Serkalem Fasil and Eskinder Nega
By Karina Boeckmann
BERLIN/ADDIS ABABA (IDN) - Western nations and multilateral agencies disburse aid mechanically rather than intelligently; no one cares what happens to the money; and the level of cynicism in aid bureaucracies is simply atrocious, says a distinguished Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega who along with his wife Serkalem Fasil, also a journalist, has suffered behind bars.
"There is an international standard of good governance -- multi-party democracy and fair elections -- to which all countries should be held accountable. This is not a call for rich nations to meddle in the internal affairs of poor countries," he says, adding: "Strict adherence to democratic standards in the disbursing of aid-money will inevitably trigger the internal dynamics to meet those standards."
Eskinder Nega was jailed seven times and tortured because he reported fraud in parliamentary elections in Ethiopia in 2005. Serkalem Fasil gave birth to a child while in captivity, which she was allowed to see only sometimes. She was charged with treason in 2007 but acquitted in response to international pressure. The 'International Women's Media Foundation' (IWMF) conferred on her an award the same year for her courage as a journalist
Karina Boeckmann interviewed the journalist couple by E-Mail against the backdrop of a public debate on development cooperation with Ethiopia, unleashed by a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report 'Development without Freedom - How Aid Underwrites Repression in Ethiopia' released in October 2010.
The importance of the report is underscored by the fact that between 2004 and 2008, international development aid to Ethiopia doubled to more than US$3.3 billion annually, making this landlocked country in the Horn of Africa one of Africa's largest recipients of funds from the rich Western nations and multilateral agencies.
Ethiopia is in fact one of the most aid-dependant countries in the world and received more than US$2 billion in 2009, but its major donors have been unwilling to confront the government over its worsening human rights record.
Two months after the HRW report was released, executive director Kenneth Roth admonished the Addis Ababa based Development Assistance Group (DAG) -- comprising 26 bilateral and multilateral development agencies -- for its failure to "initiate a credible and independent inquiry" into "serious allegations about the misuse of donor-supported programs for repressive purposes by the government of Ethiopia".
Also the European Union team, monitoring the May 2010 polls, criticized in its November report the ruling party's misuse of state resources during the election campaign. Ethiopia's ruling party won more than 99.6 percent of parliamentary seats in an election that, according to European observers, "fell short of international standards".
Following are extracts from the interview:
Question: How would you describe the current human rights situation in Ethiopia?
Serkalem Fasil and Eskinder Nega: In one word: horrible. Ethiopia has been Africa's star backslider since 2005, when, as had happened in Burma, an opposition victory in the nation’s first real multi-elections was reversed by brute force. The absence of a strong civil society and free press -- both suppressed in 2005 has hastened the descent. The civil society and the free press had both by and large served as checks on the traditionally unrestrained power of the Ethiopian state. Low-level insurgencies in the Oromo and Somali regions have entailed disproportionate responses by the military; in one instance, charges of scorched-earth retaliation in the Somali region has been corroborated by HRW satellite images. Ethiopia is now consistently rated as one of the worst offenders of human rights in the world by all international rights groups.
Q: How many dissidents and journalists are in prison right now?
Eskinder Nega: No precise figures on the exact numbers have ever been tallied. But that they have always run into thousands -- mostly into tens of thousands -- for the entire span of the two decades that the EPRDF (Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front) has been in power is an established fact. A disturbingly high number of these have either been sentenced -- mostly without a fair trail -- either to death or life imprisonment. Ethiopia has sentenced more political prisoners to death than the entire sub-Saharan African countries (minus Rwanda and Sudan) combined (which is also true of life sentences.)
Q: Though many of your colleagues have left the country, you continue to hold on. Why? What are your motives/expectations/hopes for your country in the coming years?
Serkalem Fasil and Eskinder Nega: Hope has kept us in the country. Optimism about the future was stirred by the success of multi- party democracy elsewhere in Africa -- Botswana, Ghana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, Senegal etc. We have come to believe not only in the possibility of democracy but also in its irremediable destiny for us as a people and a nation. The ups and downs we go through, both as individuals and as a nation, to get there are not only unavoidable, as every precedent throughout the world amply demonstrates, but in the grand perspective of things, they are exactly the ingredients that give the ultimate prize – democracy -- real value. We are highly privileged to be part of this history. We cannot envision ourselves giving it up for anything else.
Q: In the last elections the ruling party led by Prime Minister (PM) Meles Zenawi bagged 99.6 per cent of the seats. A result too good to be true . . .?
Serkalem Fasil: Yes, to say the least. In the ultimate height of absurdity, the PM has adamantly insisted that the one seat for the opposition in the 547 seat Parliament -- a consequence of his party's 99.6 "victory" -- actually means more democracy than ever. Mind you, he did not blink when he uttered those words. I am fascinated that he has the strength to look at himself in the mirror every morning after saying that. I know I wouldn't.
Q: Being former political prisoners and critics of the government of Meles Zenawi, what are the problems you are facing day in and day out both as private persons and as professional journalists?
Eskinder Nega: I have been imprisoned seven times for my work as a journalist. During the imprisonments, I had my shoulder dislocated; was tortured; beaten; and roughed up. My wife, Serkalem Fasil, gave birth to our son in prison under appalling circumstances. Our son, premature and underweight at birth, was denied an incubator. Each incident has had exactly the opposite of the intended effect -- that is, it made us more not less determined. Such is the power of the truth on average people, whom we embody by sentiment, disposition and upbringing. The lesson: the truth is more powerful than the might of the state.
Q: Are you being harassed?
Serkalem Fasil and Eskinder Nega: Let's just say that the police-state version of the paparazzi have high interest in us. Fortunately, our name-recognition and international exposure affords us some level of protection -- our only protection. Many others could not say the same. They are by far worse off than we are. It wouldn't be fair to speak of our plight when many others are suffering more.
Q: You published three independent newspapers that were closed down in November 2005 because of critical reports about the election process at that time. Is there any chance for you in the near future to work as journalists again?
Serkalem Fasil: We hope so. But if not, we will not be dissuaded. The struggle will continue --broadened and intensified peacefully and legally -- until we are able to do so. Time is on our side. The truth is on our side. We will win in the end.
Q: Ethiopia is something like the donors' 'darling'. A boon or a bane?
Eskinder Nega: There is an international standard of good governance -- multi-party democracy and fair elections -- to which all countries should be held accountable. This is not a call for rich nations to meddle in the internal affairs of poor countries. Strict adherence to democratic standards in the disbursing of aid-money will inevitably trigger the internal dynamics to meet those standards. There shouldn't be country specific standards; which would invite the loathed prying. Rather, the standard for good governance should be the same for all countries; which would make it impartial. No country has beaten poverty with aid-money. Ethiopia will not be the first to shatter this record. . . . In the meantime, as HRW has eloquently expressed it, tyranny is being subsidized by donor countries.
Q: International media see Prime Minister Zenawi as a man with a Janus head: on the one hand supporting development and on the other violating basic rights. Do you agree?
Serkalem Fasil: Even after a twenty years reign by PM Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia has yet to feed her hungry millions. The country is still food-aid dependent -- 37 years after receiving the first shipment. There is no precedent for this -- past or present -- in world history. PM Meles has led Ethiopia for more consecutive hunger stricken-years -- --twenty years -- than any other leader in history. What kind of a "development record" is this? Certainly, not the kind any sane person would be proud of. How the Kenyans -- who have half the population but export twice as much -- must be amused at our "development"! The international media has missed the real story.
Q: German federal development minister Dirk Niebel (during his visit to Ethiopia January 11-14) has promised more aid to support Ethiopia's development efforts. How do you evaluate the visit of minister Niebel referring to human rights in Ethiopia?
Eskinder Sega: The policy imperative in the West is to mechanically disburse aid-money; not distribute it intelligently. Though aid had started with lofty and estimable goals, profound disappointments has led to its degeneration to little more than the soothing of the guilt-ridden conscience of the rich in a wretchedly wanting world. No one really cares what happens to the money -- it hasn't changed the world, and it's not expected to. The level of cynicism in aid bureaucracies is simply atrocious -- apathy reigns undisputed. And I fear that Dirk Niebel has been overwhelmed by the cynics. Paradoxically, the world needs more not less aid money. It is capable of doing good. It just needs to be separated from inertia and cynicism.
Q: Niebel invited Zenawi to the upcoming Munich Security Conference (February 4-6), which is an important international forum of discussion on defence and security issues. The invitation to the authoritarian Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko, who after fraudulent elections in December 2010 declared himself the winner with 79.7 percent of the vote -- was withdrawn. Would you like to comment?
Eskinder Nega: Belarus is in Europe and Ethiopia is in Africa. There lies the answer to the enigma. Who really cares about what happens in Africa as long as a raging war is not in the headlines? Avoid an active war and you are dubbed a success. The standard for success is held ridiculously low -- a function of the inertia and cynicism that has come to define the relationship between Ethiopia and the West now for two decades. And what this has bred is not only dependency but an intractable sense of entitlement to aid on the part of the Ethiopian government. This is not good for Ethiopia. And it certainly is not what the West really intended or wants.
*Karina Boeckmann is editor-in-charge at IPS-Inter Press Service Germany, a member of the media network of Global Cooperation Council and Globalom Media, for which she conducted this E-Mail interview. (IDN-InDepthNews/27.01.2011)
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