Some thoughts on how the spokespersons of the Ethiopian government make such a terrible use of their visibility

Ethiopian authorities tend to comment quite a great deal on foreign reports about Ethiopian affairs. As if they could not stand the intrusion in their national business. In addition to traditional press releases, their main mean of communicating their irritation is the weekly online briefing “A week in the Horn”, published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This briefing generally deals with political and economic events and achievements of the week, mostly with regard to Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa. From time to time it also includes an irate statement invariably denouncing “flawed methodologies and inaccuracies” from foreign observers who consistently fail to receive government’s approval. They are accused of distorting the truth and their reports are met with plain and simple denial.

Over the years I had come to think that such statements translated political short-sightedness and accounted for a quick-tempered decision-making process rather than the matured response expected from a party that has been ruling for over two decades. I also thought those statements were endemic to the EPRDF, Ethiopia’s ruling party. Recently, however, when browsing through the archives of Le Monde Diplomatique, I came across a 1973 piece reviewing Ethiopia’s achievements and challenges. The authorities at the time, under Emperor Haile Selassie, wrote back a long letter challenging each and every fact and arguing about how little the journalist had understood about the country (through “unsupported criticism” and “tall tales”). In light of this letter,  the idea that there could be some sort of continuity in responding to criticism (a mix of sarcasm and denial) that would be running beyond political affiliations, an eloquent trait of Ethiopian politics so to say, is rather valid and could be further investigated.

An entrenched loathing for HRW

The authorities’ favourite target is evidently Human Rights Watch, an international organisation which denounces human rights abuses around the world, and whom the Ethiopian government disregards altogether. Hence, HRW reports are always received with discourteous public statements and (mostly imprecise) counterclaims. When HRW published a report about the situation in the Ogaden area of the Somali Regional State in June 2008, the authorities retaliated with a commission and an item in “A week in the Horn of Africa” where they denounced hearsay and lack of sources on behalf of HRW, who had hidden its informants’ identity to protect them from retribution. Whether trying to humiliate HRW or merely pretending to demonstrate some kind of good faith, the press release further argued that none of HRW’s abuse claims are true but that the commission to the Somali region did find a case of torture in a Jijiga jail that HRW did not even document. It also argued that its commission relied on the cooperation of villagers, former ONLF cadre and NGO staffers, thereby implying that there are so little abuses that no one is wary of speaking the truth to Addis Ababa’s central government.

The organisation was yet again rebuffed soon after for having a persistent point of view about human rights abuses in the area. Thus, a press statement issued on December, 8 2008, denounced a HRW report on Somalia:

[…] it has been published so soon after Ethiopia made public a devastating and critical investigation of a Human Rights Watch report on Somali National Regional State of Ethiopia. This exposed extensive flaws in Human Rights Watch’s methodology and conclusions. It is therefore extremely disappointing to find that this report has continued an extensive use of journalistic reports, drawn virtually all of its evidence from hearsay and second-hand information gathered outside Somalia, and from the propaganda of terrorist groups, and involves nothing more first-hand than a few telephone conversations with anonymous informants. 

Surprisingly however, I believe that the organisation’s October 2013 report about Addis’ central police station of Maekelawi has not yet been acknowledged by the authorities.

Arguing against all

The Ethiopian government does not hesitate to mock its major international partners either. Hence on March 6, 2009, “A week in the Horn” plainly argued that:

The US State Department’s 2008 Human Rights Report on Ethiopia, issued on February 26, makes allegations of all sorts and it is extremely difficult to refute most of these as they refer largely to conjecture and anecdote. (For the Government’s Press Statement on the Report see the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Website) The readiness of the authors of the report to level allegations at every instance is nowhere more clear than in the part of the report that deals with prison and detention center conditions. The report makes sure to paint prison conditions in the ugliest light possible. But more interestingly, the report typically alleges that, despite lack of reliable statistics that prove its allegations, “there were deaths in prison due to illness”. Unless the authors were convinced that prison inmates were somehow expected to live forever, it is only natural that such things happen not only in prisons but also in the wealthy suburbs of Addis. But the causes are, as can be expected, as diverse as one can imagine.

More recently, a piece on the current state of the Ogaden area in Martin Plaut’s blog triggered yet again a long commentary by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Now I would not want to underestimate the impact of Mr. Plaut’s blog but one could legitimately wonder if its visibility is indeed large enough so that a governing authority would feel the need to respond to such kind of news outlet too. The Ministry’s signature flair was applied anyway to counter this particular piece: lingering on little details as much as on the general content of the recriminated report, refuting everything, sentence by sentence, criticising the methodology as much as the facts themselves, while never really supporting counterclaims with sources of any kind.

Rather than demonstrating a strong analysis capacity and taking advantage of the spotlight to address the country’s issues, the authorities produce precisely the type of argumentative and cagey claims they attribute to others, looking ridiculous and drowning potentially pertinent assumptions (such as, for instance, that the ONLF might not be as representative of the Ogadeni population as they claim) in a sea of irrelevant accusations. On top of which they insert, at best, half-true statements, such as “Aid organizations operate freely as do a number of NGOs, and there are no problems in entering the region though some areas are subject to security constraints because of ONLF terrorist activity”.

The authorities’ sore spot is clearly the issue of human rights. They produce sour answers to every claim from international observers, and have made sure that their national press and human rights civil society organisations, who could be gathering first hand evidence, are properly gagged. Human rights are, however, only part of the bigger picture that is the preservation of Ethiopia’s public image as a whole. That is why when an Ethiopian Airlines plane was diverted by one of its pilot seeking asylum in Geneva in mid-February 2014, the Ethiopian Ambassador to the UK wrote a letter to the director general of the BBC to strongly urge the media company to hire more qualified security correspondents than the one who had commented and criticised the efficiency of security measures at Bole Airport (see footnote #2).

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1- The links to “A week in the Horn” briefings from 2008/9 are invalid–the briefings from before August 2011 appear to have been removed from the website. Their full content is available in my personal archive for review (and most probably in the MOFA’s archive department too).

2- This statement was posted on 21 Feb. 2014 on the Facebook page of the Ethiopian MOFA:

#News: Ethiopia’s ambassador to the UK points out BBC’s factually inaccurate comments on Ethiopian aircraft incident

Ethiopia’s ambassador to the UK on Tuesday (February 17) wrote to the Director General of the BBC to correct what he termed the “damaging and factually incorrect statement made by Mr. Frank Gardner (a BBC security correspondent)” regarding security issues at Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport. The security correspondent, while commenting on the recent Ethiopian Airlines incident in which a co-pilot had rerouted a plane to land at Geneva, had remarked that security was loose at Bole Airport. Ambassador Berhanu Kebede pointed out that Mr. Gardener’s statement was factually inaccurate. The Airport, he noted, has “a high reputation for its exceptional security provisions amongst international flight-safety regulatory bodies”. The Ambassador added that Bole International Airport was “periodically audited and at no time has it been found in breach of the international standards that world-leading airport service providers are required to meet”. The Ambassador emphasized that it was absurd to relate the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 702 incident, which involved a member of the flight crew, to the issue of airport security arrangements. The incident which involved no threatening activity, no weaponry, and no violence, had nothing to do with any airport security details. It could not, the Ambassador said, be viewed “as a consequence of breach of security at Addis Ababa Airport.” It was, in fact, quite clearly, an “isolated case of failure of responsibility on the part of a single crew member who was in charge of the aircraft”. The Ambassador’s letter urged the BBC to balance “Mr. Gardner’s prejudicial testament by voices better qualified to render expert opinion on such matters”.

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This is how much people loved him.

Here is a fact that no one can deny: today was celebrated the life of one of the most admired man ever. A unique gathering of around 100 heads of states attended his memorial. This exceptional event came after a worldwide and equally bulimic response: endless amount of news articles, television coverage, and a massive number of blog posts tackling an infinite number of detailed elements of his life. His name is repeatedly mentioned alongside the disturbing acronym “R.I.P” in the social media. (“R.I.P” is incidentally a new form of ethical snobbery used by all in the social media to express one’s compassion. It bears a highly religious connotation even though people don’t seem to acknowledge it.)

In the end, he seems to be the topic everyone was waiting to publish about.

He was the subject of so many headlines these past few days (along with the situation in CAR) that some western presenter introduced the news yesterday with a nice: “and today Africa is in the spotlight again…”

This is all definitely more than just how much people loved him.

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The use of paranoia for academic purpose…

I recently came across an interesting piece written by Phil Clark and entitled “Must academics researching authoritarian regimes self-censor?”. I believe it is a must-read when one researches in Rwanda, Clark’s focus, or in any other similar context. This article indeed offers some serious thinking about the nature of one’s own field, the challenges of working in a restrictive political environment, and how one puts those challenges in perspective in order to extract the best possible research material.

The introspection was worth it in the case of Ethiopia!

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Speaking out: MSF attempts full disclosure

indexThe NGO Médecins sans Frontières launched last month a new website, speaking out, to make public some of its major case studies, driven directly from its missions and past struggles. Indeed the international organisation, albeit claiming to be neutral, has a history of public denunciations which it now seeks to openly explain. In addition to directly address how the organisation dealt, for instance, with the threats of eviction from Ethiopia in 1985 after having denounced the population’s forced relocations, those reports could also help interpreting present decisions, such as the closing of all MSF programmes in Somalia last August.

Seven case studies, including Somalia 1991-1993 and Ethiopia 1984-1986, are to be gradually uploaded on the organisation’s new Speaking out website. Compilations of press releases, staff interviews, internal reports, and international news coverage are as many tools to reveal and analyse MSF’s actions and reactions in a spirit of transparency and accountability. These reports are expected to be of great use for MSF staff and humanitarians in general, but also for academics, the public at large and meticulous donors, obviously. It falls right within the usual aggressive communication campaigns that ensure MSF its visibility and financial autonomy.

Moreover, it is especially helpful to academic students and researchers who study humanitarian issues. Indeed, arguing that it is too solicited, I witnessed that the organisation’s Paris office does not easily grant interviews.

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The art of raising the spectre of terrorism

On October 13, an explosion occurred in a house in Addis Ababa’s Bole Michael neighbourhood, causing two deaths. Neighbours mentioned first a family feud. The following day, the authorities reported that the explosion was due to a bomb which had gone off unexpectedly as the two victims, Somali nationals, were allegedly plotting a terrorist attack around the Stadium area where thousands were gathering to follow a World Cup qualifying football match. The police claimed to have discovered additional weapons in the house and linked the event to Al-Shabaab terrorists who had attacked a shopping mall in Nairobi on September 21, killing at least 67. No evidence was however released and no one seems to have claimed responsibility.

Never short of an overstatement, the Ethiopian authorities tend to use this kind of event to raise the spectre of ill-intended devilish terrorist neighbouring states and armed groups so as to justify increasing security checks on its citizen and passing new restrictive laws. Thus, when a series of explosions targeting mini-bus and public places rocked Addis Ababa in 2008, the authorities used similar rhetoric, stating that Eritrea, the ONLF or the OLF (pick your favourite) were responsible. In 2008 a mini-bus exploded on May 20 near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, killing 3, including an American-Israeli university professor, and wounding many. Needless to say that the presence of the foreign university professor not only prompted western media to broadcast the information but also raised many interrogations locally. This bombing was followed by a number of rumours of additional explosions which accounted for the spreading of more hearsay and acute paranoia. That same year, a shop in Mercato, two gas stations and a bar apparently blew up. Those events had not much in common other than the limited number of victims (nothing compared to the idea that one might have of a structured large-scale terrorist attack), the randomness of the locations, and the feeling that some could have been accidents or errors.

Indeed, while in Addis Ababa an explosion in a restaurant can be merely due to a faulty gas bottle and a house burnt down to an old electric circuit, it can also very well be used to serve political purposes, transformed into an Eritrea backed Oromo fighters-related action, for instance.

Of course, these events could all be terrorism-related. But it strikes me as odd how authorities can name the culprits within 24 hours while never being able to prevent these attacks. One thing is sure, however, this kind of rhetoric falls right into the current western war on terror and the like. It is also interesting to see how fast mainstream western media jump on the information and make truth of authorities statements, never doubting the Ethiopian authorities statements.

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Port Elizabeth: The memorial museum as a rehabilitation tool.

Areal View. Picture taken on the official website of the museum

Areal View. Picture taken from the official website of the museum

The Red Location Museum opened in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in early 2006. Part of a large Cultural Precinct which will, in the end, be comprising an art gallery, a library, a theatre, an art school and 200 to 250 social houses, the museum is situated in the Red Location area, the oldest part of the New Brighton township outside of Port Elizabeth. Although the full Complex is far from being finished (the time-frame from completion given by one of the architects of the project, Jo Noero, ranks from 2 to 20 years), the museum alone is worth the travel.

Contrary to Addis Ababa’s Memorial which is a small private initiative, the Red Location Museum is part of a vast public project ordered by the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality which sought “to move the cultural centre of the old city to the township”, in accordance with a national effort to rehabilitate and revitalise townships throughout the country. Architecturally first, the building is in harmony with its memory fostering purpose. Established right in the middle of shacks and using mainly inexpensive and raw materials, it easily bears comparison with any other architectural masterpiece of the kind.

The memory boxes.

The memory boxes

Equally interesting is the set up of the exhibition itself. Rather than choosing a formal presentation of the major events of the Apartheid struggle (already displayed in many museums across the nation), the architect imagined an interactive concept of memory boxes, with smaller rooms inside the main structure, which would each hold a particular memory or event related to local events and directly linked to the local population’s past.

The architect indeed argues that the first targeted public, New Brighton inhabitants, have probably never been to a museum and have no means of understanding a formal and rigid presentation of history.

The memory boxes

The memory boxes

While we visited, members of the museum’s security staff indeed related to some of the memory boxes for being part of their own past while being part of History at the same time.

Those boxes, host to temporary mini-exhibitions, are made of ‘red’ rusty galvanised iron sheets used to build shacks.

One of the memory box exhibition, representing the police files of those deceased during the struggle.

One of the memory box exhibition, representing the police files of those deceased during the struggle

Unfortunately however, the feeling of achievement and significance emanating from the museum contrasts immensely with the outside reality. The Complex was closed during the last festive season (December and January, a period during which tourists and locals alike would be inclined to go to cultural hotspots) and seemed abandoned. The art gallery is not apparently a source of attraction and the township is not seeing the revitalisation impact or the economic benefits which were among the primary goals of the project. Hence, it feels that much time, energy and funds were put in the initial phase, but that it was not followed by a clear cultural program. It also raises the question of the revitalisation potential of a museum, dedicated to memory.

In the end, the Red Location Museum appears as a perfect example of grassroots memory mechanism rendering some sort of  justice to a population which is otherwise overlooked and which is still not, to some extent, at the centre of the national rehabilitation debate.

Most Information were collected from videos from the official website. More details and pictures here.

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Addis Standard: the magazine that can speak its mind

431959_475199105894784_1538702168_nRepeatedly since 2005, Ethiopians have witnessed the closing of many newspapers, arrests and imprisonments of some prominent journalists and bloggers, and exile of others. This year, the country ranks 137 out of 179 in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, going down 10 ranks partly due to the excessive use of the 2009 anti-terrorism law which terms are so vague that it is repeatedly applied to prevent journalists from reporting.

In this context, the monthly publication Addis Standard is a real curiosity. Created in early 2011, published only in English and sold at a fairly high price (15 ETB), Addis Standard seems to never miss an occasion to question all things wrong about the government’s decisions and failures. Its publications have indeed recently dealt with corruption, political exploitation of the Muslim community, women’s rights, and restrictive developmental laws. Far from hiding its agenda, the magazine, available all over Addis Ababa and online, features these topics on catchy front pages.

On September 24, the latest of a series of pieces on authoritarianism and totalitarianism offered a lengthy definition of totalitarianism which, argues the columnist Taye Negussie, fits Ethiopia in many ways. Last August, the editor-in-chief wrote a piece about Prime Minister Meles “the despot”, as described by a professor of political sciences at Addis Ababa University who would rather remain anonymous “for fear of reprisal (anticipated or eminent)”. These, and many other examples, don’t reflect the usual content of an Ethiopian newspaper.

The objective of the magazine is soberly defined as to “focus on current socio-political and socio-economical aspects of both domestic and international affairs”, yet in the Ethiopian context, it does more than that: it provokes a debate that is otherwise rather not permitted. Although one can only celebrate this initiative, it remains to be explained how the publication and its contributors are capable of expressing themselves so bluntly when The Reporter‘s editor-in-chief, for instance, was arrested on October 9 on unknown charges. Addis Standard‘s aura is limited by its English only (rather than Amharic) version but is it enough to justify the “special” treatment?

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