My speech to the American Ethiopian Public Affairs Committee, June 11, 2023
I can speak only for myself. If people want to take my suggestions, great. I was invited to talk here today because a small circle of high-profile folks, what I’ll call the leaders of the Resistance in the Diaspora, liked some of what I had to say. And that is a truly wonderful thing that proves my point: Nation is not a concept that’s restricted by geography and borders. Ethiopians still think of themselves as Ethiopians when they live abroad, and while I can never be one of you, you have been so kind to include me in your struggles.
And that inclusivity, that sense of nationhood abroad, puts the lie to the idea that only those within the country have a stake or a right to weigh in. The Abiy government was happy to call everyone for a homecoming when it suited its purpose, and folks were glad to do it. Now they’re told to mind your own business. “Not this time, we’ll listen only to our captives — oops, the people we have here.” To hell with that — not good enough.
Mesfin kindly sent me the results of the survey, but days before I received it, I thought, Okay, this might be useful…perhaps? I say perhaps because for the Internet, you will always have a few bad faith trolls weighing in to try to skew the numbers, and that got me thinking, Well, wait a minute, this might be good enough for one or two insights but it can’t tell us what to do. There’s a higher duty here.
Let me explain what I mean by that. I was invited down to Atlanta a while back and as usual, I brought home a couple of books, one of them a history of the Freedom Riders. And if you asked most Black people in America at that time in the 1960s, Hey, do you think it would be a good idea to go down in a bus through the Deep South and confront rednecks and bigots at diner tables? Most people would say, Are you delusional? Are you insane? But that’s exactly what they did because there was a higher duty.
What is so different in the situation of Ethiopia? You have an ethnic population being held hostage in a geographic area. They won’t let you live, they won’t let you leave. They are shooting people at churches and mosques. Think about that time MLK and his followers had to take refuge in the First Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama, and an angry mob waited for anyone to step outside. Only in Ethiopia, no federal army will come to your rescue.
I have things to say to both the diaspora community and the people living in Ethiopia if they’re checking in to watch this or they see it later. And I’ll go back and skip from one to the other and back again because you need closer ties and connections to work together.
Some of what I will say will be obvious, and maybe you’re already doing what I suggest, but it still needs to be talked about — out in the open, for all to hear. It’s for those who don’t know, and for those who do, it tells you back in the motherland that we haven’t forgotten you, that we are devoting tactical and strategic thinking and effort to helping you.
You, all of you, on both sides are needed. Only this week, the Ethio-American Development Council pointed out how Daniel Bekele’s shop, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, just outright refuses to publish its reports in English — only he tweets in English when he decides it’s important enough. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. But the point is everyone recognizes we need good, solid, clear translations of material into English.
If you have the time, please do this — but do it in a disciplined way. Don’t just slap it on Twitter or Facebook and think your job is done. It ain’t. When you do that, you’re not helping anyone because your post can be lost in that ocean of data. You need to send it through DMs or at least tag one of these folks so that they can verify the translation and then give it a boost.
Boycotts. Yes, please. But if you’re in Addis or wherever and try this, don’t show up at the business itself in a small protest cluster, because the authorities will be sure to come by and beat you up — and then arrest you. Instead, save the big signs calling out the companies for large demonstrations where we can maximize the attention. If you’re in North America or Europe, same thing — save the signs for the big protest marches where they can be seen and photographed and make a difference.
It starts the ball rolling. If by some miracle, media shows up, the reporter goes, “Hey, they’re picking on this Castel Winery in Oromia, let’s go get a comment.” And that puts the Winery on the spot. Now it’s case of “Uh, uh, uh…” And they’ll be stuck because whether they respond or not, we have got attention for the issue.
I’ll leave it to the others to talk about Reroute Remittance because they know far better than I do how that can work. I fully support this. I’m already on public record for saying Sanctions are pointless and dumb and will not work, and I wrote a whole article about that, you can look it up on Medium or Substack but boycotts can be effective.
But what we really need now is for you in the diaspora to push and tweet and post and talk about the constitution. Get rid of this shambling Frankenstein monster that’s caused so much heartache and death — get rid of it. Don’t let the government try to shelve this discussion and don’t let it be a topic only for their cherry-picked authorities or their partners in crime at the TPLF or OLF or anyone else. It needs to be thrown out and a new one made.
I’m in Canada. We had to overhaul our constitution decades ago, and the country has a few of the top experts on constitutional law in the world here. More are in Europe and Asia. Why aren’t we pushing for an international convention on this? You are the diaspora. You are AEPAC and ECNAS and the Ethio-American Development Council.
Make some noise. Hold a conference for it in Frankfurt. Or in D.C. Or London. But push for it to happen.
And part and parcel of that for the home team and the diaspora is to make stronger and more public bonds between Christians and Muslims. They are shooting at all of you. Whether you pray to Jesus or face east towards Mecca, they have made you the enemy, and you have common cause. We’ve talked about forming ties but what is the tangible, practical action on this? Please make it happen.
If a mosque is demolished, Christians should be out on the streets and forming a protective ring around Muslims who gather in that rubble and lay down their mats to pray. Muslims should be there to help their Christian brothers and sisters in a similar way.
I’ve written it down and said it before, I’ll say it again. A protest march is not the goal. That’s an event. A big demonstration is not a goal, it’s an event. It might be news for a day, and then where are you? You’re back to square one unless you plan these demonstrations and protests and actions to have a momentum that puts pressure on those in power. They have to add up to something and take you where you need to go. Changing the constitution — that’s a goal. Getting Abiy out of office — that’s the goal. Getting permanent protection for Amhara and other targeted ethnic groups.
Build the momentum. As I say, if you know this, you know it, so apologies to those who do, but I suspect a good number of folks don’t know back home or here or in Europe, and why should they know guerrilla tactics of underground resistance and protest? So. I’m talking to them.
I am not here to reassure you that it’s all going to be all right. I don’t know that.
My single warm and fuzzy message is that you are not alone, that Ethiopia lives and breathes in the heart of every person who can still see green, yellow and bright cheerful red and not black and blue and bleeding crimson.
I told these leaders in our little Zoom session that they are criminals now — might as well face it. You think you can grab a flight on Ethiopian Airlines and go back in the next year or so? Hell, no. If they will shoot people outside a mosque or a church, they will arrest your asses. They have the leader names. You are outlaws now. So be outlaws.
That’s the big difference between ferenji hypocrites like Alex de Waal and Fungus Davison and Andrew DeCort and others who pretend they’re “analyzing” Ethiopia when in fact they’re screwing around behind the scenes to see how much trouble they can cause to destabilize the country. Well, now you want regime change, and you need it, so I am telling you straight out: go do some crimes.
When they attack creative artists, when the most basic things you do in life are deemed a crime and you’re threatened with lethal force, you are entitled — damn it, you have an obligation — to liberate yourself through any means at your disposal.
Nonviolent protest for civil rights is not passive. It can be confrontational. It can be subversive. But it’s deliberately illegal. Because it serves a higher duty.
If they are starving your people by denying them the essentials for the soil, steal that fertilizer. If you work for some business and have access to fertilizer for farms, steal it. That’s right, you heard me, steal the damn thing if you can get away with it, and arrange to smuggle it to those farmers who need it. This past week, the Western media cranked up their old narratives, twisting a story — which I suspect has some legitimacy, but it’ll take us a while to find out the real truth — about corruption in terms of food aid being stolen or moved elsewhere.
Once again, a hysterical note of “Tigray’s in trouble!” And that’s all they give a shit about. Nothing about Afar. Nothing about the Amhara region.
So, if you guys can figure out a trafficking network to get the fertilizer to those who need it, go for it. If you’re already doing it, fantastic. But we need the word to get out. To give folks hope that — pardon the expression — shit is getting done.
Don’t physically hurt people, don’t slander people, but go do crimes of defiance. Because your government is already hauling journalists off the street. You have uniformed thugs ramming you in the back with rifle butts and massacring people in remote areas.
Yes, there are risks. Only you can decide what you’re personally comfortable with and how to measure those risks. To yourself, to your family. And who am I to say this? I was there to cover the war, I went to the war zones, but I was never in much danger. My friends were in danger. They wanted to kill one of them and tried to lure him to his own assassination. But I was fine. And here I am, home again and safe and far away on my fat ass. All I can risk at the moment for you is my personal reputation and credibility, which is all I can offer.
Maybe five times a day, a troll replies on Twitter, “You’re white, you’re not African, stay out of it,” or “who are you to comment?” Well, they asked me. I was invited. And if I’m going to get the same nonsense of “who are you,” well, I might as well say what’s really on my mind.
These are my suggestions, my advice based on forty plus years of working in media and communications. Take ’em or leave ’em. A civil rights campaign is always a matter of individual conscience and choice. No one can tell you what to do. You can help the resistance in big ways and small ones. But it’s up to you.
What I can say is that when soldiers or cops or anyone in a uniform threatens and aims a gun at you, when they demolish your homes and massacre whole communities, they have handed you the moral license to do what needs to be done.
You can put the damn fear into the authorities with the power of your marches and the volume of your voices. But you need to be smart about it.
When the thugs in uniform come for your friends, don’t scream and make a scene, fall back and take their damn photo and run. Take video footage of these individual soldiers or cops… and then wallpaper the fucking Internet with their face. Make it so that we can track down their names. And then spread those names all over the place. A line of soldiers or cops in a city or town is a mob, a gang. Put individual faces out on the Internet, get their names if you can through contacts or Twitter replies, and you cut them away from their herd.
These authority figures are used against demonstrations and activists to put fear into others to stop them from emulating the example. Turn it around. Make their faces public so that everybody knows who’s the nark, who’s the cop, who’s the informant — even when they’re off duty and out of uniform. Shame the hell out of them.
Because that’s step one for conversion. We want them either neutralized or on our side.
You are the people of Ethiopia, and you are your own best intelligence network. And a network is more than just what works on your damn phone. If you have a family member who is in the police or the army, you owe it to yourself and them to try to get the truth across, to challenge them gently and at your own comfort level to ask, Why are you doing this? Why are you hurting your own people? The goal is converts. We need ’em. The end goal is not to war among yourselves to win a country for all.
The smallest gesture of protest can take on larger symbolic meaning, which can help morale.
Look at what Filagot Abraham and others did at the Gumma Film Awards this week. Yes, I’ve heard she was arrested. Presumably, she must have known there was a risk of that, and she chose to take that risk. Why is why we should honor her bravery and follow her example. I’m told the event’s organizer was arrested, too, Yonas Birhane Mewa, but look at how desperate they’ve become to do that. Of course, there are risks, but these examples also show how near things are to the tipping point.
At Mai Kadra, the bastards took spray paint and marked houses for where they should kill Amhara. It’s time to flip the script. If you got spray paint, get yourself a good hoodie and dark trousers and take the minimal risk and go out and tag “Amhara” on a government office or a landmark. Let them know Amhara are here to stay and not going anywhere. Take their mark of fear and shove it back in their faces.
Like I said, maybe you’re already doing these stunts and tactics, I don’t know. They’re not being talked about, and we need the public chatter about them because this campaign for your civil rights — this campaign to get you a new government that respects your rights — is a communications campaign.
I’ve studied history and I know public relations and communications. And the way it works is this. The U.S. media will only show up when they realize Abiy is cooked and on his way out.
Check history: the Americans do this with every Shah, South American president, African strongman who is close to being ousted. They’ve supported so many dictators or worked with them and then when they’re in trouble, they cut ’em loose. Only then do they cozy up to a new incoming administration.
They want to know you are a political force that is here to stay. They won’t show you respect, they won’t give you attention until you make it crystal clear they have to acknowledge you. Only then will you get media coverage in the West, which will give a hard shove to the Western gardeners that they must deal with you.
And I am pushing for all this for a bigger reason. The last thing anyone wants is the clock to turn back to 1994 and have might means right. There must always be a civilian political wing supported by ordinary Ethiopians. When you finally get a change in government, you want it to be a civilian government representing the people. All the people, not just Tigrayans or Oromo or Amhara: everyone.
What began as a time of so much promise was shattered and became an era of war, and now it’s turning into a reign of greed and hubris and megalomania. And ethnic cleansing.
I want to say in closing: Don’t give in to despair. I like sometimes to quote this great labor activist in the States, his name was Joe Hill. They framed him for murder, put him in a chair with a paper target, and a firing squad shot him — like he was a soldier. And he was one. For human rights. And before they killed him, he told his friends, “Don’t mourn — organize.”
You can each make a contribution. Each of you can be a force for positive change. Join the Resistance. Decide how you can help. You are the arbegnoch, fighting in ways big and small to create the Ethiopia you deserve. And I will keep on writing and saying this over and over until you win: Resist. Endure. Prevail.