Independence you can trust
16 April 2014 04:08 (South Africa)
Opinionista Janice Winter

Meles Zenawi: Where the truth lies

  • Janice Winter
Daily Maverick’s The AU Summit: A rare ring of truth by Kevin Bloom lauds Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi as being unique in speaking “trenchant truth” at an AU gathering in the 49 years since its establishment (initially the OAU). Taking exception to this interpretation, JANICE WINTER exposes where the truth lies.

The speech in question was made at the inauguration of the new AU headquarters funded by China, where Meles Zenawi talked of an African renaissance underway, characterised by economic surges, social progress, improved governance, diminishing violence, the banishment of the one-party systems and the ability of Africans to make choices about their lives and societies.

The 'evidence' Bloom cites for the veracity of Zenawi’s promises of African growth and development: the cranes he sees scattering Addis Ababa’s skyline, impressive buildings alongside the city’s informal settlements, and touted plans for an impressive transit system. These anecdotal observations are unfortunately not trustworthy snapshots of the health of the economy of the capital city, or Ethiopia more broadly. The cliché about how looks can deceive is particularly germane in informationally closed authoritarian societies.

So, if not evidence of Ethiopia’s economic health, what else could such urban development indicate? Practically, that Zenawi’s regime has borrowed and printed a lot of money – and the evidence for this truth is Ethiopia’s runaway inflation rate that rose above 40% in 2011, with food inflation peaking above 50% and the ratio of debt to exports reaching above 130%. The regime recently imposed extensive price controls that caused severe shortages in various food items and left long queues of people waiting to buy cooking oil and sugar, redolent of the days of Mengistu Hailemariam’s dictatorship. The country is also beset by a series of currency devaluations, acute shortages in foreign currency reserve and a widening trade deficit. This is patently unsustainable, as leading economists have repeatedly warned. Ethiopia is a macroeconomic disaster, despite Zenawi’s unwarranted image as economist king. Yet despite the economy’s vulnerability, this runaway borrowing and spending has secured him political stability, at least in the short term, by providing a means with which to buy the loyalty of military leaders and co-opt members of the urban elite.

Zenawi spoke of Africa’s access to new centres of finance, which have indeed brought significant investment in infrastructure and development, and celebrated the continent’s declining dependence on the West. However, while such investment might bolster the incumbent regime in their 'struggle for survival', Global Financial Integrity explains that as a result of corruption by the ruling elite, “The people of Ethiopia are being bled dry. No matter how hard they try to fight their way out of absolute destitution and poverty, they will be swimming upstream against the current of illicit capital leakage.” A bit of conversation with locals and a few minutes spent googling would give any interested journalist numerous appalling anecdotes about the generals, members of the ruling party and party-affiliated, rent-seeking companies that own the lion’s share of Addis Ababa’s glittering buildings. While not all of the stories and studies can be assumed trustworthy, they surely provide substantial food for scepticism.

Zenawi has forecast a staggering 14.9% average economic growth rate between 2010 and 2015 and claims to have achieved “double digit” growth over the last seven years despite a global economic recession. There is credible scepticism of these figures by some international economists and substantial discrepancies in conclusions about the country’s performance and progress toward the MDGs. No independent institutions in Ethiopia exist to check the veracity of his government’s figures.

What confounds me is why the international community continues to accept Zenawi’s claims about the regime’s economic record, while taking for granted that he has lied repeatedly on human rights issues and consequently rejecting his official line on Ethiopia’s human rights record. That his statements on human rights, democracy, foreign threats, opposition groups, journalists and a host of other topics and issues are manifestly and consistently false should indicate that other information taken from the same source also has a high likelihood of being untrue.

But even if we choose to take his contentious economic figures at face value, does it suggest that his brutal authoritarian capitalism constitutes a model to be condoned, endorsed or even celebrated within Africa for its remarkable economic results? Do we really agree to overlook repressive prisons if they’re built along with impressive new road networks? Bloom understandably found it “kind of hard” to forget the AU memorial that has been erected to honour victims of human rights violations in Africa, considering that the AU’s current chair is a despotic dictator responsible for widespread human rights violations in Equatorial Guinea. Yet despite the monument being erected in Ethiopia’s capital, the article made no mention of the pattern of arrests, torture, rapes, forced removals and political manipulation of development aid that characterises Zenawi’s abysmal human rights record.

In fact, the one rare ring of truth in Zenawi’s speech was his opening line, which celebrated that the new AU headquarters “is built on the ruins of the oldest maximum security prison” known by Ethiopians as Alem Bekagn, which, loosely translated, means, “I have given up on this world, on this life”.

Intended as a metaphor for a world that had given up on Africa, those familiar with Ethiopian current affairs would note the analogy’s ironic aptness: the AU event took place in Addis Ababa at the same time that two Ethiopian journalists each received 14 years imprisonment, an exiled journalist received his second life sentence in absentia, while the world was talking about two Swedish investigative journalists condemned to serve 11-year prison sentences in Ethiopia, and as journalist and dissident Eskinder Nega faces the death penalty.

More than 114 journalists and opposition members have been imprisoned (some of whom may face the death penalty) in the past 11 months, in an environment that Amnesty International describes as “the most far-reaching crackdown on freedom of expression seen in many years in Ethiopia”. Even the UN – usually cautious of condemning its member states – has criticised this recent escalation of repression.

Where are these political prisoners being held? In Alem Bekagn’s replacement, the infamous Qaliti Prison, located just two miles from its predecessor and the new AU headquarters and thus effectively hidden from the view of most visitors. All that’s really changed is a strategic shift in its position, and not the experience within its walls. The same could be said of Meles Zenawi’s dictatorship, which, while less overt to outsiders than that of his predecessor, is largely the same in substance.

In short, his statement that “out of the decades of hopelessness and imprisonment, a new era of hope is dawning and that Africa is being unshackled and freed” is far from true in the context of Zenawi’s tyrannical leadership.

In fact, a striking parallel can be made between Zenawi’s Ethiopia and Mubarak’s Egypt. EPRDF, like Mubarak’s NDP, has a crushing dominance of the country’s political scene, using a mixture of co-option, manipulation, electoral fraud and repression. In 2010, the party declared that it won 99.6% of the country’s parliamentary seats, which was down from the even more ludicrous 99.9% sweep in local elections in 2008. Such Soviet-style electoral statistics would embarrass even some of the nastiest dictators in the world. Since 2007, the party has recruited 7-million members, nearly 10% of the population – a figure that trumps what the Communist Party of China accomplished in its entire existence. Some of these members are students and college graduates who have no opportunity to get government jobs (accounting for the overwhelming majority of urban employment) or to receive micro financing services without party membership. As in Mubarak’s Egypt, Ethiopia’s economy is controlled by very few people who have links with the army, the ruling party or Meles Zenawi’s family. Another similarity is the use of anti-terrorism laws and extensive torture to silence all forms of political dissent.

Indeed, in an article entitled What’s He Got to Hide? published in the New York Times (coincidentally, also last Sunday), Nicholas Kristof describes Zenawi’s “increasingly tyrannical” rule and condemns the dictator’s attempts to prevent public scrutiny of his “worsening pattern of brutality” by silencing those who seek to tell the truth.

Thus it is surprising to me that a publication whose open endorsement of liberal values such as freedom of expression, civil liberties and economic rights is as central to its identity, as is the case with the Daily Maverick, would run an article that celebrates a dictator’s dubious words as truth and that fails to include even a single caveat about his long record of lies. As you tell readers that “we expect you to call us out when we screw up”, this riposte is one reader’s attempt to do so.

It seems to me that Bloom has not done the research needed to do basic justice to this story. Kristof’s column could be a good place to start: he concludes that “the only proper response” by journalists “is a careful look at Meles’ worsening repression”. I agree. DM


  • Janice Winter
JaniceWinter_1

Janice Winter is a journalist and media scholar. She has a postgraduate degree in International Development from the University of Oxford, for which she was awarded a distinction for research on victims of political violence in Zimbabwe. She written for and edited magazines and book publications, and has conducted research for several international organisations. She is currently programme manager of the Axess Programme on Journalism and Democracy, which explores the relationship between the media and political power globally. Her book, The Dystopian Democracy: Media and Politics in South Africa, will be published in 2012.


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