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Ethiopia: “So What!”

December 20, 2010

By Prof. Alemayehu G. Mariam

“So what! Soo what!! Sooo whaaat!!!” was the repetitive mantra of dictator Meles Zenawi recently in response to pesky questions lobbed at him in parliament about his so-called Growth and Transformation Plan[1] (GTP), which will presumably make Ethiopia self-sufficient in food production in the next five years and expand the “industrial-led export sector”, infrastructures and what have you. It was vintage Zenawi. He gets a few challenging questions and he ignites into spontaneous self-combustion, a meltdown: “So what if the GTP doesn’t work! So what if we don’t have the money to implement it? So what if don’t have the institutional capacity to do it?! So what? I don’t have to tell you diddly squat. I will do as I please. It’s my way or you’re hitting the friggin’ highway!”

So what about Wikileaks?

The latest droplet of Wikileaks cable leak shows that back in January 2010, Zenawi met[2] with U.S. Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero and Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson for a couple of hours and gave them a piece of his mind, or a tongue lashing depending on your point of view. There were two fascinating things about the meeting: 1) the summary of the discussions (or hectoring monologue), and 2) the ambiance of the meeting of which we get a glimpse.

After carefully studying and analyzing the cable summaries, one is immediately struck by the absence of any meaningful dialogue on the issues. Rather one is overwhelmed by a sense of unrestrained monologue directed at the Americans with rhetorical flair. Extrapolating from Zenawi’s known demeanor, behavior and pattern and practice in Q & A sessions in parliament (particularly when he is asked challenging questions or is on the receiving end of an unexpected reposte from a member), media interviews, speeches and his recent shocking verbal assault on the European Union Election Observer Mission as “garbage”, one can retrospectively imagine that Otero/Carson must have had a traumatizing 2 hours. Reasoning deductively and reading between the lines in the cable summaries, Zenawi appears angry, frustrated, defensive and defiant. He tries to persuasively convince Otero/Carson of his good intentions for the country, but ends up hectoring, lecturing and talking down to them on elementary principles of democracy. The tone of his voice seemed condescending and contemptuous. His words were tinged with bitterness, and he seemed impatient with his guests. Overall, the meeting seems to have been a 2-hour monologue delivered with rhetorical fury as Otero/Carson cringed in stunned disbelief.

In response to Otero/Carson’s concerns about the crackdown on civil society organizations, narrowing political space and the imprisonment of Birtukan Midekssa, the first female political party leader in Ethiopian history, Zenawi tries to outplay them with clever sophistry. He said “his government placed no restrictions on its citizens’ democratic and civil rights, only the right of foreign entities to fund them.” He seemed conveniently oblivious to the fact that he receives billions in foreign aid annually which he uses to entrench his political party, a notorious fact known to the population and donors since the stolen election of 2005. He counseled “those Ethiopians who want to engage in political activity to organize and fund themselves”. He said “foreign funding of charities” is welcome as long as the money is given to his side, and not to the other guys. It seems he lost his temper at one point haranguing Otero/Carson: “Ethiopians must organize and fund themselves and defend their own rights” because they “were not too poor to organize themselves and establish their own democratic traditions, recalling that within his lifetime illiterate peasants and poor students had overthrown an ancient imperial dynasty.”

Zenawi made it clear to Otero/Carson that he had nothing but contempt for his opposition. They are all just a bunch of whiners and wimps. He pontificated, “When people are committed to democracy and forced to make sacrifices for it, they won’t let any leader take it away from them.” He preached that in “our own struggle against the Derg regime, we received no foreign funding, but were willing to sacrifice and die for [our] cause.” He matter-of-factly declared that Ethiopians must “take ownership of their democratic development, be willing to sacrifice for it, and defend their own rights.”

Zenawi flashed a moment of reasonableness as he assured Otero/Carson not to be concerned about the 2010 election because it “will be free, fair, transparent, and peaceful…” But a question about potential violence caused by the opposition sent him into total spontaneous self-combustion: “If opposition groups resort to violence in an attempt to discredit the election,” Zenawi vowed, “We will crush them with our full force; they will all vegetate like Birtukan (Midekssa) in jail forever.” He asserted with bombastic bravado that there is no power on earth that can save them. “Nothing can protect them except the laws and constitution of Ethiopia!” Capisci! Otero? Carson? One can imagine Zenawi pounding his desk and screaming, “Capisci! Capisci!

It is apparent from the cablegram that Otero and Carson were stunned into silence by Zenawi’s obstinacy and dogmatic single-mindedness in refusing to allow more political space, ease restrictions on opposition groups and civil society organizations and release Birtukan. As the two representatives of the World’s Greatest Superpower left the 2-hour verbal mauling, there could be no doubt in their minds that they had just met the “law and constitution of Ethiopia.” There is no indication that Otero/Carson learned any lessons from their close encounter of the fourth kind, but there are many to be learned indeed.

Lesson I. Crush your opponents with full force. Alternatively, vegetate them forever.

Anyone who opposes Zenawi will be crushed. Not with a teeny weeny bit of force. Not with reasonable force. Not even partial force. They will be crushed “with full force”. They will be crushed like roaches, bedbugs or spiders. Squish!

If you can’t crush them, then cage them like ferrets or rabbits; and sit back and watch them vegetate. Throw them in the dungeons. Let them rot in jail. So what! Who is going to save them? Better yet, coop them in solitary confinement and watch them turn into potted plants. See them go brain dead. Watch them go raving nuts, crazy. So what!

Lesson II. If you get into America’s face and stick it to her, she will always back down. Always!

American politicians like to talk big; but they rarely back up their talk with action. They have forked tongues, like serpents. They will jibber jabber about democracy, human rights and all that, but when things are down for the count, you will find them standing around twiddling their fingers and whistling Dixie. In fact, if you stand up to them, they will back down. There was a time when American foreign policy was guided by the old West African proverb: “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” Now, they just speak softly, and instead of carrying a big stick they carry a big wad of cash, billions of it, and hand them out to those who have committed crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.

The whole thing works backwards with the Americans. The more bad stuff you do, the more you are rewarded. Take the May 2005 Ethiopia election and all the nasty stuff that happened after that: an election stole, hundreds of citizens massacred in the streets, tens of thousands imprisoned, nearly all opposition leaders rounded-up and vegetated for nearly two years, anti-free press and anti-civic society laws enacted, Birtukan Midekssa incarcerated for 21-months incluyding prolonged periods of solitary confinement, Somalia invaded against the strong advise and disapproval of the U.S. (wink, wink) and on and on. So what did the folks at the U.S. State Department do? They patted Zenawi on the back and handed him blank checks for billions of American tax dollars. So what are the Americans going to do after the May 2010 elections? Send billions more in American tax dollars, of course. Duh!!!

Lesson III. “Democratization is a matter of survival.”

Zenawi says, “democratization is a matter of survival.” Zenawi’s survival, that is. If there is real democracy in the country, Zenawi’s regime will not survive because he will be voted out of office in heartbeat. If democracy stays alive in Ethiopia, Zenawi cannot survive. If Zenawi survives, democracy cannot stay alive. Stated more plainly, democracy and dictatorship cannot exist together in the same place and at the same time. Democracy necessarily means the end of dictatorship and vise versa. Therefore, there will be no democracy in Ethiopia as long as Zenawi’s regime survives. So what!

Lesson IV: If you want democracy, you must struggle and sacrifice for it.

Democracy is not something you get in a ballot casting match. All that pluralism and multipartyism stuff is hogwash. If you want democracy, you must “struggle, sacrifice and die for it”. What Zenawi is really saying is that “You ain’t gonna get the democracy we got through the bullet by stuffing ballots in a box.” There is no problem playing the whole election thing. It makes everybody happy, especially the American and European moneybags who dole out billions every year. But when push comes to shove, that is, if your idea is to push, shove and vote us out of power, it ain’t happening because “We will crush you with our full force.”

Lesson V. If your rights are being violated, defend them!

The opposition has been told, retold, advised and warned that the “international community will not be able to save them,” says Zenawi. But it is not just the international community that is powerless to help them. International law, international human rights treaties, international conventions, international diplomacy, the International Criminal Court, international public opinion, whatever – they are all useless to the opposition. So what if their rights are violated?

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.

So what is all this hoopla and fuss about elections and democracy? The opposition is always whining, groaning and moaning about “free, fair, transparent, and peaceful” elections. The election business is not complicated. It is like playing marbles, except one guy owns all of the marbles and makes one rule: “He who owns the marbles wins all the time.”(a rule that is sometimes referred to as the “laws and constitution of Ethiopia”). In his election “victory” speech this past May, Zenawi proclaimed, “The important point in the election process is not the result of the election. It is not about which party won the election.” In other words, elections are not about winning or losing; they are about how you play the game. The opposition played the game, very badly and lost. So what if they don’t want to play anymore? It’s all good. They can hit the highway. We will bring in players who are willing to play the game and never expect or want to win.

Lesson VII. If you want to win, organize…

So what do you need to do if you want to win? Moaning, groaning, whining, wailing and sobbing ain’t going to do you much good. 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 like we do; dig deeper into your own wallets.

Cash? That is always a problem. It is OK to beg and collect billions in aid every year. It is OK to get Safety Net cash and Emergency Food Assistance and give it out to poor farmers in exchange for their votes. But no outside funds for the opposition because they and the “leaders of CSOs [civil society organizations] that receive foreign funding are not accountable to their organizations.” It is all about accountability and transparency. Zenawi is accountable for all of the aid money he gets, the opposition and the CSOs are not accountable for the meager international donations they get. So what if they need cash? Let them dig deep into their wallets.

Lesson: IX. The Rule and Power of One

Everybody, dig this: “There is one law, one regime, one ruler, one circus master and only one man who runs the show in Ethiopia.”

Lesson X: If you don’t like lessons I-IX?

“So what!”


[1] http://www.addisfortune.com/Defiant%20Meles%20Snubs%20Criticism.htm
[2] http://allafrica.com/stories/201012061509.html

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