“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, said Edmund Burke. But what happens when evil triumphs over a good young woman journalist named Reeyot Alemu in Ethiopia? Do good men and women turn a blind eye, plug their ears, turn their backs and stand in silence with pursed lips?
In an extraordinary letter dated April 10, 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalists pled with Berhan Hailu, “Minister of Justice” in Ethiopia, on behalf of the imprisoned 32-year old journalist urging that she be provided urgent medical care and spared punishment in solitary confinement at the filthy Meles Zenawi Prison in Kality just outside the capital Addis Ababa.
Prison authorities have threatened Reeyot with solitary confinement for two months as punishment for alleged bad behavior toward them and threatening to publicize human rights violations by prison guards, according to sources close to the journalist who spoke to the International Women’s Media Foundation on condition of anonymity.CPJ has independently verified the information. Reeyot has also been denied access to adequate medical treatment after she was diagnosed with a tumor in her breast…
In December 2012, Reeyot, along with three other courageous independent journalists, received Human Rights Watch’s prestigious Hellman/Hammett Award for 2012 “in recognition of their efforts to promote free expression in Ethiopia, one of the world’s most restricted media environments.”
Reeyot’s trial in Meles’ kangaroo court was a template for miscarriage of justice. She was held in detention for three months with no access to legal counsel. She was denied counsel during interrogation. The kangaroo court refused to investigate her allegations of torture, mistreatment and denial of medical care in pre-trial detention. The evidence of “conspiracy” consisted of intercepted emails and wiretapped telephone conversations she had about peaceful protests and change with other journalists abroad. Her articles posted on various opposition websites were “introduced” as “evidence” of conspiracy.
Human Rights Watch was confounded by the idiocy of the terrorism charges: “According to the charge sheet, the evidence consisted primarily of online articles critical of the government and telephone discussions notably regarding peaceful protest actions that do not amount to acts of terrorism. Furthermore, the descriptions of the charges in the initial charge sheet did not contain even the basic elements of the crimes of which the defendants are accused….”
Amnesty International denounced the judgment of the kangaroo court: “There is no evidence that [Reeyot and the other independent journalists] are guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. We believe that they are prisoners of conscience, prosecuted because of their legitimate criticism of the government. They must be released immediately and unconditionally.”
PEN American Center “protested the harsh punishment handed down to” Reeyot and Woubshet and demanded their “immediate and unconditional release.” PEN asserted the two journalists “have been sentenced solely in relation to their peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression, in violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, to which Ethiopia is a signatory.”
The International Women’s Media Foundation saw the kangaroo court trial as an intimidation tactic against all independent women journalists: “The fact that the Ethiopian Government pursues and persecutes courageous, brave and professional women journalists does not bode well particularly for young women who may be interested in journalism. As a result, women’s voices (as reporters, editors, journalists, decision-making chambers) are rarely heard and women’s issues are often relegated to secondary position.”
Following Reeyot’s kangaroo court conviction, her father told an interviewer his daughter will not apologize, seek a pardon or apply for clemency. “As a father, would you rather not advise your daughter to apologize?”
This is perhaps one of the most difficult questions a parent can face. As any one of us who are parents would readily admit, there is an innate biological chord that attaches us to our kids. We wish nothing but the best for them. We try as much as humanly possible to keep them from harm…. Whether or not to beg for clemency is her right and her decision. I would honor and respect whatever decision she makes… To answer your specific question regarding my position on the issue by the fact of being her father, I would rather have her not plead for clemency, for she has not committed any crime.
Meles offered Reeyot her freedom if she agreed to snitch on her colleagues and help railroad them to prison. She turned him down flat and got herself railroaded into solitary confinement. Even in prison, Reeyot remained defiant as she informed IWMF: “I believe that I must contribute something to bring a better future. Since there are a lot of injustices and oppressions in Ethiopia, I must reveal and oppose them in my articles.”
The problem of evil in Ethiopia
Over the hundreds of uninterrupted weekly commentaries I have written over the years, I have rarely strayed much from my professional fields of law and politics. I make an exception in this commentary by indulging in philosophical musings on evil, a subject that has puzzled me for the longest time (and one I expect to ruminate over from time to time in the future) but one I never considered opining about in my public commentaries. I am mindful that there is the risk of sounding pedantic when one reflects on “Big Questions”, but pedantry is not intended here.
My simple definition of evil is any human act or omission that harms human beings. For instance, convicting an innocent young journalist on trumped up “terrorism” charges, sentencing her to a long prison term and throwing her into solitary confinement is evil because such acts cause great physical and psychological pain and suffering. Ordering the cold-blooded massacre of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators is evil because that act arbitrarily deprives innocent people of their God-given right to life. Forcibly displacing indigenous populations from their ancestral homes and selling their land to outsiders is evil because that act destroys not only the livelihood of those people but also their history and social fabric. Trashing the rights of individuals secured in the law of nations is evil because it is a crime against humanity and an affront to human decency and all norms of civilization. Discriminating against a person based on ethnicity, language and religion is evil because it deprives the victims of a fundamental right of citizenship. Albert Camus argued evil is anything that prevents solidarity between people and disables them from recognizing the rights or values of other human beings. Stealing elections in broad daylight and trying to deceive the world that one won an election by 99.6 percent is evil because such an act is an unconscionable lie and theft of the voice of the people. Stealing billions from a poor country’s treasury is evil because such theft deprives poor citizens vital resources necessary for their survival.
The evil I struggle to “understand” is that evil viciously committed by ordinary or sub-ordinarypeople in positions of political power. Such persons believe they can cheat, rob, steal and kill with absolute impunity because they believe there is no force on earth that can hold them accountable.
I am also concerned about the evil of passive complicity by ordinary and extraordinary people who stand silent in the face of evil. What is it that paralyzes those “good men and women” who can stand up, resist and defend against evil to cower and hide? Why do they pretend and rationalize to themselves that there really is no evil but in the eye of the beholder? What evil binds the blind, silent and deaf majority? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
I should clarify my use of the word “understand” in the context of evil. One can never understand evil. The Holocaust and the Rwanda Genocide are evils beyond human understanding and reason. To “understand” the deaths of millions or hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings is to implicitly justify it and somehow diminish its enormity. To “understand” the deliberate and premeditated murder of 193 unarmed protesters is beyond understanding because there could never be adequate reason, explanation or argumentation to justify it. “Understanding” such evil is tantamount to suggesting that there are or could be justifications for its occurrence.
When I use the word “understand”, I mean to suggest only that I am trying to get some insight, a glimpse of the moral makeup of people who live in a completely different moral universe than myself. It is impossible for me to see the world through the eyes of those in power who perpetrate evil in Ethiopia. When I speak of the triumph of evil in Ethiopia, I realize that there is nothing I can say by way of reasoned argument or presentation of evidence to persuade those in power to forsake their evil ways and deeds. I have concluded that those in power in Ethiopia live on a planet shielded by the equivalent of a moral Van Allen radiation belt that keeps out all cosmic rays of virtue, decency and goodness.
Let me also clarify what I mean when I speak of the audacity of evil in Ethiopia. The evil I am talking about is not the evil that Aquinas’ wrestled with in Questions 48 and 49 of Summa Theologica. Nor I am concerned about the evil Spinoza determined originates in the mind that lacks understanding because it is overwrought by fickle emotions. Neither am I concerned with evil that, for most of us, is associated with the Devil and his lesser intermediaries. I am not concerned about inanimate non-moral evil which manifests itself in the form of famine, pestilence and plague. I am also not referring to that evil lurking deep in the nihilistic being of those soulless, heartless and mindless psychopaths who are so disconnected from the rest of humanity that they feel justified in slaughtering innocent people at a sports event.
I am concerned about the evils of ordinary human wickedness and bestial human behavior that Aristotle alluded to in Nicomachean Ethics. I am concerned about gratuitous evil (pointless evil from which no greater good can be derived) committed by ordinary and sub-ordinary wicked people whose intellect is corrupted, and their bestial counterparts who are lacking in intellectual discernment. Such evil is cultivated in the soil of arrogance, ignorance, narcissism, desire for domination, self-aggrandizement and hubris. Those who commit gratuitous evil do so audaciously, willfully, recklessly and impulsively because they feel omnipotent; because they fear no retribution; because they anticipate no consequences for their evil deeds. They know they are committing evil and inflicting unspeakable and horrific pain and suffering on their victims but nonetheless go about doing evil with calculation and premeditation because they believe they are beyond morality, legality, responsibility and accountability. Hubristically relying on their power, they have exempted themselves from all rules of civilized society. They believe that their stranglehold on power gives them a license to commit evil at their pleasure and therefore make a habit of doing evil for evil’s sake. They are incapable of remorse or regrets because they have made evil their guiding “moral” principle.
My musings on the audacity of evil in Ethiopia are not intended to be abstract philosophical reflections but observations with practical value for victims of evil. I have an unshakeable belief that there will come a time in Ethiopia when the demands of punishment, blame and justice would have to be weighed against the greater good of peace, harmony and reconciliation. There will come a time when the open wounds of ethnic division, hatred and sectarianism must be healed and safeguards put into place to prevent their future recurrence. I believe insight into the nature of gratuitous evil is an important step in the healing process. By “understanding” (gaining insight) why individuals and groups in power commit gratuitous evil, it may be possible for Ethiopians to develop the courage, perseverance, fortitude and spiritual strength to move towards a reconciled and peaceful society. That is exactly what the South Africans did by instituting their Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) after Apartheid ended. Perpetrators of gratuitous evil were given the option to come to a public hearing and confess the evils they have committed and seek not only amnesty and immunity from civil and criminal prosecution but also forgiveness from their victims and the survivors of their victims. The Commission largely succeeded in that mission. The Rwandan “Gacaca courts” (traditional grassroots village courts composed of well-respected elders) which were established to administer justice to those alleged to have committed genocidal acts similarly sought to achieve “reconciliation of all Rwandans and building their unity” by putting justice partially into the hands of the surviving victims or victims’ families who are given the opportunity to confront and challenge the perpetrators in the open. The Rwandans also achieved a measure of success.
What has been learned from the TRC of South Africa and Rwanda’s Gacaca courts is that the act of forgiving can be an activity that victims of evil can find enormously helpful and beneficial. By publicly confronting the perpetrators, victims gain a sense of psychological satisfaction, moral vindication and physical well-being. The victims are no longer tormented by the desire for revenge and retribution. Coming to terms with the enormity of gratuitous evil makes it easier for a society to reconcile and prevent the recurrence of such evil.
Touched by evil
The Socratic thesis is that no one does evil intentionally. In other words, men and women commit evil out of ignorance which blinds them from doing right and good and deprives them of the practical wisdom to know the difference between right and wrong and good and evil. Evil doers are morally blind and unable to value other human beings while overestimating their own value and worth.
Why do those in power in Ethiopia commit the gratuitous evil of throwing into solitary confinement an innocent young woman who has been internationally honored and celebrated for her journalistic courage? Could it be the evil of misogyny that makes powerful men derive sadistic pleasure from the humiliation, degradation, dehumanization, depersonalization, demoralization, brutalization and incapacitation of strong-willed, intelligent, defiant, principled and irrepressible women who oppose them?
The gratuitous evil that is inflicted on Reeyot by those in power in Ethiopia is only the latest example. The exact same evil was inflicted on Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, who was thrown into solitary confinement for months at Meles Zenawi Prison because she stood up and opposed him. The same evil in different form was inflicted on Serkalem Fasil, another world-renowned female Ethiopian journalist who was imprisoned and forced to give birth in prison. The common denominator between these three women is that they are strong, self-confident, determined and principled and risked their lives to stand up to a brutal dictatorship. Because they refused to back down, they suffered the most inhumane treatment at the hands of powerful men.
Solitary confinement in Meles Zenawi Prison is used as a psychological weapon to drive the victims mad. By depriving victims of all human contact and by denying them access to any information about the outside world, the aim is to make them feel lost and forgotten. Solitary confinement for women is a particularly insidious from psychological torture intended to humiliate and breakdown their physical, psychological, spiritual and moral integrity. Those in solitary confinement in Meles Zenawi Prison are not allowed to visit with friends. They are denied access to books. They are not allowed to meet their legal counsel. Family visits are interrupted even before smiles are exchanged; and even hugs and kisses with family members are forbidden. Solitary confinement is a dirty psychological game played by those in power to plunge the victims into the depths of despair, sorrow and confusion and make them feel completely helpless and hopeless.
When Meles threw Birtukan into solitary confinement, he just did not want her to suffer. That would be too easy. He wanted to humiliate and dehumanize her. When she was in solitary confinement, he used a cruel metaphor describing her as a “silly chicken who did herself in”. While in solitary confinement, he mocked and took cheap shots at her telling the press that that she is “in perfect condition” but “may have gained a few kilos”. He wanted her to suffer so much that he told reporters, “there will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” He wanted Birtukan to be the living dead in solitary confinement. Providence had a different plan.
We are banned Ethiopian journalists who were charged with treason by the government of PM Meles Zenawi subsequent to disputed election results in 2005, incarcerated under deplorable circumstances, only to be acquitted sixteen months later; after Serkalem Fasil prematurely gave birth in prison.Severely underweight at birth because Serkalem’s physical and psychological privation in one of Africa’s worst prisons, an incubator was deemed life-saving to the new-born child by prison doctors; which was, in an act of incomprehensible vindictiveness, denied by the authorities. (The child nevertheless survived miraculously. Thanks to God.)
Do those who slammed Reeyot and Birtukan in solitary confinement and forced Serkalem to give birth in one of the filthiest prisons in the world realize what they are doing is evil? Do they care about the suffering of these young women?
Birtukan has survived and continues to thrive. Serkalem struggles to survive every day as she agonizes over the unjust imprisonment of her husband Eskinder. Reeyot, I believe, will survive in solitary confinement because she is a strong woman of faith and conviction. Solitary confinement to persons of faith and conviction is like fire to steel. It brings out the best in them. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years; but is there a man alive who is more compassionate, humane, kindhearted and forgiving than Mandela?
Sigmund Freud wrote about the kind of sadistic gratuitous evil driven by deep-seated hatred and aggression against women. Other psychologists see the root of gratuitous evil in personality “fragmentation” caused by feelings of rejection and inferiority. They say those who commit gratuitous evil seek to “defragment and hold themselves together” by degrading and feeling superior to their victims. Others have argued that beneath the gratuitous evil that perpetrators commit lies a profound emptiness filled by sadistic rage, anger, and hatred.
I believe those in power in Ethiopia commit gratuitous evil to obtain absolute obedience and respect. As Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments (and in other aspects the Zimbardo (Stanford) experiments) have shown, those in authority seek to secure obedience by establishing social models of compliance. In other words, those in power aim to teach by harsh example. If you are an independent journalist and do your job, you will be jacked up on bogus terrorism charges, held in detention, thrown in solitary confinement and tortured. If you challenge a stolen election and protest in the street, you will be shot in the streets like a rabid dog. By using extreme violence, those in power in Ethiopia seek to create not only an atmosphere of fear but also a culture of terror. The experiments have also shown that resistance can also be taught by example. Reeyot, Serkalem, Birtukan, Eskinder, Woubshet, Andualem are social models of resistance.
Hanna Arendt observed Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, at his trial in Jerusalem and found him to be “medium-sized, slender, middle-aged, with receding hair, ill-fitting teeth, and nearsighted eyes, who throughout the trial keeps craning his scraggy neck toward the bench.” He appeared to be a common man incapable of monstrous crimes. The banality of evil is the capacity of ordinary people to commit monstrous crimes. The audacity of evil is the capacity of ordinary and sub-ordinary people to commit evil not out of necessity, obedience to authority or even adherence to ideology; it is evil committed by those who are absolutely convinced that they will never be held accountable for their crimes.
Doing evil, doing good
I have many unanswered questions. Are the individuals in positions of power in Ethiopia evil by nature? Was evil thrust upon them by a demonic power? Were they victims of evil themselves and now seek to avenge the actual or perceived evil done to them and ended up being evil themselves? Did they become the very monster they slew? Are there persons who are innately incapable of doing good because they are bad seed and are born with a natural disposition to do only wrong and evil? Is gratuitous evil a psychological illness, an incurable sickness of the soul?
My questions do not end there. No one is immune from evil. Those of us who rise up in self-righteous indignation and denounce evil should look at ourselves and ask: If we were shown “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor”, would we succumb to that offer and choose the path of evil? Nietzsche said, “When you look long into an abyss, the abyss looks into you.” When we raise our lances at the windmills, do we really see monsters? Let us not forget that “He who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster.” Are we also brutes, like those we criticize, costumed in a veneer of civilization and morality untested and unseduced by the corrupting power of power? Are human beings innately good, and evil people merely mutations of good ones?
The evil that men do lives after them
The late Meles Zenawi has left a dark and bleak legacy of gratuitous evil in Ethiopia. The evil he has done shall continue to live in the prisons he built, the justice system he corrupted and the lives of young good Ethiopians he destroyed like Reeyot, Eskinder, Serkalem, Birtukan, Woubshet, Andualem and countless others. In Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar, Antony speaks: “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Ceasar.”
When I speak of Meles, I speak not of the man but of the wretched legacy he left and of the pious devotion of his disciples to that legacy. His disciples today speak of his great achievements and his great vision with Scriptural certitude and apostolic zeal. Their mantra is, “We will follow Meles’ vision without doubt or question.” One must speak out against pre-programmed robots; but raging against the machine should not be mistaken for raging against the man.
I remain optimistic that in the end good shall triumph over evil because the ultimate battle between good and evil in Ethiopia will not be waged on a battlefield with “crashing guns and rattling musketry”; nor will it be fought and won in the voting booths, the parliaments, the courts or bureaucracies. The battle for good and evil will be fought, won or lost, in the hearts and minds of ordinary Ethiopian men and women who have the courage to rise up and do extraordinary good.
Elie Wiesel, a prisoner in the Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald concentration camps, and Nobel peace laureate said “indifference is the epitome of evil” and
“swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.
I have taken the side of Reeyot Alemu, Eskinder Nega, Serkalem Fasil, Birtukan Midekssa, Woubshet Taye, Andualem Aragie…. and made them the “center of my universe”.
(to be continued….)
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Ethiopia today is a “prison of nations and nationalities with the Oromo being one of the prisoners”, proclaimed the recently issued Declaration of the Congress of the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF). This open-air prison is administered through a system of “bogus federalism” in which “communities exercise neither self-rule nor shared-rule but have been enduring the TPLF/EPRDF’s tyrannical rule for more than two decades.” The jail keepers or the “ruling party directly and centrally micro-manage all communities by pre-selecting its surrogates that the people are then coerced to ‘elect’ at elections that are neither free nor fair”. Ethiopians can escape from “prison nation” and get on the “path to democracy, stability, peace, justice, and sustainable development” when they are able to establish a democratic process in which “all communities elect their representatives in fair and free elections.”
The ODF is a “new movement” launched by “pioneers of the Oromo nationalist struggle” who “have mapped out a new path that embraces the struggle of all oppressed Ethiopians for social justice and democracy.” Central to the collective struggle to bust the walls and crash the gates of “prison nation” Ethiopia is a commitment to constitutional democracy based on principles of “shared and separate political institutions as the more promising and enduring uniting factor” and robust protections for civil liberties and civil rights. Shared governance and the rule of law provide the glue “that will bind the diverse nations into a united political community” and return to the people their government which has been privatized and corporatized by the ruling regime “to advance and serve their partisan and sectarian interests.”
The Declaration foresees genuine federalism as the basis for freedom, justice and equality in Ethiopia. It argues that the ruling Tigriyan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) hijacked the federalism, which was originally birthed by the “mounting pressures of the struggles for self-determination by the Oromo and other oppressed nations”, and subsequently corrupted it into a political scheme that serves the “present ruling elite’s aspiration of emerging and permanently remaining as a new dominant group by simply stepping into the shoes of those that it replaced.” The ODF “aspire[s] to build on the positive aspects of Ethiopia’s current federal set-up” by “remov[ing] the procedural and substantive shortcomings that stand in the way of democracy and federalism.”
The Declaration finds traditional notions of unity inadequate. “Invoking a common history, culture or language has not guaranteed unity. We similarly reject the present ruling party’s presumption that it serves as the sole embodiment and defender of the so-called ‘revolutionary democratic unity.’” It also rejects “the ruling party’s illusory expectation that the promotion of economic development would serve as an alternative source of unity in the absence of democratic participation.” The Declaration incorporates principles of constitutional accountability, separation of powers and check balances and enumerates “bundles” of participatory, social and cultural rights secured in international human rights conventions. It proposes “overhauling” the civil service system and restructuring of the military and intelligence institutions to serve the society instead of functioning as the private protective services of the ruling party and elites. The Declaration broadly commits to economic and social justice and condemns the mistreatment and “eviction from ancestral lands of indigenous populations, and environmental degradation.”
Significance of the Declaration
The world is constantly changing and we must change with it. Henry David Thoreau correctly observed, “Things do not change; we change.” We change by discarding old and tired ideas and by embracing new and energetic ones. The old ideas which demonize other ethnic groups as mortal enemies are no longer tenable and are simply counterproductive. In a poor country like Ethiopia, the vast majority of the people of all ethnic groups get the shaft while the political and economic elites create ethnic tensions and conflict to cling to power and line their pockets. We change by casting away self-deception and facing the truth. The truth is that “united we stand, divided we fall”. When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, Benjamin Franklin said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” For the past 21 years, we have been falling like a pack of dominoes. They have been hanging us separately on the hooks of “ethnic federalism”.
We must be prepared to change our minds as objective conditions change. As George Bernard Shaw said, “Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” We must change our ideas, beliefs, attitudes and perspectives to keep up with the times. The alternative is becoming irrelevant. No organization can achieve unanimity in making change because change makes some in the organization uncomfortable, uneasy and uncertain. However, change is necessary and unavoidable.In line with George Ayittey’s metaphor, we can change and remain viable and relevant like the Cheetahs or suffer the fate of the hopeless Hippos.
It is refreshing and inspiring to see a transformative and forward-looking declaration forged by some of the important founding members and leaders of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) emphatically affirming the common destiny of all Ethiopians and underscoring the urgency for consolidating a common cause in waging a struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. These leaders show great courage and conviction of conscience in changing their minds with the changing political realities. The reality today is that the “economic and security interests of the Oromo people are intertwined with that of other peoples in Ethiopia. In addition, their geographic location, demography, democratic heritage and bond forged with all peoples over the years make it incumbent upon the Oromo to play a uniting and democratizing role.” It must have taken a staggering amount of effort to overcome internal discord and issue such a bold and positively affirmative Declaration signaling a fundamental change in position. These leaders deserve commendation for an extraordinary achievement.
I believe the Declaration is immensely important not only for the principles it upholds and articulates but most importantly for the fact that it represents a genuine paradigmatic shift in political strategy and tactics by the founders of the OLF. The Declaration signals a tectonic shift in long held views, ideology and political strategy. It represents a profound change in the perception and understanding of politics, change and society not only in Ethiopia but also in the continent and globally. By emphasizing inclusiveness and common struggle, the Declaration rejects the destructive politics of ethnicity and identity (the bane of Africa) for politics based on issues of social, political and economic justice. By embracing a common struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights, the Declaration rejects ethnocentrism (the arrogant philosophy of narrow-minded African dictators) and fully accepts federalism as a basis for political power and shared governance.
What are we to make of the Declaration? Is it merely an aspirational statement, an invitation to dialogue, a call to action or all of the above? It appears the Declaration is not merely a statement of principles but also an invitation to dialogue and a call to action. It affirms the universal truth that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and acknowledges that “struggling for justice for oneself alone without advocating justice for all could ultimately prove futile”. It urges Oromo groups to stop “trivial political wrangling” and “join hands with us in strengthening our camp to intensify our legitimate struggle and put an end to sufferings of our people.” It counsels the “ruling regime to reconsider its ultimately counterproductive policy of aspiring to indefinitely stay in power by fanning inter communal and interreligious suspicion and tension.” It proposes a “country-wide movement sharing” a common “vision, principles and policies” to “propel Ethiopia forward and ending the current political paralysis.” It pleads with the “international community to stand with us in implementing our vision and proposal of transforming the Ethiopian state to bring peace and sustainable stability in Ethiopia and Horn of Africa.”
Dialoguing over “Federalism” or the futility of putting lipstick on “bogus federalism”
It is the privilege of the human rights advocate and defender to speak his/her mind on all matters of human rights. I should like to exercise that privilege by raising an important issue in the Declaration and respectfully taking exception to it. The Declaration states:
We aspire to build on the positive aspects of Ethiopia’s current federal set-up. However, to make the simultaneous exercise of self-rule and shared-rule possible it is necessary to remove the procedural and substantive shortcomings that stand in the way of democracy and federalism… [which] can be accomplished by [allowing] subject nations, in due course, freely elect delegates to their respective state and central constitutional assemblies. When this process is completed, the present “holding together” type of bogus federalism will be transformed into a genuine ‘coming together’ variety.
I consider myself a hardcore federalist who believes in a clear division of power between a national and sub-national (local, state) governments. In fact, I consider the “Federalist Papers” written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay promoting the ratification of the United States Constitution as unsurpassed works of political genius on the theory and practice of federalism. Having said that, I do not believe there is an alchemy that can transmute “bogus federalism” into “genuine federalism”. Just as there is no such thing as being a “little bit pregnant”, there is also no such thing as building upon “bogus federalism”. Either it is genuine federalism or it is bogus federalism.
As I argued in my May 2010 commentary “Putting Lipstick on a Pig, Ethiopian Style”, discussing the elections, “You can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig. You can jazz up a bogus election in a one-man, one-party dictatorship with a ‘Code of Conduct’, but to all the world it is still a bogus election under a one-man, one-party dictatorship… They want us to believe that a pig with lipstick is actually a swan floating on a placid lake, or a butterfly fluttering in the rose garden or even a lamb frolicking in the meadows. They think lipstick will make everything look pretty.” You can put lipstick on “ethnic federalism” and call it “federalism”, but it is still bogus federalism.
As I have often argued, the late Meles Zenawi, the chief architect of “ethnic federalism” in Ethiopia was driven by a “vision of ethnic division. His warped idea of ‘ethnic federalism’ is merely a kinder and gentler reincarnation of Apartheid in Ethiopia. For nearly two decades, Meles toiled ceaselessly to shred the very fabric of Ethiopian society, and sculpt a landscape balkanized into tribal, ethnic, linguistic and regional enclaves.” He crafted a constitution based entirely on ethnicity and tribal affiliation as the basis for political organization. He wrote in Article 46 (2) of the Constitution: “States shall be structured on the basis of settlement patterns, language, identity and consent of the people.” In other words, “states”, (and the people who live in them) shall be corralled like cattle in tribal homelands in much the same way as the 10 Bantustans (black homelands) of Apartheid South Africa. Ethiopia’s tribal homelands are officially called “kilils” (enclaves or distinct enclosed and effectively isolated geographic areas within a seemingly integrated national territory). Like the Bantustans, Ethiopia’s 9 killilistans ultimately aim to create homogeneous and autonomous ethnic states in Ethiopia, effectively scrubbing out any meaningful notion of Ethiopian national citizenship. You can put lipstick on bantustans and call them “ethnic federalism” but at the end of the day a Killilistan with lipstick is a Bantustan without lipstick.
Before committing to “build up on the positive aspects of Ethiopia’s current federal set-up”, I urge the ODF and all others interested in institutionalizing genuine federalism in Ethiopia to carefully study and consider the long line of Apartheid laws creating and maintaining bantustans in South Africa. I commend a couple of illustrative examples of such laws to those interested. The Bantu Authorities Act, 1951(“Black Authorities Act, 1951”) created the legal basis for the deportation of blacks into designated homeland reserve areas and established tribal, regional and territorial authorities. This Act was subsequently augmented by the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act, 1970 (“Black States Citizenship Act & National States Citizenship Act, 1970) which sought to change the legal status of the inhabitants of the bantustans by effectively denaturalizing them from enjoying citizenship rights as South Africans. These laws imposed draconian restrictions on the freedom of movement of black South Africans. These laws further sought to ensure that white South Africans would represent the majority of the de jure population of South Africa with the right to vote and monopolize control of the state machinery. The Group Areas Act of 1950 (as re-enacted in the Group Areas Act of 1966), divided South Africa into separate areas for whites and blacks and gave the government the power to forcibly remove people from areas not designated for their particular tribal and racial group. Under this Act, anyone living in the “wrong” area was deported to his/her tribal group homeland. The law also denied Africans the right to own land anywhere in South Africa and stripped them of all political rights. The lives of over 3.5 million people were destroyed by this law as they were forcibly deported and corralled like cattle in their tribal group bantustans.
The perils and untenability of Meles’ “bogus federalism” have been documented in the International Crises Group’s report “Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism and Its Discontents”. That report points out the glaring deficiencies and problems engendered by “ethnic federalism” in “redefine[ing] citizenship, politics and identity on ethnic grounds.” The study argues that “ethnic federalism” has resulted in “an asymmetrical federation that combines populous regional states like Oromiya and Amhara in the central highlands with sparsely populated and underdeveloped ones like Gambella and Somali.” Moreover, “ethnic federalism” has created “weak regional states”, “empowered some groups” and failed to resolve the “national question”. Aggravating the underlying situation has been the Meles dictatorship’s failure to promote “dialogue and reconciliation” among groups in Ethiopian society, further fueling “growing discontent with the EPRDF’s ethnically defined state and rigid grip on power and fears of continued inter-ethnic conflict.”
“Ethnic federalism” is indefensible in theory or practice. While intrinsically nonsensical as public policy, “ethnic federalism” in the hands of the Meles regime has become a dangerous weapon of divide and rule, divide and control and divide and destroy. Those in power entertain themselves watching the pitiful drama of kililistans compete and fight with each other for crumbs and preoccupying themselves with historical grievances. The ICG report makes it clear that in the long term “ethnic federalism” could trigger an implosion and disintegration of the Ethiopian nation.
The truth of the matter is that ethnic balkanization, fragmentation, segregation and polarization are the tools of trade used by the Meles regime to cling to power while lining their pockets. In a genuine federalism, the national government is the creature of the subnational governments. In Ethiopia, the “kilil” (regional) “governments” are creatures and handmaidens of the national “government”. In a genuine federalism, the national government is entrusted with limited and enumerated powers for the purpose effectuating the common purposes of the subnational “governments”. In Ethiopia, the powers of the national “government” are vast and unlimited; and there are no barriers to its usurpatory powers which it exercises at will. There are no safeguards against encroachment on the rights and liberties of the people by the national or subnational “governments”. Simply stated, “ethnic federalism” as practiced in Ethiopia today is not only a recipe for tyranny by the national “government” but also the creed for secessionists in the name of self-determination. “Ethnic federalism” is an idea whose time has passed and should be consigned to the dustbin of history along with its author. “Well, back to the old drawing board!”
The Curse of Meles
According to those in the know, the late Meles Zenawi used to say “Diaspora Ethiopians can start things but never manage to finish them.” Regardless of the veracity of the attribution, there is a ring of truth to the proposition. Since 2005, we have read lofty declarations and heard announcements on the establishment of political and advocacy groups and organizations. We have welcomed them with fanfare but they have come and gone like the seasons.
I do not believe those who drafted the Declaration of the Congress of the Oromo Democratic Front will be visited by the Curse of Meles. The Declaration seems to be the product of an enormous amount of organizational soul-searching, discussion, debate, introspection and contemplation. The ODF has come up with an honest, practical, bold and hopeful declaration. I have some questions as do others; but the fact that questions are being raised is proof that the Declaration has considerable appeal, credibility and traction. I ask questions to engage in dialogue and discussion, not to undermine or cause doubt about the worth or value of the Declaration. To be sure, I raise questions about the Declaration in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King’s counsel: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” My questions originate from the question: “What does the Declaration do for all of our people? With sustained effort and the good will and cooperation of all stakeholders, there is no reason why new alliances cannot be created and old ones reinvigorated to move forward the struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. I am inspired by the Declaration’s commitment to wage a united struggle: “We will exert all efforts in order to pull together as many advocates and promoters of the interests of diverse social sectors as possible in order to popularize and refine the principles and processes that would transform Ethiopia into a genuinely democratic multinational federation.”
I understand “to pull together” means to stop pushing, shoving, ripping, picking and tearing each other apart. That is why I have an unshakeable faith in the proposition that “Ethiopians united — pulling together — can never be defeated by the bloody hands of tyrants!”
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Last April, I wrote a “Special Tribute to My Personal Hero Eskinder Nega”. In that tribute, I groped for words as I tried to describe this common Ethiopian man of uncommon valor, an ordinary journalist of extraordinary integrity and audacity. Frankly, what could be said of a simple man of humility possessed of indomitable dignity? Eskinder Nega is a man who stood up to brutality with his gentle humanity. What could I really say of a gentleman of the utmost civility, nobility and authenticity who was jailed 8 times for loving liberty? What could I say of a man and his wife who defiantly defended press freedom in Ethiopia, even when they were both locked up in Meles Zenawi Prison just outside of the capital in Kality for 17 months! What could anybody say of a man, a woman and their child who sacrificed their liberties, their peace of mind, their futures and earthly possessions so that their countrymen, women and children could be free!?
Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega is a special kind of hero who fights with nothing more than ideas and the truth. He slays falsehoods with the sword of truth. He chases bad ideas with good ones. Armed only with a pen, Eskinder fights despair with hope; fear with courage; anger with reason; arrogance with humility; ignorance with knowledge; intolerance with forbearance; oppression with perseverance; doubt with trust and cruelty with compassion. Above all, Eskinder speaks truth to power and to those who abuse, misuse, overuse and are corrupted by power.
Now almost a year since I wrote my tribute, I remember my great friend and brother Eskinder Nega as he languishes in Meles Zenawi Prison. But I do not remember him in sadness or with heartache. No! No! I remember Eskinder in the hopeful, faith-filled and resolute words of American poet James Russell Lowell (“The Present Crisis”): “When a deed is done for Freedom, through the broad earth’s aching breast…/ Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide…/ In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side… For Humanity sweeps onward: where to-day the martyr stands…/ Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne…/
Eskinder and his wife Serkalem did the right deed to defend the right of press freedom in Ethiopia. They spoke truth to falsehood in their newspapers and never backed down. They spoke right to wrong in kangaroo court. The man who tried for 20 years to right the wrongs of tyranny, today, like Lowell’s Truth, hangs on the scaffold in the belly of Meles Zenawi Prison, a place of “wrath and tears where the horror of the shade looms”, with his head bloodied but UNBOWED!
Last week, Birtukan Mideksa wrote an opinion piece for Al Jazeera urging the release of Eskinder Nega and other journalists including Reeyot Alemu (winner of the International Women’s Media Foundation 2012 Courage in Journalism Award) and Woubshet Taye (2012 Hellman/Hammett Grant Award) and all political prisoners in Ethiopia. Birtukan is the first female political party (Unity for Democracy and Justice) leader in Ethiopian history. Birtukan, like Eskinder, was the personal political prisoner of the late dictator Meles Zenawi. Meles personally ordered Birtukan’s arrest and on December 29, 2008, a year and half after he “pardoned” and released her from prison, he threw her back in jail without even the usual song and dance of kangaroo court. On January 9, 2010, Meles sent chills down the spines of reporters when he declared sadistically that “there will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” On January 15, 2010, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention adopted an opinion finding that Birtukan Midekksa is a political prisoner.
It is heartwarming to read Birtukan’s moving and robustly principled defense of Eskinder Nega and the other Ethiopian journalists and political prisoners. It is also ironic that Eskinder should replace Birtukan as the foremost political prisoner in Ethiopia today.
Few can speak more authoritatively on the plight of Eskinder and all Ethiopian political prisoners than my great sister Birtukan who also spent years in in the belly of Meles Zenawi Prison, a substantial part of it in solitary confinement. In her Al Jazeera commentary she wrote:
My journey to become a political prisoner in Ethiopia began as a federal judge fighting to uphold the rule of law. Despite institutional challenges and even death threats, I hoped to use constitutional principles to ensure respect for basic rights… [Ethiopian] authorities have detained my friend Eskinder Nega eight times over his 20-year career as a journalist and publisher.After the 2005 elections, Eskinder and his wife – Serkalem Fasil – spent 17 months in prison. Pregnant at the time, Serkalem gave birth to a son despite her confinement and almost no pre-natal care. Banned from publishing after his release in 2007, Eskinder continued to write online. In early 2011, he began focusing particularly on the protest movements then sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. Eskinder, who does not belong to any political party because of a commitment to maintain his independence, offered a unique and incisive take on what those movements meant for the future of Ethiopia. Committed to the principle of non-violence, Eskinder repeatedly emphasised that any similar movements in Ethiopia would have to remain peaceful. Despite this, police briefly detained him and warned him that his writings had crossed the line and he could face prosecution. Then in September , 2011, the government made good on that threat. Authorities arrested Eskinder just days after he publicly criticised the use of anti-terror laws to stifle dissent. They held him without charge or access to an attorney for nearly two months. The government eventually charged Eskinder with terrorism and treason, sentencing him to 18 years in prison after a political trial. Unfortunately, Eskinder is not alone; independent journalists Woubshet Taye and Reeyot Alemu also face long prison terms on terrorism charges.
Eskinder is a hero to the world but a villain to Meles Zenawi and his disciples
Who really is Eskinder Nega? In Meles Zenawi’s kangaroo court, Eskinder has been judged a “terrorist”, a “public enemy”. In the court of world public opinion, Eskinder is celebrated as the undisputed champion and defender of press freedom.
When speaking of my brother Eskinder, I could be accused of exaggerating his virtues, hyperbolizing his singular contributions to press freedom in Ethiopia and overstating his importance to the cause of free expression throughout the world. Perhaps I am biased because I hold this great man in such high respect, honor and admiration. If I am guilty of bias, it is because seemingly in Ethiopia they have stopped making genuine heroes like Eskinder Nega, Woubeshet Taye, Anudalem Aragie, Temesgen Desalegn… and heroines like Birtukan Midekssa, Serkalem Fasil, Reeyot Alemu….
Let others more qualified and more eloquent than I speak of Eskinder Nega’s heroism, courage, fortitude, audacity and tenacity in the defense of press freedom.
… No honor can be greater than to read Eskinder Nega’s words. He is more than a symbol. He is the embodiment of the greatness of truth, of writing and reporting real truth, of persisting in truth and resisting the oppression of untruth… So let us marvel at and celebrate Eskinder Nega. For who among us could write what I am about to read [a blog of Eskinder’s] spirit unbound, faith in freedom and the power of the word untrammeled…
Larry Siems, director of PEN Freedom to Write Award, at the award ceremonies groped for words trying to describe Eskinder Nega. “…[This year] one [journalist] really stood out, and that is Eskinder Nega. So tonight we recognize one of the world’s most courageous, most intrepid, most creative advocates of press freedom that I have ever seen…”
In awarding its prestigious Hellman/Hammett Award for 2012, Human Rights Watch described Eskinder and the other journalists as “exemplifying the courage and dire situation of independent journalism in Ethiopia today. Their ordeals illustrate the price of speaking freely in a country where free speech is no longer tolerated.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists declared, “The charges against Eskinder are baseless and politically motivated in reprisal for his writings. His conviction reiterates that Ethiopia will not hesitate to punish a probing press by imprisoning journalists or pushing them into exile in misusing the law to silence critical and independent reporting.”
The specific charge against Eskinder was that he conspired with a banned opposition party called Ginbot 7 to overthrow the government. At his trial, government prosecutors showed as evidence a fuzzy video, available on YouTube, of Eskinder at a public town-hall meeting, discussing the potential of an Arab Spring-type uprising in Ethiopia. State television labeled Eskinder and the other journalists as “spies for foreign forces.” There were also allegations that he had accepted a terrorist mission—what the mission involved was never specified.
The United States remains deeply concerned about the trial, conviction, and sentencing of Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, as well as seven political opposition figures, under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. The sentences handed down today, including 18 years for Eskinder and life imprisonment for the opposition leader Andualem Arage, are extremely harsh and reinforce our serious questions about the politicized use of Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law in this and other cases.
The deprivation of liberty of Eskinder Nega is arbitrary in violation of articles 9, 10, 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articles 9, 14, and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights… The Working Group requests the Government to take the necessary steps to remedy the situation, which include the immediate release of Mr. Nega and adequate reparation to him.
Meles said Eskinder and all of the journalists he jailed are “terrorists”. If Eskinder Nega is a terrorist, then speaking truth to power is an act of terrorism. If Eskinder Nega is a terrorist, then advocacy of peaceful change is terrorism; thinking is terrorism; dissent is terrorism; having a conscience is terrorism; refusing to sell out one’s soul is terrorism; standing up for democracy and human rights is terrorism; defending the rule of law is terrorism and peaceful resistance of state terrorism is terrorism. If Eskinder Nega is a terrorist today, Nelson Mandela was a terrorist then. The same goes for all of the other jailed journalists and opposition leaders jailed by Meles Zenawi.
But the real terrorists know who they are. When Meles and his horde of guerilla fighters challenged military dictator Mengistu Hailemariam, they were officially branded as terrorists, bandits, mercenaries, criminals, thugs, murderers, marauders, public enemies, subversives, rebels, assassins, malcontents, invaders, traitors, saboteurs and other names. Were they?
The current ruling party, “Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Movement” (TPLF), is listed today in the Global Terrorism Database as a terrorist organization. Documented acts of terrorism by the TPLF include armed robberies, assaults, hostage taking and kidnapping of foreign nationals and journalists and local leaders, hijacking of truck convoys, extortion of business owners and merchants, nongovernmental organizations, local leaders and private citizens and intimidation of religious leaders and journalists.
An official Inquiry Commission established by Meles Zenawi to investigate the deaths that occurred in the post-2005 election period determined that security forces under the personal control and command of Meles Zenawi massacred 193 unarmed protesters in the streets and severely wounded another 763. The Commission concluded the “shots fired by government forces were intended not to disperse the crowd of protesters but to kill by targeting the head and chest of the protesters.” On November 1, 2005, security forces in the Meles Zenawi Prison in Kality gunned down 65 inmates while confined in their cells. No one has ever been brought to justice for these crimes against humanity.
Who are the real terrorists and criminals in Ethiopia today?
Tale of the Good Wolf and Evil Wolf
The late Meles Zenawi and his apostles remind me of an old Cherokee (Native American) tale of two wolves: A grandfather tells his young grandson that everyone has a Good Wolf and an Evil Wolf inside of them fighting with each other every day. The Good Wolf thrives on peace, love, truth, generosity, humility and kindness. The Evil Wolf feeds on hatred, anger, greed, lies and arrogance. “Which wolf will win, grandfather?” asked the boy. “Whichever one you feed,” replied the grandfather.
Meles and his disciples have been feeding the Evil Wolf for decades, and now the Evil Wolf sits triumphantly crowned on the Throne of Hatred and Falsehood. They have fattened the Evil Wolf with a lavish diet of inhumanity, barbarity, brutality, ignobility, immorality, depravity, duplicity, incivility, criminality, ethnocentricity, mediocrity, corruptibility and pomposity.
Eskinder, Reeyot, Woubshet, Andualem. Temesgen and the rest have managed to tame the Good Wolf and have followed the path of peace, love and truth. Their wolf thrives on a simple diet of humanity, unity, integrity, authenticity, civility, morality, incorruptibility, dignity, affability, humility, nobility, creativity, intellectuality and audacity.
It is hard for the reasonable mind to fathom why Meles and his disciples chose to embrace and follow the path of the Evil Wolf. Indeed, the Evil Wolf has been very good to them. The Evil Wolf has made it possible for them to accumulate great wealth and amass enormous power. They have unleashed the Evil Wolf to divide and rule the country along ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional lines. They have used the Evil Wolf to destroy not only the lives and futures of young professionals like Eskinder, Birtukan, Reeyot, Woubshet, Temesgen and Andualem but also the future of the younger generation. They have used the Evil Wolf to sell off the country’s most fertile lands for pennies and plunder its natural resources. They have used the Evil Wolf to convict the innocent in kangaroo courts. They have used the Evil Wolf to strike fear and loathing in the hearts and minds or ordinary citizens.
They have given new meaning to the ancient Roman playwright Paluatus’ aphorism homo homini lupus est (“man is a wolf to his fellow man”). They have used the Evil Wolf to create war from peace; strife from harmony; wrong from right; vice from virtue; division from unity; shame from honor; immorality from decency; poverty from wealth; hatred from love; ignorance from knowledge; corruption from blessing; bondage from freedom and dictatorship from democracy. In 21 years, Meles and his disciples have managed to jam a whole nation between the jaws of a snarling, gnarling and howling Evil Wolf.
How long before the Good Wolf wins over the Evil Wolf?
The great Nelson Mandela wondered when Apartheid would end. He told those who had unleashed the Evil Wolf of Apartheid, “You may succeed in delaying, but never in preventing the transition of South Africa to a democracy.”
My friend Eskinder Nega warned the overlords of the Evil Wolf in Ethiopia, “Freedom is partial to no race. Freedom has no religion. Freedom favors no ethnicity. Freedom discriminates not between rich and poor countries. Inevitably freedom will overwhelm Ethiopia.”
But how long before freedom overwhelms Ethiopia? How long before Ethiopia transitions to democracy? How long before “truth crushed to earth rises again” in Ethiopia? How long before all Ethiopian political prisoners are set free? Before Eskinder is released and joins his wife Sekalem and their son Nafkot? How long before Reeyot, Woubshet, Andualem… rejoin their families? How long before the Good Wolf wins over the Evil Wolf?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. agonized over similar questions during the darkest days of the struggle for civil rights in America. His answer to the question, “How long?” was “Not long!”.
I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men…?”
Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham… be lifted from this dust of shame…? … How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?”
I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.”
How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.”
How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.”
How long before the Good Wolf wins over the Evil Wolf? Not long, because “once to every man and nation comes the moment” to decide between Good and Evil.
How long before wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Addis Ababa, Mekele, Adama, Gondar, Awassa, Jimma… is lifted from the dust of shame? Not long, “because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
How long before truth and right crushed to earth rise up again in Ethiopia? Not long, because truth and right will not remain forever on the scaffold nor wrong and falsehood nest forever on the throne!
I have no greater honor than to stand up, speak up and defend my friends, brothers and sisters Eskinder Nega, Serkalem Fasil, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Temesgen Desalegn, Andualem Aragie and all political prisoners held in Meles Zenawi Prison!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
Professor A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, the renowned Indian scientist (“Missile Man of India”) and Eleventh President of India (2002-2007) said, “If a country is to be corruption free and become a nation of beautiful minds, I strongly feel there are three key societal members who can make a difference. They are the father, the mother and the teacher.”
Recently, the World Bank released its 448-page World Bank (WB) report, “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia” with evidence galore showing that Ethiopia under the absolute dictatorship of the Meles Zenawi regime has become a full-fledged corruptocracy (a regime controlled and operated by a small clique of corrupt-to-the-core vampiric kleptocrats who cling to power to enrich themselves at public expense). Perhaps the report’s findings should not come as surprise to anyone since “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
Over the past several weeks, I have made a number of cursory remarks on the shocking findings of the WB report. I have also discreetly appealed to a segment of Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds” (its teachers, professors, economists, political and social scientists, lawyers, and other members of the learned professions) to critically examine the report and inform their compatriots on the devastating impact of corruption on the future of their poor country and make some recommendations on how to deal with it. I even challenged the political opposition to issue a “white paper” and make crystal clear their position on accountability and transparency and make some concrete proposals to remedy the endemic corruption that has metastasized in the Ethiopian body politic.
I have yet to see any substantive analysis or commentary on the WB’s “diagnosis of corruption” in Ethiopia in the popular media or in the scholarly journals; nor have I seen any proposals on how to sever the vampiric tentacles of corruption sucking the lifeblood from the Ethiopian people. Could it be that Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds” can’t handle ugly truths? Or do Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds” turn faint-hearted when it comes to speaking ugly truths to power?
Few can tell the ugly truth about corruption in Ethiopia more bluntly thanGlobal Financial Integrity (GFI), the renowned organization that reports on “illicit financial flows” (illegal capital flight, mispricing, bulk cash movements, hawala transactions, smuggling, etc.) out of developing countries. In 2011, GFI told the world, “The people of Ethiopia are being bled dry. No matter how hard they try to fight their way out of absolute destitution and poverty, they will be swimming upstream against the current of illicit capital leakage.”
Given the icy silence of Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds”, it is my humble duty and unenviable job to continue to speak the ugly truth about corruption to the powers that be in Ethiopia. For years, I have written numerous commentaries on corruption in Ethiopia as a serious human rights violation. I agree with Peter Eigen, founder and chairman of Transparency International (Corruption Index) that “corruption leads to a violation of human rights in at least three respects: corruption perpetuates discrimination, corruption prevents the full realisation of economic, social, and cultural rights, and corruption leads to the infringement of numerous civil and political rights.” I also believe corruption undermines good governance, cripples the rule of law and destroys citizens’ trust in political leaders, public officials and political institutions.
In 2007 when Ethiopia’s auditor general, Lema Aregaw, reported that Birr 600 million of state funds were missing from the regional government coffers, Meles fired Lema and publicly defended the regional administrations’ “right to burn money.” In my December 2008 commentary “The Bleeping Business of Corruption in Ethiopia,” I argued that “corruption in Ethiopia is an evil with a thousand faces. It is woven into the fabric of the political culture.” Corruption is the modus operandi of the regime in power in Ethiopia today. Former president Dr. Negasso Gidada clearly understood the gravity of the situation when he declared in 2001 that “corruption has riddled state enterprises to the core,” adding that the government would show “an iron fist against corruption and graft as the illicit practices had now become endemic”. In 2013, the business of corruption is the biggest business in Ethiopia.
In my November 2009 commentary, “Africorruption, Inc.”, I described the tip of the iceberg of the web of corruption in Ethiopia by synthesizing some of the eye popping anecdotal evidence. Dr. Negasso documented corruption in the misuse and abuse of political power for partisan electoral advantage. Coincidentally, in 2009, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelley announced that the U.S. is investigating allegations that “$850 million in food and anti-poverty aid from the U.S. is being distributed on the basis of political favoritism by the current prime minister’s party.” (For reasons unknown, but not difficult to guess, the U.S. State Department has never released the findings of its investigation.)
The ruling regime’s “Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission” (FEAC) in 2008 documented the fact that “USD$16 million dollars” worth of gold bars simply walked out of the country’s principal bank. FEAC described the heist as a “huge scandal that took place in the Country’s National Bank and took many Ethiopians by surprise… The corruptors dared to steal lots of pure gold bars that belonged to the Ethiopian people replacing them with gilded irons… Some employees of the Bank, business people, managers and other government employees were allegedly involved in this disastrous and disgracing scandal.”
FEAC also reported that “there was another big corruption case at the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation that took many Ethiopians by surprise” which involved the “competitive tendering for the supply of telecommunication equipment.” FEAC “found out that nearly 200 million USD has been lost to corruption through the entire fraudulent and corrupt process…. In another case involving a telecommunications deal with the Chinese, a high level regime official was secretly tape recorded trying to extort kickbacks for himself and other regime officials.” (Even though high level bank officials were fingered in the gold heist, there is no evidence that any one of them has ever been prosecuted.)
In my November 2011 commentary “To Catch Africa’s Biggest Thieves Hiding in America!”, I called attention to a Wikileaks cablegram which confirmed long held suspicions about massive corruption in the current ruling party in Ethiopia, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF): “Upon taking power in 1991… [the TPLF] liquidated non-military assets to found a series of companies whose profits would be used as venture capital to rehabilitate the war-torn Tigray region’s economy…[with] roughly US $100 million… Throughout the 1990s…, no new EFFORT [Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray owned and operated by TPLF] ventures have been established despite significant profits, lending credibility to the popular perception that the ruling party and its members are drawing on endowment resources to fund their own interests or for personal gain.” According to the World Bank, “roughly half of the Ethiopian national economy is accounted for by companies held by an EPRDF-affiliated business group called the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT)… EFFORT’s freight transport, construction, pharmaceutical, and cement firms receive lucrative foreign aid contracts and highly favorable terms on loans from government banks.”
When 10,000 tons of coffee earmarked for exports had simply vanished (not unlike the gold bars that walked out of the National Bank) from the warehouses in 2011, Meles Zenawi called a meeting of commodities traders and threatened to “cut off their hands” if they should steal coffee in the future. In a videotaped statement, Meles told the traders he will forgive them this time because “we all have our hands in the disappearance of the coffee”.
In my December 2011 commentary “The Art of Bleeding a Country Dry”, I argued, “No one knows corruption — the economics of kleptocracy — better than [Meles] Zenawi. The facts of Zenawi’s corruptonomics are plain for all to see: The [Ethiopian] economy is in the stranglehold of businesses owned or dominated by Zenawi family members, cronies, supporters or hangers-on.”
“Diagnosing Corruption in (in the land of) Ethiopia”
Transparency International (Corruption Index) broadly defines corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. Corruption manifests itself in grand and petty ways. “Grand corruption consists of acts committed at a high level of government that distort policies or the central functioning of the state, enabling leaders to benefit at the expense of the public good.” Grand corruption often involves political corruption in which political decision makers manipulate “policies, institutions and rules of procedure in the allocation of resources and financing by political decision makers, who abuse their position to sustain their power, status and wealth.” Petty corruption often occurs when the law enforcement officials or bureaucratic functionaries exact payments from “ordinary citizens, who often are trying to access basic goods or services in places like hospitals, schools, police departments and other agencies” .
Corruption in Ethiopia is no longer a question of disparate anecdotal evidence or an issue of intellectual debate. Corruption has become the loathsome disease of the Ethiopian body politic. That is why the World Bank carefully titled its report, “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia”. Diagnosis refers to the clinical process of identifying a disease. The 448-page World Bank report has diagnosed corruption as the metastasizing cancer of the Ethiopian body politic.
Corruption in land is the root of all corruption in Ethiopia! Grand corruption in land originates from the upper circles of power in the public and private sector. The powerful political and economic elites in Ethiopia exploit the anarchic, arbitrary, secretive, unaccountable and confused governance of the ruling regime to weave their tangled webs of corruption. The World Bank report states that “the land sector [in Ethiopia] is particularly susceptible to corruption and rent seeking [using social or political institutions to redistribute wealth among different groups without creating new wealth (profit seeking)].” Corruption in land in Ethiopia is inherent (as the old communist ideologues used to say, “part and parcel of”) in “the way policy and legislation are formulated and enforced.”
The World Bank report explains that corruption in the land sector in Ethiopia occurs in several ways. First and foremost, “elite and senior officials” snatch the most desirable lands in the country for themselves. These fat cats manipulate the “weak policy and legal framework and poor systems to implement existing policies and laws” to their advantage. They engage in “fraudulent actions to allocate land to themselves in both urban and rural areas and to housing associations and developers in urban areas.” These “influential and well-connected individuals are able to have land allocated to them often in violation of existing laws and regulations.”
In the capital Addis Ababa, it is “nearly impossible to a get a plot of land without bribing city administration officials.” These officials not only demand huge bribes but have also “conspired with land speculators” and facilitated bogus “housing cooperatives [to become] vehicles for a massive land grab. It is estimated that about 15,000 forged titles have been issued in Addis Ababa in the past five years.”
Management of rural land is similarly deeply infected with corruption. “In rural areas, officials have distorted the definition of ‘public land’ to mean ‘government land’”. Officials define “public purpose” in applying expropriation which is believed to be a leading cause of “landlessness”. Officials have also “engaged in land grabbing to grant land to functionaries” and this is “happening at the woreda (district) level and is being copied by the elected committee members at kebele (subdistrict) level.” According to the World Bank report, “Almost all transactions involving land most often incorporate corruption because there is no clear policy or transparent regulation concerning land.”
It is stunning to learn from the report that the ruling regime does not even have the most elementary system of land management in place. “Rural areas have no maps of registered holdings… In urban areas, there is little mapping of registered property. Encumbrances and restrictions are not recorded in the registers, and the encumbrances, if registered, are listed in a separate document. Land use restrictions are not recorded in the register. There is no inventory of public land, which affects the efficient management of public land and creates opportunities for the illegal allocation of public land to private parties.” Because existing institutions and laws are evaded, ignored and manipulated for private gain, the system of land management is a total failure making it impossible to hold officials in power legally accountable for their corrupt practices.
A variety of methods are used to perpetuate corruption in land in Ethiopia. One “key method” of land corruption involves the illegal allocation of municipal land “to housing cooperatives controlled by developers who then sell off the land informally.” Often “buyers were unaware of the legal status of the land they were buying” and end up in court before judges who are “aligned (in cahoots) with the corrupt officials”. Another “method” is official falsification of documents. “With limited systems in place to record rights, particularly in urban areas, and limited oversight, officials have plenty of opportunities to falsify documents. It is not uncommon for parcels of land to be allocated to many different parties, sometimes to as many as different parties, from whom officials and intermediaries collect multiple transaction and service fees.” Blatant conflict of interest of board members who oversee the lease award process, the absence of a compliance monitoring process for lease allocations and payments and the absence of land use regulations have served to accelerate the metastasizing corruption in land in Ethiopia.
State ownership of all land in Ethiopia is the fountainhead of land corruption. Wealthy elites and influential groups seize the land of the poor and marginalized through forced, but “legal” evictions and eminent domain actions. Nowhere is this type of land grab corruption more conspicuous than in the regime’s land giveaways to foreign “investors”. The World Bank report states that “a substantial proportion of expropriated land is transferred to private interests”, but not to smallholders. “The expropriation and relocation of smallholders has been to the advantage of extensive commercial farming, including flower farms, biofuel, and other commodities.” It is also documented that the Ethiopian “government is forcing the Indigenous Peoples of the southwest off their ancestral lands and leasing these lands to foreign companies.” This expropriation has been achieved through a bogus program of “villagization” in which 1.5 million people have been “resettled” from the regions of Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz, Somali, and Afar and their ancestral lands handed over to domestic and international “investors”.
As I documented in my March 2011 commentary, “Ethiopia: Country for Sale”, the Indian agribusiness giant Karuturi Global today owns a 1,000 sq. miles, “an area the size of Dorset, England”, of virgin Ethiopian land for “£150 a week (USD$245)” for “50 years”. As Karuturi Project Manager in Ethiopia Karmjeet Sekhon euphorically explained to Guardian reporter John Vidal, “We never saw the land. They gave it to us and we took it. Seriously, we did. We did not even see the land. They offered it. That’s all.” The Karuturi guys would like us to believe they got something for nothing. The regime wheeler-dealers would like us to believe they gave a 1,000 square miles of virgin land to one of the richest agribusinesses in the world for nothing. Suffice it to say that they may also believe we were born yesterday; but surely, we were not born last night!
Prognosis on corruption in Ethiopia
Corruption in Ethiopia is the principal business of the State. Corruption has metastasized in the Ethiopian body politic because the political and economic elites that have total control over the country’s land resources benefit enormously. They use tailor-made legislative opportunities to secure, sell and speculate in land rights. Because the state is the sole owner of land, those who own the state alone have the power to privatize land, expropriate, lease, zone or approve construction plans or negotiate large-scale land giveaways. Those who control the land in Ethiopia control not only the political and economic process but also the digestive process (stomachs) of 90 million Ethiopians!
The culture of corruption must be changed before the tangled webs of corruption spun by the political and economic elites in Ethiopia are shattered. The major problem with changing the culture of political corruption is, as Peter Eigen observed, “in many parts of the world, the local people are resigned to the fact that there is corruption. They think there is nothing they can do about it. Therefore they more or less try to accommodate themselves, pay bribes themselves.”
Most Ethiopians are unaware of the regime’s “anti-corruption” efforts and those who are aware view the whole effort with a jaded eye. The simple fact of the matter is that having the “anti-corruption” agency (FEAC) to oversee, monitor, investigate and prosecute the architects and beneficiaries of corruption in Ethiopia is like having Tweedle Dee monitor, investigate and prosecute Tweedle Dum. To invoke an old Ethiopian saying, “It is difficult to get a conviction when the son is the robber and the father is the judge.”
Effective anti-corruption efforts require an active democratic culture based on the rule of law and a vigilant citizenry empowered to confront and fight corruption in daily life. Genuine anti-corruption efforts must necessarily begin by empowering ordinary people to fight back, not by creating a make-believe anti-corruption bureaucracy.
There have been some successful experiments in grassroots anti-corruption efforts where ordinary people have been given the tools to fight back corruption. In India, for instance, they have successfully organized local “vigilance commissions” in many towns and brought together the vulnerable and interested groups to probe into corruption. These commissions have put a significant dent in corruption. In Bangalore, “hub for India’s information technology sector”, residents have been involved in rating the quality of all major service providers in the city. The results were used to put pressure on government officials and service providers to become more accountable to citizens. The Central Vigilance Commission of India also runs Project VIGEYE (Vigilance Eye) which is “a citizen-centric initiative” in which “citizens join hands with the Central Vigilance Commission in fighting corruption in India.” VIGEYE provides citizens given multiple channels of engagement in the fight against corruption. In parts of Brazil, citizens are empowered to fight corruption through “participatory budgeting.” By including citizens from various backgrounds in the process of budget allocation, Brazil has been able to decrease levels of corruption and clientelism (exchange of goods and services for political support).
Ethiopia can learn much from Botswana, regarded to be the least corrupt country in Africa. The “Botswana Model” uses the strategy of “name and shame” to educate and accentuate public awareness of corruption. Using the free press as a tool, Botswanans name and shame corrupt officials by publishing their photographs on the front pages with the headline: “Is this man corrupt?” Botswana’s top political leaders are said to maintain high levels of public integrity and teach by example. Peter Eigen credits Botswana’s success to the “Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime in Botswana [which] has processed thousands of [corruption] cases since 1994 and has made great strides against corruption.” In 2012, Botswana ranked an extraordinary 30/174 countries on the Corruption Index. These examples point to the fact that citizen involvement and monitoring are very effective in reducing corruption and increasing public integrity. Creating a bloated, toothless and self-perpetuating anti-corruption bureaucracy such as FEAC is mere window dressing for international donors and loaners.
The other remedy for corruption lies in vigorous and well-publicized criminal prosecutions of corrupt officials, asset forfeitures (divestment of corruptly obtained wealth) and imposition of tough prison sentences on convicted corrupt officials. FEAC’s own data show that corruption prosecutions and convictions in Ethiopia are negligible.
Absent some dramatic treatment for the cancer of corruption in Ethiopia’s land sector, there is no doubt that Ethiopia will be bankrupted in the foreseeable future. This is a country whose foreign reserve today could barely cover two months of its import bills, has accumulated over USD$12 billion in foreign debt; and over the past decade Ethiopia has lost USD$11.7 billion dollars in illicit financial flows. Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds” and the opposition elements need to do a better job of addressing the issue of corruption. Passing references to “corruption” that “plagues the infrastructure sector”, “corruption that has never been seen before in the history of” Ethiopia and pleas to “arrest corruption that is rampant in the country” are simply not adequate.
I like to ask naïve questions. When it comes to governance, I ask not why Ethiopia’s rulers have chosen the “China Model” but rather why they have not chosen the “Ghanaian Model?” When it comes to corruption control, I simply ask why Ethiopia’s rulers have chosen not to follow the “Botswana Model”?
At the end of the day, “if Ethiopia is to be corruption free and become a nation of beautiful minds,” its “beautifully minded” scholars, professors, researchers, policy analysts, lawyers and other members of the learned professions must renounce their vows of silence and loudly speak truth to black-hearted dictators! Silence may be golden but when we see the gold walking out of the National Bank in broad daylight, we had better scream, shout and holler like hell!!!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
In June 2011, during her visit to Zambia U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton pulled the alarm bell on a creeping “new colonialism” in Africa. While dismissing “China’s Model” of authoritarian state capitalism as a governance model for Africa, she took a swipe at China for its unprincipled opportunism in Africa. “In the long-run, medium-run, even short-run, no I don’t [think China is a good model of governance in Africa]…We saw that during colonial times, it is easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave, …And when you leave, you don’t leave much behind for the people who are there. We don’t want to see a new colonialism in Africa…”
It seems the Eagle has finally taken a good look at the sidewinding Dragon eating its lunch in Africa. The U.S. is in stiff competition not only in Africa but also in the “world’s least explored” country. Clinton minced no words in telling the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “We are in a competition for influence with China; let’s put aside the moral, humanitarian, do-good side of what we believe in, and let’s just talk straight realpolitik… Take Papua New Guinea: huge energy find … ExxonMobil is producing it. China is in there every day in every way, trying to figure out how it’s going to come in behind us, come under us.”
For the past decade, the U.S. has been nonchalant and complacent about China’s “invasion” and lightning-fast penetration of Africa. It was a complacency born of a combination of underestimation, miscalculation, hubris and dismissive thinking that often comes with being a superpower. But the U.S. is finally reading the memo.
Meanwhile, China is zooming along the African highway of “opportunism” with steely resolve and an iron fist sheathed in velvet gloves lined with loans, aid and expensive gifts. In July 2012, Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Opening Ceremony of the Fifth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation proudly proclaimed his country’s economic prowess in Africa. “China’s trade with and investment in Africa have been expanding. In 2011, our two-way trade reached 166.3 billion U.S. dollars, three times the figure in 2006. Cumulative Chinese direct investment in Africa has exceeded 15 billion U.S. dollars, with investment projects covering 50 countries.” He added, “China and Africa have set up 29 Confucius Institutes or Classrooms in 22 African countries. Twenty pairs of leading Chinese and African universities have entered into cooperation under the 20+20 Cooperation Plan for Chinese and African Institutions of Higher Education.”
But many critics are quick to point out that China’s assertion of a “strategic partnership” cleverly camouflages its calculated strategic ambition to suck out African natural resources on a long-term basis, cultivate African markets as dumping grounds for its cheap manufactured goods and gradually impose its hegemony over the continent. The policy of “noninterference” is said to be an elaborate and shameless ploy used by China to pacify and anesthetize witless African dictators and secure lucrative long-term contracts for raw materials.
Kwame Nkrumah coined the term “neo-colonialism”, the eponymous title to his book, to describe the socio-economic and political control exercised by the old colonial countries and others to perpetuate their economic dominance in the former colonies through their multinational corporations and other cultural institutions. He wrote, “Neo-colonialism is also the worst form of imperialism. For those who practise it, it means power without responsibility and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress.In the days of old-fashioned colonialism, the imperial power had at least to explain and justify at home the actions it was taking abroad.In the colony those who served the ruling imperial power could at least look to its protection against any violent move by their opponents. With neo-colonialism neither is the case...”
Is there Chinese “neocolonialism” in Africa? Is China exercising “power without responsibility” in Africa “causing exploitation without redress” for Africans?
China is in Africa in full force with traders, investors, lenders, builders, developers, laborers and others. But gnawing questions linger. For instance, is China’s “gift” of the $USD200 million African Union (AU) building in Addis Ababa in 2011 a public demonstration of its good faith, good will and good works in Africa or a subtle hint of its neocolonial ambitions and hegemonic designs? Is China’s aid for the construction of roads, rail lines, bridges, dams and other public works projects evidence of an altruistic commitment to improve communication and commerce within Africa or a calculated strategy to further facilitate China’s deep penetration into the African hinterlands for raw materials (not unlike the European colonialists who built rail lines and ports to export Africa’s mineral wealth)? Is China fully supporting corrupt-to-the-core African dictators because it does not want to “interfere” in local politics or is “noninterference” its way of maintaining a chokehold on African dictators to protect its long-term interests in Africa? Does China want to do business in Africa in the short term and control its destiny in the long term?
In my column, “The Dragon’s Dance with Hyenas”, I suggested that Africa’s dictators could not be more happy with their “new strategic partnership” with China. They claim that China is not only a good friend but also the great rescuer of Africa from the ravenous and crushing jaws of neocolonialists, imperialists, neoliberals and other such nasty creatures. AU president in 2011, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the ruthless and corrupt dictator of Equatorial Guinea since 1979, even saw “a reflection of the new Africa, and the future we want for Africa” in the Chinese-built 20-story AU glass tower. The late Meles Zenawi saw China leading Africa on a long march out of the winter of despair and desperation in to the spring of hope and renaissance. He proclaimed China brings to Africa a “message of optimism, a message that is out of the decades of hopelessness and imprisonment a new era of hope is dawning, and that Africa is being unshackled and freed…”
I disagreed with Meles Zenawi when he said he saw the “rise of Africa” and an “African Renaissance” reflected in the glass tower. I peeked behind the façade of that shiny edifice and saw standing “a giggling gang of beggars with cupped palms, outstretched hands, forlorn eyes and shuffling legs looking simultaneously cute and hungry and begging” and unable to pony up the chump change needed to put up a building that is to become their world stage.
The “China Model” and China as an ideal(less) partner for African dictators
African dictators talk about the “China Model” as a solution to Africa’s economic problems in much the same way as African sorcerers invoke voodoo incantations to heal those possessed by evil spirits. But the Chinese reject the notion of a “China Model”. Liu Guijin, China’s special representative on African affairs offered an official disclaimer. “What we are doing is sharing our experiences. Believe me, China doesn’t want to export our ideology, our governance, our model. We don’t regard it as a mature model.”
No African dictator has gone beyond phrase mongering to explain how the “China Model” applies to Africa. But the general idea in championing the “China Model” (“Beijing Consensus”) is that Africa can be successful without following the “Washington Consensus” (a set of ten policies supported by the U.S. and the international lending institutions including “fiscal discipline (limiting budget deficits), increasing foreign direct investments, privatization, deregulation, diminished role for the state, etc.). China presumably became a global economic power in just a few decades by pursuing state controlled capitalism instead of free market capitalism, avoiding political liberalization, giving a commanding role for the ruling political party in the economy and society, heavily investing in infrastructure projects, engaging in trial and error economic experimentation, etc.
African dictators believe they can achieve a comparable level of economic development by copycatting China. For Meles Zenawi and his disciples, the “China Model” is the magic carpet that will transport Ethiopia from abysmal underdevelopment and poverty to stratospheric economic growth and industrialization. African dictators are particularly enamored with the “China Model” because China achieved its economic “miracles” in a one-party system that has a chokehold on all state institutions including the civil service and the armed and security forces and by instituting a vast system of controls and censorship that keeps the people from challenging the government or learning about alternatives.
In reality, the “China Model” for African dictators demonstrates not so much the success of authoritarian state capitalism but the triumph of praetorian klepto-capitalism – a form of militarized kleptocratic capitalism in which African dictators and their cronies control the state apparatus and the economy using the military and security forces. African dictators in Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, etc. rule by coercion and their coercive power derives almost exclusively from their control and manipulation of the military, police, and security forces, party apparatuses and bloated bureaucracies which they use for political patronage. They have successfully eliminated rival political parties, civil society institutions and the independent press.
The “China Model” is the ultimate smokescreen for African Dictators, Inc. It provides a plausible justification for avoiding transparent and accountable governance, competitive, free and fair elections and suppression of free speech and the press. Simply stated, the “China Model” in Africa is a huge hoax perpetrated on the people with the aim of imposing absolute control and exacting total political obedience while justifying brutal suppression of all dissent and maximizing the ruling class’ kleptocratic monopoly over the economy.
Could the “China Model” work in Africa?
Stripped off its hype, the “China Model” in Africa is the same old one-man, one-party pony that has been around since the early days of African independence in the 1960s. Time was when Zenawi, Museveni and Kagame were crowned the “new breed of African leaders” (by neoliberal imperators Bill Clinton and Tony Blair) and given a free pass to suck at the teats of neoliberal cash cows such as the World Bank and the IMF. Today these dictators heap contempt on “neoliberalism” as a “band-aid” approach to development, criticize the “gunboat diplomacy” of the U.S. (whose hard working taxpayers have shelled out tens of billions of dollars to shore up these dictatorships in the last decade) and tongue-lash “extremist neo-liberal” human rights defenders and advocates for slamming them on their atrocious human rights record and mindboggling corruption. If neoliberalism did not work in Africa, why should the “China Model” work?
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but flattery does not get you anywhere in economic development. The great absurdity of all African dictators is that they believe they can copycat “word-for-word” ideas and practices from different countries, systems and cultures and make it work in Africa. For instance, in February 2012, Meles Zenawi literally believed he had the most perfect antiterrorism law in the entire world. He told his rubberstamp parliament with great pride and gusto, “In drafting our anti-terrorism law, we copied word-for-word the very best anti-terrorism laws in the world. We took from America, England and the European model anti-terrorism laws. It is from these three sources that we have drafted our anti-terrorism law. From these, we have chosen the better ones.”
One cannot pirate, copycat or cut-and-paste an economic model in the same way as one would make knockoffs of famous fashion accessories, popular brands of electronics or machine parts. But African dictators believe they can cut-and-paste the “China Model” in Africa and create economic miracles. But what they have succeeded in creating is the optical illusion of economic development by constructing shiny glass buildings and fancy roadways that go nowhere while sucking their national economies bone dry. As Global Financial Integrity concluded, “The people of Ethiopia are being bled dry. No matter how hard they try to fight their way out of absolute destitution and poverty, they will be swimming upstream against the current of illicit capital leakage.” That is what the “China Model” means in Ethiopia, and for that matter in much of Africa where it is followed.
Fightin’ Eagle in Africa?
So far we have heard a screaming Eagle grousing about the unfair advantage, immorality, amorality, opportunism and new colonialism of the Dragon. But will we ever see a fightin’ Eagle standing up to a fire-breathin’ Dragon in Africa and “win”?
The U.S. “battle plan”, other than the “moral, humanitarian, do good” human rights rhetoric, is to do too little too late. In 2000, the U.S. enacted The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)followed by the Africa Investment Incentive Act of 2006 to substantially expand preferential access for imports into the U.S. from designated Sub-Saharan African countries. These laws were intended to be substitutes for a Free Trade Agreement and enable reforming African countries the most liberal access to the U.S. market. By creating effective partnerships with U.S. firms and encouraging African governments to reform their economic and commercial regimes, the U.S. hoped to change and improve its long-term trade relations with Africa and open vast opportunities for Africans. As of 2011, U.S. trade with sub-Saharan Africa accounts for about 3 percent of total U.S. imports and 1 percent of U.S. exports. Oil makes up more than 90 percent of the $44 billion generated by U.S. imports from the AGOA countries. These laws have produced little success in achieving their aims.
Earlier this month, U.S. Senator Chris Coons, Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs released a report (“Embracing Africa’s Economic Potential”) which underscored the “clear and pressing need for increased U.S. economic engagement in sub-Saharan Africa.” The Report argued that “increased trade facilitates growth for U.S. businesses as well as our African partners, simultaneously strengthening our own economy and Africa’s emerging markets.” It made several recommendations urging the development of a comprehensive strategy for increased U.S. investment in Sub-Saharan Africa, reauthorization and strengthening of the AGOA, removal of economic barriers and engagement of the African diaspora community in the United States. It will be hard to fight a Dragon with Eagle feathers!
How about an “Africa Model”?
I like to ask naïve questions. For instance, I ask not why China built the African Union Hall but why 53 plus African countries could not chip in or borrow the chump change needed to build the most symbolic building on the continent representing the independence, unity and hope of all African peoples? By the same token, I do not ask why an increasing number of African countries choose to follow the “China Model” but rather why they avoid following an African model such as the “Ghana’s Model”?
I am a big fan of Ghana. In July, 2009, in one of my weekly commentaries I asked one of my naïve questions: “What is it the Ghanaians got, we ain’t got?”. I argued that present day Ghana offers a reasonably good, certainly not perfect, template of governance for the rest of Africa. Ironically, it is to Ghana, the cradle of the one-man, one-party rule in Sub-Saharan Africa, that the rest of Africa must now turn to find a model of constitutional multiparty democracy.
Ghana today has a functioning, competitive, multiparty political system guided by its 1992 Constitution. Political parties have the constitutional right to freely organize and “disseminate information on political ideas, social and economic programs of a national character”. Tribal and ethnic parties are illegal in Ghana under Article 55 (4). That is the secret of Ghana’s political success. The Ghanaians also have an independent electoral commission (Art. 46) which is “not subject to the direction or control of any person or authority” and has proven its mettle time and again by ensuring the integrity of the electoral process.
Ghanaians enjoy a panoply of political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights. There are more than 133 private newspapers, 110 FM radio stations and two state-owned dailies in Ghana. Ghanaians express their opinions without fear of government retaliation. The rule of law is upheld and the government follows and respects the Constitution. Ghana has a fiercely independent judiciary, which is vital to the observance of the rule of law and protection of civil liberties. Political leaders and public officials abide by the rulings and decisions of the courts and other fact-finding inquiry commissions.
It is possible to do business with China without following the “China Model.” Ghana has done billions of dollars worth of business with China without using the “China Model”. In 2012, Ghana snagged a loan from China for a cool USD$3 billion. In 2010, Ghana signed deals with China for various infrastructure projects valued at about $15 billion. Ghana is proof positive that Africa can do business with China without becoming “Western” China. Ghana is certainly not a utopia, but she is living proof that multiparty constitutional democracy can help salvage African countries like Ethiopia from political and economic dystopia. Why not adopt the “Ghanaian Model” continent wide?
“Let’s put aside the moral… and just talk straight realpolitik”
As Secretary Clinton rhetorically urged, “Let’s just talk straight realpolitik.” In international politics, there are no moral standards. The rule is might and self-interest makes right. That principle of international amorality has been taught since the ancient Greek historian Thucydides described relations between nations as anarchic and immoral. The world is driven by competitive self-interest. Machiavelli and Hobbes warned against mixing morality in the relations between nations as did Hans Morgenthau in the mid-20th Century. He wrote, “Universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation, but that they must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place.” International amorality has its own virtues. Zeng Huacheng, a counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Ethiopia says, “It’s not China versus America. It’s whatever helps the Ethiopians. If we don’t help, Africans will suffer.” So also said the fox guarding the hens in the henhouse, “I am here only to protect and serve you.”
There is an old African saying that when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. What could happen when the Dragon and the Eagle fight in Africa? Who is likely to win? Not to worry. There will be no fight as there was no fight at the Berlin Conference in 1884; only a gentlemen’s agreement.
I believe there will be a great struggle for the destiny of Africa – a destiny that beckons Africa to take the low road of developmental thralldom and another that summons Africa to rise up and follow the high road to freedom. That struggle will be decided in a contest between the powers of “greedom” and the powers of freedom.
Will Africa’s destiny be determined by the Dragon, the laughing-to-the-bank hyenas, the Eagle or the people of Africa? The dragon is symbol of power and strength. The Emperor of China used the image of the dragon to project his imperial ambitions and domination. The Eagle represents freedom. The Eagle can freely sweep into the valleys below or fly upward into in to the boundless sky. The hyena thrives on carrion. But the African people have the power of freedom in their hands and in their souls.
Speaking truth to power means speaking truthfully to power and letting the chips fall where they may. I see great similarity in what the Chinese and the U.S. are doing in Africa. China gives money, loans, aid and gifts to corrupt-to-the core African governments. Doesn’t the U.S.? The only difference is that China is honest about it. China does not speak with forked tongue. It does not talk our ears off about human rights violations and crimes against humanity and turn around and reward the criminals with billions of dollars in aid and loans. For China, there is no human rights, it’s all strictly business. Aah! But isn’t U.S. talk of human rights in Africa as beautiful as the sight of the Bald Eagle in flight against the background of snow-capped mountains and the deep blue sky? But the U.S. first minds its business before minding African human rights. I am afraid human rights in Africa for both countries is a simple issue of mind over matter. They mind their businesses, don’t mind African dictators and the human rights of Africans don’t matter!
Perhaps the answer to the question of Africa’s destiny was given long ago by the man elected as the “Father of African Unity” at the 1972 Ninth Heads of States and Governments meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). H.I.M. Haile Selassie at the 1963 inaugural O.A.U. Summit told his fellow African heads of state:
… Africa was a physical resource to be exploited and Africans were chattels to be purchased bodily or, at best, peoples to be reduced to vassalage and lackeyhood. Africa was the market for the produce of other nations and the source of the raw materials with which their factories were fed…
…The answers [to the continent’s problems] are within our power to dictate. The challenges and opportunities which open before us today are greater than those presented at any time in Africa’s millennia of history. The risks and the dangers which confront us are no less great. The immense responsibilities which history and circumstance have thrust upon us demand balanced and sober reflection. If we succeed in the tasks which lie before us, our names will be remembered and our deeds recalled by those who follow us. If we fail, history will puzzle at our failure and mourn what was lost… May [we]… be granted the wisdom, the judgment, and the inspiration which will enable us to maintain our faith with the peoples and the nations which have entrusted their fate to our hands.
Thus spoke the African Lion!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
The great American poet Walt Whitman said, “Either define the moment or the moment will define you.” Will the election of Uhuru Kenyatta as president of Kenya define President Barack Obama in Africa or will President Barack Obama use the election of President Kenyatta to define his human rights policy in Africa?
Following the presidential election in late December 2007 and the Kenya Electoral Commission’s hurried declaration of incumbent President Mwai Kibaki as the winner, supporters of opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga in the Orange Democratic Movement alleged widespread electoral fraud and irregularities. For nearly two months following that election, ethnic violence and strife in Kenya raged resulting in more than 1200 deaths, 3,500 injuries, and the displacement of over 350,000 persons and destruction of over 100,000 properties.
Kenyatta and Ruto are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Kenyatta’s lawyer Steven Kay claimed the ICC charges were “determined on false evidence, evidence that was concealed from the defense and the facts underlying the charges have been put utterly and fully in doubt.”
U.S. efforts to ensure free and fair elections in Kenya after 2008
The U.S. was among the first nations to recognize the validity of Kenya’s 2007 presidential election. At the time, U.S. State Department Spokesman Robert McInturff announced, “The United States congratulates the winners and is calling for calm, and for Kenyans to abide by the results declared by the election commission. We support the commission’s decision.” But U.S. validation of that election was completely unwarranted since there was substantial credible evidence of rampant electoral fraud and vote rigging in favor of Kibaki and considerable doubt about the neutrality and integrity of the Kenya Electoral Commission.
Over the past two years, the U.S. has made significant investments to promote free and fair elections in Kenya and prevent a repetition of the 2007 violence. According to the U.S. State Department, “since 2010, the U.S. Government has contributed more than $35 million to support electoral reform, civic education, and elections preparation in Kenya. In addition, since 2008, we have provided more than $90 million to support constitutional reform, conflict mitigation, civil society strengthening, and youth leadership and empowerment, all of which contribute significantly to the goal of free, fair, and peaceful elections in Kenya.”
Obama’s defining moment in Africa?
The March 2013 presidential election in which Kenyatta won by a razor thin margin of 50.7 percent is not entirely free of controversy. Raila Odinga, who received about 43 percent of the votes, has rejected the outcome of the election and filed action in court alleging collusion between the Kenyatta and the electoral commission, not unlike what happened in 2007. This time around, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry offered only half-hearted congratulations and assurances to the people of Kenya and applauded the fortitude of those who counted the ballots. But his congratulatory statement belied an apparent disappointment as manifested in his omission of the names of the election victors. “On behalf of the United States of America, I want to congratulate the people of Kenya for voting peacefully on March 4 and all those elected to office… I am inspired by the overwhelming desire of Kenyans to peacefully make their voices heard… We … will continue to be a strong friend and ally of the Kenyan people.”
Prior to the election, it seemed President Obama and his top African policy man Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson were playing a bit of the old “good cop, bad cop” routine. President Obama in a special video message to the people of Kenya said that though he is proud of his Kenyan heritage “the choice of who will lead Kenya is up to the Kenyan people. The United States does not endorse any candidate for office…” He assured Kenyans that they “will continue to have a strong friend and partner in the United States of America.” But Johnnie Carson who was also a former U.S. ambassador to Kenya, was more blunt in hinting to Kenyans that their “choices have consequences”. Carson hectored Kenyans that they “should be thoughtful about those they choose to be leaders, the impact their choices would have on their country, region or global community.” Does that mean electing ICC suspects in crimes against humanity could bring about crippling sanctions?
What is good for the goose is good for the gander?
Now that Kenyatta and Ruto are elected, will the U.S. do what it did with Omar al-Bashir of the Sudan, another notorious suspect indicted by the ICC? Or will Kenyatta and his government receive special dispensation from sanctions and other penalties?
Carson argued that Kenya and the Sudan are two different situations. “I don’t want to make a comparison with Sudan in its totality because Sudan is a special case in many ways.” What makes Bashir and Sudan different, according to Carson, is the fact that Sudan is on the list of countries that support terrorism and Bashir and his co-defendants are under indictment for the genocide in Darfur. Since “none of that applies to Kenya,” according to Carson, it appears the U.S. will follow a different policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Kerry seemed to provide a more direct response in his “congratulatory” statement in explaining why Kenya will get special treatment. “Kenya has been one of America’s strongest and most enduring partners in Africa… and [the U.S] will continue to be a strong friend and ally of the Kenyan people.” That is diplomatese for “we will continue with business as usual in Kenya” come hell or high water at the ICC. Carson’s predecessor, Jendayi Frazer, cut to the chase: “Kenyatta knows that he needs the United States, and the United States knows it needs Kenya… And so I suspect that while it might be awkward, there won’t be a significant change in our policy stances toward Kenya or theirs toward us.”
A double standard of U.S. human rights policy in Africa?
It seems the U.S. has a double standard of human rights policy in Africa. One for those the U.S. does not like such as Bashir and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and another for those it likes like the late Meles Zenawi, Paul Kagame, Yuweri Museveni and now Uhuru Kenyatta.
Following Bashir’s ICC indictment in 2009, Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, demanded his arrest and prosecution: “The people of Sudan have suffered too much for too long, and an end to their anguish will not come easily. Those who committed atrocities in Sudan, including genocide, should be brought to justice.” Just before her resignation last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton urged: “Governments and individuals who either conduct or condone atrocities of any kind, as we have seen year after year in Sudan, have to be held accountable.” The U.S. has frozen the assets of individuals and businesses allegedly controlled by Mugabe’s henchmen because the “Mugabe regime rules through politically motivated violence and intimidation and has triggered the collapse of the rule of law in Zimbabwe.”
Legend has it that President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza that “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Despite lofty rhetoric in support of the advancement of democracy and protection of human rights in Africa, the United States continues to subsidize and coddle African dictatorships that are as bad as or even worse than Mugabe’s. The U.S. currently provides substantial economic aid, loans, technical and security assistance to the repressive regimes in Ethiopia, Congo (DRC), Uganda, Rwanda and others. None of these countries hold free elections, allow the operation of an independent press or free expression or abide by the rule of law. All of them are corrupt to the core, keep thousands of political prisoners, use torture and ruthlessly persecute their opposition.
No case of double standard in U.S. human rights policy in Africa is more instructive than Equatorial Guinea where Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been in power since 1979. Teodoro Obiang is said to make Robert Mugabe “seem stable and benign”. The U.S. maintains excellent relations with Teodoro Obiang because of vast oil reserves in Equatorial Guinea. But all of the oil revenues are looted by Obiang and his cronies. In 2011, the U.S. brought legal action in federal court against Teodoro Obiang’s son Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue to seize corruptly obtained assets including a $40 million estate in Malibu, California overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a luxury plane and super-sports cars worth millions of dollars. In describing the seizure action, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer crowed, “We are sending the message loud and clear: the United States will not be a hiding place for the ill-gotten riches of the world’s corrupt leaders.” (Ironically, U.S. law requires the U.S. to return any assets or proceeds from an asset forfeiture court action to the government from which it was stolen. In other words, the assets or proceeds from the forfeiture action against son Teodoro Nguema Obiang will eventually be returned to father Teodoro Obiang Nguema!!!)
But the U.S. has not touched any of the other African Ali Babas and their forty dozen thieving cronies who have stolen billions and stashed their cash in U.S. and other banks. For instance, Global Financial Integrity reported in 2011 reported that “Ethiopia, which has a per-capita GDP of just US$365, lost US$11.7 billion to illicit financial outflows between 2000 and 2009. In 2009, illicit money leaving the economy totaled US$3.26 billion, which is double the amount in each of the two previous years…” Is there really any one wonder who in Ethiopia has the ability to amass such wealth or “illicitly” ship it out of the country and where much of that cash is stashed? Suffice it to say that the dictators in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda… may be kleptocrats, criminals against humanity, genociders, election thieves, torturers, abusers of power… , but they are OUR kleptocrats, criminals against humanity…”
Does the Obama Administration have a (African) human rights policy?
If anyone is searching for the Obama Administration’s global or African human rights policy, s/he may (or may not) find it in the recent statements of Michael Posner, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the United States. Posner said American human rights policy is based on “principled engagement”: “We are going to go to the United Nations and join the Human Rights Council and we’re going to be part of iteven though we recognize it doesn’t work… We’re going to engage with governments that are allies but we are also going to engage with governments with tough relationships and human rights are going to be part of those discussions.” Second, the U.S. will follow “a single standard for human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it applies to all including ourselves…” Third, consistent with President “Obama’s personality”, the Administration believes “change occurs from within and so a lot of the emphasis… [will be] on how we can help local actors, change agents, civil society, labor activists, religious leaders trying to change their societies from within and amplify their own voices and give them the support they need…” But does “engagement” of African dictators mean sharing a cozy bed with them so that they can suck at the teats of American taxpayers to satisfy their insatiable aid addiction?
Since 2008, the U.S. Government has spent $125 million to support electoral reform, civic education, constitutional reform, conflict mitigation, civil society strengthening, and youth leadership and empowerment for free democratic elections in Kenya. But just north of the Kenyan border in Ethiopia, how much has the U.S. invested to support electoral reform, civic education, civil society strengthening, etc., has the U.S. invested? (That is actually a trick question. Civil society institutions are illegal in Ethiopia and no electoral reform is needed where the ruling party wins elections by 99.6 percent.)
In May 2010 after Meles Zenawi’s party won 99.6 percent of the seats in parliament, the White House issued a Statement expressing “concern that international observers found that the elections fell short of international commitments”; but the statement unambiguously affirmed that “we will work diligently with Ethiopia to ensure that strengthened democratic institutions and open political dialogue become a reality for the Ethiopian people.” To paraphrase William Buckley, “I won’t insult the intelligence of the White House by suggesting that they really do believe the statement they had issued.”
“There’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain…”
There is a great moral irony in the Obama Administration’s human rights policy in Africa. The President seems to believe that he is moving the African human rights agenda forward while appearing to be backsliding metaphorically similar to Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalk” dance. My humble personal view, (with all due respect to President Obama and his office and mindful of my own full support for his election in 2008 and re-election in 2012), is that President Obama needs to straight walk his human rights talk, not “moonwalk” it. I feel he does not have the confidence in the power of American ideals that I have as a naïve academician and lawyer. He is in an extraordinary historical position in world history as a person of color to advance American ideals in convincing and creative ways. But it seems to me that he has chosen to stand his ground on expediency with little demonstrated faith in American ideals. He now finds himself on a tightrope of moral ambiguity, which impels his hand to choose expediency over consistency of ideals and principles every time he deals with African dictators. He has chosen the creed of realpolitik at a time in global history when the common man and woman stand their ground on principle and ideals of human dignity.
In the “Arab Spring”, ordinary Tunisians, Egyptians, Syrians, Yemeni’s and others who have always faced privation, oppression, corruption and destitution rose up and stood their ground on the principle of human dignity and the rights of Man and Woman. They wanted basic human dignity more than loaves of bread. It is true that one cannot eat dignity like bread nor drink it like milk. But dignity is like oxygen. It is the essence of human existence. If one cannot breathe, one can neither eat nor drink. Human beings without dignity merely exist like the beasts of the wilderness — aimless, purposeless, meaningless, desultory, fearful and permanently insecure.
It seems to me President Obama has crossed over from the strength of American ideals to the weakness of political expediency. He has chosen to overlook and thereby excuse the cruelty and inhumanity of Africa’s ruthless dictators, their bottomless corruption and their endless crimes against humanity. He says he will “engage” African dictators on human rights. Some “engagement” it is to wine, dine and lionize them as America’s trade partners and “partners on the war on terror”! But the real terror is committed by these dictators on their own people every day as they smash and trash religious liberties, steal elections, jail journalists, shutter newspapers, fill their jails with political prisoners and so on. “Engagement” of African dictators for the sake of the war on terror and oil has created a monstrous moral complacency which tolerates and justifies the ends of evil for the illusion of good.
In his first inaugural speech, President Obama served notice to the world’s dictators: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” In July 2009, in Ghana, President Obama told Africa’s “strongmen” they are on the wrong side of history: “History offers a clear verdict: governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable, and more successful than governments that do not…. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end… Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans [citizens and their communities driving change], and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”
Senator Obama before becoming president said: “[Reinhold Niebuhr] is one of my favorite philosophers. I take away [from his works] the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard.”
Perhaps President Obama has forgotten his philosophical roots. But Niebuhr’s philosophy has special relevance in dealing with not only the evils of communist totalitarianism but also the evils of dictatorships, criminals against humanity, kleptocrats, abusers of power and genociders in Africa today. I wish to remind President Obama of his words in his first inauguration speech: “Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”
If I had a chance to have a word or two with President Obama, I would ask him eight naïve questions:
1) On which “side of history” are you?
2) If “Africa does not need strongmen”, why does America need them?
3) Why does America support governments that “do not respect the will of their own people” and as a direct result have made their countries failed states (not “prosperous, successful and stable ones”)?
4) Why can’t you help ordinary Africans “end tyranny” in the continent?
5) When will you stop “moonwalking” your human rights talk and actually straight walk your eloquent talk in Africa?
6) What are you prepared to do in the next four years about the “serious evil” of dictatorship, corruption and abuse of power in Africa and stop using the war on terror and oil as an excuse for “cynicism and inaction” ?
7) Do you think the people of Africa will render a “verdict” in your favor (assuming you care)?
8) When will you start living up to the “ideals that light up the world” and give up “expedience”?
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
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