Alemayehu G. Mariam
In December 2008, I wrote a weekly column entitled “Groundhog Year in Prison Nation” summarizing some of my weekly columns for that year. I used the “groundhog” metaphor from a popular motion picture in which a hapless television weatherman is trapped in a time warp and finds himself reliving the same day over and over. I wrote:
“2008 in Ethiopia was Groundhog Year! It was a repetition of 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004… Everyday millions of Ethiopians woke up only to find themselves trapped in a time loop where their lives replayed like a broken record. Each “new” day is the same as the one before it: Repression, intimidation, corruption, incarceration, deception, brutalization and human rights violation. Everything that happened to them the previous day, the previous week, the previous month and the previous 18 years happens to them today. They are resigned to the fact that they are doomed to spend the rest of their lives asphyxiated in a Prison Nation. They have no idea how to get out of this awful cycle of misery, agony, despair and tribulation. So, they pray and pray and pray and pray… for deliverance from Evil!
In December 2010, in another column summarizing some of my weekly columns for that year, I rhetorically asked:
It is December 2010, the end of the first decade of the 21st Century. Are Ethiopians better off today than they were in 2009, 2005…2000?
Does bread (teff) cost more today than it did a year ago…, five years ago? Cooking oil, household fuel, beef, poultry, gasoline, housing, water, electricity, public transport…?
Are there more poor people today in Ethiopia than there were a year ago… five years ago? More unemployment among youth, less educational opportunities, less health care?
Is there more corruption, more secrecy, less transparency and less accountability in December 2010 than in December 2009…?
Are elections more free and fair in 2010 than they were in 2008, 2005?
Is there more press freedom today than five years ago? More human rights violations?
Is Ethiopia more dependent on international charity for its daily bread today than a year ago…?
Is there more environmental pollution, habitat destruction, forced human displacement and land grabs in Ethiopia today than there was in 2005?
Are businesses paying more taxes and bribes in Ethiopia today than in years past?
Is Ethiopia today at the very bottom of the global Index of Economic Freedom (limited access to financing, inefficient government bureaucracy, inadequate supply of infrastructure)?
Here is a recap of some of my weekly commentaries for groundhog year 2011 in the Republic of Corruptistan:
“The people of Ethiopia are being bled dry. No matter how hard they try to fight their way out of absolute destitution and poverty, they will be swimming upstream against the current of illicit capital leakage”, wrote Economist Sarah Freitas of Global Financial Integrity (GFI). US$11.7 billion was stolen out of Ethiopia between 2000 and 2009, according to GFI.
Ethiopians are poor because they have been robbed, ripped off, flimflammed, bamboozled, conned, fleeced, scammed, hosed, swindled, suckered, hoodwinked, victimized, shafted and taken to the cleaners by those clinging to power like bloodsucking ticks on an African milk cow. The fact of the matter is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Zenawi has absolute power in Ethiopia. Pleading for transparency and issuing moral exhortations against corruption will have no effect on the behavior of Zenawi or any of the other African dictators. Indeed, to plead the virtues of accountability, transparency and good governance with Zenawi and Co., is like preaching Scripture to a gathering of heathens. It means nothing to them.
On 11/11/11, Teacher Yenesew Gebre, a 29 year-old Ethiopian school teacher and human rights activist set himself ablaze in Southern Ethiopia. He died three days later from his injuries. Yenesew was protesting the politically-motivated illegal detention of some young people at an official town meeting. He demanded their immediate release. Officials offered him hush money to “go and enjoy” himself, but he refused: “I am not going to sell my conscience. I do not want money. I want my people released.” Yenesew could not take it anymore. Before setting himself on fire, he spoke his peace: “In a country where there is no justice and no fair administration, where human rights are not respected, I will sacrifice myself so that these young people will be set free. I want to show to all that death is preferable than a life without justice and liberty and I call upon my fellow compatriots to fear nothing and rise up…”
But they were not satisfied looking at Yenesew’s ashes; they had to kill him a second time. They scandalized his name claiming he killed himself because he was insane. Yenesew was not insane; he was mad. Mad as hell at dictatorship, human rights violation and abuse of power; and he was madder than hell at state terrorism. Yenesew Gebre had only one choice: “Give me liberty or Give me Death!”
Awramba Times, the last popular independent weekly in Ethiopia, stopped publication after its outstanding managing editor and recipient of the 2010 Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award, Dawit Kebede, was forced to flee the country. Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” [Ke shee toregna, aand gazetegna.] For dictator Meles Zenawi, Awramba Times, the tip of the spear of press freedom in Ethiopia, is more to be feared than ten thousand bayonets. Thank you Awramba Times! Thank you Dawit Kebede, Woubshet Taye (recently jailed by Zenawi), Gizaw Legesse, Nebyou Mesfin, Abel Alemayehu, Wosenseged G Kidan, Mekdes Fisseha, Abe Tokichaw and Mehret Tadesse, Nafkot Yoseph, Moges Tikuye, Tigist Wondimu, Elias Gebru, Teshale Seifu, Fitsum Mammo and [not pictured] Ananya Sori, Surafel Girma and Tadios Getahun.
The truth is Ethiopia’s young people are Ethiopia’s future. Nearly 70 percent of the Ethiopian population of 80 million is estimated to be young people (50 percent of them under age 15). An old Ethiopian proverb reminds us: “Our youth are today’s seeds and tomorrow’s flowers. (Ye zare frewoch, ye’nege abebawoch).” For me, the most important question today revolves around these future flowers in Ethiopia and in the Diaspora. Young people want freedom, peace and equal opportunity. They are deeply offended by unfairness and injustice and despise those who abuse their powers. When I look across the proverbial “generation gap,” I see a gap in thinking, attitude and perspective, not age. I became a hopeless idealist [by following in the footsteps of young people]. When you become an idealist, you stand up for your convictions. You preach and teach what you believe in. So I do my best to promote democracy, human rights and freedom in Ethiopia and Africa and elsewhere. I try to be the voice of the voiceless, though some may think I am just a voice in the wilderness.
In what Zenawi describes as “one of fastest growing non-oil economies in Africa,” inflation is soaring; and by mid-2011, Zenawi’s Central Statistical Agency reported that the annual inflation rate had increased by 38 percent and food prices had surged by 45.3 percent. There are more than 12 million people who are chronically or periodically food insecure. Yet, Zenawi is handing out “large chunks” of the most fertile land in the country for free, to be sure for pennies, to foreign agribusiness multinational corporations to farm commercially and export the harvest. This past July, the U.S. Census Bureau had a frightening population forecast: By 2050, Ethiopia’s current population of 90 million will more than triple to 278 million, placing that country in the top 10 most populous countries in the world. It just does not make any sense.
Poor governance, lack of accountability and transparency (a/k/a corruption), lack of citizen participation and the absence of the rule of law are the root causes of extreme and widespread poverty, underdevelopment, aid-dependency, conflict, instability, starvation and injustice in Ethiopia. Have free and fair elections, allow the independent press to flourish, institutionalize the rule of law and maintain an independent judiciary, professionalize and depoliticize the civil service, the military and police forces and Ethiopians will be well on their way to permanently defeating poverty and making starvation a footnote in the history of the Ethiopian nation.
On December 21, 1987, Time Magazine on its cover page asked two timeless questions: “Why are Ethiopians starving again? What should the world do and not do?” Famine is not merely a humanitarian catastrophe in Ethiopia; it is a powerful political and military weapon. Ethiopia has been trapped in an endless cycle of dictatorship for decades. Its dictators do not give a damn if the people die one by one or by the millions. Famine is a structural part of the Ethiopian economy because the “government” owns all the land. Famine persists in Ethiopia because massive human rights abuses persist and because Zenawi has succeeded in keeping the famine hidden from public view in a “conspiracy of silence” with Western aid agencies and timid NGOs.
Zenawi’s economic planning is based on juggled figures, massaged statistics and irrational exuberance about overrated and illusory economic development. Systematic falsification of economic data, fraudulent statistics and creative accounting in economic reports have largely gone unchallenged for years by the learned Ethiopian Diaspora economists. The lack of systematic and sustained critique is all the more surprising and baffling given the fact that the economic swagger and wind-bagging about stratospheric economic growth and development comes from a regime not known for its economic “literacy”. Zenawi seems to follow the old principle that “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” (Who believes in make-believe?)
Lately, Meles Zenawi, the dictator in Ethiopia, has been rounding up dissidents, journalists, opposition party political leaders and members under a diktat known as “Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009”. State terrorism is the systematic use and threat of use of violence and coercion, intimidation, imprisonment and persecution to create a prevailing climate of fear in a population with a specific political message and outcome: “Resistance is futile! Resistance will be crushed! There will be no resistance!” State terrorism paralyzes the whole society and incapacitates individuals by entrenching fear as a paramount feature of social inaction and immobilization through the exercise of arbitrary power and extreme brutality. In Ethiopia today, it is not just that the climate of fear and loathing permeates every aspect of social and economic life, indeed the climate of fear has transformed the “Land of Thirteen Months of Sunshine” in to the “Land of Thirteen Months of Fear, Loathing, Despair and Darkness”.
Things keep falling apart in Africa because over the past one-half century of independence it has been nearly impossible to hold Africa’s so-called leaders accountable. For fifty years, African “leaders” have been telling Africans and the world that Africa’s problems are all externally caused. Africa is what it is (or is not) because of its colonial legacy. It is the white man. It is imperialism. It is capitalism. It is the International Monetary Fund. It is the World Bank. The continent’s underdevelopment, poverty, backwardness, mismanagement are all caused by evil powers outside the continent. The latest re-invention of the old African Boogeyman is “globalization” and “neoliberalism”, which Zenawi claims has “created three consecutive lost decades for Africa”. Things keep falling apart in Africa because of the lack of competent leadership with vision, purpose and integrity. Indeed the common thread that sews the vast majority of post-independence African leaders is not steadfast commitment to good governance and democratic practices, but their incredible sense of entitlement to rule forever and ever and ever.
If democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people, a thugocracy is a government of thieves, for thieves, by thieves. Simply stated, a thugtatorship is rule by a gang of thieves and robbers (thugs) in designer suits. It is becoming crystal clear that much of Africa today is a thugocracy privately managed and operated for the exclusive benefit of bloodthirsty thugtators. In a thugtatorship, the purpose of seizing and clinging to political power is solely to accumulate personal wealth for the ruling class by stealing public funds and depriving the broader population scarce resources necessary for basic survival. Africa’s thugtatorships have longstanding and profitable partnerships with the West. Through aid and trade, the West has enabled these thugocracies to flourish in Africa and repress Africans. The fact of the matter is that the West is interested only in “stability” in Africa. That simply means, in any African country, they want a “guy they can do business with.” The business they want to do in Africa is the oil business, the (blood) diamond business, the arms sales business, the coffee and cocoa export business, the tourism business, the luxury goods export business and the war on terrorism business. They are not interested in the African peoples’ business, the human rights business, the rule of law business, the accountability and transparency business and the fair and free elections business.
Western diplomats meeting in Berlin agreed, “The Ethiopian political opposition is weak, disunited, and out of touch with the average Ethiopian.” Who is the “average Ethiopian” whose contact is so highly prized and coveted? It seems s/he has an average life expectancy at birth of less than 45 years. S/he lives on less than $USD 1 per day. S/he is engaged in subsistence agriculture eking out a living. S/he survives on a daily intake of 800 calories (starvation level). S/he can neither read nor write. If s/he is sick, she has a 1 chance in 39,772 persons to see a doctor, 1 in 828,000 to see a dentist, 1 in 4,985 chance to see a nurse. She has little or no access to family planning services, reproductive health and emergency obstetric services and suffers from high maternal mortality during childbirth. She is a victim of gender discrimination, domestic violence and female genital mutilation. She has fewer employment and educational opportunities than the “average” man and is not paid equal pay for equal work. S/he is likely to die from malaria and other preventable infectious diseases, severe shortages of clean water and poor sanitation. The “average” Ethiopian youth is undereducated, underemployed and underappreciated with little opportunity for social mobility or economic self-sufficiency.
It is true that the Ethiopian “political opposition is weak and disunited”. But Western governments seem to be conveniently oblivious of the reasons for the disarray in the Ethiopian opposition. For two decades, Meles Zenawi and his regime have done everything in their power to keep the opposition divided, defeated, discombobulated and dysfunctional. In 2005, he rounded up almost all of the major opposition political and civic leaders, human rights advocates, journalists and dissidents in the country and jailed them for nearly two years on bogus charges of genocide, among many others.
“Karuturi’s First Corn Crop in Ethiopia Destroyed,” announced the headline. Karuturi Global Ltd., the Indian multinational agro company, is today the proud owner of “2,500 sq km of virgin, fertile land – an area the size of Dorset, England-” in Ethiopia. Truth be told, Karuturi did not ask for this bountiful giveaway, nor did it lay eyes on it when it was presented with a 50-year “lease” on a golden platter by the ruling regime in Ethiopia. Karuturi was offered the land together with generous tax breaks and other perks for £150 a week ($USD245). Karuturi’s business model is simple: “Ask not what Karuturi can do for Ethiopia, but what Ethiopians can do for Karuturi.” Karuturi is in Ethiopia for only one thing: Profit and more profits. Just as it has built “dikes to enclose its plantations from flood water”, it also maintains a social, psychological and security enclosure to insulate itself from the local Gambella community.
When Senator Obama became President, his “Africa Agenda” revolved around three basic objectives including “strengthening relationships with those governments, institutions and civil society organizations committed to deepening democracy, accountability and reducing poverty in Africa.” Over the past two years, what we have seen in Africa is a whole lot of deepening repression, human rights violations and corruption in Africa. We have seen very little “accountability, democracy building, the rule of law, judicial reform” and the rest of it. Much to our dismay, upon becoming President Obama morphed from a “confronter” to an accommodator of Africa’s notorious human rights violators. The U.S. should stop subsidizing Africa’s thugtatorships through its aid policy and hit the panhandling thieves in the pocketbook. If the Obama administration is committed to battling corruption as ‘one of the great struggles of our time’, as it has so often declared, it needs to undertake a thorough and complete investigation of aid money given to African dictators. In November 2009, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelley stated that the U.S. is investigating allegations that “$850 million in food and anti-poverty aid from the U.S. is being distributed on the basis of political favoritism by the current [Ethiopian] prime minister’s party.” No official report has been issued to date on the investigation. (Is it unreasonable to suppose that the results of the investigation have not been publicly released because the allegations of misuse of U.S. aid are confirmed?)
The Ultimate Question of 2011 in Ethiopia
The ultimate question of Year 2011 in Ethiopia is not whether “.04” percent of the Ethiopian population is living in the lap of luxury and wallowing in a bottomless ocean of stolen cash. The ultimate question is whether “99.6” percent of the Ethiopian population was able to keep its head above water better than it did in 2010, 2009, 2008…, 2005…2000….