By Alemayehu G. Mariam* | 16 Aug. 2010
“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” goes the old saying. I say beware of those bearing fake olive branches. In many societies, “extending an olive branch” symbolizes an act of reconciliation, goodwill and peace. In ancient Greece and Rome, people gave each other olive branches as tokens of their intention to bury the hatchet and make up. The ancient Greeks are also remembered for the hollow wooden horse they used to outwit their Trojan enemies and destroy their city.
Following his 99.6 per cent “election victory” this past May, Ethiopia’s dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi gave a speech offering the opposition a bouquet of olive branches. He solemnly “pledge[d] to all the parties who did not succeed in getting the support of the people… as long as you respect the will of the people and the country’s Constitution and other laws of the land, we will work by consulting and involving you in all major national issues. We are making this pledge not only because we believe that we should be partners… [but also] you have the right to participate and to be heard.” Basically, he promised to set up a special “kitchen cabinet” for the opposition to come in and chit-chat (“consult and get involved”) with him after hours.
Last week, Zenawi singled out two opposition organizations and signaled his intention to move from confrontations to “consultations” and “negotiations”:
… Concerning negotiations with the OLF (Oromo Liberation Front), Ginbot 7, the main thing has to do with principles. The first principle is peacefully resolving differences which is a civilized and appropriate strategy. Second, the way we can bring peace to our country is to accept the Constitution and the constitutional process and to be ready to pursue one’s aims peacefully. We are ready to negotiate with any organization, group or even disgruntled individual that accepts these principles and is prepared to return to the constitutional fold.
Is Zenawi’s offer of olive branches a Trojan Horse to finally put an end to all those who oppose his dictatorial rule?
A Trojan Horse Through the Looking Glass
In a recent commentary entitled, “Speaking Truth to the Powerless”, I observed:
Zenawi knows the opposition like the opposition does not know itself. He has studied them and understands how they (do not) work. Careful analysis of his public statements on the opposition over the years suggests a rather unflattering view. He considers opposition leaders to be his intellectual inferiors; he can outwit, outthink, outsmart, outplay, outfox and outmaneuver them any day of the week. He believes they are dysfunctional, shiftless and inconsequential, and will never be able to pose a real challenge to his power. In his speeches and public comments, he shows nothing but contempt and hatred for them. At best, he sees them as wayward children who need constant supervision, discipline and punishment to keep them in line. Like children, he will offer some of them candy — jobs, cars, houses and whatever else it takes to buy their silence. Those he cannot buy, he will intimidate, place under continuous surveillance and persecute. Mostly, he tries to fool and trick the opposition. He will send “elders” to talk to them and lullaby them to sleep while he drags out “negotiations” to buy just enough time to pull the rug from underneath them. He casts a magical spell on them so that they forget he is the master of the zero-sum game (which means he always wins and his opposition always loses)… For the first time in nearly twenty years, he is now changing his tune a little because the opposition seems to be wising up and Western donors are grimacing with slight embarrassment for supporting him. The kinder and gentler face of Zenawi is slowly being rolled out.
Why “Negotiations” Now?
It is not clear why Zenawi is calling for “negotiations” now. For nearly twenty years, he has recoiled with disdain at the very suggestion of negotiations with the opposition. He apparently sees the need for it now. Why? Could it be because he understands the status quo is unlikely to hold much longer? Is it his way of recapturing some international legitimacy for his rule and regime? Surely, he must know that his Western patron saints who pour billions of dollars to prop up his regime regard him as just another tin pot African dictator who must be tolerated and humored to facilitate their interests in Africa. Long gone are the days of adulation of Zenawi as one of the “new breed of African leaders”. It is possible that there is quiet donor pressure? The intelligence services of the various donor countries have mapped out alternative scenarios for Ethiopia’s future as Zenawi begins his third decade of dictatorship; and none of them looks pretty.
It may be that Zenawi feels the heat of the long smoldering ambers of collective anger and outrage percolating to the surface? Maybe he realizes that he cannot crush all of his opposition forever, and the tables could turn any day. Maybe he wants to use negotiations tactically to divide and destroy his opposition by co-opting some of them and letting the others self-destruct in dogfights over the bones he will throw at them. Maybe he sees the despair of 80 million people and is gripped by a gnawing sense of anxiety and feels he must do something before it is too late for him and his regime. It is possible that he may be sending up a trial balloon to see if the opposition will take the bait? Maybe he is just grandstanding. He wants to impress his sugar daddy Western donors that he is a reasonable man of peace, and the opposition leaders are just a bunch of “extremists” and “terrorists” uninterested in peaceful dispute resolution. Maybe he is playing one of his silly “gotcha” games as he did during the so-called “election code of conduct” negotiations. When leaders of the major opposition parties showed up in good faith to negotiate, he laughed in their faces and told them to take a hike. Subsequently, he threatened to throw them in jail for not abiding by a “code” they did not sign. Maybe he is convinced that he can outwit and outfox the opposition at the conference table. Maybe, just maybe, he is really genuine and wants a negotiated settlement in the “best interest of the nation.” There are recent precedents for such things in Africa. The mule-headed octogenarian Robert Mugabe snagged a deal with Morgan Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe. Emilio Mwai Kibaki cut a deal with Raila Odinga in Kenya. Maybe it is all or none of the above. I don’t have the foggiest idea why Zenawi is now calling for negotiations, but the whole exercise seems absurd to me.
Can One Reasonably Negotiate With “Terrorists, Amateur Part-time Terrorists and Lifers”?
Zenawi’s offer to negotiate face to face (not in his usual backdoor elder-style negotiations) with the OLF and Ginbot 7 Movement seems disingenuous. For years, he has characterized the OLF as a “terrorist” organization whose “main objective is to create a rift between the government and the people of Oromiya.” He has demonized OLF leaders and jailed anyone vaguely suspected of involvement or association with that organization. He has contemptuously characterized Ginbot 7 as an organization of “amateur part-time terrorists.” In kangaroo court, he recently sentenced to death various alleged “members” of Ginbot 7; and in absentia, movement leaders Dr. Berhanu Nega and Andargachew Tsigie, among others. His deputy is on record publicly comparing “opposition” parties with the genocidal Rwandan interhamwe militias. That comment invited sharp censure by the 2005 European Union Election Observation Mission which called it “unacceptable and extremist rhetoric”. Zenawi has jailed Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, and unquestionably the most important political prisoner on the African continent today, for life. Last December when he was asked if there is a chance Birtukan could ever be released, he categorically and absolutely ruled out any possibility of freedom for her: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” It seems totally illogical and downright dishonest for Zenawi to propose good faith negotiations with opposition leaders and organizations allegedly sworn to remove him from power by force while being so deadest against any negotiation or agreement for the release of one harmless innocent young woman!
What Could Be Conceivable Outcomes of Negotiations?
Assuming there are negotiations, Zenawi has given no indications on the negotiable issues. Regardless, what are some conceivable outcomes of any negotiations? Release of Birtukan? Release of all political prisoners? Legalization of the OLF? Commutation of the death sentences of Ginbot 7 members and movement leaders? Fresh free and fair elections? Free functioning of the private press? Establishment of a fully independent elections board? An Independent judiciary? Aha! How about power-sharing a la Zimbabwe and Kenya? (Just kidding!)
A Faustian Negotiation?
The old saying goes, “Give the devil his due.” Zenawi deserves credit for being a masterful zero-sum game player. Political scientists and economists use special analytical models to understand the behavior of negotiators in different settings. In a “zero-sum” negotiation, both “players” (negotiators) desire one particular outcome, but only one of them can have it. One player wins everything and the other loses everything. Stated differently, a zero-sum game is “like arguing over a pie (or injera, the traditional bread of Ethiopia): if one person gets a piece of injera, then the other person gets nothing.” For the past 19 years, Zenawi has been keeping all of the injera to himself, and denying others even a small piece. Now he wants negotiations to share the injera with the rest of the peons who have been watching him eat gluttonously at the dining table of power?
I have tried to logically decipher the type of negotiation Zenawi has in mind, without success. Generally, when someone calls for negotiations, it means that person has formulated his negotiating points and positions and is prepared to give some indication of the negotiable issues to the other side. Zenawi’s offer of negotiation is so vague and cryptic that it seems to be almost an afterthought in his press conference. But there is nothing vague about his zero-sum style of negotiation over the past two decades. Everyone who has “negotiated” with him knows that he has two principles of negotiation (and not the two he mentioned as preconditions for negotiations with the OLF and Ginbot 7): 1) “You are gonna do it my way, or you’re gonna hit the highway! Period.” 2) “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable. Period.” These are the two bedrock principles of negotiations Zenawi has followed for the last twenty years in dealing with his opposition both within his own party and those on the outside. Why would he change now?
Surely, Zenawi must realize that no one will negotiate with him on a zero-sum basis. It is irrational for anyone to negotiate one’s own vanquishment? It is illogical to negotiate in a “winner takes all” setting when the winner is already known before the negotiations begin. It is not unlike someone running in an election where the winner has been predetermined and the winning margin of victory (say 99.6 percent) already preordained. Why bother?
A real negotiation is a process of give and take, compromise, good will and even empathy for the other side. It does not seem that Zenawi is capable of such negotiating style. He has always looked at his opposition with contempt. He has never regarded them as his legitimate political opponents with whom he disagrees; rather he has always viewed them as mortal enemies that must be totally and completely vanquished. Political negotiations in Ethiopia can succeed only when there is mutual recognition by all parties of their shared humanity, nationality, commonality of interests, sensitivities, and above all that magical feeling called “Ethiopianity”. There is little room for negotiation and compromise with an “enemy” that one considers a “terrorist”, a “genocidal” maniac or a “criminal”.
Negotiations in the Best Interests of the Nation
I believe in negotiations not because someone could misuse it as tactical weapon in a public relations campaign, but because negotiation to me is the art of the possible. Only principles are non-negotiable. I believe it is possible to have negotiations in the “best interests” of Ethiopia and its people. These “best interests” are, among others, avoiding the long term consequences of ethnic conflict, reduction in political tensions, guaranteeing a better future for Ethiopia’s youth who represent over three-quarters of the population, ensuring respect for human rights, institutionalization of the rule of law, accountability and transparency in government, economic development for society and free personal development for citizens and the like. Negotiations in the “best interests of the nation” require “principled negotiations”, which means the parties must be committed to “win-win” (instead of win-lose zero-sum) outcomes. The parties focus on issues and not personalities; they strive to work around common interests and avoid imposing their hardline positions on each other. Principled negotiators generate and consider a variety of possibilities and solutions before deciding what to do. Above all, they work toward a solution cooperatively and come to an agreement that takes into account not only their individual needs but also optimizes their collective outcomes. Principled negotiators understand that they can attain their goals if, and only if, the others also attain theirs. In sum, principled negotiators cooperate more and compete less, build more trust and work actively to lessen suspicion about each other. It is very possible to negotiate an agreement among those with polarized interests if they can manage to keep their eyes on “best interests of the nation” instead of their partisan and individual interests.
“Respecting the Country’s Constitution?”
As a teacher, practitioner and student of constitutional law, I was mildly amused when Zenawi said he is ready to negotiate with anyone who “respects the country’s Constitution”. When one wags an accusatory index finger at others, it is easy not to notice the three fingers that are pointing to oneself. Before one can pontificate about the constitutional high ground, one must command it. Zenawi must not just demand the opposition to respect the Constitution, he must also respect it. In fact, he should teach the opposition respect for the Constitution by example. But he has not been a good teacher: Article 9 (4) of the Ethiopian Constitution provides, “International agreements ratified by Ethiopia are an integral part of the law of the land.” Zenawi has trashed all human rights conventions as documented for years in the annual reports of the world’s most respected human rights organizations. Article 12 (1) requires that the “activities of government shall be undertaken in a manner which is open and transparent to the public.” Zenawi has concluded dozens of secret international agreements to give up the country’s land and resources without any transparency or accountability. Article 17 (2) guarantees that “No one shall be arrested or detained without being charged or convicted of a crime except in accordance with such procedures as are laid down by law.” Birtukan Midekssa and thousands of political prisoners remain in detention without due process of law. Article 20 (3) requires “Everyone charged with an offence shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty by a court of law…” In practice, every suspect is presumed guilty, and hundreds of thousands of citizens presently languish in prison without charges. Article 29 (2) guarantees that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression without interference…. regardless of frontiers…” Independent journalists in Ethiopia are threatened and jailed by the dozens, and newspapers shuttered. The public media has been reduced into becoming a propaganda machine for the ruling party; international radio and television broadcasts are jammed and internet service kept at the most primitive level to keep citizens from exercising their freedom of expression. Article 38 (1) (b) guarantees, “every citizen the right to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections… ” Zenawi won the May 2010 election by 99.6 percent. There is no greater respect that can be shown for the Constitution than respecting the people’s vote!
Confidence Building Measures Before Negotiations
Negotiations require the art of dialogue. Zenawi can only monologue. I really would like to believe he is sincere about negotiations, and his offer of olive branches is genuine. But he has no credibility. His own words and actions betray him. How can anyone in their right minds negotiate with a man who said: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” A man who can take such a frighteningly inflexible, uncompromising, unyielding, unbending, rigid and unswayable position on an innocent young woman who has done ABSOLUTELY nothing wrong is incapable of negotiating with “terrorists”, “genocidal” maniacs and “extremists” purportedly sworn to remove him from power. Zenawi is willing to sit down “with anyone” and “negotiate” an agreement to deal with the super-complex problems of Ethiopia but he will never, ever, agree to even consider discussing the simple case of an innocent young woman?
Birtukan’s case is full of ironies. In 2007 she signed a pardon agreement negotiated over several months by a group of “elders” at Zenawi’s direction. A year and half later, Zenawi used the very agreement she negotiated with him for her release from prison as the basis for her summary re-commitment to life in prison. Is it not equally ironic that Zenawi is now extending olive branches to those he believes are sworn to remove him from power by force while keeping imprisoned for life the one person who can negotiate with him in good faith on the very same principles of constitutionalism and peaceful dispute resolution that he talks about? But as the great Mandela said, “Only free men (and women) can negotiate; prisoners cannot enter into contracts.” If Zenawi wants to negotiate with the opposition, he must let Birtukan go free because she is the lioness share of the opposition.
I do not want to be misunderstood. I plead Birtukan’s case not for any particular political outcome, but because she is innocent and has done nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong. She has committed no crime. She has caused harm to no one. She is a threat to nobody. She played meticulously by the very constitutional rules Zenawi extols as his “principles” of negotiation. It is time to let her join her little daughter and aging mother for the Ethiopian new year in September. Why not also let the others who have languished in prison for years on suspicion of “involvement” with the OLF, and Ginbot 7 “members” who were recently jailed, to go free and rejoin their families for the new year? Why not unjam the Voice of America and stop jamming ESAT (Ethiopian Satellite Television)? Let the people hear and see and make up their own minds. I know some will laugh at my naivete for suggesting these obvious ideas for it has been said that “fire, water and dictators know nothing of mercy.” But if one cannot take simple steps to build confidence, mere talk of “principles of negotiations” sound hollow and unconvincing. Perhaps Otto Von Bismarck was right: “When a man says that he approves something in principle, it means he hasn’t the slightest intention of putting it in practice.” As an afterthought, is it possible to shake hands with a man who has fake olive branches in one hand and a gun in the other?
FREE BIRTUKAN AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA!!!
* Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on pambazuka.org, allafrica.com, newamericamedia.org and other sites.