Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Letter to Paul Wolfowitz

To: Paul Wolfowitz
World Bank

Washington, DC

Dear Paul,

I am inexplicably optimistic about your impending trip to Ethiopia. Considering the World Bank’s recent response to the Ethiopian government’s heavy-handedness, I find my suppressed optimism confounding.

I am the furthest thing from an economic wonk you can possibly find, but what I know is this: to make poverty history, you have to make tyranny history. Period. I am a late comer to understanding international aid and what I have learnt so far is crushingly disheartening. The EPRDF has gotten some $15+ billion in aid from the west so far. What do the Ethiopian people have to show for it?

Here is the neocon in me: I believe America should not only be respected globally, it should cause fear in the hearts of dictators everywhere. Even though I have been more or less disabused of the notion that American foreign policy should have a solid moral foundation, I have emerged an ever stronger evangelist of the fundamental decency and integrity of the American people and individuals in the American government who can make a difference.

In college I had a professor from central Africa who was unable to finish a class without throwing a series of well worn vitriolic barbs against the United States in what was a prerequisite for tenure at every liberal arts college in the late 80s. Yet my professor would spend Thursday afternoons waiting in line at the local immigration office in high anxiety mode, waiting for word on his Green Card. Such is the power of America.

I don’t envy American diplomats in Ethiopia. How do you negotiate with a leader of a country who many diplomats privately admit has a “psychopathic willingness to kill his own people to keep power”? Seriously, how do you negotiate with that? How do you put pressure on a man not to shoot innocent people? How do you beg him to care for his own people?

But even then, Paul, how does the American ambassador in Ethiopia venture out to exert pressure on imprisoned opposition leaders to give their blessing to a new political party created and manipulated by the ruling party? How does the American Ambassador quote Ecclesiastes and tell Ethiopians who have survived Mengistu Haile Mariam and 15 years of the EPRDF that it takes decades to build a democracy?

The past year has been a staggering series of realities for Ethiopian-Americans in the Diaspora. Like many, I had accepted an amicable divorce from Ethiopian politics. I belong to that generation of Ethiopians shell shocked out of politics by the brutality of the Mengistu regime, yet old enough remember an Ethiopia which was kind. Try as we have, it was impossible to burn off the loose threads connecting us to home. Between love and madness, my generation decided to focus on what we can do economically to help Ethiopia: we invested in businesses, supported NGOs… anything, everything and whatever helped us tiptoe around the abscess that is Ethiopian politics.

May 2005 yanked away our rose-tinted glasses. The harsh realization of self-imposed exile from politics made us, a collective of do-gooder overachievers, feel vulnerable and perhaps for the first time in a long time, hopeless. We felt ashamed for trapping ourselves into believing Ethiopia had bigger problems than democracy and liberty-- the very lack of which had forced our parents into being first generation refugees. One commentator on this blog put it brilliantly: as long as we helped build water projects, we were half way to sleeping soundly on 600 thread count sheets. So what if the water project was right next to Dedessa?

Ethiopians have died for liberty long before May 2005. Our great grandfathers stood up to the Italians long before our cousins stood in line for the May ballots. How we let ourselves believe our fellow countrymen didn’t deserve the same yearning for freedom in the 21st generation is our cross to bear.

There are a lot of elements in Greg Mills’ article, Ten Things that Africa Can Do for Itself I agree with. In the end, it is up to Ethiopians, back home and in the Diaspora, to stand up for liberty.

Paul, challenging the current Ethiopian government is one mammoth task. But why are Ethiopians put in the precarious position of begging the US to be on the side of people who chose a peaceful path towards democracy? Why are Ethiopian-Americans demonstrating and signing petitions in cities across this country pleading Washington to take notice of bloodletting by a close “ally”? Were we naïve to take President Bush’s words about tyranny to heart? I have to tell you, it’s been hard dragging a kicking and screaming US to the side of the Ethiopian people.

Without doubt the US’ foreign policy in Africa should motivated by self interest. What is it about a strong and democratic Ethiopia that is not in the best interest of the US in such a volatile place such as the Horn of Africa? These short-term spurts of aligning the US with borderline psychotic leaders have not-- not even once-- worked well for the US. Why is there such a glaring lack of a long-term strategy that will benefit the US?

I hope you find the unraveling political drama in Somalia instructive. Eventually, people’s will is much stronger than guns. I don’t know how the EPRDF does not realize this. If it were not so, the will of the TPLF would have been crushed by the viscerally murderous nature of the Mengistu regime. There is something unconquerable about one’s will… especially for freedom. As Berhanu Nega put it, it is hard to cover back up the rays of democracy from people who have seen it.

That the United States and the EU did not draw a line in the sand when the Ethiopian government decided to round up 131 people and charge them with ‘treason’ and ‘genocide’ will be a black eye for all of us. Obviously, there was enough pressure put on the Ethiopian government to drop the charges against the five VOA journalists. That we are letting the rest go through the travesty of the EPRDF’s court will serve as a reminder of broken promises. These trials should be as much an affront to all free people as it is to the defendants. For them to be asked to plead for amnesty by nations who have lived by one version or another of the mantra “give me liberty or give me death” is morally indefensible.

Admittedly, the Diaspora of my generation has outsourced Ethiopia’s well being to EPRDF wingmen like Jeffrey Sachs who believe matters of good governance is too much to ask of Africans. Ostensibly, it is great enough progress Africans are not cannibalizing each other on a regular basis that the solution to the continent’s chronic poverty is clear as day: pour so much money into government coffers that some of it will eventually trickle down to the poor. It appears to be Dr. Ishac Diwan’s position as well. That's why there was a collective sigh of relief when you entered the scene. Even people who disagreed with your politics rallied around the idea of someone at the helm of the World Bank who believes from his very core that everyone, everyone deserves a chance to live in a democracy. Finally, someone to crack the 'soft bigotry of low expectations.'

To demand honor from Ethiopian leaders, to ensure human rights for all Ethiopians is not a flight of whimsy. You, Paul, understand that more than anyone else.

I’ve been trying to encapsulate the difference between the two political parties in these great United States and the way they deal with Africa: liberals won’t help anyone who they don’t deem so weak that it requires their special kind of magnanimity-- as long as whoever is being helped makes room for mind-numbing patronization (the “we are feeding your stinking country so shut up and eat” school of thought), while conservatives are repulsed by weakness and don’t have the DNA wiring to help anyone from the ground up. Horribly reductionist, I know. The Ethiopian Diaspora, I think, has learnt to approach politics from the vantage point of strength. HR 4423 is evidence of that.

I’m sorry. I think I’m venting streams of consciousness on you.

The World Bank, no doubt, is also under duress in Ethiopia. The recent resumption of aid that very much resembles direct budgetary assistance to the Ethiopian government was a huge disappointment. While, again, it is hard to balance good governance with aid when one is dealing with a government which won't hesitate to use its citizens as leverage, is there a certain point when too much is finally enough? I don’t know what the behind the scenes look like, but I hope they are prettier than what we see from this end. It’s one thing for aid to be squandered. But what happens when aid is used to sustain an authoritarian government? What possible incentive does the Ethiopian government have to change? What more can it do to prove itself a more unworthy ally, a dying regime and an unremittingly vicious one?

I do hope you have time to visit with those who are in prison. Not just the leaders of the opposition, but the journalists and civic movement leaders who are charged with “treason”, “attempts to commit acts of genocide” and “outrages against the constitution.” I hope you get to know Ethiopia’s potential. The Derg robbed Ethiopia of some of her brightest sons and daughters. The EPRDF is on the verge of digging into that wound. Young dynamic leaders embarrassed the EPRDF in the May elections, and no one does revenge better than the EPRDF.

Believe me, I am a reluctant bit player in the Ethiopian political scene. I am an immigrant who considers herself exceptionally lucky to have landed on the shores of the US, who has been blessed with all the benefits that come with being wholly embraced by this great country. But how do I go about not letting Birtukan Mideksa’s letter affect me? Is it a curse or a blessing this obligation I feel to a country that educated my parents and afforded them a life out of poverty? If I had a choice, I would be happy helping out with water projects and AIDS awareness in Ethiopia and leaving the politics to others. But the hardest battle is being fought by people who are being gunned down. So what choice do I have? What else am I going to leave my children?

As sure as day, Ethiopians will eventually get a government which will respect their humanity. The question is, will the US have been there for them? With each passing day, it seems not to matter. As an American, that anguishes me. As an Ethiopian, it almost devastates me.

So why do I feel optimistic about your visit? Maybe because of that letter you sent the CUD. That was something. Even symbolically.

Bon voyage.


Friday, June 16, 2006

Damage Control Gone Haywire

I had not planned on covering the ‘super secret’ 52-page document being circulated on the innernetz … you know, the directive by the EPRDF to Ethiopian embassies around the world on how to, um, approach pesky Diasporans who seem to think democracy is not-so-much in Ethiopia these days, because:

a) I didn’t know how to verify it.

b) Surely, surely… the EPRDF jests.

Yes, I called them ‘surely.’

That is, until someone sent me this comment posted on a pro-EPRDF site, and … seriously, I know this was supposed to be a nonchalant damage control missive, but seriously? As Zegabi put it, anyone thinking? Anyone?

Comment: To hear the opposition say it, about the document, is to hear as if they have done some Mosad operation to uncover the “document”. To read their reaction to know how misguided view are about Ethiopia’s future. Government policy can not be secret by nature and the so called secret Document turns out to be a not so secret directive on constituency building. Assuming it is a government document, it is a must read document that shows the governments commitment to reengage its citizens in Diaspora so that it could be active participant in the democratization process, as well as the struggle to pull out the country [form] poverty. What is secret is how the opposition thinks this document could damage the government.

As the World bank country representative stated it was hoped that the country has turned a corner for the better just before the election. Unfortunately we had a government unwilling to take credit to its good work, (as well as admit its short coming) and a vicious opposition that set out not only to defeat the ruling party but also destroy any good legacy the ruling party had that a promising election gave away to insecurity and bleak aftermath. But democracy is here to stay and the fact that the government setout to proactively wrestle away the Diaspora constituency from the vicious opposition is commendable. Even if the government is able to do half of the directive states it would be in better shape.

What is missing in the document is any mention of the obligation of the legal opposition. The government, as a government should re-engage the legal opposition to shoulder its responsibility to work on common ground of democracy building, common national interest etc. The legal opposition should know it can not build on one hand to destroy it by the other. It can not state thatit is building democratic institutions while catering to the Diaspora that advocates anarchy. The readiness to work on common ground has to start today.

Dude, first of all... “Government policy can not be secret by nature…” Whhh’wat?!

Seriously… whhh’wat!

So I am going to take this as yes, the document is authentic, and thank you very much.

Government policy can not be secret by nature and the so called secret Document turns out to be a not so secret directive on constituency building.

Uhhhh… has anyone read the directive because not keeping it a secret would be crazy stupid. On page 2 (and I hope someone translates this thing into English, and since it is not a secret I am sure no one in the Ethiopian government would mind it being distributed widely) it says (my lame translation):

Paragraph 2:

Ensuring the balance of political power in the Diaspora is won by ‘democratic forces’ and to have a powerful support group abroad requires pinpointing of current key problems.

Yes, it’s time to get jittery. Whenever the Ethiopian government refers to itself as “democratic forces”, ehhh, time to take cover.

Paragraph 3 concedes no amount of government-provided “incentives” (Tqmoch) will fundamentally change the Diaspora’s political standing. So, you ask, why go through all of this? Because dissent can’t be allowed to exist willy-nilly next to “democratic forces”, that’s why! Have you not been paying attention?

Paragraph 4:

We believe that the main problem in the Diaspora remains people who are political extremists, and that there has not been a concerted effort to weaken their power.

Well, that’s fine and dandy until you realize who the Ethiopian government considers “extremists.” People like Dr. Berhanu Nega, the mayor of Addis Abeba, Dr. Yaqob Hailemariam, Judge Birtukan Medeqsa and Professor Mesfin WoldeMariam are in jail being tried for treason and attempted genocide. So ‘extremist’ is in the eye of the beholder, and in the EPRDF’s case it appears to be anyone who is into dissent.

Membership in this new Diaspora capacity building fuzzy-wuzziness definitely has its privileges: to go in and out of Ethiopia without hassle, expedited ways to bring in property, build houses, build investment portfolios, opening bank accounts… nothing about free stays at Addis Sheraton, which the Ethiopian government might want to think about if it hopes to make a dent in the aesthetically-challenged segment of the Diaspora.

Assuming it is a government document, it is a must read document that shows the governments commitment to reengage its citizens in Diaspora so that it could be active participant in the democratization process, as well as the struggle to pull out the country [form] poverty. What is secret is how the opposition thinks this document could damage the government.

[Emphasis mine.]

Wait. The last crop of Diasporans who went back home to participate in the democratization process are, um… well, they’re in jail, which don’t strike me as a particularly comfortable democracy zone. So is it okay if we don’t all seize the opportunity to be democratized by this Ethiopian government?

So, basically, whachoo got here is a 52-page map of an intense PR campaign to restore the Ethiopian government’s good name and reputation in the Diaspora. (Never a good idea to publicize your PR strategy, but who am I to advise the Ethiopian government?)

Question: hasn’t the Ethiopian government been dismissing the Diaspora as irredeemable imperial revanchists who are dyed-in-the-wool chauvinist rejectionists not worth spitting upon? What changed? (HR 4423?) When did the Ethiopian government discover there is a Diaspora, and a strong one at that, and the importance of courting it?

For the record, I ain’t no bean counter, but what is detailed in this document is an expensive endeavor. Hopefully, it is not being paid for by western aid money. Could Dr. Diwan take extra care in examining the books when it’s time to assess the results of the newly released direct budget supplement that shan’t be called direct budgetary supplement? If he sees “Diaspora-Miscellaneous” in one of the expense report columns he knows to call someone for a ‘splanation.

It would be very interesting to see if the Ethiopian government goes about building support within the Diaspora under its name or a third party that does not mention it is being funded by the government.

As the World bank country representative stated it was hoped that the country has turned a corner for the better just before the election. Unfortunately we had a government unwilling to take credit to its good work, (as well as admit its short coming) and a vicious opposition that set out not only to defeat the ruling party but also destroy any good legacy the ruling party had that a promising election gave away to insecurity and bleak aftermath.

You know, that was exactly the problem with the Ethiopian elections of 2005! The EPRDF, shy and self-deprecating that it is, was simply “unwilling to take credit to its good work, (as well as admit its short coming)” … (notice is has only one shortcoming.)

Lez see… declaring victory before the votes were counted… then suspending the public’s right to demonstrate (guaranteed in the constitution)… then opening fire into crowds and bystanders… then stripping MPs of amnesty… then jailing journalists… and opposition leaders… and civic organization leaders… then firing on crowds again… dammit! If only the EPRDF was quick to take credit “to its good work” and admit that one shortcoming! We would have been dripping in democracy juices right about now. Oh and that vicious, vicious opposition preoccupied with making the genocide in Rwandaseem like child’s play.” Yeah, there was that, too.

The last paragraph in the ill-fated damage control piece inadvertently and very naively pounds the last nail in the coffin:

What is missing in the document is any mention of the obligation of the legal opposition. The government, as a government should re-engage the legal opposition to shoulder its responsibility to work on common ground of democracy building, common national interest etc. The legal opposition should know it can not build on one hand to destroy it by the other. It can not state that it is building democratic institutions while catering to the Diaspora that advocates anarchy. The readiness to work on common ground has to start today.

Hmm. Notice the “catering to the Diaspora that advocates anarchy” bit. Calling people you are trying to court ‘anarchists’… a tad, I dunno, lowbrow?

But what is missing, exactly, is any kind of sincere outreach to the ‘legal’ opposition in the Diaspora. Why is that?

Because the Ethiopian government is not the least bit interested in honest dialogue with the Diaspora, or really anyone it can’t intimidate with a gun. Why should it? Every time the Ethiopian government has had an open forum in the west, its representative has been intellectually decimated. (Poor Ambassador Kassahun begot hapless Ambassador Fesseha, both dismal failures in defending the EPRDF’s policies.) The EPRDF can only function well when it is not challenged by true dissent. Shit, it can’t even handle blogs, for the love of God.

This directive is just another evidence of a government unable to let go of its latent Marxist discipline of controlling information and therefore the populace. It has not been able to do it in Ethiopia, and it takes a special kind of myopia to think it can be done in democratic nations where detractors can’t be controlled by guns.

You only have to read page nine of the directive where some of the ways of curbing the ‘extremists” are spelled out: making public their ‘acts of genocide’, ‘corruption’, dereliction of duty and make a legal case for these charges; provide the governments of the countries in which these ‘extremists’ reside with their names; make sure publicly-funded radio stations in host countries know that tolerating ‘extremist’ views will endanger good diplomatic relations with Ethiopia; provide local police with the names of ‘extremists’ who have sought political asylum, thereby restriction their movement and political activities…and on and on. It reads like the guidebook of a third-rate gangster.

The fact is none of this is really new. In one of its most public blunders, the Ethiopian government sued in an American court the operators of a Diaspora-run radio station for liable. The result was a humiliating defeat. Ethiopundit has brilliantly written about it in Caravan Redux.

The Ethiopian government’s donor allies have conceded that Ato Meles processes a “psychopathic willingness to kill his own people to keep power.” The Ethiopian people and the Diaspora have known that for a while now. It’s gonna take a hell lot more than a sloppy directive on ‘Diaspora constituency building’ to change that image.

Perhaps the first step for the Ethiopian government is to ask its supporters not to do it any favors.

But democracy is here to stay and the fact that the government setout to proactively wrestle away the Diaspora constituency from the vicious opposition is commendable.

Good gracious. Does anybody do a trite-check at the EPRDF? (Probably not. Too busy not taking credit for democratic strides.)

Thanks for letting us know. We’ll be on the lookout for well-funded ‘community’ meetings and festivals and school reunions. The rest we’ll watch on our brand new plasma TVs.

This actually needs more coverage in Diaspora blogs. I'm sorry I have not done it justice with this one entry. Too much to say, too little time before I really take off next Friday.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Revolutions Shall be Televised… on Plasma TVs?

I often think I should do a sweep of what the state controlled Ethiopian media is saying, and on that rare occasion I’m pumped with optimism and vitamins I venture out to ENA… and… “Dear ENA Web page customers, sorry for the discomfort to access recent news. The web site is under maintenance and we will start to upload the news soon.”

Yeah. Sounds about right.

Mesqel Square, however, has a stronger stomach lining than I, and has been brilliant in keeping us up to date on heady stuff the Ethiopian Herald manages to cough up… stuff like how the State Minister stresses providing information to the media is one way to keep the populace informed. Eww. (Except that story is no longer on the Meskel Square June page… what gives, Andrew?)

But another interesting story he’s picked up on reminded me of a conversation I had with two ex-professors a while back.

In Football in the Classroom, we learn the Ethiopian government has approved the broadcasting of the World Cup on all plasma TVs in Ethiopian classrooms. Quoting an Addis Fortune article:

The Education Media Agency (EMA) has approved the screening of the 18th World Cup at 450 schools across the country that have plasma screen televisions.

450 schools have plasma TVs?

The EMA has 8,000 plasma screens that have been set up in 450 schools across the country. The Ethiopian government purchased plasma televisions as a cost of a quarter of a billion Birr with the intention of conducting uniform courses at schools throughout the country.

8,000! Is that a typo? Seriously? Quarter of a billion birr? That’s a typo.

Sources at the EMA told Fortune that the Agency would continue to provide educational screenings on the eight channels that are available to it.

“It is trying to work out a way that all of the games will be screened without affecting the schoolwork of the children,” said the source.

Well, as long as it is trying.

A few months ago I was at a gathering (where I had another encounter with that older gentleman who insists upon pointing at me in public settings and screaming, “You! Weichegud! You! That is Weichegud!” with both fury and contempt… but let’s not go there…) where I started chatting with a couple of science types who gave up academia for lucrative Silicon Valley jobs- one Ethiopian, one ferenjie. They were lamenting the decline of the great Addis Ababa University. One of the programs they had helped set up was PhD science scholarships to graduates from AAU. Alas, they lamented, no more. Why, I asked above the “You! Weichegud!” belligerence in the background.

Well, apparently the level of scholarship has so significantly declined at AAU that they can’t seem to get the same quality students from Ethiopia. “They are teaching on those damn plasma TVs, or via outsourced teachers from India. We can’t get half the caliber students we used to.”

Woah. They’re teaching university students through plasma TVS, too?

Here’s the fascinating quote in the Addis Fortune story:

the intention of conducting uniform courses at schools throughout the country.

Has there been a more anti-education government in Ethiopia? Has there been a more control freakish government that disguises itself as progressive? Has there been a government this committed to unmitigated mediocrity?

Emperor Haile Selassie gave up his palace so that the first university could be established in Ethiopia. If you have not seen the gut-wrenching documentary Deluge by Ethiopian filmmaker Salem Mekuria, get a hold of it, but get ready to fall completely apart. In tracing the student unrests of the early 70s, she interviews an elderly man who recounts how the Emperor’s courtiers warned him he should not educate the people at such rapid a pace. “These very people who you educated will one day rise up to overthrow you,” they said. The Emperor was reportedly defiant. “As long as they are educated, let them.”

Well, we know the rest of the story. And apparently so do the people in the EPRDF who rose against the Emperor with their cliff notes of Das Capital and anything Lenin’s evil mind concocted.

A little history:

On January, 4, 1993 students at the AAU protested the referendum (“for freedom or slavery”, cute, no?) on Eritrean independence. The government shot live ammunition into the crowd. (See Human Rights Watch’s thorough report, Lessons in repression: violations of academic freedom in Ethiopia.)

In April 1993, the government dismissed 40 professors from AAU. They were deemed too critical of the government, and you know how Marxists feel about dissent.

Among the dismissed were some of the most brilliant minds Ethiopia had. In an August 1993 article for the Ethiopian Review, Donald Levine writes:

Essential and not easily replaceable faculty were dismissed, including experienced faculty in engineering, medicine, economics, international relations, and linguistics--indeed, five of the University's only eleven full professors. The dismissees included Dr. Tamire Hawando, the University's only soil scientist; Dr. Admassu Gebeyehu, its only specialist in water resources; Ato Ayele Tarekegn, its only trained archaeologist; Dr. Makonnen Bishaw, its only medical anthropologist; and Dr. Taddesse Beyene, who managed the Permanent Secretariat for the International Conference on Ethiopian Studies.

Also dismissed was Professor Ayenew Ejigou, head of AAU's Statistics Department, an incredible mind and a great man.

In the meantime, the EPRDF continued to harass the Ethiopian Teacher’s Union, and its leaders, Shimelis Zewdie and Dr. Taye Woldesmayat, were imprisoned. The latter spent six years in prison. He talked to the BBC upon his release.

He was, he says, shackled in solitary confinement, confined to a fetid cell with five other prisoners, disallowed to talk to his lawyer in private and permitted to see his family for only 30 minutes once a week.

Dr. Taye, interestedly, was charged and convicted of creating a new political party, the Ethiopian National Patriotic Front,

in order to destabilise public order. The government blames the front for a bomb attack on an American government agency the US Agency for International Development, and for the attempted kidnap of a number of foreign diplomats.

Hmm. Sound familiar?

In fact, the Ethiopian government has had a tempestuous relationship with the ETA. According to Amnesty International:

The ETA has been engaged in a 13-year court struggle to preserve its existence and independence, and has been under threat from a pro-government organisation of the same name, which the Ministry of Justice (which controls NGO registration) had formally recognized, although it had not banned the original ETA. The original ETA head office in Addis Ababa has been shut down by the authorities for some years, although the organization still functions effectively for its members. On 1 April 2006 the High Court ordered the ETA to transfer its assets to the pro-government ETA. The original ETA is appealing against this

new court decision.

In May 1997, according to HRW, Assefa Maru, acting director of the ETA, was gunned down by police. No proper investigation of the killing has ensued.”

Things were not just bad in Addis, and God only knows how many students and teachers in other parts of Ethiopia died, unlucky and unable enough to tell their stories to the international media.

October 2000 — Oromo students protested the move of the capital of Oromia state from Addis Ababa to Nazret, leading to the arrests of at least four students.

December 2000 — Police responded violently to students protesting living conditions at Awassa Teachers College. Students were beaten and arrested.

December 20, 2000 — AAU students were arrested and beaten after a fight erupted when a Tigrean student used the word “galla,” a derogatory word for Oromos. A series of related incidents followed in colleges and universities across the country.

On April 17 2001, students at AAU went on strike to demand academic freedom, including the right of the student union to meet and publish a newspaper. The standoff was particularly harsh and spilled over to the streets.

“… jobless youths in the capital used the student protests as an excuse to vent their own frustrations on the government, which this month is celebrating its 10th anniversary in power.”

True to form, the EPRDF sent in federal forces which opened fire on the crowd. Over 40 kids were killed. Thousands were arrested.

BBC, April 21, 2001:

Most have been taken to a police camp in the village of Sendafa, 38 km northeast of Addis Ababa after being rounded up by Ethiopian Special Forces.

In a building near the back of the compound, students could be seen trying to look out, but guards prevented them from shouting or opening windows.

Some made signals to their parents suggesting that they were hungry, by putting their hands to their mouths. Mothers screamed on seeing this.

The students paid a price for having dared speak out.

However, as I waited outside Sendafa to meet officials, police appeared to force about 1,000 students to run barefoot around a stony pitch during a heavy downpour.

Yeah, I know. The Ethiopian government’s defense: hey, at least we had the decency not to kill all of them.

Actually, this is what officials said:

"It is hard for us to distinguish who was where because of all the chaos, so we had to arrest all of those suspected," said one official.

"We hope to release those who are innocent in the coming three to four days, but it may take longer depending on our investigations," he added.

Truly, it’s a fara takeover of all things related to habeas corpus.

Professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam and Dr. Berhanu Nega were rounded up and sent to prison, charged with “inciting” the university uprising.

Any of this starting to sound familiar?

In May/June, a group of non-Ethiopian academicians wrote to the foreign embassies in Ethiopia with scathing critique of the appalling treatment of academicians by the Ethiopian government. The entire document, The Present Crisis of the Ethiopian Universities, makes for a fascinating read for those of us who were unplugged from Ethiopian politics at that time.

The sadness is often mixed with anger, even scorn, like when Harold Marcus (who is known for his outspokenness) exclaims: “I remain astounded by the absurdities engineered by this government, especially as it is headed by somebody who lived through the madness of the Derg years and last few years of Haile Selassie. Why does nobody in Ethiopia learn that you cannot block ideas and politics through suppression or force?”

Theodore Vestal:

Through its base and unconstitutional treatment of human rights organizations, academic associations, students, and faculty, the FDRE has brought disgrace upon itself and tarnished the record of Addis Ababa University, once the nation's pride.

(Read the entire document.)

In April 2002, after a year’s strike, the students returned to AAU. They had dropped all their demands.

So this is roughly the background that helps explain the plasma TVs. I remember when the Derg started determining what students would major in… the outrage we felt. Well…

The Ethiopian government prefers plasma TV education because videotapes don’t talk back. So what if students can’t keep up or lose that teacher-student bond? Teachers possessed unquestioned authority in the Ethiopia I remember. Now they are little more than “DJs” clicking on and off expensive plasma TVs that run on generators in villages where there is no electricity. Meanwhile, hundreds of university students remain jobless. How much of that quarter of a billion birr do you think it would have taken to create some kind of incentive program for teachers to take on assignments in rural places?

This, among similar acts of splendiferous mediocrity, shall be the EPRDF’s legacy. To think that people died for it because they believed it stood for a better Ethiopia! The Ethiopian government will not only have to answer to the Ethiopian people someday soon, it has to also answer to those who actually gave their lives for it.

The Ethiopian government has long enjoyed substantial international backing in spite of its human rights record. Eager to support Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, one of a generation of promising so-called new African leaders who came to power in the early 1990s in the wake of years of devastating armed conflict, the international community has been reluctant to criticize many of his government’s human rights abuses. Foreign powers including the United States have said they preferred to support his efforts to bring peace. A senior State Department official told Human Rights Watch that, after the attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001, the U.S. is even less inclined to demand respect for human rights in Ethiopia because it is completely dependent on the cooperation of this strategically located country, which borders Sudan and Somalia in the horn of Africa, as an ally in the U.S. war on terrorism. Ethiopian government security forces have taken advantage of this international climate to systematically repress students, teachers, civil society organizations, and journalists.

Human Rights Watch.

But the EPRDF knows. It knows the power of education; most importantly, it knows the power of under educating a whole generation. Ethiopian children are being used as guinea pigs while the government is praised by the likes of Ishac Diwan and Jeffrey Sachs as being committed to reducing poverty.

By now it is obvious that the world won’t come to Ethiopia’s defense. But there is something in me that believes to my very core in the ultimate decency of the American people, and that’s where this story has to be told. A group of young Ethiopian Americans has started contacting their alma maters’ African and Black student Unions to inform them about the situation in Ethiopia and to urge university professors and presidents to write letters to the Ethiopian government demanding the release of the prisoners. (cc: Condi Rice.) Join them. Contact your alma mater. provides guidelines on how to be involved.

It is our responsibility to tell the story.

Some of us have been made heroes by
the government, not that we intended to
be heroes. And we have paid for it. . . .
Seeing this, the public is scared. Even
our friends are scared to talk to us. You
can see how this affects freedom of
speech! . . . [The government] should
know better, having gone through the
same thing before themselves [when the
TPLF started as a student movement].

Professor who was summarily fired in

1993, July 15, 2002.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Erection Problems

The campaign to return Ethiopia’s looted obelisk from the Italy started in 1998. The Ethiopian government soon caught the fever. The Italian government was reticent about returning the obelisk because… well, what else will the Europeans be expected to return to Africa from their adventures in colonization. Meanwhile in Rome, lightening struck the monument. No, literally… lightening struck it.

This upset Prime Minister Meles. He was not going to stand by as the Italian government waffled about returning Ethiopia’s looted artifacts.

Contrived and erratic bouts of indignation, Mr. Prime Minister?

"During my stay in Rome, I sought a meeting with the Italian government but it replied that this was impossible because of the large number of guests in Rome," the prime minister told the Italian news agency Ansa.

"It made me very sad to see the obelisk humiliated, tied up with rope," he said.

Strong words that… Oh. I’m sorry. You’re not done with caricatural objurgation?? Do go on, Mr. Prime Minister.

"In 55 years, Italy has never said no, but always 'Yes, but,' to the subject of returning the obelisk," Meles said Wednesday.

"Today the government says it wants to restore it. But we're afraid this is just another excuse," he added.

"We just want to put an end to this story and turn over a new leaf. I feel more frustrated than angry," the prime minister said.

Ah, yes, feelings.

So the first part of the obelisk was returned on April 19, 2005. The celebrations continued until all parts were returned. Oh, the celebrations! (see Andrew Heavens’ pictures on Flickr.) Everyone from the prime minister to frighteningly tacky personalities decked in velour jumpsuits, veterans from the Ethio-Italo war to bejeweled Orthodox priests celebrated this long awaited day. Victory to the masses, thank you, good night and drive safely.

One year later… well, let’s just say we might need those priests back to sprinkle more holy water on the obelisk ‘coz it is refusing to erect itself back in its rightful place. Damn Italians. Probably put a hex on it because…

February 27, 2006: Prized obelisk lies forgotten in Ethiopia.

Nearly a year after a triumphant return home, three pieces of Ethiopia's national pride are still in their boxes.

Hm. Earlier we were told that the obelisk would be erected in September 2005, after the rainy season. But let’s not quibble about dates.

For Ethiopians who watched the three granite pieces flown home to cheers and cries of joy nearly seven decades after the national treasure was taken to Rome, that is almost inexcusable.

"Unless it is erected, if it lies there, what purpose does it serve for the people?" pensioner Wolde Rufael Asfaw asked.

Picky. Picky. Picky. It’s not tied in ropes humiliating the prime minister, that’s what it’s not doing. But people need so much these days.

Some accuse the government of indifference - or more cynically, of ignoring the obelisk after using it for pre-election propaganda. Others argue re-erecting it will endanger untold archaeological treasures at the site or be too difficult to carry out correctly.

Pre-election propaganda? By the Ethiopian government? Damn those anti-peace, imperial revanchist, chauvinist rejectionists. Always with the cynicism.

Patience, say the Ethiopian government committee and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in charge of putting it back up.

Now this is just me, and you know how I get about these kind of things… but since this was so important to Ethiopia and Ethiopians, since this was a matter of Ethiopian pride, history and reclaiming heritage stolen by Europeans… would it have made sense to… what is it called… actually do homework about how to best erect the obelisk, um, before the obelisk was returned? Did it occur to somebody in the Ethiopian government that it would actually need to erect the obelisk so that when Ethiopia and other African nations demand the return of looted stuff the subject will be taken seriously? But I ain’t no structural engineer.

Tadele Bitul Kibrat, a private-sector structural engineer on the obelisk committee, is fast to dispute the contention that the re-erection is too hard for today's engineers.

"If 2 000 years ago our ancestors could erect it, to say it cannot be erected in the 21st century with modern knowledge is stupid," Tadele said.

The obelisk will be erected “sometime towards the end of 2006,” we are told by UNESCO. There’s not much update from the Ethiopian government on this.

Maybe in April 2010?

p.s. Some real good advice to Ethiopian women married to Ethiopian men… plan your pregnancies around FIFA. Really. Trust me on this.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Alliance Schmalliance: Houston, we have a little warlord situation going on here.

The Alliance for Freedom and Democracy… everybody is talking about the Alliance.

Honestly, I can’t get myself excited about the hullabaloo, and believe me, I am no less than a notorious vendee of hullabaloo. “LF Groupies” are having recurring wet dreams about it, as are the highly excitable EPRDF demagogue addicts who are trying the “CUD is aligning itself with terrorists” line now that no one is buying the “CUD is the Derg” line. Walk it off, drama queens. Then there are the myriad of “Liberation Fronts for the Liberation of Liberation Fronts” who are in the middle of a prim and proper conniption fit… and some ridiculous ‘patriotic front’ is having its 15 minutes of fame.

Meanwhile in the “Are you done tearing them a new asshole?” department, Dagmawi weighs in with withering criticism. Ethiopundit joins the fray. Semminawerq makes astute observations and a case for the Alliance.

Ech! As the Alliance stands right now, it barely registers on my radar. It is neither an earthquake nor a CUD suicide. Until the real CUD leadership is free and IT decides its alliances, we should take with a grain of salt the actions of gently-aged, polyester-wearing political antediluvians who gathered in Norway to sign a document. But listen, more power to anyone who can talk with the OLF what with all the ‘Abyssinian colonialism’ it has burdened itself with fighting. So bottom line for this unofficial wonk is…whatever. Support the Alliance, don’t support Alliance, there’s a lot of reading material out there. But how can anything that gathers together this much Ethiopian testosterone in one room without someone ending up dead be all that bad, is what I am saying. Look at the darling way they are holding hands and hugging each other, ferchrissake! Shit, how close are they to ring-around-the-roseying to a peaceful resolution of the Ethiopian crisis?

Actually, I find the conversation about the Alliance more fascinating than the Alliance itself. Ethiopians are discussing it rationally (for the most part…this blog very much excluded), and people are publicly and intellectually grappling with the idea. (See Ethiomedia for various articles.) Some worthy back and forth has been occurring. That is, of course, unless you go on EPRDF websites where honest intellectual disagreement is feared more than Mariah Carey’s eminent movie career. Remember that line in The Big Lebowski where Bunny tells The Dude that the guy lounging in her pool is a nihilist? “Um, that must be exhausting,” he enjoined in perfect stoner lethargy. That’s what the EPRDF echo machine is: utterly exhausting.

What I do find fascinating is what has been happening in Somalia and the possible implications for Prime Minister Meles and the artery clot that is EPRDF.

So the Islamic Court in Somalia has claimed to have given a collection of “anti terrorism”, “hey, we hate Al-Qaeda” warlords a decisive drubbing. In a rushed panic against anything ‘Islamic’, the U.S. peppered the warlords with cash. And they still lost. You can’t hire decent mercenary help these days.

Well, guess who has been providing the US with information about supposed Al-Qaeda existence in Somalia? u-hum… not Pat Robertson?

Washington Post, May 17

In a report to the U.N. Security Council this month, the world body's monitoring group on Somalia said it was investigating an unnamed country's secret support for an anti-terrorism alliance in apparent violation of a U.N. arms embargo.

Wait for it… wait for it…

Today’s New York Times has a fascinating article about the whole thing. A must read.

Most area experts agree backing these warlords was… ehhhh, how can I put it diplomatically, gynormously fucked up.

Around that time, the State Department's political officer for Somalia, Michael Zorick, who had been based in Nairobi, was reassigned to Chad after he sent a cable to Washington criticizing Washington's policy of paying Somali warlords.

How come Chad gets all the smart people?

In May, the United Nations Security Council issued a report detailing the competing efforts of several nations, including Ethiopia and Eritrea, to provide Somali militias and the transitional Somali government with money and arms — activities the report said violated the international arms embargo on Somalia.

Good night and good luck.

The Newshour had an exceptional roundtable on the issue. Herman Cohen and Professor Abdi Samatar opined. Again, the transcript is a must read if you missed the program. Mr. Cohen attempted an Ethiopian connection to the sordid story:

I think the U.S. government panicked. They saw Islamic group; they said, "Taliban is coming."

Also, there are friends in the region, like the Ethiopians, who probably are feeding false intelligence about terrorists being hidden and that sort of thing, because the Ethiopians are deadly afraid of Moslem control and also they have their own Moslem problem among the Oromo ethnic group in Ethiopia.

Uh, okkkkay.

Actually, Ethiopia has been feeding the US false information on terrorism because the Prime Minister knows what knee jerk reaction it gets from the State Department. Ethiopia has major internal problems (elections that didn’t quite add up, shooting of unarmed protestors, imprisoning of the opposition… y’know regular African stuff), and the only way it has escaped public scrutiny is by cynically playing the Al-Qaeda card. Well, that seems to have lost its luster.

Ethiopia’s status as a war on terror ally will finally come under close inquiry by the MSM press, and hopefully by the State Department. Prime Minister Meles’ government has been given several passes for egregious human rights violations because it was erroneously perceived as a stabilizing entity in the Horn. But now, not only is the UN is looking into violations of arms embargo, but the EPRDF has proven to be a destabilizing, Humvee hoarding, false-information providing, opportunist ally to the United States. Ato Meles’ government can get away with shooting unarmed civilians, but not embarrassing the US on matters concerning the war on terror.

The US has capitulated to working with the Islamic Court, and that might prove disastrous for the Meles regime. There also appears to be a reassessment of blind support to every AK-47 wielding warlord who claims to be rooting out Al Qaeda. If the US is serious about marginalizing Al Qadea in the Horn of Africa, it needs to seriously re-evaluate its relationship with the current Ethiopian government. But the US, unfortunately, doesn’t learn these lessons easily. After all, the warlords we are supporting in Somalia were the same ones who dragged the bodies of our boys through the streets of Mogadishu in 1994.

The Alliance for Freedom and Democracy might just provide the US with an alternative in Ethiopia. But even in this case, a careful assessment of the AFD’s strengths and weaknesses might be useful homework. Maybe Vicki Huddleston can tear herself away from target practice… ah, heck, transfer the good woman to Belize. She’s done her time trying to negotiate with Ato Meles.

Ted Koppel’s commentary, “Somalia: Decades of Unintended Consequences” hammers home the point.


Today is June 8, the first anniversary of the June uprising.