Alemayehu G. Mariam
Portrait of A Poor Country
Lately, the portrait of Ethiopia painted in the reports of Transparency International (Corruption Index) and Global Financial Integrity shows a “Land of Corruption”. That contrasts with an equally revolting portrait of Ethiopia painted in a recent broadcast of a fear-mongering three-part propaganda programentitled “Akeldama” (or Land of Blood) on state-owned television. The program aired on November 26-28 was intended to be a moral, and to some extent legal and political, justification of dictator Meles Zenawi’s “anti-terrorism law”. The program begins with a doleful narrator setting a doomsday scenario:
Terrorism is destroying the world. Terrorism is wrecking our daily lives, obstructing it. What I am telling you now is not about international terrorsim. It is about a scheme that has been hatched against our country Ethiopia to turn her into Akeldama or land of blood. For us Ethiopians, terrorism has become a bitter problem. In this regard, I have three consecutive programs prepared for you my viewers.
Displaying photos of alleged terrorist carnage and simulated blood droplets falling from the title of the program — dead bodies of babies and little children lying on the ground, fly-infested corpses of adults oozing blood on the asphalt, severed limbs scattered in the streets, burned vehicles, bombed buildings, doctors treating injured victims, a crowd of wailing women mourning at a gravesite, an old man crying his eyes out over the death of his wife at the hand of “terrorsits” and footage of the imploding Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2011 and on and on — the narrator accuses “ruthless terrorists” for having “destroyed our peace” and “massacring our loved ones”. In a plaintive tone the narrator exhorts:
“Let’s look at the evidence. In the past several years, there have been 131 terrorist attacks; 339 citizens killed; 363 injured and 25 kidnapped and killed by terrorists.
By displaying grisly spectacles of acts of alleged terrorist atrocity, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity from years past and by describing those acts with deceitful, deceptive and distorted narrative, “Akeldama” hopes to tar and feather ALL of Ethiopia’s opposition elements, inflame public passions and offer moral justification for Zenawi’s recent crackdowns and massive and sustained human rights violations.
The propaganda objective of “Akeldama” cannot be mistaken: Zenawi aims to vanquish from the active memory of the population any traces of popular support or sympathy for his opposition and critics by demonizing, brutalizing, dehumanizing, “villainizing” and virtually cannibalizing them. He wants the population to view the opposition as bloodthirsty gangs of conspirators blowing up defenseless babies, children, women and innocent citizens and unleashing terror and mayhem in every street corner in Ethiopia. The revolting and gruesome scenes and sequences of carnage and destruction stitched into the video are intended to lump together all of Zenawi’s opponents with Al Qaeda and Al Shabbab terrorists in Somalia.
“Akeldama”: Dictatorship, Lies and Videotapes
On the surface, few inquiring minds would disagree that “Akeldama” is sleazy melodrama. It has an exalted hero, dictator Meles Zenawi, the knight in shining armor, waiting in the shadows armed and ready to impale the wicked terrorists with his piercing lance. There is a damsel in distress, Lady Ethiopia. There are an assortment of scheming villains, conspirators, mischief-makers, subversives, foreign collaborators, and of course, terrorists who are cast in supporting roles as opposition leaders, dissidents and critics. It has a sensational and lurid plot featuring cloak-and-dagger conspiracies by neighboring countries, clandestine intrigues by Diaspora opposition elements, sedition and treason by local collaborators, and of course terrorism. Naturally, in the end, good triumphs over evil. Sir Meles Zenawi, knight errant, political wizard, archer and swordsman extraordinaire, delivers Lady Ethiopia from the clutches of the evil and sinister Al Qaeda, Al Shabbab and their minions and flunkeys, namely Ethiopia’s opposition leaders, dissidents and critics. Hollywood’s worst horror shows have nothing on “Akeldama”.
It is easy to dismiss “Akeldama” as dimwitted and ill-conceived horror melodrama. But that would be a mistake because as lame and as cynical as it is, its manifest propaganda aim is to present a morality play for the masses in an attempt to drum up support for Zenawi and preempt, prevent or stall the dawn of an “Ethiopian Spring”. Careful review of “Akeldama” suggests that Zenawi aims to accomplish a number of propaganda objectives: 1) tar and feather all who oppose him as terrorists, terrorist sympathizers and fellow travelers, war mongers, blood-letters and genocidal maniacs, and inflame public passions, promote hatred and incite distrust and suspicion against them; 2) create a climate of fear, loathing and intolerance and trigger mass hysteria against the opposition by concocting a crude propaganda brew of mass deception, mass distraction and mass demoralization; 3) divert the attention of the population from the pressing economic, social and political issues of the day by feeding their fears, accentuating their anxieties and concerns and encouraging them to passively accept Zenawi’s rule, and 4) provide justification why Zenawi has a moral imperative to ruthlessly crackdown and clampdown on his opposition.
The fact of the matter is that every major international human rights and other independent organizations dedicated to good governance has condemned Zenawi’s regime for gross human rights violations, corruption, lack of transparency and accountability and suppression of press freedoms. Zenawi understands that he has no moral legs to stand on and that he is running out of options. He rules by fear, intimidation, lies and deceit. Lacking any moral standing and little public support in the country, Zenawi now seeks to capture the moral high ground by presenting a pathetic and cynical melodrama.
His strategy is simple: To canonize himself, he demonizes his opposition and critics. By casting the opposition in the moral sewer, he hopes to capture the moral commanding heights. By portraying the opposition as bloodthirsty terrorists and baby killers, he hopes to mask his own bloody hands. By showing gruesome pictures of alleged atrocities by his opponents and by creating a message of fear and loathing, he aims to manipulate and frighten the population into supporting him. Ultimately, he hopes to create the public impression that all of the crackdown and clampdown on dissent, the violence against opponents and the complete closure of political space is morally defensible and necessary as measures needed to protect the population from “terrorism that has destroyed our daily peace” and “killed our loved ones”. Simply stated, “Akeldama” is Zenawi’s slick moral justification for his two decades of dictatorial rule, shutting down every independent newspaper and exiling journalists, jailing dissidents, muzzling critics and thumbing his nose at the rule of law and international human rights conventions.
The Strategic Use of Propaganda by Dictators
Hateful depiction of opposition elements by dictators is nothing new. In fact, all dictatorships in modern history have employed the media — everything from posters and newspapers to films, radio programs and now internet technologies — to moralize and pontificate about their rule while demonizing and mobilizing against their opposition, dissidents and critics. Joseph Goebbles, the grand master of propaganda, undertook a massive media campaign of fear and smear against the Jews which led directly to the Holocaust. The communists used “agitprop” (agitation and propaganda using drama, film, art, music) to win the support of the masses and to rail against the evils of liberal democracy (“neo-liberalism”), capitalism, human rights and so on. Agosto Pinochet’s coup against Salvador Allede in 1974 was followed by massive media propaganda campaigns depicting the liberal opposition as a bunch of communists and terrorists. Over 130 thousand Chileans and foreigners were tortured, imprisoned, killed or disappeared by Pinochet’s security forces.
For decades, South Africa’s Apartheid regime successfully used a slick propaganda campaign against the African National Congress (ANC) by “convincing” Western governments that the only choice to be made was between ANC communists and terrorists and freedom-loving Apartheid racists. Both John Vorster and P. W. Botha had the mindboggling audacity to portray the Apartheid system as a victim of terrorism, turning logic and facts on their heads, in their efforts to build and maintain Western support. They succeeded for a long time, but in the end their propaganda effort to delegitimize the ANC by legitimizing their illegitimate Apartheid system failed totally. “Akeldama” is no different. Zenawi portrays his regime as the victim of terrorism unleashed by the opposition, neighboring countries, Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab to bolster domestic and international support. He undertakes a fear and smear campaign aimed at tarring and feathering specific journalists, opposition party leaders, critics and dissidents as terrorists and enemies of the state while seeking to conceal and absolve himself of any culpability for massive and comprehensively documented human rights violations over two decades.
Dictators and Propaganda
But why do immoral and amoral dictators seek moral redemption? Political psychologists who have studied dictators point to a number of factors. One major reason is that all dictators are self-delusional and narcissistic (afflicted by morbid self-absorption and an over-inflated sense of self-importance). They believe their own PR (press release). They conveniently “convince” themselves that they are loved and venerated by their people, destined by Providence to save their nations and usher in a new era of freedom and prosperity (some call it a “Renaissance”). Gadhaffi swore until his last breath, “They love me. All my people with me, they love me. They will die to protect me, my people.” Gadhaffi was so narcissistically delusional that he declared, “I am the creator of tomorrow, I am here, I am here, I am here…. Libya is my country. I created it, and I can destroy it.” Rarely, if ever, was it about Gadhaffi’s love for Libya or Libyans.
All dictators see outside conspiracies being hatched against them every day. If there are protests, it is not because “my people no longer love me” or “they have come to outright hate me”, rather it is because outside agitators are making them do it. Gadhaffi was so detached from reality that he claimed the young people protesting against him were doing so because they were taking drugs. Mubarak, Gadhaffi, Ben Ali, Assad and Gbagbo claimed the protests in their countries were guided and manipulated by evil outside forces. Before his swift fall from power, Mubarak appeared on state television and accused foreign journalists, human rights activists, and foreign hands for fomenting the unrest. Assad in Syria blamed “saboteurs” backed by foreign powers for fomenting widespread civil unrest and chaos. He claimed the unrest were the result of “conspiracies designed outside and perpetrated inside Syria.” Gbagbo accused foreign envoys of seeking to turn the military aganist him. Ali Saleh of Yemen accused foreign agitators for protests that were taking place in the country. In a speech on Libyan state television, Gadhaffi declared al-Qaeda was responsible for the uprising in Libya. Likewise, Zenawi’s message in “Akeldama” is that the people love him, and the mischief-makers are primarily outside agitators, namely Diaspora opposition leaders, neighboring countries, Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab terrorists and their local minions and collaborators.
As I have previously argued,
Dictators see only what they want to see; and to avoid what they don’t want to see, they create their own convenient world of illusions cut out of the whole cloth of their personal beliefs, opinions and fantasies. As they continue to abuse power without any legal restraints and convince themselves that they are above the law and accountable to no one but themselves, they transform their world of illusion into a world of delusion. In their delusional world, they become both the “lone ranger” of the old American West “cleaning up bad towns and riff-raff” and the only custodians of the Holy Grail, with miraculous powers to save their nations. In their delusional world, there is room only for themselves and their cronies….
“Akeldama” II: Let Us See All of the Evidence of Atrocities Committed in Ethiopia
If “Akeldama” is indeed an accurate depiction of Ethiopia as the “Land of Blood”, it is manifestly lacking in evidence. That is why we MUST follow the exhortation of the narrator in “Akeldama” to take a “look at the evidence in the past several years.” It may be true that there were “131 terrorist attacks in which 339 citizens were killed; 363 injured and 25 kidnapped and killed by terrorists.” But is that all the body count? Let us really look at the evidence — not in bits and pieces, not in slivers and shreds, not in fragments and scraps — but the whole body of evidence, the totality of the evidence. Let us have an “Akildama II” and examine
the evidence of post-2005 election massacres of June and November 2005, documented by the Inquiry Commission appointed by Zenawi, in which at least 193 persons were shot and killed, 763 wounded and 30,000 imprisoned by security forces under the direct command and control of Zenawi;
the December 2003 massacre, 8 years to the month, of the Anuak in Gambella in which 424 persons were massacred and some 16,000 displaced to the Sudan.
the extra-judicial killings in the Ogaden including reprisal “executions of 150 individuals” and the killings of at least 37 others in Labiga, Faafann Valley and Hunjurri, and the burning of the villages of Daratoole, Qamuuda, Neef-Kuceliye, Laanjalelo, Aado, Jinnoole among many others in 2007; the October 2006 alleged terrorist deaths of three individuals;
the status of numerous detainees in three documented secret jails where they were held without due process of law and in flagrant violation of international human rights conventions;
the Treatment of “desperado terrorists” in 2009;
Let the truth be told about ALL atrocities committed in Ethiopia, without exception. Let the chips fall where they may!
Never Missing an Opportunity to Miss an Opportunity
Instead of wasting time and resources hate-mongering and demonizing the opposition, critics and dissidents, Zenawi could have used the opportunity to highlight and brag about his achievements and accomplishments over his two decades at the helm. Instead of showing mayhem, dismembered bodies, dead babies and destruction, he could have showed the people what he is doing (and has done) to bring down inflation and eliminate economic privation. Instead of promoting national enmity by depicting brutality, he could have used the opportunity to promote national unity. Instead of spreading a propaganda of hate, he could have been a peace and reconciliation advocate. Instead of demonizing his opponents, he could have humanized them. He could have showcased all of his achievements in eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, establishing universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowerment of women, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combatting HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases and ensuring environmental sustainability. Exhibition of such achievement could discredit any opposition claims and actions to legitimacy than the display of gratuitous horror, carnage, mayhem and destruction. But it seems Zenawi never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity to do good, the right thing, the moral thing, the compassionate and humanistic thing.
It is not clear if “Akeldama” is the first in an endless series of melodramas calculated to demonize and dehumanize the opposition. It would be great to have an “Akeldama II”. But that is unlikely. There is little evidence to show that the lame and cynical piece of propaganda has gained any traction in the public. There is substantial anecdotal evidence which suggests most viewers in Ethiopia and the Diaspora are turned off by the gory scenes and deceitful exhortations of “Akeldama”. Even friends of Zenawi are said to have raised eyebrows by the excessive and extravagant display of gratuitous violence in the program.
At any rate, Tamagn Beyene’s masterful review of “Akeldama” delivers a totally devastating critique by pointing out numerous lies, factual errors, wholesale fabrications, distortions, exaggerations and fallacies. But credit must be given where it is due. Zenawi has once again succeeded in distracting us all from the real issues. Now, can we get on with the discussion of the issues that really matter such as of inflation, corruption, arbitrary detention, intimidation, maladministration, truth adulteration, balkanization, and the need for better collaboration, improved harmonization, effective communication and, most of all, genuine reconciliation….?
Land of Corruption or Land of Blood?
This past Summer, Zenawi, responding to an interviewer’s question about his feelings concerning the use of the word “famine” by the Oxford Dictionary synonymously with Ethiopia, said:
It is a mixed up situation. On the one hand, like any citizen, I am very sad. I am ashamed. It is degrading. A society that built the Lalibela churches some thousand years ago is unable to cultivate the land and feed itself. A society that built the Axum obelisks some 2-3 thousand years ago is unable to cultivate the land and feed itself. That is very sad. It is very shameful. Of all the things, to go out begging for one’s daily bread, to be a beggar nation is dehumanizing. Therefore, I feel great shame.
It is a crystal clear situation for me. I feel great shame that a society that built the magnificent Lalibela churches (one of the great wonders of the ancient world) and the obelisks of Axum should be known throughout the world not only as a “beggar nation” but also as land of corruption, land of blood, land of famine and land of living lies.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: