By Alemayehu G. Mariam
Is the World Growing Honest or Doomsday Near?
I encountered the tantalizing headline unexpectedly: “Bold Words From British Government Representative”. Britain’s Ambassador to Ethiopia, Norman Ling, said:
We should not be giving aid to African dictators, but there is a lot of public support in Britain for spending money on people who are demonstrably poor.
“African dictators? No aid?” Do my eyes deceive me?
For a fleeting moment, I recalled some lines from Shakespeare.
Hamlet: “What news?”
Rosencrantz: “None my Lord, but that the world’s grown honest.”
Hamlet: “Then is doomsday near, but your news is not true?”
Diplomats are famous for double-talk, gobbledygook and twaddle, not straight talk. Bluntly honest and sincere words from a living, breathing diplomat?
Is the world growing honest or doomsday near?
It was Sir Henry Wooton, another English ambassador centuries ago, who said, “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”
Not so for Ambassador Ling! He told the truth on behalf of his country and Ethiopia:
Under our new programme, we will be adding a new element called ‘wealth creation,’ which is designed to particularly support the private sector (in Ethiopia)…. That sends a signal that most of our money, which has been channeled through government channels, will now be channeled through private channels.”
Bravo! Ambassador Ling. “Way to go!”, as the Yanks would say!
I just love straight talk, no bull. Ambassador Ling’s words were music to my ears:
I do not know how long it [aid] will continue. What I can say is that we are not entirely happy with political governance here; that is an issue for us. We believe it is also an issue for Ethiopians. As we see elsewhere in the world, sustainable development is achieved only if you have good political governance. Ethiopia’s political governance needs to improve.
We do not have a fully functioning democracy here. What we have is, as the ruling party has made clear, a dominant party model.
Elections should be free, fair, and transparent. The opposition should be given more space. The media should be given more space to report and more protection when it does so.
We would like to see greater freedoms enshrined in the laws of this country so that people know if they went to court if a case was brought against them, the courts will be truly free and fair [in their rulings]. There are many areas where we believe the political, legal, and judicial systems need to improve…
Ambassador Ling did not mince his words when it came to the Ethiopian opposition:
One reason why we have not seen the political diversity that Ethiopia requires is the weakness of the opposition parties since 2005. That is regrettable. Every government needs an effective opposition. While they do not always welcome it, they need it. That is holding back Ethiopia’s broader development. Economic and social development does not happen in isolation. It needs a challenge that a democratic system provides. I hope that will happen.
In other words, a divided, disunited, disorganized, disassembled and discombobulated opposition is not part of the solution in Ethiopia.
How I Wish to Hear a Little Straight Talk From U.S. Ambassador Donald Booth
The U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia, Donald Booth, has been soft-pedaling his way straight to Zenawi’s palace. Just before the publication of the latest U.S. State Department Country Human Rights Reports (April 8, 2011), Booth said: “The Ethiopian people have accepted the outcome of this election. It is not our job to challenge their wisdom in that.”
Either Mr. Booth does not read or agrees with Zenawi’s characterization of the U.S. Human Rights Country Reports on Ethiopia as “lies, lies and implausible lies”. The recent report on Ethiopia documented, among other things, “significant increases in arbitrary arrest and detention in the pre-election period”, abuse of “humanitarian assistance as incentives to secure support for the ruling coalition”, obstruction of “independent observation of elections, including restrictions of accredited diplomats to the capital and barring them from proximity to polling places,” the existence of “ample evidence that unfair government tactics–including intimidation of opposition candidates and supporters–influenced the extent of [the 99.6 percent may election] victory, the absence of a “a level playing field for opposition parties” and the prevalence of a “climate of apprehension and insecurity” in the country.
Mr. Booth seems conveniently oblivious of the fact that his own embassy drafted the recent human rights report which “challenges” both the “wisdom” and claims in the “outcome of that election”.
Anyway, on which planet did they say Mr. Booth is an ambassador?!?
Since his arrival in Ethiopia last year, Mr. Booth has been pontificating on all sorts of things. Recently, he said that in East and the Horn of Africa the “military can play an important role in supporting positive change and stability”, and stressed the “need for the U.S. to build a strong and mutually beneficial partnership with African countries.” During his confirmation hearing last year, Mr. Booth promised Africa Subcommittee Chair Senator Russ Feingold he would look into allegations of human rights abuses in the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia. In December 2010, he journeyed to Dire Dawa in the Ogaden region to deliver books, inspect drilling projects and celebrate the renovation of the Teferi Mekonnen Palace in Harar. He did not have time to stop by and chat about war crimes and crimes against humanitywith the Ogadenis. What a shame!
A few years ago when we undertook a broad advocacy effort to help pass H.R. 2003 (Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act), the idea was to leverage U.S. aid to promote respect for human rights, institutionalize the rule of law and strengthen democratic institutions and processes in Ethiopia, very much the types of things Ambassador Ling was talking about. Among the key provisions of H.R. 2003 included:
Release and/or speedy trial of all political prisoners in the country.
Prosecution of persons who have committed gross human rights violations.
Provision of financial support to strengthen human rights and civil society groups.
Support for the creation of an independent judiciary and growth of an independent media.
Facilitation of access to the Ogaden region by humanitarian organizations.
Strengthening of local, regional, and national legislative bodies.
Support for dialogue and negotiated settlement of political disputes.
Support for civil society groups and election comission.
Spring in North Africa, Still Winter in Sub-Sahara Africa
The events in North Africa may have taught the U.S. and the West a few lessons. First, their “expert analysis” could be terribly wrong. It is perfectly possible for a peaceful, popular uprising to overthrow decades-old dictatorships. Second, the West cannot afford to blindly support African dictators in the name of “stability”. A powder keg is stable until the fuse is ignited. It took the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi to trigger the explosion of the Tunisian powder keg. Dormant political volcanoes do erupt unpredictably, and it did in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. Countries like Ethiopia may seem peaceful and dormant but they remain firmly within the North African “ring of fire”. The compressed powder keg of ethnic grievances, seething anger over injustices and accumulated resentment and bitterness will explode without warning. What is happening in North Africa and the Middle East today is a bellwether of what is likely to happen in the Horn and the rest of Africa.
U.S. policy has been consistent in supporting African dictators come hell or high water. The challenge for U.S. policy in Africa will be how it should respond to youth cynicism and disillusionment with dictatorship. Young Africans are sick of the corruption, cronyism, patronage, favoritism and abuse of power of the self-absorbed dictators. Sooner or later Africa’s youth “bulge” will burst and sweep away the decaying African dictatorships. Can African youths rely on President Obama’s promise who, in reassuring Egyptian youth said: “A new generation, your generation who want their voices to be heard, and so going forward we want those young people and all Egyptians to know America will continue to do everything we can to support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy in Egypt.” Will America support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy in Ethiopia, Kenya, Ivory Coast, the Sudan… ? Listening to Mr. Booth, the answer is a resounding “Hell, No!”
When the Americans issued their Declaration of Independence from England in 1776, they protested the “absolute tyranny and despotism” of the “present King of Great Britain” in the American colonies. It is refreshing to hear an English ambassador protest absolute tyranny and despotism in Ethiopia in 2011 and speak boldly about ending aid to it and all other tyrannical African regimes.
Money Talks and Everything Else Walks
Few Africans have illusions about Western condemnation of African dictators and promises of support for democracy, freedom and human rights. Perhaps the “doomsday” in North Africa is giving the West a new perspective on blindly supporting dictators. Regardless, it is refreshing to hear straight diplomatic talk like Ambassador Ling’s (though honest diplomatic talk may be an oxymoron). The Yanks are actually very good when it comes to straight talk. They say, “Talk is cheap.” When they really want to drive the point home, they say “Put your money where your mouth is.” Ambassador Ling says, “No money for African dictators!” I say, right on! “Now, put your money where your mouth is!”
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/