By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / November 9, 2009
“No alternative in the opposition,” they whispered anonymously. What a disgusting phrase to use in justifying support for a ruthless dictatorship? That is apparently the scuttlebutt on Embassy Row in Addis Abeba. Reuters’ Barry Malone reported last week, “Most Western governments want Meles to continue because there is no alternative in the opposition. As long as the elections are semi-democratic, they'll probably stay quiet, keep giving aid, hope for liberalisation of the economy and leave full democracy for later.” Is this the ultimate proof of the triumph of Western moral relativism, hypocrisy and skullduggery in Ethiopia and Africa? Is this the new 21st Century Western paradigm of moral capitulation and appeasement of evil? Is the West going to a moral hellhole in a hand basket?
We now have a clear answer to a question that had puzzled us for the past two decades: Why do Western governments and their multilateral lending institutions support Zenawi’s dictatorship with billions of dollars in loans and foreign aid? Answer: Because “there is no alternative in the opposition!” Why do they turn a blind eye to the gross violations of human rights in Ethiopia? Turn a deaf ear to the bootless cries of the thousands of Ethiopian political prisoners rotting in Zenawi’s jail? Pretend to be mute on Birtukan Midekssa’s unjust imprisonment? Prop up a regime that ruthlessly decimates its opposition, crushes the free press, chokes civil society organizations, squanders and defalcates foreign aid and loans and lords imperiously over a famine-ravaged country? Why do “most Western governments want Meles to continue?” Answer: “Because there is no alternative in the opposition!”
It is agonizing to finally come face to face with the banality of depraved Western diplomatic indifference in Addis Abeba. It is heartbreaking to learn that Western governments have earnestly resolved to humanize and normalize a brutal regime while preaching to Africans in forked tongue that their dictators are on the wrong side of morality and history. They shed crocodile tears for the victims of African dictators. They comfort the helpless and frightened African masses with sweet words of hope and grand promises of democratic renaissance. Now we have come to find out that the hypocrites are secretly in bed with the very dictators they condemn in public! It must be true that “politics makes for strange bedfellows.”
The “no alternative in the opposition” Western diplomatic mantra and mindset could have devastating consequences on Ethiopia and other African countries suffering under the stranglehold of dictatorial rule. It means the seeds of the rule of law will die on the barren soil of African dictatorships; that totalitarianism and police states are morally justified and compelled in Africa whenever Western governments conclude there are “no alternatives in the opposition”; that state-sponsored violence and repression are necessary moral imperatives for the nurturance of an “emerging democracy”; and that dictatorship is necessary to save Ethiopians, and Africans in general, from themselves. Simply stated, the triumph of dictatorship in Africa is a necessary precondition for the rapture of democracy in Africa. Such has become the pitiful logic of moral decay and duplicity of Western governments in Africa today!
Of course, the whole notion of “no alternative in the opposition” is absurd and patently false in its premise and conclusion. There is definitely a viable alternative it the opposition in Ethiopia, but Zenawi ruthlessly eliminates and roots out any opposition before it poses a real challenge to him. Birtukan Midekksa and her Unity, Democracy and Justice party represent a viable opposition; but a year ago Zenawi jailed Birtukan for life on the ridiculous charge of denying a pardon. Medrek, an alliance of eight parties, is a viable opposition, but Zenawi refuses to jointly develop a consensus-based election code of conduct with it. He wants to shove down the opposition’s throat his own self-serving election code of conduct while grandstanding for Western governments that he is willing, ready and able to have free and fair elections.
Zenawi has completely paralyzed the real opposition by intimidation and brutal repression. Just last week, “documents were given to Reuters by four opposition parties listing  prisoners’ names, the dates on which they were arrested and the jails in which they were being held.” Gizachew Shiferaw, deputy leader of the Unity for Democracy and Justice party told Reuters, “These jailings stop our members running in elections. It has become a strategy for the ruling party. Ethiopia is a one-party state.” The All Ethiopia Unity Organization has recorded seven politically-motivated murders of its members over the last 12 months. Last month, Ethiopia’s former president, Dr. Negasso Gidada, presented a mound of anecdotal evidence documenting the complete absence of a “level playing field” for the 2010 “election”. If there is “no alternative in the opposition,” as the Western governments claim, it is because a real opposition can not survive in a totalitarian police state!
In the Catch-22 diplomatic netherworld of Addis Abeba, the strategy is obvious: “It is better to deal with a devil you know than an angel you do not know.” In Ethiopia’s case, one must grudgingly give the “devil his due.” For the past two decades, Western governments have been confounded, hoodwinked, bambozzled, bluffed, duped, manipulated, seduced, beguiled, flim-flammed and sandbagged by a master of deception into believing that there is “no alternative in the opposition”.
But the canard of “no alternative in the opposition” could mask something more sinisterly selfish. Western governments apparently have their eyes transfixed on getting a lion’s share of the “lucrative telecommunications and banking industries in a nation of more than 80 million people” and “exporting commodities and exploring Ethiopia for probable oil and gas deposits.” They are scared that “if the opposition takes power, the future would be uncertain and investments delayed as foreign governments and lenders jostle for influence.” Hidden under the thick layers of hypocrisy is a deliberate decoupling of dictatorship from democracy and good governance and a coupling of calculated long-term economic interests with the strengthening of a stable dictatorship to advance a scheme of globalized economic exploitation in Ethiopia. In the old days, they called such things neo-colonialism. It is not clear what they call them these days, but there is no doubt that Ethiopian democracy and the Ethiopian people are held hostage in the grand cut-throat global competition for oil, gas and exports.
Western governments and multilateral lending institutions know better. As President Obama said, “Africa needs strong institutions, not strong men.” Or in the common idiom, “It is not about the man. It is about the plan.” They should be engaged in institution-building, not armor-plating the clenched fists of African dictators. They should use their financial leverage to help build strong multiparty institutions, facilitate clean fraud-free elections, establish structures of accountability, institutionalize the rule of law, fortify the protection of human rights and strengthening civil society institutions in Africa. That’s how viable alternatives in the opposition are created, nurtured and sustained in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa.
It is a truism to say that full democratization will take time in Africa. There will be many uncertainties and obstacles to Africa’s democratic development. Having an “alternative in the opposition” is not a panacea to Ethiopia’s decades-old problems. Any “alternative” to dictatorship in Ethiopia would have to deal with the legacy of human rights violations, economic mismanagement, corruption and the social chaos spawned by the dictatorship’s catastrophic “ethnic federalism” program. There will be many false starts and trials and errors on the road to democracy under an “alternative opposition.”
Western governments should be careful not to cerate and perpetuate an insidious myth that Africa has no alternative to dictatorship. It is psychologically devastating to tell 80 million Ethiopians that Western governments will support Zenawi’s dictatorship because they believe there are “no alternatives in the opposition.” Such a callous and cold-blooded attitude conveys a defeatist message to Ethiopians. It sends a signal that Ethiopians should abandon all hope of freedom and democracy because they are doomed and destined to eternal dictatorship. This attitude inherently de-legitimizes, disregards and ridicules the efforts of emerging opposition groups, and effectively tranquilizes them into stunned silence, depriving them of the confidence needed to stand up for democracy, freedom and human rights. Ironfisted dictators will no doubt be emboldened by this windfall of appeasement. Ultimately, this attitude of do-nothing-now and turn-a-blind eye to dictatorship will undermine the long-term policy interests of Western governments in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa by incapacitating them from using the vast financial leverage they have to aid Africa transition from dictatorship to democracy and pursue their geopolitical interests.
None of the foregoing is intended to suggest the Ethiopian opposition is blameless. Those genuinely in the opposition must accept responsibility for their inability to come together and articulate a vision for the country. They deserve blame for squandering valuable opportunities to build organizational alliances, develop alternative policies and train young leaders. Of course, there have been Judases in the opposition who have been willing to sacrifice the cause of democracy on the altar of dictatorship and kneel down and kiss the blood-drenched hands of Herod for thirty pieces of silver. But that is no excuse for not closing ranks against dictatorship now, and presenting a united front in support of democracy, freedom and human rights.
The catchphrases bandied around in the Western diplomatic cocktail circuits in Addis Abeba today probably go something like this: “Democracy is a dead end road in Ethiopia. Dictatorship is the beacon of light for Ethiopia’s future. Forget about the famine, human rights violations, corruption and the rest of it. Ethiopia is doomed because she has ‘no alternatives in the opposition!’”
Excellencies, it is said you will support Zenawi’s dictatorship “as long as the  elections are semi-democratic”. To believe a dictatorship can be semi-democratic is to believe a woman can be a little bit pregnant. Do not deceive yourselves, and do not write us off just yet. In the long run, Ethiopians, and Africans in general, will receive the blessings of democracy by evolution or revolution! For now, we want you to know that Ethiopians are double victims of crime. They are victimized by dictators who have perpetrated upon them crimes against humanity with impunity. They are also victims of the crime of depraved indifference to their suffering by those who continue to coddle, aid and abet the criminals who have committed upon them crimes against humanity. Let it be known that we make no distinctions between the two types of criminals. Excellencies, that is why every patriotic and human rights-loving Ethiopian shall face you in righteous indignation, and charge: “J’Accuse!”
The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at email@example.com