Aslema ya Tunis, au revoir Ben Ali by Melakou Tegegn
Few dates enter the history books of a given country, dates that are to be remembered by the future generations not just by their occurrence but by the significance they have in the future of the country by bringing freedom and democracy. The latest date to enter the history books is January 14, 2011, the day the people of Tunisia overthrew the 23 years old dictatorship of Ben Ali.
Dictators, who appear invincible and who think they can surmount any crisis with the use of brutal force and who still threaten to use the same brute force to quell an ongoing rebellion by the people who abhorred the conditions of their lives and finally said enough and went to the streets not only for their sake but also for the sake of their children, suddenly turn coward and flee. Mengistu Haile Mariam, the hangman and blood thirsty killer, fled Ethiopia when the going got tough. When the going gets tough, the coward dictator wet his pant. The Tunisian dictator did the same.
Like in February 1974, Ethiopia’s most unforgettable days, Tunisia is still in a dilemma after a historic victory yesterday. In as much as Haile Selassie’s brutal dictatorship suppressed liberties that prevented an organized opposition, Ben Ali’s suppression of liberties also prevented the country from having an organized and viable opposition on the morrow of the historic victory. Now, the big question is whether or not the Tunisian political elite that were groomed by Ben Ali will be able to circumvent the people’s victory and impose its rule in a different way by preventing the people’s alternative to reign. Mengistu managed to do that for 17 years, but to be swept away in 1991. We hope, nothing like that will take place in Tunisia. The revolution should be crowned with freedom and democracy and establish a democratic state that guarantees the people of Tunisia the freedom and democracy they have fought for. That was exactly what Mengistu prevented from happening in Ethiopia in the wake of the 1974 Revolution. Ethiopia was not lucky even after Mengistu; the EPRDF still prevented the people of Ethiopia from having the freedom and democracy that they demanded, fought and died for in 1974.
Tunisia is a country with rich history. A number of ‘civilizations’ had reigned in Tunisia starting with the Phoenicians, extended to the Greeks, Romans and the Othman empires. It is home to Carthage, the famous ‘civilization’ in North Africa that gave way Arab ‘civilization’ later on. Tunisia is the home of the indigenous Amazigh people, commonly known as the ‘Berbers’, like Algeria and Morocco. Historical relics of these various ‘civilizations’ are still found in the country. A Roman town is found intact in a place called Duga on the Mediterranean. Like Ethiopia, Tunisia is also rich in its history. But, its proximity to Europe had greatly influenced its late history with impact on its livelihood systems, social organization and economy. Tunisia is the largest producer and exporter of olives, it has a dynamic economy and social organization that can only be compared to Southern Europe. It has one of the largest middles classes in the world and is a middle income country scoring very high in the Human Development Index.
Abject poverty like the one that prevails in Africa is not the problem in Tunisia despite a very high rate of unemployment among the educated. Tunisian poverty is like a European poverty. The biggest problem that throttled Tunisian society is/was the dictatorship. The state was a typical police state a la the dictatorships that reigned in Latin America in the 60s and 70s. The revolt of the people of Tunisia once more confirmed the natural dictum that humans are, unlike animals, cannot live without the freedom for their natural power to express what they think. That is why freedom to human beings is a natural construct. It is not a gift or something that drops from heaven, humans simply cannot live without freedom. Suppressing freedom is in the first place artificial that came with the emergence of the state. In traditional systems of governance that still prevail in pastoral and hunter- gatherer societies; there is no repression as far as the right to expression goes. The Tunisian revolution once more confirmed that freedom and democracy are essential ingredients of life for humans.
The events in Tunisia should interest us, Ethiopians, a great deal indeed. Sometime back, there was a report somewhere that Meles’ regime was studying the system in Tunisia as a successful case of a one-party state. Undoubtedly, Meles should be the most disappointed person by what happened in Tunisia yesterday. His idol, Ben Ali, the champion of one-party state who also claimed elections victory by more than 86% (he seems to be a bit more modest than Meles who claimed a 99.6% victory) has just been swept away by a revolution that was ignited less than a month ago. If Ben Ali with 86% claims of election victory is swept away, what can happen to Meles who unashamedly claimed a 96% victory? Under Ben Ali’s rule, expressions of opposition was extremely rare that the international community wrongly considered it as one of the most stable with a dynamic economy. The people of Ethiopia, on the other hand, have always expressed their disgust with Meles’ regime ever since it came to power. The 2005 elections confirmed that the overwhelming majority of our people wanted his regime out of office. It is a political irony of immense proportion that Meles Zenawi claimed that 99.6% of the same population switched their votes to him in a matter of five years. The word shame does not seem to exist in his vocabulary. At the end of the day, Meles has to look elsewhere for a role model for a one-party rule. But, where?
What is crucial for Ethiopians is to draw lessons from what had happened in Tunisia for the last one month culminating in the overthrow of the dictatorship there. We cannot rule out that a similar event can take place in our country too sooner or later. But better assume it can than it cannot as the historical dilemma that bedeviled us in 1974 will not be repeated. In 1974, when the people of Ethiopia revolted, they did not have a political organization that would lead them to freedom and democracy. Almost forty years later, we still face the same dilemma. What will happen if Woyane is overthrown by a popular revolt? Just think of it, who will reign in power? Will the same military come to power in a different name than Derg? As the Amharic saying goes, ayhonimin titesh, yihonalin yaszi (roughly: “better think that something will happen than it won’t”). Certainly, any group that assumes power in the wake of the overthrow of Woyane will proclaim political amnesties and invite all refugees to come back, liberalize the political situation, organize elections, and so on … promises that they think will thrill the public. It is important for Ethiopians to get better organized now than ever, patch up our differences, stop the squabble and embark on a serious political work of discussion and debate on issues that will unavoidably grapple with sooner or later. We need political courage and realism to cross the Rubicon and embark on such kind of political work. At stake are the lives of 80 million people and the future of our children. What will we bestow to the future generation? Rivalry or modesty? Personal grandeur or serving the people? We have to choose now. You never know what will happen tomorrow. Did we know last November that the heroic people of Tunisia would overthrow Ben Ali in January 2011?