Fed Up with American Legislation Rhetoric?

As I write this short commentary, I have started reading Larry Diamond’s book, entitled the Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World (2008). Diamond is a professor at Stanford University and probably some of you also know him as an editor of many issues in the Journal of Democracy. He starts his book with the following quotation from Mahatma Ghandi: “the spirit of democracy cannot be imposed from outside. It has to come from within”. The disregard by American legislators of this fundamental principle of political development is not the only reason that Ethiopians are dismayed of the proposed Senate bill on their country. There is also another more important issues: why Ethiopia? For example, Ethiopia is more stable than Pakistan and India, more democratic than China, more open than Eritrea or Saudi Arabia, more progressive than Kenya, has good record of economic growth or is among the promising developing countries to achieve the UN development goals (MDGs), and more importantly, Ethiopia is a US ally in the fight against global terrorism including support for the AFRICOM (an American military command centre in Africa). All this just makes the proposed Senate bill ridiculous and even a laughing matter.

Although the core values of democracy have universal appeals, Americans themselves continue to be part of the problem in the democratization processes by frustrating national leaders with their ill-conceived hegemonic agenda or supporting political opposition groups that have no clear developmental agenda. One explanation for this is that many American politicians have little or no international experience and knowledge. This then makes them very vulnerable to the influence of powerful interest groups. We all know how Iraqi and Afghan Diaspora lobby groups and emotional policy experts contributed to George Bush’s disastrous foreign policies. Perhaps it is time that Americans learn from the experience of middle power countries like Canada whose foreign policies promote peaceful dialogue and conflict resolution and strategic interventions guided by the principles of multilateralism, such as a UN-mandated intervention.

In all frankness, the new or revised draft Senate bill on Ethiopia is a typical Western policy or legislation document on Africa. When you propose intervention in an African country, there are costs and you must come up with a rational to justify that cost, such as political problems, human rights violations and stalled economic development. To be transparent, the document recognizes Ethiopia’s progress in development, regional leadership and security vulnerability and other factors. This is an important strategy to appease many American legislators who have been closely following the situation in the Horn of Africa. On the other hand, the bill must stick to its initial purpose, which is accommodating the needs of lobby groups and, to justify its “relevance”, it must cite, among other things, reports of human rights violations (don’t forget that there are more negative human rights reports on America, especially in relation to its war on terror, than on Ethiopia) and Ethiopia’s democratization challenges which are not uncommon in many developing countries. The bill then proposes legislation that calls on America to provide support for Ethiopia while dictating what should be done. What right do American politicians have to dictate what should be done in Ethiopian? The Ethiopian government will denounce this legislation (if passed), which means that it will achieve nothing. Those American politicians should realize that American diplomats and business people arrive in Addis Ababa, the capital of Africa, almost daily and that their actions have serious consequences for American interests.

What should we say about the groups that lobby American legislators? My own version is that the Ethiopia Diaspora lobby groups are supported by complex networks of interest groups which could be broadly classed as follows: 1) intellectual thugs, identifying themselves as “professors”, “PhDs”, “Drs” etc (to increase their low self-confidence), who write focusing on the negative aspect of Ethiopian society while undermining development efforts including the contribution of donor countries. This justifies the campaigns of lobby groups; 2) former Derge officials whose policies and practices caused the displacement, arrest, torture and murder of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians. They used to swear on the destruction of American “imperialism”; 3) groups that still remain tied to their old (1970s) political habits, which is to remove a ruling party from power by any means necessary, instead of developing governance capacities and seizing state power by winning competitive elections; 4) a segment of the rich Diaspora middle class that has no sympathy for the plight of our poor relatives. This group focuses on the issues of state and political power; 5) groups within the Eritrean Diaspora which have also been good at encouraging and supporting separatist groups; and 6) groups that identify themselves as Ethiopians (mainly Eritreans) in order to advance their anti-Ethiopia agenda. Tecola Hagos’ anger over this draft bill is clearly understandable, but he might have gone too far to implicate foreign countries like Egypt, Sudan and Pakistan. In my view, the Egyptians, Sudanese and others have concluded that times have changed. In their views, Ethiopia is now ruled by a “conservative” group of people who also have successfully mobilized international support around their development agenda. They know that any conspiracy against Ethiopia will backfire.

The Ethiopian government should set up an independent commission to study Diaspora-Ethiopia relations and utilize the findings to initiate a multi-party process for drafting legislation on the Ethiopian Diaspora. Through legislation, the government should recognize genuine Diaspora groups that play a positive role in Ethiopian development and hold irresponsible groups accountable. Such legislation also encourages domestic civic and political groups to think strategically when they form relations with Diaspora groups.

Finally, maybe, after all, all this American legislation rhetoric can be a good thing for Ethiopia. Because, it motivates Ethiopians to get out of foreign aid dependency. With the economy growing and basic infrastructure laid down, the government needs to work hard to increase its taxation capacity and achieve self-sufficiency. Either way, Ethiopian government officials should remain dignified and not even worry about all this nonsense or so the called “Support for Democracy and Human Rights in Ethiopia Act of 2008”.

Getachew Mequanent

Ottawa, Canada

September 15, 2008