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Ted Vestal

We Went, We Saw, We Got Chased Out…

Alemayehu G. Mariam

Following the Battle of Zela in 47 B.C. (present day Zile, Turkey), Julius Caesar claimed victory by declaring: “I came; I saw; I conquered.” In 2011, Caesar Meles Zenawi, the dictator-in-chief in Ethiopia, scattered his top henchmen throughout the U.S. and Europe to declare victory in the propaganda war on Diaspora Ethiopians. But there was no victory to be had, only {www:ignominious} defeat at the hands of Zenawi’s {www:tenacious}, resolute and dogged opponents. No victory dances; only a speedy shuffle back to the capo di tutti capi (boss of all bosses) to deliver the message: “We went; We saw; We got chased the hell out of Dodge!”

The purpose of the recent official travelling circus was to introduce and generate support among Diaspora Ethiopians for Zenawi’s five-year economic program pretentiously labeled “Growth and Transformation Plan”. In city after city in North America and Europe, Zenawi’s crew received defiant and pugnacious reception. Ethiopians made the various meeting venues and sites virtual mini-Tahrir Squares (Egypt). Ethiopian men and women, Christians and Muslims, young and old, professionals and service workers, students and teachers and members of various political groups and parties showed up in a united front to confront and challenge Zenawi’s henchmen. One need only view any one of the numerous videotapes online to appreciate the intensity, depth and strength of Diaspora Ethiopian opposition to Zenawi’s regime.

In Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Dallas, Seattle, New York, Toronto, London and various other cities, Ethiopians came out in full force and tried to gain admission into the meetings.  Many were singled out and turned back. In a widely-disseminated and cogently argued “open letter”,Fekade Shewakena, a former professor at Addis Ababa University, wrote Girma Birru, Zenawi’s official representative in the U.S., complaining about his discriminatory treatment in being refused admission at the meeting held on the campus of Howard University:

I was formally invited by an [Ethiopian] embassy staffer… I faced the wrath of the protestors as I was crossing their picket lines [to attend the meeting]. Then I met the people who were deployed by the [Ethiopian] embassy to man the gate, and do the sad job of screening participants and deciding what type of Ethiopian should be let in and what type should be kept out. I was told I was ineligible to enter and saw many people being returned from entering. One screener told me… “ante Tigre titela yelem ende min litisera metah” [Tr. Do you not hate Tigreans? What business do you have here?…]

The ethnic stripe test was the last straw for many of the protesters who denounced Zenawi and his crew as “murderers”, “thieves” (leba) and “opportunists” (hodams). Inside the meeting halls, those who asked tough questions were singled out and ejected by the organizers, often violently. Some were physically assaulted requiring emergency medical assistance. Nearly all of the meetings were disrupted, cancelled, stopped or delayed. To sum it up, those who made peaceful dialogue impossible, made angry verbal exchanges inevitable.

Zenawi in September, His Troops in April?

It will be recalled that in September 2010 when Zenawi came to the U.S. to speak at the World Leader’s Conference at Columbia University, he set off a firestorm of opposition among Ethiopians in the U.S. Busloads of Ethiopian activists descended on New York City to confront Zenawi, but they were kept away from the campus. A massive campaign (reminiscent of the anti-war protest days at Columbia in the late 1960s) was undertaken to mobilize Columbia students, faculty and staff to put pressure on the university administration to disinvite Zenawi.

Zenawi’s invitation also provoked strong reaction among non-Ethiopians. Prof. Ted Vestal, the distinguished and respected scholar on Ethiopia, outraged by Zenawi’s invitation wrote Columbia President Lee Bollinger: “The only way you can redeem the damaged reputation of the World Leaders Forum is by publicly making known the shortcomings of Prime Minister Meles and his government in your introductory remarks–a refutation similar to what you did in introducing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran in 2007.”

World-renowned Columbia economist Prof. Jagdish Bagwati wrote in disgust: “It seems probable that the President’s [Bollinger] office was merely reproducing uncritically the rubbish that was supplied by one of these Columbia entrepreneurs [Columbia Professors Joseph Stiglitz (Zenawi’s sponsor) and  Jeffrey Sachs] whose objective is to ingratiate himself with influential African leaders regardless of their democratic and human-rights record, to get PR and ‘goodies’ for themselves at African summits, at the UN where these leaders have a vote, etc.”

I vigorously defended Zenawi’s right to speak at Columbia because I believed the opportunity could offer him a teachable moment in the ways of free people:

I realize that this may not be a popular view to hold, but I am reminded of the painful truth in Prof. Noam Chomsky’s admonition: ‘If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.’ On a personal level, it would be hypocritical of me to argue for free speech and press freedoms in Ethiopia and justify censorship or muzzling of Zenawi stateside. If censorship is bad for the good citizens of Ethiopia, it is also bad for the dictators of Ethiopia.

Following the Columbia episode, one has to wonder why Zenawi would send hordes of his top officials to the U.S. and elsewhere to evangelize on behalf of his regime. It is logical to assume that Zenawi conducted a “vulnerability analysis” of Diaspora Ethiopians before sending out his crew. It is likely that he studied Diaspora attitudes and perceptions toward his regime and the current situation in the country, the ethnic and political divisions and tensions in the Diaspora, the strength of Diaspora elite cooperation and intensity of conflict among them, etc. and decided to make his move. He likely concluded that any potential opposition to the meetings could be handled by utilizing an “ethnic filter” at the door of the meeting halls.

But what are Zenawi’s real reasons for sending his top cadre of officials to North America and Europe? There could be several answers to this deceptively simple question.

Zenawi’s Arsenal of Weapons of Mass Distraction

Careful evaluation of Zenawi’s propaganda strategy shows that the dispatch of officials to the to the U.S. and Europe is part of a broader integrated campaign to undermine opposition in the Diaspora, energize supporters and reinforce favorable perception and action by  foreign donors and banks. Manifestly, the mission of the crew sent to “dialogue” with the Ethiopian Diaspora was to divert attention from the extreme domestic economic, political and social problems in the country and to exude public confidence in the fact that the upheavals in North Africa are of no consequence in Ethiopia. The other elements in this propaganda campaign of mass distraction include belligerent talk of regime change in Eritrea, {www:inflammatory} water war-talk with Egypt, wild allegations of terrorist attacks, wholesale jailing and intimidation of opponents, proposals for the construction of an imaginary dam, attacks on international human rights organizations that have published critical reports on the regime (just a day ago, Zenawi’s deputy said he “dismisses” the 2010 U.S. Human Rights Report as “baseless”) and so on.  The hope is that the more Diasporans talk about the manufactured issues, the less they will talk about the real issues of stratospheric inflation, food shortages, skyrocketing fuel costs, massive repression, information and media suppression, etc. in Ethiopia.

By alternating propaganda topics from day today, Zenawi hopes to keep his opponents and critics talking reflexively about his issues and off-balance. The more outrageous his claims, the more reaction he is likely to elicit from his opponents and critics, and be able to better control the debate and the minds of those engaged in it. To be sure, by sending his travelling circus to the U.S., Zenawi has succeeded in angering, inflaming and riling up his Diaspora opponents. He knows just how to “get their goat”. He manipulates that outpouring of anger, rage and frustration to keep his opponents’ eyes off the prize.

The Propaganda Value of “In-Yo’-Diaspora-Face” Confrontation

By sending a large delegation into the Ethiopian Diaspora, Zenawi is also sending an unmistakable message: “In yo’ face, Ethiopian Diaspora! I can do what I am doing in Ethiopia just as easily in your neck of the woods.” It is a confrontational propaganda strategy tinged with a tad of arrogance. Zenawi seems to believe that the Ethiopian Diaspora is so divided against itself and inherently dysfunctional that it is incapable of mounting an effective opposition to his regime or even his crew’s visit. By unleashing swarms of regime officials in the Diaspora, Zenawi likely intended to further degrade the Diaspora’s ability to conduct or sustain opposition activities, {www:demoralize} and disconcert them and confuse their leadership. On the other hand, if he can muster a successful foray with his crew, he could establish his invincibility and spread pessimism and despair in the Diaspora. But the whole affair proved to be a total failure as have all previous efforts to stage “in yo’ face” confrontation with Diaspora Ethiopians. The Diaspora may be divided but not when it comes to Zenawi’s regime.

Effective Propaganda Tool Against the “Extreme Diaspora”

The other less apparent side of “in yo’ face” confrontation is to make a record of the “extreme Diaspora”. Zenawi will no doubt use this episode to show American and European  policy makers that he is reasonable and statesman-like while the opposition, particularly in the Diaspora, consist of an assortment of wild-eyed, hysterical, fanatical, intolerant, irrational, hateful and mean-spirited extremists. He will argue to American policy makers that he sent his top leaders to engage Diasporan Ethiopians in civil dialogue only to be attacked, insulted and berated. He will hand them copies of  well-edited videotapes of agitated protesters titled: “Behold the Ethiopian Diaspora!” In short, Zenawi will use the protest videos as Exhibit A to demonize, discredit, dehumanize, marginalize, categorize and sermonize about the Evil Extreme Ethiopian Diaspora. At the end, he will offer American policy makers a simple choice: “I am your man! It’s me or these raving lunatics.” Based on historical experience and empirical observations, some American policy makers may actually buy his argument.

Pandering to the U.S., IMF, E.U.

A third objective of the dog and pony show about the “Growth and Transformational Plan” is to please (hoodwink) the U.S., the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and others. It is an elaborately staged drama for this audience to show that Zenawi has a real economic plan for Ethiopia that exceeds the “Millennium Goals” (e.g. eradicate extreme poverty, reduce child mortality, fight AIDS, form global partnership, etc. by 2015). By making gestures of engagement with the Ethiopian Diaspora, Zenawi is trying to build credibility for his “economic plan” and that it has broad support within and outside the country. He deserves billions more in in loans and economic aid. Zenawi knows exactly what buttons to push to get the attention and approval of donors and loaners.

The “economic plan” itself floats on a sea of catchphrases, clichés, slogans, buzzwords, platitudes, truisms and bombast. Zenawi says his plan will produce “food sufficiency in five years.” But he cautions it is a “high-case scenario which is clearly very, very ambitious.” He says  the “base-case” scenario of “11 percent average economic growth over the next five years is  doable” and the “high-case” scenario of 14.9 percent is “not unimaginable”. The hype of super economic growth rate is manifestly detached from reality. The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative Multidimensional Poverty Index 2010 (formerly annual U.N.D.P. Human Poverty Index) ranks Ethiopia as second poorest (ahead of famine-ravaged Mali) country on the planet. Six million Ethiopians needed emergency food aid last year and many millions will need food aid this year. An annual growth rate of 15 percent for the second poorest country on the planet for the next five years goes beyond the realm of imagination to pure fantasy. The IMF predicts a growth rate of 7 percent for 2011, but talking about economic statistics on Ethiopia is like talking about the art of voodoo.

Dialogue, Like Charity, Begins at Home

Like charity, dialogue begins at home. Zenawi should allow free and unfettered discussion of his economic plan as well as human rights record within Ethiopia first before sending his troupe into the Diaspora.  Conversation is a two-way street. If Zenawi wants to talk about his economic plan to Diaspora Ethiopians, he must be prepared to listen to their human rights concerns.

There is not a single Ethiopian who will oppose food sufficiency in that hungry country by 2015 or decline to contribute to the prosperity and development of Ethiopia. Reasonable people could disagree on Zenawi’s “growth and transformation plan”. History shows that similar schemes based on foreign agricultural investments in Latin America have produced Banana Republics. Whether Zenawi’s economic plan will produce a Barley or Rice Republic in Ethiopia is an arguable question. But there can be no development without freedom. There can be no development in a climate of fear, loathing and intimidation, and one-party, one-man domination. Most certainly, there can be no development without respect for fundamental human rights and the rule of law. Though it is very possible to pull the wool over the eyes of people who have very little access to information, it is impossible to fool a politically conscious, active and energized Ethiopian Diaspora community by putting on a dog and pony show.



Veni, Vidi, Orator, Fugio!

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

Reinventing Zenawi

In 47 B.C., the Roman Emperor Julius Ceasar sent his senators news of his military victory in a simple declaration: “Veni, Vidi, Vici.” (I came, I saw, I conquered.) “Emperor” Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s dictator-in-chief, would have loved to send the same message to his “senators” in Addis Ababa following his speech at Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum (WLF) on September 22, 2010. But he will have to settle for something less: “Veni, Vidi, Orator, Fugio!” (I came, I saw, I spoke (for 20 minutes). I got the hell (out of Dodge) outta there!”)

In less than 60 New York minutes, Meles Zenawi was outta there. The whole kit and caboodle — introduction, speech, Q&As, pleasantries — took less than an hour, according to The Spectator, the campus online paper. No doubt, that was not the script Joe “The Globalizer” Stiglitz and his crew at the WLF had written when they invited Zenawi to deliver the “keynote address”. Their plan was to give Zenawi a forum to clean up his image on the heels of a 99.6 election victory in May 2010, and deflect attention from the impending condemnatory report of the European Union Election Monitoring Team due any day now. Simply stated, the affair was part of a Stiglitzian scheme to reinvent Zenawi for Americans right on Columbia’s stage and showcase him as a great African leader.

Of Mice and Men

But as the old saying goes, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go arwy”, and at the WLF, they did for Zenawi. His appearance drew condemnation from all quarters. Two prominent Ethiopian husband and wife journalists, Serkalem Fasil and Eskinder Nega[1], wrote a heart-wrenching letter from Ethiopia to plead with University President Lee Bollinger: “While we acknowledge [Zenawi’s] right to express his views, it is an affront to his government’s numerous victims of repression to grant him the privilege to do so on the notable premises of Columbia.” They recounted their “incarceration under deplorable circumstances”, ultimate acquittal in the courts, and how Serkalem gave birth to a “premature” baby because of her “physical and psychological privation in one of Africa’s worst prisons.” They offered testimony in their letter on the “incomprehensible vindictiveness” of Zenawi’s regime in denying them “an incubator” for their baby ordered by the doctors.

World-renowned economist Prof. Jagdish Baghwati of Columbia University, without mentioning Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs by name, condemned “unacademic professors” and academic “entrepreneurs” who are given “unaccountable power and funds” to exploit the University and “advance their own agendas”. He said the unnamed “entrepreneurs” seek to “ingratiate” themselves “with influential African leaders regardless of their democratic and human-rights record, to get PR and ‘goodies’ for themselves at African summits, at the UN where these leaders have a vote, etc.”

Prof. William Easterly of New York University, a world-renowned development economist, wrote on his blog: “I am happy to give the opposition a platform in this blog, without necessarily endorsing any one viewpoint, individual, or movement.” He put the question to his readers: “Should President Bollinger issue the “Ahmadinejad” disclaimer requested by the critics?”, in reference to the drubbing Bollinger gave Ahmadinejad in 2007 in his prefatory remarks.

Prof. Ted Vestal, the well-known and respected scholar on Ethiopia, wrote President Bollinger with an offer of advice and in apparent response to Prof. Easterly’s question: “The only way you can redeem the damaged reputation of the World Leaders Forum is by publicly making known the shortcomings of Prime Minister Meles and his government in your introductory remarks–a refutation similar to what you did in introducing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran in 2007.”

The Washington Examiner wondered: “It’s all well and good that [Zenawi] he is an ally of the United States, but why should Columbia honor him with a speaking engagement?”

In an editorial, The Spectator wrote: “Meles Zenawi is not a household name, but he is a despot. His government has carried out numerous extrajudicial killings, imprisoned political dissidents, and brutally suppressed protests by activists at Addis Ababa University…. The World Leaders Forum is supposed to be a hallmark of a global university. If we are truly globally minded, we must also be globally conscious. Students and administrators alike should care about Ethiopia.”

A day before the speech, Columbia announced without explanation that Zenawi will not speak at the stately domed Low Library, where heads of states usually speak, and directed those interested to show up at the Roone Arledge Auditorium, an all-purpose campus facility. A few dozen students and some faculty showed up. But President Bollinger was nowhere to be seen at the event. His Provost, Claude Steele, showed up and promptly reminded Zenawi that “Columbia doesn’t endorse the leaders it invites to the World Leaders Forum.” Busloads of Ethiopians trekked to Columbia from neighboring states to protest Zenawi’s appearance. They were orderly and peaceful, and expressed their opposition passionately. Their disciplined exercise of their democratic right to protest was an object lesson to all.

I was decidedly in the minority among Ethiopians in the Diaspora in vigorously defending Zenawi’s “right” to speak at Columbia or any other public venue in America, much to the chagrin of those who disapproved of his appearance. I argued: “As a university professor and constitutional lawyer steadfastly dedicated to free speech, I have adopted one yardstick for all issues concerning free speech, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’ I underscore the words ‘everyone’ and ‘regardless of frontiers.'” I also expressed my hope that the speaking opportunity would be a teachable moment for Zenawi: “He may begin to appreciate the simple truth that ideas are accepted and rejected and arguments won and lost in the cauldron of critical analysis oxygenated by the bellows of free speech, not in prison dungeons where journalists and dissidents are bludgeoned and left to rot.” Regardless, I respect the views of those who disagreed with me.

Talking Big, Saying Nothing

The event was supposed to kick off a “conversation to examine Africa’s place in the world” and facilitate discussion on “the future of African agriculture, the explosion of Asian investment on the continent, the evolving contours of global aid to Africa, and the impact of the financial crisis on the region.” On Ethiopia, Zenawi was expected to speak about “progresses (sic) in many areas including in education, transportation, health and energy.” But the audience did not see an African knight in shining armor thrusting a lance at poverty, injustice and global inequality. They saw a sanctimonious emperor with new clothes.

Zenawi talked for a mere 20 minutes. He must have been tongue-tied. He usually harangues his parliament for hours, often berating and belittling the timid rubber-stampers.

As a devotee of the old “Globalizer” Stiglitz, Zenawi reminded the audience that “the continent must keep producing and consuming goods to keep the engines of globalization running.” He explained the “main challenge in Ethiopia is poverty. Most of you who have heard of Ethiopia will have heard of it in terms of poverty … It is my hunch that overcoming poverty and ensuring full security could contribute to the happiness of Ethiopians.” But when asked what he thought of the concept of “gross national happiness,” Zenawi said he had not really studied it. That’s quite understandable for someone who has been busy inflicting “gross unhappiness” on 80 million Ethiopians for the past two decades. Zenawi complained that “people have given up on Africa’s contribution to the world economy and that Africans have the chance to generate growth themselves. The continent must continue to produce and consume goods.”

Based on The Spectator report, the speech seemed desultory and meandering, cumulatively amounting to an implicit repudiation of the International Monetary Fund’s “structural adjustment programs” (market oriented policies as preconditions for loans). It does not appear that there was much discussion of globalization as advertised, and as we have heard it preached according to the Gospel of St. Stiglitz of Columbia (a/k/a Globalization and Its Discontents and Making Globalization Work.)

Zenawi was asked if he was being fairly characterized as a “dictator”. He evaded the question and sought credit for removing the junta dictatorship: “I have contributed my fair share to fighting the systems in Ethiopia that were unmistakably oppressive”. He failed to mention that after fighting oppression, he had become the apotheosis of oppression on the African continent today.

Zenawi tried to deflect attention from his own criminality by focusing on the criminality of the former military junta. He said during the “period of Red Terror [1977-78] people were killed without any recourse to the courts. That time of criminality and oppression is dead, is finished, and is not coming back.” Not true! That criminality never left; it is alive and well. The old criminality wore uniforms and boots; the new criminality wears tailored suits and alligator shoes. That’s the only difference. The courts today are circuses of injustice. Citizens get “legally” lynched, jailed and abused “with recourse to the courts.”

For the first time, Zenawi explained the methodology he used to calculate his 99.6 election victory in May 2010. (I had mistakenly believed it was a magic formula. Mea culpa!) It is actually a mathematical system hereafter to be known as the “Zenawian Theorem.” He said he was able to win 99.6 percent of all seats in parliament by winning just a little over 50 percent of the vote for each seat. Thus, applying the “Zenawian equation”: 50 percent plus 0.1 equals 99.6 percent. Apparently, he uses the same theorem to derive economic growth rates of 10.1, 11.9 and 14.9 percent for Ethiopia.

Zenawi was reassuring about his future plans: “In case you are wondering whether I will remain in power until kingdom come, I can assure you that this will be my last term in power.” Really? He has been saying that for the past five years straight. Anyway, for the past twenty years “Emperor” Zenawi has been sitting on the throne in his “kingdom” exercising his royal prerogative over his wretched subjects. Could he be envisioning his “kingdom” (“Reich”) lasting for a thousand years?

Asked about alleged crimes against humanity committed by his government, he responded, “I can understand how people have had an inadequate chance to consider the facts.” He failed to suggest where they may be able to find the facts. Might we suggest the 2010 human reports on Ethiopia issued by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Committee to Protect Journalists and the U.S. State Department?

Zenawi said he welcomes engagement and is glad to see students caring enough to learn about Ethiopia. He says that Ethiopia is making progress and invited everyone to come see for themselves. He did not say if he will cover the cost of their flights there.

Rather Disappointed

It was rather disappointing. In general, it does not appear that Zenawi was genuinely looking for an intellectual outlet for his ideas or a forum to respond to his critics. He was there to save face given the intense controversy surrounding his appearance. I was hoping to see Zenawi engaging those Columbia eggheads on issues of human rights and development and democratic theory and practice. He could have taught those armchair pundits and airhead academics a thing or two about the “end of poverty”, “globalization and its discontents”, the decay and imminent collapse of liberal democracy, the irrelevance of human rights and the vices of democracy and virtues of dictatorship. He could have also taken on his critics and disproven the things they have said and written about him. He could have made the opportunity a teachable moment for us all. But he missed the opportunity.

On the other hand, I believe Stiglitz has ill-served his academic community. He advertised that Zenawi would be delivering the “keynote address” to launch a “conversation” on “globalization and its impact on Africa.” Obviously, a 20-minute speech makes a travesty of such an important subject. Surely, Stiglitz as an academic “entrepreneur” is familiar with the concept of “truth in advertising”. In the future, he would be well-advised to apply that principle in the academic marketplace, and avoid intentionally misleading his community by deceptive advertising of his intellectual “product” lines.

It is said that there are some people who never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. It seems Zenawi is one of them. He had the World Leaders Forum to engage and spar with the best and the brightest America has to offer. He let the opportunity slip. The only thing left for him to do now is send an urgent message back to his doodling “senators” in Addis Ababa: “Veni! Vidi! Orator, Fugio!”