Sunday, October 26, 2008

Intimidating the Opposition

By Fikru Helebo

Mesfin Wolde Mariam, the retired Addis Ababa University professor and former head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, is now one of the leaders of UDJ (Andinet) party. He wrote an article recently describing how Ethiopian government security personnel had cornered him in his car in the middle of a busy street in Addis Ababa and tried to intimidate him. You can read the piece at (you need Ethiopic/Geez font). This incident Mesfin wrote about is eerily similar to another story I recently heard about a harassment of an opposition activist who was followed by Woyane security agents every where she went and where, one day, the agents attempted to create a bogus traffic accident with the intention of causing injury.

It is an open secret that the Woyane regime routinely employs various intimidation tactics like these ones above and many others to instill fear in the minds of its political opponents. Sometimes, if the target of the intimidation ignores the message and does not change her behavior or tone down her opposition activities, then the regime uses various extrajudicial methods to eliminate her. Just to mention one example, a vehicle accident was used as a means to kill a top fighter pilot named Daniel Beyene in 2006. Stories like these are prevalent in Woyane's Ethiopia, especially in the aftermath of the crackdown on the opposition after the stolen elections of 2005.

The intimidation regime that the Woyane government has put in place, which I believe rivals that of the Derg, seems to be accomplishing its objective very well, at least in the short term. Tired of the constant harassment and afraid for their dear lives, most opposition activists have fled the country and sought asylum in all corners of the globe. Those who remain in the country either do not have the means to flee the country or have resigned themselves to whatever punishment may come their way. Mesfin seems to be in the latter group. In the long term though, I believe this extreme harassment of the opposition is bound to backfire and help to hasten the demise of the regime itself. Newton's law of physics -- "for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction" -- works in politics, too!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Not a Transformational Figure

By Fikru Helebo

Barring unforeseen developments, Barack Obama is poised to coast to a comfortable victory over John McCain in the US Presidential election in a little over a couple of weeks. In spite of my center-right political disposition, I had previously expressed my view that America would be better served with a Democrat in the White House in the next four years. I will certainly celebrate an Obama victory for the reasons I had expressed before and also because of the powerful message of hope that his election would send to all people of African decent and, for that matter, to all of humanity.

However, I am troubled by an oft-repeated claim in the media that Barack Obama is a "transformational figure". The latest political heavy weight to throw this loaded phrase in describing Obama is the former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who endorsed Obama's candidacy for President today. I hope Obama is a smart enough politician not to allow all such hype about him to to get into his head. But I have to say that his rhetoric about changing the world gives me reason to be concerned.

My understanding of a transformational figure, in so far as a politician goes, is someone like Nelson Mandela, who has an unparalleled capacity to win the respect of his opponents by what he/she says and does. As far as I can tell, aside from some of his recent speeches, there is very little evidence from Obama's political career which remotely suggests that he is such a figure. To be sure, Obama has reached across the aisle to work with Republicans on some issues since he has become a US Senator and talk of bipartisanship has been a part of his stump speech on the campaign trail. But the issues that Obama has worked with Republicans in the Senate, which he has touted in his advertisements, are not issues that are considered marquee issues that divide the right and left in the US and, in my opinion, do not give credence to Obama possessing a transformational quality. On the other hand, a far better argument can be made for John McCain about his willingness to buck his own party and work with Democrats, but that still doesn't make McCain a transformational figure, not by a long shot.

That said, I believe Obama has the potential to be a transformational figure if he is willing to put aside some of his orthodox liberal political beliefs, such as the concept of using the government as a tool to spread wealth around and to push down the throats of Americans wacky social engineering experiments, in favor of ideas that have broad support by the American electorate. For example, a President Obama would be well advised to concentrate on spending his precious political capital in the first couple of years on national security issues like energy independence and improving America's image around the world, a world that is getting more and more interconnected by the day. But, he will have to get elected first, and then, after taking his oath of office, he must stare down on some of his narrowly focused liberal constituencies if he really wants to be a transformational figure who can inspire a broad section of American society to getting something lasting accomplished during his presidency. We shall see.