Meles Zenawi when he was alive and his apostles today (“Melesistas”) keep playing us in the Diaspora like a cheap fiddle. They make us screech, shriek, scream and shout by simply showing their mugs in our cities. How do they do it? Every now and then, the Melesistas suit up a few of their bumbling and bungling zombies from central casting and unleash them into the Ethiopian Diaspora to “sell bonds” for the “Grand Meles Dam” to be built over the Blue Nile. Anytime these zombies show up to panhandle chump change from their supporters, a welcoming committee of defiant and patriotic Ethiopian activists show up to chase them out of town like campers at a national park chasing coyotes scrounging at the trash bin. For the past several weeks, Diaspora activists have been routing these imposters across European and American cities; but incredibly, these brazen con artists show up in the next city like snake oil salesmen at a carnival. That really piqued my curiosity. Why do these scammers show up in city after city knowing that they will be confronted and chased out by young patriotic Ethiopians? Are they really fundraising by “selling bonds” in the Diaspora or are they using “fundraising” as a cover for something altogether different? Ummm!!!
First, the irrefutable facts about the Meles Dam hogwash. As I demonstrated in my March 11 commentary, “Rumors of Water War on the Nile?”, the Meles Dam on the Blue Nile (Abay River) was the exquisite figment of Meles’ imagination, and now the phantasmic idol of worship for his discombobulated apostles. Anyone who bothers to study the facts of this so-called dam project will readily conclude that it is pie in the sky. It is “self-funded” because the multilateral lending institutions and private investors who normally bankroll such major infrastructure projects wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole standing a mile away. They have determined it is a white elephant. Egypt has also used its leverage to block funding sources. Egypt has contingency military plans to undam the dam if it ever comes on line.
The fact of the matter is that it is impossible for the bumbling regime in Ethiopia, which sustains itself through international panhandling, to raise the USD$6-10bn needed from the people of the second poorest country in the world. The regime does not even have sufficient foreign reserves to cover the cost of imports for three months. Its foreign debt exceeds USD$12bn; and despite windbagging about an 11 percent annual growth, the “fifth fastest growing economy in the world”, yada, yada, unemployment, inflation, mismanagement and corruption have put on life support an economy addicted to international handouts. The idea that nickels and dimes collected from Ethiopians in the country by staging “musical concerts, a lottery and an SMS campaign” and a buck or two from Diaspora Ethiopians could build such a project is simply nutty. Because the dam builders live in a fool’s paradise, they think Diaspora Ethiopians are all “fools and idiots” who will buy fantasy dam bonds. (Just as an aside, those who are buying Meles Dam junk bonds should first consider buying the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.) Anyway, the Diaspora “bond sales” effort has been a total failure. The regime recently announced that it had collected $43,160 from its latest bond sales in San Diego, CA. Yeah! Right!
For domestic public relations purposes, the Melesistas’ strategic objective in pushing the Meles Dam hoax is to create patriotic fervor and galvanize the entire population around an object of national pride while deifying Meles and generating political support for themselves to prolong their lease on political power. The Meles Dam would at once be a hydrological temple to worship “Meles the Great Leader and Visionary” and a symbolic object of national unity that could rally massive support for the regime. The Melesistas have convinced themselves that by talking about the Meles Dam 24/7, 365 days, they can convince the people that the dam is actually under construction. They blather about building the “largest dam in Africa” and Ethiopia becoming a middle income country and a formidable regional economic power in just a few years. They talk about their “visionary leader” and how they will blindly follow his vision to the end of the rainbow where they will collect their pot of gold in the form of Meles Dam bonds. They march on chanting their mantra: “We will follow Meles’ vision without doubt or question.”
They must really think the people are “fools and idiots” (to borrow a phrase from Susan Rice) to be fooled by their silly dog and pony show and talk of pie in the sky. The Ethiopian people may not know about a “pie in the sky”, but they certainly know about the “cow they have in the sky whose milk they never see.” But careful analysis shows the Melesistas have pulled this one right out of Joseph Goebbel’s bag of tricks: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” Isn’t this exactly what the Melesistas are doing in Ethiopia now – repeat the dam lie, development lie and repress dissent and persecute journalist who tell the truth?
The Melesistas think they are so smart that they can hoodwink not only Ethiopians in the country but also those in the Diaspora. They put on a dam “bond selling” show to convince Diasporans that the Meles Dam is real and that it is the panacea to Ethiopia’s economic woes. “Buy dam bonds! Ethiopia will be rafting on a river of milk and honey once the Blue Nile is dammed.” But only a damned fool would believe that. According to the World Bank, Ethiopia’s “power sector alone would require $3.3 billion per year to develop” in the next decade. Currently, power tariffs are so underpriced that they range between “$0.04-0.08 per kilowatt-hour” and are “low by regional standards and recover only 46 percent of the costs of the utility.” For every dollar they spend supplying power, they lose 54 cents! In other words, these guys hawking the Meles Dam junk bonds and promising billions in profits are losing their shirts on the power they are selling right now! Why would anyone trust and buy dam bonds from those who can’t even make a damn profit from existing dams? Why would anyone buy dam junk bonds when the outlook for the energy sector in Ethiopia is so damn bleak? The Melesistas fantasize that they can pay off bondholders by selling power from the dam to the Sudan, Egypt and the Arabian peninsula. Why the hell would Egypt or the Sudan buy power from a dam that damns them by effectively reducing their water supply for agriculture and their own production of power?
The real aim of the Meles Dam is not the construction of a dam over the Blue Nile but to use the specter of the construction of a gargantuan dam on the Nile to inspire fear, loathing and dread of an imminent regional water war. Simply stated, the dam idea is an extortion scheme to scam the international community and downstream countries for more aid and loans as a price for continued regional stability, avoidance of conflict and maintenance of the status quo. Suffice it to say, one has to be a damned “fool and an idiot” to believe the Meles Dam will ever be built or buy Meles Dam junk bonds and expect a return. (Buying the Brooklyn Bridge is a much better investment.)
Shadowboxing Smoke and Mirrors
So, why do the Melsistas send zombies into the Diaspora on a fool’s errand? They know they will be shamed and disgraced and chased out of every American and European city like stray dogs at a bazaar. They know they will be lucky to squeeze a few hundred dollars at a Diaspora “bond selling” event. Do they do it because they are professional beggars and panhandlers?
There is a deceptively simple method to their madness. They send their zombies in the Diaspora to make us shadowbox smoke and mirrors. They are playing a simple but clever psychological game.
The Melesistas are getting hammered everyday by bad publicity. Hardly a day passes without some report by an international human rights, press or research organization documenting their monumental crimes against humanity. Just in the past few months, there have been numerous reports and press releases by Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and a host of newspaper and television outlets, including Al Jazeera and CNN, on massive human rights violations, land grabs, ethnic cleansing, suppression of religious freedom and other issues in Ethiopia. Recently, the World Bank made public a 448-page corruption report on Ethiopia. A couple of weeks ago, the U.S. State Department released its annual Human Rights Report on Ethiopia documenting the regime’s “arbitrary killings, torture, beating, abuse, and mistreatment of detainees by security forces, harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, detention without charge and lengthy pretrial detention, illegal searches, “villagization” (pillagization) program, restrictions on freedom of assembly, association, and movement, interference in religious affairs…” This past week, they got clobbered in the international press for a kangaroo appellate court affirmance of the 18-year sentences of the internationally-acclaimed journalist Eskinder Nega and dynamic opposition leader Andualem Aragie.
The Melesistas have become international pariahs and desperately want to change the topic from Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Andualem Aragie…, corruption, ethnic cleansing, land giveaways, suppression of religious freedom and interference in religious affairs and critical human rights reports. They want to take control of the international public relations agenda. They want to shed off their international image as corrupt thugs who trample on human rights and steal elections. They want to reinvent themselves as anti-poverty warriors and statesmen of economic development. They want to be seen as the new “new breed of African leaders” toiling indefatigably to eradicate poverty and promote economic development and democracy.
In a Machiavellian maneuver, they have, to some extent, succeeded in getting Diaspora Ethiopians, particularly the activists, to promote their “dam development” agenda for them in America, Europe and elsewhere. Every time Diaspora activists confront the zombie junk bond dealers and brokers, they are seen talking (but saying nothing) about development, growth, infrastructure projects and how the Meles Dam will transform Ethiopia into an economic powerhouse. (They never mention the massive foreign debt, the USD$12bn that has left the country illegally since 2001, the massive youth unemployment, accelerating population growth, etc.). They always sheath their bloody hands in the glove of development talk. When activists protest and confront these zombies, they appear to be anti-development obstructionist agitators. That’s is the exquisite trick of the Melesistas. They want the world to see Diaspora Ethiopians as a bunch of rowdy, wild, disorderly, loudmouthed, raucous, uncivil and intolerant bunch who will not even allow civil discussions of “development”. They aim to create and nurture the image of a few combative “Diaspora extremists” and an overwhelming number of silent (as a church mouse) regime supporters who are afraid to come forward (or attend their “bond selling” events) and show their support for fear of attack by the “extremists.” In the mix are the hapless Diasporans who have to go back and forth to Ethiopia to secure their property and business interests. Those guys are toast; either they pay protection money (buy dam bonds) or get jacked up on some trumped up charge and lose their properties or worse.
The Melesistas’ strategy to counter bad publicity and capture the domestic and international public relations commanding heights is based on three principles: Distract, distract and distract some more. Distract Ethiopians inside the country from critical political, social and economic issues by bombarding them with inane development propaganda. State television (which is watched by virtually no one in the country) is filled with ceaseless barrages of nauseating and mind numbing amateur development propaganda. It is vintage police state propaganda aimed at convincing a largely illiterate population that famine is plenty, decline is development, poverty is wealth, dictatorship is democracy and the man who destroyed the country is its savior.
The second strategy is to distract Diaspora Ethiopians from vigorously pursuing an agenda that promotes democracy freedom and human rights. They unleash a few smooth-talking empty suits with empty heads and let them wander from one city to another in the U.S. and Europe just to get Ethiopian activists emotionally worked up about a fantasy dam and lose their focus on issues of human rights violations, abuse of political prisoners, ethnic cleansing, suppression of religious freedoms, and myriad economic problems. Some Diaspora activists react vigorously whenever they see these hapless empty suits at “bond selling” events believing they are confronting the master criminals. Therein lies the trick. The Melesistas are so clever that they have succeeded in making some of us believe that the puppets are actually the puppet masters. We need to be aware that the empty suits they send into the Diaspora to sell the dam bonds are just schmucks and buffoons who do what they are told; or “zombies” as the great African musician Fela Kuti would have called them (“Zombie go… zombie stop…zombie turn…zombie think…” ) They are bait and are offered as scapegoats to the Diaspora. By chasing the puppets out of town, some of us feel we have chased out the puppet masters. But the puppet masters laugh at us because our victory is the victory of the shadow boxer who knocked out the shadow.
The third strategy of the Melesistas is to distract donors and human rights organizations from criticizing them on their atrocious human rights record. They want to justify and convince them that the masses of ordinary Ethiopians are interested in the politics of the belly and not the politics of the ballot. Meles declared, “My view is that there is no direct relationship between economic growth and democracy historically or theoretically.” They want to convince donors and human rights organizations that the masses do not care about human rights or democracy; they are concerned only about filling their bellies. To them, the masses of poor, illiterate, hungry and sick Ethiopians are too dumb and too damn needy to appreciate “political democracy.”
Legacy of the great manipulator
Manipulation of the Diaspora is one of the chief legacies of Meles. Wikileaks cablegrams portray Meles as a slick, scheming, crafty and cunning hombre. He could have achieved greatness but undid himself because he was unable to tame his voracious appetite for extreme vindictiveness and revenge and could not bridle his bottomless capacity for maliciousness, viciousness and obduracy. Those who claim to know Meles say he knew his opposition better than the opposition knew itself. Distraction, diversion, misdirection, hoodwinking, chicanery, paralogy and sophistry were the hallmarks of Meles’ strategy. The cunning dictator was able to shroud his corrupt empire for two decades by pursuing a propaganda policy of mass distraction and by staging one farcical political theatre after another. As I have long maintained, Meles’ “attitude was that he can outwit, outthink, outsmart, outplay, outfox and outmaneuver boatloads of Ph.Ds., M.Ds., J.Ds. Ed.Ds or whatever alphabet soup of degrees exist out there any day of the week. He seemed to think that like the opposition leaders, Ethiopian intellectuals are dysfunctional, shiftless and inconsequential, and will never be able to pose a real challenge to his power.” In a rare moment of candor responding to a journalist’s question about Diaspora Ethiopians protesting his overseas visits, Meles confessed, “We may be at fault in some way. I am sorry. That maybe we didn’t communicate well enough to those Ethiopians living abroad what is happening, what we are doing here.” Meles’ apostles keep making the same mistake. Like shepherd, like sheep! Like Meles, like Melesistas!
Criminal violations in selling unregistered securities in the U.S.
There have been questions raised about the legality of the sale of Meles Dam bonds as “securities” in the U.S. Under federal and most state laws, a “security” is broadly defined and includes stocks, bonds, debt and equity securities, notes, investment contracts, etc. Unless exempted, all securities must be registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and/or relevant state agencies prior to selling or offering for sale to the public. A security which does not have an effective registration statement on file with the SEC and/or the relevant state agency is considered an unregistered security. Buying or selling unregistered securities is a crime under federal and state laws. The SEC can prosecute issuers and sellers of unregistered securities under section 20(b) of the Securities Act of 1933 (which regulates original issuers) and seek injunctions if the Securities Act has been violated, or if a violation is imminent. Section 8A also allows the SEC to issue orders to issuers of unregistered securities to cease and desist and seek civil penalties under Section 20(d) if an issuer violated the Securities Act, an SEC rule, or a cease-and-desist order.
Like most states, California Corporations Code sections 25110-25118 set strict guidelines for any securities sold in that state. Any person or entity who willfully sells or transports unregistered securities through interstate commerce or buys such securities could face serious criminal liabilities under California Corporations Code section 25540, subd. (a) with penalties of incarceration for up to three years and a fine up to $1 million. California prosecutors, like their federal counterparts, could also seek injunctive relief and civil penalties.
There are a few limited exemptions to the registration requirement. One of them is an exemption “for certain foreign government securities brokers or dealers”. Pursuant to 17 CFR 401.9, “A government securities broker or dealer (excluding a branch or agency of a foreign bank) that is a non-U.S. resident shall be exempt from the provisions of sections 15C(a), (b), and (d) of the Act (15 U.S.C. 78o–5(a), (b) and (d)) and the regulations of this subchapter provided it complies with the provisions of 17 CFR 240.15a–6…” In other words, the bond “brokers and dealers” sent to the U.S. to sell the Meles Dam bonds must meet the multifarious requirements of federal securities law and other regulatory requirements including full disclosure, proof of maintenance of required books and records relating to the bond issues and written consent to service of process for any civil action arising from disputes in bond related transactions. It is highly unlikely that the “brokers and dealers” selling the Meles Dam bonds in the United States qualify under 17 CFR 240.15a–6 and 15 U.S.C. 78o–5(a).
Fight the Power, not the smoke and image in the mirror
Diaspora activists should keep their eyes on the prize, not on the smoke and mirrors of the Melesista Road Show, Carnival and Circus.
Ethiopian Americans are fortunate to live under a Constitution that guarantees our right to free expression and peaceful protest. As citizens, it is our moral duty to exercise our constitutional rights. We have recently seen Americans using their right to protest by launching the “Occupy” protest movement. Historically, the civil rights movement relied on sit-ins, sit downs, teach-ins, rallies and marches as a form of direct nonviolent action to bring about change. Nonviolent mass protests eventually led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which ended racial segregation, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which removed barriers to voting. The anti-war and free speech movements relied on non-violent protests to defend expressive freedoms and end the war in Vietnam. Nonviolent protests were also used in the anti-Apartheid movement in the U.S. resulting in boycotts, divestments in corporations and spurring legislative and diplomatic action which hastened the end of Apartheid.
The main point is that Diaspora Ethiopians should be laser-focused on the prize and make sure that democracy will in the end triumph over dictatorship in Ethiopia; human rights are vindicated and human rights abusers are held accountable and any government in Ethiopia shall fear the people and the people shall never fear their government. We should not be distracted by empty suits with empty heads lurking in and out of town to scrounge up chicken feed. We should not be angry at programmed zombies at “bond selling” events because they are just wretched flunkies and bootlickers, who given the opportunity will make a beeline to the immigration office to file for political asylum. We should not mistake the puppets for the puppet masters. We should not confuse shadow for reality.
We should be aware not only when we are being abused but also used. We should never let them make us do their dirty jobs because they can cleverly manipulate our psychological disposition to righteous indignation. We should never react because that allows them to take control of our emotions and reactions. We should always act and never react. Most importantly, we should engage in proactive activism instead of reactive activism. When we are proactive, we plan things out carefully and strategically. Nonviolent protest is a highly disciplined effort. Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. taught, “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.” We should educate and train ourselves in the ways of nonviolent protest. When confronting the zombies, we should maintain a high degree of composure and display self-dignity in our expressions of defiance. At dam “bond selling ” events, protesters should adequately prepare pre-event publicity. Serious attention should given to the development of press kits and talking points. Press and law enforcement liaisons should be trained and designated. Well informed and articulate spokespersons should be selected to give press interviews. Adequate attention should be given to post-event follow up activities.
It is a great disservice to oneself and to our great cause to engage in nonviolent protest without reading and understanding Gene Sharp’s extraordinary work, “From Dictatorship to Democracy”available online for free. An Amharic translation of Gene Sharp’s book is also available online free of charge (here) for anyone to download or print. Ignorance cannot drive out ignorance, only knowledge can. We must educate ourselves in the ways of peaceful protest, or our efforts will produce few results. We are less likely to be manipulated if we keep ourselves informed and develop critical analysis skills that cut through the blather of our adversaries.
While those of us in the older generation (“Hippos”) wallow in self-pity and cynicism, it is inspiring to see young patriotic Diaspora Ethiopians (“Cheetahs”) using their right to peaceful protest to resist the zombies of tyranny. Just as the task of building a fantasy dam belongs to the Melesistas, the construction of the new Ethiopia is a task reserved for the young Cheetahs. It is painful to admit that we Hippos have not been much of a role model for the Cheetahs. We have unkindly criticized the Cheetahs for their lack of engagement, apathy and single-minded pursuit of flash and cash. We grumble that the Cheetah generation is the lost generation and there is no one to save Ethiopia (but it has been a long time since we Hippos looked into the mirror without smoke).
I am afraid there is little that Ethiopian Cheetahs could learn from Ethiopian Hippos. Perhaps Ethiopian Cheetahs can get inspiration from other Cheetahs. In the past 2 years, we have seen inexperienced youth using social media bring down dictators or force them to make radical changes in governance in North Africa and the Middle East. The key to their success was their ability to get in tune and on the same wavelength with each other, and to be able to speak the same beautiful language of peaceful change and protest. As always, I believe Ethiopian youth united — across ethnic, religious, linguistic, gender, and regional lines — can never be defeated!
“Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights. Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight.” Bob Marley
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 today is a “prison of nations and nationalities with the Oromo being one of the prisoners”, proclaimed the recently issued Declaration of the Congress of the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF). This open-air prison is administered through a system of “bogus federalism” in which “communities exercise neither self-rule nor shared-rule but have been enduring the TPLF/EPRDF’s tyrannical rule for more than two decades.” The jail keepers or the “ruling party directly and centrally micro-manage all communities by pre-selecting its surrogates that the people are then coerced to ‘elect’ at elections that are neither free nor fair”. Ethiopians can escape from “prison nation” and get on the “path to democracy, stability, peace, justice, and sustainable development” when they are able to establish a democratic process in which “all communities elect their representatives in fair and free elections.”
The ODF is a “new movement” launched by “pioneers of the Oromo nationalist struggle” who “have mapped out a new path that embraces the struggle of all oppressed Ethiopians for social justice and democracy.” Central to the collective struggle to bust the walls and crash the gates of “prison nation” Ethiopia is a commitment to constitutional democracy based on principles of “shared and separate political institutions as the more promising and enduring uniting factor” and robust protections for civil liberties and civil rights. Shared governance and the rule of law provide the glue “that will bind the diverse nations into a united political community” and return to the people their government which has been privatized and corporatized by the ruling regime “to advance and serve their partisan and sectarian interests.”
The Declaration foresees genuine federalism as the basis for freedom, justice and equality in Ethiopia. It argues that the ruling Tigriyan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) hijacked the federalism, which was originally birthed by the “mounting pressures of the struggles for self-determination by the Oromo and other oppressed nations”, and subsequently corrupted it into a political scheme that serves the “present ruling elite’s aspiration of emerging and permanently remaining as a new dominant group by simply stepping into the shoes of those that it replaced.” The ODF “aspire[s] to build on the positive aspects of Ethiopia’s current federal set-up” by “remov[ing] the procedural and substantive shortcomings that stand in the way of democracy and federalism.”
The Declaration finds traditional notions of unity inadequate. “Invoking a common history, culture or language has not guaranteed unity. We similarly reject the present ruling party’s presumption that it serves as the sole embodiment and defender of the so-called ‘revolutionary democratic unity.’” It also rejects “the ruling party’s illusory expectation that the promotion of economic development would serve as an alternative source of unity in the absence of democratic participation.” The Declaration incorporates principles of constitutional accountability, separation of powers and check balances and enumerates “bundles” of participatory, social and cultural rights secured in international human rights conventions. It proposes “overhauling” the civil service system and restructuring of the military and intelligence institutions to serve the society instead of functioning as the private protective services of the ruling party and elites. The Declaration broadly commits to economic and social justice and condemns the mistreatment and “eviction from ancestral lands of indigenous populations, and environmental degradation.”
Significance of the Declaration
The world is constantly changing and we must change with it. Henry David Thoreau correctly observed, “Things do not change; we change.” We change by discarding old and tired ideas and by embracing new and energetic ones. The old ideas which demonize other ethnic groups as mortal enemies are no longer tenable and are simply counterproductive. In a poor country like Ethiopia, the vast majority of the people of all ethnic groups get the shaft while the political and economic elites create ethnic tensions and conflict to cling to power and line their pockets. We change by casting away self-deception and facing the truth. The truth is that “united we stand, divided we fall”. When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, Benjamin Franklin said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” For the past 21 years, we have been falling like a pack of dominoes. They have been hanging us separately on the hooks of “ethnic federalism”.
We must be prepared to change our minds as objective conditions change. As George Bernard Shaw said, “Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” We must change our ideas, beliefs, attitudes and perspectives to keep up with the times. The alternative is becoming irrelevant. No organization can achieve unanimity in making change because change makes some in the organization uncomfortable, uneasy and uncertain. However, change is necessary and unavoidable. In line with George Ayittey’s metaphor, we can change and remain viable and relevant like the Cheetahs or suffer the fate of the hopeless Hippos.
It is refreshing and inspiring to see a transformative and forward-looking declaration forged by some of the important founding members and leaders of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) emphatically affirming the common destiny of all Ethiopians and underscoring the urgency for consolidating a common cause in waging a struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. These leaders show great courage and conviction of conscience in changing their minds with the changing political realities. The reality today is that the “economic and security interests of the Oromo people are intertwined with that of other peoples in Ethiopia. In addition, their geographic location, demography, democratic heritage and bond forged with all peoples over the years make it incumbent upon the Oromo to play a uniting and democratizing role.” It must have taken a staggering amount of effort to overcome internal discord and issue such a bold and positively affirmative Declaration signaling a fundamental change in position. These leaders deserve commendation for an extraordinary achievement.
I believe the Declaration is immensely important not only for the principles it upholds and articulates but most importantly for the fact that it represents a genuine paradigmatic shift in political strategy and tactics by the founders of the OLF. The Declaration signals a tectonic shift in long held views, ideology and political strategy. It represents a profound change in the perception and understanding of politics, change and society not only in Ethiopia but also in the continent and globally. By emphasizing inclusiveness and common struggle, the Declaration rejects the destructive politics of ethnicity and identity (the bane of Africa) for politics based on issues of social, political and economic justice. By embracing a common struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights, the Declaration rejects ethnocentrism (the arrogant philosophy of narrow-minded African dictators) and fully accepts federalism as a basis for political power and shared governance.
What are we to make of the Declaration? Is it merely an aspirational statement, an invitation to dialogue, a call to action or all of the above? It appears the Declaration is not merely a statement of principles but also an invitation to dialogue and a call to action. It affirms the universal truth that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and acknowledges that “struggling for justice for oneself alone without advocating justice for all could ultimately prove futile”. It urges Oromo groups to stop “trivial political wrangling” and “join hands with us in strengthening our camp to intensify our legitimate struggle and put an end to sufferings of our people.” It counsels the “ruling regime to reconsider its ultimately counterproductive policy of aspiring to indefinitely stay in power by fanning inter communal and interreligious suspicion and tension.” It proposes a “country-wide movement sharing” a common “vision, principles and policies” to “propel Ethiopia forward and ending the current political paralysis.” It pleads with the “international community to stand with us in implementing our vision and proposal of transforming the Ethiopian state to bring peace and sustainable stability in Ethiopia and Horn of Africa.”
Dialoguing over “Federalism” or the futility of putting lipstick on “bogus federalism”
It is the privilege of the human rights advocate and defender to speak his/her mind on all matters of human rights. I should like to exercise that privilege by raising an important issue in the Declaration and respectfully taking exception to it. The Declaration states:
We aspire to build on the positive aspects of Ethiopia’s current federal set-up. However, to make the simultaneous exercise of self-rule and shared-rule possible it is necessary to remove the procedural and substantive shortcomings that stand in the way of democracy and federalism… [which] can be accomplished by [allowing] subject nations, in due course, freely elect delegates to their respective state and central constitutional assemblies. When this process is completed, the present “holding together” type of bogus federalism will be transformed into a genuine ‘coming together’ variety.
I consider myself a hardcore federalist who believes in a clear division of power between a national and sub-national (local, state) governments. In fact, I consider the “Federalist Papers” written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay promoting the ratification of the United States Constitution as unsurpassed works of political genius on the theory and practice of federalism. Having said that, I do not believe there is an alchemy that can transmute “bogus federalism” into “genuine federalism”. Just as there is no such thing as being a “little bit pregnant”, there is also no such thing as building upon “bogus federalism”. Either it is genuine federalism or it is bogus federalism.
As I argued in my May 2010 commentary “Putting Lipstick on a Pig, Ethiopian Style”, discussing the elections, “You can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig. You can jazz up a bogus election in a one-man, one-party dictatorship with a ‘Code of Conduct’, but to all the world it is still a bogus election under a one-man, one-party dictatorship… They want us to believe that a pig with lipstick is actually a swan floating on a placid lake, or a butterfly fluttering in the rose garden or even a lamb frolicking in the meadows. They think lipstick will make everything look pretty.” You can put lipstick on “ethnic federalism” and call it “federalism”, but it is still bogus federalism.
As I have often argued, the late Meles Zenawi, the chief architect of “ethnic federalism” in Ethiopia was driven by a “vision of ethnic division. His warped idea of ‘ethnic federalism’ is merely a kinder and gentler reincarnation of Apartheid in Ethiopia. For nearly two decades, Meles toiled ceaselessly to shred the very fabric of Ethiopian society, and sculpt a landscape balkanized into tribal, ethnic, linguistic and regional enclaves.” He crafted a constitution based entirely on ethnicity and tribal affiliation as the basis for political organization. He wrote in Article 46 (2) of the Constitution: “States shall be structured on the basis of settlement patterns, language, identity and consent of the people.” In other words, “states”, (and the people who live in them) shall be corralled like cattle in tribal homelands in much the same way as the 10 Bantustans (black homelands) of Apartheid South Africa. Ethiopia’s tribal homelands are officially called “kilils” (enclaves or distinct enclosed and effectively isolated geographic areas within a seemingly integrated national territory). Like the Bantustans, Ethiopia’s 9 killilistans ultimately aim to create homogeneous and autonomous ethnic states in Ethiopia, effectively scrubbing out any meaningful notion of Ethiopian national citizenship. You can put lipstick on bantustans and call them “ethnic federalism” but at the end of the day a Killilistan with lipstick is a Bantustan without lipstick.
Before committing to “build up on the positive aspects of Ethiopia’s current federal set-up”, I urge the ODF and all others interested in institutionalizing genuine federalism in Ethiopia to carefully study and consider the long line of Apartheid laws creating and maintaining bantustans in South Africa. I commend a couple of illustrative examples of such laws to those interested. The Bantu Authorities Act, 1951(“Black Authorities Act, 1951”) created the legal basis for the deportation of blacks into designated homeland reserve areas and established tribal, regional and territorial authorities. This Act was subsequently augmented by the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act, 1970 (“Black States Citizenship Act & National States Citizenship Act, 1970) which sought to change the legal status of the inhabitants of the bantustans by effectively denaturalizing them from enjoying citizenship rights as South Africans. These laws imposed draconian restrictions on the freedom of movement of black South Africans. These laws further sought to ensure that white South Africans would represent the majority of the de jure population of South Africa with the right to vote and monopolize control of the state machinery. The Group Areas Act of 1950 (as re-enacted in the Group Areas Act of 1966), divided South Africa into separate areas for whites and blacks and gave the government the power to forcibly remove people from areas not designated for their particular tribal and racial group. Under this Act, anyone living in the “wrong” area was deported to his/her tribal group homeland. The law also denied Africans the right to own land anywhere in South Africa and stripped them of all political rights. The lives of over 3.5 million people were destroyed by this law as they were forcibly deported and corralled like cattle in their tribal group bantustans.
Recently, Prof. Yacob Hailemariam, a prominent Ethiopian opposition leader and a former senior Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda commented that the forceful eviction of members of the Amhara ethnic group from Benishangul-Gumuz (one of the nine kililistans) was a de facto ethnic cleansing. “The forceful deportation of people because they speak a certain language could destabilize a region, and if reported with tangible evidence, the UN Security Council could order the International Criminal Court to begin to examine the crimes.” A year ago to the month Meles Zenawi justified the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of Amharas from Southern Ethiopia stating, “… By coincidence of history, over the past ten years numerous people — some 30,000 sefaris (squatters) from North Gojam – have settled in Benji Maji (BM) zone [in Southern Ethiopia]. In Gura Ferda, there are some 24,000 sefaris.” Meles approved the de facto ethnic cleansing of Amharas from the “wrong” areas and repatriation back to their kililistan Amhara homelands. Through “villagization” programs, indigenous populations have been forced of their ancestral lands in Gambella, Benishangul and the Oromo River Valley and their land auctioned off to voracious multinational agribusinesses. The undeniable fact of the matter is that over the past two decades the Meles regime has implemented a kinder and gentler version of Bantustanism in Ethiopia.
The perils and untenability of Meles’ “bogus federalism” have been documented in the International Crises Group’s report “Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism and Its Discontents”. That report points out the glaring deficiencies and problems engendered by “ethnic federalism” in “redefine[ing] citizenship, politics and identity on ethnic grounds.” The study argues that “ethnic federalism” has resulted in “an asymmetrical federation that combines populous regional states like Oromiya and Amhara in the central highlands with sparsely populated and underdeveloped ones like Gambella and Somali.” Moreover, “ethnic federalism” has created “weak regional states”, “empowered some groups” and failed to resolve the “national question”. Aggravating the underlying situation has been the Meles dictatorship’s failure to promote “dialogue and reconciliation” among groups in Ethiopian society, further fueling “growing discontent with the EPRDF’s ethnically defined state and rigid grip on power and fears of continued inter-ethnic conflict.”
“Ethnic federalism” is indefensible in theory or practice. While intrinsically nonsensical as public policy, “ethnic federalism” in the hands of the Meles regime has become a dangerous weapon of divide and rule, divide and control and divide and destroy. Those in power entertain themselves watching the pitiful drama of kililistans compete and fight with each other for crumbs and preoccupying themselves with historical grievances. The ICG report makes it clear that in the long term “ethnic federalism” could trigger an implosion and disintegration of the Ethiopian nation.
Meles used to boast that his “ethnic federalism” policy had saved the “country [which] was on the brink of total disintegration.” He argued that “Every analyst worth his salt was suggesting that Ethiopia will go the way of Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union. What we have now is a going-concern.”
The truth of the matter is that ethnic balkanization, fragmentation, segregation and polarization are the tools of trade used by the Meles regime to cling to power while lining their pockets. In a genuine federalism, the national government is the creature of the subnational governments. In Ethiopia, the “kilil” (regional) “governments” are creatures and handmaidens of the national “government”. In a genuine federalism, the national government is entrusted with limited and enumerated powers for the purpose effectuating the common purposes of the subnational “governments”. In Ethiopia, the powers of the national “government” are vast and unlimited; and there are no barriers to its usurpatory powers which it exercises at will. There are no safeguards against encroachment on the rights and liberties of the people by the national or subnational “governments”. Simply stated, “ethnic federalism” as practiced in Ethiopia today is not only a recipe for tyranny by the national “government” but also the creed for secessionists in the name of self-determination. “Ethnic federalism” is an idea whose time has passed and should be consigned to the dustbin of history along with its author. “Well, back to the old drawing board!”
The Curse of Meles
According to those in the know, the late Meles Zenawi used to say “Diaspora Ethiopians can start things but never manage to finish them.” Regardless of the veracity of the attribution, there is a ring of truth to the proposition. Since 2005, we have read lofty declarations and heard announcements on the establishment of political and advocacy groups and organizations. We have welcomed them with fanfare but they have come and gone like the seasons.
I do not believe those who drafted the Declaration of the Congress of the Oromo Democratic Front will be visited by the Curse of Meles. The Declaration seems to be the product of an enormous amount of organizational soul-searching, discussion, debate, introspection and contemplation. The ODF has come up with an honest, practical, bold and hopeful declaration. I have some questions as do others; but the fact that questions are being raised is proof that the Declaration has considerable appeal, credibility and traction. I ask questions to engage in dialogue and discussion, not to undermine or cause doubt about the worth or value of the Declaration. To be sure, I raise questions about the Declaration in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King’s counsel: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” My questions originate from the question: “What does the Declaration do for all of our people? With sustained effort and the good will and cooperation of all stakeholders, there is no reason why new alliances cannot be created and old ones reinvigorated to move forward the struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. I am inspired by the Declaration’s commitment to wage a united struggle: “We will exert all efforts in order to pull together as many advocates and promoters of the interests of diverse social sectors as possible in order to popularize and refine the principles and processes that would transform Ethiopia into a genuinely democratic multinational federation.”
I understand “to pull together” means to stop pushing, shoving, ripping, picking and tearing each other apart. That is why I have an unshakeable faith in the proposition that “Ethiopians united — pulling together — can never be defeated by the bloody hands of tyrants!”
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
The silence of Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds”
Professor A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, the renowned Indian scientist (“Missile Man of India”) and Eleventh President of India (2002-2007) said, “If a country is to be corruption free and become a nation of beautiful minds, I strongly feel there are three key societal members who can make a difference. They are the father, the mother and the teacher.”
Recently, the World Bank released its 448-page World Bank (WB) report, “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia” with evidence galore showing that Ethiopia under the absolute dictatorship of the Meles Zenawi regime has become a full-fledged corruptocracy (a regime controlled and operated by a small clique of corrupt-to-the-core vampiric kleptocrats who cling to power to enrich themselves at public expense). Perhaps the report’s findings should not come as surprise to anyone since “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
Over the past several weeks, I have made a number of cursory remarks on the shocking findings of the WB report. I have also discreetly appealed to a segment of Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds” (its teachers, professors, economists, political and social scientists, lawyers, and other members of the learned professions) to critically examine the report and inform their compatriots on the devastating impact of corruption on the future of their poor country and make some recommendations on how to deal with it. I even challenged the political opposition to issue a “white paper” and make crystal clear their position on accountability and transparency and make some concrete proposals to remedy the endemic corruption that has metastasized in the Ethiopian body politic.
I have yet to see any substantive analysis or commentary on the WB’s “diagnosis of corruption” in Ethiopia in the popular media or in the scholarly journals; nor have I seen any proposals on how to sever the vampiric tentacles of corruption sucking the lifeblood from the Ethiopian people. Could it be that Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds” can’t handle ugly truths? Or do Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds” turn faint-hearted when it comes to speaking ugly truths to power?
Few can tell the ugly truth about corruption in Ethiopia more bluntly thanGlobal Financial Integrity (GFI), the renowned organization that reports on “illicit financial flows” (illegal capital flight, mispricing, bulk cash movements, hawala transactions, smuggling, etc.) out of developing countries. In 2011, GFI told the world, “The people of Ethiopia are being bled dry. No matter how hard they try to fight their way out of absolute destitution and poverty, they will be swimming upstream against the current of illicit capital leakage.”
When the late dictator Meles Zenawi was asked in July 2011 about his feelings concerning the use of the word “famine” synonymously with Ethiopia by the Oxford Dictionary, he said, “… Like any citizen, I am very sad. I am ashamed. It is degrading. A society that built the Lalibela churches… Axum obelisks… some thousand years ago is unable to cultivate the land and feed itself…. That is very sad. It is very shameful. Of all the things, to go out begging for one’s daily bread, to be a beggar nation is dehumanizing. Therefore, I feel great shame.” I too feel great shame that Ethiopia has become not only a “beggar nation” over the past 21 years, but also that she has now become synonymous with the word “corruption”. It is unbearable that the land of “13 months of sunshine” has become the land of 13 months of the darkness of corruption.
Speaking the ugly truth to power
Given the icy silence of Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds”, it is my humble duty and unenviable job to continue to speak the ugly truth about corruption to the powers that be in Ethiopia. For years, I have written numerous commentaries on corruption in Ethiopia as a serious human rights violation. I agree with Peter Eigen, founder and chairman of Transparency International (Corruption Index) that “corruption leads to a violation of human rights in at least three respects: corruption perpetuates discrimination, corruption prevents the full realisation of economic, social, and cultural rights, and corruption leads to the infringement of numerous civil and political rights.” I also believe corruption undermines good governance, cripples the rule of law and destroys citizens’ trust in political leaders, public officials and political institutions.
In 2007 when Ethiopia’s auditor general, Lema Aregaw, reported that Birr 600 million of state funds were missing from the regional government coffers, Meles fired Lema and publicly defended the regional administrations’ “right to burn money.” In my December 2008 commentary “The Bleeping Business of Corruption in Ethiopia,” I argued that “corruption in Ethiopia is an evil with a thousand faces. It is woven into the fabric of the political culture.” Corruption is the modus operandi of the regime in power in Ethiopia today. Former president Dr. Negasso Gidada clearly understood the gravity of the situation when he declared in 2001 that “corruption has riddled state enterprises to the core,” adding that the government would show “an iron fist against corruption and graft as the illicit practices had now become endemic”. In 2013, the business of corruption is the biggest business in Ethiopia.
In my November 2009 commentary, “Africorruption, Inc.”, I described the tip of the iceberg of the web of corruption in Ethiopia by synthesizing some of the eye popping anecdotal evidence. Dr. Negasso documented corruption in the misuse and abuse of political power for partisan electoral advantage. Coincidentally, in 2009, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelley announced that the U.S. is investigating allegations that “$850 million in food and anti-poverty aid from the U.S. is being distributed on the basis of political favoritism by the current prime minister’s party.” (For reasons unknown, but not difficult to guess, the U.S. State Department has never released the findings of its investigation.)
The ruling regime’s “Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission” (FEAC) in 2008 documented the fact that “USD$16 million dollars” worth of gold bars simply walked out of the country’s principal bank. FEAC described the heist as a “huge scandal that took place in the Country’s National Bank and took many Ethiopians by surprise… The corruptors dared to steal lots of pure gold bars that belonged to the Ethiopian people replacing them with gilded irons… Some employees of the Bank, business people, managers and other government employees were allegedly involved in this disastrous and disgracing scandal.”
FEAC also reported that “there was another big corruption case at the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation that took many Ethiopians by surprise” which involved the “competitive tendering for the supply of telecommunication equipment.” FEAC “found out that nearly 200 million USD has been lost to corruption through the entire fraudulent and corrupt process…. In another case involving a telecommunications deal with the Chinese, a high level regime official was secretly tape recorded trying to extort kickbacks for himself and other regime officials.” (Even though high level bank officials were fingered in the gold heist, there is no evidence that any one of them has ever been prosecuted.)
In my November 2011 commentary “To Catch Africa’s Biggest Thieves Hiding in America!”, I called attention to a Wikileaks cablegram which confirmed long held suspicions about massive corruption in the current ruling party in Ethiopia, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF): “Upon taking power in 1991… [the TPLF] liquidated non-military assets to found a series of companies whose profits would be used as venture capital to rehabilitate the war-torn Tigray region’s economy…[with] roughly US $100 million… Throughout the 1990s…, no new EFFORT [Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray owned and operated by TPLF] ventures have been established despite significant profits, lending credibility to the popular perception that the ruling party and its members are drawing on endowment resources to fund their own interests or for personal gain.” According to the World Bank, “roughly half of the Ethiopian national economy is accounted for by companies held by an EPRDF-affiliated business group called the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT)… EFFORT’s freight transport, construction, pharmaceutical, and cement firms receive lucrative foreign aid contracts and highly favorable terms on loans from government banks.”
When 10,000 tons of coffee earmarked for exports had simply vanished (not unlike the gold bars that walked out of the National Bank) from the warehouses in 2011, Meles Zenawi called a meeting of commodities traders and threatened to “cut off their hands” if they should steal coffee in the future. In a videotaped statement, Meles told the traders he will forgive them this time because “we all have our hands in the disappearance of the coffee”.
In my December 2011 commentary “The Art of Bleeding a Country Dry”, I argued, “No one knows corruption — the economics of kleptocracy — better than [Meles] Zenawi. The facts of Zenawi’s corruptonomics are plain for all to see: The [Ethiopian] economy is in the stranglehold of businesses owned or dominated by Zenawi family members, cronies, supporters or hangers-on.”
“Diagnosing Corruption in (in the land of) Ethiopia”
Transparency International (Corruption Index) broadly defines corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. Corruption manifests itself in grand and petty ways. “Grand corruption consists of acts committed at a high level of government that distort policies or the central functioning of the state, enabling leaders to benefit at the expense of the public good.” Grand corruption often involves political corruption in which political decision makers manipulate “policies, institutions and rules of procedure in the allocation of resources and financing by political decision makers, who abuse their position to sustain their power, status and wealth.” Petty corruption often occurs when the law enforcement officials or bureaucratic functionaries exact payments from “ordinary citizens, who often are trying to access basic goods or services in places like hospitals, schools, police departments and other agencies” .
Corruption in Ethiopia is no longer a question of disparate anecdotal evidence or an issue of intellectual debate. Corruption has become the loathsome disease of the Ethiopian body politic. That is why the World Bank carefully titled its report, “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia”. Diagnosis refers to the clinical process of identifying a disease. The 448-page World Bank report has diagnosed corruption as the metastasizing cancer of the Ethiopian body politic.
Corruption in land is the root of all corruption in Ethiopia! Grand corruption in land originates from the upper circles of power in the public and private sector. The powerful political and economic elites in Ethiopia exploit the anarchic, arbitrary, secretive, unaccountable and confused governance of the ruling regime to weave their tangled webs of corruption. The World Bank report states that “the land sector [in Ethiopia] is particularly susceptible to corruption and rent seeking [using social or political institutions to redistribute wealth among different groups without creating new wealth (profit seeking)].” Corruption in land in Ethiopia is inherent (as the old communist ideologues used to say, “part and parcel of”) in “the way policy and legislation are formulated and enforced.”
The World Bank report explains that corruption in the land sector in Ethiopia occurs in several ways. First and foremost, “elite and senior officials” snatch the most desirable lands in the country for themselves. These fat cats manipulate the “weak policy and legal framework and poor systems to implement existing policies and laws” to their advantage. They engage in “fraudulent actions to allocate land to themselves in both urban and rural areas and to housing associations and developers in urban areas.” These “influential and well-connected individuals are able to have land allocated to them often in violation of existing laws and regulations.”
In the capital Addis Ababa, it is “nearly impossible to a get a plot of land without bribing city administration officials.” These officials not only demand huge bribes but have also “conspired with land speculators” and facilitated bogus “housing cooperatives [to become] vehicles for a massive land grab. It is estimated that about 15,000 forged titles have been issued in Addis Ababa in the past five years.”
Management of rural land is similarly deeply infected with corruption. “In rural areas, officials have distorted the definition of ‘public land’ to mean ‘government land’”. Officials define “public purpose” in applying expropriation which is believed to be a leading cause of “landlessness”. Officials have also “engaged in land grabbing to grant land to functionaries” and this is “happening at the woreda (district) level and is being copied by the elected committee members at kebele (subdistrict) level.” According to the World Bank report, “Almost all transactions involving land most often incorporate corruption because there is no clear policy or transparent regulation concerning land.”
It is stunning to learn from the report that the ruling regime does not even have the most elementary system of land management in place. “Rural areas have no maps of registered holdings… In urban areas, there is little mapping of registered property. Encumbrances and restrictions are not recorded in the registers, and the encumbrances, if registered, are listed in a separate document. Land use restrictions are not recorded in the register. There is no inventory of public land, which affects the efficient management of public land and creates opportunities for the illegal allocation of public land to private parties.” Because existing institutions and laws are evaded, ignored and manipulated for private gain, the system of land management is a total failure making it impossible to hold officials in power legally accountable for their corrupt practices.
A variety of methods are used to perpetuate corruption in land in Ethiopia. One “key method” of land corruption involves the illegal allocation of municipal land “to housing cooperatives controlled by developers who then sell off the land informally.” Often “buyers were unaware of the legal status of the land they were buying” and end up in court before judges who are “aligned (in cahoots) with the corrupt officials”. Another “method” is official falsification of documents. “With limited systems in place to record rights, particularly in urban areas, and limited oversight, officials have plenty of opportunities to falsify documents. It is not uncommon for parcels of land to be allocated to many different parties, sometimes to as many as different parties, from whom officials and intermediaries collect multiple transaction and service fees.” Blatant conflict of interest of board members who oversee the lease award process, the absence of a compliance monitoring process for lease allocations and payments and the absence of land use regulations have served to accelerate the metastasizing corruption in land in Ethiopia.
State ownership of all land in Ethiopia is the fountainhead of land corruption. Wealthy elites and influential groups seize the land of the poor and marginalized through forced, but “legal” evictions and eminent domain actions. Nowhere is this type of land grab corruption more conspicuous than in the regime’s land giveaways to foreign “investors”. The World Bank report states that “a substantial proportion of expropriated land is transferred to private interests”, but not to smallholders. “The expropriation and relocation of smallholders has been to the advantage of extensive commercial farming, including flower farms, biofuel, and other commodities.” It is also documented that the Ethiopian “government is forcing the Indigenous Peoples of the southwest off their ancestral lands and leasing these lands to foreign companies.” This expropriation has been achieved through a bogus program of “villagization” in which 1.5 million people have been “resettled” from the regions of Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz, Somali, and Afar and their ancestral lands handed over to domestic and international “investors”.
As I documented in my March 2011 commentary, “Ethiopia: Country for Sale”, the Indian agribusiness giant Karuturi Global today owns a 1,000 sq. miles, “an area the size of Dorset, England”, of virgin Ethiopian land for “£150 a week (USD$245)” for “50 years”. As Karuturi Project Manager in Ethiopia Karmjeet Sekhon euphorically explained to Guardian reporter John Vidal, “We never saw the land. They gave it to us and we took it. Seriously, we did. We did not even see the land. They offered it. That’s all.” The Karuturi guys would like us to believe they got something for nothing. The regime wheeler-dealers would like us to believe they gave a 1,000 square miles of virgin land to one of the richest agribusinesses in the world for nothing. Suffice it to say that they may also believe we were born yesterday; but surely, we were not born last night!
Prognosis on corruption in Ethiopia
Corruption in Ethiopia is the principal business of the State. Corruption has metastasized in the Ethiopian body politic because the political and economic elites that have total control over the country’s land resources benefit enormously. They use tailor-made legislative opportunities to secure, sell and speculate in land rights. Because the state is the sole owner of land, those who own the state alone have the power to privatize land, expropriate, lease, zone or approve construction plans or negotiate large-scale land giveaways. Those who control the land in Ethiopia control not only the political and economic process but also the digestive process (stomachs) of 90 million Ethiopians!
The culture of corruption must be changed before the tangled webs of corruption spun by the political and economic elites in Ethiopia are shattered. The major problem with changing the culture of political corruption is, as Peter Eigen observed, “in many parts of the world, the local people are resigned to the fact that there is corruption. They think there is nothing they can do about it. Therefore they more or less try to accommodate themselves, pay bribes themselves.”
Most Ethiopians are unaware of the regime’s “anti-corruption” efforts and those who are aware view the whole effort with a jaded eye. The simple fact of the matter is that having the “anti-corruption” agency (FEAC) to oversee, monitor, investigate and prosecute the architects and beneficiaries of corruption in Ethiopia is like having Tweedle Dee monitor, investigate and prosecute Tweedle Dum. To invoke an old Ethiopian saying, “It is difficult to get a conviction when the son is the robber and the father is the judge.”
Effective anti-corruption efforts require an active democratic culture based on the rule of law and a vigilant citizenry empowered to confront and fight corruption in daily life. Genuine anti-corruption efforts must necessarily begin by empowering ordinary people to fight back, not by creating a make-believe anti-corruption bureaucracy.
There have been some successful experiments in grassroots anti-corruption efforts where ordinary people have been given the tools to fight back corruption. In India, for instance, they have successfully organized local “vigilance commissions” in many towns and brought together the vulnerable and interested groups to probe into corruption. These commissions have put a significant dent in corruption. In Bangalore, “hub for India’s information technology sector”, residents have been involved in rating the quality of all major service providers in the city. The results were used to put pressure on government officials and service providers to become more accountable to citizens. The Central Vigilance Commission of India also runs Project VIGEYE (Vigilance Eye) which is “a citizen-centric initiative” in which “citizens join hands with the Central Vigilance Commission in fighting corruption in India.” VIGEYE provides citizens given multiple channels of engagement in the fight against corruption. In parts of Brazil, citizens are empowered to fight corruption through “participatory budgeting.” By including citizens from various backgrounds in the process of budget allocation, Brazil has been able to decrease levels of corruption and clientelism (exchange of goods and services for political support).
Ethiopia can learn much from Botswana, regarded to be the least corrupt country in Africa. The “Botswana Model” uses the strategy of “name and shame” to educate and accentuate public awareness of corruption. Using the free press as a tool, Botswanans name and shame corrupt officials by publishing their photographs on the front pages with the headline: “Is this man corrupt?” Botswana’s top political leaders are said to maintain high levels of public integrity and teach by example. Peter Eigen credits Botswana’s success to the “Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime in Botswana [which] has processed thousands of [corruption] cases since 1994 and has made great strides against corruption.” In 2012, Botswana ranked an extraordinary 30/174 countries on the Corruption Index. These examples point to the fact that citizen involvement and monitoring are very effective in reducing corruption and increasing public integrity. Creating a bloated, toothless and self-perpetuating anti-corruption bureaucracy such as FEAC is mere window dressing for international donors and loaners.
The other remedy for corruption lies in vigorous and well-publicized criminal prosecutions of corrupt officials, asset forfeitures (divestment of corruptly obtained wealth) and imposition of tough prison sentences on convicted corrupt officials. FEAC’s own data show that corruption prosecutions and convictions in Ethiopia are negligible.
Absent some dramatic treatment for the cancer of corruption in Ethiopia’s land sector, there is no doubt that Ethiopia will be bankrupted in the foreseeable future. This is a country whose foreign reserve today could barely cover two months of its import bills, has accumulated over USD$12 billion in foreign debt; and over the past decade Ethiopia has lost USD$11.7 billion dollars in illicit financial flows. Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds” and the opposition elements need to do a better job of addressing the issue of corruption. Passing references to “corruption” that “plagues the infrastructure sector”, “corruption that has never been seen before in the history of” Ethiopia and pleas to “arrest corruption that is rampant in the country” are simply not adequate.
I like to ask naïve questions. When it comes to governance, I ask not why Ethiopia’s rulers have chosen the “China Model” but rather why they have not chosen the “Ghanaian Model?” When it comes to corruption control, I simply ask why Ethiopia’s rulers have chosen not to follow the “Botswana Model”?
At the end of the day, “if Ethiopia is to be corruption free and become a nation of beautiful minds,” its “beautifully minded” scholars, professors, researchers, policy analysts, lawyers and other members of the learned professions must renounce their vows of silence and loudly speak truth to black-hearted dictators! Silence may be golden but when we see the gold walking out of the National Bank in broad daylight, we had better scream, shout and holler like hell!!!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: