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Western Diplomatic Omerta in Ethiopia

Alemayehu G. Mariam

Last week, in a piece reporting on the eerie silence of Western diplomats in Addis Abeba on Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history and Ethiopia’s # 1 political prisoner, Xan Rice, a reporter for the Guardian wrote:

That foreign embassies, including Britain’s, which have been refused permission to visit Mideksa, have barely made a public complaint about the case appears to back opposition complaints that when it comes to Ethiopia, donors favour stability over democratic reforms or human rights… ‘The [Ethiopian] government says the more we make noise the more difficult it will be to get her [Mideksa] out,’ said one Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. ‘Are we going to risk our entire aid budget for one person? No.’”

Rice questioned in the caption to his piece whether Birtukan is “Ethiopia’s jailed victim of Western realpolitik.”

What kind of double doubletalk is this phrase, “speaking on condition of anonymity?” Is the climate of fear and loathing so oppressive and pervasive in Ethiopia that even emissaries with full diplomatic immunity are scared pantless to mention Birtukan’s name in public? Are these anonymous diplomats so afraid of calling a spade a spade that they have themselves become virtual political prisoners in their own embassies? Has a segment of the Western diplomatic community in Addis turned into pusillanimous pussyfooters and gossipy nabobs of cowardice?

One speaks “on condition of anonymity” when the situation justifies it. For instance, police sometimes “speak on condition of anonymity” to provide information of value to the community as part of their criminal investigations. During policy negotiations or in formal decision-making settings, stakeholders may engage in anonymous disclosures to obtain strategic advantage. Whistleblowers often report corruption, criminal wrongdoing, fraud, waste or abuse in government anonymously to avoid retribution. Could it be that these anonymous informants are actually diplomats-cum-whistleblowers? One really wonders about the palpable diplomatic rationale for speaking about Birtukan behind a veil of diplomatic anonymity. The fact of her notorious imprisonment is well known to the world. Many Western governments have publicly condemned her imprisonment and called for her immediate release. Just last week, the new U.S. ambassador-designate to Ethiopia, Donald Booth, told Senator Russ Feingold, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Africa, that he will aggressively take up the case of Birtukan and other political prisoners with the dictators in Ethiopia. Yet some of the resident Western diplomats in Addis choose to cloak themselves in anonymity while pontificating about “realpolitik.”

It seems these gossipy diplomats have adopted a version of “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” game plan. Everybody knows many nasty and raunchy things happen in Vegas, but no one will care enough to tell about them. Gross abuses of human rights are daily occurrences in Ethiopia and the jails are full of political prisoners, but no diplomat dares speak openly about them or finger the criminals and abusers. Rather, the Western diplomatic community has ensconced itself around this obscene question: “Are we going to risk our entire aid budget for a bunch of nameless, faceless, hopeless, moneyless and powerless nobodies? Hell, No!”

The real reason for invoking anonymity, while enjoying full immunity, is diplomatic omerta — a conspiracy and code of silence, not unlike that time-honored tradition of the criminal societies in southern Italy where no one will tell the truth in public or finger the criminals because they are afraid of the Capo di Tutti Capi (boss of all bosses). The conspiracy of silence has transformed these anonymous diplomats into the proverbial wise monkeys who “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil”. This odious culture of diplomatic omerta in Addis must end!

The “realpolitik” (pragmatic) justification of the diplomats to “speak on condition of anonymity” is flawed and logically untenable. The principles of “realpolitik” apply in the relationship between powerful nations who find it advantageous to deal with each other in a practical and pragmatic manner so as to avoid costly conflict. It is silly to conceptualize the relationship between Western countries collectively and one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of “realpolitik”. Without the budgetary support and massive economic and humanitarian aid of the West, no dictatorship in Africa can survive even for a single day. These anonymous diplomats now want to convince us that “realpolitik” prevents them from exercising their political will on the dictators. Poppycock! We know, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

On the other hand, if the diplomats are “speaking on condition of anonymity” because they believe they can finesse the dictators with reason and logic, they are tripping (or in diplomatic parlance, “it is lunacy”). They ought to know (as they pretend not to know) that they are dealing with some of the rock-hard, dyed-in-the-wool, unyielding and incorrigible ideologues in modern Africa history. These dictators are impervious to reason and common sense; they are driven by the maniacal and insatiable hunger for power. The lessons the dictators draw from the invocation of diplomatic anonymity is that they have succeeded in intimidating the Western diplomatic corps into silence, not that they are buying time to negotiate and craft a fair resolution to the fundamental political problems of the country. Let’s put it bluntly: The dictators are convinced that on the whole Western diplomats in Addis are a klatch of spineless, wimpy, double-talking, forked-tongue equivocators who would rather grovel and wheedle than stand up for principle.

The cunning dictators understand the wishy-washiness of the diplomats and take advantage of their apparent timidity. They carefully orchestrate a program of manipulation, subtle intimidation, vague threats of expulsion and clever misdirection to string them along. “Sure, we let Birtukan out, mañana (tomorrow). Excellencies! Don’t worry, be happy! Did you say ‘Stop human rights abuses’? Not a problem. Consider it done, mañana. Clean elections? Hoo-Hah! Check out our Election Code of Conduct. Any other questions?!”

As Joseph Stalin sarcastically observed, “A sincere diplomat is like dry water or wooden iron.” We are not foolish enough to believe that Western diplomats will work sincerely to help bring change, democratization and hope in Ethiopia. But they need to know that their diplomatic chicanery and double-dealing will not go unchallenged in the court of international public opinion. Let us look at their do-nothing, kiss derrière policy in Birtukan’s case. The anonymous diplomat speaking to reporter Rice said that the West would “not risk [its] entire aid budget for one person.” This is not an idiosyncratic attitude or the view of a single diplomat. It is a wrong-headed outlook widely shared in the general diplomatic community in Addis.

But we should set the record straight: The issue of Birtukan is not a matter of one individual political prisoner. Birtukan is a national symbol of thousands of political prisoners that are held in detention in official and secret prisons throughout the country without due process of law. Birtukan is not a lone dissident on a moral crusade against a dictatorship. She is the head of the principal opposition party in the country and the leader of the largest coalition of political parties. On a level electoral playing field, Birtukan is the kind of leader who could easily beat the pants off the ruling dictatorship. By not raising her righteous cause in public and repeatedly, these veiled diplomats enable and embolden the dictators to remain bullheaded and continue in their gross human rights violations spree. In the end, these diplomats show themselves to be toothless tigers who are afraid of their own shadows and would rather meow than speak the truth in public.

Western diplomats in Addis have the choice of speaking up and standing up for the principles they advocate so passionately and vociferously at the cocktail parties, or remaining silent. It is their right to remain silent to the thundering screams of the torture victims, the faint whimpers of the political prisoners rotting in the dungeons, the cries and lamentations of the opposition leaders and the tormented wails of journalists who flee the country. They can even game us by shedding a few crocodile tears and assuring us that they are doing everything they can to help change things. We know in the final analysis they will wring their hands, pat themselves in the back and tell each other everything is fine and dandy and things in Ethiopia will definitely change, mañana. But they should spare us the crock of anonymous palaver because all they are doing is prove to the world that they do not possess the least scrap of conscience or integrity.

There is a price for silence, which is loss of credibility with the people of Ethiopia. That may not mean much to the hoity-toity excellencies; but they should know that their empty cocktail party rhetoric about democracy and rule of law has as much credibility with us. Diplomatic hypocrisy built on a foundation of anonymity, in our book, is called complicity and compounding a crime. Ethiopians understand and like straight talk, not anonymous talk (and not silence). They don’t like those who talk with “butter on their tongues and dagger in their hearts” (Afu kibe, lebu chube). We hope these invisible diplomats will emerge from the dark side and muster the courage to speak on the record and call a spade, a spade. If they don’t, we will understand. Silence in the face of inconvenient truths is a hallowed tradition in the Western diplomatic corps.

Excellencies, never mind if the dictators say, “the more [you] make noise the more difficult it will be to get Birtukan out.” Go ahead, make a whole lot of noise, not silence. Birtukan and the thousands of Ethiopian political prisoners are on pins and needles (no pun intended) waiting to hear your rapturous noise.

I have said it before[1] Excellencies, and I will shout it out again: J’Accuse!


Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on,, and other sites.

9 thoughts on “Western Diplomatic Omerta in Ethiopia

  1. Well, an Italian consular officer once told me that Ethiopia is a diplomat’s paradise. It is a big hub of diplomatic society where they can have all the modern life, beautiful climate, good security, permanent residences, and perfect networking place looking for lucrative jobs in AID organizations afterwards. Moreover, countless beautiful and willing women to forrnicate with. The ECA is full of ex-embassy staff from everywhere. They don’t want to be kicked out and lose their chance of landing a dream job in AID organisations and the UN.

  2. Another excellent piece by Professor Alemayehu.

    We in the diaspora have to end our fear and call a spade a spade.

    The western countries are at war with Ethiopia, because Meles is at war with Ethiopia and they are the ones who give him the amunitions,the weapons,the training and even the targets.

    The western countries are fully aware of the crimes being committed by Meles and co., they are fully aware that the regime is bad for the country, etc. Still they are keeping supplying him with the resources so that he can commit all those crimes.

    The western countries are at war with us. They are our enemies. And for us this is a matter of life and death.

    How will we protect us, not only from Meles but also from the western countries who make the crimes possible ?

  3. You are well versed and well education person of integrity Alemayehu. We should not expect any thing from westerners; let’s take our fate and fight for freedom in our own hands. Those western diplomats know every thing from the abuses in prisons of Ethiopia to the genocide in Ogaden but they don’t care about us. All they care is about their own agenda and benefit at the expense of the poor people of Africa.

  4. Face it my Ethiopian brothers and sisters. Come on now. You know the truth. The only way out is to vagarious help all Ethiopian freedom fighters. No western countries/diplomats will give you freedom, the freedom that the majority of Ethiopians looking for. Western countries maybe, yes maybe they will be able to negotiate power sharing for you like in Kenya but nothing more. So suck up or stop weeping do the fight.

  5. “The fact of her [Birtukan’s] notorious imprisonment is well known to the world. Many Western governments have publicly condemned her imprisonment and called for her immediate release.”
    Now, let me get this straight. So we have a bunch of public servants who tacitly and even openly disobey their governments’ foreign policy direction. Western governments, including ours, apparently as evidenced by the Feingold/Booth exchange, are directing their diplomats to aggressively demand for Birtukan’s release but the no good lazy diplomats are not doing their jobs.
    Ahyawn ferto dawlawn alu….

  6. It has always been very clear that the Western democracies have a double standard policy when it comes to Ethiopia and Africa. We are the ones that always need to be reminded of this reality.
    Our saviour is whitin ourselves, no amount of talk will solve our conditions.

  7. Professor Alemyahehu,
    You are one of the people I admire so much and I always give time to read your articles, Thank you for being “genetic Ethiopian” unlike the “placenta” leading our nation and our people into total environmental destruction, moral annihilation, displacement of citizens for the good of the well off and making our sacred land into the play ground of western diplomats who dream to be sent to Ethiopia for carnal pleasures rather than sincere diplomatic missions.
    I always I remember what a friend who works in the UN told me what he encountered in Dubai International Airport, he saw a police officer who was disrespecting one of our sisters in the Airport and my friend stepped up and told the police to address the lady with respect but sadly enough, the police said “shut up, you telling me to respect her in my country, we f… your women with a couple of dollars in your own country”. This story was engraved in my heart and soul from the minute I heard it. Our government made our sisters cheap commodities and look what happened in Lebanon, almost all the Ethiopians except from the crews were servants of the people who once feared and respected us when we had the best leaders in our long gone history. And the state-owned Ethiopian airlines reap the profits if making flights to middle eastern countries almost daily transporting our sisters to an earthly hell and bringing back those who got tired of living in despair. But the rich Arabs (with all due respect to those who believe in human rights and lead quality life)buy and abuse our sisters in our own land in brothels, young boys exposed for homosexual Britons in publicly owned spots in Piassa(this explains the “anonymity stance” in the British Embassy), HIV infected diplomats who pay extra dollar for a sex without condom.
    This is our Ethiopia now. If we take a look at the super elite in Addis, specially in the circles of Al Amoudi, its known by almost everybody in the city that the owner of London Cafe’ who is a carrier of HIV pays lots of money(in poor Ethiopian living standard) to sleep with our young sisters without protection. All this by Al Amoudi’s money and if our own citizen (owner of London Cafe) can be as cruel as he proves to be, it doesn’t take to be a rocket scientist to see what the foreigners do to us under a government that hates its own people and land with passion. A remember one time what a friend told me what happened in London within the entourage of Al Amoudi in an upscale London hotel. This very person managed to slip two Ethiopian ladies he met in London for a drink in his suite, after few minutes, the two ladies fought their way out of the room half naked and he was chasing them to get them back and he was really naked, the door was shut behind him with his key-card inside, all caught up by the security camera, the management had to come to let him in his room and Al Amoudi was later informed about the incident and that the hotel has overlooked the incident since Al Amoudi is an esteemed guest of the Hotel but strictly told to get his friends straight, sadly enough, those two ladies were not European prostitutes as you might have guessed but our won sisters lured by the moment than can be shared with fellow Ethiopians but it turned out to be a different story. So what I am trying to say is Professor Alemayehu, the western diplomats have a first hand information on how we are cheapened out by our own people and ofcourse they are the first hand people to experience the sexual liaison with our world renowned beautiful sisters. Birtukan Midekas happens to be one of those sisters in their eyes.
    Meles and Co are undeniably our own blood whose ancestors have bled to protect our beloved motherland, what I can only say is may the bones of their ancestors face their souls.
    May God redeem us from the national ordeal our people are suffering.
    God Bless.

  8. No. 1 has said it all. Western diplomats are afraid to be recalled by their respective governments for commenting on human rights, etc. so they would not lose their posh lifestyle in Ethiopia.

    Secondly, diplomats need to get the go ahead from their home govts before they can say anything about the host country.
    In any case, they just replicate their govts foreign policies.
    In short, we are in a fake and unjust world!

  9. ‘Are we going to risk our entire aid budget for one person? No.’ . Interesting but honest comment by unanimous diplomat. Aid is a big business for those who raise the fund and distribute it, they profit more than those who receive it. “One person?” that person represent the wishes and aspirations of many millions including those who are unfortunate to be aid recipients. Gandy, Nkrumah, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela were all “One Person”, just like Brtukan went to prisons because those with power had no better idea but send them to prison, thinking they will stop their idea of freedom and justice will not spread. Those with better ideas eventually became victorious and history remembers them forever. From what I can understand from his comment Birtukan is a threat to the ‘ Aid diplomat’ and prefer her to stay in jail, so that Ethiopians be beggars forever.

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