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 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, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and his commentaries appear regularly on pambazuka.org, allafrica.com, newamericamedia.org and other sites.