In contempt of ... the truth

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / September 28, 2009
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Commenting recently on an International Crisis Group (ICG) study dealing with rising ethnic tensions and dissent in advance of the “May 2010” elections, Ethiopia’s arch dictator wisecracked, “This happens as some people have too many billions of dollars to spend and they feel that dictating how, particularly, the developing countries manage their affairs is their God given right and to use their God given money to that purpose. They are entitled to their opinion as we are entitled to ours.”

The dictator’s opinion of the ICG and its findings was predictably boorish: “The analysis (ICG report) is not worth the price of or the cost of writing it up,” he harangued. “We have only contempt for the ICG. You do not respond to something you only have contempt for.” The dictator boasted that his “ethnic federalism” policy had saved the “country [which] was on the brink of total disintegration.” He marshaled anonymous authorities to support his fabricated claim that he is the redeemer of the nation: “Every analyst worth his salt was suggesting that Ethiopia will go the way of Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union. What we have now is a going-concern."

Daniela Kroslak, ICG’s Deputy Director of the Africa Program, denied the dictator’s wild and bizarre denunciations. At any rate, the dictator’s criticism was a “tale full of sound and fury signifying nothing,” as Shakespeare might have said. He had not read the report! Why? Because it “was not worthy of [his] time.” The dictator unabashedly criticizes a report he had not even read -- a textbook case of argumentum ad ignorantiam (argument to ignorance). In other words, because the report is “not worth the cost of the paper it is written on”, it is not “worthy” of being read; therefore, it is false and contemptible.) Trashing a report completed by a respected international think-tank (ICG provides regular advice to governments, and intergovernmental bodies like the United Nations, the European Union and the World Bank) and heaping contempt on its authors is a poor substitute for a rigorous, reasoned and factually-supported refutation of the report’s findings, analysis and arguments.

Truth be told, contempt is the emotional currency of the dictator. ICG just happens to be the latest object of the dictator’s wrathful contempt. The dictator’s record over the past two decades shows that he has total contempt for truth, the Ethiopian people, the rule of law, human rights, the free press, an independent judiciary, dissenters, opposition leaders and parties, popular sovereignty, the ballot box, clean elections, international human rights organizations, international law, international public opinion, Western donors who demand accountability, and even his own supporters who disagree with him and his flunkeys…

The Evidence: Does the ICG and Its Report Deserve Contempt or Credit?

The ICG report is balanced, judicious, honest and meticulously documented. Entitled, “Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism and Its Discontents” (29 pages without appendix, and an astonishing 315 scholarly and other original source references for such a short report), the report “applauds” the dictator’s constitution for its “commitment to liberal democracy and respect for political freedoms and human rights.” It credits the dictatorship for “stimulating economic growth and expanding public services”. The study even approvingly notes the “proliferation of political parties” under the dictatorship’s watch.

The report is not a whitewash. It also points out failures. The most glaring failure is the radical political “restructuring” engendered by “ethnic federalism” to “redefine citizenship, politics and identity on ethnic grounds.” The study suggests that the “intent [of “ethnic federalism”] was to create a more prosperous, just and representative state for all its people.” However, the result has been the development of “an asymmetrical federation that combines populous regional states like Oromiya and Amhara in the central highlands with sparsely populated and underdeveloped ones like Gambella and Somali.” Moreover, “ethnic federalism” has created “weak regional states”, “empowered some groups” and failed to resolve the “national question”. Aggravating the underlying situation has been the dictatorship’s failure to promote “dialogue and reconciliation” among groups in Ethiopian society, further fueling “growing discontent with the EPRDF’s ethnically defined state and rigid grip on power and fears of continued inter-ethnic conflict.”

The ICG report implicitly criticizes the opposition as well. It notes that they are “divided and disorganized” and unable to publicly show that they could overcome “EPDRF’s” claim that they are not “qualified to take power via the ballot box.” As a result, the 2010 elections “most probably will be much more contentious, as numerous opposition parties are preparing to challenge the EPRDF, which is likely to continue to use its political machine to retain its position.” The study also addresses the role of the international community, which it claims “has ignored or downplayed all these problems.” The donor community is specifically criticized for lacking objective and balanced perspective as they “appear to consider food security more important than democracy in Ethiopia, but they neglect the increased ethnic awareness and tensions created by the regionalisation policy and their potentially explosive consequences.” The report does not even spare the defunct Derg regime, which historically was responsible for “repression, failed economic policy and forced resettlement and ‘villagisation’.”

Of course, none of the foregoing is known to those who are willfully ignorant of the report, but have chosen to preoccupy their minds with hubris, hypocrisy, arrogance and contempt for the truth.

Opinion versus Facts

The dictator said, “They (ICG) are entitled to their opinion as we are entitled to ours.” That is true. But as the common saying goes, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.” The facts on the dictatorship and “ethnic federalism” are infamous and incontrovertible. It is not a matter of opinion, but hard fact, that after the 2005 elections the dictator unleashed security forces under his personal control to undertake a massive “crackdown on the opposition [that] demonstrated the extent to which the regime is willing to ignore popular protest and foreign criticism to hold on to power.” It is a proven fact by the dictator’s own Inquiry Commission, not opinion, that his “security forces killed almost 200 civilians (the real number is many times that) and arrested an estimated 30,000 opposition supporters”. It is a plain fact that “there is growing discontent with the EPRDF’s ethnically defined state and rigid grip on power and fears of continued inter-ethnic conflict.” It is an undeniable fact that the dictatorship has caused “continuous polarisation of national politics that has sharpened tensions between and within parties and ethnic groups since the mid-1990s. The EPRDF’s ethnic federalism has not dampened conflict, but rather increased competition among groups that vie over land and natural resources, as well as administrative boundaries and government budgets.” It is a fact just as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow that “Without genuine multi-party democracy, the tensions and pressures in Ethiopia’s polities will only grow, greatly increasing the possibility of a violent eruption that would destabilise the country and region.”

It is true the dictator is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts!

The Art of Distraction

What could possibly be “contemptible” about the ICG report? The obvious way to counter a report by a respected international think-tank is by presenting countervailing evidence that undermines confidence in the report’s findings and conclusions. But the dictator opts for something proverbially attributed to the legal profession: “When the law is against you, argue the facts. When the facts are against you, argue the law. When both are against you, pound the table and attack and abuse the plaintiff.” In this case, when you can’t handle the facts and the truth, throw a fit, make a scene, vilify the ICG, demonize the individual authors, demean the report with cheap shots and declare moral victory with irrational outbursts.

But why throw a temper tantrum?

The fact of the matter is that “ethnic federalism” is indefensible in theory or practice. The ICG report hit a raw nerve by exposing the fundamental flaws in the dictatorship’s phony “ethnic federalism” ideology. The report makes it crystal clear that the scheme of “ethnic federalism” is unlikely to keep the nine ethnic-based states in orbit around the dictatorship much longer. The ICG’s reasonable fear is that over time irrepressible centripetal political contradictions deep within Ethiopian society could potentially trigger an implosion of the Ethiopian nation. This argument is logical, factually-supported and convincing. As we have previously suggested, “ethnic federalism” is a glorified nomenclature for apartheid-style Bantustans1. By unloading verbal abuse and sarcasm on the ICG, the dictator is trying to divert attention from the central finding of the report: Ethnic federalism is highly likely to lead to the disintegration of the Ethiopian nation. That is what the dictator’s sound and fury is all about!

What Makes for a Strong Federalism?

We believe the ICG report does not go far enough in explicitly suggesting a way out of the “ethnic federalism” morass. It seems implicit in the report that if “ethnic federalism” is dissolved as a result of forceful action by the “states”, the country’s national disintegration could be accelerated. If the dictatorship fails to reform or modify it significantly, ethnic tensions will continue to escalate resulting in an inevitable upheaval. If the dictatorship escalates its use of force to keep itself in power, it could pave the way for the ultimate and inevitable collapse of the country into civil strife. All of these scenarios place the Ethiopian people on the horns of a dilemma.

We believe there are important elements from the Ghanaian Constitution that could be incorporated to produce a strong and functioning federal system in Ethiopia. As we have argued before2 , Ghana’s 1992 Constitution provides a powerful antidote to the poison of ethnic and tribal politics: “Every political party shall have a national character, and membership shall not be based on ethnic, religious, regional or other sectional divisions.” Membership in a political party is open to “every citizen of Ghana of voting age” and every citizen has the right to “disseminate information on political ideas, social and economic programmes of a national character.” Ghanaian citizens’ political and civic life is protected by the rule of law and an independent judiciary. Citizens freely express their opinions without fear of government retaliation; and the media vociferously criticizes government policies and officials without censorship. Ghana has a strong judiciary with extraordinary constitutional powers to the point of making the failure to obey or carry out the terms of a Supreme Court order a “high crime”. Ghana’s independent electoral commission is responsible for voter registration, demarcation of electoral boundaries, conduct and oversight of all public elections and referenda and electoral education. The Commission’s decisions are respected by all political parties. These are the essential elements missing from the bogus theory of “ethnic federalism” foisted upon the people of Ethiopia.

Ob la di, Ob la da…

It is truly pathetic that after nearly twenty years in power the best the dictators can offer the suffering Ethiopian people is an empty plate and a bellyful of contempt, acrimony and anger. Well, ob la di, ob la da, life goes on forever! So will the Ethiopian Nation, united and strong under the rule of law and the Grace of the Almighty. If South Africa can be delivered from the plague of the Bantustans, have no doubts whatsoever that Ethiopia will also be delivered from the plague of the Kililistans!