Alemayehu G. Mariam
Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye in Kangaroo Court
The old adage is that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” Could it be said equally that arrogance excuses ignorance of the law? Dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi recently proclaimed the guilt of freelance Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye on charges of “terrorism” while visiting Norway. He emphatically declared that the duo had crossed into Ethiopia from Somalia with insurgents of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) as terrorist accomplices and collaborators: “They are, at the very least, messenger boys of a terrorist organization. They are not journalists. Why would a journalist be involved with a terrorist organization and enter a country with that terrorist organization, escorted by armed terrorists, and participate in a fighting in which this terrorist organization was involved? If that is journalism, I don’t know what terrorism is.”
At a “court” hearing last week, Persson denied the charges: “My intention was to do my job as a journalist and describe the conflict. Nothing else. Not guilty.” Schibbye admitted “entering the country without proper documentation. For that I am guilty and I apologize to the government of Ethiopia. But I am not guilty of terrorist activity.” Shimeles Kemal, the “chief prosecutor” was full of hyperbole when he laid out his “legal” case in a press conference. He claimed the two journalists “entered the country with a gang of terrorists. They have even been trained in using weapons. They are accused of abetting and rendering professional assistance to terrorists. Their activities go a bit beyond just journalistic news gathering.”
Criminalizing, demonizing and dehumanizing journalists, opposition leaders and dissidents as “terrorists”, “insurrectionists”, “treasonous” traitors, etc. isZenawi’s signature M.O. (method of operation). When Zenawi jailed editors of several newspapers following the 2005 elections, he described them in much the same way: “For us, these are not just journalists. They will not be charged for violating the press laws. They will charged, like the CUD leaders, for treason.” This past June, Zenawi ordered the arrest and detention of two young and dynamic journalists, Woubshet Taye, deputy editor of the weekly Awramba Times and Reeyot Alemu, columnist for the weekly Feteh, on fuzzy accusations of terrorism. Last month, Zenawi’s “chief prosecutor” ordered the arrest and detention of the distinguished Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega “for conspiring with terrorist organizations such as Ginbot 7 and other foreign forces who wanted to wreak havoc in the country through their terrorist activities.” When Zenawi wants to jail journalists, he simply brands them as “terrorists” or smears them with a similar label and carts them off to jail.
The Committee to Protect Journalists roundly condemned Zenawi’s statement as “compromising” the Swedish journalists’ human right to a “presumption of innocence and for predetermining the outcome of their case”. But much more is compromised, including the rule of law, principles of due process and fair trial, the universal principle that it is the accuser, and not the accused, who bears the burden of proof in a criminal case, the principle that guilt is proven in a court of law with an independent judiciary and not before a full court press or the court of international opinion. Ultimately, Zenawi’s statement compromised justice itself.
When Zenawi tagged these two journalists as “terrorist messenger boys” and “participants in the actions of a terrorist organization”, he had in fact sealed their fate and pronounced the final word in kangaroo justice. There is no way that Persson and Schibbye could possibly get a fair trial or not be convicted following such an outrageous and egregiously depraved statement by Zenawi.
Difference Between Journalists and Terrorists
Zenawi sarcastically mocked the two Swedish journalists by rhetorically asking if what they did is “journalism, I don’t know what terrorism is.” Zenawi is entitled to some basic clarification by means of concrete examples. War crimes (“the wanton destruction of cities, towns and villages, and any devastation not justified by military or civilian necessity [Geneva Convention]” are acts of state terrorism. So are crimes against humanity (“widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, murder, forcible transfer of population, imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law, torture, [Rome Statute]”. The “systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective” by an “extremely powerful political police against an atomized and defenseless population” is plain old-fashioned terrorism that is familiar to the average Ethiopian citizen.
When journalists are embedded with a regular or an irregular military unit and go into a conflict or war zone, they are engaged in “combat journalism”. When journalists dig for facts in places where there is an official news blackout, they are engaged in investigative journalism. When journalists undertake dangerous assignments and cover stories firsthand from a war zone, they are often called war correspondents. When independent reporters, writers and photojournalists accept specific assignments to cover particular stories, they are engaged in freelance journalism. It is because of freelance journalists that the world has come to know so much about the war crimes and human rights abuses that took place in such places like Kosovo, Angola, Sierra Leone, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Liberia and many other places.
Oftentimes insurgent and rebel groups distrust professional journalists affiliated with established news organizations. They are more likely to cooperate with freelance journalists who often take great risks to their own safety to undertake firsthand investigations by entering a country at war or in conflict without a visa. Schibbye has been a foreign correspondent and freelance journalist for several newspapers, including The Times, Amelia and Proletären. He has worked in Algeria, the Philippines, Cuba, Syria and Vietnam, among other countries. Persson has worked with Kontinent, a Swedish photojournalist agency, for several years and taken many dangerous assignments in various countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. Both are professional journalists, and until now have never been suspected of any terrorist activity or involvement of any kind by any other country or international agency.
The Human Right to a Fair Trial
Zenawi seems to be uninformed, willfully ignorant or recklessly indifferent to the human rights of the two journalists. The fact of the matter is that Persson and Schibbye are presumed to be innocent of any and all charges of “terrorism” until they have been given a fair chance to defend themselves and their guilt proven beyond a reasonable doubt by their accusers in court. So says the Ethiopian Constitution under Art. 20 (3): “During proceedings accused persons have the right to be presumed innocent.” So says the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) under Art. 11: “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which they have had all the guarantees necessary for their defence.” So says the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) under Art. 14 (2): “Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall have the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.” So says the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) under Art. 7 (b): “The right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty by a competent court or tribunal.” Art. 13 (2) of the Ethiopian Constitution provides double guarantees: “The fundamental rights and freedoms enumerated in this Chapter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international human rights covenants and conventions ratified by Ethiopia.” (Also art. 9 (4).) Ethiopia ratified the UDHR in 1948, the ICCPR in 1993 and the ACHPR in 1998.
Article 13(1) mandates Zenawi to respect and enforce the provisions of the Constitution, including Article 20 (3). He violated his constitutional duty under Art. 9 (2) by publicly declaring the guilt of Persson and Schibbye and characterizing them as “messenger boys of terrorists”, “participants in terrorism” and terrorist accomplices before they have had a chance to present a defense and a determination of their guilt made by a fair and neutral tribunal.
The presumption of innocence is the “golden thread” in the laws of all civilized nations. It is the gold standard of fundamental fairness which places the entire burden of proof in a criminal case on the state. It is the singular duty of the prosecution representing the state to present compelling and legally admissible evidence in court to convince the trier of fact that the accused is guilty of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. Persson and Schibbye guilt is not to be proven in a press conference in Oslo or in the court of public opinion.
The presumption of innocence requires that there be no pronouncement of guilt of the defendant by responsible officials likely to have a role or influence the judicial process prior to a finding of guilt by a court. Even when prosecutors make statements concerning the defendant to inform the public on the status of their investigation or articulate their suspicion of guilt, they have a legal and ethical duty to do so in a factual manner and narrowly limited to the allegedly violated laws, while always exercising reasonable care not to unduly prejudice the defendant’s right to a presumption of innocence or improperly influence the fact finder.
Trial by Diktat
Expecting a fair trial in kangaroo court is like expecting democracy in a dictatorship. Persson and Schibbye will be convicted by Zenawi’s diktat just as the journalists and opposition leaders were convicted before them. Following the 2005 election, Zenawi publicly declared: “The CUD (Kinijit) leaders are engaged in insurrection — that is an act of treason under Ethiopian law. They will be charged and they will appear in court.” They appeared in “court” and were convicted. In December 2008, Zenawi railroaded Birtukan Midekssa, the first female political party leader in Ethiopian history, to prison on the bogus charge that she had denied receiving a pardon. She was not even accorded the ceremonial kangaroo court proceedings. Zenawi sent her straight from the street into solitary confinement by diktat and sadistically delcared: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” He “pardoned” her in October 2010. In 2009, Zenawi’s right hand man labeled 40 defendants awaiting trial “desperadoes” who planned to “assassinate high ranking government officials and destroying telecommunication services and electricity utilities and create conducive conditions for large scale chaos and havoc.” They were all “convicted” and given long sentences. For Zenawi, court trials are nothing more than circus sideshows staged for the benefit of Western donors who know better but go along to get along.
No Fair Trial Possible for the Swedish Journalists in Kangaroo Court
Everyone knows the charge of “terrorism” against Persson and Schibbye is bogus. It is a trumped up charge made by prosecutors who are directed, pressured, threatened and politically manipulated. Everyone knows there are no independent judges who preside in cases involving defendants facing “terrorism” and other political charges. Everyone knows the so-called judges in terrorism “trials” are party hacks and lackeys enrobed in judicial regalia. This is not the conclusion of a partisan advocate but the considered view of the U.S. Government and various international human rights organizations. Human Rights Watch concluded in its 2007 report: “In high-profile cases, courts show little independence or concern for defendants’ procedural rights… The judiciary often acts only after unreasonably long delays, sometimes because of the courts’ workloads, more often because of excessive judicial deference to bad faith prosecution requests for time to search for evidence of a crime.” The 2010 U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices concluded: “The law provides for an independent judiciary. Although the civil courts operated with a large degree of independence, the criminal courts remained weak, overburdened, and subject to significant political intervention and influence.”
Everyone also knows that there is no such thing as the rule of law in Ethiopia because dictatorship is very antitheses of the rule of law. Zenawi’s diktat is “The Law”, which trumps the constitution and all international human rights conventions. Ethiopia’s former president and parliamentarian Dr. Negasso Gidada described the so-called antiterrorism law as a tool of legalized terrorism which “violates citizens’ rights to privacy” and the “ rights of all peoples of Ethiopia…Such laws are manipulated to weaken political roles of opposition groups there by arresting and prosecuting them using the bill as a cover. Another major opposition leader, Bulcha Demeksa, described the same “law” as a “a weapon designed by the ruling party not only to weaken and totally eliminate all political opponents.” In other words, the “anti-terrorism law” under which the two Swedish journalists are charged is a weapon of mass incarceration and intimidation of political opponents and journalists, mass persecution of the political opposition and mass oppression of the civilian population.
The Silence of Sweden
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt has been severely criticized for his apparent indifference and failure to help the two Swedish journalists or even publicly demand their release in light of the bogus terrorism charges. Critics argue that Bildt dragged his feet and failed to secure their release in the crucial first days of the detention of the two journalists because of a potential conflict of interest as the two journalists were also investigating the activities of a company affiliated to Lundin Petroleum, a Swedish oil group which has natural gas operations in the Ogaden. Bildt is said to have served as board member of Lundin Petroleum, prior to becoming foreign minister. In January 2009, Swedish International Development Cooperation Minister Gunilla Carlsson issued a statement declaring that the “imprisonment of Birtukan Midekssa is a source of great concern both for her personally and for democratic development in Ethiopia. The scope for democracy and pluralism is shrinking in Ethiopia. The imprisonment of Mrs Midekssa and the recently adopted law regulating the activities and funding of NGOs (non-governmental organisations) are examples of this negative development.”
Swedish journalist and writer Bengt Nilsson has argued that Sweden for decades has turned a blind eye as its development aid has been used to support dictatorships and finance wars in Africa. The Swedish government’s “new policy for Africa” claims to be based upon “economic growth, deeper democracy and stronger protection of human rights as the basis for development in Africa.” How the Swedish government will “deal” its way out of the “crisis” of the two journalists will show if Sweden will continue to support African dictatorships or use it aid dollars to help democratize Africa and protect the human rights of the African peoples.
What is the Kangaroo Trial of the Swedish Journalists Really About?
Back in August 2010, Zenawi announced he will close his embassy in Sweden because “there is no development cooperation program of any substance between us and Sweden. There is no major trading relationship between us and Sweden, and no significant investment coming from Sweden to Ethiopia. It was not worthwhile to have an embassy [in Sweden]”. Diplomacy for Zenawi is striclty business. Without being too cynical, one could surmise that the terrorism charge against the two Swedish journalists is intended to provide a diversionary cover for Zenawi’s real agenda. Given Zenawi’s past M.O., it is manifest that he aims to use this opportunity to extract some major concessions from the Swedes: “If they want Persson and Schibbye freed, it’s gonna cost ’em. What are the Swedes willing to pay? How about reopneing the aid pipeline? After all, Ethiopia is the first country to have received Swedish aid back in 1954. How about some cash loans? Increased trade? Perhaps new investments? It is said that the largest investor in the whole of Sweden is an Ethiopian.” Let’s make a deal!
There is no way Zenawi could jail Persson and Schibbye for fifteen years as terrorists. He will galvanize Swedish and European Union public opinion against him personally and very possibly trigger devastating sanctions that will completely paralyze his regime. Even the Americans who have been turning a blind eye for all these years may finally take a look and tell Zenawi enough is enough. So, there is no question that after the kangaroo court circus is over Persson and Schibbye will be released. As usual, Zenawi will grandstand and declare the two journalists have been pardoned and released after they admitted guilt, expressed remorse and so on. The Swedes and some of the Western countries will play their part and congratulate him for doing the right thing and acting magnaimously; and he will continue with business as usual—more Ethiopian journalists will be jailed and threatened, dissidents harassed and opposition leaders persecuted. But the lesson remains the same: By manufacturing a bogus crisis, Zenawi, true to form, would have once again outwitted, outfoxed, outsmarted, outmaneuvered, outpoliticked, outtricked, outfinessed and outplayed his timorous Western benefactors. As the old saying goes, one has to give the devil his due for a job well done! Bravissimo!
Release all political prisoners in Ethiopia, NOW!
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ andhttp://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/
By Alemayehu G. Mariam
The Berlin Conference of 2009
In 1884, the Berlin Conference was convened by the European imperial powers to carve out colonial territories in Africa. It was called the “Scramble for Africa”.
In 2009, another Berlin Conference was convened by a high level group of diplomats (referring to themselves as the “partners”) from the U.S. and several European countries to hammer out an “agreement” on what to do (and not do) in the Horn of Africa.
According to a recently released Wikileaks cablegram, with respect to Ethiopia, the partners “agreed [on] Ethiopia’s key role in the region” and “the need to support and observe its May 2010 elections.” They acknowledged “Meles as a regional leader, pointing out he would represent Africa on climate change in Copenhagen.” They agreed Meles is “intent on retaining power” and that he is “a guy you can do business with”. They expressed doubts about “being associated with a likely imperfect process” that could result from the May 2010 elections (which subsequently produced a 99.6 percent win for Meles’ party), but “they nonetheless agreed on the importance of international involvement in the elections.”
The German and French partners debated “Ethiopia’s economic situation, namely [the] hard currency and the poor investment climate.” The German diplomat suggested that Ethiopia’s economic problems could be traced to “Meles’ poor understanding of economics”. The French diplomat argued that “Meles actually had a good understanding of economics, but was hampered by his ideological beliefs.” In a single sentence, out of the blue, the partners ganged up and whipsawed the entire Ethiopian opposition: “The [Ethiopian] political opposition is weak, disunited, and out of touch with the average Ethiopian, partners agreed.”
For quite some time, foreign journalists have been reporting wholly disparaging and categorically dismissive remarks about Ethiopia’s opposition by anonymous Western diplomats. In February 2010, I wrote a commentary decrying and protesting the cowardly and scandalous statements issued by Western diplomats hiding behind the veil of journalistic anonymity. I complained that the derisive characterizations were not only unfair, inaccurate and self-serving, but also dispiriting, disheartening and demeaning of Ethiopia’s besieged opposition. It is gratifying to finally put faces to the surly anonymous lips.
Is the Ethiopian political opposition “weak and disunited”?
It is true that the Ethiopian “political opposition is weak and disunited”, an issue I have addressed on previous occasions. But Western governments seem to be conveniently oblivious of the reasons for the disarray in the opposition. For two decades, Meles Zenawi and his regime have done everything in their power to keep the opposition divided, defeated, discombobulated and dysfunctional. Zenawi has pursued the opposition relentlessly often comparing them to Rwanda’s interhamwe (meaning “those who stand/work/fight/attack together”) genociders. In 2005, he rounded up almost all of the major opposition political and civic leaders, human rights advocates, journalists and dissidents in the country and jailed them for nearly two years on charges of genocide, among many others. Zenawi’s own Inquiry Commission has documented that hundreds of peaceful opposition demonstrators were massacred in the streets and over thirty thousand suspected opposition members jailed in the aftermath of the May 2005 elections. In 2008, Zenawi jailed Birtukan Midekssa, the first female opposition political party leader in Ethiopian history, on the ridiculous charge of “denying a pardon”. He put her in solitary confinement and categorically and absolutely ruled out any possibility of freedom for her declaring: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” (He let go in October 2010.)
Zenawi has demonized a major opposition group as a “terrorist” organization bent on “creating a rift between the government and the people of Oromiya.” In his pursuit of the opposition, he has “used extreme force trapping the civilian population between the insurgents and the government forces.” He put on trial and sentenced to death various alleged “members” of Ginbot 7 Movement, and contemptuously described the Movement as an organization of “amateur part-time terrorists”. He has intimidated and verbally shredded his former comrade-in-arms who have stood with the opposition and rhetorically clobbered his critics as “muckrakers,” “mud dwellers”, “sooty,” “sleazy,” “pompous egotists” and good-for-nothing “chaff” and “husk.” He even claimed the opposition was “dirtying up the people like themselves.” Opposition parliamentarians are routinely humiliated in public and treated like delinquent children. In parliamentary exchanges, they are mocked for their pronunciation of English words.
When opposition leaders went on the campaign trial in 2010, they were prevented from meeting with voters in their districts as former president Dr. Negasso Gidada and others have documented. Opposition political and civic leaders and dissidents are kept under 24-hour surveillance, and the people they meet are intimidated and harassed. The culture of fear that permeates every aspect of society is reinforced by a structure of repression that is vertically integrated from the very top to the local (kebele) level making peaceful opposition impossible. Unless one is a member of the ruling party, the chances of higher education, employment and other privileges are next to nil. By becoming part of the opposition, the average and not-so-average Ethiopian invites political persecution, economic hardship and social isolation. Under such circumstances, is it any wonder that the Ethiopian opposition is weak and disunited? Is it not ironic that Western donors are unwilling to help the opposition in any way (including giving moral support) yet skulk behind journalistic anonymity to heap dismissive contempt on them while turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to flagrant abuses of human rights and misuse of their aid money to buy votes?
Is the Ethiopian opposition “out of touch with the average Ethiopian”?
The gratuitous backhanded slap on the face of the Ethiopian opposition as “out of touch with the average Ethiopian” has caused disappointment among some political and civic leaders. But the evidence shows that the Western “partners” may actually be right! For instance, Birtukan Midekssa was completely out of touch with any Ethiopian, except her mother and young daughter, for nearly two years. She was spending time in solitary confinement in Kality prison, a/k/a Kality Hilton, feasting on gourmet food and “putting on weight”, according to one highly placed source. Following the May 2005 elections, for almost two years, nearly all of the country’s opposition party leaders, leading journalists, human rights activists and civic society advocates were completely out of touch with any Ethiopian, except their jailors, at the same Kality Hilton. As to opposition party members and dissidents, tens of thousands of them have completely disappeared from the face of the earth over the past decade alone and are out of touch with anyone. Tens of thousands more are held incommunicado as political prisoners in secret jails. In light of this evidence, could it be denied that the Ethiopian opposition is completely out of touch with the average and not-so-average Ethiopian?
Is the ruling regime in touch with the average Ethiopian?
One would have to answer that question in the affirmative. The whole idea of a police state is to make sure that the rulers stay in very close touch with the average citizen. Zenawi’s regime stays in close touch with the average Ethiopian using the services of hundreds of thousands of secret police operatives and informants spying on each individual. Dr. Gidada has documented one of the common ways the regime stays in extremely close touch with the people:
The police and security offices and personnel collect information on each household through other means. One of these methods involves the use of organizations or structures called “shane”, which in Oromo means “the five”. Five households are grouped together under a leader who has the job of collecting information on the five households… The security chief passes the information he collected to his chief in the higher administrative organs in the Qabale, who in turn informs the Woreda police and security office. Each household is required to report on guests and visitors, the reasons for their visits, their length of stay, what they said and did and activities they engaged in. … The OPDO/EPRDF runs mass associations (women, youth and micro-credit groups) and party cells (“fathers”, “mothers” and “youth”). The party cells in the schools, health institutions and religious institutions also serve the same purpose….
The average and not-so-average Ethiopian looking for a government job or applying for a business license needs to be in close touch with the powers that be to get one. The regime is so in touch with the average and not-so-average Ethiopian that they want them to hear only what they have to say. They have jammed the transmissions of the Voice of America, opposition satellite broadcasts and filtered out websites of regime critics.
Are the Western donors “in touch with the average Ethiopian”?
Western donors are very much in touch with the average Ethiopian, that is in the same way as they were in touch with the average Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni, Bahraini and so on. They were so in touch with the average citizens of these countries that they anticipated and correctly predicted the recent popular uprisings. That was the reason President Obama “applauded” the people for throwing Ben Ali out of Tunisia. The U.S. was so in touch with the realities of the average Egyptian over the past 30 years that President Obama and his foreign policy team froze in stunned silence, flat-footed and twiddling their thumbs and scratching their heads for days before staking out a position on the popular uprising. They could not bring themselves to use the “D” words (dictator, democracy) to describe events in Egypt. Western governments were also very much in touch with Hosni Mubarak floating his ship of state on an ocean of corruption and repression with billions of dollars in military and economic aid. They are very much in touch with Zenawi; after all he is the “guy you can do business with,” a partner. Truth be told, they have done tons of business with him over the past 20 years, no less than $26 billion!
Who is “the average Ethiopian”?
Who is the “average Ethiopian” whose contact is so highly prized and coveted? It seems s/he has an average life expectancy at birth of less than 45 years. S/he lives on less than $USD 1 per day. S/he is engaged in subsistence agriculture eking out a living. S/he survives on a daily intake of 800 calories (starvation level). S/he can neither read nor write. If s/he is sick, she has a 1 chance in 39,772 persons to see a doctor, 1 in 828,000 to see a dentist, 1 in 4,985 chance to see a nurse. She has little or no access to family planning services, reproductive health and emergency obstetric services and suffers from high maternal mortality during childbirth. She is a victim of gender discrimination, domestic violence and female genital mutilation. She has fewer employment and educational opportunities than the “average” man and is not paid equal pay for equal work. S/he is likely to die from malaria and other preventable infectious diseases, severe shortages of clean water and poor sanitation. The “average” Ethiopian youth is undereducated, underemployed and underappreciated with little opportunity for social mobility or economic self-sufficiency. The “average” urban adolescent is unemployed and a drop out from school. S/he is frustrated and in despair of his/her future and is likely to engage in a fatal pattern of risky behaviors including drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse, crime and delinquency and sexual activity which exposes him/her to a risk of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases including HIV. The “average” child has a high likelihood of being orphaned and die from malnutrition and is vulnerable to all forms of exploitation, including child labor and sexual. So, who really is in touch with the “average Ethiopian”!?!
Be In Touch With the Youth
Regardless of how the Western donors define the “average Ethiopian”, the fact is that s/he is a young person. An estimated 67 percent of the population is under the age of 30, of which 43 percent is below the age of 15. Two of history’s evil men understood the importance of staying in touch with the youth population. Vladmir Lenin, the founder of the totalitarian Soviet state said, “Give me just one generation of youth, and I’ll transform the whole world.” His counterpart in the Third Reich said, “he alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.” Both failed because they wanted to use the youths as cannon fodder for their warped vision of world domination. Africa’s dictators have ignored and neglected the youths and consigned them to a life of poverty and despair. They have tried to put in the service of their dictatorial rule Africa’s best and brightest. They too will fail.
The demographic data on Africa’s youth is frightening. As Africa urbanizes rapidly and its population population continues to grow uncontrollably (expected to increase from 294 million to 742 million between 2000 and 2030), the number of young people trapped in poverty, hungry and angry will multiply by the tens of millions per year. Frustrated, desperate and denied political space, they will become the powder keg that will implode African societies. African dictators and their Western partners continue to delude themselves into believing that the youth will continue to passively accept and tolerate corruption, repression, abuse of power and denial of basic human rights. But a new generation of African youths is rising up declaring: “Enough is Enough!”
Revolutionary Democracy Meets “Facebook” Democracy in Ethiopia
If Tunisia and Egypt are an indication, Zenawi’s vision of revolutionary democracy will in due course collide with the “Facebook” democracy (tech savvy young people creating a functioning civic community using information technology) taking over Africa’s youth. Zenawi wrote:
When Revolutionary Democracy permeates the entire society, individuals will start to think alike and all persons will cease having their own independent outlook. In this order, individual thinking becomes simply part of collective thinking because the individual will not be in a position to reflect on concepts that have not been prescribed by Revolutionary Democracy.
This is not democracy (revolutionary or reactionary). In the old days, such “democracy” was called fascism where the national leader (Der Fuhrer) sought to create “organic unity” of the body politic by imposing upon the people uniformity of thought and action through violence, legal compulsion and intense social pressure. It is no longer possible to brainwash, mind control and indoctrinate impressionable young people with meaningless ideology as though they are helpless and fatuous members of a weird religious cult. The days of programming human beings as jackbooted robots marching to the order of “Der Fuhrer” are long gone.
“Facebook” democrats reject any totalitarian notions of “individual thinking becoming part of collective thinking”. They do not need a single mind, a single party, a single operating system to do the thinking for them. Africa’s youths have their own unique outlook and independent voice on their present circumstances and their future. History shows that every regime that has sought to force unanimity of opinion and belief among its citizens has found the unanimity of the graveyard. When free speech, free press and the rule of law permeate society, and human rights and the voices of the people are respected and protected, citizens will experience dignity and self-respect and muster the courage and determination to forge their own destinies.
There are enough young Africans with the idealism, creativity, knowledge, technical ability and genius to transform the old fear-ridden Africa into their own brave new Africa. In this effort, they do not need the guiding hands or the misguided ideas of ideologues from a bygone era. Western partners have the choice of supporting a brave new Africa of young people on the march or they can continue their “partnership” in the crime of democricide with the old “stable” police states careening to the dustbin of history. With the recent departure of two of the most powerful and entrenched police chiefs, and others teetering, the West may not be able to shoehorn the youths of (the Horn of) Africa into silence and submission from boardrooms in Berlin, Washington, London, Rome, Paris…
Power to Africa’s Youths!
Note: This is the second installment in a series of commentaries I intend to offer on U.S. foreign policy (or lack thereof as some would argue) in Ethiopia. In this piece, I argue that the price of U.S. lip service to human rights in Ethiopia without action is demoralization of the brave and dedicated Ethiopians who struggle everyday against dictatorship and tyranny, trivialization and crippling of efforts to build a strong human rights movement and disempowerment and discouragement of ordinary Ethiopians aspiring to a democratic future.
If the Silenced Majority Could Talk…
If the silenced majority inside of what has become Prison Nation Ethiopia (PNE) could talk, what would they tell President Obama and Secretary Clinton about U.S. human rights policy? Would they pat them on the back and say, “Good job! Thank you for helping us live in dignity with our rights protected.”? Or would they angrily wag an accusatory finger and charge, “You speak with forked tongue. You wax eloquent on your lofty principles to us in the morning while you consort with thugs and murderers in the afternoon.” What would the thousands of political prisoners rotting within the closed walls of dictator Meles Zenawi’s prisons say of America’s big human rights talk? “Practice what you preach, Mr. President!” What would Birtukan Midekssa, Ethiopia’s No. 1 political prisoner, first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history and the undisputed heroine of 80 million Ethiopians say to President Obama were she allowed to speak to him? “Mr. President, why do you turn a deaf ear when I have been silenced in solitary confinement?” What would the innocent victims gripped in the jaws of Zenawi’s steel vises say to Secretary Clinton in their faint whimpers from the torture chambers? I do not know. What I know for sure is that the silenced majority of Ethiopians does speak loud in bootless cries while gasping for air under the jackboots of a barbaric dictatorship. President Obama, can you hear their deafening silence?
The Belly v. The Ballot
The defenders of the dictatorship in Ethiopia argue that the masses of ordinary Ethiopians are interested in the politics of the belly and not the politics of the ballot. They do not care about human rights or democracy because they are concerned about finding their daily bread. The masses of poor, illiterate, hungry and sick Ethiopians in their view are too dumb and too damn needy to appreciate “political democracy”. “Economic democracy before political democracy,” they proclaim with certainty. They condemn free speech, free press, free elections, and indeed freedom itself as alien Western ideologies that are meaningless to the masses of poor and hungry Ethiopians. Ethiopia’s dictators are quick to stand on their hind legs and condemn the West for violating their sovereignty because the West insists on human rights observances in Ethiopia. Of course, these rights are not some bizarre imported ideas but core element of the organic law of Ethiopia which incorporates by reference all of the major international human rights conventions. All African dictators have been justifying their dictatorships for well over one-half century by claiming that there is democracy before democracy in Africa.
I raise the belly v. ballot argument to contextualize American human rights policy in Ethiopia. The evidence suggests that the attitudes and perceptions of American (and other Western) policy makers may be latently contaminated by the view that human rights are not of concern or are not important to the tired, poor and huddled Ethiopian masses. I have heard it said artfully in moments of candor by those who have access to U.S. decision-makers, by some decision-makers themselves and even by certain of my learned friends that the majority of ordinary Ethiopians neither know of nor understand their human rights. Even if they are aware of their rights, they do not have a clue as to how to defend them. As a result, I am told, the interests of the ordinary Ethiopian citizens do not figure in the least in U.S. human rights policy calculations. Some have even pointed out to me (much to my disappointment, embarrassment and chagrin) that the lack of informed and vigorous human rights debate and sustained and organized human rights advocacy among Ethiopian elites within and without Ethiopia is clear and convincing evidence that human rights are not important to Ethiopians. I am advised to accept the fact that U.S. human rights rhetoric is primarily intended for international media consumption and to give moral support to the few human rights-minded Ethiopian elites while avoiding the scathing criticisms of the international human rights community for U.S. inaction and hypocrisy. “That is realpolitik for you,” said one of my erudite colleagues jokingly. “The U.S. would rather blather about human rights violations to the African masses in the morning only to sit down for a seven-course meal with Africa’s murderers and butchers in the afternoon.”
Introducing the Unsung Heroes of Ethiopian Human Rights to U.S. Policy Makers
I strongly disagree with those who sideline ordinary Ethiopians as too poor and hungry to be concerned about their human rights or good governance. I could not disagree more with the cynics who claim that ordinary Ethiopians do not know or care about their human rights as long as their bellies are full. In fact the contrary can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. When the 2005 elections were stolen by Zenawi in broad daylight and opposition leaders were hunted down, arrested and jailed, it was not the elites, the privileged and the degreed that came out to defend democracy and human rights. The people who stood up for democracy, freedom and human rights when it really counted were the poor, the urban laborers, the students, the unemployed, the slum dwellers, the retired and plain ordinary folks. The true unsung heroes of Ethiopian human rights are Tensae Zegeye, age 14; Debela Guta, age 15; Habtamu Tola, age 16; Binyam Degefa, age 18; Behailu Tesfaye, age 20; Kasim Ali Rashid, age 21; Teodros Giday Hailu, age 23; Adissu Belachew, age 25; Milion Kebede Robi, age 32; Desta Umma Birru, age 37; Tiruwork G. Tsadik, age 41; Admasu Abebe, age 45. Elfnesh Tekle, age 45; Abebeth Huletu, age 50; Etenesh Yimam, age 50; Regassa Feyessa, age 55. Teshome Addis Kidane, age 65; Victim No. 21762, age 75 and Victim No.21760, male, age unknown and hundreds more. These were the real defenders of human rights in Ethiopia. Their story is memorialized for history in the testimony of Yared Hailemariam, an extraordinary human rights defender and investigator for the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), before the European Parliament Committees on Development and Foreign Affairs, and Subcommittee on Human Rights in May 2006 [Warning: The graphic content in Yared Hailemariam’s testimony cited in the link in footnote 3 may be disturbing to some readers. Reader discretion is strongly advised.] and the report of the official Inquiry Commission that investigated the violence in the post-2005 election period.
If American policy makers are giving lip service to human rights in Ethiopia to please the few elites or immunize themselves from criticism by the international human rights community, their concern is truly misplaced. Human rights in Ethiopia is not about the elites yapping about human rights, nor is it about fine intellectual discussions, philosophical debates, speeches, annual reports or legal analyses of the nature and importance of human rights. It is much, much simpler than that. It is about helping to bring to justice the killers and those who authorized the killings of Tensae Zegeye, age 14; Debela Guta, age 15; Habtamu Tola, age 16 and all the rest. It is not about a metaphorical “closing walls”; it is about getting released the thousands of innocent political prisoners languishing behind the prison walls. It is not about an imaginary clenched fist but the real iron fist of a dictatorship that crushes citizens mercilessly every day. It is not about metaphorical steel vises, but about those who cling to power like blood-sucking leeches on a milk cow.
American policy makers should not be dismissive of ordinary Ethiopians. They should not misinterpret their silence for consent to be brutalized by dictatorship. Ordinary Ethiopians may not know much about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the numerous protocols, resolutions and declarations. They may not even know of Article 13 of their Constitution which incorporates all of the major international human rights conventions as part of their rights. But there should be no doubt that all of them know that as human beings, no person has the moral or legal right to take their lives just because he wants to, jail them and throw away the key because he feels like it or rule them for decades against their will by training a gun to their heads. That is all the human rights knowledge they need to know to deserve the respect and support of the American government.
Stability v. Human Rights
It has been argued and anonymously reported in the media that “Western diplomats” in Addis Ababa believe that forceful U.S. action on human rights could create “instability” in the country. To talk about stability in a dictatorship is like talking about the stability of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl just before it suddenly exploded. But the whole U.S. “stability” subterfuge to do nothing, absolutely nothing, about gross human rights violations in Ethiopia is eerily reminiscent of a shameful period in American history. The principal argument against the abolition of slavery in the U.S., the ultimate denial of human rights, was “stability”. Defenders of slavery strenuously argued that if slavery ended, the American South would simply disintegrate and collapse because the slave labor-based economy would be unable to sustain itself. They predicted that there would be widespread unemployment and chaos leading to uprisings, bloodshed, and anarchy. To ensure the “stability” of the South, even the United States Supreme Court joined in with its most infamous decision and held that the U.S. Constitution protected slave-holders’ rights to their property. But history proved that keeping the institution of slavery became the very undoing of the American union when the civil war was fought. America came apart at the seams because slavery that denied fundamental human rights to African slaves was retained, not because it was abolished. American policy makers should see the historical parallels. The undoing and unraveling of Ethiopia will be the result of sustained and gross violations of human rights by the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi, not because of respect for and observance of human rights. Perhaps we can crystallize the issue for American policy makers in the language of the American Declaration of Independence: It is necessary for Ethiopia to go through a civil war to ensure that every Ethiopian has the “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it…”?
President Obama’s Challenge in Ethiopia and Africa
President Obama now faces a great challenge in Africa, and particularly in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. His African human rights rhetoric is being tested by the cunning dictators on the continent who are scheming to counter his every move. They are prepared to test his mettle to find out how far they can push him before he pushes back. So far, Zenawi has succeeded in cowering the U.S. into inaction and paralysis.
President Obama will soon have to make some tough decisions in his choices in the Horn of Africa. He can choose to let progress on human rights and democracy die on the vine by handing over American tax dollars to sustain bloodthirsty regimes to oppress their citizens, or use the same tax dollars to pressure for change. President Obama is said to be “a pragmatist” concerned about “problem-solving.” He has got a hell of a problem in Ethiopia and must make some tough choices. His major choice will not be between “stability” and human rights, nor will it be a choice between the forces of radicalism and terrorism and democracy in the Horn as the dictators want him to believe. The one and only choice he has is how to help Ethiopia become permanently stable by ensuring the protection of the human rights of its citizens. There will be neither peace nor stability in Ethiopia until the human rights of every citizen are protected.
Zenawi complains that the U.S. and the West in general interfere in Ethiopian affairs too much by insisting on human rights observances and demanding democratization. But by Zenawi’s measure, the U.S. has been “interfering” in Ethiopia for nearly two decades, handing out to him tens of billions of dollars in aid. But for U.S. aid and loans by multilateral institutions under U.S. control, his dictatorship could not last even a single day. If the U.S. is serious about progress on human rights, it will have to kink the aid hose line just a bit. It is guaranteed that someone will be shrieking at the receiving end, “Uncle! Please Uncle Sam!”
Giving lip service to human rights in Ethiopia without action is tantamount to demoralization of the brave and dedicated Ethiopians who struggle everyday against dictatorship and tyranny, trivialization and crippling of efforts to build a strong human rights movement and disempowerment and discouragement of ordinary Ethiopians aspiring to a democratic future. It has been said that, “Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope.” The most critical need in Ethiopia today is neither food nor water (though they are very much needed), but HOPE. The U.S. has a moral obligation to keep hope alive in Ethiopia by conditioning its aid on significant human rights improvements. Stated simply, the U.S. must practice what it preaches!
FREE BIRTUKAN MIDEKSSA AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA.
See also the list of names of massacred victims released by the official Inquiry Commission investigating the
post-2005 election at: http://www.abbaymedia.com/pdf/list_of_people_shot.pdf