One Ethiopia

This is a log of the lonely thoughts of a man who has grown old in a foreign land.

April 08, 2006

Observations on Developments in the News

Charles Taylor Shipped to Liberia: Sometimes the news I find to be of interest are not reports on developments in Ethiopia or about Ethiopians abroad. Sometimes, developments elsewhere in the world hold great potentials to impact life in Ethiopia in profound ways. I thought that the news about Nigeria’s handover of Liberian strongman Charles Taylor to the Liberian authorities and subsequently to the U.N. tribunal on Sierra Leone would impact the future of Ethiopia almost as much as it would that of Liberia or Sierra Leone. Many in the mainstream media ballyhooed the news as the dawning of a new day in Africa. There thinking was that perhaps this will start the ball rolling on the repatriation of so many other strongmen with blood in their hands who took refuge in neighboring countries. Among the many names mentioned was that of our own butcher Mengistu.

But to me, it is not the prospect of Mengistu’s repatriation that makes the developments in the Taylor case of interest to Ethiopians. The relevance of the Taylor case to Ethiopia actually has to do with the prospects of finding a peaceful resolution to the current political impasse rather than to visiting revenge on butcher of yesteryear. You see, we have in our middle a man who just might have crossed the point of no return as far as being able to live a free man as a private citizen in his own country. I speak of Ato Meles, he who refused every opportunity to access one graceful exit strategy after another. Instead, as the popular struggle continues to loosen his grip on power, in his conundrum, he deploys ever more irrational and more repressive measures against the people in a desperate effort to hold on to power.

The more blood Ato Meles spills, the less likely it becomes for him to walk out of the PM’s office on his own two feet. It certainly becomes less and less likely for him to retire to a nice retreat by the lake in Awassa or Bahir Dar. A decade and half ago, Mengistu was in exactly the same situation. His backers, the USSR, had given up on the world socialist movement. His economy was in shambles. His army was demoralized after fighting for decades multi-front wars that seen to have no end. As his demise becomes obvious, people who lost loved ones as well as those who were themselves victimized by his goons were lined up to tear him up at the first opportunity. It was at such a juncture that Colonel Mengistu was encouraged to skip town with his skin intact. He was always thought have street smarts. He assessed the situation and took the first opportunity to skip town.

As recently as last week, I as many others, was expecting a similar end for Ato Meles. Then came the headline: “Africans hope Taylor case sets precedent”. And what a precedent it would be for us, should it actually represent a new African reality. It would then mean that Ato Meles will see no reason to flee if he is going to find himself back in Kerchele or in Kaliti within a year or two. Thus, the story about the capture of Charles Taylor, the purveyor of death and suffering in Liberia and Sierra Leone, struck me not as a harbinger of hope but as a recipe for prolonging Ethiopia’s misery.

Colonial Viceroy II: It was a beautiful thing. The congressional hearing on Ethiopia, that is. Finally, it was not just Ethiopians who were characterizing the events which unfolded of the course of the last year as a heist. Witness after witness, congressmen after congressman declared that what the Meles regime stole was not just the election. It was not even state power that was stolen. These hearings declared that Meles and company stole the hope of a country that has suffered for so long. The hearings made it clear that the heist was meant to blow out the flicker of hope which had began to rise in Ethiopia. Even though all of us have heard the stories before, it was heartening to hear it from new faces and new voices. It was nice for a change to hear American public officials state the facts as they were. Yes there was the ever illusive Donald Yamamato skirting around every congressman’s question. But, the congressmen themselves, including those who ended up voting against the bill, were right on the mark in their comments.

The last twelve months have seen one Ethiopian hero after another rise up and defend our people and our cause. I counted three such heroes in that hearing, including two I have never heard of before. Eloquent, passionate and brave in their delivery, these men and the lady made me proud to be an Ethiopian. Of course there was another Ethiopian who had the unenviable task of defending the indefensible act of Meles. I actually felt sorry for him. I know I should be angry at him. But I had no anger for him that day – only pity.

And then there was Congressman Chris Smith. He was one of those people who sometimes pickup a foreign people’s cause and fights against the odds and refuses to veer of from the truth that he knows to be there even when he is going against his government, perhaps against his party’s leadership. Congressman Smith is quickly turning himself to be a later day Sylvia Pankhurst as it relates to the cause of Ethiopia. Just as Mrs. Pankhurst became the spokesperson for the cause of Ethiopian freedom in London working against established British policy of collaboration with Fascist Italy in the 1930s, Rep. Smith is working to get the U.S. government to wakeup from its slumber and to smell the odder of the bedfellow it has chosen in the Horn of Africa.

For that, he got declared “colonial viceroy 2” by Meles and company. I knew this was coming, the moment I watched the proceedings. I only hope that Mr. Smith knows that Ethiopians are not at all like that. These are carefully calculated moves intended to draw a reaction from Mr. Smith. I also hope someone who has contact with Congressman Smith’s office would let them know that the developments during the week of March 28 through April 3rd have made him a folk hero. In my eyes and the eyes of many other Ethiopians, that shameful letter meant to demonize him actually amounts to a beatification of the congressman.

What next for HR 4423: Before, I go too far from the congressional hearings, let me remind my compatriots in the U.S. to build on this and to bring this to a successful close. We need to intensify our efforts to find support for the bill in the full House and to find sponsors of a companion bill in the U.S. Senate. No effort is too little and no group too small to have an impact. Let me recite a story to show what a few men could do. I happen to know that six ordinary Ethiopians who live in Florida and Georgia, working together, were responsible for getting the support of two of the first 9 cosponsors of the HR4423. I know there are more talented individuals and much larger Ethiopian communities in cities and states across the United States. Let us all go out in force over the next few weeks and knock the doors of our congressmen to get the bill passed and to secure sponsors for a senate version. All it takes is announcing who you are (a constituent, a voter) and what you want your representative to do (to support HR 4423 and thereby stop tyranny and bring back hope to 77 million fellow human beings).

It is Dessie and Awassa now: We have been witness to this before. One week it is Gondar, the next week it is Ambo. The people of Ethiopia refuse to give up and bow down in the face of repression. Young people across the land are fighting tyranny. What a heart warming story it is. In spite of Meles’ claim about an evil network of trouble makers launched by the devilish CUD, all of this is taking place spontaneously. Without coordination, without a great design, without central orchestration, without even any communication between independent groups, Ethiopia’s children are fighting the evil which tries to sniff out their hope for a better tomorrow.

The last word about the Ethiopian Intifada was that the children of Dessie have laid siege to the government in Dessie and have taken control of the city. Though the numbers are less spectacular, you hear the same in Awassa. The children of Addis of course never sleep. Nor do those in West Gojam and Wolega. When a people get even a whiff of freedom, there is no stopping them. Like the heroine Birtukan Medekisa said, CUD is but the spirit of the new Ethiopia. You cannot bottle it up with sheer force. You cannot sniff it out by detaining a few people or a few thousand.

Is it a change of heart or just another flimflam in the shell game? There is a pattern in the way the Bush administration conducts foreign policy this days. First it takes indefensible positions which appear to be at odds with the long term national interest. Subsequently, when things do not work out, instead of admitting error and making a clean break, the administration gives convoluted explanations about a goal achieved and the pursuit of a new set of goals given the new realities. I thought the comments of Ambassador Vickie Huddleston, Charge’ d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa might be the first indications of a change of heart or a coming to one’s senses for the U.S. Of course, since the U.S. is committed to the cafeteria approach in its policy prescriptions – a presentation with a little bit for everyone – it is rather difficult to be sure if there is a real change of heart here.

There is the encouraging statement that "we remain very, very concerned about the CUD leaders and the civil society (members) who are detained. We feel that, in the end, their release is absolutely necessary to a reconciliation process. It can’t go on like this, for this process both sides need to be ready to compromise. To have a dialogue with all the opposition it is terribly important for the future of the country and it is certainly an objective and a priority of our government. We are now 39 days before a year after the elections, it is also five months since the riots in November and the tragedy that followed, I think it is now time to move forward and for commitment. We would like to see more progress, better respect for human rights, a more professional security forces and faster movement so that the opposition parties feel that they are really listened to".

But there is also the statement that “the government should speed up the ongoing trial of 111 opposition party leaders, members and journalists who are currently facing charges of attempted genocide and treason stemming from mass demonstrations against the May 2005 parliamentary elections.” And if the Reporter is to be trusted, Ms. Huddleston also made the following, even more heinous comment: “As much as we would like to see the opposition leaders out of jail -we doubt that is going to happen immediately - we say let the process go ahead, because there is a process under way.”

So, I am left with the question I opened this section with still begging for an answer. Is the Bush administration having a change of heart but just unable to find the right language for announcing its about face, or is this just a flimflam meant to mollify the increasingly restive Ethiopian populace? Time will certainly tell where we stand.

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