Alemayehu G. Mariam
In 1987 when Time Magazine featured a famine-stricken Ethiopian mother on its cover page, it failed to ask the most important question of all: What should Ethiopians do and not do to help themselves?
It is the privilege of those who give to pity those who receive. One of the great indignities of being a perennial object of charity and handouts is the perception by those lending a hand that handout recipients are not only moneyless and helpless but also hopeless and clueless about what they need to do to help themselves. Well-intentioned donors and benefactors often mistakenly assume that recipients of charity should “ask what the world can do for them, and not what they can do for themselves.” But history shows that all societies that have succeeded economically, socially and politically had to pull themselves up by their bootstraps with a little help from friends. Ethiopians are no exception; they must do all of the heavy lifting by themselves if they are to permanently cast off the burdens of poverty, famine, disease, dictatorship and corruption. What should Ethiopians do to save themselves?
Ten Things Ethiopians Can Do to Help Themselves 
It is all about humanity, community and civility, NOT ethnicity, nationality, sovereignty, animosity or disunity.
If Ethiopians have a chance of overcoming their enormous economic and political problems, they must first make fundamental choices. They can choose the politics of their common humanity and collectively build a harmonious civil community, or remain trapped in the dungeon of identity politics and become pawns in the ethnic chess game of uber-dictator Meles Zenawi. If Ethiopians affirm their common humanity, they will see that human rights abuses do not have an ethnic face, nor poverty a nationality. They will understand religion is not a weapon of animosity but a way to divinity. National disunity will never produce prosperity, but it will surely keep the people in perpetual poverty. Ethnicity and identity add diversity in a genuine democratic system. Under a dictatorship, they become powerful tools of dehumanization breeding fear, hatred and distrust among the people. Ethiopians must choose to climb up and steer the Ship of Ethiopia into the horizon or remain lost in their ethnic boats on a sea of tyranny, poverty and famine. That is why I believe Ethiopians need a new unifying civic ideology that transcends ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, language and other classifications susceptible to insidious use. Ethiopians inside the country and in the Diaspora must build a civic culture based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the most translated document in the world. If the values of the UDHR are widely accepted and practiced, Ethiopia will be able to overcome poverty, famine and internal division and achieve prosperity and greatness within a generation.
Ethiopians must become a little bit utopian.
Ethiopia is today a dystopia– a society that writhes under a dictatorship that trashes human rights and decimates all opposition ruthlessly. Last year, Zenawi told two high level U.S. Government officials what he will do to his opposition: “We will crush them with our full force.” All Ethiopians, regardless of ethnicity, language, religion, class or region must be able to imagine an Ethiopia where no petty tyrant will ever have the power or even the audacity to say he will “crush” another fellow citizen, or has the ability to use “full force” against any person just because he can. Ethiopians must be able to dream of a future free of ethnic strife, famine and oppression; and strive to work together for a little utopia in Ethiopia where might is NOT right but the rule of law shields the defenseless poor and voiceless against the slings and arrows of the criminally rich and powerful. It is true that Utopians aspire for the perfect society, but Ethiopians should aspire and work collectively for a society in which human rights are respected, the voice of the people are heard and accepted (not stolen), those to whom power is entrusted perform their duties with transparency and are held accountable to the law and people.
Learn from the past, prepare for the future.
More often than not, many Ethiopians tend to dwell on the past than imagining an alternative future. The past is a great teacher; we must learn from past mistakes and do things better and differently. But the past can also be a mental prison. Zenawi always reminds us how we have been wicked to each other in the past and waxes eloquent on the alleged crimes, cruelty and inhumanity of long gone kings and princes. He never tires to tell us how this king, that aristocrat or soldier has been cruel and barbaric. He thinks he can make himself angelic by demonizing past leaders. Perhaps he does not see it, but when one points an index finger outwards, three fingers are pointing inwards. The moral lesson is that we need to find a way out of the mental prison of past grievances and liberate our minds with a new civic ideology to embrace a brave new democratic Ethiopia under the rule of law. As the old saying goes, “One can’t drive forward on the road of life if one is fixed looking in the rear view mirror.” So, we have to make another simple choice: Live in the past chewing on the cud of historical grievances or hold hands, learn from the past and put our collective shoulders to the grindstone and forge a new Ethiopia. If we fail to do that, those who cling to power will entrench and enrich themselves and laugh at the rest of us who remain trapped in the dungeons of our historical grievances.
No country or society ever got prosperity by begging or receiving alms.
No country or society ever got prosperity by begging or receiving alms. But recent evidence from Wikileaks cablegrams shows that Zenawi plans to bulldoze his way into economic development at an annual growth rate of 15 percent by panhandling the West. According to U.S. Assistant Secretary of Treasury Andy Baukol, the “Government of Ethiopia (GoE) has become more vocal about its need for sustained aid flows from the West and more recalcitrant about implementing any reforms or liberalization of key sectors such as banking and telecommunications.” A recent IMF report, which Zenawi wants kept hidden from public scrutiny, concluded that Ethiopia’s “macroeconomic performance has deteriorated markedly” because of loose monetary policy which has fueled stratospheric inflation and mindless government control and regulations which have undermined confidence in the private sector.
Foreign aid as a development vehicle has been thoroughly discredited. As Dambissa Moyo has argued, the “evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that aid to Africa has made the poor poorer, and the growth slower. The insidious aid culture has left African countries more debt-laden, more inflation-prone, more vulnerable to the vagaries of the currency markets and more unattractive to higher-quality investment.” Countries that have achieved rapid economic development have managed to create favorable politico-legal environments for business, industry and commerce, maintained low state debt and accumulated substantial fiscal reserves to meet emergency needs. The spirit of official mendicancy in Ethiopia must be replaced by a public spirit of unfettered entrepreneurship.
As long as Ethiopia remains under a dictatorship, there will always be famine, and not just of food.
Western aid bureaucrats like to sugarcoat the famine in Ethiopia in the politically correct bureaucratese of “extreme malnutrition”, “food crises”, “green drought” and so on. Interestingly, in a recent official blog and testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Donald Yamamoto and presently Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State acknowledged “famine [is] spreading across the Horn of Africa.” That should not come as a surprise as Yamamoto had long concluded that Ethiopia is trapped in a permanent and unbreakable cycle of famine and starvation. In a recently released Wikileaks cablegram,Yamamoto advised his superiors: “Ethiopia’s perennial emergency food dependence is, de facto, a permanent condition.” He outlined that the U.S. has three choices in light of the permanence of famine in the Ethiopian political economy: 1) “continue to provide massive food aid, which is unsustainable, in meeting Ethiopia’s permanent state of emergency food need each year,” 2) “provide significantly greater assistance for sustainable agricultural productivity”, or 3) “robustly to push for a shift in economic and agricultural policies (regarding land tenure, agricultural technologies and practices, agricultural inputs, etc.) to increase domestic agricultural productivity.” The bottom line is that as long as Ethiopia remains in the chokehold of the current dictatorship, there will always be a famine not only of food but also of democracy, human rights, rule of law, accountability, transparency and vision. Western donors must stop supporting oppression, corruption, persecution and repression in famine-stricken Ethiopia.
Plant and water the seeds of genuine multiparty democracy on the parched landscape of famine.
It is oft-repeated that “there has never been a famine in a functioning multi-party democracy” with a robust free press. In a competitive multi-party political process, there is a much higher degree of political and electoral accountability. A government that ignores or fails to prevent famine is surely destined to lose power. A free press will mobilize public opinion for official and civic action to deal with the problem. Multiparty democracy does not mean the six dozen ethno-tribal “parties” organized by the Zenawi dictatorship to serve as a Tower of Babel and facilitate its divide and rule strategy. It does mean the functioning of political organizations that compete for electoral support and have appeal across ethnic, linguistic, religious and regional lines. Ethiopia can learn a great lesson from Ghana in this regard in light of shared socio-economic and political experiences. Article 55 (4) of the Ghanaian Constitution expressly mandates political parties to have “national character”: “Every political party shall have a national character, and membership shall not be based on ethnic, religious, regional or other sectional divisions.” Any multiparty system to be established in Ethiopia must be guided by such constitutional language.
Ethiopia’s youth are the flowers of today and the seeds of hope tomorrow.
The old Ethiopian saying that the “youth are the flowers of today and the seeds of tomorrow” is true. They need to be carefully cultivated and grown. But the the data on these seeds of hope are discouraging. Forty six percent of Ethiopia’s 91 million population in 2011 is estimated to be under the age of 18. UNICEF estimates that malnutrition is responsible for more than half of all deaths among children under age five. An estimated 5 million children are orphans, a little less than one-fifths from AIDS. Urban youth unemployment is estimated at 70 per cent. The vast majority of Ethiopian adolescents live in rural areas. Some regions in the country have extremely high rates of early marriage. Frustrated and in despair of their future, many urban youths drop out of school and engage in risky behaviors including drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse, crime and delinquency. The ruling dictatorship’s youth, sports and culture agency concedes that youth issues have been long neglected: “In Ethiopia, because of the fact that proper attention has not been given to addressing youth issues and their organizations, therefore, mutual cooperation and networking among youth, family, society, other partners and government had hardly been created.” Much needs to be done to give Ethiopia’s youth hope in the future. Whatever is to be done to help the youth, the starting point must necessarily be a de-marginalization of youth through an explicit acknowledgement of their role in solving problems affecting them. They must be included in all decision-making concerning youth issues and consulted extensively in the policy planning and implementation stages. The bottom line is that without the youth, Ethiopia has no future. Those who ignore the youth should understand that hungry children grow to be angry children and a ticking demographic time bomb.
Empower Ethiopian women.
Birtukan Midekssa, Ethiopia’s foremost political prisoner until her release last year and first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, enjoyed talking about an allegorical ‘future country of Ethiopia’ that would become an African oasis of democracy and a bastion of human rights and the rule of law in the continent. In Birtukan’s ‘future Ethiopia’ women and men would live not only as equals under the law, but also work together to create a progressive and compassionate society in which women are free from domestic violence and sexual exploitation, have access to adequate health and maternal care and are provided education to free them from culturally-enforced ignorance, submissiveness and subjugation. But if the situation of women in the ‘present country of Ethiopia’ is any indication, Birtukans “future country” is in deep trouble.
The 2000 US State Department Human Rights Country Report on Ethiopia described the status of women in appallingly disheartening terms: “The Constitution provides for the equality of women; however, these provisions often are not applied in practice… Discriminatory regulations in the civil code include recognizing the husband as the legal head of the family and designating him as the sole guardian of children over five years old. Domestic violence is not considered a serious justification under the law to obtain a divorce. Irrespective of the number of years the marriage has existed, the number of children raised and the joint property, the woman is entitled to only 3 months’ financial support should the relationship end.”
The 2010 US. State Department Human Rights Country Report on Ethiopia described the status of women in similar stark terms: “The constitution provides women the same rights and protections as men. Harmful Traditional Practices (HTPs) such as FGM (female genital mutilation), abduction, and rape are explicitly criminalized; however, enforcement of these laws lagged. Women and girls experienced gender-based violence daily, but it was underreported due to shame, fear, or a victim’s ignorance of legal protections. Domestic violence, including spousal abuse, was a pervasive social problem. The 2005 Demographic and Health Survey found that 81 percent of women believed a husband had a right to beat his wife. Sexual harassment was widespread [and] harassment-related laws were not enforced.”
The current dictatorship in Ethiopia manifested its latent misogyny not only by giving lip service to women’s issues but also by dehumanizing the symbol of women in Ethiopia, young Birtukan Midekssa. During her incarceration, the U.S. Government regarded Birtukan a political prisoner because she was imprisoned for her political beliefs as did all other major international human rights organizations. But Zenawi threw Birtukan straight into solitary confinement after arresting her on the streets, and boasted to the world: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” He later literally added insult to injury by mocking her that she was in “perfect condition” in solitary confinement and was eating and sitting around idly and likely to “have gained a few kilos”.
Ethiopian women need to be empowered in all spheres of life. But without young women leaders like Birtukan who can fight for Ethiopian democracy and human rights, and women’s rights, talk of improving the status of women in Ethiopia is a mockery of women.
Only Ethiopians can save themselves.
Ethiopians should know that the West and its billions in aid and loans will help but not save them from a famine of food and democracy. Ethiopians in the Diaspora can help by becoming the voice of Ethiopia’s voiceless. But only Ethiopians can save themselves from famine, poverty, dictatorship and division. Only they can solve their problems by creating common cause, building consensus and forging genuine brotherhood and sisterhood among themselves regardless of ethnicity or other factors. Only when they are able to forge unity of purpose and are irrevocably committed to democracy and the rule of law will they be able to cast off the boots of dictatorship from their necks. There is no need to look for answers to what troubles Ethiopia in Washington, D.C., London, Bonn or Beijing. The solution for Ethiopia’s problems is in Ethiopia.
Give hope. Always keep hope alive.
The old saying is true that “Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope.” When dictators swagger arrogantly to show the people that they are omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, they are telling them they have no hope. Their message is the same as the one inscribed on the gates of Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” But Ethiopians must never abandon hope. To abandon hope is to lose faith in Ethiopia’s children. When the dictators say, “Look how powerful we are. Give up!”, hope says “keep on keeping on. Tyrants for a time seem invincible but in the end, they always fall.” As Martin L. King said, “We are now experiencing the darkest hour which is just before the dawn of freedom and human dignity.” That is why it is important to keep hope alive in Ethiopia.
Tyrants always fall, but what happens the morning after?
Gandhi spoke an eternal truth: “There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall — think of it, ALWAYS.” In just the past few months, Ben Ali fell in Tunisia; Hosni Mubarak fell and is standing trial in Egypt. Moammar Gadhafi fell and is hiding out in a spider hole somewhere in southern Libya. Bashir Al-Assad is teetering as he continues to butcher Syrians who have kept up the pressure through acts of mass civil disobedience. He too will fall. The question is never, never whether tyrants fall. The question is always, always what happens after they fall!
 This commentary builds upon my set of ten reasons to questions posed by Time Magazine nearly a quarter of a century ago: “Why are Ethiopians starving again? and “What should the world do and not do” to help them?
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/
Alemayehu G. Mariam
Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Time Magazine on its cover page asked two weighty questions about recurrent famines in Ethiopia: “Why are Ethiopians starving again? What should the world do and not do” to help them? In my commentary last week, I gave ten reasons in response to the first question; here I offer ten more for the second.
For the past one-half century, the “Western world” has been the principal source of charity and handouts in Ethiopia. For the last two decades, the West has been feeding the regime of dictator Meles Zenawi with billions of dollars of development and humanitarian aid while filling the stomachs of starving Ethiopians with empty words and emptier promises. Now that another famine is spreading like wildfire in that country, the question remains: “What should the Western world do and not do to help Ethiopians permanently escape the endless cycles of famine described in the sugarcoated language of the self-serving international aid agencies as “acute food insecurity, extreme malnutrition, green drought and food crisis”.
Ten Things the World Should Do and Not Do to Help Starving Ethiopians
Take the moral hazard out of Western aid in Ethiopia.
Western taxpayers have been footing the bill to provide a fail-safe insurance policy for the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi on the theory that he is too servile to fail (not unlike the notion of corporations that are too big to fail). Zenawi has proven to be a reliable proxy warfighter for the West in the Horn. He has received hearty congratulations for a “fantastic Somalia job” even though his invasion created the worst humanitarian crises in Africa in the last decade. Tony Blair appointed him to his Commission for Africa. He has been the West’s man in Africa on climate change. In return, the West has provided Zenawi billions of dollars in “safety net” aid, multilateral loans and a perpetual supply of relief handouts to insulate his regime from the natural consequences of a mismanaged economy, debilitating corruption and proliferating poverty and famine. The West should now stand back and let Zenawi face the consequences of chronic budget deficits, galloping inflation, corruption and empty grain silos. Turning a blind eye to gross human rights violations and Western complicity in the regime’s denial of democratic rights to Ethiopians presents not only a moral hazard but also irrefutable evidence of moral bankruptcy.
Put humanity and human rights back in Western humanitarian aid in Ethiopia.
The West should treat the starving people of Ethiopia as human beings, not as pawns in a strategic regional chess game or as pitiful objects of charity and handouts. The root cause of the food famine in Ethiopia is an underlying political famine of democracy, rule of law, lack of accountability and transparency and flagrant human rights abuses. More democracy and greater respect for human rights necessarily means less famine and starvation because a government that is not able, willing and ready to feed its people will be swept out of office by a hungry and angry electorate. The West should tie its aid to specific and measurable improvements in human rights observances and properly functioning democratic institutions. If Western aid and loans are decoupled from human rights and good governance, they become powerful tools of oppression, persecution and subjugation in the hands of dictators.
Promote and support a stable and healthy Ethiopian society through aid, not entrench an iron-fisted and malignant dictatorship.
Western donors believe that they can buy “stability” in the Horn of Africa region by spending billions of aid dollars to support the Zenawi dictatorship. But they remain willfully ignorant of the lessons of history. Supporting a dictator is as risky as carrying an open powder keg at a fireworks festival. As we have recently seen, the West for decades supported dictators Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubark in Egypt and Gadahafi in Libya. For a time, these dictators staged the illusion of stability, control and permanence for the West. But they all went up in smoke when young Mohammed Bouazizi torched himself to end a life of oppression and indignity. In the long run, the West knows no amount of foreign aid or loans could possibly buffer Zenawi’s dictatorship from a tsunami of popular upheaval. Shouldn’t they stand on the right side of history as President Obama often exhorts?
Never bankroll bad actions by dictators with good Western taxpayer money.
The West has a bad habit of rewarding the bad acts of African dictators with more and larger amounts of Western taxpayer-supported aid and loans. After Zenawi stole the 2005 elections in broad daylight, jailed nearly all of the opposition leaders, human rights advocates, civic society leaders in the country and mowed down nearly two hundred unarmed demonstrators and wounded nearly eight hundred, the West gave him billions in aid and loans. In 2008 alone, Zenawi received $3 billion, the largest amount of aid in Africa. Zenawi must indubitably believe that there is a linear cause and effect relationship between his human rights abuses and increased foreign aid and loans. It seems to be a simple case of operant conditioning in which behavior and actions follow a system of rewards and disincentives. If human rights violations are always reinforced by the positive reinforcement of increasing amounts of aid, there will be more and more outrageous abuses committed to obtain that outcome.
Make partnership with the Ethiopian people, not the Zenawi dictatorship.
There is documentary evidence from Wikileaks cablegrams to show that the West basically wants a “guy they can do business with” in Ethiopia. The core business of the West in Ethiopia and the Horn is counterterrorism. Zenawi invaded Somalia in 2006 and neraly three years later packed up and left. Today Al Shabab and the other warlords still operate in Somalia with impunity. A partnership with a dictator on a single issue is not only short-sighted but also counterproductive to the long-term strategic interests of the West in Ethiopia and the Horn. That is why the West should nurture a long-term partnership with the Ethiopian people based on a demonstrable commitment to good governance, the rule of law, accountability, anti-corruption practices, private sector development, basic education and health services and so on. The easiest way to sever a relationship with the people is to give a fat welfare check (free money) to a depraved dictatorship year after year.
Hold the local paymasters of aid accountable.
Zenawi’s regime today is accountable to no one for the famine that is spreading throughout the country or the aid that it receives from the West. The international aid bureaucrats dare not question Zenawi fearing his legendary torrent of scorn, mockery and insults. They are mere rubberstamps of Zenawi’s regime. Recently, when Ken Ohashi, the World Bank Country Director for Ethiopia said Zenawi’s economic plan (“Growth and Transformation Plan”) is unsustainable, Zenawi derided him as a neocolonial overseer: “The World Bank [country] director is used to having other developing nations simply listen to his orders and is not used to nations refusing implement policy based on their wishes.” Last year Zenawi called the European Union Election Observers’ report “garbage”.
Whenever questions are raised about the misuse and abuse of aid money, the international aid bureaucrats run for cover or get into high gear to deny any improprieties and wrongdoing. For instance, Human Rights Watch and more recently BIJ/BBC have made serious and well-supported allegations of political weaponization of the so-called “safety net” aid. In July 2010, the Development Assistance Group, a coordinating body of 26 foreign donor institutions for Ethiopia, issued a whitewash report which concluded that the administration of the aid programs is the “supported by relatively robust accountability systems.” In the past couple of weeks, USAID Deputy Administrator Gregory Gottlieb spoke to the Voice of America and declared, “There is no famine in Ethiopia.” Yet an audit report by the independent Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of US AID in March 2010 came to the distressing conclusion that USAID has no idea what is happening to its agricultural programs in Ethiopia. By rejecting the data generated by the regime and local USAID officials, the OIG implicitly indicts them for manufacturing data to make things look good. The West must call a spade a spade, insist on the truth and let the chips fall where they may!
Condition aid and loans on the implementation of comprehensive family planning programs in Ethiopia.
Recently, the U.S. Census Bureau had frightening predictions for Ethiopia. By 2050, Ethiopia’s population will more than triple to 278 million, placing that country in the top 10 most populous countries in the world. Ethiopia’s population growth has been spiraling upwards for decades. Since 1995, the average annual rate of population growth has remained at over 3 percent. Comprehensive family planning services are essential to avoiding the predicted doomsday forty years from now. Such services educate, train and prepare couples and families when and how many children to have, provide them contraceptive counseling and help them acquire skills to prevent and manage sexually transmitted diseases, among other things. A decade ago, the World Health Organization and the World Bank estimated that $3.00 per person per year would provide basic family planning, maternal and neonatal health care to women in developing countries, including contraception, prenatal, delivery and post-natal care and postpartum family planning and promotion of condoms to prevent sexually transmitted infections. A decade or two from now when it is too late, providing such services in Ethiopia will be prohibitively expensive.
To help the starving people of Ethiopia, help Ethiopian women.
The distressing status of women in Ethiopian society has been documented over the past decade. The U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (2000) reported: “Violence and societal discrimination against women, and abuse of children remained problems, and female genital mutilation (FGM) is widespread.” The situation remains pretty much the same in 2011. Western aid should seriously focus on improving the status of women and go beyond empty rhetoric. For instance, there is a lot of talk and window-dressing by the USAID about the empowerment and advancement of women in Ethiopia, but the rhetoric falls short of demonstrable outcomes. USAID claims to have helped thousands of rural women obtain microfiance, and through its extension services enabled hundreds of families adopt better technologies to improve their productivity. USAID also claims to have helped remove “road blocks to development” by improving gender integration, expanding educational opportunity, increased awareness of legal rights and so on and by “providing high-impact, results-oriented technical assistance that promotes participation and transparency.” There is little convincing evidence in the public reports of USAID to support any of these claims. In any case, given the chummy and cozy relationship between the local USAID operatives and Zenawi’s regime and the OIG’s audit referenced above, one would have to take USAID’s word not just with a grain but a big sack of salt.
To help the starving people of Ethiopia, help Ethiopia’s youth.
Seventy percent of Ethiopia’s population is said to be under the age of thirty. This past May, USAID announced that it will partner with Pact (an NGO) and UNICEF to implement five-year, $100 million program to benefit over 500,000 Ethiopian orphans and vulnerable children affected by HIV and AIDS. The program “will support efforts by the Ethiopian Government and civil society to standardize comprehensive care and support services for vulnerable children and their families.” Reliance on a combination of donor-funded NGOs, regime-managed and –owned civil society organizations and bloated bureaucracies to implement such a program is manifestly unconvincing. The fact of the matter is that Ethiopia’s youth need access to better educational and employment opportunities now. Youth alienation, joblessness, nihilism breed despair and anarchy which the country can ill-afford.
The West should know that aid and loans will not save Ethiopia.
The West should know that neither aid nor loans will save Ethiopia. Only Ethiopians, poor and famished as they are, can save Ethiopia and themselves.
Starve the Beast, Feed the People.
The West should heed the words of Helen Epstein:
The problem with foreign aid in Ethiopia is that both the Ethiopian government and its donors see the people of this country not as individuals with distinct needs, talents, and rights but as an undifferentiated mass, to be mobilized, decentralized, vaccinated, given primary education and pit latrines, and freed from the legacy of feudalism, imperialism, and backwardness. It is this rigid focus on the ‘backward masses,’ rather than the unique human person, that typically justifies appalling cruelty in the name of social progress.
Stop the cruelty. Starve the beast and feed the people.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/
Alemayehu G. Mariam
Thugogracy in Africa
If democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people, a thugogracy is a government of thieves, for thieves, by thieves. Simply stated, a thugtatorship is rule by a gang of thieves and robbers (thugs) in designer suits. It is becoming crystal clear that much of Africa today is a thugogracy privately managed and operated for the exclusive benefit of bloodthirsty thugtators.
In a thugtatorship, the purpose of seizing and clinging to political power is solely to accumulate personal wealth for the ruling class by stealing public funds and depriving the broader population scarce resources necessary for basic survival. The English word “thug” comes from the Hindi word “thag” which means “con man”. In India “Thugees”, well-organized criminal gangs, robbed and murdered unsuspecting travelers over a century ago. Africa’s “thugees” today mug, rob, pillage, plunder and rape unsuspecting whole nations and peoples and secrete away their billions in stolen loot in European and American banks.
Today, we see the incredibly extreme lengths Libyan thugtator Muammar Gaddafi is willing to go to preserve his thugocratic empire floating on billions of stolen oil dollars hidden in foreign bank accounts and corporate property holdings. The British Government recently announced that it expects to seize “around £20 billion in liquid assets of the Libyan regime, mostly in London.” The Swiss Government has similarly issued an order for the immediate freeze of assets belonging to Gadhafi and his entourage. The Swiss central bank announced that it will freeze Gaddafi’s 613 million Swiss francs (USD$658 million), with an additional 205 million francs (USD$220 million) in paper or fiduciary operations. In 2008, before a diplomatic incident involving the arrest of one of Gaddafi’s sons for assault in Switzerland, Gadhafi’s Swiss holdings amounted to 5.7 billion in cash and 812 million francs in paper and fiduciary operations. In 2006, the Libyan Sovereign Wealth Fund had investments of $70 billion. The U.S. closed its Embassy in Triopli and slapped a freeze on all Libyan assets described as “substantial.”
To protect his empire of corruption, Gadhafi has ordered his air force to bomb and strafe unarmed civilian demonstrators demanding an end to his 42-year rule. His son Saif al-Islam threatened to dismember the country and plunge it into a civil war that will last for 30 or 40 years. In a televised speech, the young thug promised a bloodbath: “We will fight to the last minute, until the last bullet. I will fight until the last drop of my blood.” The buffoonish al-Islam contemptuously reassured the world: “Plan A is to live and die in Libya. Plan B is to live and die in Libya. Plan C is to live and die in Libya.” For someone who has no official role in government, it was an astonishing statement to make.
Gadhafi himself has vowed to fight on and die “like a martyr” in the service of his thugogracy. He urged his supporters in Green Square to fight back and “defend the nation.” He exhorted, “Retaliate against them, retaliate against them… Dance, sing and prepare. Prepare to defend Libya, to defend the oil, dignity and independence.” Gadhafi promised: “At the suitable time, we will open the arms depot so all Libyans and tribes become armed, so that Libya becomes red with fire.” It is not enough for Gadhafi and his thugs to have bled the Libyan people dry for 42 years, they now want to burn down the whole country to ashes. Apres moi, le deluge! (After me, the flood!)
The Ivory Coast is on the verge of civil war, according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. In December 2010, Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down after he was decisively defeated in the presidential election. His own Election Commission said his opponent Alassane Ouattara won the election by a nine-point margin. The African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the United Nations, the United States, the European Union all said Ouattara is the winner. Gbagbo has turned a deaf ear and is preparing to plunge the Ivory Coast into civil war to protect his empire of corruption. In 2000, Gbagbo imposed a curfew and a state of emergency and ordered security forces to shoot and kill any demonstrators in the streets: “Police, gendarmes and soldiers from all branches of the armed forces are ordered to use all means throughout the country to oppose troublemakers.” Like Gaddafi’s mercenaries today, Gbagbo’s troops back then went on a killing and beating rampage. The European Union, the Swiss and United States Governments have frozen Gbagbo’s assets in their countries.
In May 2010, Meles Zenawi said he won the parliamentary election by 99.6 percent. The European Union Election Observer Team said the election “lacked a level playing field” and “failed to meet international standards”, a well-known code phrase for a “stolen election”. In its 2005 report, the Observer Team said exactly the same thing. Zenawi’s EPDRF party pretty much owns the Ethiopian economy. “According to the World Bank, roughly half of the rest of the national economy is accounted for by companies held by an EPRDF-affiliated business group called the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT). EFFORT’s freight transport, construction, pharmaceutical, and cement firms receive lucrative foreign aid contracts and highly favorable terms on loans from government banks.” The regime’s own anti-corruption agency reported in 2008 that “USD$16 million dollars” worth of gold bars simply walked out of the bank in broad daylight. A couple of weeks ago, in an incredible display of arrogance and total lack of accountability, Zenawi publicly stated that 10,000 tons of coffee earmarked for exports had simply vanished from the warehouses. He called a meeting of commodities traders and in a videotaped statement told them he will forgive them because “we all have our hands in the disappearance of the coffee”. He warned them that if anyone should steal coffee in the future, he would “cut off their hands”.
In 2005, Zenawi demonstrated the extremes he will go to protect his empire of corruption. Zenawi’s own Inquiry Commission documented that troops under Zenawi’s direct command and control mowed down 193 documented unarmed protesters in the streets and severely wounded nearly 800. Another 30,000 suspected opponents were jailed. In a meeting with high level U.S. officials in advance of the May 2010 election, Zenawi told them in plain words what he will do to his opposition if they try to “discredit the election”: “If opposition groups resort to violence in an attempt to discredit the election, we will crush them with our full force; they will all vegetate like Birtukan (Midekssa) in jail forever.” If Zenawi will “crush” those who “attempt to discredit an election”, it does not leave much to the imagination to figure out what he will do when the people ask him peacefully to leave power.
In April 2010, Omar al-Bashir of the Sudan claimed victory by winning nearly 70 percent of the vote. The EU EOM declared the “deficiencies in the legal and electoral framework in the campaign environment led the overall process to fall short of a number of international standards for genuine democratic elections.” Another election stolen in broad daylight; but that is not all Bashir has stolen. According to a Wikileaks cablegram, “International Criminal Court [ICC] Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told [U.S.] Ambassadors Rice and Wolff on March 20  that [Ocampo] would put the figure of Sudanese President Bashir’s stash of money at possibly $9 billion.” After the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, the first warrant of its kind for a sitting head of state, a sneering Bashir flipped his middle finger at the ICC: “They will issue their decision tomorrow, and we are telling them to immerse it in water and drink it“, a common Arabic insult which is the equivalent of “they can shove it up their _ _ _.” Bashir recently he said he will not run for the presidency again. (It is not clear if had decided not to run because he wants to enjoy his stolen billions or because he expects to put on the jail jumpsuit of the ICC.)
In February 2010, a group of soldiers in Niger calling itself the “Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy” stormed Niger’s presidential palace and snatched president Mamadou Tandja and his ministers. In 2009, Tandja had dissolved the National Assembly and set up a “Constitutional Court” to pave the way for him to become president-for-life. Niger’s state auditor reported that “at least 64 billion CFA francs [USD$128-million] were stolen from Niger’s state coffers under the government of former president Mamadou Tandja.” Tandja is sitting in jail in southwestern Niger.
In March 2008, Robert Mugabe declared victory in the presidential election after waging a campaign of violence and intimidation on his opponent Morgan Tsvangirai and his supporters. In 2003, Mugabe boasted, “I am still the Hitler of the time. This Hitler has only one objective: justice for his people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people and their rights over their resources. If that is Hitler, then let me be Hitler tenfold. Ten times, that is what we stand for.” No one would disagree with Mugabe’s self-description. In 2010, Mugabe announced his plan to sell “about $1.7 billion of diamonds in storage” (probably rejects of his diamond-crazed wife Grace). According to a Wikileaks cablegram, “a small group of high-ranking Zimbabwean officials (including Grace Mugabe) have been extracting tremendous diamond profits.” Mugabe is so greedy that he stole outright “£4.5 million from [aid] funds meant to help millions of seriously ill people.”
In December 2007, Mwai Kibaki declared himself winner of the presidential election. In 2002, Kibaki, criticizing his predecessor Daniel Arap Moi regime, urged the people to “Remain calm, even when intimidated or provoked by those who are desperately determined to rig the elections and plunge the country into civil war.” In 2007, Kibaki and his thugees unleashed such violence against the civilian population that 1500 Kenyans were killed and some 600 hundred thousand displaced, almost plunging Kenya into civil war. The Kroll Report revealed that Moi stole billions of dollars using a “web of shell companies, secret trusts and frontmen” and secreted the loot in 30 countries. Kibaki stonewalled further action on the report, including prosecution of Moi.
The story of corruption, theft, embezzlement and brazen transfer of the national wealth of African peoples to European and African banks and corporate institutions is repeated elsewhere in the continent. Ex-Nigerian President Sani Abacha, who was judicially determined to be a member of a criminal organization by a Swiss court, stole $500 million. Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt also have their stolen assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars frozen in Switzerland and elsewhere. Other African thugtators who have robbed their people blind (and pretty much have gotten away with it) include Nigeria’s Ibrahim Babangida, Guniea’s Lansana Conte, Togo’s Gnassingbe Eyadema, Gabon’s Omar Bongo, Equatorial Guniea’s Obiang Nguema, Burkina Faso’s Blaise Campore and Congo’s (Brazaville) Denis Sassou Nguesso, among others.
Godfathers and African Thugogracies
In previous commentaries, I have argued that the business of African governments is corruption. African thugtators cling to power to operate sophisticated criminal business enterprises to loot their national treasuries and resources. These African “leaders” are actually “godfathers” or heads of criminal families. Just like any organized criminal enterprise, African thugtators use their party apparatuses, bureaucracies, military and police forces to maintain and perpetuate their corrupt financial empires.
When the U.S. first announced its “kleptocracy asset recovery program” to the world in July 2010, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder delivered the message, not at some international anti-corruption forum, but at the African Union Summit in Kampala, Uganda. Holder told the gathered African thugtators:
Today, I’m pleased to announce that the U.S. Department of Justice is launching a new Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative aimed at combating large-scale foreign official corruption and recovering public funds for their intended – and proper – use: for the people of our nations. We’re assembling a team of prosecutors who will focus exclusively on this work and build upon efforts already underway to deter corruption, hold offenders accountable, and protect public resources.
Holder’s announcement was nothing short of breathtaking. It was as though he was addressing the national convention of the “Commissione” of all the Mafia families from New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Atlantic City, Las Vegas, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. In Kampala, Holder was talking directly to the African equivalents of the Godfathers of the Bonnano, Columbo, Gambino, Genovese and Lucchese crime families in one place. Absolutely surreal!
The Political Economy of Thugtatorships
Thugtatorships in Africa thrive in the political economy of kleptocracy. Widespread corruption permeates every corner of society. Oil revenues, diamonds, gold bars, coffee and other commodities and foreign aid are stolen outright and pocketed by the thugtators and their army of thugocrats. Public funds are embezzled and misused and state property misappropriated and converted to private use. Publicly-owned assets are virtually given away to supporters in “privatization programs” or secretly held in illegal transactions. Bank loans are given out to front enterprises owned secretly by the thugtators or their supporters without sufficient or proper collateral. Businessmen must pay huge bribes or kickbacks to participate in public contracting and procurement. Those involved in the import/export business are victimized in shakedowns by thugocrats. The judiciary is thoroughly corrupted through political interference and manipulation.
Armageddon: Thugtators’ Nuclear Option
One of the common tricks used by thugtators to cling to power is to terrorize the people with warnings of an impending Armageddon. They say that if they are removed from power, even after 42 years, the sky will fall and the earth will open up and swallow the people. Thugtators sow fear, uncertainty and doubt in the population and use misinformation and disinformation to psychologically defeat, disorient and neutralize the people. Gaddafi thuggish son warned Libya will “spiral into civil war for the next 30 to 40 years and the country’s infrastructure ruined” without the Gadhafi dynasty. He said Libya will be awash in “rivers of blood”. Gadhafi urged his supporters: “This is an opposition movement, a separatist movement which threatens the unity of Libya. We will take up arms… we will fight to the last bullet. We will destroy seditious elements. If everybody is armed, it is civil war, we will kill each other.”
Zenawi has been talking about “genocide” for years. The 2005 European Union Election Observer Mission in its Final Mission Report strongly chastised Zenawi and his associates for morbid genocide rhetoric:
The end of the campaign became more heated, with parties accusing each other of numerous violations of campaign rules. Campaign rhetoric became insulting. The most extreme example of this came from the Deputy Prime Minister, Addisu Legesse, who, in a public debate on 15 April, compared the opposition parties with the Interhamwe militia, which perpetrated the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The Prime Minister made the same comparison on 5 May in relation to the CUD [Coalition for Unity and Democracy]. The EPRDF [Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front] made the same associations during its free slots on radio and TV… Such rhetoric is unacceptable in a democratic election.
Zenawi “is quick to talk up threats to his country, whether from malcontents in the army or disgruntled ethnic groups among Ethiopia’s mosaic of peoples. Radical Oromos, a southern group that makes up about a third of Ethiopia’s people, often fall under suspicion.” Last year, he compared Voice of America radio broadcasts to Ethiopia with broadcasts of Radio Mille Collines which directed the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
If Africa’s thugtators plan to use the “nuclear option” and bring Armageddon on their societies, they would be wise to know who is destined to win the final battle between good and evil. Gadhafi’s fate now dangles between what he wants to do to bring this unspeakable tragedy to a swift conclusion, the will of the Libyan people once they vanquish his mercenaries and the International Criminal Court to whom the U.N. Security Council has voted unanimously to refer Moammar Gadhafi and members of his government in Libya for investigation and prosecution for crimes against humanity and war crimes. Like al-Bashir of the Sudan, Gadhafi and members of his thugocratic empire will not escape the long arms of justice. The days of massacring unarmed demonstrators, strafing and bombing civilians and detention of innocent people by the tens of thousands with impunity are gone. Justice may be delayed but when the people open the floodgates of freedom, “justice (not blood) will run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream” and wash out the wreckage of thugtatorship into the sea.
Thugtators and Their Business Partners in Africorruption, Inc.
Africa’s thugtatorships have longstanding and profitable partnerships with the West. Through aid and trade, the West has enabled these thugocracies to flourish in Africa and repress Africans. To cover up their hypocrisy and hoodwink the people, the West is now lined up to “freeze” the assets of the thugtators. It is a drama they have perfected since the early days of African independence. The fact of the matter is that the West is interested only in “stability” in Africa. That simply means, in any African country, they want a “guy they can do business with.” The business they want to do in Africa is the oil business, the (blood) diamond business, the arms sales business, the coffee and cocoa export business, the tourism business, the luxury goods export business and the war on terrorism business. They are not interested in the African peoples’ business, the human rights business, the rule of law business, the accountability and transparency business and the fair and free elections business.
Today, the West is witnessing a special kind of revolution it has never seen: A youth-led popular nonviolent revolution against thugtatorships in Africa and the Middle East. Neither the West nor the thugtators know what to do with this kind of revolution or the revolutionaries leading it. President Obama said, “History will end up recording that at every juncture in the situation in Egypt, that we were on the right side of history.” Well, what is good for Egypt is good enough for Ethiopia, Libya, Tunisia, the Sudan, Algeria, Kenya, Bahrain, Djbouti, Somalia…, and Zimbabwe. The decisive question in world history today is: Are we on the right side of history with the victims of oppression, or are we on the wrong side with thugtators destined to the dustbin of history?
Power to Youths in Africa and the Middle East!