Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Real World: Ethiopia

This begins a short series on my take on the diplomats who are at the helm of Ethiopian politics these days.

Today: Tim Clarke.

I don’t know what it means to be a foreign diplomat in Ethiopia these days. I am sure some are anguished. Yet some… I just don’t know.

Okay. So here we are. The reality is that the EU and the rest of Ethiopia’s donor community have either cajoled/negotiated/urged the EPRDF into legitimizing itself and earning the billions the world pours into its coffers. That is obvious, and that’s one thing we have to recognize. Yay for working within the system!

Prime Minister Meles, consciously or while he was busy existentially thinking about the peasants, decided this was a great idea. He wanted to be seen as a statesman by the donor community even though Ethiopians knew otherwise.

To the donor community, this was supposed to be easy. The EPRDF would handily win the elections, Ethiopia would be seen as a beacon of democracy… bara-bing, bara-bing! Move on to the next problem.

What it didn’t count on was the Ethiopian people saying, “Not so fast, good ladies and gentlemen.” And what the donor community definitely didn’t count on was Ato Meles’ very rapid, very public regression back to his days as an equal part psychopath, equal part ersatz intellectual. Soon the Ethiopian Elections starting looking more and more like a Queer Eye for the Straight Guy makeover gone very, very bad. Ato Meles stopped using mousse, and after all the grooming lessons from Tony Blair et al, it must have been a disappointment to see a pet project go so bad. Ah, well.

Then June 8, 2005 happened. Among the 42 now confirmed dead (who knows what the real number is) is Nebiy Alemayehu. He was shot to death at close range. He was 14 years old.

It left the rest of the world scratching its head and saying, “Tell us again why you thought this guy was progressive and enlightened?”

So, at what point are diplomats allowed to say, “Screw this!” When you are a diplomat, do you check your conscious at the door?

The EPRDF first blamed the June 8 massacre on the opposition, and then, because it’s a little crazy like that, on the EU. It has consistently shown it is incapable of grasping even the most basic tenets of democracy. If there was any, any doubt about that, Ato Meles crystallized it for the world in his 13,287-word deliriously dopey response to the EU’s preliminary statement.

What else does the EPRDF need to do to cross whatever threshold the diplomatic world has for tolerating volatile drama queen despots?

Tim Clarke of the EU, on SBS’ Dateline program, ” had this to say:

You can’t put your finger on a reason why it went wrong. So what did happen was a massive landslide swing away from the ruling party to the opposition parties, particularly in urban areas, but also to some extent in the rural areas. And they’ve been rumors going around that the counting process… that was a move to stop the process because there were fears that the outcome wasn’t exactly what the ruling party wanted.

What went wrong? People voting for the opposition was not what went wrong. The ruling government not wanting to accept the results is what went wrong. It is not the Ethiopian people who need courage these days. It is the international community.

It would be a major mistake for [the opposition] to pull out because there is no other way forward. … Of course, they may not be happy with the results, and they will be discontent, and they will have difficulty with their supporters perhaps, but this is the only game in town.

This is what drives me crazy. Obviously, people were convinced that it was not the only game in town, and they said so through the ballots. I am assuming that means something.

I want to ask Mr. Clarke what in the heck kind of government he thinks the EPRDF will be like if it is left alone. Has Ato Meles, in any way, given any indication that he is up to dealing with a strong opposition? After what happened on June 8, is Mr. Clarke comfortable that Ato Meles will behave like a democrat, respecting the constitution, and all that tedious stuff leaders have to contend with? It is not the only game in town, and it is saying so that has emboldened Ato Meles to this point.

At what point does diplomacy end, and real life begin?

The Meles government has been playing the Interwhame card, very brazenly low-balling our collective IQs. He has tried to embed the international community with the hazy notion that if not for the EPRDF, Ethiopia would disintegrate into another Rwanda. Uh-huh. Ato Meles has also managed to spin a very deliberately vague but sufficiently threatening myth around the idea that the Horn of Africa will be destabilized if he were to exit—incase the west thought that waging a … what do call it… war with his former pal was not quite enough of an unsteadying adventure.

Tim Clarke again:

I think it’s a tinderbox. Essentially, it could explode at any moment. It is a very, very dangerous situation. Ethiopia is in potentially dangerous situation. Because if the opposition feels that they’ve lost credibility, that they’ve lost a sense of ownership of the results, if people’s voting have been taken away from them and there’s despair, distrust, tension and hostility, then you’ve got a recipe for civil war, and under no circumstances can that be allowed to happen.

First off, civil war?? Did I miss something? Tell me again why people demanding the government to respect the vote will lead to civil war? Is that the choice Ethiopians have: Meles or civil war? (People might forget that before the TPLF marched into Addis in 1991, there were days when the country functioned without a government. And you know what? Ethiopians did not degenerate into animals and kill each other.)

Okay, so let’s see… which party has shown a pronounced tendency for violence? So, assuming that Mr. Clarke is right; wouldn’t it be a moral obligation for the international community to side with people who are NOT going to inflict civil war on a nation which has already suffered enough? I am assuming that “under no circumstances can that be allowed to happen” is a stern warning to Ato Meles to not swagger around with the Ethiopian people in the crosshairs of his machine gun. Unless… surely Mr. Clarke was not saying, “Hey, peeps. You want Meles, or war? Pick one.” I am no diplomatic wonkette, but I’d think that that would send the wrong message to Ethiopians and to people fighting against tyranny.

The Brits in general want this situation to fade away without having to answer for their part in emboldening Ato Meles. Ironically, it is Ato Meles who is making that impossible for them. He has basically dared them to shun their trademark moral relativism. It is checkmate time, and later in September, when the final verdict is in, we’ll see who blinked.

For once, I’d like to see the Brits say, “Y’know… we fucked up on this, and this is what we’ll do to make it right.” (Hopefully, it will not be another G8 concert. Please, noooooo!) I’d just like some kind of accountability from Tony Blair for his hyperactive protégée. Hell, I’ll settle for the slightest gesture of contrition.

Seriously, what would Ato Meles have to do to get swift condemnation from the international community? Here’s what a friend said to me when I asked that question:

“Frankly, most of the world expects so little from Ethiopia that as long as Meles is not seen smashing babies against the wall and drinking their blood at the next Commission for Africa meeting - most will be happy to hear as little fromEthiopia as possible.”

And that’s just it, good ladies and gentlemen. All democracies apparently are not equal. Silly, uppity us! We thought we deserved the same kind of democracy as Britain.

Working within the system has gotten us this far, and we thank the international community for it. And if the EPRDF were a different kind of government, the kind of government that had even the slightest respect for human life, that might have been enough. But I am hoping that Mr. Clarke is not asking Ethiopians to work within the system anymore, because the levies holding that system are irreparably broken. I don’t know how much more “in the system” you can get than running for elections within the EPRDF framework. The opposition did that, and it won. What is it that Mr. Clarke is now asking of the Ethiopian people?

At what point do even diplomats say, “Mr. Prime Minister, you’ve been punk’d!”

Hopefully, Mr. Clarke has reached his limit.

Next: Jimm’ah Car’a. Oh, Jimmy!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

So - what are you suggesting we do? Create another "system" and be in constant crisis? Such a permanent crisis will only alienate the rural poor whose main demand is development.

The problem with the opposition is expecting the "international community" to deliver democratic manna - that will NEVER happen. The opposition strategy depended way too much on the "donors", it now finds itself at their complete mercy.

All the opposition needed was a bit of guts in the right moment - but didn't have it.

Now - Please do tell us what other alternative there is than joining parliament?

9:43 AM, September 08, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, of course the donor community thinks that Ethiopian society has not evolved to a stage that would allow it to create and maintain a real democracy, and of course it has long thought that Meles and the EPRDF is the best Ethiopia can do. This first part of this condescension, in my view, partially warranted. As Ethiopians, we have aptly demonstrated an inability to govern ourselves both in Ethiopia and as civil societies in the diaspora. We need help in this area, and the donors are to some extent providing this help, while at the same time providing for their other interests such as stability.

The second part of the donor thesis, that Meles is best, has proved to be wrong, and it would be in everyone's interests if they quickly divest any emotional and other irrational investment they have in the EPRDF, and begin to think objectively. It is time for the donor community to squeeze Meles hard so that he continues on the democratic path. There are no costs to pressuring Meles. He has shown that he will capitulate, partly because he is pragmatic but mostly because, unlike Isayas, for example, he does not have a strong enough constituency inside the country to allow him to confront the donors.

The donors need to be reminded - perpetually - that they don't repeat their usual mistakes of sticking with stability at the cost of progress. There was a time when they labelled Isayas as 'Ghandi', and together with Meles, as the new generation of great leaders of Africa. Time and again the donors have made similar glaring errors in their assessment of African politics, demonstrating an amazing inability to 'think outside the box'.

Incompetence in donor foreign affairs departments exists partly because these government officials are subject to little accountability. The citizens of donor nations don't keep close tabs on their relations with Africa or even their donor dollars. The citizens of Africa of course have no say in the matter.

So who is left? Ethiopians who live in these donor nations have the difficult job of keeping their governments and foreign service officials accountable. We have to lobby in concert, not for radical or difficult to justify measures such as 'ousting the EPRDF', but for universally accepted and 'hard to argue' measures such as promoting democracy and good governance. We have to remind them that the fate of Ethiopia is to a large extent, whether we like it or not, in the hands of donor nations. They can make the EPRDF jump when they want to, if only they have the fortitude not be lazy and stick with the status quo. It is our job to keep them on their toes.

10:24 AM, September 08, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

anonymous said:

The opposition strategy depended way too much on the "donors", it now finds itself at their complete mercy.

Look, we have to decide, do we want to do things the 'traditional Ethiopian way', or a better way.

Sure, after enough years of EPRDF dictatorship and little economic progress, a guerrilla movement in addition to the OLF and ONLF would have inevitably resulted. Many years of fighting would have ensued, with the EPRDF being eventually overthrown, and the new guerrilla government taking over, and barring a miracle, being about as bad as the EPRDF. That's the Ethiopian way.

The opposition has chosen to take the better way, a more constructive peaceful route that will pay great dividends in the long run. And we have to face the fact that the only reason it has been able to do so is because the donors have helped in this regard. Were it not for them, a peaceful opposition would not have been able to get off the ground in a country like Ethiopia where politics is still governed by the law of the jungle.

So yes, the opposition is dependant on the donors because for they are a major reason why it exists in its current form. This dependency is not a bad thing if they know how to use it properly, and if the donors do what is right, and if the diaspora do what is right. But it's certainly not a dependancy that can be shed overnight, because as we've seen, Ethiopian society has not yet evolved to the stage where it can sustain peaceful political discourse.

10:40 AM, September 08, 2005  
Anonymous Yohannes said...

All the opposition needed was a bit of guts in the right moment - but didn't have it.

I am not sure what that means. The best thing that the opposition has been able to do was beat Meles at his own game. They have come off as states-people while Meles has been “exposed” as a garden variety “drama queen” (indiyaw min largish WonqiTTeiyE) African despot. That is a huge step forward in Ethiopian politics. We have to stop confusing "guts" with political shrewdness.

I have been trying to say that “it is the international community that needs courage now” except I’ve not been able to be that succinct. Donor nations need to extricate themselves from the albatross that is the EPRDF. Any further association with the EPRDF cheapens democracy and decency.

-Yo. (the “hannes” was coming in between me and my fans.)

(again, thank you Wonq for a fara-free environment to discuss ET politics.)

7:54 PM, September 08, 2005  

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