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Meles Zenawi and Democracy

By G. E. Gorfu, Sept. 17, 2012

What is democracy? It is elusive. Democracy is defined as the voice of the people, or the voice of the majority; sometimes it is truncated as "One man one vote." We see how messy democracy can be when we watch the political process in America where it had been exercised for over two centuries, and yet we see them pass regulations to Gerrymander and re-district some areas, or to demand an ID at the voting booth, thereby discouraging and preventing some minorities from voting, or by the outright rigging of the elections as was done in Bush’s time. Is that democracy?

In a Daily Monitor article that starts out with a question which, from the outset, is totally wrong, saying: "When Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died on August 20, he took not just a secret about him, but about other strongmen-cum-reformist Africans. That secret is why they resort to pulling fingernails and become intolerant of dissident, when they don’t have to and could do much better with a more liberal and democratic approach?",* the author, Mr. Charles Onyang-Obbo, has given us a glimpse into what is wrong with some African journalists.

First of all, there is no shred of evidence that PM Meles Zenawi and his government resorted to the blatant accusation of fingernail pulling. All the Opposition arrested in the aftermath of the 2005 elections were released and none of them have any missing fingernails. Furthermore, not one of them has ever complained of any mal treatment during their imprisonment. So, the accusation above is based on gross fabrication and the rich imagination of the author, Mr. Charles Onyang-Obbo. The crux of the problem is journalists like Charles Onyang-Obbo that make it difficult to govern and develop Africa due to their ignorance and biased reporting. They are out of touch with the existing situation in the country. Such journalists have become the impediment of progress and development. They think they know better and are the solution, but they are really one of the main problems that we Africans need to fight against.

The real question is why do some journalists like Charles Onyang-Obbo resort to fabrications and outright lies, and smear campaigns when they do not have any evidence to support their story? The world is crying for honest journalists that will dig up and write the truth and educate the public rather than print innuendos and fabrications of the kind we quoted above.

When EPRDF took over the government it started with a ‘liberal and democratic approach’ and gave full Freedom of the Press. Almost overnight there were more than 40 papers and magazines that started to publish and sell in the streets of Addis Ababa. There was a total openness which was unheard of until then. Cartoons and caricatures of the late PM Meles Zenawi and others in politics were quite common to see on the cover pages. Why was it necessary for many of these papers to close down? The simple answer is: because journalists like Mr. Charles Onyang-Obbo were not ready for that kind of freedom. They would rather write lies, fabrications, and half-truths than the truth. Sensationalism is what sells papers and they often resort to writing cheap lies to sell papers. Is this the kind of journalism the people of Africa need at this time?

Many magazines in Ethiopia were not publishing political discussions and educating the public, but instead were engaged in printing sexually explicit and pornographic materials, vehemently

*Daily Monitor, Sept. 9, 2012 Charles Onyango-Obbo

"Zenawi: The good, bad and ugly faces of African power"

opposed by leaders of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the religious community at large. Religious leaders and school children came out demonstrating to express their disgust with that kind of smut. Having given full Press freedom, the EPRDF government did not want to look non-democratic, but kept quiet for a long time, waiting for an opportune moment to take action.

Furthermore, even among those publishing political discourse, though registered "independent", some were in fact, funded, supported, and were the surrogates of political opposition groups, some domestic and others in Diaspora, in breach of guidelines of their Press license. Freedom of the Press is not freedom to misrepresent. The government demanded that everyone play by the rules. If a paper is going to be an organ of a political party or an opposition group, it should clearly state its stand. One recent example is ESAT’s representative who did not seem to know the difference between journalism and being an opposition political operative when he displayed his ignorance to the whole world by opening his loud mouth accusing Ethiopian PM Meles of being a dictator. That kind of ignorance and audacity does not allow civil political discourse, but resorts to shouting and mudslinging, and hence demands the heavy handedness of government.

That unnamed ESAT representative, who shall remain nameless, was not speaking on behalf of the Ethiopian people. If he was a journalist worth his salt, he would have investigated and dug up the truth and found out if the Ethiopian people thought of PM Meles as a dictator or not before opening is mouth and revealing his utter ignorance.

What was witnessed by the whole world on the death of PM Meles, the sadness and the sorrow, the unrestrained tears, the outpouring of grief by the Ethiopian peoples from north to south, from east to west, clearly showed, far from being a dictator, how much PM Meles Zenawi was loved and revered as a leader, and how much people appreciated and supported his leadership.

Above and beyond the obvious material progress and development that can be seen in the building of houses, of hydroelectric dams, of roads and infrastructures, without the shadow of a doubt, is this glaring truth: Peasants in the time of Haileselassie were slaves who delivered their produce to their feudal masters without any right whatsoever. The revolution that followed him, though it proclaimed: "Land to the Tiller", was in fact, a cruel mockery. Peasants continued to be the slaves of ‘Farm Communes". Farm products were loaded on military tracks, transported to the cities and towns and sold at exorbitant prices. The Derg profited on the backs of the peasants. The farmer who was paid a pittance for his produce was left to starve with his family. There was no freedom of movement, and could not even go to other places and work unless he carried an ID issued by the Commune. Only now after being liberated by the EPRDF government of PM Meles Zenawi, for the first time in the history of Ethiopia, the common peasant has become the owner of his land, the owner of his produce, and in control of his own destiny. This is the fact.

After the 2005 elections, those in opposition who had won seats in the Addis Ababa City Council and in the National Assembly, instead of taking their seats and conducting the duty to which they were elected, chose instead to call for demonstrations, public unrest, and mob rule. Law and order broke down. All the papers added up did not amount to even half a million readership, but they were loud enough to whip up street mobs into action. Some newspapers even published instructions on how to construct home-made bombs and ‘Molotov Cocktails’.

That showed a total lack of responsibility of the newspapers. What took place under the name of "demonstrations" was not a peaceful civil disobedience, but an insurrection and an attempt to usurp and take power using street mobs. Scores of businesses as well as private vehicles and

public transportation were burnt down and property worth millions of dollars destroyed. Along with some two hundred demonstrators some six policemen and peacekeepers were also killed. This was the work of the political opposition groups and their surrogate papers.

The EPRDF government responsible for keeping law and order could not stand by idle and watch things fall apart, but took steps to close down many of these papers, not by fiat, but by taking the offending papers to court, by exacting fines, and imprisonments. It is doubtful if there was any other alternative. So, it may have appeared dictatorial but is it any surprise? In our own homes, when our children refuse to listen to reason, there are times when we all have to resort to using putting them on time out, or on other forms of punishment... Newspapers in Ethiopia and in many developing countries if they are to serve the public at all need to learn the hard way, the meaning of self-censorship and self-restraint.

Just like culture, every society is unique and there are written and unwritten rules and guidelines on what is acceptable in a society, and what is totally unacceptable. We still have a few private newspapers left in Ethiopia, and there is still Press Freedom, but I look forward to the day when the Ethiopian and African societies will have become mature and responsible and their leaders will not need to be dictatorial. But at this stage, I think we still have long way to go.

If one was in government in Ethiopia, would one listen to the voice of a couple dozen journalists and a handful of political operatives whose followers number far less than a million, or to the voice of over 80 million people crying for bread and shelter? The cry of 80 million people should come first... And PM Meles Zenawi did the right thing to throw these couple dozen of political pundits and would be journalists into prison and focus on the real work of taking care of the masses. The need of the majority trumps up everything, every time. That is not dictatorial, that is the true meaning of democracy!