Wednesday, August 15

Of Shimageles and Red Herrings

The Christian Science Monitor (Via Ethiomedia) reports "In Ethiopia, elders dissolve a crisis the traditional way". The co-director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington is quoted
I don't think [Meles freed the jailed opposition leaders] from the goodness of his heart. The Council of Elders was a response to both domestic and international pressure. It was a face saving measure. [still] it's a break from the past."
Also according to the CSM opinions in Ethiopia differ
I think there was likely pressure from America ... but the mediators were the ones who convinced the sides to agree.
To us the statements above and too much of recent discourse is ever so subtly covering up and directing attention away from what is going on in Ethiopia.

It is a sort of comfortable idea born of frustration that "sure Ethiopian government is bad but some sort of traditional / practical problem solving has taken place". Meles is in charge because he is willing to kill and the West is willing to finance him.

Has that all changed somehow because a few scholars and athletes took a few notes back and forth between a dictator and his innocent political prisoners? This all brings to mind the term 'Red Herring' which refers to
Something that draws attention away from the central issue ... The herring in this expression is red and strong-smelling from being preserved by smoking. The idiom alludes to dragging a smoked herring across a trail to cover up the scent and throw off tracking dogs
In Ethiopian tradition a shimagele is a respected elder who mediates and maybe arbitrates between parties involved in disputes or arrangement that involves witnessed agreement. This can range from family issues such as marriage all the way to the public sphere of small contracts and even the occasional feud.

The key word here is tradition. In the traditional setting there is an assumption of some shared basis for negotiation based on the following: an appreciation of mutual values of honor, shame, community, truth, culture, and respect. Absent those factors there can be no role for the most respected and wise elder on earth.

Imagine Moses from on high with elders recruited from folks such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Albus Dumbledore and many other of the great and sincerely respected men and women that humanity has produced over the ages.

Now picture this gray haired 'Super Shimagele Dream Team', literally dripping with wisdom and respectability, all tricked out in robes or togas, trying to resolve a conflict between peaceful prisoners of conscience and either a mafia don like Vito Corleone, a warlord like Genghis Khan, or a dictator like Meles Zenawi.

The shimagele dream team would get slaughtered in due course for their presumption that the will of the psychopath in charge was subject to any manner of review ... unless the appearance of using shimagles and remaining in control anyway was of value.

Kim Jong Il has nuclear blackmail, Hugo Chavez has oil, and Fidel Castro has sexual tourism to keep their dictatorships alive. Meles Zenawi has the engineered poverty and suffering of his people to finance his dictatorship. Ethiopians are the hostages of their government who is more than willing to do them harm. Meles has only to pretend to be civilized - just well enough for his financiers not to be asked awkward questions at home - and he can do whatever he wants.

That is the meaning of recent events. The role of shimageles is so far beyond peripheral it is actually meaningless. Meles was going to stay in power at all costs. That is what dictators do. He needed ferenji financing too. The begging and threatening of Meles to treat his own people with minimal decency did not extend to a desire to see human rights or human dignity be respected for tens of millions but it did create a tiny group of opponents who could not be killed or disappeared as was customary.

The leaders of the opposition wanted to live and it was clear to them that business as usual and low expectations was more important to the ferenjis keeping them alive than silly ideas like democracy ... so under threat of death for crimes no one thought them guilty of, they said what they needed to say to stay alive.

It was also clear to the leaders of the opposition that the Ethiopian social contract is between Meles and Donors excluding Ethiopians and Western taxpayers alike. No sacrifice on their part was going to make any bravery of theirs into a promise of better life for Ethiopians.

Meanwhile Ethiopia remains a prison nation of 70 million government / party serfs and tens of thousands of others are in prison camps with no distinguished scholars or sports stars passing them notes from Meles Inc. and that certain beacon of democracy on Entoto Road. What the Ethiopian people are dealing with in Meles Inc. is a mafia of revolutionary tribalists who accept none of the values necessary for mediation or even civilized government.

Indeed, anyone taking any such notions seriously is simply an idiot to them - to be used when convenient and to be dealt with more seriously when inconvenient.

The cauldron from which Meles Inc. and Mengistu's Dergue sprung was steeped in blood, betrayal, lies, greed, and the acceptance of no morality beyond that which served the immediate needs of whomever had spilled more blood in the latest round of purges. Most simply put, beyond pretense, Ethiopia's leaders don't accept the concept of morality at all.

It is absolutely ridiculous to speak of a role for shimageles and traditional means of conflict resolution when you are dealing with thugs. During the 'election' staged in 2005 it became obvious that Ethiopians of every stripe and every place so loathed the regime that no pretense of democracy could work. So the government let even ferenjis see the thuggish nature that Ethiopians have always known distinguished Mengistu and Meles.

To imagine that anyone at all of any stature shuttling between Kaliti prison, the corporate offices of Meles Inc., and the US Embassy could have made a difference in any equation of power is just plain silly. The whole concept of traditional mediation when you are talking about dictatorships takes attention away from the basis of dictatorial rule which is the monopoly and willingness to use violence.

Can anyone out there imagine an outcome of shimagele mediation that saw Meles NOT getting what he wanted? Of course not. If the mediators had any role beyond slowly squeezing the political prisoners into the shape desired by Meles they would have become prisoners themselves - depending on the color of their passports and how much the US Embassy was willing to watch out for them. Which everyone knew was not very much.

The trumpeting or 'appreciation' for the political role of shimageles in any case and particularly when dealing with bloody dictators is rather disingenuous. If liberal democracy as a goal is so easy to forget in exchange for the roles of scholars and athletes - then why shouldn't the next American election or political crisis be set aside for mediation too?

Hey, the US has plenty of Nobel Prize winners in every category. Those esteemed and respected men and women could alternate with the winners of the World Series and Super Bowl to go back and forth between Democrats and Republicans.

Sounds kind of silly doesn't it? So why is this OK for Ethiopia where one party is actively killing and imprisoning the opposition while defying the wishes of the electorate?

What's that? You say things in Ethiopia and the US are a bit different? Sure they are but without American help for Ethiopia's dictatorship, Ethiopia could at least start moving in the right direction.

Any negotiation that took place with the shimageles had them in a role as messengers for the US Embassy and Meles Inc. The real negotiations involved Ambassador Yamamoto and his iron fisted 'aides' who were there to get the opposition in line and to keep Meles Inc. on as Our Man in Africa.

Those negotiations involved how much Meles would be paid for not bringing down the entire Horn of Africa like a demented Samson. As long as killings took place outside of ferenji eyes all was well but too many knew about this group of prisoners so the Embassy had to save Meles from himself and to save Ethiopia from democracy.

Meles was helped in all of this by his infiltration of American politics. Millions of dollars siphoned from aid and stolen from Ethiopians is being spent on lobbyists and lawyers in Washington D.C. to make the world safe for dictatorship. The names that really mattered in the fate of the prisoners and of Ethiopian freedom were Dick Armey, Richard Gephardt, Nancy Pelosi, George Bush, and maybe George Mitchel.

Meles bought himself into favor in Washington in a tragic and shameful corruption of American democracy. Harper's and a few others in the press noticed, some friends of Ethiopia in Congress are fighting it, and most Ethiopian-Americans won't knuckle under but Meles is managing to have his way.

Ethiopia's shimageles did nothing but carry threats to the hostages in Kaliti letting them know how willing the world outside was to see them dead or forgotten.

Shimageles belong in less trying situations - somewhat below the level where the fates of nations are decided. Fights between bickering couples, resolutions with errant children, traditional 'interventions' against husbands (or wives for that matter) who come home very late at night smelling of katikala, and folks who let their dogs bite their neighbors are the real places for shimageles.

Otherwise even when they are as respected as the Ethiopian shimageles of recent international notice (to who so much ink and so many bytes are devoted and whom we really respect as well) - they have no role to play at all.

In fact, they have served mainly to give Meles Inc. a crude sheen of respectability based on a world of tradition for which Meles has naught but contempt. The political prisoners were made 'an offer they couldn't refuse' in the classic Corleone sense.

People are either free or they are not. There is no covering up the stench of Meles Inc. with any manner of red herring.


The interchangeable government / ruling party / crony alliance still rule with brutal absolute power, there are still no human or political rights respected of any kind, there is still no free press, there are no free labor unions or indeed any free institutions of civil society, there are no rights of ownership of private property, economic insecurity is prized by the regime to keep people in line, the greatest share of the economy is still owned by the government / party, it is still among the very poorest nations on earth with no economic growth beyond the illusions of inflation & lies along with siphoned aid & foreign remittances, tens of thousands remain in prison camps, peasants still need permission from local commissars to visit villages next door, peasants still can only sell their crops to party / crony businessmen at dictated prices, peasants are still living in fear of losing their land and freedom because of engineered debt or suspicion of their opinions, tribal / religious / regional divide and rule remain the law of the land, billions in foreign aid end up in contracts with party / crony businesses and then end up in foreign bank accounts and investments, diplomatic missions are still illegally used to intimidate and control those abroad while Ethiopia's rulers have found security and fortune in the destitution and subjection of millions and on an on and on ... NEVER BELIEVE THE HYPE!


"Mediation and the mazes of a dictator" by Professor Messay Kebede also deals with this topic.

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