On the road to democracy and unity?
For some time now, I have been heralding Ethiopia’s irreversible march from dictatorship to democracy. In April 2011, I wrote a commentary entitled, “The Bridge on the Road(map) to Democracy”. I suggested,
We can conceive of the transition from dictatorship to democracy as a metaphorical journey on the road to progress, freedom and human enlightenment (democracy) or a regression to tyranny, subjugation and bondage (dictatorship). Societies and nations move along this road in either direction. Dictatorships can be transformed into democracies and vice versa. But the transition takes place on a bridge that connects the road from dictatorship to democracy. It is on this bridge that the destinies of nations and societies, great and small, are made and unmade. If the transition on the bridge is orderly, purposeful and skillfully managed, then democracy could become a reality. If it is chaotic, contentious and combative, there will be no crossing the bridge, only pedaling backwards to dictatorship. My concern is what could happen on the bridge linking dictatorship to democracy in Ethiopia when that time comes to pass.
In June 2012, I wrote a commentary entitled, “Ethiopia: On the Road to Constitutional Democracy”. I argued with supporting historical evidence that “Most societies that have sought to make a transition from tyranny and dictatorship to democracy have faced challenging and complex roadblocks.” Focusing on the practical lessons of the “Arab Spring”, I proposed a constitutional pre-dialogue and offered some suggestions:
The search for a democratic constitution and the goal of a constitutional democracy in Ethiopia will be a circuitous, arduous and challenging task. But it can be done… To overcome conflict and effect a peaceful transition, competing factions must work together, which requires the development of consensus on core values. Public civic education on a new constitution must be provided in the transitional period. Ethiopian political parties, organizations, leaders, scholars, human rights advocates and others should undertake a systematic program of public education and mobilization for democratization and transition to a genuine constitutional democracy. To have a successful transition from dictatorship to constitutional democracy, Ethiopians need to practice the arts of civil discourse and negotiations….”
They are pedaling backwards on the low road of dictatorship, but are we marching forward on the highway to democracy?
It is easy for some people to speak truth to power, or the powers that be. Without great difficulty, they can preach to abusers of power why they are wrong, what they are doing wrong, why they should right their wrong and do right by those they have wronged. But it is not so easy to speak truth to powers that could be, particularly when one does not know who “they” are. Instead of speaking truth to the powers that could be, I will simply ask: They are pedaling backwards on the low road of dictatorship, but are we marching forward on the highway to democracy? Where do we go (or not go) from here?
Ordinarily, this question would be put to Ethiopia’s “opposition leaders”. For some time now, I have been wondering who those leaders are and are not. In my commentary last September entitled, “Ethiopia’s Opposition at the Dawn of Democracy?”, I asked out loud (but never got answer), “Who is the Ethiopian ‘opposition’?” I confessed my bewilderment then as I do now: “There is certainly not a monolithic opposition in the form of a well-organized party. There is no strong and functional coalition of political parties that could effectively challenge both the power and ideology of the ruling party. There is not an opposition in the form of an organized vanguard of intellectuals. There is not an opposition composed of an aggregation of civil society institutions including unions and religious institutions, rights advocates and dissident groups. There is not an opposition in the form of popular mass based political or social movements. There is not…”
Stated differently, is the “opposition that amorphous aggregation of weak, divided, squabbling, factionalized and fragmented parties and groups that are constantly at each other’s throats? The grumbling aggregation of human rights advocates, civic society organizers, journalists and other media professionals and academics? The groups committed to armed struggle and toppling the dictatorship by force the opposition? Anyone who thinks or self-proclaims s/he is the opposition?” All or none of the above?
I am willing to bet my bottom dollar that the disciples of the late Meles Zenawi would have no problems explaining where they are going from here. They would state with certainty, “Come hell or high water, we’ll pedal backwards lockstep in Meles’ ‘eternally glorious’ footsteps to the end of the rainbow singing Kumbaya to grab the pot of gold he has left for us under the Grand Renaissance Dam. We will fly high in the sky on the wings of a 10, 12, 15 percent annual economic growth and keep flying higher and higher…” I say it is still better to have a road map to La-La Land than sitting idly by twiddling one’s thumbs about the motherland.
Is the question to be or not be in the opposition? What does it mean to be in the “opposition”? What must one do to be in the “opposition”? Is heaping insults, bellyaching, gnashing teeth and criticizing those abusing power the distinctive mark of being in the opposition? Is frothing at the mouth with words of anger and frustration proof of being the opposition? How about opposing the abusers of power for the sake of opposing them and proclaiming moral victory? Is opposing the abusers of power without a vision plan, a plan of action or a strategic plan really opposition?
I have often said that Meles believed he “knew the opposition better than the opposition knew itself.” Meles literally laughed at his opposition. He considered the leaders of his opposition to be his intellectual inferiors. He believed he could outwit, outthink, outsmart, outplay, outfox and outmaneuver them all, save none, any day of the week. He believed them to be dysfunctional, shiftless and inconsequential; he never believed they could pose a challenge to his power. In his speeches and public comments, he ridiculed, scorned and sneered at them. He treated his opposition like wayward children who needed constant supervision, discipline and well-timed spanking to keep them in line. Truth be told, during his two decades in power, Meles was able to outwit, outthink, outsmart, outplay, outfox and outmaneuver, and neutralize his opposition at will. Meles’ disciples today trumpet their determination to walk in his footsteps and do exactly the same thing.
Where is the “opposition” now?
Perhaps it is premature to pose the question, “Where do we go from here?” to Ethiopia’s “opposition”. It may be more appropriate to ask where the “opposition” is (is not) now. From my vantage point, the “opposition” is in a state of resignation, stagnation, negation, frustration and alienation. I see the “opposition” watching with hypnotic fascination the abusers of power chasing after their tails. The “opposition” seems anchorless, agenda less, aimless, directionless, dreamless and feckless. The “opposition”, it seems to me, is in a state of slumber, in crises and in a state of paralysis.
Time was when the “opposition” got together, stood together, put heads together, worked together, campaigned together, negotiated together, compromised together, met the enemy together and even went to jail together. Flashback 2005! The “opposition” set aside ethnic, religious, linguistic, ideological and other differences and came together to pursue a dream of freedom and democracy. That dream bound the opposition and strengthened the bonds of their brotherhood and sisterhood. The “opposition” mobilized together against factionalism and internal conflicts and closed ranks against those who sought to divide and split it. By doing so, the opposition thumped the ruling party in the polls.
In the past seven years, the dream of democracy and freedom among the “opposition” seems to have slowly faded away and the strength of its champions sapped away in mutual distrust and recrimination. Dialogue in the “opposition” has been replaced with monologue and deafening silence; action with inaction; cooperation with obstruction; coalition with partisanship; unity with division; amity with enmity and civility with intolerance.
The “opposition” wants change and rid Ethiopia of tyranny and dictatorship. But as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent. … We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” The Ethiopian “opposition” needs to stand up erect and make demands with steely backbone and stiff upper lip.
There are many ways to stand up and show some backbone. To speak up for human rights and against government wrongs is to stand up. To demand that wrongs be righted is to stand up. To open up one’s eyes and unplug one’s ears in the face of evil is standing up. To simply say “No!” even under one’s breath is standing up. Speaking truth to power is standing up. Dr. King said, “A just law is a manmade code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” Standing up against an unjust law is standing up for justice.
In January 2011, I wrote a weekly column entitled, “After the Fall of African Dictatorships” and posed three questions: “What happens to Africa after the mud walls of dictatorship come tumbling down and the palaces of illusion behind those walls vanish? Will Africa be like Humpty Dumpty (a proverbial egg) who “had a great fall” and could not be put back together by “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men”? What happens to the dictators?”
The mud walls of dictatorship in Ethiopia have been exhibiting ever expanding cracks since the death of the arch architect of dictatorship Meles Zenawi sometime last summer. The irony of history is that the question is no longer whether Ethiopia will be like Humpty Dumpty as the “king” and “king’s men” have toiled to make her for two decades. The tables are turned. Despite a wall of impregnable secrecy, the “king’s men and their horses” are in a state of disarray and dissolution. They lost their vision when they lost their visionary. The old saying goes, “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Well, the king is no more; and the “king’s men and horses” are lost in the wilderness of their own wickedness, intrigue and deception.
The “fierce urgency of now” is upon Ethiopia’s opposition leaders to roll out their plans and visions of democracy. Now is the time for Ethiopia’s human rights advocates to bring forth their vision of a society governed by the rule of law. Now is the time for Ethiopia’s civil society leaders to build networks to connect individuals and communities across ethnic, religious, linguistic, gender and regional lines. Now is the time for Ethiopia’s intellectuals to put forth practical solutions to facilitate the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Now is the time for all freedom loving Ethiopians to come forward and declare and pledge their allegiance to a democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Now is the time to unchain ourselves from the burdens of the past. Now is the time to abandon the politics of identity and ethnicity and come together in unity for the sake of all of Ethiopia’s children. Now is the time to organize and mobilize for national unity. Now is the time for truth and reconciliation. Now is the time to assert our human dignity against tyrannical barbarity.
Now is not the time to for division, accusation and recrimination. Now is not the time for finger pointing, bellyaching and teeth gnashing. Now is not the time to remain silent. Now is not the time to turn a blind eye. Now is not the time to turn a deaf ear.
Where should we go from here?
I will try to answer my own question in brief form for now. The opposition should get on the highway that leads to democratic governance. The opposition should roll out its action plan for a democratic, post-dictatorship Ethiopia. The principal lesson to be learned from the experiences of the past seven years is that the opposition’s role is not simply to “oppose, oppose and oppose” for the sake of opposing. The opposition’s role and duty goes well beyond simply proclaiming opposition to the abusers of power. The opposition’s role goes to the heart of the future democratic evolution and governance of the country. In that role, the opposition must relentlessly demand accountability and transparency of those absuing power. The fact that the abusers of power will pretend to ignore demands of accountability and transparency is of no consequence. The question is not if they will be held to account but when. The opposition should always question and challenge the actions and omissions of those abusing their powers in a principled and honest manner. The opposition must analyze, criticize, dice and slice the policies, ideas and programs of those in power and offer better, different and stronger alternatives. It is not sufficient for the opposition to publicize the failures and of the ruling party and make broad claims that they can do better.
For starters, the opposition should make crystal clear its position on accountability and transparency to the people. For instance, what concrete ideas does the opposition have about ending, or at least effectively controlling, endemic corruption in Ethiopia. In an exhaustive 448-page report, the World Bank recently concluded that the Ethiopian state is among the handful of the most corrupt in the world. I cannot say for sure how many opposition leaders or anyone in the opposition has taken the time to study this exquisitely detailed study of corruption in Ethiopia; but anyone who has read the report will have no illusions about the metastasizing terminal cancer of corruption in the Ethiopia body politics. The opposition should issue a white paper on what it would do to deal with the problem of corruption in Ethiopia.
Speaking truth to the powers that could be
I know that what I have written here will offend some and anger others. Still many could find it refreshing and provocatively audacious. Some critics will wag their tongues and froth at the mouth claiming that I am attacking the “opposition” sitting atop my usual high horse. They will claim that I am weakening and undermining the “opposition” preaching from my soapbox. Others will say I am overdramatizing the situation in the “opposition”. Still others will claim I am not giving enough credit or am discrediting those in the “opposition” who have been in the trenches far longer than I have been involved in human rights advocacy. They will say I am doing to the opposition what the power abusers have done to them. They will say I don’t understand because I have been sitting comfortably in my academic armchair and have not been on the front lines suffering the slings and arrows of an outrageous dictatorship. Be that as it may!
Though I acknowledge such claims could be convenient diversions, there are two essetnial questions all of us who consider ourselves to be in the “opposition” can no longer ignore and must be held to answer: They are pedaling backwards on the low road of dictatorship, are we marching forward on the highway to democracy? Is the “opposition” better off today than it was in 2005?
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
Alemayehu G Mariam
The Plight of Andualem Aragie and Other Political Prisoners in Ethiopia
The “Gulag” prison system in the old Soviet Union was infamous for warehousing and persecuting dissidents and opponetns. The gulags were used effectively to weed out and neutralize opposition to the Soviet state. They were the quintessential tools of Soviet state terrorism. Some called them “meat-grinders” because of the extremely harsh and inhumane conditions. Torture, physical abuse by prison guards, solitary confinement, inadequate food rations and officially instigated inmate-on-inmate violence were the hallmarks of the gulags.
Ethiopia’s prison system today are reminiscent of the Soviet gulags in their abuse and mistreatment of political and other prisoners. Let the facts speak for themselves: In a recent column on two Swedish journalists arbitrarily held in one of the Ethiopian prisons near the capital, N.Y. Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristoff described the prsion conditions as
filthy and overridden with lice, fleas and huge rats… a violent, disease-ridden place, with inmates fighting and coughing blood… 250 or so Ethiopian prisoners jammed in the cell protect the two [Swedish] journalists, pray for them and jokingly call their bed ‘the Swedish embassy’.
The U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Ethiopia (April 2011) documented:
…Human rights abuses reported during the year included unlawful killings, torture, beating, and abuse and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, especially special police and local militias, which took aggressive or violent action with evident impunity in numerous instances; poor prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention, particularly of suspected sympathizers or members of opposition or insurgent groups; detention without charge and lengthy pretrial detention… Numerous reliable sources confirmed in April 2009 that in Maekelawi, the central police investigation headquarters in Addis Ababa, police investigators often used physical abuse to extract confessions.
In its 2010 World Report-Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch (HRW) concluded that
… torture and ill-treatment have been used by Ethiopia’s police, military, and other members of the security forces to punish a spectrum of perceived dissenters, including university students, members of the political opposition, and alleged supporters of insurgent groups… Secret detention facilities and military barracks are most often used by Ethiopian security forces for such activities.
The U.N. Committee Against Torture (November 2010) validated HRW’s conclusions.
The Dewar Report on an Ethiopian Gulag
The regular and secret prisons maintained by the ruling regime in Ethiopia today are among the most inhumane, primitive, barbaric and sadistic in the world. In July 2008, the regime of dictator Meles Zenawi secretly commissioned retired British colonel Michael Dewars, an internationally recognized security expert, to undertake an assessment of the prison system and make recommendations. In his report, Col. Dewars expressed total horror and shock over what he witnessed in one of the prisons he visited in Addis Ababa. He recounted:
I asked to go into the compound where the prisoners are kept. This consisted of a long yard with a shed to one side which provided some sort of shelter. The compound had a wall around it and a watchtower for an armed sentry overlooking it. Inside must have been 70 – 80 inmates, all in a filthy state. There was insufficient room for all these people to lie down on a mat at once. There was no lighting. The place stank of faeces and urine. There appeared to be no water or sanitation facilities within the compound. There was a small hut in an adjacent compound for women prisoners but there had been no attempt by anybody to improve the circumstances of the place. The prisoners were mostly on remand for minor crimes, in particular theft. Some had been there for months….
Col. Dewars concluded:
Detention conditions of prisoners are a disgrace and make the Federal Police vulnerable to the Human Rights lobby…. The prison I saw was a disgrace. No one is recommending a Hilton Hotel, but, if any human rights organization were to get inside an Ethiopian jail, they would have enough ammunition to sink all our best efforts.
recommended that the Government should investigate this situation with the intention of improving the current appalling conditions inside Ethiopian prisons, which must brutalise prisoners and their goalers equally… and that senior Ethiopian Ministers and Police Officers visit the prison that I visited.
Over the past several years, I have written extensively on torture and mistreatment of political prisoners in Ethiopia. In my numerous columns on the incarceration of former judge Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, and other political prisoners, I have pointed out the “soft torture” techniques used to crush her spirit and break her body. She was subjected to prolonged solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, visitation deprivation, daily humiliation and mindless interrogation. Birtukan faced untold suffering in prison. Zenawi could not bear the thought of Birtukan going free; and in a moment frustrated defiance declared: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” In the end she prevailed and became free. Just last week in Washington, D.C., she presented her study on the challenges confronting the Ethiopian opposition and offered specific recommendations for strengthening multi-party democracy in Ethiopia as a Reagan-Fascell Fellow with the National Endowment for Democracy.
Andualem Aragie Inside the Belly of the Beast
Zenawi has replaced Birtukan by another young Ethiopian leader, to be sure several dozens of young opposition leaders, journalists, activists and others. Last week, the former Ethiopian President and current leader of the Unity and Democracy Party (UDJ) Dr. Negasso Gidada reported that Andualem Aragie was severely beaten by a death-row-inmate-turned-lifer while confined in his cell. The facts of Andualem’s abuse are shocking. According to Dr. Negasso, Andualem was held in a “windowless cell for 14 people with a number of other political prisoners including Bekele Gerba, Olbana Lelisa and Tilahun Fantahun.” About a month ago, a convicted murderer whose life sentence had been commuted to life in prison was allowed to join Andualem’s cell. This criminal savagely assaulted Andualem inflicting severe injuries to his head. He was reported to lost consciousness following the assault.The Voice of America reported that “Relatives who have seen Andualem say his head injury appears to have affected his ability to maintain his balance.”
This inmate is notorious for his assaultive behavior inside the prison. He has a long record of violence and abuse of inmates. He is known to receive special accommodations for being a prison enforcer for the authorities. Rumors are rife that prison authorities paid the criminal a substantial sum for beating Andiualem.
Prior to his arrest on bogus terrorism charges, Andualem was a rising leader in the UDJ and served as its spokesperson and external relations officer. Andualem is among a new breed of young Ethiopian political leaders, journalists and civil society advocates who are widely respected and accepted. In the months leading up to the May 2010 “election” in which Zenawi claimed a 99.6 percent victory, Andualem demonstrated his unflinching commitment to democracy and the rule of law. With breathtaking clarity of thought, razor-sharp intellect, incredible courage, mesmerizing eloquence, piercing logic, stinging wit, masterful command of the facts and steadfast adherence to the truth, Andualem made mincemeat out of Zenawi’s vacuous lackeys in several televised pre-“election” debates. It was a sight to behold.
In September 2011, Andualem and 23 other individuals were “accused under the anti-terrorism law of being members of a terrorist network and abetting, aiding and supporting a terrorist group.” Earlier this month, a group of independent United Nations human rights experts (U.N. Special Rapporteurs) condemned the so-called anti-terrorism law and diplomatically cautioned that “the anti-terrorism provisions should not be abused and need to be clearly defined in Ethiopian criminal law to ensure that they do not go counter to internationally guaranteed human rights.” Andualem and the others are expected to have their day in kangaroo court on March 5.
Torture, Abuse and Plausible Deniability
Plausible deniability is the ability to deny a fact or allegation, or previous knowledge of a fact by shifting blame on someone else. In Andualem’s case, plausible deniability allows Zenawi’s regime to deny any awareness or knowledge of a criminal or criminally negligent act by its officials or unofficial agents in the prison. By allowing a notoriously violent criminal to assault Andualem, they aim to plausibly avoid responsibility. In other words, they have sought to remove their fingerprints, handprints, palmprints and footprints from the cowardly criminal act perpetrated on Andualem. But their MO (modus operandi) is well known. Whether they acted through their goons uniformed as prison guards or their deputized convicted thugs, they are exclusively responsible for the safety of all pretrial detainees like Andualem. Regardless of how one looks at it, what happened to Andualem, and has happened to other political prisoners countless times, represents a clear case of extrajudicial punishment (torture) in violation of Ethiopia’s Constitution and international human rights conventions.
Speaking of Constitutional and International Law…
The Ethiopian Constitution provides specific safeguards for the safety and protection of pre-trial detainees awaiting trial. Article 16 guarantees that “Everyone has the right to protection against bodily harm..” Andualem has the constitutional right to be secure from violence while awaiting trial. Article 110 of the Ethiopian Criminal Code (Proclamation No.414/2004) specifically requires that “prisoners who are sentenced to rigorous imprisonment or special confinement shall be kept separate from prisoners who are serving a sentence of simple imprisonment or awaiting judgment.” The criminal thug who assaulted Andualem should have never been allowed in the area reserved for pre-trial detanees. Article 18 provides, “Everyone has the right to protection against cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The savage beating of Andualem in plain sight of prison guards constitutes “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. Article 20 provides that, “During proceedings accused persons have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law…” Since Andualem has not been found guilty “according to law”, he is innocent of the charges and should have been accorded his rights consistent with that presumption. Article 21 guarantees that “All persons held in custody and persons imprisoned upon conviction and sentencing have the right to treatments respecting their human dignity.”
International law protects all prisoners, and particularly political prisoners, from inhumane and barbaric treatment. Under Article 13 of the Ethiopian Constitution, the “fundamental rights and freedoms enumerated… shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR], international human rights covenants and conventions ratified by Ethiopia.” Article 5 of the UDHR (incorporated by express reference in Art. 13 (2) of the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia) prescribes that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (ratified by Ethiopia on June 11, 1993 and similarly incorporated) provides that “all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”
The U.N. Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment (1988) (Principle 8) specifically provides: “Persons in detention shall be subject to treatment appropriate to their unconvicted status. Accordingly, they shall, whenever possible, be kept separate from imprisoned persons.” Article 1 of the Declaration Against Torture (1975) defines torture as “… any act by which severe pain and suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted by, or at the instigation of a public official on a person for such purposes as …punishing him for an act he has committed; or intimidating him or other persons…” Article 16 of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (acceded to by Ethiopia on April 13, 1994) mandates that signatories “shall undertake to prevent… acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment…” Article 5 of the African [Banjul] Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ratified by Ethiopia on June 15, 1998) prohibits, “all forms of exploitation and degradation of man particularly… torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment.” The U.N. Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners (1990) provide that “all prisoners shall retain the human rights and fundamental freedoms set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other Covenants. Articles 7 and 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court include torture as a crime against humanity and a war crime.
I write about the law on the protection of the rights of political prisoners to set the record; for I know that preaching the law to outlaws is like pouring water over granite.
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned…
In August 2009, I spoke at a town hall meeting organized by “Gasha for Ethiopia”, a civic organization, on the importance of remembering Ethiopian political prisoners:
In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” said Dr. Martin Luther King… Nothing is more important and uplifting to political prisoners than knowledge of the fact that they are not forgotten, abandoned and forsaken by the outside world. Remembrance gatherings at town hall meetings such as this one serve to remind all of us who live in freedom the divine blessings of liberty and the unimaginable suffering of those trapped in the darkness of dictatorship.
Andualem Aragie and countless political prisoners in Ethiopia reamin trapped in the darkness of dictatorship. They have been beaten down and brought to their knees. We cannot hear their whimpers of pain and desperation. Few, other than their tormentors, will be able to see their mangled bodies. Because they have no voice, we must be their voices and speak on their behalf. Because they are walled in behind filthy and subhuman prison institutions, we must unflaggingly remind the world of their suffering. We must all labor for the cause of Ethiopian political prisoners not because it is easy or fashionable, but because it is ethical, honorable, right and just. In the end, what will make the difference for the future of Ethiopia is not the brutality, barbarity, bestiality and inhumanity of its corrupt dictators, but the humanity, dignity, adaptability, audacity, empathy and compassion of decent Ethiopians for their wrongfully imprisoned compatriots. That is why we must join hands and work tirelessly to free all political prisoners held in Ethiopia’s public and secret gulags. “Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people.”
Uncage Andualem Aragie and All Political Prisoners in Ethiopia!
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/
By Yilma Bekele
They say ‘in any relationship, if one party wants a change, that party needs to instigate change.’ The Tunisian people felt change was necessary. The Egyptian people agreed. The Libyans, Yemenis, Algerians, Bahrinians and the Iranians are in the process of adapting the Tunisian model.
They wanted change because hopelessness and apathy were becoming the hallmark of the society their crude leaders were building. Today is like yesterday and tomorrow will be more of the same. They felt that is no way to build a country. They felt change was in order.
Ben Ali of Tunisia abused his people for over twenty years while Mubarak lingered around for thirty years. They both used the formidable power of the state for coercion. Both have no qualms about killing, jailing, bankrupting, exiling those they deemed a threat. As usual the difference between one dictator and another is in the degrees of their insanity and selfishness. If you notice both did not have any problem about sacrificing their close friends when the going got tough.
The Tunisians got the ball rolling. They had a lot of help. The rich experience of the Serbian youth movement called ‘Otpor’ with contribution from the ‘Academy of Change’ from Egypt was instrumental in the Tunisian victory. Their elegant design was based on the teachings of Gandhi, MLK and a generous dose of Gene Sharp.
The Egyptians were relentless in their pursuit of freedom. The chaotic situation we witnessed on television was a well-choreographed play directed behind the scene. The youth leaders were simple and clear on their demands. The ouster of the dictator was the core of their demands. As usual the dictator tried to pacify by promising to loosen his grip. Too little too late should be inscribed on his gravestone. He tried every trick in the book to deflect attention away from his failures. No stone was left unturned to find a way out of this calamity. He dusted old tricks from the attic, borrowed some from fellow tyrants, went along with enablers advice, invented a few himself but nothing seems to work this time.
Two lessons stand out when we look at the ‘uprising’ in both countries. Galvanizing the ‘youth’ was key. Their perseverance when faced by supposedly formidable coercive state power was vital. The fact that the leaders of the movement were those in their thirties was refreshing and a game changer. Both Ben Ali and Mubarak are incapable of understanding the fury of the youth. They were confused and unable to process the information that their subjects were rejecting them and have learnt the language of saying ‘No’ and ‘Enough’.
As an Ethiopian I was awe struck. I laughed at the obstinate Mubarak acting belligerent as he was un robed in public, I cried for those that lost their life for their country, I was filled with joy when I witnessed the raw hunger for freedom and dignity and I fantasized about the tsunami hitting my home land. The last two months have stirred our passion for freedom and self-determination.
So when is ‘people power’ scheduled to arrive in East Africa is a good question. The short answer is now. The freedom train is now boarding. It is up to each individual to board or not. The train will leave soon with or without any one of us. This train requires no fossil fuel. This train runs on raw human energy. It is the ultimate ‘green energy’ train. It is renewable, sustainable and abundant. Our freedom train is equipped with a large sweep in front of it. It sweeps tyrants, dictators and bullies out of sight.
Freedom train is coming to Ethiopia. This is the third appearance of the train in our country. We allowed some undesirable elements to board the last two times. They were able to contaminate the train with their toxic presence and hijack our precious cargo. Our train was derailed.
The Tunisians and Egyptians developed a new vaccine to overcome Fear. Fear is what paralyzes us. Fear is our number one enemy. We spend too much time trying to design a perfect plan. Fear compels us to fret about the little details even before we take the firs step. We worry about the so-called lack of unity, we stress regarding the absence of a strong leader, we exaggerate the might of the enemy and we freeze with a sack full of uncertainty. Fear is our number one enemy.
Did you notice how centralized power was in both Tunisia and Egypt? Did you see both were one man shows? Does this kind of arrangement ring a bell? When we said Meles’s Ethiopia was a one man show people doubted us. Tunisia and Egypt proved dictatorship is a solo affair. You slay the head and the body flails around. The yes people, the sycophants and the spineless around the tyrant burn away like the morning dew.
Today we got a reversal of circumstances. Ato Meles is the one in FEAR. He is the one unable to sleep. The last two months have been a time of round the clock meetings with his fellow criminals. Like Ben Ali and Mubarak he has been pouring over plans on how to instill more fear on his people. He has been working over time to transfer his overwhelming and paralyzing fear on to us. He has sent his Kebele tugs to warn mothers about the fate of their children if they dare to emulate Tunisia or Egypt and now Libya. He has indicated that snipers are stationed on top of every building and his Agazi force is deployed in every intersection. He has promised salary increases. He has invested on more technology to block our ESAT transmission, switched off the Internet and directed his agents in the Diaspora to shout louder and create confusion. He is a picture of a cornered rat.
What is clear is that internally weak regimes like Woyane do not become passive and tolerant when confronted but rather turn to proven method of belligerency. Notice Ben Ali killed a few, Mubarak sent hired tugs and the Monarchs of Bahrain went to the extreme to preserve their lifestyle and ultimately their neck and today tyrant Gaddafi has upped the ante by using helicopters and fighter jets against his own people.
Our tyrant who is in the same league as Gaddafi will not leave silently. Our little tyrant got lots of issues hanging around his neck. Our tyrant has spilled blood. His 2005 murder was duly noted by judge Woldemichael Meshesha. His ruthless act in the Ogaden has been complied and preserved by Human Right Watch. His massacre in Gambella will never be forgotten thanks to my friend Obang.
So one might ask what next? How do we get out of this nightmare? Let us just agree our leader for life does not have any incentive to leave gracefully. On the other hand the society he has built is not sustainable nor is it desirable. Twenty years have proven he is not capable of building a just and free society. No matter what yardstick one uses to measure progress his attempt has been an abject failure. Twenty years into his leadership we are still confronted with over two million in imminent starvation, double digits of unemployment and runaway inflation. The only accomplishment the TPLF regime boasts of is real estate development, even that is the result of Diaspora investment not home grown achievement.
What is needed today is a day, a week, and a month of ‘rage’ against Woyane brutality. Who better to do that than our young ones? Who better to lead us than our young and smart children? Our young people have a glorious history to fall back on. The young people of Ethiopia have always been instruments of change. I know the shoes left behind by the University and high school students of the 60’s and 70’s is hard to fill.
Despite the over forty years of anarchy and destruction our youth have stayed focused. Their strength is displayed all around us. The fact they have survived against all odds despite Woyane bullying is testimonial to their resiliency. All you have to do is look at those that have stayed at home. They wake up everyday in that hostile and hopeless Woyane environment but still manage to eek out a living. They leave no stone unturned in their attempt to make sense of a life that shows no promise of a better tomorrow.
We should also celebrate the determination of those that leave their family and their country to find a better life. How could we forget those that cross the shark infested waters to reach Yemen or those that drown in the process? We will always remember those that cross our frontiers in their trek to unknown destinations. They cross the jungles of Africa, find a miraculous way to fly to South America and cross the US borders by foot, containers trucks and any means to find a better life. Our young ones have been tested by Woyane caused calamity and emerged stronger and wiser.
It is part of Woyane strategy to marginalize the youth by subscribing and encouraging a culture of apathy. The rise in consumption of Khat, a known narcotic and importation of degenerate culture is part of Woyane’s plan to contaminate our culture and identity. The Ethiopian youth have to overcome that. Rest assured our young ones are strong. Twenty years of organized propaganda to belittle our history, revise our glorious past, turn one ethnic against another have fallen on deaf ears.
Those of us in the Diaspora will continue our cry on behalf of our people that are silenced by the illegal regime. We will march, sign petitions, contribute money and work with Senators and Representatives to force the terrorist regime to relinquish power peacefully.
We urge the opposition to refrain from unilateral negotiations with the illegal regime. We want to put the opposition on notice that listening to the foreign diplomats and sitting down with the murderer regime is not part of our strategy to get rid of this cancer imposed on us. If the opposition wants to be included in this journey of liberation we are embarking, we hope they will read the heartbeat of our people and include the young people in their delebrations. If the opposition party’s want respect from us then we expect that they will keep in mind that our respect is earned. It is not a right but a privilege. We hope the debacle of unilateral action like the recent election will not be repeated.
We are certain Ato Meles will follow the footsteps of Gaddafi and unleash unprecedented terror on our people. He will use ethnic divide, religious divide any and all divisive issues to confuse and set us up against each other. We are hopeful that we have learned a lesson from our mistakes in the past and refrain from cannibalizing each other but rather aim our collective fury at the evil regime.
Yes we can, yes we will Ethiopia will be free, that no one can change.
By Alemayehu G. Mariam
Honor Thy Independent Journalists
I often write about the trials and tribulations of Ethiopia’s independent journalists, sometimes in tones of lamentation, other times in wistful philosophical reflection. I have always defended the constitutional and human rights of Ethiopian citizens “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through other media of their choice.” Unfortunately, I have had few opportunities to publicly celebrate and express my pride in the extraordinary deeds of Ethiopia’s emerging young and courageous journalists.
Courage, it seems, is fast becoming the common middle name for many young Ethiopian journalists. They are certainly racking up some of the most prestigious international journalism awards for courage. It is a special privilege for me to write a few words in honor of Ethiopian journalist Dawit Kebede and his young colleagues at Awramba Times (AT) and congratulate them for being the recipients of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) “2010 International Press Freedom Award”. This annual award is given to journalists who have shown extraordinary courage in defending press freedom in the face of attacks, threats or imprisonment. On November 23, Dawit, barely 30 years old, will accept the CPJ award on behalf of Team Awramba Times and all independent Ethiopian journalists who are still suffering and struggling in Ethiopia and others who have been forced into exile.
I am also privileged to congratulate another courageous young journalist, Sisay Agena, a former political prisoner and erstwhile publisher of Ethiop and Abay newspapers, for receiving the prestigious “Freedom to Write Award” from PEN Center USA. He will be honored in absentia on November 17 in Los Angeles. Last year this award was given to Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese writer and human rights advocate and the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. The PEN award honors exceptional international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising and defending the right to freedom of expression.
In October 2007, another young journalist, Serkalem Fasil, received the prestigious “Courage in Journalism Award” given by the International Womens’ Media Foundation to women journalists that have shown extraordinary bravery in the face of danger. Serkalem and her husband Eskinder Nega, (both former political prisoners and publishers of Menelik, Asqual and Satenaw newspapers) today serve as the personifications of journalistic courage and integrity in Ethiopia. This past March, the Supreme Kangaroo Kourt of Ethiopia ordered Serkalem, Eskinder, Sisay and two other journalists, Zekarias Tesfaye and Fasil Yenealem, to pay the largest fines assessed against journalists in Ethiopian history. These journalists have been denied licenses to publish their newspapers for the past three years.
Dawit Kebede, a former political prisoner, and his young team at Awramba Times are part of a new breed of courageous young journalists in Ethiopia who continue to risk their lives and livelihoods every day to speak truth to power by exercising their constitutional and human rights to free expression. The members of Team Awramba Times, like the other independent journalists, do not hide behind clever pen names or concealed identities to do their work. They are always out there in the line of fire facing intimidation, threats on their lives, harassment, interrogations and imprisonment. I take this opportunity to single out and honor, congratulate and thank each and every member of Team Awramba Times: Fitsum Mamo, editor-in-chief and one of the founders of AT (and not long ago a victim of trumped up charges of defamation of state-appointed church head Paulos); Woubshet Taye (forced to resign on the eve of election in May 2010 following official threats); Gizaw Legesse, deputy editor-in-chief; Wosenseged Gebrekidan (a former political prisoner with Dawit Kebede and the others); Abel Alemayehu, senior editor; Elais Gebru and Surafel Girma, senior reporters; Tigist Wondimu (arts and entertainment editor), Abebe Tola and Solomon Moges, columnists; Nebyou Mesfin, graphics editor; Teshale Seifu, Sisay Getnet, Teshale Wodaj, marketing and advertising and Mekdes Fisaha, computer technologist.
Dawit is the managing editor of Awramba Times. If one were to ask him to describe himself, he would simply say he is journalist. He will say he is not “in the opposition”. He is not a politician. He is not partisan to any political party or ideology; but like his AT colleagues, he is uncompromisingly partial to the truth. He will not hesitate to report or write the truth regardless of who is in power. He will solemnly promise to continue to do his job as a professional journalist by exercising his constitutional and human rights for as long as he can given the intensity of press repression in Ethiopia.
The State of Press Freedom in Ethiopia Today
When I wrote “The Art of War on Ethiopia’s Independent Press” last December, I argued that the regime of Meles Zenawi is conducting a search and destroy mission to completely wipe out the free press in the country. The history of the independent press in Ethiopia over the past five years is a chronicle of brutal crackdowns, arbitrary imprisonments and harassment of local and international journalists, shuttering of newspapers and jamming of international radio transmissions. In May 2009, the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFPJA) reported: “Over 101 journalists are forced into exile, 11 are still facing serious plight in Kenya, Uganda, Yemen, Japan and India… Journalists Serkalem Fasil, Eskindir Nega and Sisay Agena are still denied press licenses. Editors of weeklies: Awramba Times, Harambe, Enku and Addis Neger are suffering under frequent harassments and the new punitive press law, which has become the tool of silencing any criticisms against the ruling party.”
Zenawi like all depraved dictators preceding him fears and loathes the independent press more than anything else. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France expressed his deepest fears of the press when he said: “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” In Ethiopia, that could be translated as “one journalist is to be feared more than a thousand soldiers (‘ke shee toregna, ande gazetegna’). The informative powers of an independent press are so awesome that dictators and tyrants in history have lived in constant fear of having their crimes discovered by the press and reported to the people. As Napoleon explained: “A journalist is a grumbler, a censurer, a giver of advice, a regent of sovereigns and a tutor of nations.” It was the fact of “tutoring nations” — teaching, informing, enlightening and empowering the people with knowledge– that drove Napoleon “bat crazy”. He hated the press passionately because they exposed his vast network of spies that had penetrated every nook and cranny of French society and his failed military adventures. They relentlessly condemned his indiscriminate massacres of unarmed French citizens protesting in the streets and his killing, jailing and persecution of his political opponents.
Zenawi is no different. He wants to crush the few struggling independent newspapers in the country for the exact same reasons Napoleon wanted to crush the press. For Zenawi, the independent press is the mirror of truth that shows and tells it like it is. Whenever Zenawi looks into the press mirror, he asks the same old proverbial question: “Mirror, mirror on the wall/ Who in the land is the cruelest and wickedest of all?” The independent press is always there to answer that question for him truthfully. Zenawi fears and abhors criticism because he can’t handle the truth. His problem is that in the new breed of Ethiopian journalists he is facing his worst nightmare: the truth in the hands, hearts and minds of the youth. These young journalists have captured the hopes and aspirations of the millions of the young people in the country (which represent nearly 70 percent of the population). The youth armed with the truth and united can never be defeated!
Zenawi has used the “law” to crush these young journalists in much the same way as other dictatorships have crushed the free press in history. When the Nazis decreed the “National Press Law” in October 1933, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels crowed that the “law is the most modern journalistic statute in the world! I predict that its principles will be adopted by the other nations of the world within the next seven years. It is the absolute right of the State to supervise the formation of public opinion!” Another decree known as the Law Guaranteeing a Peace of Right was proclaimed immediately after the press law imposing the death penalty on anyone who imports, publishes or distributes in Germany “treasonable articles” and 5 years for importing, publishing or distributing “atrocity stories” about the Nazis or “endangering public security and order.”
Back in April 2008, in a Newsweek interview, Zenawi triumphantly declared that his new press law “will be on par with the best in the world.” His “law” provided: “Whosoever writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicises, disseminates, shows, makes to be heard any promotional statements encouraging… terrorist acts is punishable with rigorous imprisonment from 10 to 20 years.” Dr. Goebbels’ press laws are still alive and well 75 years after he introduced them in Germany. This is proof that history never repeats itself; it just finds a new theatre to play itself out.
Knowledge Will Forever Govern Ignorance
Zenawi lives to control everything around him. He has been pretty successful in monopolizing political power by wiping out the opposition. He controls the economy by controlling aid handouts and cornering the lucrative international panhandling business. He controls the daily lives of the people with fear and intimidation. But there are two things he has been unable to control: Ideas and the minds of the people. It is not for lack of effort. Zenawi has tried to control the flow of ideas by shuttering newspapers, jamming radio stations, filtering websites, jailing and harassing journalists and intimidating the people from expressing themselves. But he has not been able to control the flow of ideas or the minds of the people. No one can do that. A good leader inspires with sound ideas and lofty ideals. She encourages the people to freely shop in the marketplace of ideas. To play such a role, a leader needs to have vision, insight, foresight, hindsight, the ability to “look at things the way they are, and ask why” and the courage to “dream of things that never were, and ask why not.” A man blinded by hatred can have no vision. He can only think and ask, “How can I can make things so crooked and so warped that they can never, ever be straightened out again.” A man with no vision lives in darkness and ignorance. As the father the American Constitution James Madison advised: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” It is the free press, “the tutor of nations”, that will help the people gain the knowledge they need to govern ignorance.
Kudos to All Independent Ethiopian Journalists
Ethiopia’s young independent journalists are fighting the armies of darkness against overwhelming odds. The Dawits, Serkalems, Sisays, Eskinders and all the rest man the frontlines with nothing more in their hands than pens, pencils and keyboards. They fight with the written word to inform and educate citizens and help them find ways to effectively participate in their own governance. I admire these young journalists for doing something that has never been done in the history of press freedom in Ethiopia. They have taught us by personal example what it takes to defend freedom of expression. They are inventing for us a new culture of free expression, societal openness, official accountability and transparency in Ethiopia. They are developing a style of journalism based on truth-searching, truth-telling and exposition of lies costumed as truth. They keep the candle of liberty flickering in the darkness of oppression.
I believe all independent journalists in Ethiopia are bonded together by a common cause of press freedom. They suffer the slings and arrows of a vindictive dictatorship together; they fight together, they rise and fall together and in the end they win or lose together. The CPJ, PEN USA and IWMF awards honor all of them. As we celebrate these young journalists, we should remember what it is all about: Press freedom in Ethiopia is not about protecting the rights of newspapers, editors, journalists, reporters or foreign correspondents and radio broadcasters. It is quintessentially about the right of every Ethiopian citizen “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers and without interference.” Zenawi believes that by keeping Ethiopians in darkness his regime and hangers-on will thrive on forever. He needs to borrow a cup of wisdom. Only three things thrive and propagate rapidly in darkness: mushrooms, hate and anger. Mushrooms proliferate in dark caves; hatred and anger mushroom and smolder in the hearts and minds of men and women who are oppressed and subjugated. Let Zenawi ask himself these questions: What happens to hate and anger deferred, to paraphrase a poetic line of Langston Hughes? Do they just sag like a heavy load, or do they explode?
LET ETHIOPIANS “SEEK, RECEIVE AND IMPART INFORMATION AND IDEAS OF ALL KINDS, REGARDLESS OF FRONTIERS.”
RELEASE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA.
 See fn. 1
By Alemayehu G. Mariam
A Brand Spanking New Constitution
In February 2008, following the ethnically-driven post-election violence in Kenya, I wrote an editorial commentary entitled “The Ethiopianization of Kenya”:
After a half century of national existence, democratic experimentation and stability, Kenya has degenerated into a tribal/ethnic basket case beset by violence, fear and loathing… Kenya could have easily avoided this calamity. It had all of the tools at its disposal — a functioning and well-oiled electoral process, a civically engaged population, a democratic political culture enriched by prior voting experiences, an active and independent press, and a reasonably professional and independent judiciary, among others. It could have peacefully and amicably resolved the persisting questions of land ownership and redistribution, democratic power sharing, and grievances over issues of ethnic domination… Kibaki understood the implications of the theft of the presidential election for Kenyan national politics. He was fully aware of the potential for ethnic upheavals and widespread violence. He thought he could handle it by replicating the lessons of Kenya’s neighbor to the north, and perpetuate himself in power by introducing the discredited politics of “ethnic federalism.”
The post-election bloodbath in Kenya ended after 1,500 innocent people were killed and 300,000 internally displaced, and Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga agreed to share power and hold a referendum on a new Constitution, which earlier this month was approved by 67 percent of the voters.
Kenya’s new 206-page constitution replaces the original one engineered by the colonial masters in 1963. It includes a comprehensive Bill of Rights (which encompasses economic, social, and cultural rights). It transfers certain powers to local governments consisting of 47 newly-minted counties, each of which will have a governor and are specially represented in a newly-established Senate. Limits on presidential powers are imposed by requiring parliamentary confirmation of appointees and ending the practice of presidential appointment of judges, among others. The powers of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government are more clearly delineated, and citizen participation in the political process is promoted. The Constitution authorizes the establishment of a new Land Commission with the power to re-possess illegally-occupied public lands. It guarantees women the right to inherit land. Muslim family (kadhis’) courts are given jurisdiction over matters “relating to personal status, marriage, divorce or inheritance” for Kenya’s Muslim minority.
Supporters of the new Constitution argued that these and other changes will usher in a new era of rights for Kenyans (guaranteeing clean water, decent housing, sanitation, and an adequate supply and quality of food and economic rights of inheritance for women), and ensure official transparency, accountability and clean government. According to one recent poll, 91 percent of Kenyans support the new Constitution. President Mwai Kibaki euphorically declared that the new Constitution will be “our shield and defender as we strive to conquer poverty, disease and ignorance.” President Obama praised it as “a significant step forward for Kenya’s democracy”. Opponents campaigned against the new Constitution because it “allows abortion on demand,” and recognizes a non-secular (khadis’) court system. The stronghold of opposition is said to be in western Kenya. Some have suggested that opposition to the new Constitution is stoked by politicians who are likely to lose their political and economic grip in the western region under the new Constitution.
Kenya’s voluminous new constitution and its ambitious scope of coverage of rights is long on promises not unlike most African constitutions which offer a cornucopia of rights and accountability provisions. The real question is whether Kenya’s new Constitution will continue the long unbroken tradition of dictatorship of Big Men in Africa or become a real instrument for the creation of a government of laws for the Kenyan people.
Government of Laws, Not of Men
Constitutional government is fundamentally about the rule of law. Organic rules are established to protect the rights of citizens from arbitrary and abusive exercise of government power, and ensure leaders and institutions are held accountable under the “supreme law of the land”. Stated simply, in a government of laws, “no man or woman is above the law.” But much of Africa has suffered under the government of men – autocrats, civilian dictators, military juntas, hybrid civilian-military dictators – who have pillaged the continent to line their pockets and oppress the people for nearly one-half century. For instance, Ethiopia for centuries remained under the rule of monarchs who believed they were “elect of God” and operated under the principle that they “can do no wrong” or be held accountable under the law. The maxim which conceptualized the monarch as the supreme law of the land holds, “it is impossible to sue the king or plough the sky.” (Negus aykeses, semay aytares.) The “divine rule of kings” in Ethiopia gave way to an inhuman military dictatorship, followed by a brutal full-fledged kleptocracy.
The modern idea of legal accountability to check the abuse of political power dates back to the English Magna Carta (1215). The Great Charter was imposed on a reluctant king to safeguard against his arbitrary personal rule and to hold him accountable under the “laws of the land”. By the same token, modern constitutions are intended to be a bulwark against dictatorship and tyranny by requiring of leaders and institutions observance of the principle of the rule of law. But that has not happened in Africa. African dictators have sought to create the illusion of constitutional democracy while practicing constitutional dictatorship. They sneer at the very thought of being held accountable when they exceed, abuse or misuse their powers. Far from imposing limitations on power, constitutions in Africa have served to expand and maximize the powers of dictators who have used them as “trump cards” to suit their needs. Many African dictators have used their constitutions as “meal tickets”. Western donors often refuse to extortion money unless they see the dictators wrapped around a nice liberal-sounding constitution. Domestically, these dictators have used their constitutions to legitimize their dictatorships, provide a “legal” cover for their klepto-oligarchic state, and to protect and preserve their privileges. As offensive weapons, they have use them to sledgehammer the opposition. For instance, in 2005 after Zenawi was defeated in the polls, he wiped out the opposition by charging them with five counts of violations of the Constitution. After he declared victory in the May 2010 election which he “won” by 99.6 percent, he made two public offers to opposition parties and leaders that he would sit and negotiate with them (lol) provided they “respect the will of the people and accept the country’s Constitution and constitutional process.”
Kibaki told a teeming crowd of thousands in Nairobi that the new Constitution will be “our shield and defender as we strive to conquer poverty, disease and ignorance.” We wish the Kenyans the best of luck; but the fact is that in very few places in Africa have constitutions ever been used as shields. They have been used as spears and swords against individuals and as barrages of arrows against dissident groups in society. Kenya’s choices are clear: She can take Ghana’s path and launch a constitutional democracy, or imitate its northern neighbor and be swallowed up in the quicksand of constitutional dictatorship. The Ghanaian path is the more difficult one to take because it requires translating constitutional rules into daily practice. It requires nurturing a democratic culture complete with all the expressive freedoms. This means going beyond babbling rapturous constitutional rhetoric about a “reborn” Kenya, “shields” and “defensive” armor against poverty and so on. To ensure constitutional success, ordinary Kenyans must take full ownership of their Constitution or it will be swiftly hijacked by the wily and corrupt politicians. Kenyans civil society institutions and intellectuals must take the lead in educating the masses about their new Constitution and help develop structures for popular participation. If Kenyans fail to maintain “eternal vigilance” over the corrupt crooks skulking in the halls of power, they will soon find that the constitution they were told was their shield will have been transformed into spears and arrows of dictatorship, garrotes to choke their civil society institutions and cudgels to trash their human rights. If they need proof of that ugly future, let them calmly gaze northward.
From the Misrule of Law to the Rule of Law
Is it not a tragic fact that for most of Africa dictatorship is the only game of politics? The real question to contemplate as Kenya begins political life under its new Constitution is whether it will ultimately become a constitutional democracy or constitutional dictatorship. Kibaki has been in the saddles of power since his days as minister of finance in 1969, and is Kenya’s third president since 1963. The stench of corruption in high government places in Kenya reeks to the high heavens. In August 2006, Senator Barack Obama said, “Here in Kenya, there is a crisis [of corruption] — a crisis that’s robbing an honest people of the opportunities they fought for.”
Having lofty-sounding and well-crafted constitutions will not guarantee the crooked politicians will conform their conduct to the supreme law of the land. If mere words in a constitution were proof of the existence and functioning of constitutional government, Ethiopia’s would be second to none. Kenya now is at the fork in the constitutional road. Whichever road it takes will be fraught with danger. I am hopeful that Kenya will take the road less travelled — Ghana’s Way — in the rest of Africa. But I have deep concerns over the challenges that lie ahead. Do the Kenyan masses understand their new Constitution? Better yet, do their leaders? I am doubtful that the vast majority of Kenyans have actually read and understand the 206-page Constitution (let alone engaged in vigorous debate over its provisions), despite that country’s 80 percent literacy rate. Even a studious and learned constitutional lawyer will have difficulty penetrating the dense recesses of the new Constitution. The corrupt politicians thrive in a whirlpool of mass ignorance; and I have a gnawing suspicion that they will find a way to hijack the Constitution and continue to do business as usual. The silver lining in the cloud is the manifest popular excitement and enthusiasm for the new Constitution by ordinary citizens. Only they can save their country from the serrated teeth of the corrupt and voracious politicians.
Long-term political stability in Africa will be impossible without citizens and leaders believing that legitimate governance rests first and foremost on observance of an agreed upon set of ground rules that limit the power of leaders and institutions and guarantee the rights of citizens. The words of most African constitutions are dead letters. They mean nothing, except what the dictators want them to mean. They neither shield citizens from the slings and arrows of ruthless dictators nor guide the people out of the wilderness of failed “statedoms” and thiefdoms (kleptocracies). These so-called constitutions are “legal” documents but they are rarely legitimate instruments of governance. They disempower the ordinary people from becoming active participatory citizens and rarely serve as tools for greater official accountability, transparency, or protection of human rights. Africa’s dilemma today is whether it will be democratized or continue to be “dictatorized”.
If the recent polls are any indication, there seems to be a significant attitudinal shift among average Kenyan citizens and the elites that the new Constitution represents a change of power from a group of ethnically-entrenched demagogues to a set of supreme rules. That is a hopeful sign. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. Ultimately, the proof of Kenya’s new Constitution will be in its application and dutiful observance by its leaders and citizens. If ordinary Kenyans resolve to defend their new Constitution against the hordes of thieving politicians and kleptocrats, the words written on that paper will be worth more than all the precious jewels in the world. In the meantime, Kenya’s neighbors to the north will be scratching their heads wondering if their Constitution is worth the paper it is written on! North of the Kenyan border the motto is: “For our friends, everything; for strangers, nothing; and for our enemies, the law (constitution)!”
FREE BIRTUKAN AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA.
Alemayehu G. Mariam
Beware of Those Who Bear Olive Branches
“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” goes the old saying. I say beware of those bearing fake olive branches. In many societies, “extending an olive branch” symbolizes an act of reconciliation, goodwill and peace. In ancient Greece and Rome, people gave each other olive branches as tokens of their intention to bury the hatchet and make up. The ancient Greeks are also remembered for the hollow wooden horse they used to outwit their Trojan enemies and destroy their city.
Following his 99.6 per cent “election victory” this past May, Ethiopia’s dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi gave a speech offering the opposition a bouquet of olive branches. He solemnly “pledge[d] to all the parties who did not succeed in getting the support of the people… as long as you respect the will of the people and the country’s Constitution and other laws of the land, we will work by consulting and involving you in all major national issues. We are making this pledge not only because we believe that we should be partners… [but also] you have the right to participate and to be heard.” Basically, he promised to set up a special “kitchen cabinet” for the opposition to come in and chit-chat (“consult and get involved”) with him after hours.
Last week, Zenawi singled out two opposition organizations and signaled his intention to move from confrontations to “consultations” and “negotiations”:
… Concerning negotiations with the OLF (Oromo Liberation Front), Ginbot 7, the main thing has to do with principles. The first principle is peacefully resolving differences which is a civilized and appropriate strategy. Second, the way we can bring peace to our country is to accept the Constitution and the constitutional process and to be ready to pursue one’s aims peacefully. We are ready to negotiate with any organization, group or even disgruntled individual that accepts these principles and is prepared to return to the constitutional fold.
Is Zenawi’s offer of olive branches a Trojan Horse to finally put an end to all those who oppose his dictatorial rule?
A Trojan Horse Through the Looking Glass
In a recent commentary entitled, “Speaking Truth to the Powerless”, I observed:
Zenawi knows the opposition like the opposition does not know itself. He has studied them and understands how they (do not) work. Careful analysis of his public statements on the opposition over the years suggests a rather unflattering view. He considers opposition leaders to be his intellectual inferiors; he can outwit, outthink, outsmart, outplay, outfox and outmaneuver them any day of the week. He believes they are dysfunctional, shiftless and inconsequential, and will never be able to pose a real challenge to his power. In his speeches and public comments, he shows nothing but contempt and hatred for them. At best, he sees them as wayward children who need constant supervision, discipline and punishment to keep them in line. Like children, he will offer some of them candy — jobs, cars, houses and whatever else it takes to buy their silence. Those he cannot buy, he will intimidate, place under continuous surveillance and persecute. Mostly, he tries to fool and trick the opposition. He will send “elders” to talk to them and lullaby them to sleep while he drags out “negotiations” to buy just enough time to pull the rug from underneath them. He casts a magical spell on them so that they forget he is the master of the zero-sum game (which means he always wins and his opposition always loses)… For the first time in nearly twenty years, he is now changing his tune a little because the opposition seems to be wising up and Western donors are grimacing with slight embarrassment for supporting him. The kinder and gentler face of Zenawi is slowly being rolled out.
Why “Negotiations” Now?
It is not clear why Zenawi is calling for “negotiations” now. For nearly twenty years, he has recoiled with disdain at the very suggestion of negotiations with the opposition. He apparently sees the need for it now. Why? Could it be because he understands the status quo is unlikely to hold much longer? Is it his way of recapturing some international legitimacy for his rule and regime? Surely, he must know that his Western patron saints who pour billions of dollars to prop up his regime regard him as just another tin pot African dictator who must be tolerated and humored to facilitate their interests in Africa. Long gone are the days of adulation of Zenawi as one of the “new breed of African leaders”. It is possible that there is quiet donor pressure? The intelligence services of the various donor countries have mapped out alternative scenarios for Ethiopia’s future as Zenawi begins his third decade of dictatorship; and none of them looks pretty.
It may be that Zenawi feels the heat of the long smoldering ambers of collective anger and outrage percolating to the surface? Maybe he realizes that he cannot crush all of his opposition forever, and the tables could turn any day. Maybe he wants to use negotiations tactically to divide and destroy his opposition by co-opting some of them and letting the others self-destruct in dogfights over the bones he will throw at them. Maybe he sees the despair of 80 million people and is gripped by a gnawing sense of anxiety and feels he must do something before it is too late for him and his regime. It is possible that he may be sending up a trial balloon to see if the opposition will take the bait? Maybe he is just grandstanding. He wants to impress his sugar daddy Western donors that he is a reasonable man of peace, and the opposition leaders are just a bunch of “extremists” and “terrorists” uninterested in peaceful dispute resolution. Maybe he is playing one of his silly “gotcha” games as he did during the so-called “election code of conduct” negotiations. When leaders of the major opposition parties showed up in good faith to negotiate, he laughed in their faces and told them to take a hike. Subsequently, he threatened to throw them in jail for not abiding by a “code” they did not sign. Maybe he is convinced that he can outwit and outfox the opposition at the conference table. Maybe, just maybe, he is really genuine and wants a negotiated settlement in the “best interest of the nation.” There are recent precedents for such things in Africa. The mule-headed octogenarian Robert Mugabe snagged a deal with Morgan Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe. Emilio Mwai Kibaki cut a deal with Raila Odinga in Kenya. Maybe it is all or none of the above. I don’t have the foggiest idea why Zenawi is now calling for negotiations, but the whole exercise seems absurd to me.
Can One Reasonably Negotiate With “Terrorists, Amateur Part-time Terrorists and Lifers”?
Zenawi’s offer to negotiate face to face (not in his usual backdoor elder-style negotiations) with the OLF and Ginbot 7 Movement seems disingenuous. For years, he has characterized the OLF as a “terrorist” organization whose “main objective is to create a rift between the government and the people of Oromiya.” He has demonized OLF leaders and jailed anyone vaguely suspected of involvement or association with that organization. He has contemptuously characterized Ginbot 7 as an organization of “amateur part-time terrorists.” In kangaroo court, he recently sentenced to death various alleged “members” of Ginbot 7; and in absentia, movement leaders Dr. Berhanu Nega and Andargachew Tsigie, among others. His deputy is on record publicly comparing “opposition” parties with the genocidal Rwandan interhamwe militias. That comment invited sharp censure by the 2005 European Union Election Observation Mission which called it “unacceptable and extremist rhetoric”. Zenawi has jailed Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, and unquestionably the most important political prisoner on the African continent today, for life. Last December when he was asked if there is a chance Birtukan could ever be released, he categorically and absolutely ruled out any possibility of freedom for her: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” It seems totally illogical and downright dishonest for Zenawi to propose good faith negotiations with opposition leaders and organizations allegedly sworn to remove him from power by force while being so deadest against any negotiation or agreement for the release of one harmless innocent young woman!
What Could Be Conceivable Outcomes of Negotiations?
Assuming there are negotiations, Zenawi has given no indications on the negotiable issues. Regardless, what are some conceivable outcomes of any negotiations? Release of Birtukan? Release of all political prisoners? Legalization of the OLF? Commutation of the death sentences of Ginbot 7 members and movement leaders? Fresh free and fair elections? Free functioning of the private press? Establishment of a fully independent elections board? An Independent judiciary? Aha! How about power-sharing a la Zimbabwe and Kenya? (Just kidding!)
A Faustian Negotiation?
The old saying goes, “Give the devil his due.” Zenawi deserves credit for being a masterful zero-sum game player. Political scientists and economists use special analytical models to understand the behavior of negotiators in different settings. In a “zero-sum” negotiation, both “players” (negotiators) desire one particular outcome, but only one of them can have it. One player wins everything and the other loses everything. Stated differently, a zero-sum game is “like arguing over a pie (or injera, the traditional bread of Ethiopia): if one person gets a piece of injera, then the other person gets nothing.” For the past 19 years, Zenawi has been keeping all of the injera to himself, and denying others even a small piece. Now he wants negotiations to share the injera with the rest of the peons who have been watching him eat gluttonously at the dining table of power?
I have tried to logically decipher the type of negotiation Zenawi has in mind, without success. Generally, when someone calls for negotiations, it means that person has formulated his negotiating points and positions and is prepared to give some indication of the negotiable issues to the other side. Zenawi’s offer of negotiation is so vague and cryptic that it seems to be almost an afterthought in his press conference. But there is nothing vague about his zero-sum style of negotiation over the past two decades. Everyone who has “negotiated” with him knows that he has two principles of negotiation (and not the two he mentioned as preconditions for negotiations with the OLF and Ginbot 7): 1) “You are gonna do it my way, or you’re gonna hit the highway! Period.” 2) “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable. Period.” These are the two bedrock principles of negotiations Zenawi has followed for the last twenty years in dealing with his opposition both within his own party and those on the outside. Why would he change now?
Surely, Zenawi must realize that no one will negotiate with him on a zero-sum basis. It is irrational for anyone to negotiate one’s own vanquishment? It is illogical to negotiate in a “winner takes all” setting when the winner is already known before the negotiations begin. It is not unlike someone running in an election where the winner has been predetermined and the winning margin of victory (say 99.6 percent) already preordained. Why bother?
A real negotiation is a process of give and take, compromise, good will and even empathy for the other side. It does not seem that Zenawi is capable of such negotiating style. He has always looked at his opposition with contempt. He has never regarded them as his legitimate political opponents with whom he disagrees; rather he has always viewed them as mortal enemies that must be totally and completely vanquished. Political negotiations in Ethiopia can succeed only when there is mutual recognition by all parties of their shared humanity, nationality, commonality of interests, sensitivities, and above all that rapturous spiritual feeling called “Ethiopianity”. There is little room for negotiation and compromise with an “enemy” that one considers a “terrorist”, a “genocidal” maniac or a “criminal”.
Negotiations in the Best Interests of the Nation
I believe in negotiations not because someone could misuse it as tactical weapon in a public relations campaign, but because negotiation to me is the art of the possible. Only principles are non-negotiable. I believe it is possible to have negotiations in the “best interests” of Ethiopia and its people. These “best interests” are, among others, avoiding the long term consequences of ethnic conflict, reduction in political tensions, guaranteeing a better future for Ethiopia’s youth who represent over three-quarters of the population, ensuring respect for human rights, institutionalization of the rule of law, accountability and transparency in government, economic development for society and free personal development for citizens and the like. Negotiations in the “best interests of the nation” require “principled negotiations”, which means the parties must be committed to “win-win” (instead of win-lose zero-sum) outcomes. The parties focus on issues and not personalities; they strive to work around common interests and avoid imposing their hardline positions on each other. Principled negotiators generate and consider a variety of possibilities and solutions before deciding what to do. Above all, they work toward a solution cooperatively and come to an agreement that takes into account not only their individual needs but also optimizes their collective outcomes. Principled negotiators understand that they can attain their goals if, and only if, the others also attain theirs. In sum, principled negotiators cooperate more and compete less, build more trust and work actively to lessen suspicion about each other. It is very possible to negotiate an agreement among those with polarized interests if they can manage to keep their eyes on “best interests of the nation” instead of their partisan and individual interests.
“Respecting the Country’s Constitution?”
As a teacher, practitioner and student of constitutional law, I was mildly amused when Zenawi said he is ready to negotiate with anyone who “respects the country’s Constitution”. When one wags an accusatory index finger at others, it is easy not to notice the three fingers that are pointing to oneself. Before one can pontificate about the constitutional high ground, one must command it. Zenawi must not just demand the opposition to respect the Constitution, he must also respect it. In fact, he should teach the opposition respect for the Constitution by example. But he has not been a good teacher: Article 9 (4) of the Ethiopian Constitution provides, “International agreements ratified by Ethiopia are an integral part of the law of the land.” Zenawi has trashed all human rights conventions as documented for years in the annual reports of the world’s most respected human rights organizations. Article 12 (1) requires that the “activities of government shall be undertaken in a manner which is open and transparent to the public.” Zenawi has concluded dozens of secret international agreements to give up the country’s land and resources without any transparency or accountability. Article 17 (2) guarantees that “No one shall be arrested or detained without being charged or convicted of a crime except in accordance with such procedures as are laid down by law.” Birtukan Midekssa and thousands of political prisoners remain in detention without due process of law. Article 20 (3) requires “Everyone charged with an offence shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty by a court of law…” In practice, every suspect is presumed guilty, and hundreds of thousands of citizens presently languish in prison without charges. Article 29 (2) guarantees that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression without interference…. regardless of frontiers…” Independent journalists in Ethiopia are threatened and jailed by the dozens, and newspapers shuttered. The public media has been reduced into becoming a propaganda machine for the ruling party; international radio and television broadcasts are jammed and internet service kept at the most primitive level to keep citizens from exercising their freedom of expression. Article 38 (1) (b) guarantees, “every citizen the right to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections… ” Zenawi won the May 2010 election by 99.6 percent. There is no greater respect that can be shown for the Constitution than respecting the people’s vote!
Confidence Building Measures Before Negotiations
Negotiations require the art of dialogue. Zenawi can only monologue. I really would like to believe he is sincere about negotiations, and his offer of olive branches is genuine. But he has no credibility. His own words and actions betray him. How can anyone in their right minds negotiate with a man who said: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” A man who can take such a frighteningly inflexible, uncompromising, unyielding, unbending, rigid and unswayable position on an innocent young woman who has done ABSOLUTELY nothing wrong is incapable of negotiating with “terrorists”, “genocidal” maniacs and “extremists” purportedly sworn to remove him from power. Zenawi is willing to sit down “with anyone” and “negotiate” an agreement to deal with the super-complex problems of Ethiopia but he will never, ever, agree to even consider discussing the simple case of an innocent young woman?
Birtukan’s case is full of ironies. In 2007 she signed a pardon agreement negotiated over several months by a group of “elders” at Zenawi’s direction. A year and half later, Zenawi used the very agreement she negotiated with him for her release from prison as the basis for her summary re-commitment to life in prison. Is it not equally ironic that Zenawi is now extending olive branches to those he believes are sworn to remove him from power by force while keeping imprisoned for life the one person who can negotiate with him in good faith on the very same principles of constitutionalism and peaceful dispute resolution that he talks about? But as the great Mandela said, “Only free men (and women) can negotiate; prisoners cannot enter into contracts.” If Zenawi wants to negotiate with the opposition, he must let Birtukan go free because she is the lioness share of the opposition.
I do not want to be misunderstood. I plead Birtukan’s case not for any particular political outcome, but because she is innocent and has done nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong. She has committed no crime. She has caused harm to no one. She is a threat to nobody. She played meticulously by the very constitutional rules Zenawi extols as his “principles” of negotiation. It is time to let her join her little daughter and aging mother for the Ethiopian new year in September. Why not also let the others who have languished in prison for years on suspicion of “involvement” with the OLF, and Ginbot 7 “members” who were recently jailed, to go free and rejoin their families for the new year? Why not unjam the Voice of America and stop jamming ESAT (Ethiopian Satellite Television)? Let the people hear and see and make up their own minds. I know some will laugh at my naivete for suggesting these obvious ideas for it has been said that “fire, water and dictators know nothing of mercy.” But if one cannot take simple steps to build confidence, mere talk of “principles of negotiations” sound hollow and unconvincing. Perhaps Otto Von Bismarck was right: “When a man says that he approves something in principle, it means he hasn’t the slightest intention of putting it in practice.” As an afterthought, is it possible to shake hands with a man who has fake olive branches in one hand and a gun in the other?
FREE BIRTUKAN AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA!!!