engaging in recriminations and accusations, the train will leave the station without us.”

Ato Gizachew Shiferaw, the featured speaker, focused his remarks on the relationship between peace and development. “If there is no peace, there is no development,” declared Ato Gizachew. Peace is not just the absence of war. He said there are two types of war that afflict our society today: a war of arms and a battle of ideas. Losing the battle of ideas is a far greater loss that losing the war of arms. “If we lose the battle of ideas, we’d have also lost our peace of mind,” he asserted.

He explained the destructive force of insidious ideas that are used as part of the psychological warfare to deny ordinary citizens peace of mind. The war mongers will take advantage of the embattled mind and plant the seeds of hatred, suspicion, distrust and fear. The person whose mind is possessed by such evil is not at peace with himself or others. He is at war with himself and his community. That person loses his confidence and begins to doubt himself and those around him. He becomes scared and reacts violently.

He explained that even the most privileged and educated members of our society have become tools in this battle of ideas. Instead of enlightening the people and bringing them hope while they float precariously on a sea of despair, the best and brightest are often found doing their best to sink the boat by becoming tools of repression and apologists for tyrants. “We heard that!”

This warfare of the mind keeps Ethiopians in a state of perpetual poverty. “Life is very hard in the countryside. The average farmer wears the same piece of tattered clothing year in and year out. He toils everyday but remains in abject poverty. This fact is sad not only for Ethiopians but for all of humanity,” he lamented.

“There is no peace in Ethiopia because there is no democracy in Ethiopia,” declared Ato Gizachew. The country is heading towards disaster.” He recounted the fact that people are rising up in all parts of the country, in Oromia, Tigray, Afar, Gambella and Ogaden regions and elsewhere. They are rising up because there is no justice and equality in Ethiopia. The regime’s answer to the demand for justice is more guns and bullets. That is no answer. “You can not kill everyone into submission. Killing people who disagree with you can never be the answer.” So what is the answer?

“The answer,” said Ato Gizachew definitively, “lies in a negotiated settlement of political disputes, not in waging war on people. Negotiated settlements are the only options left for individuals and organizations in the country.” He reaffirmed that Kinijit is always ready for negotiations. He said Kinijit tried every avenue to reach a negotiated settlement with the government but its efforts have been unsuccessful. Kinijit still abides by its 8-point program as a basis for a negotiated settlement of disputes. (The 8-points include demands for an independent election board, free press accessible to all political parties, release of all political prisoners, professionalization of the police and military forces, rescission of undemocratic parliamentary procedures, an independent judiciary, investigation of post-election killings by government forces and establishment of a follow-up commission.)

The crowd was not bashful in asking questions. The leaders were peppered with questions of every sort.

“Why did Kinijit send a delegation to America? Why did you bring your organizational problems with you to America? What is your agenda for Ethiopia? What do you mean by national reconciliation? Why don’t you respond to all of the charges and accusations that are being leveled against you? How is the Kinijit organization run? What have you done to help the families of the victims of the post election massacres? What do you mean by peaceful struggle? Why did you leave the country without resolving the issue of political prisoners? Did Kinijit authorize the establishment of AFD? Why did you give up after the election so easily without forcefully confronting the regime? If you are thrown in jail in the future, how do you want the Diaspora to react? And on and on…

Each one of the delegation members took turns to answer questions from the audience.
Why did Kinijit send a delegation to America? Dr. Berhanu explained that their mission to America was multifold. He said it was important for Kinijit to express its gratitude and appreciation to the hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians in the Diaspora for all of their efforts and sacrifices in supporting democracy in Ethiopia and for supporting them during their 21 months of imprisonment. He said the organization felt it was important to engage Diaspora Ethiopians in a conversation on the future of democracy in Ethiopia. The lack of cohesion and harmony in the support groups was an issue of special concern for the organization, and the delegation was given instructions to study and impartially seek ways and means to bring about harmony and cooperation among them. (Other delegations have been sent to Europe, Canada and elsewhere.)

He said they were also expected to engage in conversation with American policy makers and assist in anyway they can to promote freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. The Kinijit 8 point principles (accountability, transparency, rule of law, independent judiciary, free and fair elections, free press, release of all political prisoners) and other elements are very similar, if not identical, to the core provisions of H.R. 2003. He said they responded to Congressional invitations to testify on the current political situation in Ethiopia. He added that Kinijit needs funds to do its basic organizational work and has considerable difficulties raising funds internally given the dire economic situation in Ethiopia, an done of their important missions is to raise sufficient funds to re-energize the organization.

Why did you bring your organizational problems with you to America? Birtukan challenged the premise of the question. She said the alleged problems Kinijit has as an organization are not structural or fundamental problems of ideology, policy or vision. Differences in opinion, diversity of views and perspectives should not be magnified and raised to a level of insurmountable problems. The organization has its own bylaws, rules and internal procedures for decision making and dispute resolution. She suggested that the internal mechanisms will be used to iron out differences.

Dr. Berhanu added that Kinijit is a democratic organization and administers its affairs by democratic rules. “Kinijit will lose its relevance and vitality when it stops being a democratic organization. It becomes undemocratic when any one entity has the unbridled power to appoint or remove institutional officers and members, and dictates to all without submitting to the will of the majority.” He said that would not happen in Kinijit’s governance because the organization by its own bylaws and the overwhelming sentiment of its members will aspire to act consistent with democratic principles.

Ato Brook Kebede added that Diaspora support groups must be in a position to resolve their problems through open democratic dialogue and exchange. “The problems among those the support groups must be solved by them in a structure of democratic governance.” As independent entities, the support groups must aim to work together to advance the struggle and avoid internal conflict.

Will Kinijit participate in the election of 2010? Birtukan explained that Kinijit has not taken an official position on whether to participate in the 2010 elections because such participation depends on the objective situation of the time. If the circumstances set forth in Kinijit’s 8-point plan are met, she did not foresee any problems in electoral participation.

Dr. Hailu added that Kinijit’s 8-point plan offers a fair process for electoral democratic participation. Based on those principles, Kinijit could participate in any competitive political campaigns.

Dr. Berhanu expanded on his colleagues’ comments. He pointed out the historic significance of Kinijit’s accomplishments in 2005. For the first time in Ethiopian history, “Kinijit set a truly democratic agenda for Ethiopia for the first time.” That in itself is “significant because it showed the people that there is a democratic way of resolving social and political problems without resorting to war and violence.” He said they knew the 2005 elections will be stolen, but pointed out that “if we hadn’t participated in that election, we would not be here to talk about democracy today.” He said there are no guarantees the 2010 elections will be any fairer or cleaner than the 2005. But “Kinijit’s efforts to date have permanently established a democratic agenda for future political change and reform in Ethiopia.” He indicated that Kinijit’s 8-point principles represent the basic foundation for a democratic system in Ethiopia.

What does Kinijit mean by national reconciliation? Dr. Berhanu explained with professorial clarity that national reconciliation is the only mechanism by which we can repair the damaged body and wounded spirit of Ethiopians. He pointed out that Ethiopians have been traumatized by unspeakable violence. Ethiopia is a country where ‘parents have seen their children taken out and murdered right before their eyes by government forces. Everyday they are denied their simple humanity and are forced to undergo the indignity of identifying themselves by their ethnicity,” he elaborated. “We are an afflicted society, a country in need of healing. We need a permanent solution that comes only from national reconciliation.” He said he understood that such reconciliation may be difficult to accept by those who have committed crimes and are afraid of accountability. But it is time to bury the hatchet and beat the swords into ploughshares. “It is time to extend an olive branch to all who seek peaceful resolution,” he said.

The alternative to national reconciliation is more of the same. More wars, more destruction, more discord. He said they were jailed not because they committed any crimes but because they waged a peaceful struggle for their cause. “Our right to peaceful dissent and protest is secured in the Ethiopian Constitution,” Dr. Berhanu said. He added, “you can never trust anyone who takes power at the barrel of a gun.” He gave as an example the current regime that took power by force of arms and promised democracy, but now uses the very same guns to stay in power and prevent democracy from taking root. “Kinijit as an organization does not believe in using guns to bring democracy,” he declared.

Ato Gizachew added that the lack of national reconciliation is reflected in the fear that has caused an incredible concentration of military force around the capital, and the country has been reduce to a police state. The people and the regime have separated ways, and the only way to bring them together is to have a meaningful dialogue of national reconciliation. He said that is inevitable. “The Derg delayed negotiations until the very last, but it did come to the negotiating table. By then it was too late,” he added.

What do you mean by peaceful struggle? Dr. Berhanu said Kinijit does not believe in using guns to bring about democracy, but admitted there are others who do and are prepared to use force to oppose the regime. “If the government does not accept peaceful negotiations with us, their only option will be to fight the millions who will rise up in arms.” He recounted a story he heard from a former Derg regime official who told him that “Derg members simply did not understand that war and violence was not the solution, and believed they could beat and subdue their opposition by brute force. It did not work. In the end their efforts failed completely. But they did not know any better. They did not have an example to follow. But the regime today should learn from their experience. War, violence and force is never a solution to political and social problems.”

What plan does Kinijt have to support the victims of post-election government violence and their families? Dr. Hailu Araya explained that beginning from the time of their release until their departure for the U.S., the Kinijit leadership had discussed extensively the issue of support for the families of the victims of the post-election government violence. They had established various committees and task forces to study the issue. They had even discussed proposals for the establishment of a non-governmental organization that would provide for long term support of victims and their families. The matter is still under consideration by the remaining leadership in Ethiopia. The fact is that Kinijit does not have the resources to provide for the long term care of these victims and their families.

(In all fairness, support for the victims of post-election government violence is a responsibility all of us in the Diaspora must shoulder. I don’t believe it is fair to ask any particular party or political organization to carry that responsibility alone. The martyrs died and suffered grievous bodily injury not for a political party, but for the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights. They died and suffered for OUR cause. It should be OUR privilege and responsibility to help them and their families.)

Why did you leave the country without resolving the issue of the political prisoners throughout the country? Birtukan explained that the issue of the release of all political prisoners was a top issue for the Kinijt leadership. It was part of the discussion leading up to their release from captivity. The Kinijit leadership in the country continues to work hard for the release of political prisoners. But the government’s intransigence on the issue makes their work exceedingly difficult.

Why don’t you respond to the accusations that are leveled against you? Dr. Berhanu said engaging in recriminations is counterproductive. “What does one gain by calling another a liar. You hold a person in high regard for so long, and then for one reason or another turn around and belittle him. What does anyone gain from that? We should all focus on the real issues of freedom, democracy and human rights. We are here to do specific things. We will respond appropriately when there are major issues, but we will not engage in tit-for-tat recrimination. Doing so will divert us from our main mission and we will waste too much valuable time responding to every rumor, innuendo and allegation.” He added philosophically, “To take the low road of your adversary is to become like your adversary and accept defeat.” Dr. Berhanu pledged not to engage in the politics of recrimination personal destruction in the media.

Ato Gizachew added that reacting to every false charge and accusation in the media will only make the situation worse. He asked the media not to fan the flames of discord.

Why did you give up after the election so easily, you should have confronted the regime? Dr. Hailu Araya was philosophical in his answer. “Sometimes accepting defeat to avoid a greater evil is a better part of valor.” The regime was bent on using violence to suppress the true outcome of the elections. They would use any amount of force to stay in power. To insist on confrontation with such a regime could have resulted in a great loss of life and destruction of property. Kinijit does not want to become the cause of such tragedy, said Dr. Hailu.

What is the future direction of Kinijt? All of the delegates agreed that Kiniji’s future direction is based on its 8-point principles. For true democracy to prevail in Ethiopia, there must be accountability, transparency, independent judiciary, free and fair elections, free press, release of all political prisoners and one-man one-vote (and one-woman, one-vote).

Light Moments… There were many light moments. Dr. Berhanu was asked to comment on the efforts of some individuals who had campaigned to prevent sales of his best-seller “Nesanet Goh Seked”. Dr. Berhanu said, “I don’t understand anyone who says “Don’t read books.’ Only an ignoramus would say that. In the 15th Century during the Inquisition people used to burn books so that others will not get knowledge and enlightenment. They burned the books of Gallileo to keep the truth from being known.” The audience shared his amazement that such prehistoric troglodytes still exist in the 21st Century.

The incomparable Abebe Belew, master of ceremonies, provided comic relief as he exhorted the audience to open their wallets and make a donation. He combined humor, wit, wisecracks and banter to keep the audience entertained and opening their billfold time and again.

Abebe came on stage and told the crowd, “We will not leave this place until every question you have is answered by these leaders. No question is off limits. Ask them what you want, and if you run out of questions, I will give you some.” Abebe jokingly taunted, pleaded and appealed to the audience to fork up more money to support the organization. He pointed out that they must back up their commands with cash. “You can’t order these leaders to build democracy in Ethiopia without giving them the means to buy the bricks and mortar to do the construction,” Abebe instructed. He cracked up the crowd when he cautioned everybody that they “should all watch out, do what they are told (show me the money), and be on their best behavior because the Judge and the Mayor were in the House!” Abebe’s improvisational stage techniques are simply dazzling!

The delegation members were given gold-embossed Certificates of Recognition issued by Karen Bass, the Majority Leader of the California Assembly. Each delegate was also given a specially commissioned Amharic poem (a limerick or humorous verse) written in their honor. And they got tons of hugs and kisses and “thank you for everything” from everybody!

The turnout for the delegation was phenomenal. The place was packed to the limits. The Ethiopians community came out in full force, and even those who rarely show up for political meetings came out in droves. As usual, the vast majority of the attendees were men, but the women who were in attendance were second to none in their passion and commitment to freedom, democracy and human rights. When it came to responding to the fund raising calls, few men could match them.

The L.A. Kinijit Support and Development Association for Democracy and its leadership did a fantastic job organizing the event. They did a great job publicizing the event, and they packed the house to the brim! They maintained an orderly flow of activities and kept everything running smoothly. They are to be commended particularly for maintaining a friendly and welcoming atmosphere where everyone felt free to participate and have fun. Kudos to Kinijit’s Los Angeles Support and Development Association for Democracy.

A Brief Personal Reflection…
We are very fortunate to have these five delegates criss-cross the United States to bring us the good news that opposition politics and democracy are very much alive in the hearts and minds of the Ethiopian people. But we must remember that opposition leaders and the hundreds of thousands who were jailed or still remain jailed stood up for their beliefs at an extraordinary cost and sacrifice -- time with their families, loss of their professional lives, dispossession of their properties, and the ultimate sacrifice, giving up their liberty for the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia.

These delegates and their colleagues in Ethiopia could have done it like the rest of us. But they chose not to. As their brief biographies were being read out, one can not but be overawed by the scope of their formal education and extensive work experience: Advanced training in economics, chemistry, linguistics, law, business; work experience as university professors, service on the bench, top level management experience in business and the public sector. Yet one does not detect a trace of elitism in their speech or conduct. Each one without pretentiousness or arrogance. Each one straight-talking and direct. No B.S. Each one uncompromisingly committed to truth.

None of them complained about their personal situation, or how life has been unfair or hard on them. They never directed a single harsh word or hurled a vile accusation against anyone, friend or adversary. They were just throbbing with “positive vibration,” as the great Bob Marley would say. Simple and ordinary people, exemplary people, who have risen to extraordinary heights.

Some may feel the flames of liberty died out in Ethiopia in 2005, but they would be wrong. There is a volcano smoldering beneath the surface. As James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, “The very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”

As I reflected on the events of that day, I remembered two verses form the Bible. In Proverbs 11:29 is written, “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.” In Psalms 37:11 is written, “But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.”

I have no doubts whatsoever who “shall inherit the wind” and who “shall delight in the abundance of peace”.

There really was magic in the air on October 7, at Hollywood Park. And don’t take my word for it. Ask anyone who was there. Ask them one question only: “Did you get up from your seat even once during the entire 6-hour truth fest?" I will wager my bottom dollar none of them did! That says it all!

No comments: