Selam Beyene, PhD — Shunned by most of the world for his crimes against humanity, isolated as a despot because of his brutal treatment of peaceful protesters following the May 2005 elections, and reviled as a leader of one of the most corrupt and racist regimes in the world today, Zenawi has incessantly been lobbying unscrupulous African diplomats in Addis and other groups in the West for a sympathy invitation to every summit held by the G8 and G20 economies over the last several years.
Through systematic control of almost all aspects of the economic activities in the land, including the aid intended to alleviate poverty and famine, and brutally suppressing basic freedoms, Zenawi has essentially classed Ethiopia at the bottom of the list of developing countries with respect to every conceivable index of development and human rights 1-4.
In total disregard of common morality and decency, he exploits the poverty he inflicted on the people as a justification for an invitation of compassion to G8, G20 and related summits. This is a hypocrisy that in comparison makes sagacious even the proverbial man “who murdered his parents, and then pleaded for mercy on the grounds that he was an orphan.”
As outlined below, a closer examination of how the tyrant and his repressive regime operate, however, reveals sinister motives that transcend sheer obsession to be present among world leaders.
1. Zenawi’s Insatiable Appetite for Aid Money
Since the dictator Mengistu Haile-Mariam handed power to Zenawi in 1991, the TPLF regime has received over 30 billion dollars in aid and billions more in loans from donor nations and financial institutions. According to one estimate, Zenawi has been receiving well over $2 billion in foreign assistance alone every year 5. Apart from the superficial construction projects in the capital and other selected areas — projects that are mostly awarded to TPLF shadow organizations and intended to impress the naïve visitor — the dictator has nothing tangible to show for all the money received.
With no clear accountability, the money has mainly been used, through dubious endowment rules and regulations, to prop up the repressive regime and to enrich the foreign bank accounts of leaders of the minority government as well as their illegal business conglomerates, like EFFORT 6.
Ensuring the flow of aid money has thus been a major obsession of the tyrannical regime. One obvious platform for accomplishing this is, of course, by securing a backseat, however unglamorous, at G8/20 summits using the famine and poverty of one of the most populous countries in Africa as a sufficient credential for attendance eligibility.
Regrettably, donor nations have repeatedly failed the people of Ethiopia by feeding the dictator with money that he has looted and blatantly used for repressive purposes. As L. Leicht, the EU director for Human Rights Watch, noted earlier this year 5:
“On 30 January, European Union policymakers sent a clear signal …. no matter how repressive the government becomes, vast sums of aid will continue to flow. This is emerging as a case study in bad donor policy.”
Leicht further declared:
“In January Ethiopia’s government passed a law that is an attempt to muzzle local activists and prevent them from scrutinizing the government’s human-rights record. Among other things, the new law ….. makes it illegal for … Ethiopians to scrutinize the government’s record on human rights, policing, conflict resolution and a range of other issues….. It also provides the government with bureaucratic tools to shut down groups the government dislikes.”
Despite the reluctance of certain EU nations, a general awareness of the need to change the “bad donor policy” is noticeable in most parts of the world.
In a well-researched report, B. Bruton, an International Affairs Fellow in Residence of the prestigious foreign policy think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, recently wrote 7:
“… cooperation with an authoritarian Ethiopia presents looming challenges to U.S. policy objectives. … the Ethiopian government’s attempts to minimize political competition in the run-up to the 2010 elections are likely to fan ethnic tensions in the country. The government’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), is perceived by many Ethiopians to be dominated by a single minority ethnic faction, the Tigre, and its consolidation of political power may be read as an assault on the majority ethnic Amharic and Oromo populations. Public dissatisfaction with the government is high in the wake of the 2005 elections and a violent explosion is not out of the question.”
These are important developments that suggest the West has finally recognized the true nature of the dictator, and that the despot is running out of options. Thanks to the vigilance of the Diaspora and the illuminating reports of investigative journalists and human rights activists 8, the tyrant is now in no position to continue to swindle the donor community, begging for alms, hat in hand, at major summits.
2. Summits: A Last Resort to Gain Recognition and Legitimacy
Following the 2005 elections, Zenawi has been desperate to gain a semblance of legitimacy, having been deserted even by his once ardent supporters like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair 9. A group picture at the G 8/20 summits, however awkward and embarrassing, was Zenawi’s only avenue to get the attention of leaders of the developed world and the international media.
Paradoxically, every summit that Zenawi attended since the May 2005 debacle has instead further exposed his atrocities and laid bare the apartheid system of government he has instituted.
A case in point is the humiliation Zenawi experienced following the April 2009 G20 meeting in London, as reported by H. Gombya of The Black Star News 10:
“Although Meles Zenawi the Ethiopian Prime Minister and also current NEPAD chair was here, he abruptly canceled a press conference he was about to give. His people gave no reasons for this. But insiders in the press centre said Zenawi was worried about the kind of questions that were going to be put to him concerning human rights violations within Ethiopia and his dealing with his opponents and Ethiopia’s neighbours.”
As “Prime Minister Zenawi cowered in the shadows,” the report indicated, “the African continent really wasn’t heard.” Affirming the lack of legitimacy of Zenawi’s government, the paper expressed alarm: “…, it was rather absurd that no representative of the African continent was at hand to put their case to the world media at such a major global setting.”
Summits as a Magnet for the Gallant Diaspora
Ironically, as an unintended consequence, Zenawi’s obsession with sympathy invitation to the summits, instead of earning him legitimacy, has provided an effective medium to the ever-vigilant Diaspora to expose his crimes and corruption to world leaders and the international media.
From the summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, in 2005, to the recent gathering in Pittsburgh, Ethiopians in the Diaspora braved the elements and trekked the terrains to further expose the despot through penetrating slogans and placards.
As Carl Prine of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported, organizers of the recent protest in Pittsburgh declared to the world 11:
“The U.S. taxpayers are paying money to a regime that is used to terrorize its own citizens …. The people in the G-20 … should not deal with an Ethiopian regime that was not legally elected.”
The damage to the dictator caused by the relentless protests of the Diaspora has been quite significant, both in terms of humiliating the despot and raising awareness globally about the egregious crimes he has committed against his people.
A Call to Action
With the growing realization of the moral, ethical, economic and political difficulties of supporting dictators against the will of the people they brutally suppress, world leaders are seeking alternative means of channeling their material and political support away from the despots.
The Obama administration has at least in principle declared its disassociation with dictators. In his speech in Ghana, Obama sent an unmistakable signal to dictators like Zenaw when he said 12:
“This is about more than holding elections – it’s also about what happens between them. Repression takes many forms, and too many nations are plagued by problems that condemn their people to poverty. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves,…. No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top, or the head of the Port Authority is corrupt. 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.”
Opposition groups and the Diaspora should seize this opportune moment and fight vigorously to deny the despot another fake victory in the 2010 elections. A concerted effort should be made to demand free and fair elections, with systematic and effective measures that include:
Having learned a painful lesson from the 2005 elections, Zenawi would undoubtedly take brutal measures to shut out any and all credible opposition. However, history has shown without fail that no force can withstand for long the wrath of a people so viciously impoverished, humiliated, oppressed and looted as the people of Ethiopia have been at the hands of the despot.
The writer, Selam Beyene, PhD can be reached at: Beyene50@gmail.com