“No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end.” Thus spoke President Barack Obama last week to Africa’s tin-pot dictators using the Ghanaian parliament as a sounding board.
During the presidential campaign and over the past seven months, many Ethiopians had expressed uncertainty and apprehension about the future direction of U.S. foreign policy in Ethiopia. Some thought President Obama would continue the knee-jerk terror-centric policies of George Bush; other believed it would be the dawn of a new day in U.S. policy. We offered analyses which foretold the orientation of U.S. foreign policy in Ethiopia and Africa under an Obama administration.1
The President’s speech in Accra was both a diagnosis of what ails Africa, particularly Ethiopia, and a set of remedial prescriptions. President Obama spoke disapprovingly of the divisive and outdated politics of tribalism and ethnicity which continues to poison the African body politics. He urged Africans to reconcile around their common humanity and Africanity. He spoke of the corrosive effects of corruption on the soul of Africa and urged good governance to restore hope in the spirit of the African people. He declared Africa's future is up to Africans, but challenged Africa’s youth to mold and shape it.
The Poison of Tribalism and Ethnic Politics
President Obama blasted identity politics as a canker in the African body politics:
We all have many identities - of tribe and ethnicity; of religion and nationality. But defining oneself in opposition to someone who belongs to a different tribe, or who worships a different prophet, has no place in the 21st century…. In my father's life, it was partly tribalism and patronage in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is a daily fact of life for far too many….
Few countries in Africa today are more afflicted and conflicted by the artificially engineered ethno-tribal virus than Ethiopia. Using a completely phony theory of “ethnic (tribal) federalism”, the dictators in Ethiopia have created what amounts to apartheid-style Bantustans or tribal homelands. They have segregated the Ethiopian people by ethno-tribal classification in grotesque regional political units called “kilils”. This sinister perversion of the concept of federalism has enabled a few cunning dictators to oppress, divide and rule some 80 million people for nearly two decades.
We have called them out on their divide-and-rule politics.2 We have repeatedly called upon them to tear down of the walls of tribalism and ethnicity. Our humanity, we asserted, is more important than our ethnicity, nationality, sovereignty or Africanity! We are not prisoners to be kept behind tribal walls, but free men and women who are captains of our future in one unwalled Ethiopia that belongs to all of us equally. We echo President Obama, and President Reagan from another era, when we call upon those who built the tribal walls to tear them down once again: “Zenawi, tear down the kilil tribal walls behind which you have kept our people locked up! Let them go before you go!”
The Fundamental Truth: Development Depends on Good Governance
President Obama said,
We must first recognize a fundamental truth that you have given life to in Ghana: development depends upon good governance. That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long…
The dictators in Ethiopia have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are clueless about good governance; and their idea of development is ripping off the people to enrich their relatives and friends. “Concentrat[ion] of wealth in the hands of the few [that] leaves people too vulnerable to downturns” is not development.
Good governance is based on a set of objective measures. We subscribe to the 8 benchmark parameters of good governance set by the U.N.: Participation (men and women participate equally in political and civil society institutions); rule of law (an independent judiciary and impartial law enforcement agencies administer the justice system with strict adherence to the law of the land); transparency (public decisions are made and implemented according to established rules and regulations); responsiveness (public needs are met in a timely manner); consensus-building (the different interests of groups in society are harmonized in formulating policy); equity and inclusiveness (individuals and groups feel they have a stake in society and do not feel excluded); effectiveness and efficiency (scarce resources are used for maximum public benefit and service); accountability (leaders and institutions are accountable to the public and under law). In sum, good governance is to development as water is to a bountiful harvest. No water, no harvest!
Good Governance is Sustained by Respect for Human Rights
Just as development is based good governance, we believe respect for human rights is the sustaining force for good governance. Human rights principles provide a set of values to anchor and guide leaders, institutions and processes in serving the common good. Political action and reforms guided by principles enumerated in international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and conventions dealing with the rights of the child, elimination of discrimination based on gender and religion, and protection of economic, social and cultural rights and others, are central to the development of a fair and just society in Ethiopia.
The New Pillar of American Foreign Policy in Africa
President Obama announced that his administration’s policy in Africa will be guided by a simple principle: The U.S will provide support for the establishment of strong democratic governments, enhanced protections for human rights and assistance to victims of human rights violations, and efforts aimed at rooting out corruption in Africa. He said the U.S. will “sanction and stop those who” violate human rights:
First, we must support strong and sustainable democratic governments. Governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable and more successful than governments that do not. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves… In the 21st century, capable, reliable and transparent institutions are the key to success - strong parliaments and honest police forces; independent judges and journalists; a vibrant private sector and civil society. Those are the things that give life to democracy, because that is what matters in peoples' lives….
In Moscow, I spoke of the need for an international system where the universal rights of human beings are respected, and violations of those rights are opposed. That must include a commitment to support those who resolve conflicts peacefully, to sanction and stop those who don't, and to help those who have suffered.
The President made it clear that democracy is about outcomes such as “strong parliaments and honest police forces; independent judges and journalists; a vibrant private sector and civil society.” He disagrees with those who claim that “democracy is about process, it’s not about outcome… If the process is clean and you get zero, tough luck.”
“Brutality and bribery” are the engines of tyranny, the President asserted. Economic chaos packaged as a litany of “ten percent annual growth” is not development; and American taxpayers will not provide aid to support such “development”. In short, American support to African regimes will be contingent on the implementation of “concrete solutions to corruption like forensic accounting, automating services, strengthening hot lines and protecting whistle-blowers to advance transparency and accountability, peaceful transfers of power, ending brutal repression, growth of civil society institutions, expansion of political space for civic participation and youth involvement.”
Africa’s Salvation Will Come Through Its Youth
President Obama knows that talking to African tin pot dictators is like pouring water on a slab of granite. There will be no penetration. The dictators will probably sit around in their echo chambers and lament the fact that the President is naïve about African politics and its complexities. The fact is that he is not only well informed on Africa, he is also fully prepared to deal with African dictators. After all, he cut his teeth on Chicago politics. In his eloquent and artful way, the President told the African dictators that they are not only decidedly on the wrong side of history, but also that they are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things:
Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions….
We have learned that it will not be giants like Nkrumah and Kenyatta who will determine Africa's future. Instead, it will be you - the men and women in Ghana's Parliament, and the people you represent. Above all, it will be the young people - brimming with talent and energy and hope…
And I am particularly speaking to the young people. In places like Ghana, you make up over half of the population. Here is what you must know: the world will be what you make of it. You have the power to hold your leaders accountable and to build institutions that serve the people. You can serve in your communities and harness your energy and education to create new wealth and build new connections to the world. You can conquer disease, end conflicts and make change from the bottom up. You can do that. Yes you can.”
The role of youth in Ethiopia’s future deserves special attention. It is manifest that the dictators today have little interest in developing Ethiopia’s youth to “hold leaders accountable and build institutions that serve the people.” The dictators aim to mobilize, ideologize and “harness the energy of Ethiopian youth” to create armies of androids that will serve them obsequiously. They understand Hitler’s maxim: “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.” For this reason, it is instructive to watch the video of the recently stage-managed youth conference of the dictators available on ethiotube.net.
While the dictators abuse the youth, the opposition and the older generation has largely ignored them. Truth be told, we have done a poor job of preparing Ethiopian youth for their historic role in rebuilding and reorganizing the new Ethiopian society. We have become less than inspiring role models by our inability to set good examples of tolerance, harmony and collaboration. We have done little to teach the youth of our mistakes so that they will not repeat them. We have offered them little clarity to remove their confusion and uncertainties. We have failed to empower them in defending human rights. The dictators hold “conferences” to steal the souls of Ethiopian youth. What have we done to harness their idealism to serve their country and people? What have we done to inspire their minds, free their spirits and fortify their hearts in the historic task of reconstructing a new Ethiopia unburdened by tribalism, sectarianism, sexism and corruption?
The president is absolutely right. Africa’s, and Ethiopia’s, future will be shaped by its youth. The sooner we, who profess our faith in freedom, democracy and human rights, realize and own up to this irrefutable fact and begin helping them, the sooner will come Africa’s salvation. Young Ethiopians need good role models. Let each one of us strive to be one, for in the end the future belongs to them.
We should not expect quick results from the President’s speech. We must understand that the Obama administration does not have all of its Africa hands on deck; and the President is preoccupied with many domestic issues. Suffice it to say to African dictators that Barack Obama is not George Bush.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org