Africa:No Honor Among Dictators?

Alemayehu G. Mariam

“If I Were the U.S.”

The old saying is that there is no honor among thieves. Is it also true that there is no honor among dictators? Perhaps that is a distinction without a difference. But Meles Zenawi, the dictator in Ethiopia and Omar Bashir, the dictator of Sudan seemed to be good longtime friends. At least Bashir thought so. When Zenawi went to see him on August 21, 2011, “to resolve South Kordofan’s problem and defuse tension in the Blue Nile,” Bashir told reporters: “Meles is a friend and [he is] keen on peace and stability in Sudan and a strong advocate of Sudan in regional and international occasions.”

Some friend! Back in February 2009, Zenawi was not “advocating peace and stability” in the Sudan. Rather, he was sweet-talking the Americans to “remove the Bashir regime”. According to a Wikileaks cablegram:

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles told Acting AF Assistant Secretary Phil Carter and AF/SPG Director Tim Shortley that with the expected ICC indictment of Sudanese President Bashir either 1) someone within Khartoum would take advantage of the move to attempt to remove Bashir, or 2) such an attempt will either fail or be aborted.  While Meles gave the chances of success for option 1 as nearly zero due to the close knit ties among senior National Congress Party (NCP) officials, he argued that the result would leave the Bashir government a ‘wounded animal’ that is more desperate….

Meles suggested that if he were the U.S., he would either 1) remove the NCP regime or, if that weren’t an option, 2) make clear to the GoS that the U.S. is not out to get it and explicitly lay out what is expected of the GoS on Darfur and the South to avoid continued challenges…[Meles] clearly conveyed the preferred choice would be to ‘remove the Bashir regime.’ … Meles concluded the discussion by highlighting that ‘they don’t trust the Obama Administration’…

In a moment of extraordinary candor, Zenawi also characterized Bashir and the National Congress Party as money-grubbing, power-hungry thugs: “While the ‘Islamic agenda’ may have motivated the regime ten years ago, today they are interested only in money and power.”

Defending the “Wounded Animal”

In July 2008, Zenawi went gung-ho shielding the “wounded animal” from the spear of the  International Criminal Court. Zenawi waxed poetic as he warned the West against the folly of the “single-minded pursuit of justice” by indicting Bashir for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. Zenawi pleaded that “concern for justice should not trump concern for peace.” He joined the African Union in urging the UN Security Council to suspend Bashir’s indictment. Zenawi’s right hand man Seyoum Mesfin declared:  “The government of Ethiopia believes that ICC’s prosecution process is unbalanced, lacks justice and violates the sovereignty of Sudan.” He lectured, “It is not the duty of ICC to present the image of a legal nation as if illegal.”

In December 2007, Zenawi was defiantly defending Ethiopian sovereignty against a bill in the U.S. Congress that he considered “insulting”.  Zenawi told a member of the U.S. Senate that “H.R. 2003 – The Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act – was an insult and risks jeopardizing the excellent U.S.-Ethiopia relationship if enacted into law.” He protested that the bill “is unfair and unduly singles out Ethiopia.” He “argued that H.R. 2003 effectively represented the United States “kicking its friend” when others have far more egregious records.  He demanded respect from the U.S. and warned the U.S. to not “legislate about the minutia of internal politics in Ethiopia.” It is OK for the Americans to “remove the Bashir regime” for human rights violations in Darfur, but not OK to pass a simple bill requiring human rights accountability in Ethiopia!?!

Regime Change in the Sudan and ?

Zenawi’s “preferred choice” was removal of the Bashir regime. In other words, he wanted  regime change in the Sudan. But the mechanics of ridding Bashir’s regime remained unclear. Would the U.S. instigate a military coup? Undertake a covert CIA operation to eliminate Bashir and his top lieutenants? Coordinate NATO air strikes on critical military infrastructures? Launch a full-scale military invasion? Sponsor, arm and support rebels and dissidents in the Sudan? Support a neighboring nation (with experience in invading neighboring countries) launch a preemptive attack?  Perhaps the U.S. Congress can pass a bill asking Bashir to remove himself?

On the other hand, what happens after the Bashir regime has been removed? Allow for free democratic elections? Leave the Sudanese to their own devices? Install puppets?

In a press release last week, Zenawi’s regime denied counseling Washington to remove the Bashir regime. It is not an uncommon practice to seek plausible deniability when one is caught red-handed. But one must consider Zenawi’s denial in the removal of Bashir in a broader context of his interventionary regional foreign policy pattern and practice. In December 2006, Zenawi invaded Somalia to effect regime change and save Somalia from“Talibanization.” In March 2011, Zenawi “announced a change in its foreign policy to actively advocate the overthrow of the government in neighboring Eritrea.” Is it reasonable to believe that someone who has a proven record of attempting regime change in two neighboring countries in the last few years would seek regime change in a third neighboring country?

But there is an irony in all of the regime change business that Zenawi does not seem to appreciate very well. One cannot  condemn others for doing the same thing one is doing.  Zenawi should not be surprised when others in neighboring countries allegedly plot to seek his removal. Nor should he be shocked at the alleged efforts of “part time amateur terrorists” who seek to remove him from the throne. The old saying goes that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Or is it?

People Who Live in Glass House Should Not Throw Stones

In soliciting the Americans to “remove the Bashir regime”, Zenawi makes the compelling moral argument that Bashir & Crew have no legitimacy whatsoever because they are “interested only in money and power.” How ironic! That is exactly what they say about him and his crew too. “According to the World Bank, roughly half of the rest of the national economy is accounted for by companies held by an EPRDF-affiliated business group called the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT). EFFORT’s freight transport, construction, pharmaceutical, and cement firms receive lucrative foreign aid contracts and highly favorable terms on loans from government banks.”

By a strange stroke of coincidence, Zenawi and I finally agree at the most fundamental level: All African dictators are in the business of politics “only for the money and power”.  In one of my most widely-read commentaries over the past four years, Thugtatorship: The Highest Stage of African Dictatorship, I merely fleshed out Zenawi’s fundamental argument that the politics of dictatorship in Africa is only about money, power and privilege:

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.

There is a great lesson to be learned here. This is not about one African dictator plotting behind the scences with the “imperialist West” to remove another African dictator. It is certainly not about getting justice for the oppressed people of Darfur. It is not even about sovereignty, independence, respect and the rest of it. It is “only about money and power.”

Africans who have suffered the trials and tribulations of colonialism, faced the persecution and repression of military dictatorships and withstand gross abuses of their human rights daily deserve leaders who are in politics to help the poor, defend the rights of the weak and powerless,  uphold the rule of law, practice accountability and transparency and respect the voices of the people. Africa needs leaders who honor and serve the people.


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