Meles vs. Mengistu: The Pot Calling the Kettle Black

By Fisseha Tecle

Should Jean-Bedel Bokassa (the former butcher of Central African Republic) sit in judgment of Idi Amin Dada? The drama of one dictator convicting another of genocide is currently underway in Ethiopia.

On Tuesday, May 23 Meles Zenawi has promised to deliver the final verdict for his predecessor, the butcher Mengistu Haile Mariam. And Meles wants the world to think better of him for doing so.

“Mengistu Haile Mariam, accused of a 17-year reign of terror in Ethiopia, faces a long-awaited genocide verdict on Tuesday in a sign of Africa’s new resolve to bring ex-leaders to account for past abuses,” writes Tsegaye Taddesse in a May 21, 2006 Reuters dispatch from Addis Ababa.

Is what the Ethiopian government doing a “sign of Africa’s new resolve to bring ex-leaders to account for past abuses” or is it a cruel manipulation of public opinion to divert attention from Ethiopia’s current crisis?

Why did it take the government of Prime Minister Zenawi 15 years to try and convict Mengistu and company? Ethiopians who suffered under the murderous Mengistu regime wanted justice a long time ago. Why the delay and why now?

The answer may have a lot to do with Ethiopia’s troubled present than redressing past grievances.

Ethiopia’s ruling Tigrai People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has been acting like a wounded animal in the wake of the disputed 2005 elections. Feeling the wrath of an angry population that has rejected its rule, the minority government is willing to go to any length to stay in power. It has killed upwards of 100

civilians and arrested thousands since June 2005 alone.

Those in jail include the top leaders of the main opposition party, journalists and civil society leaders. To intimidate his opponents and stamp out all opposition, Prime Minister Zenawi has hurled ridiculous accusations of genocide against his

political opponents.

The timing and the manner of reporting of the Mengistu genocide verdict are curious.

The Ethiopian government expelled competent foreign

correspondents such as Anthony Mitchell of the Associated Press and threw dozens of domestic journalists in jail, shutting the avenue for any sort of critical reporting. It has turned instead to carefully cultivated, compliant locals such as Tsegaye Taddesse who lend wire service legitimacy to an

otherwise clear-cut disinformation campaign.

Ethiopia’s government is deeply reliant on international begging to support a kleptocratic tribal patronage system, a bloated bureaucracy and an extensive security apparatus.

Zenawi’s turn towards tyranny has not sat well with donors. Many donors have withdrawn direct budget support and tightened the strings.

While putting up a brave face, the Zenawi government is already feeling the pinch. Foreign exchange reserves have dwindled; gasoline prices have almost doubled; the price of basic commodities have gone up and the government is reportedly having difficulty paying salaries in regions outside Addis Ababa.

The TPLF government’s response to these challenges is to go on propaganda offensive to confuse the issue. In the face of famine and increasingly crushing poverty, they claim fantastic “growth” rates that put China to shame.

The so-called verdict of Mengistu coming at this time also appears to be part of the propaganda offensive. Zenawi and associates are clinging to power partly out of fear of being held responsible for looting and terrorizing a nation of 77 million people for the last 15 years.

From the massacre of over 400 Anuaks in Gambella in 2003 to the June and November 2005 killing of innocent civilians, there is a substantial body of evidence implicating Zenawi and associates in crimes against humanity.

The current charade makes one wonder who the TPLF has for advisors. Their desperate drama can only remind the world the need for holding the current leaders accountable for their crimes.

After all, the day Zenawi will be judged by his successors may not be far away. Mengistu fled the country leaving all his comrades behind to rot in jail. There may be a lesson here for TPLF operatives.

When the chips are down, their capo too may flee to a foreign safe haven on an American helicopter. They will be the ones left holding the bag and facing justice. One hopes it does not take 15 years for justice to be meted out when their turn comes.

The writer, an Ethiopian analyst residing in the US, can be reached at [email protected]

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