Terminal Paranoia!

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / May 5, 2009

A Plot Here! A Plot There! A Plot Everywhere!

April, 2009. “The ‘desperadoes’ are here! They are going to ‘assassinate high ranking government officials and destroy public facilities and utilities!’” Some forty individuals are officially said to be arrested for “terrorism” (but the real number may be at least five times as many). December, 2006. “The jihadists are coming! The Al-Shabaab terrorists are coming!” They never came but nearly 20,000 Somali civilians were killed, 29,000 wounded and 1.7 million displaced. May 2005. “Kinijit is plotting to ‘overthrow the constitutional order’! Kinijit is agitating an insurrection in the streets!” Nearly 200 unarmed protesters were massacred in the streets, 763 wounded and 30,000 jailed by official Inquiry Commission accounts. Top Kinijit leaders and dozens of human rights activists, journalists and civic society leaders were also jailed. The pretext of mysterious plots has proven to be a worn-out trick used by the dictatorship in Ethiopia to hammer down opponents, ratchet up the repression and divert public attention from its crimes and poor governance.

Triumph of Paranoia in Ethiopia

The latest saga of brutal repression in Ethiopia comes in the form of an alleged “desperado” conspiracy to “overthrow” the dictatorial regime. Leading the phalanx of “desperadoes” include an 80-year old grandfather, a young man and an active duty officer. But the official version of events followed the usual repertoire of lies and mendacity. Simon, a “communications minister”, concocted a bizarre tale of a gallery of “desperadoes”, “terrorists,” “disgruntled” military officers, shadowy assassins and a “dangerous” international “mastermind” who manipulated them all by remote control from the United States. According to Simon,

Six of the suspects were army officers on active duty, including one general, 34 of the suspects were ex-army men expelled from the army on grounds of misconduct. [The suspects did not intend] to stage a coup but assassinate individuals, high ranking government officials and destroying some public facilities and utilities … like telecom services and electricity utilities… They intended to create conducive conditions for large scale chaos and havoc. The police have also found evidence implicating some ex-CUD members released on pardon. With the exception of some three or four of the desperadoes group who are still at large, the police have arrested almost all members of the conspiracy.

Simon in self-congratulatory mode assured the world that “if there had been laxity from the government, there would have been problems.” In any case the “terrorist desperadoes” would not have succeeded, he said, because “our army is in a very good shape based on democratic and constitutional values.”

It is obvious that the regime is undergoing another one of its periodic paroxysms of fear, loathing and total bewilderment. The arrest of these so-called “desperadoes” says more about the regime’s desperation than the occurrence of an imminent assault by a “desperado” outfit. The fact of the matter is that the regime and its leaders are scared of their own political survival: They have nosedived from an acute state of high anxiety into the abyss of terminal paranoia. The signs are unmistakable: arresting and jailing every potential opponent or dissident on trumped up charges, intimidation of opposition leaders, military purges, scapegoating and demonization of imaginary foes, denunciation of alleged worldwide provocateurs and troublemakers, asset seizures of businesses and arrests of merchants, show trials and a campaign of inane propaganda to hoodwink the public and the international community of an impending doom. The steady retrogression of the dictatorial regime into totalitarianism over the past four years demonstrates that they are themselves the modern reincarnation of the frontier desperadoes of the American Old West -- violent, vicious, vulgar, thuggish, reckless, rash and hopeless.

The Psychologic of the Regime’s Paranoia:

Fear of Sudden Mass Uprising

The regime’s paranoia can be explained by reference to specific evidence. Their innermost fear is the likelihood of a spontaneous mass uprising. Regime leaders are terrified by the prospect of a sudden popular uprising breaking out and literally consuming them. That is precisely what Simon pointed out when he crystallized his allegations against the 40 “desperadoes” by claiming that they were plotting “to create conducive conditions for large scale chaos and havoc.” He knows all too well that the “conducive conditions” are already present on the ground (no need for “desperadoes” to create it): His regime has made Ethiopia a Prison Nation in a police state; hunger and famine are facts of daily life for the majority of the Ethiopian population; the economy has ground to a halt; the banks have been emptied of cash and gold and there is little money to run the state apparatus; corruption is so endemic and rampant that Ethiopia is listed at the top of failed states; there is widespread dissatisfaction and discontent in the military; there is infighting among different segments of the dictatorship and the entire officialdom is permeated by a lingering malaise of uncertainty and self-doubt; and the regime has become an international pariah universally rejected for its long record of massive human rights violations. They are worried because they know the uprising will not be televised!

Fear of Accountability and Retribution (Dismounting the Tiger):

The regime leaders know they have committed unspeakable crimes against humanity, war crimes and serious crimes punishable under their own criminal laws and constitution. They also know that their regime is a glorified pluto-kleptocracy (government of rich thieves) which has accumulated enormous wealth through rapacious raids on the public treasury and outright theft from ordinary citizens. Of course what is known of their crimes today is merely the tip of the iceberg. It is not difficult to understand that they fear prosecutions at home and by international tribunals should they be dislodged from power. Those at the top are particularly concerned about accountability under the “chain of command” doctrine pursuant to international criminal laws for the terrible crimes they have committed within and without the country. (Under well-established principles of international law, officials in the chain of command who order human rights violations, crimes against humanity and war crimes or who, knowing about it, fail to stop it are criminally responsible.)

The specter of prosecution is undoubtedly worrisome to them. This is evidenced in the fact that the current dictator has been talking philosophically about the need and wisdom of “restorative justice” in his public defense of the war crimes fugitive, Omar al-Bashir. The dictator proposed that al-Bashir’s horrific crimes in Darfur should be resolved within the framework of “restorative justice”. Simply stated, there will be a truth commission; al-Bashir will take public responsibility for his actions and offer heartfelt apologies to the Darfurians; they will get some sort of closure from his admission of guilt and everything else will be forgotten. It is logical to infer that the regime is hoping for precisely the same outcome in the event it is no longer in power: Let bygones be bygones, have a truth commission, go through the motions and forgive them for their monstrous crimes. But to let bygones be bygones would be very wrong. It would be an affront to the very essence of the principle of the rule of law. Justice is served only when the rule of law applies to ALL. In the final analysis, their problem is the same as the proverbial tiger rider’s. They have been riding the Ethiopian tiger for nearly two decades. But one day they know they have to dismount. When they do, they will be looking at the sparkling eyes, gleaming teeth and pointy nails of one big hungry tiger! As Reed Brody, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, observed, “Times have changed. The days that a tyrant could brutalize his people, pillage the treasury, put his bank account somewhere and then seek exile abroad have ended. What we see now is dictators can hide, but they cannot run.”

Fear of No Future (Institutional Decay and Crises of Leadership)

Fear permeates the ruling dictatorship. The fear factor operates in different ways for the regime. They have used fear to cement their ugly and divisive ethnic politics. By setting one group against another and inspiring distrust and hatred, they have managed to cling to power for so long. But that is changing before their eyes. The façade of political institutions they have created for the various ethnic groups to maintain their control no longer works. Their appeal to ethnic loyalty inspired by fear of what other groups might do to one group no longer holds sway. They are overwhelmingly rejected by every single ethnic group in the country, bar none. The people have come to the obvious realization that the ethnic divides created for them make everyone a loser and winners of only the dictators. This has created an insurmountable problem for the personal rule of the current dictator and his phony coalition of political parties. Personal control of the various groups is becoming increasingly difficult, particularly within the dominant political party. There is unrest among the members of the inner circle and coterie of followers within his own party. This is a source of major vulnerability for the dictator. Since the regime is based on personal rule, if the dictator fails his lieutenants, political allies and appointees, followers, relatives, friends and supporters within and outside the regime will also fall. The bottom line is that his political base will have to make a very tough choice: discipline (oust) the dictator and initiate a process that could produce a potential change of some benefit to them under some other leader from their own group, or prepare to make a deal with others in the opposition. The other alternative is to continue to support the dictator and face the likelihood that they will be big losers when change inevitably comes. For the general population, none of this calculation matters: The increasing repression has brought the political situation to the tipping point.

Fear of Continuing Western Ostracism

Internationally, the regime has a huge problem. Their human rights record and suppression of democratic institutions has brought them into collision with Western governments. Continuing human rights violations, imprisonment of leading opposition leaders, detention of large numbers of political prisoners, the absence of the rule of law, etc., have made them virtual international pariahs. Their biggest fear now is how the West will receive their already-won 2010 elections. It can be said with absolute certainty that there will not be a free and fair election in 2010. The reason is obvious: the regime will never take a chance of being defeated at the polls as it did in 2005.

On the other hand, rigged or “show elections” will not do for the West. Consequently, their elections shenanigans could result in donor sanctions. It will be necessary for the regime to find a way to hoodwink the West into believing that even if the elections are not free and fair, the alternative to their rule will be a total disaster for Ethiopia. Just as they went after the “Al Shabaab” terrorists to save Somalia, they will trot out more “desperadoes” and wild-eyed “terrorists” to convince the West that the country is going to hell in hand basket. They will do whatever it takes to spook the West into accepting the results of a bogus election in 2010, and they will not hesitate to paint a picture of chaos and anarchy that is too awful to contemplate. We will predict that as the election date draws near, they will manufacture political instability in the country, ratchet up the intimidation and violence and parade before the international media an endless gallery of “desperadoes”, “terrorists”, “insurgents”, “agitators” and others to justify free and fair elections can not be held in Ethiopia in 2010. By the same token, we will predict that the iconic political prisoner, Birtukan Midekssa, will be used by the regime as a pawn, bargaining chip, to mitigate any Western sanctions resulting from a rigged 2010 election. It will not work. (Long Live Birtukan Midekssa!)

The fact of the matter is that the regime leaders do not seem to have realized that the world around them has changed, and they have not. Obama is not Bush, and they will find out that it is futile to bait Obama on the “terrorism” rubbish they have so successfully used on Bush. Obama has articulated his “best” position on the future direction of U.S. foreign policy:

I feel very strongly that when we are at our best, the United States represents a set of universal values and ideals -- the idea of democratic practices, the idea of freedom of speech and religion, the idea of a civil society where people are free to pursue their dreams and not be imposed upon constantly by their government. So we've got a set of ideas that I think have broad applicability. But what I also believe is that other countries have different cultures, different perspectives, and are coming out of different histories, and that we do our best to promote our ideals and our values by our example.

Neither the EU nor the donor European countries will buy the regime’s lame arguments for rigged elections and continuing human rights abuses. The bottom line is that the regime can fool some of the Western countries all of the time, and all of the Westerns countries some of the time. But it can not fool all of them all of the time.

The Self-Delusion of Dictatorships

One of the common traits of all dictators is the display of arrogant self-confidence which completely blinds them to reason. Anyone with the critical thinking skills of a Philippine Tarsier (world’s smallest primate) would find the allegation of a 40-person “desperado insurrection” ludicrous and absurd. No reasonable person could believe that even real desperadoes (who in the Old West were considered to be full-time drunk outlaws) would attempt an overthrow of a regime which spends a better part of its state budget on its military and security forces. But because dictators often spend so much time in a bubble, they are unable to distinguish reality from fantasy. They become surrounded by ‘yes’ men who tell them only what they want to hear, and live comfortably in a state of denial. Consider Mugabe. A trillion dollar note to buy a loaf of bread made perfect sense to him. For Saddam Hussien, an electoral victory by 99.9 per cent of the voters made sense. For Slobodan Milosovic, the ethnic cleansing of over 200 thousand Muslims in Kosovo made perfect sense. Chanting the mantra of a made-up 12 per cent economic growth as proof of runaway economic development when a quarter of the population is facing starvation and the rest can barely eke out an existence also makes perfect sense if you live in a bubble. But the idea that 40 “desperadoes” could overthrow a regime with a massive security apparatus and an “army that is in good shape” is so idiotic it does not make sense! To believe in the regime’s theory of a “desperado” coup is to suspend belief in reality and completely abandon logic.

It is in the nature of dictatorships to demonstrate omnipotence over their victims and make their victims feel helpless. Simon was casually suggesting his omnipotence and describing the helplessness of his victims when he declared “our army is in good shape”. Dictatorships work tirelessly to spread defeatism, dissension and division among their opposition. But they are not as omnipotent as they project themselves to be. Undoubtedly, their true strength lies in the inability of their opponents to create a united front in the defense of the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights.

Our Fear: Are We Ready for Post-Dictatorship?

We must understand that removing a brutal dictator or a one-party dictatorship does not a stable democracy make. A study of the history of the rise and fall of dictatorships from Albania to Zimbabwe over the past two decades shows the immense difficulties in institutionalizing democracy in the aftermath of a dictatorship. In the Ethiopian case, the ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional divisions created and nurtured by the current dictators will present massive challenges in a post-dictatorship society. This combined with the enormous social and economic problems facing the country will present challenges unlike any the country has faced in modern times. That is why it is absolutely necessary to maintain serious dialogue and consultation among all pro-democracy Ethiopians on the fate of post-dictatorship Ethiopia. We should not be terribly concerned about the fall of this or any other dictatorship. As Gandhi said, “I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it, always." So the question written for us on the mirror is: “What do we do when the dictatorship falls?” Think of it: “What do we do when the dictatorship falls?”

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 almariam@gmail.com