Speaking Truth On Behalf of Ethiopia’s Youth – Alemayehu G. Mariam
Note: This is my fourth commentary on the theme, “Where do we go from here?” following the rigged elections in Ethiopia last month in which the ruling dictatorship won by 99.6 percent. In this piece, I express deep anguish over the enormous problems and challenges faced by Ethiopia’s youth, and urge them to emancipate their minds and work collectively to build the “future country of Ethiopia” that Birtukan Midekssa, Ethiopia’s foremost political prisoner and first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, dreamed about.
Own the Youth, Gain the Future
In 1935, Adolf Hitler delivered a speech at the Reichsparteitag (national party convention) in which he declared, “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.” By impregnating German youth with Nazi ideology and unleashing them on the world, Hitler believed he could perpetuate the Third Reich for a thousand years. Creating an indoctrinated and brainwashed youth is the impossible dream of all dictators and tyrannical regimes. The Soviets created the Young Pioneers and Komsomols to integrate youth into the party structure and tighten their control over the population. In China, Mao’s anchored his theory of “permanent revolution” in the mass mobilization of youth; and in the late 1960s he formed the Red Guards to implement his Cultural Revolution.
During the 17 years of military dictatorship in Ethiopia following the overthrow of the imperial regime in 1975, much effort was done to convert the country’s youth to become supporters of the junta and its socialist revolution. That courtship ended in a so-called Red Terror campaign in which tens of thousands of young people were hunted down in the streets and in their homes and arrested or killed by junta cadres. In a monstrous act that will remain in infamy in the history of mankind, junta leader Mengistu Hailemariam forced the parents of Red Terror victims to pay for the bullets used to murder their children.
Today, the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi is busily implementing a master plan to “own” Ethiopia’s youth in a futile attempt to perpetuate itself for a thousand years. Zenawi’s strategy is straightforward. Force the best and the brightest of Ethiopia’s youth to make a Hobson’s choice: Become loyal party members or you will not have access to jobs, education, health care or social welfare programs. It is a simple Faustian bargain. The youth have the option of getting education, jobs, wealth, political power and social privileges in exchange for selling their souls and joining the party. Those who will not take the deal will be left to twist slowly in the wind. The political pressure on Ethiopia’s youth to join the ruling party is so staggering that young people who are not members or supporters of the dictatorship are routinely denied “support letters” from their kebeles (local districts) necessary to get public employment and other social benefits. To squeeze new college graduates into joining the party, the dictatorship has a “new scheme” in place: “Students graduating in the year 2008-2009 from all governmental higher learning institutions have been prohibited from collecting their academic credentials including the student copy until they find jobs which enable them to refund the cost sharing expenses utilized at the universities.” This policy is inapplicable to members and supporters of dictatorship’s party.
Only Slaves Can Be Owned
“Owning” the youth of a nation remains the Holy Grail of every tin pot dictator and tyrant from Albania to Zimbabwe. The concept of “ownership” of youth evokes the imagery of slaves and masters. The slave’s sole purpose in life is to serve the master. Slaves work exclusively for the benefit of their masters, and receive nothing in return. Slaves always work involuntarily and do so because they are fearful of the painful sting of their overseer’s whip. The history of slavery also shows that the master can only own the body of the slave and rarely the slave’s mind. But the master’s ultimate aim is to enslave and cripple the mind of the slave by making the slave feel totally dependent on the master and imposing an overwhelming sense of fear, powerlessness, hopelessness and despair in the slave.
Own-a-Youth or Rent-a-Youth?
In his “victory” speech celebrating his 99.6 percent win in last month’s “election”, Zenawi offered hollow gratitude to Ethiopia’s youth: “We are also proud of the youth of our country who have started to benefit from the ongoing development and also those who are in the process of applying efforts to be productively employed! We offer our thanks and salute the youth of Ethiopia for their unwavering support and enthusiasm!” Given the grim statistics on Ethiopia’s youth and children (below), it is not clear what “ongoing development” Zenawi is talking about.
Nonetheless, Zenawi’s message at the Third Annual Youth Conference in November 2009 provides some insights into his overall strategy to “own” (more appropriately “rent”) Ethiopia’s youth. Before a stage-managed hall full of young people sitting in numbed silence wearing party-issued baseball caps, purportedly representing Ethiopia’s youth, Zenawi laid out his over all youth strategy based on engagement of youth into his party structure. In sketching out his plan for “leadership succession” incorporating youth, Zenawi said that his party for the preceding three to four years had been engaged in preparing youth for political leadership by undertaking “broad recruitment, broad training and broad placement” efforts. His party has placed “no less than 30,000” youths in leadership positions at the local, district and even regional levels. Youth leaders that have shown potential for higher leadership positions will be “tried and tested” and elevated. The “main thing”, Zenawi said is to get youth — large numbers of them — enlisted in the party. In response to carefully crafted questions read out by apparently pre-selected youth, Zenawi assured the overwhelmingly male youth crowd that they have a much better chance of electoral participation than ever before, and have an “irreplaceable role” to play in ensuring “free and fair election” in the May 2010 “election”. He advised repeatedly to closely work with and report issues and problematic persons to the “authorities”.
The manifest aim of this youth strategy is to recruit and unleash hundreds of thousands of well-trained, loyal, bought-off robotic army of youths that will carry out the party’s programs, follow orders and serve as “shock brigades” in the implementation of party policies and Zenawi’s will. In time, the thirty thousand youths would proliferate to hordes of 3 million; and that way, the youth can be owned and the future gained. But the history of the 20th Century shows that many dictatorships have tried and failed in their efforts to recruit and enlist an army of brainwashed youths who could be cloned as successive generations of “True Believers” for the party.
Ethiopia’s Youth at Risk
In discussing Ethiopia’s youth here, I am not employing the standard quantitative age category of 15-24 years. In the context of the African economic realities, a broader swath of the age group under 30 is warranted. Article 36 of the Ethiopian Constitution enumerates a whole set of guarantees to ensure the health, education and welfare of the country’s children and youth. But the statistics on Ethiopia’s children in general is shocking. Though the population under the age of 18 is estimated to be 41 million or just over half of the country’s population, UNICEF estimates that malnutrition is responsible for more than half of all deaths among children under age five. Ethiopia has an estimated 5 million orphans or approximately 15 per cent of all children. Some 800,000 children are estimated to be orphaned as a result of AIDS. These children are highly vulnerable to all forms of exploitation, including child labor and sexual, and receive little educational services, social support or supervision. Urban youth unemployment is estimated at 70 per cent. According to a Population Council report “the vast majority of Ethiopian adolescents, 85 percent, live in rural areas. Levels of education are very low, especially for girls and for rural youth. A substantial proportion of adolescents do not live with their parents, especially in urban areas, where 33 percent of Ethiopian girls aged 10–14 live with neither parent. Some regions have extremely high rates of early marriage. For example, 46 percent of girls in the Amhara region were married by age 15.” There are also about 2.5 million children with disabilities receiving very little government assistance. Frustrated and in despair of their future, many urban youths drop out of school and engage in a fatalistic pattern of risky behaviors including drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse, crime and delinquency and sexual activity which exposes them to a risk of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases including HIV. There is a serious problem of child trafficking and highly publicized instances of adoption fraud and abuse cases have been documented in the international media in the past year.
Ethiopia’s Youth as Ticking Bomb
The wretched conditions of Ethiopia’s youth point to the fact that they are a ticking demographic time bomb. The evidence of youth frustration, discontent, disillusionment and discouragement by the protracted economic crisis, lack of economic opportunities and political repression is manifest, overwhelming and irrefutable. The yearning of youth for freedom and change is self-evident. The only question is whether the country’s youth will seek change through increased militancy or by other peaceful means. On the other hand, many thousands gripped by despair and hopelessness and convinced they have no future in Ethiopia continue to vote with their feet. Today, young Ethiopian refugees can be found in large numbers from South Africa to North America and the Middle East to the Far East.
The dictatorship in Ethiopia hopes to neutralize the youth by “buying” (renting) the “best and the brightest” to serve them. But they also see the writing on the wall clearly. When youth experiencing such high levels of frustration represent such a high percentage of the total population, the implications for a small repressive dictatorship without any broad societal support or acceptance are plain. The critical questions are: Will the frustration, hopelessness and despair push the youth to take a path away from peaceful change? Will the hand-selected and well-trained cadre of rent-a-youth be able to provide a buffer between the masses of locked-out youth and the dictators or demand change? Does the dictatorship really “own” the youth cadres, or merely “renting” them by offering them lavish rewards and incentives? The answers to these questions appear plain to the reasonable mind.
What Can Be Done?
Given the enormity of the problems facing Ethiopia’s children and youth, there are no easy answers or solutions. But the real and lasting solutions to the problems of youth will not come from self-serving cynical dictators, party hacks, academics or self-indulgent intellectuals. The search for solutions must begin with the youth themselves.
Ethiopia’s Youth Must Be Seen, Heard and Engaged
As I have observed and studied Ethiopian politics, it seems that the old adage holds true: “Children should be seen and not heard.” Though young people represent a significant segment of the Ethiopian population, they are marginalized and largely ignored in the governance process. A study of Zenawi’s speech and exchange with the youth “leaders” at the Third Annual Youth Conference provides an object lesson in how political leaders of all stripes have dealt with the youth in a condescending and patronizing manner. At that conference, Zenawi did not solicit the views of the youth “leaders”, he lectured them like school children. He did not allow them to interact with him freely, rather designated individuals asked specific written questions in apparent trepidation. It was obvious that they were not even allowed to improvise in asking questions or follow up with additional questions. The stage management of the questioners was so mechanical and robotic that the observer could easily tell that the youth asking the questions did not formulate the questions themselves. The very nature of the questions points to the fact that they were planted. One would reasonably expect a youth conference representing the interests of all of Ethiopia’s youth to focus largely on matters that have direct relevance to youth. It seems odd that such a conference should devote so much attention and time to questions of leadership succession, party organization of youth and placement of youth in local, state and national offices. The point is that all young Ethiopians, regardless of their party affiliation or ideology, should be encouraged to be actively engaged in the political process, become civically engaged, take volunteer and formal leadership roles in their communities and become active participants in the governance process.
We Must Listen to the Youth
It is necessary to listen to and understand the views and perspectives of Ethiopia’s youth on the issues and problems vital to them. They should not be marginalized in the discussions and debates. The older generation is always quick to tell the youth what to do and not do. We lecture them when we are not ignoring them. But rarely do we show them the respect they deserve. We tend to underestimate the intelligence of youth and overestimate our abilities and craftiness to manipulate and use them for our own cynical ends or in our political struggles with our adversaries. How many of us in the older generation have made the effort to interact with young people regularly and tried to understand their pain, despair, hopelessness? How many of us have taken the time to talk to small groups of them to find out the issues that are most important to them and what they desire in the future? How many of us in the older generation truly believe that the youth own the future and we do not own them?
Let’s Help Develop Youth Leadership and Inspire Them
One of the major problems of Ethiopia’s youth is that the older generation refuses to get out of the way. At the Third Youth Conference, Zenawi used an interesting analogy involving a “traffic jam” to describe his sense of the intergenerational leadership succession. He said it was necessary to create an orderly succession in the transfer of power from one generation to another in the same way as traffic on the highway should flow “smoothly” and in an “orderly process.” It is ironic that he does not see himself as the principal cause of the 20-year total traffic jam on the Ethiopian political freeway, but his analogy is instructive. Speaking particularly to the older generation opposition, we need to realize that we are cluttering and congesting the political highway with our old clunkers and jalopies. We need to graciously accept the fact that we need to get off the highway so that the youth driving their turbocharged cars can zoom to their destinations. The point is that the older generation can be most helpful by providing guidance and advice to the youth instead of getting on the highway and blocking the flow of traffic. Leadership is not limited to the political realm. Youth can be engaged in activism on community, environmental and human rights issues; they can participate in volunteer community service and take leadership roles in civic and cultural institutions. We can help enlighten, inspire and empower the youth. The basic challenge is not only to engage the youth in governance but also in preparing them to take diverse leadership in the future. Those in the opposition should seriously consider drafting a formal youth agenda with the significant input of youth addressing the wide range of problems and issues.
Link Diaspora Youth with Youth in Ethiopia
There is a big disconnect and a huge gulf that exists between young Ethiopians in the Diaspora and those in Ethiopia. That is partly a function of geography, but also class. It needs to be bridged. Youth in the Diaspora are in the best position to create linkages with their counterparts in Ethiopia using cyber-technology. Many young Ethiopians born in the West are often heard complaining and expressing concern over the enormous problems faced by young people in Ethiopia. Diaspora youth endowed with higher education and resources can use their creativity to create networks and linkages to help their counterparts in Ethiopia.
My Humble Message to Ethiopia’s Youth
I have no magic formula for any of the problems faced by Ethiopia’s youth. My humble message to all young Ethiopians is simple. Never give up. Never! Emancipate your minds from mental slavery. Develop your creative powers. Learn and teach each other. Unite as the children of Mother Ethiopia, and reject any ideology or effort that seeks to divide you on the basis of ethnicity, language, region or class. Study and acquire knowledge not only about the arts and sciences but also your legal, constitutional and human rights. It is easier for tyrants and dictators to rob you of your rights when you are ignorant and fearful. It has been said that “ignorance has always been the most powerful weapon of tyrants; enlightenment the salvation of the free.” Jamming the airwaves to keep information from reaching the youth and the larger population and maintaining a pall of darkness over society is the weapon of tyrants. Blocking access to the internet, banning the free press and exiling independent journalists are all weapons in the arsenal of tyrants who fear the truth and despair over their rendezvous with the dustbin of history.
President Obama was absolutely right when he said, “We’ve learned that it will not be giants like Nkrumah and Kenyatta who will determine Africa’s future. It will be the young people brimming with talent and energy and hope who can claim the future that so many in previous generations never realized.” The destiny of “the future country of Ethiopia” is in not in the clenched fists of dictators but in the palms of the likes of Birtukan Midekssa and all the youth like her yearning to breath free. Ethiopia’s youth owes a lot to Birtukan. She is in prison for life not only because she stood up for her rights; but most importantly because she wants her generation of young people and posterity to live free in the “future country of Ethiopia” that she often dreamed about. If the dictators do not own the youth, they can not own the future!
Alemayehu G. Mariam is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on pambazuka.org, allafrica.com, afronline.org and other sites.