Ethiopia: Dictator with a Conscience – By Alemayehu G. Mariam

July 25th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

zenawi-so-whatEthiopia, Famine and the Oxford Dictionary

Oxymorons (figures of speech that combine contradictory terms) can sometimes provide unique insights into the cognitive process. Consider, for instance, the phrase “honest politician”. Is there such a thing? It sounds so comical to talk about “efficient government”? How about an “emerging democracy”? That’s like saying a “little bit pregnant.” If there is such a thing as a “benevolent despot/dictator”, then there are hyenas that do not eat carrion. How about “dictator with conscience”?

Recently, dictator Meles Zenawi responding to an interviwer’s questionmade a public confession of shame and regret over the fact that the Oxford Dictionary uses Ethiopia as a prime example of famine.

Interviewer: In the mid-1960s something was revealed in our country. Many people were waging struggles. You were in the struggle. In the Oxford dictionary, for the word famine, the example given is Ethiopia. How does that make you feel as an Ethiopian?

Zenawi: It is a mixed up situation. On the one hand, like any citizen, I am very sad. I am ashamed. It is degrading. A society that built the Lalibela churches some thousand years ago is unable to cultivate the land and feed itself. A society that built the Axum obelisks some 2-3 thousand years ago is unable to cultivate the land and feed itself. That is very sad. It is very shameful. Of all the things, to go out begging for one’s daily bread, to be a beggar nation is dehumanizing. Therefore, I feel great shame. In the end though these things are not the mistakes of a single individual. They have their own long history, and cannot be eliminated through anger or regrets. In a similar way, it requires a long struggle and determination and defiance of not just one but 3 or 4 generations. I understand that is what it takes. Until that is removed and eliminated, until I finish playing my role in it, all I can do is say Amen and accept this shame and degradation. This is the kind of feeling it creates in me.

In 1995, Zenawi was self-effacing but cocky about his vision of a nation that is well-fed and -clothed in a decade or two with people dancing in the streets, at least living not too far from paved streets. Responding to a question from what appears to be an audience of friends and supporters, Zenawi envisioned:

Questioner: In 10 or 15 years from now, is there a vision that you see that would make you happy. Can you tell us two or three things about that?

Zenawi: Ten years from now (laughter). Let me start with ten years from now. One big thing I think will happen and dream about is that all Ethiopians will get three meals a day (applause). After that may be, if everything works out well, my hope is that Ethiopians will have two or three changes of clothes. If everything works out, all Ethiopians will live within two hours of a paved road. If we do this, we would have done a miracle (laughter). If we go to twenty years, we would have clinics, schools, access to roads of less than two hours, not just eat three times a day. We may even have a choice of foods and selection of clothes. I hope in twenty years, we will have good outcomes (applause).

Sixteen years later in 2011, the Black Horseman is standing at the gate. Zenawi stands alongside with folded arms feigning shame for the fact that Ethiopia is perceived to be synonymous with famine. Recently, the U.N. predicted the “worst drought in the last 60 years” for Ethiopia and neighboring countries. UNICEF warned “millions of children and women are at risk from death and disease unless a rapid and speedy response is put into action.”

The world dreads to see once again the haunting skeletal figures of Ethiopian famine victims splattered across the television screen reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s. Blame history Zenawi bleated philosophically: “In the end though these things are not the mistakes of a single individual. They have their own long history….”

Shame Without Guilt

Zenawi’s declaration of shame and regret for famine and chronic food shortages in Ethiopia is reminiscent of those American televangelists who publicly confess their sins when caught in a shameful scandal but take no responsibility for their transgressions. The devil did it or made them do it. For Zenawi, the blame should be placed on history, drought, climate change, heartless donors and divine retribution. Famine is not something he could have anticipated or planned to prevent. Famine just happens. No one is responsible.

Shame and guilt are often trivialized in the modern world. After the fall of the Third Reich, few came forward to express shame for their callous indifference to the acts of inhumanity committed in their name, and even fewer felt or admitted guilt for their own criminal acts. They conveniently dissociated themselves from the inhuman acts by adopting a shockingly matter-of-fact attitude: “It was what it was.” Nothing more. Of course, they had their regrets. The super-state that was to last a thousand years lasted only twelve.

During the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in South Africa, many of the officials who perpetrated atrocities “felt” ashamed for torturing and mistreating black South Africans, but few openly admitted guilt and took full responsibility for their actions. They said they were acting in the name of the government or simply following official orders. They were not personally responsible.

The street criminal also feels shame for robbing or assaulting his victim, but rarely admits legal guilt, and even more rarely moral guilt and take responsibility. He too feels regrets, for getting caught.

It is common for dictators to acknowledge the fact of their wrongdoing without feeling shame or guilt. Stalin unapologetically declared, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” In 1959 during China’s Great Famine Mao casually remarked in a speech: “When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” After the massacre of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators following the 2005 elections in Ethiopia, Zenawi feigned pangs of conscience: “I regret the deaths but these were not normal demonstrations. You don’t see hand grenades thrown at normal demonstrations.” When his own handpicked Inquiry Commission determined after a meticulous investigation that the demonstrators were unarmed and carried no weapons of any kind, Zenawi ignored the report and did nothing. Today, 237 killers still roam the streets free.

In the final analysis, when famine consumes hundreds of thousands of people or untold numbers of people die for simple lack of food, it is the responsibility of the man at the helm, the guy in the driver’s seat. But never in Ethiopia. Emperor Haile Selassie said he did not know about the famine in 1974 until it was too late. He was not responsible. Junta leader Mengistu Hailemariam said he was not responsible for the famine in 1984 because there was no famine. Over a million people died in that famine. Zenawi says the famine in Ethiopia today is not the responsibility of any one individual. No one in leadership position has ever taken responsibility for the recurrent famines in Ethiopia.

One must have a conscience to feel shame, admit guilt and take responsibility. To say dictators have conscience is like saying snakes have legs. Dictators are the quintessential narcissists who care about and love only themselves. They are incapable of feeling shame, guilt, compassion or appreciation. Their raison d’etre (reason for existence) is the pursuit of power at any cost to dominate and control others.

Our conscience is that “inner voice” or “inner light” that helps us distinguish right from wrong, good from evil, guilt from innocence, love from hate and virtue from vice. Guilt is the flip side of shame. The bifurcation of shame from guilt is the clearest manifestation of the lack of conscience. But if one feels shame and admits guilt (moral or legal) for the actions (or omissions) producing the shame, he experiences an inner transformation which compels him to make amends. The painful feeling of dishonor, disgrace, humiliation and self-criticism transforms the shameful act into an honorable act or at least produces genuine atonement. Real admission of guilt is always followed by moral self-redemption and salvation.

Eastern philosophy teaches that “when the mind is face to face with the Truth, a self-luminous spark of thought is revealed at the inner core of ourselves and, by analogy, all of reality.” When we come face to face with the truth of our shameful act and our conscience is awakened, we naturally and effortlessly make efforts to make amends.

Confession Time?

While we are on the subject of shame, regrets, guilt and all that, I have my own confession to make. I am ashamed Ethiopia is a country that has become the butt of famine jokes (not just an entry in the Oxford Dictionary).

known primarily for its poverty.

where elections are stolen in broad daylight.

where the rule of law and human rights are trampled every day with impunity.

where 237 security thugs walk free after killing 193 unarmed demonstrators and wounding nearly 800.

with the worst prison system in the world.

classified as the world’s worst backslider on press freedom.

with lowest internet penetration in the world after Sierra Leone.

I am ashamed Ethiopia is classified together with the worst countries in the world on the

Corruption Index (most corrupt countries).

Failed States Index (most failed states).

Index of Economic Freedom (economically most repressive countries).

International Bank for Reconstruction and Development Investment Climate Assessment (most unfriendly to business).

Ibrahim Index of African Governance (most poorly governed African countries).

Bertelsmann Political and Economic Transformation Index (most in need of reform).

Environmental Performance Index (poorest environmental and public health indicators).

But I am also proud, mighty proud. I am proud of the unity of the Ethiopian people despite the efforts of those who toil day and night to divide them by ethnicity, region, religion, language and whatever else. I am proud of Ethiopia’s culture of respect, compassion and tolerance. Most of all, I am super proud of Ethiopia’s young people. They are the only lifeline to the survival of that nation.

I wear a badge of shame on the left and a badge of pride on the right. But between my pride and shame lies my overwhelming sense of gnawing guilt. It is guilt that manifests itself in a moral quandary about what I could have done, can do now and in the future, particularly for the young people of Ethiopia to reclaim their destiny. The solutions to Ethiopia’s famine, poverty, disease, illiteracy and the rest of it will not come from self-adulating, forked-tongue dictators who cling to power like ticks on a milk cow, but from Ethiopia’s young men and women.

Zenawi says he is ashamed of the recurrent famine in Ethiopia and is resigned to accepting it with an “Amen.” The crocodile also sheds tears. But a dictator professing shame without admitting guilt is, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “an evil soul producing holy witness, a villain with a smiling cheek, a goodly apple rotten at the heart.”

But can you hear the silent screams of the starving Ethiopians? Can you see their quiet riots against tyranny? If you can’t, what a crying shame!

Previous commentaries by the author are available at: and

  1. Tadias
    | #1

    My trip to ETHIOPIA

    By Misraq » Sun Jul 17, 2011 12:10 am

    My reason for a the trip was for my cousin wedding. but, i took the opportunity to assess on my future aim of relocating back home by conversing with fellow relatives who are there and successful in business. as you all know, i am Tigrayan but happen to live in the west for a while. my political support for meles priviously based on kinship than quality of leadership. my trip to Ethiopia had changed my perspective completely and i will reaterate it below the best i could.

    First of all, i would like to apologize to minilik. I used to call him Budaw. I hope Minilik won’t take my past biased attitude towards him. But now i have learnt a big deal thanks to my trip that showed me the true picture on why Many Ethiopians have reservation on the current administration and the party it holds. My trip thought me to tolerate those who oppose Meles and his leadership. I was sickened to realize that what i was told about how marvelous Meles is including the brothers who are ruling the nation are not really what i assumed and expected. I have realized that Meles + the Sheik + greedy Tigrayans are pushing the nation to the edge of eminent danger. I have seen millions of destitute people. The double digit the regime talks about is now where to be seen. unemployment is very high. prostitution also become rampant. There is a total news blackout about the starvation. most people in major towns haven’t heard it. There is no effort to contain the famine from the government side.

    I was also surprised that my father offered to connect me with top TPLF leadership members who are the sole kings of that land incase i chose to relocate back home and think about doing business. Most of my extended cousines are millionairs already. I do not know how they get it but surely, they are wealthy since i was invited to those family members through out my stay over there. But people who i grew up walk with two( Oromo and One Amhara) a near useless shoe and torn t-shirts. they struggle to put the food on the table for their families. I was sickened to realize that the weyanne revolution didn’t bring social and economic justice. rather, it brought inequalities since i myself was offered many business if i can afford it. …. for the first time, i was ashamed to call myself as a tigrayan. .

    …. Napoleon once said about China like this..”When China wakes up, the whole world will be shaken.” He was true when he predicted that china will sit on the front seat of world powers some day. it was an excellent and accurate prediction of the sleeping gaint CHINA. I raised this to warn members of the current ruling system that the rest of Ethiopia sleeping as it may seem to be now, will wake up. Just like the Chinease found it very hard to reconcile with Japanease till this day, the ruling class in ethiopia is making it irreconcilable for any future relationship between Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia. I went down on the streets of addis in cafes and chatted with any one about politics. most wouldn’t open the first time, but a few minutes and hours after they get to know you, they tell their non-stop grievances.. The system effectively sidelined the majority endangering their livelyhood and survival. One individual told me that his sister left to Metemma, Gondar in transit to Juba (South Sudan) in search of maid job. He told me that they have few aging family who need to eat 3 times a day and need urgent medical care. The girl sacrificed herself by paying 15,000 ethiopian birr just to get to Metemma and then to the Sudan. It shows how the girl sacrificed her womanhood to save the life of her immidiate aging family and her diabetic brother whom i was talking to.

    The man also explained to me that i should go to the immigration office next to Tikur Anbessa hospital to witness myself on the amount of female citezens trying to make similar risky journeys. i went to the place the other day just to witness myself and i have seen lines of more than 1000 girls waiting for the door to open so that they can get the necessary document to leave the country. almost all of the girls have covered their face similar to the muslim tradition but a good majority of them are not muslims. women with the name of Lidya change their name to something like kedija etc. It was shamefull for me to see fellow country women whom i went to school at early child hood forced to leave their respected way of life and opt to this dangerous way of life. I didn’t blame them. similar to the girl who left to metemma to rescue her family, all this thousands lining in the immigration office have their own very reason to risk themselves. it was visible for me to see that the leadership i used to admire here is nowhere near to understand, manage and safegaurd a nation as large as Ethiopia. In short, the group that is leading the nation is not capable of leading and managing one small Awraga. One thing the Meles leadership good at it is invoking nationalism amongst unsuspecting and often ridiculously stuupid people. I was in that category once. but thanks to my own eyes, i have made a good use of my judgment to decide and share my experience with you.

    One of the most disturbing thing that i saw is on my travel outside Addis Ababa on route through small towns and villages. most people still walk barefooted. women carrying woods on their back walking miles after miles on scorching sun is visible. It was this people the Meles regime call Neftegna/Timkehtegna or oromo Ashebari/Terrorists. The ETV has virtually no audiences except the entertainment part. it is full of propoganda about small industries while it was visible that there is no employment opportunities at all. the harsh living condition also encouraged greedy merchants to punish the population in a very cruel way. For instance it is common that “Berbere” merchents to sell it mixing with clay or red soil. It is also the same for Butter sellers sell it mixing it with other substances like banana in which you would have no way of knowing it. it is very hard to scribe the social catestroph that is happening right now. the contempt within the population will explode one day and the display will be very ugly. The current ignorant leadership has no way of telling the future like Napoleon and it would be too late by then. ……………………to be continued

  2. yohannes
    | #2

    What an amazingly frank and honest assessment. You are a courageous woman for seeing Meles and his friends who have done so many bad things and crimes. You see the unity of all ethiopians as the main thing that can keep us from self-destruction. You have no reason to be ashamed because you are Ethiopian first and everything else second. keep writing like this because we are listening to you. if you continue, you can really change minds. you changed mine. thank you.

  3. yohannes
    | #3

    What an amazingly frank and honest story. You are a courageous woman for seeing Meles and his friends who have done so many bad things and crimes. You see the unity of all ethiopians as the main thing that can keep us from self-destruction. You have no reason to be ashamed because you are Ethiopian first and everything else second. keep writing like this because we are listening to you. if you continue, you can really change minds. you changed mine. thank you. also please write with your real name so we know who you are. with such honest writing, we need to see who you are. you don’t have to hide from meles and his boys.

Comments are closed.