Zenawi's Charm Offensive in America?
Fresh on the heels of shutting down all private distance education, including distance higher education, and "winning" the parliamentary election in May by 99.6 percent, dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi is scheduled to speak at Columbia University on September 22 and trumpet his accomplishments as the guardian of democracy and prosperity in Ethiopia and provider of enlightened leadership to the African continent. The puffed up announcement for his appearance at Columbia's World Leaders Forum, which was subsequently withdrawn by an embarrassed University administration, stated:
... Meles Zenawi of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia will present the keynote address on the topic of Ethiopia and African Leadership. His address will launch CGT's the World and Africa series.... Zenawi has served as chairman of the Organisation of the African Union (1995-1996), as co-chairman of the Global Coalition for Africa, and was appointed as Chair of the African Heads of State and Government in Climate Change (CAHOSCC)... Zenawi was the co-chairperson of the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2006, which led to the adoption of the Beijing Action Plan for partnership in economic progress. Under the seasoned governmental leadership of... Zenawi...Ethiopia has made and continues to make progresses (sic) in many areas including in education, transportation, health and energy.
The event is designed to facilitate "conversations to examine Africa's place in the world." The "key subjects" of the conversation reportedly "include the future of African agriculture, the explosion of Asian investment on the continent, the evolving contours of global aid to Africa, and the impact of the financial crisis on the region."
Allowing Zenawi to Speak at Columbia is "An Affront to His Victims" of Human Rights Abuses
Nowhere is the case for disallowing Zenawi the right to speak at Columbia University made more convincingly and compellingly than in the letter of two extraordinarily courageous Ethiopian husband and wife team of journalists, Eskinder Nega and Serkalem Fasil, to university president Lee Bollinger. They wrote:
We are banned Ethiopian journalists who were charged with treason by the government of PM Meles Zenawi subsequent to disputed election results in 2005, incarcerated under deplorable circumstances, only to be acquitted sixteen months later; after Serkalem Fasil prematurely gave birth in prison.
Severely underweight at birth because Serkalem's physical and psychological privation in one of Africa's worst prisons, an incubator was deemed life-saving to the new-born child by prison doctors; which was, in an act of incomprehensible vindictiveness, denied by the authorities. (The child nevertheless survived miraculously. Thanks to God.)
...While we acknowledge [Zenawi's] right to express his views, it is an affront to his government's numerous victims of repression to grant him the privilege to do so on the notable premises of Columbia...
Serkalem and Eskinder are absolutely right in their expressions of outraged disapproval of Zenawi's speech at Columbia. These are two Ethiopian journalists for whom I have the highest respect and admiration. They are selfless patriots who could be described best in Churchillian terms: "Never in the field of journalism was so much owed by so many to so few."
I have been approached by various groups and individuals to urge the leadership of Columbia to dis-invite Zenawi or have the university withdraw the offer of delivering the "keynote address." The reasons are many. Some say mere invitation to speak at the world-class institution gives Zenawi a certain patina of legitimacy, which he could use to hoodwink Americans and camouflage his criminal history. Others say he will try to use the event as a soapbox to disseminate lies about his "accomplishments," complete with wholly fabricated statistics about "double digit growth" and fairy tales of a 99.6 percent election victory, and use the Forum as a bully pulpit to rag against his critics. There are those who suggest that Stiglitz staged the "keynote address" to give his "buddy Zenawi" an opportunity to clean up his image and build up some intellectual "creds", which Zenawi could take back to Ethiopia for bragging rights. I respect the views of those who urge Columbia to disinvite Zenawi.
But as a university professor and constitutional lawyer steadfastly dedicated to free speech, I have adopted one yardstick for all issues concerning free speech, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." I underscore the words "everyone" and "regardless of frontiers."
Alternatively stated, though I condemn Zenawi for his abuse, mistreatment and cruelty against Serkalem and Eskinder and other journalists, disagree with him on his repeated theft of elections, trashing of the human rights of Ethiopian citizens, boldfaced lies about economic growth, manipulation of the judiciary for political purposes, unjust incarceration of Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history and tens of thousands of other political prisoners, crackdown on the press and civil society organizations, subversion of the legislative process to mill out repressive laws and his completely bogus theory of "ethnic federalism" (an artifice of his divide-and-rule strategy) and so on, I shall vigorously defend his right to speak not just at Columbia but at any other public venue in the United States of America.
Right to Protest
Let me make it clear that I am not arguing here that those who wish to protest Zenawi's speech at Columbia should not do so. They should; and I defend vigorously their constitutional right to protest and fully express their views about his actions and policies. My only plea to them is that we should strive to make this opportunity a teachable moment for Zenawi. In my view, it would be a crying shame for Zenawi to hop on his plane and go back to Ethiopia mumbling to himself something about the "extreme Diaspora" and so on because he is heckled, disrupted or somehow impeded from speaking. I say if we can tolerate racist and hate speech on university campuses, we can also tolerate the rant of a petty tyrant for an hour or two.
A Teachable Moment for a Tyrant
My reasons for defending Zenawi's right to speak are principled, straightforward and myriad:
At the most elementary level, the American university is a traditional forum for the free exchange of ideas, whether silly or sublime. Every year, tens of thousands of speeches are given on American university campuses. Even the representatives of the Neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and motley crews of racists and fascists are allowed to speak on American university campuses. By the same token, Zenawi should be able to speak at Columbia.
I realize that this may not be a popular view to hold, but I am reminded of the painful truth in Prof. Noam Chomsky's admonition: "If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all." On a personal level, it would be hypocritical of me to argue for free speech and press freedoms in Ethiopia and justify censorship or muzzling of Zenawi stateside. If censorship is bad for the good citizens of Ethiopia, it is also bad for the dictators of Ethiopia.
But there is another set of reasons why I want Zenawi to speak at Columbia. I want the event to be a teachable moment for him. Perhaps this opportunity will afford him a glimpse of the clash of ideas that routinely take place in American universities. He may begin to appreciate the simple truth that ideas are accepted and rejected and arguments won and lost in the cauldron of critical analysis oxygenated by the bellows of free speech, not in prison dungeons where journalists and dissidents are bludgeoned and left to rot. By denying Zenawi the right to speak at Columbia, we also risk becoming prisoners of ignorance. That is why free speech is at the core of Nelson Mandela's teaching: "A man who takes away another man's freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness." Free speech is the key by which one escapes from the steel bars and stonewalls of "prejudice and narrow-mindedness." I sincerely hope Zenawi will find that key at Columbia and finally escape from his bleak and desolate planet of "prejudice and narrow-mindedness."
On another level, to disallow Zenawi from speaking is an implicit admission that we fear ideas. Zenawi has muzzled and intimidated nearly all of his critics and shuttered newspapers in Ethiopia, jammed the Voice of America and the independent Ethiopian Satellite Television Service and enacted repressive press and civil society laws because he is afraid of ideas - ideas about freedom, democracy, human rights, accountability, transparency, the rule of law and so on. But the old adage still holds true: "There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come." In America, we cherish and embrace good ideas (not fear them) and put them into practice; we discard the bad ones in the trash.
But I have a reason that overrides all others. I believe in the power of truth. We can neither defend the truth nor championed it by muzzling the liar. Let Zenawi speak! Let him have his "conversation"!
A Few Topics for "Conversation"
Since Prof. Stiglitz is interested in having a "conversation", here are a few topics he should ask Zenawi to talk about. How is it that Ethiopia, under his "seasoned" leadership, managed to rank:
138/159 (most corrupt) countries on the Corruption Index for 2010.
17 among the most failed states (Somalia is No. 1) on the Failed States Index for 2010.
136/179 countries (most repressive) on the 2010 Index of Economic Freedom.
107/183 economies for ease of doing business (investment climate) by The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in 2010.
37/53 (poorest governance quality) African countries in the 2010 Ibrahim Index of African Governance.
101/128 countries in 2010 on the Bertelsmann Political and Economic Transformation Index, and 141/153 (poorest environmental public health and ecosystem vitality) countries in the 2010 Environmental Performance Index.
Fables, Fairy Tales and Q&As
I can imagine Zenawi's angst at the podium preparing to tell his fables and fairy tales about Ethiopia's double-digit growth, democracy and leadership in Africa, globalization and its impact on Africa or whatever topic he chooses at the last minute to confuse his audience. It's all good; fairy tales are entertaining. However, I suspect that the story-telling session will not be the usual cakewalk. At Columbia, unlike his rubberstamp parliament, Zenawi will not be able to scowl at, browbeat, belittle or mock anyone; and unless Stigliz and company rig the Q&A session to give Zenawi only softball questions, he is going to get some heavy duty drubbing from students and faculty. I would wager to say that his speech will not be the usual soporific monologue; it will be a real "conversation"where he will be asked questions that will make him cringe and wince.
I can imagine the audience asking these questions:
Mr. Zenawi, what is the special magical spell you used to win the May 2010 election by 99.6 percent? Answer: "Say 'abracadabra' ten times while holding a rabbit's foot in the left hand at the crack of dawn."
When will you stop trashing the human rights of Ethiopian citizens? Answer: "As soon as you tell me when they started having human rights."
Why do you lie about double-digit economic growth by using cooked up numbers from your Central Statistics office? Answer: "There are 'lies and plausible lies'. Our statistics are of the latter variety."
Why did you shut down all distance education programs in the country? Answer: "Because education is overrated."
Why did you wipe out the private independent media in the country? Answer: "Because they don't like me."
Do you really believe the Voice of America is the same as Rwanda's genocide Radio Mille Collines? Answer: "VOA, VOI (Voice of Interhamwe). It all sounds the same to me."
What do you think of your critics in the U.S.? Answer: "They are all friggin extremists in the Diaspora. I can't stand them. Why? Oh! Why don't they like me?!?"
Do you believe in the rule of law? Answer: "Yep! I am it."
When will you release Birtukan Midekssa, the only woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, from prison? Answer: "'There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That's a dead issue.'"
"If there are no more questions, I am outta here!"
Just at that moment, I can imagine President Bollinger leaping to his feet with index finger wagging in righteous indignation and proclaiming: "Mr. Prime Minister, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator."
We are All Ears!
Let Zenawi speak! Let's hear what he has to say. Will it be the usual cascade of lies, half-truths, buzzwords, platitudes, clichés and boiler plate economics hokum bunkum? I have no idea. Over the past several days, Stiglitz and crew have been playing the old switcheroo on the topics Zenawi will be talking about. First, they said Zenawi will speak on "Ethiopia and Africa leadership." They changed that and said he will talk about "the current global economy and its impact". Now they say he will be talking about "the current global economy and its impact on Africa". It is not clear what expertise Zenawi has on globalization or what morsels of wisdom he may be able to impart, but Stiglitz should have no problems writing a nice scholarly-sounding speech for Zenawi to read. After all, the "impact of the global economy on Africa" is the snake oil Joe "The Globalizer" Stiglitz has been peddling for the past decade.
Regardless, Zenawi may have something worthwhile to say. I don't know. We won't know unless we hear him speak. The bottom line is that Zenawi would rather go blind than face the naked truth about his atrocious record over the past two decades, but we are not afraid to confront his best dressed lies at the World Leaders Forum. At the end of the day on September 22, when the fog clears over Columbia, Zenawi would have walked off the stage at the Low Library as he walked on it: An emperor with new clothes! So I say: Rap on, Emperor. Rap on!
Welcome to the land of the free and home of the brave!
Free Birtukan Midekssa and all political prisoners in Ethiopia.