Monday, August 22

The Caravan Passes and the Dog Barks

the caravan passes ...

A favorite saying of ours goes something like this "when the caravan passes, the dog barks." It is such a vivid image of either comforting or distressing being isn't it? Life just goes on and time passes regardless of the dog's eternal complaints.

A Discovery Channel documentary years ago featured an interview with a veterinary psychologist. He was asked about why dogs kept barking when they must know it did no good. Giving the example of a mailman or sanitation truck he noted that as far as the dog was concerned the barking worked.

You see, the dog figured that even the most regular visits were in fact planned invasions designed to take his home and his next meal. Canine logic held that without repeated and pointed reminders, namely loud and incessant barking, that the usurpers would all move right in unless they were warned away ... each and every time.

Dogs are programmed to bark anyway. Because of their nature, barking is one of the main reasons why their remote wolfish ancestors were tolerated, then welcomed by and finally adopted by man so long ago. Man then expanded considerable evolutionary pressure on dogs to keep them barking, especially in defense of man's own pieces of turf.

Another favorite quote is from this ancient post, Billions of lives improved! that also gets at the issue in terms of rationality and common sense
If you take a walk through the countryside, from Indonesia to Peru, and you walk by field after field--in each field a different dog is going to bark at you. Even dogs know what private property is all about. The only one who does not know it is the government."
The point being that governments often break with nature and human experience ... even on the subject of caravans and dogs. One has to see government like a caravan in many ways. It just is and in some cases always will be and remains confident of its immutability and direction, regardless of what happens around it.

Imagine then, that if presented with a barking dog, the caravan turned around and used every means at its disposal directly then indirectly using the laws of the dog's very own oasis to get him to shut up. Then, dear reader, we are dealing with either a very special kind of dog or a particularly different kind of caravan.

We shall see how dogs can have a wisdom some will never know.

getting around to the point about here ...

Now, finally onto the the lawsuit filed by Ethiopian government officials against an American / German based radio station and internet site. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement says that the offending
statements included, among others, false and defamatory allegations, the assertion that some plaintiffs had transferred money from the national treasury of Ethiopia into personal bank accounts in foreign countries, the ministry said.

Such defamatory statements were made with malice, without any factual basis and are wholly false, the Ministry said. The intent was to injure the reputations of plaintiffs and hinder their abilities to carry out their duties in their respective public and private capacities.
We have never heard of the radio station in question but assume that it is not pro-government. We have never seen the internet site because after this news we looked for it and it was off the air ... somehow. It follows then that we have no knowledge of the particular charges being made against the government or against the defendants.

Even absent any benefit of doubt anyone may be inclined to give the government or its critics it is clear that this sets a precedent in terms of policy towards information flow abroad. That is because human rights related to free exchange of information already do not seem to be cherished by the government at home - so the potential export of such a mindset using the legal systems of free societies against themselves, is rather disturbing.

prior bad acts

Why don't we take a look at the atmosphere in which this is all taking place. That in Germany or the USA is quite clear - there is freedom of the press guaranteed by law and custom. Ethiopians do not have that basic need and right of every society and individual so if the government is trying to export something it is important to see what is being exported.

The International Press Insitute has placed Ethiopia on its Watch List and has numerous references to restrictions of information flow.

Reporters Without Borders issued this troubling 2004 Report and also lists these references to press restrictions.

The Committe to Protect Journalists has this 2004 Report on Attacks on the Press in Ethiopia and also notes in a post 'election' update that "Authorities target journalists reporting on post-elections unrest."

Other post-'election' accounts abound of stifling information and penalizing the press for reporting routine news in a democratic society like the defection of pilots or the press releases of the political opposition. Criticism is routinely rejected, often ferociously
Western diplomatic sources have told Human Rights Watch that precisely because the Ethiopian government reacts so angrily to criticism, the only option is to engage the government on human rights issues quietly and behind the scenes. United States policy is also influenced by Ethiopia’s perceived status as the most stable country in the Horn of Africa and by its cooperation in Washington’s “global war on terror.”

This “quiet” approach does not appear to be bringing about any change in the Ethiopian government’s refusal to engage in constructive dialogue about human rights issues. Recent events seem to indicate that the Ethiopian government may be becoming bolder in its willingness to ignore international criticism of its human rights record.
All of this takes place in an atmosphere where "Arbitrary Arrests Continue, Detainees Face Torture and Ill-Treatment" as the government crackdown spread beyond the capital city according to Human Rights Watch. HRW has a general overview and elsewhere noted before the 'election' that political dissent had been quashed advising observers that systematic repression should be noted, partiuclarly in the region of the largest ethnic group, the Oromo.

Amnesty International has this 2003 report on Ethiopia and recently feared that student protesters (at least 40 or so lives were also taken according to official accounts of violence against peaceful protestors) were at risk of torture. The US State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 2004 is also not encouraging about the possibilities for press or any othe kind of rights in Ethiopia.

This post Politburo Knows Best II - Human Rights links to and deals in detail with accounts from some noted and less well known Ethiopian and International authorities on all manner of human rights who bring us to question the commitment of the Ethiopian government to free press and democratic rights in general.

Can foreign journalists in Ethiopia fill the gap? Despite their usual sincerity and dedication the answer is no. They do play an important role as watchdogs for gross violations of rights and can let the international community know about them. However, uncooperative foreign election observers and active journalists were expelled during the 'election' and all others live in professional fear of it if they misbehave.

Those that remain have to get along with the government and its minions to function in any meaningful way at all so there are rather sharp limits to what they can accomplish that goes against the interests of the government, beyond intensive monitoring by security services and outside of approved circles.

For example, the Fistula Hospital is a magnificent institution staffed by selfless workers and dedicated professionals. However, how many politicians and celebrities can visit it and how many news stories can usefully be filed about it before other subjects are noted?

global imports and exports

Thus, the attitudes and values held by the Ethiopian government are evidently not in keeping with the societies in which the defendants are being sued. When a country, where by all acounts press and all other human freedoms are not given the respect expected by mankind at large, decides to export any part of its attitudes and values, those defining characteristics need to be explored in greater detail than we could ever do here.

It is clear that not only do Ethiopians, like all humans, want freedom and that the Ethiopian Diaspora nor the citizens of democracies like the USA and Germany should welcome the importation of such dubious Ethiopian government values into their countries of residence or citizenship.

What is next if the logic of such government lawsuits is accepted?

Supporters of the government should also note that someone else with the same bad values could also reach out and try to touch them abroad one day if the caravan changes course. That would never happen given the democratic nature of the current opposition - that is why the government is so upset - the opposition is not playing by the rules of its rigged game.

However, given the precedent of more than three decades of dictatorship under a unified Marxist-Leninist ideology, Mengistu's heirs could conceivably succeed in their mission of creating a climate so putrid and vile that nothing better can ever be expected than the current state of affairs.

While we may feel that it is a great honor to oppose this government, supporters of it should honestly wonder if they would like to be on the enemies list of a government that behaves just like their own beloved one. There are already some 70 million suffering counter-revolutionaries listed there.

This is an issue for the concern for all including every manner of friend of Ethiopia and government cadre.

Beyond the facts of this case in question there is of course a general chilling effect on Ethiopians or those of Ethiopian ancestry who are critics of the government and its officials. The previous resentful general air of acceptance and getting along with the government for the sake of a peaceful life and being left alone as long as one was subservient generally collapsed in past months.

In the wake of extensive protests and the hearing of previously silent voices worldwide after the recent 'election' and its violence, the government realized it had a potentially unmanageable problem on its hands.

Beyond an assumed ownership of diaspora opinion will the threat of legal action ever affect foreigners? Not a chance. The ferenjis would not stand for being sued by a foreign government that denies its own citizens or any one else the right to sue on behalf of the truth or to even expect to live with the truth peacefully. The Ethiopian government would never dare to do such a thing.

Ethiopians abroad must take on this very healthy ferenji attitude and wonder how a foreign government could dare to do such a thing and interfere with rights they sadly had to leave home to gain. The issue that the defendants are connected to the opposition rings hollow, ... so what?

Donor governments will understand, given enough press or citizen attention to this issue that Ethiopians are also residents and citizens who have every right that born Americans or Germans do. While that certainly includes the right to be sued for every manner of absurdity the governments in question should note who is doing the suing.

It is clear that the donor's club is having an impossible time of getting Ethiopia's government to behave decently towards Ethiopians. In the end they know Ethiopians would have no rights without the threat of aid being taken away but they should not be satisfied on that point of low expectations alone.

If they can't be expected to assure that all Ethiopians have human rights they should be made through their own mechanisms native to free societies everywhere to assure that those with Ethiopian genes within their own borders can not be served with such low expectations. Otherwise there may be only one Ethiopian voice, the government's.

Access to foreign aid seems to be one of the principal reasons that the lawsuit was file to begin with, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement.
The defendants fabricated statement damaging to the personal reputations of the plaintiffs, but also seriously risk and undermine Ethiopia’s important international relations, including with its economic development partners.

just the facts ma'am

How about the facts of the lawsuit?

We have no knowledge about any transfers to private bank accounts from government coffers.

However, we are rightly suspicious about any subject presented by the Ethiopian government. It is also not clear what the purpose of all of this is if not to harass and intimidate. Proving the charges in an American court is something the government does not really want to happen. It wants to shut up the four in question, penalize them with lawyer fees and thus warn others away from politics than to really deal with the issues at hand.

Consider this, even in the case of the absence of a cent even being ever transferred from public funds to private accoutns, if this lawsuit made it into a courtroom would the Ethiopian government be willing and prepared to deal with even the pre-trial discovery process of this legal system? For those who haven' seen many movies this means where both sides of the case have to give eachother every bit of relevant evidence at the very start of proceedings.

Later in court if information is not forthcoming can any one imagine that the Ethiopian government responding to court orders and subpeonas? They would have to produce the life long and total financial statements of every government official in question on every continent and all of their other financial and business dealings ... including those that their official status required them to deal with.

That is the minimum of what a halfway decent lawyer would ask for and what a halfway competent judge would require to proceed. Most lawyers are far more than decent and most judges are far more than competent ... certainly those who would get close to this case would be given the kind of notice that could be had.

The Ethiopian government treats Ethiopians badly because of its basic revolutionary democratic nature and because donor governments don't really expect different and because government engineered national catastrophe or collapse is feared. None of those excuses for foreign policy would be at hand in an American courtroom.

The bean counters in donor nations are worried about making dictators happy today rather than preventing dictatorships from becoming breeding grounds for terror tomorrow. So they don't insist on the hightly successful habits of democratic societies as a condition of aid. This short term view would not have much sway in court as when it came to excusing or ignoring the bloody 'election' of 2005 and letting the EPRDF off of the hook.

Anyway, we suspect this really may have a bit more to do with old fashioned intimidation than truth and justice.


The lawsuit apparently revolves around the issue of corruption - charges of it and denials. The dictionary defines it thusly. The adjective part we are interested in is "Venal; dishonest" and the verb part is "To destroy or subvert the honesty or integrity of."

OK ... what might cause someone with no malice, quite wrongly in the Ethiopian government's estimation, to think such a state of affairs exists in the total absence of any transfer of government funds to any private accounts?

Basically, the Ethiopian government is not 'transparent'. This is according to Transparency International and the US State Department that says that "membership in the EPRDF conferred advantages upon its members, and the party owned many businesses and awarded jobs to loyal supporters."

The US Embassy notes that "Privatization, like other government tenders, is subject to corruption." (Original link is gone, here is Google cached link.) The Index of Economic Freedom 2004 says that "Ethiopia’s cumbersome bureaucracy deters investment. Much of the economy remains under state control, and the evidence suggests that businesses also must contend with political favoritism."

This ancient post Cargo Cult Economics 3 - Structural Corruption looks at some of the reasons why there is an air of 'non-transparency' (diplo-code word for corruption ... you already knew this didn't you?) and also wonders if the issue is structural or built in to the system.

Why? Well, consider these points:

--Ethiopia is non-democratic as the recent 'election' has shown and therefore the government is not popularly accountable.

--The government is not in any way distinguishable from the apparatus of the higly disciplined vanguard ruling party which controls a rubber stamp parliament, pet election board, a slavish judiciary and exceptionally vicious security services and secret police.

--The government directly owns large chunks of the economy and numerous state enterprises which it refuses to privatize and to allow competition for.

--The ruling party directly and through various shells owns large chunks of the economy and numerous enterprises at every level and it does not want any competition for them at all.

--Control of government and party (the same thing) owned businesses is more often than not directly in the hands of government and party officials themselves who serve both as government officials and the chairman of businesses or other shell enterprises.

--There is absolutely no record or expectation of audits of the whole incestuous mess by any institution at all. Even if it existed it would certainly have at its top someone from the higher reaches of the party / government who was also a board member or chairman of a party / government / crony enterprise.

--Crony status of the government and party or involuntary but absolute political subservience is needed to successfully participate in the remaining parts of the economy with any hope of success.

--There is no private ownership of land and as Trotsky said "“opposition where the state is everyone’s landlord means death by slow starvation." Along with eternal destitution for all but a few, the absence of ownership means that the best guarantor of the rights of man is lost.

--The government owns all of the land and thus those who own the government ultimately own all of the power and wealth.

--Indeed, to an exceptional degree by international or historical standards, political and economic power and wealth are inseperable in a most direct manner and held by an exceedingly small number of people.

That is why we refer to those who run the party / government as the ultimate revolutionary feudal aristocracy. Such a state is not a breeding ground for accountable and honest government.

Despite the fact that most people in government and most citizens and even most ruling party members are decent and honorable people ... it is not only impossible for a nation to prosper in the current circumstances it is impossible for society and particularly government to be defined as anything but totally and utterly corrupt.

Ethiopian government is corrupt by the express design and wishes of those who structured it. The whole apparatus is built that way and it is lovingly maintained despite every failure of national growth and health, by those who benefit from its essentially corrupt nature.

So corrupt is the entire rotten system by design that it is worthwhile keeping in mind the saying that "a fish rots from the head" whose wisdom many assume in a non-transparent system.

Therefore, those who make charges of corruption against the Ethiopian government should be understood very clearly. Even given the most vehement individual or group denials of the Ethiopian government officials behind the lawsuit ... the structure of society that exists make such negative assumptions of corruption expected and natural to anyone with common sense.

four points

So what is the point of all of the above?

First, we have no direct knowledge of the corrupt practices of any particular individuals with reference to transfers of government funds into private accounts or other corrupt practices. However, we can state with absolute certainty that the whole structure of current government is tainted by existential corruption of a remarkably debilitating and degenerate type.

To counter unfair charges that government funds are being diverted to private ends or that there is little distinction between public and private funds anyway is rather easy. The government should simply open up the books of all government and party agencies and businesses as well as those owned or managed by people affiliated with the government and party.

An international and independent outside team of auditors would be ideal to restore confidence and to counter all defamations forever. The government's 'development partners' will then be assured of transparency. A team from the EU would prove friendly but credible or possibly an international accounting firm - either one as long as their is a firm mandate to do whatever they see fit.

Second, on general principle, no one should welcome the notion of any foreign government, particularly a non-democratic one that routinely denies every manner of human rights to its own, using the legal systems of free countries and all the resources of a government to limit criticism of itself in any way.

As far as we know, no foreign dictatorship has ever tried this trick before from the potential litany of complainants of defamation including the likes of the Khmer Rouge, Mugabe, Mengistu, Khadafi, Castro or the Burmese Junta. The world in general nor the community of democratic nations will want to see this remote control denial of rights become a habit.

Third, if the issue is 'relations with development partners' then the government should note that the development partners that matter are the Ethiopian people and not the donor club. The basics of developing a free and prosperous society are no secret.

Substituting socialist policies doomed to failure, aid and dreams of massive aid for the natural talents of the Ethiopian people seems to us a poor bargain that can only be made in the interests of an insecure despotism.

Lastly, to bring back the whole caravan theme in tried and true essayist manner, we will again note how odd it is for a caravan to change course and take note of what to it might just otherwise be a barking dog in an oasis somewhere.

the noble dog, really man's best friend

Critics, whom the government generally treats like dogs, may be rather as important as they imagine when they bark - at least according to the Ethiopian government.

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