CURRENT EFFORTS AT CHANGING EPRDF’S IMAGE– THE CART IS FOUND BEFORE THE HORSE – By Genet Mersha
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government has been working for some time now with a London-based firm to strengthen its information management and dissemination techniques. (more…)
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government has been working for some time now with a London-based firm to strengthen its information management and dissemination techniques. Its objective is to improve its image and the regime’s acceptability both at home and abroad. Ato Bereket Simon has been following this with singular focus and regular benchmarking of progress with well-sequenced markers. Hence, that has been the main reason for his frequent visits to London for a while now.
One of the outcomes of this project to date is to minimize the haphazard ways of appearing on the media for habitual denials of anything the regime is being accused of rather than engaging in sober efforts to explain, disseminate information and to be introspective about its own actions. Therefore, in the new style, Ato Bereket plans to sit for a regular ‘town hall’ encounter of sorts to briefing the local media and the international press, the first of which took place some ten days ago. The promise is that this would continue regularly, that ample time would be given to questions and answers. We had seen that this is followed by another question and answer session with the prime minister, the first of which we saw about a week ago. Ato Bereket has promised that this would also be regularized.
DRIFTING INTO CONSPIRACY & CONTROVERSY
In early March, Ato Meles Zenawi and Ato Bereket Simon decided to kill two birds with one stone. They wanted to use one of Ato Bereket’s mid-March London visits to prepare a counterforce of “a select group of Ethiopians” to minimize the anticipated negative impact of the planned demonstration for April 2nd by Ethiopians residing in Europe. It would be recalled that Ethiopians were organized to protest Ato Meles Zenawi’s presence in London on the margins of the G-20 meeting. To give effect to that idea, the embassy in London selected and invited about 200 Ethiopians allegedly for briefing session by Ato Bereket on the ‘current situation in Ethiopia.’
Those who heard that there was such a briefing came without invitation, assuming that they would be allowed in, and exercise their right to listen and ask questions of interest to them on matters concerning their country. The fact of the matter is that the EPRDF officials wanted to limit the number of invitees in the first place to avoid unnecessary grilling with embarrassing and difficult questions. Therefore, they gave instruction that those without invitation should be denied entry to the embassy. They did not anticipate or did not care that such a discriminatory action would infuriate members of the diaspora. The unwanted happened. Scuffles occurred that eventually necessitated intervention by the Metropolitan Police.
On face value, there is no doubt that selection of one individual over the other for briefing, as if it were privileged information, was way over the line, at its worst, discriminatory. What was understandably disturbing for many was the underlying message. It meant that, although they carried Ethiopian passport and are bona fide Ethiopians, there exists a shadowy class of privileged Ethiopians with full rights and others whom Ethiopian embassies could refuse service at will.
In the eyes of those individuals, this amounted to questioning their identity and loyalty to their country. It touched raw nerve in many citizens. Some gave it ethnic overtone. The protestors took pictures and circulated it on the internet; they identified some individuals who were pushing them away from the embassy as “woyanes.” Several readers found the embassy’s action revolting, as could be gleaned from the huge volume of comments on the webpages on the matter. Many took it as a re-affirmation of the divide and rule politics the regime has been exercising all along.
REFLECTING ON THE INCIDENT
One may argue that the embassy has the right to invite anyone it likes, and exclude anyone it does not. However, such an argument misses the point that the occasion that evening was not a diplomatic function or a reception for foreign dignitaries to introduce Ethiopia and to facilitate the embassy’s work, which involves not only protocol but also costs. For that matter, in the extreme even the supremacist Ku Klux Klan or the Augusta Golf National Club in Augusta, Georgia, has an exclusive club and events, etc. By law, they cannot be compelled to open the door of their societies to non-members. Nevertheless, the difference between an embassy and a golfers’ club is that the embassy is a point of non-negotiable and uninterrupted contact with their country for all Ethiopian citizens abroad. Otherwise, what could the utility of an embassy be when it could offer to citizens abroad selectively?
Mature reflection tells me that that incident should not have been allowed to happen in the first place. It has insinuated that the embassy was in the business of organizing a coterie of citizens who have their eyes on pieces of real state (the offer of free land they are/were promised) or facilitation of business interests, and thus are prepared to become tools of the regime within Ethiopian communities abroad. Indeed, some claim that this is the usual approach by the Ethiopian government. Allegedly, it is adopted as a systematic approach to overcome its isolation and disapproval by co-opting selected members of he diaspora.
The question arises, however, how the embassy knew who would ask the embarrassing questions. The answer lies in the 52-page confidential manual sent to embassies in 2006, which entrusted them to file information regularly with the foreign ministry on the activities of Ethiopians abroad. Therefore, they are required to collect information on every Ethiopian, irrespective of whether the individual has taken foreign citizenship.
In a separate transmittal note, Ambassador Wubshet Demissie, Director-General at the Diaspora Directorate in the Ethiopian foreign ministry, the person who signed off that manual, encourages embassy staff to establish close relations with the community within a given timeline and identify who is who and gauge attitudes towards the regime. The purpose of the manual is to create/collect incriminating information from Ethiopia to discredit the individuals responsible for anti-EPRDF behaviour.
THE REGIME’S BEHAVIOUR
Let us look back and evaluate that incident that March evening in London. The regime earned adverse publicity, a situation it could have avoided by being transparent and by according equal treatment to all Ethiopians. Instead, it chose to resort to conspiratorial behaviour. Many citizens sadly note that Ato Bereket’s training and forays into London, for which the country is paying with tax payers monies, is designed to collect and organize a band of citizens to help the regime pretend it has supporters abroad, while in realty it is continuing to drown in its overwhelming unpopularity. Recall “EPRDF SUPPORTERS” window on Aiga Forum. Aiga’s extremism and the futility of Ato Bereket’s training are considered by the regime a way to improve its image, though without removing, the causes for its rejection by substantial number of citizens the first place!
Without changing the behaviour of the regime, propaganda alone cannot deliver anything. For instance, not many were the individuals that were turned away from the embassy. However, those few that gathered there got their interpretation of events, supported by pictures, and circulated them on the webpages. This rejection of those that were considered likely to ask the tough questions aroused anger amongst large number of citizens against the regime’s discriminatory behaviour. Consequently, it encouraged more Ethiopians than anticipated to gather from different parts of Europe to the London demonstration of April 2nd.
The demonstration received coverage around the world in the international press and TV networks. It became a huge propaganda coup for those striving to expose the government’s bad record on human rights and the reach of corruption in its higher echelons. No doubt, adorned with Ethiopian flags and carrying telling messages on boards, the demonstrators made sure on one hand their message got across, and on the other, they proved that Ato Bereket’s training was ill-equipped to counter their disapproval.
Not a singe person who could be characterized as remotely maverick from amongst ‘EPRDF SUPPORTERS” was in the vicinity of the April 2 demonstration, at least, to wink and smile to Ato Meles, let alone stand with a placard and the national colour to express support for his regime. On his way to the G-20 meeting hall at ExCel building in east London, at Ato Meles saw the fury of those citizens when he drove by the demonstrators. His composure and his face even inside the car were unable to disguise the depth of his rage at the protestors. There is a claim that he cancelled a scheduled press conference because of that.
This brings me back to the subject of the new information management and dissemination technique, about which the government has been consulting media specialists in London. Theoretically, it is aimed at focussing government efforts at improving the regime’s acceptability both at home and abroad. In reality, however, it represents a change of format, but not of content. The regime is under bizarre illusion that its rejection especially by urban dwellers and the educated citizenry mostly is the outcome of its failure to communicate effectively and appropriately its vision and its achievements. It appears that they have not realized the fact there is a difference between propaganda and information.
THE TINY MINORITY IS CREATING TROUBLE
For instance, on his return home, Ato Bereket dismissed the April 2nd London demonstration as a band of fifteen or twenty-five troublemakers. In truth, their number was perhaps about thirty to fifty times higher than that, as can be seen on videos and pictures of the event! Moreover, what makes them troublemaker if their protest was about exposing the regime’s flagrant violations of the fundamental human rights of the Ethiopian people? Is Ato Bereket ever aware that those who came to protest his boss’s presence at the G-20 summit were larger in number than the 200 he had summoned to the embassy for briefing? Above all, should a government under attack by its own citizens contend with the size of the crowd, or the quality of their ideas and the issues they are protesting about?
Two days after the London embassy incident, the respected author and journalist Walter Bagehot devoted his column on the 21st March issue of The Economist to the subject of “THE TINY MINORITY” that often gets rapping when governments find their backs against the wall. It is regrettable that when he was in London, Ato Bereket did not have the time to read that most edifying comment, although Bagehot was dissecting the actions of the British government on a separate matter. Regardless of whom it was talking about, in what sounds a chastisement to all the Berekets of this world, he wrote, “Insisting that worrisome minorities are ‘tiny’ is in part a form of wishful thinking, as if saying something often enough could make it true, and rhetorical tininess could shrink reality. This sort of euphemism is sometimes a kind of self-delusion as well as a deception. But it is perilous all the same. All those minorities add up to a society in denial.”
Since the 2005 election, all evidences have been pointing to the fact that the regime has become the author of its troubles and hence of its own battered image. Its information system is only devoted to doing propaganda—to exaggerate its achievements, bedevil its opponents, undermine opposition parties and mischaracterize the diaspora as if they were not Ethiopians.
There is no doubt that Ato Bereket’s London training could have been put to good use, if only the regime attaches importance to honesty. One starting point along that direction is it should stop forcing upon citizens the sombre shadows of the bloody 2005 election, thirteen months before May 2010. The latest science and technology Ato Meles and Ato Bereket have been shopping around to change hearts and minds, cannot be substitutes for what is terribly lacking in principles in government and the time-honoured values in governance of honesty and transparency.