Prof. Alemayehu G Mariam
To: President Barack Obama:
As I bid you farewell and adieu, I ask you three questions on matters that are enormously important to me:
- Is Africa better off today than when you became president on January 20, 2009?
- Is Ethiopia better off today than when you became president January 20, 2009?
- Did you stand on the right or wrong side of history in your policy in Africa?
I shall hold my peace on your broader legacy as many eminent commentators have spoken favorably and unfavorably on them.
In your first inaugural speech on January 20, 2009, you lectured dictators and thugtators the world over that they should choose the path of democracy and rule of law: “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.”
On January 13, 2017, a week before the end of your term, you signed an executive order removing sanctions on a 20-year-old trade embargo on the “government” of Omar al-Bashir, a dictator who has been in power since seizing power in a military coup in 1989 in the Sudan. Bashir is today an indicted fugitive from justice at the International Criminal Court and listed on the Red Notice of Interpol for directing genocide in Darfur and other places in the Sudan.
In your eleventh-hour order, you justified your actions on the grounds that the “Government of Sudan has been altered by Sudan’s positive actions over the past 6 months.”
It is said that “one swallow does not make a summer.”
I find it incredible that you should be willing to lift sanctions on a regime known for decades for its brutality, genocide and harboring of Osama bin Laden who massacred thousands of innocent Americans on the slender reed of demonstrated good behavior of six months.
During your candidacy for the presidency in 2007, you said the “genocide in Darfur [Sudan] is a stain on our souls… As a president of the United States I don’t intend to abandon people or turn a blind eye to slaughter.”
Your current National Security Advisor Susan Rice in 2009 said the U.S. “remains determined in our pursuit of both peace and justice in Sudan. Those who committed atrocities in Sudan, including genocide, should be brought to justice.”
It seems in the last days of your presidency you have abandoned the people of Sudan and turned a blind eye to their slaughter by delivering a gift of immunity from accountability and prosecution to the Bashir “government” which has committed untold atrocities.
Your removal of sanctions on the genocidal regime of al-Bashir shall be a stain on your soul and a disgraceful scar on your name for generations to come.
When you removed sanctions on the al-Bashir “government” and turned your back on the people of Sudan, you stood on the wrong side of history.
But I remember the first six months of your administration with fondness.
In July 2009 in Accra, Ghana, you delivered a blunt message to Africa’s dictators and thugtators: “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 August 2014, I saw you in the White House standing shoulder to shoulder with the African “strongmen” who used coups, stolen elections and subverted their constitutions to cling to power, including Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe (Ethiopia), Paul Biya (Cameroon), Blaise Compaoré (Burkina Faso), Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (Equatorial Guniea), Paul Kagame (Rwanda), Joseph Kabila Kabange (DR Congo), Idris Deby (Chad), King Mswati III (Swaziland), Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), Denis Sassou-Nguesso (Rep. of Congo) and many others.
You even invited Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta (Kenya), an indicted criminal against humanity on trial at the International Criminal Court, to defile the White House by his very presence.
You decided not to invite Omar al-Bashir (Sudan) and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe).
By removing sanctions, you have confirmed al-Bashir, the villainous mastermind of the Darfur Genocide, has finally become a nice guy and his genocidal crimes and crimes against humanity should be ignored.
In the last week of your presidency, you have shown the world your true face and on which side of history you stood for the past 8 years.
Mr. Obama: When you stood shoulder to shoulder with African thugtators and dictators at the White House, you stood on the wrong side of history.
I am not surprised by your eleventh-hour embrace of al-Bashir. You have a pattern and practice of coddling African dictators and thugtators.
In late July 2015, a year after the African dictators’ ball at the White House, you traveled to Ethiopia and insulted the intelligence of one hundred million Ethiopians by lecturing them that the Thugtatorship of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (T-TPLF) has been democratically elected:
I don’t bite my tongue too much when it comes to these issues. We are opposed to any group that is promoting the violent overthrow of a government, including the government of Ethiopia, that has been democratically elected. We are very mindful of Ethiopia’s history – the hardships that this country has gone through. It has been relatively recently in which the constitution that was formed and the elections put forward a democratically elected government.
A gang of bloodthirsty thugs who claimed election victory by 100 percent is “democratically elected”?
I must confess that I was confused and did not know what to make of your statement about the T-TPLF: Is it possible you said it tongue in cheek? Was this an exercise in wry humor on your part?
Of course, your National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s response about democracy in Ethiopia was telling. When asked at a press conference whether she believed the T-TPLF regime was democratically elected, she busted out laughing and said, “Yes.”
But you were not joking when you said the T-TPLF “has been democratically elected”. You said it with a straight face, not once but twice.
I wondered if your staff had completely ill-informed you or you were not informed at all about the political situation in Ethiopia.
I quickly dismissed that notion when I recalled your White House statement concerning the 99.6 election “victory” of the T-TPLF in 2010 in which you expressed “concern that international observers found that the elections fell short of international commitments.”
In 2015, the T-TPLF claimed to have won the election by 100 percent, and you declared that the T-TPLF “has been elected democratically”.
I remain puzzled to this day why you said that. I know you were a constitutional lawyer before you became president. You attended one of the best law schools in America. I assured myself, “Surely, Obama can tell the difference between an outright boldface lie and a simple truth.”
I asked myself, “How can the leader of the free democratic world and a learned constitutional lawyer publicly declare twice that a regime that claimed 100 percent election victory is democratically elected? No sane person, let alone the President of the United States, would make such a statement. But you did, twice.
For a fleeting moment, I wondered if you would be willing to repeat your statement under oath.
Then I remembered the words of Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC) during your first state of the union address. He shouted out: “You Lie!”
I subscribe to the adage, “The only thing worse than a liar is a liar that’s also a hypocrite.”
Mr. Obama: When you declared the T-TPLF “has been democratically elected”, you stood on the wrong side of history.
But you forget your own truths.
The thugs you proclaimed to be “democratically” elected in 2015 are the same “strongmen” you warned us about in 2009.
The genocidal Omar al-Bashir of the Sudan of 2009 is the same “strongman” in 2017 who is clinging to power through corruption, deceit and the silencing of dissent.
On July 28, 2015, a day after you declared the T-TPLF a “democratically elected government”, you lectured the African Union: “We all know what the ingredients of real democracy are. They include free and fair elections, but also freedom of speech and the press, freedom of assembly… Yet at this very moment, these same freedoms are denied to many Africans. And I have to proclaim, democracy is not just formal elections. When journalists are put behind bars for doing their jobs, or activists are threatened as governments crack down on civil society — then you may have democracy in name, but not in substance.”
Did you mean the T-TPLF is a “democracy in name, but not in substance” when you declared that you “do not bite your tongue” when you affirm the T-TPLF in Ethiopia is “democratically elected”?
Is it hard to bite with a forked tongue? Is that why snakes have no teeth?
Your words that the T-TPLF “has been democratically” elected felt like daggers thrust into the hearts of millions of Ethiopians. It also gave the T-TPLF a blank check to commit crimes against humanity.
Thousands of Ethiopian Americans protested in front of the White House to let you know how deeply you have hurt them. These are the same Ethiopian Americans who walked the precincts and opened their wallets to get you elected.
Mr. Obama: You stood on the wrong side of history when you spat on the faces of those Ethiopian Americans who toiled to get you elected.
Today, YOUR “democratically elected government” in Ethiopia has declared a totalitarian “state of emergency” and jailed tens of thousands of Ethiopians and massacred untold others.
Omar al-Bashir, whom you have exonerated from sanctions, continues to massacre and jail his citizens in the Sudan as he has done so for the past three decades.
Mr. Obama: The only way I can explain my feelings about your unqualified endorsement of the T-TPLF, removal of sanctions on the Sudan and your depraved indifference to the plight and suffering of the African people is by borrowing the words of First Lady Michelle when she talked to Oprah Winfrey recently:
We feel the difference now. See, now, we are feeling what not having hope feels like… Hope is necessary… He and I and so many believe that — what else do you have if you don’t have hope… What do you give your kids if you can’t give them hope?”
I felt exactly like the First Lady when I heard your words in July 2015 standing on the side of the TPLF thugs and when I read your Executive Order removing sanctions on the Sudan.
It is uncharitable for me to say that I have gained small comfort in knowing that YOU now know how “not having hope” feels. Having no hope makes you cry, doesn’t it? It churns your stomach and force you to ask yourself, “’Whatever gods may be’, why me?”
Hopeless is how millions of Ethiopians felt when they heard your words endorsing the thug regime that has oppressed them for over a quarter century.
But you should know, Mr. Obama, Ethiopians are a supremely resilient and proud people. That’s how they kept themselves free from foreign domination and colonialism for thousands of years.
When H.I.M. Haile Selassie addressed the League of Nations in June 1936 to protest fascist Italy’s colonial invasion of Ethiopia, he asked the League one question: “What answer shall I take back to my people?” He meant should he take back a message of hope or despair.
The League did not give him an answer. But H.I.M. gave the League his answer: “It is us today, it will be you tomorrow.”
Tomorrow, Mr. Obama, is today in America as Donald Trump becomes America’s 45th president.
Americans shall wait for the verdict of history as did the people of Ethiopia in 1936 when they had no hope. But I have no doubts the American people shall rise and continue to become the beacon of freedom for the rest of the world.
I have the greatest respect for the First Lady. But I think hope is overrated. Hope goes only so far. It is passive and forbearing. Hope comes alive when it grows wings and becomes a dream. That dream is the unshakable faith and conviction that if we, collectively, are “able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
That is why I say to you, Mr. Obama: “Who needs hope when one can ‘dream of things that never were, and ask, ‘Why not?’”
The Bard of Avon wrote, “We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on,/” and that “the miserable have no other medicine. But only hope”.
Hope may be the medicine of the miserable but it means nothing for those who are “masters of their fate and captains of our souls”.
Vision is the stuff dreams are made on. “Without a vision, a people perish.”
Some say, “Keep hope alive.” I say keep the dream alive, not hope. Hope dies in despair, but the dream lives on in each generation until it becomes a new dream for the next.
I shall give this answer to the First Lady’s question: When you don’t have hope, you give your children dreams. Dreams they can chase. Dreams they can catch. Dreams they can make. Dreams they can latch on. Dreams of freedom, democracy and human rights. Dreams “deeply rooted in the American dream”.
Mr. Obama: Ethiopian children have no hope under YOUR T-TPLF “democratically elected government”. But let me tell you, they are awash in dreams of the New Ethiopia, dreams of a shining city upon the hill.
In May 2010, in your Statement on World Press Freedom Day you declared, “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.”
You underscored the “vital role that a free press plays in democracy” and counseled: “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.
In July 2015 when you visited Ethiopia and blessed the T-TPLF, Ethiopia was ranked “fourth worst violator of press freedoms” in the world and second worst in Africa by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Today in far too many African countries, the independent press has been decimated and untold numbers of journalists killed, imprisoned, exiled and disappeared by the hands of thug regimes.
In April 2015, Secretary John Kerry met a young Ethiopian blogger and had a great photo op with him. When that same blogger was jailed by the T-TPLF, Kerry kept silent. He did nothing to get him released.
When you visited Ethiopia in July 2015, a cadre of young bloggers remained in T-TPLF jails without due process of law.
Mr. Obama: YOU turned a blind eye and your back on African journalists and young bloggers. When you did not stand with African journalists and bloggers, you stood on the wrong side of history.
In your book “Dreams of My Father” you wrote, “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.”
Mr. Obama: When you visited Addis Ababa, did you see the desperation of the young people scattered by the tens of thousands throughout the city? The homeless, the starving, the jobless and the helpless and hopeless teeming the streets?
If you had, you would not have said the T-TPLF is “democratically elected”.
In 2013, you launched “Power Africa”, a public-private partnership designed to make electricity available across the African continent.
But you really do not understand the problem of power in Africa. Using the words “power” and “Africa” in the same phrase, you never asked these questions: Who has power? Who is powerless? How do the powerful abuse the powerless?
For ordinary Africans, your “Power for Africa” program is a metaphor for “Power for African Dictators”. I wish your initiative would genuinely “empower Africans”, especially the young ones.
I am not sure I like your Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) with the Mandela Washington Fellowship at its core. It is said that YALI “embodies” your “commitment to invest in the future of Africa.” By linking several hundred of the best and brightest of Africa’s youth with opportunities in business and entrepreneurship, civic leadership and public management in the U.S., you aim to cultivate the next generation of African leaders.
But what about 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 needed your leadership to help them become free of dictatorship so that they can handle the rest on their own.
I must confess your YALI 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.”
I used to believe that it is in the natural order of things for the elites to save the masses. It does not matter if the saving is done in the name of the “proletariat and peasants” or the working class. It does not matter if the saving is done by the cadres, the “talented tenth”, the technorati, literati, digerati, glitterati or Illuminati. I am convinced that the only forces that can save the masses are the masses themselves. Vampires do not spare their victims.
Mr. Obama: When you turned back on the hundreds of millions of African youth, you stood on the wrong side of history.
I applauded your “Feed the Future Initiative” designed to reduce, hunger, malnutrition and poverty in Africa and elsewhere. I wish it was titled, “Feed the Future and Starve the Old Beast of Dictatorship in Africa Initiative”.
I take issue with you in arguing that Africans are not only starving for bread but also need a balanced diet of self-dignity, respect for their rights as human beings, the chance to elect their own governments, live under the rule of law, and have accountable and transparent governments to live as human beings.
I hope you will agree with me that “Man shall not live on bread alone…” Man needs human rights. Man needs dignity. Man needs to be and live free. Man needs to be free from dictators, thugtators, abusers of power and corruption.
In your farewell speech, you spoke about the “state of our democracy” and threats it faces in America: stark inequality and racial and ethnic division.
You said many Americans are “convinced the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interests of the powerful” because of the stark wealth and income inequality. You argued that the promise of change and the power of democracy is in the hands of ordinary Americans and that the bulwark against such threats was our commitment to the “rule of law, human rights, freedom of religion, and speech, and assembly, and an independent press.”
But stark inequality and racial and ethnic division are the exact same things that keep Africa poor, oppressed and at war. The overwhelming majority of Africans are also “convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their governments only serve the interests of the powerful.”
YOUR democratically elected T-TPLF operates an apartheid-style Bantustan called “kilils” in Ethiopia. The T-TPLF has a complete choke hold on the Ethiopian economy.
Mr. Obama: For 8 years, you were on the side of African powerful dictators and thugtators.
For 8 years you were on the side of regimes that ruled their people by dividing, partitioning, dislocating and deracinating their populations.
For 8 years, you turned your back and deaf ears to the cries and pleas of the people of Africa.
For 8 years, you stood on the wrong side of history.
Citizen Obama, if I may call you so. I hope to meet you one day to tell you in person how deeply you have wounded the hearts of 100 million Ethiopians. The words you spoke in Ethiopia in July 2015 were as deadly as the missiles fired from your drones.
I suspect historians and others will write about your policies and efforts in Africa. They will write about your legacy and what you did and did not do, and what you could have done and chose not to do.
I suspect the people of Africa will also remember you as Africa’s grandson; and if you ever return, they may accept you as their prodigal son. They are forgiving people.
You should not fear the judgment of history.
What matters is the judgment of your conscience.
How you will you answer that question of history you raised in Accra in 2009 as you stand in the dock before the bar of citizen Barack Obama’s conscience: Were you on the right or wrong side of history in Africa?
How I wish I could have written about your achievements and legacy in Africa in the same glowing terms I wrote about your candidacy and five years of your presidency.
But that is not to be. I have a higher obligation to speak the truth about Barack Obama in Africa.
When you declared the T-TPLF “democratically elected”, you said you “do not bite [your] tongue.”
I also do not bite my tongue when it comes to issues of freedom, democracy and human rights.
To me, as I suspect to you as well, “not biting one’s tongue” means telling the truth.
You did not bite your tongue when you declared the T-TPLF “democratically elected”, the Bashir regime in the Sudan is no longer deserving of sanctions and winded, dined and lionized African dictators and thugtators in the White House.
I do not bite my tongue when I declare to a candid world that Barack Hussein Obama stood on the wrong side of history in Africa for 8 years.
When I say this, I speak not only for myself but also 100 million Ethiopians who have been rendered voiceless by YOUR “democratically elected” T-TPLF.
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.”
Compromising ideals is the ultimate test of a person with ideals.
But Mr. Obama, compromising ideals has to do with character, not expediency or pragmatism. Someone once said, “When wealth is lost, nothing is lost. When health is lost, something is lost. But when character is lost, everything is lost.
It is painful for me to admit that you “compromised” your ideals in Africa and failed to uphold them not when it was hard but when it was easy, easy to tell the truth and to do the right thing.
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.”
The African “mice” will never, never appreciate your calculated choice to stand on the wrong side of history not only with elephants (in America or Africa) but also the hyenas, jackals and Black Mambas of the African continent.
So as I bid you farewell and Godspeed, I reflect on what you said in your book, “The Audacity of Hope”: “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.”
Did you really believe in those democratic ideals you harped and carped on for the past 9 years? Do those values have any value for Africans?
So Barack Obama, I bid you farewell in the words of the Bard of Avon:
Parting is such sweet sorrow…
So farewell Barack Obama to the little good you bear me.
Farewell! a long farewell, to all [your] greatness!
But were you to ask me what your legacy shall be in Africa, my answer is this:
You shall inherit the wind because you stood on the wrong side of history!