Ethiopian fascination with the “Arab Spring.” Part II of III

Part II of III

By Aklog Birara*

Part one identified similarities and differences between the Egyptian and Tunisian popular revolutions on the one hand and conditions in Ethiopia on the other. Differences aside, the Ethiopian admiration for an interest in the Arab Spring is relentless. In particular, Ethiopia’s democratic and nationalist leaning elites, the majority of whom live scattered around the globe as part of country’s 2 million relatively well-to-do Diaspora, spend inordinate amounts of time analyzing and debating the similarities and differences among North African and Middle Eastern revolutions and their relative merits and relevance to Ethiopia. Regardless of country situations, recurrent themes that resonate with Ethiopians include political repression, violation of human rights and suppression of civil liberties, 60 percent youth unemployment, escalating prices of staples including foods, gaping inequality, corruption, nepotism and ethnic-based discrimination.

Ethiopians agree that the Libyan, Syrian and Yemeni regimes are among the most repressive in the world. Given his prominent role in African politics and in the African Union, Colonel Gaddafi is more familiar to Ethiopians than are President Assad of Syria and President Salah of Yemen. Colonel Gaddafi has been in power for 41 years. Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian Prime Minister has been in power for more than 20 years. Even in Libya, Syria and Yemen, youth and the middle class tried to close ranks. Their battle cries of “We are all Libyans, Syrians or Yemenis and we are not afraid” appeal to Ethiopians. Ethnic, sectarian and ideological conflicts are pronounced in Libya, Syria and Yemen as they are in Ethiopia. For example, President Assad’s regime is accused of representing a religious minority of the Alawite consisting 12 percent of the population in a country that is 70 percent Sunni. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s Tigray People’s Liberation Party (TPLF) represents a mere 6 percent of the Ethiopian population currently estimated at 90 million. More than 90 percent of the military command of Ethiopia’s defense forces is represented by this minority ethnic group; as are security forces. Democratic activists in Syria contend that President Assad’s government supports the business elite who are beneficiaries of his regime. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi favors the new wealthy urban and Tigrean elite that benefit hugely from his government’s policies and investments. In Syria and Ethiopia, access to wealth and wealth-making assets is dependent on loyalty to the governing party and government.

In Libya, Syria and Yemen opposition groups tried to debunk Gaddafi’s, Assad’s and Salah’s divisive ethnic and sectarian policies. However, success in these countries is taking longer compared to Egypt and Tunisia. While the sizes and sheer determination of opposition groups seem to indicate that the vast majority of their respective populations want freedom and democracy, their struggles are more protracted. In Libya, almost similar to Ethiopia, the few who benefit from the Gaddafi regime and his ethnic group stand on his side. This reality and the security and military organization as well as defense equipment amassed over decades enables him to wage war against his own population. Class, ethnic and sectarian division prolongs the agonizing and costly struggle for freedom in Libya. A commentator said that Colonel Gaddafi and his core supporters and political base “own the city of Tripoli.” Libya’s wealthiest and most powerful families live there. Out of fear or self interest or both, this social base seems to “side with him.” Because it is heavily vested in the regime, it seems to disregard that the country is in a state of siege and that Libyans are killing Libyans. Gaddafi feels that a prolonged war is an indicator of legitimacy. He seems to be clueless that at least half of the country is up in arms against his regime; that he and his core supporters are accused of “war crime and crimes against humanity;” and that most of the global community wants to see regime change. Change is therefore costly but inevitable in Libya. The difference comes from the unity and common purpose of Libya’s home-based opposition and not it relatively small Diaspora. This is a critical lesson I would draw.

If one peels the Ethiopian socioeconomic and political onion, one will find numerous similarities between Libya under Gaddafi and Ethiopia under Meles Zenawi. The TPLF core leaders succeeded in recruiting and incentivizing cadres and others from different ethnic groups using ethnic and party loyalty and defense of key institutions through periodic political assessments (in Amharic, gimigema). Inherited from the Soviet system, periodic assessments are management tools to get rid-off individuals who are suspect and to bring in others into the fold. While Addis Ababa may not be “owned” by the Ethiopian Prime Minister in contrast to Gaddafi who owns Tripoli in Libya, there is ample documentary evidence that shows that “Mekele and the rest of Tigray–the ethnic home of the ruling party– may be owned by his party,” as one Ethiopian academic opined. I suggest that in contrast to what I tried to show in part one of this series, Libya comes closer to Ethiopia than the Egyptian and Tunisian cases. Leaders in both Ethiopia and Libya manage their societies based on ethnic and sectarian loyalty. Wealth, assets and influence are acquired on the basis of loyalty and not merit. It is clear that in Libya, ethnic, sectarian and class division have taken a toll on the society and on the uprising. The initial battle cry “We are all Libyans” has not penetrated the entire society. This battle cry of people fighting together against oppression would have overwhelmed the regime peacefully and relatively quickly. Further, the international community did not initially live up to the expectations of the democratic forces in Libya, Syria and Yemen. In part, the community may have felt that “division” would bring a failed state. In part, it may be the Libyan oil factor; and in the case of Yemen, the so-called Al-Qaida factor. A similar situation is still simmering in Bahrain, with a dose of external influence from key regional countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. What Ethiopians learn from these experiences is that the democratic path in each country will be different, with one caveat. Ethiopians need to recognize that the failed state of Somalia and “terrorism in the Horn of Africa” legitimizes Western support to the current regime.

The nature of democratic change

Regardless of unique country situations, success of any uprising in a country the size and complexity of Ethiopia would depend entirely on unequivocal commitment from all opposition groups that that they share an identical destiny and not a marriage of convenience to topple the regime. It would also depend on an uprising’s appeal to and active engagement of millions of ordinary Ethiopians from all ethnic and other persuasions. Most informed and well educated Ethiopians underscore that change must involve millions of people from all ethnic, religious, social and demographic groups over a sustained period of time. Some suggest that even those who “profited” from the regime must not feel threatened by change. They must be assured that they too have a future. In Libya, those who are vested in the current system feel “threatened” by the democratic upheaval. Those unhappy with the system continue to sacrifice their lives and comforts. This is the reason for the characterization of the civil war as the “Battle for Libya.” In this battle, the international community resolved that it won’t allow a senseless and careless dictator to “slaughter his own people.” NATO strikes against Gaddafi’s forces would not have been politically and strategically feasible if it were not for the valiant positions of the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Libyan opposition. It would have been disastrous for Western democracies not to respond to these regionally orchestrated and led demands by the Arab world for the Arab world. More critical, it would have affected the democratic momentum sweeping the region. Here, I want to inject my own intellectual assessment of the new human rights doctrine that would have been unimaginable in the 20th or in the first decade of this century. The UN system never anticipated the kinds of world changing events as those sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. My sense is that international relations won’t be the same again. A new world is being shaped by new civil forces such as youth and the middle class that demand to be heard; and want access to economic and social opportunities consistently bestowed upon those who capture political power and assume economic hegemony. Africans are used to all forms of injustices: from Slavery to Colonialism and Apartheid to horrific civil wars and genocide. Africa’s current dictators including the Ethiopian Prime Minister manifest these behaviors and actions.

An emerging doctrine: “The response to protect”

Horrific ethnic genocide in Rwanda taught the world community a cardinal lesson of man’s inhumanity to man. At the time, the UN and major powers kept silent only to grasp the magnitude and implications later. Retrospectively, the UN recognized that its relevance and credibility will depend on averting all forms of genocide including those perpetrated by cruel and repressive regimes against their own people. In the process, the welcomed doctrine of “The response to protect” emerged. It is this doctrine that the UN Security Council applied in Libya. For the first time in world history, dictators and other groups can no longer get away murdering their own. It will be harder for the UN and major Western powers to cherry pick dictators who should be removed and those who should be retained. Going forward, the question for those who support uprisings for democracy and human rights is the extent to which this unprecedented principle and intervention on behalf of the Libyan opposition that has been sanctioned by the Security Council would serve as a precedent. Ethiopians seem to be excited about the prospect that a similar situation could occur in Ethiopia. My own prediction is that it will be much harder in the future not to apply the same doctrine in similar situations. However, intervention in Sub-Saharan Africa would take sustained popular resistance and the severity or response from repressive regimes. In my mind, Ivory Coast and Darfur in the Sudan are reminders that neither the inept African Union nor the UN took meaningful stands. In Ethiopia, the principle of one voice for one cause and one destination will be critical. Governments that support the Ethiopian regime know that Ethiopia’s opposition is fractured and harbors elements that will dismember the country. Equally, important is the readiness and willingness of opposition groups and civil society to set aside differences and build on policy themes that unite them rather than on those that divide them. If they do not, they will prolong the life of the regime. This is the most important lesson one draws from the “Battle for Libya.” Commonalities that are genuine and not fabricated differences drive successful changes.

Gaddafi does not see the fracturing of his country and the animosity towards his regime as long-term liabilities. In this sense too, his regime mimics Ethiopia’s. There is no sense of humility. Both regimes characterize dissenters as enemies of the state and the constitution. Neither regime has compassion for human beings or a vested interest in the common future of their respective societies. What drives Gaddafi is staying in power irrespective of costs to the population. The same is true for the Ethiopian regime. In a boastful and arrogant broadcast mid-March, 2011, Gaddafi announced that his defense forces including the Air Force were ready to crush the “enemy” in Benghazi, the second largest city in the country. He urged the one million inhabitants of the city to come to their senses and demanded that those with weapons turn them over to his regime. He said that there will be no “mercy against those who resist.” It is this threat against opponents that outraged the world; and frightened innocent civilians of massacres to come. What occurred in Ethiopia in the aftermath of the 2005 elections is identical. For both regimes, those who defend freedom and democracy for everyone are “enemies.” Both use the ethnic and sectarian cards in their respective countries to squash any opposition. Both are merciless.

The Arab League and the African Union: contrasts in courage

I believe regional institutions are important for Africans and Arabs in asserting their voices in a changing world. Equally important is the notion that African and Arab intellectual and opinion leaders must be heard and must play the vital role of conducting research and expressing their views on matters that affect their homelands and regions. The anachronistic view that Eurocentric and Pro Western scholars should continue to command the airwaves does not go with the democratic aspirations and hopes of hundreds of millions of people including educated youth and middle classes who are part and parcel of the Internet and social media revolution. The same is true for regional organizations. They can and should play prominent roles in resolving conflicts and in promoting greater economic and political integration and freedom. For the first time in its existence, the Arab League took the unprecedented step of asking the United Nations to impose a “no fly zone” in Libya, one of its members. This is precedent setting. When this happened, many Ethiopians wondered if the African Union would ever have the stamina to go against members accused of gross human rights violations including genocide. The Arab League’s announcement provided moral courage to the opposition that fought against the odds, especially in cities such as Benghazi. The opposition set-up and publicized an alternative council that performs state functions; and conducts active diplomacy. In turn, these developments and the sheer determination of the opposition encouraged the world community to pay closer attention. Gaddafi’s brutality against his own people; the threat that he will be “merciless;” and the resolve of the ill-equipped opposition provided pro opposition countries such as Qatar, France, the United Kingdom and the United States the diplomatic platform they needed to isolate and de-legitimatize Gaddafi. On March 17, 2011, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1973 endorsing a “no fly zone.” This resolution allowed the UN to protect civilians against “bombardments and massacres.” The decision restores faith and confidence among Libyan opposition groups and offers hope in the rest of Africa and the Middle East to those who wish to achieve democratic change. It is true that the struggle has taken longer than most observers had predicted. What is the lesson here?

On March 19, 2011, a coalition led by the United States begun dismantling Gaddafi’s strategic military bases. In announcing implementation of the “no fly zone” resolution, President Obama announced that this was not his first or preferred “choice.” Gaddafi’s arrogance that bordered on madness forced the community of nations to take bold actions before massacres took place. The French, British, Italians, Spaniards, Moroccans, Saudis, Qataris and other Arab League countries joined the campaign at different levels. This, in my view, is genuinely one of the most important global initiatives in stopping massacres and empowering freedom seeking people anywhere. For repressive regimes out there who get away with crimes against humanity, the Libyan case sets a precedent that can’t be denied to other freedom seeking people anywhere in the world. The uprising in Libya has a better chance of success because of unprecedented steps taken by the Arab League, the United Nations Security Council; and more importantly, by Libyans who reject oppression. The opposition translated a declaration of intent into practice. Gaddafi illustrated the tragic face of tyrants who will go to the extent of killings thousands when they face threats. There is no substitute to the principle that the work of mobilizing empathy and support from the international community comes from the extraordinary work of ordinary people willing and ready to sacrifice their lives for a better tomorrow. Libyans, Syrians, and Yemenis die for freedom and for a better tomorrow. They do not suffer from the prospect of dismemberment of their respective societies regardless of the duration of conflict. Here is the reason why? They rejected sectarianism and the notion of “tribes with flags” that lead to dismemberment.

Elites say that if Ethiopians wish to achieve a democratic future, they must collaborate and accept the notion that freedom from oppression is indivisible; and that people will succeed if they unite for a greater cause. If this is the case, I take it that they agree that they will struggle as Ethiopians with a common future. It is true that the Ethiopian regime is brutal and governs through fear and ethnic division. It is possible that, in any uprising in Ethiopia, thousands may die. We see in the behaviors and actions of Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, President Assad of Syria and President Salah of Yemen and the rulers of Bahrain that brutal regimes do not give up power easily. Evidence in 2005 shows that, in an uprising, the Ethiopia regime will resort to the same tactics as Gaddafi, the ruling families of Bahrain, dictators in Syria and Yemen: apply brute force and use the military to assault the population. Libya’s Gaddafi offers the prospect that the International Court of Justice in Geneva will find him and his team guilty of crimes against humanity. Yet, he does not seem to care that his families would not find a safe haven anywhere. Ethiopians feel that the same will happen to Meles Zenawi. Despite this hope, there are differences between Libya and Ethiopia that I feel is ignored by Ethiopian dissidents. For example, opposition groups are as divided as ever; and civil society is in the first phases of formation. The road ahead is tougher and harder in Ethiopia than in Libya, Syria or Yemen or Bahrain. Before the opposition camp can do well, it must accept the notion that Ethiopians share a common problem and will be heading towards a common destiny.

The history of brute force against opponents under the military and current dictatorship is so fresh in the minds of the older generation that Ethiopia’s “bulging youth” has no model to emulate. Mothers and fathers sacrificed their sons and daughters in the 1960s, 1970s and throughout the 1990s and in this century. Youth fought courageously to bring democratic change. Ethiopian society is not new to popular uprisings. The notion itself started with activist Ethiopian youth more than a half century ago. One of the biggest and youth led popular uprisings took place against the Imperial regime in the 1970s. Ethiopian youth have been relentless in their struggle against oppression since then. These uprisings are internal; and are rooted in youth and middle class elites. In the information age, Ethiopian youth does not have the tools to stimulate change within the country compared to Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, Syrians and Yemenis. This does not mean that the potential does not exist. For this reason, Ethiopian experts I approached feel that leadership for change must come from the country’s large Diaspora. I do not share this view. Sustainable change must come from the Ethiopian population itself, especially youth. I know that the majority of Ethiopians do not want to live in misery, destitution, and repression. What they resent most is that Ethiopian opposition groups continue their tradition of acrimony among one another and give little time to the commonalities the Ethiopian people deserve. Ethiopians resent the fact that elites sit back and looking at events, afraid to challenge authority and make meaningful contributions toward freedom and democracy. As much as those of us on the outside make a mockery of democracy in Ethiopia, I am obliged to suggest that we should also soul search if we practice democratic behaviors among ourselves. I do not believe we do. Our ability to tolerate dissent and differences is among the lowest imaginable.

The façade of elections and the rest

Similar to countries in North Africa and the Middle East, the façade of periodic elections is a joke in Ethiopia. In 2010, the governing party declared that it won 99.6 percent of the votes. How is this possible? Similar to Egypt and Tunisia, the Ethiopian regime plants spies even among students and in the Ethiopian Diaspora. It threatens voters and the opposition. Similar to Egypt and Tunisia, many give up and leave the country in search of alternatives abroad or are silent. Corruption, nepotism, favoritism, and cronyism make business entry in Ethiopia prohibitive. William Dobson did a marvelous piece in the Washington Post on January 6, 2011, that captures the essence of what dictators do regardless of country. In “Dictatorship for Dummies, Tunisia edition,” Dobson identifies 7 themes from which dictators could learn but don’t. One, “Be repressive, but don’t over do it.” Dictators are least amenable in adopting to change. They have a vested interest in preserving the system that offers them wealth and riches beyond their wildest dreams. Two, “Don’t try to be Singapore.” It is interesting to note that intellectual supporters of the Ethiopian government believe that rapid growth and development occur under an exclusive and repressive environment. This is a preference for dictatorial rather than democratic governance. I do not subscribe to this view. These folks are quick to point out lessons from countries such as China, Singapore, and Korea-during their formative stage of development. Comparatively speaking, China has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world. China is as dissimilar to Ethiopia as is the US in terms of development. Aside from everything else, advocates of the dictatorship model fail to recognize enormous cultural differences and political patterns that are unique to each. Differences between Ethiopia and Singapore are night and day regardless of the misapplication of the developmental state.1/

Dictatorships may seem the same. In my view they differ from country to country. Benevolent dictators like Emperor Haile Selassie are not the same as the head of State under the Military Dictatorship that replaced him. The current Prime Minister is not the same as the head of state he replaced. For sure their respective governances were or are consistently rated poor. There are value differences among dictators around the globe. President Suharto of Indonesia was one of the most ruthless and corrupt dictators in the world. He distinguished himself as a nationalist and helped to build Indonesia’s economy. When I worked there in the early 1990s, Indonesian friends told me that the country was corrupt. However, the “money was kept in the country. Corrupt officials built schools, hospitals, bridges and other infrastructure, factories” and so on. Lee Kuan Yew, President of Singapore was a dictator. He built one of the most successful economies in the world. He was, first and foremost, a Singaporean nationalist who built outstanding national institutions, designed and implemented economic and social policies that boosted domestic capabilities and made the country an economic powerhouse. I am not justifying corruption or dictatorship of any type. I merely want to show differences among a sample of dictators. Competence, dedication to national institutions and equitable development make enormous difference to societies. Singapore became part of what is commonly known as the “East Asian Miracle” and Indonesian is on its way. Among the distinguishing features of the “East Asian Tiger” countries are diversification of their national economies and investments in human capital. Empowerment of the population was central to their development. They each emphasized diversification of their national economies, including manufacturing and export of industrial and manufactured goods, highly educated workforces, modern infrastructure, banking and finance and competitive markets. None relied on a single product or service to develop. None gave up sovereignty. In this regard, Egypt’s economy is diverse and Tunisia is more like Ethiopia.

Tunisia depends on “wealthy European vacationers” to keep it growing. Today, Ethiopia depends heavily on Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) in its fertile farmlands to achieve its development and transformation agenda. In doing this, the regime leaves policies, cultures, and structures almost intact. Both Ethiopia and Tunisia fail to see the critical role of diversification, broad-based, integrated, and homegrown institutions and development policies and programs in reducing poverty and in attaining sustainable development. Three, “Give young people passports” and they will find jobs abroad and send remittances. Dobson is absolutely right. “If you can’t get everyone a job, encourage emigration. It is the best way to get rid of educated young people who will only cause you headaches when they realize that they can’t find work or must live with their parents.” This is exactly what the Ethiopian regime has done and continues to do. It forces nationalist technical and professional people to leave the country in droves. Its ethnic policy serves a similar purpose. Dobson could have added that a repressive government can’t afford to massacre or jail all of its young people when they dissent and revolt. They face world condemnation and eventual fall. None of the “East Asian Tiger” countries resorted to forceful expulsions of their young and highly educated people. They created conditions to stimulate creativity, innovation and productivity. Some went further and invited their Diasporas back. Unlike leaders of these successful economies, the TPLF core has no love for country or empathy for people outside its ethnic circle. In this sense, the regime is not any different from other dictatorships except for its ethnic policy. Take the Saudi Arabian regime and look into its soul. Many poor Ethiopians, especially young girls, immigrate to Saudi Arabia in search of jobs. Astonishing as it may seem, the Saudi government does not encourage its young people to emigrate. It keeps them at home without jobs. In one of the richest countries in the world where those below 18 years old constitute 60 percent of the population, 40 percent live in poverty. Seventy percent of Saudis can’t afford to buy a home. Ninety percent of public and private sector employees are foreigners, such as those from Ethiopia, Bangladesh, the Philippines and India. Foreign employees are cheaper and do not demand political or civil rights. They just work for wages that are better than those in their home countries. The Saudi regime is among the most corrupt and according to an article in the Wall Street Journal dated February 15, 2011, “inept.” It is run by an extended royal family network, almost similar to the ethnic network of high level decision-makers in Ethiopia. The face of corruption is the same whether in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, or Ethiopia. 2/

Four, “Let the opposition exist-just don’t let it win.” Ethiopians have heard Prime Minister Meles Zenawi– in power for close to 21 years– opine repeatedly that a strong opposition is good for the country. He says that he welcomes peace and reconciliation. Evidence shows that both have to be done under his terms and conditions. The All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP) was humiliated because its leaders accepted a Code of Conduct dictated by the governing party. It lost public confidence and suffered in the elections in 2010. The governing party squashed opposition parties in 2005 and made them totally non-existent by the next election in 2010. In the early 1990s, the TPLF had vowed that it will never allow opposition parties to win “even once.”So, the rhetoric of wanting a strong opposition is a sham. I agree with Dobson that when faced with challenge, a dictatorial regime “faces a choice-retreat or lash out.” In Ethiopia, the regime prefers to “lash out.” In Egypt, President Mubarak lashed out and caused an untold number of deaths and injuries. In the end, he lost with disgrace. 3/

Five, “Give them newspapers.” The Ethiopian press is largely government owned and run. The few independent news organizations operate within strict boundaries. There is no free and independent press. The media propagates government propaganda. Unlike Egypt or Tunisia, dissidents are not allowed to conduct investigative reports. The regime intimidates websites, news organizations and even individuals who live and work abroad. It bans foreign broadcasts critical of the regime. It uses information technology to spy and to intimidate. The case of Ethiopian Review, one of the most consistent and passionate critics of the governing party comes to mind. Not only is the Ethiopian government committed to cyber warfare against this media, it encourages Sheikh al-Amoudi, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Ethiopian political system, to bring a civil suit against the Editor. This audacity to intimidate Ethiopian free and independent press abroad would not have been possible without encouragement from the regime and tolerance from Western countries. The West fails to see that its long-term interests reside in its willingness and readiness to support the democratic aspirations of the majority and not the dictatorship in power. President Obama’s–post-Egypt protests at Tahrir Square that is changing political thinking–repeated comments that people have fundamental rights to peaceful protest, access to information and political organization. These are most encouraging for those who seek freedom. I hope this positive posture will repeat itself in Africa too. 4/

Six, “Never negotiate with an angry mob,” reminds me of what happened in the aftermath of the 2005 elections in which hundreds of Ethiopians, mostly youth, were massacred. The regime never entertained to seek forgiveness from the families of the victims or from the Ethiopian people. Its ethos is to blame others and stay in power at any cost and by any means necessary. Innocent lives do not matter. They are just numbers and not human beings. This leads me to Dobson’s most important seventh point, namely, “The people actually matter.” I have always argued that development is about people. It is their effective and consistent participation that would move mountains. Growth happens for a variety of reasons, including pumping billions of dollars in foreign aid. As a recipient of generous aid to the tune of over $3.2 billion in 2010 and more than $30 billion over the past 20 years, the regime had to show concrete results on the ground. It had to build roads and other infrastructure; increase school enrollments; provide better access to health care; and reduce poverty. Donors won’t lend or grant large sums of money each and every year unless they see some results. They are accountable to tax payers. It is their business. For those who claim that the Ethiopian economy is changing, I say yes. However, who benefits the most from growth? What is its depth and breadth? Has the fundamental structure changed? Has hunger become history? Is there substantial diversification? Have the lives of the vast majority improved dramatically? Why is there another famine that is killing an untold number of children and mothers in the Ogaden and other locations? Have girls achieved equity? Why are 46 percent of fairly well educated Ethiopians interested in emigrating? It is ordinary Ethiopians who must be asked whether growth has changed their lives materially or not. The fact that the regime is an ally of the United States or the United Kingdom or China does not change the dire picture on the ground. 5/

I am obliged to add an eighth theme namely, ‘Justify income inequality as the price of pursuing growth’. I like to start with a positive note. Conceptually, I share the regime’s goal of transforming the Ethiopian economy into middle income status over the coming five years or so. I support investments in infrastructure and endorse substantial investments in irrigation and hydroelectric power generation. Transforming the Ethiopian economy is a noble objective. The problem is that this growth strategy is top-down and does not involve the population. It is growth by elites and for elites. I also differ substantially how these goals could be achieved without radical structural and policy changes. The Ethiopian people deserve to be at the center of the growth and development process.

I would go further than Dobson. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, ordinary people are telling regimes that they can no longer accept oppression and socioeconomic exclusion. They seem to say that people and not elites at the top are the motive forces for investments, growth and development. FDI that does not recognize national aspirations and interests of ordinary people is exploitative–even when invited by a regime such as in Ethiopia. It is broad–based participation of people that distinguishes a competent and nationally oriented regime such as Singapore from Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Yemen and Ethiopia. Without people, growth expands opportunities only for elites and a few loyalists who are willing to trade conscience and principle for wealth. Without people, regimes invite foreigners to exploit their natural resources. These models of economic development leave the rest of the population out of the growth process. Without people, powerful elites eventually fail, as the Egyptian and Tunisian cases illustrate. The current socioeconomic and political system in Ethiopia is not sustainable for one simple reason. The population is outside the development process entirely. This non-participatory, discriminatory, and exclusionary process will contribute to an uprising in Ethiopia. How this plays out is not the purpose of this article. 6/

Part III of this series will unravel the contending positions of Egypt and Ethiopia concerning the development and use of the Nile or Abay River. It is one the most explosive policy matters of the 21st century on which Ethiopian opposition groups should discuss and present alternative positions in support of the Ethiopian people.

(The writer, Aklog Birara, PhD, is an Adjunct Professor at Trinity University, Washington DC, and Senior Advisor at the World Bank, retired)

1. Dobson, W. “Dictatorship for dummies.” The Washington Post. January 6, 2011.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. “African Presidents and Prime Ministers: performance index for 2010-2011.” East African Journal. January, 2011.

5 thoughts on “Ethiopian fascination with the “Arab Spring.” Part II of III

  1. gragn ahmed on


  2. Assta B. Gettu on

    It seems the author has spent less time discussing the youth and the middle class uprisings in Yemen, Egypt, and Tunisia but more time on Libya, Syria, and Ethiopia. The reason is simple: The Yemenis’, the Egyptians,’ and the Tunisians’ uprisings are now fading away from the hearts of many people; however, the Libyans’ and the Syrians’ uprisings are still fresh in most people’s minds, and it is natural for Dr. Aklog, as an Ethiopian, to associate Ethiopia’s problems with those North Africans’ and Middle eastern countries’ problems now and then since the Ethiopian problems continue to beleaguer the Ethiopian people on a daily basis for more than three decades.

    In Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the author says, “Their battle cries of ‘We are all Libyans, Syrians or Yemenis and we are not afraid’ appeal to Ethiopians.” Under Meles Seitanawi (Zenawi) regime), most Ethiopians are afraid to say, “We are all Ethiopians.” They would rather say, “we are Oromos” if they are Oromos; they would say, “we are Amharas” if they are Amharas and so on and so forth; therefore, the Libyans,’ the Syrians,’ and the Yemenis’ battle cries do not appeal to Ethiopians at this particular time. Instead of being inspired by North African and the Middle East turmoil or revolution, the Ethiopians must devise their own homegrown revolution: they should not import, as foreign oil, foreign revolution as the Amharic saying says: “ያገሩ ሰርዶ ባገሩ በሬ.”

    It may be true in Libya few wealthy Libyans support Colonel Kaddafi according to the author: “In Libya, almost similar to Ethiopia, the few who benefit from the Gaddafi regime and his ethnic group stand on his side.” I don’t think the few wealthy Ethiopians will be on the side of Meles to protect him and to protect his asset when that homemade revolution materialized in Ethiopia. They all go their own ways: some will support the opposition, and some of them will flee the country with their wealth. Meles will have no guarantee he will get the support of those people who are his beneficiaries at this time. There were hundreds of wealthy Ethiopians – the burjua family – who benefited from Haile Selassie’s kingdom, but they failed to protect him in his final agonizing hour.

    The commentator who said Kaddafi ‘owns the city of Tripoli’ is not far away from the fact, and that is why Kaddafi has resisted to leave the city despite the international pressures on him to leave the city, but the author admits Meles and his supporters own Mekelle city and the Tigrean regions: “While Addis Ababa may not be “owned” by the Ethiopian Prime Minister in contrast to Gaddafi who owns Tripoli in Libya, there is ample documentary evidence that shows that ‘‘Mekelle and the rest of Tigray–the ethnic home of the ruling party– may be owned by his party,’ as one Ethiopian academic opined.” I would say Meles and his party own not only Mekelle and Tigray province but the entire country of Ethiopia. They have an absolute power on everything that is Ethiopian in Ethiopia. They have the right to sell some of the Ethiopian fertile lands to foreigners; they have the right to export thousands of Ethiopian beautiful young girls to the Arab world; they have the right to sell Ethiopian babies to the human traffickers, and they have the right to declare war on their neighboring countries at any time they want. So why does Dr. Aklog limit Meles ownership to just Mekelle city and Tigray province? Dr. Aklog, don’t you know Meles owns even the small towns such as Debre-Tabor, Wereta, Addis Zemen, and many other towns and cities. Don’t you know Meles transported tons of Gondar’s soil to Mekelle city because he owns Gondar city? The Ethiopian people did not give Meles this kind of right of ownership of everything willingly, he got it by force, and he will keep it that way until another person, more powerful than him, rises up and takes the power from him. Of course, he must be elected by the Ethiopian people.

    The author advises the Ethiopians: “Ethiopians need to recognize that the failed state of Somalia and ‘terrorism in the Horn of Africa’ legitimizes Western support to the current regime.” The author’s advice to the Ethiopians, especially to the opposition parties, suggest that, in order to stop the flow of money from Washington and the Europeans to Meles Seitanawi (Zenawi) who cannot function without that money, we must help the Somali government to succeed and to eliminate the presence of terrorism in East Africa even though we believe Meles still can say there is the threat of terrorism in the Horn of Africa, and that is why Meles recently named the OLF as a terrorist movement to justify the money he gets from the west. We can easily expose Meles to the world that he is a liar by inviting foreign journalists to investigate for themselves if indeed there is a terrorist threat in the Horn of Africa.

    Dr. Aklog, what kind of assurance would you give to those few Tegaru from being mistreated by the angry Ethiopian mob when the Ethiopians take the power into their hands? You wrote: “Some suggest that even those who ‘profited’ from the regime must not feel threatened by change. They must be assured that they too have a future.” Some Ethiopians may want to retaliate by beating them and confiscating their properties; in this case, the future of such Tegaru is bleak. They will have no future except to rote in the Qaliti Jail.

    I don’t think youth and the middle class alone would bring any tangible movement to the world we are in; especially young people are most of the time prone to destruction. They want to bring change by burning houses, breaking windows, smashing cars, and looting someone’s properties. However, the author believes: “A new world is being shaped by new civil forces such as youth and the middle class that demand to be heard….” Economic development and political change can be achieved through non violence and persuasion. Any revolution that excludes the peasants because they are, most of them, uneducated, especially the Ethiopian peasants, is doomed to fail. A youth-middle-class initiated revolution will not have a lasting impact on the whole country. We have seen what thousands of British youth did to the British economy when they walked out from their homes for the purpose of destroying shops and looting them. I hope such things will never happen in Ethiopia.

    Is the blood shed only in Libya? Is Libya the only country the United Nation Security Council cares about? What about the blood shed in Yemen, in Sudan, in Ethiopia, in Syria, in Chechnya, and in other parts of the world? The doctrine, the author writes, “…respond to protect…” the United States used to protect the civilians in Libya after the United Nation learned, the author believes, its lesson in Rwanda. Were there not other heinous crimes committed by humans against other humans before the Rwanda and the Darfur incidents such as the Armenian genocide where about two million Armenians were slaughtered by the Turks in 1915-1918? Why didn’t the United Nation learn its lesson from this human tragedy?

    Dr. Aklog has his own principle he thinks is very important for Ethiopia: “In Ethiopia, the principle of one voice for one cause and one destination will be critical.” How many people do we believe will accept the author’s principle? I will if the author has gone a little bit further. I will add to his principle of one voice: one flag, one language, one faith, one history, one culture, and one country. I understand the OLF does not believe in one country. The OLF people believe in one Oromia, not in one Ethiopia, and for this reason Dr. Aklog’s principle of one voice for one cause and one destination may not work. The OLF destination is Oromia, and the Amharas’ and the rest of the Ethiopian tribes’ destination is one Ethiopia with one flag and with one language – the Amharic language.

    To solidify his grip on power, Colonel Kaddafi may have issued an ultimatum, telling Libyan citizens to turn in their weapons to him; however, in the case of Meles Seitanawi (Zenawi), most Ethiopians are unarmed obedient civilians, and Meles, unlike Kaddafi of Libya, doesn’t have to worry about asking Ethiopians to surrender their weapons to him. The author writes: “He (Kaddafi) urged the one million inhabitants of the city to come to their senses and demanded that those with weapons turn them over to his regime.” What is identical here between Kaddafi and Meles? The author says: “What occurred in Ethiopia in the aftermath of the 2005 elections is identical.” Meles never feared of the citizens of Addis Ababa of possessing weapons that threatened him. He was, of course, scared of losing the election; therefore, he clubbed and shot the unarmed citizens.

    The oil-rich Arab-state authorities may have played a greater role for the first time in their histories in imposing the “no fly zone” in Libya, one of the members of the Arab League, but no one believes the corrupt OAU would do the same thing on any African state whose leader has committed genocide on its own people. Case in point is Al Bashir of Sudan who slaughtered thousands of his own people and who has been issued a war crime warrant by ICC. Instead of handing him to the ICC, the OAU has protected the criminal Bashir from being handed over to the ICC. When the Arab League succeeded in imposing the “no fly zone” on Libya, the author hopes: “When this happened, many Ethiopians wondered if the African Union would ever have the stamina to go against members accused of gross human rights violations including genocide.” Dr. Aklog, don’t expect the Ethiopians would have any hope on the OAU after they have seen how corrupt this Organization of African union is. The Arab League, in many ways, is different from the OAU. It is extremely rich and it has a great appeal for the western world because of its oil and because of its Jihadist members. OAU is the poorest organization dominated by many criminal African leaders, and it has no appeal for the west. How can it appeal for the west since criminals such as Kaddafi, Al Bashir, Meles, and others are its members?

    One cannot be certain the Libyan uprising will succeed even though it has been supported by the Arab League and the western world. One doesn’t know what will happen when the western nations pull out of Libya. Even some of the western nations, such as the United States, fear the Libyan rebels can be members of the Al Qaida terrorist organization. However, the author of the article seems confident the Libyan uprising will succeed: “The uprising in Libya has a better chance of success because of unprecedented steps taken by the Arab League, the United Nations Security Council; and more importantly, by Libyans who reject oppression.” I hope it will succeed despite the greedy natures of human beings once they are in power; especially in the Arab world where religion plays a great role, there is a fear extremist Muslims in Libya will create divisions among the Libyan citizens. We just have to watch and see.

    So far there is no single greater cause that unites all Ethiopians to achieve their freedom, and the lack of that greater cause has been a great bonanza for Meles to continue to stay in power and for the oppositions to continue to fracture further and further. The author tends to believe those who say: “…people will succeed if they unite for a greater cause.” Some Ethiopians fear if Meles is gone, Oromo will be gone; others believe if Meles is gone, the Amharas will be in power, and still there are others who think if Meles is out, the Ethiopian Muslims, with the help of the other Arab Muslims, will take power. Therefore, to create one single cause that unites the Ethiopian people, one has to educate them to avoid their fears and doubts about who will be in power after Meles is gone. The author could have offered us a hint how to avoid such fears and doubts of ours.

    Colonel Kaddafi has no clue how the International Court of Justice operates; he might have learned his lesson from Al Bashir of Sudan, who is still enjoying life in Khartoum without being caught by the ICC for almost two years after the ICC issued a warrant arrest against him. The author informs us: “Libya’s Gaddafi offers the prospect that the International Court of Justice in Geneva will find him and his team guilty of crimes against humanity. Yet, he does not seem to care that his families would not find a safe haven anywhere.” If the ICC indicts Kaddafi for genocide, he knows where to go and hide: he will go either to Sudan or to Ethiopia. It is a wishful thinking for Dr. Aklog to write the following beautiful sentence: “Ethiopians feel that the same will happen to Meles Zenawi.” Such things will never happen to Meles Seitanawi (Zenawi) because Meles is the adopted child of Washington and London, and without the permissions of the two nations, the ICC has nothing to do about Meles, the tricky fox.

    As we all know, one of the opposition’s camps is OLF, and members of the OLF understand Ethiopians have a common problem, and their common problem is Meles Seitanawi (Zenawi); however, the OLF believe they have their own destiny different from the destinies of the other Ethiopians. It is clear the OLF’ destiny is the liberation of Oromia. Innocently, Dr. Aklog, even though he knows very well how the opposing groups are divided ethnically, writes: “Before the opposition camp can do well, it must accept the notion that Ethiopians share a common problem and will be heading towards a common destiny.” I wish every Ethiopian new he/she has a common problem and a common destiny with the other Ethiopians so that they can work together to solve their common problems and move on to their common destiny – good life in Ethiopia.

    Dr. Aklog, the Ethiopian experts you approached gave you the correct answer that “leadership for change must come from the country’s Diaspora.” We understand leadership for change requires self sacrifice; however, we in the Diaspora, living a comfortable life here, do not want to give our lives for our country, and that is why you said without hesitation: “I do not share this view. Sustainable change must come from the Ethiopian population itself, especially youth. I know that the majority of Ethiopians do not want to live in misery, destitution, and repression.” No one wants to live a miserable life, and for this reason the highly educated elites like you should take the responsibility to lead their country and get their people out of immense misery. We should not put the burden of leadership for change upon the Ethiopian youth and population only. We must share the burden, the problem, the sufferings, the imprisonment, and the quality of life with our people.

    The author is absolutely right some of us Ethiopians abhor a differing view from the other person; we always want everybody to accept our own views. Some times I post a differing view on the Ethiopian Review, and almost all of the commentators try to stone me; some have even asked Elias Kifle, the Chief Editor of the Ethiopian Review to bar me from posting my view. Fortunately, Elias Kifle has been a man of integrity and an advocate of freedom of speech; therefore, Dr. Aklog is 100% correct when he said: “Our ability to tolerate dissent and differences is among the lowest imaginable.”

    It is amazing China, with over 1.3 billion people, has the lowest unemployment rate according to the author: “Comparatively speaking, China has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world.” Why is it? I need an honest answer from Dr. Aklog. Perhaps, the hourly minimum wage in China is $1 so that every person in China can have something on the table. I have never heard any famine or draught in China in my life.

    Indeed, His Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie, cannot be dubbed a dictator; he was a monarch and a generous, loving, gracious, and a just king Ethiopia ever had. The author calls him a benevolent dictator: “Benevolent dictators like Emperor Haile Selassie are not the same as the head of State under the Military Dictatorship that replaced him.” It is true; Dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam and Dictator Meles Seitanawi (Zenawi) have never learned from Haile Selassie’s wisdom: his generosity, his love of his country, his trust in the Almighty God, and his fame in the international arena.

    Dr. Aklog, when you worked in Indonesia in the 1990s, did you yourself observe Indonesia was a corrupt country, or just you were satisfied by what some Indonesian friends had told you Indonesia was a corrupt country? You wrote: “When I worked there in the early 1990s, Indonesian friends told me that the country was corrupt.” Did you believe them they were correct what had told you about Indonesia?

    Dobson’s thought to enhance emigration to get rid of unemployed young men and girls is immoral and irrational; using Dobson’s theory, as the author points out, Meles Seitanawi (Zenawi) has sent thousands of Ethiopian girls to their death chamber in the Arab world instead of creating new jobs, if not for all of them, at least, for most of them. Meles, the new Ethiopian Dobson, is saying, “Get rid of all the Amhara and the Oromo youths and send them out of their country and bring the Tegaru youths to Addis Ababa, educate them and offer them high paying jobs. This is a naked partiality abhorrent to God!

    I never thought the Woyanne government was behind Al Amoudi to sue Elias Kifle, the Chief Editor of the Ethiopian Review until I have read Dr. Aklog’s enlightening article. The author of the article says: “The case of Ethiopian Review, one of the most consistent and passionate critics of the governing party comes to mind. Not only is the Ethiopian government committed to cyber warfare against this media, it encourages Sheikh al-Amoudi, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Ethiopian political system, to bring a civil suit against the Editor.” Now I know for sure it was Meles Seitanawi (Zenawi) that gave the Rich Man the green light to go ahead and sue him after Meles had probably learned that Elias Kifle was not from Mekelle. What a dirty job!

    I may have some reservations for the following statement Dr. Aklog has made: “Donors won’t lend or grant large sums of money each and every year unless they see some results.” What are the results or the accomplishments they have seen by the Dictator Meles Seitanawi (Zenawi) they are still pouring their money into the pockets of the Woyanne regime? Perhaps the Tekezie Dam, the Gibe Dam, the few new buildings in Addis Ababa, or the major factories in Mekelle city? Meles has nothing to show to the world that would qualify him to receive millions of dollars from the donor countries.

    Finally, Dr. Aklog’s strongest statement against elites, even though I believe he is one of the elites, is the following one: “Without people, growth expands opportunities only for elites and a few loyalists who are willing to trade conscience and principle for wealth.” The best example is Meles Seitanawi (Zenawi) who sells the Ethiopian fertile land to foreigners, who sells the Ethiopian girls to the Arabs, and who sells the Ethiopian toddlers to the highest bidders for money. Meles would not even hesitate to sell his wife if someone offers him few millions of dollars. Meles never has any conscience, moral or principle.

  3. Assta B. Gettu on

    Dear Gragn Ahmed #1,

    We live in a global world where people share everything with other people: Ethiopians marry Americans; Americans marry Ethiopians; Russians marry French; French marry Russians. Of course, the only people who don’t want to mix themselves with other people in marriage are the Arabs. We exchange goods; we exchange words, new phrases, and new terms such as “Arabian Spring.” No nation is going to live in isolation any more.

    Gragn Ahmed, be sure not to eat any food before the sun sets down. I can see delicious and tantalizing food on your table. Remove them away from you! Remember, Eve was tempted by eating the fruit from the garden of Eden and brought all the cursing upon us her children.

  4. Aklog on

    I welcome your comments at heart. A couple of reactions if I may. There is little unemployment in China because the Chinese economy is much more diversified than many other developing countries. It is a natiotional rather than an ethnic and politicized economy. The Chinese believe that expanding business and employment opportunities for everyone is smart business. the employed buy and consume goods; the poor and unemployed cannot.

    If an uprising takes place in Ethiopia, I hope those who lead it won’t go out on a revenge course. it makes sense to bring people to justice and let the legal system deal with the past. We know that revenge does not work. this is what I meant.

    I predict that Gaddafi will fall soon. In any country-wide revolt that is sustained, Meles will fall too. But, we are far from this; we are as divided as evern.

    On foreign aid, there is ample evidence in the social sectors such as education, health and in infrastructure such as roads and bridges, that aid monies have been used to show results. Most of the profits go to the TPLF led elites. You will see my arguments in the new book that is just published: The Great land give away. it shows bias, discrimination, gross inequality. I try to be as balanced as I could without compromising lead principles. Would be intersted in your reactions and comments once you read the book. If you wish to order a copye, send me an e-mail full name and address at

  5. Assta B. Gettu on

    Dear Dr. Aklog #4,

    Thank you very much for taking your precious time and answering my question, especially about the Chinese economy. Indeed, I shall be very happy to read your new book, and I cannot wait until I get it!

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