By Abebe Gelaw – October 27, 2008 –At every venue and juncture where Ethiopians gather to discuss the fate of their country, there are usually two dominant themes that the majority can articulate with mesmerizing eloquence and vigor; our perennial problems that never go away year after year and blaming others for their misdeeds and failures. As a matter of fact, there is nothing wrong with that except its futility. Many have come and gone as preachers and yet have fallen from the pulpit due to their failure to practice what they preach. Nonetheless, only a few people transcend far beyond the endless cycle of the blame game and offer their visions, hopes and solutions.
The majority of political leaders in the opposition camp, for instance, fall under the category of preacher liberators who started their journeys as torch bearers of justice, democracy and unity only to find themselves at a bitter tug of war engaged in farcical and at times comical infighting with their own comrades. Among all the preachers we have known, only a few have proved their consistency, talked the talk and walked the walk at a huge cost.
On Sunday, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting in Oakland, California, under the theme “The Obama factor: What will an Obama win mean to Ethiopians?” The speaker was not Barack Obama, but our own Obang Metho, who has done a great deal to single-handedly expose the December 2003 Gambela genocide and enlighten Ethiopians on the need to make unified efforts to change their fate for the better. Because of his relentless efforts, not only Ethiopians but also the international community has been well informed in greater details about the atrocities and genocidal crimes committed against over 420 innocent Anuak children, women, the elderly and young men.
In spite of the fact that the meeting at the Ethiopian Restaurant in Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, was well publicized, it was not as big as any of the huge Obama rallies. Far from it, it was attended by around 16 Ethiopians. Some of us drove from nearby towns and cities but some were the usual activists in Oakland.
Despite all that Obang flew all the way from Canada to share his visions and hopes for a new Ethiopia. A long journey starts with one single step as the Chinese love to quip. He never wasted his time analysing the obvious, the ramifications of the Obama presidency not only in Ethiopia but also the whole world. Contrary to that, he underlined from the outset that only Ethiopians can define their destiny and no external power can save the unfortunate nation from the perils of Meles Zenawi’s wanton destruction.
To illustrate his point, Obang told us about his experience during the height of the Gambela massacre nearly five years ago. He phoned many embassies, human right organizations and UN agencies. He even frantically called the US State Department only to hit a brick wall. “Stop the massacre!” he cried as loud as he could. “That is none of our business! There is nothing new in Africans killing Africans,” he was told by a dismissive State Department official who hanged up the phone on his ears without taking note of the details. Desperate to rescue his fellow citizens from Zenawi’s bayonets, bullets and machetes, he called the State Department again. The same irked person answered the phone. “American citizens are among the victims,” he claimed. Only then was he taken seriously and the Americans dispatched their diplomats from Addis immediately to the scene of the horrendous crimes to rescue not the helpless Anuaks but US citizens, as if they had uniquely valuable souls and a privilege to live more than others. Such hypocrisy was a powerful lesson that taught him the fact that only Ethiopians can rescue what is left of their country and their fellow citizens suffering under the burdens of hunger, tyranny, injustice, poverty and hopelessness.
With evident passion and eloquence, Obang talked about the need for unity, solidarity and common purpose irrespective of our ethnic, political, religious, linguistic and cultural differences. He said he travelled widely to raise awareness on the Gambela genocide and seeking justice. But realizing the fact that the destiny of Ethiopians has been deeply entwined and no ethnic group can be free unless the whole of Ethiopia is free, he joined fellow Ethiopians to launch the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia. According to Obang, none of Ethiopia’s many ethnic and cultural groups can realize freedom on their own. At a time when even the Europeans, who have fought the bloodiest and most destructive wars in the history of mankind, have united themselves under the flags of the European Union, Obang believes that our disunity has only served Ethiopia’s worst enemies, the evil dictator Meles Zenawi and his opportunist cronies. Obang and his fellow compatriots hope to bring together not only ordinary Ethiopians but also the destructive elites who have divided Ethiopians along inimical ethnic and political blocks.
Obang was asked to explain how it would be possible to bring together those who love to hate each other, some of whom trace back their bitter hostility to the radical but tragic student activism of the 1970s. He argued that there was no single solution for Ethiopia’s intricate problems. He believes that politicians cannot escape responsibility for their failure to provide an effective and unified leadership in order to bring about tangible changes and free their people from the yolks of tyranny, poverty and backwardness. He emphasized that there was a desire by some circles such as the OLF and ONLF to work in tandem with other Ethiopian forces to defeat the tyranny of Meles Zenawi. At the same time, he noted that there are those who have sunk the ship of resistance with their intransigence and uncompromising nature.
Efforts have to be made in earnest to open a common forum for all to create solidarity for a new Ethiopia. What makes this effort different from the rest, according to Obang, is the need to start from grassroots level rather than the top-down approach that Ethiopia’s fragmented and myopic political elites favour without any positive outcome.
Ethiopians have suffered immensely under succeeding tyrannies. The problems facing Ethiopians are the same old ones, famine, disease, tyranny, corruption, ignorance, backwardness and so forth. The more our problems and suffering replayed constantly the more we grew numb. In the process, Ethiopians have been confronted with endless uncertainty. We don’t know where we are heading.
If Ethiopians are to reclaim their dignity as human beings, they must set aside their differences and seek solutions, which is a clarion call for all. Without unified efforts, all the incredible level of development that we witness in countries that have given us refuge would have been impossible. It seems high time we endorsed dreamers like Obang who are not afraid to envision the unimaginable. Yes, those who divide us are too many, but those who try to unify us are too few. One amongst the few is Obang.
It appears quite plausible that the ineffectual opposition leaders, who have failed the holy causes they stand for, not once but many many times blinded with self-aggrandizement, distrust and complacency, must be forced to come to their senses and as well as come to the people, not the other way round. Those who do not learn from their mistakes cannot liberate others and continue to preach about grand ideas.
“What do you want us to do?” asked the only woman attendee clearly impressed with his passion. His answer was simple. He needs the support of every freedom loving Ethiopian to join the long march to change the small idea of solidarity into a formidable movement. As Obang has underlined emphatically, he aspires to gain neither glory nor power. He wants to see a new Ethiopia and reclaim the dignity of Ethiopians. His message is consistent and unwavering, which needs to be encouraged and embraced widely. After all, we need our own Obama who can transcend the entrenched division that has made our desire for freedom meaningless and has posed a threat to the very survival of Ethiopia as a nation state.
The reason why I personally endorse Obang , despite the fact that my endorsement is too little and has only a symbolic value, is because he has evidently liberated himself from the narrow confines of race and identity politics. He is a simple man with a powerful message. He describes himself as a human being first, the grandson of Adam and Eve.
The story about low turn-out would have been different if the speaker had been Barack Obama. Many would have come even from Africa and Europe, let alone from Oakland. It appears that we admire winners without paying attention to the huge sacrifices they have paid to get where they are. But it was Barack Obama himself who said: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Unfortunately, there are even those who misunderstood the messages of Obama. They are waiting for him to change Ethiopia for them. There are even “leaders” who feel that lobbying Washington and Brussels is the only way out of the quagmire. That is not the kind of change Ethiopians need. We need to be part of the change we aspire to bring about. Let us awake the sleeping giant within us.
Former editor of Addisvoice.com Abebe Gelaw is a Knight Fellow as well as Yahoo International Fellow at Stanford University, California. He can be reached at email@example.com .