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Ethiopia: Despots like Meles fail to grasp that there are far smarter ways to deal with critics


Former Ethiopian Prime the late Minister Meles Zenawi. Photo/FILE



By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO [email protected] [email protected]
Saturday, September 08, 2012

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On September 2, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was buried in the capital Addis Ababa.

It was an emotional event, and the high and mighty of Africa all assembled, and messages poured in from all over the world.

However, many Ethiopians who hated Zenawi, a man they viewed as an autocrat and dangerous tribalist, were instead celebrating his demise.

This represented the contradiction — and tragedy — of Zenawi; reformist and autocrat in equal measure, and a hero and villain in equal measure too.

The first part of this report last Saturday, “The Good, Bad and Ugly Faces of African Power”, told of the crackdown on journalists in Ethiopia, particularly in 2005 and 2006 following a violent and disputed election, easily the worst period in media repression by the Meles government.

I travelled to Ethiopia then as part of a Committee to Protect Journalists mission, to plead for the more than one dozen journalists who had been jailed.

The journalists were being held in Kaliti Prison outside Addis Ababa. The prison was built of metal roof material and was sweltering because it was located in a semi-arid patch of land.

But the drive there was impressive. Nairobi today has an impressive network of new and rebuilt roads and flyovers, and the Thika Superhighway.

Addis Ababa, while not having the elaborate network that Nairobi has built, got there first.

It was the enduring duality of the Meles era that you travelled on one of the best road networks in Africa to go to one of its most primitive prisons where journalists and regime opposition were being held.

The image of Ethiopia that most of the world still has is probably that of a country plagued by famine. Wrong. One of the legacies of Meles is that he ended the blight of famine in which Ethiopia had been trapped for nearly a century.

Agricultural prosperity

From 1983 to 1985, Ethiopia was struck by its worst famine of modern times. An estimated 400,000 people died of hunger. The epicentre of the famine was a place called Korem.

In Korem, the celebrated Kenyan photojournalist Mo Amin captured on film suffering on a scale the world had not seen for long. It shocked the world but rallied international action that led to the “Live Aid” concerts phenomenon — and made musician Bob Geldof a superstar.

Mo Amin’s son, Salim Amin, recently returned to Korem. Twenty-seven years later, it has very modern agriculture and is highly irrigated. Not even the greatest of optimists would have imagined then that Korem would be where it is today — a model of agricultural prosperity — for another 100 years.

That was Meles’s work. But just as in the past, his government had gone as far as banning short messaging service (SMS) for “security reasons”, and in June the world woke up to the news that the Ethiopian government had criminalised the use of Skype and other such services like Google Talk.

Using Skype is now punishable by up to 15 years in prison! It was done because of “national security concerns” — and, analysts believe, to protect the State’s telecommunications monopoly.

Meles’s Ethiopia was also one of the few African countries that filtered its people’s Internet access and blocked opposition blogs and critical news websites.

Meles cannot, ultimately, be judged alone. His rule provided one of Africa’s best case for examining the vexing issue of the “authoritarian bargain”, the typical political situation still prevalent in Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America, where citizens relinquish political rights — or accept to put up with some dictatorship — for economic goods (development).

The authoritarian bargain, or the developmental dictatorship, probably paid off for Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea — and today China — because they don’t have the complex ethnic (call it tribal), clan histories, and the political fissures of most of Africa.

In Africa, Meles-style repression, even where it creates economic improvement, breeds resentment that is usually sorted out through massacre and marginalisation when the benevolent autocrat dies or his party loses power, post-Felix Houphuet-Boigny’s Côte d’Ivoire being one of the best examples in the world.

The smooth transition to democracy and prosperity, with only a few figures from the old dictatorship tried in court as happened in South Korea, doesn’t happen.

National cake

In Ethiopia, Meles’s Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition looks likely to continue its hold on power, but were it to collapse, it is impossible to see how it would happen without some blood flowing on the streets — and the persecution of his Tigrinya base.

However, even without such an outcome, the areas that usually have a grievance against a government are the ones that feel they are not getting their fair share of a national share based on their contribution.

In Nigeria, it is the Delta region over oil. The rebellion there disrupted production for years. In other countries, it is where agriculture or livestock farming is developed and are the countries’ breadbasket, and the local farming elite feel they are being treated badly.

In East Africa, central Kenya during Daniel arap Moi’s rule, and the “Luwero Triangle” in central Uganda, where President Yoweri Museveni based his rebellion, in the years between 1980 and early 1986.

Cracking down on them, in the name of development, is like cutting one’s nose to spite the face, because the repression unsettles the most productive areas and slows down or reverses growth.

Also, Meles’s Ethiopia proved yet again that the people who give authoritarian regimes the most trouble are the smart ones — successful peasants, bright professionals, shrewd businessmen.

Imprisoning them, and denying them licences, serves mostly to remove a large segment of the most innovative population from contributing to the economy.

And when they go into exile, they create a vocal, articulate body of activists that creates reputation and diplomatic problems for the government — here the case of Uganda is as good as that of Ethiopia.

Because of this, there develops bitterly contending dual narratives. One side, one by the regime and its friends heralding its reformist and economic growth credentials. And on the other, a human rights and dissident narrative, often based abroad, highlighting corruption, abuses and election rigging, which devalues the work the regime is doing at home.

In this way, when the regime falls there is a popular demand to dismantle its work so there is no continuity. Secondly, the regime itself will not realise the growth and development potential it would have achieved if it were not repressive, meaning it can never really reach the levels of growth it needs to reduce poverty significantly.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Meles and other benevolent dictators always had, and still have, better ways of dealing with the Opposition. What they need to do is to understand our societies better and act on that.

Now, both our Government and Opposition leaders have one thing in common — they love the pomp of office. In other words, they want to be modern chiefs like our great grandparents.

A smart government, rather than jailing them, can do one simple thing — pamper them. Assume a government provides that the Opposition leaders of parties that get more than 2.5 per cent of the vote at (rigged) elections would be entitled to a government house, a big car, a salary of $15,000 a month, $25,000 for staff expenses, and one holiday for the leader and his family a year. Opposition politicians would shut up and cash in.

Bribe the Press with policy

At the end of the day, that would still be far cheaper than the cost of sending the army to lay a whole opposition region to waste.

That leaves the Press, which Meles really tormented. You will always have stubborn journalists, but governments don’t have to kill or imprison them.

And government politicians will not succeed by giving them sacks filled with money. Some will not take the bribe, while others will but then go ahead and stab you in the back.

The democratic way to muzzle the Press in developing media markets like Africa is to bribe it with policy. If I were a velvet-gloved dictator, I would begin by making all newsprint tax free.

However, for any newspaper company to benefit from it, they would have to sign a “public service” agreement with the government, in which it agrees to use the newsprint for the “advancement of the public good and development”.

Likewise, TV and FM stations would also be able to import their equipment tax-free. They, too, would have to sign the same agreement.

Apart from not paying duty on their newsprint and equipment, my government would argue that to conform to the principle of not taxing knowledge, media would pay zero value added tax (VAT).

Any newspaper or TV station that gets too critical, like beginning to count the number of my cousins I have appointed ambassadors, would be accused of “incitement” and lose its “public service” status.

They can both choose to continue in business, but the newspapers would now have to pay full tax on its newsprint and VAT on copy sales. The TV or radio station would have to pay VAT on advertising.

To make sure the media is encouraged to comply, the law would be written so that a media house that loses its “public service” status would have to pay back taxes for the period it enjoyed the facility.

The effect of that is that the loss of “public service” status by a media house would invariably end in its bankruptcy.

In order to give my government deniability, the law would be written such that it is the Revenue Authority that decides on how much back taxes the media house should pay, and closes it down if it fails to.

As President, all I would need to do is invite the Revenue Authority Commissioner to lunch quietly, and gently remind him about who appointed him to the job.

You will be surprised by the level of media compliance. Journalists might be idealistic, yes, but neither are we happy to lose our nice houses and cars. With those kinds of bitter-sweet policies, there would be no need to throw reporters or editors into prison; no midnight knocks on the door of investigative journalists as they did in Tanzania.

Enlightened repression

The end is that there would be no bitterness.

That is enlightened repression. It is more efficient. It gets better results. Costs less money. Barely damages a government’s international reputation. No bones are broken. No one is killed. And no journalist needs to be thrown in jail.

In the end, it avoids building a large constituency committed to overthrowing and reversing everything the past regime did. In that way, the momentum of development is preserved.

Authoritarian leaders like Meles in Africa may rebuild their economies, put millions of children through school and immunise them against all sorts of diseases, but spoil it all by failing to see that there is an easier and smarter way to be a despot than the paths they choose.

Source: Daily Nation



 





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