Dr. David Shinn and his peasant-based analysis
I watched a recent interview Abebe Gellaw held with Ambassador Dr. David Shinn, former US Ambassador to Ethiopia, on the Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT). He is a professor and Horn of Africa analyst. I have found the interview very informative and insightful especially in terms of understanding how the US, just like during the Cold War, is still obsessed with narrow “national interest” at the expense of universal values of liberty and democracy in weaker nations. While Dr. Shinn has made a few good points, I will mainly focus on his weak perspectives that are not expected from a man of his caliber.
On the positive side, Dr. Shinn tried to balance his views by making some remarks that were critical of both the Meles regime and the opposition, which he rightly described as divided and weak. At least he gently pointed out that the regime has to open up the political space in Ethiopia and also noted that the 2005 elections signify a return to 2000 years of centralized control.
As he is no longer in diplomatic service, Dr. Shinn obviously spoke as an analyst. But as an ordinary person with ordinary concerns, I rate his performance 3 out of 10. Let me explain why. When it comes to some “serious” questions such as ethnic federalism, TPLF domination, democracy, Meles Zenawi and jamming, Dr. Shinn failed to speak with honesty and candor. He was visibly hesitant and nervous. One could see him trying to evade the questions by saying “you have to ask 83 percent of Ethiopian peasants” rather than answering them directly, either as a scholar or a diplomat.
He mentioned the US state department annual human rights report as a great example of America’s “concern” on human rights. It is quite true that the US publishes many reports annually. The annual US State Department human rights report is surely as good as the reports of Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. But the most obvious difference in the reports is that the State Department is a governmental entity while the latter two are NGOs.
As it is obvious, in the case of some countries, the US doggedly acts upon the report and constantly condemns and tries to punish those who violate human rights. Iran, Zimbabwe, Burma, Cuba and North Korea are cases in point. But in a few countries like Ethiopia where the US is courting the so-called “friendly tyrants” like Meles Zenawi, US officials turn a blind eye and make utmost effort not to offend their evil allies. The unofficial adage of the us foreign policy that tyrants are indeed bastards but some are “our bastards” is surely has been at work when it comes to dictators such as Meles Zenawi. Dr. Shinn is obviously aware of the fact that the most serious trouble with America’s priorities in Ethiopia is working with the TPLF regime to combat “terrorism”. But the hypocrisy is that Ethiopians have been loudly protesting against being terrorized by Zenawi and his army of oppression. As the records of the US Homeland Security database reveals, TPLF is a certified terrorist organization using state machineries to divide and conquer Ethiopians, violate their rights, terrorize them into silence.
The US is well-informed, as one can indeed see in the annual human rights report, on how the Meles Zenawi’s reign of terror has created a fertile ground for future conflicts that could potentially engulf their region like no other before.. If this so-called “national interest” discounts the suffering of an entire nation in pursuit of a few anti-American Somali Islamic extremists, then US national interest is irrational because people being trampled upon hate to see Americans helping terrorists like Meles Zenawi, who has been mistreating, abusing and oppressing the people of Ethiopia. I am sure this is quite obvious to Dr. Shinn as he used to have access to classified and confidential information on Ethiopia. One can see the Wikileaks cable to assess how much American diplomats know about Ethiopia and its complex problems under the tyranny of Meles Zenawi.
When Ambassador Shinn was asked to comment on Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism he hastened to note that “this is obviously something Ethiopians have to decide for themselves.” Frankly speaking, the question was clearly how he analyzes the issue as a scholar, or rather a Horn of Africa analyst, not who and when should make a decision on ethnic federalism. But Dr. Shinn took his evasive tactic to a higher level. He said: “I am a little bit reluctant to try to tell Ethiopians what is best for them because I am not sure it is my right to be doing that.”
As an analysis with experience and expertise in diplomacy, politics and international relations, as well as Ethiopia, he could have simply analyzed the pros and cons of Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism, a divide-and-rule design that will have far-reaching consequences. To make matters worse, his analysis was off track again when he linked the issue with the Ethiopian Diaspora versus illiterate or under-educated peasants in Ethiopia.
Here is what he said verbatim: “I appreciate that the vast majority in the Ethiopian Diaspora, at least in the United States, are opposed to ethnic federalism. It is rare I run into someone in the Diaspora who speaks in favor of it. On the other hand, what is more important is in what the Diaspora thinks is what do [sic] Ethiopians in Ethiopia think. I am not sure I know enough about that, particularly when I think about the 83 percent of the population that are peasant farmers. How often do they think about ethnic federalism? How often is it on their minds? Somehow I just suspect that it is not very high on their priority list. Their priority is shelter and food. If they have that taken care of the general philosophy of government is not just a real big deal for them. It may be a significant matter for the elites particularly in the urban areas of Ethiopia. But again I am not even sure I know from this point so many miles away from Ethiopia what the thinking is inside the cities of Ethiopia on ethnic federalism…,” said the analyst, Professor Shinn, former US Ambassador to Ethiopia. One may wonder how Dr. Shinn did his survey to reach to such a conclusion that 83 percent of Ethiopians never care about governance issues, justice, human rights or democracy. Because Dr. Shinn answered the simple question in a very dishonest manner, I can only give 0 out of 10 for this particular question.
If the same question was posed to the average peasant farmers in Ethiopia, who are supposed not to care about issues of governance or ethnic federalism as long as the belly is full, they could surely analyze the issue in much wiser, insightful and educated way than the patronizing analyst, who exposed not his ignorance but his intellectual dishonesty and duplicity.
Then came another simple question which was basically about what Dr. Shinn thinks about the domination of the TPLF in Ethiopia. First, he narrowed the issue only to domination in the security apparatus. He said: “In terms of dominance I think what you said as far as the security apparatus is true concern. There is clearly a disproportionate component that comes from one ethnic group. On the other hand and in all fairness, if you look at members of the EPRDF cabinet, if you look at parliament you see pretty good distribution of ethnic groups in the country….” Really!
As a former ambassador to Ethiopia, Dr. Shinn should have understood by now the so-called representatives of ethnic groups do not have constituencies except obeying their TPLF bosses. Former president Dr. Negasso Gidida has written a book about what he felt to be president representing Oromos. He never talked about real representation. His book is full of apologies and regrets that he was used by the TPLF, like all non-TPLF “presidents”, ministers or diplomats, as a puppet. Even the peasants in Ethiopia know that Meles Zenawi’s TPLF is only interested in puppets that it controls to control the people of Ethiopia. Dr. Shinn’s claim of fair “distribution” of power in the cabinet and parliament is obviously insincere. I have no doubt that he knows better, pretended not to for whatever reason.
As a follow up, Abebe Gellaw raised a question on whether he sees Meles Zenawi as a national leader in the face of his divide-and-rule. A few seconds were counted and it seemed as though he did not want to answer the question. Again his answer was very poor. He said: “I see him trying to be a national leader.” That is fair enough. Then he fell back to his peasant-based analysis: “Whether he has escaped the perception of being leader of a particular ethnic group or not again it is hard for me to judge”.
“You have to ask those 83 percent of the population of peasant farmers, among others. No one has ever done that….” Imagine a journalist going around the homes of millions of peasants. In fact, nobody will ever do that in any country, but Dr. Shinn was trying to use it again as an escape route from the main question.
Here again he raises his favorite group, the Diaspora, to make his points more plausible. “I would give him a credit at least of trying to be a national leader. Again within the Ethiopian Diaspora I suspect he is not seen that way. Probably very few would see him as a national leader. But the Diaspora have to put themselves in the shoes of the people inside Ethiopia and not just the elite in the urban areas. If they do that they might come up with a different point of view…” He even advised the Diaspora to “replant” themselves in Ethiopia to have a better perspective. What?
Again he was asked to tell us his point of view but was talking about the perception of Ethiopian peasants vis-à-vis the Diaspora in America, people displaced from Ethiopia who live in freedom. One can easily note that Dr. Shinn was just raising points that were irrelevant for his analysis.
Then came a question on whether Ethiopia has a hope to transition to a democratic order under the Meles regime. The answer: “It depends whose definition of democratic order you are talking about. If you accept the EPRDF’s definition of democratic order then I think the answer to the question is yes. If you are looking at the more traditional Western liberal democracy form of democracy, you have to raise some serious questions…”
Unless TPLF’s ethnically-based tyranny has an acceptable definition of democracy, Meles Zenawi one-man government is anti-thesis to the very concept of democracy. TPLF cannot offer an alternative definition to democracy no matter how Meles talks about democracy at every opportunity. On the one hand, Dr. Shinn said that the 2005 elections signify a reversion to 2000 years of central control, on the other hand he pretends to know that EPRDF has an alternative definition of democracy. I am not sure whether Dr. Shinn really believes that TPLF has an alternative definition of democracy,
Another interesting point was that Dr. Shinn said that democracy “will not bloom like a flower overnight” after he told us that there was reversion to 2000 years of central control. When Abebe Gellaw asked if 20 years was not enough, the analyst asks: “Are you talking about Western liberal democracy?” May be not!
One last point, asked what his take was on the jamming of the Voice of America, Deutsche Welle and ESAT, Dr. Shinn emphasized on one important point. “I think it is important to clarify that the jamming in terms of VOA is confined to the Amharic service. It isn’t the English service, the Oromo service or the Tigrian Service.” But this beggars the question why this is an important point. Amharic is the national language of Ethiopia. It is not just spoken by Amharas but the majority of Ethiopians. Nonetheless, it appeared important to point out that the Tigrigna or the Oromigna service has not been jammed. This may only reveal the fact that the two services hardly raise issues that are critically important to the people of Ethiopia including governance, human rights abuses, democratization and corruption.
All in all, Dr. Shinn’s ESAT performance was below satisfactory. He lost a good opportunity to answer all the critical questions posed to him with candor, honesty and intelligence. This distinguished diplomat and scholar was only tiptoeing in the middle of America so as to avoid offending an African tyrant. One thing is clear, i.e., Dr. Shinn’s peasant-based analysis was borrowed from Meles Zenawi himself, who has already moved to the “developmental state” mumbo jumbo to give his criminal tyranny a theoretical cover.
I can’t speak for others, but as far as I am concerned Dr. Shinn’s peasant-based analysis on such critically important issues was a failure. I thank ESAT wholeheartedly for bringing this fact to light.