Dr. David Shinn and his peasant-based analysis

November 5th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

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.

  1. Alem
    | #1

    Dr. Shinn is trying to find his footing as analyst. Life must be hard for him since the end of the Cold War. And don’t expect him to be “objective.” He is out to defend his country’s interests and not necessarily to side with your agenda. By the way, who is the author of this piece?

  2. Ethio-Federalist
    | #2

    Dr. David Shinn’s answers and analysis are based on facts and are very honest. He does not need to agree with the opposition’s opinion or be expected to do so. Neither the US nor the EU thinks that the current weak and fragmented opposition groups in Ethiopia are capable of bringing peace and stability to the country. The majority of the opposition groups inside and outside of the country are either part of the Centralist (unitary) or the Separatist movements – an extreme and equally dangerous ideologies which are at odds with each other and with the ambitions the majority of Ethiopians, from the Oromos to the Tigraians to the Somalis, and many others, who wholeheartedly support for a genuine non-centralized Federal Government.

  3. Teddy
    | #3

    I actualy agreed with Dr Shinn’s analysis and must say we all just have to be as honest and realistic s him if we want to bring change to Ethiopia.

  4. Nile
    | #4

    I ,actually, partially agree with what Dr. Shine said.The Amharas are scared of OLF and the Oromos are scared of the ultra centralist opposition groups even though they are trying to find common ground to fight the minority Tigreans. One simple example is a question raised by OLF supporter in a recent meeting held in Europe, mediated by OLF and Ginbot-7 leaders.His main question was if the other side will help the Oromo people to dismantel the Minilik obelisk in Addis after they overthrow the current regime.I am from the the south and I know what Minilik did in the past( Good and and bad).To me the Obelisk is a sacred thing that no one should touch.After all, is this the demand of the majority of Oromos who are suffering(both economically and politically) currently at the hands of narrow minded tigreans and few short sighted elites,?If that is the case we will remain in the hands of the same oppressors for a long time because I don’t see a strong opposition in the near future who can buy the trust of the west to replace the current regime and fill the void at the time of social unrest.
    Now a days the west learned the danger of instability and lack of united opposition during transition period especially from Iraqe.That is the reality of the current politics.

  5. DRAMA
    | #5


  6. Walab
    | #6

    The Oromo liberation movement is like a Fighter jet shooting from its three parts. It has got the Left-Wing, the Middle-Body and the Right-Wing as three positions of shooting at the enemy. The first wants to change the whole Ethiopia to Oromia and use Afaan Oromo as a federal/national language; the second wants to liberate and make Oromia be the leader of the whole Ethiopia and the third wants to establish Gadaa republic of Oromia having the influential position in the whole region of the Horn of Africa. These three parts of the Oromo liberation movement are now trying to harmonize their move against our common current enemy i.e against the fascist, Abyssianist and racist Woyane. That is why we now find the Oromo liberation movement in all the spectrum of the opposition parties and liberation fronts against the oppressive regime (in the left wing: AEUP, EPPF, EPRP, G-7 and UDJ; in the middle body: OFDM, OLF-KY, OPC, UEDF of MEDREK as well as in the right wing: OLF-QC, ONLF, ULFO). Surprisingly the main body of the OLF (OLF-SG) seems to be the whole Fighter jet cooperating with, accomodating and coordinating all the three parts. That is why I do think the Oromo liberation is inevitable and the possible future three types of sovereignty are not as such disadvantageous for Oromia; we can just relax and choose one of them:

    - the Hindi style: the Hindi people liberated all nations and nationalities in their region and named the whole country as India, made the Hindi language as the working language of the Indian federation and of course divided the national area of Hindi into multiple federal regions. Why not we, the Oromo people, liberate the whole nations and nationalities in the Ethiopian empire, call the whole country Oromia and promote Afaan Oromo to the working language of the federation replacing Amharinyaa, with the five Odaa’s of Oromia being separate federal regions?

    - the English style: the English people liberated themselves from the 700 years rule of the Roman empire, forged England as an autonomous region and united it with the neighbouring others to form the british United Kingdom, they also made English language the working language of the Kingdom. Can’t Oromia being autonomous, free and independent from the alien forces be united with the neighbour autonomous regions to forge the Cushitic Ethiopian union, similar to that of the United Kingdom and make Afaan Oromo the working language of the union replacing Amharinyaa?

    - the Ruski style: Russians dismantled the Soviet union and established the Russian federation, which uses Russian national language, the federation which still does have an influence on its neighbours, because of its economic and military strength. Does this way of dismantling the Ethiopian empire and fostering Gadaa republic of Oromia to have a further influence over the liberated neighbouring countries more advantageous than the first two types of sovereignty?

    Interestingly, the three Abyssinianst groups (the Amhara, Tigrai and Eritrean elites) have got only one option in their political struggle: the Amhara elites can only sing about the Hindi-style for they know that Amharinya has got the privilage to be the federal language of the empire; the Tigrean elites can neither have the privilage to opt for the Hindi-style nor the capacity to live alone as an independent nation in order to choose the Ruski-style, so they do stick to the English-style; the Eritrean elites as a minority at the periphery are so insecure to live within Ethiopia so that they had only the alternative of separation (the Ruski-style). But the Oromo and Oromia, being the majority at the center, can play all the three cards (the Hindi-, English- and Ruski-style) as long as the rule of the game in the region will be Freedom and Democracy. So, let’s Oromo people use our advantage and struggle with all the pro-freedom and pro-democracy forces of the Empire against the Woyane to come to the position of voting for one of the three options we do have.

    As far as I am concerned, all the three ways are not harmful, but the decision must be made by the politically conscious Oromo polity and Oromo public per referendum, when the time comes.

  7. aha!
    | #7

    Thanks goes to your for your insight into the interview of Dr. Shinn, which I listened but never paid attention into its significance touching upon ethnic federalism, secessenism and totaliarinism, exercised by TPLF/eprdf regme as core issues to humanitarian, economic and political crises in Ethiopia today. These ideologies, inscribed in the constitution as the supreme law of the land are on the opposite end of the spectrum of Ethiopian politics to day between those with national agenda for unity, teritorial integrity, sovereignity of Ethiopia and Ethiopians. In otherwords, indvidual liberty and freedom to supersede, ethnic and secessionist rights, Ethiopian Nationalism, Ethiopian National Interests and the Sovereignity of Ethiopia. The prevalence of totalirianism carried over from the Derg regime in its entirity and its own inclination of Marxisim along with dogma of oppession of nations and nationalities as a frame work to ethnicfedralism and secessionism do not allow for capitalism and democracy to take a foot hold in Ethiopia.

    As highlighted by your remark and the current interview’s and press releases, and iterviews, are either inclined not touch upon ethnic fedreralism and secessionism, because of implict support of the prevalent ideoplogies and/or the constituion with non idependent branches of government, and non-independnt Election Board. Even if election become fair and square, and OFPDN/EDUF/fdre wins a majority, there chance of abandoning ethnic fereralism, secessionism and totaliarinism, which hinder capitalism and democracy as it is the case in North America and Western Europe, plus these contries do not have Killil Mengistats/ethnic ferederlism as Pof. Beyene Petros asserts and complains about the lack of implemtation and inequality of self rule and separate development and the others complain of minority ethnic dominance and not a change to individual liberty and liberty to supercede ethnic and secessionist rights, replace ethnic fedreralism with original 14-15 provinces as federated states and restore the sovereignity of Ethiopia and develop the country according to ecological regions accross ethnic and provincial boundries as an anti-theisis to ethnic-federalism, secessionism and totaliarinism and reintroduce private ownership of land and communication media as one of the means of production in a truly capitalistic and democratic countries.

    I have not heard point of views/analyses from the interviewees, execept very few that reflect the latter point of view about Ethiopia.

  8. aha!
    | #8

    Futhermore, you noted, ” At least he (Dr. Shinn) genuinely pointed out that the regime has to open up the political space in Ethiopia and also noted that 2005 elections signify a return to 2000 years of centralized control”, speaks volumes. First of all the political space that the loyalist opposition parties (ethnicfederalists) were urging the USA to put pressure on the TPLF/eprdf regime of which he is in support of does not change the political landscape, nor win them a land slide victory. Political space is a qualitative issue, not a quantitave issue, which means you either have or you do not have it. It is a non issue as far bringing freedom and liberty to the silent, silenced but not silent majority of Ethiopians, by maintaining the status quo.

    His dismisal of the 2005 elections as a return to 2000 years of centralized control, signifies his lack of enthusiasm for a coalition of parties, nevertheless failed to merge as one party with national agenda for unity, territorial integrity, sovereignity of Ethiopia and Ethiopians. Therfore, his inclination to support those with ethnic agenda, who were after the 2005 election were urginging the United States Goernment to put pressure on the regime with one voice for political space. These same loyalist opposition parties together with UDJP formed a coalition and noew a fron called EDUF or OFPDN/EDUF/fdre, which an alternate political model to TPLF/eprdf, a multi-layer, and hierachical political model, ruling the country for the lat 20 years with a coalition of liberation movements, devoid of a party from the center with the national agenda for unity, territorial integrity and sovereignity of Ethiopia and Ethiopians.

  9. ትንታኔሽ ሆነ ድምዳሜው ጥሩ ነው
    | #9

    ባይጥመንም ከአሜሪካ አገር ጥቅም አንጻር ሃቁን አስቀምጦታል
    ባንስማም እናንተ ሕዝቡን አትወክሉም ብሎናል የሕዝቡንም ፍላጎት አታውቁም የሚልም ነገር ጠቁማል
    ማን አለ ማንም አላለ
    እኔ እንደሚገባኝና እንደማውቀው ሃቁ አቅም እንጂ ማን ለማን መትሮ ሊያበላ?

  10. Sam
    | #10

    The writer of the above article quoted Dr. David Shinn, who 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.” A wise answer. But the writer had problem with this answer. He wished Dr. Shinn to come out swinging about the devastation of Ethiopia ethnic politics. He is an American, the writer, no matter how well informed he would be, he could not be in a position to subscribe what type of politics is good for Ethioipia . The writer just wished Dr. Shinn to do just that. But leave alone DR. shinn, even we Ethiopians have a hard time how to talk about ethnic politics without being called “Chauvinists.” Some Ethiopians in the diaspora seem to validate their version of politics being correct by the number of American scholars who agree with their version. If a prominent American seems to agree with their version, it is an irrefutable fact for them being correct. As far as I see it, it is a new low even for Ethiopian politics.

  11. Teddy
    | #11

    Thanks Sam, what u said is really wise. But we have a culture that puts the white man above us. Sand but true.

  12. aha!
    | #12

    On the question, of ethnic federalism, (secessionism and totalia-rinism), as the core ideologies/policies of the TPLF/eprdf regime, which is directly supported by the teletafi (ethnic federalist) parties and their counter parts loyalist opposition (ethnic federalist) parties, Dr. Shinn’s response was diplomatic and non-ccommital. The question involves the constitution in Article 46, 39 (1), and article 8, etc., which is an internal matter for the political parties to resolve, while he based his catagorization based 83% rural and 17% urban, instead of looking of ethnic federalism from the accurate catagory of the positive forces of integration for unity, territorial integrity, sovereignity of Ethiopia and Ethiopians, and the negative forces of disintegration of those with ethnic agenda among the opposition parties, which he considers as weak and divided. Dr. Shinn is not the only one that was asked that same question, Professor Alemayehu Gebremariam was also asked asked similar question by Abebe Gelaw. The response between the two are starkely different. On the other hand, the point of views by the other political leaders past and present in their interview’s on ESAT and Press releases, though not asked directly, implied their support for ethnic federalism, condemning secessionism and saying nothing about the prevalent totaliarinism, which hinders, capitalism and democracy, and yet complain that self-rule and separate development (killil mengstat/ethnic federalism ) is not implemented properly, according to Prof. Beyene Petros, and that the other lyalist opposition parties have said in the past that they do not have any problem with with ethnic federalism, but they do not want TPLF to dictate over them. Leaving the 83% plus those in the urban for the positive forces of integration, Dr. Shinn should have pinned down that response to the political leaders and supporters both in the diaspora and at home.

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