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Out of Touch in the Horn of Africa?

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The Berlin Conference of 2009

In 1884, the Berlin Conference was convened by the European imperial powers to carve out colonial territories in Africa. It was called the "Scramble for Africa".

In 2009, another Berlin Conference was convened by a high level group of diplomats (referring to themselves as the "partners") from the U.S. and several European countries to hammer out an "agreement" on what to do (and not do) in the Horn of Africa.

According to a recently released Wikileaks cablegram, with respect to Ethiopia, the partners "agreed [on] Ethiopia's key role in the region" and "the need to support and observe its May 2010 elections." They acknowledged "Meles as a regional leader, pointing out he would represent Africa on climate change in Copenhagen." They agreed Meles is "intent on retaining power" and that he is "a guy you can do business with". They expressed doubts about "being associated with a likely imperfect process" that could result from the May 2010 elections (which subsequently produced a 99.6 percent win for Meles' party), but "they nonetheless agreed on the importance of international involvement in the elections."

The German and French partners debated "Ethiopia's economic situation, namely [the] hard currency and the poor investment climate." The German diplomat suggested that Ethiopia's economic problems could be traced to "Meles' poor understanding of economics". The French diplomat argued that "Meles actually had a good understanding of economics, but was hampered by his ideological beliefs." In a single sentence, out of the blue, the partners ganged up and whipsawed the entire Ethiopian opposition: "The [Ethiopian] political opposition is weak, disunited, and out of touch with the average Ethiopian, partners agreed."

For quite some time, foreign journalists have been reporting wholly disparaging and categorically dismissive remarks about Ethiopia's opposition by anonymous Western diplomats. In February 2010, I wrote a commentary decrying and protesting the cowardly and scandalous statements issued by Western diplomats hiding behind the veil of journalistic anonymity. I complained that the derisive characterizations were not only unfair, inaccurate and self-serving, but also dispiriting, disheartening and demeaning of Ethiopia's besieged opposition. It is gratifying to finally put faces to the surly anonymous lips.

Is the Ethiopian political opposition "weak and disunited"?

It is true that the Ethiopian "political opposition is weak and disunited", an issue I have addressed on previous occasions. But Western governments seem to be conveniently oblivious of the reasons for the disarray in the opposition. For two decades, Meles Zenawi and his regime have done everything in their power to keep the opposition divided, defeated, discombobulated and dysfunctional. Zenawi has pursued the opposition relentlessly often comparing them to Rwanda's interhamwe (meaning "those who stand/work/fight/attack together") genociders. 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 charges of genocide, among many others. Zenawi's own Inquiry Commission has documented that hundreds of peaceful opposition demonstrators were massacred in the streets and over thirty thousand suspected opposition members jailed in the aftermath of the May 2005 elections. In 2008, Zenawi jailed Birtukan Midekssa, the first female opposition political party leader in Ethiopian history, on the ridiculous charge of "denying a pardon". He put her in solitary confinement and categorically and absolutely ruled out any possibility of freedom for her declaring: "There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That's a dead issue." (He let go in October 2010.)

Zenawi has demonized a major opposition group as a "terrorist" organization bent on "creating a rift between the government and the people of Oromiya." In his pursuit of the opposition, he has "used extreme force trapping the civilian population between the insurgents and the government forces." He put on trial and sentenced to death various alleged "members" of Ginbot 7 Movement, and contemptuously described the Movement as an organization of "amateur part-time terrorists". He has intimidated and verbally shredded his former comrade-in-arms who have stood with the opposition and rhetorically clobbered his critics as "muckrakers," "mud dwellers", "sooty," "sleazy," "pompous egotists" and good-for-nothing "chaff" and "husk." He even claimed the opposition was "dirtying up the people like themselves." Opposition parliamentarians are routinely humiliated in public and treated like delinquent children. In parliamentary exchanges, they are mocked for their pronunciation of English words.

When opposition leaders went on the campaign trial in 2010, they were prevented from meeting with voters in their districts as former president Dr. Negasso Gidada and others have documented. Opposition political and civic leaders and dissidents are kept under 24-hour surveillance, and the people they meet are intimidated and harassed. The culture of fear that permeates every aspect of society is reinforced by a structure of repression that is vertically integrated from the very top to the local (kebele) level making peaceful opposition impossible. Unless one is a member of the ruling party, the chances of higher education, employment and other privileges are next to nil. By becoming part of the opposition, the average and not-so-average Ethiopian invites political persecution, economic hardship and social isolation. Under such circumstances, is it any wonder that the Ethiopian opposition is weak and disunited? Is it not ironic that Western donors are unwilling to help the opposition in any way (including giving moral support) yet skulk behind journalistic anonymity to heap dismissive contempt on them while turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to flagrant abuses of human rights and misuse of their aid money to buy votes?

Is the Ethiopian opposition "out of touch with the average Ethiopian"?

The gratuitous backhanded slap on the face of the Ethiopian opposition as "out of touch with the average Ethiopian" has caused disappointment among some political and civic leaders. But the evidence shows that the Western "partners" may actually be right! For instance, Birtukan Midekssa was completely out of touch with any Ethiopian, except her mother and young daughter, for nearly two years. She was spending time in solitary confinement in Kality prison, a/k/a Kality Hilton, feasting on gourmet food and "putting on weight", according to one highly placed source. Following the May 2005 elections, for almost two years, nearly all of the country's opposition party leaders, leading journalists, human rights activists and civic society advocates were completely out of touch with any Ethiopian, except their jailors, at the same Kality Hilton. As to opposition party members and dissidents, tens of thousands of them have completely disappeared from the face of the earth over the past decade alone and are out of touch with anyone. Tens of thousands more are held incommunicado as political prisoners in secret jails. In light of this evidence, could it be denied that the Ethiopian opposition is completely out of touch with the average and not-so-average Ethiopian?

Is the ruling regime in touch with the average Ethiopian?

One would have to answer that question in the affirmative. The whole idea of a police state is to make sure that the rulers stay in very close touch with the average citizen. Zenawi's regime stays in close touch with the average Ethiopian using the services of hundreds of thousands of secret police operatives and informants spying on each individual. Dr. Gidada has documented one of the common ways the regime stays in extremely close touch with the people:

The police and security offices and personnel collect information on each household through other means. One of these methods involves the use of organizations or structures called "shane", which in Oromo means "the five". Five households are grouped together under a leader who has the job of collecting information on the five households... The security chief passes the information he collected to his chief in the higher administrative organs in the Qabale, who in turn informs the Woreda police and security office. Each household is required to report on guests and visitors, the reasons for their visits, their length of stay, what they said and did and activities they engaged in. ... The OPDO/EPRDF runs mass associations (women, youth and micro-credit groups) and party cells ("fathers", "mothers" and "youth"). The party cells in the schools, health institutions and religious institutions also serve the same purpose....

The average and not-so-average Ethiopian looking for a government job or applying for a business license needs to be in close touch with the powers that be to get one. The regime is so in touch with the average and not-so-average Ethiopian that they want them to hear only what they have to say. They have jammed the transmissions of the Voice of America, opposition satellite broadcasts and filtered out websites of regime critics.

Are the Western donors "in touch with the average Ethiopian"?

Western donors are very much in touch with the average Ethiopian, that is in the same way as they were in touch with the average Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni, Bahraini and so on. They were so in touch with the average citizens of these countries that they anticipated and correctly predicted the recent popular uprisings. That was the reason President Obama "applauded" the people for throwing Ben Ali out of Tunisia. The U.S. was so in touch with the realities of the average Egyptian over the past 30 years that President Obama and his foreign policy team froze in stunned silence, flat-footed and twiddling their thumbs and scratching their heads for days before staking out a position on the popular uprising. They could not bring themselves to use the "D" words (dictator, democracy) to describe events in Egypt. Western governments were also very much in touch with Hosni Mubarak floating his ship of state on an ocean of corruption and repression with billions of dollars in military and economic aid. They are very much in touch with Zenawi; after all he is the "guy you can do business with," a partner. Truth be told, they have done tons of business with him over the past 20 years, no less than $26 billion!

Who is "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. The "average" urban adolescent is unemployed and a drop out from school. S/he is frustrated and in despair of his/her future and is likely to engage in a fatal pattern of risky behaviors including drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse, crime and delinquency and sexual activity which exposes him/her to a risk of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases including HIV. The "average" child has a high likelihood of being orphaned and die from malnutrition and is vulnerable to all forms of exploitation, including child labor and sexual. So, who really is in touch with the "average Ethiopian"!?!

Be In Touch With the Youth

Regardless of how the Western donors define the "average Ethiopian", the fact is that s/he is a young person. An estimated 67 percent of the population is under the age of 30, of which 43 percent is below the age of 15. Two of history's evil men understood the importance of staying in touch with the youth population. Vladmir Lenin, the founder of the totalitarian Soviet state said, "Give me just one generation of youth, and I'll transform the whole world." His counterpart in the Third Reich said, "he alone, who owns the youth, gains the future." Both failed because they wanted to use the youths as cannon fodder for their warped vision of world domination. Africa's dictators have ignored and neglected the youths and consigned them to a life of poverty and despair. They have tried to put in the service of their dictatorial rule Africa's best and brightest. They too will fail.

The demographic data on Africa's youth is frightening. As Africa urbanizes rapidly and its population continues to grow uncontrollably (expected to increase from 294 million to 742 million between 2000 and 2030), the number of young people trapped in poverty, hungry and angry will multiply by the tens of millions per year. Frustrated, desperate and denied political space, they will become the powder keg that will implode African societies. African dictators and their Western partners continue to delude themselves into believing that the youth will continue to passively accept and tolerate corruption, repression, abuse of power and denial of basic human rights. But a new generation of African youths is rising up declaring: "Enough is Enough!"

Revolutionary Democracy Meets "Facebook" Democracy in Ethiopia

If Tunisia and Egypt are an indication, Zenawi's vision of revolutionary democracy will in due course collide with the "Facebook" democracy (tech savvy young people creating a functioning civic community using information technology) taking over Africa's youth. Zenawi wrote:

When Revolutionary Democracy permeates the entire society, individuals will start to think alike and all persons will cease having their own independent outlook. In this order, individual thinking becomes simply part of collective thinking because the individual will not be in a position to reflect on concepts that have not been prescribed by Revolutionary Democracy.

This is not democracy (revolutionary or reactionary). In the old days, such "democracy" was called fascism where the national leader (Der Fuhrer) sought to create "organic unity" of the body politic by imposing upon the people uniformity of thought and action through violence, legal compulsion and intense social pressure. It is no longer possible to brainwash, mind control and indoctrinate impressionable young people with meaningless ideology as though they are helpless and fatuous members of a weird religious cult. The days of programming human beings as jackbooted robots marching to the order of "Der Fuhrer" are long gone.

"Facebook" democrats reject any totalitarian notions of "individual thinking becoming part of collective thinking". They do not need a single mind, a single party, a single operating system to do the thinking for them. Africa's youths have their own unique outlook and independent voice on their present circumstances and their future. History shows that every regime that has sought to force unanimity of opinion and belief among its citizens has found the unanimity of the graveyard. When free speech, free press and the rule of law permeate society, and human rights and the voices of the people are respected and protected, citizens will experience dignity and self-respect and muster the courage and determination to forge their own destinies.

There are enough young Africans with the idealism, creativity, knowledge, technical ability and genius to transform the old fear-ridden Africa into their own brave new Africa. In this effort, they do not need the guiding hands or the misguided ideas of ideologues from a bygone era. Western partners have the choice of supporting a brave new Africa of young people on the march or they can continue their "partnership" in the crime of democricide with the old "stable" police states careening to the dustbin of history. With the recent departure of two of the most powerful and entrenched police chiefs, and others teetering, the West may not be able to shoehorn the youths of (the Horn of) Africa into silence and submission from boardrooms in Berlin, Washington, London, Rome, Paris...

Power to Africa's Youths!