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In a low-roof house, a dwarf is considered a giant

November 6, 2012

The man who started his political career in the mountains of Tigary as one of the leaders of a very narrow and destructive ethno-cartel group has died. He came to power through a military victory against Mengistu Hailemariam’s regime. He became Ethiopia’s president (1991-1995), later taking the title of prime minister through a fraudulent ‘transitional’ process. He finally succumbed to his illness and was buried on September 2, 2012 at Trinity Cathedral Church cemetery in Addis Ababa. Following his death we were told that the people of Ethiopia are expressing their ‘deep sorrow’ and ‘grief’ for the death of the ‘dear leader.’ No, not Kim Jong Il.[1] The dear leader Meles Zenawi.

In a twist of cruel and sad irony, however, the coffin containing his body was draped with the green, yellow and red flag of Ethiopia that the dictator once referred to as a “piece of cloth with no significance.”[2] Furthering the irony, his body now lies at the Trinity Cathedral next to those who uncompromisingly defended the sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of the country.  I can’t help but wonder if they are rolling in their graves knowing the man who inflicted significant destruction on the country and its people is their new grave yard roommate.

Following the dictator’s death, some international personalities and Meles loyalists launched a North Korean style praise and ‘national mourning’ drama. A drama that can only be manufactured in the studios of TPLF and their lie factories. In this bizarre act of national mourning the death of a tyrant who until his last breath brutalized, murdered and continuously humiliated the country is portrayed as a great loss. Indeed if Meles Zenawi deserves the status of ‘national hero’ the same status should also be accorded to Cambodia’s Pol Pot, Uganda’s Idi Amin, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire/DRC or even Meles Zenawi’s predecessor, Mengistu Hailemariam to name a few known mass murderers of our time.

While those who respect human dignity and promote universal values of human rights considered the death of Meles Zenawi as an opportunity for a new Ethiopia, his handpicked followers and bankrollers called him ‘visionary,’ others referred to him as an ‘intellectual leader.’ United States Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice called him “unpretentious and direct.”[3] Those who have something to lose as a result of his death continued to construct an imaginary legacy devoid of facts and standards of a true visionary leader.

Among those who showered praises on the late dictator was President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She said “Meles Zenawi was an economic transformer; he was a strong intellectual leader for the continent. In our regional meetings he stood out because of his intellect.”[4] President Johnson, or anyone else for that matter, is entitled to her opinion. However, the problem is that when one extends a word of praise or adulation to a dictator who governs by imprisoning, torturing and killing citizens, the praise extended to one man turns out to be an insult to millions.

Liberia’s President, who herself once languished in the dungeons of another African dictator, Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, and was subsequently forced to leave her country of origin, like many Ethiopian intellectuals who were forced to flee due to the brutality of Meles Zenawi’s regime, should know better about living under oppression.

What has been observed during the funeral drama of Meles Zenawi perhaps speaks to what really is wrong with the African continent at large. When the bar of intellectual caliber is lowered to the point where Meles Zenawi is called an intellectual leader of the continent, it is an abject tragedy, given that this same man forced thousands of real intellectuals, physicians, journalists, engineers, and university students to flee the country for expressing their dissent. It is an affront and assault to the proud people of Ethiopia and Africa in general.

Yet again why should we be surprised about such praises being extended by western powers and some leaders from Africa? History tells us that despite the brute nature of these individuals, these leaders continued to shower them with words of praise and money to buy alliance while pillaging their countries. The following examples illustrate this alliance. [5]

Relations between Master Sergeant Samuel Doe and the United States

“There is now the beginning, however imperfect, of a democratic experience that Liberia and its friends can use as a benchmark for future elections, one on which they want to build …The prospects for national reconciliation were brightened by Doe’s claim that he won only a narrow 51 percent election victory – virtually unheard of in the rest of Africa where incumbent rulers normally claim victories of 95 to 100 percent. In claiming only 51 percent Doe publicly acknowledged that a large segment of society, 49 percent, supported other points of view and leadership than his own.”

—Ambassador Chester Crocker, US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, 1981- 1989

Facts about Master Sergeant Samuel Doe’s rule

Fact #1: Master Sergeant Samuel Doe jailed (including the current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf), tortured, and killed thousands of Liberians. (1986-1990)

Fact #2: Master Sergeant Samuel Doe ordered his electoral commission to reduce his presidential victory and not give him the usual 90+ per cent. As a result he was declared a winner by 51 per cent.[6] It is worth noting the last election ‘victory’ of Meles Zenawi was 96 per cent.

Fact #3: Doe didn’t build any national institution except those that benefited his Krahn tribe.

Fact #4: As a result of Samuel Doe’s brutal and corrupt policy and failure to build democratic institutions, he paved the way for another uprising that ravaged the country and the region until the subsequent defeat and arrest of Charles Taylor, currently on trail for war crimes at the Hague. In the process Samuel Doe was killed and his mutilated body was paraded through the streets of Monrovia in a wheelbarrow.[7]

Fact #5: Opposite to the statements of Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Chester Crocker, Liberia didn’t advance to build democratic institutions during or after Samuel Doe’s regime. His rule was full of bloodshed and trauma for the Liberian people. Liberia yet has to recover from this dark period in its history.

Western support for ruthless tyrants across Africa is repeated throughout the past several decades.

Relations between President Mobutu Sese Seko and United States

“Though you are a young man and you come from a young nation … there are things we can learn from you. … Tomorrow I have a meeting scheduled with my cabinet on the budget. I find in studying your administration that you not only have a balanced budget but a favorable balance of trade, and I would like to know your secret before meeting with the cabinet.” President Richard Nixon during a welcoming ceremony at the White House for Mobutu, August 1970

“Zaire is among America’s oldest friends, and its president –President Mobutu—one of our most valued friends, … and we are proud and very, very pleased to have you with us today.” George Herbert Bush during a welcoming ceremony for Mobutu at the White House, 1989[8]

Facts about President Mobutu

Fact #1:During the 1970s Mobutu’s personal fortune grew, and it was estimated that one third of the total national revenues in one way or another ended up under Mobutu’s disposal.[9]

Fact #2:Mobutu used much of the national treasury to purchase luxury houses and estates, mostly in Europe. Among his properties were the Villa del Mar in Roquebrune-Cap Martinon the French Rivera; an 800-hectare estate in Portugal’s Algrave; and a converted farmhouse in the Swiss village of Savigny. He owned a vast apartment block in Paris, at least nine buildings in Brussels, and properties in Spain, Italy, Senegal, Morocco and Brazil[10].

Fact #3: After 10 years of Mobutu’s rule, most hospitals in Zaire were in a pitiful state; there was a severe shortage of medicine and equipment. A fraction of rural roads were functional, and the level of employment was lower than at the time of independence. In general, the state existed only to serve the interest of the ruling elite, while the masses were left to fend for themselves.[11]

Fact #4: To protect his grip on power, Mobutu relied on elite military and police units, such as the Division Spéciale Présidentielle, which were commanded by a select group of officers from his own Ngbendi tribe and which he rewarded with high pay and perks. He similarly promoted personnel from his own Équateur region when making key appointments.

United States’ policy and knowledge about Africa

United States Ambassador to the UN, Dr. Susan Rice, attended the funeral of Meles Zenawi and delivered a lavish praise. She said he was a “proud father and devoted husband.” Meles, she said, was “Driven not by ideology but by his vision of a better future for a land he loved.”[12]  What she failed to acknowledge is that this is the same man who made thousands of children orphans, thousands of men and women widows and widowers. As well, unless Ambassador Rice is telling us about a fictional land that her friend loved, the vast majority of Ethiopians know that Meles was bitter, vengeful and angry against Ethiopia. He has shown this throughout his 21 years of rule.

The question is how much does Ambassador Rice know about Ethiopia and Africa in general. On May 1999, honoured as Bram Fisher Memorial Lecturer at Rhodes House, Oxford, while she was US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Rice said “to be at Rhodes House tonight with so many friends, benefactors and mentors is a personal privilege. It is like a coming home for me, for much of what I know about Africa was discovered within these walls, refined at this great university, with generous support of Rhodes Trust.” [13]

Of course, Ambassador Rice said the above statement before becoming a US representative at the UN under President Obama’s administration. We can entertain the idea that perhaps, after becoming a senior diplomat, she may have acquired new knowledge about Africa through her travels and encounters with the people of Africa. The sad fact, however, is that the speech she delivered at Meles Zenawi’s funeral contradicts this possibility. In other words, her knowledge about Ethiopia and Africa in general is constructed during her school years writing her PhD dissertion titled “The Commonwealth Initiative in Zimbabwe, 1979-1980: Implications for International Peacekeeping.” If indeed her knowledge of Africa comes from the walls of Rhodes House, the damage she continues to inflict on Africa is significant and as we have witnessed so far she continues to stand on the side of tyrants and oppressive regimes instead of the oppressed. It is worth noting that the Rhodes House she is referring to is named after Cecil Rhodes, an English-born South African businessman, mining magnate and politician. He was the founder of the diamond company De Beers, which today markets 40% of the world’s rough diamonds and at one time marketed 90%.[2] An ardent believer in British colonialism, he was the founder of the state of Rhodesia, named after him. In 1964, Northern Rhodesia became the independent state of Zambia and Southern Rhodesia was thereafter known simply as Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe).

“I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race… What an alteration there would be if they Africans were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence.”[14]

During the ‘Arab Spring’ Vice-President Joe Biden stated the following regarding the now deposed dictator President Hosni Mubarak:

“Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with – with Israel. … I would not refer to him as a dictator.” Vice President Joe Biden on PBS January 27, 2011[15]

Raising the bar for leadership

The people of Africa for far too long have been told that this tyrant is better than the past, and this mass murder is more humane than the previous one. This kind policy that is racist in its very nature is nothing more than neo-colonial bigotry sugar-coated in diplomatic language.  The origins of such bigotry are deeply rooted in the colonial mindset of those like Cecil Rhodes, his followers and disciples who prefer to brandish their ‘Rhodes scholar’ credentials for epistemological, political and economic domination.

While the narratives of colonialism, racism and domination continue to flourish in a different form and shape, the question remains: what are the choices for the people of Africa and all marginalized and oppressed people around the world? The solutions for the problems of Africa will not come from the Africa Affairs desk at the US State Department. Do the people of Africa accept the standard set for them by their own tyrannical rulers supported by the West to settle for less? The idea that Africans must settle for 1000 people being tortured a month instead of 10000 or accept death by kangaroo court instead of extrajudicial killings? Or, on the other had, should they organize themselves and establish a political and economic system that respects their human dignity and fundamental human rights. The idea that building a few bridges and roads here and there is a license to brutally suppress the fundamental rights of citizens is something no one, and I mean no one, has to settle for. It appears the people of Africa are forced to live in a lower standard of leadership, governance and above all human dignity. As a result, meager achievements by brutal dictators, such as the late Meles Zenawi, are considered earth-shattering accomplishments. Sadly, our roofs have been lowered to the point that dwarfs are considered giants and simply oratory con artists are considered intellectual leaders.

Africa must fight this perception and reclaim its rightful place in the world community. To those who tell Africa that a few kilometers of paved roads a few bridges are trade offs for fundamental human rights, the answer should be loud and clear. Our freedom is not for sale, and we will earn it ourselves.

by Alem Mamo and Lemlem Tesfa

The authors could be reached at alem671@hotmail.com

Categories: Articles
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