Ethiopia: Talking trash; Speaking truth-By Alemayehu G. Mariam
The View From the Sewers
Looking up from the sewers, everything must look like garbage!
Last week, dictator Meles Zenawi ripped the final election report of the 2010 European Union Election Observer Mission to Ethiopia (EU EOM) as “trash that deserves to be thrown in the garbage”. He said, “The report is not about our election. It is just the view of some Western neo-liberals who are unhappy about the strength of the ruling party. Anybody who has paper and ink can scribble whatever they want.”
On August 29, 2005, Zenawi slammed the final election report of the 2005 EU EOM Ethiopia 2005 Report as “garbage” and a “farce”. He said, “The statement, in my view, shows that the mission has turned out to be something worse than a farce… We shall, in the coming days and weeks, see what we can do to expose the pack of lies and innuendoes that characterize the garbage in this report.” No wonder Zenawi got chosen as Africa’s chief environmentalist and representative to the global climate change conference. He is an expert in recycling garbage.
The fact of the matter is that Zenawi cannot mistreat a member of the European Parliament and officials authorized by the same body the way he mistreats and demeans his own members of parliament. Talking down and hurling abusive language at members of his own parliament is one thing, but doing the same to a mission authorized by the European Parliament is an entirely different matter. To call the EU EOM Report “garbage” is to invite others to use the same word to describe the election itself. Such language is unacceptable, as they say in the diplomatic world.
Zenawi is legendary for his mastery and exquisite delivery of gutter language. He can out-tongue-lash, out-mudsling, out-vilify and out-smear any politician on the African continent. He is the iconic in-your-face mudslinger-cum-bully who will unsheath his claws, bare his teeth and pounce at the faintest sign of criticism. Just as he called the EU EOM 2005 Report a “pack of lies and innuendoes”, he blasted the March 11, 2010 U.S. State Department’s “Reports on Human Rights Practices” on Ethiopia as “lies, lies and implausible lies.” He ridiculed the U.S. State Department for not being able to tell a crooked lie straight: “The least one could expect from this report, even if there are lies is that they would be plausible ones,” snarled Zenawi. “But that is not the case. It is very easy to ridicule it [report], because it is so full of loopholes. They could very easily have closed the loopholes and still continued to lie.” His consigliere, Bereket Simon chimed in: “It is the same old junk. It’s a report that intends to punish the image (sic) of Ethiopia and try if possible to derail the peaceful and democratic election process.” In the same month, Zenawi lambasted the Voice of America as the voice of genocide: “We have been convinced for many years that in many respects, the VOA Amharic Service has copied the worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda.”
Just before the May 2010 election, Zenawi cranked up his “Insulto-Matic” machine and verbally shredded his former comrade-in-arms and rhetorically clobbered his critics. He called them “muckrakers,” “mud dwellers” and good-for-nothing “chaff” and “husk.” He accused them of being “anti-democratic,” “anti-people” fomenters of “interhamwe.” He characterized them as “sooty,” “sleazy,” “gun-toting marauders,” “pompous egotists” and every other name in the book. He repeatedly denounced his opposition for “rolling in a quagmire of mud” and trying to “smear mud on the people”. He said they were “dirtying up the people like themselves.” After all was said in that speech, it was clear that he was the only one doing all the mud-slinging and mud-rolling (chika jiraf and chika mab-kwat).
Last month, Simon broadsided Human Rights Watch as ‘a frustrated, self-appointed kingmaker institution” for issuing a 105-page report entitled: “Development without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites Repression in Ethiopia”. Simon told the Voice of America: “This is a report by some highly frustrated and self-appointed kingmaker institution in the U.S. Just because what they dreamt of in Ethiopia didn’t take place, they are doing whatever they can to tarnish the image of the country.” It was a curious choice of royal metaphor to use by the chief mouthpiece of the emperor with no clothes.
In December 2009, after keeping Birtukan Midekssa, the first female opposition political party leader in Ethiopia history, in solitary confinement for months, Zenawi mocked her as a “silly chicken” that “hanged herself”. He cautioned: “As our parents say, ‘A hen once heard of a fad and hanged herself trying to follow it.’” In April 2008, he scoffed at the international human rights organizations who criticized his “press law” by telling them that his new press law will be “on par with the best in the world.”
It’s always the same old lying, thieving, conniving and scheming neoliberal, neo-colonial, hegemonic and globalizing neo-imperialist SOBs and their local lackeys against Zenawi!
Sound, Fury and Buffoonery
The use of vulgarity, slamming opponents with foul and pejorative language and open display of contempt and disrespect for the opposition and critics are Zenawi’s stock in trade. He has perfected the art of mudslinging and mudrolling (chika jiraf and chika mabkwat). Regular followers of his public statements no longer cringe as he caricatures himself in his unrestrained use of barnyard language. His repeated public rhetorical meltdowns have become a source of perverse amusement for some. The question is whether Zenawi is full of sound and fury that signifies nothing; or whether there is a method to his rhetorical buffoonery?
It is rather obvious that Zenawi likes to be brazenly provocative. Every time criticism gets under his skin, he goes ballistic, bombastic and hyperbolic. As many of my readers know, I am fascinated by the “grammar of dictators”. I am particularly intrigued by the thoughts and ideas that circulate in the minds of dictators who are drunk as a skunk on power, though I am disgusted by the filthy words that ooze out of their mouths. To be sure, my interests go beyond simple intellectual curiosity. As a political scientist and a lawyer, I have a special professional interest in the use of language and words in political discourse and legal and forensic analysis. I believe language is the roadmap of the mind. To find out what is in a person’s mind, I say, follow the word trail. Words provide snapshots of what is deeply buried under the landscape and terrains of the mind. When we speak, our words reveal the state of our mind, the temperature of our feelings and emotions and the clarity or opacity in which we perceive the world. Most importantly, the words we use reflect our values, principles and upbringing, or the lack thereof. When we communicate using filthy and vulgar language, we reveal our filthy and vulgar values. When we express ourselves in scatological (filthy) and eschatological (end of the world) language, we reveal our deepest beliefs and convictions about who we are and how we view the world. Immoral and depraved language is the outward sign of one’s inner moral bankruptcy.
So, why would anyone descend from the sublimely grand stage of world politics to use gutter language? Part of the answer to this question may be found in Thijs Berman’s (the head of the EU EOM to Ethiopia 2010) response to Zenawi’s vulgarism: “One-hundred and seventy independent observers have been working here in Ethiopia to assess the electoral process in a very serious and professional way. Anyone who tries to show contempt for this professional work shows contempt for himself. It is degrading for the prime minister to react this way.” In other words, when Zenawi points an index finger at the EU EOM Mission and calls them “garbage”, he would be wise to keep in mind that three fingers are pointing straight at him.
A more systematic explanation of “gutter diplomacy” (the use of gutter language for political discourse and diplomatic communication) may be found in the literature of political psychology and forensic linguistics. As I have observed previously, “all dictators are criminals.” As a criminal defense lawyer and political scientist, I have had ample opportunities to observe firsthand the workings of the criminal mind, and academically to study dictators as “state criminals.” My conclusion is that the difference between the street criminal and the state criminal is a matter of degree and magnitude. The street criminal targets individuals in the neighborhood for his criminal wrongdoing. The state criminal targets the people of an entire nation.
Dictators who have wielded power over a period of time suffer a psychopathological condition that could best be described as “aggressive megalomanical narcissistic syndrome”. Simply stated, as dictators steal and accumulate more wealth and aggrandize political power by killing, jailing and torturing their opponents, they begin to fantasize that they are omnipotent and invincible. They convince themselves that the image they see in the mirror every morning is an awesome demigod to be worshipped and feared. They fall in love with the image in the mirror (narcissism) and begin to worship that image as an omnipotent deity (megalomania). They isolate themselves in an echo chamber cut off from the outside world and surround themselves with fawning sycophants and yes-men who constantly tell them how great, how powerful and how special they are. The dictators become obsessed with the image in the mirror and fantasize about the grandiose and extravagant things they can do. They brood over fantasies of a historic and heroic destiny. They believe their own press releases. They become shameless, conscience-less and arrogant. They convince themselves that as demigods they are as near-perfect as any part-human, part-god can get. So if there is fault, it can never be theirs; it must be the fault of the lowly plebeians. So they dump (as in dumping garbage) their faults on their victims and enjoy watching them wallowing in it.
“Fault dumping” or blaming the victim is an important defensive and offensive weapon in the psychological arsenal of all criminals. The wife beater says, “I didn’t do it. She made me do it!” The dope dealer who pushes drugs on neighborhood children excuses himself by claiming that he is “just trying to make a living”. He does not see the obvious contradiction of making a living by killing children with poisonous drugs. The state criminal is no different. He shifts the blame on his victims. If 200 unarmed protesters are gunned down in the street, it is their own damn fault. They had no business out in the streets. If there are food shortages, it is because people are eating too much. May be they should eat one meal every three days.
“Fault dumping” psychologically nourishes criminals and enables them to justify their crimes and cruelties by diminishing, debasing and degrading their victims. Since most hard core criminals are basically insecure about themselves and have an abysmally low sense of self-worth, the try to prove their superiority and invincibility by degrading, disparaging, dishonoring, humiliating and insulting those who do and try to do things according to the established rules and procedures. State criminals crave the constant admiration and reaffirmation of others, particularly those they perceive to be superior to them. They believe that because they are special, they are entitled to absolute respect, honor and loyalty, and the approval and obedience of all. They loathe and fear criticism because it represents rejection in their minds and destroys their fragile self-image of faultless demigods. Anyone who criticizes them or defies their will automatically triggers a narcissistic meltdown. They become totally enraged and lash out uncontrollably. They lose their sense of decorum and propriety; and because they have lost their sense of shame, they are unable to tell the proper boundaries of civilized behavior and good manners and find themselves freefalling into the gutter where they begin to communicate in their own special language of “thugspeak” or “gutterese”.
The Language of “Thugspeak” or “Gutterese”
Readers familiar with George Orwell and others writing in his genre are familiar with words like “doublespeak”, “doubletalk” and “doublethink.” These terms signify the use of language to deliberately disguise and distort the meaning of words, or to force acceptance of mutually contradictory beliefs as harmonious. I would like to indulge in a neologism of sorts (by minting a couple of new words as it were) by introducing the words “thugspeak” (the language of thugs) and “gutterese” (the language of the gutter) in understanding the political use of language to shock and horrify, to intimidate and harass, to badger and to verbally bludgeon, to bully and to browbeat, to disarm and disconcert, to stun and to stupefy, to demoralize and to demonize, to unnerve, to outrage and to distract one’s adversaries.
When Zenawi declared that the EU EOM Report “deserves to be thrown in the garbage” and represents nothing more than the “scribblings of anyone with pen and pencil”, what he is doing is using “thugspeak” or “gutterese” to bully, psychologically bludgeon, humiliate and demonize the EU EOM. Zenawi’s words may be shocking to the EU EOM, but they have long been part of his linguistic repertoire. But to understand Zenawi’s tongue-lashing and tongue-blasting of the EU EOM, one has to first translate the Report into the language of “thugspeak” or “gutterese”. For the second time in 5 years, the EU EOM told Zenawi that the “electoral process fell short of international commitments for elections” and there was a “lack of a level playing field for all contesting parties.” Translated from EU EOM diplomatese (language of diplomats) into “thugspeak” or “gutterese”, that means, “You stole the election!” It is this barely veiled accusation of election thievery that is at the core of Zenawi’s sound, fury, rage and complete meltdown.
The fact of the matter is that the EU EOM report hurt Zenawi in the most vulnerable part of his psyche, his fragile ego. It is too much to bear for a man who perceives himself to be Africa’s foremost “revolutionary new breed intellectual leader” who rubs elbows with the world’s high and mighty. He cannot jack up the EU EOM on “treason” or “terrorism” charges. He cannot jail them. He cannot confront and fight them in the diplomatic arena or challenge them factually and analytically on their findings in a free and open forum. The only thing he could do is to try and drag them down into the gutter for a mudfest. All of the media theatricality, temper tantrums and verbal pyrotechnics are the frontline weapons of “gutter warfare” deployed to discredit, vilify and humiliate the EU EOM, distract the international community and misdirect the Ethiopian public from focusing on the body of the crime: the stolen election. But EU EOM Mission head Berman would not take the bait and descend into the gutter. He seems to be all too familiar with the proverbial mud wrestling match with the pig. Both contestants get dirty, but the pig enjoys the experience infinitely more.
Trash or Truth
The interesting thing about the EU EOM Report is that it is as balanced as any report compiled by an independent group of observers following specific guidelines could reasonably be. I concede that grudgingly because I have a lot of bones to pick with the Report. I could rattle off 41 objections to the report in one breath. For instance, I believe the Report could have been more resolute in its findings and conclusions about the rampant irregularities and illegalities on election day and the days immediately preceding that. The Report could have comprehensively documented the massive diversion of aid for political purposes. The Report could have responded more aggressively in verifying and pursuing opposition complaints of pre-election harassment and voter intimidation on election day, and so on.
On balance, the Report had many good and positive things to say about the electoral process and the regime. Zenawi disserves himself by throwing out the baby with the bath water. The fact that Zenawi won 99.6 percent of the seats is not the EU EOM’s fault. He said he won those seats fair and square. The EU EOM Report simply said such an outcome is manifestly incredible and could not be reasonably expected from a free and fair election anywhere. There is absolutely nothing in the report that justifies calling it “garbage” or the “scribble of anyone with pen and paper.” Following are verbatim extracts of most of the major findings and conclusions of the Report:
The 23 May 2010 elections were held in a generally peaceful environment, as unanimously called for by all stakeholders.
The Ethiopian Constitution and legal framework provided an adequate basis for the conduct of
genuine elections in line with international and regional commitments subscribed to by Ethiopia.
The Constitution, Electoral Law and other election-related regulations protect political and civil
rights and allow for genuine elections, as well as the freedoms of association, assembly, movement and expression.
The NEBE administered the elections in a competent and professional manner given its limited
resources, overcoming significant technical challenges.
Candidate registration was carried out in an adequate manner. The requirements for candidates
were not discriminatory.
The media covered the main campaign events in a relatively neutral tone. However, state-owned media failed to ensure a balanced coverage, giving the ruling party more than 50% of its total coverage in both print and broadcast media.
The provisions for complaints related to voting, counting and consolidation were significantly
strengthened in the last five years.
Election Day unfolded in a generally peaceful and orderly manner, with a high voter turnout.
Secrecy of the vote was respected despite minor irregularities.
Some shortcomings were noted in the training of polling station staff and in the consistency and coherence of technical information received and aggregated by the electoral authority, such as complete polling station lists, which affected the overall transparency of the process.
The freedoms of assembly, of expression and of movement were not consistently respected
throughout the country during the campaign period, generally to the detriment of opposition
The separation between the ruling party and the public administration was blurred at the local
level in many parts of the country. The EU EOM directly observed cases of misuse of state
resources in the ruling party’s campaign activities.
Women are under-represented in the Ethiopian political scene and within the electoral
In 27% of cases observed, polling station results were different to those previously recorded by observers at polling stations. In several cases, incomplete or incorrect forms from polling stations were corrected or completed at constituency electoral offices. The transparency of the process was considered unsatisfactory in 40% of observed cases.
The ruling party and its partner parties won 544 of the 547 seats to the HPR and all but four of
the 1,904 seats in the State Councils.
The electoral process fell short of international commitments for elections, notably regarding the transparency of the process and the lack of a level playing field for all contesting parties.
Apologies and Thanks are Due to Thijs Berman and His Team of Observers
When the 60-person African Union (AU) observer team led by former Botswana president Ketumile Masire instantly concluded that the May 2010 “elections were free and fair and [they] found no evidence of intimidation and misuse of state resources for ruling party campaigns”, I was tempted to use intemperate language to express my disapproval, but I restrained myself and stuck to the facts and the standards set in the African Union Election Observation and Monitoring Guidelines. I wrote:
With all due respect to Masire, it seems that he made his declaration clueless of the observation standards he is required to follow in the AU Elections Observation and Monitoring Guidelines. If he had done so, he would have known that there is no logical, factual or documentary basis for him to declare the ‘elections were largely consistent with the African Union regulations and standards.
I have some significant reservations about the EU EOM Report as indicated above. But I would never characterize the Report as “garbage”. The reason is simple. I have carefully studied the guidelines in the 224-page “European Union Handbook for Election Observation (2nd ed.)”. I have familiarized myself with the EU EOM activities in other countries. The only proper basis for me to evaluate the Report is to fairly determine if it fails to uphold the standards set forth in the Handbook. While I disagree with the interpretations, inferences, deductions and conclusions in the Report, there is nothing that leads me to believe that EU EOM performed its duties in disregard of its duties in the Handbook or supplementary guidelines. There is no evidence to show that EU EOM did not perform its duties professionally, honorably, in good faith or with lack of neutrality and impartiality. There is no justification whatsoever to use scatological language to criticize the work of such a distinguished group of election observers.
I would like the 170-members of the EU EOM who spent months in Ethiopia preparing to perform their duties to know that they do deserve a few things — the respect, gratitude and appreciation of the Ethiopian people. Their report belongs in the annals of Ethiopian democracy, or more aptly the struggle for democracy. Though I disagree with many aspects of their Report, I personally thank them all for a job well done. I am particularly grateful to Mr. Berman who, by declining to engage in mudslinging of his own, has reaffirmed for us the virtues of civility, tolerance, self-respect, discernment and good manners. It is possible for the high and mighty to disagree without being bad-tempered, ill-natured and disagreeable. Mr. Berman has witnessed the birth of a still born democracy in Ethiopia. I hope he also had a chance to witness the age-old decency, dignity, humility, integrity and respectfulness of the Ethiopian people as well. For what little it is worth, I offer each and every one of the 170 members of the EU EOM 2010 Ethiopia my sincere and humble apologies.