May 23, 2010 /By Alemayehu G. Mariam
There is an old morality tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes about a king who is so self-absorbed, vainglorious and obsessed with his appearance that he hired two suit makers and gave them vast amounts of money to sew him the finest silk robes. They agreed to make the robes but warned the king that the types of robes they make are invisible to anyone who is unfit for their official position or hopelessly stupid. As they set out to sew their make-believe robes, the king and his ministers would drop in from time to time and offer their admiration for the suit makers’ craftsmanship of the invisible robes. None would dare challenge the suit makers afraid of being called incompetent or stupid. Finally, the suit makers dressed the king in their pretend silk robe and marched him down the street with his courtiers to the applause and cheers of his obedient subjects. The people could see that the king was naked but were afraid to say so fearing his anger. A child in the crowd suddenly yelled out that the king is naked; and the crowd began chanting: “The king is naked!” The king cringed with shame and embarrassment, but held himself up proudly as he continued to walk naked in the royal procession.
The tale of the naked emperor is an apt allegory for the so-called Ethiopian election being held on May 23. The ruling regime in Ethiopia has been blowing its horn about an invisible “democratic election” for over a year. They brought in the best European “election” tailors to embroider the finest “election code of conduct.” They threatened, cajoled, bribed and withheld food aid from the people to force them out into the street and clap and ululate for them as they paraded themselves in their invisible majestic robe of democratic election. Some Western and African representatives volunteered to line up the streets cheerleading for the king. The European Union (EU) sent a delegation of 150 observers to observe 32 million voters vote at 43,000 polling stations in an election that was won by the ruling regime long before it was even conceived. The African Union (AU) deployed 60 observers to do the same in flagrant disregard of its own Elections Observation and Monitoring Guidelines, Section V (14). Both the EU and AU boogied down at the naked king’s parade with full knowledge that “the people who cast the votes (and observe the votes) decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.”
Dictator Meles Zenawi prohibited diplomatic representatives from traveling outside the capital during the “election”. He told Al Jazeera a few days ago that it was a bad idea for diplomats to observe the elections because it was disapproved by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), the Swedish organization which helped him devise the “election code of conduct”: “I know that some diplomats in Addis are offended when they are told they [can not go outside Addis Ababa], but I am sure [allowing them to travel] is not internationally [IDEA] accepted best practice.” That is simply not true! It is a verifiable fact that IDEA strongly encourages all individuals, organizations and governments who conduct or are involved in elections to maintain openness, transparency and neutrality because “The public will measure the legitimacy of an election on the basis of both the actual integrity of its administration and the appearance of integrity of the election process.” IDEA emphatically urges “each person or organization using its code of conduct to apply it flexibly, together with good common sense, to meet the requirements of each situation.” By IDEA’s own standards, allowing the diplomats to observe would be “best practice” because they could help ensure and verify the integrity of the election process.
The fact of the matter is that we have witnessed an election in terrorem for the past year in which the ruling party has harassed, intimidated, threatened and inflicted violence against opposition party leaders and members. On April 13, 2010, Zenawi issued a thinly veiled threat to Ethiopian opposition leaders that he will hunt them out of their hiding places and burn them at the stake if they boycotted the May, 2010 “election”, or agitate the youth for political action. Weeks before “election” day, the ruling regime mounted a sustained campaign of smear and fear, distortions and lies, fabrications and accusations and allegations and charges of incitement to violence, “acting against the constitution” and other malicious hyperbole and propaganda against opposition leaders. All this was manifestly intended to prepare public opinion (and the donor community) for the inevitable incapacitation, neutralization and paralysis of all opposition in Ethiopia in the post-“election” period. As usual, Western donors have covered their eyes with their hands pretending not to see, but peeking at this travesty of democracy between their fingers. They know the whole election farce is staged for their cynical amusement and to beg them later for more handouts. They have become willing collaborators in their own manipulation. So the king proudly marches down the boulevard to applause; but alas! he has no clothes.
Of course, the issue is not whether the emperor has clothes, but whether the people have clothes to cover their backs withered by two decades of dictatorship, enough food to quell the hunger in their stomachs, adequate shelter from the elements and enough oxygen of freedom to breath. In the final analysis, there is one and only one question of consequence in this “election”:
Are the people of Ethiopia better off today than they were 5 years ago?
Do Ethiopians have more food to eat today than they did five years ago? Is there less unemployment in the country today than five years ago? Less inflation? More health care? More press freedom? More human rights protections today than five years ago? Is there more accountability, transparency and openness in government today than five years ago? Do young Ethiopians today have more confidence in their future than they did five years ago? Do Ethiopia’s youth have more employment opportunities today than they did five years ago? More academic freedom in the universities? Do Ethiopians have more access to the vast universe of information available on the internet than they did five years ago? (On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, President Obama singled out Ethiopia as one of four countries in the world that have prevented their citizens from “gaining greater access than ever before to information through the Internet, cell phones and other forms of connective technologies.”) Do Ethiopians today have more confidence in their future, their rulers and public institutions than they did five years ago?
The answer is a resounding NO.
After 19 years of one-man, one-party rule, does the same crew of kleptocrats cling to power like barnacles to the sunken Ethiopian ship of state? Do the dictators continue to use more violence, intimidations, threats and arbitrary arrests and detentions against their opposition to maintain themselves in power? Do those who massacred 193 innocent protesters and wounded hundreds more after the 2005 elections still walk the streets free? Are the country’s prisons full of political prisoners? Are the members of the ruling party and their allies getting richer, and the masses growing hungrier and poorer everyday? Are the robbers who stole millions of dollars worth of gold bars from the national bank in broad daylight in 2007 still roam the streets free enjoying their loot? Is the environment more degraded today than it was five years ago? Is corruption so endemic in Ethiopiathat the country for the last five years has been ranked at the very bottom of the International Corruption Index? Does Ethiopia still rank at the very bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index (in 2005 (169/177 countries; in 2009 (171/182)?
The answer is a resounding YES!
The fact of the matter is that talking about elections in a police state is like talking about a fish riding a motorcycle. It is silly. It is sheer madness.
But Ethiopia today stands at the crossroads of history; and as the old African saying goes, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” At this crossroad, Ethiopians can choose to take the right way or the wrong way. The right way is the way of national reconciliation, compromise, mutual understanding and tolerance. The wrong way is the way of force, violence, brutality, threats, intimidation and persecution. Ethiopians can choose the easy way or the hard way. The easy way is to follow and live by the rule of law and ensure everyone’s human rights are respected and all are held to account for their actions and omissions. The hard way is the way of dictatorship, despotism, deceit and conceit. Ethiopians can take the high road or the low road. The high road is the way of morality, ethical conduct, common sense and compassion. The low road is the way of dishonesty, lies, distortions and trickery. We can take the road to somewhere or the road to nowhere. The road to somewhere take us to national unity, commonality of purpose, harmony, coalition-building and cooperation. The road to nowhere takes us to ethnic division and tribal conflict, irrational fear and hatred and needless violence and destruction. We can take the superhighway or the dirt road. The superhighway will take us on a wonderful journey to a brave new world of information, ideas and knowledge on the wings of modern technology. The dirt road has a one-way ticket to dictatorship, tyranny, darkness and ignorance. We can walk together on the united way or remain stranded on a divided highway.
Ultimately, we can choose the way of all our ancestors — the Ethiopian Way — or join the way of the ignoramuses who arrogantly proclaim that “if it is not my way, there ain’t no way but the highway.” We must choose the Ethiopian Way — the way of humanity, unity, solidarity, integrity, honesty, cordiality, empathy, fraternity and congeniality.
If we choose to take the Ethiopian Way, we must collectively make our roadmap to get us to our preferred destination. We will need to set the mileposts and detail out the rules of the road. We must brightly mark the “yield” and “stop” signs together with the “no crossing” and “danger” signs along the way. We must be prepared to take the “the road less traveled” to get to our destination. That is the road of tolerance, good will, broad-mindedness, patience and understanding. We must avoid the beaten path of personal attacks, hatred and prejudice, recriminations, accusations and pettiness. We can not begin a new journey along the Ethiopian Way with the old mindset: “If you don’t agree with me in everything, you are my enemy.” We must trade it in for a new spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood across ethnic, linguistic, class and regional lines. We must reinvent a new mentality that substitutes the concerns of ethnicity and partisanship with the needs of our basic humanity, our unity in our Ethiopian nationality and our personal authenticity.
Let us use this bogus election as the impetus for the development of a comprehensive political, economic, social and legal agenda for Ethiopia that is based on a compelling vision of a better future for this and coming generations. Let us cast off the shortsightedness and narrow partisanship of the past. Let us gather ideas from all segments of society — and not just from the intellectuals and the elites – and pursue them inclusively and aggressively with a common sense of purpose and destiny. If desperate times require desperate actions, times of great opportunity such as this one require quick, bold and determined action. Carpe diem! Let us seize the moment and set a new course for Ethiopia.
The future is bright for Ethiopia regardless of the already-won election of 2010. No doubt some will be disheartened and dispirited; but it is illogical to be disappointed about an “election” outcome that has always been a foregone conclusion. It is natural to anguish over the loss of such a great opportunity to plant the seeds of democracy in Ethiopia. But we must always be mindful of the fact that nothing will give the dictators greater pleasure than having us all depressed and dejected about their “victory” in this “election”. Their ardent wish is that we abandon and give up the struggle for the cause of democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia. But they fail to grasp a simple fact: These causes are much larger and greater than any one election, one dictator, one party or one regime. These causes represent the quintessential, timeless and universal yearning of all humanity in recorded history. As the great Nelson Mandela said, “Let freedom reign. The sun never set on so glorious a human achievement.” We must never let the sun set on freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia.
As for the “election”: Let us just say that it ain’t the votin’ that makes for a free and fair election. It is the countin’. We sure know who will be burning the midnight oil on May 23 counting, double-counting, triple- and quadruple-counting the same ballots to proclaim victory at the crack of dawn on May 24. This Ethiopian election caper aside, it has been said that a “politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation.” Let us all strive to develop in earnest the true attributes of genuine statesmanship and stateswomanship so that we may be able to help the next generation become Ethiopia’s Greatest Generation!
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.