Echo Chamber for Dictatorship?

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / June 15, 2009
Fierce Urgency of Speaking Truth to Power

Are we becoming an echo chamber for the dictatorship in Ethiopia by repeating its never-ending political babble and lies?

In the high-decibel Diaspora critique of oppression, widespread human rights violations and political dysfunction in Ethiopia, I have observed in dismay some pro-democracy activists, civic leaders, bloggers and media elements parroting and, sometimes unwittingly, toeing the line ordained by the ruling dictatorship. Recently, I did a radio interview in which I was asked for my views on the “coming 2010 elections in Ethiopia,” the “new anti-terrorism law that is before the parliament,” and the “criminal charges and court case against those accused of plotting a coup”, among other things. On previous occasions, I have been asked to comment on “Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia”, the “civic society law,” the “new press law”, and the “revocation of pardon granted to Birtukan” and other topics.

I have often found questions on such topics mildly amusing, but also deeply troubling. By discussing and commenting on such topics without contextualizing and clarifying the assumptions that underlie them, one creates the risk of confusion and confirmation of facts which do not objectively exist. Here I am concerned about the loose and uncritical use of language in political dialogue and discourse. George Orwell, the famous English author whose penetrating understanding of totalitarianism, oppression and the need for clarity in language, argued that modern political prose and speech is intended to hide the truth rather than express it; and by using buzzwords and political platitudes one’s political consciousness and understanding of reality could be badly distorted. Orwell explained, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Political designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind…”

Guarding Against “Doublethink”, “Doublespeak” and the Case for Unmasking Dictatorship

In our time, the means of communication available far exceed any limits that can be imposed upon them by the likes of Orwell’s all powerful Big Brother. The internet makes information available instantaneously to untold millions, which makes the task and duty of telling the truth urgent and all important because of the potential impact of propagating lies on the collective psyche of the citizens who inhabit the borderless cyberspace. Those of us who communicate by using internet technology or manage it must develop an acute sensibility about our indispensable role in public truth-speaking and unmasking official falsehoods. We must guard against both “doublethink” and “doublespeak.”

In his book Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell wrote:

"[Doublethink is] The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them....To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth."

The result of doublethink and doublespeak is that “war is peace, freedom is slavery ignorance is strength”; or alternatively, dictatorship is democracy; a kangaroo court is a real court of law, rigged and stolen elections are peoples’ choices; terrorizing the population is enrapturing them; and a cascade of lies is a torrent of truth.

What do I think of the “2010 elections”?

To answer this question one must deconstruct the “doublethink” that surrounds the word “elections” Are we talking about the “2010 elections” in the same sense as the “elections” of the apartheid regime in South Africa from 1948-1994? That illegal white minority regime defended its “democratic elections”. Or are we talking about elections a la Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe where opposition leaders were beaten and their followers harassed and jailed? Or elections held under the spiritual guidance of Ghaddafi’s Greenbook in which the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Command Council are ordained to rule forever while local congresses are elected periodically? Perhaps we could be talking about the “2010 elections” in the same sense as the 2002 Iraqi elections where Izzat Ibrahim, Vice-Chairman of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council under the regime of Saddam Hussien, declared, “There were 11,445,638 eligible voters [in Iraq]- and every one of them voted for the president.” To talk meaningfully about elections, one must frame the question in terms of the preconditions that make possible the likelihood of free and fair elections such as the existence of competitive political parties, a functioning independent media and civil society institutions, free exercise of civil and political liberties by the people, the application of the rule of law and other similar things. An election that is not free and fair is not an election; it is a cruel fraud perpetrated on citizens. Thus, it is meaningless -- nonsense-- to talk about any kind of elections in Ethiopia. The most important opposition leader in Ethiopia, Birtukan Midesa, is jailed for life on trumped up charges, and opposition political parties suffocate under the oppressive thumbs of a brutal and maniacal dictatorship. Since the 2005 elections, we have witnessed widespread violations of human rights and unspeakable political violence. There are no independent newspapers and civic society institutions are outlawed. There are no independent institutions through which citizens can meaningfully participate in the political process or assert their rights against the state. Under these circumstances, to talk about a having elections in Ethiopia in 2010 is as meaningful as taking about a fish riding a bicycle!

What do I think of the “new anti-terrorism law”?

To answer this question, at least three logical proposition must be true: 1) There is such a thing as the rule of law in Ethiopia. 2) There is a legitimate law making body to enact laws. 3) The “anti-terrorism law” itself conforms to the “supreme law of the land” (“constitution”). Proposition one is false because there is no rule of law in Ethiopia or anything that approximates it. Because Ethiopia is ruled by a dictatorship, the arbitrary command of the dictator is “The Law”, which trumps any other law in the country. The dictator and his coterie can order the arrest, imprisonment, torture and killing of any person in the country with impunity. Following the elections of 2005, security force under the direct command and control of the leader of the dictatorship fired on unarmed protesters and killed 193 persons while wounding 763, with impunity. Proposition two is false because a rubber-stamp parliament is incapable of performing the legitimate function of legislation which requires genuine broad-based deliberation, consultation, negotiation and accommodation. Proposition three is false because the draft “anti-terrorism law” before the rubber-stamp parliament is a violation of the “constitution”. Ethiopia’s former president and parliamentarian Dr. Negasso Gidada described it as “unconstitutional” and a tool to terrorize opposition groups in the country:

The proposed bill contradicts the constitution by violating citizens’ rights to privacy… and it generally violates the rights of all peoples of Ethiopia… Such laws are manipulated to weaken political roles of opposition groups there by arresting and prosecuting them using the bill as a cover.

OFDM chairman and parliamentarian Bulcha Demeksa described the bill as a weapon designed by the ruling party not only to weaken and totally eliminate all political opponents. Ethiopian election is next year and if this law is endorsed it will definitely be very hard for opposition groups to run for election… Our campaign for election, political or other meetings will be restricted under this law as a single call from any one to the police, no matter if there is any evidence or not could be considered as terror-related activity and put us all in jail.

To talk about a “law” that is designed as a weapon of mass incarceration, persecution, oppression and suppression of the civilian population and political opposition as a legitimate law is as meaningful as talking about a fish riding a bicycle!

What do I think about “Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia”?

The war waged in Somalia by the dictatorship is a war of aggression and illegal under international law . But it is totally wrong to characterize it as “an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia.” It is an illegal war waged in the name of Ethiopia and its people. War is a matter of the ultimate seriousness undertaken only when a nation faces grave danger and only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been exhausted or proven to be impractical, and the prospect of success assured. In war, military action is directed against combatants, not civilians. It is illegal to launch an attack on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage.

In a televised speech, the leader of the dictatorship said, “Ethiopian defence forces were forced to enter into war to protect the sovereignty of the nation and to blunt repeated attacks by Islamic courts terrorists and anti-Ethiopian elements they are supporting. Our defence forces will leave as soon as they end their mission. We are not trying to set up a government for Somalia, nor do we have an intention to meddle in Somalia's internal affairs. We have only been forced by the circumstances.”

Of course, the only reason for the dictatorship’s intervention in Somalia was to “meddle in Somali’s internal affairs” as the dictator himself explained long after the invasion: “But on a more fundamental level it appears that this jihadist movement is hell-bent on controlling all of Somalia. That for them, the negotiations are a ploy used to facilitate their goal. They see Ethiopia as a stumbling block.” By invading, Ethiopia becomes a “stumbling block” to a negotiated settlement in Somalia – a classic Orwellian doublethink and doubletalk. The fact of the matter is that no substantial evidence exists to show “attacks by Islamic courts terrorists” against Ethiopia. The “mission” that began in December 2006 is still ongoing, supposedly after an official “withdrawal”. The number of Somali civilian deaths to date exceeds 20,000, and displaced persons exceeds one million. War crimes charges in Somalia have been documented by international human rights organizations.

Equally important, a legitimate war waged by a nation brings with it accountability because of the enormous sacrifices in lives and resources. The people in whose name the war is waged are entitled to know what happened and hold those who prosecuted the war accountable: Did the leaders lie to them in marching to war? Did the leaders engage in illegal activities? How many soldiers died in the war? How many were wounded? How many civilians? How many of the “enemy” killed and wounded? How many displaced? How much money was spent on the war? If such accounting can not be made, ipso facto, it was and is a private war waged in the name of Ethiopia and its people.

What do I think of Birtukan’s re-arrest and imprisonment by the “government for violation of the terms of her pardon”?

According to the so-called Justice Ministry, Birtukan was imprisoned to serve out a life term because she denied receiving a “government granted pardon… and she failed to annul her denial, though she was repeatedly requested to do so.” This claim is patently false as Birtukan has attested in her widely disseminated public statement Q’ale (“My Testimony”): “As one of the prisoners, I had indeed signed the document, a fact which I have never denied.” The truth of the matter is, to paraphrase the dictator himself, that the ruling dictators are “hell-bent on controlling all of Ethiopia” come hell or high water. Birtukan was re-imprisoned not because she “denied” a “pardon” but because she posed a singular threat to the dictatorship. Here is a young woman who comes from a modest background irrevocably committed to peaceful change and dialogue. She has never advocated violence or armed struggle. There is no reason whatsoever to jail her. But the law of unintended consequences has intervened on her behalf. Birtukan today is the brightest point of light under the blue Ethiopian skies capable of leading the people out of the darkness of repression into the sunlight of freedom. She is a symbol of heroic and peaceful resistance in the face of oppression, and an outstanding example of the “power of the powerless". Like Aung San Suu Kyi, Birtukan believes: “‘Human rights’ means every human being should be able to live as free and respected members of society. But we are not free in our own country. We are very much prisoners in our own country. Prisoners of [a regime] which decides whether we have the right to freedom or the right even to live. Many of our people have been arrested without trial or without a fair trial, and many of them have been condemned to long years in prison.” Like Aung San Suu Kyi, like Birtukan!

What do I think about “the charges brought against the persons accused of plotting a coup”?

By official accounts the accused army officers are “desperadoes” whose plan was to “assassinate high ranking government officials and destroying telecommunication services and electricity utilities and create conducive conditions for large scale chaos and havoc.” But even assuming the “charges” were valid, is there a reasonable way to defend against them? To answer this question in the affirmative is to accept the truth of the following assumptions: 1)Political crimes are charged by prosecutorial professionals who make decisions only on the evidence of wrongdoing before them, and without political pressure, manipulation or interference. 2) There is a judicial system that functions independently of the dictatorship. 3) There are independent professional judges who perform their duties not only without political interference but also in active resistance to it and with unshakeable fidelity to the principle of the rule of law.

None of the three propositions is true with the judicial and prosecutorial systems in Ethiopia. As Human Rights Watch concluded in its 2007 report, “In high-profile cases, courts show little independence or concern for defendants' procedural rights… The judiciary often acts only after unreasonably long delays, sometimes because of the courts' workloads, more often because of excessive judicial deference to bad faith prosecution requests for time to search for evidence of a crime.” Dictatorships and judicial independence are like oil and vinegar. They do not mix. As vinegar is mostly water, dictatorship is mostly about the rule of one man. As oils are "hydrophobic" (chemically repel water), truly independent courts are "tyranno-phobic". They repel arbitrary and dictatorial rule. Thus, to talk about justice, due process and the rights of the accused in a dictatorship is as meaningful as talking about a fish riding a bicycle.

Calling a Spade a Spade

Ethiopians can never be reconciled to a dictatorship that maintains itself by brute force alone. In a country where there are no expressive freedoms but a flourishing culture of corruption and impunity, where the integrity of intellectuals is squeezed out by intimidation, threats and coercion and where universities are turned into temples of darkness, it is important for those in the Diaspora to take every opportunity to unmask the crimes, wrongdoings and brutality of the dictatorship. There is nothing more they wish than to have us become their unwitting cheerleaders talking about their bogus elections, laws and trials. But we should always guard against their ceaseless and slick efforts to make us echo chambers for their rackets. Our job is to call a spade a spade and tell it like it is. Analyze, scrutinize, criticize and publicize the crimes of dictatorship!

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