The Lessons of the Current Ethiopian Soccer Tournaments By Nahom Freda
The two Ethiopian soccer tournaments staged in Washington D.C. and Dallas in the U.S., whether we admit it or not, are extensions of the struggle for democracy, human rights, and press freedom in Ethiopia. The argument of the newly-formed All Ethiopian Sports Association One (AESA One), hosting the D.C. event, is that this is a non-political annual event, as has been the case since the inception of the federation some twenty-nine years ago. Reports indicate that AESA One has received generous financial support from Ethio-Saudi billionaire Mr. Mohamed Amoudi to host the event. Mr. Amoudi is a declared support of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the ruling party in Ethiopia for the last two decades. The party, led by Mr. Melse Zenawi, stands accused of stealing elections and gross human rights violations. Many believe that AESA One is affiliated with the Ethiopian government and concerned Ethiopians have called on fellow Diaspora Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia to boycott the Washington, D.C. event.
Some have stated that Mr. Amoudi has been a generous benefactor of the federation for many years and his support for AESA One’s inaugural event is no different and should not be a ground for boycott. Others have suggested that if Mr. Amoudi was independent he should have supported both events. As pointed out in a Washington post article (Ethiopian soccer tournament promoting unity leads to division), the problem started when known supporters of Mr. Amoudi within the Ethiopian Sports Federation of North America (ASFNA) started demanding that the federation disinvite last year’s guest of honor Ms. Brtukan Midekas, a prominent opposition leader who has been twice incarcerated and abused by the Ethiopian government. This was the genesis of the problem that resulted in the split of the federation, if you call it that (only a handful of members splintered and formed AESA One – the majority are still with the federation). The splintered group tried to usurp the name “The Ethiopian Sports Federation of North America” and ascribe it to its new organization. But this attempt was defeated in a court of law and the legitimate federation managed to retain its name and reputation. The question is: why Mr. Amoudi chose to associate himself with a minority splinter group?
Despite arguments to the contrary, Mr. Amoudi is not a disinterested and benevolent businessman. He works hand-and-gloves with the de facto dictator Melese Zenawi of Ethiopia (not my word but Washington post’s characterization of Meles, see the above article). Amoudi has openly expressed his support for the dictator and his government on repeated occasions. Supporting a leader and a party of his choice is Amoudi’s right. The problem is Zenawi and his party, the EPRDF, stand accused of gross human rights violations and stealing elections in Ethiopian, where Amoudi has huge and a growing business interest. So the argument is that Amoudi is not a benign businessman but someone who is colluding with a dictator and using his resources to prop-up a despicable dictator. The government’s record on human rights, press freedom, and assembly is abysmal and one of the worst in the world, which is well-documented by governments and civil society organizations in the West. Many are languishing in jails just because they demanded the rights cherished by billions in the world. The Meles government, which has been in power for more than 20 years, is obsessed with indefinitely staying in power and at any cost. Since the 2005 elections and EPRDF’s trouncing, Zenawi has obliterated the opposition through repressive measures, arrested or exiled independent journalist, clamped down on civil society, and stifled Internet and press freedom. The government has developed a pervasive intelligence and security apparatus that spies on its own citizens and opposition politicians.
As former communists, the leaders of the EPRDF are obsessed in controlling any and all civic and religious associations. And this is not confined to entities within Ethiopia. The EPRDF actively works to infiltrate and control similar organizations in the Diaspora. If these fail, it tries to undermine these organizations and focus on creating subservient parallel entities that promote EPRDF’s diabolical interests. The over 20 years of track record of Mr. Zanawi is instructive of his zeal to control all such organizations lest they become breeding ground for democratic activism. The government of Zenawi has no legitimacy in Ethiopia to be proud of, which was shown in the EPRDF’s trouncing at the 2005 elections. Zenawi reversed his election losses with an iron fist and he has not since relented in stifling any hint of resistant to his dictatorial rule. The only legitimacy Zenawi enjoys is through repression at home and from his international benefactors on account of his role in the fight against terrorism. Although Zenawi is a stellar ally to the West on those fronts, the West is uncomfortable with Zenawi’s human rights records. But that unease is outweighed by their interest in geo-politics and the fight against terrorism.
The Ethiopian Diaspora in the West is a constant irritant in questioning the West’s alliance with Zenawi and in highlighting the dictator’s abysmal human rights records. For these and other reasons, Zenawi abhors independent civic and religious organizations whether they are at home or abroad. He has worked for years to neutralize this threat either by co-opting independent associations to his side, or if this fails, by breaking them apart and replacing them with compliant and friendly ones. In Ethiopia, Zenawi has used this strategy to obliterate and replace with compliant ones, to name but a few: the Ethiopian Human Rights Organization, the Ethiopian Teachers Association, the Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association; journalist associations, labor and student unions, etc. He has organized residents in political cells and monitors their daily activities and uses them for purposes that promote his interests. He has removed the Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarch and replaced him with his own appointee. Now a similar effort is underway to control the Muslim society by trying to appoint his handpicked persons to lead the religion. In the Diaspora, Zenawi has used the same underhand tactics to infiltrate and overtake churches. In doing so, Zenawi has turned these churches into a forum for doctrinal preaching completely devoid of stances on human rights, justice, freedom, and equality for the oppressed people of Ethiopia. He has infested the Diaspora airwaves with insistent pro-EPRDF propaganda by funding several radio stations and websites, which basically serve as mouthpiece for his policies and programs.
Zenawi was out to control ESFNA by unleashing his power and supporters. But thanks for valiant and dedicated individuals, ESFNA has not only withstood the onslaught but defeated Zenawis’ underhand at a court of law. From the attendance of events in Washington D.C. and in Dallas, it looks like dictator Zenawi’s attempt to control ESFNA has not only rendered him another defeat but backfired. According to the Washington Post, less than 100 people attended the opening ceremony of AESA One last Sunday, July 8, 2012. In a city that is home to more Ethiopians than anywhere else in North America, the message of Ethiopians in the Diaspora was loud and clear: they are ready to guard their independence and freedom! Reports from Ethiopia indicate that the Ethiopian Muslim community has demonstrated similar resolve in rejecting Zenawi’s unwanted overture. It looks like people are ticked off with Zenawi’s overreach, and this might be a sign of bigger and bolder things to come. This is a huge achievement for the majority that cherish independence and freedom and a warning for those standing on the wrong side of history. One can easily guess Zenawi’s worries now that different sectors are asserting their independence and freedom and how this might embolden others to follow suit.
The battle between ESFNA and AESA One is thus an extension of the struggle for freedom, justice, and equality in Ethiopia. Despite the argument that sports should be free of politics, it has always been used to fight injustice, inequality, and oppression the world over. History is replete with such examples where sports organizations and sports figures have sided with those yearning for freedom, equality, and dignity. In 1964, South Africa was banned from the Tokyo Olympics for its refusal to abolish apartheid. In 1980, the United States and other democracies boycotted the Moscow Olympics because the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. In 1984, the Soviet Union responded by boycotting the Los Angeles Olympics. The two abominable systems are no more, thanks in part to the contributions of sports!!!
If the history of sports is instructive, there is no question the struggle for freedom, justice and equality in Ethiopia has entered a new stage and is rapidly changing Dictator Zenawi’s nightmare into a reality. Sport, which is fundamentally about fairness and equality, has played and will continue to play a crucial role in standing with the oppressed peoples of the world that are yearning for justice, freedom, and equality. The situation of Ethiopians is no different today. In the true spirit of sports, we need to be the bearers of the torch for justice, freedom, and equality for all Ethiopians and let’s all join ESFNA in person and spirit!!!