By Alem Mamo
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
—Martin Luther King, Jr.
Much has been said about the curse of natural resources in the African continent. From the suffering of the Ogony people and subsequent murder of environmentalist and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in the Niger Delta, along with eight fellow activists, to the displacement of millions of citizens across the continent so that tyrannical regimes and multinational corporations can exploit and benefit from the riches that cover the beautiful landscape of Africa. Certainly the most publicised of all such enterprises is the diamond trade and how it has oiled and fuelled conflict in parts of Africa. As repressive regimes, lawless rebel groups and multinational corporations have juggled for portions of the pie, the inhabitants of the land have been uprooted and persecuted for voicing their opposition.
The abundance of natural resources in the context of fair, just and equitable social, economic, and political systems is a blessing, as it can be used sustainably and wisely to reinvest in local communities, for instance through building infrastructure and schools, and providing health care. In dictatorial regimes, however, it is capital for oppression and is used to silence dissent. Furthermore, it is often utilized to build the military and security apparatus that is established to maintain a grip on power. One such regime identified by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Democracy Watch and other international human rights organizations is the regime currently in power in Ethiopia – the original homeland of coffee. After overthrowing the military dictatorship of Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam in 1991, the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), with Mr. Meles Zenawi as its head, has established one of the most repressive regimes in Ethiopian history and is using Ethiopias great resource, coffee, to finance its oppressive efforts.
Coffee, the aroma of Ethiopian culture that brings family, neighbours, friends and even strangers together everyday, now has become a curse to the people of Ethiopia. In line with the typical practise of tyrannical regimes in Africa, the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) currently in power in Ethiopia1, has maintained a stronghold not only on political power, but also it has continued to stifle any economic progress by imposing one of the most illiterate economic policies in the African continent.2 This policy has only benefited the business enterprise of the regimes senior echelon, their families and close associates. On the other hand, millions of Ethiopians struggle to feed their families and children, and men and women continue to depend on food aid.
The recent announcement by Guna (TPLF owned business enterprise that operates several parastatal) declaring their intention to monopolize the coffee export business is a brazen declaration of total economic and political monopoly that has the hallmarks of absolute dictatorship. The impact of such a policy on the average farmers and their families predictably is making a tragic situation even worse. Coffee, the main cash crop of the Ethiopian economy accounts for 65% of foreign currency earning in Ethiopia, and the economic survival of many depends on it. Now, with this recent declaration what the regime effectively has done is take control of perhaps the most vital source of income for the country. Given the governments record of spending in the past several years, it is a justifiable fear that this new income would be used to purchase military hardware for the purpose of strengthening its security, intelligence and police force with the prime assignment of quashing descent, silencing potential opposition and intimidating citizens. Since coming to power in 1991 the regime spent 5, 402 billion dollars on the military and security that terrorized the Ethiopian people for the last 18 years. The primary source of foreign currency used to purchase these deadly weapons is the export and sale of coffee.3Coffee, the centrepiece of Ethiopian culture, a gift of Ethiopia to the rest of the world, now has become the fuel of a dictatorial regime that has no regard for human life and human dignity. By officially declaring its intent to control the coffee export business, the regimes calculated move places under its power the major source of foreign currency earning that it needs for the purchase of military hardware.
For the last 18 years the people of Ethiopia have endured unimaginable suffering in the hands of a regime bent on staying in power at any cost. As a result, tens of thousands of people have left the country and countless languish in the dungeons of prison, simply for voicing their opposition or for being suspected opposition to the regime has terrorized innocent civilians by its security, army and police force.
Despite the imprisonment, torture, disappearances and deaths, however, the people of Ethiopia continue to show their disapproval of the regime and resist it in any way they can. As history tells us, the struggle for freedom, democracy and justice should not be confined to the political boundary of a state or certain territory. As martin Luther King Jr. said, injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.4
The same way that coffee, a gift of Ethiopia to the world, became universal, the struggle of the Ethiopian people for democracy, justice, human rights and freedom must become a common struggle of humanity. In the past, the appalling oppressive system of apartheid, the unjust system of slavery didnt end only through the resistance of those who were oppressed. Anti-apartheid movements on the streets of Europe, North America, Africa and elsewhere were a strong part of the freedom movement.
The recent declaration is simply a matter of formality and a demonstration of the regimes determination to consolidate all economic and political power. Since coming to power 18 years ago the TPLF regime has directly and indirectly asserted its control over vital economic sources and financial institutions. What makes the recent declaration about monopolizing the coffee export market different is that the regime is not even pretending to be an advocate of free market economy, as it tried in the past to deceive donor countries and international financial institutions.
For coffee drinkers around the world, particularly to those who are fond of the Ethiopian brand, I urge you to consider and reflect on a few points before you order your morning medium or dark roast Ethiopian. Ask the following questions:
- What if the transaction you make to purchase a cup of coffee is helping to strengthen the oppressive institutions of one of the most ruthless regimes in Africa, if not in the world?
- What if the money you paid for a cup of coffee pays for the purchase of bullets and weapons used against pro-democracy activists?
- What if your coffee money pays the salary of those who torture and kill innocent civilians, human rights activists and advocates of social justice?
- What if your warm cup of coffee funds the luxury life of those who work full time against democracy, justice, human rights and democracy?
If you have answered these questions sufficiently and formed an opinion on the ongoing struggle for the establishment of a true democracy in Ethiopia then you should consider a form of action to carry out your global citizenship duty and responsibility. Here are some suggestions:
- Stop helping the machinery of oppression, injustice and terror.
- Gather information about the violations of human, democratic and political rights in Ethiopia. You can access factual and reliable information from the websites of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Genocide Watch, and Committee to Protect Journalists and other international advocacy organizations.
- Educate your classmates, colleagues, friends and family members about the appalling human rights situation in Ethiopia.
- Question trade labels. Although some of them may be genuinely helping those in need, there are some fair trade labels that still fatten the pockets of tyrants and their cronies.
- Join existing online campaigns for human rights, democracy and justice in Ethiopia or start-up a new campaign on Facebook, MySpace or other online social networking sites.
- Remember, we cannot make poverty history unless we make injustice, tyranny and dictatorship history. Therefore, do not fall into the trap of treating the symptom help get rid of the cause of poverty.
- Your government may be showing unwarranted indifference when it comes to the pro-democracy movement in Ethiopia, perhaps even tacitly approving of the actions of the regime in Addis Ababa. Educate yourself about your governments role and write to your representative voicing your concerns.
A responsible global citizen is not bound by geographic or political boundaries. The actions of someone somewhere could make the difference between life and death to those who are shackled and unable to speak for themselves. For some, the consequences of speaking up could prove to be deadly, particularly under a regime such as that in power in Ethiopia. These are a few suggestions, and they are not the only ideas to support the struggle for democracy in Ethiopia. Choose your own form of involvement that you think could be more effective. Finally, in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu attributed to the African philosophy of Ubuntu I need you to be all you can be, so that I can be all that I can be. It is that my humanity is caught up in your humanity. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms. We say: a person is a person through other persons.5 Finally, dont be a bystander in this worthy struggle. After all, Ethiopia is your original homeland, too. The land of Lucy and Ardi where the initial journey of humanity began. Join the struggle for freedom! You will be rewarded with nothing more than the freedom of your fellow human beings.
Use your freedom to promote ours.
Aung San Suu Kyi
1 A reader unfamiliar with Ethiopian politics might be surprised to hear a Liberation Front runs Ethiopia, and that by itself is a topic of discussion to which I intend to address in the near future.