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Ethiopia 2005 Election

Ethiopia: Where Do We Go (or not go) From Here?

On the road to democracy and unity?

For some time now, I have been heralding Ethiopia’s irreversible march from dictatorship to democracy. In April 2011, I wrote a commentary entitled, “The Bridge on the Road(map) to Democracy”. I suggested,

We can conceive of the transition from dictatorship to democracy as a metaphorical journey on the road to progress, freedom and human enlightenment (democracy) or a regression to tyranny, subjugation and bondage (dictatorship). Societies and nations move along this road in either direction. Dictatorships can be transformed into democracies and vice versa. But the transition takes place on a bridge that connects the road from dictatorship to democracy. It is on this bridge that the destinies of nations and societies, great and small, are made and unmade. If the transition on the bridge is orderly, purposeful and skillfully managed, then democracy could become a reality. If it is chaotic, contentious and combative, there will be no crossing the bridge, only pedaling backwards to dictatorship. My concern is what could happen on the bridge linking dictatorship to democracy in Ethiopia when that time comes to pass.

In June 2012, I wrote a commentary entitled, “Ethiopia: On the Road to Constitutional Democracy”.  I argued with supporting historical evidence that “Most societies that have sought to make a transition from tyranny and dictatorship to democracy have faced challenging and complex roadblocks.” Focusing on the practical lessons of the “Arab Spring”, I proposed a constitutional pre-dialogue and offered some suggestions:

The search for a democratic constitution and the goal of a constitutional democracy in Ethiopia will be a circuitous, arduous and challenging task. But it can be done… To overcome conflict and effect a peaceful transition, competing factions must work together, which requires the development of consensus on core values. Public civic education on a new constitution must be provided in the transitional period.  Ethiopian political parties, organizations, leaders, scholars, human rights advocates and others should undertake a systematic program of public education and mobilization for democratization and transition to a genuine constitutional democracy. To have a successful transition from dictatorship to constitutional democracy, Ethiopians need to practice the arts of civil discourse and negotiations….”

They are pedaling backwards on the low road of dictatorship, but are we marching forward on the highway to democracy?

It is easy for some people to speak truth to power, or the powers that be. Without great difficulty, they can preach to abusers of power why they are wrong, what they are doing wrong, why they should right their wrong and do right by those they have wronged. But it is not so easy to speak truth to  powers that could be, particularly when one does not know who “they” are. Instead of speaking truth to the powers that could be, I will simply ask: They are pedaling backwards on the low road of dictatorship, but are we marching forward on the highway to democracy?  Where do we go (or not go) from here?

Ordinarily, this question would be put to Ethiopia’s “opposition leaders”. For some time now, I have been wondering who those leaders are and are not. In my commentary last September entitled, “Ethiopia’s Opposition at the Dawn of Democracy?”, I asked out loud (but never got answer), “Who is the Ethiopian ‘opposition’?”  I confessed my bewilderment then as I do now:  “There is certainly not a monolithic opposition in the form of a well-organized party. There is no strong and functional coalition of political parties that could effectively challenge both the power and ideology of the ruling party. There is not an opposition in the form of an organized vanguard of intellectuals.  There is not an opposition composed of an aggregation of civil society institutions including unions and religious institutions, rights advocates and dissident groups. There is not an opposition in the form of popular mass based political or social movements. There is not…”

Stated differently, is the “opposition that amorphous aggregation of weak, divided, squabbling, factionalized and fragmented parties and groups that are constantly at each other’s throats? The grumbling aggregation of human rights advocates, civic society organizers, journalists and other media professionals and academics? The groups committed to armed struggle and toppling the dictatorship by force the opposition? Anyone who thinks or self-proclaims s/he is the opposition?” All or none of the above?

I am willing to bet my bottom dollar that the disciples of the late Meles Zenawi would have no problems explaining where they are going from here. They would state with certainty, “Come hell or high water, we’ll pedal backwards lockstep in Meles’ ‘eternally glorious’ footsteps to the end of the rainbow singing Kumbaya to grab the pot of gold he has left for us under the Grand Renaissance Dam. We will fly high in the sky on the wings of a 10, 12, 15 percent annual economic growth and keep flying higher and higher…”  I say it is still better to have a road map to La-La Land than sitting idly by twiddling one’s thumbs about the motherland.

Is the question to be or not be in the opposition? What does it mean to be in the “opposition”? What must one do to be in the “opposition”? Is heaping insults, bellyaching, gnashing teeth and criticizing those abusing power the distinctive mark of being in the opposition? Is frothing at the mouth with words of anger and frustration proof of being the opposition? How about opposing the abusers of power for the sake of opposing them and proclaiming moral victory?  Is opposing the abusers of power without a vision plan, a plan of action or a strategic plan really opposition?

I have often said that Meles believed he “knew the opposition better than the opposition knew itself.”  Meles literally laughed at his opposition.  He considered the leaders of his opposition to be his intellectual inferiors. He believed he could outwit, outthink, outsmart, outplay, outfox and outmaneuver them all, save none, any day of the week. He believed them to be dysfunctional, shiftless and inconsequential; he never believed they could pose a challenge to his power. In his speeches and public comments, he ridiculed, scorned and sneered at them. He treated his opposition like wayward children who needed constant supervision, discipline and well-timed spanking to keep them in line. Truth be told, during his two decades in power, Meles was able to outwit, outthink, outsmart, outplay, outfox and outmaneuver, and neutralize his opposition at will. Meles’ disciples today trumpet their determination to walk in his footsteps and do exactly the same thing.

Where is the “opposition” now?

Perhaps it is premature to pose the question, “Where do we go from here?” to Ethiopia’s “opposition”.  It may be more appropriate to ask where the “opposition” is (is not) now. From my vantage point, the “opposition” is in a state of resignation, stagnation, negation, frustration and alienation. I see the “opposition” watching with hypnotic fascination the abusers of power chasing after their tails. The “opposition” seems anchorless, agenda less, aimless, directionless, dreamless and feckless. The “opposition”, it seems to me, is in a state of slumber, in crises and in a state of paralysis.

Time was when the “opposition” got together, stood together, put heads together, worked together, campaigned together, negotiated together, compromised together, met the enemy together and even went to jail together. Flashback 2005! The “opposition” set aside ethnic, religious, linguistic, ideological and other differences and came together to pursue a dream of freedom and democracy. That dream bound the opposition and strengthened the bonds of their brotherhood and sisterhood. The “opposition” mobilized together against factionalism and internal conflicts and closed ranks against those who sought to divide and split it. By doing so, the opposition thumped the ruling party in the polls.

In the past seven years, the dream of democracy and freedom among the “opposition” seems to have slowly faded away and the strength of its champions sapped away in mutual distrust and recrimination. Dialogue in the “opposition” has been replaced with monologue and deafening silence; action with inaction; cooperation with obstruction; coalition with partisanship; unity with division; amity with enmity and civility with intolerance.

The “opposition” wants change and rid Ethiopia of tyranny and dictatorship.  But as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent. … We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”  The Ethiopian “opposition” needs to stand up erect and make demands with steely  backbone and stiff upper lip.

There are many ways to stand up and show some backbone. To speak up for human rights and against government wrongs is to stand up. To demand that wrongs be righted is to stand up. To open up one’s eyes and unplug one’s ears in the face of evil is standing up. To simply say “No!” even under one’s breath is standing up. Speaking truth to power is standing up.  Dr. King said, “A just law is a manmade code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” Standing up against an unjust law is standing up for justice.

In January 2011, I wrote a weekly column entitled, “After the Fall of African Dictatorships” and posed three questions: “What happens to Africa after the mud walls of dictatorship come tumbling down and the palaces of illusion behind those walls vanish? Will Africa be like Humpty Dumpty (a proverbial egg) who “had a great fall” and could not be put back together by “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men”? What happens to the dictators?”

The mud walls of dictatorship in Ethiopia have been exhibiting ever expanding cracks since the death of the arch architect of dictatorship Meles Zenawi sometime last summer. The irony of history is that the question is no longer whether Ethiopia will be like Humpty Dumpty as the “king” and “king’s men” have toiled to make her for two decades. The tables are turned. Despite a wall of impregnable secrecy, the “king’s men and their horses” are in a state of disarray and dissolution. They lost their vision when they lost their visionary. The old saying goes, “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Well, the king is no more; and the “king’s men and horses” are lost in the wilderness of their own wickedness, intrigue and deception.

The “fierce urgency of now” is upon Ethiopia’s opposition leaders to roll out their plans and visions of democracy. Now is the time for Ethiopia’s human rights advocates to bring forth their vision of a society governed by the rule of law. Now is the time for Ethiopia’s civil society leaders to build networks to connect individuals and communities across ethnic, religious, linguistic, gender and regional lines. Now is the time for Ethiopia’s intellectuals to put forth practical solutions to facilitate the transition from dictatorship to democracy.  Now is the time for all freedom loving Ethiopians to come forward and declare and pledge their allegiance to a democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Now is the time to unchain ourselves from the burdens of the past. Now is the time to abandon the politics of identity and ethnicity and come together in unity for the sake of all of Ethiopia’s children. Now is the time to organize and mobilize for national unity. Now is the time for truth and reconciliation. Now is the time to assert our human dignity against tyrannical barbarity.

Now is not the time to for division, accusation and recrimination. Now is not the time for finger pointing, bellyaching and teeth gnashing. Now is not the time to remain silent. Now is not the time to turn a blind eye. Now is not the time to turn a deaf ear.

Where should we go from here?  

I will try to answer my own question in brief form for now. The opposition should get on the highway that leads to democratic governance. The opposition should roll out its action plan for a democratic, post-dictatorship Ethiopia. The principal lesson to be learned from the experiences of the past seven years is that the opposition’s role is not simply to “oppose, oppose and oppose” for the sake of opposing. The opposition’s role and duty goes well beyond simply proclaiming opposition to the abusers of power. The opposition’s role goes to the heart of the future democratic evolution and governance of the country. In that role, the opposition must  relentlessly demand accountability and transparency of those absuing power. The fact that the abusers of power will pretend to ignore demands of accountability and transparency is of no consequence. The question is not if they will be held to account but when. The opposition should always question and challenge the actions and omissions of those abusing their powers in a principled and honest manner. The opposition must analyze, criticize, dice and slice the policies, ideas and programs of those in power and offer better, different and stronger alternatives. It is not sufficient for the opposition to publicize the failures and  of the ruling party and make broad claims that they can do better.

For starters, the opposition should make crystal clear its position on accountability and transparency  to the people. For instance, what concrete ideas does the opposition have about ending, or at least effectively controlling, endemic corruption in Ethiopia.  In an exhaustive 448-page report, the World Bank recently concluded that the Ethiopian state is among the handful of the most corrupt in the world. I cannot say for sure how many opposition leaders or anyone in the opposition has taken the time to study this exquisitely detailed study of corruption in Ethiopia; but anyone who has read the report will have no illusions about the metastasizing terminal cancer of corruption in the Ethiopia body politics. The opposition should issue a white paper on what it would do to deal with the problem of corruption in Ethiopia.

 Speaking truth to the powers that could be

I know that what I have written here will offend some and anger others. Still many could find it refreshing and provocatively audacious. Some critics will wag their tongues and froth at the mouth claiming that I am attacking the “opposition” sitting atop my usual high horse. They will claim that I am weakening and undermining the “opposition” preaching from my soapbox. Others will say I am overdramatizing the situation in the “opposition”.  Still others will claim I am not giving enough credit or am discrediting those in the “opposition” who have been in the trenches far longer than I have been involved in human rights advocacy. They will say I am doing to the opposition what the power abusers have done to them. They will say I don’t understand because I have been sitting comfortably in my academic armchair and have not been on the front lines suffering the slings and arrows of an outrageous dictatorship.  Be that as it may!

Though I acknowledge such claims could be convenient diversions, there are two essetnial questions all of us who consider ourselves to be  in the “opposition” can no longer ignore and must be held to answer: They are pedaling backwards on the low road of dictatorship, are we marching forward on the highway to democracy? Is the “opposition” better off today than it was in 2005?

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:



Ethiopia: An Imaginary Conversation with Nelson Mandela

Alemayehu G. Mariam

The Triumphalism of African Dictators

There is nothing that is both amusing and annoying than the chest-beating triumphalism of Africa’s tin pot dictators. This past February, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda lectured a press conference: “There will be no Egyptian-like revolution here. … We would just lock them up. In the most humane manner possible, bang them into jails land that would be the end of the story.” That is to say, if you crack a few heads and kick a few behinds, Africans will bow down and fall in line. Museveni must have been a protégé of Meles Zenawi, the dictator-in-chief in Ethiopia. In 2005, troops under the direct control and command of Zenawi shot dead at least 193 unarmed demonstrators, wounded an additional 763 and jailed over 30 thousand following elections that year. That was the “end of the story” for Zenawi. Or was it?

In March of this year, Zenawi reaffirmed his 99.6 percent electoral victory in the May 2010 elections and ruled out an “Egyptian-like revolution” by proclaiming a contractual right (read birthright) to cling to power: “When the people gave us a five year contract, it was based on the understanding that if the EPDRF party (Zenawi’s party) does not perform the contract to expectations it would be kicked out of power. No need for hassles. The people can judge by withholding their ballots and chase EPDRF out of power. EPDRF knows it and the people know it too.” For Zenawi, electoral politics is a business deal sealed in contract. Every ballot dropped (and stuffed) in the box is the equivalent of an individual signature in blood on an iron clad five-year contract.

Following the recent uprisings, the delirious 42-year dictator of Libya jabbered, “Muammar Gaddafi is the leader of the revolution, I am not a president to step down… This is my country. Muammar is not a president to leave his post, Muammar is leader of the revolution until the end of time.” Simply stated: Muammar Gaddafi is president-for-life!

In 2003, Robert Mugabe, the self-proclaimed Hitler of Zimbabwe, shocked the world by declaring: “I am still the Hitler of the times. This Hitler has only one objective: Justice for his people. Sovereignty for his people. If that is Hitler, right, then let me be a Hitler ten-fold.” In Mein Kampf, the self-proclaimed leader (Der Fuhrer) of the “master race” wrote blacks are “monstrosities halfway between man and ape.” Africans have deep respect for their elders because they believe wisdom comes with age. Sadly, the 87 year-old Mugabe is living proof of the old saying, “There is no fool like an old fool.”

What makes African dictators so mindlessly arrogant, egotistically self-aggrandizing, delusionally contemptuous, hopelessly megalomaniacal and sociopathically homicidal? More simply: What the hell is wrong with African dictators?!?

Seeking to answer this question, I conducted an imaginary interview with Africa’s greatest, most respected and universally-loved leader, Nelson (Madiba) Rolihlahla Mandela. The answers below are quotations pieced together from President Mandela’s books, public statements, speeches, interviews, court proceedings and other publications and materials.

An Imaginary Conversation With President Nelson Mandela

Q. President Mandela, many African leaders believe they can cling to power forever by “locking up” their enemies and “banging” them in jail, shooting them in the streets and waging a sustained psychological campaign of fear and intimidation against their people. Is peaceful change possible in Africa?

A. “The government has interpreted the peacefulness of the movement as a weakness: the people’s non-violent policies have been taken as a green light for government violence. Refusal to resort to force has been interpreted by the government as an invitation to use armed force against the people without any fear of reprisals…

Neither should it ever happen that once more the avenues to peaceful change are blocked by usurpers who seek to take power away from the people, in pursuit of their own, ignoble purposes.

If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner. It always seems impossible until it is done.”

Q. Many African leaders “lead” by intimidating, arbitrarily  arresting, torturing and murdering their people. What are the leadership qualities Africa  needs?

A.  “I always remember the axiom: a leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind. Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front.

It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.

As a leader… I have always endeavored to listen to what each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own opinion. Oftentimes, my own opinion will simply represent a consensus of what I heard in the discussion.

This [first democratic election for all South Africans] is one of the most important moments in the life of our country. I stand here before you filled with deep pride and joy – pride in the ordinary, humble people of this country. You have shown such calm, patient determination to reclaim this count. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”

Quitting is leading too.”

Q. Many African leaders today believe they are “supermen” who have a birthright to rule their people as they wish. Does this concern you?

A. “That was one of the things that worried me – to be raised to the position of a semi-god – because then you are no longer a human being. I wanted to be known as Mandela, a man with weaknesses, some of which are fundamental, and a man who is committed, but, nevertheless, sometimes fails to live up to expectations.”

Q. You have spent  many decades in prison. Do you have any regrets for all the sacrifices you have made?

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for. But, my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Q. There are African leaders who say democracy and freedom must be delayed and rationed to the people in small portions to make way for development. Can freedom be rationed?

A. “There is no such thing as part freedom.”

Q. What is at the end of the rainbow of freedom?

A. “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”

Q. One African leader takes great pride in comparing himself to Adolf Hitler, the iconic symbol of hate in modern human history. Why are so many African leaders filled with so much hatred, malice and bitterness?

A.  “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Q. Do you believe an election is a contract between Africa’s iron-fisted rulers and the people?

A. “Only free men can negotiate, prisoners can’t enter in contracts.”

Q. What can Africans do to liberate themselves from the scourge of dictatorship?

A. “No single person can liberate a country. You can only liberate a country if you act as a collective.”

Q. Why are so many well-off Africans afraid to take a stand against dictatorship, human rights violations and  corruption on the continent?

A. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us: it’s in everyone. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Q. How can African intellectuals contribute to the struggle for democracy, human rights and accountability in the continent?

A: “A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”

Q. What is the one important thing young Africans need to guarantee a bright future for themselves and the continent?

A. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that a son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president…”

Q. What is you dream for Africa and humanity in general?

A.  “I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself. I dream of the realization of the unity of Africa, whereby its leaders combine in their efforts to solve the problems of this continent. I dream of our vast deserts, of our forests, of all our great wildernesses.

Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another. If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.

This must be a world of democracy and respect for human rights, a world freed from the horrors of poverty, hunger, deprivation and ignorance, relieved of the threat and the scourge of civil wars and external aggression and unburdened of the great tragedy of millions forced to become refugees.”

Q. What are the choices facing the people of Africa today?

A. “The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means within our power in defense of our people, our future and our freedom.”

Thank you, President Mandela. May you live for a thousand years!  Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. (God Bless Africa.)

Previous commentaries by the author are available at: and




Ethiopia: Talking Trash, Speaking Truth

Alemayehu G. Mariam

The View From the Sewers

Looking up from the sewers, everything must look like garbage!

Last week, dictator Meles Zenawi ripped the final election report of the 2010 European Union Election Observer Mission to Ethiopia (EU EOM) as “trash that deserves to be thrown in the garbage“. He said, “The report is not about our election. It is just the view of some Western neo-liberals who are unhappy about the strength of the ruling party. Anybody who has paper and ink can scribble whatever they want.”

On August 29, 2005, Zenawi slammed the final election report of the 2005 EU EOM Ethiopia 2005 Report as “garbage” and a “farce”. He said, “The statement, in my view, shows that the mission has turned out to be something worse than a farce… We shall, in the coming days and weeks, see what we can do to expose the pack of lies and innuendoes that characterize the garbage in this report.” No wonder Zenawi got chosen as Africa’s chief environmentalist and representative to the global climate change conference. He is an expert in recycling garbage.

The fact of the matter is that Zenawi cannot mistreat a member of the European Parliament and officials authorized by the same body the way he mistreats and demeans his own members of parliament. Talking down and hurling abusive language at members of his own parliament is one thing, but doing the same to a mission authorized by the European Parliament is an entirely different matter. To call the EU EOM Report “garbage” is to invite others to use the same word to describe the election itself. Such language is unacceptable, as they say in the diplomatic world.

Zenawi is legendary for his mastery and exquisite delivery of gutter language. He can out-tongue-lash, out-mudsling, out-vilify and out-smear any politician on the African continent. He is the iconic in-your-face mudslinger-cum-bully who will unsheath his claws, bare his teeth and pounce at the faintest sign of criticism. Just as he called the EU EOM 2005 Report a “pack of lies and innuendoes”, he blasted the March 11, 2010 U.S. State Department’s “Reports on Human Rights Practices” on Ethiopia[1] as “lies, lies and implausible lies.” He ridiculed the U.S. State Department for not being able to tell a crooked lie straight: “The least one could expect from this report, even if there are lies is that they would be plausible ones,” snarled Zenawi. “But that is not the case. It is very easy to ridicule it [report], because it is so full of loopholes. They could very easily have closed the loopholes and still continued to lie.” His consigliere, Bereket Simon chimed in: “It is the same old junk. It’s a report that intends to punish the image (sic) of Ethiopia and try if possible to derail the peaceful and democratic election process.” In the same month, Zenawi lambasted the Voice of America as the voice of genocide: “We have been convinced for many years that in many respects, the VOA Amharic Service has copied the worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda.”

Just before the May 2010 election, Zenawi cranked up his “Insulto-Matic” machine and verbally shredded his former comrade-in-arms and rhetorically clobbered his critics[2]. He called them “muckrakers,” “mud dwellers” and good-for-nothing “chaff” and “husk.” He accused them of being “anti-democratic,” “anti-people” fomenters of “interhamwe.” He characterized them as “sooty,” “sleazy,” “gun-toting marauders,” “pompous egotists” and every other name in the book. He repeatedly denounced his opposition for “rolling in a quagmire of mud” and trying to “smear mud on the people”. He said they were “dirtying up the people like themselves.” After all was said in that speech, it was clear that he was the only one doing all the mud-slinging and mud-rolling (chika jiraf and chika mab-kwat).

Last month, Simon broadsided Human Rights Watch as ‘a frustrated, self-appointed kingmaker institution” for issuing a 105-page report entitled: “Development without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites Repression in Ethiopia”. Simon told the Voice of America: “This is a report by some highly frustrated and self-appointed kingmaker institution in the U.S. Just because what they dreamt of in Ethiopia didn’t take place, they are doing whatever they can to tarnish the image of the country.” It was a curious choice of royal metaphor to use by the chief mouthpiece of the emperor with no clothes.

In December 2009, after keeping Birtukan Midekssa, the first female opposition political party leader in Ethiopia history, in solitary confinement for months, Zenawi mocked her as a “silly chicken” that “hanged herself”. He cautioned: “As our parents say, ‘A hen once heard of a fad and hanged herself trying to follow it.'” In April 2008, he scoffed at the international human rights organizations who criticized his “press law” by telling them that his new press law will be “on par with the best in the world.”

It’s always the same old lying, thieving, conniving and scheming neoliberal, neo-colonial, hegemonic and globalizing neo-imperialist SOBs and their local lackeys against Zenawi!

Sound, Fury and Buffoonery

The use of vulgarity, slamming opponents with foul and pejorative language and open display of contempt and disrespect for the opposition and critics are Zenawi’s stock in trade. He has perfected the art of mudslinging and mudrolling (chika jiraf and chika mabkwat). Regular followers of his public statements no longer cringe as he caricatures himself in his unrestrained use of barnyard language. His repeated public rhetorical meltdowns have become a source of perverse amusement for some. The question is whether Zenawi is full of sound and fury that signifies nothing; or whether there is a method to his rhetorical buffoonery?

It is rather obvious that Zenawi likes to be brazenly provocative. Every time criticism gets under his skin, he goes ballistic, bombastic and hyperbolic. As many of my readers know, I am fascinated by the “grammar of dictators”[3]. I am particularly intrigued by the thoughts and ideas that circulate in the minds of dictators who are drunk as a skunk on power, though I am disgusted by the filthy words that ooze out of their mouths. To be sure, my interests go beyond simple intellectual curiosity. As a political scientist and a lawyer, I have a special professional interest in the use of language and words in political discourse and legal and forensic analysis. I believe language is the roadmap of the mind. To find out what is in a person’s mind, I say, follow the word trail. Words provide snapshots of what is deeply buried under the landscape and terrains of the mind. When we speak, our words reveal the state of our mind, the temperature of our feelings and emotions and the clarity or opacity in which we perceive the world. Most importantly, the words we use reflect our values, principles and upbringing, or the lack thereof. When we communicate using filthy and vulgar language, we reveal our filthy and vulgar values. When we express ourselves in scatological (filthy) and eschatological (end of the world) language, we reveal our deepest beliefs and convictions about who we are and how we view the world. Immoral and depraved language is the outward sign of one’s inner moral bankruptcy.

So, why would anyone descend from the sublimely grand stage of world politics to use gutter language? Part of the answer to this question may be found in Thijs Berman’s (the head of the EU EOM to Ethiopia 2010) response to Zenawi’s vulgarism: “One-hundred and seventy independent observers have been working here in Ethiopia to assess the electoral process in a very serious and professional way. Anyone who tries to show contempt for this professional work shows contempt for himself. It is degrading for the prime minister to react this way.” In other words, when Zenawi points an index finger at the EU EOM Mission and calls them “garbage”, he would be wise to keep in mind that three fingers are pointing straight at him.

A more systematic explanation of “gutter diplomacy” (the use of gutter language for political discourse and diplomatic communication) may be found in the literature of political psychology and forensic linguistics. As I have observed previously[4], “all dictators are criminals.” As a criminal defense lawyer and political scientist, I have had ample opportunities to observe firsthand the workings of the criminal mind, and academically to study dictators as “state criminals.” My conclusion is that the difference between the street criminal and the state criminal is a matter of degree and magnitude. The street criminal targets individuals in the neighborhood for his criminal wrongdoing. The state criminal targets the people of an entire nation.

Dictators who have wielded power over a period of time suffer a psychopathological condition that could best be described as “aggressive megalomanical narcissistic syndrome”. Simply stated, as dictators steal and accumulate more wealth and aggrandize political power by killing, jailing and torturing their opponents, they begin to fantasize that they are omnipotent and invincible. They convince themselves that the image they see in the mirror every morning is an awesome demigod to be worshipped and feared. They fall in love with the image in the mirror (narcissism) and begin to worship that image as an omnipotent deity (megalomania). They isolate themselves in an echo chamber cut off from the outside world and surround themselves with fawning sycophants and yes-men who constantly tell them how great, how powerful and how special they are. The dictators become obsessed with the image in the mirror and fantasize about the grandiose and extravagant things they can do. They brood over fantasies of a historic and heroic destiny. They believe their own press releases. They become shameless, conscience-less and arrogant. They convince themselves that as demigods they are as near-perfect as any part-human, part-god can get. So if there is fault, it can never be theirs; it must be the fault of the lowly plebeians. So they dump (as in dumping garbage) their faults on their victims and enjoy watching them wallowing in it.

“Fault dumping” or blaming the victim is an important defensive and offensive weapon in the psychological arsenal of all criminals. The wife beater says, “I didn’t do it. She made me do it!” The dope dealer who pushes drugs on neighborhood children excuses himself by claiming that he is “just trying to make a living”. He does not see the obvious contradiction of making a living by killing children with poisonous drugs. The state criminal is no different. He shifts the blame on his victims. If 200 unarmed protesters are gunned down in the street, it is their own damn fault. They had no business out in the streets. If there are food shortages, it is because people are eating too much. May be they should eat one meal every three days.

“Fault dumping” psychologically nourishes criminals and enables them to justify their crimes and cruelties by diminishing, debasing and degrading their victims. Since most hard core criminals are basically insecure about themselves and have an abysmally low sense of self-worth, the try to prove their superiority and invincibility by degrading, disparaging, dishonoring, humiliating and insulting those who do and try to do things according to the established rules and procedures. State criminals crave the constant admiration and reaffirmation of others, particularly those they perceive to be superior to them. They believe that because they are special, they are entitled to absolute respect, honor and loyalty, and the approval and obedience of all. They loathe and fear criticism because it represents rejection in their minds and destroys their fragile self-image of faultless demigods. Anyone who criticizes them or defies their will automatically triggers a narcissistic meltdown. They become totally enraged and lash out uncontrollably. They lose their sense of decorum and propriety; and because they have lost their sense of shame, they are unable to tell the proper boundaries of civilized behavior and good manners and find themselves freefalling into the gutter where they begin to communicate in their own special language of “thugspeak” or “gutterese”.

The Language of “Thugspeak” or “Gutterese”

Readers familiar with George Orwell and others writing in his genre are familiar with words like “doublespeak”, “doubletalk” and “doublethink.” These terms signify the use of language to deliberately disguise and distort the meaning of words, or to force acceptance of mutually contradictory beliefs as harmonious. I would like to indulge in a neologism of sorts (by minting a couple of new words as it were) by introducing the words “thugspeak” (the language of thugs) and “gutterese” (the language of the gutter) in understanding the political use of language to shock and horrify, to intimidate and harass, to badger and to verbally bludgeon, to bully and to browbeat, to disarm and disconcert, to stun and to stupefy, to demoralize and to demonize, to unnerve, to outrage and to distract one’s adversaries.

When Zenawi declared that the EU EOM Report “deserves to be thrown in the garbage” and represents nothing more than the “scribblings of anyone with pen and pencil”, what he is doing is using “thugspeak” or “gutterese” to bully, psychologically bludgeon, humiliate and demonize the EU EOM. Zenawi’s words may be shocking to the EU EOM, but they have long been part of his linguistic repertoire. But to understand Zenawi’s tongue-lashing and tongue-blasting of the EU EOM, one has to first translate the Report into the language of “thugspeak” or “gutterese”. For the second time in 5 years, the EU EOM told Zenawi that the “electoral process fell short of international commitments for elections” and there was a “lack of a level playing field for all contesting parties.” Translated from EU EOM diplomatese (language of diplomats) into “thugspeak” or “gutterese”, that means, “You stole the election!” It is this barely veiled accusation of election thievery that is at the core of Zenawi’s sound, fury, rage and complete meltdown.

The fact of the matter is that the EU EOM report hurt Zenawi in the most vulnerable part of his psyche, his fragile ego. It is too much to bear for a man who perceives himself to be Africa’s foremost “revolutionary new breed intellectual leader” who rubs elbows with the world’s high and mighty. He cannot jack up the EU EOM on “treason” or “terrorism” charges. He cannot jail them. He cannot confront and fight them in the diplomatic arena or challenge them factually and analytically on their findings in a free and open forum. The only thing he could do is to try and drag them down into the gutter for a mudfest. All of the media theatricality, temper tantrums and verbal pyrotechnics are the frontline weapons of “gutter warfare” deployed to discredit, vilify and humiliate the EU EOM, distract the international community and misdirect the Ethiopian public from focusing on the body of the crime: the stolen election. But EU EOM Mission head Berman would not take the bait and descend into the gutter. He seems to be all too familiar with the proverbial mud wrestling match with the pig. Both contestants get dirty, but the pig enjoys the experience infinitely more.

Trash or Truth

The interesting thing about the EU EOM Report is that it is as balanced as any report compiled by an independent group of observers following specific guidelines could reasonably be. I concede that grudgingly because I have a lot of bones to pick with the Report. I could rattle off 41 objections to the report in one breath. For instance, I believe the Report could have been more resolute in its findings and conclusions about the rampant irregularities and illegalities on election day and the days immediately preceding that. The Report could have comprehensively documented the massive diversion of aid for political purposes. The Report could have responded more aggressively in verifying and pursuing opposition complaints of pre-election harassment and voter intimidation on election day, and so on.

On balance, the Report had many good and positive things to say about the electoral process and the regime. Zenawi disserves himself by throwing out the baby with the bath water. The fact that Zenawi won 99.6 percent of the seats is not the EU EOM’s fault. He said he won those seats fair and square. The EU EOM Report simply said such an outcome is manifestly incredible and could not be reasonably expected from a free and fair election anywhere. There is absolutely nothing in the report that justifies calling it “garbage” or the “scribble of anyone with pen and paper.” Following are verbatim extracts of most of the major findings and conclusions of the Report:

The 23 May 2010 elections were held in a generally peaceful environment, as unanimously called for by all stakeholders.

The Ethiopian Constitution and legal framework provided an adequate basis for the conduct of
genuine elections in line with international and regional commitments subscribed to by Ethiopia.

The Constitution, Electoral Law and other election-related regulations protect political and civil
rights and allow for genuine elections, as well as the freedoms of association, assembly, movement and expression.

The NEBE administered the elections in a competent and professional manner given its limited
resources, overcoming significant technical challenges.
Candidate registration was carried out in an adequate manner. The requirements for candidates
were not discriminatory.

The media covered the main campaign events in a relatively neutral tone. However, state-owned media failed to ensure a balanced coverage, giving the ruling party more than 50% of its total coverage in both print and broadcast media.

The provisions for complaints related to voting, counting and consolidation were significantly
strengthened in the last five years.

Election Day unfolded in a generally peaceful and orderly manner, with a high voter turnout.
Secrecy of the vote was respected despite minor irregularities.

Some shortcomings were noted in the training of polling station staff and in the consistency and coherence of technical information received and aggregated by the electoral authority, such as complete polling station lists, which affected the overall transparency of the process.

The freedoms of assembly, of expression and of movement were not consistently respected
throughout the country during the campaign period, generally to the detriment of opposition

The separation between the ruling party and the public administration was blurred at the local
level in many parts of the country. The EU EOM directly observed cases of misuse of state
resources in the ruling party’s campaign activities.

Women are under-represented in the Ethiopian political scene and within the electoral

In 27% of cases observed, polling station results were different to those previously recorded by observers at polling stations. In several cases, incomplete or incorrect forms from polling stations were corrected or completed at constituency electoral offices. The transparency of the process was considered unsatisfactory in 40% of observed cases.

The ruling party and its partner parties won 544 of the 547 seats to the HPR and all but four of
the 1,904 seats in the State Councils.

The electoral process fell short of international commitments for elections, notably regarding the transparency of the process and the lack of a level playing field for all contesting parties.

Apologies and Thanks are Due to Thijs Berman and His Team of Observers

When the 60-person African Union (AU) observer team led by former Botswana president Ketumile Masire instantly concluded that the May 2010 “elections were free and fair and [they] found no evidence of intimidation and misuse of state resources for ruling party campaigns”, I was tempted to use intemperate language to express my disapproval, but I restrained myself and stuck to the facts and the standards set in the African Union Election Observation and Monitoring Guidelines.[5] I wrote[6]:

With all due respect to Masire, it seems that he made his declaration clueless of the observation standards he is required to follow in the AU Elections Observation and Monitoring Guidelines. If he had done so, he would have known that there is no logical, factual or documentary basis for him to declare the ‘elections were largely consistent with the African Union regulations and standards.

I have some significant reservations about the EU EOM Report as indicated above. But I would never characterize the Report as “garbage”. The reason is simple. I have carefully studied the guidelines in the 224-page “European Union Handbook for Election Observation (2nd ed.)”.[7] I have familiarized myself with the EU EOM activities in other countries. The only proper basis for me to evaluate the Report is to fairly determine if it fails to uphold the standards set forth in the Handbook. While I disagree with the interpretations, inferences, deductions and conclusions in the Report, there is nothing that leads me to believe that EU EOM performed its duties in disregard of its duties in the Handbook or supplementary guidelines. There is no evidence to show that EU EOM did not perform its duties professionally, honorably, in good faith or with lack of neutrality and impartiality. There is no justification whatsoever to use scatological language to criticize the work of such a distinguished group of election observers.

I would like the 170-members of the EU EOM who spent months in Ethiopia preparing to perform their duties to know that they do deserve a few things — the respect, gratitude and appreciation of the Ethiopian people. Their report belongs in the annals of Ethiopian democracy, or more aptly the struggle for democracy. Though I disagree with many aspects of their Report, I personally thank them all for a job well done. I am particularly grateful to Mr. Berman who, by declining to engage in mudslinging of his own, has reaffirmed for us the virtues of civility, tolerance, self-respect, discernment and good manners. It is possible for the high and mighty to disagree without being bad-tempered, ill-natured and disagreeable. Mr. Berman has witnessed the birth of a still born democracy in Ethiopia. I hope he also had a chance to witness the age-old decency, dignity, humility, integrity and respectfulness of the Ethiopian people as well. For what little it is worth, I offer each and every one of the 170 members of the EU EOM 2010 Ethiopia my sincere and humble apologies.


[4] See fn. 3

Ethiopia: The A B C’s of Stealing an Election

Alemayehu G. Mariam

It is a staple of the criminal defense bar to represent thieves, robbers, burglars, muggers, pickpockets, shoplifters, embezzlers, con men, fraudsters and swindlers. It is also the ineluctable lot of the defense lawyer to learn about the M.O. (modus operandi, techniques) of the criminal classes with professional detachment. But few defense lawyers could claim the dubious honor of representing criminals that specialize in election heists. So, when the Carter Center issued its post-mortem “Ethiopia National Elections Observation Mission 2005 Final Report”[1] recently, a unique academic opportunity became available to learn about how an election is actually stolen.

First, a detailed discussion of the specific findings of that Report is unnecessary. Anyone who has followed the May 2005 electoral process and observed the post-election period even with marginal interest is familiar with the facts presented and reviewed in the Report. Second, the diplomatically finessed conclusion of the Report tells the whole story. The 2005 Ethiopian election was stolen in broad daylight:

In spite of the positive pre election developments, the Center’s observation mission concludes that the 2005 electoral process did not fulfill Ethiopia’s obligations to ensure the exercise of political rights and freedoms necessary for genuinely democratic elections.

The real value of the Report lies in its plain depiction of how the 2005 Ethiopian election was stolen. One could say the Report is a sort of manual on the anatomy of election theft. To be sure, the Report effectively shows the “dos and don’ts” of a successful election heist and the specific things one must do in the “pre-election”, “election day” and “post-election” period. Carrying out the perfect election theft, however, is not for the faint of heart. One must have the cunning of a smiling villain, the audacity of a desperado outlaw and the brutality of a back alley thug to successfully steal an election in broad daylight. Above all, the accomplished election thief understands, masters and applies five basic principles.

Principle #1 (The Setup): Pander to your Western donors who bankroll you.

Elections in dictatorships are all about pleasing and trying to hoodwink Western donors, who are themselves all too willing to oblige with a wink and smile. They know elections in dictatorships are always stolen, but need an “election” charade to make plausible denials that they knew the election is stolen. In other words, they need a convenient cover story to shroud their hypocrisy in a garb of moral and intellectual virtue while concealing their criminal complicity in the theft. They pretend to maintain the appearance of neutrality and mediation in public while doing business as usual with the election thieves after dark. The smart election thief understands these basic facts and will do everything to make the donors happy, give them all the diplomatic cover they need and eventually squeeze more cash out of them.

The smart election thief will do just the right symbolic things to please the donors such as opening up “political space” for “competition and dialogue”, making grand pronouncements of “reforms”, giving lip service to open and vigorous electoral campaigns, not overtly interfering with civil society groups and the independent press and so on. It is a big deal for Western donors to see that “international election observers” are on the ground “watching” the “election” (from being stolen?!), and hopefully giving their blessings at the end. Western donors are kind of funny though: They want the local people to believe that an election could be stolen just a little and still be “free and fair.” But the people know that just as there is no such thing as a woman who is a little bit pregnant, there is also no such thing as an election that is a little bit stolen that is “free and fair”.

The Carter Center Report describing the 2005 pre-election period in Ethiopia stated:

The early pre-election period saw indications of growing space for political competition and dialogue. Government leaders, and opposition leaders met face-to-face to discuss the electoral process and needed reforms, with government agreeing to implement some of the key reforms called for by the opposition. International observers were invited and freedom of movement was assured. The Carter Center assessment team found the country’s political conditions conducive for an improved election. Government representatives exhibited openness to constructive criticism, and a willingness to consider recommendations for reforms. The opposition appeared ready to participate in the elections, and civil society was positioned to conduct voter and civic education and to observe the process…

Oh! What about democracy, free and fair elections, the people’s voice and all that good stuff? Not a problem. Western donors know the Ethiopian people are too poor, too hungry and too ignorant to understand or appreciate democracy. It is actually a simple problem of mind over matter: Western donors don’t mind (a stolen election) and the Ethiopian people don’t matter.

Principle #2 (Setting up the Heist): Use lots of smoke and mirrors.

Razzle-dazzle and theatricality are critical props before an election takedown. This requires keeping “the people” and the opposition distracted with all sorts of cute election games and amusements. One of the best election games is called “election code of conduct”. It is similar to a children’s game of marbles in which one player owns all the marbles. The game has only one rule: The guy who writes the “code” always wins the elections. As the election date nears, it is necessary to create hoopla and hype. The Carter Center Report describes:

The pre-election period witnessed unprecedented participation by opposition parties and independent candidates, and an unmatched level of political debate in the state-dominated electronic and print media and at public forums held across the country. Political parties agreed to a Party Code of Conduct, committing themselves to compliance with provisions calling for fair play and supporting peaceful political competition. Ethiopian civil society organizations were active in the pre-election period, observing election preparations and sponsoring a series of televised debates on public policy issues between government officials and opposition leaders.

Principle #3: (The Takedown) Snatch the election, faster than a New York pickpocket.

The smart election thief is lightening fast when it comes to the takedown. He does not wait for election returns, results or tabulations. He does not wait for verification reports and analysis of international observers or resolutions of vote challenges. On election day, he moves swiftly and declares victory before the votes are counted, imposes martial law and runs away with the prize in broad daylight in view of millions of stunned voters who look on in total disbelief. The Carter Center Report describes:

The May 15 voting process progressed relatively smoothly with Carter Center observers reporting that polling was calm and peaceful in the polling stations visited, with only limited incidents of disturbances reported. However, problems began to emerge during the counting and tabulation phases, with significant irregularities and delays in vote tabulation and a large number of electoral complaints. Preliminary but unconfirmed reports of election results from the political parties began to circulate on election night suggesting that the opposition parties had scored significant electoral gains, especially in Addis Ababa and other urban areas. On the night of the election, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared a one-month ban on public demonstrations in the capital and brought the Addis Ababa security forces (soon to be under the command of the opposition that won Addis Ababa) under the control of the office of the Prime Minister.

Principle #4 (The Getaway): Run them down if they get in your way!

As in any daylight crime, there may be witnesses. The smart election thief will use “shock and awe” to make a successful getaway. He will use extreme violence to deal with anyone standing in the way of his getaway. He will destroy any evidence of the theft and make it impossible to determine the full magnitude of the crime. He will boldly declare that it is necessary to kill unarmed demonstrators and jail nearly all of the opposition leaders to save democracy!

It’s very obvious now that the opposition tried to change the outcome of the election by unconstitutional means. We felt we had to clamp down. We detained them and we took them to court. In the process, many people died, including policemen. Many of our friends feel that we overreacted. We feel we did not. There is room for criticism nevertheless it does not change the fact that this process was a forward move towards democracy and not a reversal. Recent developments have simply reinforced that. The leaders of the opposition have realized they made a mistake. And they asked for a pardon, and the government has pardoned them all.[2]

The official Inquiry Commission set up to investigate the post-2005 election violence reported[3]:

There was no property destroyed. There was not a single protester who was armed with a gun or a hand grenade as reported by the government-controlled media that some of the protesters were armed with guns and bombs. The shots fired by government forces were not to disperse the crowd of protesters but to kill by targeting the head and chest of the protesters.

Principle #5: Deny, deny, then lie.

The smoothest criminals always deny, deny and lie that they have done anything wrong. It is no different for the smart election thief. In other words, once you get away with the heist, follow the wisdom of the Amharic saying “Ye leba ayne derek meles o leb adrik.” (A boldface thief will tax your patience by persistent denial.) Deny having stolen the election. Distract attention from oneself by pointing an accusatory finger at others and make ridiculous claims about “interhamwe” conspiracies, “blind hatred” and so on. Follow the teachings of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.

As any criminal defense lawyer knows, the criminal perpetrator gains special psychological advantages by following a strategy of denial. The act of denial enables the criminal to shield himself from the shocking reality of his wrongdoing. It also offers him an opportunity to admit a fact but deny the seriousness of the crime (rationalization). In many cases, denial enables the criminal to admit a wrongdoing and its seriousness while avoiding moral responsibility altogether.

Everyone, including the most ardent critics of the government, agrees that right up to election day the democratic elections in Ethiopia were exemplary, by any standard. The issue arises as to whether the counting of the vote was done in a fair and transparent fashion. Here, there are varied assessments. We argue that while there may have been mistakes here and there, on the whole it was a credible and fair count. The opposition did not agree. So we said: ‘Let’s check. Let’s review the counting in the presence of foreign observers.’ We did that. After we did that, two groups of observers the African Union and the Carter Center said that while there had been some mistakes, the outcome of the election was credible.[4]

Principle # 5.5: Go back to Principle #1.

If at first you succeed in stealing an election, steal and steal again! Welcome to Ethiopia Election May 2010!

Whoever said “crime does not pay” has not tried stealing an election! Steal an election and you can steal everything in sight (or out of sight) with impunity, indefinitely!

“The people who cast the votes don’t decide an election, the people who count the votes do.” Joseph Stalin

[4] See footnote 2.

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