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Ethiopia: Letter to President Obama

President Obama at a business forum in Tanzania in 2013. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

By Al Mariam

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Obama:

Greetings! Mr. President.

I was ecstatic when I heard you will be travelling to Ethiopia in late July “for bilateral meetings with both the country’s government and the leadership of the African Union.” Such a meeting is long overdue.

I have no doubts the people of Ethiopia will welcome you with open arms and affectionate hearts. I may be biased but I believe Ethiopians are the most hospitable people in the world.

The last time I was just as ecstatic was exactly 6 years ago in July 2009 when you spoke in Accra to members of Ghana’s Parliament.

Your words in Accra were stirring and uplifting not only to me but also to tens of millions of Africans yearning to breathe free on the continent.

You told it like it is and should be:

Make no mistake: History is on the side of these brave Africans, not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power.  Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.

Development depends on good governance.   That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That’s the change that can unlock Africa’s potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans.

Now, time and again, Ghanaians have chosen constitutional rule over autocracy, and shown a democratic spirit that allows the energy of your people to break through.  We see that in leaders who accept defeat graciously.

No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery.  That is not democracy, that is tyranny, even if occasionally you sprinkle an election in there. And now is the time for that style of governance to end.

The purpose of foreign assistance must be creating the conditions where it’s no longer needed.

I have directed my administration to give greater attention to corruption in our human rights reports.

I am aware that in the past couple of weeks numerous highly respected human rights and media organizations have expressed vigorous opposition to your Ethiopia visit.

The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights expressed deep concerns. “The decision by President Obama to travel to Ethiopia, which has seen three opposition party members murdered this week alone, is very troubling.”

The Washington Post was mystified by your trip and proposed an alternate venue arguing that Ethiopia “stands out in Africa for its increasingly harsh repression and its escalating chokehold on independent media and political dissent. It’s almost unfathomable that he would make time for an entrenched human rights abuser such as Ethiopia while cold-shouldering the nation that just witnessed a historic, peaceful, democratic change of power: Nigeria.”

Foreign Policy Magazine was openly critical of your visit. “Washington wants a stable partner in the Horn of Africa. But cozying up to the repressive regime in Addis Ababa isn’t the way to go about finding one.”

Commenting on the May 24 election in Ethiopia, Foreign Policy observed that by “winning all 547 parliamentary seats, [the ruling regime in Ethiopia] places it[self] among the ranks of North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Iraq in terms of the sheer efficiency of its electoral sweep.”

The Guardian, in its summary of diverse reactions to your trip, observed, “Barack Obama’s decision to visit Ethiopia has shocked human rights activists, who say the visit sends the wrong message to a repressive government widely accused of clamping down on dissent.”

Many Ethiopian civil society groups, organizations and community leaders have openly and vigorously disapproved your visit.

On July 3, a large group of Ethiopian and Ethio-American protesters stood outside of the White House to register their disapproval of your trip.

I share in the reservations expressed by the diverse human rights and civil society groups, media organizations and policy analysts regarding your trip to Ethiopia. I trust you will give due consideration to their concerns and deliberate the issues they raised.

Arguably, as the foremost Ethiopian Diaspora advocate of human rights in Ethiopia, with a record of uninterrupted weekly commentaries and vigorous advocacy in the cause of human rights in Ethiopia and Africa for the past nine years, I believe your trip to Ethiopia, on balance, is likely to produce favorable and positive outcomes.

I should like to believe we are already witnessing a glimmer of that positive impact just days before your arrival in Ethiopia.

On July 8, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported the regime in Ethiopia released “two bloggers affiliated with the independent Ethiopian collective Zone 9 and three other journalists. All charges have been dropped against them. ”

These young bloggers and journalists have been under illegal detention since April 2014.

There are numerous other journalists and bloggers like them who eagerly await your arrival so they too may also be free.

On July 9, the Committee to Protect Journalists jubilantly reported, “We are elated that Reeyot Alemu has been released, but she should never have been jailed in the first place. She served more than four years while in poor health and under often restrictive conditions.”

Reeyot did not have to serve a single day in prison. She was told the key to the prison gate is in her hand. All she has to do is sign a request for pardon admitting guilt and walk right out.

But Reeyot chose to stay in prison for 4 years and 17 days because she valued the truth more than her personal freedom.

Just before her captors let her go, Reeyot warned them: “If you are letting me go to bring me back when I tell the public that I was released without asking for a pardon, I would rather stay. If you lie about my release, I will tell the truth.”

That is why they call Reeyot Alemu “Ethiopia’s Truth-Teller.”

I know Reeyot. She is a she-ro for millions of Ethiopians.

Reeyot is Ethiopia’s Rosa Parks.

I ask you to meet with her in private for no reason other than for you to see the face of grace under fire in flesh and blood.

The release of the journalist and bloggers in anticipation of your arrival is an auspicious development.

If the news of your arrival could crack open the gates of Akaki Prison just enough to let out five bloggers and journalists, I am hopeful and pray that your arrival will bust open all of the prison gates in Ethiopia and let out the thousands of long-suffering political prisoners.

I also hope and pray you will not face what CNN reporter Erin Burnett faced when she arrived at Bole Airport in Addis Ababa in July 2012. Burnett described her experiences as follows:

We saw what an African police state looked like when I was in Ethiopia last month… At the airport, it took an hour to clear customs – not because of lines, but because of checks and questioning. Officials tried multiple times to take us to government cars so they’d know where we went. They only relented after forcing us to leave hundreds of thousands of dollars of TV gear in the airport…

I believe it is in your book “Dreams of My Father” that you wrote the following moving words:

I have seen, the desperation and disorder of the powerless: how it twists the lives of children on the streets of Jakarta or Nairobi in much the same way as it does the lives of children on Chicago’s South Side, how narrow the path is for them between humiliation and untrammeled fury, how easily they slip into violence and despair. I know that the response of the powerful to this disorder — alternating as it does between a dull complacency and, when the disorder spills out of its proscribed confines, a steady, unthinking application of force, of longer prison sentences and more sophisticated military hardware — is inadequate to the task. I know that the hardening of lines, the embrace of fundamentalism and tribe, dooms us all.

I am not sure the regime in Ethiopia will let you see what you saw in Jakarta and Nairobi when you visit Addis.

In anticipation of your visit, they will sweep up and truck away the tens of thousands of street beggars and the homeless to the countryside so that they will not cast a tattered shadow of themselves on the shiny glass buildings along your motorcade. But if you look hard enough, you might see a few of them huddled alongside the walls and fences.

If you were to speak to the average young Ethiopian in the street, they would first tell you they are very happy to see you. Then they will whisper to you how their lives have been twisted and mangled by a ruthless and corrupt regime. They will tell you about their daily lives of humiliation and the simmering fury that courses in their blood. They will tell you about their dashed hope and crushed dreams.

I wonder if they will put to you Langston Hughes’ timeless question:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

I commend you for your bold and uncompromising statement on World Press Freedom Day on May 1, 2015.

After underscoring the “vital role that a free press plays in democracy,” you declared:

Journalists give all of us as citizens the chance to know the truth about our countries, ourselves, our governments. That makes us better, it makes us stronger, it gives voice to the voiceless, it exposes injustice, and holds leaders like me accountable… Unfortunately, in too many places around the world, a free press is under attack by governments that want to avoid the truth… Journalists are harassed, sometimes even killed, independent outlets are shut down, dissent is silence, and freedom of expression is stifled.

I also recall your 201o Statement on World Press Freedom Day.  “While people gained greater access than ever before to information through the Internet, cell phones and other forms of connective technologies, governments like China, Ethiopia, Iran, and Venezuela curtailed freedom of expression by limiting full access to and use of these technologies.”

The Ethiopia you will be visiting in July 2015 is ranked “fourth worst violator of press freedoms” in the world and second worst in Africa by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In Ethiopia, journalism is synonymous with terrorism.

Journalism is a crime against the state.

Journalists are presumed and deemed to be terrorists and enemies of the state.

You will find that all imprisoned journalists and bloggers in Ethiopia are convicted of or are held for years without trial on terrorism charges.

This past week, it was revealed that the ruling Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front had spent millions of dollars purchasing surveillance software technology from a company called the “Hack Team”. This news reminded me of your 2010 Statement on World Press Freedom Day and your observation about governments “limiting full access to and use of these [internet] technologies.”

You may also be interested to know that the regime in Ethiopia used the Hack Team’s nefarious surveillance technology to track down and arrest the “Zone 9 bloggers”, some of whom were released a few days ago in anticipation of your arrival.

I realize and appreciate that your arrival in Ethiopia at this time may present some manifest contradictions for you.

In July 2009, you told the Ghanaians and through them all Africans that no person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery even if that tyranny is burnished with an occasional “sprinkle of elections.”

In September 2014, you met Hailemariam Desalegn, the titular head of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front, and his delegation at the White House and said, “The Prime Minister and the government is going to be organizing elections in Ethiopia this year. I know something about that… And so we’ll have an opportunity to talk about civil society and governance and how we can make sure that Ethiopia’s progress and example can extend to civil society as well…”

Well, “Prime Minister Hailemariam and his government” had the election you spoke about on May 24, 2015. They “won” it by 100 percent. Yes, by one hundred percent!

Learned commentators observed such an election outcome in the 21st century could occur only in North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

In 2008 campaigning for the presidency, you said, “You know, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called ‘change.’ It’s still gonna stink after eight years.”

In 2015, I say the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front can wrap its dictatorship in a piece of ballot paper called “election” and call it democracy. But after a chokehold on power for 23 years, it’s  still gonna stink.

Every 5 years, the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front “sprinkles” elektions to give a human face to its inhumanity, brutality and venality.

In 2005, the late Meles Zenawi held elections. When he lost that election, he personally ordered the massacre and shooting of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators.

It is ironic that but for the Meles’ Massacres, it is unlikely that I would be writing this letter to you.

It is because of the Meles Massacres that I resolved to become an indefatigable and relentless human rights advocate in Ethiopia and in Africa and wherever else human rights are violated. Dr. Martin Luther King’s admonition stirred my soul: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

The lives lost in the Meles Massacres matter.

For the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front, the Meles Massacres are simple issues of mind over matter.

The Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front does not mind and the hundreds of victims of the Meles Massacres don’t matter! Neither do the thousands of political prisoners languishing in official and secret prisons today.

But the victims of the Meles Massacre matter to me. Beyond what I am able to express in words.

They matter to me as a human being.

They matter to me as a man uncompromisingly committed to the rule of law.

They matter to me as a native Ethiopian son who left decades ago vowing never to return, but one whom Ethiopia has refused to leave.

They matter to me as a proud Ethiopian American who has been fortunate enough to “secure the blessings of liberty” promised to “posterity” in the Founding document of the Republic.  Yes, that flawed and imperfect document which turned a blind eye to slavery and deaf ears to the wails, cries and lamentations of African slaves.

In 2009 in Accra you said:

This is about more than just holding elections. It’s also about what happens between elections. Repression can take many forms, and too many nations, even those that have elections, are plagued by problems that condemn their people to poverty. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves… No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top.

You are correct in your observations.

The Economist in its May 2012 issue observed:

Investing in Ethiopia is not for the faint-hearted, however. With a projected national income of $38.5 billion this year, its population of 85m still ranks among the world’s poorest. The government’s big spending carries risks, including high inflation (32.5% in March was near a nine-month low) and heavy state borrowing that has shrunk the credit available to private firms. Much more borrowing and spending is planned, and needed. The heart of the Ethiopian capital may be traversed by new concrete arteries and bridges, built by Italian and Chinese contractors with Chinese loans. But the rest of Addis Ababa is a patchwork of dirt paths lined by corrugated-tin dwellings that are the capital’s shantytowns and slums.

In 2009, you told the Ghanaians that you “have directed [your] administration to give greater attention to corruption in our human rights reports.”

You need not worry about a corruption investigation in Ethiopia. The World Bank has done that job for you meticulously.

In 2012, the Word Bank issued a one of a kind 417-page report entitled, “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia.”

That report documented the deadly cancer of corruption and its vector in the Ethiopian body politics. That’s why the World Bank was compelled to undertake a clinical “diagnosis”.

The expert prognosis is that corruption will in the foreseeable future destroy Ethiopian society and economy.

In 2014, Ethiopia ranked 136/175 on the Corruption Index.

In all candor, I have been contemplating two questions for a long time. As your travel date to Ethiopia draws near, these questions gnaw my mind to sleeplessness:

Is Africa better off today than when you became president?

Is Ethiopia better off today than when you became president?

I ask these questions in the form of accountability and for two basic reasons.

First, billions of American taxpayers have flowed into Ethiopia in the name of development, security and democracy over the past 6 years. The evidence shows that American tax dollars have served to fortify a brutal regime and not much more.

In September 2014, you stated to the delegation of leaders of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front that Ethiopia is one of the “bright spots and progress that we’re seeing in Africa, I think there’s no better example than what has been happening in Ethiopia — one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.”

The “fastest growing economy” may be a nice phrase for media hype but it is unsupported by evidence.

It is part of USAID’s typical litany to claim that U.S. aid has contributed to the “substantial growth in agriculture, industry and services” in Ethiopia.

I am not so sure about the “fastest growing economy” or USAID’s claims of “substantial growth.”

In 2010, the State Department Inspector General reported “the audit was unable to determine whether the results reported in USAID/Ethiopia’s Performance Plan and Report were valid because mission staff could neither explain how the results were derived nor provide support for those reported results.”

Is it possible the growth figures are being “cooked”?

The evidence shows no one really knows if the billions of American dollars are doing much to help the people of Ethiopia. It is clear they are doing a lot for the leaders, members and supporters of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front.

In 2011, Global Financial Integrity reported:

Ethiopia, which has a per-capita GDP of just US$365, lost US$11.7 billion to illicit financial outflows between 2000 and 2009. In 2009, illicit money leaving the economy totaled US$3.26 billion, which is double the amount in each of the two previous years…

In 2008, Ethiopia received US$829 million in official development assistance, but this was swamped by the massive illicit outflows.  The scope of Ethiopia’s capital flight is so severe that our conservative US$3.26 billion estimate greatly exceeds the  US$2 billion value of Ethiopia’s total exports in 2009.

GFI concluded, “The people of Ethiopia are being bled dry. No matter how hard they try to fight their way out of absolute destitution and poverty, they will be swimming upstream against the current of illicit capital leakage.”

The question is which Ethiopians have the financial ability to illicitly move out of the country billions of dollars.

The Economist Magazine in its March 2013 issue had the skinny on “one of the fastest-growing economies in the world”:

Even [regime] supporters do not have much faith in official numbers. Annual productivity gains in agriculture are probably not 5-6%, as the official statistics suggest, but more like 2-3%, though that is still impressive. An insider says: ‘Officials are given targets and then report back what superiors want to hear.’ International experts are suspicious of the GDP growth figures of 11% flaunted by the government. They say the actual growth rate is only half that, around 5-7%—which is still respectable.

Other independent research organizations have reported even more jarring and distressing facts.

In 2014, the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHDI) Multidimensional Poverty Index (formerly annual U.N.D.P. Human Poverty Index) reported for the fourth successive year that Ethiopia is ranked as the second poorest country on the planet. Yes, the second poorest in the world!

In 2010, OPHDI reported that the percentage of the Ethiopian population in “severe poverty” (living on less than USD$1 a day) was 72.3%.

The OPHDI 2014 poverty statistics are even more shocking.  In rural Ethiopia, 82 % of the population struggles “in severe poverty” compared to 18% in the urban areas.  The highest incidences of “severe poverty” in Ethiopia in 2014 were found in the following regions: Somali (93% ), Oromiya (91.2%), Afar (90.9%),  Amhara (90.1%) and Tigray (85.4%).

By OPHDI measures, poverty is not simply lack of money.

Poverty is quintessentially about bad health, bad education, bad nutrition, high child mortality, bad water and electricity supply, bad housing and bad sanitation.

The root cause of poverty in Ethiopia is bad governance!

Despite the hype about “double-digit economic growth over the past ten years”, Ethiopia is in very bad shape; and that is how she got to be ranked the second poorest country on the planet!

Second, I wonder what American taxpayers have received from Ethiopia in exchange for the billions they have given out over the years.

I do not doubt that the U.S. leans on Ethiopia to do the heavy lifting on security issues in the Horn and East Africa. I don’t believe there is anything new in that.

In the post-WW II period, the U.S. has been the major supplier of military equipment and training to Ethiopia.

The U.S. maintained Kagnew Station, a “Cold War listening station”, in northern Ethiopia between 1943 to 1977.

U.S.-Ethiopia relations deteriorated after the military socialist junta took over in 1974.

The strategic security cooperation and partnership to wipe out terrorism in the Horn between the U.S. and Ethiopia will continue regardless of the regime in power. There is little doubt that Ethiopians support the U.S. effort to fight terrorism in the Horn and elsewhere.

A few months ago, terrorists in Libya beheaded 30 innocent Ethiopians because of their nationality and faith. The resolve of all Ethiopians to root out terrorism wherever it rears its ugly head can never be doubted. Ethiopians are confident that the long arm of justice will catch the  criminals against humanity who beheaded their compatriots no matter how long it takes.

The Tigrean People’s Liberation Front has no monopoly on counter-terrorism. It is rather ironic, however, that the U.S. has built a counter-terrorism partnership with the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front, an organization actively listed in the Global Terrorism Data Base.

But “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”; even former terrorists can walk in our midst like wolves in sheep clothing.

You once said, “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

It is well known that the U.S. Air Force has flown armed drones on counterterrorism missions from a remote civilian airport in southern Ethiopia as part of the U.S. effort to destroy terrorist enclaves in Yemen and Somalia.

I have no issues with “taking out terrorists who threaten us” or threaten any peace-loving nation.

As a civil libertarian and constitutional lawyer, I am troubled by a policy premised on the doctrine of presumption of guilt, shoot first and ask questions later.

I will reserve that issue for another time.

My issue is that the very counter-terrorism security partnership the U.S. has employed to hunt down terrorists in the Horn is also used to hunt down journalists, bloggers, dissidents, opposition leaders and others in Ethiopia.

The U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014 has documented the terrorism that is perpetrated against the civilian population in Ethiopia by the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front:

The most significant human rights problems included restrictions on freedom of expression, including continued restrictions on print media and on the internet, and restrictions on freedom of association, including through arrests; politically motivated trials; and harassment and intimidation of opposition members and journalists. The government continued restrictions on activities of civil society and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) imposed by the Charities and Societies Proclamation (the CSO law). Other human rights problems included alleged arbitrary killings; alleged torture, beating, abuse, and mistreatment of detainees by security forces; reports of harsh and at times life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; detention without charge and lengthy pretrial detention; a weak, overburdened judiciary subject to political influence; infringement on citizens’ privacy rights, including illegal searches; alleged abuses in the implementation of the government’s “villagization” program; restrictions on academic freedom; restrictions on freedom of assembly, association, and movement; alleged interference in religious affairs; limits on citizens’ ability to change their government; police, administrative, and judicial corruption; violence and societal discrimination against women and abuse of children.

I should like to applaud your efforts in Africa over the past couple of years, and particularly  for your initiatives.

You launched “Power Africa”, a public-private partnership designed to make electricity available across the continent.

I must say that I am wary of the words “power” and “Africa” appearing in the same sentence.

Power is a real problem in Africa.

The questions are always the same: Who has power? Who is powerless? How are the powerful to be restrained from abusing the powerless?

For ordinary Africans, “Power for Africa” could be mistaken for “Power for African Dictators”.

I wish the initiative had been called “Empower Africans”. I am all for empowering Africans, especially the young ones.

I also like your Young African Leaders Initiative with the Mandela Washington Fellowship at its core.  It is said that initiative “embodies” your “commitment to invest in the future of Africa.”

It is commendable to bring 500 of the best and brightest of Africa’s youth and open up opportunities for them in business and entrepreneurship, civic leadership and public management.

I must confess that your “Young African Leaders Initiative” reminded me of W.E.B. Du Bois’ “theory” of the “the talented tenth”, which he used to describe the likelihood of one in 10 black men becoming leaders of their race in the world.

Du Bois wrote in his “Talented Tenth” essay, “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst.”

Perhaps your “Young African Leaders Initiative” will produce Africa’s “Talented Tenth”.

Perhaps the young African leaders will save Africa from contamination, genocide and crimes against humanity.

But I wondered what initiatives you had in the works for the hundreds of millions of African youths who lack access to basic education, health care and employment opportunities. The U.N. says nearly 70 percent of the African population is under 35 years old.  These youths could use your leadership to help get them out of dictatorship. They can handle the rest.

When you held the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit at the White House in August 2014, I was heartbroken.

Your immortal words, “Africa does not need strongmen, Africa needs strong institutions.” overwhelmed me when I saw you standing and smiling next to the who’s who of world dictators.

There you were standing shoulder to shoulder with Paul Biya, Blaise Compaoré, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe, Paul Kagame, Joseph Kabila Kabange, Idris Deby, King Mswati III, Yoweri Museveni, Denis Sassou-Nguesso and so on.

There you stood with Uhuru Kenyatta, a man at the time on trial at the International Criminal Court.

The Bard of Avon wrote, “Foul deeds will rise,/ Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes.”

I applaud your “Feed the Future Initiative” designed to reduce, hunger, malnutrition and poverty in Africa and elsewhere.

Kofi Annan said, “Programs like ‘Feed the Future’ make an important contribution by supporting innovation, providing technical knowledge, and developing markets for smallholder farmers to sell their products.” Kofi is right.

But I am sure you will agree with me that “Man and woman do not live by bread alone.”

In June 2009, you said:

America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed, confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice, government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people, the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas. They are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.

Africa’s young men and women, Africa’s future, also desperately need freedom—the freedom to speak, to worship, to assemble and to petition for grievances.

A young African mind and body is a terrible thing to waste.

Let me say a few personal words that are unrelated to the big issues of the day.

Perhaps these words will give you insights why I am passionate about my human rights advocacy in Ethiopia and Africa.

I am among the second wave (cohort) of young Africans who came to the U.S. for higher education in the late 1960s and early 1970.

Your father was in the first wave of promising young Africans who travelled to the West after the initial round of decolonization of African societies and returned to Africa in the mid-to late 1960s.

I chose to study political science and law. I was particularly interested in the “theory” and practice of American constitutional law and government.

Your father studied economics and returned to Kenya.

I received my terminal degrees and chose to remain in America.

I knew early on that I could not live in a country where the people live in total fear of their  government instead of a country where the government fears the people.

I guess that would make a Jeffersonian-type democrat with my resolute opposition to corruption, insistence on virtue, equal rights for all citizens and so on. I tend to be self-righteous in that way.

In May 2009, you said:

I have studied the Constitution as a student; I have taught it as a teacher; I have been bound by it as a lawyer and legislator. I took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution as Commander-in-Chief, and as a citizen, I know that we must never – ever – turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience sake. I make this claim not simply as a matter of idealism. We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe. Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset – in war and peace; in times of ease and in eras of upheaval. Fidelity to our values is the reason why the United States of America grew from a small string of colonies under the writ of an empire to the strongest nation in the world.

I too have studied the Constitution and teach and practice it. I have vowed never to turn my back on its enduring principles for expedience sake.

For me upholding the Constitution is a simple matter of idealism. Deep down, I am an incorrigible utopian Ethiopian American.

So every week, without missing a single week for the past nine years, I have preached and sermonized on the most cherished of American values, those values succinctly enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

In your Nobel speech in 2009 you said, “We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it’s easy, but when it is hard.”

I hope as you meet the leaders of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front in Addis Ababa, you will not compromise on American ideals and turn a blind eye to the plight of the thousands of political prisoners held in official and secret prisons in Ethiopia. I hope you will insist on the release of journalists Eskinder Nega, Woubshet Taye, Temesgen Desalegn, Abraha Desta, the detained members of Zone 9 bloggers, and the thousands of other political prisoners.

A couple of days ago it was reported that six members of the Ethiopian Muslims Arbitration Committee, eight scholars, two journalists, an artist and a student were “convicted” of terrorism, conspiracy and incitement charges.” They had been held in detention since 2012.

I hope you will insist on the release of these young Ethiopian Muslims who have been imprisoned for no reason other than asserting their constitutional right to keep government out of God’s business.

Let me also say that I have been your number 1 fan and supporter since you announced your candidacy for the presidency in February 2007.

Over the years, I have written countless commentaries promoting your candidacy and mobilizing financial and electoral support for you in the Ethiopian American community throughout the United States.

I have defended your policies and robustly countered your critics in the media.

In the past year, perplexed in the extreme by your policies in Ethiopia, I wrote a commentary entitled, “Why I am Ashamed to be Proud of President Obama”.

There is nothing more I want than to be proud of you again in the last two years of your presidency.

I remember reading somewhere that you have a practice of reading “10 pieces of unvetted correspondence addressed to you” as part of your important daily reading material.

I hope my letter will be one of the 10 pieces.

I hope you will get to read this letter because it resonates the deepest feelings of millions of Ethiopians who are voiceless and whose voices have been silenced.

I imagine my letter will likely not reach you because those who screen the thousands of letters addressed to you every day may find mine to be the rantings of an overwrought, self-important, self-righteous, self-absorbed and self-appointed and misguided professor-cum-constitutional-lawyer-cum-Ethiopian-human rights advocate.

Perhaps the content of what I have written to you does not make much sense because it is written by one “being wrought and perplexed in the extreme”, to borrow a phrase from the Bard of Avon, ruminates away his days over the tragedy that has befallen his native land and his people.

Perhaps my letter is too long and may sound overly accusatory in tone.

But I write to you out of conviction that “the hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict”, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said.

For the past nine years, I have not remained neutral in the great moral conflict facing Ethiopia.

I have stood proud and tall on the right side of history every single Monday since 2006.

I believe it was in your book “The Audacity of Hope” that you observed, “If we aren’t willing to pay a price for our values, then we should ask ourselves whether we truly believe in them at all.”

My friends Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Temesgen Desalegn, the Zone 9 bloggers, the young Muslims and so many other political prisoners are paying the highest price for their principles.

In September 2014, you told a delegation of the regime in Ethiopia:

And so we’ll have an opportunity to talk about civil society and governance and how we can make sure that Ethiopia’s progress and example can extend to civil society as well, and making sure that throughout the continent of Africa we continue to widen and broaden our efforts at democracy, all of which isn’t just good for politics but ends up being good for economics as well.

I hope in July 2015, you will get a chance to talk to the leaders of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front about letting civil society institutions function freely in Ethiopia and hammer out a practical program to broaden democracy in Ethiopia.

In July 2009, you said, “History is on the side of these brave Africans, not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power.  Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”

In your first inaugural address, you said, “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

In July 2015, as you visit Ethiopia, you will find out that the ruling Tigrean People’s Liberation Front is that dreaded gang of “African strongmen” you warned us about in 2009. They are the ones you warned us about clinging to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent.

For six years, you have unclenched your fist in dealing with the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front. Perhaps it is time to speak softly and clench your fist.

It is confusing and painful for me and many others to see you standing with the strongmen of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front in Addis Ababa.

I am not sure if I will wince or grimace when I see those pictures of you standing with the “strongmen” in Addis.  It may be best for me to turn a blind eye.

I should like to remind you that as you stand shoulder to shoulder with the strongmen of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front in Addis Ababa, you are standing in the long shadow of history.

Someone once said, “Shadows cannot see themselves in the mirror of the sun.” Or the mirror of history?

Historians will one day write about your policies and efforts in Africa. They will write about your legacy and what you did and did not do.

I don’t think any of that matters at all.

What matters is how you will answer that question of history you raised in Accra in 2009 as you stand in the dock before the bar of your own conscience:

Were you President Barack Obama on the right side of history in your policies in Africa and specifically in Ethiopia?

Bishop Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

I dare say that Ethiopians will not appreciate your neutrality if you visit them, take a few photos with their oppressors but remain silent about the heavy boot that is crushing their necks.

In October 2011, Senator Ted Cruz whom the National Review proclaimed “the great conservative hope” said, “The most enduring legacy of President Barack Obama is going to be a new generation of leaders standing up for liberty.” I think Senator Cruz has a point.

I hope your singular legacy in Africa will “be a new generation of leaders standing up for liberty.”

As you think of the young and new generation of African leaders, I hope you will not forget the older generation of African leaders.

As you know, great Ethiopian leaders preserved Ethiopia’s independence for over three thousand years and repelled repeated incursions by Europeans over the past couple of centuries.

At the Battle of Adwa in 1896, two years after the Berlin Conference in which European powers carved up Africa, Emperor Menelik II routed Italy’s modern war machine with bows and arrows and spears.

Emperor Menelik is the first African leader in history to decisively crush a vastly superior European colonial army. No European power managed to colonize Ethiopia because of its historic leaders.

Ever since Menelik II victory over the invading Italian colonial army,  Ethiopia has been a beacon of hope and symbol of dignity and pride for all Africans and Africans in the Diaspora.

May I ask you to lay a wreath before the statute of Emperor Menelik II during your visit?

I am certain you will find Ethiopia to be the “Land of 13 Months of Sunshine”.

You will find Ethiopians to be a people who are hospitable, respectful and affectionate to a fault.

Have a great trip to Ethiopia, Mr. President.

I bid you Godspeed and a pleasant trip to the cradle of mankind.

I have been told that when I get up to sing, all the birds tweet each other and swiftly fly out of town.

But that won’t stop me from crooning to myself my version of the old Negro Spiritual, “Go Down Moses”, as I wish you bon voyage.

Go down Moses way down in Ethiopia land
Tell all Pharaohs to let My people go
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let My people go
So the God sayeth, Go down, Moses way down in Ethiopia land
Tell all Pharaohs to let My people go
So Moses went to Ethiopia  land
Let My people go
He made all Pharaohs understand
Let My people go
Yes The Lord said, Go down, Moses way down in Ethiopia land
Tell all Pharaohs to let My people go
Let My people go
Tell all Pharaohs to let My people go.

President Obama, tell the Pharaohs of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front to let my people go.


Alemayehu “Al” G. Mariam, Ph.D., J.D.
California State University, San Bernardino

c.c. History
The Living Memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Living Memory of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
The Living Memory of Mohandas Karamchand “Mahatma” Gandhi
The Living Memory of Abraham Lincoln

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Ethiopia: Letter to President Obama Reviewed by Admin on 3:01 PM Rating: 5


  1. Excellent letter. While at it can President Obama also tell. Ethiopian army to vacate Badme. a legally confirmed Eritrean Land.

  2. This is what you said ".....I should like to remind you that as you stand shoulder to shoulder with the "strongmen" of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front in Addis Ababa, you are standing in the long shadow of history......"

    The US and UN did the same when they stood shoulder to shoulder with Haileselassie and annexed Eritrea with Ethiopia. So they do it for them and NOT for you Mr.Alemayehu LOL LOL


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