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Open Letter to Hillary Clinton from Ethiopia: By Eskinder Nega

Dear Secretary Clinton, Unlike the almost annoyingly fussy, routinely dead-beat and robotically mechanical welcome of the government, I extend to you the simple, warm welcome of Ethiopia’s oppressed tens of millions:

Welcome to our ramshackle of a city, the embodiment of four wasted decades and barely over a century old, though, as Henry Kissinger usually likes to point out, the history of the Ethiopian state is older than even that of China.

Be sure to enjoy authentic servings of injera and wat, slightly different than what you would have tasted in Washington. I personally recommend the vegetarian dishes. And while improbable, a short sojourn in Axum and Lalibela would be a much needed respite to your busy schedule. The massive monolithic stone carvings are unlike anything you would find elsewhere. And for those in your entourage who favor art, there are marvelous 16th and 17th paintings in Gonder.

The story of Hilary Rodham Clinton is stirring, to say the least. I would be hard pressed to class it amongst conventional rags to riches narratives. While not classically rich, your father, Hugh Rodham, was neither a pauper in any sense of the word. I think the chronicle of your phenomenal rise to fame and prominence rather stands for the ideal absent in far too many countries, but not in the US: the early recognition of merit, its cultivation, and ultimate reward.

Indeed, as is frequently intoned, only in the USA could a wife overcome the huge shadow cast by a life-long over-achieving husband. But even in the US only an exceptional person could have done it. I suspect that it is this dazzling aspect of your public profile that particularly irks your paparazzi-like critics.

Two episodes strike me as uniquely remarkable from the young-Hilary-years.

The first lies, perhaps much too predictably, in your commencement address at Wellesley. While many savor and endlessly debate about your rebuke of Senator Brooke, who had preceded you as a speaker, I tend to single-mindedly cling to one line from your wonderful speech, “the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appear to be impossible, possible.”

Madam Secretary, if only you knew how much those words still resonate with those of us who believe, hoping against hope, that it is possible to bring democracy peacefully to an Ethiopia run harshly by despotic EPRDF; admittedly, a valuable tactical, but by no means a strategic, ally of the US.

The second is how you abruptly approached your future husband, the young Bill Clinton, hand extended, and calmly introduced yourself: “If you keep looking at me, and I am going to keep looking back, we might as well be introduced. I am Hilary Rodham”

Woooow! That took some guts, integrity and confidence. When I first read these words I remember thinking how this ought to be the one person Americans should trust to take that 3 AM phone call. No wonder

your Commander-in-Chief potential was never questioned. And somewhat coincidentally, guts, integrity and confidence are exactly the values Ethiopians need to nurture more to realize the much longed for peaceful transition to democracy. Democracy activists could learn much from your example.

But your image amongst democracy activists, to some extent here in Ethiopia but more so in the Middle East, has suffered since the outbreak of protests against Mubarak in Egypt. The word on the street,

unfairly I believe, is that Hilary favors old, violent autocrats over young, peaceful democrats. This would have had dire consequences for America’s already precarious reputation if not for the personal popularity of President Obama.

There is widespread recognition that there was rational behind your initial cautioned response to the Egyptian protests. Reasonable people do not expect the US to abandon allies summarily, particularly in a

region as vital and sensitive as the Middle East. Neither U.S. interests nor world stability would be served if such was the case. What has annoyed democracy activists is the perceived policy

transformation from that of caution to that of defender of the status-quo. Indeed, the US was distressingly late to champion the values of human rights and democracy forcefully. And once again, as had happened in Iran some 30 years ago, American policy makers were curtly upstaged by events in the streets.

This policy slip-up must be avoided in Ethiopia.

Balancing idealism and realism is easier said than done in foreign policy. The dilemma that you face as Secretary of State is palpable. But more often than not realism is confused for cynicism by too many

professional diplomats, many of them veterans of your State Department. I fear this in part explains the Egyptian slip. And when Ambassador Donald Booth, the US Ambassador to Ethiopia, told journalists of an imagined link between per capita income and democracy, we have had our brush with that cynicism. (For the record, America was democratic way before becoming rich and urban.)

Take this open letter as a message from the streets of Addis Ababa, a multi-ethnic, multi-religious city, from where the sentiment and aspiration of the nation’s majority reverberate.

Ethiopians covet the dignity of real citizenship possible only in a democracy. Ethiopians are adamant about voting in their first democratically elected government. Ethiopians would finally like to be

free from the network of prosecutors, incarcerators and executioners who have for long made life hell for them. Ethiopians demand freedom

of expression and association. Ethiopians desire an independent judiciary; a transparent, honest electoral system; and separation of powers between the three branches of government. Ethiopians insist on accountability for the unbridled corruption that has undermined the nation’s moral fabric. Ethiopians expect recovery of their stolen 8.4 billion dollars from Western banks.

Peaceful change is inevitable. It’s a question of when not if. And whatever your underlings maybe telling you, doubt not that it will come well before a significant rise in per capita income.

We hope to hear from you, Secretary Clinton. We hope to hear you tell the EPRDF that it is time to change, that the status-quo is not sustainable. But most of all, taking in to account that this short visit is in a city that is the seat of the African Union, we hope to hear you reaffirm President Obama’s pledge that the U.S. will not tolerate the killing of peaceful demonstrators. Stand up for democracy.


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