Triumph of Evil?
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, said Edmund Burke. But what happens when evil triumphs over a good young woman journalist named Reeyot Alemu in Ethiopia? Do good men and women turn a blind eye, plug their ears, turn their backs and stand in silence with pursed lips?
In an extraordinary letter dated April 10, 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalists pled with Berhan Hailu, “Minister of Justice” in Ethiopia, on behalf of the imprisoned 32-year old journalist urging that she be provided urgent medical care and spared punishment in solitary confinement at the filthy Meles Zenawi Prison in Kality just outside the capital Addis Ababa.
Prison authorities have threatened Reeyot with solitary confinement for two months as punishment for alleged bad behavior toward them and threatening to publicize human rights violations by prison guards, according to sources close to the journalist who spoke to the International Women’s Media Foundation on condition of anonymity.CPJ has independently verified the information. Reeyot has also been denied access to adequate medical treatment after she was diagnosed with a tumor in her breast…
Last week Reeyot was declared winner of the “UNESCO / Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize 2013.” That award recognizes “a person, organization or institution that has made an outstanding contribution to the defence and/or promotion of press freedom anywhere in the world, especially when this has been achieved in the face of danger.” The $25,000 prize will be awarded on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2013.
In May 2012, Reeyot received the prestigious International Women’s Media Foundation “2012 Courage in Journalism Award for “her commitment to work for independent media when the prospect of doing so became increasingly dangerous, her refusal to self-censor in a place where that practice is standard, and her unwillingness to apologize for truth-telling, even though contrition could win her freedom.”
In December 2012, Reeyot, along with three other courageous independent journalists, received Human Rights Watch’s prestigious Hellman/Hammett Award for 2012 “in recognition of their efforts to promote free expression in Ethiopia, one of the world’s most restricted media environments.”
Reeyout Alemu is Ethiopia’s press freedom heroine
In May 2012, when Reeyot received the IWMF’s award, I wrote a commentary entitled, “Reeyot Alemu: Young Heroine of Ethiopian Press Freedom” recounting some of Reeyot’s courageous acts of journalism and denouncing the abuse she received at the hands of those in power in Ethiopia. In June 2011, Reeyot and her co-defendant journalist Woubshet Taye were arrested on trumped up charges of “terrorism” and held incommunicado in the infamous Meles Zenawi Prison. Reeyot’s arrest occurred just after she had written a column in a weekly paper criticizing the late Meles Zenawi’s harebrained fundraising campaign for the so-called Grand Renaissance Dam over the Blue Nile. That column seemed to have angered the cantankerous and irascible Meles. Reeyot also skewered Meles’ sacred cow, the half-baked “five-year growth and transformation plan” (which I critiqued in “The Fakeonomics of Meles Zenawi in June 2011) . In September 2012, Reeyot and Woubshet were charged with “conspiracy to commit terrorist acts and participation in a terrorist organization” under Meles Zenawi’s cut-and-paste anti-terrorism law.
Reeyot’s trial in Meles’ kangaroo court was a template for miscarriage of justice. She was held in detention for three months with no access to legal counsel. She was denied counsel during interrogation. The kangaroo court refused to investigate her allegations of torture, mistreatment and denial of medical care in pre-trial detention. The evidence of “conspiracy” consisted of intercepted emails and wiretapped telephone conversations she had about peaceful protests and change with other journalists abroad. Her articles posted on various opposition websites were “introduced” as “evidence” of conspiracy.
Human Rights Watch was confounded by the idiocy of the terrorism charges: “According to the charge sheet, the evidence consisted primarily of online articles critical of the government and telephone discussions notably regarding peaceful protest actions that do not amount to acts of terrorism. Furthermore, the descriptions of the charges in the initial charge sheet did not contain even the basic elements of the crimes of which the defendants are accused….”
Amnesty International denounced the judgment of the kangaroo court: “There is no evidence that [Reeyot and the other independent journalists] are guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. We believe that they are prisoners of conscience, prosecuted because of their legitimate criticism of the government. They must be released immediately and unconditionally.”
PEN American Center “protested the harsh punishment handed down to” Reeyot and Woubshet and demanded their “immediate and unconditional release.” PEN asserted the two journalists “have been sentenced solely in relation to their peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression, in violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, to which Ethiopia is a signatory.”
The International Women’s Media Foundation saw the kangaroo court trial as an intimidation tactic against all independent women journalists: “The fact that the Ethiopian Government pursues and persecutes courageous, brave and professional women journalists does not bode well particularly for young women who may be interested in journalism. As a result, women’s voices (as reporters, editors, journalists, decision-making chambers) are rarely heard and women’s issues are often relegated to secondary position.”
Following Reeyot’s kangaroo court conviction, her father told an interviewer his daughter will not apologize, seek a pardon or apply for clemency. “As a father, would you rather not advise your daughter to apologize?”
This is perhaps one of the most difficult questions a parent can face. As any one of us who are parents would readily admit, there is an innate biological chord that attaches us to our kids. We wish nothing but the best for them. We try as much as humanly possible to keep them from harm…. Whether or not to beg for clemency is her right and her decision. I would honor and respect whatever decision she makes… To answer your specific question regarding my position on the issue by the fact of being her father, I would rather have her not plead for clemency, for she has not committed any crime.
Meles offered Reeyot her freedom if she agreed to snitch on her colleagues and help railroad them to prison. She turned him down flat and got herself railroaded into solitary confinement. Even in prison, Reeyot remained defiant as she informed IWMF: “I believe that I must contribute something to bring a better future. Since there are a lot of injustices and oppressions in Ethiopia, I must reveal and oppose them in my articles.”
The problem of evil in Ethiopia
Over the hundreds of uninterrupted weekly commentaries I have written over the years, I have rarely strayed much from my professional fields of law and politics. I make an exception in this commentary by indulging in philosophical musings on evil, a subject that has puzzled me for the longest time (and one I expect to ruminate over from time to time in the future) but one I never considered opining about in my public commentaries. I am mindful that there is the risk of sounding pedantic when one reflects on “Big Questions”, but pedantry is not intended here.
My simple definition of evil is any human act or omission that harms human beings. For instance, convicting an innocent young journalist on trumped up “terrorism” charges, sentencing her to a long prison term and throwing her into solitary confinement is evil because such acts cause great physical and psychological pain and suffering. Ordering the cold-blooded massacre of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators is evil because that act arbitrarily deprives innocent people of their God-given right to life. Forcibly displacing indigenous populations from their ancestral homes and selling their land to outsiders is evil because that act destroys not only the livelihood of those people but also their history and social fabric. Trashing the rights of individuals secured in the law of nations is evil because it is a crime against humanity and an affront to human decency and all norms of civilization. Discriminating against a person based on ethnicity, language and religion is evil because it deprives the victims of a fundamental right of citizenship. Albert Camus argued evil is anything that prevents solidarity between people and disables them from recognizing the rights or values of other human beings. Stealing elections in broad daylight and trying to deceive the world that one won an election by 99.6 percent is evil because such an act is an unconscionable lie and theft of the voice of the people. Stealing billions from a poor country’s treasury is evil because such theft deprives poor citizens vital resources necessary for their survival.
The evil I struggle to “understand” is that evil viciously committed by ordinary or sub-ordinarypeople in positions of political power. Such persons believe they can cheat, rob, steal and kill with absolute impunity because they believe there is no force on earth that can hold them accountable.
I am also concerned about the evil of passive complicity by ordinary and extraordinary people who stand silent in the face of evil. What is it that paralyzes those “good men and women” who can stand up, resist and defend against evil to cower and hide? Why do they pretend and rationalize to themselves that there really is no evil but in the eye of the beholder? What evil binds the blind, silent and deaf majority? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
I should clarify my use of the word “understand” in the context of evil. One can never understand evil. The Holocaust and the Rwanda Genocide are evils beyond human understanding and reason. To “understand” the deaths of millions or hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings is to implicitly justify it and somehow diminish its enormity. To “understand” the deliberate and premeditated murder of 193 unarmed protesters is beyond understanding because there could never be adequate reason, explanation or argumentation to justify it. “Understanding” such evil is tantamount to suggesting that there are or could be justifications for its occurrence.
When I use the word “understand”, I mean to suggest only that I am trying to get some insight, a glimpse of the moral makeup of people who live in a completely different moral universe than myself. It is impossible for me to see the world through the eyes of those in power who perpetrate evil in Ethiopia. When I speak of the triumph of evil in Ethiopia, I realize that there is nothing I can say by way of reasoned argument or presentation of evidence to persuade those in power to forsake their evil ways and deeds. I have concluded that those in power in Ethiopia live on a planet shielded by the equivalent of a moral Van Allen radiation belt that keeps out all cosmic rays of virtue, decency and goodness.
Let me also clarify what I mean when I speak of the audacity of evil in Ethiopia. The evil I am talking about is not the evil that Aquinas’ wrestled with in Questions 48 and 49 of Summa Theologica. Nor I am concerned about the evil Spinoza determined originates in the mind that lacks understanding because it is overwrought by fickle emotions. Neither am I concerned with evil that, for most of us, is associated with the Devil and his lesser intermediaries. I am not concerned about inanimate non-moral evil which manifests itself in the form of famine, pestilence and plague. I am also not referring to that evil lurking deep in the nihilistic being of those soulless, heartless and mindless psychopaths who are so disconnected from the rest of humanity that they feel justified in slaughtering innocent people at a sports event.
I am concerned about the evils of ordinary human wickedness and bestial human behavior that Aristotle alluded to in Nicomachean Ethics. I am concerned about gratuitous evil (pointless evil from which no greater good can be derived) committed by ordinary and sub-ordinary wicked people whose intellect is corrupted, and their bestial counterparts who are lacking in intellectual discernment. Such evil is cultivated in the soil of arrogance, ignorance, narcissism, desire for domination, self-aggrandizement and hubris. Those who commit gratuitous evil do so audaciously, willfully, recklessly and impulsively because they feel omnipotent; because they fear no retribution; because they anticipate no consequences for their evil deeds. They know they are committing evil and inflicting unspeakable and horrific pain and suffering on their victims but nonetheless go about doing evil with calculation and premeditation because they believe they are beyond morality, legality, responsibility and accountability. Hubristically relying on their power, they have exempted themselves from all rules of civilized society. They believe that their stranglehold on power gives them a license to commit evil at their pleasure and therefore make a habit of doing evil for evil’s sake. They are incapable of remorse or regrets because they have made evil their guiding “moral” principle.
My musings on the audacity of evil in Ethiopia are not intended to be abstract philosophical reflections but observations with practical value for victims of evil. I have an unshakeable belief that there will come a time in Ethiopia when the demands of punishment, blame and justice would have to be weighed against the greater good of peace, harmony and reconciliation. There will come a time when the open wounds of ethnic division, hatred and sectarianism must be healed and safeguards put into place to prevent their future recurrence. I believe insight into the nature of gratuitous evil is an important step in the healing process. By “understanding” (gaining insight) why individuals and groups in power commit gratuitous evil, it may be possible for Ethiopians to develop the courage, perseverance, fortitude and spiritual strength to move towards a reconciled and peaceful society. That is exactly what the South Africans did by instituting their Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) after Apartheid ended. Perpetrators of gratuitous evil were given the option to come to a public hearing and confess the evils they have committed and seek not only amnesty and immunity from civil and criminal prosecution but also forgiveness from their victims and the survivors of their victims. The Commission largely succeeded in that mission. The Rwandan “Gacaca courts” (traditional grassroots village courts composed of well-respected elders) which were established to administer justice to those alleged to have committed genocidal acts similarly sought to achieve “reconciliation of all Rwandans and building their unity” by putting justice partially into the hands of the surviving victims or victims’ families who are given the opportunity to confront and challenge the perpetrators in the open. The Rwandans also achieved a measure of success.
What has been learned from the TRC of South Africa and Rwanda’s Gacaca courts is that the act of forgiving can be an activity that victims of evil can find enormously helpful and beneficial. By publicly confronting the perpetrators, victims gain a sense of psychological satisfaction, moral vindication and physical well-being. The victims are no longer tormented by the desire for revenge and retribution. Coming to terms with the enormity of gratuitous evil makes it easier for a society to reconcile and prevent the recurrence of such evil.
Touched by evil
The Socratic thesis is that no one does evil intentionally. In other words, men and women commit evil out of ignorance which blinds them from doing right and good and deprives them of the practical wisdom to know the difference between right and wrong and good and evil. Evil doers are morally blind and unable to value other human beings while overestimating their own value and worth.
Why do those in power in Ethiopia commit the gratuitous evil of throwing into solitary confinement an innocent young woman who has been internationally honored and celebrated for her journalistic courage? Could it be the evil of misogyny that makes powerful men derive sadistic pleasure from the humiliation, degradation, dehumanization, depersonalization, demoralization, brutalization and incapacitation of strong-willed, intelligent, defiant, principled and irrepressible women who oppose them?
The gratuitous evil that is inflicted on Reeyot by those in power in Ethiopia is only the latest example. The exact same evil was inflicted on Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, who was thrown into solitary confinement for months at Meles Zenawi Prison because she stood up and opposed him. The same evil in different form was inflicted on Serkalem Fasil, another world-renowned female Ethiopian journalist who was imprisoned and forced to give birth in prison. The common denominator between these three women is that they are strong, self-confident, determined and principled and risked their lives to stand up to a brutal dictatorship. Because they refused to back down, they suffered the most inhumane treatment at the hands of powerful men.
Solitary confinement in Meles Zenawi Prison is used as a psychological weapon to drive the victims mad. By depriving victims of all human contact and by denying them access to any information about the outside world, the aim is to make them feel lost and forgotten. Solitary confinement for women is a particularly insidious from psychological torture intended to humiliate and breakdown their physical, psychological, spiritual and moral integrity. Those in solitary confinement in Meles Zenawi Prison are not allowed to visit with friends. They are denied access to books. They are not allowed to meet their legal counsel. Family visits are interrupted even before smiles are exchanged; and even hugs and kisses with family members are forbidden. Solitary confinement is a dirty psychological game played by those in power to plunge the victims into the depths of despair, sorrow and confusion and make them feel completely helpless and hopeless.
When Meles threw Birtukan into solitary confinement, he just did not want her to suffer. That would be too easy. He wanted to humiliate and dehumanize her. When she was in solitary confinement, he used a cruel metaphor describing her as a “silly chicken who did herself in”. While in solitary confinement, he mocked and took cheap shots at her telling the press that that she is “in perfect condition” but “may have gained a few kilos”. He wanted her to suffer so much that he told reporters, “there will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” He wanted Birtukan to be the living dead in solitary confinement. Providence had a different plan.
The gratuitous evil perpetrated against Serkalem Fasil is beyond human comprehension. In their letter to President Lee C. Bollinger of Columbia University opposing Meles Zenawi’s appearance to speak at that institution, Serkalem and her husband the world-renowned journalist Eskinder Nega wrote:
We are banned Ethiopian journalists who were charged with treason by the government of PM Meles Zenawi subsequent to disputed election results in 2005, incarcerated under deplorable circumstances, only to be acquitted sixteen months later; after Serkalem Fasil prematurely gave birth in prison.Severely underweight at birth because Serkalem’s physical and psychological privation in one of Africa’s worst prisons, an incubator was deemed life-saving to the new-born child by prison doctors; which was, in an act of incomprehensible vindictiveness, denied by the authorities. (The child nevertheless survived miraculously. Thanks to God.)
Do those who slammed Reeyot and Birtukan in solitary confinement and forced Serkalem to give birth in one of the filthiest prisons in the world realize what they are doing is evil? Do they care about the suffering of these young women?
Birtukan has survived and continues to thrive. Serkalem struggles to survive every day as she agonizes over the unjust imprisonment of her husband Eskinder. Reeyot, I believe, will survive in solitary confinement because she is a strong woman of faith and conviction. Solitary confinement to persons of faith and conviction is like fire to steel. It brings out the best in them. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years; but is there a man alive who is more compassionate, humane, kindhearted and forgiving than Mandela?
Sigmund Freud wrote about the kind of sadistic gratuitous evil driven by deep-seated hatred and aggression against women. Other psychologists see the root of gratuitous evil in personality “fragmentation” caused by feelings of rejection and inferiority. They say those who commit gratuitous evil seek to “defragment and hold themselves together” by degrading and feeling superior to their victims. Others have argued that beneath the gratuitous evil that perpetrators commit lies a profound emptiness filled by sadistic rage, anger, and hatred.
I believe those in power in Ethiopia commit gratuitous evil to obtain absolute obedience and respect. As Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments (and in other aspects the Zimbardo (Stanford) experiments) have shown, those in authority seek to secure obedience by establishing social models of compliance. In other words, those in power aim to teach by harsh example. If you are an independent journalist and do your job, you will be jacked up on bogus terrorism charges, held in detention, thrown in solitary confinement and tortured. If you challenge a stolen election and protest in the street, you will be shot in the streets like a rabid dog. By using extreme violence, those in power in Ethiopia seek to create not only an atmosphere of fear but also a culture of terror. The experiments have also shown that resistance can also be taught by example. Reeyot, Serkalem, Birtukan, Eskinder, Woubshet, Andualem are social models of resistance.
Hanna Arendt observed Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, at his trial in Jerusalem and found him to be “medium-sized, slender, middle-aged, with receding hair, ill-fitting teeth, and nearsighted eyes, who throughout the trial keeps craning his scraggy neck toward the bench.” He appeared to be a common man incapable of monstrous crimes. The banality of evil is the capacity of ordinary people to commit monstrous crimes. The audacity of evil is the capacity of ordinary and sub-ordinary people to commit evil not out of necessity, obedience to authority or even adherence to ideology; it is evil committed by those who are absolutely convinced that they will never be held accountable for their crimes.
Doing evil, doing good
I have many unanswered questions. Are the individuals in positions of power in Ethiopia evil by nature? Was evil thrust upon them by a demonic power? Were they victims of evil themselves and now seek to avenge the actual or perceived evil done to them and ended up being evil themselves? Did they become the very monster they slew? Are there persons who are innately incapable of doing good because they are bad seed and are born with a natural disposition to do only wrong and evil? Is gratuitous evil a psychological illness, an incurable sickness of the soul?
My questions do not end there. No one is immune from evil. Those of us who rise up in self-righteous indignation and denounce evil should look at ourselves and ask: If we were shown “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor”, would we succumb to that offer and choose the path of evil? Nietzsche said, “When you look long into an abyss, the abyss looks into you.” When we raise our lances at the windmills, do we really see monsters? Let us not forget that “He who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster.” Are we also brutes, like those we criticize, costumed in a veneer of civilization and morality untested and unseduced by the corrupting power of power? Are human beings innately good, and evil people merely mutations of good ones?
The evil that men do lives after them
The late Meles Zenawi has left a dark and bleak legacy of gratuitous evil in Ethiopia. The evil he has done shall continue to live in the prisons he built, the justice system he corrupted and the lives of young good Ethiopians he destroyed like Reeyot, Eskinder, Serkalem, Birtukan, Woubshet, Andualem and countless others. In Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar, Antony speaks: “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Ceasar.”
When I speak of Meles, I speak not of the man but of the wretched legacy he left and of the pious devotion of his disciples to that legacy. His disciples today speak of his great achievements and his great vision with Scriptural certitude and apostolic zeal. Their mantra is, “We will follow Meles’ vision without doubt or question.” One must speak out against pre-programmed robots; but raging against the machine should not be mistaken for raging against the man.
I remain optimistic that in the end good shall triumph over evil because the ultimate battle between good and evil in Ethiopia will not be waged on a battlefield with “crashing guns and rattling musketry”; nor will it be fought and won in the voting booths, the parliaments, the courts or bureaucracies. The battle for good and evil will be fought, won or lost, in the hearts and minds of ordinary Ethiopian men and women who have the courage to rise up and do extraordinary good.
Elie Wiesel, a prisoner in the Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald concentration camps, and Nobel peace laureate said “indifference is the epitome of evil” and
“swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.
I have taken the side of Reeyot Alemu, Eskinder Nega, Serkalem Fasil, Birtukan Midekssa, Woubshet Taye, Andualem Aragie…. and made them the “center of my universe”.
(to be continued….)
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:
Late last month, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid Bin Sultan fired a shot across the bow from the Arab Water Council in Cairo to let the regime in Ethiopia know that his country takes a dim view of the “Grand Renaissance Dam” under “construction” on the Blue Nile (Abbay) a few miles from Sudan’s eastern border. According to Prince Khalid, “The [Grand] Renaissance dam has its capacity of flood waters reaching more than 70 billion cubic meters of water… [I]f it collapsed Khartoum will be drowned completely and the impact will even reach the Aswan Dam…” The Prince believes the Dam is being built close to the “Sudanese border for political plotting rather than for economic gain and constitutes a threat to Egyptian and Sudanese national security…” The Prince raised the stakes by accusing the regime in Ethiopia of being hell-bent on harming Arab peoples. “There are fingers messing with water resources of Sudan and Egypt which are rooted in the mind and body of Ethiopia. They do not forsake an opportunity to harm Arabs without taking advantage of it…”
A spokesman for the regime in power in Ethiopia sought to minimize the importance of the Prince’s statement by suggesting that the Saudi Ambassador in Addis Ababa had disavowed the Prince’s statement as official policy or a position endorsed by the Saudi government. The alleged disavowal of the statement of a member of the Saudi royal family and top defense official seems curiously disingenuous after the fact. But that is understandable since “an ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” The regime spokesman also insinuated in fuzzy diplomatese that such inflammatory statements could result in war between Arab countries and African countries in the Nile basin.
The real possibility of a water war between countries of the upper Nile basin, and in particular Ethiopia, and Egypt and Sudan over the so-called Grand Renaissance Dam is the (white) elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about openly and earnestly at this stage. But in November 2010, the late dictatorMeles Zenawi in an interview with Reuters seemed to defiantly relish the possibility of war with Egypt. With taunting, dismissive and contemptuous arrogance, Meles not only insulted the Egyptian people as hopelessly backward but bragged that he will swiftly vanquish any invading Egyptian army. “I am not worried that the Egyptians will suddenly invade Ethiopia. Nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story. I don’t think the Egyptians will be any different and I think they know that…The Egyptians have yet to make up their minds as to whether they want to live in the 21st or the 19th century.” Meles also accused Egypt of trying to destabilize Ethiopia by supporting unnamed rebel groups which he promised to crush. Meles served the Egyptians an ultimatum to engage in “civil dialogue”: “If we address the issues around which the rebel groups are mobilized then we can neutralize them and therefore make it impossible for the Egyptians to fish in troubled waters because there won’t be any… Hopefully that should convince the Egyptians that, as direct conflict will not work, and as the indirect approach is not as effective as it used to be, the only sane option will be civil dialogue.”
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit denied Meles’ allegations and expressed amusement and amazement over Meles’ braggadocio. “I’m amazed … by the language that was used. We are not seeking war and there will not be war… The charges that Egypt… is exploiting rebel groups against the ruling regime in Ethiopia are completely devoid of truth.” Gheit may have been diplomatically deescalating the war of words, but his statement belies statements by a long line of top Egyptian leaders over the decades. President Anwar Sadat in 1978 declared, “We depend upon the Nile100 per cent in our life, so if anyone, at any moment, thinks of depriving us of our life we shall never hesitate to go to war.” Boutros Boutros Gahali, when he was the Egyptian Foreign State Minister (later U.N. Secretary General), confirmed the same sentiment when he asserted “the next war in our region will be over the water of the Nile, not politics.”
“If it comes to a crisis, we will send a jet to bomb the dam and come back in one day, simple as that.”
What will Egypt will do if Meles’ “Grand Renaissance Dam” is in fact built? “Simple.” They will use dam busters to smash and trash it.
An email from the American private security organization Stratfor released by Wikileaks citing its source as “high-level Egyptian security/intel in regular direct contact with Mubarak and Suleiman”, “If it comes to a crisis, we will send a jet to bomb the dam and come back in one day, simple as that. Or we can send our special forces in to block/sabotage the dam. But we aren’t going for the military option now. This is just contingency planning. Look back to an operation Egypt did in the mid-late 1970s, I think 1976, when Ethiopia was trying to build a large dam. We blew up the equipment while it was traveling by sea to Ethiopia. A useful case study…”
The same source further indicated that Egypt is “discussing military cooperation with Sudan” and has “a strategic pact with the Sudanese since in any crisis over the Nile, Sudan gets hit first then us.” That military cooperation includes stationing Egyptian “commandos in the Sudan for ‘worst case’ scenario on the Nile issue. Sudanese president Umar al-Bashir has agreed to allow the Egyptians to build a small airbase in Kusti to accommodate Egyptian commandos who might be sent to Ethiopia to destroy water facilities on the Blue Nile…The military option is not one that the Egyptians favor. It will be their option if everything else fails.” So far Egypt has successfully lobbied the multilateral development and other investment banks and donors to deny or cut funding for the dam and to apply political and diplomatic pressure on Ethiopia and the other upstream Nile countries. The World Bank has publicly stated it will not to fund any new projects on the Nile without Egypt’s approval.
The Grand Renaissance Dam or the grand dam (de)illusion?
All African dictators like to build big projects because it is part of the kleptocratic African “Big Man” syndrome. By undertaking “white elephant” projects (wasteful vanity projects), African dictators seek to attain greatness and amass great fortunes in life and immortality in death. Kwame Nkrumah built the Akosombo Dam on the Volta River, at the time dubbed the “largest single investment in the economic development plans of Ghana”. Mobutu sought to outdo Nkrumah by building the largest dam in Africa on the Inga Dams in western Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire) on the largest waterfalls in the world (Inga Falls). In the Ivory Coast, Félix Houphouët-Boigny built the largest church in the world, The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, at a cost of USD$300 million. It stands empty today. Self-appointed Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic built a 500-room Hotel Intercontinental at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars while millions of his people starved. Moamar Gadhafi launched the Great Man-Made River in Libya, dubbed the world’s largest irrigation project, and proclaimed it the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Gamal Abdel Nasser built the Aswan High Dam which could be affected significantly if upstream Nile countries build new dams. Ugandan dictator Yuweri Museveni built the Bujagali dam which was completed in 2012. The backflow from that dam has submerged a huge area of cultivable and settled land forcing migration and resettlement of large numbers of people.
Meles Zenawi hoped to build the “Grand Renaissance Dam” as the mother of all dams on the African continent to outdo Nkrumah, Mobutu and Gadhafi. Like all of the African white elephants, this Dam is a vanity make-believe project partly intended to glorify Meles and magnify his international prestige while diverting attention from the endemic corruption that has consumed his regime as recently documented in a 448-page World Bank report. Meles sought to cover his bloody hands and clothe his naked dictatorships with megaprojects and veneers of progress and development. The “Grand Renaissance Dam” is the temporary name for the “Grand Meles Memorial Dam”. Meles wanted to be immortalized in that largest cement monument in the history of the African continent. To be sure, he had a “dry run” on immortality when he commissioned the construction of Gilgel Gibe III Dam on the Omo River in southern Ethiopia which has been dubbed the “largest hydroelectric plant in Africa with a power output of about 1870 Megawatt.”
The Dam and the damned
There is little doubt that IF the “Grand Renaissance Dam” is completed, it will have a significant long term impact on water supply and availability to the Sudan and Egypt. The general view among the experts is that if the dam is constructed as specified by the regime in Ethiopia, it could result in significant reduction in cultivable agricultural lands and water shortages throughout Egypt.According to Mohamed Nasr El Din Allam, the former Egyptian minster of water and irrigation,if the dam is built “Millions of people would go hungry. There would be water shortages everywhere. It’s huge.”
The regime in Ethiopia claims the depth of the Dam will be 150 meters and the water reservoir behind the Dam could be used to irrigate more than 500,000 hectares of new agricultural lands. Experts suggest that the water reservoir behind the dam could hold as much as 62bn cubic meters of water; and depending upon seasonal rainfall and the rate at which the reservoir is filled, there could be significant reductions in the flow of water to Egypt and Sudan. The environmental impact of the Dam in Ethiopia will be catastrophic. Experts believe such a dam if built will “flood 1,680 square kilometers of forest in northwest Ethiopia, near the Sudan border, and create a reservoir that is nearly twice as large as Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest natural lake….” The so-called tripartite committee of international experts is expected to issue its report on the potential environmental impacts of the Dam in May 2013.
The legal dimensions of the Nile water dispute
The are many knotty legal issues surrounding the treaties and agreements concluded between Britain as a colonial power and the countries in the Nile basin (Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Sudan, and Egypt) on the use of Nile water. Beginning in 1891, Britain concluded at least seven agreements on the use and control of the Nile. In the major treaties, the British included language which effectively prevented Ethiopia and other upstream countries from “construct[ing] any irrigation or other works which might sensibly modify its flow into the Nile” or its “tributaries.” For instance, the May 15, 1902 Treaty regarding the Frontiers between the Anglo- Egyptian Sudan, Ethiopia and British Eritrea, restrained “His Majesty the Emperor Menelik II, King of kings of Ethiopia” from “construct[ing] or allow[ing] to be constructed, any works across the Blue Nile, Lake Tsana or the Sobat,… except in agreement with his Britannic Majesty’s Government and the Government of the Sudan”.
The current legal and political controversy over the Nile water revolves around the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement (which guarantees disproportionately high volumes of Nile water (85 percent) to Egypt and gave Egypt the right to monitor the Nile flow in the upstream countries and veto powers on all Nile projects upstream) and the 1959 agreement between Britain and Egypt in regards to the use of waters of the River Nile for irrigation purposes which recognized “Egypt’s natural and historic rights in the waters of the Nile and its requirements of agricultural extension…”
A number of the upper-riparian states including Ethiopia, Tanzania and Burundi have rejected the validity of the 1929 Treaty and believe that they have the right to do whatever they choose with the water that flows through their boundaries (“Harmon Doctrine”). In 1964, the Government of Tanganyika openly disavowed the 1929 agreement (“Nyerere Doctrine” which asserts that a newly independent state has the right to “opt in” or selectively succeed to colonial treaties): “The Government of Tanganyika has come to the conclusion that the provisions of the 1929 Agreement purporting to apply to the countries ‘under British Administration’ are not binding on Tanganyika.” On similar grounds, Uganda and Kenya subsequently rejected that agreement. Even Sudan has challenged the allocation ratio of the water it got under that agreement.
Ethiopia’s legal position on the various colonial treaties is explored in full in Gebre Tasadik Degefu’s authoritative work, The Nile: Historical, Legal and Developmental Perspectives (2003). Gebre Tasadik challenges the validity of the treaties on the grounds that “while Ethiopia’s natural rights in a certain share of the waters in its own territory are undeniable…, no treaty has ever mentioned them. This fact would be sufficient for invalidating the binding force of those agreements, which have no counterpart in favor of Ethiopia.” He also points out significant technical issues in the treaties. He suggests that the “English version of the 1902 agreement obliged Ethiopia to seek prior accord with the united kingdom before initiating any works that might affect the discharge of the Blue Nile… The Amharic version does not oblige Ethiopia to request permission from the British Government…”
Others have argued that Ethiopia is not bound by the 1902 treaty with Britain because the “treaty never came into force as Britain did not ratify it and the Ethiopian government had rejected it in the 1950s”. Even if that treaty were valid, Britain is said to have violated its terms by “supporting and recognizing the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in violation of Article 60 of the 1902 agreement”. Technical interpretation of the relevant clauses of the 1902 treaty are also said to favor Ethiopia since that treaty “does not prohibit use of the Nile” but obliges Ethiopia “not to arrest of the Nile, which is interpreted to mean total blockage.”
The 1959 Nile Waters Agreement between Egypt and Sudan sought to give the two countries full control and utilization of Nile water by modifying certain aspects of the 1929 agreement. But that agreement completely ignored the interests of any of the upstream countries, particularly Ethiopia.
Egypt has refused to renegotiate the 84-year-old treaty and insist on the perpetual binding authority of the colonial era treaties as legal formalizations of Egypt’s historical and natural rights over the Nile water. They also insist that the international law of state succession makes the treaties made by colonial Britain binding on successor post-independence African states.
The general consensus among informed commentators is that the Nile treaties are not binding in perpetuity. They point to the inequitable elements of the various agreements on upper riparian states and the radical change in the scope of obligations under the agreements over the past eight decades to challenge the validity of the colonial era treaties.
The paramount question is not whether the Nile water dispute can be resolved in an international court of law or other tribunal but what political accommodations can be made by the basin states to equitably benefit their nations and strengthen their bonds of friendship. Equitable sharing of Nile water is necessary not only for regional stability and amity but also to meet the growing energy and food production needs of the populations of all Nile basin countries in the coming decades. There is no shortage of predictions of doom and gloom over the looming water scarcity worldwide. Over a decade ago, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan warned, “Fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future.” Insisting on the eternal validity and binding nature of the Nile water treaties is untenable and unreasonable.
The Nile Basin Initiative was established in 1999 to develop a scheme for the equitable distribution of water among the Nile basin countries. Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya have signed the Agreement on the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework (Entebbe Agreement). This agreement allows construction of projects that do not “significantly” affect the Nile water flow. Egypt has rejected the Agreement because it necessitates renegotiation of its share of the Nile water and surrender of its veto power guaranteed under the old agreements.
Water, water everywhere… and Meles’ “damplomacy” of brinksmanship
Whether there will be an actual “Grand Renaissance Dam” is the $5bn dollar question of the century. Because Egypt has been successful in pressuring multilateral development and investment banks not to fund the project, the regime in Ethiopia has defiantly forged ahead to fund the project itself. But is self-funding of the mother of all African dams a realistic possibility?
The regime has kept much of the details of the Dam behind smoke and mirrors. The regime claims that the dam is 14 percent complete (whatever that means) and will reach 26 percent completion by the end of 2013. When it comes online in 2015 as scheduled, the regime claims the dam will have the power generating capacity of nearly 6,000MW, much of it to be exported to the Sudan, Egypt and the Arabian peninsula.
But the whole “Grand Renaissance Dam” project is being staged in the theatre of the absurd. Is it possible to raise USD$5bn by 2015 from the people of the second poorest country in the world, the vast majority of whom live on less than USD$1? The dam is said to cost as much as the country’s total annual budget of USD$5bn. Is the largest recipient of international aid in Africa capable of raising multiple billions of dollars from its citizens for the Dam? Can a country which “lost US$11.7 billion to illicit financial outflows between 2000 and 2009” be able to undertake construction of a USD$5bn dam (unadjusted for cost overruns) on its own? According to the World Bank, Ethiopia’s “power sector alone would require $3.3 billion per year to develop” in the next decade. Can the regime in Ethiopia be able to build the largest dam in Africa and other energy projectsresorting to such “desperate measures” as “musical concerts, a lottery and an SMS campaign to raise funds”? Can a country which the IMF describes as having “foreign reserves [that] have declined to under two months of import coverage” as of June 2012 really be able to build the largest dam in African history? Can a country whose external debt in 2012 exceeded USD$12bn be able to build a $5bn dollar project?
The regime has forged ahead to build the “Grand Renaissance Dam” by “selling bonds” domestically and in the Ethiopian Diaspora. The regime claims to have collected USD$500 million from bond sales and “contributions” of ordinary citizens. Business and institutions have been forced to buy bonds. The regime’s Diaspora bond sales effort has been a total failure. Most Ethiopians in the Diaspora have been unwilling to bet on imaginary and speculative future earnings from operations of the dam because of the regime’s morbid secrecy and lack of transparency. They have little confidence in the regime’s capacity to guarantee their bond investments. For instance, current underpricing in power tariffs which have ranged between “$0.04-0.08 per kilowatt-hour are low by regional standards and recover only 46 percent of the costs of the utility.” That does not bode well for long term bond holders.
The regime in Ethiopia also has serious problems of cost overruns and poor project management in dam construction. For instance, the Tekeze hydroelectric dam on the Tekeze River, a Nile tributary, in northern Ethiopia was initially estimated to cost USD$224 million, but when it was completed seven years later in 2008, its cost skyrocketed to USD$360 million. How much the “Grand Renaissance Dam” will eventually cost, if built, is anybody’s guess. Regime ineptitude and mismanagement of Gilgel Gibe II on the Omo River in February 2010 resulted in a “tunnel collapse [which] closed the largest hydropower plant operating in Ethiopia, only 10 days after its inauguration.”
To add insult to injury, the Meles regime has the gall to say that it intends to sell the power from the “Grand Renaissance Dam” to the Sudan, Egypt and the Arabian peninsula once construction is complete. That is not only nonsensical but downright insane! Why would Egypt or the Sudan buy power from a dam that damns them by effectively reducing their water supply for agriculture and their own production of power?
Meles and his disciples have always known that they do not have the financial capacity to complete the Dam. They also know that actually completing the constructing the dam will be dangerous for their own survival as a regime should regional war break out. But Meles has always been a peerless grandmaster of intrigue, machination, duplicity, one-upmanship and diplomatic gamesmanship. With this Dam, he was merely pushing the envelope to the outer limits. His real aim was not the construction of dam but to use the specter of the construction of a gargantuan dam on the Nile to fabricate fear of an imminent regional water war. His price for continued regional stability, avoidance of conflict and maintenance of the status quo would be billions in loans, aid and other concessions from the international community and downstream countries.
Meles’ diplomatic strategy shrouded a clever deterrent military strategy: If Egypt goes for broke and attacks the “Grand Renaissance Dam”, Ethiopia could retaliate by attacking the Aswan dam. Meles likely believed the threat of mutual assured destruction will prevent an actual war while maintaining extremely high levels of regional tensions. By playing a game of chicken with Egypt and the Sudan, Meles hoped to strong-arm donor and development banks and wealthy countries in the region into giving him financial, political and diplomatic support. There is no question Meles would have driven on a collision course with Egypt only to swerve at the last second to avoid a fatal crash had he been in power today. It is unlikely that Meles’ disciples have the intellectual candlepower (“megawattage”) or the sheer cunning and artfulness of their master to play a game of chicken with Egypt to skillfully extract concessions.
For love of white elephants and war of the damned
Water is a source of life. War is a source of death. The water of the Nile has given life to Ethiopians, Egyptians and the people of the Nile basin countries since time immemorial. If Meles prepared for war by building his dam, his disciples shall surely inherit war. But Meles should have reflected on the words of Ethiopia’s poet laureate Tsegaye Gebremedhin before embarking on his “Grand Renaissance Dam” project: “O Nile, you are the music that restores the rhythm of existence…/ You are the irrigator that cultivate peace…/ …From my Ethiopia sacred mountains of the sun…”
Meles’ legacy could indeed be a water war of death and destruction on the Nile, but he will never have a cement monument built on the Nile to celebrate his life. Meles’ disciples would be wise to remember an old prophesy as they march headlong to build their doomsday dam on the Nile: “God gave Noah the Rainbow Sign: No more water. The fire next time!”
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:
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: