Archive for the ‘Birtukan Midekssa’ Category
Alemayehu G. Mariam
Thugogracy in Africa
If democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people, a thugogracy is a government of thieves, for thieves, by thieves. Simply stated, a thugtatorship is rule by a gang of thieves and robbers (thugs) in designer suits. It is becoming crystal clear that much of Africa today is a thugogracy privately managed and operated for the exclusive benefit of bloodthirsty thugtators.
In a thugtatorship, the purpose of seizing and clinging to political power is solely to accumulate personal wealth for the ruling class by stealing public funds and depriving the broader population scarce resources necessary for basic survival. The English word “thug” comes from the Hindi word “thag” which means “con man”. In India “Thugees”, well-organized criminal gangs, robbed and murdered unsuspecting travelers over a century ago. Africa’s “thugees” today mug, rob, pillage, plunder and rape unsuspecting whole nations and peoples and secrete away their billions in stolen loot in European and American banks.
Today, we see the incredibly extreme lengths Libyan thugtator Muammar Gaddafi is willing to go to preserve his thugocratic empire floating on billions of stolen oil dollars hidden in foreign bank accounts and corporate property holdings. The British Government recently announced that it expects to seize “around £20 billion in liquid assets of the Libyan regime, mostly in London.” The Swiss Government has similarly issued an order for the immediate freeze of assets belonging to Gadhafi and his entourage. The Swiss central bank announced that it will freeze Gaddafi’s 613 million Swiss francs (USD$658 million), with an additional 205 million francs (USD$220 million) in paper or fiduciary operations. In 2008, before a diplomatic incident involving the arrest of one of Gaddafi’s sons for assault in Switzerland, Gadhafi’s Swiss holdings amounted to 5.7 billion in cash and 812 million francs in paper and fiduciary operations. In 2006, the Libyan Sovereign Wealth Fund had investments of $70 billion. The U.S. closed its Embassy in Triopli and slapped a freeze on all Libyan assets described as “substantial.”
To protect his empire of corruption, Gadhafi has ordered his air force to bomb and strafe unarmed civilian demonstrators demanding an end to his 42-year rule. His son Saif al-Islam threatened to dismember the country and plunge it into a civil war that will last for 30 or 40 years. In a televised speech, the young thug promised a bloodbath: “We will fight to the last minute, until the last bullet. I will fight until the last drop of my blood.” The buffoonish al-Islam contemptuously reassured the world: “Plan A is to live and die in Libya. Plan B is to live and die in Libya. Plan C is to live and die in Libya.” For someone who has no official role in government, it was an astonishing statement to make.
Gadhafi himself has vowed to fight on and die “like a martyr” in the service of his thugogracy. He urged his supporters in Green Square to fight back and “defend the nation.” He exhorted, “Retaliate against them, retaliate against them… Dance, sing and prepare. Prepare to defend Libya, to defend the oil, dignity and independence.” Gadhafi promised: “At the suitable time, we will open the arms depot so all Libyans and tribes become armed, so that Libya becomes red with fire.” It is not enough for Gadhafi and his thugs to have bled the Libyan people dry for 42 years, they now want to burn down the whole country to ashes. Apres moi, le deluge! (After me, the flood!)
The Ivory Coast is on the verge of civil war, according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. In December 2010, Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down after he was decisively defeated in the presidential election. His own Election Commission said his opponent Alassane Ouattara won the election 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 said Ouattara is the winner. Gbagbo has turned a deaf ear and is preparing to plunge the Ivory Coast into civil war to protect his empire of corruption. In 2000, Gbagbo imposed a curfew and a state of emergency and ordered security forces to shoot and kill any demonstrators in the streets: “Police, gendarmes and soldiers from all branches of the armed forces are ordered to use all means throughout the country to oppose troublemakers.” Like Gaddafi’s mercenaries today, Gbagbo’s troops back then went on a killing and beating rampage. The European Union, the Swiss and United States Governments have frozen Gbagbo’s assets in their countries.
In 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”, a well-known code phrase for a “stolen election”. In its 2005 report, the Observer Team said exactly the same thing. Zenawi’s EPDRF party pretty much owns the Ethiopian economy. “According to the World Bank, roughly half of the rest of the national economy is accounted for by companies held by an EPRDF-affiliated business group called the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT). EFFORT’s freight transport, construction, pharmaceutical, and cement firms receive lucrative foreign aid contracts and highly favorable terms on loans from government banks.” The regime’s own anti-corruption agency reported in 2008 that “USD$16 million dollars” worth of gold bars simply walked out of the bank in broad daylight. A couple of weeks ago, in an incredible display of arrogance and total lack of accountability, Zenawi publicly stated that 10,000 tons of coffee earmarked for exports had simply vanished from the warehouses. He called a meeting of commodities traders and in a videotaped statement told them he will forgive them because “we all have our hands in the disappearance of the coffee”. He warned them that if anyone should steal coffee in the future, he would “cut off their hands”.
In 2005, Zenawi demonstrated the extremes he will go to protect his empire of corruption. Zenawi’s own Inquiry Commission documented that troops under Zenawi’s direct command and control mowed down 193 documented unarmed protesters in the streets and severely wounded nearly 800. Another 30,000 suspected opponents were jailed. In a meeting with high level U.S. officials in advance of the May 2010 election, Zenawi told them in plain words what he will do to his opposition if they try to “discredit the election”: “If opposition groups resort to violence in an attempt to discredit the election, we will crush them with our full force; they will all vegetate like Birtukan (Midekssa) in jail forever.” If Zenawi will “crush” those who “attempt to discredit an election”, it does not leave much to the imagination to figure out what he will do when the people ask him peacefully to leave power.
In April 2010, Omar al-Bashir of the Sudan 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.” Another election stolen in broad daylight; but that is not all Bashir has stolen. According to a Wikileaks cablegram, “International Criminal Court [ICC] Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told [U.S.] Ambassadors Rice and Wolff on March 20  that [Ocampo] would put the figure of Sudanese President Bashir’s stash of money at possibly $9 billion.” After the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, the first warrant of its kind for a sitting head of state, a sneering Bashir flipped his middle finger at the ICC: “They will issue their decision tomorrow, and we are telling them to immerse it in water and drink it“, a common Arabic insult which is the equivalent of “they can shove it up their _ _ _.” Bashir recently he said he will not run for the presidency again. (It is not clear if had decided not to run because he wants to enjoy his stolen billions or because he expects to put on the jail jumpsuit of the ICC.)
In February 2010, a group of soldiers in Niger calling itself the “Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy” 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. Niger’s state auditor reported that “at least 64 billion CFA francs [USD$128-million] were stolen from Niger’s state coffers under the government of former president Mamadou Tandja.” Tandja is sitting in jail in southwestern Niger.
In March 2008, Robert Mugabe declared victory in the presidential election after waging a campaign of violence and intimidation on his opponent Morgan Tsvangirai and his supporters. In 2003, Mugabe boasted, “I am still the Hitler of the time. This Hitler has only one objective: justice for his people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people and their rights over their resources. If that is Hitler, then let me be Hitler tenfold. Ten times, that is what we stand for.” No one would disagree with Mugabe’s self-description. In 2010, Mugabe announced his plan to sell “about $1.7 billion of diamonds in storage” (probably rejects of his diamond-crazed wife Grace). According to a Wikileaks cablegram, “a small group of high-ranking Zimbabwean officials (including Grace Mugabe) have been extracting tremendous diamond profits.” Mugabe is so greedy that he stole outright “£4.5 million from [aid] funds meant to help millions of seriously ill people.”
In December 2007, Mwai Kibaki declared himself winner of the presidential election. In 2002, Kibaki, criticizing his predecessor Daniel Arap Moi regime, urged the people to “Remain calm, even when intimidated or provoked by those who are desperately determined to rig the elections and plunge the country into civil war.” In 2007, Kibaki and his thugees unleashed such violence against the civilian population that 1500 Kenyans were killed and some 600 hundred thousand displaced, almost plunging Kenya into civil war. The Kroll Report revealed that Moi stole billions of dollars using a “web of shell companies, secret trusts and frontmen” and secreted the loot in 30 countries. Kibaki stonewalled further action on the report, including prosecution of Moi.
The story of corruption, theft, embezzlement and brazen transfer of the national wealth of African peoples to European and African banks and corporate institutions is repeated elsewhere in the continent. Ex-Nigerian President Sani Abacha, who was judicially determined to be a member of a criminal organization by a Swiss court, stole $500 million. Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt also have their stolen assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars frozen in Switzerland and elsewhere. Other African thugtators who have robbed their people blind (and pretty much have gotten away with it) include Nigeria’s Ibrahim Babangida, Guniea’s Lansana Conte, Togo’s Gnassingbe Eyadema, Gabon’s Omar Bongo, Equatorial Guniea’s Obiang Nguema, Burkina Faso’s Blaise Campore and Congo’s (Brazaville) Denis Sassou Nguesso, among others.
Godfathers and African Thugogracies
In previous commentaries, I have argued that the business of African governments is corruption. African thugtators cling to power to operate sophisticated criminal business enterprises to loot their national treasuries and resources. These African “leaders” are actually “godfathers” or heads of criminal families. Just like any organized criminal enterprise, African thugtators use their party apparatuses, bureaucracies, military and police forces to maintain and perpetuate their corrupt financial empires.
When the U.S. first announced its “kleptocracy asset recovery program” to the world in July 2010, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder delivered the message, not at some international anti-corruption forum, but at the African Union Summit in Kampala, Uganda. Holder told the gathered African thugtators:
Today, I’m pleased to announce that the U.S. Department of Justice is launching a new Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative aimed at combating large-scale foreign official corruption and recovering public funds for their intended – and proper – use: for the people of our nations. We’re assembling a team of prosecutors who will focus exclusively on this work and build upon efforts already underway to deter corruption, hold offenders accountable, and protect public resources.
Holder’s announcement was nothing short of breathtaking. It was as though he was addressing the national convention of the “Commissione” of all the Mafia families from New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Atlantic City, Las Vegas, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. In Kampala, Holder was talking directly to the African equivalents of the Godfathers of the Bonnano, Columbo, Gambino, Genovese and Lucchese crime families in one place. Absolutely surreal!
The Political Economy of Thugtatorships
Thugtatorships in Africa thrive in the political economy of kleptocracy. Widespread corruption permeates every corner of society. Oil revenues, diamonds, gold bars, coffee and other commodities and foreign aid are stolen outright and pocketed by the thugtators and their army of thugocrats. Public funds are embezzled and misused and state property misappropriated and converted to private use. Publicly-owned assets are virtually given away to supporters in “privatization programs” or secretly held in illegal transactions. Bank loans are given out to front enterprises owned secretly by the thugtators or their supporters without sufficient or proper collateral. Businessmen must pay huge bribes or kickbacks to participate in public contracting and procurement. Those involved in the import/export business are victimized in shakedowns by thugocrats. The judiciary is thoroughly corrupted through political interference and manipulation.
Armageddon: Thugtators’ Nuclear Option
One of the common tricks used by thugtators to cling to power is to terrorize the people with warnings of an impending Armageddon. They say that if they are removed from power, even after 42 years, the sky will fall and the earth will open up and swallow the people. Thugtators sow fear, uncertainty and doubt in the population and use misinformation and disinformation to psychologically defeat, disorient and neutralize the people. Gaddafi thuggish son warned Libya will “spiral into civil war for the next 30 to 40 years and the country’s infrastructure ruined” without the Gadhafi dynasty. He said Libya will be awash in “rivers of blood”. Gadhafi urged his supporters: “This is an opposition movement, a separatist movement which threatens the unity of Libya. We will take up arms… we will fight to the last bullet. We will destroy seditious elements. If everybody is armed, it is civil war, we will kill each other.”
Zenawi has been talking about “genocide” for years. The 2005 European Union Election Observer Mission in its Final Mission Report strongly chastised Zenawi and his associates for morbid genocide rhetoric:
The end of the campaign became more heated, with parties accusing each other of numerous violations of campaign rules. Campaign rhetoric became insulting. The most extreme example of this came from the Deputy Prime Minister, Addisu Legesse, who, in a public debate on 15 April, compared the opposition parties with the Interhamwe militia, which perpetrated the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The Prime Minister made the same comparison on 5 May in relation to the CUD [Coalition for Unity and Democracy]. The EPRDF [Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front] made the same associations during its free slots on radio and TV… Such rhetoric is unacceptable in a democratic election.
Zenawi “is quick to talk up threats to his country, whether from malcontents in the army or disgruntled ethnic groups among Ethiopia’s mosaic of peoples. Radical Oromos, a southern group that makes up about a third of Ethiopia’s people, often fall under suspicion.” Last year, he compared Voice of America radio broadcasts to Ethiopia with broadcasts of Radio Mille Collines which directed the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
If Africa’s thugtators plan to use the “nuclear option” and bring Armageddon on their societies, they would be wise to know who is destined to win the final battle between good and evil. Gadhafi’s fate now dangles between what he wants to do to bring this unspeakable tragedy to a swift conclusion, the will of the Libyan people once they vanquish his mercenaries and the International Criminal Court to whom the U.N. Security Council has voted unanimously to refer Moammar Gadhafi and members of his government in Libya for investigation and prosecution for crimes against humanity and war crimes. Like al-Bashir of the Sudan, Gadhafi and members of his thugocratic empire will not escape the long arms of justice. The days of massacring unarmed demonstrators, strafing and bombing civilians and detention of innocent people by the tens of thousands with impunity are gone. Justice may be delayed but when the people open the floodgates of freedom, “justice (not blood) will run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream” and wash out the wreckage of thugtatorship into the sea.
Thugtators and Their Business Partners in Africorruption, Inc.
Africa’s thugtatorships have longstanding and profitable partnerships with the West. Through aid and trade, the West has enabled these thugocracies to flourish in Africa and repress Africans. To cover up their hypocrisy and hoodwink the people, the West is now lined up to “freeze” the assets of the thugtators. It is a drama they have perfected since the early days of African independence. The fact of the matter is that the West is interested only in “stability” in Africa. That simply means, in any African country, they want a “guy they can do business with.” The business they want to do in Africa is the oil business, the (blood) diamond business, the arms sales business, the coffee and cocoa export business, the tourism business, the luxury goods export business and the war on terrorism business. They are not interested in the African peoples’ business, the human rights business, the rule of law business, the accountability and transparency business and the fair and free elections business.
Today, the West is witnessing a special kind of revolution it has never seen: A youth-led popular nonviolent revolution against thugtatorships in Africa and the Middle East. Neither the West nor the thugtators know what to do with this kind of revolution or the revolutionaries leading it. President Obama said, “History will end up recording that at every juncture in the situation in Egypt, that we were on the right side of history.” Well, what is good for Egypt is good enough for Ethiopia, Libya, Tunisia, the Sudan, Algeria, Kenya, Bahrain, Djbouti, Somalia…, and Zimbabwe. The decisive question in world history today is: Are we on the right side of history with the victims of oppression, or are we on the wrong side with thugtators destined to the dustbin of history?
Power to Youths in Africa and the Middle East!
By Alemayehu G. Mariam
The Berlin Conference of 2009
In 1884, the Berlin Conference was convened by the European imperial powers to carve out colonial territories in Africa. It was called the “Scramble for Africa”.
In 2009, another Berlin Conference was convened by a high level group of diplomats (referring to themselves as the “partners”) from the U.S. and several European countries to hammer out an “agreement” on what to do (and not do) in the Horn of Africa.
According to a recently released Wikileaks cablegram, with respect to Ethiopia, the partners “agreed [on] Ethiopia’s key role in the region” and “the need to support and observe its May 2010 elections.” They acknowledged “Meles as a regional leader, pointing out he would represent Africa on climate change in Copenhagen.” They agreed Meles is “intent on retaining power” and that he is “a guy you can do business with”. They expressed doubts about “being associated with a likely imperfect process” that could result from the May 2010 elections (which subsequently produced a 99.6 percent win for Meles’ party), but “they nonetheless agreed on the importance of international involvement in the elections.”
The German and French partners debated “Ethiopia’s economic situation, namely [the] hard currency and the poor investment climate.” The German diplomat suggested that Ethiopia’s economic problems could be traced to “Meles’ poor understanding of economics”. The French diplomat argued that “Meles actually had a good understanding of economics, but was hampered by his ideological beliefs.” In a single sentence, out of the blue, the partners ganged up and whipsawed the entire Ethiopian opposition: “The [Ethiopian] political opposition is weak, disunited, and out of touch with the average Ethiopian, partners agreed.”
For quite some time, foreign journalists have been reporting wholly disparaging and categorically dismissive remarks about Ethiopia’s opposition by anonymous Western diplomats. In February 2010, I wrote a commentary decrying and protesting the cowardly and scandalous statements issued by Western diplomats hiding behind the veil of journalistic anonymity. I complained that the derisive characterizations were not only unfair, inaccurate and self-serving, but also dispiriting, disheartening and demeaning of Ethiopia’s besieged opposition. It is gratifying to finally put faces to the surly anonymous lips.
Is the Ethiopian political opposition “weak and disunited”?
It is true that the Ethiopian “political opposition is weak and disunited”, an issue I have addressed on previous occasions. But Western governments seem to be conveniently oblivious of the reasons for the disarray in the opposition. For two decades, Meles Zenawi and his regime have done everything in their power to keep the opposition divided, defeated, discombobulated and dysfunctional. Zenawi has pursued the opposition relentlessly often comparing them to Rwanda’s interhamwe (meaning “those who stand/work/fight/attack together”) genociders. In 2005, he rounded up almost all of the major opposition political and civic leaders, human rights advocates, journalists and dissidents in the country and jailed them for nearly two years on charges of genocide, among many others. Zenawi’s own Inquiry Commission has documented that hundreds of peaceful opposition demonstrators were massacred in the streets and over thirty thousand suspected opposition members jailed in the aftermath of the May 2005 elections. In 2008, Zenawi jailed Birtukan Midekssa, the first female opposition political party leader in Ethiopian history, on the ridiculous charge of “denying a pardon”. He put her in solitary confinement and categorically and absolutely ruled out any possibility of freedom for her declaring: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” (He let go in October 2010.)
Zenawi has demonized a major opposition group as a “terrorist” organization bent on “creating a rift between the government and the people of Oromiya.” In his pursuit of the opposition, he has “used extreme force trapping the civilian population between the insurgents and the government forces.” He put on trial and sentenced to death various alleged “members” of Ginbot 7 Movement, and contemptuously described the Movement as an organization of “amateur part-time terrorists”. He has intimidated and verbally shredded his former comrade-in-arms who have stood with the opposition and rhetorically clobbered his critics as “muckrakers,” “mud dwellers”, “sooty,” “sleazy,” “pompous egotists” and good-for-nothing “chaff” and “husk.” He even claimed the opposition was “dirtying up the people like themselves.” Opposition parliamentarians are routinely humiliated in public and treated like delinquent children. In parliamentary exchanges, they are mocked for their pronunciation of English words.
When opposition leaders went on the campaign trial in 2010, they were prevented from meeting with voters in their districts as former president Dr. Negasso Gidada and others have documented. Opposition political and civic leaders and dissidents are kept under 24-hour surveillance, and the people they meet are intimidated and harassed. The culture of fear that permeates every aspect of society is reinforced by a structure of repression that is vertically integrated from the very top to the local (kebele) level making peaceful opposition impossible. Unless one is a member of the ruling party, the chances of higher education, employment and other privileges are next to nil. By becoming part of the opposition, the average and not-so-average Ethiopian invites political persecution, economic hardship and social isolation. Under such circumstances, is it any wonder that the Ethiopian opposition is weak and disunited? Is it not ironic that Western donors are unwilling to help the opposition in any way (including giving moral support) yet skulk behind journalistic anonymity to heap dismissive contempt on them while turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to flagrant abuses of human rights and misuse of their aid money to buy votes?
Is the Ethiopian opposition “out of touch with the average Ethiopian”?
The gratuitous backhanded slap on the face of the Ethiopian opposition as “out of touch with the average Ethiopian” has caused disappointment among some political and civic leaders. But the evidence shows that the Western “partners” may actually be right! For instance, Birtukan Midekssa was completely out of touch with any Ethiopian, except her mother and young daughter, for nearly two years. She was spending time in solitary confinement in Kality prison, a/k/a Kality Hilton, feasting on gourmet food and “putting on weight”, according to one highly placed source. Following the May 2005 elections, for almost two years, nearly all of the country’s opposition party leaders, leading journalists, human rights activists and civic society advocates were completely out of touch with any Ethiopian, except their jailors, at the same Kality Hilton. As to opposition party members and dissidents, tens of thousands of them have completely disappeared from the face of the earth over the past decade alone and are out of touch with anyone. Tens of thousands more are held incommunicado as political prisoners in secret jails. In light of this evidence, could it be denied that the Ethiopian opposition is completely out of touch with the average and not-so-average Ethiopian?
Is the ruling regime in touch with the average Ethiopian?
One would have to answer that question in the affirmative. The whole idea of a police state is to make sure that the rulers stay in very close touch with the average citizen. Zenawi’s regime stays in close touch with the average Ethiopian using the services of hundreds of thousands of secret police operatives and informants spying on each individual. Dr. Gidada has documented one of the common ways the regime stays in extremely close touch with the people:
The police and security offices and personnel collect information on each household through other means. One of these methods involves the use of organizations or structures called “shane”, which in Oromo means “the five”. Five households are grouped together under a leader who has the job of collecting information on the five households… The security chief passes the information he collected to his chief in the higher administrative organs in the Qabale, who in turn informs the Woreda police and security office. Each household is required to report on guests and visitors, the reasons for their visits, their length of stay, what they said and did and activities they engaged in. … The OPDO/EPRDF runs mass associations (women, youth and micro-credit groups) and party cells (“fathers”, “mothers” and “youth”). The party cells in the schools, health institutions and religious institutions also serve the same purpose….
The average and not-so-average Ethiopian looking for a government job or applying for a business license needs to be in close touch with the powers that be to get one. The regime is so in touch with the average and not-so-average Ethiopian that they want them to hear only what they have to say. They have jammed the transmissions of the Voice of America, opposition satellite broadcasts and filtered out websites of regime critics.
Are the Western donors “in touch with the average Ethiopian”?
Western donors are very much in touch with the average Ethiopian, that is in the same way as they were in touch with the average Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni, Bahraini and so on. They were so in touch with the average citizens of these countries that they anticipated and correctly predicted the recent popular uprisings. That was the reason President Obama “applauded” the people for throwing Ben Ali out of Tunisia. The U.S. was so in touch with the realities of the average Egyptian over the past 30 years that President Obama and his foreign policy team froze in stunned silence, flat-footed and twiddling their thumbs and scratching their heads for days before staking out a position on the popular uprising. They could not bring themselves to use the “D” words (dictator, democracy) to describe events in Egypt. Western governments were also very much in touch with Hosni Mubarak floating his ship of state on an ocean of corruption and repression with billions of dollars in military and economic aid. They are very much in touch with Zenawi; after all he is the “guy you can do business with,” a partner. Truth be told, they have done tons of business with him over the past 20 years, no less than $26 billion!
Who is “the average Ethiopian”?
Who is the “average Ethiopian” whose contact is so highly prized and coveted? It seems s/he has an average life expectancy at birth of less than 45 years. S/he lives on less than $USD 1 per day. S/he is engaged in subsistence agriculture eking out a living. S/he survives on a daily intake of 800 calories (starvation level). S/he can neither read nor write. If s/he is sick, she has a 1 chance in 39,772 persons to see a doctor, 1 in 828,000 to see a dentist, 1 in 4,985 chance to see a nurse. She has little or no access to family planning services, reproductive health and emergency obstetric services and suffers from high maternal mortality during childbirth. She is a victim of gender discrimination, domestic violence and female genital mutilation. She has fewer employment and educational opportunities than the “average” man and is not paid equal pay for equal work. S/he is likely to die from malaria and other preventable infectious diseases, severe shortages of clean water and poor sanitation. The “average” Ethiopian youth is undereducated, underemployed and underappreciated with little opportunity for social mobility or economic self-sufficiency. The “average” urban adolescent is unemployed and a drop out from school. S/he is frustrated and in despair of his/her future and is likely to engage in a fatal pattern of risky behaviors including drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse, crime and delinquency and sexual activity which exposes him/her to a risk of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases including HIV. The “average” child has a high likelihood of being orphaned and die from malnutrition and is vulnerable to all forms of exploitation, including child labor and sexual. So, who really is in touch with the “average Ethiopian”!?!
Be In Touch With the Youth
Regardless of how the Western donors define the “average Ethiopian”, the fact is that s/he is a young person. An estimated 67 percent of the population is under the age of 30, of which 43 percent is below the age of 15. Two of history’s evil men understood the importance of staying in touch with the youth population. Vladmir Lenin, the founder of the totalitarian Soviet state said, “Give me just one generation of youth, and I’ll transform the whole world.” His counterpart in the Third Reich said, “he alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.” Both failed because they wanted to use the youths as cannon fodder for their warped vision of world domination. Africa’s dictators have ignored and neglected the youths and consigned them to a life of poverty and despair. They have tried to put in the service of their dictatorial rule Africa’s best and brightest. They too will fail.
The demographic data on Africa’s youth is frightening. As Africa urbanizes rapidly and its population population continues to grow uncontrollably (expected to increase from 294 million to 742 million between 2000 and 2030), the number of young people trapped in poverty, hungry and angry will multiply by the tens of millions per year. Frustrated, desperate and denied political space, they will become the powder keg that will implode African societies. African dictators and their Western partners continue to delude themselves into believing that the youth will continue to passively accept and tolerate corruption, repression, abuse of power and denial of basic human rights. But a new generation of African youths is rising up declaring: “Enough is Enough!”
Revolutionary Democracy Meets “Facebook” Democracy in Ethiopia
If Tunisia and Egypt are an indication, Zenawi’s vision of revolutionary democracy will in due course collide with the “Facebook” democracy (tech savvy young people creating a functioning civic community using information technology) taking over Africa’s youth. Zenawi wrote:
When Revolutionary Democracy permeates the entire society, individuals will start to think alike and all persons will cease having their own independent outlook. In this order, individual thinking becomes simply part of collective thinking because the individual will not be in a position to reflect on concepts that have not been prescribed by Revolutionary Democracy.
This is not democracy (revolutionary or reactionary). In the old days, such “democracy” was called fascism where the national leader (Der Fuhrer) sought to create “organic unity” of the body politic by imposing upon the people uniformity of thought and action through violence, legal compulsion and intense social pressure. It is no longer possible to brainwash, mind control and indoctrinate impressionable young people with meaningless ideology as though they are helpless and fatuous members of a weird religious cult. The days of programming human beings as jackbooted robots marching to the order of “Der Fuhrer” are long gone.
“Facebook” democrats reject any totalitarian notions of “individual thinking becoming part of collective thinking”. They do not need a single mind, a single party, a single operating system to do the thinking for them. Africa’s youths have their own unique outlook and independent voice on their present circumstances and their future. History shows that every regime that has sought to force unanimity of opinion and belief among its citizens has found the unanimity of the graveyard. When free speech, free press and the rule of law permeate society, and human rights and the voices of the people are respected and protected, citizens will experience dignity and self-respect and muster the courage and determination to forge their own destinies.
There are enough young Africans with the idealism, creativity, knowledge, technical ability and genius to transform the old fear-ridden Africa into their own brave new Africa. In this effort, they do not need the guiding hands or the misguided ideas of ideologues from a bygone era. Western partners have the choice of supporting a brave new Africa of young people on the march or they can continue their “partnership” in the crime of democricide with the old “stable” police states careening to the dustbin of history. With the recent departure of two of the most powerful and entrenched police chiefs, and others teetering, the West may not be able to shoehorn the youths of (the Horn of) Africa into silence and submission from boardrooms in Berlin, Washington, London, Rome, Paris…
Power to Africa’s Youths!
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:
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
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!
FREE BIRTUKAN MIDEKSSA AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA
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:
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” 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, 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?
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!
FREE BIRTUKAN MIDEKSSA AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA.
 “The Voodoo Economics of Meles Zenawi”, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ethiopia-the-voodoo-econo_b_542298.html
Alemayehu G. Mariam
September 17, 2010
President Lee C. Bollinger
Office of the President
202 Low Library
535 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10027
By Fax: (212) 854-9973 and
Dear President Bollinger:
On September 22, 2010, Mr. Meles Zenawi is scheduled to deliver the keynote address at an event sponsored by Columbia University’s Committee on Global Thought. There is widespread belief among Ethiopian Americans that Mr. Zenawi’s invitation to speak at this event necessarily implies the University’s endorsement and support of Mr. Zenawi’s views, policies and actions in Ethiopia. I am writing to request your office to issue an official statement clarifying your position concerning Mr. Zenawi as you so eloquently did when Mahmood Ahmadinejad of Iran spoke on your campus on September 24, 2007.
Let me say at the outset that I believe Mr. Zenawi has a “right” to speak at your university, though he is not a United States citizen or lawful resident. I firmly believe, though others may reasonably disagree with me, that any individual who is present in this great country has the right to free expression under the protective umbrella of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. I make no exceptions for Mr. Zenawi.
In your prefatory remarks preceding Mr. Ahmadinejad’s speech in 2007, you offered an exposition on free speech that is instructive to all who believe in freedom of expression. You said that the “genius of the American idea of free speech” is to empower us not “to retreat from engagement with ideas we dislike and fear” and “to have the intellectual and emotional courage to confront the mind of evil.” Nowhere is your statement true than in a university where the denizens “have a deep and almost single-minded commitment to pursue the truth.” I believe, as you do, that there must be no obstruction to the free exchange of ideas in the university setting. . As you correctly pointed out to Mr. Ahmadinejad, open inquiry, debate and dialogue are “required by existing norms of free speech in the American university.”
In your remarks you specified five substantive issue areas for which Mr. Ahmadinejad deserved just condemnation and censure. One of them was Mr. Ahmadinejad’s “brutal crackdown on scholars, journalists and human rights advocates” in Iran. Citing Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports, you deplored the execution of more than 200 persons in Iran in 2007, including at least two children. You also expressed just outrage over his denials and mockery of irrefutable facts about the Holocaust, his failure to adhere to international regimes on nuclear power and his support for terrorism. In righteous indignation, you told Mr. Ahmadinejad: “Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.”
Petty and cruel dictators, Mr. President, have also infested the African continent and threaten the lives of African peoples on a daily basis. In Ethiopia, for nearly two decades, Mr. Zenawi has lorded over one of the cruelest dictatorships in the modern world. Let the facts speak for themselves:
In 2005, security forces under the personal command and control of Mr. Zenawi massacred 193 unarmed protesters and inflicted severe gunshot wounds on 763 others. Today, the murderers walk the streets free.
In May 2010, Mr. Zenawi made a travesty of democracy by claiming that his party won the parliamentary election by 99.6 percent. The European Union Election Observation Mission described the same election in its preliminary report as “marred by a narrowing of political space and an uneven playing field.”
In December 2008, Mr. Zenawi arrested and reinstated a life sentence on Birtukan Midekssa, the only woman political party leader in Ethiopian history. He kept her under extreme conditions in prison. In describing Birtukan’s situation, the most recent U.S. State Department Human Rights Report stated: “She was held in solitary confinement until June , despite a court ruling that indicated it was a violation of her constitutional rights. She was also denied access to visitors except for a few close family members, despite a court order granting visitor access without restrictions.” Birtukan is considered to be a political prisoner by the various international human rights organizations. “Amnesty International considers her a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned for peacefully exercising her right to freedom of expression and association.”
A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Zenawi shut down all distance education programs in the country, including those providing higher education and technical training to over 75,000 students in flagrant violation of the applicable laws of the country on the pretext that such programs were interested “only in collecting money.”
For the past several years, Mr. Zenawi has misused the legislative process in Ethiopia to institutionalize repression and legitimize gross human rights violations. According to Human Rights Watch:
In 2009 the government passed two pieces of legislation that codify some of the worst aspects of the slide towards deeper repression and political intolerance. A civil society law passed in January is one of the most restrictive of its kind, and its provisions will make most independent human rights work impossible. A new counterterrorism law passed in July permits the government and security forces to prosecute political protesters and non-violent expressions of dissent as acts of terrorism.
Mr. Zenawi has shuttered private newspaper in Ethiopia and effectively eliminated the independent press. The Committee to Protect Journalists in its recent report stated:
The government enacted harsh legislation that criminalized coverage of vaguely defined “terrorist” activities, and used administrative restrictions, criminal prosecutions, and imprisonments to induce self-censorship… The government has had a longstanding practice of bringing trumped-up criminal cases against critical journalists, leaving the charges unresolved for years as a means of intimidating the defendants… Ethiopia as the only country in sub-Saharan Africa with ‘consistent’ and ‘substantial’ filtering of web sites…
In your remarks, you challenged Mr. Ahmadinejad on his abuse of the Press Law to ban writers for criticizing the ruling system and rhetorically asked: “Why are you so afraid of Iranian citizens expressing their opinions for change?” You need to pose the same question to Mr. Zenawi: “Why are you so afraid of Ethiopian citizens expressing their opinions for change?”
Mr. Zenawi has jammed the Voice of America, the official external radio and television broadcasting service of the United States Government, claiming that the 68 year-old service is the equivalent of the Radio Mille Collines, which coordinated the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Mr. Zenawi said: “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 Mr. Ahmadinejad outrageously denied the occurrence of the Holocaust, you told him without mincing words: “You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.” Mr. Zenawi needs to be similarly rebuked for equating the Voice of America with the wicked and loathsome Radio Mille Collines.
Mr. Zenawi runs one of the most repressive regimes in Africa. Human Rights Watch in its recent report stated: “Ethiopia’s citizens are unable to speak freely, organize political activities, and challenge their government’s policies–through peaceful protest, voting, or publishing their views–without fear of reprisal.” The report described Mr. Zenawi’s regime as one masquerading in “a veneer of democratic pretension hiding a repressive state apparatus.”
Since 2006, a number of bills have been introduced in the United States Congress to restrain Mr. Zenawi from engaging in gross and sustained human rights violations, and to help him move towards democracy. H.R. 2003 (“Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007″) co-sponsored by 85 members passed the House of Representatives in 2007, but failed to clear the Senate. That bill sought to
support human rights, democracy, independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press, peacekeeping capacity building, and economic development in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia; strengthen U.S. collaboration with Ethiopia in the Global War on Terror; secure the release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Ethiopia; foster stability, democracy, and economic development in the region; support humanitarian assistance efforts, especially in the Ogaden region; and strengthen U.S.-Ethiopian relations.
Just last month, Senators Russ Feingold and Patrick Leahy introduced S.B. 3757 (“Support for Democracy and Human Rights in Ethiopia Act of 2010″) to
to ensure the autonomy and fundamental freedoms of civil society organizations, to respect the rights of and permit non-violent political parties to operate free from intimidation and harassment, including releasing opposition political leaders currently imprisoned; to strengthen the independence of its judiciary, and to allow Voice of America and other independent media to operate and broadcast without interference in Ethiopia [and] to promote respect for human rights and accountability.
It is vitally important for academics to speak truth to power. When you stood up and spoke truth to Ahmadinejad on September 24, 2007, you proved to the world the value of “hav[ing] the intellectual and emotional courage to confront the mind of evil.” On September 22, 2010, you have another golden opportunity to show the world that you and Columbia University will “confront the mind of evil” regardless of its origin on the planet. As millions of Iranians and others rejoiced hearing your words on September 24, 2007, so now millions of Ethiopians eagerly await your statement on September 22, 2010 that Columbia University condemns all violations of human rights, repression and theft of elections in Ethiopia by Mr. Zenawi and his regime.
Permit me to conclude my letter by paraphrasing your eloquent words when you expressed your disgust for Mr. Ahmadinejad’s actions: “I am only a professor and a lawyer, and today I feel all the weight of the Ethiopian people yearning to express their revulsion for what Mr. Zenawi has done to them over the past two decades.”
Alemayehu G. Mariam, Ph.D., J.D.
Professor and Attorney at Law
Department of Political Science
California State University, San Bernardino
Cc: Profs. Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, William Easterly (NYU)
Columbia Daily Spectator
 http://www.hrw.org/en/node/89126/section/1 (Human Rights Watch, “One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure, Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia (2010)), pp. 2,3
Alemayehu G. Mariam
The great Nelson Mandela said, “In my country we go to prison first and then become President.” He assured the masters of the apartheid system, “You may succeed in delaying, but never in preventing the transition of South Africa to a democracy.” On the occasion of the Ethiopian New Year (2003) celebrated on September 11, I contemplate the words of Mandela as I admiringly think of Birtukan Midekssa, (Ethiopia’s No. 1 political prisoner and first ever political party leader), and the prospects of Ethiopia’s eventual transition from dictatorship to democracy.
In December 2008, Birtukan’s “pardon” from a kangaroo court conviction was revoked and her life sentence reinstated. She was literally snatched from the streets and thrown in solitary confinement for six months, despite a court ruling that such punishment was a violation of her constitutional rights. She is denied access to visitors except for her aging mother and five-year old daughter, despite a court order granting her visitor access without restrictions. She has been the object of ridicule by dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi who has characterized her as a “chicken” who did herself in and an idle prisoner sitting around and “putting on weight”.
Mandela said, “Prison itself is a tremendous education in the need for patience and perseverance. It is above all a test of one’s commitment.” It is comforting to know that Birtukan is receiving “a tremendous education” at Kality “Unversity” Federal Prison where she continues to face daily humiliation, isolation, degradation and dehumanization. But Birtukan perseveres and shall certainly overcome. To paraphrase William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus” (Unconquered), for nearly two years Birtukan has been shackled in Zenawi’s “pit of wrath and tears” and faced the “horror” of solitary confinement and degradation without “wincing or crying out loud.” Her “head has been bloodied, but unbowed.” Though she faces the “menace of the years” in prison, she remains unafraid because she is the “mistress of her fate and the captain of her soul.”
It was in prison that Mandela realized the true meaning of freedom:
It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. 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. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.
The Prisoner of the Prisoners of Hate, Prejudice and Narrow-Mindedness
It is remarkable how Birtukan’s views mirror Mandela’s. In all of my conversations with her during her visit to the U.S. in the Fall of 2007, (when she led the official delegation of the Coalition of Unity and Democracy [Kinijit]), her Mandela-like compassion and understanding of her jailors and tormentors was instructive and humbling. Like Mandela, Birtukan has steely resolve and unflinching commitment to the rule of law, democracy and human rights. But her political convictions never overpowered her deep compassion for others, including those who continue to mistreat and abuse her. Like Mandela who showed good will to the apartheid masters, Birtukan also shows genuine empathy and understanding for the ruthless dictators who are themselves “locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness”. Like Mandela, that makes Birtukan one of the most unique prisoners on the planet: A prisoner of the prisoners of hatred, prejudice and narrow-mindedness. Like Mandela, Birtukan understands that she must first free the prisoners of hatred, prejudice and narrow-mindedness before she can free herself or her country.
Like Mandela, Birtukan also hungers for freedom. Her hunger for freedom is not just for herself; it is for the freedom of all the Ethiopian people regardless of ethnicity, language, religion and region. Above all, she knows all too well “that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed.”
My New Year’s Resolution
It is customary in free societies to make resolutions for the new year. Accordingly, I pledge to continue to call attention and raise awareness of Birtukan’s unjust imprisonment in the court of world opinion, unceasingly continue to demand her release and the release of all political prisoners in Ethiopia, and urge all freedom-loving people throughout the world to do whatever they can to help secure the release of all political prisoners in Ethiopia.
I am sure that Birtukan’s captors will snicker and giggle at the very idea of releasing her from prison. After all they have declared her release to be a “dead issue.” It does not matter if they giggle or heehaw; the truth about her unjust imprisonment and abject prison conditions will be told and re-told a million times to the world. I also do not believe that prisoners of hatred, prejudice and narrow-mindedness have the moral capacity or basic human decency to set Birtukan or any other prisoner free. Only the “truth shall set her free”; and if Birtukan were to read my words here, she would gently correct me and say: “The truth shall set them free too from nineteen years of solitary confinement behind the locked steel bars and stone walls of hatred, prejudice and narrow-mindedness”.
MELKAM ADIS AMET! HAPPY NEW YEAR! Our Great Sister and Ethiopia’s First Daughter Birtukan Invictus (Ayibegere)! The truth shall set you free!
FREE BIRTUKAN MIDEKSSA AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA.