Note: In ongoing commentaries, the author examines the Obama Administration’s policy in Africa.
Moral Hazard and Moral Bankruptcy
The concept of ‘moral hazard’ in politics may be used to explain a situation in which a government is insulated and immunized from the consequences of its risky, reckless and incompetent behavior. For instance, a regime that is heavily dependent on the safety net of foreign aid, sustained infusion of multilateral loans and perpetual supply of humanitarian assistance will behave differently if it were left to its own devices to deal with the consequences of a mismanaged economy, debilitating corruption and proliferating poverty. Many African regimes today simply avoid the demands of good governance, ignore the rule of law and commit gross violations of human rights in the belief that Western aid, particularly American taxpayer handouts, will always bail them out of their chronic budget deficits and replenish their empty grain silos. Stated simply, Western taxpayer dollars provide the fail safe insurance policy for the survival and persistence of failed regimes in Africa.
By shifting the risk of economic mismanagement, incompetence and corruption to Western donors, and because these donors impose no penalty or disincentive for poor governance, inefficiency, corruption and repression, African regimes are able to cling to power for decades abusing the human rights of their citizens and stealing elections. Western donors continue to bail out failed African states for two reasons. First, the iron fisted African dictators make excellent business partners. Recent Wikileaks cablegrams have documented that the most important objective for Western policy makers in Africa is to support a strongman who can guarantee them stability so that they can continue to do business as usual. Basically, they want a “guy they can do business with.” Second, Western donors believe that the few billions of aid dollars given every year to guarantee “stability” in African countries is more cost effective than helping to nurture a genuinely democratic societies in Africa. The moral hazard in Western policy comes not just from the fact that they provide fail-safe insurance to repressive regimes but also from the rewards of increasing amounts of aid and loans to buffer them from a tsunami of democratic popular uprising. As we have recently seen with Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubark in Egypt and Gadahafi in Libya, supporting “strongmen” in Africa will at best produce the illusion of stability, control and permanence for the West. But turning a blind eye to gross human rights violations and complicity in the denial of democratic rights to African peoples is irrefutable evidence of moral bankruptcy.
Obama’s Foreign Policy in Africa
In 2008, when then-Senator Obama was campaigning for the presidency, his advisor on Africa, Witney W. Schneidman, laid out the candidate’s fundamental policy objectives for Africa. Schneidman argued that “Barack Obama understands Africa and its importance to the United States” and “to strengthen our common security, we must invest in our common humanity.” Unquestionably, Senator Obama was a man of little talk and lots of action. He aggressively promoted human rights and accountability throughout the continent. He co-sponsored major legislation to help end genocide in Darfur (Darfur Peace and Accountability Act of 2006), vigorously advocated for a no-fly zone in Darfur (not so in Libya today), secured funds to facilitate free and fair elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, helped bring Liberian warlord Charles Taylor to justice and worked to develop a coherent strategy for stabilizing Somalia.
Senator Obama was a straight-talker. In 2006, he visited Kenya and “spoke truth to power” “about the corrosive impact of corruption.” He visited Kibera, Kenya, a 2.5 square kilometer tract of urban land and the second largest slum in Africa and home to an estimated 1.2 million people. He told the proudly delirious mass of poor people, “I love all of you, my brothers — all of you, my sisters”. He embraced the wretched of Kibera: “Everybody in Kibera needs the same opportunities to go to school, to start businesses, to have enough to eat, to have decent clothes.” After the 2007 Kenya elections, Senator Obama rolled his sleeves and for “18 months worked with the Kenyan leadership to help resolve the post-election crisis in that country.” He called out Robert Mugabe for stealing elections in Zimbabwe and condemned his gross human rights violations. In South Africa, he “demanded honesty from the government about HIV/Aids.” He went into “refugee camps in Chad, where he heard first-hand about the experiences of Sudanese women who had been forced from their homes and had their families torn apart, and worse, by Khartoum’s genocidal policies.”
In America, Senator Obama made a “strong effort to reach out to first, second and third generation Africans who have become American citizens to encourage them to be part of the effort that will elect Barack Obama president of the United States.” He actively sought the support of Ethiopians. His campaign specifically called on the “10,000 Ethiopian-Americans in Virginia to help turn that state blue on November 4th.”. On November 4, 2008, Ethiopian Americans came out by the tens of thousands and helped turn Virginia blue.
When Senator Obama became President, his “Africa Agenda” revolved around three basic objectives: 1) “accelerate Africa’s integration into the global economy”, 2) “enhance the peace and security of African states” and 3) “strengthen relationships with those governments, institutions and civil society organizations committed to deepening democracy, accountability and reducing poverty in Africa.” Over the past two years, what we have seen in Africa is a whole lot of deepening repression, human rights violations and corruption in Africa. We have seen very little “accountability, democracy building, the rule of law, judicial reform” and the rest of it.
Much to our dismay, upon becoming President Mr. Obama morphed from a “confrontor” to an accommodator of Africa’s notorious human rights violators. He began preaching and issuing moral pleas to “strongmen” in an effort to redirect them from their evil ways and be nice, and not nasty, to their peoples. From day one, President Obama began soft-pedaling. In his inaugural speech, his message to those stealing elections and committing crimes on their citizens was a bit disarming: “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.” We thought promising rewards to practitioners of corruption and deceit was rather odd; but we deciphered the hidden message: If Africa’s dictators unclench their fists and became nice, American taxpayers will lay some cold hard cash on their open palms. In other words, it is possible to buy off these dictators into becoming nice guys.
In April 2009, President Obama told the Turkish Parliament that the “choices that we make in the coming years will determine whether the future will be shaped by fear or by freedom; by poverty or by prosperity; by strife or by a just, secure and lasting peace.” He told them that “freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society” and “an enduring commitment to the rule of law is the only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all people.” In July 2009, in Ghana, President Obama went on the rhetorical offensive and told Africa’s “strongmen” that they have been driving on the wrong side of history for so long that they are headed straight for history’s dustbin. “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.” In the same month, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, in a major speech at Georgetown University, announced that the Obama Administration’s approach to “putting our principles into action” meant demanding accountability in American global human rights policy. She warned the world that “we must be wary of the steel vise in which governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit.”
In December 2009, Secretary Clinton offered further enlightenment on U.S. human rights policy: “It is crucial that we clarify what we mean when we talk about democracy, because democracy means not only elections to choose leaders, but also active citizens and a free press and an independent judiciary and transparent and responsive institutions that are accountable to all citizens and protect their rights equally and fairly.” She said the “first pillar” of this policy is “accountability”, which means “governments [must] take responsibility by putting human rights into law and embedding them in government institutions; by building strong, independent courts, competent and disciplined police and law enforcement.”
In April 2010, U.S. Assistant Secretary of African Affairs Johnnie Carson speaking at the Second Annual Africa Focus at Harvard University amplified on the meaning of accountability: “A key element in Africa’s transformation is sustained commitment to democracy, rule of law, and constitutional norms…. African countries need civilian governments that deliver services to their people, independent judiciaries that respect and enforce the rule of law, professional security forces that respect human rights, strong and effective legislative institutions, a free and responsible press, and a dynamic civil society.”
In May 2010, in a keynote speech at the 35-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder railed against “corruption [which] weakens the rule of law, undermines the promise of democracy, imperils development and stability and faith in our markets.” In July 2010, Holder and Johnnie Carson, announced at the African Summit in Kampala, Uganda that the U.S. is launching a special Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative to catch and prosecute corrupt foreign individuals and institutions operating in the U.S.
Egypt proved to be a test case for President Obama’s policy in Africa. In June 2009, in a speech given at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, President Obama told the young people of his
unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose…. You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.
In February 2011, when Egyptian students took the streets seeking to remove Mubarak after three decades of rule by state of emergency and replace it with a “government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people”, President Obama was visibly hesitant and wavering. He seemed to stand aloof and not with the young people of Egypt making history. He waffled on the issue of Mubarak’s departure from power and could only offer abstract moral exhortations against “violence” while calling for an “end to the harassment and detention” and the need to create a “process that is broadly inclusive of the Egyptian opposition.” Only after Mubarak took off for Sharm-el-Sheikh did President Obama step forward to take a stand: “For in Egypt it was the moral force of nonviolence, not terrorism, not mindless killing, but nonviolence, moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.” He was effusive in his praise of Egyptian youth: “It’s [Egypt’s] young people who’ve been at the forefront. A new generation, your generation, who want their voices to be heard….America will continue to do everything that we can to support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy in Egypt.”
Backing Up Talk With Action
President Obama is a source of great pride for Africans on the continent and others scattered in the Diaspora. That pride carries with it extraordinarily high expectations for U.S. policy in Africa. His writings and speeches demonstrate that he is very knowledgeable, well-informed and passionate about Africa; and his African ties are deep, strong and genuine. His involvement with Africa dates back to his student days in the early 1980s at Occidental College in California protesting apartheid. Africans would like to seek qualitative changes in U.S. policy towards Africa.
The President’s Africa policy pivots on a strategy of “constructive engagement” of African “leaders”. One cannot clap with one hand alone. There is overwhelming evidence to show that most African leaders are only interested in clinging to power cushioned by the financial support of American taxpayers. They are not interested in engaging America on what matters most to Americans – democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law, accountability, transparency and the like. President Obama, on the other hand, has partners right here in the U.S. of A who are willing to engage him on issues of democracy, freedom and human rights in Africa. They are the tens of thousands of Ethiopians who helped turn Virginia blue for him; they are the multitudes of Nigerians in Ohio and Somalis in Minnesota and other Africans throughout the U.S. who opened their wallets, canvassed the precincts and stood in line for hours that cold November morning in 2008 to make Senator Obama President Obama. Democracy, freedom and human rights in Africa cannot be subordinated to the expediency of “engaging” incorrigible African leaders whose sole interest is in clinging to power to enrich themselves and their cronies. Like charity, we believe, constructive engagement should begin at home.
The weekly commentaries of the author are available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/
By Alemayehu G. Mariam
Creeping Youthbellion and Youthvolution in Africa and the Middle East
“When the sun rises, it rises for everyone,” goes the old saying. The sun that rose over tyranny in North Africa will not set at the edge of the Sahel; it will shine southward on the African savannah and rainforest. The wind of change blowing across the Middle East will soon cut a wide swath clear to the Atlantic Coast of West Africa from the Red Sea. The sun that lifted the darkness that had enveloped Tunisia, Egypt and Libya for decades can now be seen rising just over the Ethiopian horizon. The sun rises to greet a new generation of Ethiopians.
Today we are witnessing a second African independence, an independence from thugtatorship no less dramatic or volcanic than the upheavals of oppressed peoples that overthrew the yoke of colonialism one-half century ago. In 1960, British PM Harold McMillan warned his fraternity of European imperial powers: “The wind of change is blowing through this [African] continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.”
The wind of change that has kicked up a sandstorm of youth rebellion and revolt in North Africa has laid bare the ghastly facts of oppression and youth despair to global consciousness. Arab and African youths are crying out for freedom, democracy, human rights and equal economic opportunity. The vast majority of the uneducated, under-educated and mis-educated African youths have no hope for the future. Legions of Arab youths with college degrees, advanced professional and technical training waste away the best years of their lives because they have few economic opportunities. They too see a void in their future. African and Arab youths have had enough, and they are rising up like the sun to liberate themselves and their societies from the clutches of thugs. The outcome of the youth uprisings is foreordained. As Sam Cooke, the great pioneer of soul music sang, “It’s been a long, a long time coming/ But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will…”
But there are some who cynically argue that the type of volcanic popular uprisings sweeping North Africa cannot happen in Ethiopia. They offer many reasons. They say the thugtators in Ethiopia have used every means at their disposal to keep the people benighted, divided and antagonized. They point to the primitive state of information technology in Ethiopia as proof of a deliberate official strategy to prevent Ethiopian youth from accessing the Internet freely to learn new ideas and create cyber civic societies. (Ethiopia has the second lowest (after Sierra Leone) internet penetration rate in Africa.) They say Zenawi has bought off the best and the brightest of Ethiopia’s youth with cash, jobs, special educational opportunities and privileges just to keep them off the streets and happy as a clam. (It seems Ethiopia’s youth are a pressurized powder keg.) They say Ethiopia’s young people (who comprise the majority of the population) have no frame of historical reference and that Zenawi has brainwashed them into believing that he is their demi-god and savior. (It is possible to fool some of the youths all of the time, but it is impossible to fool all of the youths all of the time.) They say Zenawi’s vast security network of informants, spies and thugs will suppress any youth or other uprising before it could gather momentum. They say Zenawi has permeated the society with so much fear and loathing that it is nearly impossible for individuals or groups to come together, build consensus and articulate a unified demand for change. They say Zenawi has created so much ethnic antagonism in the society that he can cling to power indefinitely by playing his divide-and-rule game and raising the specter of genocide and civil war. Regardless of what anyone says, Zenawi has made it crystal clear what he will do to cling to power. He will “crush with full force” anyone who opposes him electorally or otherwise.
The Survival Principle of Thugtatorships
African thugtators will do anything to cling to power. Hosni Mubarak used a state of emergency decree to cling to power for three decades. When he was deposed from his Pharaonic throne, there were 30,000 political prisoners rotting in his dungeons. Ben Ali in Tunisia did as he pleased for nearly a quarter of a century. Gadhafi’s actions in Libya today offer a hard object lesson on what thugtators will do to cling to power. He continues to use helicopter gunships and MiG fighter planes to bomb and strafe civilians. He is using his private army of thugs and mercenaries to commit unspeakable violence on Libyan citizens. He has offered to buy off Libyans for $400 per household and pledged a 150 percent increase in government workers’ wages if they stop the uprising. They told him “to immerse it in water and drink it” (or “to stuff it…” in the English vernacular.) Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, has threatened to dismember Libya and plunge it into a civil war and “fight to the last minute, until the last bullet, until the last drop of my blood.” Gadhafi is doing everything in his power to cling to power. The only unanswered question is whether he will resort to the “chemical option”. On March 16, 1988, toward the end of the Iraq-Iran war, Saddam Hussien used chemical weapons against the Kurds in Halabja killing thousands. Will Gadhafi use chemical weapons against Libyans in March 2011 as his regime comes to its long overdue end? Whether Zenawi will follow Gadhafi’s scorched earth policy to cling to power remains to be seen, but careful analysis of his actions, public statements, interviews, speeches, writings, ideological perspective and the irrepressible and self-consuming hatred he has publicly displayed against those who have opposed him over the past 20 years suggests that he will likely follow the tragic wisdom of the old aphorism, “Apre moi, le deluge” (After me, the flood).
But thugtators, trapped in their bubbles and echo chambers, often overestimate their prowess and abilities. “Brotherly Leader” Gadhafi thought he was so powerful and the Libyan people so cowardly that he did not expect in his wildest imagination they would dare rise up and challenge him. He was proven wrong when Libyans broke the chains of crippling fear Gadhafi had put on them for 42 years. Gadhafi thought he could prevent Libyan youths from communicating and coordinating with each other by shutting down social media such as Facebook. Libya’s young revolutionaries proved to be more creative; they used Muslim dating websites to coordinate their activities. Now Gadhafi has completely shut down Internet service in the country believing he can control and distort the flow of information coming out of Libya. Gadhafi’s murderous thugs and mercenaries have been repelled time and again by a ragtag army of Libyan shopkeepers, waiters, welders, engineers, students and the unemployed. Despite Gadhafi’s talk of tribal war, Libyans have closed ranks to wage war on thugtatorship. After 42 years of ignorant ramblings in the Green Book, Gadhafi and his Jamahiriya (“republic ruled by the masses”) are in their death throes.
The Bouzazi Factor
Mohamed Bouzazi was the young Tunisian who burned himself to protest Ben Ali’s thugtatorship. Bouzazi’s desperate act became the spark that created the critical mass of popular uprising which has caused a chain reaction throughout North Africa and the Middle East. The tipping point for change in any country cannot be predicted with certainty. In Tunisia, Bouzazi was literally the “fissile material” that catalyzed the popular uprising. In Egypt, a number of factors worked together to get rid of Mubarak’s thugtatorship. The young Egyptians who led the revolt were well educated and tech savvy and used their knowledge to organize effectively. The Egyptian military maintained neutrality and opposition elements were able to build consensus on the need to remove Mubarak and his henchmen from power after three decades. In Libya, the people just had enough of a raving lunatic running their lives.
Change is a universal imperative and it will come to Ethiopia as it has for its northern neighbors. The coming change in Ethiopia may not necessarily follow any existing template. It will originate from an unexpected source and spread in unexpected ways. The tipping point in Ethiopia will likely revolve around three factors: 1) the clarity, truthfulness and persuasiveness of the message of change delivered to the people, 2) the unity in the voices of the messengers who deliver the message, and 3) the context in which the message of change is communicated to the people. Simply stated, a convergence of democratic forces and a consensus on a clear message of change is necessary to create a critical mass for change in Ethiopia.
Overcoming the Fear Factor
The one common thread in all of the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East is that the people overcame their fears. The thugtators waged decades long campaigns of psychological warfare to instill fear and loathing in the hearts and minds of their peoples. For decades, the people believed the thugtators to be strong and invincible, untouchable and unaccountable. Recent evidence shows that all thugtatorships have feet of clay. The moment the Libyan people unshackled themselves from 42 years of crippling fear — the kind of fear President Roosevelt described as “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified, terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance ” — they were able to see Gadhafi for what he truly is — a thug. Ditto for Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. Change came to Tunisia, Egypt and Libya not because the thugtators had changed but because the people had changed. They were no longer afraid! They found out the true meaning of the old saying, “Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.”
The Hubris of Thugtators
Thugtators believe they can cling to power by eliminating their opposition, and particularly those who helped them get into power. They ward off potential challengers by keeping their military weak and appointing their cronies and henchmen to leadership positions. They believe they are loved, respected and admired by their people. Gadhafi said, “All my people love me!” They don’t. They hate him. Gadhafi convinced himself that all Libyans are happy under his rule.” They are not. Libya has a Sovereign Wealth Fund of $70 billion and nearly as much has been frozen by the American, British and Swiss governments. Yet the vast majority of the 6 million Libyans have difficulty making ends meet. Gadhafi has squandered much of the oil money buying arms, financing terrorists, seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction, giving it away to other countries to increase his prestige and paying blood money for acts of terrorism he personally ordered. He paid $3 billion to the survivors of the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in which 270 people died. Zenawi said he won the last election by 99.6 percent because the people love his party. They “consider themselves and the EPRDF as two sides of a coin” and “nothing can ever shake their unwavering support for our organization,” he said in his victory speech last May. He congratulated the people for “giv[ing] us the mandate through your votes” and patronized them for their “high sense of judgment and fairness” in voting for his party.
Regardless of what thugtators say or do, they will always remain weak and anxiety-ridden because they are in it for the money and not to serve the people. State power is the means by which they pick clean the economic bones of their countries. Thugtators are incapable of anticipating or understanding the need for change. Because they lack a vision for the future and the courage to do what needs to be done in the present, they are always swept away in a flash flood of popular uprising as Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gadhafi have found out lately.
Foolishly Riding the Tiger
President Obama needs to realize that it is not enough to talk about being “on the right side of history”. The U.S. must first do the right thing. For the Obama Administration to talk about “regime alteration” instead of regime change in the Middle East and North Africa today is not being on the right side of history. It is just being plain wrong! President John F. Kennedy said that being on the right side of history is being on the side of the “people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery and helping them help themselves.” In his inaugural speech President Kennedy said:
To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom– and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.
To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required–not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
The lesson of the spreading uprisings for African and Middle Eastern thugtators is a simple one best paraphrased in Gandhi’s immortal words: “There have been thugtators and murderers who have foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger. But in the end, they found themselves inside the tiger’s belly. Think of it, always.”
The weekly commentaries of the author are available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/
By Yilma Bekele
Here we are celebrating New Year in Tahesas. Accepting January, as Meskerem is a tall order. Enqutatash or Adis Amet is Adey Abeba blanketing the mountains with its vibrant bright yellow colors and the sun shining with all its strength. We are in the middle of winter here in the Northern Hemisphere. It is dark, cold and gloomy.
That was a weak ago. Last Friday the sun shone a little brighter. It felt like spring. We Ethiopians gave each other a knowing smile. We all felt empowered. Guess who was generating this intense feeling of a new beginning. It is no other than little Tunisia, electrifying Africa and the Middle East. Last Friday Tunisia got rid of a malignant tumor.
It was only a year and three months ago Tunisia’s President Zinedine Ben Ali won a landslide victory, with 89.62%. Last Friday the honorable President was forced to flee for his life. How does an 89.62 percent winner turn into a refugee so fast? That is the nature of the dictatorship business. Just like an earthquake, it is unpredictable. Ben Ali is just a new inductee into that infamous Hall of Fame for “Scumbags of Humanity.” He follows the footsteps of Ferdinand Marcos, Mobutu Sese Seko, Shah of Iran, Augusto Pinochet, Mengistu Haile Mariam and my personal favorite Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena.
As you read this, political refugee (actually fleeing criminal) Zinedine Ben Ali and former first lady Leila are camped in Saudi Arabia unsure of what tomorrow is going to bring. It will not be far fetched to say that the former mafia bosses are shell-shocked unable to comprehend what has unfolded and definitely under sedation. Unfortunate for the duo this is not some bad dream or a bad acid trip. It is real baby! How did they get into this mess?
Tunisia is located in North Africa between Libya and Algeria and has a population of ten and a half million. It got its independence from France in 1956. The first President Habib Bourguiba became the first dictator and stayed in power until doctors declared him ‘unfit to rule’ in 1987. Mr. Zinedine Ben Ali who was the Prime Minster became the President. That was twenty-three years ago.
Former dictator president Zinedine Ben Ali is a crafty fellow in the sense of being devious and cruel. He knew how to talk the language of Democracy, Human Rights, freedom of expression and free enterprise. That was for foreign consumption. It gave his enablers a fig leaf to hide behind. Ben Ali’s Tunisia was one big prison.
Dictator Ali went to military schools both in France and the USA. He worked his way up from Security Chief to being the Prime Minister. His style of leadership is the envy of every African dictator. Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia has mentioned him plenty of times as an example of good leadership and stability. Zambia has awarded him its highest medal. Tunisia has even won the United Nations E- government Award for ‘excellence in serving the public interest. I told you he was good. With Algeria on his left projecting symptoms of a ‘failed state’ and Libya to his right run by a poster child for ‘grandiose delusion’ symptoms, Ben Ali looked like an oasis of stability. To prove it Tunisia never failed to hold elections since Ben Ali came to power. The elections held in ’89, ’94, 04, and as recent as 2009 were all won By Ben Ali and his party with over 90% approval.
The real face of Tunisia was completely different than the picture presented by Ben Ali and family. The real Tunisia was a one Party State belonging to Zinedine Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi. Economic regulations, and legal procedures did not apply to the Ben Ali clan. First Lady Leila was the most hated person Tunisia. She even deserved her own report on Wiki Leaks. Here is a quote:
“Corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising. Tunisians intensely dislike, even hate, first lady Leila Trabelsi and her family. In private, regime opponents mock her; even those close to the government express dismay at her reported behavior.
Her greed was so legendary she was dubbed the Imelda Marcos of the Arab world and the ‘Regent of Carthage’ for her power behind the throne and her love of money, luxury cars and shopping spree.
The one party state did not allow dissent, banned political parties unless approved by the state, closed all independent media outlets and used Cisco filters to block free web sites. The prisons were full of political opponents and the most educated and those that have connections first impulse was to leave. The safest option for investment for those with money was real estate or off shore account. Both do not contribute to sustainable economic growth. The rampant corruption, unemployment, inflation and general hopelessness was spiraling out of control.
Mohamed Bouaziz a 26-year old unemployed college graduate became the flash point that started a prairie fire. When the police confiscated his fruit cart regarding permit issue, Mr. Bouaziz drew the line in the sand and said enough. He set himself on fire. The day was Friday December 17th. The people of Tunisia felt a jolt of ‘anti fear’ laser tease. Twenty-eight days later on Friday January 17th. Coward Ben Ali and cruel and mean Leila fled not knowing who will welcome them. Shock is an understatement.
Today, the interim government is hunting down former officials and palace lovers and state television reported the arrest for “crimes against Tunisia” of 33 members of Mr. Ben Ali’s family, many of whom grew rich from their connections. Let justice begin.
Is what happened to dictator Ben Ali out of the ordinary? Can it be duplicated? Both are valid questions. What happened in Tunisia is not unique. The saying ‘where there is oppression there is resistance’ is a universal truth. The human spirit soars when it is free. It is also true that dominance over others is an aphrodisiac. There will always be a few individuals that will shine brighter than others. Most will leave a lasting legacy and generations will utter their names with fondness and admiration. A few are considered a curse. Poverty of mind and spirit is their making. What happened in Tunisia has happened in Iran, Ethiopia, Philippines, Poland, East Germany, Romania, Zaire and more. Dictators never learn.
No one has been able to predict the ‘tipping point’ where fear is replaced by empowerment. Not political scientists, sociologists or human behavior psychologists. What opens the floodgates of discontent could be anything.
Rosa Parks’s refusal to give her seat to a white person is considered the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, the firing of Anna Walentynowicz, a shipyard worker in Gdansk, Poland gave birth to the Solidarity Movement that ushered in the unraveling of the Soviet System, and now Mohamed Bouaziz’s personal protest is felt all over the world.
Ethiopian television, radio, newspapers, websites have made it a policy not to mention Tunisia. Controlling the flow of information is job number one of any dictatorship. The regime spends millions of hard earned currency to misinform, jam, block use physical coercion to keep the population in ignorance. It is a futile attempt. Where there is oppression there is resistance.
I am sure crafty Ben Ali must have tried all kinds of gimmicks to turn away the tide of discontent. Sitting in his palace isolated from daily life he was sure that his people like him. The fool probably believed it too. I am sure he blamed the Diaspora, Islamists or other perceived enemies for the problem he created.
Our Ethiopia has its own uniqueness. Our country has been in turmoil since the early ‘70s. The over forty years of chaos have rendered us numb and confused. Killing, lying, cheating and using each other has become the norm. Fear has become our middle name. We don’t not only trust the government but mistrust among friends, neighbors or family has taken away our ability to unite. Our psych has been scared and requires careful handling. We are a very wounded people.
Ben Ali and Meles Zenawi are two different animals. The TPLF boss has his own private army, his own private Federal Police and boasts of emasculated Bantustan chiefs. Meles Zenawi can also count on the citizens he drove out of the country to turn around and contribute heavily to his welfare. According to the World Bank the Diaspora contributes over $3 billion US to prop up the ethnic junta. In a nutshell we are contributing for our own slavery.
That being said, fortunate for us ‘dictatorship’ carries its own destruction in its womb. No amount of Party organized bullying, Kebele based spying, Federal Police killing, fostering inter-ethnic strife will interfere with the inevitable collapse of a totalitarian state. As I said no one can predict when but all agree the system will explode. It is not a matter of if but when.
Oppressed people approach the problem from two fronts. The first is building up organizations that will act as a catalyst to hasten the inevitable collapse of the dictatorship. We are doing that. The many Diaspora organizations involved in doing community work in exposing the ethnic based regime are the source of our pride. Since the stolen elections of 2005 our force have shown both maturity and muscle. Such Organizations as Ginbot7, Andenet, OLF, SMNE, ONLF and others are doing a good job. The second front is winning the hearts and minds of our people. The best example of that is ESAT. Ethiopian Satellite TV is working hard to level the playing field when it comes to unfettered information. ESAT is our lethal weapon. ESAT will inform our people so they can make a smart decision based on facts not Berket Semeon’s concocted lie. ESAT and our independent web sites are the future of Ethiopia.
I will not try to guess where Ato Meles will go when ‘the rubber hits the road’ in other words when the mob breaches the palace walls. Will he be ready, will he have time to pack, will his security guard betray him and other questions will arise. Then comes the issue of where to go? Eritrea, definitely no, Sudan, out of the question, USA and Europe, very dangerous that leaves China, North Korea or Rwanda with his buddy Kagame. None of the choices are enticing. The question Ben Ali is contemplating today should be is life imprisonment a good investment for a mere twenty years of bullying. Being a dictator is a thankless job!