Monthly Archives: September 2014

Confessions of An “Ex-Revolutionary”

Befeqadu Hailu writes from prison

There was a time in my life when I used to think a lot about revolution in Ethiopia. In fact, in 2011 during the so called ‘Arab Spring’ I wrote a rejoinder article when Ethiopian democracy activists (especially those who are based in diaspora) planned a ‘Day of Rage’ using Facebook and aimed at ending EPRDF’s two-decade authoritarian rule. Just after a year I wrote one more rejoinder titled “Revolution is Ephemeral ’. In this article I tried to highlight what Ethiopians truly lack to launch a genuine social revolution using social media. In these couple of articles it appeared that I went up against proponents of revolution but I was trying to explain the traceable causes and conditions of social revolution. In a nutshell, I was saying that the significant portion of the Ethiopian population, the opposition politicians, and the intellectuals and generally the elite and social ideals and social reality were not sufficiently prepared to kick-start an authentic and organic social change.

Yet again in 2012, I was inspired enough to write a series of articles under a general title ‘Concerning Change’ on our own blog Zone9. In the first of my series of articles titled “Will EPRDF hand over power by means of election?” I tried to explain why EPRDF will keep on clinging to power. I argued that EPRDF is not yet ready for an electoral democracy. In a bid to demonstrate an alternative yet constitutional means of possible social change such as civil disobedience I wrote further articles as a follow up to my critique and highlighted different elements of social change across a spectrum of societal issues. As much as I can I tried to kindle genuine public conversations in bringing these issues to the public’s attention through my articles such as ‘Fear and Social Change’ ‘Regime Change and Religion’, ‘The Role of Civil Society in 1974 Ethiopian Revolution’ and “Revolution or Sluggish Change” It was during this time that I contemplated deeply about revolution. It was one phase of my life in which I have tried to articulate my comprehension of revolution into pieces of writings but it was also a stage of my life in which my belief on revolution was dropped off significantly. But I have to confess here that my belief on revolution plummeted to its all-time low merely in 2013. Subsequently, I found myself turned into an activist of an organic social change through processes (not a transient revolution) from an avid reader and advocate of revolutionary ideas. I have to put in plain words that what made me skeptic of transient revolutions; I have to explain at length that how I progressed (say it regress if you like) from being optimistic revolutionary to a proponent of an organic and authentic social change through processes, as the 1960s Ethiopian Marxist revolutionaries put it, what turned me from being ‘Revo’ (revolutionary) to ‘Sabo’ (Saboteur). Please note that I was only an enthusiastic reader of revolutionary ideas.

At some stage while I was grappling with the revolutionary ideals of intending to bring fundamental structural change in favor of the mass but unexpectedly might turn to be like unrestrained wildfire which could be destructive; Mohamed Morsi was ousted in Egypt’s second revolution just in two years. The second Egyptian rebellion (revolution) made me feel perplexed about revolutions. But I thought in his short-lived presidency Morsi operated against basic principles of democracy and hence I believed the second revolution was born in resistance to another form of dictatorship. Certainly the second revolution even made me assert “A Conscious public will not be a possession of a despot and Egyptians are a proof”. I genuinely took the idea seriously that Egyptians would thrive in protesting until they get their preferred form of government; just like the 18th century series of French Revolutions which profoundly affected modern history. However, I realized that this is not the case when I observe the Egyptian army suspended the constitution and took control the revolution. In a similar manner of the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution during which the Ethiopian army hacked the revolution the Egyptian army did the same. After that I even went as far as asking “If Revolutions are inherently similar?”

In the meantime the Ethiopian social media sphere and the private press spontaneously embarked on entertaining a sort of peculiar conversations. These conversations were prompted by Jawar Mohamed’s public comment on Al Jazeera’s English daily television program called The Stream. On the show when Jawar was pressed by the host of the show what he prefers, flanked by his ethnic and national identity; he declared his ethnicity comes first over his national identity and acknowledged himself as ‘Oromo First’. Many consider the public discussion which followed the Jawar incident as a pointless exercise of talking past each other but I think of this spectacle in a different way. I consider this incident as one of fascinating things because it really helped many people to re-examine their understanding of Ethiopia’s historical and political phenomenon. For me that incident was an excellent opportunity and serves as an evidence that we need a ground for long-running debates and a continuous scholarship on Ethiopia’s historical and political phenomenon. The spectacle should be an eye opening and insightful opportunity especially for those of us who are a loosely-knit community of dissents, oppositions groups, writers and activists whose organizing purpose is only to triumph over EPRDF. It was an incident that tasked all of us to find a possible way and build a system that can maintain a consensus among opponents. Furthermore, the incident made it clearer than ever that most of us only know what we do not want but we do not clearly know what we really want. To conclude on this, the incident exposed that Ethiopians struggle for democracy is not principled but rather it is based on indignation and grudge.

As difficult as this issue to contemplate I started to realize the fact that despotic leaders are generally results of broader and yet fundamental societal flaws. For me this was like the aha! moment. So when revolution is conceived in a society with a high degree of authoritarianism, the end result is usually more authoritarianism. I think it comes down to individual elite who appeared liberal and revolutionary from authoritarian society are either concealed authoritarian themselves or the society is not yet ready to allow them to exercise their liberty. This is like a classic causality dilemma, which one came first a chicken or the egg. But I think one should change first and it should be the society. It is with this eureka effect that I tried to revisit the revolutions in the Arab world. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria… and I tend to think that the revolutions in these countries have done more harm than good. They caused a great deal of human suffering. Removing a despot does not necessarily guarantee a change. In similar manner the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution which removed HaileSelassie’s rule and replaced with the Dergue, a Marxist military junta is just as bad (If not worse) than the revolutions of the Arab world. It is even worse if we consider the human suffering that was caused by the infighting and power struggle of the political parties of the time. I have watched when the storied Ukraine for its Orange revolution of 2004 back to revolution all over again in 2014. I even tweeted about it ‘to revolution then calmness and back’. The February 2014 Ukrainian revolution culminated (I am not sure if I can say it is culminated) in turning over its own State Crimea to pro-Russian forces even though it appeared the Russian involvement in Ukrainian affairs cited as one of the cause of the revolution. I also wrote a commentary on my personal blog asking Are revolutions meant to be betrayed? ››My point in this particular blog post was showing reasons why elite citizens who usually initiate revolutions would end up in brawl and infighting after they started revolutions. I used the old Amharic saying to illustrate my point ‘Thieves usually do not fight when they steal but they brawl when they divide what they robbed”. I intentionally used the word ‘thieves’ to illustrate the context of Ethiopian political reality. I am referring to Ethiopian astroturf political organizations (formal or informal) that are organized in the name of interest group to bring social change. Beyond their being astroturf in their nature they fight each other. We have numerous such groups and their sole propose is to get hold of political power and harvest the benefits from it not bringing genuine revolution.

For this reason I truly believe we can bring change without going through an instantaneous revolution. We can take a good lesson from the history of English people. The English people have a lot of exemplary deeds. Rule of law, discussion and public engagement though grass root organizations can bring the desired form of government and we can also achieve social change peacefully.

An acquaintance of mine who knows my stance of instantaneous social change came to visit me in prison after I was unjustly accused of inciting revolution. He looked at me and said ” Aha, what did I told you, there will never be a change without revolution’. But remarkably even in the injustices and sufferings me and my zone9 blogging collective colleagues have been through I still see the need for an authentic social change. Had the society have had the consciousness; they would have seen the impunity of the Ethiopian government (police) enjoy and the injustice we are suffering from. Apparently the Ethiopian government does not have the slightest concern for legitimate questions of Ethiopians but rather they are deeply bothered by the ‘noise of foreign powers’.   Suffering the consequence of using the right to freedom of expression has become a social reality because the society sits silently and watches all the injustice. Society should start to speak up against injustice but to do so we should embark on educative and liberating process through grassroots activism and peaceful disobedience which are yet not happened in Ethiopia. Once a society has become conscious of the benefits of liberating social change and developed a test for liberty there is no way back. I believe consciousness comes first then liberty follows. We have failed spectacularly because as a society we have the cart before the horse in most of our projects. That is how explained for my acquaintance who visited me in prison as well. However, as Kiflu Tadesse put it on the first of two volumed books “That Generation” which dealt with the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution Haile Fida one of the iconic figures of the storied Ethiopian Socialist Movement never predicted Ethiopians would revolted just one year ahead of the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution. According to Kiflu, in 1973 Haile said for Ethiopians to start a revolution it would take them a minimum of twenty five years. Unless I blunder like Haile I don’t think there will be a revolution in Ethiopia in the foreseeable future. Finally like the Ethiopian satirist Abebe Tola usually says it if I screw-up on this, screw me over.

Translated from Amharic by Endalkachew Chala

For thee

By: Zelalem Kibret

Prison Journal Part I

Nuanced translation

Darling; how are you? Has the idea of going back to snail mail ever crossed your mind? But that is what happened. You know darling I am missing you a lot. I have started to be envious of persons who have a luxury of choosing how to communicate with people. Such people are fortunate enough to choose the way they communicate; I remember they have an old adage

“A letter is inept of breathing words; no matter how you write it,

So,I would rather prefer to meet and tell you all”

Look at their adage; how lucky they are. They have a luxury of choosing how to communicate. They can write letters but if they wish they can arrange a meet up as well. For me both ways of communications are lavish choices at this particular time. I am not sure if this letter can get to you or even I might get restricted to have a sight of you. I will return to the details of why this could happen but prior to that let me make my confessions for you and for people who might read this letter.

According to Madam Sylvia Pankhurst, who loved Ethiopia as her homeland, when Duce Mussolini invaded Ethiopia he enforced his unwritten law of outlawing the use of the word Ethiopia in writings. This is one of the reasons why Ethiopian writers and singers commonly used the phrase ‘for thee; for thee’ as a covert personification of Ethiopia. Since then this phrase has become a regular insertion in a popular romance songs of Ethiopia. But in the songs the phrase ‘for thee; for thee’ secretly refers to Ethiopia. But in this letter have I used this open secret phrase to refer to Ethiopia as my predecessor writers? Absolutely no! Why would I do that when my rights of freedom of expression is respected in Ethiopian constitution (sarcastic). Well, the travesty can wait for now but I have to make a confession in this letter the phrase ‘for thee’ is not referring to Ethiopia (sarcastic again). You, my habibati; my darling. In this letter I will recount what has happened in my life as a prisoner. I know my deeds either will make you smile (you have such an infectious smile) or will make you grief (my sincere condolences to you)

The Right to Write this Letter

Before I go to details I have to ask a question “do I have a right to correspond with the outside world?” The reason I am asking this question is because I am a prisoner. I was put under arrest, and accused of an attempt of reducing the constitutional order into rubble. On the twenty third day of my arrest suspicions turn out to be crimes and crimes produce other crimes such as inciting violence, public strife and acts of terrorism. Hence, the police suspected me of attempting to destroy the Ethiopian constitution like Israelites destroyed the wall of Jericho. Darling, I am telling you all theses not because you have not heard of it but it will help me explain the question I have asked “Do I have a right to communicate with the outside world”

Well, I don’t deserve to be in such kind of situation. I have to refer to the law whenever I speak about my rights because the law is a ‘shield and provides a protection for me’. What does the law say about prisoners’ rights of communication using correspondence? According to Regulation Number 138/2008 which was passed by Council of Ministers in 2008; prisoners whether they are sentenced or suspects have a right to correspondence however the with intention of protecting the safety of the penitentiary the letters will be regulated. Consequently; you and I are allowed to correspond, hallelujah!. I am sure you will not make mockery of my sincere trust in the rule of law. You will not label my trust in the rule of law as a fool man’s mantra. Comrade Lenin had written the draft and explanation of a program for the social-democratic party during his prison time in Petersburg. In doing that he created a new chapter of history by writing using an Invisible Ink. There you go; yesterday’s revolutionary Leninists but today’s incarcerators have respected my rights of correspondence and I am dashing on the white paper like our renaissance train passes through its railway.

  25th  of April, 2014


Darling, have you heard of Wolde Giyorgis Wolde Yohannes? He was an important government Minister during the reign of Haile Selassie. He served as a Minister of Pen from 1934 to 1948. But Haile Selassie and Wolde Giyorgis’ companionship did not endure for more than 14 years. They got quarreled. Let me remember a quote from Zewdie Reta’s book on this. Zewdie wrote:

“For Wolde Giyorgis 25th of April 1948 was the brilliant day but the glow of the day only lasted until mid-day. That day turned into gloom when he was summoned to be informed about his demotion”. (I don’t have the book at my hand now so I could not cite the precise page of this excerpt)

The reason to demote Wolde Giyorgis from his ministerial position was because he was accused of deposing King Haile Selassie. I recited the story of Wolde Giyorgis here because I have a comparable story with him. What a coincidence! I will narrate the unfortunate date of April 25 as Zewdie Reta did for Wolde Giyorgis.

My April 25th went like this

It was a sunny Friday and the day begun in a little strange manner. At Ambo University I was rushing to have the last class of the semester but students were having a peaceful demonstration in the campus. Their reason for a peaceful protest was that they claim the master plan which was prepared to expand Addis Ababa to the adjacent towns of Oromia Regional State is unconstitutional. The students have placards showing their protest. Luckily for the day the students’ protest was concluded in a peaceful manner. And I have re-scheduled to carry out a makeup class for the missed class for the next day. But later that day as the saying goes ‘Man proposes; God giggles’ in a similar manner with Wolde Giyorgis I was told by about 9 security agents that I am under arrest for conspiring to overthrow the Ethiopian government by inciting violence. But I am not that surprised but a little bit irked that they could simply summoned me at Maeklawi saying Mr. Zelalem you are required to come to Maeklawi tomorrow morning at 9:00am. I would have gone but I would have probably asked them to let me finish the class I have been teaching for a semester. I would have saved them a lot of energy . But I am grateful for my government that they have shown me a great respect by sending a lot of security agents with two vehicles.

Darling, I hope you are reading this letter. The phrase you are under arrest has always been making me smile. Right after my detention I heard this phrase a couple of times from a middle aged looking person, who appeared to be a coordinator of the security agents that came all the way from Addis Ababa to arrest me. He called to someone (I wish I know to whom he ringed) higher in the command and told him that they have just arrested the suspect who conspired to incite public strife. I smiled, but that is how I was arrested from my work place. From 25th of April 2014 until 17th of July 2014 for 84 days life was a static and banal. Before I bore you with a lot of details let me write you five essential events. Ahead of that I want to give you a brief description of my 84 days in prison.

I spent the first 75 days in a 5m by 4 m room at Ethiopia’s crime investigation center called Maeklawi. I was made to stay in an extremely controlled room called Siberia. There were just five mattresses in the room. The room does not have any opening for sunlight. There was continuous electric bulb light but when electricity supply interrupted they replace it with diesel generator. At times when the generator runs out of the diesel we are forced to stay in a complete darkness. No one is allowed to lighten the room using a candle or a torch. They sometimes let us out of the small room for about 10 minutes in the morning. Moreover, they also let us see the outside world for about 15 minutes on daily basis but generally we are locked in the little room for more than 23 hours of the day. No one is allowed neither to talk nor to chant audibly. If one is found guilty of speaking loudly they will face the harsh consequence.

Within 75 days of my time at Maeklawi I made a lot of friends who are branded as terrorists. I have also realized that Ethiopian government suspects and even arrests minors as young as 14 or 15 years of age. These young people are suspects of terrorism. They are accused of working with various political organizations such as ONLF, Al-Shebab, OLF, Benishangul Gumuz People Liberation Front, and Akida ( new organization). It is good to experience a bit of a privation. Have I told you that I have experienced a solitary confinement for two days? Yes I was ‘lucky enough’ to experience it. Perhaps, during those two days I was not alone, you were with me in my thoughts

Apologies, if I bored you with a lot of details. Let me cut the details of my privation and get back to the five events that I was telling you a while ago. I believe these events will better explain the events that happened on me.

1. I am grateful that they are concerned for the well-being of my students and arrested me before I spoil my students 

After I was put under arrest in the afternoon I was being driven with a compact family car from Ambo to Addis Ababa. It was about 8:00 pm in the evening. One of a young looking security agent called me by my name.

“Zelalem; you teach law at University? Is that right? I responded to him yes.

Then he said “You should have helped your country to generate lawyers and judges. But it is shame that you found yourself engaged in such kind of destructive activities with the evil intention of preventing our development. In any case it is good you are put under arrest before you make a lot of damages to the students. Let me ask you how many foreigners cajoled you for this? You know we don’t let anyone to mess around with our development.” As I was reflecting on the number of students I have ‘spoiled’ during my four teaching years at the University I arrived at Maeklawi at about 9:50 pm.

2. What is your objective

Darling, the Ethiopian government has accused us conspiring of inciting violence. Government determinedly says that they have solid evidence which could proof their accusation. But I am telling you they have either tried to entice or intimidate us to admit our crime. They never have neither the evidence nor the slightest information to proof their accusations. Apparently that is why during the interrogation in Maeklawi their police officers repeatedly tired us with “What is your intention” &“What is your objective?“I suffered a lot with theses boring questions. Some of the questions during my interrogation went like this:

The police officer: What are your objectives as Zone9?

Me: Our objective is clearly stated on our blog. Anyone who can read our blog can understand it. To put it shortly; it is to entertain different narratives in the country. We intended to engage the public with discussions

The police officer: That is a cover. Tell me your real intentions.

Me: Well, we don’t have any intention other than this.

The police officer always wanted me to tell him something his bosses needed us to confess. He always wanted me to tell him that our intention by saying “Yes our intention is to remove this government and liberate Ethiopians from the yoke of oppression using violence” He wanted me to say that. I always told him our real intention and he finally understood that he will not get what he wanted from me. But he always encouraged me to think over it whenever he signed off his daily interrogation.

3. My Interrogation

Darling, had they asked me my personal life goal; I would have told them that you are my personal goal. You know that I don’t have anything else other than you. You are such a panic striking creature. The investigation continued and I had two interrogators taking turns to investigate me

The Police Officer: Whom have you met from world leaders?

Me: I have never met anyone.

The Police Officer: We have evidence. You better confess before you get mortified

Me: If you can please remind me then I can tell you whom we met and what we have discussed. Perhaps during the commemorative event for Nelson Mandela organized here in the headquarter of African Union. I met Prime Minster Haielmariam Desalegn. But I don’t remember meeting any other leader

The Police Officer: Hmm. But are you not among the three who is selected to make a speech in front of President Barack Obama. But who hell is America to meddle in Africa’s internal affairs and gather and train young leaders and blah blah blah

Me: Seriously, am I selected to make speech in front of President Obama? I told him mockingly that I might got selected after my incarceration. Did you just say who the hell is America to meddle in Africa’s internal affair. But I don’t see a problem if America has helped Africa to empower its young people. In fact America has always been supportive during our famines and drought. I don’t think it is proper to say what you just said.

The Police Officer: What are you talking about? We are an era of growth and development. You should not talk about famine and drought. Just leave it.

You know there is a saying which says a coward sweats even inside the cold water. Our government is such a coward being that they don’t trust their shoulders while they run on the track alone. When I reflect back on my interrogation I have regrets. When I was asked to tell whom I met from leaders I should have told them that I met the Sri Lankan President and traveled to Peru and visited Machu Pichu. I am sure they might have included this in our charge sheet. They might have written the charge sheet like this “With the financial and material support he got from Sri Lankan government he traveled all the way to Peru and took part in training at Machu Pichu on how to dismantle the Ethiopian constitutional order. They might attach the pictures of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s pictures they have found in my laptop as an evidence to support their allegation. Damn it, I should have done that.

4. Gebrehiwot Baykedagn the terrorist and the issue of auctioning Ethiopia for sell

Darling, I know I have tired you but I am almost there; finishing. My love, bear with me. I also want you to correct the Paulian masculine reference to love to feminine reference. Please let’s refer to love as she and say love is patient. During my interrogation one question which bore me to death was my ‘neoliberal’ claims that development and democracy can go hand in hand.

The police officers took turns to’ explain’ and ‘persuade’ me the validity of EPRDF’s policy. “Government has provided everything for you. What did you lack? Why did you become white man’s worshiper? You and your friends are so envious. Why your eyes turned into red with anger and jealousy when this country is started to have a glimmer of hope? Please tell us? What makes you such an evil creature? You and your friends want to sell this country which our fathers preserved for us with their blood and prayers. You and your generation betrayed your country and start to negotiate with foreigners who desired this beautiful country .You want to sell this country to foreigners” I was accused of these crimes. But to make you smile I will quote something humorous from an old book titled “You & Me” written by Tadesse.

“Ethiopia is such a beautiful country….it is a country that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. …Ethiopia is like a rose flower….” Incredible!

The perception of beauty is subjective. As the saying goes beauty is in the eyes of the beholder but these police officers who are intoxicated with such vulgar nationalism have accused me and my generation of selling this country for foreign people. Is it not astonishing? Saying democracy and development can and should go hand in hand made us criminals. Believing in democracy and development has become a treasonous act.

The distinguished Ethiopian scholar Gebrehiwot Baykedagn wrote “If we build rail road and construct roads without enlightening a society, it even further impoverishes the society because the underlying conditions of the society does not change”. He further said infrastructural progress without societal enlightenment is worthless. Had Gebrehiwot been a member of my generation I am sure he would have been accused of denying Ethiopia’s development and agitate the public to dismantle the rail road and other treasonous act.

5. Dear Darling

I did not have a paper and a pen to write you the diary of my hardship at length because it was a serious crime to have a paper and pen. Besides I don’t want to bore you with a lot of details but let me tell you some issues broadly

  •  In those awful days I make a habit of sleeping as early as at 6:00pm and I found it helpful because it helped me not to hear the sounds my friends or cellmates make after they came from abusive interrogation such as floggings and beatings
  • In 2012 it was reported that the Federal Police set up a ‘Cyber Crime Laboratory’ and I remember I was saying cyber criminals you are all doomed but they said that our data is immense and the Federal Police has only just one personal computer which they find it difficult to process our data. It is not a joke that I was even asked to install anti-virus on their computer. So I ask when do they use their Cyber Crime Laboratory’ if they don’t use it to investigate crimes as serious as terrorism.
  • In a day which I can not exactly remember the month a middle aged person entered into our small room and started asking a series of questions for all of us. He started with one of my friend from Haromaya University.

                   “You, where have you come from?”

                   “I came from Haromaya University”

                   “Aha, you are the culprit”

He continued

                  “How about you? where have you come from?”

                   “I came from Wellega University”

                  “You, what is your problem if Oromia gets developed?”

Then he asked me

                    “Okay how about you? Where have you come from?”

                     “I came from Ambo University”

                      “Ah, You are the ones who have incited public for the recent the violence and you are responsible for that bloodshed”

                      “No, I was arrested before the violence has happened”

                      “If that is the case you are lucky history would not have remembered you favorably had get arrested when you protest the development of Oromia”

We all have waited until the man leaves the room to burst into laughter. Ethiopia is a country where everything has become a comic story.

In all those days I was looking for a person who can tell me the real reason of my incarceration. I am neither shocked nor dejected because of my arrest. In fact I always look for happiness wherever I go. Luckily happiness never left me as well. For a long period of time I have had Aristotelian philosophy of life which says the purpose of life is to know but now I have mingled this life philosophy of happiness. So the purpose of life is both to know and to be happy. Hence; I am enjoying my life while I strive to know.

‘‘Thanks to you …. For you exist’


Translated from Amharic by Endalkachew Chala