The misunderstood American Democracy

As Oromo refugee I have enjoyed American hospitality and a life free from fear and threat for many years. My dream has always been the independence of my country Oromiyaa and peace and stability for its neighbors. November 4, 2008 has strengthened this hope of mine. It is a land mark in modern world history. It is a day that stunned people of all races, creeds and walks of life. It was enough to witness how much emotion were aroused when tears were involuntarily flowing from the eyes of civil right veteran leaders like Jessie Jackson. Their struggle has reached beyond the right to equal treatment and the right to vote for which they paid heavy sacrifices. This was only yesterday. Now it became possible to be elected to the highest office of the land breaking all taboos. They could not control their tears for it was phenomenal. “Yes we can” was the slogan of the elected from his campaign to victory speech. It echoed their hopes as expressed in the song “We shall overcome”.

For many who knew democracy from history, American democracy seemed a gimmick. Their support for rulers with absolute powers like Haayila Sillaasee, Mallas, Mobutu, Shahn Shah, Pinochet etc. sent doubts through many if America was at all democratic. There was no semblance of democracy in the double standards they apply in Africa. This defect is not observable in official speeches, statements and their great constitution. But things go astray when it comes to operation levels. To shake up how Washington works was promised by the new leader. That is understood to mean shaking up the archaic bureaucratic practices that keep on controlling the minds of its occupants.

It is only then that others start to benefit from the change. Left and right parties have felt the need to shake up Washington. If that is not done friends of the people remain listed as enemies of America and enemies of the people as its friends. Not all groups that fight governments friendly to America are terrorists and not all friendly governments are domestically just and democratic. This is an area that needs revisiting by American agents of change. A dictator any where is anti democracy. To treat a dictator in Ethiopia differently from that in Zimbabwe or else where puts American believe in fairness and democracy in doubt in the eyes of the world. Double standard is undemocratic and so should be un-American. In matters of human rights nostalgia for past relations with a country should not hinder the new world order from correcting past mistakes.

For those who keenly followed American history the constitution that established the Federation was unique and radically democratic for that time. That was a constitution drawn by slave owners and applied to free men. Others had to fight their ways to become free and get included. That was what forced the civil rights movement and women and youth movements of the sixties. Democracy is something one gets through struggle not manna that drops from the sky. America as leader of the world is expected to be insisting on plain field for such struggle without bias for any side.

American constitution has been shading its skin with age. That shading effected the introduction of amendments to cover any event unforeseen by the previous generation of law makers. The provisions of the constitution have most needed democratic ingredients. But the debate remains as who are fit to cherish what are provided? No American believes that they are less fit to cherish it less than the other. Any one denied of constitutional right has alternatives to fight it out individually and in groups. That is what freedom of expression and assembly are all about. Prosperity, equal opportunity and the life of happiness is what all Americans dream. But constitutional provisions and their fair application took time to match. Thanks to the dreamers now they are starting to correspond.

In a country dominated by conservative ideas changes, social, political or economic have to have continuity. It is feared that any radical change could uproot the base and bring about unforeseen calamity to many hard won gains. There are left inclined groups but they are not radical enough to make difference. For this reason system change may come not because of ideology but societal pressure even if the left wins elections. The world is fast changing. Unless adjustments are made in old ways there could be danger of losing control of even the basics. Greed in all streets, Wall street or Main street blinds. One could lose rationality and balance while focusing only on selfish interest.

Less than fifty years ago people were segregated according to color. Black and white cannot go into the same bus, bar, entertainment center etc. Many were not ashamed to post “blacks not allowed” on their restaurants or bars. Despite that there were Americans irrespective of color and creed that kept on fighting for equal rights. They were able to force change based on constitutional provisions. The constitution has intrinsic flexibility that can accommodate changes. The principle of check and balances is one of the devises that allowed this flexibility. The input of citizens, international pressure and technological development has their parts in keeping the American dream kindling. One learns from Americans that with hard work nothing is impossible in this world.

American constitution has potentials that are not yet fully exploited. The old way had brought under question the capability of America to lead the world and to survive domestic crises. Globally the old order is starting to crumble. America cannot benefit by clinging to it. It had to make use of its potentials and bounce to take its proper place in the “new world order” that have already started to move in a new direction. That was why it dropped the age old racial bias and focused on ability to bring about change. This, as the president elect said, was turning the page of history. America is starting to get color blind. That does not mean all Americans appreciated the change but what is special about Americans is accepting the verdict of democracy without grudge. What happened in 2008 is great human achievement by itself even if Obama fails to deliver the change he promised.

If one works hard to realize them America is full of promises. It is the land of dreams not fantasy but dreams that could be realized. Its present revelation will send shock waves throughout non democratic countries. If America could do the unthinkable by electing a young black person over a war hero, to be commander in chief of its forces, it shows how serious Americans are getting for change in human relations. Every one now hopes that it will not be the old arrogant and hegemonic America but a compassionate democratic world leader.

The present election is expected to change the attitude of America towards human and people’s rights. If member of a minority can rise into prominence in America there should not be any reason left for it to collaborate with dictators that cause human suffering in their own realm.  American interest should not be detrimental to democratic practices abroad, specially to Africa. The Oromo hopes the same standard of thinking that hurled a black man to power will be applied to Africa as well. It is time for Oromo struggle to be seen within its right context without biases. American weapons, money and expertise should not be used for repression against any people.  Let us hope that American democracy will achieve that not next time, but this term.

America has now shown the world that it is a reservoir of democracy. Its constitution never ages. Its dream for better life for all never stops.  Its people will set example in fighting for ones dream, the dream of justice, freedom, equal opportunity and the right to realize human and peoples’ rights. The election of Barack Obama has revealed the hidden face of American democracy which so far has been misrepresented by greed of the haves and the powerful. What matters is to separate distortions from the intrinsic value it has in reserve. Now the world knows that democracy is not only an ideal but also practicable. Not all who live in democracies are democrats. That is why some who claim it had contributed to the misunderstandings of American democracy.

The struggle of African Americans from emancipation through the civil right movements of the sixties has now taken a colored person to the White House. Many names might have been given to activists of the sixties but history has now vindicated them. Yet democracy is not perfect but the constitution has always a panacea. With their struggle all minority Americans will certainly be free from any sort of discrimination irrespective of race, gender, creed or way of life. Let honor and glory be for all those who struggled for equality of the human race and in defense of that great document “The American Constitution”. With their sacrifices Americans are showing that nothing is impossible for the world if one works hard for it. This is a great lesson for all oppressed peoples. How ever difficult and painstaking it may be we shall over come with our resolve.  Yes We Can!

I Congratulate Americans and world democrats for their success! I pray to Waaqaa, the Oromo God, to bestow wisdom and strength on President Barack Obama. For my compatriots I say work hard get your own Abboomaa and get free! Bilisummaa is just a pace away! Yes we can!
The struggle continues! We shall triumph! Yes we will!

Ibsaa Guutama
Ibsaa Guutama was Minister of Education of Ethiopia (1992) representing the OLF.
November 2008

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