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Ethiopia: Mediation and the mazes of a dictator

By Messay Kebede

August 66, 2007 — Various Ethiopian websites exhibit articles that highly congratulate and praise the achievements of mediators in the long-drawn-out attempt to free the CUD leaders. According to these articles, thanks to the aggressive and unrelenting effort of the mediators, the dreadful outcome of life imprisonment has been reversed into a happy ending. Had such articles appeared only in websites supporting Meles and the TPLF, I would have no reason to share my perplexity, obvious as it is that Meles alone comes out victorious from the ordeal of CUD leaders. Unfortunately, the consensus among Ethiopians opposing Meles and his regime considers the release as a laudable achievement of Ethiopian negotiators.

Let me begin by expelling a misunderstanding: in a previous article, I stated that the desire to humiliate is behind the liberation of the CUD leaders. Several readers reacted to my interpretation with the suggestion that I do not seem to welcome the liberation. Some such reading of my article is anything but accurate, all the more so as I was convinced for quite some time that their continuous imprisonment had lost any meaning. Outside the exposure of their determination not to recognize the kangaroo court, the prisoners were not achieving anything. As dignified as the refusal to recognize was, I had constantly wondered whether the gain was worth the sacrifice.

The continuous imprisonment of CUD leaders would have had a positive outcome if it had led to a deterioration of Meles’s relation with Western governments of the kind entailing the complete cessation of financial aids and diplomatic support to his government. Nothing of the kind happened: after an initial verbal condemnation, the whole drama of the election did not upset for long the business-as-usual approach of Western governments. I don’t know what is required for Ethiopians to understand, once and for all, that national interests, and not what is right, essentially drive nation-states. Haile Selassie made this same mistake when he believed that democratic states will not tolerate the fascist invasion of Ethiopia.

In my previous article, I also indicated that the intent to humiliate reflected the deep and harrowing embarrassment of Meles and his associates following their unexpected defeat in the election. Meles was humiliated in front of the world, he who thought that the Ethiopian masses had nurtured an eternal gratitude to the TPLF for being liberated from the Derg, not to mention the exacting effort he made to appear as a new African leader to Western governments. Alas, now the whole world knows that he is only another dictator in the long list of bouffons parading as heads of states in Africa’s sickening post colonial history.

The sharp depreciation of Meles’s supersized but bleeding ego in his own eyes and that of the world needed some appeasement, which could come only through the attempt to humiliate those who humiliated him. Neither mere imprisonment nor court procedures would give him the much-needed remedy, since in both cases the prisoners would continue to claim their innocence.

What else could wipe out Meles’s deep humiliation but a confession of guilt and a plea for forgiveness? Herein lies the major role of the mediators. For Meles had to make sure at the same time that whatever confession is obtained from the prisoners, it must not seem to be extracted by means of force. Confession obtained by force has no soothing effect on him if only because constraint is devoid of vindicating virtue. By contrast, consent can be inferred both from the process of mediation and the involvement of independent and respected people. Since nobody is openly forcing anybody, the outcome can be construed as the product of free admission. Without free consent, the admission of guilt is not usable for the purpose of rehabilitation.

What this means is clear enough: since only Meles comes out as winner, the mediation was nothing but a scheme used by him to obtain confession of guilt. The involvement of independent and respected people put heavy pressure on the prisoners through the argument that the common good, the prospect of reconciliation alone motivates their effort. How could prisoners who fought for peace and democracy refuse for long the appeal for reconciliation? They would agree to anything rather than reject a goal coinciding with their political agenda of peace and democracy.

What other term than soft coercion can characterize a mediation with such a one-sided result? I have read many comments concerning the release, but I have yet to see what concessions Meles made. Yet, mediation is a two-way street; it results in mutual concessions done for the purpose of achieving a higher common goal.

It could be argued that the mediation saved the prisoners from life imprisonment. This argument has no substance given that the prisoners could have obtained the same result without the mediators, if they had admitted guilt. European or American envoys could have easily broken a similar deal even a year ago.

Shrewdly, Meles encouraged mediation because it is all to his advantage. The direct intervention of Western governments would have further exasperated his humiliation by showing that his government is run, to use his own words, “like a banana republic from Capitol Hill.” His oversensitized ego, quite reminiscent of Mengistu Haile Mariam, would further suffer if the prisoners and the Ethiopian people they represent believed that they owe their liberation to Western pressure. No, if he is to pardon the prisoners, it must not be because of Western governments, but because he yielded to the exhortation of his subordinates. In this way, he recovers his original condescending grandeur while appearing concerned with reconciliation.

The way of mediation is all the more advantageous to Meles the more it refurbishes his shattered image in the West. Let no one be misled into thinking that the timing of the release of the prisoners has nothing to do with American politics. The illegal invasion of Somalia and the ousting of the fundamentalists from power was, no doubt, a calculated risk that Meles took to regain American support. This alone would have been enough to sustain the support of the State Department. But the change of majority in the Senate and the House has complicated the issue by reviving the postponed bill known as H.R. 2003. The only way to stop the bill from being voted on as a law was to give some signs that the democratic process is back on track in Ethiopia. In other words, Meles had to make a significant gesture and he did so by releasing the imprisoned elected members of the opposition.

Both to appease his mortified ego and stop the bill, Meles needed a successful outcome from the mediation process. He faced one problem, to wit, the stubborn refusal of the prisoners. To obtain from them the confession he needed, he was compelled to force them, though not directly. So he instructed his court to expedite the process and sentence the prisoners to life imprisonment. The sentence gave him the upper hand he needed to blackmail the prisoners.

We know the rest of the story: Meles pardoned the prisoners in exchange for their admittance of guilt and their plea for forgiveness. At last he had his revenge for the humiliation he suffered, but also much more since he will appear in the eyes of the West as the leader who for the sake of reconciliation reversed the harsh judgment of his own court and even went to the extent of reinstating all the rights of the prisoners, including their right to continue their political struggle. Clearly, thanks to the mediators, Meles emerges, by all accounts, as the only winner.

One last comment: I heard on the radio the chairperson of the mediating team, Professor Ephraim Issac, justifying the mediation effort in nationalist terms. He finds that what the team did revives the old Ethiopian tradition of conflict resolution through elders while ascertaining the ability of Ethiopians to resolve their own problems without the intervention of Western powers.

To begin with, the fact that the professor is in Washington to lobby against the bill clearly shows the link between the liberation of the prisoners and the discussion of the bill in the House. But more yet, his justification is particularly disappointing because it does no more than kill what he claims to revive. One cannot preach the revival of tradition if its outcome hinders progress.

In many of my writings I have tried to show that one of the tragedies of Ethiopia is that it undertook its modernization without the support of its traditions on the ground that the latter are outdated, if not barbaric. Aware of the detrimental effect of this direction, some Ethiopians scholars, among whom I include Professor Ephraim as a precursor, are increasingly involved in the laborious task of rediscovering and refurbishing the traditions of Ethiopia, which are also the secrets of its amazing survival.

One thing must be clearly stated, however: the revival of tradition is good if and only if it couples with the critical spirit separating the good elements of the past from the bad ones. So that, if tradition is used to retard progress or deprive people of their legitimate rights, it must be denounced with utmost firmness.

As regards the liberation of CUD leaders, the tradition of shimagele has indeed favored one side. We should refrain from hailing its outcome while underlining that Ethiopian history testifies that the intervention of mediators has convinced more than one king to even give up the throne for the sake of the common good. What this shows is that the tradition is invoked for normative purpose even as its actual implementation is distorted. So, for the future, let us make sure that the usage of the traditional way of conflict resolution is firmly harnessed to the cause of democracy, freedom, and collective interests.

* The author is a professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Dayton (Ohio). He can be reached at [email protected]

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