May 28/ግንቦት 20 – The Day Ruthless Dictatorship was Replaced with Tyranny in Ethiopia

By Alem Mamo

Sinclair Lewis, the great novelist and the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, once said “when fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” With the sweeping rise of crypto-fascist groups branded as ‘far-right’ political parties in the western world and edging towards consolidating political power through democratic electoral procedures, one could be forgiven for being tempted to reflect on Lewis’ prophetic statement at this moment in history.

The rising tide of scapegoating and hateful rhetoric poisoning the western political landscape is beginning to resemble 1930s Europe. Xenophobia, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and racist micro-aggression sentiments are no longer on the fringes of political discourse. They have become the main menu in the political diet. Demagogues and racists are no longer confined into their secret clubs; they are out in the open speaking in dog-whistle language. While these trends are disconcerting in many ways, a different type of crypto-fascist and oppressive regimes, backed by western governments, are terrorizing their own citizens in various parts of the world.

Although, Sinclair Lewis’ primary concern might have been on the potential of rising fascism in America, as he outlined with a brilliant lucidity in his semi-satirical work “It Can’t Happen Here,”1 his concern, however, has far reaching and broad implications for democracy, liberty, and justice world wide. Indeed, it can happen anywhere and it is happening. In the post Cold War world (if one believes that the Cold War has actually ended) mini-fascist authoritarian regimes have skilfully mastered the mantra of democracy, freedom, and justice, while doing the exact opposite. They self-ordain as the only guardians of a nation, the ultimate authorities of the present and the future, they lip-sync the values of freedom and equality. In practise, they obliterate all values associated with freedom and human dignity. Case in point here is Ethiopia over the last twenty-five years. The institutional and state-sanctioned terror that has traumatized the entire nation for quarter of a century continues to be one of the darkest chapters in the country’s long and proud history. Officially, Ethiopia is called “Federal Democratic Ethiopia.” The fact is Ethiopia is neither federal nor democratic. Ruled by mini-crypto fascist gangsters, the country languishes in the dark dungeons of oppression and injustice.

As the regime prepares to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Tigray People’s Liberation Front entry to Addis Ababa against the backdrop of massive and catastrophic famine, I wonder how the people of Ethiopia feel about the last quarter century. Since independent opinion polls are not allowed in Ethiopia, I set out to meet a few individuals for one-on-one interviews to gage the impact of May 28/ግንቦት 20 on their lives.

I talked with a sixty-eight-year-old grandfather, and I asked him what 28/ግንቦት 20 means to him. Frist, he appeared puzzled with my question. As if I was residing on a different planet over the last twenty-five years. “Follow me” he said with a gentle and soft voice. I followed him through semi-lit narrow hallway of his three-bedroom brick house. As we reached the end of the hallway, he opened a door to a small room, flicked the switch for the light. The room had a small wooden bed covered with a bright hand-knit comforter. To the right of the bed there was a small table with candles and three framed pictures. It looked like a shrine. “You see,” he said picking up the picture on the right side of the table, “this is my grandson; he was only 19 when he was gunned down by security forces.” “His father left the country right after the death of his son. I don’t know where he is. Some say he joined some resistance movement.”

“Why was your grandson killed?” I asked.

“Because they can, they kill with impunity, they are above the law.”

“Did he do something to anger them?” I asked again.

“What can he do? He is an unarmed little boy who spends most of his time between school, playing football, and hanging out with his friends.

He gently put his grandson’s picture on the table and lifted another from the left edge of the table. “This is my son. He was thirty-two when he was picked up by security forces from his home 2 years ago. We never saw him again. They didn’t tell us anything. We scoured all known prisons in the country with no avail.”

“My wife died six months ago. She couldn’t bare it; the pain, the sorrow was too great for her. She cried every day. Now I live by myself. The toll on my family is unbearable. Well, I hope I have answered your question.” He said looking out through the window. “This is what May 28/ግንቦት 20 means to me. Death, sorrow, and pain. That is what I got out of May 28/ግንቦት 20. There is nothing to celebrate. May 28/ግንቦት 20 is our day of disaster.”

My second interview took me to a home of a displaced farmer in the western part of the country. His wife and three children live in a small shack shelter made out of blue plastic and some cardboard. We sat outside just in front of his plastic home.

“How did you end up here?

“We were evicted from our ancestral land simply because they wanted to give our land to rich foreign companies for industrial farming. They took our land so that they can grow food and send it to their countries.”

“How is life here for you and your family?”

“We are suffering here. Our lives are being turned upside down. Our way of life is destroyed. We have become refugees in our country.”

“How do you feed your family with out farming?”

“Whatever we can salvage from the area, some root plants and whatever nature gives us. Some days we eat, some days we don’t. Living is hard under such circumstances.

“So in this context, what does May 28/ግንቦት 20 means to you?” I posed another question. “Injustice, displacement, and suffering, that is what May 28/ግንቦት 20 means to me and my family.

I met a young and aspiring journalist in her living room. She was articulate, well-informed, and frustrated with the political and economic situation. “I wanted to be journalist because it was my life-long dream. From the very young age I wanted to be journalist. Most importantly as I grew up my idealistic desire to be a journalist became more solidified and well-articulated. What I mean is I wanted to tell the truth. I wanted to speak truth to power.”

“Are you successful?”

She smiled and took a brief pause. “It depends what you mean successful. If you mean do I have the freedom and the legal protection to do things I wanted to do, the answer is no. However,” she paused again, “however, if I had remained truthful to my core beliefs and values, yes I am successful because I remain loyal to continue fighting for freedom of expression and justice in this country.”

“You see,” she said while putting the cup of tea she made for me on the table, “all moral choices have a cost and the willingness to pay that cost is the required currency in any struggle for freedom.” “You know,” she said with an assertive confidence and musical tone, “The struggle for freedom is not conditional on the outcome. The struggle itself is the way one becomes free and complete. We fight fascists simply because they are fascist. One doesn’t join a freedom struggle under the pretext of victory because the struggle itself is the victory. In the struggle we declare our freedom, mentally, physical, emotionally, and spiritually. Once you have that kind of freedom in your soul, you will
never settle for anything less.”

I sat there listening to her articulate analysis of freedom and justice. I felt I was in some kind of mini-seminar, democracy and justice 101. Brilliant, confident, and dedicated, she radiated practical hope that anchored on knowledge, understanding, and strong discipline. As we concluded our conversation she said, “Please stay in touch.” I promised to do so.

During the course of my interviews I have spoken to more than two dozen people and the dissatisfaction, anger and frustration with the status quo is unanimous. Displacement, extrajudicial killings, muzzling of journalists, treating peaceful political activists as “terrorists” all of this made the wider public to search for an alternative way of claiming their dignity and inalienable rights.

The rise of mini-fascist regimes under the guise of democracy and justice and most recently “fighting terrorism” has become a major obstacle for the political and economic development of countries like Ethiopia and elsewhere. The extended suffering of millions of citizens in Ethiopia under the iron fist of an authoritarian regime is a sad and intolerable reality in the country. Mothers bury their young. Fathers helplessly watch while their houses have been ransacked by security and police. Families are terrorized, farmers displaced, journalists locked up, and many citizens traumatized by the unchecked power the regime. The ancestors of the current generation fought fascism and successfully managed to defeat it. What they didn’t foresee was that fascism could be homegrown.