By Selam Beyene, PhD
The eulogy delivered in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa by Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, on the occasion of the funeral and mysterious death of dictator Meles Zenawi will probably go down in the annals of US diplomacy as one of the most inauspicious moments in which an opportunity was missed to assert the values of this great country.
To the dismay of the people of Ethiopia, the Ambassador failed to seize the moment to send an unwavering message of America’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law to a captive audience that included TPLF cadres and some of the most notorious African dictators, and instead chose to join the likes of Omar al-Bashir of Sudan in profiling a larger-than-life portrait of the deceased despot, who had ruled that poor African nation with an iron fist for over two decades.
In complete ignorance of her own State Department report on the abysmal human rights records of Zenawi, Rice gave credence to the outlandish fanfare the TPLF cadres had orchestrated, in a brazen imitation of the Kim of North Korea, to idolize the “Great Leader”, and added her voice to the ululation the inhabitants of Addis were dictated to wail under deplorable duress.
For a seasoned diplomat, that moment was a golden opportunity to reiterate to the cadres of the TPLF and other African dictators in attendance the timeless message of Barack Obama in which he perceptively counseled:
“…. there are some who advocate for democracy only when they’re out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy. “
In point of fact, diplomats do not often get a second chance to redeem themselves from catastrophic missteps. Fortunately for Rice there is a second chance to make nice with the Ethiopian people and to discharge her diplomatic responsibilities with prudence by engaging the Ethiopian delegation on what is expected of good governance, when they come to New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly on September 28, 2012.
Recognizing Ethiopia is at a crossroads, the Ambassador should exercise discreet diplomacy and send a strong message to the EPRDF kingmakers that the time to play ethnic politics is over; and that leaders who do not play by the rule of law, who consider themselves above the law and who deny their people basic human rights and the freedom to choose their own government, will be disallowed membership to the community of civilized nations and denied access to much-needed loans and financial assistance.
More importantly, the Ambassador should take to heart and reinforce Barack Obama’s direction:
“… Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments– provided they govern with respect for all their people.”
Following the unexpected demise of Meles Zenawi, leaders of his ethnic-based party, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and the umbrella front, the EPRDF, have on many occasions expressed their determination to continue his repressive policies by other means, without regard to the rights and aspirations of the people of Ethiopia for a free and all-inclusive representative government.
Many peace and freedom loving Ethiopians hope that the recent announcement by the regime’s propaganda chief, Bereket Simon, concerning the appointments of Hailemariam Dessalegn, a Southerner, as chairman and Demeke Mekonnen, an Amhara, as vice-chairman, of the EPRDF, is not a window-dressing move intended to enable the perpetuation of the ethnocentric dictatorship of the TPLF, that still is in full control of the vital economic, military and security institutions of the country.
Ethiopians at home and in the Diaspora anxiously pray that the EPRDF cadres are not succumbing to an age-old trick of dictators who appoint figureheads and hold sham elections in order to buy time to eliminate opponents and entrench themselves in power. They painfully remember all too well how Mengistu HaileMariam deceptively used this ruse when he placed Aman Andom, an Eritrean, and later Teferi Banti, an Oromo, as heads of state, before he conveniently eliminated them and imposed his brand of brutal dictatorship.
With the vast majority of the army generals still hailing from the minority Tigrai ethnic group, TPLF affiliated conglomerates controlling the vital economic activities in the country, journalists and other dissenting members of the society languishing in prison in thousands, major opposition groups completely shut out from the political process, and all relevant mediums of communication controlled by the ruling party, many genuine Ethiopians wait to be convinced that it is not a charade for the EPRDF cadres to pretend they have a change of heart in naming members of other ethnic groups to leadership positions.
The Ambassador and the US government have a historic opportunity to impress on the EPRDF cadres to establish a strong Ethiopia and leave a lasting legacy by abandoning the destructive ethnic policy of the late dictator, and opening the door for genuine dialogue and discourse on the way forward to building a better Ethiopia – an Ethiopia in which individual rights will be respected; everyone will have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and no individual or group will be above the law.
All internal and external players should understand the bitter fact that a minority member of a society cannot continue to rule, repress, exploit and deny the basic rights of the vast majority through force, repression, subterfuge and espionage. History has shown time and again, be it in Apartheid South Africa or Ian Smiths’ Rhodesia, that repression and exploitation by a minority ethnic group would inevitably fade away. Failure to understand this historical verity has drastic consequences; and as John F. Kennedy famously said: “Those who make peaceful evolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable”.
In case the EPRDF leaders and their sponsors find it necessary to be reminded, the following are prudent measures, embraced by all freedom and peace loving Ethiopians, that should be implemented immediately as a demonstration of goodwill and readiness to change :
- Release, unconditionally, all political prisoners, including such journalists as Eskinder Nega.
- Annul all repressive laws promulgated in the name of “war on terror” but intended to harass, intimidate and incarcerate opposition groups and individuals.
- Invite all opposition groups inside and outside of Ethiopia who fight for the establishment of rule of law and democracy in Ethiopia, and form a consensus on a framework for establishing democracy in the country.
- Permit unfettered freedom of speech and expression.
- Desist from implementing irresponsible economic and fiscal policies, abandon the current campaign of land grabs, and foster a market economy where all citizens participate in business opportunities without regard to political, religious or ethnic affiliations.
- Diversify the monolithic army leadership through active recruitment of talents from all ethnic groups that constitute the Ethiopian mosaic.
(The writer can be reached at Selam Beyene, Ph.D. firstname.lastname@example.org)