The Silent World of Hippos on Planet Cheetah
In my first weekly commentary of the new year, I “proclaimed” 2013 “Year of Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation” (young people). I also promised to reach, teach and preach to Ethiopia’s youth this year and exhorted members of the Ethiopian intellectual class (particularly the privileged “professorati”) to do the same. I have also been pleading with (some say badgering) the wider Ethiopian Hippo Generation (the lost generation) to find itself, get in gear and help the youth.
The SOS I put out in June 2012 (Where have Ethiopia’s Intellectuals Gone?) and now (The Irresponsibility of the Privileged) has been unwelcomed by tone deaf and deaf mute “Hippogenarians”. My plea for standing up and with the victims of tyranny and human rights abuses has been received with stony and deafening silence. I have gathered anecdotally that some Hippos are offended by what they perceive to be my self-righteous and holier-than-thou finger wagging and audacious, “J’accuse!”. Some have claimed that I am sitting atop my high horse crusading, pontificating, showboating, grandstanding and self-promoting.
There seems to be palpable consternation and anxiety among some (perhaps many) Hippos over the fact that I dared to betray them in a public campaign of name and shame and called unwelcome attention to their self-inflicted paralysis and faintheartedness. Some have even suggested that by using the seductively oversimplified metaphor of cheetahs and hippos, I have invented a new and dangerous division in society between the young and old in a land already fractured and fragmented by ethnic, religious and regional divisions. “Methinks they doth protest too much”, to invoke Shakespeare.
My concern and mission is to lift the veil that shrouds a pernicious culture and conspiracy of silence in the face of evil. My sole objective is to speak truth not only to power but also to those who have calculatedly chosen to disempower themselves by self-imposed silence. I unapologetically insist that silently tolerating wrong over right is dead wrong. Silently conceding the triumph of evil over good is itself evil. Silently watching atrocity is unmitigated moral depravity. Complicity with the champions of hate is partnership with haters.
The maxim of the law is “Silence gives consent” (qui tacet consentiret). Silence is complicity. Silence for the sake of insincere and hollow social harmony (yilugnta) is tantamount to dousing water on the quiet riot that rages in the hearts and minds of the oppressed. Leonardo da Vinci said, “Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.” I say nothing strengthens tyranny as much as silence — the silence of the privileged, the silence of those who could speak up but choose to take a vow of silence. One cannot speak to tyrants in the language of silence; one must speak to tyrants in the language of defiant truth. Silence must never be allowed to become the last refuge of the hypocritical scoundrel.
There have been encouraging developments over the past week in the crescendo of voices speaking truth to power. Several enlightening contributions that shed light on the life and times of tyranny in Ethiopia have been made in “Ethiopian cyber hager”, to borrow Prof. Donald Levine’s metaphor. A couple of insightful analysis readily come to mind. Muktar Omer offered a devastating critique of the bogus theory of “revolutionary democracy.” He argued convincingly “that recent economic development in Ethiopia has more to do with the injection of foreign aid into the economy and less with revolutionary democracy sloganeering.” He demonstrated the core ideological nexus between fascism, communism and revolutionary democracy. Muktar concluded, “Intellectuals who are enamored with the ‘good intellect and intentions’ of Meles Zenawi and rationalize his appalling human rights records are guilty of either willful ignorance or disagree with Professor John Gray’s dauntingly erudite reminder: ‘radical evil can come from the pursuit of progress’”. My view is that revolutionary democracy is to democracy as ethic federalism is to federalism. Both are figments of a warped and twisted imagination.
An Amharic piece by Kinfu Asefa (managing editor of ethioforum.org) entitled “Development Thieves” made a compelling case demonstrating the futility and duplicity of the so-called “Renaissance Bond” calculated to raise billions of dollars to dam the Blue Nile. Kinfu argued persuasively that there could be no development dam when the people themselves are damned by the damned dam developers.
I am told by those much wiser than myself that I am pursuing a futile course trying to coax Hippos to renounce their vows of silence and speak up. I am told it would be easier for me to squeeze blood out of turnip than to expect broad-gauged political activism and engaged advocacy from the members of Ethiopia’s inert Hippo Generation. The wise ones tell me I should write off (and not write about) the Hippos living on Planet Cheetah. I should stop pestering them and leave them alone in their blissful world where they see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil!
Restoring Faith With the Cheetahs
We have a problem! A big one. “We” are both Cheetahs and Hippos. Truth must be told: Hippos have broken faith with Cheetahs. Cheetahs feel betrayed by Hippos. Cheetahs feel marginalized and sidelined. Cheetahs say their loyalty and dedication has been countered by the treachery and underhandedness of Hippos. The respect and obedience Cheetahs have shown Hippos have been greeted with disdain and effrontery. Cheetahs say Hippos have misconstrued their humility as servility; their flexibility and adaptability have been countered by rigidity and their humanity abused by cruel indignity. Cheetahs feel double-crossed, jilted, tricked, lied to, bamboozled, used and abused by Hippos. Cheetahs say they have been demonized for questioning Hippos and for demanding accountability. For expressing themselves freely, Cheetahs have been sentenced to hard labor in silence. Cheetahs have been silenced by silent Hippos! Cheetahs have lost faith in Hippos. Such is the compendium of complaints I hear from many Ethiopian Cheetahs. Are the Cheetahs right in their perceptions and feelings? Are they justified in their accusations? Are Hippos behaving so badly?
A word or two about the youths’ loss of faith in their elders before talking about restoring faith with them. Ethiopia’s youth live in a world where they are forced to hear every day the litany that their innate value is determined not by the content of their character, individuality or humanity but the random chance of their ethnicity. They have no personality, nationality or humanity, only ethnicity. They are no more than the expression of their ethnic identity.
To enforce this wicked ideology, Apartheid-style homelands have been created in the name of “ethnic federalism”. The youth have come to realize that their station in life is determined not by the power of their intellect but by the power of those who lack intellect. They are shown by example that how high they rise in society depends upon how low they can bring themselves on the yardstick of self-dignity and how deeply they can wallow in the sewage of the politics of identity and ethnicity. They live in a world where they are taught the things that make them different from their compatriots are more than the things they have in common with them. Against this inexorable message of dehumanization, they hear only the sound of silence from those quietly professing allegiance to freedom, democracy and human rights. To restore faith with Ethiopia’s youth, we must trade silence with the joyful noise of protest; we must unmute ourselves and stand resolute against tyranny. We must cast off the silence of quiet desperation.
But before we restore faith with the young people, we must restore faith with ourselves. In other words, we must save ourselves before we save our young people. To restore faith with ourselves, we must learn to forgive ourselves for our sins of commission and omission. We must believe in ourselves and the righteousness of our cause. Before we urge the youth to be courageous, we must first shed our own timidity and fearfulness. Before we teach young people to love each other as children of Mother Ethiopia, we must unlearn to hate each other because we belong to different ethnic groups or worship the same God with different names. To restore faith with ourselves, we must be willing to step out of our comfort zones, comfort groups, comfort communities and comfort ethnicities and muster the courage to say and do things we know are right. We should say and do things because they are right and true, and not because we seek approval or fear disapproval from anyone or group. George Orwell said, “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act.” We live in times of national deceit and must become revolutionaries by speaking truth to abusers of power, to the powerless, to the self-disempowered and to each other.
To be fair to my fellow Hippos, they defend their silence on the grounds that speaking up will not make a difference to tyrants. They say speaking truth to tyranny is a waste of time, an exercise in futility. Some even say that it is impossible to communicate with the tyrants in power with reasoned words because these tyrants only understand the language of crashing guns, rattling musketry and booming artillery.
I take exception to this view. I believe at the heart of the struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia is an unending battle for the hearts and minds of the people. In the battlefield of hearts and minds, guns, tanks and warplanes are useless. History bears witness. The US lost the war in Vietnam not because it lacked firepower, airpower, nuclear power, financial power, scientific or technical power. The U.S. lost the war because it lacked the power to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese and American peoples.
Words are the most potent weapon in the battle for hearts and minds. Words can enlighten the benighted, open closed eyes, sealed mouths and plugged ears. Words can awaken consciences. Words can inspire, inform, stimulate and animate. Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the greatest military leaders in history, feared words more than arms. That is why he said, “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” That why I insist my fellow privileged intellectuals and all who claim or aspire to be supporters of democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law to speak up and speak out and not hide behind a shield of silence. I say speak truth to tyranny. Preach faith in the divinity of humanity and against the bigotry of the politics of identity and ethnicity; champion loudly the causes of unity in diversity and practice the virtues of civility, accountability, amity and cordiality. Never stand silent in the face of atrocity, criminality, contrived ethnic animosity and the immorality of those who abuse of power.
It is necessary to restore faith with the Cheetahs. The gap between Cheetahs and Hippos is not generational. There is a trust gap, not generational gap. There is a credibility gap. There is an expectation gap, an understanding gap and a compassion gap. Many bridges need to be built to close the gaps that divide the Cheetah and Hippo Generations.
Rise of the Chee-Hippo Generation
There is a need to “invent” a new generation, the Chee-Hippo Generation. A Chee-Hippo is a hippo who thinks, behaves and acts like a Cheetah. A Chee-Hippo is also a cheetah who understands the limitations of Hippos yet is willing to work with them in common cause for a common purpose.
Chee-Hippos are bridge builders. They build strong intergenerational bridges that connect the young with the old. They build bridges to connect people seeking democracy, freedom and human rights. They build bridges across ethnic canyons and connect people stranded on islands of homelands. They bridge the gulf of language, religion and region. They build bridges to link up the rich with the poor. They build bridges of national unity to harmonize diversity. They build bridges to connect the youth at home with the youth in the Diaspora. Chee-Hippos build social and political networks to empower youth.
Are You a Chee-Hippo or a Hippo?
You are a Chee-Hippo if you believe
young people are the future of the country and the older people are the country’s past.
the future is infinitely more important than the past.
a person’s value is determined not by the collection of degrees listed after his/her name but by the person’s commitment and stand on the protection of the basic human rights of a fellow human being.
and practice the virtues of tolerance, civility, civic duty, cooperation, empathy, forgiveness, honesty, honor, idealism, inclusivity and openness.
You are a Chee-Hippo if you are
open-minded, flexible, and humble.
open to new ideas and ways of communicating with people across age groups, ethnic, religious, gender and linguistic lines.
unafraid to step out of your comfort zone into the zone of hard moral choices.
courageous enough to mean what you say and say what you mean instead of wasting your time babbling in ambiguity and double-talk.
prepared to act now instead of tomorrow (eshi nege or yes, tomorrow).
prepared to blame yourself first for your own deficits before blaming the youth or others for theirs.
eager to learn new things today and unlearn the bad lessons of the past.
committed to finding opportunity than complaining about the lack of one.
able to develop attitudes and beliefs that reflect what is possible and not wallow in self-pity about what is impossible.
fully aware that the world is in constant and rapid change and by not changing you have no one to blame for the consequences except yourself.
Any Hippo can be reinvented into a Chee-Hippo. Ultimately, being a Chee-Hippo is a state of mind. One need only think, behave and act like Cheetahs. The credo of a true Chee-Hippo living on Planet Cheetah is, “We must not give only what we have; we must give what we are.”
Damn proud to be a Chee-Hippo!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
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Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: