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Why Do Things Always Fall Apart in Africa?

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

Copycat Dictators and Cartoon Democracies in Africa

Ivory Coast, December 2010. Laurent Gbagbo says he won the presidential election. The Independent Ivorian Election Commission (CEI) said former prime minister Alassane Ouattara is the winner by a nine-point margin. The African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the United Nations, the United States, the European Union all say Ouattara is the winner. Gbagbo is only the latest African dictator to steal an election in broad daylight, flip his middle finger at his people, thumb his nose at the international community and cling to power like a barnacle to a sunken ship.

Ethiopia, May 2010. Meles Zenawi said he won the parliamentary election by 99.6 percent. The European Union Election Observer Team said the election “lacked a level playing field” and “failed to meet international standards”. Translation from diplomatic language: The election was stolen. Ditto for the May 2005 elections.

The Sudan, April 2010. Omar al-Bashir claimed victory by winning nearly 70 percent of the vote. The EU EOM declared the “deficiencies in the legal and electoral framework in the campaign environment led the overall process to fall short of a number of international standards for genuine democratic elections.” Translation: al-Bashir stole the election.

Niger, February 2010. Calling itself the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD), a group of army officers stormed Niger’s presidential palace and snatched president Mamadou Tandja and his ministers. In 2009, Tandja had dissolved the National Assembly and set up a “Constitutional Court” to pave the way for him to become president-for-life. Presidential elections are scheduled for early January, 2011.

Zimbabwe, March 2008. In the first round of votes, Morgan Tsvangirai won 48 percent of the vote to Mugabe’s 43 percent. Tsvangirai withdrew from the runoff in June after Mugabe cracked down on Tsvangirai’s supporters. Mugabe declared victory. The African Union called for a “government of national unity”. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki mediated and Tsvangirai agreed to serve as prime minister. A stolen election made to look like a not-stolen-election.

Kenya, December 2007. Mwai Kibaki declared himself winner of the presidential election. After 1500 Kenyans were killed in post-election violence and some six hundred thousand displaced, intense international pressure was applied on Kibaki, who agreed to have Raila Odinga serve as prime minster in a coalition government. Another stolen election in Africa.

Massive election fraud, voting irregularities, vote buying, voter and opposition party intimidation, bogus voter registration, rigged polling stations, corrupt election commissioners and so on were common elsewhere in Africa including Rwanda, Uganda, Nigeria and Egypt. In 2011, “elections” will be held in Chad, the Central African Republic, Malagasy, Uganda, Zambia, Nigeria and other countries. Will there be more stolen elections? One thing is for sure: In January, the Southern Sudanese independence referendum will be held with little doubt about its outcome.

Ivory Coast Headed for Civil War?

The tragedy about Gbagbo is that the one-time university professor was one of the courageous Ivorian leaders who had struggled against civilian and military dictatorships. He was the chief opponent of Ivorian president-for-life Félix Houphouet-Boigny. Today Gbagbo wants to become Félix Houphouet-Boigny reincarnate. After a decade in power, Gbagbo has become addicted to the sweet life (la dolce vita) of dictatorship. He is said to have the support of the country’s military. He controls the south, and “rebels” are said to control much of the north where Ouattara has his support. To complicate matters, there are reports that rogue remnants of Charles Taylor’s bloodthirsty Liberian army are being recruited by both sides of the crises as a perfect storm of civil war gathers over the Ivorian horizon. Is Ivory Coast headed for a replay of the two-year civil war that began in 2002? Unless Gbagbo peacefully leaves power, it seems inevitable that violence and conflict will again reign in the Ivory Coast destroying thousands of lives and the economy of one of the more prosperous African countries.

The international community led by the U.S and France appears to be orchestrating diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions and a cutoff of access to funds at the regional West African bank to force Gbagbo to step aside. ECOWAS (a group of some dozen West African countries) is said to be considering military action; but there is little evidence that it has an offensive military capability to rout Gbagbo’s troops. Gbagbo has intimated that he will retaliate against immigrants from ECOWAS countries in Ivory Coast should military action be initiated to dislodge him. He remains steadfastly defiant and has escalated the crackdown on opponents. He continues to round up opposition supporters; and street killings, abductions and detentions by the military and armed youth thugs are said to be widespread. Gbagbo has repeatedly claimed that the “international community has declared war” on Ivory Coast and he has a constitutional duty to defend the country against such aggression.

The Lesson of Ivory Coast

Informed analysts suggest that Ivory Coast will prove to be a global test case of whether the international community could develop consensus to uphold the outcomes of democratic elections against a defiant African dictator who refuses to leave power peacefully. I disagree for two reasons. First, dictatorships in Africa have always been tolerated by the international community. As in the past, the West will cackle, bray, neigh and yelp about Gbagbo, but at the end of the day they will yawn and walk away shaking their heads and repeating the words of former French President Jacques Chirac, “Africa is not ready for democracy!” Second, the AU and ECOWAS will make sure that nothing is done that will set a precedent for an African dictator being removed from power through international action. These are the same crooks who are today coddling and shielding al-Bashir from prosecution in the International Criminal Court. Today it is Gbagbo; tomorrow it could be any one of them. Africa’s dictators will never, ever allow such a precedent to be established.

Things Keep Falling Apart After One-Half Century of African Independence

Things keep falling apart in Africa because over the past one-half century of independence it has been nearly impossible to hold Africa’s so-called leaders accountable. For fifty years, African “leaders” have been telling Africans and the world that Africa’s problems are all externally caused. Africa is what it is (or is not) because of its colonial legacy. It is the white man. It is imperialism. It is capitalism. It is the International Monetary Fund. It is the World Bank. The continent’s underdevelopment, poverty, backwardness, mismanagement are all caused by evil powers outside the continent. The latest re-invention of the old African Boogeyman is “globalization” and “neoliberalism”, which Zenawi claims has “created three consecutive lost decades for Africa”.

There are indisputable reasons why things keep falling apart in Africa. The major one is the lack of competent leadership with vision, purpose and integrity. Indeed the common thread that sews the vast majority of post-independence African leaders is not steadfast commitment to good governance and democratic practices, but their incredible sense of entitlement to rule forever and ever and ever. In 1964, Kwame Nkrumah invented the whole idea of president-for-life becoming the first certified post-independence African dictator. Many others followed. In 1970, H. Kamuzu Banda of Malawi declared himself ‘President-for-Life”. Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the military ruler of the Central African Republic, kicked it up a notch in the mid-1970s. He coronated himself “Emperor”. Idi Amin of Uganda, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Ivory Coast, Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Albert Bernard Bongo of Gabon, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Ismail Omar Guellah of tiny Djbouti, and countless others have clung or continue to cling to power as rulers-for-life. It boggles the mind to call these individuals “leaders”; they are, as the great Afrobeat legend and human rights activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti described them, “animals in human skin”. I would call them hyenas in designer suits or uniforms.

These “animals in human skin” have stoked ethnic and tribal hatred, caused fragmentation and sectarian tensions and have unleashed unspeakable violence on their populations to cling to power in much the same way as the old colonial masters. In Ivory Coast and Nigeria today violent confrontations are being orchestrated by “leaders” along ethnic and religious lines. Just in the past few days, there has been a surge in violence in Nigeria, a country said to be evenly split between Christian and Muslims, with the firebombing of churches. Various scholars have expressed concern over the “heightening of the resurgence of ethnic identity politics in Nigeria” and the rise of armed ethnic militias which not only challenge the legitimacy of the Nigerian state but are also spearheading separatist movements to dismember the Nigerian nation. Given these tensions, more and more “marginalized” Nigerians are said to choose their ethnic identities over loyalty to the Nigerian nation. No doubt echoes of the Biafran War of 1967 reverberate in the minds of concerned Nigerians. Ethnicity and sectarianism are also a core element of the current Ivorian crises. Gbagbo accuses Muslims, who are in the majority in the north, of aiding and supporting the “rebels” who control the region. They have been subjected to attacks and persecution.

As Africa burns in ethnic, political and sectarian fires, the unctuous, hypocritical and self-righteous Western governments frolic in bed with the corrupt dictators in power. They jibber-jabber about democracy, human rights, the rule of law, accountability, transparency and the rest of it, but will gladly hold hands with bloodthirsty African dictators and walk down the primrose path to maintain their oil, mineral and military strategic interests. No Western government involved in Africa will openly admit it, but each and every one of them shares wholeheartedly Chirac’s view that “Africa is not ready for democracy” and that “multi-partyism” is a “kind of luxury,” that is unaffordable by a country like the Ivory Coast (or any other African country for that matter).

Chinua Achebe and Why Things are in Free Fall in Africa

In Things Fall Apart (1959), the great African novelist Chinua Achebe tells the story of the initial encounters in the 1890s between Ibo villagers in Nigeria and white European missionaries and colonial officials. That was the time when things really began to “fall apart” in Africa. The white man “put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” But his depiction could apply to the “falling apart” of many other African societies as a result of contact with colonialism and Christianity. But over the last one-half century, colonialism has become extinct and the white man has “left” Africa. The African leaders who replaced the colonial masters have not hearkened back to pre-colonial Africa and used traditional values and methods to hold the center and keep things from falling apart. Rather, they have followed in the colonial footsteps and lorded over vampiric states which have attenuated and frayed the fabric of the post-independent African societies to ensure their hold on power.

Robert Guest, Africa editor for The Economist, in his book The Shackled Continent (2004), argues that “Africa is the only continent to have grown poorer over the last three decades” while other developing countries and regions have grown. Africa was better off at the end of colonialism than it is today. According to the U.N., life expectancy in Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Mozambique and Swaziland for the period 2005-2010 is less than 44 years, the worst in the world. The average annual income in Zimbabwe at independence in 1980 was USD $950. In 2009, 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars (with a “T”) was worth about USD $300. In the same year, a loaf of bread in Zimbabwe cost 300 billion Zimbabwean dollars (with a “B”). The tens of billions in foreign aid money has done very little to improve the lives of Africans. The reason for things falling apart in Africa is statism (the state as the principal change agent) and central planning, according to Guest. The bottom line is that the masses of Africans today are denied basic political and economic freedoms while the privileged few live the sweet life of luxury, not entirely unlike the “good old” colonial times.

Guest concludes that “Africans are poor because they are poorly governed.” The answer to Africa’s problems lies in upholding the rule of law, enforcing contracts, safeguarding property rights and putting more stock in freedom than in force. Much of Africa today is under the control of “Vampire states”. As the noted African economist George Ayittey explains, the “vampire African states” are “governments which have been hijacked by a phalanx of bandits and crooks who would use the instruments of the state machinery to enrich themselves and their cronies and their tribesmen and exclude everybody else.” (“Hyena States” would be a fitting alternative in the African landscape.) Africa is ruled by thugs in designer suits who buy votes and loyalties with cash handouts.

Things have fallen apart in Africa for a long time because of colonialism, capitalism, socialism, Marxism, communism, tribalism, ethnic chauvinism… neoliberalism, globalism and what have you. Things are in total free fall in Africa today because Africa has become a collection of vampiric states ruled by kleptocrats who have sucked it dry of its natural and human resources. It is easy to blame the white man and his colonialism, capitalism and all the other “isms” for Africa’s ailments, but as Cassius said to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” The fault is not in the African people, the African landscape or skyscape. Africa is rich and blessed with natural and human resources. The fault is in the African brutes and their vampiric regimes.

Achebe took the title for his book Things Fall Apart from William Butler Yeats’s classic poem, which in partial rendition reads:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, (substitute Africa)
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

For what it is worth, my humble view is that the African center cannot hold and things always fall apart because the best and the brightest of Africans lack all conviction to do what is right, while the worst are full of passionate intensity to divide the people ethnically, tribally, racially, ideologically, religiously, regionally, geographically, linguistically, culturally, economically, socially, constitutionally, systematically… and rule them with an iron fist. “Ces’t la vie en Afrique!” as the French might say; but to gainsay Jacques Chirac, “Africa is ready for democracy!” (L’Afrique est prêt pour la démocratie!).


Ethiopian Groundhog Year 2010

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

Groundhog Year in Prison Nation

In December 2008, I wrote a weekly column entitled “Groundhog Year in Prison Nation” summarizing some of my weekly columns for that year. I used the “groundhog year” analogy following the title of the motion picture “Groundhog Day” in which a hapless television weatherman is trapped in a time warp and finds himself repeating the same day over and over. I wrote[1]:

2008 in Ethiopia was Groundhog Year! It was a repetition of 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004… Everyday millions of Ethiopians woke up only to find themselves trapped in a time loop where their lives replayed like a broken record. Each “new” day is the same as the one before it: Repression, intimidation, corruption, incarceration, deception, brutalization and human rights violation. Everything that happened to them the previous day, the previous week, the previous month, the previous 18 years happens to them today. They are resigned to the fact that they are doomed to spend the rest of their lives asphyxiated in a Prison Nation. They have no idea how to get out of this awful cycle of misery, agony, despair and tribulation. So, they pray and pray and pray and pray… for deliverance from Evil!

It is December 2010, the end of the first decade of the 21st Century. Are Ethiopians better off today than they were in 2009, 2005…2000?

Does bread (teff) cost more today than it did a year ago…, five years ago? Cooking oil, household fuel, beef, poultry, gasoline, housing, water, electricity, public transport…?

Are there more poor people today in Ethiopia than there were a year ago… five years ago? More unemployment among youth, less educational opportunities, less health care?

Is there more corruption, more secrecy, less transparency and less accountability in December 2010 than in December 2009…?

Are elections more free and fair in 2010 than they were in 2008, 2005?

Is there more press freedom today than five years ago? More human rights violations?

Is Ethiopia more dependent on international charity for its daily bread today than a year ago…?

Is there more environmental pollution, habitat destruction, forced human displacement and land grabs in Ethiopia today than there was in 2005?

Are businesses paying more taxes and bribes in Ethiopia today than in years past?

Is Ethiopia today at the very bottom of the global Index of Economic Freedom (limited access to financing, inefficient government bureaucracy, inadequate supply of infrastructure)?

Let the reader answer these self-evident questions. Suffice it to say, “It is what it is!”

Montage of Scenes From 2010 Time Loop

So here we are in Ethiopian Groundhog Year 2010. As a year-end overview, I decided to select and highlight a few of my columns from the multiple dozens of weekly and other commentaries I wrote in 2010 and published on the various Ethiopian pro-democracy websites, and the Huffington Post[2] where all of my commentaries for the year are readily available.

January 2010 – Looking Through the Glass, Brightly

“Ethiopia is the country of the future,” Birtukan Midekssa would often say epigrammatically. Ethiopia’s number 1 political prisoner is always preoccupied with her country’s future and destiny. Her deep concern for Ethiopia is exceeded only by her boundless optimism for its future… To be the country of the future necessarily means not being the country of the past. Birtukan’s Ethiopia of the future is necessarily the categorical antitheses of an imperial autocracy, a military bureaucracy and a dictatorship of kleptocracy. Her vision of the future Ethiopia is a unified country built on a steel platform of multiparty democracy. Birtukan would have been pleased to explain her vision and dreams of the future country of Ethiopia; unfortunately, she cannot speak for herself as she has been condemned to “rot” in jail.

February 2010- Putting Lipstick on a Pig

Ethiopia’s dictators think we are all damned fools. They want us to believe that a pig with lipstick is actually a swan floating on a placid lake, or a butterfly fluttering in the rose garden or even a lamb frolicking in the meadows. Put some lipstick on hyperinflation and you have one of the “fastest developing economies in the world”. Put lipstick on power outages, and the grids come alive with megawattage. Slap a little lipstick on famine, and voila! Ethiopians are suffering from a slight case of “severe malnutrition”. Adorn your atrocious human rights record by appointing a “human rights” chief, and lo and behold, grievous government wrongs are transformed magically into robust human rights protections. Slam your opposition in jail, smother the independent press and criminalize civil society while applying dainty lipstick to a mannequin of democracy. The point is, “You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper and call it ‘democracy’ but after 20 years it stinks to high heaven!”

March 2010- Waiting for Godot to Leave

The politics of “succession” to Zenawi’s “throne” has become a veritable theatre of the absurd. The personalities waiting in the wings to take over the “throne” (or to protect and safeguard it) bring to mind the witless characters in Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy play Waiting for Godot, arguably the most important English play of the 20th Century. In that play, two vagabond characters anxiously wait on a country road by a tree for the arrival of a mysterious person named Godot, who can save them and answer all their questions. They wait for days on end but Godot never shows up… and the two characters keep returning to the same place day after day to wait for him; but they cannot remember exactly what happened the day before. Godot never came. Waiting for Zenawi to leave power is like waiting for Godot to arrive. It ain’t happening. He is not only the savior and the man with all the answers, he is also the Great Patron who makes everything work.

April, 2010- C’est la Vie? C’est la Vie en Prison!

When Meles Zenawi, the arch dictator in Ethiopia, was asked about Birtukan’s health in his prison on March 23, 2010, he was comically philosophical about it. He said Birtukan health is in “perfect condition”, except that she may be putting on some weight. “The health situation of Birtukan, the last I heard, is in perfect condition. She may have gained a few kilos, but other than that, and that may be for lack of exercise, I understand she is in perfect health… I am not surprised that they [U.S. State Department] have characterized Birtukan as a political prisoner, because I understand they have also characterized Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Oromia Liberation Front (OLF) terrorists… as political prisoners… But that is life; I think the French say, ‘C’est la Vie.’

May, 2010- Speaking Truth to Power

For the past year, I have been predicting that the 2010 Ethiopian “election” will prove to be a sham, a travesty of democracy and a mockery and caricature of democratic elections. Without my literary and rhetorical flourish, that is now the exact conclusion of the international election observers. The “Preliminary Statement” of the European Union Election Observation Mission- Ethiopia 2010 stated: “The electoral process fell short of certain international commitments, notably regarding the transparency of the process and the lack of a level playing field for all contesting parties.” … Johnnie Carson, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the State Department told the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee that “we note with some degree of remorse that the elections were not up to international standards… The [Ethiopian] government has taken clear and decisive steps that would ensure that it would garner an electoral victory.” Even Herman Cohen, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State who served as “mediator” in the so-called May 1991 London Peace Talks which resulted in the establishment of the Zenawi regime decried the outcome: “… I don’t think it was a fair election.”

June, 2010- Speaking Truth to the Powerless

Now that the hoopla around Meles Zenawi’s “election” is over, it is time for the Ethiopian opposition to take stock and re-think the way it has been doing business. We begin with the obvious question: “What happened to the Ethiopian opposition in the make-believe election of 2010?” Zenawi will argue vigorously that he defeated them by a margin of 99.6 percent (545 of 547 parliamentary seats). If that were the real “defeat” for the opposition, I would not worry much. Losing a sham election is like losing one’s appendix. But there is a different kind of defeat that I find more worrisome. It is a defeat in the eyes and hearts of the people. I am afraid the opposition collectively has suffered considerable loss of credibility in the eyes of the people by making a public spectacle of its endless bickering, carping, dithering, internal squabbles, disorganization, inability to unite, pettiness, jockeying for power, and by failing to articulate a coherent set of guiding principles or ideas for the country’s future.

July, 2010- Hummingbirds and Forest Fires

World history shows that individuals and small groups — the hummingbirds — do make a difference in bringing about change in their societies. The few dozen leaders of the American Revolution and the founders of the government of the United States were driven to independence by a “long train of abuses and usurpations” leading to “absolute despotism” as so eloquently and timelessly expressed in the Declaration of Independence… The Bolsheviks (vultures in hummingbird feathers) won the Russian Revolution arguably defending the rights of the working class and peasants against the harsh oppression of Czarist dictatorship. They managed to establish a totalitarian system which thankfully swept itself into the dustbin of history two decades ago… Gandhi and a small group of followers in India led nationwide campaigns to alleviate poverty, make India economically self-reliant, broaden the rights of urban laborers, peasants and women, end the odious custom of untouchability and bring about tolerance and understanding among religious and ethnic groups. Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo led ANC’s Defiance Campaign and crafted the Freedom Charter which provided the ideological basis for the long struggle against apartheid and served as the foundation for the current South African Constitution. In the United States, Martin Luther King and some 60 church leaders formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, becoming the driving force of the American civil rights movement.

August, 2010 – Steel Vises, Clenched Fists and Closing Walls

U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton gave a speech in Poland… and singled out Ethiopia along with Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo and others to warn the world that “we must be wary of the steel vise in which governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit.”… She pointed out: “Last year, Ethiopia imposed a series of strict new rules on NGOs. Very few groups have been able to re-register under this new framework, particularly organizations working on sensitive issues like human rights.”… Secretary Clinton said the acid test for the success or failure of U.S. foreign policy is whether “more people in more places are better able to exercise their universal rights and live up to their potential because of our actions?” By this measure, U.S. policy in Ethiopia has been a total, unmitigated and dismal failure. The evidence is overwhelming and irrefutable…

September, 2010- Indoctri-Nation

Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education issued a “directive” effectively outlawing distance learning (or education programs that are not delivered in the traditional university classroom or campus) throughout the country… Wholesale elimination of private distance learning programs by “directive”, or more accurately bureaucratic fiat, is a flagrant violation of Higher Education Proclamation No. 650/2009. Under this Proclamation, the Ministry of Education and its sub-agencies have the authority to regulate and “revoke accreditation” of a private institution which fails to meet statutory criteria on a case-by-case basis following a fact-finding and appeals process…. I believe the regime has a long term strategy to use the universities as breeding grounds for its ideologues and hatcheries for the thousands of loyal and dependent bureaucrats they need to sustain their domination and rule. The monopoly created for the state in the disciplines of law and teaching (which I will predict will gradually include other disciplines in the future) is a clear indication of the trend to gradually create a cadre of “educated” elites to serve the next generation of dictators to come.

October, 2010- Birtukan Unbound!

Birtukan was held for months in a dark room with no human contact except a few minutes a week with her mother and daughter. Fear, anxiety and despair were her only companions. Heartache knocked constantly on the door to her dark room needling her: “Did you do the right thing leaving three year-old Hal’le to the care of your aging mother?” Self-doubt kept her awake in that dark room where time stood still asking her the same question over and over: “Is it worth all this suffering? Give up!” But a voice in her conscience would echo thunderously, “Like hell you’re going to give up, Birtukan. Fight on. Keep on fighting. ‘Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.'” In the end Birtukan signed Zenawi’s scrap of paper making exception to convictions of honor and good sense. We expected nothing less from such a great young woman…. Prisoners can be brainwashed to say anything by those who control them. Prisoners who have endured torture, extreme degradation and abuse have been known to do shocking things to please their captors and ease their own pain and suffering. Abused prisoners have been known to deceive themselves into believing the cruelty of their captors as acts of kindness. It is called the “Stockholm Syndrome.” When the victim is under the total and complete control of her captor for her basic needs of survival and her very existence, she will say and do anything to please her captor.

November, 2010- Remember the Slaughter of 2005

November is a cruel month. Bleak, woeful, and grim is the month of November in the melancholy verse of Thomas Hood:

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member–
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,

And no justice for the hundreds massacred in Ethiopia in November (2005).
No redress for the countless men, women and children shot and wounded and left for dead.
No apologies for the tens of thousands illegally imprisoned.
No restitution for survivors or the families of the dead.
No trace of those who disappeared.
No atonement for the crimes of November.
No absolution for the slaughter of November.
November is to remember.

December, 2010- “So What!”

So what are the lessons of Groundhog Year 2010? The first decade of the 21st Century?

Lesson I. Crush your opponents with full force. Alternatively, vegetate them forever.
Lesson II. If you get into America’s face and stick it to her, she will always back down. Always!
Lesson III. “Democratization is a matter of survival.” If democracy stays alive in Ethiopia, Zenawi cannot survive. If Zenawi survives, democracy cannot stay alive.
Lesson IV: If you want democracy, you must struggle and sacrifice for it.
Lesson V. If your rights are being violated, defend them!
Lesson VI. Elections are like children’s marble game where everybody can play as long as the guy who owns the marbles wins all the time.
Lesson VII. If you want to win, you need to organize, mobilize and energize your base. You need to teach, preach and reach the people.
Lesson VIII. You want funding, don’t beg for it; dig deeper into your own wallets.
Lesson: IX. There is one law, one regime, one ruler, one circus master and only one man who runs the show in Ethiopia.
Lesson X: The greatest lesson of 2010 and the first decade of the 21st Century:




Ethiopia: Talking Trash, Speaking Truth

Alemayehu G. Mariam

The View From the Sewers

Looking up from the sewers, everything must look like garbage!

Last week, dictator Meles Zenawi ripped the final election report of the 2010 European Union Election Observer Mission to Ethiopia (EU EOM) as “trash that deserves to be thrown in the garbage“. He said, “The report is not about our election. It is just the view of some Western neo-liberals who are unhappy about the strength of the ruling party. Anybody who has paper and ink can scribble whatever they want.”

On August 29, 2005, Zenawi slammed the final election report of the 2005 EU EOM Ethiopia 2005 Report as “garbage” and a “farce”. He said, “The statement, in my view, shows that the mission has turned out to be something worse than a farce… We shall, in the coming days and weeks, see what we can do to expose the pack of lies and innuendoes that characterize the garbage in this report.” No wonder Zenawi got chosen as Africa’s chief environmentalist and representative to the global climate change conference. He is an expert in recycling garbage.

The fact of the matter is that Zenawi cannot mistreat a member of the European Parliament and officials authorized by the same body the way he mistreats and demeans his own members of parliament. Talking down and hurling abusive language at members of his own parliament is one thing, but doing the same to a mission authorized by the European Parliament is an entirely different matter. To call the EU EOM Report “garbage” is to invite others to use the same word to describe the election itself. Such language is unacceptable, as they say in the diplomatic world.

Zenawi is legendary for his mastery and exquisite delivery of gutter language. He can out-tongue-lash, out-mudsling, out-vilify and out-smear any politician on the African continent. He is the iconic in-your-face mudslinger-cum-bully who will unsheath his claws, bare his teeth and pounce at the faintest sign of criticism. Just as he called the EU EOM 2005 Report a “pack of lies and innuendoes”, he blasted the March 11, 2010 U.S. State Department’s “Reports on Human Rights Practices” on Ethiopia[1] as “lies, lies and implausible lies.” He ridiculed the U.S. State Department for not being able to tell a crooked lie straight: “The least one could expect from this report, even if there are lies is that they would be plausible ones,” snarled Zenawi. “But that is not the case. It is very easy to ridicule it [report], because it is so full of loopholes. They could very easily have closed the loopholes and still continued to lie.” His consigliere, Bereket Simon chimed in: “It is the same old junk. It’s a report that intends to punish the image (sic) of Ethiopia and try if possible to derail the peaceful and democratic election process.” In the same month, Zenawi lambasted the Voice of America as the voice of genocide: “We have been convinced for many years that in many respects, the VOA Amharic Service has copied the worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda.”

Just before the May 2010 election, Zenawi cranked up his “Insulto-Matic” machine and verbally shredded his former comrade-in-arms and rhetorically clobbered his critics[2]. He called them “muckrakers,” “mud dwellers” and good-for-nothing “chaff” and “husk.” He accused them of being “anti-democratic,” “anti-people” fomenters of “interhamwe.” He characterized them as “sooty,” “sleazy,” “gun-toting marauders,” “pompous egotists” and every other name in the book. He repeatedly denounced his opposition for “rolling in a quagmire of mud” and trying to “smear mud on the people”. He said they were “dirtying up the people like themselves.” After all was said in that speech, it was clear that he was the only one doing all the mud-slinging and mud-rolling (chika jiraf and chika mab-kwat).

Last month, Simon broadsided Human Rights Watch as ‘a frustrated, self-appointed kingmaker institution” for issuing a 105-page report entitled: “Development without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites Repression in Ethiopia”. Simon told the Voice of America: “This is a report by some highly frustrated and self-appointed kingmaker institution in the U.S. Just because what they dreamt of in Ethiopia didn’t take place, they are doing whatever they can to tarnish the image of the country.” It was a curious choice of royal metaphor to use by the chief mouthpiece of the emperor with no clothes.

In December 2009, after keeping Birtukan Midekssa, the first female opposition political party leader in Ethiopia history, in solitary confinement for months, Zenawi mocked her as a “silly chicken” that “hanged herself”. He cautioned: “As our parents say, ‘A hen once heard of a fad and hanged herself trying to follow it.'” In April 2008, he scoffed at the international human rights organizations who criticized his “press law” by telling them that his new press law will be “on par with the best in the world.”

It’s always the same old lying, thieving, conniving and scheming neoliberal, neo-colonial, hegemonic and globalizing neo-imperialist SOBs and their local lackeys against Zenawi!

Sound, Fury and Buffoonery

The use of vulgarity, slamming opponents with foul and pejorative language and open display of contempt and disrespect for the opposition and critics are Zenawi’s stock in trade. He has perfected the art of mudslinging and mudrolling (chika jiraf and chika mabkwat). Regular followers of his public statements no longer cringe as he caricatures himself in his unrestrained use of barnyard language. His repeated public rhetorical meltdowns have become a source of perverse amusement for some. The question is whether Zenawi is full of sound and fury that signifies nothing; or whether there is a method to his rhetorical buffoonery?

It is rather obvious that Zenawi likes to be brazenly provocative. Every time criticism gets under his skin, he goes ballistic, bombastic and hyperbolic. As many of my readers know, I am fascinated by the “grammar of dictators”[3]. I am particularly intrigued by the thoughts and ideas that circulate in the minds of dictators who are drunk as a skunk on power, though I am disgusted by the filthy words that ooze out of their mouths. To be sure, my interests go beyond simple intellectual curiosity. As a political scientist and a lawyer, I have a special professional interest in the use of language and words in political discourse and legal and forensic analysis. I believe language is the roadmap of the mind. To find out what is in a person’s mind, I say, follow the word trail. Words provide snapshots of what is deeply buried under the landscape and terrains of the mind. When we speak, our words reveal the state of our mind, the temperature of our feelings and emotions and the clarity or opacity in which we perceive the world. Most importantly, the words we use reflect our values, principles and upbringing, or the lack thereof. When we communicate using filthy and vulgar language, we reveal our filthy and vulgar values. When we express ourselves in scatological (filthy) and eschatological (end of the world) language, we reveal our deepest beliefs and convictions about who we are and how we view the world. Immoral and depraved language is the outward sign of one’s inner moral bankruptcy.

So, why would anyone descend from the sublimely grand stage of world politics to use gutter language? Part of the answer to this question may be found in Thijs Berman’s (the head of the EU EOM to Ethiopia 2010) response to Zenawi’s vulgarism: “One-hundred and seventy independent observers have been working here in Ethiopia to assess the electoral process in a very serious and professional way. Anyone who tries to show contempt for this professional work shows contempt for himself. It is degrading for the prime minister to react this way.” In other words, when Zenawi points an index finger at the EU EOM Mission and calls them “garbage”, he would be wise to keep in mind that three fingers are pointing straight at him.

A more systematic explanation of “gutter diplomacy” (the use of gutter language for political discourse and diplomatic communication) may be found in the literature of political psychology and forensic linguistics. As I have observed previously[4], “all dictators are criminals.” As a criminal defense lawyer and political scientist, I have had ample opportunities to observe firsthand the workings of the criminal mind, and academically to study dictators as “state criminals.” My conclusion is that the difference between the street criminal and the state criminal is a matter of degree and magnitude. The street criminal targets individuals in the neighborhood for his criminal wrongdoing. The state criminal targets the people of an entire nation.

Dictators who have wielded power over a period of time suffer a psychopathological condition that could best be described as “aggressive megalomanical narcissistic syndrome”. Simply stated, as dictators steal and accumulate more wealth and aggrandize political power by killing, jailing and torturing their opponents, they begin to fantasize that they are omnipotent and invincible. They convince themselves that the image they see in the mirror every morning is an awesome demigod to be worshipped and feared. They fall in love with the image in the mirror (narcissism) and begin to worship that image as an omnipotent deity (megalomania). They isolate themselves in an echo chamber cut off from the outside world and surround themselves with fawning sycophants and yes-men who constantly tell them how great, how powerful and how special they are. The dictators become obsessed with the image in the mirror and fantasize about the grandiose and extravagant things they can do. They brood over fantasies of a historic and heroic destiny. They believe their own press releases. They become shameless, conscience-less and arrogant. They convince themselves that as demigods they are as near-perfect as any part-human, part-god can get. So if there is fault, it can never be theirs; it must be the fault of the lowly plebeians. So they dump (as in dumping garbage) their faults on their victims and enjoy watching them wallowing in it.

“Fault dumping” or blaming the victim is an important defensive and offensive weapon in the psychological arsenal of all criminals. The wife beater says, “I didn’t do it. She made me do it!” The dope dealer who pushes drugs on neighborhood children excuses himself by claiming that he is “just trying to make a living”. He does not see the obvious contradiction of making a living by killing children with poisonous drugs. The state criminal is no different. He shifts the blame on his victims. If 200 unarmed protesters are gunned down in the street, it is their own damn fault. They had no business out in the streets. If there are food shortages, it is because people are eating too much. May be they should eat one meal every three days.

“Fault dumping” psychologically nourishes criminals and enables them to justify their crimes and cruelties by diminishing, debasing and degrading their victims. Since most hard core criminals are basically insecure about themselves and have an abysmally low sense of self-worth, the try to prove their superiority and invincibility by degrading, disparaging, dishonoring, humiliating and insulting those who do and try to do things according to the established rules and procedures. State criminals crave the constant admiration and reaffirmation of others, particularly those they perceive to be superior to them. They believe that because they are special, they are entitled to absolute respect, honor and loyalty, and the approval and obedience of all. They loathe and fear criticism because it represents rejection in their minds and destroys their fragile self-image of faultless demigods. Anyone who criticizes them or defies their will automatically triggers a narcissistic meltdown. They become totally enraged and lash out uncontrollably. They lose their sense of decorum and propriety; and because they have lost their sense of shame, they are unable to tell the proper boundaries of civilized behavior and good manners and find themselves freefalling into the gutter where they begin to communicate in their own special language of “thugspeak” or “gutterese”.

The Language of “Thugspeak” or “Gutterese”

Readers familiar with George Orwell and others writing in his genre are familiar with words like “doublespeak”, “doubletalk” and “doublethink.” These terms signify the use of language to deliberately disguise and distort the meaning of words, or to force acceptance of mutually contradictory beliefs as harmonious. I would like to indulge in a neologism of sorts (by minting a couple of new words as it were) by introducing the words “thugspeak” (the language of thugs) and “gutterese” (the language of the gutter) in understanding the political use of language to shock and horrify, to intimidate and harass, to badger and to verbally bludgeon, to bully and to browbeat, to disarm and disconcert, to stun and to stupefy, to demoralize and to demonize, to unnerve, to outrage and to distract one’s adversaries.

When Zenawi declared that the EU EOM Report “deserves to be thrown in the garbage” and represents nothing more than the “scribblings of anyone with pen and pencil”, what he is doing is using “thugspeak” or “gutterese” to bully, psychologically bludgeon, humiliate and demonize the EU EOM. Zenawi’s words may be shocking to the EU EOM, but they have long been part of his linguistic repertoire. But to understand Zenawi’s tongue-lashing and tongue-blasting of the EU EOM, one has to first translate the Report into the language of “thugspeak” or “gutterese”. For the second time in 5 years, the EU EOM told Zenawi that the “electoral process fell short of international commitments for elections” and there was a “lack of a level playing field for all contesting parties.” Translated from EU EOM diplomatese (language of diplomats) into “thugspeak” or “gutterese”, that means, “You stole the election!” It is this barely veiled accusation of election thievery that is at the core of Zenawi’s sound, fury, rage and complete meltdown.

The fact of the matter is that the EU EOM report hurt Zenawi in the most vulnerable part of his psyche, his fragile ego. It is too much to bear for a man who perceives himself to be Africa’s foremost “revolutionary new breed intellectual leader” who rubs elbows with the world’s high and mighty. He cannot jack up the EU EOM on “treason” or “terrorism” charges. He cannot jail them. He cannot confront and fight them in the diplomatic arena or challenge them factually and analytically on their findings in a free and open forum. The only thing he could do is to try and drag them down into the gutter for a mudfest. All of the media theatricality, temper tantrums and verbal pyrotechnics are the frontline weapons of “gutter warfare” deployed to discredit, vilify and humiliate the EU EOM, distract the international community and misdirect the Ethiopian public from focusing on the body of the crime: the stolen election. But EU EOM Mission head Berman would not take the bait and descend into the gutter. He seems to be all too familiar with the proverbial mud wrestling match with the pig. Both contestants get dirty, but the pig enjoys the experience infinitely more.

Trash or Truth

The interesting thing about the EU EOM Report is that it is as balanced as any report compiled by an independent group of observers following specific guidelines could reasonably be. I concede that grudgingly because I have a lot of bones to pick with the Report. I could rattle off 41 objections to the report in one breath. For instance, I believe the Report could have been more resolute in its findings and conclusions about the rampant irregularities and illegalities on election day and the days immediately preceding that. The Report could have comprehensively documented the massive diversion of aid for political purposes. The Report could have responded more aggressively in verifying and pursuing opposition complaints of pre-election harassment and voter intimidation on election day, and so on.

On balance, the Report had many good and positive things to say about the electoral process and the regime. Zenawi disserves himself by throwing out the baby with the bath water. The fact that Zenawi won 99.6 percent of the seats is not the EU EOM’s fault. He said he won those seats fair and square. The EU EOM Report simply said such an outcome is manifestly incredible and could not be reasonably expected from a free and fair election anywhere. There is absolutely nothing in the report that justifies calling it “garbage” or the “scribble of anyone with pen and paper.” Following are verbatim extracts of most of the major findings and conclusions of the Report:

The 23 May 2010 elections were held in a generally peaceful environment, as unanimously called for by all stakeholders.

The Ethiopian Constitution and legal framework provided an adequate basis for the conduct of
genuine elections in line with international and regional commitments subscribed to by Ethiopia.

The Constitution, Electoral Law and other election-related regulations protect political and civil
rights and allow for genuine elections, as well as the freedoms of association, assembly, movement and expression.

The NEBE administered the elections in a competent and professional manner given its limited
resources, overcoming significant technical challenges.
Candidate registration was carried out in an adequate manner. The requirements for candidates
were not discriminatory.

The media covered the main campaign events in a relatively neutral tone. However, state-owned media failed to ensure a balanced coverage, giving the ruling party more than 50% of its total coverage in both print and broadcast media.

The provisions for complaints related to voting, counting and consolidation were significantly
strengthened in the last five years.

Election Day unfolded in a generally peaceful and orderly manner, with a high voter turnout.
Secrecy of the vote was respected despite minor irregularities.

Some shortcomings were noted in the training of polling station staff and in the consistency and coherence of technical information received and aggregated by the electoral authority, such as complete polling station lists, which affected the overall transparency of the process.

The freedoms of assembly, of expression and of movement were not consistently respected
throughout the country during the campaign period, generally to the detriment of opposition

The separation between the ruling party and the public administration was blurred at the local
level in many parts of the country. The EU EOM directly observed cases of misuse of state
resources in the ruling party’s campaign activities.

Women are under-represented in the Ethiopian political scene and within the electoral

In 27% of cases observed, polling station results were different to those previously recorded by observers at polling stations. In several cases, incomplete or incorrect forms from polling stations were corrected or completed at constituency electoral offices. The transparency of the process was considered unsatisfactory in 40% of observed cases.

The ruling party and its partner parties won 544 of the 547 seats to the HPR and all but four of
the 1,904 seats in the State Councils.

The electoral process fell short of international commitments for elections, notably regarding the transparency of the process and the lack of a level playing field for all contesting parties.

Apologies and Thanks are Due to Thijs Berman and His Team of Observers

When the 60-person African Union (AU) observer team led by former Botswana president Ketumile Masire instantly concluded that the May 2010 “elections were free and fair and [they] found no evidence of intimidation and misuse of state resources for ruling party campaigns”, I was tempted to use intemperate language to express my disapproval, but I restrained myself and stuck to the facts and the standards set in the African Union Election Observation and Monitoring Guidelines.[5] I wrote[6]:

With all due respect to Masire, it seems that he made his declaration clueless of the observation standards he is required to follow in the AU Elections Observation and Monitoring Guidelines. If he had done so, he would have known that there is no logical, factual or documentary basis for him to declare the ‘elections were largely consistent with the African Union regulations and standards.

I have some significant reservations about the EU EOM Report as indicated above. But I would never characterize the Report as “garbage”. The reason is simple. I have carefully studied the guidelines in the 224-page “European Union Handbook for Election Observation (2nd ed.)”.[7] I have familiarized myself with the EU EOM activities in other countries. The only proper basis for me to evaluate the Report is to fairly determine if it fails to uphold the standards set forth in the Handbook. While I disagree with the interpretations, inferences, deductions and conclusions in the Report, there is nothing that leads me to believe that EU EOM performed its duties in disregard of its duties in the Handbook or supplementary guidelines. There is no evidence to show that EU EOM did not perform its duties professionally, honorably, in good faith or with lack of neutrality and impartiality. There is no justification whatsoever to use scatological language to criticize the work of such a distinguished group of election observers.

I would like the 170-members of the EU EOM who spent months in Ethiopia preparing to perform their duties to know that they do deserve a few things — the respect, gratitude and appreciation of the Ethiopian people. Their report belongs in the annals of Ethiopian democracy, or more aptly the struggle for democracy. Though I disagree with many aspects of their Report, I personally thank them all for a job well done. I am particularly grateful to Mr. Berman who, by declining to engage in mudslinging of his own, has reaffirmed for us the virtues of civility, tolerance, self-respect, discernment and good manners. It is possible for the high and mighty to disagree without being bad-tempered, ill-natured and disagreeable. Mr. Berman has witnessed the birth of a still born democracy in Ethiopia. I hope he also had a chance to witness the age-old decency, dignity, humility, integrity and respectfulness of the Ethiopian people as well. For what little it is worth, I offer each and every one of the 170 members of the EU EOM 2010 Ethiopia my sincere and humble apologies.


[4] See fn. 3

Let Ethiopians Hear America’s Voice

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

Ethiopian Citizens Have the Absolute Constitutional Right to Listen to the VOA

So many lessons to learn from Columbia University! When dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi spoke unceremoniously at Columbia on September 22, he was talking trash about the Voice of America (VOA). He said he decided to jam VOA broadcasts in Ethiopia “by taking a page from U.S. policy”[1]. He wildly alleged that an evil cabal of supporters of the defunct Ethiopian military regime disguised as journalists had taken control of VOA’s Amharic service.

Now, I don’t know if you know this but VOA [Voice of America] is not allowed to broadcast to the U.S. by law. It is not allowed to broadcast to the U.S. by law. It is allowed to broadcast to other countries, but not to the U.S. because it is supposed to reflect the policy of the government in power of the day. Now, VOA Amharic service happens to be dominated by people associated with the previous regime who tend to have a particularly jaundiced view of events in Ethiopia for understandable reasons. We took a page from the policy of the United States and said VOA is not welcome to Ethiopia either.

This past March, Zenawi made the downright wacky allegation that the VOA’s Amharic service staff had been engaged in plotting genocide in Ethiopia for “many years”:

We have been convinced for many years that in many respects, the VOA Amharic Service has copied the worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda in its wanton disregard of minimum ethics of journalism and engaging in destabilizing propaganda.

When the Voice of America’s Amharic Service interviewed me on October 1, 2010 to comment on Zenawi’s legal and policy justifications for jamming the VOA by taking a “page from the policy of the United States,” I told them it was a no brainer: “U.S. policy and laws are completely irrelevant to the exercise of expressive freedoms in Ethiopia. Ethiopian citizens have the absolute constitutional right to receive broadcasts of the VOA or “any other media of their choice.” Zenawi has no legal power or authority of any kind to prevent Ethiopian citizens from listening to VOA broadcasts.

The indisputable fact of the matter is that the right of Ethiopian citizens to listen to the VOA or “any other media of their choice” or to seek information from any source does not depend on U.S. policy or the permission of Zenawi. Their right is founded solely and exclusively on the sweeping constitutional guarantees they enjoy under Articles 29 and 13 of the Ethiopian Constitution. The language of these two articles is simple, plain, straightforward, unambiguous and requires no interpretation. Article 29 (reproduced also in the official Amharic text below[2]) states:

2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression without interference. This right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers [the official Amharic version reproduced below literally translates the word “frontier” to “without limits to information originating within the country or outside of the country”], either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through other media of his choice.

3. … Press freedom shall, in particular, include the rights enumerated hereunder: a) that censorship in any form is prohibited. b) the opportunity to have access to information of interest to the public.

In fact, the text of Article 29 (2) is taken almost verbatim from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which provides:

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.

Article 13 bolsters Article 29 by tying the interpretation of all “democratic constitutional rights” enjoyed by Ethiopian citizens to international human rights treaties and conventions to which Ethiopia is a signatory, and explicitly mentions the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which Ethiopia adopted as one of the original 48 members who voted for it in the U.N. General Assembly in September 1948. Article 13 (Scope and Interpretation) provides:

1. The provisions of this Chapter shall, at all levels, apply to the federal and state legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.
2. The fundamental rights and freedoms enumerated in this Chapter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international human rights covenants and conventions ratified by Ethiopia.

All of the foregoing legal language can be reduced to four simple but irrefutable propositions:1) Ethiopian citizens have the absolute constitutional right to hear any radio broadcast “or media of their choice”. 2) Ethiopian citizens have the absolute right to hear any radio broadcast “or “media of their choice” under international human rights laws and conventions to which Ethiopia is a signatory. 3) No official or institution in Ethiopia has the legal power to prohibit, exclude or interfere with the delivery of radio broadcasts or information from any other media (including internet sources) because “censorship in any form is prohibited.” 4) Zenawi is in flagrant, brazen and egregious violation of the Ethiopian Constitution and international human rights laws and conventions by jamming of VOA broadcasts in Ethiopia.

Living on Planet Denial-stan?

When Mahmood Ahmadinejad came to Columbia University in 2007 to speak, its president Lee Bollinger, rhetorically wondered why Ahmadinejad would deny the occurrence of the Holocaust, and concluded by telling him: “You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.” One is tempted to offer the same conclusion to Zenawi for saying the United States Government “for many years” has operated a radio broadcast service that had promoted genocide in Ethiopia and seeking to justify his jamming of VOA broadcasts on the basis of a U.S. Government “policy” that does not exist.

It would be easy to dismiss Zenawi’s outrageous allegations against the VOA as mere polemical political theatre but for a consistent pattern of other equally outlandish allegations and assertions he has made over the years. When I wrote my piece “The Grammar of Dictators” in August, 2008, I was fascinated by dictators’ use of language to humanize their cruelties and civilize their barbarism; or as George Orwell put it, to use “political language to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

The cumulative evidence of Zenawi’s double talk and preposterous allegations and assertions unmistakably point to the fact that his manifest perception of the facts is completely detached from reality. Back in April 2008, in a Newsweek interview, Zenawi triumphantly declared that his new press law “will be on par with the best in the world.” That same year he told Time Magazine that there is no famine in Ethiopia, only “pockets of severe malnutrition in some districts in the south and an emergency situation in the Somali region.” In September 2007, Zenawi said there is not a “shred of evidence” that significant human rights violations have occurred in the Ogaden region: “We are supposed to have burned villages [in the Ogaden]. I can tell you, not a single village, and as far as I know not a single hut has been burned. We have been accused of dislocating thousands of people from their villages and keeping them in camps. Nobody has come up with a shred of evidence.” In October 2006, Zenawi denied the existence of political prisoners in his prisons: “There are no political prisoners in Ethiopia at the moment. Those in prison are insurgents. So it is difficult to explain a situation of political prisoners, because there are none.” To make such statements, one must spend a great deal of time on Planet Denial-stan, where the operating principle is, “I think, therefore things exist or do not exist.”

Does Zenawi Really Believe the VOA is the VOI?

It boggles the mind to think that Zenawi actually believes the Voice of America is the Voice of Interhamwe, Rwanda. It is equally incredible why he would make such a statement without backing it up with solid evidence or even giving a single example of a genocidal broadcast of any kind made by the VOA anywhere, anytime. What is stunningly astonishing is the fact that these words rolled off the tongue of an individual lionized for his prodigious intellect and political astuteness. In 2005 at an award ceremony for Zenawi, the internationally renowned Prof. Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, the man sworn to ending global poverty by 2015, could barely contain his fawning eulogy of Zenawi’s sagacity and intellectual prowess: “You have distinguished yourself as a one of our World’s most brilliant leaders. I have often said that our many hours of discussion together are among the most scintillating that I have spent on the topics of economic development. I invariably leave our meetings enriched, informed, and encouraged about Ethiopia’s prospects.”

Is it possible that “one of our World’s most brilliant leaders” actually believes the VOA is America’s version of genocide Radio Mille Collines, Rwanda!?!?

I cannot be sure, but I would like to believe Zenawi is being “brazenly provocative” by making such an allegation. I should like to think that he is using a “shock and offend” strategy calculated to trigger the ire of the United States Government and ensnare it in an all-out war of words on a propaganda battlefield over which Zenawi has control of the commanding heights. In other words, if the U.S. could be provoked to respond angrily or defensively to the allegation, it could then be dragged into a mud fight worthy of the proverbial wrestling match with the pig. At the end of the match both combatants will be filthy and exhausted, but one gets the distinct feeling that the pig enjoyed the experience very much. But the U.S. did not take the bait and steered clear off the mud issuing a terse statement: “Comparing a respected and professional news service to a group that called for genocide in Rwanda is a baseless and inflammatory accusation that seeks only to deflect attention away from the core issue. The Ethiopian government may disagree with VOA news, but interfering with its broadcasts undermines the nation’s constitutional commitment to censorship and freedom of expression.

Why the VOA is Not Allowed to Broadcast Within the U.S.

Zenawi said he jammed VOA broadcasts “by taking a page from U.S. policy.” He must be “astonishingly uneducated” or willfully ignorant of some simple facts about the American system of laws and government. Anyone who has marginal familiarity with the American legislative and judicial process would refrain from making such an inane and thoughtless statement. The VOA (with over 1,500 affiliates throughout the world), is part of a larger system of global information, educational and cultural service created by the U.S. Congress to conduct “public diplomacy or government-to-people dialogue.” In 1948, Congress passed the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act with the purpose of “promoting better understanding of the United States among the peoples of the world and to strengthen cooperative international relations.” By authorizing the creation of a global broadcast service, the U.S. sought to create good will and shape the thinking and attitudes of elites in countries receiving the broadcasts.

Over the years, the VOA has played a central part in the U.S. media strategy to win hearts and minds in the Cold War. One of its central missions today is to uphold U.S. foreign policy objectives by promoting democracy, peace, prosperity, human rights and other programs to new generations in countries receiving VOA broadcasts. As absurd as it sounds, the VOA does not and has never fostered genocide of any kind in any country. In fact, Congress prohibited domestic U.S. broadcasts by the VOA to make sure that it is not abused politically by any individual or groups, and to make sure that the kind of state media abuse seen historically in totalitarian and other communist countries did not happen in the U.S. Because of this concern, Congress authorized the creation of a bi-partisan board consisting of eight members nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, with the Secretary of State as an ex officio member, to oversee its operations. To believe that the President of the U.S. would nominate individuals who would allow or condone genocidal broadcasts to Ethiopia using VOA broadcasts is downright crazy!

The fact of the matter is that whether VOA broadcasts are available domestically is of no consequence. Americans have more than 10,000 radio stations, tens of thousands of newspapers and magazines and millions of websites to get and choose the information they want or need. If they so choose, they can get VOA broadcasts instantaneously online, over satellite dishes, cellular phones and various other modern communications technologies.

But Zenawi’s campaign of fear and smear against the VOA Amharic service professionals is downright unfair and contemptible. If Zenawi has evidence, a molecule of evidence, to prove that these professionals are “people associated with” the defunct military Derg or part of a silent conspiracy with anyone else to promote genocide or anarchy in Ethiopia, he should produce it; and they will surely be held to account before the VOA administration and the law. If Zenawi has proof that their reporting is inaccurate, unfair, unethical or malicious, he should produce that evidence as well. Of course, he cannot produce a speck of evidence to back up any of his claims.

The reality is different. We could all criticize VOA’s Amharic service for whatever we choose, but we would be hard pressed to back up our criticism with substantial evidence of lack of accuracy, objectivity or fairness. Suffice it to say, how many hundreds of times over the years have we heard Amharic service VOA reporters announcing to their listeners: “We tried numerous times to get official comment from the Ethiopian Government but we were unable to do so because… the government official backed out at last minute… declined to comment… was not available for an interview at the appointed time… or…We will keep trying to get official comment from the Ethiopian Government.” That is what usually happens. The fact of the matter is that for whatever reason Zenawi has chosen not to make his people available to engage the VOA and challenge the Amharic service reporters on the air for all Ethiopians to hear.

Zenawi says the VOA operates in “wanton disregard of minimum ethics of journalism and engaging in destabilizing propaganda.” That is simply not true, and reflects his lack of knowledge of VOA’s strict legislative mandate. The VOA is a highly professional organization with journalistic integrity, and functions under close supervision of its presidentially-appointed board always guided by its clear legislative mandate set forth in its 1976 Charter which requires the VOA to 1) “serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news [by making sure] news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive; 2) “present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions ,and 3) ” present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and … responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.” If anyone at VOA promotes or attempts to promote genocide or “wantonly engages in destabilizing propaganda,” not only will such persons surely find themselves walking the streets without a job, they are guaranteed to do some serious jail time.

There are many things over which people could disagree. But there could be no disagreement over the fact that the sun always rises in the east, the law of gravity or the absolute constitutional right of Ethiopian citizens to listen to broadcasts of the VOA or any other “media of their choice.” Zenawi could learn a sound lesson from VOA’s founding motto: “The news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth.” If the VOA promotes genocide or broadcasts ‘destabilizing propaganda’, the Ethiopian people will be the first ones to vote with their fingers by turning their radio dials in a counterclockwise motion: Click!”

Mr. Zenawi: “Tear down the electronic wall you have built to keep VOA radio broadcasts and ESAT (Ethiopian Satellite Television) service out of Ethiopia! Let Ethiopians hear America’s voice, the Voice of America. Let the VOA tell the truth to the Ethiopian people who have a constitutional and international legal right to hear it and decide for themselves.”



The Ghost and the Spirit

Alemayehu G. Mariam

After the Dust Settled

After the dust settled following Meles Zenawi’s speech at Columbia’s World Leaders Forum, a dark shadow and glowing light were visible on stage to behold. The dark shadow was cast by the ghost of the erstwhile Ethiopian junta dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. The glow of light was radiated by the spirit of Ethiopia’s First Daughter, Birtukan Midekssa.

The Q&A session after the speech showed how much Zenawi remains haunted by the ghost of Mengistu whom he overthrew nearly twenty years ago. Biting condemnation of Mengistu and scathing criticism of his atrocious human rights record during the 1970s and 80s animated a good part of Zenawi’s answers. He also surprised a few by casually announcing Birtukan, Ethiopia’s first ever woman political party leader and first political prisoner, is pretty much free to go after nearly two years of incarceration. The apparent reversal of misfortune for Birtukan came as good news. Just last year, Zenawi had promised the world with sadistic indifference that “there will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” It is true that “hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

The Ghost of Mengistu

It was stunningly incomprehensible for Zenawi to resurrect and promptly hide behind the ghost of Mengistu Haile Mariam to shield his own human rights record from scrutiny. A Nigerian economics student asked[1]:

How different is your regime from Mengistu’s since we know in 1993 there was an immense repression of a student demonstration, and the same thing happened in 2005 and these were the same types of things Mengistu did…?

Answer: … For those on the receiving end of the Mengistu regime, they would not have any difficulty distinguishing our regime from that of the Mengistu regime. The period of Red Terror… was a period where people were killed without any recourse to the courts, and their families were charged by the number of bullets that were used to kill these people. That type of criminalty is dead. It is finished and it is not coming back. I understand some people might have misgivings about it, but it is not coming back.

Zenawi is absolutely right that Mengistu, the bloodthirsty military dictator, has committed monstrous crimes in Ethiopia. He should be tried in a special U.N. court just like Charles Taylor of Liberia. But to put Mengistu’s ghost on trial at the World Leaders Forum as a straw man to deny and cover up one’s own atrocious human rights record shows astonishing arrogance or willful blindness to indisputable facts. But if the criminality of the bullet-charging Mengistu is long gone, as Zenawi asserts, how is that the murderers of 193 innocent protesters and shooters of 763 others still walk the streets free in Ethiopia today without their victims having “recourse to the courts”? No, the type of criminalty of which Mengistu is accused never left Ethiopia. It is alive and well. But it no longer wears uniforms and boots. It struts around in custom tailored suits and alligator shoes.

Zenawi’s use of what might be called the “Mengistu defense” in response to various questions about his own human rights record is insidious and demands careful consideration. His basic argument is mind-boggling: “Do not judge my human rights record on the merits; judge my record by comparing it to Mengistu’s. I may have violated human rights, but I am not as bad as Mengistu. The only people complaining about human rights violations in Ethiopia are “remnants” of Mengistu’s regime who have lost their power. Those “remnants” should be grateful because I let them speak and express themselves. There is free press in Ethiopia today; and the press elements that are complaining are “remnants” of Mengistu’s supporters. Anyone who criticizes me is, ipso facto, a “remnant” of Mengistu’s regime pining for the triumphal return of that ruthless dictator from the dustbin of history to save them.”

It was flabbergasting to hear this type ignoratio elenchi argument which conveniently circumvents the central issue. The question is not whether Mengistu is a human rights violator; he is certified as one of the monstrous human rights violators of the 20th Century. The central question is whether Zenawi himself has engaged in a pattern of gross human rights violations in Ethiopia in the first decade of the 21st Century. It is no argument to say Mengistu is a far worse human rights violator than I, and try to put him on trial at the World Leaders Forum. Attempting to build a factual, legal and philosophical defense of one’s own human rights record in the shadows of Mengistu’s ghost points to either an unrequited obsession with the long gone dictator, denial of the inescapable reality of one’s own atrocious human rights record or a poverty of imagination.

The point is nobody gives a damn about Mengistu. He has been gone nearly twenty years. Good riddance! There may be a few who may long for him, but their numbers are infinitesimally small. There is no need to trot out his ghost as a boogeyman (aya jibo) to scare Ethiopians, or to warn the world he will be back unless Zenawi stands sentry.

The fact of the matter is that after twenty years, Zenawi could not point to a single item of achievement in his human rights record. He could not produce proof to demonstrate that he has established the rule of law, guaranteed freedom of expression (without shuttering newspapers, filtering websites, jamming radio and satellite signals), promoted the independence of the judiciary, guaranteed clean elections, spread good governance throughout the land or successfully campaigned against corruption. All he could say was, “I am not as bad as Mengistu”. It is good to look at oneself in the mirror from time to time, but one ought to prudently compare oneself to others. There is always the risk of finding more similarities than differences. There is no need to shadow box with the ghost of Mengistu at the World Leaders Forum or anywhere else.

The Spirit of Birtukan

This spirit of Birtukan was also on stage at Columbia’s World Leader’s Forum. Zenawi had beamed her down from Kality “Federal” Prison. He casually said she can have her freedom by simply asking for it. It was a bold and disarming statement for those of us who have cringed listening to his vindictive, heartless and pitiless words: “Birtukan’s case is a dead issue.”

Faint rumors of her release have been circulating for days. My initial reaction to the rumors was ho-hum: “Here we go again. The European Union Election Team report is going to come out soon with its final report on the May 2010 ‘election’. What better strategy than to release Birtukan to get a softer landing?” I surmised the EU election report was probably delayed again to give Zenawi time to arrange her release at about the same time the EU report would be released. It crossed my mind that he was not doing it voluntarily but under pressure from donors. May be he thinks he is letting out a leader whose will is crushed and defeated and is unlikely to pose any challenge to him. Regardless, I was glad to hear him say she is free to go. The political calculations for her release did not matter to me much.

But I was intrigued by his legal analysis of her case before announcing his offer of a pardon. To demonstrate that she was incarcerated justly and with due process of law, he offered a check list of “evidence”: her admission of guilt, conviction “by a court of law”, request for a previous pardon and subsequent denial, refusal to acknowledge her mistakes, etc. He crowned his legal arguments by claiming, without citing article 16 (2) of Proclamation No. 395/2004 (“pardon law), that she had obtained a pardon “under false pretenses”. According to Zenawi, Birtukan[1]

went abroad and issued a statement to the effect that she did not ask for a pardon, and she was not given a pardon. Our pardon law [Proclamation No. 395/2004] says that if a pardon is sought under false pretenses or given (sic) [received?] under false pretenses, it is automatically null and void. So if she didn’t ask for a pardon, then the pardon given to her was completely illegal. When she came back from abroad, the police told her that her statement would necessarily lead to her being detained again unless she were to admit that she did indeed seek pardon and was indeed given pardon, then the pardon given to her is legally invalid. She was given a month to think about it… Many friends including ambassadors talked to her to try and convince her…. [that] if she denied receiving a pardon, she would be put back in prison. She did not feel convinced that she should retract the statement she issued in Sweden. At that point, we had no option but to detain her.

There is not much truth in the factual analysis. Two days before Birtukan was “detained”, she put out a public statement (“Qale” [My Word]) declaring:

I have not denied signing the document which the elders persuaded us to sign on 22 June 2007 for the sake of national reconciliation. How could it be said that I denied a pardon document I signed, and whose content I accepted? How is that a crime? Where is the mistake?

In light of this statement, it is absurd to argue that she had denied receiving a pardon. No reasonable person could find this statement to be a denial of pardon.

Interestingly, the alleged statement in which Birtukan denied receiving a pardon has never been made public. The alleged fact that she has denied a pardon is taken as an article of faith without any proof of the offending statement. But what are the exact words that Birtukan said that constitute a “denial”? While Zenawi was long on allegations of denial of pardon on the part of Birtukan, he was very short on facts to substantiate them. But Birtukan has meticulously explained what it was that she said in Sweden in “Qale”.

Many other legal and constitutional objections could be raised to contest his facts and analysis, but that is neither here nor there. What is here and now is the fact that Birtukan can go free for the asking. Zenawi said: “Given her past practice, I wouldn’t be surprised if she asked for pardon again, and given the practice of the government, I wouldn’t be surprised if the government were to pardon her again.” I have no reason to second-guess the man. The whole world knows she is unjustly imprisoned, and as far as I am concerned, the release of any person from unjust imprisonment for any reason is to be hailed.

The Devil in the Details

But how could Birtukan be released on a “pardon” given the facts of her case and the arbitrary application of the “pardon law” when she was re-incarcerated in December 2008? Zenawi’s proposed procedure is to have her formally request a pardon. To me that is reminiscent of the 2007 pardon fiasco which led to Birtukan’s arbitrary re-imprisonment in 2008. Birtukan has already declared in her formal statement (Qale) that she never denied receiving a pardon. To insist that she now request a pardon and admit guilt or wrongdoing merely to justify her unjustified 2 year imprisonment is simply unfair. It would be adding insult to injury. That is the problem in Zenawi’s precondition that she request a pardon. By requesting a pardon she must necessarily admit guilt.

I know Birtukan is as an astute lawyer and learned judge and could not accept the precondition of request for pardon voluntarily. I would even argue that if she were to “petition for pardon”, she would be in technical violation of Art. 16 (2) of the Proclamation, which sanctions applications for pardon based on fraud and deceit. Simply put, Birtukan cannot say, “I did not deny receiving a pardon in Sweden.” in December 2008, and now contradict herself in a pardon petition by saying, “I did deny receiving a pardon in Sweden.” It traps her in one of the classic proverbial legal conundrums: “Were you lying when you said you did not deny requesting or receiving a pardon in Sweden in December 2008? Or are you now lying in your pardon petition when you say you did deny requesting and receiving a pardon in Sweden? It is not fair to put her in such a situation.

The bottom line is that there is the law and there is the illusion of the law. If Birtukan were to apply for a “pardon”, it would certainly not be out of a true confession of guilt or moral conviction that she has committed a wrongdoing by denying receipt of a pardon. She would do it only to serve the purposes of the illusion of the law. But no one would blame her for regaining her unjustly taken freedom even if it means petitioning for a pardon just to help Zenawi save face and avoid needless suffering for herself and her family. Birtukan has been thrown in solitary confinement, abused, insulted and mistreated. Is it necessary to humiliate her once more by forcing her to request a “pardon” to give her back the freedom that was taken away from her unjustly in the first place? Is it really necessary to play the pardon game again when the whole world knows it is just a silly game? Can we come up with a win-win solution for everyone?

A Win-Win Solution

Yes, we can! It is possible to get Birtukan released by preserving her dignity and saving face for Zenawi. As Zenawi explained at the World Leaders Forum, her pardon was revoked because she allegedly obtained it by false pretenses which makes the original grant “null and void” under Art. 16 (2) of Proclamation No. 395/2004. Is there a way to get around this problem under the law. The answer, I believe, is to be found in article 12 of the Proclamation which provides:

(2) Without prejudice to the provision hereinabove, the  Ministry of Justice and the Federal prison commission may apply for pardon for persons entitled to it. Where the offices decides to apply for pardon, it shall deliver a copy of the application letter to the person in whose favour it is to be made.

(3) Where a person in whose favour a petition for pardon has been submitted pursuant to Sub-Article 2 of this Article declines it, he shall notify, the same to the Board in writing within fifteen consecutive working days from the date of receipt of the copy of the petition.

(4) Except in cases of force majeure, the acceptance of the pardon shall be presumed where the convict fails to notify about his rejection within the time specified in Sub-Article 3 of the Article.

In simple terms, the Ministry of Justice and the Federal prison commission would apply for a pardon on behalf of Birtukan and serve her notice. Birtukan would exercise her right under sub-article (2) and decline to notify the pardon board of her position on the petition. After 15 days, by operation of law (without any further action by Birtukan, the Board or anyone else), her pardon becomes effective. Voila! Done. Birtukan walks out. It is all legal, transparent and aboveboard.

Alternatively, it could be done even faster. Birtukan’s pardon was revoked in December 2008 in a summary executive proceeding (or by executive fiat). The power of executive pardon revocation necessarily includes the power of executive pardon reinstatement. Just as a directive was given to the police commissioner to arrest and incarcerate her in 2008, a directive can now be given to the Kality prison warden to release her and let her go. Birtukan can be headed home in hours. It just as simple as that.

Now, I am not naïve enough to expect Zenawi to follow the law. But it is important to make the case for the historical record. I will predict that a whole re-pardon process will be set up (or is already underway) and statements of admissions will be drafted for Birtukan to sign and so on. The whole process will be subjected to cynical public speculation, and some will even say any pardon she gets is not going to be worth the paper it is written on. After all, they can take it away any time they want. That is the reality, but I will keep an open mind.

I have heard it said that “fire, water and dictators know nothing of mercy.” I would like to see an exception to this rule in Birtukan’s case. I will offer the givers of mercy some words of wisdom from Montesquieu: “So many are the advantages which monarchs gain by clemency, so greatly does it raise their fame, and endear them to their subjects, that it is generally happy for them to have an opportunity of displaying it.” Carpe diem!



Mr. Zenawi Goes to College!

Alemayehu G. Mariam

Zenawi’s Charm Offensive in America?

Fresh on the heels of shutting down all private distance education, including distance higher education, and “winning” the parliamentary election in May by 99.6 percent, dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi is scheduled to speak at Columbia University on September 22 and trumpet his accomplishments as the guardian of democracy and prosperity in Ethiopia and provider of enlightened leadership to the African continent. The puffed up announcement for his appearance at Columbia’s World Leaders Forum, which was subsequently withdrawn by an embarrassed University administration, stated:

… Meles Zenawi of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia will present the keynote address on the topic of Ethiopia and African Leadership. His address will launch CGT’s the World and Africa series…. Zenawi has served as chairman of the Organisation of the African Union (1995-1996), as co-chairman of the Global Coalition for Africa, and was appointed as Chair of the African Heads of State and Government in Climate Change (CAHOSCC)… Zenawi was the co-chairperson of the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2006, which led to the adoption of the Beijing Action Plan for partnership in economic progress. Under the seasoned governmental leadership of… Zenawi…Ethiopia has made and continues to make progresses (sic) in many areas including in education, transportation, health and energy.

The event is designed to facilitate “conversations to examine Africa’s place in the world”. The “key subjects” of the conversation reportedly “include 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.”

Allowing Zenawi to Speak at Columbia is “An Affront to His Victims” of Human Rights Abuses

Nowhere is the case for disallowing Zenawi the right to speak at Columbia University made more convincingly and compellingly than in the letter of two extraordinarily courageous Ethiopian husband and wife team of journalists, Eskinder Nega and Serkalem Fasil, to university president Lee Bollinger. They wrote[1]:

We are banned Ethiopian journalists who were charged with treason by the government of PM Meles Zenawi subsequent to disputed election results in 2005, incarcerated under deplorable circumstances, only to be acquitted sixteen months later; after Serkalem Fasil prematurely gave birth in prison.

Severely underweight at birth because Serkalem’s physical and psychological privation in one of Africa’s worst prisons, an incubator was deemed life-saving to the new-born child by prison doctors; which was, in an act of incomprehensible vindictiveness, denied by the authorities. (The child nevertheless survived miraculously. Thanks to God.)

…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…

Serkalem and Eskinder are absolutely right in their expressions of outraged disapproval of Zenawi’s speech at Columbia. These are two Ethiopian journalists for whom I have the highest respect and admiration. They are selfless patriots who could be described best in Churchillian terms: “Never in the field of journalism was so much owed by so many to so few.”

I have been approached by various groups and individuals to urge the leadership of Columbia to dis-invite Zenawi or have the university withdraw the offer of delivering the “keynote address”. The reasons are many. Some say mere invitation to speak at the world-class institution gives Zenawi a certain patina of legitimacy, which he could use to hoodwink Americans and camouflage his criminal history. Others say he will try to use the event as a soapbox to disseminate lies about his “accomplishments”, complete with wholly fabricated statistics about “double digit growth”[2] and fairy tales of a 99.6 percent election victory, and use the Forum as a bully pulpit to rag against his critics. There are those who suggest that Stiglitz staged the “keynote address” to give his “buddy Zenawi” an opportunity to clean up his image and build up some intellectual “creds”, which Zenawi could take back to Ethiopia for bragging rights. I respect the views of those who urge Columbia to disinvite Zenawi.

But 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.”

Alternatively stated, though I condemn Zenawi for his abuse, mistreatment and cruelty against Serkalem and Eskinder and other journalists, disagree with him on his repeated theft of elections, trashing of the human rights of Ethiopian citizens, boldfaced lies about economic growth[2], manipulation of the judiciary for political purposes, unjust incarceration of Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history and tens of thousands of other political prisoners, crackdown on the press and civil society organizations, subversion of the legislative process to mill out repressive laws and his completely bogus theory of “ethnic federalism” (an artifice of his divide-and-rule strategy) and so on, I shall vigorously defend his right to speak not just at Columbia but at any other public venue in the United States of America.

Right to Protest

Let me make it clear that I am not arguing here that those who wish to protest Zenawi’s speech at Columbia should not do so. They should; and I defend vigorously their constitutional right to protest and fully express their views about his actions and policies. My only plea to them is that we should strive to make this opportunity a teachable moment for Zenawi. In my view, it would be a crying shame for Zenawi to hop on his plane and go back to Ethiopia mumbling to himself something about the “extreme Diaspora” and so on because he is heckled, disrupted or somehow impeded from speaking. I say if we can tolerate racist and hate speech on university campuses, we can also tolerate the rant of a petty tyrant for an hour or two.

A Teachable Moment for a Tyrant

My reasons for defending Zenawi’s right to speak are principled, straightforward and myriad:

At the most elementary level, the American university is a traditional forum for the free exchange of ideas, whether silly or sublime. Every year, tens of thousands of speeches are given on American university campuses. Even the representatives of the Neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and motley crews of racists and fascists are allowed to speak on American university campuses. By the same token, Zenawi should be able to speak at Columbia.

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.

But there is another set of reasons why I want Zenawi to speak at Columbia. I want the event to be a teachable moment for him. Perhaps this opportunity will afford him a glimpse of the clash of ideas that routinely take place in American universities. 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. By denying Zenawi the right to speak at Columbia, we also risk becoming prisoners of ignorance. That is why free speech is at the core of Nelson Mandela’s teaching: “A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness.” Free speech is the key by which one escapes from the steel bars and stonewalls of “prejudice and narrow-mindedness.” I sincerely hope Zenawi will find that key at Columbia and finally escape from his bleak and desolate planet of “prejudice and narrow-mindedness.”

On another level, to disallow Zenawi from speaking is an implicit admission that we fear ideas. Zenawi has muzzled and intimidated nearly all of his critics and shuttered newspapers in Ethiopia, jammed the Voice of America and the independent Ethiopian Satellite Television Service and enacted repressive press and civil society laws because he is afraid of ideas – ideas about freedom, democracy, human rights, accountability, transparency, the rule of law and so on. But the old adage still holds true: “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” In America, we cherish and embrace good ideas (not fear them) and put them into practice; we discard the bad ones in the trash.
But I have a reason that overrides all others. I believe in the power of truth. We can neither defend the truth nor championed it by muzzling the liar. Let Zenawi speak! Let him have his “conversation”!

A Few Topics for “Conversation”

Since Prof. Stiglitz is interested in having a “conversation”, here are a few topics he should ask Zenawi to talk about. How is it that Ethiopia, under his “seasoned” leadership, managed to rank:

138/159 (most corrupt) countries on the Corruption Index for 2010.

17 among the most failed states (Somalia is No. 1) on the Failed States Index for 2010.

136/179 countries (most repressive) on the 2010 Index of Economic Freedom.

107/183 economies for ease of doing business (investment climate) by The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in 2010.

37/53 (poorest governance quality) African countries in the 2010 Ibrahim Index of African Governance.

101/128 countries in 2010 on the Bertelsmann Political and Economic Transformation Index, and

141/153 (poorest environmental public health and ecosystem vitality) countries in the 2010 Environmental Performance Index.

Fables, Fairy Tales and Q&As

I can imagine Zenawi’s angst at the podium preparing to tell his fables and fairy tales about Ethiopia’s double-digit growth, democracy and leadership in Africa, globalization and its impact on Africa or whatever topic he chooses at the last minute to confuse his audience. It’s all good; fairy tales are entertaining. However, I suspect that the story-telling session will not be the usual cakewalk. At Columbia, unlike his rubberstamp parliament, Zenawi will not be able to scowl at, browbeat, belittle or mock anyone; and unless Stigliz and company rig the Q&A session to give Zenawi only softball questions, he is going to get some heavy duty drubbing from students and faculty. I would wager to say that his speech will not be the usual soporific monologue; it will be a real “conversation”where he will be asked questions that will make him cringe and wince.
I can imagine the audience asking these questions:

Mr. Zenawi, what is the special magical spell you used to win the May 2010 election by 99.6 percent?

Answer: “Say ‘abracadabra’ ten times while holding a rabbit’s foot in the left hand at the crack of dawn.”

When will you stop trashing the human rights of Ethiopian citizens?

Answer: “As soon as you tell me when they started having human rights.”

Why do you lie about double-digit economic growth by using cooked up numbers from your Central Statistics office?[1]

Answer: “There are ‘lies and plausible lies’. Our statistics are of the latter variety.”

Why did you shut down all distance education programs in the country?

Answer: “Because education is overrated.”

Why did you wipe out the private independent media in the country?

Answer: “Because they don’t like me.”

Do you really believe the Voice of America is the same as Rwanda’s genocide Radio Mille Collines?

Answer: “VOA, VOI (Voice of Interhamwe). It all sounds the same to me.”

What do you think of your critics in the U.S.?

Answer: “They are all friggin extremists in the Diaspora. I can’t stand them. Why? Oh! Why don’t they like me?!?”

Do you believe in the rule of law?

Answer: “Yep! I am it.”

When will you release Birtukan Midekssa, the only woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, from prison?

Answer: “‘There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.'”

“If there are no more questions, I am outta here!”

Just at that moment, I can imagine President Bollinger leaping to his feet with index finger wagging in righteous indignation and proclaiming: “Mr. Prime Minister, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.”

We are All Ears!

Let Zenawi speak! Let’s hear what he has to say. Will it be the usual cascade of lies, half-truths, buzzwords, platitudes, clichés and boiler plate economics hokum bunkum? I have no idea. Over the past several days, Stiglitz and crew have been playing the old switcheroo on the topics Zenawi will be talking about. First, they said Zenawi will speak on “Ethiopia and Africa leadership.” They changed that and said he will talk about “the current global economy and its impact”. Now they say he will be talking about “the current global economy and its impact on Africa”. It is not clear what expertise Zenawi has on globalization or what morsels of wisdom he may be able to impart, but Stiglitz should have no problems writing a nice scholarly-sounding speech for Zenawi to read. After all, the “impact of the global economy on Africa” is the snake oil Joe “The Globalizer” Stiglitz has been peddling for the past decade.

Regardless, Zenawi may have something worthwhile to say. I don’t know. We won’t know unless we hear him speak. The bottom line is that Zenawi would rather go blind than face the naked truth about his atrocious record over the past two decades, but we are not afraid to confront his best dressed lies at the World Leaders Forum. At the end of the day on September 22, when the fog clears over Columbia, Zenawi would have walked off the stage at the Low Library as he walked on it: An emperor with new clothes! So I say: Rap on, Emperor. Rap on!

Welcome to the land of the free and home of the brave!


[2] “The Voodoo Economics of Meles Zenawi”,