A tale of two despots and the G8 – By Abebe Gelaw

July 20th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

Two of Africa’s most brutal rulers, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia share a lot in common. They rule two failed states in Africa that are on the brink of economic meltdown and mass starvation. Both of them led guerrilla “wars of liberation”, the former to end Ian Smith’s British colonial rule and the latter to depose the military junta of Mengistu Hailemariam, who happens to have taken refuge in Zimbabwe since his downfall. (more…)

Two of Africa’s most brutal rulers, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia share a lot in common. They rule two failed states in Africa that are on the brink of economic meltdown and mass starvation. Both of them led guerrilla “wars of liberation”, the former to end Ian Smith’s British colonial rule and the latter to depose the military junta of Mengistu Hailemariam, who happens to have taken refuge in Zimbabwe since his downfall.

Robert Mugabe came to power in 1980 while Meles Zenawi seized state power in 1991 with a declaration of a dawn for a new era free from tyranny, injustice, inequality, corruption, hunger and poverty.

Within the last few years, the promises proved absolutely empty. Mugabe and Zenawi have been facing critical challenges accused of betraying democracy in a similar fashion, by stealing elections, killing, torturing, jailing and terrorizing their political opponents and innocent civilians in a bid to sustain their iron fist rules that they utterly failed to win through the ballot box.

In spite of their striking similarities, the two rulers are being treated differently by Western governments that appear typical of double standards that have cast a shadow on the commitment of the West to democratization efforts in Africa and other less fortunate countries.

Look no further than this year’s G8 summit in Japan, where leaders of the great powers took turns to condemn the tyranny of Robert Mugabe. Despite Zimbabwe’s terrible economic woes, President George W. Bush even called for more stringent economic sanctions to with a hope of ejecting Mugabe out of power.

Unlike Mugabe, his Ethiopian counterpart, Meles Zenawi, has enjoyed the privilege of being pampered at the G8 summit again, rubbing shoulders, wining and dining with the world’s most powerful leaders while discussing hunger and food shortage that has threatened the lives of millions of Ethiopians once again.

In actual fact, Meles Zenawi, who is seen by the Bush administration and its allies as a key strategic ally in the war on terror in Somalia, which he has made the stateless nation more chaotic than ever before, has committed more atrocities than Robert Mugabe. Zenawi ranks as one of the worst abusers of human rights and press freedom in the world. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, Genocide Watch, Committee to Protect Journalists, among others, have compiled huge amounts of dossiers over the years that detail a catalogue of extrajudicial killings, torture, genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, gross human rights violations and attacks against press freedom. Even the State Department’s annual assessment of human rights situations in Ethiopia is a disturbing read.

At last month’s release of Human Rights Watch special report in Nairobi, Collective Punishment: War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity in the Ogaden Area of Ethiopia’s Somali Region, Georgette Gagnon, the organization’s Africa director, accused Western governments of indirect complicity by turning blind eyes to Zenawi’s gross human rights abuses and atrocities. “Widespread and systematic atrocities amount to crimes against humanity. Yet Ethiopia’s major donors, Washington, London and Brussels, seem to be maintaining a conspiracy of silence around the crimes,” she lamented with a sense frustration.

At the beginning of this month, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch jointly condemned, the efforts of Mr Zenawi to further strangulate the civil society in a new law that criminalizes “most of the human rights, rule of law and peace-building work currently being carried out in Ethiopia.”

After decades in power, Zenawi and Mugabe have created more chaos, problems and troubles to their subjects than bringing about badly needed changes and economic development. Zimbawe was once dubbed as the bread basket of Africa and Ethiopia was said to be the “water tower” of the continent, due to its huge but untapped water resources. Zimbabwe has turned into an empty basket while Ethiopia is perennially facing starvation while its rivers are feeding wastelands and neighbouring countries without being harnessed to alleviate the suffering of poor peasants and their children who are facing the fangs of hunger while waiting for the erratic rains.

Prior to Mugabe’s fall from grace, mainly due to his land redistribution measures to reverse Zimbabwe’s complicated colonial land apportionment system, he was a key ally of the West and respected member of the Commonwealth, a group of 53 nations most which are former British Colonies. In 1994 Mugabe was even decorated by the Queen who bestowed on him the Knight Grand Cross in the Order of Bath upon the recommendation John Major’s government. He was also awarded multiple honorary doctorate degrees from Western universities.

All the accolades and praises are now over. On June 25th, it was reported that “Sir” Robert Mugabe was stripped of his honorary Knighthood by the Queen on the advice of British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who had once admitted on TV that he was not aware of the fact that Mugabe was knighted by the monarchy.

The University of Edinburgh and the University of Massachusetts Amherst had previously rescinded the honorary doctorate degrees they had bestowed on Mugabe. However, the measures are symbolic and bring no harm to the Zimbabwean ruler who was a more amenable despot to the West during the heydays of his honors and privileges. In the aftermath of May 2005 polls in Ethiopia, which was rejected by independent election observers as a sham election, was much more violent and tragic than what has been witnessed in during the latest elections in Zimbabwe. The whole world were shocked when over 193 civilians including children as young as seven were killed and nearly 800 were injured by Zenawi’s security forces. In an article headlined Protesters killed and 40,000 jailed as Blair’s friend quells ‘insurrection’, [The Daily Telegraph, December 16, 2005] a shocked British reporter, David Blair, summed up the level of the repression he witnessed as “A crackdown on this scale has not been seen in Africa for 20 years and the repression exceeds anything by President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe for the past decade at least. Apartheid-era South Africa’s onslaught against the black townships in the 1980s provides the only recent comparison. “What did Western governments do to punish Mr Zenawi? Was he punished with tough actions like Mr Mugabe? No, not at all! He suffered not even a serious rebuke.

In his January 2005 second term inaugural address, President W. Bush reiterated his administration’s commitment to democratic changes across the world. “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

The world has witnessed President Bush’s uncompromising stand against tyrants. “I care deeply about the people of Zimbabwe, I am extremely disappointed in the election, which I labelled a sham election,” he said at the G8 summit. But what made the President’s declaration, at least in the yes of some critical observers, quite uncomfortable and dubious at this time was the presence of Zenawi at the G8 summit. Being another author of sham elections messing up a hunger-stricken nation, justifies the frustrations of Human Rights Watch which has boldly accused Western governments of indirect complicity and a conspiracy of silence with regards to crimes against humanity in Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007 [HR2003], which was unanimously passed by U.S. House of Representatives but opposed by the White House, is near extinction in the U.S. Senate. DLA Piper, which is lobbying on behalf of the Ethiopian government for $50,000 a month, has been making every effort to kill the bill. The fate of the bill, which aims to courage and facilitate the consolidation of peace, security, respect for human rights, democracy, and economic freedom in Ethiopia, is predicted to be uncertain as Condoleezza Rice made it clear that the Bush Administration was not in favor of the bill as it harms U.S. strategic interests in the Horn of Africa.

Selective outrage helps neither democratic movements nor people across the world making huge sacrifices for freedom’s sake. The struggle of Ethiopians against tyranny, injustice, corruption and hunger, worsened by a failed leadership, deserves equal attention. Oppressed and terrorized people from Burma to Ethiopia need the support of the United States and its allies in their effort to end tyranny. Considerations of “strategic” partnership and alliance must not undermine the efforts and sacrifices of millions to make the world free from dictatorship. Any kind of strategic partnership with dictators is harmful in the long run, not only to the West but also to democratization efforts throughout the world. It seems to be uncontentious that the world will be much safer if the war on terror is fought hand in hand with the war on tyranny. That may need a serious foreign policy rethink of Western governments, as there are evident contradictions and gaps between what is being preached and what is being done.

Abraham Lincoln once said: “When I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees.” That is what is expected of the great powers to win credibility.

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