To: Paul Wolfowitz
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.