By Yilma Bekele
The press release was short and to the point. It was only six paragraphs long and was written in a matter of fact way. There were no trumpets blaring, no press conference with TV lights and no lavish dinner to commemorate the event. The announcement reminded me of the proverb ‘best things come in small packages.’ So it was without much fanfare I read the most important announcement on Abbay Media and Quatero. Tucked among the news was the announcement regarding the formation of Ginbot 7 Popular Force (GPF).
It is vintage G7. Doing what needs to be done in a deliberate and intelligent manner. Since their inception the folks of G7 have gone about building their organization, finding common ground with others and laying a firm and solid foundation to move our quest for freedom and dignity in a purposeful manner. Their accomplishment the last four years speaks volumes to their ability as leaders of a new style of struggle that is beginning to bear fruit.
As the establishment of ESAT was a game changer, as the successful meeting of mind with the OLF was a ground shaking event this announcement regarding the formation of Ginbot 7 Popular Forces is a monumental achievement in the annals of our struggle. It is a milestone in the evolution of our struggle to be free and democratic.
It is a brand new day in Ethiopia. Our struggle is entering a new phase. It is a necessary phase imposed upon our people by the belligerent and lawless regime. It was not an easy decision for the Front to make. No one relishes the idea of an armed confrontation especially with one’s own brothers and sisters but there comes a time when self-preservation becomes a vital issue. The short announcement makes that fact clear.
The TPLF regime has been in power for over twenty years now. The last twenty years have been a period of destabilization, conflict and agony for our people. No one can deny that. The result of this chaotic and illegal system is laid in front of us. Despite the much heralded so called ‘economic miracle’ thrown on our face our country is mired in famine and poverty, our children are scattered all over the world, our daughters are enslaved in the Middle East by the thousands, our people are denied the simple luxury of reading a free paper or listening to independent news and our jails are filled by innocent victims of a mad system.
This is what makes the formation of GPF a must and important component of our struggle. The Ethiopian people have tried every avenue open to let the regime know that the monopoly of power is not conducive to a just and harmonious system. Our people have bent backwards to accommodate the regime to change its aggressive ways. International organizations such as the European Union and others have tried to mediate. The arrogant and petty government has shown complete disregard to our needs and concerns.
That is why I wrote ‘leveling the playing field’ in the title. Violence is a two way street. Up until now the TPLF regime has the monopoly of violence. It has used it with impunity. The late dictator even used to taunt as to try fighting back. We are patient people. But despite the failings of the last few years we are also brave people. At long last we have decided to stand our ground and defend our people from evil. Self-defense is a God given right to every human being. It is time we in Ethiopia exercise that right.
We celebrate those that are still trying to let the TPLF regime know their peaceful intentions to bring change. It is to no one’s interest to shed blood in anger. The death of a single Ethiopian should be avoided at all cost. That can only happen when there is the rule of law in the country we call Ethiopia. It could not come about by a government based on a single ethnic group, by a government hell bent on monopolizing army, commerce, communications and politics by a chosen few.
GPF is our shield. GPF will prove to the arrogant TPLF army and security there will be consequences to aggression. As anything started by the seasoned leaders of Ginbot 7 there is no question GPF will prove itself to be a worthy child of Tewodros, Yohanes, Minilik, Aba Jifar, Tona and many other patriots. There is no question in my mind that the Ethiopian people will take GPF into their fold, love and nurture it. Our wish has been fulfilled and TPLF nightmare has just started.
There will be those that will try to belittle our effort and mock our resolve. Some will accuse the Diaspora of fanning the flames of war. No matter the die has been cast and the long journey has started. It is sad that in this day and age we have to pick up arms instead of the ballot to bring change. But one cannot choose his battle. This has been forced upon us. We have waited too long to respond in kind. Once we have started the process our job is to try to make it a short and less costly endeavor. Our responsibility is to encourage, support in any way possible and push our family, friends and the international community to stand with us at this time of great need.
We salute the combatants of GPF for their sacrifice on our behalf. We want them to know they are in our hearts and minds every waking moment of our life. We promise we will do all that we could in our part to help them achieve the goal of liberating our mother land from the clutches of darkness. Forward with the brave sons and daughters of Ethiopia, we your people in exile raise our hands in salute and shout so all can hear ‘Ethiopia is rising and a new day has begun!!!’ May you march in triumph as your ancestors did thru the millennium.
By Yilma Bekele
The news that the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) has decided to struggle for freedom in consort with all Democratic forces in Ethiopia is the best Christmas present the Ethiopian people gave themselves. There is no question we are entering a new chapter in our struggle to be free like any other human being. The decision by the leadership of the OLF is a very significant development that has a potential to tip the balance of power. If you ask me, two hands are always better than one.
As reported by Abebe Gelaw of ESAT the OLF at its Plenary National Council meeting held in Minnesota on December 30 and 31 “announced its historic decision to drop its long-held secessionist agenda and to embrace the unity of Ethiopia under a genuine federal arrangement that must guarantee the rights, equality and liberty of all Ethiopians.” What more can one ask for?
The OLF led by Brigadier General Kemal Gelchu made a very tough decision. All Ethiopians owe him a debt of gratitude for his farsighted leadership. The position he reversed is not an easy one. It took courage by him and the other leaders to take such undertaking. Generations of our Oromo people have grown with that aim as a call of duty. It will take a lot of work to change that.
Change is something that is difficult to accept. It is natural that most of us resist change. We all have our comfort zone and any thing different is disconcerting. The OLF and Brigadier General Gulchu’s decision is bound to disturb our comfort zone. That is what leadership is all about. This is not the first tough choice made by the Brigadier General. On August 8, 2008 he defected from the Ethiopian National Defense Forces with two hundred solders and officers with him.
As a person sworn to protect Ethiopia he did not look kindly at becoming an errand boy for TPLF. Upon defection he joined the OLF and rose to position of leadership. Today under his leadership the OLF is entering a new chapter. The Oromo people have paid a heavy price under different administrations. The rest of the Ethiopian people have suffered as well. The realization by the OLF that the bond that ties us together is so strong and deep that decoupling is not a worthy endeavor is a breath of fresh air. If this bold decision will shorten the suffering of our people even by a day we welcome it.
The new situation does not sit well with some people. It is understandable. Separation, secession, self-determination have been a mantra of the liberation movements in Ethiopia for the last fifty years. It is like all other liberation movements that emerged in the sixties. You know us we Ethiopians once we got hold of something we don’t let go. ELF, EPLF, OLF, TPLF stayed true to that religion of unending struggle. It has not brought us peace or prosperity. A new OLF is emerging from the old. A smarter and mature OLF that will satisfy the real needs of the Oromo people.
The lack of competent leadership has been the Achilles heel of the movement. Many so called ‘educated’ leaders have caused a lot of agony and hardship to the Oromo people. There is no need to pretend otherwise. Over fifty years of sacrifice and nothing much to show for it is a loud statement. The TPLF mafia group acerbated the problem by stocking hatred and animosity while ruling with an iron fist from the background. The OLF was reduced to peddling hate to collect revenue while exposing its constituents to abuse and shame. In today’s Democratic Ethiopia every prison, jail, detention center is filled by Oromo political prisoners.
Ginbot 7 Movement and Dr. Berhanu should be given credit for patiently working without much fanfare and prepare the ground necessary for such decision. It shows maturity by both organizations to put differences aside and work for the common good. There are only winners and no losers in this situation. The OLF press release states “The OLF National Council also focused on the timely demand of working with other democratic forces in forming the new Ethiopia that will guarantee and protect the fundamental rights of all peoples in Ethiopia. The new social contract will and should be based on the free will and consent of all peoples in Ethiopia.”
The job is half done. It is a very promising beginning. The real work starts now. Changing people’s hearts and minds is not an easy task. On the other hand if it were easy we would not be where we are now. The TPLF regime will do all it could to throw cold water at this news. It will go out of its way to dismiss it as useless. It will create bogus news and opinions to discredit the participants. The regime fears unity more than any army. It was the unity of all those organizations under the umbrella of Kinijit that exposed the hollowness of the TPLF regime. The unity of OLF with any other organization is their nightmare come true.
The news will also get its share of criticism from the opposition. It is understandable. After all separation was the only demand on the table. The leadership of the Fronts saw it as the magic cure. The central highlanders saw it as the final disintegration of Ethiopia. Most Ethiopian political leaders used the issue to further their own agenda. Some used it a recruiting tool regardless of the consequences. At the end it came to loose its meaning except to the people on the ground that are still paying the price for failed leadership and unholy alliances.
Some in the opposition are crying foul before they even saw the press release. That is nothing new either. We love to jump the gun and dive into condemnation and mudslinging. It is a shame when it comes from those that should know better. Reasoned and well research thesis that will enhance the discussion to higher level is what is expected. I am not against opposition to the new position as articulated by the OLF but I am only asking for a seasoned discussion that will take the aspirations of our people into consideration.
It is not a good idea to scratch the bottom of the barrel and emerge with such prize as “Oromo nationalism was built by successfully deconstructing the Ethiopian nationalism. Since 1991, the former has effectively displaced the later in Oromia and as a result an entire generation has been brought up with that narrative. Furthermore, despite its limits, self-rule has allowed the rise of millions of bureaucratic elites who have vested material and political interest in preserving the gains of the Oromo struggle and maintaining the nationalist narrative.”
What exactly does that mean? Has OPDO satisfied the aspirations of the Oromo masses? Are we praising it for raising a new generation that is programmed to hate Ethiopia? Is that Good? When did being mildly screwed pass as a fair reward or a fair exchange, is that what is meant by limited self-rule? Furthermore when did Bandas that serve the occupying force get elevated to future leaders? I hope we are not thinking of rewarding TPLF controlled Oromo thugs that have amassed huge fortune robbing the Oromo people and build the new Oromia on their shoulders? It is a wobbly foundation if you ask me.
I am assuming the so called ‘bureaucratic elites’ are the same ones that for example are selling and leasing fertile Oromo land to such as Flower growers that suck every drop of water from the rivers and streams, discharge carcinogen chemicals that will stay in the soil poisoning the drinking water for the next hundred years, that hire our Oromo girls of fifteen years old to spray the flowers with chemicals without adequate protection not even lousy gloves and increase the chances of respiratory and other disease with no health insurance and no compensation and no retirement – I will say these folks are not good material for a solid foundation.
Name-calling and cynical dismissal of our leaders efforts is not a winning strategy. The OLF and Ginbot 7 are not some garden-variety organizations to be dismissed lightly. They are doing what they believe is the right thing to relive the hardship of eighty million Ethiopians that are faced with hunger, disease and ignorance as we speak. We give our leaders the respect that is due. We respect them for their vision of a better future, intelligent leadership, and their sacrifice of family and profession while working on our behalf. That is not much to ask.
Both Dr. Berhanu and Brigadier General Kemal are successful in their own right. That is why they have attained such a high level in our society and the profession they choose. They did not kill, bribe, threaten or bully to reach where they are now. We should encourage such behavior in our leaders. They are just like us and they should act like one of us. I do not have the pleasure of meeting the brigadier General but I have the honor of meeting Dr. Berhanu. I found him to be both humble and real in the way he looks at himself and his surrounding. I like it when my leader is just like me not someone that sits on my shoulder constantly telling me how better and different he is from me. If we don’t show them respect who would?
We welcome our Oromo brothers and sisters. It will not be an exaggeration to suggest that it will be very rare to find an Ethiopian with out a trace of Oromo in him. That was one of the reasons the concept of separation of Oromia from the rest of Ethiopia did not get traction. It was not because there was no national oppression, it was not because there was no injustice but rather the prescription being suggested for the disease did not feel right.
It is very unfortunate for our country and people that we are a witness to such malpractice by TPLF Doctors regarding Eritrea. Separation was the medicine administered to the illness we had. It did not take long to see how wrong it was. Today both people are paying the price. Mistake was made. People’s lives were ruined. We hope future generation will set this right and bring children of the same mother together again. It will happen. Take my word for it.
What makes every Ethiopian happy is this single step taken by the OLF leaders. A single bold step in the right direction is what I thought. Our role will be to sing ‘wefe komech, wefe komech’ stretch our arms and make sure no one fails. We are not into looking back at what happened yesterday. Why do that when tomorrow is a brand new day and we can create a new reality. We are going to get rid of our old baggage. We do not obsess about our past failings but look forward to what can be achieved when we work together. That is the message of OLF to the rest of us. It is smart to hit the reset button and start new and fresh.
It is a good beginning for 2012. We can build a lasting union on solid foundation starting now. We urge the leaders to involve as many people as possible in this national dialogue. This is our school in building a brand new Ethiopia. No one has failed like us so we really can turn that negative experience into a valuable lesson. Our association with the TPLF virus and the Derg germ though depilating hopefully have given us a good dose of anti body for a long and bitter struggle.
Our vow for the New Year should be ‘I have heard, listened, experienced the atrocities of the TPLF regime now it is time to do what is necessary to liberate myself.’ It is true you cannot liberate others while you are still a slave. We are slaves to old ideas, old biases and old-fashioned way of thinking. Starting 2012 we are going to think different. We are going to judge others as we judge ourselves. We are not going to wait for others to liberate us while we sit on the side watching. That does not work. That has never worked. To own your freedom you have to work for it.
I am not being a blind cheerleader. There will be bumps on the road. In order to minimize unfortunate misunderstandings I believe the best remedy is to stay vigilant and be part of the struggle. It is a lot better to contribute sincerely and positively to enhance the quality of the struggle. Nitpicking and negative comments will only help those that are working overtime to protect their ill-gotten power and wealth and that is exactly what we claim not to want.
Let me say something before some of you raise it. I am qualified to say all I said because I am an Ethiopian. If you want more I am an Amhara, a Gurage, and an Oromo born in Sidama. I share blood with all the first three groups and due to birth I have a strong affinity with my Sidama brothers and sisters. I am a rainbow Ethiopian. Melkam Gena.
Alemayehu G. Mariam
Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye in Kangaroo Court
The old adage is that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” Could it be said equally that arrogance excuses ignorance of the law? Dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi recently proclaimed the guilt of freelance Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye on charges of “terrorism” while visiting Norway. He emphatically declared that the duo had crossed into Ethiopia from Somalia with insurgents of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) as terrorist accomplices and collaborators: “They are, at the very least, messenger boys of a terrorist organization. They are not journalists. Why would a journalist be involved with a terrorist organization and enter a country with that terrorist organization, escorted by armed terrorists, and participate in a fighting in which this terrorist organization was involved? If that is journalism, I don’t know what terrorism is.”
At a “court” hearing last week, Persson denied the charges: “My intention was to do my job as a journalist and describe the conflict. Nothing else. Not guilty.” Schibbye admitted “entering the country without proper documentation. For that I am guilty and I apologize to the government of Ethiopia. But I am not guilty of terrorist activity.” Shimeles Kemal, the “chief prosecutor” was full of hyperbole when he laid out his “legal” case in a press conference. He claimed the two journalists “entered the country with a gang of terrorists. They have even been trained in using weapons. They are accused of abetting and rendering professional assistance to terrorists. Their activities go a bit beyond just journalistic news gathering.”
Criminalizing, demonizing and dehumanizing journalists, opposition leaders and dissidents as “terrorists”, “insurrectionists”, “treasonous” traitors, etc. isZenawi’s signature M.O. (method of operation). When Zenawi jailed editors of several newspapers following the 2005 elections, he described them in much the same way: “For us, these are not just journalists. They will not be charged for violating the press laws. They will charged, like the CUD leaders, for treason.” This past June, Zenawi ordered the arrest and detention of two young and dynamic journalists, Woubshet Taye, deputy editor of the weekly Awramba Times and Reeyot Alemu, columnist for the weekly Feteh, on fuzzy accusations of terrorism. Last month, Zenawi’s “chief prosecutor” ordered the arrest and detention of the distinguished Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega “for conspiring with terrorist organizations such as Ginbot 7 and other foreign forces who wanted to wreak havoc in the country through their terrorist activities.” When Zenawi wants to jail journalists, he simply brands them as “terrorists” or smears them with a similar label and carts them off to jail.
The Committee to Protect Journalists roundly condemned Zenawi’s statement as “compromising” the Swedish journalists’ human right to a “presumption of innocence and for predetermining the outcome of their case”. But much more is compromised, including the rule of law, principles of due process and fair trial, the universal principle that it is the accuser, and not the accused, who bears the burden of proof in a criminal case, the principle that guilt is proven in a court of law with an independent judiciary and not before a full court press or the court of international opinion. Ultimately, Zenawi’s statement compromised justice itself.
When Zenawi tagged these two journalists as “terrorist messenger boys” and “participants in the actions of a terrorist organization”, he had in fact sealed their fate and pronounced the final word in kangaroo justice. There is no way that Persson and Schibbye could possibly get a fair trial or not be convicted following such an outrageous and egregiously depraved statement by Zenawi.
Difference Between Journalists and Terrorists
Zenawi sarcastically mocked the two Swedish journalists by rhetorically asking if what they did is “journalism, I don’t know what terrorism is.” Zenawi is entitled to some basic clarification by means of concrete examples. War crimes (“the wanton destruction of cities, towns and villages, and any devastation not justified by military or civilian necessity [Geneva Convention]” are acts of state terrorism. So are crimes against humanity (“widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, murder, forcible transfer of population, imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law, torture, [Rome Statute]”. The “systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective” by an “extremely powerful political police against an atomized and defenseless population” is plain old-fashioned terrorism that is familiar to the average Ethiopian citizen.
When journalists are embedded with a regular or an irregular military unit and go into a conflict or war zone, they are engaged in “combat journalism”. When journalists dig for facts in places where there is an official news blackout, they are engaged in investigative journalism. When journalists undertake dangerous assignments and cover stories firsthand from a war zone, they are often called war correspondents. When independent reporters, writers and photojournalists accept specific assignments to cover particular stories, they are engaged in freelance journalism. It is because of freelance journalists that the world has come to know so much about the war crimes and human rights abuses that took place in such places like Kosovo, Angola, Sierra Leone, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Liberia and many other places.
Oftentimes insurgent and rebel groups distrust professional journalists affiliated with established news organizations. They are more likely to cooperate with freelance journalists who often take great risks to their own safety to undertake firsthand investigations by entering a country at war or in conflict without a visa. Schibbye has been a foreign correspondent and freelance journalist for several newspapers, including The Times, Amelia and Proletären. He has worked in Algeria, the Philippines, Cuba, Syria and Vietnam, among other countries. Persson has worked with Kontinent, a Swedish photojournalist agency, for several years and taken many dangerous assignments in various countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. Both are professional journalists, and until now have never been suspected of any terrorist activity or involvement of any kind by any other country or international agency.
The Human Right to a Fair Trial
Zenawi seems to be uninformed, willfully ignorant or recklessly indifferent to the human rights of the two journalists. The fact of the matter is that Persson and Schibbye are presumed to be innocent of any and all charges of “terrorism” until they have been given a fair chance to defend themselves and their guilt proven beyond a reasonable doubt by their accusers in court. So says the Ethiopian Constitution under Art. 20 (3): “During proceedings accused persons have the right to be presumed innocent.” So says the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) under Art. 11: “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which they have had all the guarantees necessary for their defence.” So says the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) under Art. 14 (2): “Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall have the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.” So says the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) under Art. 7 (b): “The right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty by a competent court or tribunal.” Art. 13 (2) of the Ethiopian Constitution provides double guarantees: “The fundamental rights and freedoms enumerated in this Chapter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international human rights covenants and conventions ratified by Ethiopia.” (Also art. 9 (4).) Ethiopia ratified the UDHR in 1948, the ICCPR in 1993 and the ACHPR in 1998.
Article 13(1) mandates Zenawi to respect and enforce the provisions of the Constitution, including Article 20 (3). He violated his constitutional duty under Art. 9 (2) by publicly declaring the guilt of Persson and Schibbye and characterizing them as “messenger boys of terrorists”, “participants in terrorism” and terrorist accomplices before they have had a chance to present a defense and a determination of their guilt made by a fair and neutral tribunal.
The presumption of innocence is the “golden thread” in the laws of all civilized nations. It is the gold standard of fundamental fairness which places the entire burden of proof in a criminal case on the state. It is the singular duty of the prosecution representing the state to present compelling and legally admissible evidence in court to convince the trier of fact that the accused is guilty of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. Persson and Schibbye guilt is not to be proven in a press conference in Oslo or in the court of public opinion.
The presumption of innocence requires that there be no pronouncement of guilt of the defendant by responsible officials likely to have a role or influence the judicial process prior to a finding of guilt by a court. Even when prosecutors make statements concerning the defendant to inform the public on the status of their investigation or articulate their suspicion of guilt, they have a legal and ethical duty to do so in a factual manner and narrowly limited to the allegedly violated laws, while always exercising reasonable care not to unduly prejudice the defendant’s right to a presumption of innocence or improperly influence the fact finder.
Trial by Diktat
Expecting a fair trial in kangaroo court is like expecting democracy in a dictatorship. Persson and Schibbye will be convicted by Zenawi’s diktat just as the journalists and opposition leaders were convicted before them. Following the 2005 election, Zenawi publicly declared: “The CUD (Kinijit) leaders are engaged in insurrection — that is an act of treason under Ethiopian law. They will be charged and they will appear in court.” They appeared in “court” and were convicted. In December 2008, Zenawi railroaded Birtukan Midekssa, the first female political party leader in Ethiopian history, to prison on the bogus charge that she had denied receiving a pardon. She was not even accorded the ceremonial kangaroo court proceedings. Zenawi sent her straight from the street into solitary confinement by diktat and sadistically delcared: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” He “pardoned” her in October 2010. In 2009, Zenawi’s right hand man labeled 40 defendants awaiting trial “desperadoes” who planned to “assassinate high ranking government officials and destroying telecommunication services and electricity utilities and create conducive conditions for large scale chaos and havoc.” They were all “convicted” and given long sentences. For Zenawi, court trials are nothing more than circus sideshows staged for the benefit of Western donors who know better but go along to get along.
No Fair Trial Possible for the Swedish Journalists in Kangaroo Court
Everyone knows the charge of “terrorism” against Persson and Schibbye is bogus. It is a trumped up charge made by prosecutors who are directed, pressured, threatened and politically manipulated. Everyone knows there are no independent judges who preside in cases involving defendants facing “terrorism” and other political charges. Everyone knows the so-called judges in terrorism “trials” are party hacks and lackeys enrobed in judicial regalia. This is not the conclusion of a partisan advocate but the considered view of the U.S. Government and various international human rights organizations. Human Rights Watch concluded in its 2007 report: “In high-profile cases, courts show little independence or concern for defendants’ procedural rights… The judiciary often acts only after unreasonably long delays, sometimes because of the courts’ workloads, more often because of excessive judicial deference to bad faith prosecution requests for time to search for evidence of a crime.” The 2010 U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices concluded: “The law provides for an independent judiciary. Although the civil courts operated with a large degree of independence, the criminal courts remained weak, overburdened, and subject to significant political intervention and influence.”
Everyone also knows that there is no such thing as the rule of law in Ethiopia because dictatorship is very antitheses of the rule of law. Zenawi’s diktat is “The Law”, which trumps the constitution and all international human rights conventions. Ethiopia’s former president and parliamentarian Dr. Negasso Gidada described the so-called antiterrorism law as a tool of legalized terrorism which “violates citizens’ rights to privacy” and the “ rights of all peoples of Ethiopia…Such laws are manipulated to weaken political roles of opposition groups there by arresting and prosecuting them using the bill as a cover. Another major opposition leader, Bulcha Demeksa, described the same “law” as a “a weapon designed by the ruling party not only to weaken and totally eliminate all political opponents.” In other words, the “anti-terrorism law” under which the two Swedish journalists are charged is a weapon of mass incarceration and intimidation of political opponents and journalists, mass persecution of the political opposition and mass oppression of the civilian population.
The Silence of Sweden
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt has been severely criticized for his apparent indifference and failure to help the two Swedish journalists or even publicly demand their release in light of the bogus terrorism charges. Critics argue that Bildt dragged his feet and failed to secure their release in the crucial first days of the detention of the two journalists because of a potential conflict of interest as the two journalists were also investigating the activities of a company affiliated to Lundin Petroleum, a Swedish oil group which has natural gas operations in the Ogaden. Bildt is said to have served as board member of Lundin Petroleum, prior to becoming foreign minister. In January 2009, Swedish International Development Cooperation Minister Gunilla Carlsson issued a statement declaring that the “imprisonment of Birtukan Midekssa is a source of great concern both for her personally and for democratic development in Ethiopia. The scope for democracy and pluralism is shrinking in Ethiopia. The imprisonment of Mrs Midekssa and the recently adopted law regulating the activities and funding of NGOs (non-governmental organisations) are examples of this negative development.”
Swedish journalist and writer Bengt Nilsson has argued that Sweden for decades has turned a blind eye as its development aid has been used to support dictatorships and finance wars in Africa. The Swedish government’s “new policy for Africa” claims to be based upon “economic growth, deeper democracy and stronger protection of human rights as the basis for development in Africa.” How the Swedish government will “deal” its way out of the “crisis” of the two journalists will show if Sweden will continue to support African dictatorships or use it aid dollars to help democratize Africa and protect the human rights of the African peoples.
What is the Kangaroo Trial of the Swedish Journalists Really About?
Back in August 2010, Zenawi announced he will close his embassy in Sweden because “there is no development cooperation program of any substance between us and Sweden. There is no major trading relationship between us and Sweden, and no significant investment coming from Sweden to Ethiopia. It was not worthwhile to have an embassy [in Sweden]”. Diplomacy for Zenawi is striclty business. Without being too cynical, one could surmise that the terrorism charge against the two Swedish journalists is intended to provide a diversionary cover for Zenawi’s real agenda. Given Zenawi’s past M.O., it is manifest that he aims to use this opportunity to extract some major concessions from the Swedes: “If they want Persson and Schibbye freed, it’s gonna cost ’em. What are the Swedes willing to pay? How about reopneing the aid pipeline? After all, Ethiopia is the first country to have received Swedish aid back in 1954. How about some cash loans? Increased trade? Perhaps new investments? It is said that the largest investor in the whole of Sweden is an Ethiopian.” Let’s make a deal!
There is no way Zenawi could jail Persson and Schibbye for fifteen years as terrorists. He will galvanize Swedish and European Union public opinion against him personally and very possibly trigger devastating sanctions that will completely paralyze his regime. Even the Americans who have been turning a blind eye for all these years may finally take a look and tell Zenawi enough is enough. So, there is no question that after the kangaroo court circus is over Persson and Schibbye will be released. As usual, Zenawi will grandstand and declare the two journalists have been pardoned and released after they admitted guilt, expressed remorse and so on. The Swedes and some of the Western countries will play their part and congratulate him for doing the right thing and acting magnaimously; and he will continue with business as usual—more Ethiopian journalists will be jailed and threatened, dissidents harassed and opposition leaders persecuted. But the lesson remains the same: By manufacturing a bogus crisis, Zenawi, true to form, would have once again outwitted, outfoxed, outsmarted, outmaneuvered, outpoliticked, outtricked, outfinessed and outplayed his timorous Western benefactors. As the old saying goes, one has to give the devil his due for a job well done! Bravissimo!
Release all political prisoners in Ethiopia, NOW!
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ andhttp://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/
By Alemayehu G. Mariam
The Berlin Conference of 2009
In 1884, the Berlin Conference was convened by the European imperial powers to carve out colonial territories in Africa. It was called the “Scramble for Africa”.
In 2009, another Berlin Conference was convened by a high level group of diplomats (referring to themselves as the “partners”) from the U.S. and several European countries to hammer out an “agreement” on what to do (and not do) in the Horn of Africa.
According to a recently released Wikileaks cablegram, with respect to Ethiopia, the partners “agreed [on] Ethiopia’s key role in the region” and “the need to support and observe its May 2010 elections.” They acknowledged “Meles as a regional leader, pointing out he would represent Africa on climate change in Copenhagen.” They agreed Meles is “intent on retaining power” and that he is “a guy you can do business with”. They expressed doubts about “being associated with a likely imperfect process” that could result from the May 2010 elections (which subsequently produced a 99.6 percent win for Meles’ party), but “they nonetheless agreed on the importance of international involvement in the elections.”
The German and French partners debated “Ethiopia’s economic situation, namely [the] hard currency and the poor investment climate.” The German diplomat suggested that Ethiopia’s economic problems could be traced to “Meles’ poor understanding of economics”. The French diplomat argued that “Meles actually had a good understanding of economics, but was hampered by his ideological beliefs.” In a single sentence, out of the blue, the partners ganged up and whipsawed the entire Ethiopian opposition: “The [Ethiopian] political opposition is weak, disunited, and out of touch with the average Ethiopian, partners agreed.”
For quite some time, foreign journalists have been reporting wholly disparaging and categorically dismissive remarks about Ethiopia’s opposition by anonymous Western diplomats. In February 2010, I wrote a commentary decrying and protesting the cowardly and scandalous statements issued by Western diplomats hiding behind the veil of journalistic anonymity. I complained that the derisive characterizations were not only unfair, inaccurate and self-serving, but also dispiriting, disheartening and demeaning of Ethiopia’s besieged opposition. It is gratifying to finally put faces to the surly anonymous lips.
Is the Ethiopian political opposition “weak and disunited”?
It is true that the Ethiopian “political opposition is weak and disunited”, an issue I have addressed on previous occasions. But Western governments seem to be conveniently oblivious of the reasons for the disarray in the opposition. For two decades, Meles Zenawi and his regime have done everything in their power to keep the opposition divided, defeated, discombobulated and dysfunctional. Zenawi has pursued the opposition relentlessly often comparing them to Rwanda’s interhamwe (meaning “those who stand/work/fight/attack together”) genociders. In 2005, he rounded up almost all of the major opposition political and civic leaders, human rights advocates, journalists and dissidents in the country and jailed them for nearly two years on charges of genocide, among many others. Zenawi’s own Inquiry Commission has documented that hundreds of peaceful opposition demonstrators were massacred in the streets and over thirty thousand suspected opposition members jailed in the aftermath of the May 2005 elections. In 2008, Zenawi jailed Birtukan Midekssa, the first female opposition political party leader in Ethiopian history, on the ridiculous charge of “denying a pardon”. He put her in solitary confinement and categorically and absolutely ruled out any possibility of freedom for her declaring: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” (He let go in October 2010.)
Zenawi has demonized a major opposition group as a “terrorist” organization bent on “creating a rift between the government and the people of Oromiya.” In his pursuit of the opposition, he has “used extreme force trapping the civilian population between the insurgents and the government forces.” He put on trial and sentenced to death various alleged “members” of Ginbot 7 Movement, and contemptuously described the Movement as an organization of “amateur part-time terrorists”. He has intimidated and verbally shredded his former comrade-in-arms who have stood with the opposition and rhetorically clobbered his critics as “muckrakers,” “mud dwellers”, “sooty,” “sleazy,” “pompous egotists” and good-for-nothing “chaff” and “husk.” He even claimed the opposition was “dirtying up the people like themselves.” Opposition parliamentarians are routinely humiliated in public and treated like delinquent children. In parliamentary exchanges, they are mocked for their pronunciation of English words.
When opposition leaders went on the campaign trial in 2010, they were prevented from meeting with voters in their districts as former president Dr. Negasso Gidada and others have documented. Opposition political and civic leaders and dissidents are kept under 24-hour surveillance, and the people they meet are intimidated and harassed. The culture of fear that permeates every aspect of society is reinforced by a structure of repression that is vertically integrated from the very top to the local (kebele) level making peaceful opposition impossible. Unless one is a member of the ruling party, the chances of higher education, employment and other privileges are next to nil. By becoming part of the opposition, the average and not-so-average Ethiopian invites political persecution, economic hardship and social isolation. Under such circumstances, is it any wonder that the Ethiopian opposition is weak and disunited? Is it not ironic that Western donors are unwilling to help the opposition in any way (including giving moral support) yet skulk behind journalistic anonymity to heap dismissive contempt on them while turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to flagrant abuses of human rights and misuse of their aid money to buy votes?
Is the Ethiopian opposition “out of touch with the average Ethiopian”?
The gratuitous backhanded slap on the face of the Ethiopian opposition as “out of touch with the average Ethiopian” has caused disappointment among some political and civic leaders. But the evidence shows that the Western “partners” may actually be right! For instance, Birtukan Midekssa was completely out of touch with any Ethiopian, except her mother and young daughter, for nearly two years. She was spending time in solitary confinement in Kality prison, a/k/a Kality Hilton, feasting on gourmet food and “putting on weight”, according to one highly placed source. Following the May 2005 elections, for almost two years, nearly all of the country’s opposition party leaders, leading journalists, human rights activists and civic society advocates were completely out of touch with any Ethiopian, except their jailors, at the same Kality Hilton. As to opposition party members and dissidents, tens of thousands of them have completely disappeared from the face of the earth over the past decade alone and are out of touch with anyone. Tens of thousands more are held incommunicado as political prisoners in secret jails. In light of this evidence, could it be denied that the Ethiopian opposition is completely out of touch with the average and not-so-average Ethiopian?
Is the ruling regime in touch with the average Ethiopian?
One would have to answer that question in the affirmative. The whole idea of a police state is to make sure that the rulers stay in very close touch with the average citizen. Zenawi’s regime stays in close touch with the average Ethiopian using the services of hundreds of thousands of secret police operatives and informants spying on each individual. Dr. Gidada has documented one of the common ways the regime stays in extremely close touch with the people:
The police and security offices and personnel collect information on each household through other means. One of these methods involves the use of organizations or structures called “shane”, which in Oromo means “the five”. Five households are grouped together under a leader who has the job of collecting information on the five households… The security chief passes the information he collected to his chief in the higher administrative organs in the Qabale, who in turn informs the Woreda police and security office. Each household is required to report on guests and visitors, the reasons for their visits, their length of stay, what they said and did and activities they engaged in. … The OPDO/EPRDF runs mass associations (women, youth and micro-credit groups) and party cells (“fathers”, “mothers” and “youth”). The party cells in the schools, health institutions and religious institutions also serve the same purpose….
The average and not-so-average Ethiopian looking for a government job or applying for a business license needs to be in close touch with the powers that be to get one. The regime is so in touch with the average and not-so-average Ethiopian that they want them to hear only what they have to say. They have jammed the transmissions of the Voice of America, opposition satellite broadcasts and filtered out websites of regime critics.
Are the Western donors “in touch with the average Ethiopian”?
Western donors are very much in touch with the average Ethiopian, that is in the same way as they were in touch with the average Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni, Bahraini and so on. They were so in touch with the average citizens of these countries that they anticipated and correctly predicted the recent popular uprisings. That was the reason President Obama “applauded” the people for throwing Ben Ali out of Tunisia. The U.S. was so in touch with the realities of the average Egyptian over the past 30 years that President Obama and his foreign policy team froze in stunned silence, flat-footed and twiddling their thumbs and scratching their heads for days before staking out a position on the popular uprising. They could not bring themselves to use the “D” words (dictator, democracy) to describe events in Egypt. Western governments were also very much in touch with Hosni Mubarak floating his ship of state on an ocean of corruption and repression with billions of dollars in military and economic aid. They are very much in touch with Zenawi; after all he is the “guy you can do business with,” a partner. Truth be told, they have done tons of business with him over the past 20 years, no less than $26 billion!
Who is “the average Ethiopian”?
Who is the “average Ethiopian” whose contact is so highly prized and coveted? It seems s/he has an average life expectancy at birth of less than 45 years. S/he lives on less than $USD 1 per day. S/he is engaged in subsistence agriculture eking out a living. S/he survives on a daily intake of 800 calories (starvation level). S/he can neither read nor write. If s/he is sick, she has a 1 chance in 39,772 persons to see a doctor, 1 in 828,000 to see a dentist, 1 in 4,985 chance to see a nurse. She has little or no access to family planning services, reproductive health and emergency obstetric services and suffers from high maternal mortality during childbirth. She is a victim of gender discrimination, domestic violence and female genital mutilation. She has fewer employment and educational opportunities than the “average” man and is not paid equal pay for equal work. S/he is likely to die from malaria and other preventable infectious diseases, severe shortages of clean water and poor sanitation. The “average” Ethiopian youth is undereducated, underemployed and underappreciated with little opportunity for social mobility or economic self-sufficiency. The “average” urban adolescent is unemployed and a drop out from school. S/he is frustrated and in despair of his/her future and is likely to engage in a fatal pattern of risky behaviors including drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse, crime and delinquency and sexual activity which exposes him/her to a risk of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases including HIV. The “average” child has a high likelihood of being orphaned and die from malnutrition and is vulnerable to all forms of exploitation, including child labor and sexual. So, who really is in touch with the “average Ethiopian”!?!
Be In Touch With the Youth
Regardless of how the Western donors define the “average Ethiopian”, the fact is that s/he is a young person. An estimated 67 percent of the population is under the age of 30, of which 43 percent is below the age of 15. Two of history’s evil men understood the importance of staying in touch with the youth population. Vladmir Lenin, the founder of the totalitarian Soviet state said, “Give me just one generation of youth, and I’ll transform the whole world.” His counterpart in the Third Reich said, “he alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.” Both failed because they wanted to use the youths as cannon fodder for their warped vision of world domination. Africa’s dictators have ignored and neglected the youths and consigned them to a life of poverty and despair. They have tried to put in the service of their dictatorial rule Africa’s best and brightest. They too will fail.
The demographic data on Africa’s youth is frightening. As Africa urbanizes rapidly and its population population continues to grow uncontrollably (expected to increase from 294 million to 742 million between 2000 and 2030), the number of young people trapped in poverty, hungry and angry will multiply by the tens of millions per year. Frustrated, desperate and denied political space, they will become the powder keg that will implode African societies. African dictators and their Western partners continue to delude themselves into believing that the youth will continue to passively accept and tolerate corruption, repression, abuse of power and denial of basic human rights. But a new generation of African youths is rising up declaring: “Enough is Enough!”
Revolutionary Democracy Meets “Facebook” Democracy in Ethiopia
If Tunisia and Egypt are an indication, Zenawi’s vision of revolutionary democracy will in due course collide with the “Facebook” democracy (tech savvy young people creating a functioning civic community using information technology) taking over Africa’s youth. Zenawi wrote:
When Revolutionary Democracy permeates the entire society, individuals will start to think alike and all persons will cease having their own independent outlook. In this order, individual thinking becomes simply part of collective thinking because the individual will not be in a position to reflect on concepts that have not been prescribed by Revolutionary Democracy.
This is not democracy (revolutionary or reactionary). In the old days, such “democracy” was called fascism where the national leader (Der Fuhrer) sought to create “organic unity” of the body politic by imposing upon the people uniformity of thought and action through violence, legal compulsion and intense social pressure. It is no longer possible to brainwash, mind control and indoctrinate impressionable young people with meaningless ideology as though they are helpless and fatuous members of a weird religious cult. The days of programming human beings as jackbooted robots marching to the order of “Der Fuhrer” are long gone.
“Facebook” democrats reject any totalitarian notions of “individual thinking becoming part of collective thinking”. They do not need a single mind, a single party, a single operating system to do the thinking for them. Africa’s youths have their own unique outlook and independent voice on their present circumstances and their future. History shows that every regime that has sought to force unanimity of opinion and belief among its citizens has found the unanimity of the graveyard. When free speech, free press and the rule of law permeate society, and human rights and the voices of the people are respected and protected, citizens will experience dignity and self-respect and muster the courage and determination to forge their own destinies.
There are enough young Africans with the idealism, creativity, knowledge, technical ability and genius to transform the old fear-ridden Africa into their own brave new Africa. In this effort, they do not need the guiding hands or the misguided ideas of ideologues from a bygone era. Western partners have the choice of supporting a brave new Africa of young people on the march or they can continue their “partnership” in the crime of democricide with the old “stable” police states careening to the dustbin of history. With the recent departure of two of the most powerful and entrenched police chiefs, and others teetering, the West may not be able to shoehorn the youths of (the Horn of) Africa into silence and submission from boardrooms in Berlin, Washington, London, Rome, Paris…
Power to Africa’s Youths!
Alemayehu G. Mariam
Beware of Those Who Bear Olive Branches
“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” goes the old saying. I say beware of those bearing fake olive branches. In many societies, “extending an olive branch” symbolizes an act of reconciliation, goodwill and peace. In ancient Greece and Rome, people gave each other olive branches as tokens of their intention to bury the hatchet and make up. The ancient Greeks are also remembered for the hollow wooden horse they used to outwit their Trojan enemies and destroy their city.
Following his 99.6 per cent “election victory” this past May, Ethiopia’s dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi gave a speech offering the opposition a bouquet of olive branches. He solemnly “pledge[d] to all the parties who did not succeed in getting the support of the people… as long as you respect the will of the people and the country’s Constitution and other laws of the land, we will work by consulting and involving you in all major national issues. We are making this pledge not only because we believe that we should be partners… [but also] you have the right to participate and to be heard.” Basically, he promised to set up a special “kitchen cabinet” for the opposition to come in and chit-chat (“consult and get involved”) with him after hours.
Last week, Zenawi singled out two opposition organizations and signaled his intention to move from confrontations to “consultations” and “negotiations”:
… Concerning negotiations with the OLF (Oromo Liberation Front), Ginbot 7, the main thing has to do with principles. The first principle is peacefully resolving differences which is a civilized and appropriate strategy. Second, the way we can bring peace to our country is to accept the Constitution and the constitutional process and to be ready to pursue one’s aims peacefully. We are ready to negotiate with any organization, group or even disgruntled individual that accepts these principles and is prepared to return to the constitutional fold.
Is Zenawi’s offer of olive branches a Trojan Horse to finally put an end to all those who oppose his dictatorial rule?
A Trojan Horse Through the Looking Glass
In a recent commentary entitled, “Speaking Truth to the Powerless”, I observed:
Zenawi knows the opposition like the opposition does not know itself. He has studied them and understands how they (do not) work. Careful analysis of his public statements on the opposition over the years suggests a rather unflattering view. He considers opposition leaders to be his intellectual inferiors; he can outwit, outthink, outsmart, outplay, outfox and outmaneuver them any day of the week. He believes they are dysfunctional, shiftless and inconsequential, and will never be able to pose a real challenge to his power. In his speeches and public comments, he shows nothing but contempt and hatred for them. At best, he sees them as wayward children who need constant supervision, discipline and punishment to keep them in line. Like children, he will offer some of them candy — jobs, cars, houses and whatever else it takes to buy their silence. Those he cannot buy, he will intimidate, place under continuous surveillance and persecute. Mostly, he tries to fool and trick the opposition. He will send “elders” to talk to them and lullaby them to sleep while he drags out “negotiations” to buy just enough time to pull the rug from underneath them. He casts a magical spell on them so that they forget he is the master of the zero-sum game (which means he always wins and his opposition always loses)… For the first time in nearly twenty years, he is now changing his tune a little because the opposition seems to be wising up and Western donors are grimacing with slight embarrassment for supporting him. The kinder and gentler face of Zenawi is slowly being rolled out.
Why “Negotiations” Now?
It is not clear why Zenawi is calling for “negotiations” now. For nearly twenty years, he has recoiled with disdain at the very suggestion of negotiations with the opposition. He apparently sees the need for it now. Why? Could it be because he understands the status quo is unlikely to hold much longer? Is it his way of recapturing some international legitimacy for his rule and regime? Surely, he must know that his Western patron saints who pour billions of dollars to prop up his regime regard him as just another tin pot African dictator who must be tolerated and humored to facilitate their interests in Africa. Long gone are the days of adulation of Zenawi as one of the “new breed of African leaders”. It is possible that there is quiet donor pressure? The intelligence services of the various donor countries have mapped out alternative scenarios for Ethiopia’s future as Zenawi begins his third decade of dictatorship; and none of them looks pretty.
It may be that Zenawi feels the heat of the long smoldering ambers of collective anger and outrage percolating to the surface? Maybe he realizes that he cannot crush all of his opposition forever, and the tables could turn any day. Maybe he wants to use negotiations tactically to divide and destroy his opposition by co-opting some of them and letting the others self-destruct in dogfights over the bones he will throw at them. Maybe he sees the despair of 80 million people and is gripped by a gnawing sense of anxiety and feels he must do something before it is too late for him and his regime. It is possible that he may be sending up a trial balloon to see if the opposition will take the bait? Maybe he is just grandstanding. He wants to impress his sugar daddy Western donors that he is a reasonable man of peace, and the opposition leaders are just a bunch of “extremists” and “terrorists” uninterested in peaceful dispute resolution. Maybe he is playing one of his silly “gotcha” games as he did during the so-called “election code of conduct” negotiations. When leaders of the major opposition parties showed up in good faith to negotiate, he laughed in their faces and told them to take a hike. Subsequently, he threatened to throw them in jail for not abiding by a “code” they did not sign. Maybe he is convinced that he can outwit and outfox the opposition at the conference table. Maybe, just maybe, he is really genuine and wants a negotiated settlement in the “best interest of the nation.” There are recent precedents for such things in Africa. The mule-headed octogenarian Robert Mugabe snagged a deal with Morgan Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe. Emilio Mwai Kibaki cut a deal with Raila Odinga in Kenya. Maybe it is all or none of the above. I don’t have the foggiest idea why Zenawi is now calling for negotiations, but the whole exercise seems absurd to me.
Can One Reasonably Negotiate With “Terrorists, Amateur Part-time Terrorists and Lifers”?
Zenawi’s offer to negotiate face to face (not in his usual backdoor elder-style negotiations) with the OLF and Ginbot 7 Movement seems disingenuous. For years, he has characterized the OLF as a “terrorist” organization whose “main objective is to create a rift between the government and the people of Oromiya.” He has demonized OLF leaders and jailed anyone vaguely suspected of involvement or association with that organization. He has contemptuously characterized Ginbot 7 as an organization of “amateur part-time terrorists.” In kangaroo court, he recently sentenced to death various alleged “members” of Ginbot 7; and in absentia, movement leaders Dr. Berhanu Nega and Andargachew Tsigie, among others. His deputy is on record publicly comparing “opposition” parties with the genocidal Rwandan interhamwe militias. That comment invited sharp censure by the 2005 European Union Election Observation Mission which called it “unacceptable and extremist rhetoric”. Zenawi has jailed Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, and unquestionably the most important political prisoner on the African continent today, for life. Last December when he was asked if there is a chance Birtukan could ever be released, he categorically and absolutely ruled out any possibility of freedom for her: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” It seems totally illogical and downright dishonest for Zenawi to propose good faith negotiations with opposition leaders and organizations allegedly sworn to remove him from power by force while being so deadest against any negotiation or agreement for the release of one harmless innocent young woman!
What Could Be Conceivable Outcomes of Negotiations?
Assuming there are negotiations, Zenawi has given no indications on the negotiable issues. Regardless, what are some conceivable outcomes of any negotiations? Release of Birtukan? Release of all political prisoners? Legalization of the OLF? Commutation of the death sentences of Ginbot 7 members and movement leaders? Fresh free and fair elections? Free functioning of the private press? Establishment of a fully independent elections board? An Independent judiciary? Aha! How about power-sharing a la Zimbabwe and Kenya? (Just kidding!)
A Faustian Negotiation?
The old saying goes, “Give the devil his due.” Zenawi deserves credit for being a masterful zero-sum game player. Political scientists and economists use special analytical models to understand the behavior of negotiators in different settings. In a “zero-sum” negotiation, both “players” (negotiators) desire one particular outcome, but only one of them can have it. One player wins everything and the other loses everything. Stated differently, a zero-sum game is “like arguing over a pie (or injera, the traditional bread of Ethiopia): if one person gets a piece of injera, then the other person gets nothing.” For the past 19 years, Zenawi has been keeping all of the injera to himself, and denying others even a small piece. Now he wants negotiations to share the injera with the rest of the peons who have been watching him eat gluttonously at the dining table of power?
I have tried to logically decipher the type of negotiation Zenawi has in mind, without success. Generally, when someone calls for negotiations, it means that person has formulated his negotiating points and positions and is prepared to give some indication of the negotiable issues to the other side. Zenawi’s offer of negotiation is so vague and cryptic that it seems to be almost an afterthought in his press conference. But there is nothing vague about his zero-sum style of negotiation over the past two decades. Everyone who has “negotiated” with him knows that he has two principles of negotiation (and not the two he mentioned as preconditions for negotiations with the OLF and Ginbot 7): 1) “You are gonna do it my way, or you’re gonna hit the highway! Period.” 2) “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable. Period.” These are the two bedrock principles of negotiations Zenawi has followed for the last twenty years in dealing with his opposition both within his own party and those on the outside. Why would he change now?
Surely, Zenawi must realize that no one will negotiate with him on a zero-sum basis. It is irrational for anyone to negotiate one’s own vanquishment? It is illogical to negotiate in a “winner takes all” setting when the winner is already known before the negotiations begin. It is not unlike someone running in an election where the winner has been predetermined and the winning margin of victory (say 99.6 percent) already preordained. Why bother?
A real negotiation is a process of give and take, compromise, good will and even empathy for the other side. It does not seem that Zenawi is capable of such negotiating style. He has always looked at his opposition with contempt. He has never regarded them as his legitimate political opponents with whom he disagrees; rather he has always viewed them as mortal enemies that must be totally and completely vanquished. Political negotiations in Ethiopia can succeed only when there is mutual recognition by all parties of their shared humanity, nationality, commonality of interests, sensitivities, and above all that rapturous spiritual feeling called “Ethiopianity”. There is little room for negotiation and compromise with an “enemy” that one considers a “terrorist”, a “genocidal” maniac or a “criminal”.
Negotiations in the Best Interests of the Nation
I believe in negotiations not because someone could misuse it as tactical weapon in a public relations campaign, but because negotiation to me is the art of the possible. Only principles are non-negotiable. I believe it is possible to have negotiations in the “best interests” of Ethiopia and its people. These “best interests” are, among others, avoiding the long term consequences of ethnic conflict, reduction in political tensions, guaranteeing a better future for Ethiopia’s youth who represent over three-quarters of the population, ensuring respect for human rights, institutionalization of the rule of law, accountability and transparency in government, economic development for society and free personal development for citizens and the like. Negotiations in the “best interests of the nation” require “principled negotiations”, which means the parties must be committed to “win-win” (instead of win-lose zero-sum) outcomes. The parties focus on issues and not personalities; they strive to work around common interests and avoid imposing their hardline positions on each other. Principled negotiators generate and consider a variety of possibilities and solutions before deciding what to do. Above all, they work toward a solution cooperatively and come to an agreement that takes into account not only their individual needs but also optimizes their collective outcomes. Principled negotiators understand that they can attain their goals if, and only if, the others also attain theirs. In sum, principled negotiators cooperate more and compete less, build more trust and work actively to lessen suspicion about each other. It is very possible to negotiate an agreement among those with polarized interests if they can manage to keep their eyes on “best interests of the nation” instead of their partisan and individual interests.
“Respecting the Country’s Constitution?”
As a teacher, practitioner and student of constitutional law, I was mildly amused when Zenawi said he is ready to negotiate with anyone who “respects the country’s Constitution”. When one wags an accusatory index finger at others, it is easy not to notice the three fingers that are pointing to oneself. Before one can pontificate about the constitutional high ground, one must command it. Zenawi must not just demand the opposition to respect the Constitution, he must also respect it. In fact, he should teach the opposition respect for the Constitution by example. But he has not been a good teacher: Article 9 (4) of the Ethiopian Constitution provides, “International agreements ratified by Ethiopia are an integral part of the law of the land.” Zenawi has trashed all human rights conventions as documented for years in the annual reports of the world’s most respected human rights organizations. Article 12 (1) requires that the “activities of government shall be undertaken in a manner which is open and transparent to the public.” Zenawi has concluded dozens of secret international agreements to give up the country’s land and resources without any transparency or accountability. Article 17 (2) guarantees that “No one shall be arrested or detained without being charged or convicted of a crime except in accordance with such procedures as are laid down by law.” Birtukan Midekssa and thousands of political prisoners remain in detention without due process of law. Article 20 (3) requires “Everyone charged with an offence shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty by a court of law…” In practice, every suspect is presumed guilty, and hundreds of thousands of citizens presently languish in prison without charges. Article 29 (2) guarantees that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression without interference…. regardless of frontiers…” Independent journalists in Ethiopia are threatened and jailed by the dozens, and newspapers shuttered. The public media has been reduced into becoming a propaganda machine for the ruling party; international radio and television broadcasts are jammed and internet service kept at the most primitive level to keep citizens from exercising their freedom of expression. Article 38 (1) (b) guarantees, “every citizen the right to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections… ” Zenawi won the May 2010 election by 99.6 percent. There is no greater respect that can be shown for the Constitution than respecting the people’s vote!
Confidence Building Measures Before Negotiations
Negotiations require the art of dialogue. Zenawi can only monologue. I really would like to believe he is sincere about negotiations, and his offer of olive branches is genuine. But he has no credibility. His own words and actions betray him. How can anyone in their right minds negotiate with a man who said: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” A man who can take such a frighteningly inflexible, uncompromising, unyielding, unbending, rigid and unswayable position on an innocent young woman who has done ABSOLUTELY nothing wrong is incapable of negotiating with “terrorists”, “genocidal” maniacs and “extremists” purportedly sworn to remove him from power. Zenawi is willing to sit down “with anyone” and “negotiate” an agreement to deal with the super-complex problems of Ethiopia but he will never, ever, agree to even consider discussing the simple case of an innocent young woman?
Birtukan’s case is full of ironies. In 2007 she signed a pardon agreement negotiated over several months by a group of “elders” at Zenawi’s direction. A year and half later, Zenawi used the very agreement she negotiated with him for her release from prison as the basis for her summary re-commitment to life in prison. Is it not equally ironic that Zenawi is now extending olive branches to those he believes are sworn to remove him from power by force while keeping imprisoned for life the one person who can negotiate with him in good faith on the very same principles of constitutionalism and peaceful dispute resolution that he talks about? But as the great Mandela said, “Only free men (and women) can negotiate; prisoners cannot enter into contracts.” If Zenawi wants to negotiate with the opposition, he must let Birtukan go free because she is the lioness share of the opposition.
I do not want to be misunderstood. I plead Birtukan’s case not for any particular political outcome, but because she is innocent and has done nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong. She has committed no crime. She has caused harm to no one. She is a threat to nobody. She played meticulously by the very constitutional rules Zenawi extols as his “principles” of negotiation. It is time to let her join her little daughter and aging mother for the Ethiopian new year in September. Why not also let the others who have languished in prison for years on suspicion of “involvement” with the OLF, and Ginbot 7 “members” who were recently jailed, to go free and rejoin their families for the new year? Why not unjam the Voice of America and stop jamming ESAT (Ethiopian Satellite Television)? Let the people hear and see and make up their own minds. I know some will laugh at my naivete for suggesting these obvious ideas for it has been said that “fire, water and dictators know nothing of mercy.” But if one cannot take simple steps to build confidence, mere talk of “principles of negotiations” sound hollow and unconvincing. Perhaps Otto Von Bismarck was right: “When a man says that he approves something in principle, it means he hasn’t the slightest intention of putting it in practice.” As an afterthought, is it possible to shake hands with a man who has fake olive branches in one hand and a gun in the other?
FREE BIRTUKAN AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA!!!