Ethiopia: The Truth About the Hummingbirds – Alemayehu G. Mariam

July 11th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

Note: This is my sixth and final commentary on the theme “Where do we go from here?” following the rigged May 2010 elections in Ethiopia in which the ruling dictatorship won by 99.6 percent [1]. In this piece, I emphasize the importance of individual commitment and effort to help establish democracy, protect human rights and institutionalize the rule of law in Ethiopia. I argue that there is today a struggle between a host of hummingbirds trying to save Ethiopia’s soul and a voracious wake of vultures that have devoured her body. I predict ultimate victory for the hummingbirds following Gandhi’s timeless exhortation that “There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they may seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail. Think of it: always.”

The Hummingbird and the Forest Fire

In March 2007, I wrote an allegorical commentary during our grassroots advocacy efforts to pass H.R. 5680 (later H.R. 2003 “Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007) entitled “The Hummingbird and the Forest Fire”.[1] It was a tale which took creative license on a story once told by Dr. Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist and 2004 Nobel Prize laureate for peace. In Dr. Maathai’s story,

One day a terrible fire broke out in a forest – a huge woodlands was suddenly engulfed by a raging wild fire. Frightened, all the animals fled their homes and ran out of the forest. As they came to the edge of a stream they stopped to watch the fire and they were feeling very discouraged and powerless. They were all bemoaning the destruction of their homes. Every one of them thought there was nothing they could do about the fire, except for one little hummingbird. This particular hummingbird decided it would do something. It swooped into the stream and picked up a few drops of water and went into the forest and put them on the fire. Then it went back to the stream and did it again, and it kept going back, again and again and again. All the other animals watched in disbelief; some tried to discourage the hummingbird with comments like, ‘Don’t bother, it is too much, you are too little, your wings will burn, your beak is too tiny, it’s only a drop, you can’t put out this fire.’

In my version of the story, the hummingbird never stopped humming. Indeed, my hummingbird is miraculously multiplied into battalions of young forest firefighters putting out the flames of oppression and dousing out the smoldering ambers of ethnic hatred and division in Ethiopia, while planting the seeds of freedom and democracy. My young hummingbird firefighters take on a single mission: Help build a new democratic society guided by a national vision which embraces the indivisible unity of the Ethiopian people, the territorial integrity of the Ethiopian nation and governance based on democratic principles, the rule of law and protection of human rights. My hummingbirds totally and completely reject the bankrupt and deceitful ideas of those who claim that Ethiopia is no more than a mishmash of competing and antagonistic ethnic, tribal, linguistic, religious and regional groups who must be kept corralled in their own Bantustan-style homelands or “kilils”.

Can Hummingbirds Really Stop the Forest Fire?

It is often heard in some Ethiopian circles that the efforts of a few individuals or groups will not amount to much in bringing about political change. They say the dictatorship is too rich, too powerful and too entrenched to oppose. Some have given up hope having surveyed the systematic looting of the country over the past two decades. Others argue for the violent overthrow of the dictators in the belief that those who seized power through the barrel of the gun can be removed only through the barrel of the gun. In other words, fight a forest fire with fire. It is an age-old idea with a predicable outcome: Everybody gets burned in the ensuing conflagration. But suum cuique (to each his own).

History shows that hummingbirds not only can stop fires, they can also start them. The chief architects of the current dictatorship in Ethiopia were originally formed as a small group of “ethno-nationalist” students who were inflamed by what they believed to be injustice and oppression. They were young hummingbirds long before they became old buzzards. As Dr. Aregawi Berhe wrote in his recent book[2]: “On 14 September 1974, seven university students… met in an inconspicuous cafe located in Piazza in the center of Addis Ababa… The aim of the meeting was to (a) wrap up their findings about the nature and disposition of the Dergue’s regime with regard to the self-determination of Tigrai and the future of democracy in Ethiopia, (b) discuss what form of struggle to pursue and how to tackle the main challenges that would emerge, (c) outline how to work and coordinate activities with the Ethiopian left, which had until then operated according to much broader revolutionary ideals.” They set out to “dispose” of the Derg (military junta that rules Ethiopia after the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie) and replaced it with a one-man, one-party dictatorship. In other words, tweedle dee replaced tweedle dum!

World history shows that individuals and small groups — the hummingbirds — do make a difference in bringing about change in their societies. The few dozen leaders of the American Revolution and the founders of the government of the United States were driven to independence by a “long train of abuses and usurpations” leading to “absolute despotism” as so eloquently and timelessly expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Their vision was founded not only on the need for independence from the yoke of British colonial rule but also the necessity of perfecting the unity of the American people after independence. They formed a constitution for one nation to be governed under one constitution of the United States of America (which had some significant imperfections), which has endured for 223 years. The Bolsheviks won the Russian Revolution arguably defending the rights of the working class and peasants against the harsh oppression of Czarist dictatorship. They managed to establish a totalitarian system which thankfully swept itself into the dustbin of history two decades ago. Gandhi and a small group of followers in India led nationwide campaigns to alleviate poverty, make India economically self-reliant, broaden the rights of urban laborers, peasant and women, end the odious custom of untouchability and bring about tolerance and understanding among religious and ethnic groups. He launched the Quit India civil disobedience movement in 1942 culminating in Indian independence in 1947. Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo led ANC’s Defiance Campaign and crafted the Freedom Charter which provided the ideological basis for the long struggle against apartheid and served as the foundation for the current South African Constitution. In the United States, Martin Luther King and some 60 church leaders formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, becoming the driving force of the American civil rights movement.

Social change depends a great deal on the circumstances of social forces in a given society. Political change in Ethiopia today seems improbable not because of the invincibility of the dictatorship but because of the lack of unity and commonality of purpose among the opposition. This calls for the establishment of a new political culture of cooperation, collaboration and coalition-building among anti-dictatorship elements, who now seem to have retreated into passive spectatorship of the dictatorship. The political history of contemporary Ethiopia could best be summarized in the words of V.I. Lenin: “One man with a gun can control 100 without one.” There is no doubt that the handful of core leaders of the dictatorship will cling to power at any cost. Though Lenin may be partly right, his empirical observation is countered by the irrefutable logic of the old Ethiopian saying: “The gathered strands of the spider’s web could tie up a lion.” (Dir biaber anbessa biasir.) If one hundred unarmed hummingbirds could come together as one with a commonality of purpose and determination, they could overcome one vulture no matter the width of his wingspan or the sharpness of his claws. In the absence of such a ratio of hummingbirds to vultures and the widespread disillusionment with the dictatorship and disarray in the opposition, the self-empowerment of individuals and action by small committed groups of individuals as one of the most viable means of effecting change and bringing about democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia. Simply stated, to bring about change, citizens as individuals must be active by being active citizens.

Hummingbirds Must Keep on Humming

The morality tale of the hummingbird is instructive to all Ethiopians. Despite the ferocity of the forest fire, the hummingbird did not stop carrying its droplets of water. Dictatorships are analogous to a forest fire. They consume everything in their societies. Like the raging forest fire, they also seem unstoppable. But as Gandhi taught, the fires of dictatorship are always stopped by the waterfall of truth and love: “When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they may seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail. Think of it: always.” The reasons are simple[3]. In the end tyrants always fail because though they have guns and tanks, they lack ideas and vision. They lose because they live in a world of darkness and ignorance. They are incapable of transforming themselves or their societies because they are trapped in their own cycle of repression that feeds off their ignorance and wickedness. And like Dracula, the legendary bloodsucker, they can only live on the blood — and sweat and tears — of their victims. They can not survive otherwise. Dictatorships use brutality because they can not convince their people with the strength of their political or philosophical arguments, the persuasiveness of their logic or the abundance of their good will. They fail because they can not withstand the force of truth and always slip and fall on the pile of lies and deceit that is their foundation.

Though dictators are destined to the dustbin of history, they will delay their inevitable rendezvous by proclaiming to be anointed by the masses. They put themselves out as the saviors of the very masses they oppress ruthlessly. They claim to have special qualities that give them the right to rule the masses forever and exhort the “herd” to follow them blindly and unquestioningly. In concluding his May 2010 “election” victory speech (a/k/a a public demonstration against Human Rights Watch for its critical report), dictator Meles Zenawi expressed gratitude effusively to the Ethiopian people for re-appointing him and his party to complete a quarter century on the throne. “Once again we, over five million EPRDF members, on behalf of our martyrs and our selves solemnly express our gratitude to day, standing before you, the Ethiopian people, who have the sovereign right and power to appoint or dismiss your leaders. We salute you!” An old Ethiopian saying teaches us to beware of a “wolf priest praying in the midst of a flock of sheep.” No doubt the wolf will “salute” and “express gratitude” to every sheep he devours. But do the sheep return the salutation and gratitude?

All of us committed to democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia have choices to make and actions to take as individuals. That choice is between good and evil; that is between joining the host of hummingbirds that carry droplets of water to put out the fires set by a ruthless dictatorship, or siding with the wake of vultures that use their enormous wings to fan the flames of ethnic hatred and division to perpetuate themselves in power. Those who play with the fires of ethnic politics to cling to power should beware the backdraft.


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,, and other sites.

[2] Aregaw Berhe, A Political History of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (1975-1991) (Los Angeles: Tsehai Publishers, 2009), p. 38.
[3]See footnote 1.

  1. Azaria
    | #1

    Because I have nothing but utmost admiration to his tireless effort, I read all 6 parts of Prof. Almariam’s commentary. I am not, however, entirely sure if I am better off understanding the intricacies of Ethiopian politics than when I started. I was probably lost in the maze of the writer’s analysis but I did not see Almariam come up with a novel idea that could coalesce individual or group hummingbirds.

    As much as I admire, and sometimes even enjoy the punditry of Ethiopian professionals, I am growing weary of their long distance politicking. None of the elite’s professor Almariam mentioned in his writing including Gandhi, Mandela, Lenin, the founding fathers of America and even Meles Zenawi brought their struggle to victory via sling politics. They either joined existing organization and made them better or formed entirely new ones.

    None of the pundits that frequent and lace numerous Ethiopian websites, to my intimate knowledge are members of any organization. Not even members of the innocuous “support organization” for this or that party. I find this very troubling! I, and probably the masses that Prof. Al urged to join the fight, will not hasten to heed their advice unless they lead me by example. That probably is the reason why the struggle seemed to have stumbled.

    We can write ad-inffinitum about democracy, human right and tyranny but those are values that Ethiopians very well understand crave. They do not need to be lectured to death. What Ethiopians need, and what the struggle indeed needs in my humble opinion is, people can step out of their comfort zones and dirty their hands creating or running viable organization. What we need are people with the intellect and leadership quality that show us the way by example.

    With due respect to all pundits, you need to rethink on why 40 years of punditry has not taken the Ethiopian intellegencia to power.

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