Ethiopian fascination with the Arab Spring Part II



Part one identified similarities and differences between the Egyptian and Tunisian popular revolutions on the one hand and conditions in Ethiopia on the other. Differences aside, the Ethiopian admiration for and, interest in the Arab Spring is relentless. In particular, Ethiopia’s democratic and nationalist leaning elites, the majority of whom live scattered around the globe as part of country’s 2 million relatively well-to-do Diaspora, spend inordinate amounts of time analyzing and debating the similarities and differences among North African and Middle Eastern revolutions and their relative merits and relevance to Ethiopia. Regardless of country situations, recurrent themes that resonate with Ethiopians include political repression, violation of human rights and suppression of civil liberties, 60 percent youth unemployment, escalating prices of staples including foods, gaping inequality, corruption, nepotism and ethnic-based discrimination.

Ethiopians agree that the Libyan, Syrian and Yemeni regimes are among the most repressive in the world. Given his prominent role in African politics and in the African Union, Colonel Gaddafi is more familiar to Ethiopians than President Assad of Syria and President Salah of Yemen. Colonel Gaddafi has been in power for 41 years. Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian Prime Minister has been in power for more than 20 years. Even in Libya, Syria and Yemen, youth and the middle class tried to close ranks. Their battle cries of “We are all Libyans, Syrians or Yemenis and we are not afraid” appeal to Ethiopians. Ethnic, sectarian and ideological conflicts are pronounced in Libya, Syria and Yemen as they are in Ethiopia. For example, President Assad’s regime is accused of representing a religious minority of the Alawite consisting 12 percent of the population in a country that is 70 percent Sunni. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s Tigray People’s Liberation Party (TPLF) represents a mere 6 percent of the Ethiopian population currently estimated at 90 million. More than 90 percent of the military command of Ethiopia’s defense forces is represented by this minority ethnic group; as are security forces. Democratic activists in Syria contend that President Assad’s government supports the business elite who are beneficiaries of his regime. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is accused of favoring new wealthy urban and Tigrean elite that benefit hugely from his government’s policies and investments. In Syria and Ethiopia, access to wealth and wealth-making assets is dependent on loyalty to the governing party and government.

In Libya, Syria and Yemen opposition groups tried to debunk Gaddafi’s, Assad’s and Salah’s divisive ethnic and sectarian policies. However, success in these countries is taking longer compared to Egypt and Tunisia. While the sizes and sheer determination of opposition groups seem to indicate that the vast majority of their respective populations want freedom and democracy. In Libya, almost similar to Ethiopia, the few who benefit from the Gaddafi regime and his ethnic group stand on his side. This reality and the security and military organization as well as defense equipment amassed over decades enables him to wage war against his own population. A commentator said that Colonel Gaddafi and his core supporters and political base “owns the city of Tripoli.” Libya’s wealthiest and most powerful families live there. Out of fear or self interest or both, this social base seems to “side with him.” Because it is heavily vested in the regime, it seems to disregard that the country is in a state of siege and that Libyans are killing Libyans. Gaddafi feels that a prolonged war is an indicator of legitimacy. He seems to be clueless that at least half of the country is up in arms against his regime; that he and his core supporters are accused of “war crime and crimes against humanity;” and that most of the global community wants to see regime change.

If one peels the Ethiopian socioeconomic and political onion, one will find numerous similarities between Libya under Gaddafi and Ethiopia under Meles Zenawi. The TPLF core leaders succeeded in recruiting and incentivizing cadres and others from different ethnic groups using ethnic and party loyalty and defense of key institutions through periodic political assessments (in Amharic, gimigema). Inherited from the Soviet system, periodic assessments are management tools to get rid-off individuals who are suspect and to bring in others into the fold. While Addis Ababa may not be “owned” by the Ethiopian Prime Minister in contrast to Gaddafi in Libya, there is ample documentary evidence that shows that “Mekele and the rest of Tigray–the ethnic home of the ruling party may be owned by his party,” as one Ethiopian academic opined. Libya comes closer to Ethiopia than the Egyptian and Tunisian cases. Both systems are founded on ethnic and sectarian loyalty. Wealth, assets and influence are acquired on the basis of loyalty and not merit. It is clear that in Libya, ethnic, sectarian and class division have taken toll on the society and on the uprising. The initial battle cry “We are all Libyans” has not penetrated the entire society. It would have been this battle cry of people fighting together against oppression that would have overwhelmed the regime peacefully. Further, the international community did not initially live up to the expectations of the democratic forces in Libya, Syria and Yemen. In part, the community may have felt that “division” would bring a failed state. In part, it may be the Libyan oil factor; and in the case of Yemen, the so-called Al-Qaida factor. A similar situation is still simmering in Bahrain, with a dose of external influence from key regional countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. What Ethiopians learn from these experiences is that the democratic path in each country will be different, with one caveat.

The nature of democratic change

Regardless of unique country situations, success of any uprising in a country the size and complexity of Ethiopia would depend entirely on its appeal to and active engagement of millions of ordinary Ethiopians from all ethnic and other persuasions. Most informed and well educated Ethiopians underscore that change must involve millions of people from all ethnic, religious, social and demographic groups over a sustained period of time. Those who “profited” from the regime must not feel threatened by change. They must be assured that they too have a future. In Libya, those who are vested in the current system feel “threatened” by the democratic upheaval. Those unhappy with the system continue to sacrifice their lives and comforts. This is the reason for the characterization of the civil war as the “Battle for Libya.” In this battle, the international community resolved that it won’t allow a senseless and careless dictator to “slaughter his own people.” NATO strikes against Gaddafi’s forces would not have been politically and strategically feasible if it were not for the valiant positions of the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Libyan opposition. It would have been disastrous for Western democracies not to respond to these regionally orchestrated and led demands by the Arab world for the Arab world. More critical, it would have affected the democratic momentum sweeping the region. Here, I want to inject my own intellectual assessment of the new human rights doctrine that would have been unimaginable in the 20th or in the first decade of this century. The UN system never anticipated the kinds of world changing events as those sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. My sense is that international relations won’t be the same again. A new world is being shaped by new civil forces such as youth and the middle class that demand to be heard; and want access to economic and social opportunities consistently bestowed upon those who capture political power and assume economic hegemony. Africans are used to all forms of injustices: from Slavery to Colonialism and Apartheid to horrific civil wars and genocide.

An emerging doctrine: “The response to protect”

Horrific ethnic genocide in Rwanda taught the world community a cardinal lesson of man’s inhumanity to man. At the time, the UN and major powers kept silent only to grasp the magnitude and implications later. Retrospectively, the UN recognized that its relevance and credibility will depend on averting all forms of genocide including those perpetrated by cruel and repressive regimes against their own people. In the process, the welcomed doctrine of “The response to protect” emerged. It is this doctrine that the UN Security Council applied in Libya. For the first time in world history, dictators and other groups can no longer get away murdering their own. It will be harder for the UN and major Western powers to cherry pick dictators who should be removed and should be retained. Going forward, the question for those who support uprisings for democracy and human rights is the extent to which this unprecedented principle and intervention on behalf of the Libyan opposition that has been sanctioned by the Security Council would serve as a precedent. Ethiopians seem to be excited about the prospect that a similar situation could occur in Ethiopia. My own prediction is that it will be much harder in the future not to apply the same doctrine in similar situations. However, intervention in Sub-Saharan Africa would take sustained popular resistance and the severity or response from repressive regimes. In my mind, Ivory Coast and Darfur in the Sudan are reminders that neither the inept African Union nor the UN took meaningful stands. In Ethiopia, the principle of one voice for one cause and one destination will be critical. Equally, important is the readiness and willingness of opposition groups and civil society to form a viable transitional framework. This is the most important lesson one draw from the “Battle for Libya.”

Gaddafi does not see the fracturing of his country and the animosity towards his regime as long-term liabilities. In this sense too, his regime mimics Ethiopia’s. There is no sense of humility. Both regimes characterize dissenters as enemies of the state and the constitution. Neither regime has compassion for human beings or a vested interest in the common future of their respective societies. What drives Gaddafi is staying in power irrespective of costs to the population. The same is true for the Ethiopian regime. In a boastful and arrogant broadcast mid-March, 2011, Gaddafi announced that his defense forces including the Air Force were ready to crush the “enemy” in Benghazi, the second largest city in the country. He urged the one million inhabitants of the city to come to their senses and demanded that those with weapons turn them over to his regime. He said that there will be no “mercy against those who resist.” It is this threat against opponents that outraged the world; and frightened innocent civilians of massacres to come. What occurred in Ethiopia in the aftermath of the 2005 elections is identical. For both regimes, those who defend freedom and democracy for everyone are “enemies.” Both use the ethnic and sectarian cards in their respective countries to squash any opposition. Both are merciless.

The Arab League and the African Union: contrasts in courage

I believe regional institutions are important for Africans and Arabs in asserting their voices in a changing world. Equally important is the notion that African and Arab intellectual and opinion leaders must be heard and must play the vital role of conducting research and expressing their views on matters that affect their homelands and regions. The anachronistic view that Eurocentric and Pro Western scholars should continue to command the airwaves does not go with the democratic aspirations and hopes of hundreds of millions of people including educated youth and middle classes who are part and parcel of the Internet and social media revolution. The same is true for regional organizations. They can and should play prominent roles in resolving conflicts and in promoting greater economic and political integration.

For the first time in its existence, the Arab League took the unprecedented step of asking the United Nations to impose a “no fly zone” in Libya, one of its members. This is precedent setting. When this happened, many Ethiopians wondered if the African Union would ever have the stamina to go against members accused of gross human rights violations including genocide. The Arab League’s announcement provided moral courage to the opposition that fought against the odds, especially in cities such as Benghazi. The opposition set-up and publicized an alternative council that performs state functions; and conducts active diplomacy. In turn, these developments and the sheer determination of the opposition encouraged the world community to pay closer attention. Gaddafi’s brutality against his own people; the threat that he will be “merciless;” and the resolve of the ill-equipped opposition provided pro opposition countries such as Qatar, France, the United Kingdom and the United States the diplomatic platform they needed to isolate and de-legitimatize Gaddafi. On March 17, 2011, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1973 endorsing a “no fly zone.” This resolution allowed the UN to protect civilians against “bombardments and massacres.” The decision restores faith and confidence among Libyan opposition groups and offers hope in the rest of Africa and the Middle East to those who wish to achieve democratic change. What is the lesson here?

On March 19, 2011, a coalition led by the United States begun dismantling Gaddafi’s strategic military bases. In announcing implementation of the “no fly zone” resolution, President Obama announced that this was not his first or preferred “choice.” Gaddafi’s arrogance that bordered on madness forced the community of nations to take bold actions before massacres took place. The French, British, Italians, Spaniards, Moroccans, Saudis, Qataris and other Arab League countries joined the campaign at different levels. This, in my view, is genuinely one of the most important global initiatives in stopping massacres and empowering freedom seeking people anywhere. For repressive regimes out there who get away with crimes against humanity, the Libyan case sets a precedent that can’t be denied to other freedom seeking people anywhere in the world. The uprising in Libya has a better chance of success because of unprecedented steps taken by the Arab League, the United Nations Security Council; and more important by Libyans who reject oppression that translated a declaration of intent into practice. Gaddafi illustrated the tragic face of tyrants who will go to the extent of killings thousands when they face threats. There is no substitute to the principle that the work of mobilizing empathy and support from the international community comes from the extraordinary work of ordinary people willing and ready to sacrifice their lives for a better tomorrow. Libyans, Syrians and Yemenis die for freedom and for a better tomorrow.

Elites say that ff Ethiopians wish to achieve a democratic future, they must collaborate and accept the notion that freedom from oppression is indivisible; and that people will succeed if they unite for a greater cause. It is true that the Ethiopian regime is brutal and governs through fear and ethnic division. It is possible that, in any uprising in Ethiopia, thousands may die. We see in the behaviors and actions of Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, President Assad of Syria and President Salah of Yemen and the rulers of Bahrain that brutal regimes do not give up power easily. Evidence in 2005 shows that, in an uprising, the Ethiopia regime will resort to the same tactics as Gaddafi, the ruling families of Bahrain, dictators in Syria and Yemen: apply brute force and use the military to assault the population. Libya’s Gaddafi’s offers the prospect that the International Court of Justice in Geneva will find him and his team guilty of crimes against humanity. He does not seem to care that his families would not find a safe haven anywhere. Ethiopians feel that the same will happen to Meles Zenawi. Despite this hope, there are differences between Libya and Ethiopia that I feel is ignored by Ethiopian dissidents. For example, opposition groups are as divided as ever; and civil society is in the first phases of formation. The road ahead is tougher and harder than in Libya, Syria or Yemen or Bahrain. Before the opposition camp can do well, it must accept the notion that Ethiopians share a common problem. The history of brute force against opponents under the military and current dictatorship is so fresh in the minds of the older generation that Ethiopia’s “bulging youth” has no model to emulate. Mothers and fathers sacrificed their sons and daughters in the 1960s, 1970s and throughout the 1990s and in this century. Youth fought courageously to bring democratic change. Ethiopian society is not new to popular uprisings. The notion itself started with activist Ethiopian youth more than a half century ago. One of the biggest and youth led popular uprisings took place against the Imperial regime in the 1970s. Ethiopian youth have been relentless in their struggle against oppression since then. These uprisings are internal; and rooted in youth and middle class elites. In the information age, Ethiopian youth does not have the tools to stimulate change within the country compared to Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, Syrians and Yemenis. This does not mean that the potential does not exist. For this reason, Ethiopian experts I approached feel that leadership for change must come from the country’s large Diaspora. I do not share this view. Sustainable change must come from the population, especially youth. The majority of Ethiopians want to live in misery, destitution and repression. What they resent most is that Ethiopian elites are sitting back and looking at events, afraid to challenge authority.

The façade of elections and the rest

Similar to countries in North Africa and the Middle East, the façade of periodic elections is a joke in Ethiopia. In 2010, the governing party declared that it won 99.6 percent of the votes. How is this possible? Similar to Egypt and Tunisia, regime plants spies even among students and in the Ethiopian Diaspora. It threatens voters and the opposition. Similar to Egypt and Tunisia, many give up and leave the country in search of alternatives abroad. Corruption, nepotism, favoritism and cronyism make business entry prohibitive. William Dobson did a marvelous piece in the Washington Post on January 6, 2011, that captures the essence of what dictators do regardless of country. In “Dictatorship for Dummies, Tunisia edition,” Dobson identifies 7 themes from which dictators could learn but don’t. One, “Be repressive, but don’t over do it.” Dictators are least amenable in adopting to change. They have a vested interest in preserving the system that offers them wealth and riches beyond their wildest dreams. Two, “Don’t try to be Singapore.” It is interesting to note that intellectual supporters of the Ethiopian government believe that rapid growth and development occur under an exclusive environment. This is a preference for dictatorial rather than democratic governance. It does not. These folks are quick to point out lessons from countries such as China, Singapore and Korea-during their formative stage of development. Comparatively speaking, China has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world. China is as dissimilar to Ethiopia as the US in terms of development. Aside from everything else, advocates of the dictatorship model fail to recognize enormous cultural differences and political patterns that are unique to each. Differences between Ethiopia and Singapore are night and day. 5/

Dictatorships may seem the same. In my view they differ from country to country. Benevolent dictators like Emperor Haile Selassie are not the same as the head of State under the Military Dictatorship that replaced him. The current Prime Minister is not the same as the head of state he replaced. For sure their respective governances were or are consistently rated poor. There are value differences among dictators around the globe. President Suharto of Indonesia was one of the most ruthless and corrupt dictators in the world. He distinguished himself as a nationalist and helped to build Indonesia’s economy. When I worked there in the early 1990s, Indonesian friends told me that there was massive corruption. However, the “money was kept in the country. Corrupt officials built schools, hospitals, bridges and other infrastructure, factories” and so on. Lee Kuan Yew, President of Singapore was a dictator. He built one of the most successful economies in the world. He was, first and foremost, a Singaporean nationalist who built outstanding national institutions, designed and implemented economic and social policies that boosted domestic capabilities and made the country an economic powerhouse. I am not justifying corruption or dictatorship of any type. I merely want to differences among a sample of dictators. Competence, dedication to national institutions and equitable development make enormous difference to societies. Singapore became part of what is commonly known as the “East Asian Miracle” and Indonesian is on its way. Among the distinguishing features of the “East Asian Tiger” countries are diversification of their national economies and investments in human capital. This included manufacturing and export of industrial and manufactured goods, highly educated workforces, modern infrastructure, banking and finance and competitive markets. None relied on a single product or service to develop. In this regard, Egypt is more diversified and Tunisia is more like Ethiopia.

Tunisia depends on “wealthy European vacationers” to keep it growing. Today, Ethiopia depends heavily on Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) in its fertile farmlands to achieve its development and transformation agenda. In doing this, the regime leaves policies, cultures and structures almost infract. Both fail to see the critical role of diversification, broad-based, integrated and home grown institutions and development policies and programs in reducing poverty and in attaining sustainable development. Three, “Give young people passports” and they will find jobs abroad and send remittances. Dobson is absolutely right. “If you can’t get everyone a job, encourage emigration. It is the best way to get rid of educated young people who will only cause you headaches when they realize that they can’t find work or must live with their parents.” This is exactly what the Ethiopian regime has done and continues to do. It forced nationalist technical and professional people to leave the country in droves. Its ethnic policy serves a similar purpose. Dobson could have added that a repressive government can’t afford to massacre or jail all of its young people when they dissent and revolt. None of the “East Asian Tiger” countries resorted to forceful expulsions of their young and highly educated people. They created conditions to stimulate creativity, innovation and productivity. Some went further and invited their Diasporas back. The TPLF core has no love for country or empathy for people outside its ethnic circle. In this sense, the regime is not any different from other dictatorships except for its ethnic policy. Take the Saudi Arabian regime and look into its soul. Many poor Ethiopians, especially young girls, immigrate to Saudi Arabia in search of jobs. Astonishing as it may seem, the Saudi government does not encourage its young people to emigrate. It keeps them without jobs. In one of the richest countries in the world where those below 18 years old constitute 60 percent of the population, 40 percent live in poverty. Seventy percent of Saudis can’t afford to buy a home. Ninety percent of public and private sector employees are foreigners, such as those from Ethiopia, Bangladesh, the Philippines and India. Foreign employees are cheaper and do not demand political or civil rights. They just work for wages that are better than those in their home countries. The Saudi regime is among the most corrupt and according to an article in the Wall Street Journal dated February 15, 2011, “inept.” It is run by an extended royal family network, almost similar to the ethnic network of high level decision-makers in Ethiopia. The face of corruption is the same whether in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia or Ethiopia. 6/

Four, “Let the opposition exist-just don’t let it win.” Ethiopians have heard Prime Minister Meles Zenawi– in power for close to 21 years– opine repeatedly that a strong opposition is good for the country. He says that he welcomes peace and reconciliation. Evidence shows that both have to be done under his terms and conditions. The All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP) was humiliated because its leaders accepted a Code of Conduct dictated by the governing party. It lost public confidence and suffered in the elections in 2010. The governing party squashed opposition parties in 2005 and made them totally non-existent by the next election in 2010. In the early 1990s, the TPLF had vowed that it will never allow opposition parties to win “even once.”So, the rhetoric of wanting a strong opposition is a sham. I agree with Dobson that when faced with challenge, a dictatorial regime “faces a choice-retreat or lash out.” In Ethiopia, the regime prefers to “lash out.” In Egypt, President Mubarak lashed out and caused an untold number of deaths and injuries. In the end, he lost with disgrace. 7/

Five, “Give them newspapers.” The Ethiopian press is largely government owned and run. The few independent news organizations operate within strict boundaries. There is no free and independent press. The media propagates government propaganda. Unlike Egypt or Tunisia, dissidents are not allowed to conduct investigative reports. The regime intimidates websites, news organizations and even individuals who live and work abroad. It bans foreign broadcasts critical of the regime. It uses information technology to spy and to intimidate. The case of Ethiopian Review, one of the most consistent and passionate critics of the governing party comes to mind. Not only is the Ethiopian government committed to cyber warfare against this media, Sheikh al-Amoudi, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Ethiopian political system, brought a civil suit against the Editor. This audacity to intimidate Ethiopian free and independent press abroad would not have been possible without encouragement from the regime and tolerance from Western countries. The West fails to see that its long-term interests reside in its willingness and readiness to support the democratic aspirations of the majority and not the dictatorship in power. President Obama’s–post-Egypt protests at Tahrir Square that is changing political thinking–repeated comments that people have fundamental rights to peaceful protest, access to information and political organization are most encouraging for those who seek freedom. I hope this positive posture will repeat itself in Africa too. 8/

Six, “Never negotiate with an angry mob,” reminds me of what happened in the aftermath of the 2005 elections in which hundreds of Ethiopians, mostly youth, were massacred. The regime never entertained to seek forgiveness from the families of the victims or from the Ethiopian people. Its ethos is to blame others and stay in power at any cost and by any means necessary. Innocent lives do not matter. They are just numbers and not human beings. This leads me to Dobson’s most important seventh point, namely, “The people actually matter.” I have always argued that development is about people. It is their effective and consistent participation that would move mountains. Growth happens for a variety of reasons, including pumping billions of dollars in foreign aid. As a recipient of generous aid to the tune of over $3.2 billion in 2010 and more than $30 billion over the past 20 years, the regime had to show concrete results on the ground. It had to build roads and other infrastructure; increase school enrollments; provide better access to health care; and reduce poverty. Donors won’t lend or grant large sums of money each and every year unless they see some results. They are accountable to tax payers. It is their business. For those who claim that the Ethiopian economy is changing, I say yes. But, what is its depth and breadth? Has the fundamental structure changed? Has hunger become history? Is there substantial diversification? Have the lives of the vast majority improved dramatically? If yes, why did the regime ban exports of cereals? Have girls achieved equity? Why are 46 percent of fairly well educated Ethiopians interested in emigrating? It is ordinary Ethiopians who must be asked whether growth has changed their lives materially or not. The fact that the regime is an ally of the United States or the United Kingdom or China does not change the dire picture on the ground.

I am obliged to add an eighth theme namely, ‘Justify income inequality as the price of pursuing growth’. I like to start with a positive note. Conceptually, I share the regime’s goal of transforming the Ethiopian economy into middle income status over the coming five years or so. I support investments in infrastructure and endorse substantial investments in irrigation and hydroelectric power generation. Transforming the Ethiopian economy is a noble objective. Where I differ substantially is how these goals could be achieved without radical structural an

I would go further than Dobson. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, ordinary people are telling regimes that they can no longer accept oppression and socioeconomic exclusion. They seem to say that people and not elites at the top are the motive forces for investments, growth and development. FDI that does not recognize national aspirations and interests of ordinary people is exploitative–even when invited by a regime. It is broad–based participation of people that distinguishes a competent and nationally oriented regime such as Singapore from Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Yemen and Ethiopia. Without people, growth expands opportunities only for elites and a few loyalists who are willing to trade conscience and principle for wealth. Without people, regimes invite foreigners to exploit their natural resources. These models of economic development leave the rest of the population out of the growth process. Without people, powerful elites eventually fail, as the Egyptian and Tunisian cases illustrate.

Yemeret neteka ena kirimit (land grab) is defined as the forcible takeaway and transfer of common lands to foreign wealthy individuals, companies, governments and domestic supporters. The Amharic terms neteka ena kirimit refer to the notion of governing party expropriation, allotment and licensing of fertile farmlands through an estimated 8,400 to 9,000 different transactions, all foreign owned and managed at huge costs to Ethiopians. Yemeret neteka ena kirimit is equivalent to a modern “invasion or worera,” as the Reporter newspaper put it. Stunned and outraged, ordinary Ethiopians ask “yemin gud meta?” This popular Amharic expression external imposition induced by the governing party; and is repulsive to me and most Ethiopians.


Chapter two “Tunisia and the Arab World: let the scent of Jasmine spread.” The Economist. January 22, 2011.

Dobson, W. “Dictatorship for dummies.” The Washington Post. January 6, 2011.
“African Presidents and Prime Ministers: performance index for 2010-2011.” East African Journal. January, 2011.

Ethiopian fascination with the Arab Spring Part II.

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