By The Mitmita Girls
It has been some time since we served up our brand of tongue lashing on the state of madness in Ethiopia; even committed dilettantes like us need a month or nine to recover from the very exhausting process of skewering our esteemed Prime Minister via our blog.
When last we broached the topic of human rights, Egypt was in the midst of its Arab Spring and the Mitmita Girls asked whether Ethiopia would follow with its own brand of Abyssinian Tsedey. Some nine months later, the devil still refuses to take our Meles back but our courageous young men, jegnoch, have taken to emulating Buddhist monks and have begun setting themselves on fire.
Rest in freedom, Yenesew Gebre. Your soul was no doubt restless in Meles’ hell on earth.
The Mitmita Girls honor the right of a people to protest by any means and we pay homage to those who have given their lives instead of giving into tyranny. Yet we wonder…having been dispossessed of everything by our esteemed prime minister’s junta, must we now give of our very lives—by our own hands?
Historically, individuals in a show of protest or to highlight a grave human rights violation have taken extreme measures. In Ethiopia’s own history, Atse Tewodros, rather than submit to colonial rule, is said to have committed suicide. Whatever his leadership failures may have been, he is noted for his immense bravery and for the pride with which he held his Etiopiawinet. It was in his estimation preferable to die than to live under the rule of the British.
In the United States, in the early 1900’s in the midst of the struggle for the right of (white) women to vote, Alice Paul a renown activist who was imprisoned staged a hunger strike and was put in a mental ward. When a psychiatrist interviewed her as to her protest method, she reportedly explained that the hunger strike was a tradition in old Ireland. You starve yourself on someone’s doorstep until restitution is made and justice is done. The doctor noted that it didn’t sound like an effective method and she allegedly responded “a stinking corpse on your doorstep? What would the neighbors say?”
Drastic protest tactics are effective when you are trying to shock the conscience of a community and propel them to action. Not only does the world community know of our plight, it has decided that it doesn’t care to hear about yet another African country with a faux-Marxist-cum-faux-capitalist dictator. With the West, you have to be the cause célèbre du jour. The only thing en vogue about our country these days are our Ethiopian babies accumulated by netch Americans as though they are the latest stilettos from Blahnik.
Beyond our inability to induce the West to stop funding the Prime Minister’s every whim, these protest tactics—shocking as they may be–will not succeed because two elements are missing: shame and a mass movement.
Self-immolation and hunger strikes are effective for a government that can be shamed. They are compelling for a regime that will be moved to act because endeh? sew min yelal “a stinking corpse? What will the neighbors say?” We do not have such a government in Arat Kilo. With much of the West in Meles’ pocket, stinking, bleeding and burning corpses can litter the road from Kulubi to Debre Zeit to no avail. Knowing their penchant for the ridiculous, the regime is apt to fine the families of the dead for disturbing the landscape.
Second, there is no visible critical mass—there is no mass movement. No doubt everyone is whispering in their homes and the brave ones out loud about the brutality of the regime. But Meles has effectively paralyzed the opposition—they are imprisoned, dead, outlawed, exiled and otherwise demoralized. It may seem as though we have reached the end of our ropes and that nothing on the horizon will rid us of the Prime Minister and his coterie. Bleak as things may seem, our answer cannot be for our people to begin burning themselves. Unless and until we build a mass movement, we cannot allow our jegnoch to self-sacrifice. We don’t caution because we don’t believe in the possibility of creating the environment for change in Ethiopia. We do believe. Indeed it is hope and a sincere belief in such a possibility what sustains us.
Let us survey the situation: The current regime rules the majority of our population through fear. But more importantly, it is the active participation by all of us in the system that supports the government. Meles’ regime flourishes because he has managed to seduce the expats and the upper class with land, investment and access. Still, many a businessman and woman have complained to us that the tax codes are stifling and that the government exercises eminent domain and imposes harsh penalties without due process. And they say this without irony! As though an otherwise bankrupt government would implement “democratic processes” in its version of capitalism!
The reality is we are not quite as fed up as our dearly departed brother, Yenesew Gebre. Meles’ government exists more than twenty years after he boldly strolled into our capital because we allow it to. Because we, you, yes YOU, permit it. It is the investor class, the expats, those of us in the Diaspora, who fuel Meles. We are all complicit. You and the Mitmita Girls. We want to travel to Ethiopia, visit family and friends, enjoy the attractive and comfortable entrapments of pseudo capitalism—the saunas, the restaurants, the resorts, the spas, the hot hotels, the even hotter young and nouveau rich who litter the scene. All of it makes our beloved country so beguiling. A few days in the fashionable metropolis known as Addis and we too are resentful of the poor. We want to divorce ourselves from the machinations of the regime at the same time that we enjoy the byproduct of its policies.
Until we decide that these few platitudes are not enough, that the clubs and the resort traps and five star hotels accessible to the few are not what a nation should be about, Meles will continue to rule. In the interim, our young men and women must employ other protest methods and learn from previous social movements.
Instead of hunger strikes and self-immolation, let’s look at boycotts and divestment. First up is the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In post slavery America, life for people of African descent in the United States was regulated by a series of draconian laws that supported a doctrine known as “separate but equal.” In essence these rules mandated segregation between the races with the proviso that the accommodations (whether they are schools, public transportation, housing, restaurants etc.) must be “equal.” As we know, the accommodations for Blacks were much inferior to those provided for whites and more importantly violence directed at African Americans—including mobs attacks, lynchings and murders—were common place occurrences and were used to brutally sustain this system of second class citizenship.
Appealing to the “hearts and minds” of the white population was not an effective strategy. In December 1955, the NAACP in coordination with local human rights groups in Alabama began a boycott of the transportation system in Montgomery. The arrest of Rosa Parks who refused to give us her seat on a bus for a white patron was the propelling force that united a community and begun the protest. The boycott lasted a little over a year during, which time the Black population en masse refused to ride the buses—a move that crippled the bus system that began losing money within two months of the protests. As a result of the boycott, the buses were desegregated and the fight against Jim Crow scored a major victory.
Let us move from that hemisphere to the African continent for our second example. You are no doubt more familiar with apartheid in South Africa. One of the major factors that contributed to the fall of that unjust system was divestment. Universities, corporations and governments began to systematically remove their investments from the South African regime. Beyond expressing moral outrage, organizers used economics to compel change.
Meles’ ethnocentric policies might not have had quite the same separate but unequal accommodations we saw in Jim Crow America and in Apartheid South Africa. Nevertheless, we think the methods used to move both countries towards a more egalitarian society are appropriate for Ethiopia.
As noble as it is to give your life for a cause, we would rather that we all lived and instead hit Meles and his henchmen where it hurts most: their pocketbooks.
The question is what must each of us do to bring about this change?
Will Ethiopia’s captive population, do like the Algerians in the 1960’s and rebel against this seemingly foreign occupation? Will we wake up one day, elelelele ringing from the voice of all the women, a new flag in hand and the denizens in full support of a boycott?
Will the investors stop supplying the regime with money?
Will the Diaspora refuse to sit on its hands and begin to meaningfully organize for divestment?
Divest? We can hear some of you chuckling and rolling your eyes. But countries and systems much mightier than Meles have been brought down by boycotts and divestments.
It is time for a different strategy; the old tactics have failed. Meles’ conscience is in his pocket: The Mitmita Girls Call for Divestment!