Monday, November 29

Politburo Knows Best III - Revolutionary Democracy

21st Century Maoism - CDs on sale now in Addis Ababa, Pyongyang and Havana
(Images are from a Fark photoshop contest.)


A mantra is a sacred verbal formula repeated in prayer, meditation, or incantation, such as an invocation of a god, a magic spell, or a syllable or portion of scripture containing mystical potentialities. Mantras are usually associated with Hinduism. However, Ethiopia's revolutionary mantras and their associated spiritual beliefs are now in their third decade as the central element of Ethiopian governance - their effect has not had the spiritual uplift of any great religion.

intro to revolutionary democracy

In 2001 several Western Embassies pooled resources to translate a nearly 700 page volume titled 'Revolutionary Democracy' from Amharic to English. It was supposed to be the key to understanding Ethiopian governance and the completion of the transormation from decades of disastrous Marxist theories and practice towards a market capitalistic economy.

According to the report from the July 28, 2001 Indian Ocean Newsletter (registration required) the book was "not to be taken literally because it is mainly for internal use; it is an idealogical weapon against the dissidents of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF)". The TPLF is the core of the ruling party the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front - EPRDF.

Whatever it purpose, that volume was all anyone had to grab onto in an attempt to understand what was going on in the Gibee. 'Gibee' is the familiar name for the compound in central Addis Ababa that has been the seat of all executive power for well over a century. The embassies desperately needed the translation becauses just asking questions or observing policy as is routine in most other countries simply was not an option. Much of the confusion was purposeful because secrecy, unforgiving often vicious reactions to criticism, eternal intrigue, manipulation, suspicion and an utter lack of transparency had become vital elements of government.

Those characteristics were vital for a guerilla struggle but inappropriate for enterprising civilian rule. Gibee-ology, then became a cousin of the Kremlinology that generations of Western analysts assiduously practiced to study the equally inscrutable Soviet government. As we shall see, figuring out what revolutionary democracy could possible mean is ultimately as rewarding as the arcane studies done by Kremlinologists who filled thousands of volumes on detailed studies of which end of Lenin's tomb one commissar or another politburo member stood on May Day as opposed to the celebration of the October Revolution.

so ... what is revolutionary democracy?

The Ethiopian government's view of revolutionary democracy is translated here by the German Federal Foreign Office
the official doctrine remains the vague concept of "revolutionary democracy", which is regarded as an alternative to the "liberal democracy" practised by western industrialized states, for which the country is supposedly not yet ready.
The comparison offered from the Gibee conveniently sets standards that are both geographically distant and temporally decades or generations away for fulfilment. It then further corrupts the concept of democracy with the escape clause of the term revolutionary. Liberal democracy is a human achievement that has spread far beyond the West and does not require industrialization to achieve. From India to Botswana to Nicaragua many countries have democratic systems that are clearly recognizable as such by any rational observer.

Basically, democracy is a simple concept and one easily separated from other, far less pleasant, forms of government - people do not have to live in Switzerland, New Zealand or Japan to benefit from it. The appraisal of a political system is very much like telling the difference between a nude and a dirty picture - folks just plain know it when they see it. The word democracy may be abused but few are fooled by its imitations.

Translating the manifesto of Ethiopian revolutionary democracy or reading it in its original Amharic did little to dispel confusion about policy - one Ethiopian critic from banking circles in Fortune (via Ethioguide) noted a lack of definition of the very concept of the term revolutionary democracy in the new volume and wondered
whether it could be a new concept or some rendition of Marxist-Leninist thinking. "People familiar with Marxism-Leninism may guess, but guessing cannot replace the intention of the authors of the document."
The document identifies Ethiopia's businesspersons in two categories - the first class comprising "those who create value" and the second ones who are classified as "rent collectors - businessmen who through legal or illegal means suck the wealth created by others as well as the country's natural resource".
Serving up the leftover mantras of Marxist-Leninism makes as little sense today as it did a century ago when Russians became the first unfortunates with this type of talk forced on them. Actually, it is not supposed to make sense.

The reader may want to try a few questions from this quiz, Marxist Jeopardy, about the basics of Marxism. No one was actually meant to understand it at all beyond its value as a holy text. It is based on no objective reality - just a thin tissue of made up theories and statements that mantra like repetition somehow solidifies in the unquestioning mind. People often have the mistaken assumption that there is inherent value in something that is difficult to understand.

That is usually not the case - nothing is more valuable than basic human common sense especially in the face of an all encompassing theory with messianic qualities that always brings suffering in its wake. The reader should also take this quiz, The Holocausts of Communism Test, and understand the real reality underlying those confusing words.

Marxist-Leninist jargon provides a form of faux intellectualism and a thin veneer of supposed good intentions that protects the speaker, listener and the policies that follow from ever coming to terms with reality and humanity. Rather, it is reality and humanity that must be changed to fit ideology. The ideology is its own self sustaining echo chamber whose ultimate purpose is power for a few.

In the case of Marxism and its descendant, Ethiopian revolutionary democracy, there is obfuscation and confusion to serve a political end. Political debate becomes a theological activity requiring a class of high priests to understand it. Both are divorced from any actual real world experience beyond their utility in justifying the continuing rule of the priestly class. Politics and economic activity are thus not only denied the people in practice but language itself puts democracy even beyond the understanding of mere mortals.

In this Reporter interview a foreign observer of Ethiopia responds to this question:

So you feel at ease with the Marxist side of EPRDF like Revolutionary Democracy.
I'm sure there are some because after all the people who set up the TPLF were students who thought Marxism is a good idea. Well, you may find a few people left in the world now who think that Marxism is a good idea. I don't think anybody with much intelligence in the EPRDF would be much interested in being a Marxist now.
Well, what do you think about Revolutionary Democracy? What about other policies and strategies?
Well, I'm not quite sure what Revolutionary Democracy is. Nobody has really explained it to me. It's an interesting term, but it's like a lot of other terms like that. The essentials of democracy anywhere are open society, rule of law and market economy, flexible economy, so that when you have disagreements, problems you can settle them without going to extremes. And democracy means respect for human rights.

come on, seriously ... what is revolutionary democracy?

An Ethiopian academic, also in the Reporter, makes an attempt to address that question
Yeah. Revolutionary democracy is a sort of borrowed ideology from Mao Tse Tung's New Democracy. This latter, as most of us, including the leaders of the TPLF, used to understand, was a political project for building socialism, especially to build a bridge for a socialist revolution - the so-called transition from pre-capitalist society to a socialist society. Now, by a magic I could not understand, the TPLF is using that type of ideology for building what is called white capitalism. So that's their problem. They are using an ideology created to build socialism, twisted it and are trying to build with it what is called crude capitalism.
As the reader may guess by now no one knows what revolutionary democracy is but the hints available are not reassuring that it is not a one way trip into a ditch.
Central to Mao's theory of the state was what he called "New Democracy." The New Democracy involved a graduated series of congresses from the local to the national level, but its cornerstone was centralization. Mao himself referred to "New Democracy" as "democratic centralism." Democratic centralism is an essence a dictatorship—"a dictatorship of all revolutionary classes," in Mao's words—power would be concentrated in the hands of a few in order to guarantee that all class interests are represented. In other words, the centralization of authority was meant to guarantee that all levels of society are represented rather than the interests of the majority, which is the case in a "bourgeois" democracy.

Economically, New Democracy involved the nationalization of banks and industry as well as the redistribution of land from wealthy landowners to the poor peasants. When Mao came to power over mainland China in 1949, he renamed New Democracy to the People's Democratic Dictatorship. The principle behind the People's Democratic Dictatorship was to guarantee that reactionary or counter-revolutionary voices would not have a say in government or have the ability to sway the opinions of the people. The centralization of authority, as outlined above, would guarantee that the will of the people would be carried out by the government.
This sounds like the sales job previously attempted on the German government on the varieties of democracy to excuse the continuing disenfranchisemnt of Ethiopians. Let us substitute the words 'liberal democracy' for 'bourgeois democracy' and follow this logic along its natural path.
As Lenin described it, democratic centralism consisted of "freedom of discussion and criticism, unity of action". The democratic aspect of this methodology describes the freedom of members of the political party to discuss and debate matters of policy and direction; but once the decision by the party was made (by majority vote), all members were expected to follow that decision unquestioningly. This latter aspect represented the centralism.
The reader should suspect that a majority vote within a revolutionary party might have vanishingly little to do with the people's will and their interests and far more to do with the interests of the party and its leaders with total power.Here is a description of Lenin's dictatorship of the proletariat, the ultimate form of revolutionary democracy his form of democracy
The scientific concept, dictatorship, means neither more nor less than unlimited power resting directly on force, not limited by anything, not restrained by any laws or any absolute rules. Nothing else but that.
For a more comprehensive listing of the many undemocratic perversions of the term democracy here are relevant excerpts from the relevant holy texts. The reader is not alone for thinking all of it seems just plain silly. What matters most is that an increasingly small revolutionary vanguard gets to decide and describe what the will of the people is and what democracy is. It should come as no shock that a few at the top of the revoutionary food chain stand to benefit the most from their role of interpreters of the holy texts. Marxist-Leninism was designed to serve that few as the native inhumanity and logic of power enshrined in its holy texts have been handed down through the generations from dictator to dictator, from cadre to cadre and from opportunist to opportunist.

As ugly as the revolutionary democratic path of vicious logic and policy has been historically it does have its absurd moments of tragi-comedy: at the time the revolutionary tome was being translated one of the government parties had this to say about it
Upholding the principles of revolutionary democracy could be significant in ensuring the independence of the judiciary, strengthening unity and tackling threats posed to the well being of the nation, cadres and members of the Harari national league said.

At the conclusion of a five day discussion held under the title, "the question of democracy in Ethiopia" the participants said on Monday that revolutionary democracy was the only development strategy that could fit for the objective reality in the country.

In the absence of accumulated capital, advanced technology and skilled manpower it would be difficult to adopt the principles of liberal democracy, they said.

The principles of revolutionary democracy could effectively address the basic needs of the Ethiopian people by stumping out the bane of corruption, nepotism and abuse of power, the members said.

They said revolutionary democracy could also encourage the direct participation of the people in the nation building process.

Upholding the principles of equality based on diversity and establishing harmonious relationships among the peoples of Ethiopia were the corner stones to speed up economic development, the members indicated.

They also vowed to fight narrow nationalism, chauvinism and corruption, which they described as the major threat to the whole of the country.
All that is missing from the above description of revolutionary democracy is its ability to remove stubborn grass stains from clothes, to end global warming and to master the space-time continuum. Of course, like the formula for Coca Cola, the secret formula for revolutionary democratic miracles can not be revealed so one just have to believe and repeat mantras like those above. Nothing short of paradise on earth is being promised!

Such statements certainly read like a parody of a revolutionary movement or an equally amusing and absurd post-modern analysis of any subject. This glossary of ideologically-correct insults for enemies of the people is also in the same comic vein - but given the time or place using them wrongly could represent a death sentence for the unwary.

no one really knows what revolutionary democracy is right?

Silly as all this may seem it can not be amusing to the 70 million Ethiopians whose lives are determined by it - right now. It is all meant to be taken quite seriously and can not herald a transformation to any recognizable form of democracy or market economy. When this ersatz political program was defined it was ten years after the fall of Mengistu's Marxism, twelve years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, ten years after the dissolution of the USSR and almost a quarter of a century after the abandonment of Maoism in China.

Imagine an impassioned group of Red Guard cadres during the Cultural Revolution posessed by the spirit of Mao through his Little Red Book and you will have a clear idea of the dearth of imagination and the lack of engagement with reality that such 'revolutionary' language represents. After the utter failure of his Great Leap Forward at the cost of tens of millions of lives, Mao's power and status were reduced within the Chinese Communist Party. The Cultural Revolution with all of its nonsensical slogans and millions of victims was Mao's revenge against the 'reactionaries'. It was used to create a 'permanent revolution' of ongoing orchestrated tumult directed against all potential and even imaginary enemies.

From one season to the next, any changes or essentially illogical policies and meaningless slogans and mantras only mattered because anyone valuing their life or position had to keep up very closely with the party line. In societies where mantras define government it does not matter what is being said or what anything means. The chants and slogans take on a life of their own and indeed by simple mind dulling repetition and the jealous exclusion of other thoughts a government can manage to obliterate all rational thought. The ultimate result of the divorce of language from reality is familiar to readers of the novel of a bleak totalitarian future by George Orwell, 1984, where 'Newspeak', the official language has as its sole purpose
the specific needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism, while making all other methods of thought impossible. When Oldspeak has become obsolete, the last link with the past will have been destroyed. The vocabulary of Newspeak has been built by inventing new words, eliminating old words, and stripping existing words of their finer shades of meaning.
In Ethiopia the results of these 21st century mantras will ultimately be as continuingly harmful in terms of lives and time wasted. All of this serves only the purpose of knowingly retarding the development of any possible advanced political or economic system and civil society that could threaten the interests of the ruling class. Make no mistake, this new revolution is also meant to be permanent.

In response to abundant criticism on the obvious ideological underpinnings of revolutionary democracy in Ethiopia a government official
described as 'inappropriate and grave mistake' the attempt by some groups to liken revolutionary democracy with communism" and "defended Ethiopia's policy of public ownership of land, saying that the system was in the best interest of the Ethiopian peasantry, who constitutes by far the largest population."
This obligatory and hopeless defense was mounted not mounted just in response to criticism of revolutionary rhetoric but rather the whole array of laws and policies that are central to governance since 1974. The Ethiopian Constitution today states just as the Constitution of Mengistu's dicatorship did that there can be no private ownership of land. The national land tenure system continues to see peasants in particular, as modern day serfs of the state. The attendant loss of any economic viability and of basic human rights that such a system guarantees is obvious to everyone concerned, especially those who will gain the most from it.

revolutionary democracy across time and space

Versions of revolutionary democracy have appeared worldwide - it is not a novel concept. Unfortunately, all of the countries past and present where the term has gained currency in any of its forms have been the unwilling hosts of a rather unpleasant set of ideologies and governments that were necessarily accompanied by the lack of human and democratic rights and of course by stunningly poor economic performance. Below we will take a short tour of such times and places.

Recently the term was also mutated to the advantage of the Nicaraguan Marxist dictatorship and joined the litany of formulaic Marxist mantras that heralded the usual disastrous results of absent human rights and economic failure. Remember that the second the Sandanistas were forced to have a real democratic election they were thrown out of power. The blather will be sadly familiar
The Sandinista cause was supported by three major beliefs, “the three legs of the stool of Nicaraguan revolutionary democracy” . The first, political democracy, meant that the Sandinistas supported a republican form of government, based on elections with universal suffrage. The second, participatory democracy, meant active citizen participation in government organizations, task forces, etc. Finally the third, economic equality, meant a communistic economy and complete equalization of wealth, incorporating both Marxist and socialist ideas. These three ideals together form a very interesting combination. Whereas in Russia Lenin and Stalin had focused primarily on economic equality, and “forgotten” Marx’s rule by the workers, the Sandinistas held a much better potential of representation of "Applied Marxism".
During the end of the First World War and in the midst of the Russian Civil War Trotsky pulled revolutionary democracy out of his bag of tricks to justify whatever could keep the Bolsheviks in power. Again the usual silly language is used in the service of tyranny
Our own Menshevik, social-revolutionary pacifism, despite the difference in outward conditions, played in its own way exactly the same part. The resolution on war, which was adopted by a majority of the All-Russian Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils, is founded not only on the common pacifist prejudices concerning war, but also on the characteristics of an imperialistic war. The Congress declared that the "first and most important task of revolutionary democracy" was the speedy ending of war. But all these assumptions are only directed towards a single end : so long as the international efforts of democracy have failed to make an end of war, so long must Russian revolutionary democracy demand with all its strength that the Red Army shall be prepared to fight whether defensive or offensive.
Here is some more useless verbiage on that fallen saint of Marxism, Trotsky. and some others that remain forever holy
Marx, Engels and Lenin (and to a considerable degree Trotsky) were revolutionary democrats who fully grasped the necessity of the working class taking the lead against every instance of oppression, every democratic deficit, every act of bureaucratic arbitrariness. In their day Marx and Engels not only chided their followers in Germany for not taking up the fight for a democratic republic against the kaiser state, but raised the perspective in the monarchist British Isles of a federal republic. Lenin approvingly cites this in State and revolution.
According to the Australian left revolutionary democracy is working wonders in Cuban education. Wonder which country is really more democratic? Wonder how many Australian refugees want to escape to Cuba? Don't bother to ask such questions that have to do with actual non-delusional or halucinatory reality, just recognize more of the same
Cuban school students demonstrate an ability to generalise and to place themselves in the “big picture”, at the same time confidently understanding the role they have to play as individuals in a revolutionary democracy. This is directly at odds with the individualistic and self-centred outlook the Australian education system inculcates into young people.
Last but far from least is the newest adherent of Revolutionary Democracy giving the eldest one this dubious blessing in this Pravda piece "Cuba and Venezuela to unit[e] Latin American states to confront the growing imperial aggression of the USA." Yes, that headline really was written in 2005 so Ethiopia is not the only country stuck in a time warp of dated radicalism although its people do suffer more. The article quotes Caudillo Chavez on the subject of democracy:
People have asked me how I can support Fidel if he's a dictator ... But Cuba doesn't have a dictatorship - it's a revolutionary democracy.
That is certainly welcome news to Cubans who were under the impression that forty six years of Castro's one man rule (one of the richest men on planet earth) was against their will.

Thus, Ethiopian revolutionary democracy is firmly rooted in a nearly century old living tradition of dictatorship and engineeered poverty that is dressed up in the increasingly absurd catechism of Marxist jibberish.

Ethiopian 'Newspeak' is certainly Orwellian in intent and result. According to George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Doublethink means
the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. ... To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies—all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.
Accepting the logic of current governance would have all believe that 'love is hate; and 'peace is war' because no revolution will ever be allowed to challenge the current one and there certainly is no real democracy in store for Ethiopia.

why not abandon revolution once and for all?

The problem with political mantras is that they are only needed to defend failure - success seldom needs cheerleaders. Capitalism needs no awaj or gimgemas to function (Amharic for proclamation and self confession / criticism sessions, respectively) - it just exists as a product of human nature and existing productive, not promised social and economic evolution. While it may be described in holy texts of its own, those texts came after the fact and are firmly in touch with reality. Wealth and poverty, dollars and cents, birr and centimes, hunger and plenty even happiness and despair are universal bits of reality that capitalism and liberal democracy have always balanced far better than any permutation of the left.

If modern history has shown us anything it is that the revolutionary solutions for the problems of development or indeed of human life have never worked and do not have prospects of ever working anywhere. China was crippled by revolution and after World War II did not recover and regain the level of international trade it had enjoyed in the 1920s until almost seventy years later - after Deng abandoned Maoism. It did so with sound agricultural and land policies - not just with prettified words and bold proclamations of intent. For example, how many foreign companies will ever invest in a country that prattles on about revolutionary democracy and that doesn’t respect the most basic economic rights such as ownership of private property?

What imaginable virtue is there in following a policy whose history guarantees failure and ruin when capitalism has worked so well? In the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx said that
The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.
Why shouldn't Ethiopia finally have a chance at the same good old fashioned Capitalist exploitation that made its Western aid donors so rich to begin with. This sacrifice would be worth it if only so the mass of wealth thus produced would eventually benefit revolutionary democracy when it showed up to nationalize it all and renew its zealous commitment to poverty and suffering. After all, Ethiopia should not skip the capitalist stage of history between feudalism and even hybrid socialism. Marx, the savior would certainly disapprove of using revolutionary democracy to travel back in time.

It seems that the greatest virtue and value of any opposition to this government and its revolutionary policies is precisely that it does not have a mantra, ideology or a set of delusions that has long been proven wrong by a history of millions of human lives ruined and decades lost not only in the world but right here in Ethiopia. For now simply not being a revolutionary democratic government that stubbornly redirects the country toward every ditch and pothole that the rest of humanity adroitly avoids should be enough to get the opposition elected in any fair system.

Unfortunately, the chances that the current government will let itself be voted out of power, regardless of the popular will, is less than zero. The actual mechanism of state control and stage management of elections for the benefit of foreign observers will be the subject of Politburo Knows Best IV.

In the end all anyone really needs to know about revolutionary democracy and the current prospects for democracy and human rights in Ethiopia is simply that Politburo Knows Best ... for everyone ... forever and ever. All the nonsensical mantras and slogans serve the purpose of control - that is the central lesson of Gibee-ology. Don't be surprised if the coming year offers several more wonderful and tailored to the moment, facets and definitions of revolutionary democracy.

Revolutionary Democracy remains the basis of politburo rule after 'election' 2005 and the series of massacres against protesting students and other citizens. An evaluation had this to say
Meles is a capitalist on the outside, a Marxist on the inside, which is why they are in a state of disarray," says one analyst. Former TPLF members concur. When Mr Meles promoted his idea of revolutionary democracy, "I never understood it myself, even though I was in the party," says one.
Since about the time this post was published there has (to our count anyway) been only one mention of Revolutionary Democracy (in English at least) by the government. These days it seems as though the government is willing all to forget that Revolutionary Democracy ever existed or it seems like there is shame associated with the memory.

The party is still the Ethiopian Revolutionary Democratic Front and part of the partys' press machine is still called Revolutionary Democracy, sure - but to any observer using English it would seem that the whole business had been shed like a snake sheds its skin.

The politburo and their herd of cadres may have abandoned their raison d'etre verbally but not in spirit. Picture, dear reader, the twisted logic of the ruling ideology, its roots in Leninist-Maoist 'Democratic Centralism' and the unforgiving discipline of this vanguard permanent revolutionary party.

Verbally forsaking Revolutionary Democracy in exigent circumstances thus becomes a noteworthy victory for Revolutionary Democratic discipline. All the while the actual practice of Revolutionary Democracy remains intact but it has simply been realized that it is no longer a public relations plus when cash bearing donor nations might actually try to figure out what it means.

This is all in the spirit of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Soviet International Socialism and German National Socialism were bitter enemies until Stalin and Hitler agreed to divide Poland, the Baltic states and the Balkans between them. By the next day every Socialist / Communist on earth became an unyielding opponent of world capitalism against the suddenly blameless German Reich - depending on geography this was under punishment of death.

The tragic experiences that humanity has had with rulers and their justifications was noted long ago by Voltaire a long time ago when he said
Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

Friday, November 26

Blog Round-up

USS Clueless has shut down but the archives are amazingly well crafted, intelligent, lucid and timely.

Meskel Square "is the chaotic 16-lane junction and former parade ground where all roads meet in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa" and it has a new blog named after it.

The Head Heeb talks about the new ability for cell phones to text message in Ethiopic script. IRIN too.

Gene Expression's Different altitudes, different strokes has a brief on a Nature article about research which explores the various adaptations to high altitude living that alpine peoples have made, in this case, those of the Andes, Ethiopian Highlands and Tibet. Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends about How new technologies are modifying our way of life wonders if cars will become our chauffeurs. Future Pundit says that Minds Better Remember Initial Responses To Situations.

Baldilocks on the bad behavior of Spanish football fans. Barcepundit agrees.

Andrew Sullivan on the silence of the Shia and the dilemma of the Sunnis.

Belmont Club on tunnel warfare. Belgravia Dispatch on how "identification of friend and foe can prove a rapid-fire judgement" in Iraq. Little Green Footballs on reaction to the recent Fallujah shooting. Big Pharaoh on the irresponsible media and that shooting. Recent archives of the Adventures of Chester has some good military analysis of the Fallujah battle.

Chrenkoff on How Poland came to say "Non" to France and hitch up with America . His Good News from Iraq and Good News from Afghanistan series remain as great as ever. Iraq the Model agrees that there is good news in Iraq.

There is too much at Instapundit to link to any one thing - it is all good.

Just one post is also hard to choose from Booker Rising who has an Ayaan Hirsi Ali Roundup. Zacht Ei is a Dutch blog focussing on the Van Gogh killing.

Foreign Dispatches who asks 'Is this News?' on the discovery that evolution designed us as pursuit predators also presents the same problem of picking just one post to note. We certainly disagree with La Shawn Barber on the same subject but it is also certainly worth it to appreciate her point of view.

My Flight Blog on the Brown Condor organization, named after John C. Robinson, which promotes aviation in the African-American community.

Marmot's Hole on what a nuclear blast would do to Seoul.

Mostly Africa (welcome back by the way) takes a look at Islam South of the Sahara.

No Pasaran! on France in the Axis of Eiffel. The Washington Post on France's quiet but very harsh treatment of Guantanamo transfers. Israellycool also sees hyprocrisy in the Ivory Coast.

Jewels in the Jungle on the chai lady of Khartoum.

Babalu blog is an island on the net without a bearded dictator.

Ambra Nykol on College Curriculum Gone Wild lets us know what she thinks about the Li'l Kim course.

CaribPundit ponders what the he** is going on in North Korea.

Fabian's Hammer tells of the spectre of unhappy, organised masses that haunts the Communist Party of China.

Kenyan Pundit is to be part of a conference on global blogging.

Rambling's Journal on double standards and Dr. Rice.

AdamSmithee a blog about economic development on Tony Blair's Commission for Africa.

... and some non-blogs ...

Addis Fortune and Capital are welcome 'capitalist tools' on the Ethiopian scene (Forbes used to call itself a capitalist tool).

The Ethiopian Art Heritage Project

George Eastman House Still Photograph Archive

Bharat Rakshak from India may be one of the best and most comprehensive military sites ever.

Jeff Russel's Starship Dimensions is intended to allow science fiction fans to get an impression of the true scale of their favorite science fiction spacecraft by being able to campare ships accross genres, as well as being able to compare them with contemporary objects with which they are probably familiar.

Federation of American Scientists has fascinating details on many world security and intelligence agencies.

National Public Radio's 100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900.

National Review's 100 best non-fiction books of the century.

A Global Positioning System Primer

Some Tintin sites - here, here, here, here and many more here.

Wednesday, November 24

Aksum doesn't want to wait in vain

the Axum history part of this post has been spun off to here

The Economist of October 9, 2004 (no link available) had an article on efforts to regain some stolen items of Ethiopia's history
It Is a poor country with a rich history. Through force and unfair dealing, many of Ethiopia's historical relics have left the country. Ethiopians want to bring them home, not just to celebrate their past, but to earn tourist dollars in future.

The main contention is a 150-tonne granite obelisk, 24 metres high, which is now lying in pieces in a police yard in Rome. Until 2003, the obelisk—carved intriguingly with doors and windows as if it were a ten-storey building—spent 66 years standing at one of the city's busy intersections. The obelisk dates from the fourth century and comes from Aksum, a northern Ethiopian town where it probably served as a royal tomb marker and ceremonial altar.
A brief on the Axumite Empire and of the obelix / stele mentioned can be found at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Back to The Economist
When the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1935, the obelisk—which by then had fallen down and fractured into five chunks—was shipped as fascist booty to Rome. In Aksum one elderly Ethiopian, Abebe Alemayehu, remembers the trouble the Italian army had shifting the obelisk, their trucks bogged down by the weight.

As part of a treaty in 1947, Italy promised to return the obelisk and other objects looted during the occupation. Fifty years later, the two governments signed yet another agreement to send the obelisk back. A damaging lightning strike two years ago was a catalyst at last to dismantle the monument and pack it up for shipment. Since then, it has not budged from Rome.

Still, the Rome University professor in charge of the obelisk project, Giorgio Croci, is hopeful. He says that the monument should start the long trip home by early next year. It will cost euro5m ($6.1m) to ship and re-erect it.

The Italian government has yet to announce that all of the money has been earmarked. Then there are logistics. The port through which the obelisk left in 1937 now belongs to Eritrea, with which Ethiopia has fought a bitter war. The nearest feasible port, Djibouti, is 900 kilometres (560 miles) from Aksum, across roads and bridges which may not take the strain. The current plan, says Mr Croci, is to hire an ex-military Russian transport plane to fly the pieces over, one by one.

Back in Aksum, people are confident of the obelisk's return.
The airplane mentioned is the gargantuan Antonov 125 Cossack was originally designed to carry the cancelled Soviet space shuttle and now has a profitable niche market in high value oversize and overweight cargo. It is operated by Antonov Airlines who told the BBC
that they had been approached to fly the obelisk home to Axum, but they had explained that, in its present form, it could not be carried safely.

It is in three pieces, but even so the largest piece weighs 60 tons, and they would not be able to balance the load properly to land on the relatively short runway.
No-one wants to damage the monument further by cutting it into smaller pieces and the cost of lengthening the runway at Axum, or upgrading the roads and strengthening the bridges so it could be transported from the capital Addis Ababa would be prohibitive.

The only other alternative seems to be to take the monument back by sea.

The obvious and easy solution would be to ship it back via Massawa port in Eritrea, which lies near Ethiopia's border, and was how it was transported out in the first place.

But the two countries have not been speaking to each other since a bitter border conflict and show little signs of doing so.
There are also efforts underway to recover other pieces of Ethiopian history that are found in the strangest places as noted in this post. AFROMET is campaigning for the return of other lost treasures.

UPDATE: The obelisk is supposed to be on the way home sometime soon as according to a Meskel Square post of early January 2004.

Dr. Richard Pankhurst, a noted Ethiopianist, has a series of papers titled "The Unfinished History of the Aksum Obelisk Return Struggle". Here are links to parts I, II and III detailing efforts from the immediate post-war period to the recent efforts of the current Foreign Minister, Ato Seyoum Mesfin.

Tuesday, November 23

Axum or Aksum?

this post was spun off from this one about the return of the obelisk.

Axum was the cradle of Ethiopian civilization. The Library of Congress has a Country Study that gives a good brief of that era. Axum is in the Tigray region and although the Tigrayan and Amharic languages are intimately related and the cultures at times indistinguishable, the Tigrayans are linguistically and ancestrally the closest living kin of the Axumite Empire.
The Aksumite state emerged at about the beginning of the Christian era, flourished during the succeeding six or seven centuries, and underwent prolonged decline from the eighth to the twelfth century A.D. Aksum's period of greatest power lasted from the fourth through the sixth century.
At the kingdom's height, its rulers held sway over the Red Sea coast from Sawakin in present-day Sudan in the north to Berbera in present-day Somalia in the south, and inland as far as the Nile Valley in modern Sudan. On the Arabian side of the Red Sea, the Aksumite rulers at times controlled the coast and much of the interior of modern Yemen. During the sixth and seventh centuries, the Aksumite state lost its possessions in southwest Arabia and much of its Red Sea coastline and gradually shrank to its core area, with the political center of the state shifting farther and farther southward.
Much of the impetus for foreign conquest lay in the desire to control the maritime trade between the Roman Empire and India and adjoining lands. Indeed, King Zoskales is mentioned by name in the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea (the Latin term for the Red Sea is Mare Erythreum), a Greek shipping guide of the first to third centuries A.D., as promoting commerce with Rome, Arabia, and India.
The Metropolitan on the outside contacts
An Alexandria-based trader's handbook written in the first century A.D., the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, provides one of the earliest testimonies of Aksum's expanding involvement in trade. Linked to the Red Sea trade routes by its port city of Adulis, Aksum itself was situated further inland, perhaps to allow for better control of the ivory that was one of its most lucrative exports. Aksumite ties through Adulis to the Red Sea would remain vital to the kingdom throughout its history, a factor that contributed to Aksum's decline in the seventh century when increasing Muslim dominance of the region cut off access to international trade.
The Country Study continues
As an indication of the type of political control he exercised, Ezana, like other Aksumite rulers, carried the title negusa nagast (king of kings) [basically means Emperor], symbolic of his rule over numerous tribute-paying principalities and a title used by successive Ethiopian rulers into the mid-twentieth century.

The Aksumites created a civilization of considerable distinction. They devised an original architectural style and employed it in stone palaces and other public buildings. They also erected a series of carved stone stelae at Aksum as monuments to their deceased rulers. Some of these stelae are among the largest known from the ancient world. The Aksumites left behind a body of written records, that, although not voluminous, are nonetheless a legacy otherwise bequeathed only by Egypt and Meroë among ancient African kingdoms. These records were written in two languages--Gi'iz and Greek. Gi'iz is assumed to be ancestral to modern Amharic and Tigrinya, although possibly only indirectly. Greek was also widely used, especially for commercial transactions with the Hellenized world of the eastern Mediterranean.
We disagree on two points. First, Ge'ez is still the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Ethiopian Jews - to speakers of all three languages it is obviously particularly close to Tigrinya and close to Amharic as well. The relationship is most definitely direct - at least as direct as Italian and English respectively are to Latin. Second, Ge'ez is a Semitic tongue akin to Hebrew and Arabic that has little to do with Ancient Greece or Egypt.

Ge'ez lost its national predominance to Amharic and Tigrinya from the 13th century onwards. Amharic, in particular, is the offspring of extant Cushitic languages and of Ge'ez. Ethiopian has some images of ancient Ge'ez and has this to say about it
Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia and it is spoken most widely in the northwest and central part of the country. Tigrinya is mostly spoken in northern and northeastern Ethiopia. Tigré is spoken in the independent nation of Eritrea, formerly part of Ethiopia.

The south Arabian immigrants brought with them the Sabean language [spoken by the legendary Queen of Sheba] into Ethiopia sometime early in the first millennium BCE, possibly by the Aguezat settlers. By early in the next millennium, a distinctive Ethiopian version, influenced by the indigenous Cushitic peoples, was being used in stone inscriptions
The Metropolitan continues
Aksum (Axum) is perhaps most renowned internationally for its enormous monolithic stelae, erected during the third and fourth centuries A.D. as funerary markers for deceased members of its elite. To the faithful of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, it is the place where the Arc of the Covenant was brought by Menelik I, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Israel.
Sacred has this to say about the Arc of the Covenant:
At some unknown date, this awesome object vanished from its place in the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple. The date of its disappearance and its subsequent whereabouts has mystified legions of biblical scholars, archaeologists and historians.
Ethiopian legends say that when the Queen of Sheba made her famous journey to Jerusalem she was impregnated by King Solomon and bore him a son - a royal prince - who in later years stole the Ark. The name of the prince was Menelik, which means "the son of the wise man". Although he was conceived in Jerusalem he was born in Ethiopia where the Queen of Sheba had returned after discovering that she was carrying Solomon's child. When he had reached the age of twenty, Menelik himself traveled from Ethiopia to Israel and arrived at his father's court. There he was instantly recognized and accorded great honor. After a year had passed, however, the elders of the land became jealous of him. They complained that Solomon showed him too much favor and they insisted that he must go back to Ethiopia. This the king accepted on the condition that the first-born sons of all the elders should also be sent to accompany him.

Amongst these latter was Azarius, son of Zadok the High Priest of Israel, and it was Azarius, not Menelik, who stole the Ark of the Covenant from its place in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. The group of young men did not reveal the theft to Prince Menelik until they were far away from Jerusalem. When at last they told him what they had done he asserted that they could not have succeeded in so bold a venture unless God had willed its outcome. Therefore he agreed that the Ark should remain with them. Thus Menelik brought the Arc to Ethiopia, to the sacred city of Axum, where it has remained ever since.
The city of Axum also occupies a central place in the traditions of the Muslims. The remote town of Axum was the earliest historical center where the followers of Muhammad freely exercised their religion in an atmosphere of peace without the fear of persecution. In the fifth year of Muhammad’s mission (corresponding to the year 615 in the Christian era), the Axumite king, Ella Saham, offered asylum to a small group of Muhammad’s followers (11 men and 4 women, including Uthman ibn Affan, who was to become the third Caliph).

A few years later, nearly 100 more Muslims came to join this first group and altogether they stayed in Axum for thirteen years. Scholars believe that Axum was selected as a place of asylum because there existed a close commercial link between the kingdom of Axum and the city-state of Mecca long before the rise of Islam.
Christianity had established itself in Axum by the fourth century A.D. A shipwreck stranded a Christian philosopher (from Syria - remember back then most of the current Middle East outside of the Arabian peninsula was Christian) and his two young wards. The philosopher died but the young men became officials in the court of the Axumite King. When they returned home they urged the Orthodox patriarch in Egypt to send missionaries there. One of the young men, Frumentius was sent back to become the first Bishop of the Ethiopian Church and he eventually converted King Ezana and the whole empire to Christianity.

Foreign Dispatches has some helpful input on the subject of language origins raised above.
An interesting fact is that the [H]orn of Africa region contains more attested Semitic languages than the entire Middle East, something to keep in mind when next some crank starts to posit a "Semitic invasion" of Africa: it almost certainly occurred the other way round (don't even get me started on the "Hamitic" nonsense). In fact, the vast majority of the Afroasiatic languages of which the Semitic tongues constitute a branch exist in Africa alone, and after Arabic, the second most widely spoken Afroasiatic language is West Africa's Hausa.
We agree, the African origins of Semitic languages is an idea that is well accepted. At the very least, significant linguistic and cultural interaction was in both directions across an always easily travelled Red Sea, probably in the same dhows that remain in wide use today. FD continues
In short, given what we know from recorded history, knowing that the Chadic branch of Afroasiatic alone consists of more than 600 attested languages, and seeing as not a single family of Afroasiatic outside of Semitic extends out of Africa, it is pure wishful thinking to imagine that the family could have originated anywhere else. There simply isn't a trace of evidence to support such an assumption.
Confusing at times is the relationship between Semitic, Cushitic or other languages, cultures and ethnicity and/or race. A population can be described as having an identity composed of bits and pieces from several overlapping and distinct categories. It would take a high order of understanding of anthropology (and today ... politics) to sort it all out.

One concept that has been sorted out is that of the 'Hamitic Myth' which FD aptly terms nonsense. A primitive ethnology developed from the names of the sons of Noah and all Africans were assigned the role of 'cursed' Hamites. More useful concepts are now in place - "[t]he Hamitic language group is no longer considered a useful concept, though the phrase Semito-Hamitic is an obsolete term for the Afro-Asiatic group".

Monday, November 22

And Now for Something Completely Different

This film clip from Monty Python's brilliant movie Life of Brian gives us a glimpse at the inner workings of a Biblical era liberation front.
In the scene, the members of one of the most patriotic, determined, extremist, and intransigent resistance groups fighting against the Roman occupier have gathered in a dark room for a secret meeting. All the men of the People's Front of Judea are masked, except for their leaders, and when the scene starts, the top honcho is ending a pep talk.

Furious about the Roman Empire's occupation of their land, Reg spits out: “They bled us white, the bastards! They’ve taken everything we have.” He continues raving and ranting about how they took everything from their “fathers” and their “fathers' fathers”, before ending with a majestic rhetorical question. “And what have they ever given us in return?” With that, he stops, and crosses his arms, feeling very satisfied. He realizes that he has made one of the best speeches of his career.

Just then, a shy masked commando raises a finger. “The aqueduct…”

“What?” asks Reg.

“The aqueduct”, repeats the man.

“Oh yeah yeah they did give us that, uh-huh that’s true…”

Another commando, as masked as his colleague, chimes in. “And the sanitation…”

Stan, Reg's second-in-command sitting next to him, intervenes with naïve energe: “Oh yeah, the sanitation, Reg. Remember what the city used to be like.”

Murmurs of agreement rise from the commandos in the room.

The meeting is not at all going in the direction Reg expected it to, and he's starting to lose patience: “Yeah, all right, I’ll grant you the aqueduct and the sanitation are two things the Romans have done…”

Another terrorist interrupts him: “And the roads…”

Reg, brusquely: “Oh well obviously the roads, I mean the roads go without saying, don’t they?! … But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct, and the roads…”

Other terrorists, who have definitely not understood the purpose of their leader’s speech and his rhetorical question, chime in: “Irrigation” “Medicine” “Education” “Public baths” “And the wine” while their comrades nod and murmur words of agreement (“Yuh, yuh that’s something we’d really miss, Reg, if the Romans left”).

Stan adds, innocently: “And it’s safe to walk in the streets at night now, Reg”. Reg’s lips have become ever more pursed and his expression ever darker as he taps his fingers impatiently, but nobody seems to notice, least of all Francis, Reg’s other neighbor, who adds with joviality: “Yeah, they certainly know how to keep order. Let’s face it, they’re the only ones who could in a place like this!” (general laughter)

Finally, with a sharp voice, Reg cuts the discussion short “Alright, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, the roads, a fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

A shy finger goes up…“Brought peace…”

“Oh, peace! SHUT UP!”
Thanks to No Pasaran! for the link and transcript.

Friday, November 19

Politburo Knows Best II - Human Rights

"The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse."
James Madison

This article from IRIN on November 4, 2004 reports that the "Ruling party agrees to electoral reforms".
The electoral law reform agreement was made by the EPRDF and the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) a 14 strong-coalition of opposition groups. [This is a change - in the past participation in Ethiopian electoral politics was based on ethnicity and regionalism alone]In a symbolic meeting, the UEDF made the joint announcement alongside the minister. Relations between both sides have traditionally been hostile.

Merera Gudina, chairman of the UEDF, said the changes would help create a "level playing field" enabling free and fair elections in the country. "We are confident we can win once the playing field is level," he said.

Among changes that are expected to be passed into law are improving the conduct of party officials at election time.

Opposition parties had claimed their members faced intimidation. The EPRDF have also guaranteed ensuring ballot secrecy and plan to increase the number of representatives from seven to 11 on the election board.

The UEDF is also calling for greater access to state media and "freedom of mobility" to campaign. They claim officials have in the past prevented them from holding meetings. The two political parties have also agreed to set up joint committees to ensure democratic and fair elections, the joint statement said.

However, the two political parties could not agree on the make-up of the election board nor a change in the voting system from first-past-the-post to proportional representation. Opposition parties complain that in western Ethiopia, one MP represents 17,496 voters, while in eastern Ethiopia, one MP represents 99,761 registered voters.

Ethiopia’s opposition parties had been threatening to boycott without changes to the electoral law. Beyene Petros told the press conference that the coalition "reiterated its serious desire to participate" in both federal and regional elections.
The EPRDF, which ousted Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991 after a 17-year guerrilla war, won 479 [out of 547] seats in the last national elections in 2000.
As we noted in the first post in the Politburo Knows Best series the government and the opposition are under extraordinary pressure to at least make these new elections look as good as possible. The government is expected by donor countries to tamp down its very worst electoral excesses while the opposition is on warning that it can't expect much more foreign help without its minimally symbolic participation.

Democratic Rights that anyone can recognize as such are inexorably tied to Human Rights. It is not simple coincidence that always places them in the same place. For that matter we usually find democracy and respect for human rights in the company of prosperity and respect for property rights. Chance plays little part in that combination as well.

Let us examine the Human Rights Record of the Ethiopian government to see if it can give the opposition or the reader any encouragement regarding the prospects for any form of conventionally understood democracy or national development.

Human Rights Watch has links to evidence and complaints of Police torture, firing on unarmed civilians as well as "extrajudicial killings*, arbitrary arrests, and widespread denials of freedom of opinion and association" of educators and students. The more detailed 'Overview of Human Rights Developments' by HRW is for 2003 is here. One section notes that
Provincial authorities, including local leaders of political parties allied with the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples' Democratic Front (EPRDF), are often implicated in physical assaults on supporters of registered opposition parties. In 2003, there were unconfirmed reports of such attacks in four regions. In one instance, the local police accompanied the attackers.
Amnesty International's 2003 report on Ethiopia has sections on the killings of demonstrators and mass arrests, detention without charge or trial, torture and extrajudicial executions*. A.I. representatives have been refused admission to Ethiopia since 1995.

The U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2003 details numerous instances of individual and general human rights violations. These include Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life, Disappearance*, Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile, Denial of Fair Public Trial, Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home or Correspondence, [restrictions of] Freedom of Speech and Press and [restrictions of] Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association.

* an extrajudicial execution in plain language means a killing without even a show trial or any admission of official involvement, in which the government is the main suspect. Disappearance means just what it sounds like - folks just up and disappear one day or night. Of course, both extrajudicial executions and disappearances seem to happen disproportionately to government opponents. An occasional tactic of authorities is the tragi-comic farce of aiding or of joining with concerned foreign agencies in the search for the victims.

According to IRIN the U.S. State Department notes that
More than 1,000 people were victims of “unlawful killings” in Ethiopia last year [2002] – many at the hands of the security forces, according to the US State Department.
“The security forces committed many unlawful killings, including some alleged political killings during the year,” added the report, which was released at the end of March.

It continued: “The number of unlawful killings during the year was estimated to be between 1,000 and 1,500. There continued to be numerous unconfirmed reports of unlawful killings by government security forces from Oromiya and the Somali regions.”
Remember that this figure is probably a conservative estimate. The vast majority of the populace is far from foreign eyes. With regard to the political process, that is to say democracy, the State Department report also notes that
Opposition political parties reported that their supporters were the targets of frequent and systematic violence by ruling party supporters during the year, often after leaving meetings.
Opposition parties accused the NEB [National Election Board] of being an instrument of the ruling party and for failing to take meaningful action upon being informed of electoral irregularities, including ballot stuffing, vote count fraud, bribery, killings, beatings, and widespread intimidation and harassment by ruling party supporters during the 2001 and 2000 elections.
Ethiopian Human and Civil Rights Organizations face grave challenges from the government in pursuing their missions.
The State Department reports that the Government generally was distrustful and wary of domestic and international human rights groups.
the Government neither shared information about nor acknowledged the existence of human rights abuses with members of the domestic NGO community [domestic NGOs are further removed from control of foreign loans or grants].
The Ethiopian Human Rights Council established in 1991 releases regular reports against all odds that assess the general human rights situation and specific instances of violations. According to the State Department "The Government frequently discounted EHRCO's reports and labeled it a political organization." Critics of the government are always charged with having false pretenses and bad motives for their activities.

The Ethiopian Women's Lawyers Association's primary function is to represent women legally but has been the subject of complaints by HRW against the Ethiopian government which does not allow it to carry out its purpose. HRW says that " Ethiopia has a long-standing record of targeting human rights organizations and activists, often accusing them of being partisan".

The Human Rights League was formed among Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, the Oromo, who like all Ethiopian peoples are totally disenfranchised. It has been subject to continual harrassment for alleged links to an armed Oromo liberation organization.

Despite constitutional legitimacy being predicated only on 'ethnic determination' [i.e. seperation] unto seccesssion for any cause including political parties based on ethnicity and 'ethnic federalism' as the basic organizing principle of government, those who don't 'play by the rules' of the government's pretense of ethnic self determination always pay a heavy price.

The Solidarity Committee for Ethiopian Political Prisoners releases press reports on many subjects including the names and details of 'disappearances' of opponents of the government. The Committee charges that
Attempts have been made to cover up the dismal human rights record of the Meles Zenawi regime by making reference to the records of the fallen Mengistu regime. While this "is it better to be devoured by a hyena or a tiger?' type of comparison has worn thin we must emphatically state that the EPRDF has been in power for the last seven years [now thirteen years] and has thus passed enough time to be judged on its own merit.

Its own record belies any attempt to present it as democratic, as a government that respects the rule of law and the rights of its people. it has rigged elections, set up a rubber stamp parliament (the only two independent MPs had to flee to the USA in 1997), and pays lip service to human rights while repressing the people systematically and ruthlessly. Multipartism has been turned into a joke with the ruling party cloning itself in various regions and under various names or by setting up satellite groups and then claiming pluralism does exist.
The International Press Institute (IPI) has a 2004 report on Freedom of the Press in Ethiopia. All of the above named Human and Civil Rights organizations also describe the restrictions placed on the Freedom of Press in Ethiopia. Noting the severe price paid by journalists for practicing their profession, the IPI goes on to say that
The private media also appear to be paying the price for the absence of a genuine parliamentary opposition in Ethiopia. While there are opponents of the present government in parliament, much of the power resides in the council of ministers.
this has led to the widespread perception in the government that the media represent the genuine opposition and are, therefore, to be treated accordingly. For this reason the private media are under constant pressure from government ministers who accuse them of exhibiting bias. These pressures could be alleviated if a genuine opposition were allowed to form, thus freeing the private media from its perceived position of opposition to the government.
On the Draft Press Law (DPL) that the government intends to use to reign in the independent press from 2004 the IPI is concerned with restrictive sections that obligate the press to work "for the prevalence of peace, democracy, justice and equality as well as for the acceleration of social and economic development". IPI says the press should, of course, report on what it deems fit without being given a mission that not so subtly demands subservience to the government.

The IPI concludes that
After reviewing the DPL, IPI is of the opinion that it represents a severe and unnecessary restriction on the right of journalists to practice their profession. Indeed, while the Ethiopian government is to be congratulated on its decision to create a freedom of information law and a partial right of confidentiality for journalists these advances are outweighed by the sheer number of poorly defined clauses penalizing the media, a plethora of burdensome administrative duties, needless registration and licensing obligations, harsh and punitive fines as well as imprisonment for purely superficial breaches of the DPL.

When reading the DPL the overall impression is that rather than attempting to encourage the free flow of information in Ethiopia, the present government has decided to do everything in its power to hinder this flow.

One of the most important issues is the way in which the Ethiopian government has tried to build a "firewall" around the country, essentially preventing comment, news and opinion from flowing freely into the country. Foreign publications may be banned by national and regional prosecutors for the flimsiest of reasons, while the domestic media appears to be prohibited from adapting or including the work of foreign news agencies. Elsewhere in the law, the statements of foreign organisations, including those from foreign embassies, are to be treated as mere advertising and once again kept separate from domestic news stories.

Moreover, the government is using other articles of the DPL to maintain tight control over the activities of the media. The law forces media organisations to give the authorities invasive and unnecessary details of their finances such as their earnings from advertising as well as details of foreign aid. Media organisations also have to provide individual copies of their publications, and the names of journalists who must also be registered and licensed. All of these duties impose a series of onerous duties on the media and they are evidence that rather than opening up the media environment in Ethiopia the government is intent on closing it.
Reporters Without Borders in its 2004 report notes imprisonment and physcial attacks on journalists as well as harassment and obstruction
Police harassed newspaper vendors on the streets of Addis Ababa in February 2003, detaining some of them and confiscating copies of newspapers.
The justice ministry suspended the activities of the Ethiopia Free Press Journalists' Association (EFJA) on 10 November for an indefinite period on the grounds that it had been operating for three years without renewing its licence. The ministry summoned four of its representatives on 8 December and warned them they no longer had the right to issue statements on behalf of the association and could be prosecuted if they did so.
As of September 30, 2004 ENN reports that "Ethiopian Ministry of Information to amend draft press law".
International media institutes proposed 12 points to amend the draft press law that is expected to be referred to the Council of Ministers shortly, the Amharic weekly Tobia reported on Thursday.

The draft press law, which is prepared by the Ministry of Information, led to discussions with different international media watchdogs and press freedom activists on Wednesday.
Ato Kifle Mulat, Chairman of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists' Association, confirmed in an interview with Tobia that the ministry has accepted the 12 amended points, but said it should be announced to the public and journalists before it is ratified as law.
This is certainly hopeful news but it is hard to accept a new dawn of free press simply based on an announcement of new behavior when disrespect for human and press rights is the defining element of this electoral history.

This post Information De-Evolution - Big Brother features the limitation of information flow imposed by restrictions on internet access and the press. A meeting on the DPL was attended by The Reporter
According to observers who followed the meeting, what was more revolting than the restrictive and prohibitive content of the draft press law were the explanations of the Minister of Information himself who officiously told the participants that his government has the right to jam broadcasting, block the internet. ". . .Jamming is not illegal, China does block the internet," the Minister said. "What toppled the governments of eastern European countries were mainly the international broadcasters. We don't want that to be repeated in our country . . ." he added.
Such open government identification with dictatorial China's restrictive policies on information and even with the totalitarian states of Communist era Eastern Europe is not encouraging for those interested in the prospects for democracy in Ethiopia.

The reader should visit the human rights and free press organizations linked to above to find detailed accounts of individual suffering and the very purposeful policies and actions to blame. Then ask yourself ... is this the way democracies treat their people?

Oh yeah ... the human rights situation is better than it was under Mengistu Haile Mariam's Dergue (the frankly murderous military dictatorship of the previous government). But, so what? Fourteen years have passed taking along with them any associated excuses - the Ethiopian people deserve more right now.

One of the saddest aspects of this situation for Ethiopians to accept is that the limited consideration for the minimal rights that are allowed to exist are most secure within the hearing or eyesight of foreign donors i.e. ferenjis. Outside of Addis Ababa, some other large towns and a few polling places that may be visited every few years the status of human and democratic rights are likely to be far worse than all observers can imagine.

One must look with a healthy dose of suspicion at sudden compromises on the draft press law or agreements to treat parts of the opposition like human beings all of a sudden. To paraphrase Malcolm X - "when someone has buried a knife a foot deep in your back, how can they expect you to be grateful when they start to wiggle it out to nine inches". The ruling assumption in Ethiopia remains that the knife belongs there to begin with.

Wednesday, November 17

Roads to Prosperity

Ethiopia's Office of the Road Fund Administration has some detailed plans in store for the future. The road density
of the country is the lowest in Africa; perhaps three-fourths of farms more than one-half day's walk from an all-weather road.
The European Union Country Report dealing with the road system is illustrative of the problem that the government has to deal with
Road infrastructure in the country had reached such a level of deterioration in the early 1990s that it became a serious obstacle to economic growth and development.Improving the road infrastructure is closely linked to poverty reduction: the bulk of agricultural production is by small-scale rural farmers, while markets and collection centres are located far from the producers, in urban centres. Improved accessibility of rural areas, including the main agricultural production centres, plays an important role in the fight against poverty and food insecurity. Opening up isolated pockets will allow the gradual economic, social and political integration of isolated populations.

Ethiopia’s population is widely dispersed over remote villages, and almost 90 per cent of the population lives by cultivating the land. But the major urban markets are located at considerable distance from each other. Many farmers are unable to transport their surplus to a marketplace within a reasonable time. This is a disincentive to increase production. Due to limited market integration, major price differences frequently occur between surplus and deficit areas. Transport is time consuming. Buses, trucks and other means of transport suffer from the poor quality of the road surface. Relief operations become extra expensive and difficult.

The rehabilitation of the road network is a core element of Ethiopia’s economic reform programme. More than one fifth of the capital budget has been allocated to road construction and repairs. In 1996 the government initiated a
‘Road Sector Development Programme’ (RSDP), which is now in its second phase. It's objective is to restore much of the country's road network, improve the capacity of road management agencies, and provide affordable transport for the rural poor.
A description of how vital new transport links are in rural Ethiopia The New York Times (registration required)"Roads Lead to a New Way of Life for Rural Ethiopia".
The dirt-and-gravel road may look like a timeless feature of the Great Rift Valley. But it is, in fact, part of a huge public road-building project that is slowly hauling one of the poorest, hungriest nations on earth into modernity.

The people who live along it divide time into two eras: Before the Road and After the Road. Because of the road, people can bring their sick to the hospital and their children to distant schools. Farmers who had only their own feet or a donkey's back for transport can now transport their crops to market.
Road-building is coming back in style as a way to combat rural poverty in Africa. Ethiopia, an agricultural society where most farmers still live more than a half day's walk from a road, has been especially hobbled by their absence.

Support for roads in Africa, particularly from the World Bank, is growing again after a decade of decline in the 1990's. Then, the bank reduced lending for roads. It was battered by aggressive opposition from international nonprofit groups, and concerned about ill-governed countries where roads deteriorated as fast as they could be built.

Senior policy makers also held the mistaken belief that the private sector would fill the void, building toll roads for profit.

"We were naïve," said Maryvonne Plessis-Fraissard, the World Bank's transport director. "Who was going to do rural roads in the middle of Africa?"
Ethiopia itself has spent $1 billion on roads in the past seven years - half from international donors - but plans to spend more than that in just the next three years. It has doubled the length of its rural road network and rebuilt crumbling highways.

Even with the new burst of investment, the country expects that by 2007 it will be able to reduce the total of farmers who live more than half a day's walk from a road only to 60 percent from 65 percent.
This is good news indeed and the Ethiopian government deserves praise for making road building a priority. In a previous post we noted an Economic Commission for Africa report that inter-African trade was severly limited by the absence of transport links - this is a problem within nations as well. The economic benefits of even small transport projects are significant.

One interesting point is how much all authorities talk of the deterioration of the road system. Road building had been a priority of the Haile Selassie government for decades. The value of roads was also immediately apparent to the cuurrent government. Road building and even maintenance were ignored by Mengistu Haile Mariam for most of two decades.

Monday, November 15

The Post-Totalitarian Stress Disorder

Thanks to Chrenkoff for this post transplanted here without change. It speaks to the corrosive after-effects of all totalitarian dictatorship in addition to its Iraqi subject matter.

Brendan Miniter has a very interesting piece on Iraqi reconstruction in yesterday's "Opinion Journal." Brendan writes:

"During Saddam Hussein's reign, not surprisingly, Baghdad and its No. 1 resident had priority when it came to basic services. Baghdad has no power generators to speak of, so generators in outlying cities had to feed the capital, often at the expense of their local residents.

"After Saddam fell, many power engineers and local politicians apparently decided they'd opt out of the national power grid. [Authorities think] that more than a few attacks on power lines have been deliberate attempts to isolate cities that generate their own power from the rest of the country; residents there no longer want to send power off to Baghdad while the lights in their own homes flicker and go out.

"Like the blackout that struck the American Northeast and Midwest last year, unplugging a city from the national grid results in systemwide power failures. It doesn't matter that the total amount of electric power in Iraq is now exceeding prewar levels, or that it is much more equitably distributed. Thus electricity is a metaphor for the larger problem of Iraqi reconstruction: If Iraqis don't come to believe that working together is in their own self interest, then the country may indeed plunge into chaos."
He then comments on the recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies titled "Progress or Peril? Measuring Iraq's Reconstruction":

"The study did not address the question of mutual cooperation directly, but an underlying theme is that Americans cannot simply 'rebuild' Iraq and instead must make it possible for Iraqis to come together to solve their own problems. Instead of thinking and defining success in terms of 'nation building,' the study recommends thinking in terms of 'nation jumpstarting'--getting Iraq to the point where enough people have the skills necessary to crank up functional economic, social and political institutions."
Cooperation is a crucial element in the Iraqi equation; one that doesn't receive sufficient attention from either the pro or the anti war crowd because as Brendan says, it "doesn't fit into a sound bite very well." And cooperation is just one aspect of the cultural dimension of the Iraq problem.

Nowadays, we hear about cultural issues and Iraq mainly in the context of debates as to whether liberal democracy can be created in an Arab country. Both the realists on the right and the cultural relativists on the left are sceptical about the prospects of the democratic project in Iraq, pointing to what they see as immutable aspects of the Middle Eastern cultural make up, such as tribalism, sectarianism, authoritarianism and obscurantism, which they see as incompatible with and inimical to the development of Western-style institutions. Neo-conservatives, idealists and universalists are more optimistic. Whatever the answer to the Arab democracy conundrum, there is little doubt that culture does matter. A society where the interests of your family, tribe, or coreligionists are generally put ahead of the "common interest" will have a tougher time building a successful, modern political and economic infrastructure. As Francis Fukuyama argues, trust matters - trust outside of your immediate circle, trust between strangers, trust between the governing and the governed. Trust is an invaluable mortar that binds a healthy society together.

But there is another aspect to the "culture matters" argument, one that does not get nearly enough attention. It has nothing to do with religion, ethnicity, or national character; it is the social and moral legacy of life under a dictatorship. Iraq, quite simply, like many other recently liberated societies around the world continues to suffer from a Post-Totalitarian Stress Disorder.

For the Westerners, the PTSD is a difficult condition to understand. We take so many things for granted - from comedians being able to joke about the President, to the assumption that the next government employee we encounter will not be expecting a bribe from us - that we are quite ill equipped to fully comprehend what life under a totalitarian system must really be like, much less what mental and spiritual legacy its victims have to labor under long after the statues of the Leader are pulled down.

We all "know" about the secret police knocking on the door at night, adulatory TV programs exalting the president-for-life, the pervasive corruption, queues and shortages, or the silly propaganda. Nothing, however, in our generally safe and comfortable existence would helps us understand just how pervasively difficult, destructive and dispiriting the experience of life under a totalitarian regime is. For most of us, life in Saddam's Iraq would have been no more real than the Middle Earth of the colonial New England. And failing to understand the condition itself, by extension we find it equally difficult to understand how the mental attitudes and habits of the past cannot be shaken off overnight but instead linger on, making the reconstruction and transition to normalcy such a difficult and painful process.

I speak from some experience here. While the late communist Poland and the Baathist Iraq were in many ways very different societies, shaped and constrained by different set of geographic, historical and cultural factors, there is a common denominator between all totalitarian societies the world over. Here are some bad habits that people consciously or otherwise pick up to help them fit in better and survive under a dictatorship, but which prove quite troublesome and counter-productive once the shackles finally fall off:

Distrust of the state and the authorities - the state is the enemy and the oppressor; you collaborate to the extent it is necessary to survive, no more. You don't owe it any loyalty and are quite happy to try to sabotage it in every little way you can - by breaking minor laws, petty embezzlement, cheating, dishonesty, lies, passivity or indifference.

A prison mentality - you might hate the state, but you still have an expectation that the hand you cannot bite will provide for you; feed you, clothe you, give you shelter and a job. Since the state has crowded out most, if not all, of the private sphere, logically only the state is able to provide for one's needs - you're quite literally at the mercy of a monopoly.

Lack of initiative and abdication of personal responsibility - as the state is seemingly omnipresent and omnipotent and the area of your personal sovereignty heavily circumscribed, this state of affairs breeds resignation, fatalism and passivity. Why would you bother to try to do anything if you can't achieve much? How can you really take responsibility for your condition if you're just a powerless puppet at the mercy of the Leviathan? And so you wait for things happen to you, as they always do, instead of trying to make your own fate. The system simply doesn't provide any incentives to think and act otherwise - initiative is not rewarded and can even land you in trouble, working hard brings in no more benefits than working little; effort and imagination more often than not hit the wall of limited practical possibilities.

Distrust of others - it's not just the state; you don't trust your fellow citizens too - at worst they might be spying on you for the authorities, at best they are competing with you for scarce resources. Either way, they're out to screw you over. So you only look after your own.

Circumstances change; and when they do, they usually change much faster than our habits. Closed economy may become a free market, dictatorship a democracy, theocracy a liberal society, but our mental adjustment to new realities lags behind.

Recently we have witnessed this phenomenon in the post-communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe. Now we're seeing it in Iraq. Home Sovieticus - or Homo Baathicus - continues to roam the landscape long after a giant asteroid had wiped out their habitats.

This - the damage done to individual psyche - and not just to the physical infrastructure and institutions of the country, is what we have to always keep in mind when assessing the progress of reconstruction and democratisation in places like Iraq. If things aren't moving ahead as fast as expected, if cooperation is lacking and trust hard to find, and if the population seems apathetic and disengaged, it's just the fallen regime having its final chuckle from beyond the grave.

The task of reconstruction is not just about adding more megawatts to the power grid or renovating another school. Just as importantly - if not more so - it is about changing attitudes, habits and ways of thinking. In many ways liberating minds is a far more difficult task than rebuilding the physical infrastructure.

Is there a solution to this problem of cultural lag? How can we cure the Post-Totalitarian Stress Disorder? As the old saying goes, time heals all wounds. In the longer term, the older generations - those most tainted by the old ways of thinking - move on and the young ones, brought up in the new environment, slowly take their place. In a shorter term, people still change; slowly and at paces that vary from individual to individual, but change they nevertheless do. In the meantime, people of Iraq need encouragement and good example. Every small step is to be applauded because it brings Iraq closer to a better future.

Some societies are luckier than others. Post-communist societies had time; Iraq might not possess as much of that luxury. Let's hope it has enough.