Meles Zenawi seems to have a morbid fascination with genocide. Whenever the going gets tough — bad news, tightening election campaigns, stiffening political opposition — he whips out the specter of Rwandan-style “interhamwe” (which in Kinyarwanda or Rwanda means “those who stand, work, fight, attack together”) in Ethiopia to change the subject. Predictably, as recent news of his rebel group’s use of famine aid money in 1984 for weapons purchases received massive international coverage, the opposition stepped up its campaign for the so-called May elections, the U.S. State Department issued its condemnatory human rights report on his regime and Bob Geldof went bananas, Zenawi resurrected his favorite “interhamwe” bogey man to justify his decision to jam the Voice of America:
We have been convinced for many years that in many respects, the VOA Amharic Service has copied the worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda in its wanton disregard of minimum ethics of journalism and engaging in destabilizing propaganda.1
The last time Zenawi pulled the same “interhamwe” cock-and-bull story, he was smacked down by the European Union Election Observation Mission for engaging in “unacceptable and extremist rhetoric”. The EU Final Mission Report on Ethiopia’s Legislative Elections (2005) stated2:
The end of the campaign became more heated, with parties accusing each other of numerous violations of campaign rules. Campaign rhetoric became insulting. The most extreme example of this came from the Deputy Prime Minister, Addisu Legesse, who, in a public debate on 15 April, compared the opposition parties with the Interhamwe militia, which perpetrated the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The Prime Minister made the same comparison on 5 May in relation to the CUD. The EPRDF made the same associations during its free slots on radio and TV… Such rhetoric is unacceptable in a democratic election.
Welcome back to the future. We are still living in 2005, except in 2010 Zenawi is trying sneak into the political arena the ghosts of Rwanda using a new spiritual medium, the Voice of America’s Amharic Radio Service. Nice try, but nothing doing. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
What is this “interahamwe” Zenawi is talking about?
In 1993, a year before the Rwandan genocide, a notorious “privately-owned” radio station calling itself Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines began broadcasting hate messages to incite Hutus to commit violent acts against Tutsis. It also broadcast racist and hateful messages against moderate Hutus, Belgians and the U.N. mission in the country. When President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was killed after his plane was shot down in April, 1994, Mille Collines began calling for a “final war” to “exterminate the (Tutsi) cockroaches.” The station read on the air the names of people to be killed, and helped direct the murderous militias to different locations where victims could be found. It also emboldened and encouraged the killers by providing them updates on their genocidal activities: “In truth, all Tutsis will perish. They will vanish from this country … They are disappearing little by little thanks to the weapons hitting them, but also because they are being killed like rats.”
When Zenawi says, “the VOA Amharic Service has copied the worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines,” he is asserting that the Amharic service has called for a “final war” and the “extermination” of certain groups of Ethiopians like “cockroaches”, “vermins” and “rats”. He is also saying that the Amharic service is directing and coordinating murderous militias and groups for genocidal activities to make sure that some Ethiopians “will perish and vanish from the country.”
Has the VOA Amharic service in its history ever called for such genocidal and criminal actions?
Since Zenawi is accusing the VOA of the “worst practices” of genocidal radio, we challenge him to produce a single word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, story, analysis, commentary, editorial or any other broadcast whatsoever in audio, written or symbolic form to back up his reckless and irresponsible charges. We pledge to bring to the bar of American justice the VOA or any individual in that organization and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law if Zenawi could produce a single molecule or speck of evidence, or a single example of the “worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines” committed by the VOA!
The U.S. response to Zenawi’s bizarre allegations was uncharacteristically bold, and gave Zenawi a much needed introductory lesson in his own constitution.
The United States opposes Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles’ decision to jam Voice of America’s Amharic Service and condemns his comparison of their programming to Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda. Comparing a respected and professional news service to a group that called for genocide in Rwanda is a baseless and inflammatory accusation that seeks only to deflect attention away from the core issue… The Minister may disagree with news carried in Voice of America’s Amharic Service broadcasts; however, a decision to jam VOA broadcasts contradicts the Government of Ethiopia’s frequent public commitments to freedom of the press. We note that the Ethiopian Constitution states that all citizens have the right to freedom of expression ‘without any interference’ and that this right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, ‘regardless of frontiers.’ The Constitution further notes that freedom of the press shall specifically include ‘prohibition of any form of censorship.’ We look to the Government of Ethiopia to abide by its constitution.3
But while we are on the subject of “interhamwe”, who gave the following speech recently?4:
There are those who maintain an eagle eye on the regime with bitter animosity and sully it by painting and drenching it in soot. Regardless, our country has marched into democracy confidently and irreversibly. Anti-democratic and anti-people forces have so much contempt that they badger our uneducated people telling them chaff is wheat. However, our people are used to winnowing the chaff in the wind and keeping the wheat. Our enemies are peddling chaff to the people and trying to find holes to sabotage our peoples’ democracy, peace and development. But since our organization knows that our operation is airtight, we are not concerned. The chaff hope to provoke the people into anger and incite them to undemocratically resort to violence. Although they (the ‘chaff’) can not dirty up the people like themselves, they may try to smear the people with mud in the hope of inciting them into lawlessness.
Could it be that “dirty chaff”, “anti-democratic and anti-people forces”, “enemies”, “saboteurs of the peoples’ democracy”, “inciters of violence” and “mud smearers” are kinder and gentler words for Radio Mille Collines’ “cockroaches, rats and vermins” who need to be “exterminated”?
The U.S. should demand proof of the allegations against the VOA or a prompt apology and a solemn promise never to pull this loony “interhamwe” hoax again. In the alternative, it is time for the U.S. to take decisive action against Zenawi’s dictatorship.
Zenawi can try to jam the VOA Amharic broadcast at the cost of tens of millions of dollars, resources that could be used to aid famine victims and provide health care and education. But we know the whole thing is a futile attempt to distract public attention from the recent stories about the millions of dollars stolen from famine aid to buy guns in 1984, the fantastic reception Medrek candidates are getting in Tigray, the murder of Aregawi Gebreyohannes in Tigray, the fact that no credible international observers will be coming to observe the “elections” in May, the damning U.S. State Department human rights report, the soaring inflation, corruption and on and on. Suffice it to say that Zenawi can fool some of the Ethiopian people all of the time, and all of the Ethiopian people some of the time, but it is unlikely that he will be able to fool the VOA, the BBC, Deutche Welle, Bloomberg News, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Associated Press, ABC, CBS, The Huffington Post….
In the name of decency, those of us who have listened to VOA’s Amharic service broadcasts over the years offer the VOA and its Amharic service our profound apologies for the deeply offensive and scurrilous remarks. Though we may have had reasonable differences of opinion with the Amharic service, we have never had cause to doubt the professionalism of the service’s reporters, editors and management, their commitment to fairness and accuracy in reporting and their strict adherence to the principle of fair play. For these qualities demonstrated consistently over the years, we express our deepest appreciation, gratitude and respect to the VOA and its Amharic service.
* 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.