I enjoy watching American diplomats chilling out and kicking it with African dictators. I like seeing them kumbaya-ing, back-patting and carrying on. Their body language, more than their forked diplomatic tongue, speaks more honestly and eloquently. I have learned to take their words with a grain of salt and a dash of pepper. (Is it true that a diplomat is an honest gentleman (woman) sent to lie abroad for the good of their country?)
Not to be misunderstood, I get a kick listening to American diplocrats (practitioners of human rights diplomacy by hypocrisy) pontificating about human rights. I enjoy listening to them talk as much as I like reading Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Jabberwocky”. The diplocrats say, “We will work diligently with Ethiopia to ensure that strengthened democratic institutions and open political dialogue become a reality for the Ethiopian people… We will work for the release of jailed scholars, activists, and opposition party leaders… History is on the side of brave Africans…” These words, like “The Jabberwocky”, are nonsense; but I enjoy fairy tales, like Alice in Wonderland. (If history is on the side of a few brave Africans, what is on the side of the millions of frightened Africans? Just curious.)
After listening to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at a press conference during the Golden Jubilee of the Organization of African Unity/African Union (OAU/AU) Summit (a/k/a “African Dictators’ Club”) in Addis Ababa last week, I have concluded it is preferable to watch American diplocrats than listening to them. Kerry made a number of statements at that press conference which were not only disconcerting but also appalling. (I was tempted to plug my ears, but didn’t have the darn things handy.) Kerry glibly remarked,
With respect to the economic growth, we [U.S.] would love to have Ethiopia’s economic growth. Ethiopia’s one of the ten fastest growing countries in the world. It’s up in the double digits in growth. It’s really quite an extraordinary story.
To paraphrase William F. Buckley, I do not want to insult Kerry’s intelligence by suggesting that he really believes what he said about Ethiopia’s economic growth and “extraordinary story”. I am just not sure he meant what he said. Actually, I am totally confused. Was he being artfully glib, patronizingly humorous, graciously disingenuous or congenially accommodating in his hyperbole? Could he be so woefully uninformed or willfully ignorant about Ethiopia? Could he be engaging in barefaced diplomatic mendacity?
If he really believes the canard, it is shocking because it shows a reckless disregard for elementary facts bordering on gullibility. If it is an attempt at humor, it is pretty lame. If he is being disingenuous, no one is amused. If he said it to patronize his hosts, he does great disservice to U.S. foreign policy by lending the credibility of his high office to legitimize a manifest and notorious fraud.
A fact check by the Associated Press reporter Bradley Klapper following Kerry’s press conference showed a disturbing pattern of loosey-gooseyness with the facts. Kerry seemed to be sleepwalking facts. Klapper cites numerous instances of factual lapses at the press conference in which “Kerry exaggerated the U.S. record on climate change, appeared to conflate past U.S. policy on drones with President Barack Obama’s new policy and gave an incomplete account of how he opposed the Iraq war (and how) he struggled with economic data as well as the contents of his own department’s terrorism blacklist.” Klapper gave a big smack down to Kerry’s assertion that “Ethiopia is up in the double digits in growth.” According to Klapper: “THE FACTS: Ethiopia’s economic growth was 7 percent last year, following several other years of growth in the mid to high single digits.”
American Diplocrisy by Kerry-speak?
Let me say at the outset that I have no intention of “swiftboating” Kerry. I am not criticizing him because he was waltzing with the dictators in Ethiopia on the marbled floors of the African Union Hall. I appreciate the need for diplomatic decorum. Diplomatic language must be used with delicacy. I also bear no malice towards Kerry. I supported and voted for him in the 2004 presidential election. Though I fiercely opposed Susan Rice’s potential nomination to become Secretary of State earlier this year (soon to be National Security Advisor), I raised no objection when Kerry’s name was submitted for Senate confirmation. I was not overly concerned about his foreign policy credentials since he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I followed his confirmation hearing closely.
I am, however, concerned about Kerry’s “factamnesia” (to coin a new word to describe the selective recollection of fantasy facts intentionally or to unwittingly paint a rosy picture of thorny policy issues and problems), loosey-gooseyness with facts in general and a penchant for “doublethink” and “doublespeak” (kerryspeak) on important issues. Kerry has a history of fudging facts which troubles me in light of his statements at the AU press conference. For instance, in October 2002, Senator Kerry said he voted to give President Bush authority to use force against Saddam Hussein because he “believed that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a real and grave threat to our security.” In February 2003, he said, “If you don’t believe…Saddam Hussein is a threat with nuclear weapons, then you shouldn’t vote for me.” (I did not believe Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction but voted for Kerry anyway.) In March 2004, Kerry said “I actually did vote for the $87 billion [for Iraq war] before I voted against it. …” (Should I say I actually did vote for Kerry before experiencing pangs of remorse for voting for him?) In September 2004, Kerry branded the Iraq war, “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time”.
What really concerns me about Kerry as America’s diplomat-in-chief particularly in the human rights area is the same concern many of those closest to him had during the 2004 presidential election. Kerry has a penchant for being namby pamby on critical policy issues. During the second presidential debate in 2004, Kerry was asked by ABC news moderator Charles Gibson, “Senator Kerry, after talking with several co-workers and family and friends, I asked the ones who said they were not voting for you, “Why?” They said that you were too wishy-washy. Do you have a reply for them?” (I voted for Kerry despite the same misgivings.) Now that Kerry is America’s chief diplomat, I am worried about what a “wishy washy” Secretary of State could mean for African human rights.
Kerry-talking the myth of double-digit growth in Ethiopia
Benjamin Disraeli, the Nineteenth Century British politician, is reputed to have said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” The late Meles Zenawi said it even better. In March 2010, Meles condemned and ridiculed the U.S. State Department’s “Reports on Human Rights Practices” on Ethiopia as “lies, lies and implausible lies.” He said the U.S. State Department could not tell a crooked lie straight: “The least one could expect from this report, even if there are lies is that they would be plausible ones,” snarled Zenawi. “But that is not the case. It is very easy to ridicule it [human rights report], because it is so full of loopholes. They could very easily have closed the loopholes and still continued to lie.”
I am not suggesting that Kerry follow Meles’ prescription to “easily close the loopholes and continue to lie” about Ethiopia’s “extraordinary story”. (It is a boldfaced lie to say the Reports on Human Rights Practices in Ethiopia are “lies, lies and implausible lies”.) Kerry is an honorable man and incapable of such chicanery.
Meles was a master of mendacity. He had perfected the art of lying. He had incomparable skills in creating “loopholes” in the truth and transforming lies into half- truths. Double-digit growth is the greatest “lie, lie and implausible lie” ever created by Meles while he remained in the saddle of power for over two decades. In a spectacular public relations coup, Meles managed to insert a bogus narrative of Ethiopia’s stratospheric economic growth in the international media and policy circles which continues to be repeated ad nauseam today by some of the most respectable news organizations and magazines in the world, and top policy makers like Kerry who should know better. I realize that talk of double-digit economic growth statistics for Africa in general is part of the “Afro-optimism” (a/k/a African Renaissance) Western media, donor and loaner communities are trying to push to influence Africans and world opinion. By reporting double-digit growth rates, they hope to mask the cataclysmic income inequalities and poverty in Africa. They are trying to make dictatorial rule acceptable and chic in Africa in the name of economic growth and development. (Remember the hype about the “new breed of African leaders”? Or was it “new breed of African dictators”?)
The fact of the matter is that many in the Western media, donors, loaners and diplomats know that the self-serving inflated double-digit statistics of economic growth in Ethiopia are pure fabrications generated from cooked books. For instance, in 2010, Meles Zenawi forecasted an 11 percent growth in 2011 and sanguinely opined that a 14.9 percent economic growth for Ethiopia over the next five years is “not unimaginable”. In 2011, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) artfully disagreed concluding, “Strong growth [in Ethiopia] has continued in 2010/11 that the mission estimates at 7.5 percent (compared to an official estimate of 11.4 percent)…. The mission sees lower growth for 2011/12, at about 6 percent, on account of high inflation, restrictions on private bank lending, and a more difficult business environment (parentheses original).” The World Bank similarly concluded that year “Ethiopia’s dependence on foreign capital to finance budget deficits and a five-year investment plan is unsustainable…” On June 9, 2011, deputy prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, offered firm assurances that “economic expansion won’t drop below 9 percent in the fiscal year to July 7, 2012, from 11.4 percent this year.” For 2012, the IMF registered economic growth for Ethiopia at 5.0 percent, and for 2013 its projection is 5.5 percent. For 2017, the IMF estimates 6.5 percent economic growth for Ethiopia (see p. 197 at this link). Simply stated, the claim about double-digit economic growth in Ethiopia is not only preposterous and a colossal insult to our intelligence, it is also a BIG BIG LIE!
Repeating BIG LIES
Joseph Goebbels taught, “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.” The BIG LIE about Ethiopia’s stratospheric economic growth continues to be repeated through a silent conspiracy of mendacity and/or the willful ignorance of high level policy makers in the donor and loaner communities and in the Western media. (I wish they would stop insulting our intelligence and treating us as “fools and idiots.)
Despite the irrefutable facts, the BIG LIE about Ethiopia’s “extraordinary story” has taken on a life of its own. It continues to be repeated mindlessly in the media and policy circles like some mystical mantra: “Ethiopia’s one of the ten fastest growing countries in the world… double digits in growth….” Meles managed to hoodwink everybody, almost. Even the mighty Economist Magazine fell for Meles’ elaborate hoax. In its November 7, 2006 editorial, The Economist minced no words in describing the Meles regime. Editorializing in the context of the Starbucks coffee row, The Economist bluntly stated: “The Ethiopian government, one of the most economically illiterate in the modern world, would do well to take Starbucks’s advice.” In May 2012, The Economist wrote, “Long benighted, Ethiopia is attracting attention for a better reason. It has become Africa’s fastest-growing non-energy economy (see chart).” The “chart” drawn up by the Economist attributes its data source to the “IMF” which gets its data from the regime in Ethiopia! In its ebullient appraisal, the Economist fails to explain how the regime it described in 2006 as “the most economically illiterate regime in the modern world” was able to create “Africa’s fastest non-energy economy” in just six years! (Do they really think we are so dumb that we could not figure this out?!)
The “economic illiteracy” of the Ethiopian regime was also the talk of diplomats behind closed doors in 2009. At a high level meeting of Western donor policy makers in Berlin, there was debate about Meles’ economic knowledge and competence. According to a Wikileaks cablegram, a German diplomat suggested that Ethiopia’s economic woes could be traced to “Meles’ poor understanding of economics”. How such an “economically illiterate” regime pulled off the economic miracle of Africa is a mystery worthy of a Dan Brown novel. (How about the title, “Economic Illiterates and the Mystery of Double-Digit Growth”?)
I have made several attempts over the past few years to expose, debunk, deconstruct and unpack this pack of “lies, lie and implausible lies” about “Ethiopia’s extraordinary story”. In my commentary “The Voodoo Economics of Meles Zenawi”, I exposed the double-digit canard and demonstrated how Meles exquisitely finessed it:
In March 2009, for instance, Zenawi bragged that he expected the Ethiopian economy to grow by 12.8 per cent. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) disagreed in the same month, stating that given the global economic crisis Ethiopia could expect only about 6 per cent economic growth. Zenawi dismissively countered those who pointed out the discrepancies: ‘We have differences with the international financial institutions when we predict our economic growth, but we usually agree on the economic growth statistics at the end of each year.’ In March 2010, Paul Mathieu, the IMF team leader for Ethiopia, diplomatically told the regime in Ethiopia to stop cooking the books on economic growth. He said, ‘Statistics collection of the country requires transformations, and we advised the government to do that.’
In my commentary, “The Fakeonomics of Meles Zenawi”, I demonstrated that Meles’ economic planning (“Growth and Transformation Plan”) was based on juggled figures, massaged statistics and irrational exuberance about overrated and illusory economic development. Systematic falsification of economic data, fraudulent statistics and creative accounting in economic reports by the Meles regime have largely gone unchallenged by Ethiopia’s learned economists. (I still lament the fact that there has been little systematic analysis and critique done by Diaspora Ethiopian economists to entomb this cock and bull economic narrative and discredit the regime’s theatrical swagger and wind-bagging about stratospheric economic growth and development.)
Meles cunningly orchestrated his message of Ethiopia’s economic prowess and unrivalled economic success under his personal leadership to the world using the International Monetary Fund as a mule. For instance, the IMF’s Country Report (Ethiopia) No. 08/264 (July 2008) states: “Growth has averaged 11 percent since 2003/04, far exceeding the minimum target of 7 percent in the Program for Accelerated and Sustainable Development (PASDEP), that is estimated to be consistent with keeping the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) within reach.” On pp. 20–24 of this report, the source of the data for an 11 per cent growth is not some independent data collection and analysis agency or organization but Meles’ own Central Statistics Office. The footnotes in the above-referenced pages state: “Sources: Ethiopian authorities; and IMF staff estimates and projections.” Similarly, the data source for “Financial Soundness Indicators for Banking” is identified as the “National Bank of Ethiopia; and IMF calculations.”
Does Kerry care about facts?
I am really perplexed. When Kerry talks about Ethiopia as “one of the ten fastest growing countries in the world” with “double digit growth” and swoons at its “extraordinary story”, is he also aware of the dark side of that “extraordinary story”? For instance, is Kerry aware that in 2010, the Oxford Human Development Index ranked Ethiopia as second poorest country on the planet? Is he aware that in 2011, Global Financial Integrity reported,“ Ethiopia lost $11.7 billion to outflows of ill-gotten gains between 2000 and 2009” and “in 2009, illicit money leaving the country totaled $3.26 billion.” Is Kerry aware Ethiopia is Africa’s largest recipient of foreign aid? A report issued by the Ethiopian “Ministry of Finance and Economic Development” in January 2012 showed the country shouldered crushing foreign debt in excess of USD$ 16 billion. Is he aware of this fact in his role as the raconteur of Ethiopia’s “extraordinary story”? Is Kerry aware every single year tens of millions of Ethiopians receive emergency food aid or face starvation and famine? Is Kerry aware that the Inspector General of his State Department concluded in 2010 that there is no way to determine the scope of fraud, waste and abuse of American aid tax dollars in Ethiopia? Is Kerry aware that in 2013, the World Bank released its 448-page report entitled “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia” documenting corruption of epic proportions?
It is true that “everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion, but not to his/her own facts.” A high level policy maker like Kerry is entitled to his opinion but he is not entitled to cherry pick facts and embellish them with hyperbole in making official statements that are reasonably likely to mislead the American people. He is not entitled to distort facts to present only one side of a foreign policy issue or paint a rosy picture for Africa’s most corrupt leaders without talking about the thorns on that rosy story. Kerry is not entitled to put out to the American people half-truths, discredited hyperboles and tall tales to defend a collaborating dictatorship. Kerry is not entitled to propagate and perpetuate a BIG LIE, a manifest hoax, misinformation and disinformation to humanize the inhuman face of a bloodthirsty regime in Ethiopia from his exalted bully pulpit.
Does Kerry really care about U.S. human rights in Ethiopia, Africa?
I am also bewildered by Kerry’s exuberance and morbid fascination with Ethiopia’s “extraordinary story”. He says the U.S. “would love to have Ethiopia’s economic growth.” Really?
Ethiopia “achieved” its stratospheric economic growth following the “China Model”, NOT the “Washington Consensus [neoliberal] Model” (which demands fiscal discipline (limiting budget deficits), increasing foreign direct investments, privatization, deregulation, diminished role for the state”). If the “China Model” produced an “extraordinary story” in Ethiopia, it is because that story was written by a brutal one-party system that has a chokehold on all state institutions including the civil service and the armed and security forces and rules by instituting a vast system of controls and censorship. Meles, the arch foe of “neoliberalism” in Africa said “neoliberalism” is a death trap for Ethiopia and the continent. In a 2012 article, Meles declared “the neo-liberal paradigm is a dead end incapable of bringing about the African renaissance, and that a fundamental shift in paradigm is required to effect a revival.” In a 51-page monograph, he expounded on his argument for the consignment of the “neoliberal paradigm” to the dustbin of history and its replacement by the economics of the “developmental state” (“China Model”).
When Kerry wistfully yearns for Ethiopia’s double-digit growth, is he openly advocating the importation of the “China Model” into America?
Given Ethiopia’s “extraordinary story”, is Kerry openly endorsing the “China Model” for Ethiopia and the rest of Africa to produce even more “extraordinary stories”?
The fact of the matter is that the “China Model” in Africa is a demonstration not of the success of African economies but China’s economic conquest of Africa and the triumph of praetorian klepto-capitalism — a form of militarized capitalism in which African dictators and their cronies maintain a stranglehold on the state apparatus and have privatized the economy for their personal use. The dictators in Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, etc. rule by coercion and their coercive power derives almost exclusively from their control and manipulation of the military, police and security forces, party apparatuses and bloated bureaucracies which they use for political patronage. They have successfully eliminated rival political parties, civil society institutions and the independent press.
The “China Model” or the “developmental state” has become the ultimate smokescreen for African Dictators, Inc. It has provided a plausible justification for circumventing transparent and accountable governance, competitive, free and fair elections and suppression of free speech and the press. Simply stated, the “China Model” in Africa is a huge hoax perpetrated on the people with the aim of imposing absolute control and exacting total political obedience while justifying brutal suppression of all dissent and maximizing the ruling class’ kleptocratic monopoly over the economy. In my opinion, it is downright unpatriotic for Kerry to confer any legitimacy on a watered-down, kinder and gentler reinvention of klepto-communism in Ethiopia.
There is another issue Kerry seems to have intentionally or unwittingly overlooked. The “China Model’s” viability is currently undergoing an acid test. The heavy infrastructure investment and export-led growth model at the heart of China’s “economic miracle” is now showing serious cracks as that sector suffers from chronic overcapacity. This is particularly evident in the housing boom which has contributed significantly to China’s high GDP statistics. Soaring housing prices and high vacancy rates have created multiple massive ghost towns. Ordos, China is one such model city built under the “China Model”. Ordos was designed to house, support and entertain 1 million people, yet five years later hardly anyone lives there. China’s “first quarter 7.7 percent rise (for 2013) in gross domestic product is even lower than the 7.8 percent rate for all of last year (which in turn, was China’s slowest growth in 13 years.)” China’s economy keeps on chugging “because of huge increases in lending by state-controlled banks and a surge in off-balance sheet lending.”
Ethiopia is touting stratospheric economic growth driven by exports (including land giveaways to multinational agro-businesses) and sustained by handouts and crushing debt loans to finance infrastructure projects and build shiny buildings in urban areas that lack the most basic sewage facilities. Does Kerry really believe Ethiopia could continue with its “extraordinary story” by having state-controlled banks printing money? Not long ago, in Zimbabwe, China’s “biggest and arguably most important trade and diplomatic partner in Africa”, a USD$5 bill was worth a 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars. Does Kerry believe such reckless economic planning is sustainable for Ethiopia which is expected to treble its population to 278 million in less than 40 years according to U.S. Census estimates?
Whatever happened to President Obama’s “New Alliance”?
In May 2012, President Obama invited the leaders of Ghana, Tanzania, Benin to a Summit for a New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition to spark a Green Revolution and achieve “sustained and inclusive agricultural growth and raise 50 million people out of poverty over the next 10 years by aligning the commitments of Africa’s leadership to drive effective country plans and policies for food security.” American multinational giants including Cargill, Dupont, Monsanto, Kraft, and others signed a “Private Sector Declaration of Support for African Agricultural Development”. Kerry did not even mention a word about it. Is the “New Alliance” dead like “neoliberalism”?
I agree with President Obama that what Africans need are policies that balance economic growth with human needs including food security and nutrition, reasonable access to health care and education and employment opportunities. But Africans can’t eat policies on paper nor could they have a Green Revolution when their most fertile lands are being sold and leased to multinational corporations who will commercially farm millions of hectares only to export the harvest. Africans will starve as their land is used to produce food for the rest of the world and the U.S. continues to provide food aid to Africans year after year. When will Africa ever become self-sufficient in food production? (When America stops feeding them?) Just a historical footnote: Africans fed themselves on their own and without handouts during the worst days of colonialism. (Ummm!)
I do not think President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are on the same page on African issues. President Obama said Green Revolution first. Kerry said in his press conference that “our private sector businesses need to focus on Ethiopia and recognize the opportunities that are here.” Is it going to be a Green Revolution or a Trade Revolution? I believe expecting to “strengthen the trade and investment relationships between the U.S. and Ethiopia” under the “China Model” is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
Skerry U.S. human rights policy in Africa
The next four years for human rights in Africa under Kerry look pretty scary to me. At the AU Summit, I hoped to hear an announcement or a statement from Kerry that points to some meaningful shift in U.S. human rights policy in Ethiopia. I expected to hear a little bit of the usual babble about “history is on the side of brave Africans.” Nothing doing. Under Kerry, it seems human rights in Ethiopia and Africa have been sacrificed at the altar of political convenience and the “global war on terror.” That is why Kerry is downplaying and soft-pedaling human rights in Ethiopia. It is manifest to me that the U.S. is willing to turn a blind eye, deaf ears and muted lips to restrictions on civil society, theft of elections, repression of dissent and opposition politics, suppression of free expression, press and the Internet and the blossoming of corruption in Ethiopia.
To borrow a line from Alexander Pope’s verse, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”. I hoped Kerry would make a strong case for the immediate and unconditional release of all wrongfully imprisoned human rights defenders, journalists, political opponents in Ethiopia. I hoped Kerry would demand an end to ill-treatment and abuse of dissidents, opposition leaders and journalists. I hoped Kerry would plead for an end to the crackdown on civil society organizations and press for the free functioning of domestic and international human rights organizations to operate in the country without undue official interference. I hoped Kerry would insist on an end to suppression of media, harassment of journalists and strongly argue in favor of allowing publication of opposition newspapers in Ethiopia. (Oh, yes! I had faint hope Kerry would call attention to the need for the arrest and prosecution of the police and security officers who massacred 193 unarmed demonstrators and wounded 763 others in 2005.)
I am not just hoping naively or pipe dreaming. I am just taking Kerry and President Obama at their words. In September 2008, candidates Obama and Joe Biden promised to “work for the release of jailed scholars, activists, and opposition party leaders such as Ayman Nour in Egypt.” On January 24, 2013 during his confirmation hearing Kerry said,
… I’ve occasionally wrestled with that when I made a visit to one country or another and we have a primary objective and we’re trying to get it done, but I’ve never hesitated in any visit to raise human rights concerns, usually in the context of particular individuals where we are trying to get them out of a jail or trying to get them, you know, out of the country. And I obviously will continue to do that, as I know Secretary Clinton has. And she’s been diligent about it. And I intend to continue…
Secretary Kerry, I ask you a simple question:
When you visited Ethiopia last week, did you “work for the release of jailed scholars, activists, and opposition party leaders such as” Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Aragie, Olbana Lelisa, Bekele Gerba, Abubekar Ahmed, Ahmedin Jebel, Ahmed Mustafa, Kamil Shemsu and so many others?
***My regular Monday Commentary scheduled for June 3 was delayed and a special commentary posted on that date in recognition of the peaceful mass human rights protest organized by the Blue (Semayawi) Party in Ethiopia over the past weekend. ***
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: