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Ethiopia Political Prisoners

Medrek and the Ethiopian election

By Yilma Bekele

I am sure most of you have heard or read that the leaders of Medrek are on a tour of North America. They have held town hall meetings in Seattle, San Jose, Las Vegas, Washington DC and Atlanta and are coming to Los Angles this coming weekend. The delegation consists of Ato Seye Abreha, Ato Gebru Asrat, Dr. Negasso Gidada and Ato (engineer) Gezachew Shiferaw. All four gentlemen were ex members of TPLF, OPDO or AEUP.

For those not familiar with the alphabet soup, TPLF stands for Tigrai Peoples Liberation Front and OPDO is Oromo Peoples Democratic Union. OPDO is the brainchild of TPLF. That is neither paranoia nor a figment of my imagination. Other TPLF subsidiaries include ANDM (Amhara National Democratic Movement) SEPDM (Southern Ethiopia Peoples’ Democratic Movement) and other minor parties. They call them Teletafi (ተለጣፊ) They are organized as EPDRF (Ethiopian peoples’ Democratic Revolutionary Front).

The current Ethiopian Parliament is composed of 526 members and EPDRF controls 326 seats. That is actually not a true statement. TPLF Party control extends to all the so-called political parties organized as an independent for ‘Ferenjis’ consumption. Thus in reality the Parliament is TPLF’ Party’s’ private playing field. As the Chilean dictator Pinochet said ‘”Not a leaf moves in Chile if I don’t know about it”, nothing in Ethiopian Parliament happens without the permission of the one party state.

If you will forgive me I will start our current story with the 2005 general election as a background. To a majority of Ethiopians May 2005 is day one in the hope of our people for democracy and a better future. May 2005 left the Meles regime physically naked mentally dead and spiritually void of values. The total rejection of ethnic politics and cadre rule unnerved the regime. Meles and company panicked. They communicated with the Ethiopian people with snipers on every roof and concentration camps in every Kilil. The aftermath of 2005 election ushered the quest for a new understanding of the struggle for liberation under a totalitarian state.

Kinijit leaders were forced to forge a new path based on the experience of the 2005 debacle. Kinijit the dragon slayer was an amalgamation of different organization united for the purpose of elections. The two years in Kaliti jail dealt a heavy blow on the young party. The TPLF machine used every evil means at its disposal to create mistrust, mis-information resulting in disarray. Kaliti did a favor to the movement. It differentiated the men from the boys. Ledetu was officially recognized as a subsidiary. Hailu was exposed as spoiler. Merera and Petros became inconsequential. Berhanu reloaded and Bertukan decided to re-calibrate.

Our story revolves around Bertukan Mideksa. Upon her return to Ethiopia from her North American tour, she embarked on the formation of a new political party modeled after Kinijit. If you remember Ato Meles’s court have already handed Kinijit to some obscure individual named Ayele Chamiso. Thus Weizero Bertukan labored tirelessly to form Andenet Party. Despite the many hurdles thrown on her path she was able to dot the I’s and cross the t’s and form Andenet. It was a proud accomplishment that will be told and retold for a long time. Birtukan’s Andenet is a multi national party based on equality and resting on a strong bedrock of Democracy as its foundation.

Weizero Bertukan criss crossed the country forming headquarters in every region and managed to win the trust and respect of the Ethiopian People. Her rising star was eclipsing the faint candlelight of the TPLF cadres. That did not go well with TPLF. Chairman Bertukan was re-hauled back to Kaliti on some funky charge to be kept away until the 2010 election is over.

Her imprisonment created a void in the new party. It was not long before factions were formed and an all out war was declared. The young party was left without a rudder to steer the party in the TPLF shark infested ocean. The battle tested TPLF leaders exploited the weakness of the rookie leaders to the maximum. TPLF was not interested in killing the Party. It just wanted to deliver a crippling blow. It was not long before things degenerated to the extent that Andenet was forced to appeal to the TPLF regime for protection from its own members. Shame is an understatement. It was under these strange circumstances that Andenet joined what is known as Medrek. What exactly is Medrek?

Medrek is a coalition of different parties that include UEDF (United Ethiopian Democratic Forces led by Dr. Beyene Petros and Dr. Merera Gudina) OFDM (Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement led by Ato Bulcha Demeksa) A.R.E.N.A. Tigrai led by Ato Gebru Asrat, and Andenet led by Ato Gezachew Shiferaw. Please note Andenet is the only multi national party in the group. Andenet under the leadership of Chairman Bertukan is the only party with representation in all parts of the country and support organizations in the Diaspora.

The two independent individuals Ato Seye Abraha and Dr. Negasso Gidada joined the weak and wounded Andenet at this critical time. The void felt in the party due to the expulsion of some founding members created a fertile ground for the two ex-officials to assume positions of leadership upon arrival.

Thus, this is the Medrek that is currently touring North America. Some of my esteemed friends have used such expressions as ‘the rebirth of Ethiopia’ and ‘a new political culture in Ethiopia’ to explain the tour. Is this really a Hallelujah or Alhamdulillah moment? It is possible that both declarations are heavy on the cheerleading side but lacking in the friendly but critical assessment option.

The American expression ‘friends don’t allow friends drive drunk’ comes to mind, especially when one is a passenger in the vehicle. We are all passengers in this ship called Ethiopia. The action of the pilot affects the welfare of the passengers. The current tour leaves many questions unanswered and the timing is a puzzle to all well-wishers. The question of raising money is out of the question. The Diaspora is fighting a life and death battle to retain jobs, pay mortgages and raise expensive children. The Diaspora does not vote. Is it possible the expenditure of thousands of hard earned dollars in transporting, lodging and feeding the delegation is not a smart investment?

What exactly is Medrek trying to accomplish in the current election? The short answer is of course win. The next question will be is that possible? The simple answer is a resounding no. That leads us back to the first question, why participate in an impossible, rigged game where the outcome is pre determined? That the TPLF started the preparations for this election way back in May of 2005 is obvious to all. Meles and company vowed not to be caught with their pants down again. Thus the vibrant independent media was destroyed, capable leaders were killed, exiled or jailed, the Constitution was amended to include curbs on NGO activities, a law defining any opposition as terrorism and a new code of conduct was put in place.

In Election Ethiopian style the opposition cannot hold unauthorized meeting, cannot hold a rally, and cannot raise money from outside sources including the Diaspora. It is enough for you to say what a cockamamie idea? Wait there is more; according to the PM candidates cannot criticize the regime under threat of being charged with incitement or sedation. In emerging democratic Ethiopia the opposition cannot campaign except in a few large cities like Addis Abeba and Bahir Dar. Being a candidate or supporter of the opposition is a hazardous duty in most of the Kilils. The only exception seems to be Tigrai where the ex TPLF members can campaign in a limited areas.

Medrek has sacrificed plenty of candidates in this election. Human right activists, foreign correspondents such as VOA, Bloomberg and many others, have recorded party members being prosecuted, hounded in their villages, denied government controlled necessities and even murdered. Ethiopian politics is not for the fain hearted.

The 2005 election was proof that the minority-based regime is a paper tiger. It was resoundingly defeated where the ballot boxes were opened under the watchful eyes of the people and international observers. Thus the lesson learnt was it is not about the campaign but it is all about the counting of the ballots. What we see today is that the regime still controls the election board, recruited trained and is ready to deploy its own cadre observers and have drawn up a strict code of conduct for the Ferenji observers. It is like meet the new situation same as the old situation.

The simple question to Medrek is why do you exactly expect a different outcome when nothing has changed? The truth of the matter is actually things have change in a negative way as far as the opposition is concerned. With its star leader behind bars and its candidates and supporters terrorized by government goons how is it possible to contemplate winning when even trying has become a crime?

Why is Medrek giving legitimacy to a dictatorial regime by its involvement in a rigged game? Some will say half a loaf is better than no loaf, is that Medrek’s philosophy too? Is the idea to win a hundred or so seats in Parliament? Is that considered good whereas the regime with its majority control will continue the abuse of the few opposition members seated for show?

These are the questions Medrek have not addressed both at home and abroad. It was only last October that Ato Gezachew declared ‘The release of Birtukan Mideksa and all Political Prisoners is the main agenda for joining the 2010 Election’. What ever happened to that bravado? How come the political prisoner population of Kaliti and the Kilils has gone up let alone secure the release of our leader?

The lessons of 2005 should not be forgotten. Repeating the same mistake is definitely not a winning strategy. The Ethiopian people have paid a heavy price for an inferior and ugly outcome. We worry that what was done to us five years ago is in the process of being repeated. We ask Medrek to consider the ramifications of kowtowing to a totalitarian state that is hell bent in winning at all cost. We urge Medrek to listen to its constituents that wish it well and include their concerns in its deliberations. We have a very sick regime that considers politics as a game where winning is the only acceptable outcome. They have shown that they will kill to secure their ill-gotten power and wealth.

We feel the pain of the opposition candidates that have sacrificed trying to get involved in the affairs of their nation. We are horrified to witness the death of Ato Aregawi Gebre Yohanes, Ato Beyanza Deba and many other nameless Ethiopians whose crime was wanting to be free. We hope Medrek will take its role seriously and observe the Hippocratic oath like doctors that states ‘do no harm’. Our hope is that they contemplate if their actions bring good or harm on our people.

It is a good possibility the regime will orchestrate an election worthy of an African standard. It is also true that the US and the Europeans will declare ‘a few irregularities’ but ‘an essential first step’. Just like what happened five years ago Ato Meles and company will continue the rape and pillage of our country and sell what is left of it to the highest bidder. We hope Medrek will not be one of those parties that will sit silently in the kangaroo parliament and preach the gospel of ‘working together’ and such crap while dining with killers, psychos and future guests of the International Criminal Court.

Ethiopia: The Truth, the Whole Truth and…

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

“Lies, lies and implausible lies,” blasted Meles Zenawi, the enfant terrible of Ethiopia, in describing the March 11, 2010 U.S. State Department’s “Reports on Human Rights Practices” on Ethiopia. Apparently, the U.S. State Department is not worth a damn when it comes to lying: “The least one could expect from this report, even if there are lies is that they would be plausible ones,” snarled Zenawi. “But that is not the case. It is very easy to ridicule it [report], because it is so full of loopholes (sic). They could very easily have closed the loopholes and still continued to lie.” His consigliere, Bereket Simon chimed in, “It is the same old junk. It’s a report that intends to punish the image (sic) of Ethiopia and try if possible to derail the peaceful and democratic election process.”

So here is a representative sample of the implausible, ridiculous and junk lies of the U.S. State Department and the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth of  Zenawi’s dictatorship:

Implausible, Ridiculous and Junk Lie #1:

There were numerous credible reports of unlawful detention of opposition candidates and their supporters. Opposition UDJ party president Birtukan Mideksa, whose pardon was revoked and life sentence reinstated in December 2008, remained in prison throughout the year. She was held in solitary confinement until June, despite a court ruling that indicated it was a violation of her constitutional rights. She was also denied access to visitors except for a few close family members, despite a court order granting visitor access without restrictions. There were credible reports that Birtukan’s mental health deteriorated significantly during the year.

The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth #1:

A humongous L I E! Birtukan is actually at the “Akaki Hilton Spa and Resort” doing R&R (rest and relaxation). Her health situation is in perfect condition. She may have gained a few kilos, but other than that, and that may be for lack of exercise, she is in perfect health. All the lies about Birtukan’s bad health situation are made up by the “usual suspects” who shall remain nameless. She is not denied access to visitors, but she is shy and prefers to visit only with her mother and daughter. In short, she is having the time of her life. Or as the French say, “C’est la Vie!”

Implausible, Ridiculous and Junk Lie #2:

The constitution and law provide citizens the right to change their government peacefully. In local and by-elections held in 2008, virtually all of the more than three million seats open at the federal and local levels were taken unopposed by the ruling EPRDF and allied parties. Of the 3.6 million local and by-election seats open to be contested, opposition parties won three.

The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth #2:

The State Department should know better than telling this ridiculous lie. The opposition won only 3 seats because “there is no alternative in the opposition.” Everybody knows that including “most Western governments [who] want Meles to continue because there is no alternative in the opposition. As long as the elections are semi-democratic, they’ll probably stay quiet, keep giving aid, hope for liberalisation of the economy and leave full democracy for later.” Here is a hint: The opposition will completely lose again in next month’s election regardless of how many candidates they run because they don’t understand a simple fact about elections: “The people who cast the votes do not decide an election; the people who count the votes do.”

Implausible, Ridiculous and Junk Lie #3:

Although the constitution and law prohibit the use of torture and mistreatment, there were numerous credible reports that security officials tortured, beat, and mistreated detainees. Opposition political party leaders reported frequent and systematic abuse and intimidation of their supporters by police and regional militias… Abuses reportedly include being hung by the wrists for several hours, bound by chains and beaten, held in solitary confinement for several days to weeks or months, subjected to mental torture such as harassment and humiliation…

The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth #3:

Lies! Torture is a matter of semantics. The alleged torture-victims in the State Department report have an unusually low threshold for psychological and physical pain and discomfort. They also exaggerate stuff. The truth is that the so-called torture-victims are all wusses and wimps. Intimidation is a state of mind as is solitary confinement. Some people just scare easy. Individuals in solitary confinement are not really “solitary” because they can talk to themselves all day and all night. It is a bold-faced lie for the State Department to say, “the [“Ethiopian”] constitution and law prohibit the use of torture and mistreatment.”

Implausible, Ridiculous and Junk Lie #4:

The country has three federal and 117 regional prisons. There are several unofficial detention centers operating throughout the country. Prison and pretrial detention center conditions remained harsh and in some cases life threatening. Severe overcrowding was common, especially in sleeping quarters. Juveniles were often incarcerated with adults, sometimes with adults who were awaiting execution. Men and women prisoners were generally, but not always, separated… The government continued to prevent International Committee of the Red Cross representatives from visiting police stations and federal prisons throughout the country including those where opposition, civil society, and media leaders were held.

The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth #4:

Lies, dirty lies! The so-called prisons are actually popular spas and resorts, as Birtukan can testify. The reason they are “severely overcrowded” is because of high popular demand. It’s “la dolce vita” (the sweet life) as they say in Italian in those spas, or “c’est la vie” as they say in French. As to juveniles, women and condemned prisoners being held together, what difference does that make? A criminal is a criminal is a criminal. The Red Cross? They are too nosy, always asking questions. Shouldn’t they be helping out flood, earthquake and disaster victims somewhere else instead of sniffing around spas and resorts?

Implausible, Ridiculous and Junk Lie #5:

Although the constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, the government frequently did not observe these provisions in practice… The federal police acknowledged that many of its members as well as regional police lacked professionalism. In July the Addis Ababa Police Commission fired 444 staff members, including high-ranking officials, for involvement in serious crimes including armed robbery, rape, and theft. There were no prosecutions of those dismissed.

The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth #5:

Another pack of lies! The State Department is putting words and numbers in the mouths of the Police Commission. The allegedly “fired” police officials are still in their jobs continuing to do armed robbery, rape, and theft.

Implausible, Ridiculous and Junk Lie #5:

Authorities regularly detained persons without warrants and denied access to counsel and family members, particularly in outlying regions. Although the law requires detainees to be brought to court and charged within 48 hours, this generally was not respected in practice… While in pretrial detention, authorities allowed such detainees little or no contact with legal counsel. Police continued to enter private residences and arrest individuals without warrants.

The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth #6:

First of all, the whole due process thing is overrated. Lawyers, warrants, procedure and all that legal mumbo jambo are a big waste of time. The applicable principle is that one is presumed guilty until proven innocent. So, why do guilty people need lawyers? It does not make sense. Why should warrants be required to arrest guilty people? Anyway, even if these people did not commit a crime, they definitely thought about committing one.  They are guilty, guilty, guilty! The State Department is obviously pushing some new-fangled Western idea that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. What a bunch of liars!

Implausible, Ridiculous and Junk Lie #7:

In May the director general of the Federal Police reported that 65 percent of the 45,000 criminal cases filed at the federal first instance court in 2008 were eventually dropped due to lack of evidence or witnesses…. There was a large backlog of juvenile cases, and accused children often remained in detention with adults until officials heard their cases.

The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth #7:

As the old saying goes, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. The State Department is fabricating false statistics to show that the regime is going soft on criminals. That is a lie! It is a well-known fact that a criminal case is filed only after a person has been convicted of committing a crime. To claim that nearly 30,000 cases were dropped for lack of evidence is to unfairly suggest that the vast majority of those charged were not guilty. How could that be so? The director general of the Federal Police never reported such statistics. It is all a figment of the State Department’s warped imagination.

Implausible, Ridiculous and Junk Lie #8:

Political party leaders reported incidents of telephone tapping and other electronic eavesdropping. In May a former employee of ETC, the state-run monopoly telecom and Internet provider, reported from self-imposed exile that the government had ordered ETC employees to unlawfully record citizens’ private telephone conversations… The government used a widespread system of paid informants to report on the activities of particular individuals. Kebele officials have been reported to go from house to house demanding that residents attend ruling coalition meetings. Those persons who do not attend party meetings reportedly have difficulty obtaining basic public services from their kebeles.

The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth #8:

Ding, dong! All lies told by paranoid opposition leaders who are afraid of their own shadows. By using the phrases “widespread system of paid informants”, “forced attendance of party meetings”, etc., the State Department unfairly suggests that the country has become a police state. Not true! If they had done their “investigations” right and interviewed the “informants”, they would have easily found out that the “informants” are actually researchers doing field studies in social anthropology using “participant observation” techniques. Kebele officials never force people to attend party meetings. The people just love to party and show up uninvited.

Implausible, Ridiculous and Junk Lie #9:

During the year the government loosened restrictions on the delivery of food aid from donor organizations into the five zones of the Somali region in which military activity was the most intense. Approximately 83 percent of food aid reached beneficiaries, a significant improvement from the previous year.

The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth #9:

Liars! The State Department in its usual manner is cooking up numbers. No food aid reached beneficiaries in the five zones of the Somali region.

Implausible, Ridiculous and Junk Lie #10:

The government restricted academic freedom during the year. Authorities did not permit teachers at any level to deviate from official lesson plans and actively discouraged political activity and association of any kind on university campuses. Frequent reports continued of uniformed and plainclothes police officers on and around university and high school campuses. College students were reportedly pressured to pledge allegiance to the EPRDF to secure enrollment in universities or postgraduation government jobs. Non-EPRDF members were also reportedly denied teachers’ benefits, transferred to undesirable posts, and restricted in promotions.

The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth #10:

Ha! Who would believe in their right minds anything those fog-headed college students and their absentminded  professors say? There is a good reason why they are not allowed to engage in politics or deviate from the official lesson plan. We know from personal experience decades ago that you if give students and their professors an inch, they will take a mile. If you give them “academic freedom”, they will soon be yapping in the streets for speech freedom, press freedom, associational freedom, assembly freedom and all sorts of other freedoms. That is just too much freedom for those crazy students and their air-headed professors to handle.

It is just too bad the U.S. State Department can’t handle the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!

Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on, and other sites.

Western Diplomatic Omerta in Ethiopia

Alemayehu G. Mariam

Last week, in a piece reporting on the eerie silence of Western diplomats in Addis Abeba on Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history and Ethiopia’s # 1 political prisoner, Xan Rice, a reporter for the Guardian wrote:

That foreign embassies, including Britain’s, which have been refused permission to visit Mideksa, have barely made a public complaint about the case appears to back opposition complaints that when it comes to Ethiopia, donors favour stability over democratic reforms or human rights… ‘The [Ethiopian] government says the more we make noise the more difficult it will be to get her [Mideksa] out,’ said one Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. ‘Are we going to risk our entire aid budget for one person? No.’”

Rice questioned in the caption to his piece whether Birtukan is “Ethiopia’s jailed victim of Western realpolitik.”

What kind of double doubletalk is this phrase, “speaking on condition of anonymity?” Is the climate of fear and loathing so oppressive and pervasive in Ethiopia that even emissaries with full diplomatic immunity are scared pantless to mention Birtukan’s name in public? Are these anonymous diplomats so afraid of calling a spade a spade that they have themselves become virtual political prisoners in their own embassies? Has a segment of the Western diplomatic community in Addis turned into pusillanimous pussyfooters and gossipy nabobs of cowardice?

One speaks “on condition of anonymity” when the situation justifies it. For instance, police sometimes “speak on condition of anonymity” to provide information of value to the community as part of their criminal investigations. During policy negotiations or in formal decision-making settings, stakeholders may engage in anonymous disclosures to obtain strategic advantage. Whistleblowers often report corruption, criminal wrongdoing, fraud, waste or abuse in government anonymously to avoid retribution. Could it be that these anonymous informants are actually diplomats-cum-whistleblowers? One really wonders about the palpable diplomatic rationale for speaking about Birtukan behind a veil of diplomatic anonymity. The fact of her notorious imprisonment is well known to the world. Many Western governments have publicly condemned her imprisonment and called for her immediate release. Just last week, the new U.S. ambassador-designate to Ethiopia, Donald Booth, told Senator Russ Feingold, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Africa, that he will aggressively take up the case of Birtukan and other political prisoners with the dictators in Ethiopia. Yet some of the resident Western diplomats in Addis choose to cloak themselves in anonymity while pontificating about “realpolitik.”

It seems these gossipy diplomats have adopted a version of “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” game plan. Everybody knows many nasty and raunchy things happen in Vegas, but no one will care enough to tell about them. Gross abuses of human rights are daily occurrences in Ethiopia and the jails are full of political prisoners, but no diplomat dares speak openly about them or finger the criminals and abusers. Rather, the Western diplomatic community has ensconced itself around this obscene question: “Are we going to risk our entire aid budget for a bunch of nameless, faceless, hopeless, moneyless and powerless nobodies? Hell, No!”

The real reason for invoking anonymity, while enjoying full immunity, is diplomatic omerta — a conspiracy and code of silence, not unlike that time-honored tradition of the criminal societies in southern Italy where no one will tell the truth in public or finger the criminals because they are afraid of the Capo di Tutti Capi (boss of all bosses). The conspiracy of silence has transformed these anonymous diplomats into the proverbial wise monkeys who “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil”. This odious culture of diplomatic omerta in Addis must end!

The “realpolitik” (pragmatic) justification of the diplomats to “speak on condition of anonymity” is flawed and logically untenable. The principles of “realpolitik” apply in the relationship between powerful nations who find it advantageous to deal with each other in a practical and pragmatic manner so as to avoid costly conflict. It is silly to conceptualize the relationship between Western countries collectively and one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of “realpolitik”. Without the budgetary support and massive economic and humanitarian aid of the West, no dictatorship in Africa can survive even for a single day. These anonymous diplomats now want to convince us that “realpolitik” prevents them from exercising their political will on the dictators. Poppycock! We know, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

On the other hand, if the diplomats are “speaking on condition of anonymity” because they believe they can finesse the dictators with reason and logic, they are tripping (or in diplomatic parlance, “it is lunacy”). They ought to know (as they pretend not to know) that they are dealing with some of the rock-hard, dyed-in-the-wool, unyielding and incorrigible ideologues in modern Africa history. These dictators are impervious to reason and common sense; they are driven by the maniacal and insatiable hunger for power. The lessons the dictators draw from the invocation of diplomatic anonymity is that they have succeeded in intimidating the Western diplomatic corps into silence, not that they are buying time to negotiate and craft a fair resolution to the fundamental political problems of the country. Let’s put it bluntly: The dictators are convinced that on the whole Western diplomats in Addis are a klatch of spineless, wimpy, double-talking, forked-tongue equivocators who would rather grovel and wheedle than stand up for principle.

The cunning dictators understand the wishy-washiness of the diplomats and take advantage of their apparent timidity. They carefully orchestrate a program of manipulation, subtle intimidation, vague threats of expulsion and clever misdirection to string them along. “Sure, we let Birtukan out, mañana (tomorrow). Excellencies! Don’t worry, be happy! Did you say ‘Stop human rights abuses’? Not a problem. Consider it done, mañana. Clean elections? Hoo-Hah! Check out our Election Code of Conduct. Any other questions?!”

As Joseph Stalin sarcastically observed, “A sincere diplomat is like dry water or wooden iron.” We are not foolish enough to believe that Western diplomats will work sincerely to help bring change, democratization and hope in Ethiopia. But they need to know that their diplomatic chicanery and double-dealing will not go unchallenged in the court of international public opinion. Let us look at their do-nothing, kiss derrière policy in Birtukan’s case. The anonymous diplomat speaking to reporter Rice said that the West would “not risk [its] entire aid budget for one person.” This is not an idiosyncratic attitude or the view of a single diplomat. It is a wrong-headed outlook widely shared in the general diplomatic community in Addis.

But we should set the record straight: The issue of Birtukan is not a matter of one individual political prisoner. Birtukan is a national symbol of thousands of political prisoners that are held in detention in official and secret prisons throughout the country without due process of law. Birtukan is not a lone dissident on a moral crusade against a dictatorship. She is the head of the principal opposition party in the country and the leader of the largest coalition of political parties. On a level electoral playing field, Birtukan is the kind of leader who could easily beat the pants off the ruling dictatorship. By not raising her righteous cause in public and repeatedly, these veiled diplomats enable and embolden the dictators to remain bullheaded and continue in their gross human rights violations spree. In the end, these diplomats show themselves to be toothless tigers who are afraid of their own shadows and would rather meow than speak the truth in public.

Western diplomats in Addis have the choice of speaking up and standing up for the principles they advocate so passionately and vociferously at the cocktail parties, or remaining silent. It is their right to remain silent to the thundering screams of the torture victims, the faint whimpers of the political prisoners rotting in the dungeons, the cries and lamentations of the opposition leaders and the tormented wails of journalists who flee the country. They can even game us by shedding a few crocodile tears and assuring us that they are doing everything they can to help change things. We know in the final analysis they will wring their hands, pat themselves in the back and tell each other everything is fine and dandy and things in Ethiopia will definitely change, mañana. But they should spare us the crock of anonymous palaver because all they are doing is prove to the world that they do not possess the least scrap of conscience or integrity.

There is a price for silence, which is loss of credibility with the people of Ethiopia. That may not mean much to the hoity-toity excellencies; but they should know that their empty cocktail party rhetoric about democracy and rule of law has as much credibility with us. Diplomatic hypocrisy built on a foundation of anonymity, in our book, is called complicity and compounding a crime. Ethiopians understand and like straight talk, not anonymous talk (and not silence). They don’t like those who talk with “butter on their tongues and dagger in their hearts” (Afu kibe, lebu chube). We hope these invisible diplomats will emerge from the dark side and muster the courage to speak on the record and call a spade, a spade. If they don’t, we will understand. Silence in the face of inconvenient truths is a hallowed tradition in the Western diplomatic corps.

Excellencies, never mind if the dictators say, “the more [you] make noise the more difficult it will be to get Birtukan out.” Go ahead, make a whole lot of noise, not silence. Birtukan and the thousands of Ethiopian political prisoners are on pins and needles (no pun intended) waiting to hear your rapturous noise.

I have said it before[1] Excellencies, and I will shout it out again: J’Accuse!


Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on,, and other sites.