Home | Press Releases    Monday 7 November 2005

An Open Letter to His Excellency Prime Minister Meles Zenawi


An Open Letter to His Excellency Prime Minister Meles Zenawi

Your Excellency,

Nov 7, 2005 — First of all, I apologise for writing this letter in English instead of in one of Ethiopian languages. The only reasons are that I do not have appropriate Ethiopian software and the skills to use the software, and it is much quicker to edit electronically than to write by hand.

I am an ordinary Ethiopian citizen who has never been directly involved in politics and who has never written a letter or an article to a politician or to the general public through any means of communication. However, recent events in Ethiopia make it almost impossible not to do a lot of soul searching and not to express my opinion no matter how little difference such an opinion might make.

I keep asking myself two questions again and again in the last 6 months. How could things go so terribly wrong in Ethiopia perpetually? How could the ideals (freedom, liberty, democracy, no group dominating the other, etc.) that you & so many of your comrades and other Ethiopians fought for, get relegated to minor importance while new priorities like... maintaining power cause so much damage and bloodshed and assume more importance?

Despite Ethiopia’s long and colourful historic past there are not many examples we could proudly talk about of government power changing hands peacefully. No matter high level of popular support that some Ethiopian leaders (including yourself) had enjoyed at one point or another none of them could technically and legitimately claim that their power to govern stemmed from people.

Your Excellency,

When the Emperor was overthrown in 1974, many Ethiopians hoped that the change would be for the better. The excitement and the hope very quickly turned to despair when the Derg regime turned out to be one of the most ruthless dictators that Africa has ever seen. Although I was very young during the early years of the regime, the scar left behind due to the execution of so many young Ethiopian friends and relatives primarily because they had a different political inclination will never heal and will never be forgotten.

Most Ethiopians wanted to change the situation swiftly but they were initially powerless in the face of tyranny supported by seemingly one of the most powerful armies in Africa. However, Ethiopians always rise to the occasion when their freedoms are seriously threatened. It may have taken almost two decades to get rid of the regime but the Derg leaders never got breathing space being painfully reminded of people’s dissatisfaction almost every day.

You were the leading light, the thinker, the fighter, the organiser, etc. in this mammoth struggle against tyranny. The Ethiopian people defeated the Derg and said not again to one group dominating the other, not again to nepotism, tyranny, corruption, etc. The people of Addis Ababa, as indeed the people of almost all other cities and towns in Ethiopia, went out in thousands to welcome the EPRDF fighters who heroically liberated Ethiopia from the terror of the Derg regime. They gave food and water to the EPRDF fighters and treated them as their children, brothers and sisters. They congratulated them for their achievements against all the odds. They received them with open arms and opened their homes and their hearts. How could those same fighters and their relations now shoot the heads and the chests of the same people and their relations of Addis Ababa who treated them as their family members only 14 years ago?

I have been one of your admirers in the last 14 years. I believed, I guess as many other Ethiopians did, that you have had the intelligence, the determination and the foresight to lead the country to democracy, freedom and development. I believed that you were in such a fortunate position to have learned from the mistakes of your predecessors inside and outside Ethiopia. I have been prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt in some crucial areas (e.g. the handling of the good as well as the bad times with Eritrea) in which you have been heavily criticised by your opponents as well as within your own party.

Your Excellency,

When we were approaching the 2005 election, I and so many of my friends, family members and acquaintances hoped that for the first time in our history we would have the opportunity to choose our leaders. I hoped that we had a great leader in you who would compete fairly and who would gracefully and with humility accept victory or loss. I hoped that the interest of Ethiopia was deep in your heart rather than the desire to keep your Premiership at any cost. You keep saying your party won fairly and squarely but I can only hope that deep in your heart you know that nobody knew who won this election on the face of well-documented significant irregularities. I hope this [not knowing who really won] is the case because this has a serious implication in what is going to happen in Ethiopia at least in the short term.

Due to living and working abroad, I did not exercise my right to vote. Had I voted, I would probably have voted for one of the opposition parties not because I believed they would do better than EPRDF to develop Ethiopia but because I would have liked to see government power changing hands peacefully. I have not read the political and developmental programmes of EPRDF or the opposition parties, I do not know in person any of the EPRDF or the opposition leaders. However, had I observed government power changing hands peacefully in Ethiopia, I would have invested many days and weeks ahead of the 2010 election (hope we will have one!) to study the programmes and the leadership qualities of all parties and I would have voted for the party that convinced me that it has the best programmes and track record to further nurture democracy and to improve the quality of life of Ethiopians.

The hope for peaceful political progress or transition started collapsing only hours after most of the voting was closed when you declared a “state of emergency” in Addis Ababa. Though my friends were telling me that I was naïve, I was still prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt that your decision was perhaps based on good quality intelligence regarding a specific intended attack or rioting in Addis Ababa. Once again, it looks like I have been proved wrong or naïve!

The future of Ethiopia is now in your, and only your, hands. Never in our history one person had the power to make or break the country. This is not a time to flex military muscles. This is not time to adopt stubborn confrontation as the only tactic. This is not time to crash innocent, though frustrated and aggressive people, who express their dissatisfaction about the election results.

This is time for reflection and for humility. This is time for compromise. This is time for demonstrating good leadership, foresight and wisdom. You still have time to change the course of history in Ethiopia! If you reflect and compromise, it would be a sign of great leadership and vision instead of weakness; it would be a sign of humility and respect for human rights instead of defeat.

You have said on many occasions in the last few months that the current struggle in Ethiopia is between good and evil; between a democratically elected EPRDF government and sore losers in the form of CUD and UEDF; between people who aspire for democracy and development and a few individuals and groups bent on creating instability and destroying the constitution; etc. I had the privilege of talking to many Ethiopians who came from up and down the country (from Axum and Gondar in the north to Borena and Jinka in the south; from Jimma and Gimbi in the west to Harar and Dire Dawa in the east; and many towns in the centre including Addis Ababa) in a recent visit to Ethiopia. The people whom I spoke to also came from different ethnic and religious backgrounds and from different wealth groups. Almost all of them were amazingly willing to speak freely. You deserve a lot of credit for this free atmosphere. There were a couple of people who openly told me their support to EPRDF. However, most people whom I spoke to were expressing their frustration about their ?stolen votes’ and they were willing to pay any sacrifices to redress the situation. Most of them were complaining that the opposition leaders have been too lenient in the actions (strikes, boycotts, etc.) that they were asking residents of Addis Ababa to perform peacefully. Some of them were suggesting that such calls for peaceful struggle should spread to their home areas outside Addis Ababa. None of these people appeared to me as criminal people who are bent on destroying the constitutional order in Ethiopia! Almost all of the people whom I spoke to are proud citizens who are genuinely concerned for Ethiopia’s future and for democracy. You will not do justice to the country if you ridicule such decent people as outlaws, criminal elements, etc. You will only succeed in polarising the Ethiopian people further if you continue to order the beating, detention and killing of people. Surely, you would not intend jailing or killing millions of people.

Your Excellency,

It may be difficult for you to admit that you have made mistakes at any point in your political career. In fact, I have never heard of you admitting a single mistake despite having such a huge responsibility of leading one of the poorest and most diverse countries out of poverty. Even when you reflected on the loss to the EPRDF of so many seats in the House of Representatives in the May 2005 election, you squarely and fully blamed those responsible for policy implementation. How wise it would be to do a bit more soul searching regarding some of the policies themselves for which you are directly responsible. How wise would it be to show a bit more remorse and humility to the Ethiopian people instead of telling the public on Government media that they are either with you or with those who are “trying to destroy the constitutional order”?

An interesting characteristic of yours that has come more to the open in recent months is your incredible ability to “cherry-pick” experiences elsewhere that support your argument when taken one at a time (in isolation). However, when all “picked cherries” are examined collectively, they only put big question marks around whether you are a true democrat. I wonder whether you genuinely believe that Ethiopians (and other people who are friends of Ethiopia) are of lower level of intelligence than yours. Please do not underestimate others.

A few examples of the “picked cherries” include the choice of the same individual as the head of the Election Board and the Supreme Court. In your letter responding to the EU Observation Mission preliminary report, you stated that the same person was heading the two organisations by accident or simple coincidence. You then tried to give examples of how a similar situation or accident could happen in other democratic countries. I am sure you appreciate that Ethiopians are interested in sowing the seeds of democracy and they need all the help they could get from their leaders to make that happen. The minimum confidence building measure that Ethiopians expect from their Prime Minister is appointing two different individuals to head perhaps the two most important organisations to nurture democracy in Ethiopia.

You also justified the decision to change the number of votes required to table an agenda for discussion at the House of Representatives by “cherry picking” from a few western democracies who may have such procedures. However, an average Ethiopian who is prepared to sacrifice everything including his or her life to promote democracy in Ethiopia expects from his/her Prime Minister a procedure that promotes debate in the House rather than one which stifles the voice of the opposition (the minority in a democratic system). Ethiopia needs a system that welcomes the opposition. You made similar motivational comments before the election regarding the need for a strong opposition but you are now being judged by your deeds rather than your words. Just imagine if you were the opposition and you worked so hard to increase the number of your seats from 12 to a couple of hundred and the ruling party tells you that you cannot table an agenda unless you have 274 supporting votes. Did you not go to the bush prepared to sacrifice your life to fight against such an injustice?

Add to the above, the change from regional to federal status of some revenue generating institutions in Addis Ababa that was enacted at the eleventh hour of the change of the City Administration from EPRDF to CUD. The collective message (all the cherries put together) you are sending to the people of Ethiopia is stifling the opposition rather than nurturing democracy!

Your Excellency!

Every night you go to bed, please think about your Ethiopian brothers and sisters that are being shot down almost every day in the streets of Addis Ababa and elsewhere in Ethiopia. They may be jobless, poor and a bit overzealous but they are citizens of this world with the same right to life as you and I have. Imagine that one of your lovely children was shot dead when s/he was driven from school to the Palace. Would you not want to know as soon as possible how that happened and who did it? Would you not cry for justice? They may not be as successful and as powerful as you are but other parents also want to know what happened to their children and who shot down their children. They want to know under whose order their children were gunned down. It is not beyond imagination that other parents also cry for justice. The minimum you could do to respect those who died, and their families, is to show a little bit of remorse and to urgently set up a truly independent inquiry to investigate the situations that led to these murders and take genuine actions.

You still have time to be immortal in Ethiopian history rather than to be remembered as one of those failed leaders in the chequered history of Ethiopia. It is not yet too late for you to be an icon of democracy and one of the greatest leaders that has led a poor country that is home to one out of every 80 people in the world into the path of irreversible democracy and development. However, the window of opportunity is closing down - fast. I can only hope that you will grab the opportunity!

I beg your pardon for diverting from the main topic here. While writing this letter, I have been watching news on TV. Despite 10 days of rioting and chaos and huge damage to property in Paris and elsewhere in France, the French Police shot at or killed not a single protestor. This is what I call respect for human rights or respect for citizens’ lives!

Yours respectfully,

Samuel Habtu Belay

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