Saturday, November 18, 2006

Running for Office

Here in the United States, we are just coming off of the mid-term election season. The Republicans were decisively kicked out of their majority status in Congress by angry American voters, and the fallout from that is still being sorted out.

I went to the polls last week Tuesday, in the evening after work, to do my civic duty. It took approximately thirty minutes from the time I got on line until the time I came out after voting. Of course, this being the first election in the US after the 2005 election in Ethiopia, I couldn’t help but think about the millions of Ethiopians that stood on line for hours to cast their ballots, only to have their voices discarded within few short weeks thereafter.

As I stood on line last Tuesday, I found myself actually feeling frustrated by how long the wait was, only to quickly get a mental reminder regarding what the multitude in Ethiopia endured for a chance to have their voices heard. Needless to say, I felt ashamed in realizing how impatient I was getting.

As I got closer to the front of the line, I was able to catch a view of a slew of voting machines, each occupied by a person (some accompanied by small children) quietly reading through the choices and registering his/her preference for leaders of the county, state, and country. What an ordinary but amazing sight to behold!

Almost all the election results were known later on that night before I went to sleep. Unlike the two previous elections (which the Republicans won), there wasn’t even any accusation that the victors (democrats this time around) had tampered with the election or stolen votes. One wonders if feelings on this election would have been the same had the Republican’s won again, but that is another topic for another time.

As I thought more about the simple concept of free people expressing their will through the ballot box, without risking injury or death, I could not help but wonder why such a simple concept has eluded us Ethiopians for so long. What could we as people possibly do to achieve the status of a democratic society? Have we done all we possibly can to give ourselves the greatest chance of achieving such a goal?

Looking at recent Ethiopian history, all those that assumed political leadership in Ethiopia have come from almost all walks of life- rulers divinely appointed, military strong-men, guerilla fighters, businessmen, academicians, medical doctors, etc. However, it is obvious, even to the most casual observer such as myself, that none of these “leaders” have succeeded in moving the country forward in any meaningful way for the average citizen.

And that brings me to the reason why I want to advocate “Running for Office.” Why not try something else? Why not pursue a different avenue? Why not think outside the box? What do we really have to lose when we never have much to start with? It “seems” like we have tried them all; saints, soldiers, and scientists, but nothing has worked and it is time to look for a leader elsewhere. Albert Einstein is noted to have said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” With that sentiment, I want to ask for your support as I propose “Running for Office” for the betterment of Ethiopia.

So you ask, what is my qualification to run for office? Well, it does not matter, and not because such arrogance is status quo for Ethiopian leaders. It does not matter because I am not the one running for office. I am simply suggesting looking towards the sport of running (and by the way, the most successful long-term international endeavor Ethiopia has ever engaged in) to find someone worthy of holding an office; i.e. "Running for Office."

In my opinion, that person is none other than “The Emperor” (just a nick name, relax :-) Haile Gebrselassie. I want to go on the record, with all seriousness, as the first person calling on Haile to take up the cause of Ethiopia by seeking high political office when the 2010 elections come around. I will outline below why I believe this needs to be supported by all democracy seeking Ethiopians.

First of all, only people with genuine interest to help their fellow citizens, through an elected office, should seek high political office. After all, how is it promoting a democracy to force someone to serve (Dergue style) if the person is not interested to begin with? Fortunately, Haile has already indicated some interest in seeking a political office. He is on the record saying “Let me finish my training first, my running first, then we’ll see. I want to help the people, to be an example to the people. I have traveled to many countries. I have experience. And if I am to share that experience, and try to help people, I have to be in politics. But which way it will be, I don’t know.”

I dare you to find the source of the above quote from Haile and read the entire interview (Hint: The Big Interview: Haile Gebrselassie, 2003). It will be well worth your time. One more Haile quote from a different
source: "At the moment I am a little bit politician, yes. I think that could be my next step. It is not because I want power, it is because of what I think I could do for the people. I want to do something for the people. I have many fans, many people love Haile Gebrselassie. Thank you for that. But they need a reply from me. If I was in politics, I would give that reply." And what sort of reply would it be? "Eradicate poverty. This is all that matters in my country. When I am out training I think about this a lot; when I am running it is going over in my mind. As a country we cannot move forward until we eradicate poverty."

Secondly, only people with a track record (no pun intended) of accomplishment should seek high political office. Well, need I say more on this? Haile not only has more than fifteen track (world) records to his name, but he has also proven in many ways that he can produce even when the odds are stacked up high against him. Consider the harsh situation he faced as a child, working hard on the farm, before and after having to run six miles to school and back every day. How about losing his loving mother as a youngster? Remember those tears on the podium at the Atlanta Olympics? Haile pursued running with single minded focus, despite strong opposition from his father, and managed to reach unimaginable heights. So far Haile has mastered all that he attempted, and there is no doubt that it will not be any different as an elected leader. After all, Haile has been called “A black African who, at last, possesses charm, charisma and natural PR instincts equal to his running talent.”

Thirdly, only people who can be trusted with money should seek high political office. This would finally eliminate a history of Ethiopian leaders making like bandits and running away with the country’s coffers when their gig is up. No risk here with Haile because he ALREADY is (and not seeking to become) a multi-millionaire. One thing we can be sure is that when Haile decides to seek office, it will not be for financial gain or fame. He already has more money and fame than he knows what to do with.
Fourthly, only people who are patriotic should seek high political office. This is an easy one for Haile because when he goes to work, he always has the name Ethiopia proudly written across his chest and he wears the flag on his back. When he concludes his work, he always carries the Ethiopian flag and waves it proudly in front of thousands before heading home. Haile has turned down offer of citizenship from at least one European country and has always preferred to keep his Ethiopian citizenship and conduct his training at home. By the way, when was the last time you saw Meles Zenawi carrying an Ethiopian flag?

Finally, and most importantly in light of the 2005 election, only people who can not be defrauded by a rigged election should seek high office. Again, this is another easy one for Haile. Who would ever believe it, inside or outside of Ethiopia, if Meles Zenawi dares to claim that he got more votes than Haile Gebrselassie, the most famous Ethiopian who also happens to hail from Oromia region? Haile is known to fiercely run down anyone who attempts to steal a race, let alone a national election. If there is ever a sure bet in a foot race, or political race, it is none other than Haile Gebrselassie!

Though it has not happened in Ethiopia so far, it is common in the western world that sport stars transition to other significant and visible public service roles after retiring from sports. The former Olympian and world record holder in the mile, Jim Ryun, is currently serving as a United States Congressman. Olympic Gold Medalist and former world record holder Sebastian Coe has served as member of the British Parliament. If we look outside of athletics, there are even more examples. Bill Bradley, the former NBA star, was a United States Senator and ran as a United States Presidential Candidate in 2000. Former NFL player Jack Kemp was the 1996 Vice Presidential candidate for the Republican Party. Other names with similar stories include J.C. Watts, Steve Largent, and Lynn Swann. Even in Africa, former world soccer player of the year George Weah was a Presidential candidate in Liberia in 2005.

Haile is sure to be focused on running marathons through 2008, when he will once again go for the gold at the Beijing Olympics. However, once that is done and Haile has hanged up his running shoes for good, I am sure he will answer his country’s call for service of a different kind. Unlike the past history of Ethiopian Olympic Champions, who simply faded out of the limelight and into subsistence living or even outright poverty, I believe Haile will “kick it up a notch” and use his skill and stature to serve his fellow citizens in moving Ethiopia out of poverty and eternal authoritarian rule.

Haile has always been one to achieve the impossible and, in the end, this chapter of his life will be no different. Let’s all encourage him to seek office in 2010, let’s chant to him “YICHALAL!”