America is Watching!?
Diplomacy by hypocrisy is “diplocrisy”.
Edmund Burke, the British statesman and philosopher, said “Hypocrisy can afford to be magnificent in its promises, for never intending to go beyond promise, it costs nothing.” We’ve heard many promises on human rights in Africa from President Obama and his Administration over the past four years. “We will work diligently with Ethiopia to ensure that strengthened democratic institutions and open political dialogue become a reality for the Ethiopian people… We will work for the release of jailed scholars, activists, and opposition party leaders… We align ourselves with men and women around the world who struggle for the right to speak their minds, to choose their leaders, and to be treated with dignity and respect…. Africa’s future belongs to its young people… We’re going to keep helping empower African youth… Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions. We support strong and sustainable democratic governments…. America will be more responsible in extending our hand. Aid is not an end in itself… [Dictatorship] is not democracy, [it] is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end… America is watching…” All empty promises and cheap talk.
Last week, the U.S. State Department released its annual Human Rights Report for 2013. In his remarks launching that report, Secretary of State John Kerry announced
…[These] reports show brave citizens around the world and those who would abuse them that America is watching…
So anywhere that human rights are under threat, the United States will proudly stand up, unabashedly, and continue to promote greater freedom, greater openness, and greater opportunity for all people. And that means speaking up when those rights are imperiled. It means providing support and training to those who are risking their lives every day so that their children can enjoy more freedom. It means engaging governments at the highest levels and pushing them to live up to their obligations to do right by their people…
Is America really “watching” and “standing up”?
I am always curious when someone is watching. Big Brother is watching! Aargh!!
When Kerry tells “brave citizens” in Ethiopia like Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Wobshet Taye, Sertkalem Fasil, Bekele Gerba, Olbana Lelisa, Abubekar Ahmed, Ahmedin Jebel, Ahmed Mustafa and so many others “America is watching”, what does he mean? Does he mean America is watching them rot in Meles Zenawi Prison #1 in Kality and/or #2 in Zewai? Does he mean America is watching Ethiopia like birdwatchers watch birds? Or like amateur astronomers watching the starry night sky? Perhaps like daydreaming tourists at the beach watching the waves crash and the summer clouds slowly drifting inland?
Is “watching” a good or a bad thing? If we believe Albert Einstein, watching is no good. “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” (Silent watchers, watch out!) Like Nero Claudius Caesar who watched Rome burn from the hilltops singing and playing his lyre. Or, (I hate to say it but it would be hypocritical of me not to) like Susan Rice who watched Rwanda burn. Her only question was, “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [Congressional] election?”
I like it when Human Rights Watch (HRW) watches because when they watch they witness. They saw the genocide and crimes against humanity in the Ogaden and Gambella and they have witnesses. They watched independent journalists jacked up in kangaroo court and railroaded to Meles Prison #1 or #2. (Sounds like the equivalent of a hotel chain? Well, they do put chain and ball on innocent people at the Meles Zenawi Hilton.)
I like watching watchdogs watch crooks, criminals and outlaws. I mean “watchdog journalists” like Eskinder, Reeyot, Serkalem, Woubshet and many others. These journalists used to watch power abusers and alert citizens of the crimes they were watching. Now the criminals are watching them in solitary at the Meles Zenawi Hilton.
I also like the way the watchdogs’ watchdog watch those who dog the watchdogs. I am referring to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The CPJ guys are like McGruff, the crime watchdog, always tracking to “take bites out of crimes” committed against journalists. Not long ago, they watched and sounded the alarm that Reeyot Alemu was heading to solitary confinement just because she complained about inhumane and inhuman treatment in Meles Zenawi Prison. Last week, the CPJ watched Woubshet Taye being hauled from the Meles Zenawi Prison #1 to Meles Zenawi Prison #2. (They think he will be forgotten by the world lost in the armpits of Meles Zenawi Prison #2.)
I pity those who just watch. Like the “foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear” or those who may “indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand.” I have no idea what the Obama Administration is watching, perceiving or seeing in Ethiopia? I would like to believe they are watching human rights abuses and abusers and the criminals against humanity. But how is it possible to watch with arms folded, ears plugged and wearing welding goggles? I wonder: Could they be watching the tragicomedy, “The Trials and Tribulations of the Apostles of Meles”? Perhaps they are watching kangaroo courts stomping all over justice and decency? I am certain they are not watching the political prisoners. Perhaps they are watching the horror movie, “Dystopia in Ethiopia”? Sure, it’s a scary movie but it really isn’t real. But if it is real, what’s the big deal? The same horror film has been playing all over Africa since before independence. Get over it!
From where I am watching, the Obama Administration seems to be watching Ethiopia peekaboo style; you know, cover your face with the palms of your hand and “watch” between the fingers. “I seee yooou!” That is, stealing elections, sucking the national treasury dry, handing over the best land in the country to bloodsucking multinationals, jailing journalists and ripping off the people.
Doesn’t “America is watching,” sound like Orwellian doublespeak. You know, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” Dictatorship is democracy. Watching is turning a blind eye.
When America is watching, those being watched in Ethiopia are watching America watching them. They watch America waffling and shuffling, double-talking, flip-flopping and dithering, equivocating, pretending, hemming and hawing and hedging and dodging. But those chaps in Ethiopia watch like George Orwell’s Big Brother (Nineteen Eighty-Four) who watched everybody and everything in Oceania. Well, Big Brother Meles is gone from Ethiopiana but the “Little Brothers of the Party of Meles” keep on watching and yodeling:
…The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know what no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me.
I have been watching America watching Ethiopia for a very long time. I have been watching the Obama Administration watching and coddling the criminals against humanity in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda. I must confess that I enjoy watching and re-watching President Obama’s speeches in Accra, Cairo, Istanbul and elsewhere. “History is on the side of brave Africans…” (whatever that means).
I liked watching former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton declare moral victory on the Chinese and capture the commanding moral heights. “We don’t want to see a new colonialism in Africa… It is easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave… and not leave much behind for the people who are there.” Right on! Power to the people of Africa! Down with colonialism! (I think that may be a bit passé.)
Sometimes I feel bad watching. When I watch hard earned American tax dollars bankrolling ruthless African dictators who laugh straight to the bank to deposit their American tax dollars, I really get bummed out. I am peeved when I watch the American people being flimflammed into believing their tax dollars are supporting democracy, human rights and American values in Africa. But when I watch those miserable panhandlers “enfolded in the purple of Emperors” bashing and trashing America on their way back from depositing their foreign aid welfare checks, I just plain get pissed off!!
“America is watching,” but is America watching where its tax dollars are going? It is NOT. According to an audit report by the Office of the Inspector General of US AID in March 2010 (p. 1), there is no way to determine the fraud, waste and abuse of American tax dollars in Ethiopia:
The audit was unable to determine whether the results reported in USAID/Ethiopia’s Performance Plan and Report were valid because agricultural program staff could neither explain how the results were derived nor provide support for those results. Indeed, when the audit team attempted to validate the reported results by tracing from the summary amounts to the supporting detail, it was unable to do so at either the mission or its implementing partners… In the absence of a complete and current performance management plan, USAID/Ethiopia is lacking an important tool for monitoring and managing the implementation of its agricultural program.
Watching diplocrisy in Technicolor
There is nothing more mind-bending and funny than watching hypocrisy in Technicolor. Earlier this month, in an act of shameless diplocrisy, Secretary Kerry expressed grave reservations about the legitimacy of the election of Nicolás Maduro as president of Venezuela. Maduro won the election by a razor thin margin of 50.66 percent of the votes. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles rejected the results alleging irregularities and demanding a recount of all votes.
Kerry supported Capriles’ demand for a recount. “We think there ought to be a recount… Obviously, if there are huge irregularities, we are going to have serious questions about the viability of that [Maduro] government.” White House spokesman Jay Carney also issued a statement calling for a recount of all the votes.
… Given the tightness of the result — around 1 percent of the votes cast separate the candidates — the opposition candidate and at least one member of the electoral council have called for a 100 percent audit of the results. And this appears an important, prudent and necessary step to ensure that all Venezuelans have confidence in these results. In our view, rushing to a decision in these circumstances would be inconsistent with the expectations of Venezuelans for a clear and democratic outcome.
In May 2010 when the late Meles Zenawi claimed 99.6 percent victory in the parliamentary elections and leaders from Medrek, the largest opposition coalition, and the smaller All Ethiopia Unity Party alleged glaring election fraud, vote rigging and denial of American food aid to poor farmers unless they voted for the ruling party, the U.S. response was “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.” White House National Security Spokesman Mike Hammer could only express polite “concern” and muted “disappointment”:
We acknowledge the conclusion of Ethiopia’s parliamentary elections on May 23, 2010…
We are concerned that international observers found that the elections fell short of international commitments. We are disappointed that U.S. Embassy officials were denied accreditation and the opportunity to travel outside of the capital on Election Day to observe the voting. The limitation of independent observation and the harassment of independent media representatives are deeply troubling.
An environment conducive to free and fair elections was not in place even before Election Day. In recent years, the Ethiopian government has taken steps to restrict political space for the opposition through intimidation and harassment, tighten its control over civil society, and curtail the activities of independent media. We are concerned that these actions have restricted freedom of expression and association and are inconsistent with the Ethiopian government’s human rights obligations.
…We urge the Ethiopian government to ensure that its citizens are able to enjoy their fundamental rights. We will work diligently with Ethiopia to ensure that strengthened democratic institutions and open political dialogue become a reality for the Ethiopian people.
Victory by 50.66 percent is irrefutable evidence of election fraud in Venezuela but “all Ethiopians should have confidence” in the 99.6 percent election victory of Meles Zenawi? Sounds like election certification in Oceania. Rigged elections are free and fair elections!
Watching “fools, idiots” and sanctimonious diplocrites
If Susan Rice is to be believed, critics of Meles Zenawi and his regime (and by implication critics of U.S. policy that supports the regime) are “fools and idiots”. I guess if one must choose between being a “fool/idiot” and a hypocrite/diplocrite, one is well-advised to choose the former. A fool does or does not do the right thing because s/he lacks intelligence and understanding. S/he has the potential to learn and make right choices. But the cunning diplocrite does the wrong thing with full knowledge and understanding of the wrongfulness of his/her acts. S/he is unteachable and incorrigible. No one knows more about the difference between right and wrong than diplocrites, yet they do wrong because they don’t give a _ _ _ _!
The U.S. has been practicing diplocrisy in Ethiopia for the past two decades. It has propped up the regime of Meles Zenawi with billions of dollars of “development” and “humanitarian” aid while filling the stomachs of starving Ethiopians with empty words and emptier promises. Since 1991, the West in general has provided Meles’ regime nearly $30 billion in aid. In 2008 alone, $3 billion in international aid was delivered on a silver platter to Meles, more than any other nation in sub-Saharan Africa. In March 2011, Howard Taylor, head of the British aid program declared Ethiopia will receive $2 billion in British development assistance. In 2010, the EU delivered £152m to Meles Zenawi.
In December 2010, Human Rights Watch called on the Development Assistance Group (DAG), a coordinating body of 26 foreign donor institutions for Ethiopia to “independently investigate allegations that the Ethiopian government is using development aid for state repression.” In July 2010, a DAG-commissioned study issued a whitewash denying all allegations of improper use of aid. In August 2011, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the BBC reported the “Ethiopian government is using millions of pounds of international aid to punish their political opponents.” The report presented compelling evidence of how “aid is being used as a weapon of oppression propping up the government of Meles Zenawi.” Despite numerous documented reports of aid abuse and misuse, Western leaders and governments continue to hide behind a policy of plausible deniability and the massaged and embellished reports of swarms faceless international poverty-mongers creeping invisibly in Ethiopia.
The Center for Global Development in its comprehensive 2012 report cautioned, “The United States could be making a dangerous long-term bet with its assistance dollars by placing so little emphasis on governance in Ethiopia”, and US policymakers should temper their expectations for future development prospects in Ethiopia under the current regime. Sorry, no one is listening at the U.S. State Department, only watching.
Watching truth on the scaffold and wrong on the throne
“America is watching.” But is anybody watching America? The people of Ethiopia are watching America asking, “Is America watching? Watching what?”
The powerful don’t believe the powerless are watching them because they equate powerlessness with blindness. The powerless do watch because that is all they can do. They watch boots pressing down on their necks. They watch crimes committed against them as they sit helplessly with empty stomachs and hearts filled with terror. When Kerry says, “America is watching”, he should be mindful that Ethiopia’s poor and powerless are watching America with outrage on their faces, sorrow in their hearts and resentment in their minds.
I have watched Ethiopia’s “best and brightest” fall silent, deaf and mute watching truth on the scaffold and wrong on the throne. They have been watching the scaffold and throne like bystanders watching a crime scene — horrified, terrified and petrified. Perhaps they should heed Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s counsel, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
But if Robert Lowell is right, it does not matter who is watching silently, watching peekaboo style, watching by turning a blind eye, watching for the sake of watching or not watching at all, because there is One who standing within the shadow watches the watchers, the watched and the unwatched:
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,— Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
2012 is gone. 2013 is on the way. Let us ring in redress to all humankind.
I wish a happy and prosperous new year to all of my readers throughout the world. To those who have unwearyingly followed my columns for nearly three hundred uninterrupted weeks, I wish to express my deep gratitude and appreciation. I am thankful for all of the support and encouragement I have received from my readers in Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Diaspora and others throughout the world.
I ask my readers to ring in the new year with a firm resolution to seek redress for human rights violations in Ethiopia, other parts of Africa and throughout the world. As Dr. Martin Luther King taught, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…”
Let us bid farewell to the old year and greet the new one with the poetic words of Lord Alfred Tennyson:
Ring out the old, ring in the new,…
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,…
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws…
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good…
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,…
Ringing Out 2012
I thought I would ring out 2012 by extracting snippets from selected weekly commentaries I wrote during the year.
In January 2012, I wondered aloud if there will be an “African Spring” or “Ethiopian Tsedey (Spring)” in 2012. I cryptically answered my own question taking cover in Albert Camus’ book “The Rebel”. “What is a rebel?”, asked Camus. “A man who says no… A slave who has taken orders all his life suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command. What does he mean by saying ‘no’? He means, for example, that ‘this has been going on too long,’ ‘up to this point yes, beyond it no’, ‘you are going too far,’ or, again, ‘there is a limit beyond which you shall not go.’ But from the moment that the rebel finds his voice — even though he says nothing but ‘no’ — he begins to desire and to judge. The rebel confronts an order of things which oppresses him with the insistence on a kind of right not to be oppressed beyond the limit that he can tolerate.”
Africa’s Spring will arrive when enough Africans including Ethiopians collectively resolve to rise up from the winter of their discontent and make glorious spring and summer by declaring, “No! Enough is Enough!”
In February 2012, I pointed out the shame and humiliation in receiving a Chinese handout (“gift”) in the form of a gleaming “African Union Hall” to 50 plus African countries who could not afford the measly $200 million needed to build such a quintessentially symbolic continental edifice. I christened it “African Beggars Union Hall”.
The Chinese Dragon is dancing the Watusi shuffle with African Hyenas. Things could not be better for the Dragon in Africa. In the middle of what once used to be the African Pride Land now stands a brand-spanking new hyenas’ den called the African Union Hall (AU). Every penny of the USD$200 million stately pleasure dome was paid for by China. It is said to be “China’s gift to Africa.” Sooner or later China has to come to terms with three simple questions: Can it afford to fasten its destiny to Africa’s dictators, genociders and despots? How long can China pretend to turn a blind eye to the misery of the African people suffering under ruthless dictatorships? Will there be a price to pay once the African dictators that China supported are forced out of power in a popular uprising? To update the old saying, “Beware of Chinese who bear gifts.”
In March 2012, I boldly predicted that Ethiopia will transition from dictatorship to democracy. But I also cautiously suggested that dissolution of the dictatorship in Ethiopia does not guarantee the birth of democracy. There is no phoenix of democracy that will rise gloriously from the trash heap of dictatorship. Birthing democracy will require a lot of collaborative hard work, massive amounts of creative problem solving and plenty of good luck and good will. A lot of heavy lifting needs to be done to propel Ethiopia from the abyss of dictatorship to the heights of democracy. It will be necessary to undertake a collective effort now to chart a clear course on how that long-suffering country will emerge from decades of dictatorship, without the benefit of any viable democratic political institutions, a functional political party system, a system of civil society institutions and an independent press to kindle a democratic renaissance.
In April 2012 , I paid a special tribute to my personal hero Eskinder Nega, winner of the 2012 PEN Freedom to Write Award. Eskinder Nega (to me Eskinder Invictus) has been jailed as a “terrorist” by the powers that be in Ethiopia. But Eskinder is a hero’s hero. His cause was taken up by an army of world renowned journalists who have themselves suffered at the hands of dictatorships including Kenneth Best, founder of the Daily Observer (Liberia’s first independent daily); Lydia Cacho, arguably the most famous Mexican journalist; Akbar Ganji Faraj Sarkohi Iran’s foremost dissidents; Arun Shourie, one of India’s most renowned and controversial journalists and many others. Recently, Carl Bernstein (one of the two journalists who exposed the Watergate scandal leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon) and Liev Schreiber paid extraordinary homage to Eskinder Nega. Bernstein said, “No honor can be greater than to read Eskinder Nega’s words. He is more than a symbol. He is the embodiment of the greatness of truth, of writing and reporting real truth, of persisting in truth and resisting the oppression of untruths,…”
Eskinder Nega is my special hero because he fought tyranny with nothing more than ideas and the truth. He slew falsehoods with the sword of truth. Armed only with a pen, Eskinder fought despair with hope; fear with courage; anger with reason; arrogance with humility; ignorance with knowledge; intolerance with forbearance; oppression with perseverance; doubt with trust and cruelty with compassion. I lack the words to express my deep pride and gratitude to Eskinder and his wife, journalist Serkalem Fasil (winner of the 2007 International Women’s Media Foundation “Courage in Journalism Award”), for their boundless courage and extraordinary sacrifices in the cause of press freedom in Ethiopia. It is said that history is written by the victor. When truth becomes the victor in Ethiopia, the names Eskinder Nega and Serkalem Fasil will be inscribed in the Hall of Fame for unfaltering courage and steadfast endurance in the face of Evil.
In May 2012, Abebe Gelaw, a young Ethiopian journalist stood up in the audience at the Food Security 2012 G8 Summit in Washington, D.C. and cried freedom. The late Meles Zenawi sat in catatonic silence as the young journalist shouted out: “Meles Zenawi is a dictator! Meles Zenawi is a dictator! Free Eskinder Nega! Free Political Prisoners! You are a dictator. You are committing crimes against humanity. Food is nothing without freedom! Meles has committed crimes against humanity! We Need Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!”
The “heckler’s veto” is one of the most precious rights of American citizens. The idea is really simple. It is always governments who abuse their power to silence their critics and those who disagree with them. With the “heckler’s veto”, the individual silences the government and the powerful. The tables are turned. Zenawi was silenced by Abebe! In that moment, Abebe gloriously realized the true meaning of the tagline of his website addisvoice.com – “A Voice of the Voiceless”. Ironically, the voice of the voiceless rendered speechless the man who had rendered millions voiceless!
In June 2012, I joyously witnessed the unity of Christian and Muslim religious leaders against those seeking to divide them. Hajj Mohamed Seid, a prominent Ethiopian Muslim leader in exile in Toronto, made an extraordinary statement that should be a lesson to all Ethiopians: “As you know Ethiopia is a country that has different religions. Ethiopia is a country where Muslims and followers of the Orthodox faith have lived and loved each other throughout recorded history. Even in our lifetimes — 50 to 60 years — we have not seen Ethiopia in so much suffering and tribulation. Religion is a private choice, but country is a collective responsibility. If there is no country, there is no religion. It is only when we have a country that we find everything… They [the rulers in Ethiopia] have sold the land [to foreigners] and have kept the most arable land to themselves. The money from the sale is not in our country. It is in their pockets… Is there an Ethiopian generation left now? The students who enrolled in the universities are demoralized; their minds are afflicted chewing khat (a mild drug) and smoking cigarettes. They [the ruling regime] have destroyed a generation…
In July 2012, I held a private celebration on the occasion of the ninety-fourth birthday of President Nelson Mandela. May he live long with gladness and good health! Madiba has been a great inspiration for me very much like Gandhi. Madiba and Gandhi were lawyers who spoke truth to power fearlessly. For Madiba, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, true human rights advocacy was devoid of all political ambition. The politics of human rights is the politics of human dignity, not ideology, political partisanship or the pursuit of political office. The committed human rights advocate thrives on hopes and dreams of a better future, not the lust for political power or craving for status, position or privilege. I have been relentlessly “sermonizing” (as some affectionately refer to my weekly commentaries) on human rights in Ethiopia and against dictatorship for many years now. I have done so not because I believed my efforts will produce immediate political results or expected structural changes overnight. I stayed in for the long haul because I believe defending, advocating and writing about human rights and righting government wrongs is right, good and the moral thing to do.
In August 2012, I bade farewell to Meles Zenawi who passed away from an undisclosed illness. It was a difficult farewell to write. For over two hundred seventy five weeks, without missing a single week, I wrote long expository commentaries on the deeds and misdeeds of the man who was at the helm of power in Ethiopia for over two decades. Meles and I would have never crossed paths but for the massacres of 2005 in which some 200 unarmed protesters were shot dead in the streets and another 800 wounded by police and security officials under Meles’ personal command and control.
Meles was a man who had an appointment with destiny. Fate had chosen him to play a historic role in Ethiopia and beyond. He was one of the leaders of a rebel group that fought and defeated a brutal military dictatorship that had been in power for 17 years. In victory, Meles promised democracy, respect for democratic liberties and development. But as the years wore on, Meles became increasingly repressive, intolerant of criticism and in the end became as tyrannical as the tyrant he had replaced. In his last years, he created a police state reinforced by a massive security network of spies and surveillance technology. He criminalized press freedom and civil society institutions. He crushed dissent and all opposition. He spread fear and loathing that penetrated the remotest parts of the countryside. For over 21 years, Meles clutched the scepter of power in his hands and cast away the sword of justice he held when he marched into the capital from the bush in 1991. Meles was feared, disliked and demonized by his adversaries. He was loved, admired, idealized and idolized by his supporters. In the end, Meles died a man who had absolute power which had corrupted him absolutely. In his relentless pursuit of absolute power, Meles missed his appointment with destiny to become a peerless and exemplary Ethiopian leader.
In September 2012, I explained why I supported President Obama’s re-election. I tried to make an honest case for supporting the President’s re-election despite deep disappointments over his human rights records in Africa in his first term. Did President Obama deliver on the promises he made for Africa to promote good governance, democracy and human rights? Did he deliver on human rights in Ethiopia? No. Are Ethiopian Americans disappointed over the unfulfilled promises President Obama made in Accra, Ghana in 2009 and his Administration’s support for a dictatorship in Ethiopia? Yes. We remember when President Obama talked about the need to develop robust democratic institutions, uphold the rule of law and the necessity of maintaining open political space and protecting human rights in Africa. We all remember what he said: “Africa does not need strong men but strong institutions.” “Development depends on good governance.” “No nation will create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy.” Was he just saying these words or did he truly believe them? Truth be told, what the President has done or not done to promote good governance, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia is no different than what we, the vast majority of Ethiopian Americans, have done or not done to promote the same values in Ethiopia. That is the painful truth we must face.
In October 2012, I wrote about breast cancer awareness for Ethiopian women and men. There is a strange and confounding culture of secrecy and silence about certain kinds of illnesses among many Ethiopians in the country and those in the Diaspora. Among the two taboo diseases are cancer and HIV/AIDS. The rule seems to be hide the illness until death, even after death. We saw this regrettable practice in the recent passing of Meles Zenawi. Meles’ illness and cause of death remain a closely guarded state secret. It is widely believed that he died from brain cancer. This culture of secrecy and silence has contributed significantly to the needless deaths of thousands of Ethiopians. There is substantial anecdotal evidence that far too many Ethiopian women living in the U.S. have needlessly died from breast cancer because they failed or avoided to get regular breast cancer screening fearing a positive diagnosis. Secrecy and silence when it comes to breast cancer is a self-imposed death warrant!
In November 2012, I remembered. I remembered the hundreds of unarmed citizens murdered in the streets by police and security officials under the personal command and control of Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia on June 6-8 and November 1-4, 2005, following the Ethiopian parliamentary elections in May of that year. According to an official Inquiry Commission, “There was not a single protester who was armed with a gun or a hand grenade as reported by the government-controlled media that some of the protesters were armed with guns and bombs. [The shots fired by government forces] were not intended to disperse the crowd but to kill by targeting the head and chest of the protesters.” I also remembered Yenesew Gebre, a 29 year-old Ethiopian school teacher and human rights activist set himself ablaze outside a public meeting hall in the town of Tarcha located in Dawro Zone in Southern Ethiopia on 11/11/11. He died three days later from his injuries. Before torching himself, Yenesew told a gathered crowd outside of a meeting hall, “In a country where there is no justice and no fair administration, where human rights are not respected, I will sacrifice myself so that these young people will be set free.” I remembered why I was transformed from a cloistered armchair academic and hardboiled defense lawyer to a (com)passionate human rights advocate and defender.
In December 2012, I fiercely opposed the potential nomination of Susan Rice, the current U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. I argued that Rice has been waltzing (or should I say do-se-do-ing) with Africa’s slyest, slickest and meanest dictators for nearly two decades. Rice and other top U.S. officials knew or should have known a genocide was underway or in the making once RAF and interahamwe militia began killing people in the streets and neighborhoods on April 6, the day Rwandan President Juvenal Habyiarimana was assassinated. They were receiving reports from the U.N. mission in Rwanda; and their own intelligence pointed to unspeakable massacres taking place in Kigali and elsewhere in the country. Rice feigned ignorance of the ongoing genocide, but the irrefutable documentary evidence showed that Rice, her boss Anthony Lake and other high level U.S. officials knew from the very beginning (April 6, 1994) that genocide was in the making in Rwanda. On September 2, 2012 at the funeral of Meles Zenawi in Addis Ababa and at a memorial service for Meles in New York City on October 27, 2012, Rice delivered a eulogy that virtually canonized Meles. In her blind eulogy, Rice turned a blind eye to the thousands of Ethiopians who were victimized, imprisoned and killed by Meles Zenawi. Rice could not see the police state Meles had created. To literally add insult to injury, Rice called Meles’ opponents and critics “fools and idiots”. Truth be told, I was deeply offended by Rice’s hubristic remarks and her audacity, pomposity, nerve and insolence to insult and humiliate Ethiopians in their own country in such callous and contemptuious manner. Ethiopians have been robbed of their dignity for 21 years. But I will be damned if any foreigner, however high or exalted, should feel free to demean, dehumanize and demonize my people as “fools and idoits”. Recently, Rice explained: “I know I’m vilified for having said anything other than, ‘He [Meles] was a tyrant,’ … which would’ve been a little awkward, on behalf of the U.S. government and in front of all the mourning Ethiopians.” Rice has no qualms calling Ethiopians “fools and idiots” but she writhes in agony just thinking about calling Meles a tyrant?!? Some people just don’t get it!!!
In 1994, Rice was willfully blind to the genocide in Rwanda. In 2012, she was willfully blind to the long train of human rights abuses and atrocities in Ethiopia.
America does not need a friend and a buddy to African dictators as its Secretary of State. America does not need a Secretary of State with a heart of stone and tears of a crocodile. America does not need a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” Secretary of State. America needs a Secretary of State who can tell the difference between human rights and government wrongs!
Let us join hands to ring in redress to all mankind in 2013. Let us all work together for human rights for all and against all government wrongs!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
It is proper to congratulate President Obama on his re-election to a second term. He put up a masterful campaign to earn the votes of the majority of American voters. Mitt Romney also deserves commendation for a hard fought campaign. In his concession speech Romney was supremely gracious: “At a time like this we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work, and we citizens also have to rise to occasion.”
There has been a bit of finger-wagging, teeth-gnashing, eye-rolling and bellyaching among some Ethiopian Americans in the run up to the U.S. presidential election held last week. Some were angry at President Obama and actively campaigned in support of his opponent. They felt betrayed by the President’s inability or unwillingness to give effect to his lofty rhetoric on human rights in Africa and Ethiopia. Others were disappointed by what they believed to be active support for and aid to brutal African dictators. Many tried to be empathetic of the President’s difficult circumstances. He had to formulate American foreign policy to maximize achievement of American global national interests. Terrorism in the Horn of Africa was a critical issue for the U.S. and Obama had to necessarily subordinate human rights to global counter-terrorism issues.
I was quite disappointed by the President’s failure to implement even a rudimentary human rights agenda in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa. But I also understood that he had some fierce battles to fight domestically trying to shore up the American economy, pushing some basic social policies, fighting two wars and putting out brushfires in a conflict-ridden world. I gave the President credit for a major diplomatic achievement in the South Sudan referendum which led to the creation of Africa’s newest state. President Obama authorized the deployment of a small contingent of U.S. troops to capture or kill the bloodthirsty thug Joseph Kony and his criminal partners. He launched the kleptocracy project which I thought was a great idea. As I argued in my column “Africorruption, Inc.“, the “business of African governments in the main is corruption. The majority of African ‘leaders’ seize political power to operate sophisticated criminal enterprises to loot their national treasuries and resources.” I felt the kleptocracy project could effectively prevent illicit money transfer from Ethiopia to the U.S. According to Global Financial Integrity, Ethiopia lost US$11.7 billion to illicit financial outflows between 2000 and 2009. I gave the president high marks for working through the U.N. to pass U.N. Resolution 1973 which endorsed the effort to protect Libyan civilians and his use of NATO partners to shoulder much of the military responsibility to rid Gadhafi from Libya after 41 years of brutal dictatorship. More broadly, I give him credit for closing secret C.I.A. prisons, ending extraordinary renditions and enhanced interrogations (torture), trying to close down the detention camp in Guantánamo Bay and move trials from military tribunals into civilian courts and abide by international laws of human rights. No doubt, he has much more to do in the area of global human rights.
I believe he could have done a lot more in Africa and Ethiopia to promote human rights, but did not. I have written numerous columns over the past couple of years that have been very critical of U.S. policy. In the “The Moral Hazard of U.S. Policy in Africa“, I argued that neither the U.S. nor the West could afford to sacrifice democracy and human rights in Africa to curry favor with incorrigible African dictators whose sole interest is in clinging to power to enrich themselves and their cronies. In my column, “Thugtatorship: The Highest Stage of African Dictatorship”, I argued Africa’s thugtatorships have longstanding and profitable partnerships with the West. Through aid and trade, the West and particularly the U.S. has enabled these thugocracies to flourish in Africa. A few months ago, in my column “Ethiopia in Bond Aid,” I argued that international aid is negatively affecting Africa’s development. “Before much of Africa became ‘independent’ in the 1960s, Africans were held under the yoke of “colonial bondage”. ‘International aid’ addiction has transformed Africa’s colonial bondage into neo-colonial bondaid.” In another recent column “Ethiopia: Food for Famine and Thought!”, I criticized the G8 Food Security Summit held in Washington, D.C. this past June as a reinvention of the old colonialism: “The G-8’s ‘New Alliance’ smacks of the old Scramble for Africa. The G-8 wants to liberate Africa from hunger, famine and starvation by facilitating the handover of millions of hectares of Africa’s best land to global multinationals…”
But despite disappointments, misgivings, apprehensions and concern over the Obama Administration’s failure to actively promote human rights in Ethiopia and Africa, I have supported President Obama. For all his faults, he has been an inspiring leader to me. Like many Americans, I was awed by state Senator Obama’s keynote speech at the Democratic national Convention in 2004 when he unapologetically declared: “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. There is not a liberal America. There is not a conservative America. There is a United States of America.” These words continue to inspire me to dream of the day when young Ethiopian men and women shall come together from all parts of the country and shout out and sing the words, “There is not an Oromo Ethiopia, Amhara Ethiopia, Tigrai Ethiopia, Gurage Ethiopia, Ogadeni Ethiopia, Anuak Ethiopia… There is only a united Ethiopia where ‘justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”
During the advocacy effort to pass H.R. 2003 (“Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007”), we had opportunities to meet with U.S. Senator Obama’s staffers in his district office and on the Hill on a number of occasions. Our meetings were encouraging and there was little doubt that Senator Obama would support H.R. 2003 if the bill had made it to the Senate floor after it passed the House of Representatives in October 2007. In February 2008, our advocacy group, the Coalition for H.R. 2003, formally endorsed Barack Obama’s presidential bid. We declared that “it is time for the U.S. to abandon its support of African dictators, and pursue policies that uplift and advance the people of Africa. It is time for an American president who will stand up for human rights in Ethiopia, and demand of those who violate human rights to stand down!”
Over the last four years, our enthusiasm and support for the President flagged and waned significantly as Africa remained on the fringes of U.S. foreign policy agenda. During the recent presidential “foreign policy debate” Africa was barely mentioned. There was only passing reference to Al Qaeda’s presence in Mali, the third poorest country on the planet. (According to the Economist Magazine, Ethiopia is the poorest country on the planet.) But not to make excuses, the President had a lot on his foreign policy plate. The Arab Spring was spreading like wildfire sweeping out longtime dictators. Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East remains a critical issue. The global economic meltdown threatens certain European countries with total economic collapse.
Hope Springs Eternal in Ethiopia and the Rest of Africa
I am hopeful that human rights in Africa will occupy a prominent role in the foreign policy agenda of President Obama’s second term. An indication of such a trend may be evident in the announcement two days after President Obama’s reelection that he will be visiting Myanmar (Burma) in a couple of weeks. After five decades of ruthless military dictatorship, Myanmar is gradually transforming itself into a democracy. President Thein Sein has released political prisoners, lifted media bans and implemented economic and political reforms. Amazingly, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is the acknowledged opposition leader in parliament after two decades of house arrest. Last week, a State Department spokesperson underscored the need for human rights improvement in Ethiopia according to a Voice of America report. There are favorable signs the Obama Administration will pursue a more aggressive human rights agenda in Africa.
President Obama Would Like to Leave a Legacy of Democracy and Freedom in Africa
Historically, second-term presidents become increasingly focused on foreign policy. They also become acutely aware of the legacy they would like to leave after they complete their second term. I believe President Obama would like to leave a memorable and monumental legacy of human rights in Africa. I cannot believe that he is so indifferent to Africa that he would leave it in worse condition than he found it. When he became president, much of Africa was dominated by dictators who shot their way to power or rigged elections to get into power. In much of Africa today, the absence of the rule of law is shocking to the conscience. Massive human rights violations are commonplace. In Ethiopia, journalists, dissidents, opposition leaders, peaceful demonstrators, civil society and human rights advocates are jailed, harassed and persecuted every day.
Needless to say, for President Obama Africa is the land of his father even though he was born and raised in America. I believe President Obama, like most immigrant Ethiopian Americans, would like to help the continent not only escape poverty but also achieve better governance and greater respect for the rule of law. He would like to see Africa having free and fair elections and improved human rights conditions. In his book Dreams From My Father, he wrote, “… It was into my father’s image, the black man, son of Africa, that I’d packed all the attributes I sought in myself, the attributes of Martin and Malcolm, DuBois and Mandela. And if later I saw that the black men I knew – Frank or Ray or Will or Rafiq – fell short of such lofty standards; if I had learned to respect these men for the struggles they went through, recognizing them as my own – my father’s voice had nevertheless remained untainted, inspiring, rebuking, granting or withholding approval. You do not work hard enough, Barry. You must help in your people’s struggle. Wake up, black man!” A man whose life’s inspiration comes from Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, W.E. B. DuBois and Nelson Mandela cannot ignore or remain indifferent to the suffering of African peoples. I think he will help Africans in their struggle for dignity in his second term.
U.S. Human Rights Policy in the Post Arab Spring Period
In the post-Arab Spring world, the U.S. has come to realize that its formula of subordinating its human rights policy to security and economic interests in dealing with dictators needs reexamination, recalibration and reformulation. By relying on dictators to maintain domestic and regional stability, the U.S. has historically ignored and remained indifferent to the needs, aspirations and suffering of the Arab masses. When the Arab masses exploded in anger, the U.S. was perplexed and did not know what to do.
The U.S. has been timid in raising human rights issues with Africa’s dictators fearing lack of cooperation in the war on terror and other strategic objectives. The U.S. effort has been limited to issuing empty verbal exhortations and practicing “quite diplomacy” which has produced very little to advance an American human rights agenda. I believe the President understands that America’s long term global interests cannot be advanced or achieved merely through moral exhortations and condemnations. We know that the President’s style is to exhaust diplomacy before taking more drastic measures. As he explained, “The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach–and condemnation without discussion–can carry forward a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.” For the past four years, few African dictators have walked through the door that leads to democracy and human rights. Many of them have kicked it shut. I am hopeful that in the second term, the President will go beyond “exhortation” to concrete action in dealing with African dictators since he holds their aid purse strings.
President Obama is Not Just a President But Also a Constitutional Lawyer and…
I believe President Obama’s experiences before he became a national leader continue to have great influence on his thinking and actions. As a constitutional and civil rights lawyer, I believe he has an innate sense of moral distaste and repugnance for injustice and arbitrariness. President Obama cut his teeth as a lawyer representing individuals in civil and voting rights litigation and wrongful terminations in employment though he could have joined any one of the most prestigious law firms in America. He spent his early years doing grassroots organizing and advocacy working with churches and community groups to help the poor and disadvantaged. To be sure, he has spent more time doing community work than serving on the national political stage. As a constitutional and civil rights lawyer, law professor and advocate for the poor, I believe President Obama understands the immense importance of the rule of law, protection of civil liberties and human rights and the need to restrain those who abuse their powers and sneer at the rule of law. I think the community activist side of him will be more visible in his second term.
Ask Not What Obama Can Do for Ethiopia, But…
Some of us make the mistake of asking what President Obama can do for us. The right question is what we can do for Ethiopia by organizing, mobilizing and lobbying the Obama Administration to establish and pursue a firm human rights agenda. In his victory speech on election night President Obama said, “The role of citizen in our democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government.” Governor Romney in his concession speech said, “At a time like this we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work, and we citizens also have to rise to occasion.” These are the principles Ethiopian Americans, and others in the Diaspora and at home, should embrace and practice. It should be time for a fresh start. We should learn from past mistakes and begin to organize and reach out in earnest to the Obama Administration. Many groups have had success with the Administration in advancing their causes including Arab Americans, Iranian Americans, Armenian Americans, Macedonian Americans, Serbian Americans and many others. As human rights activists and advocates, we should demand engagement by senior U.S. officials and diplomats on human rights issues.
The U.S. knows how to apply pressure on dictators who have been “friends”. In the 1980s, the U.S. played a central role in the transition of the Philippines, Chile, Taiwan, and South Korea from dictatorship to democracy. The United States also kept human rights agenda front and center when it conducted negotiations with the Soviet Union and other Soviet-bloc countries. The question is not whether the U.S. can advance a vigorous human rights agenda in Ethiopia or Africa, but if it has the political will to do so. I am hopeful that will will manifest itself in President Obama’s second term.
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Did I enthusiastically support presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008? Absolutely! Do I agree with everything he has done over the past four years as president? No! Has he carried out all of the promises he made in 2008? No! Am I disappointed in President Obama in 2012? Yes! But so are millions of Americans who supported him in 2008. So are tens of millions of other people throughout the world who saw his election as history making and wished him well.
Still Support President Obama
Despite lingering disappointments, I support the reelection of President Obama because he represents my values. As President Bill Clinton put it in his speech at the Democratic Convention last week, there are two choices in the 2012 presidential election:
If you want a you’re on your own, winner take all society you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities— a ‘we’re all in it together’ society, you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden. If you want every American to vote and you think it’s wrong to change voting procedures just to reduce the turnout of younger, poorer, minority and disabled voters, you should support Barack Obama. If you think the president was right to open the doors of American opportunity to young immigrants brought here as children who want to go to college or serve in the military, you should vote for Barack Obama. If you want a future of shared prosperity, where the middle class is growing and poverty is declining, where the American Dream is alive and well, and where the United States remains the leading force for peace and prosperity in a highly competitive world, you should vote for Barack Obama.
I want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities— a ‘we’re all in it together’ society.
The rallying cry the Republicans have resurrected from three decades ago is, “Are you better off now than you were in 2008?” Let the facts speak for themselves.
When President Obama took office in 2008, the U.S. was losing 750,000 jobs per month. In 2012, there are nearly 100 thousand jobs added every month. Under President Obama’s watch, over 4.5 million private sector jobs have been created in the U.S. Are we better off in 2012 than we were in 2008? Yes!
In 2008, the U. S. economy had crashed. Trillions of dollars in investments were vaporized on Wall Street and the auto industry teetered on the verge of collapse. By 2012, the stock market valuations had doubled; and the American auto industry did not die in bankruptcy court as Mitt Romney had prescribed. By June 2012, General Motors’ sales figures were up by 15.5% over 2011. GM had sold 248,750 vehicles, registering its best performance since 2008. Chrysler had its best sales figures since 2007 with gains of 20.3 percent. Are investors and the investment climate better today than it was in 2008? Has the American auto industry “come back roaring again”?
Until President Obama put his presidency on the line and enacted the Affordable Health Care Act in 2009, some 40 million Americans had no health insurance. By 2014, most Americans will have access to affordable health insurance. They can shop around for competitive coverage using “health insurance exchanges”. Insurance companies will not be allowed to cherry pick the healthiest patients and discriminate based on preexisting conditions. Parents can keep their children on their insurance until age 26. Older Americans who use the Medicare program will continue to get discounts on their medications. Are these millions of Americans better off today than they were in 2008? Certainly!
Before President Obama created the Consumer Financial and Protection Bureau, crooked financial institutions ranging from credit card companies to student loan sharks used all sorts of legal tricks and confusing language to trap and rip off unwary consumers. The hedge fund managers and Wall Street financial manipulators lived high on the hog while millions of Americans lost their homes and investments. Are American consumers better off in 2012 than they were in 2008? You bet!
Women comprise 47 percent (or 66 million women) of the total U.S. labor force. In many industries, women are paid less than their male counterparts. Before 2008, women did not have the legal right to enforce their right to equal pay for equal work. President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act which protected women and all other workers who are victims of wage discrimination on gender, race, color, religion, national origin, age, or disability. Are these Americans better off in 2012 than they were in 2008? No doubt about it!
As of June 1, 2008, the United States had 182,060 military personnel deployed in Iraq. In 2012, all U.S. combat troops have been pulled out of Iraq. By 2014, all combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan. President Obama signed a law to help veterans by providing tax credits to employers who hire them and expanded educational access and various reemployment and transitional services to veterans. Under President Obama’s watch, the world’s view of the United States “improved sharply”. Are these members of the armed services better off in 2008 than they are in 2012? Is America more respected and viewed in better light than it did in 2008? Do we have a better Commander in Chief in 2012 than we did in 2008? Darn right we do!
It is true that not all are better off today than they were in 2008. Osama bin Laden was much better off in 2008 masterminding terror from his his villa in Pakistan. So were many of his brothers-in-terror: Sheik Saeed al-Masri (Al Qaeda’s number three commander), Anwar al-Awlaki (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), Abu Hafs al-Shahri (Al Qaeda’s chief of Pakistan operations), top Al Qaeda leaders Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, Ilyas Kashmiri, Ammar al-Wa’ili, Abu Ali al-Harithi, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, Hamza al-Jawfi, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, Ali Saleh Farhan, Harun Fazul and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan (Al-Qaeda East Africa), Younis al-Mauritani, Tehrik e-Taliban, Baitullah Mahsud, Jemayah Islamiya, Noordin Muhammad (Al Quaeda Indonesia), Abdul Ghani Beradar (Taliban deputy and military commander), Muhammad Haqqani (Haqqani network commander), Lashkar-e Jhangvi (Qari Zafar leader) and Hussein al-Yemeni, Dulmatin (top Jemayah Islamiya leader responsible for the 2002 Bali night club bombings which killed over 180 people) and many, many more. These guys were definitely better off in 2008 than they are in 2012!
President Obama knows his work is not finished and he has a lot more to do in improving the economy. But the road he has travelled over the past 4 years has been a hard one. He faced stiff opposition every inch of the way. He was obstructed, blocked, thwarted, vilified and demonized. The top leader of the Republicans in the Senate vowed, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president. That’s my single most important political goal, along with every active Republican in the country.”
As President Clinton observed, President Obama “inherited a deeply damaged economy, he put a floor under the crash and began the long hard road to recovery, and laid the foundation for a more modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good new jobs, vibrant new businesses, and lots of new wealth for the innovators.” There is a lot more to be done. More jobs need to be created and more investments must be made in education, job training and infrastructure improvements. But President Obama cannot fix problems that have taken decades to create in one term.
President Obama, Ethiopia and Africa
Did President Obama deliver on the promises he made for Africa to promote good governance, democracy and human rights? Did he deliver on human rights in Ethiopia? No. Are Ethiopian Americans disappointed over the unfulfilled promises President Obama made in Accra, Ghana in 2009 and his Administration’s support for a dictatorship in Ethiopia? Yes. We remember when President Obama talked about the need to develop robust democratic institutions, uphold the rule of law and the necessity of maintaining open political space and protecting human rights in Africa. We all remember what he said: “Africa does not need strong men but strong institutions.” “Development depends on good governance.” “No nation will create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy.” Was he just saying these words or did he truly believe them?
There is always a gap between political rhetoric and political action. Many Ethiopian Americans who supported President Obama enthusiastically in 2008 today criticize him for hypocrisy and for failing to deliver on his promise of promoting democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. Should we really criticize the President for being indifferent, disinterested, unconcerned and uncaring?
Truth be told, what the President has done or not done to promote good governance, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia is no different than what we, the vast majority of Ethiopian Americans, have done or not done to promote the same values in Ethiopia. That is the painful truth we must face. The President’s actions or lack of actions mirror our own. Just like the President, we profess our belief in democracy, good governance and human rights in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa. But we have also failed to put our values in action. President Obama was constrained in his actions by factors of U.S. national security and national interest. We were constrained by factors of personal interest and personal security.
In the pursuit of Al Quaeda in Somalia and the Horn of Africa, the Obama Administration shelved human rights, good governance and democracy in Ethiopia. Waging a proxy war in Somalia and snagging a drone base were the icing on the cake for the U.S. The Administration shamefully turned a blind eye when elections were stolen in broad day light, journalists and dissidents and opposition leaders were jailed at will. U.S. National security and national interest trumped Ethiopian human rights and democracy. That was wrong in my view because the pursuit of a U.S. anti-terrorism policy in the Horn was not mutually exclusive of the pursuit of a principled human rights policy in Ethiopia.
But let us look at ourselves as Ethiopian Americans and what we have done or not done to promote human rights, good governance and democracy in Ethiopia over the past 4 years. When it comes to speaking up and standing up for these values, most of us have chosen silence and inaction. While the vast majority of us privately extol the virtues of democracy and human rights in Ethiopia, we are scared stiff to make a public statement insupport of our beliefs. We are afraid that if we speak up, the regime in Ethiopia will take away our homes and investments. We are afraid that we will not be issued visas to travel there and even face persecution. We placed our personal interests and personal security over the national interest an security of Ethiopia.
But there are other hard questions we should ask ourselves: What did we do to bring pressure on the Obama Administration to promote human rights, good governance and democracy over the past 4 yeras? Did we organize to have our voices heard by the Administration? Did we exercise our constitutional rights to hold the Administration accountable?
In all fairness, when we point an index finger at President Obama and accuse of him of not doing much in Ethiopia or Africa, we should take a quick glance at the three fingers pointing at us. We should rightly be disappointed with President Obama for his record in Ethiopia and Africa. But we should be more disappointed with ourselves. The ultimate fact of the matter is that it is not President Obama’s responsibility to free Ethiopians or Africans from dictatorship although it is his moral duty not to support dictatorship. But as President, he balances and must balance American national and security interests just as we balance our personal and security interests and act accordingly. It is wise for people who live in glass houses not to throw too many stones.
But President Obama deeply believes in human rights and knows how hard and difficult it is to make it a reality. Last Spring, he made that clear in the context of the long and arduous struggle for human rights in America. “The civil rights movement was hard. Winning the vote for women was hard. Making sure that workers had some basic protections was hard. Around the world, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, what they did was hard. It takes time. It takes more than a single term. It takes more than a single president. It takes more than a single individual… What it takes is ordinary citizens who keep believe, who are committed to fighting and pushing and inching this country closer and closer to our highest ideals.” Protecting human rights in Ethiopia and Africa is hard, very hard. It was hard for Nelson Mandela. It is hard for President Obama. It takes ordinary citizens like ourselves to fight and push for democracy, human rights and good governance in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa.
Remember, November 6, 2012
This is not the time to blame one another or trade accusations about what President Obama has done or not done in Africa or Ethiopia. We all know about the deep and structural problems of Africa with dictatorship and corruption. It takes a lot more to fix Africa than what an American president can do in one term. As Ethiopian Americans, we must not make the mistake of being a single issue group concerned only about a single country or single continent. We must understand that our issues are intertwined with the issues and problems of others. We must not forget that when we vote for President Obama, we vote for him as President of the United States, not Ethiopia or Africa.
On November 6, we face a single question. That question is not about human rights or democracy in Ethiopia. That question is about what kind of society we want to see in America. As President Clinton said, “If you want a you’re on your own, winner take all society you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities— a “we’re all in it together” society, you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”
President Obama in his acceptance speech said:
America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won’t promise that now. Yes, our path is harder – but it leads to a better place. Yes our road is longer – but we travel it together. We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up. We draw strength from our victories, and we learn from our mistakes, but we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon, knowing that Providence is with us, and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on Earth.
I shall vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden on November 6, 2012 because I would like to be a part of a United States of America of Shared Opportunities and Shared Responsibilities. I support President Barack Obama not because he is a perfect president but because he is an imperfect president seeking to build a more perfect and harmonious America of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities— a “we’re all in it together” society.
I believe President Obama understands what he has to do in the next four years and that he has miles to go before he sleeps. Put in the poetic words of Robert Frost: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep./ But I have promises to keep,/ And miles to go before I sleep.”
President Obama still deserves the full and unflagging support of the tens of thousands of Ethiopian Americans in Ohio, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, Wisconsin and the rest of the states. I ask all of my readers and supporters to help re-elect President Barack Obama. Yes, we still can…
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Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: http://www.ecadforum.com/Amharic/archives/category/al-mariam-amharic and http://ethioforum.org/?cat=24
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/ and www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/
Note: This is the second installment in a series of commentaries I intend to offer on U.S. foreign policy (or lack thereof as some would argue) in Ethiopia. In this piece, I argue that the price of U.S. lip service to human rights in Ethiopia without action is demoralization of the brave and dedicated Ethiopians who struggle everyday against dictatorship and tyranny, trivialization and crippling of efforts to build a strong human rights movement and disempowerment and discouragement of ordinary Ethiopians aspiring to a democratic future.
If the Silenced Majority Could Talk…
If the silenced majority inside of what has become Prison Nation Ethiopia (PNE) could talk, what would they tell President Obama and Secretary Clinton about U.S. human rights policy? Would they pat them on the back and say, “Good job! Thank you for helping us live in dignity with our rights protected.”? Or would they angrily wag an accusatory finger and charge, “You speak with forked tongue. You wax eloquent on your lofty principles to us in the morning while you consort with thugs and murderers in the afternoon.” What would the thousands of political prisoners rotting within the closed walls of dictator Meles Zenawi’s prisons say of America’s big human rights talk? “Practice what you preach, Mr. President!” What would Birtukan Midekssa, Ethiopia’s No. 1 political prisoner, first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history and the undisputed heroine of 80 million Ethiopians say to President Obama were she allowed to speak to him? “Mr. President, why do you turn a deaf ear when I have been silenced in solitary confinement?” What would the innocent victims gripped in the jaws of Zenawi’s steel vises say to Secretary Clinton in their faint whimpers from the torture chambers? I do not know. What I know for sure is that the silenced majority of Ethiopians does speak loud in bootless cries while gasping for air under the jackboots of a barbaric dictatorship. President Obama, can you hear their deafening silence?
The Belly v. The Ballot
The defenders of the dictatorship in Ethiopia argue that the masses of ordinary Ethiopians are interested in the politics of the belly and not the politics of the ballot. They do not care about human rights or democracy because they are concerned about finding their daily bread. The masses of poor, illiterate, hungry and sick Ethiopians in their view are too dumb and too damn needy to appreciate “political democracy”. “Economic democracy before political democracy,” they proclaim with certainty. They condemn free speech, free press, free elections, and indeed freedom itself as alien Western ideologies that are meaningless to the masses of poor and hungry Ethiopians. Ethiopia’s dictators are quick to stand on their hind legs and condemn the West for violating their sovereignty because the West insists on human rights observances in Ethiopia. Of course, these rights are not some bizarre imported ideas but core element of the organic law of Ethiopia which incorporates by reference all of the major international human rights conventions. All African dictators have been justifying their dictatorships for well over one-half century by claiming that there is democracy before democracy in Africa.
I raise the belly v. ballot argument to contextualize American human rights policy in Ethiopia. The evidence suggests that the attitudes and perceptions of American (and other Western) policy makers may be latently contaminated by the view that human rights are not of concern or are not important to the tired, poor and huddled Ethiopian masses. I have heard it said artfully in moments of candor by those who have access to U.S. decision-makers, by some decision-makers themselves and even by certain of my learned friends that the majority of ordinary Ethiopians neither know of nor understand their human rights. Even if they are aware of their rights, they do not have a clue as to how to defend them. As a result, I am told, the interests of the ordinary Ethiopian citizens do not figure in the least in U.S. human rights policy calculations. Some have even pointed out to me (much to my disappointment, embarrassment and chagrin) that the lack of informed and vigorous human rights debate and sustained and organized human rights advocacy among Ethiopian elites within and without Ethiopia is clear and convincing evidence that human rights are not important to Ethiopians. I am advised to accept the fact that U.S. human rights rhetoric is primarily intended for international media consumption and to give moral support to the few human rights-minded Ethiopian elites while avoiding the scathing criticisms of the international human rights community for U.S. inaction and hypocrisy. “That is realpolitik for you,” said one of my erudite colleagues jokingly. “The U.S. would rather blather about human rights violations to the African masses in the morning only to sit down for a seven-course meal with Africa’s murderers and butchers in the afternoon.”
Introducing the Unsung Heroes of Ethiopian Human Rights to U.S. Policy Makers
I strongly disagree with those who sideline ordinary Ethiopians as too poor and hungry to be concerned about their human rights or good governance. I could not disagree more with the cynics who claim that ordinary Ethiopians do not know or care about their human rights as long as their bellies are full. In fact the contrary can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. When the 2005 elections were stolen by Zenawi in broad daylight and opposition leaders were hunted down, arrested and jailed, it was not the elites, the privileged and the degreed that came out to defend democracy and human rights. The people who stood up for democracy, freedom and human rights when it really counted were the poor, the urban laborers, the students, the unemployed, the slum dwellers, the retired and plain ordinary folks. The true unsung heroes of Ethiopian human rights are Tensae Zegeye, age 14; Debela Guta, age 15; Habtamu Tola, age 16; Binyam Degefa, age 18; Behailu Tesfaye, age 20; Kasim Ali Rashid, age 21; Teodros Giday Hailu, age 23; Adissu Belachew, age 25; Milion Kebede Robi, age 32; Desta Umma Birru, age 37; Tiruwork G. Tsadik, age 41; Admasu Abebe, age 45. Elfnesh Tekle, age 45; Abebeth Huletu, age 50; Etenesh Yimam, age 50; Regassa Feyessa, age 55. Teshome Addis Kidane, age 65; Victim No. 21762, age 75 and Victim No.21760, male, age unknown and hundreds more. These were the real defenders of human rights in Ethiopia. Their story is memorialized for history in the testimony of Yared Hailemariam, an extraordinary human rights defender and investigator for the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), before the European Parliament Committees on Development and Foreign Affairs, and Subcommittee on Human Rights in May 2006 [Warning: The graphic content in Yared Hailemariam’s testimony cited in the link in footnote 3 may be disturbing to some readers. Reader discretion is strongly advised.] and the report of the official Inquiry Commission that investigated the violence in the post-2005 election period.
If American policy makers are giving lip service to human rights in Ethiopia to please the few elites or immunize themselves from criticism by the international human rights community, their concern is truly misplaced. Human rights in Ethiopia is not about the elites yapping about human rights, nor is it about fine intellectual discussions, philosophical debates, speeches, annual reports or legal analyses of the nature and importance of human rights. It is much, much simpler than that. It is about helping to bring to justice the killers and those who authorized the killings of Tensae Zegeye, age 14; Debela Guta, age 15; Habtamu Tola, age 16 and all the rest. It is not about a metaphorical “closing walls”; it is about getting released the thousands of innocent political prisoners languishing behind the prison walls. It is not about an imaginary clenched fist but the real iron fist of a dictatorship that crushes citizens mercilessly every day. It is not about metaphorical steel vises, but about those who cling to power like blood-sucking leeches on a milk cow.
American policy makers should not be dismissive of ordinary Ethiopians. They should not misinterpret their silence for consent to be brutalized by dictatorship. Ordinary Ethiopians may not know much about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the numerous protocols, resolutions and declarations. They may not even know of Article 13 of their Constitution which incorporates all of the major international human rights conventions as part of their rights. But there should be no doubt that all of them know that as human beings, no person has the moral or legal right to take their lives just because he wants to, jail them and throw away the key because he feels like it or rule them for decades against their will by training a gun to their heads. That is all the human rights knowledge they need to know to deserve the respect and support of the American government.
Stability v. Human Rights
It has been argued and anonymously reported in the media that “Western diplomats” in Addis Ababa believe that forceful U.S. action on human rights could create “instability” in the country. To talk about stability in a dictatorship is like talking about the stability of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl just before it suddenly exploded. But the whole U.S. “stability” subterfuge to do nothing, absolutely nothing, about gross human rights violations in Ethiopia is eerily reminiscent of a shameful period in American history. The principal argument against the abolition of slavery in the U.S., the ultimate denial of human rights, was “stability”. Defenders of slavery strenuously argued that if slavery ended, the American South would simply disintegrate and collapse because the slave labor-based economy would be unable to sustain itself. They predicted that there would be widespread unemployment and chaos leading to uprisings, bloodshed, and anarchy. To ensure the “stability” of the South, even the United States Supreme Court joined in with its most infamous decision and held that the U.S. Constitution protected slave-holders’ rights to their property. But history proved that keeping the institution of slavery became the very undoing of the American union when the civil war was fought. America came apart at the seams because slavery that denied fundamental human rights to African slaves was retained, not because it was abolished. American policy makers should see the historical parallels. The undoing and unraveling of Ethiopia will be the result of sustained and gross violations of human rights by the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi, not because of respect for and observance of human rights. Perhaps we can crystallize the issue for American policy makers in the language of the American Declaration of Independence: It is necessary for Ethiopia to go through a civil war to ensure that every Ethiopian has the “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it…”?
President Obama’s Challenge in Ethiopia and Africa
President Obama now faces a great challenge in Africa, and particularly in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. His African human rights rhetoric is being tested by the cunning dictators on the continent who are scheming to counter his every move. They are prepared to test his mettle to find out how far they can push him before he pushes back. So far, Zenawi has succeeded in cowering the U.S. into inaction and paralysis.
President Obama will soon have to make some tough decisions in his choices in the Horn of Africa. He can choose to let progress on human rights and democracy die on the vine by handing over American tax dollars to sustain bloodthirsty regimes to oppress their citizens, or use the same tax dollars to pressure for change. President Obama is said to be “a pragmatist” concerned about “problem-solving.” He has got a hell of a problem in Ethiopia and must make some tough choices. His major choice will not be between “stability” and human rights, nor will it be a choice between the forces of radicalism and terrorism and democracy in the Horn as the dictators want him to believe. The one and only choice he has is how to help Ethiopia become permanently stable by ensuring the protection of the human rights of its citizens. There will be neither peace nor stability in Ethiopia until the human rights of every citizen are protected.
Zenawi complains that the U.S. and the West in general interfere in Ethiopian affairs too much by insisting on human rights observances and demanding democratization. But by Zenawi’s measure, the U.S. has been “interfering” in Ethiopia for nearly two decades, handing out to him tens of billions of dollars in aid. But for U.S. aid and loans by multilateral institutions under U.S. control, his dictatorship could not last even a single day. If the U.S. is serious about progress on human rights, it will have to kink the aid hose line just a bit. It is guaranteed that someone will be shrieking at the receiving end, “Uncle! Please Uncle Sam!”
Giving lip service to human rights in Ethiopia without action is tantamount to demoralization of the brave and dedicated Ethiopians who struggle everyday against dictatorship and tyranny, trivialization and crippling of efforts to build a strong human rights movement and disempowerment and discouragement of ordinary Ethiopians aspiring to a democratic future. It has been said 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.” The most critical need in Ethiopia today is neither food nor water (though they are very much needed), but HOPE. The U.S. has a moral obligation to keep hope alive in Ethiopia by conditioning its aid on significant human rights improvements. Stated simply, the U.S. must practice what it preaches!
FREE BIRTUKAN MIDEKSSA AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA.
See also the list of names of massacred victims released by the official Inquiry Commission investigating the
post-2005 election at: http://www.abbaymedia.com/pdf/list_of_people_shot.pdf