Ethiopia deserves better than “better than Mengistu”

Better late than never, I suppose.

The editorial board of the New York Times used some of their space on Sunday to condemn Meles Zenawi’s increasingly dictatorial governance of Ethiopia and to ask Tony Blair to remove Zenawi from his Commission for Africa, where he serves in his personal, not official, capacity.

While I’m glad to see the editorial page of the “paper of record” taking notice of what’s going on in Ethiopia, the timing seems a little odd. There was widespread violence in Addis earlier this month, as Zenawi’s police and army put down street protests with live ammo, killing at least 46 people. As this weekend’s editorial writer puts it, “Has Meles never heard of tear gas?” This editorial would have been far more timely then.

Just a few days ago – November 18th – Times correspondent Marc Lacey offered an overview of “African-style Democracy”, in a piece titled “By Fits and Starts, Africa’s Brand of Democracy Emerges”. While Lacey is disappointed by the authoritarian tendencies Zenawi, Kagame and Museveni have been displaying, he’s careful to point out that they’re “holding together troubled countries”, and are better than their predecesors: “Mr. Meles, Ethiopia’s hard-line prime minister, is a far cry from the dictator he ousted, Mengistu Haile Mariam.”

That’s true: Mengistu was fond of detaining tens of thousands of members of the opposition and killing thousands at a time, while Zenawi “only” detained 11,000 and has released 8,000 of his opponents. And his kill ratio is quite low, slaying only dozens of protesters at a time. Still, we might choose to set the bar a little higher before suggesting that Zenawi might be “another type of leader” rather than a dictator. I’m guessing the four opposition figures who’ve declared themselves on indefinite hunger strike while in detention are having some trouble understanding the fine distinctions between Zenawi’s “African democracy” and tyranny.

With the defeat of the Kenyan constitution, there appears to be the beginnings of a movement in the Western press to question the leadership of the “new generation” of African leaders – those that President Clinton, visiting the continent, declared “Africa’s great hope”. As Simon Robinson points out in an excellent article in the European edition of Time, “Within months of Clinton’s visit, Rwanda and Uganda had invaded Congo, and Eritrea and Ethiopia had gone to war with each other. While some leaders — notably Museveni and Zenawi — still did enough to remain darlings of Western donors, even they have now begun to slide.”

Robinson goes on to point out that there’s some good news outside of East Africa, as Ghana, Senegal and Zambia have all had elections where the opposition has peacefully taken power. And the fact that Kibaki’s constitution was defeated without prompting any presidential intervention is very good news for democracy.

There’s a tendency, though, to try to attribute trends to a whole continent. With Zenawi showing his dark side and Museveni cracking down on the opposition, it’s too easy to conclude that Africa’s not ready for real democracy and that citizens wil need to settle for some sort of authoritarian “African Democracy”. People deserve so much more. And it’s important that we focus our attention, as people who care about Africa, on the successes as well as the tragedies, recognizing both for what they are.

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6 Responses to Ethiopia deserves better than “better than Mengistu”

  1. dumi says:

    have a look at this posting at my blog where i comment on that same article from TIME Europe that you mention in your article … http://www.nyoni.net

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  3. Ethan says:

    Good stuff, Dumi. Robinson’s article didn’t bother me as much as Lacey’s did, but I share your concern that Western journalists – and bloggers like me – miss the nuance that folks see on the ground. I’m very glad you’re blogging about this stuff – as I’ve mentioned to you before, it’s been hard to find Zimbabwean voices that are supportive – wholly or in part – of Mugabe and I’m glad you’re offering that perspective on your blog. Hope you are well, my friend.

  4. Kwasi Appiah says:

    Well Ethan when it comes to journalists I am always on the look-out for the broad stroke and catchy generalization and I hope most readers are too. Thank heavens for blogdom. By the way I do not see the events in Ethiopia and Uganda as slides, unfortunate as it may be and detrimental as it may be to the health and life of the opposition. If we were to look back and review America in the 60s one could have well said that the USA was a failed state – as no doubt Soviet propagandists asserted at the time. Perhaps there is more to what is happening in Ethiopia than can be understood or conveyed by fly-by-night journalists. I have been searching for some good blogger to read from that country. The violence and intolerance are of course inexcusable; but I want to know more about what is going on there than what the press, even the NYT can convey.

  5. Lacey’s piece was one of the worst apologia for tyranny in Africa that I’ve read in decades, considering what Yoweri Museveni, the bucther of Acholis is now doing to Dr. Kizza Besigye, who will probably still win the presidential elections next March. I know scores of Ugandans who wrote Letters To The Editor to NY Times — not a single of the letters was published (I invite people who visit this blog to express their views to The Times via letters@nytimes.com and asulz@nytimes.com. The more people who expose this “journalist..” the better. For those who want additional history of the Times distorted Africa coverage, please also see my book, “The Hearts of Darkness..” (Black Star Books, 2003). Here’s the letter I sent to Times (never printed):–Milton Allimadi

    November 24, 2005
    Letter To The Editor
    The New York Times
    229 West 43rd Street
    New York, N.Y., 10036-3959
    letters@nytimes.com

    Museveni Doesn’t Need Times To Make His Case For Tyranny

    In “By Fits and Starts, Africa’s Brand of Democracy Emerges,” (NY Times, Nov. 24, 2005: A4), your correspondent describes a Uganda which is at odds with recent events in Kampala and reports by prominent institutions, including the United Nations and Human Rights Watch.
    President Museveni’s repressive measures to cling to power as his popularity has waned have undone much of his achievements. When his challenger, Dr. Kizza Besigye was greeted by tens of thousands of supporters at political rallies, which your correspondent conveniently omits, Mr. Museveni panicked and had him arrested. Dr. Besigye could have been arrested the minute he returned from four years exile three weeks earlier had there been a credible case against him. His arrest on trumped up charges led to street demonstrations in Kampala and the death of one protestor – which incident your correspondent again neglects.
    Your correspondent writes that Mr. Museveni “disappointed those who were hoping for Western-style democracy to emerge in full flower in 21st-century Africa.” This is an irrelevant statement. Those most disappointed, and who are more important in the context of the story, are the millions of Ugandans who once believed in Mr. Museveni’s promises that he was not power hungry; that he would stamp out corruption and nepotism; and, that he would send soldiers back to the barracks and allow civil institutions to be enshrined in a new constitution.
    President Museveni has done the exact opposite. Despite your writers assertion that the corruption “is less blatant than it was” compared to his predecessors and “the jailing of opponents far less prevalent,” the facts show otherwise. President Museveni’s own brother, Gen. Salim Saleh and his wife, Jovia Akandwanaho, were named in a United Nations report on corruption prepared by a panel of experts for the Security Council. As a result Gen. Saleh’s wife is now barred from entering the U.S.
    Moreover, former US ambassador to Uganda, Johnnie Carson, stated at a recent forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars that Museveni’s attempt to remain in office might be an attempt to “protect those around him from charges of corruption” fearing that once out of office immunity would be stripped. Current ambassador, Jimmy Kolker, said Uganda did not qualify for assistance through the Millenium Challenge due to endemic corruption. How can your correspondent not mention such statements?
    In addition to the brutal suppression of Dr. Besigye’s supporters, the government banned all rallies by his supporters. Human Rights Watch in its 2004 report discussed the routine torture of opposition party activists in government “safe houses” throughout the country. I doubt if these victims will be comforted by your correspondent’s assertion that their arrests are now infrequent.
    Regarding building of democratic institutions, Mr. Museveni’s own actions speak louder than words. Your correspondent writes that he “pushed to have constitutional limits on his term lifted,” when in fact Mr. Museveni openly bribed members of Parliament
    $2,800 each to vote in favor. This outrage was reported in the local Uganda and international media, although not by your correspondent.
    The army has not been sent back to barracks. It plays a very prominent role in political repression and intimidation. Just last week, when several men charged as co-conspirators with Dr. Besigye were granted bail, commandos barged into the courts. Fearing for their lives, the men elected to return to prison rather than be spirited away. This action was compared by Uganda’s judges to the days of Idi Amin and the country’s chief judge condemned the government.
    Your correspondent writes that leaders such as Mr. Museveni, even with shortcomings, have “succeeded in holding together troubled countries with undeveloped democratic institutions and tradition.” Ironically, this is the exact same argument that colonial rulers employed and the enforcers of Apartheid in South Africa used to deny democracy for decades to Africans.
    It is depressing when African tyrants are allowed to make an argument that two version of democracy are permissible; one, for the West, presumably with full human rights and the rule of law. And another version, for Africa, presumably with proscribed human rights and where the leader amends the law as he sees fit.
    The overall paternalistic tone of the article is unacceptable. Why should Ugandans use Idi Amin and Milton Obote as barometer by which to judge their Presidents? Do Americans ask themselves whether a President or candidate is better than Richard Nixon or Gerald Ford before deciding on whom to vote for?
    Mr. Museveni does not need The New York Times to make his case. He has shown that he is no different than Uganda’s previous leaders when it comes to clinging to power.

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