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Ethiopian Opposition

We Went, We Saw, We Got Chased Out…

Alemayehu G. Mariam

Following the Battle of Zela in 47 B.C. (present day Zile, Turkey), Julius Caesar claimed victory by declaring: “I came; I saw; I conquered.” In 2011, Caesar Meles Zenawi, the dictator-in-chief in Ethiopia, scattered his top henchmen throughout the U.S. and Europe to declare victory in the propaganda war on Diaspora Ethiopians. But there was no victory to be had, only {www:ignominious} defeat at the hands of Zenawi’s {www:tenacious}, resolute and dogged opponents. No victory dances; only a speedy shuffle back to the capo di tutti capi (boss of all bosses) to deliver the message: “We went; We saw; We got chased the hell out of Dodge!”

The purpose of the recent official travelling circus was to introduce and generate support among Diaspora Ethiopians for Zenawi’s five-year economic program pretentiously labeled “Growth and Transformation Plan”. In city after city in North America and Europe, Zenawi’s crew received defiant and pugnacious reception. Ethiopians made the various meeting venues and sites virtual mini-Tahrir Squares (Egypt). Ethiopian men and women, Christians and Muslims, young and old, professionals and service workers, students and teachers and members of various political groups and parties showed up in a united front to confront and challenge Zenawi’s henchmen. One need only view any one of the numerous videotapes online to appreciate the intensity, depth and strength of Diaspora Ethiopian opposition to Zenawi’s regime.

In Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Dallas, Seattle, New York, Toronto, London and various other cities, Ethiopians came out in full force and tried to gain admission into the meetings.  Many were singled out and turned back. In a widely-disseminated and cogently argued “open letter”,Fekade Shewakena, a former professor at Addis Ababa University, wrote Girma Birru, Zenawi’s official representative in the U.S., complaining about his discriminatory treatment in being refused admission at the meeting held on the campus of Howard University:

I was formally invited by an [Ethiopian] embassy staffer… I faced the wrath of the protestors as I was crossing their picket lines [to attend the meeting]. Then I met the people who were deployed by the [Ethiopian] embassy to man the gate, and do the sad job of screening participants and deciding what type of Ethiopian should be let in and what type should be kept out. I was told I was ineligible to enter and saw many people being returned from entering. One screener told me… “ante Tigre titela yelem ende min litisera metah” [Tr. Do you not hate Tigreans? What business do you have here?…]

The ethnic stripe test was the last straw for many of the protesters who denounced Zenawi and his crew as “murderers”, “thieves” (leba) and “opportunists” (hodams). Inside the meeting halls, those who asked tough questions were singled out and ejected by the organizers, often violently. Some were physically assaulted requiring emergency medical assistance. Nearly all of the meetings were disrupted, cancelled, stopped or delayed. To sum it up, those who made peaceful dialogue impossible, made angry verbal exchanges inevitable.

Zenawi in September, His Troops in April?

It will be recalled that in September 2010 when Zenawi came to the U.S. to speak at the World Leader’s Conference at Columbia University, he set off a firestorm of opposition among Ethiopians in the U.S. Busloads of Ethiopian activists descended on New York City to confront Zenawi, but they were kept away from the campus. A massive campaign (reminiscent of the anti-war protest days at Columbia in the late 1960s) was undertaken to mobilize Columbia students, faculty and staff to put pressure on the university administration to disinvite Zenawi.

Zenawi’s invitation also provoked strong reaction among non-Ethiopians. Prof. Ted Vestal, the distinguished and respected scholar on Ethiopia, outraged by Zenawi’s invitation wrote Columbia President Lee Bollinger: “The only way you can redeem the damaged reputation of the World Leaders Forum is by publicly making known the shortcomings of Prime Minister Meles and his government in your introductory remarks–a refutation similar to what you did in introducing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran in 2007.”

World-renowned Columbia economist Prof. Jagdish Bagwati wrote in disgust: “It seems probable that the President’s [Bollinger] office was merely reproducing uncritically the rubbish that was supplied by one of these Columbia entrepreneurs [Columbia Professors Joseph Stiglitz (Zenawi’s sponsor) and  Jeffrey Sachs] whose objective is to ingratiate himself with influential African leaders regardless of their democratic and human-rights record, to get PR and ‘goodies’ for themselves at African summits, at the UN where these leaders have a vote, etc.”

I vigorously defended Zenawi’s right to speak at Columbia because I believed the opportunity could offer him a teachable moment in the ways of free people:

I realize that this may not be a popular view to hold, but I am reminded of the painful truth in Prof. Noam Chomsky’s admonition: ‘If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.’ On a personal level, it would be hypocritical of me to argue for free speech and press freedoms in Ethiopia and justify censorship or muzzling of Zenawi stateside. If censorship is bad for the good citizens of Ethiopia, it is also bad for the dictators of Ethiopia.

Following the Columbia episode, one has to wonder why Zenawi would send hordes of his top officials to the U.S. and elsewhere to evangelize on behalf of his regime. It is logical to assume that Zenawi conducted a “vulnerability analysis” of Diaspora Ethiopians before sending out his crew. It is likely that he studied Diaspora attitudes and perceptions toward his regime and the current situation in the country, the ethnic and political divisions and tensions in the Diaspora, the strength of Diaspora elite cooperation and intensity of conflict among them, etc. and decided to make his move. He likely concluded that any potential opposition to the meetings could be handled by utilizing an “ethnic filter” at the door of the meeting halls.

But what are Zenawi’s real reasons for sending his top cadre of officials to North America and Europe? There could be several answers to this deceptively simple question.

Zenawi’s Arsenal of Weapons of Mass Distraction

Careful evaluation of Zenawi’s propaganda strategy shows that the dispatch of officials to the to the U.S. and Europe is part of a broader integrated campaign to undermine opposition in the Diaspora, energize supporters and reinforce favorable perception and action by  foreign donors and banks. Manifestly, the mission of the crew sent to “dialogue” with the Ethiopian Diaspora was to divert attention from the extreme domestic economic, political and social problems in the country and to exude public confidence in the fact that the upheavals in North Africa are of no consequence in Ethiopia. The other elements in this propaganda campaign of mass distraction include belligerent talk of regime change in Eritrea, {www:inflammatory} water war-talk with Egypt, wild allegations of terrorist attacks, wholesale jailing and intimidation of opponents, proposals for the construction of an imaginary dam, attacks on international human rights organizations that have published critical reports on the regime (just a day ago, Zenawi’s deputy said he “dismisses” the 2010 U.S. Human Rights Report as “baseless”) and so on.  The hope is that the more Diasporans talk about the manufactured issues, the less they will talk about the real issues of stratospheric inflation, food shortages, skyrocketing fuel costs, massive repression, information and media suppression, etc. in Ethiopia.

By alternating propaganda topics from day today, Zenawi hopes to keep his opponents and critics talking reflexively about his issues and off-balance. The more outrageous his claims, the more reaction he is likely to elicit from his opponents and critics, and be able to better control the debate and the minds of those engaged in it. To be sure, by sending his travelling circus to the U.S., Zenawi has succeeded in angering, inflaming and riling up his Diaspora opponents. He knows just how to “get their goat”. He manipulates that outpouring of anger, rage and frustration to keep his opponents’ eyes off the prize.

The Propaganda Value of “In-Yo’-Diaspora-Face” Confrontation

By sending a large delegation into the Ethiopian Diaspora, Zenawi is also sending an unmistakable message: “In yo’ face, Ethiopian Diaspora! I can do what I am doing in Ethiopia just as easily in your neck of the woods.” It is a confrontational propaganda strategy tinged with a tad of arrogance. Zenawi seems to believe that the Ethiopian Diaspora is so divided against itself and inherently dysfunctional that it is incapable of mounting an effective opposition to his regime or even his crew’s visit. By unleashing swarms of regime officials in the Diaspora, Zenawi likely intended to further degrade the Diaspora’s ability to conduct or sustain opposition activities, {www:demoralize} and disconcert them and confuse their leadership. On the other hand, if he can muster a successful foray with his crew, he could establish his invincibility and spread pessimism and despair in the Diaspora. But the whole affair proved to be a total failure as have all previous efforts to stage “in yo’ face” confrontation with Diaspora Ethiopians. The Diaspora may be divided but not when it comes to Zenawi’s regime.

Effective Propaganda Tool Against the “Extreme Diaspora”

The other less apparent side of “in yo’ face” confrontation is to make a record of the “extreme Diaspora”. Zenawi will no doubt use this episode to show American and European  policy makers that he is reasonable and statesman-like while the opposition, particularly in the Diaspora, consist of an assortment of wild-eyed, hysterical, fanatical, intolerant, irrational, hateful and mean-spirited extremists. He will argue to American policy makers that he sent his top leaders to engage Diasporan Ethiopians in civil dialogue only to be attacked, insulted and berated. He will hand them copies of  well-edited videotapes of agitated protesters titled: “Behold the Ethiopian Diaspora!” In short, Zenawi will use the protest videos as Exhibit A to demonize, discredit, dehumanize, marginalize, categorize and sermonize about the Evil Extreme Ethiopian Diaspora. At the end, he will offer American policy makers a simple choice: “I am your man! It’s me or these raving lunatics.” Based on historical experience and empirical observations, some American policy makers may actually buy his argument.

Pandering to the U.S., IMF, E.U.

A third objective of the dog and pony show about the “Growth and Transformational Plan” is to please (hoodwink) the U.S., the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and others. It is an elaborately staged drama for this audience to show that Zenawi has a real economic plan for Ethiopia that exceeds the “Millennium Goals” (e.g. eradicate extreme poverty, reduce child mortality, fight AIDS, form global partnership, etc. by 2015). By making gestures of engagement with the Ethiopian Diaspora, Zenawi is trying to build credibility for his “economic plan” and that it has broad support within and outside the country. He deserves billions more in in loans and economic aid. Zenawi knows exactly what buttons to push to get the attention and approval of donors and loaners.

The “economic plan” itself floats on a sea of catchphrases, clichés, slogans, buzzwords, platitudes, truisms and bombast. Zenawi says his plan will produce “food sufficiency in five years.” But he cautions it is a “high-case scenario which is clearly very, very ambitious.” He says  the “base-case” scenario of “11 percent average economic growth over the next five years is  doable” and the “high-case” scenario of 14.9 percent is “not unimaginable”. The hype of super economic growth rate is manifestly detached from reality. The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative Multidimensional Poverty Index 2010 (formerly annual U.N.D.P. Human Poverty Index) ranks Ethiopia as second poorest (ahead of famine-ravaged Mali) country on the planet. Six million Ethiopians needed emergency food aid last year and many millions will need food aid this year. An annual growth rate of 15 percent for the second poorest country on the planet for the next five years goes beyond the realm of imagination to pure fantasy. The IMF predicts a growth rate of 7 percent for 2011, but talking about economic statistics on Ethiopia is like talking about the art of voodoo.

Dialogue, Like Charity, Begins at Home

Like charity, dialogue begins at home. Zenawi should allow free and unfettered discussion of his economic plan as well as human rights record within Ethiopia first before sending his troupe into the Diaspora.  Conversation is a two-way street. If Zenawi wants to talk about his economic plan to Diaspora Ethiopians, he must be prepared to listen to their human rights concerns.

There is not a single Ethiopian who will oppose food sufficiency in that hungry country by 2015 or decline to contribute to the prosperity and development of Ethiopia. Reasonable people could disagree on Zenawi’s “growth and transformation plan”. History shows that similar schemes based on foreign agricultural investments in Latin America have produced Banana Republics. Whether Zenawi’s economic plan will produce a Barley or Rice Republic in Ethiopia is an arguable question. But there can be no development without freedom. There can be no development in a climate of fear, loathing and intimidation, and one-party, one-man domination. Most certainly, there can be no development without respect for fundamental human rights and the rule of law. Though it is very possible to pull the wool over the eyes of people who have very little access to information, it is impossible to fool a politically conscious, active and energized Ethiopian Diaspora community by putting on a dog and pony show.



Ethiopia: Why Can’t We Just Get Along?

Alemayehu G. Mariam

A Comedy of Errors: (Act I)

Rodney King’s videotaped brutal beating by members of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) eventually triggered the L.A. riots of 1992. Rodney made a public appearance on the third day of the anarchy and pleaded in his inimitable style:

People, I just want to say, can we all get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids? It’s just not right…. Let’s try to work it out.

I never thought I would appeal to Rodney King for political wisdom and insight in seeking an end to the internecine warfare in the Ethiopian opposition and plead for reconciliation, understanding and common sense. True, Rodney King is no Martin King, but in this instance I am going to invoke Rodney while pleading Martin to get Ethiopia’s opposition leaders to re-think and re-examine their strategy of mutual assured destruction (MAD).

It was amusing to read this past week a story about criminal charges filed against one faction of the Unity and Democracy Party [UDJ] (Andenet) by another faction of the same party in Ethiopia. Charged with disturbing the peace this past April are some of the prominent leaders and members of the UDJ. It is alleged that the defendants threw rocks at the party office and created disturbances while party members worked inside. Several witnesses testified for the prosecution at a hearing and the matter was continued to a later date.

There had been prior confrontations between UDJ members. In late 2009 when UDJ held its Extraordinary Congress at the Imperial Hotel, it was alleged that certain “expelled” members had attempted to disrupt the meetings. The police were reportedly called to intervene, but failed to show up. The meeting was cancelled and there were no prosecutions. But state-controlled television was on hand to record the bizarre spectacle for broadcast.

I am sure the whole zany rock-throwing affair gave dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi and his crew much needed comic relief in the weeks before the May 2010 “election”. Today, Zenawi watches a command performance opera buffa of some of the champions of the Ethiopian opposition duking it out in kangaroo court. It is humiliating and embarrassing for many of us to see some of the giants of the opposition who have sacrificed so much of themselves pointing accusatory fingers at each other in the Zenawi’s Halls of Injustice. Of course, one would have expected all opposition leaders to get the message after the “election” and get their acts together. After all, Zenawi won by 99.6 percent, and they “lost” by 100 percent. But that is another matter. I only wish the accusers and the accused could see themselves from the outside as they spar in the three-ring circus of Zenawi’s kangaroo court.

Master Stroke of Public Relations (Act II)

The timing of the UDJ “prosecution” is curious, to say the least. The final report of the European Union Election Observation Mission Team [EU EOM] is expected to be released sometime in September. Staging a three-ring kangaroo circus over a rock-throwing incident to coincide with the release of the EU EOM report is a master stroke of public relations. It provides a nice distraction to the findings and conclusions of the forthcoming report. The criminal case will be dragged out to coincide with the release of the report and cushion the hard landing Zenawi is going to have in the report. We already know from the from the preliminary statements of EU EOM that the May 2010 “election” “failed to provide a level playing field”. Major donor governments have declared the election “does not meet international standards”. That is just diplomatic-speak for a stolen election. Regardless of what the final report will document, the incontrovertible fact is that an “election” that gave Zenawi a victory of 99.6 percent is not an election; it is a travesty of election.

But the sting of the EU EOM report could be lessened and world attention distracted by depicting opposition leaders as a bunch of bumbling and bungling lightweights (or worse) who are not only incapable of leading the country but are spending their time like children throwing rocks at each other. It is a brilliant public relations move by Zenawi to make a complete laughing stock out of some of the most respected leaders of the opposition. Let us just watch Zenawi showcasing the “rock throwers” freak show in his kangaroo court circus as the release date for the EU EOM report draws near: “Come one, come all to the greatest show in Ethiopia! Marvel and thrill at the rock-throwing Ethiopian opposition leaders! Stare in awe… Do you want these guys to run the country!?” Barnum and Bailey never had so much fun!

Justice in Kangaroo Court? (Act III)

Time was that opposition leaders were dragged in chains into kangaroo court to become victims of injustice. Some of the UDJ members in this criminal case were sentenced together to long prison terms in kangaroo court not long ago and served nearly two years before being “pardoned”. It is an eerie feeling to see them now standing on their hind legs pointing accusatory fingers at each other. UDJ members going to kangaroo court to seek justice is like Rodney King going before LAPD’s Internal Affairs to press charges against the cops who beat him to a pulp. It just makes no sense. I am dismayed and embarrassed by the sight of UDJ members brawling in a kangaroo cage match as Zenawi calls the count. What a low-down dirty shame for all whoare toiling for democracy, human rights and justice in Ethiopia to view this spectacle. What comic relief for Zenawi and his crew. Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

I want to laugh too, but it hurts to laugh. In fact, I would like to cry at the sight of these distinguished members of the opposition wagging fingers and exchanging verbal missiles in kangaroo court. What were they thinking?

But to add humiliation to a crying shame, I agonize over the possible outcomes of the criminal case. If the UDJ defendants are convicted and sentenced to jail, who wins? Zenawi does. He will step up to the podium and announce to the world that his justice system worked “fairly” and the criminal wrongdoers were held to account. He can walk up to his Western donors (a/k/a partners-in-crime) and smugly say, “Behold my opposition (chuckle)! See real justice at work!”

Who loses if they are convicted? The opposition does. The people will shake their collective heads in dismay and disbelief and ask: “What were they thinking? Why can’t they get along? If they can’t get along out of power, how could they get along if they get into power?”
Who wins if the UDJ defendants are acquitted? Zenawi does. He can show the world that justice was served in his court with impartiality and the innocent set free. Who loses if they are acquitted? The opposition does. The people will scratch their collective heads and ask: “Why did they do it? Was it worth their humiliation in kangaroo court?” In short, the kangaroo court criminal case is a win-win for Zenawi, and a lose-lose for the opposition!

But there is a less obvious conclusion to be drawn to the credit of the UDJ members. In the heat of the moment, certain party members may or may not have thrown rocks or exchanged harsh words. But to their collective credit, there was no shooting or extreme violence, as it often happens among opposition elements in so many parts of Africa. The UDJ members did not take to street justice to resolve their disagreements; they went to court (admittedly the kangaroo variety). I applaud them for that. They had the right idea, but went to the wrong place. Courts of law (in contrast to kangaroo courts) are the proper and civilized place to bring disputes for resolution. Independent judges (in contrast to hacks wearing judicial robes) can properly administer justice impartially and neutrally.

But the proper place for resolution of political disputes among Ethiopia’s opposition is never in kangaroo court, but in intra- and inter-organizational mediation and reconciliation processes or other civil society institutions. Throwing rocks or vilifying each other with abusive words is never justified. They do not need to beat each other up; they need to stand together and cover each other’s back. They need to shield each other from the ceaseless barrages of the slings and arrows of an outrageous dictatorship.

So I am going to “sermonize” a little bit here. If the bickering, name calling, rock throwing and all the other silly stuff continues, the opposition will end up in mutual assured destruction as the dictators look on with glee. It is mad to follow the path of MAD. The opposition has far too many important tasks to accomplish. They have already lost precious time in internal strife and fragmentation; they need to be doing more by way of uniting, mobilizing, motivating and inspiring the people with their ideas and plans. The people want to hear messages of hope and redemption from opposition leaders, not accusations and recriminations. The people want to be assured that it is possible, with dedication and effort, to overcome the seemingly insurmountable mountain of dictatorship; that change, peaceful democratic change, is possible and the people themselves hold their destiny in their collective hands. The people want to be shown these possibilities through leadership examples of optimism, dedication, tolerance, tenacity and patriotic zeal. That is the way to do it!

The kind of legal warfare we see in kangaroo court with opposition leaders and members is demoralizing; it is not uplifting for the people. It robs the people of their faith in the future and saps their energy, enthusiasm and hopes for democracy. Opposition leaders should be less concerned about their partisan interests and more engaged in addressing the needs of the masses of unemployed youth, the urban poor that have little to eat; the poor farmers scratching the earth for seedlings; the masses of women who face domestic violence daily; the educated professionals who can barely eke out an existence on salaries that are gobbled up by stratospheric inflation and the state workers who are forced to supplement their incomes by payments under the table. These people are looking for visionary leadership. They want to see clear-thinking and dignified opposition leaders charting the course to a better future. They do not want to see opposition leaders brawling in freak shows in a kangaroo circus court. Stated simply, opposition leaders and parties need consolidation, not fragmentation; they need reconciliation not accusation and recrimination.

Can’t We Just Get Along? (Act IV)

I see no need for opposition leaders to act in a vaudevillian comedy show directed by Zenawi. That is why I am asking them to develop and adopt a voluntary “code of conduct” to govern their relationships as they face a formidable common adversary. Such a code should address matters of civility, tolerance of dissent, non-use of inflammatory language, avoidance of personality clashes, constructive criticism of programs and policies, avoidance of personal attacks, establishment of formal and informal dispute resolution mechanisms, grievance complaint procedures and so on. Under no circumstances should they air their “dirty political laundry” in kangaroo court.

Political leaders and followers who are truly committed to democracy and human rights and work for the betterment of the Ethiopian people need to get along with each other and cooperate for a common purpose. They do not need to agree with each other on all issues or even the majority of issues. It is not even necessary for them to socialize and hang out together; but it is mandatory that they find effective ways of collaboration to advance their common causes of democracy, human rights, accountability, transparency and the rule of law.
Working together requires creating a harmonious working relationship founded on mutual respect, tolerance and understanding. If there are differences on issues, as there should be, all effort must be exerted to discuss and resolve them without degenerating into personal attacks. If issues cannot be resolved, it is best to agree to disagree and move on with other issues.

Teamwork and collegiality among opposition leaders are essential if dictatorship is to be defeated and real democracy established in Ethiopia. When opposition leaders attack and disrespect each other, they not only make themselves laughing stocks for the dictator and his crew but also look silly in the eyes of the public and set a bad example. The kind of dysfunctionality that is visible in the opposition today is not only pathetic but also harmful to the prospects of democracy in the future. Opposition leaders need to answer a simple question: How can they expect to work collaboratively in the interests of the country and fight dictatorship when they have hardened partisan politics among themselves so much? The road of hardened partisan politics leads to MAD. They may have been in separate boats before the May “election”, but now they are all in the same boat cruising up that famous creek without a paddle.

It is time now to transition to the politics of multi-partisanship, cooperation and collaboration. Practically, this means advancing the interests of the people over partisan politics or advancement of one’s agenda, status, career or ambitions. It means showing the people that the opposition is NOT the flip side of the ruling dictatorship. Stated simply, the people need to be reassured that in the opposition they are not swapping Tweedledee for Tweedledum. Democracy and dictatorship are not interchangeable. The most effective way of getting the trust and support fo the people is by proving to them what it means to work together harmoniously while opposition leaders and parties are on the outside, and before they have tasted the sweet intoxicating nectar of power.

That’s why I pose some simple questions to Ethiopia’s opposition leaders: “Why can’t you all just get along? Can you stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids? It’s just not right…. Why can’t you try to work it out?”

As the old saying goes, “Yesterday is gone and tomorrow is not ours, what we have is today.” Can we all begin to mend fences today and come together not only to oppose and defeat an ephemeral dictatorship, but most importantly, to put our collective shoulders to the grind wheel and work for democracy, justice and human rights in Ethiopia? Can we all get along!