By Alemayehu G. Mariam* | 30 Aug. 2010
A Comedy of Errors: (Act I)
Rodney King’s videotaped brutal beating by members of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) eventually triggered the L.A. riots of 1992. Rodney made a public appearance on the third day of the anarchy and pleaded in his inimitable style:
People, I just want to say, can we all get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids? It’s just not right…. Let’s try to work it out.
I never thought I would appeal to Rodney King for political wisdom and insight in seeking an end to the internecine warfare in the Ethiopian opposition and plead for reconciliation, understanding and common sense. True, Rodney King is no Martin King, but in this instance I am going to invoke Rodney while pleading Martin to get Ethiopia’s opposition leaders to re-think and re-examine their strategy of mutual assured destruction (MAD).
It was amusing to read this past week a story about criminal charges filed against one faction of the Unity and Democracy Party [UDJ] (Andenet) by another faction of the same party in Ethiopia. Charged with disturbing the peace this past April are some of the prominent leaders and members of the UDJ. It is alleged that the defendants threw rocks at the party office and created disturbances while party members worked inside. Several witnesses testified for the prosecution at a hearing and the matter was continued to a later date.
There had been prior confrontations between UDJ members. In late 2009 when UDJ held its Extraordinary Congress at the Imperial Hotel, it was alleged that certain “expelled” members had attempted to disrupt the meetings. The police were reportedly called to intervene, but failed to show up. The meeting was cancelled and there were no prosecutions. But state-controlled television was on hand to record the bizarre spectacle for broadcast.
I am sure the whole zany rock-throwing affair gave dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi and his crew much needed comic relief in the weeks before the May 2010 “election”. Today, Zenawi watches a command performance opera buffa of some of the champions of the Ethiopian opposition duking it out in kangaroo court. It is humiliating and embarrassing for many of us to see some of the giants of the opposition who have sacrificed so much of themselves pointing accusatory fingers at each other in the Zenawi’s Halls of Injustice. Of course, one would have expected all opposition leaders to get the message after the “election” and get their acts together. After all, Zenawi won by 99.6 percent, and they “lost” by 100 percent. But that is another matter. I only wish the accusers and the accused could see themselves from the outside as they spar in the three-ring circus of Zenawi’s kangaroo court.
Master Stroke of Public Relations (Act II)
The timing of the UDJ “prosecution” is curious, to say the least. The final report of the European Union Election Observation Mission Team [EU EOM] is expected to be released sometime in September. Staging a three-ring kangaroo circus over a rock-throwing incident to coincide with the release of the EU EOM report is a master stroke of public relations. It provides a nice distraction to the findings and conclusions of the forthcoming report. The criminal case will be dragged out to coincide with the release of the report and cushion the hard landing Zenawi is going to have in the report. We already know from the from the preliminary statements of EU EOM that the May 2010 “election” “failed to provide a level playing field”. Major donor governments have declared the election “does not meet international standards”. That is just diplomatic-speak for a stolen election. Regardless of what the final report will document, the incontrovertible fact is that an “election” that gave Zenawi a victory of 99.6 percent is not an election; it is a travesty of election.
But the sting of the EU EOM report could be lessened and world attention distracted by depicting opposition leaders as a bunch of bumbling and bungling lightweights (or worse) who are not only incapable of leading the country but are spending their time like children throwing rocks at each other. It is a brilliant public relations move by Zenawi to make a complete laughing stock out of some of the most respected leaders of the opposition. Let us just watch Zenawi showcasing the “rock throwers” freak show in his kangaroo court circus as the release date for the EU EOM report draws near: “Come one, come all to the greatest show in Ethiopia! Marvel and thrill at the rock-throwing Ethiopian opposition leaders! Stare in awe… Do you want these guys to run the country!?” Barnum and Bailey never had so much fun!
Justice in Kangaroo Court? (Act III)
Time was that opposition leaders were dragged in chains into kangaroo court to become victims of injustice. Some of the UDJ members in this criminal case were sentenced together to long prison terms in kangaroo court not long ago and served nearly two years before being “pardoned”. It is an eerie feeling to see them now standing on their hind legs pointing accusatory fingers at each other. UDJ members going to kangaroo court to seek justice is like Rodney King going before LAPD’s Internal Affairs to press charges against the cops who beat him to a pulp. It just makes no sense. I am dismayed and embarrassed by the sight of UDJ members brawling in a kangaroo cage match as Zenawi calls the count. What a low-down dirty shame for all who are toiling for democracy, human rights and justice in Ethiopia to view this spectacle. What comic relief for Zenawi and his crew. Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
I want to laugh too, but it hurts to laugh. In fact, I would like to cry at the sight of these distinguished members of the opposition wagging fingers and exchanging verbal missiles in kangaroo court. What were they thinking?
But to add humiliation to a crying shame, I agonize over the possible outcomes of the criminal case. If the UDJ defendants are convicted and sentenced to jail, who wins? Zenawi does. He will step up to the podium and announce to the world that his justice system worked “fairly” and the criminal wrongdoers were held to account. He can walk up to his Western donors (a/k/a partners-in-crime) and smugly say, “Behold my opposition (chuckle)! See real justice at work!”
Who loses if they are convicted? The opposition does. The people will shake their collective heads in dismay and disbelief and ask: “What were they thinking? Why can’t they get along? If they can’t get along out of power, how could they get along if they get into power?”
Who wins if the UDJ defendants are acquitted? Zenawi does. He can show the world that justice was served in his court with impartiality and the innocent set free. Who loses if they are acquitted? The opposition does. The people will scratch their collective heads and ask: “Why did they do it? Was it worth their humiliation in kangaroo court?” In short, the kangaroo court criminal case is a win-win for Zenawi, and a lose-lose for the opposition!
But there is a less obvious conclusion to be drawn to the credit of the UDJ members. In the heat of the moment, certain party members may or may not have thrown rocks or exchanged harsh words. But to their collective credit, there was no shooting or extreme violence, as it often happens among opposition elements in so many parts of Africa. The UDJ members did not take to street justice to resolve their disagreements; they went to court (admittedly the kangaroo variety). I applaud them for that. They had the right idea, but went to the wrong place. Courts of law (in contrast to kangaroo courts) are the proper and civilized place to bring disputes for resolution. Independent judges (in contrast to hacks wearing judicial robes) can properly administer justice impartially and neutrally.
But the proper place for resolution of political disputes among Ethiopia’s opposition is never in kangaroo court, but in intra- and inter-organizational mediation and reconciliation processes or other civil society institutions. Throwing rocks or vilifying each other with abusive words is never justified. They do not need to beat each other up; they need to stand together and cover each other’s back. They need to shield each other from the ceaseless barrages of the slings and arrows of an outrageous dictatorship.
So I am going to “sermonize” a little bit here. If the bickering, name calling, rock throwing and all the other silly stuff continues, the opposition will end up in mutual assured destruction as the dictators look on with glee. It is mad to follow the path of MAD. The opposition has far too many important tasks to accomplish. They have already lost precious time in internal strife and fragmentation; they need to be doing more by way of uniting, mobilizing, motivating and inspiring the people with their ideas and plans. The people want to hear messages of hope and redemption from opposition leaders, not accusations and recriminations. The people want to be assured that it is possible, with dedication and effort, to overcome the seemingly insurmountable mountain of dictatorship; that change, peaceful democratic change, is possible and the people themselves hold their destiny in their collective hands. The people want to be shown these possibilities through leadership examples of optimism, dedication, tolerance, tenacity and patriotic zeal. That is the way to do it!
The kind of legal warfare we see in kangaroo court with opposition leaders and members is demoralizing; it is not uplifting for the people. It robs the people of their faith in the future and saps their energy, enthusiasm and hopes for democracy. Opposition leaders should be less concerned about their partisan interests and more engaged in addressing the needs of the masses of unemployed youth, the urban poor that have little to eat; the poor farmers scratching the earth for seedlings; the masses of women who face domestic violence daily; the educated professionals who can barely eke out an existence on salaries that are gobbled up by stratospheric inflation and the state workers who are forced to supplement their incomes by payments under the table. These people are looking for visionary leadership. They want to see clear-thinking and dignified opposition leaders charting the course to a better future. They do not want to see opposition leaders brawling in freak shows in a kangaroo circus court. Stated simply, opposition leaders and parties need consolidation, not fragmentation; they need reconciliation not accusation and recrimination.
Can’t We Just Get Along? (Act IV)
I see no need for opposition leaders to act in a vaudevillian comedy show directed by Zenawi. That is why I am asking them to develop and adopt a voluntary “code of conduct” to govern their relationships as they face a formidable common adversary. Such a code should address matters of civility, tolerance of dissent, non-use of inflammatory language, avoidance of personality clashes, constructive criticism of programs and policies, avoidance of personal attacks, establishment of formal and informal dispute resolution mechanisms, grievance complaint procedures and so on. Under no circumstances should they air their “dirty political laundry” in kangaroo court.
Political leaders and followers who are truly committed to democracy and human rights and work for the betterment of the Ethiopian people need to get along with each other and cooperate for a common purpose. They do not need to agree with each other on all issues or even the majority of issues. It is not even necessary for them to socialize and hang out together; but it is mandatory that they find effective ways of collaboration to advance their common causes of democracy, human rights, accountability, transparency and the rule of law.
Working together requires creating a harmonious working relationship founded on mutual respect, tolerance and understanding. If there are differences on issues, as there should be, all effort must be exerted to discuss and resolve them without degenerating into personal attacks. If issues cannot be resolved, it is best to agree to disagree and move on with other issues.
Teamwork and collegiality among opposition leaders are essential if dictatorship is to be defeated and real democracy established in Ethiopia. When opposition leaders attack and disrespect each other, they not only make themselves laughing stocks for the dictator and his crew but also look silly in the eyes of the public and set a bad example. The kind of dysfunctionality that is visible in the opposition today is not only pathetic but also harmful to the prospects of democracy in the future. Opposition leaders need to answer a simple question: How can they expect to work collaboratively in the interests of the country and fight dictatorship when they have hardened partisan politics among themselves so much? The road of hardened partisan politics leads to MAD. They may have been in separate boats before the May “election”, but now they are all in the same boat cruising up that famous creek without a paddle.
It is time now to transition to the politics of multi-partisanship, cooperation and collaboration. Practically, this means advancing the interests of the people over partisan politics or advancement of one’s agenda, status, career or ambitions. It means showing the people that the opposition is NOT the flip side of the ruling dictatorship. Stated simply, the people need to be reassured that in the opposition they are not swapping Tweedledee for Tweedledum. Democracy and dictatorship are not interchangeable. The most effective way of getting the trust and support fo the people is by proving to them what it means to work together harmoniously while opposition leaders and parties are on the outside, and before they have tasted the sweet intoxicating nectar of power.
That’s why I pose some simple questions to Ethiopia’s opposition leaders: “Why can’t you all just get along? Can you stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids? It’s just not right…. Why can’t you try to work it out?”
As the old saying goes, “Yesterday is gone and tomorrow is not ours, what we have is today.” Can we all begin to mend fences today and come together not only to oppose and defeat an ephemeral dictatorship, but most importantly, to put our collective shoulders to the grind wheel and work for democracy, justice and human rights in Ethiopia? Can we all get along!
FREE BIRTUKAN MIDEKSSA 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.