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When they say democrats and visionary leaders


President Barak Obama and his wife Michelle Obama receive Meles Zenawi and his wife Azeb Mesfin for the G-20 Pittsburgh Summit in 2009

So much for the stated intentions of the West to promote freedom and democracy, the world has seen many explicit instances where the West has actively engaged in activities that have undermined human rights and democracy in many parts of the world.


Although this is a fact that many Ethiopians have always known, the recent death of Ethiopia’s dictator Meles Zenawi and the reaction to it of his Western allies served to make an ever-increasing number of Ethiopians aware of the blatant hypocrisy of the West – particularly of the US.


In a true tradition of highly secretive and dictatorial governments, Meles Zenawi’s death was first denied by the Ethiopian regime for weeks. When the regime finally announced his death on 21 August 2012, it was almost old news for the people of Ethiopia and only came as official confirmation of what they already knew happened.


But the secrecy continued and the regime gave no detail of what killed Meles Zenawi and where he died apart from saying he died of an infection of some sort in an overseas hospital.


Although the regime wanted to keep Ethiopians in the dark about where Meles died, non-Ethiopian news outlets have reported that he died in a Brussels hospital.


Ethiopians regard Meles Zenawi a dictator because his regime consistently killed, tortured, imprisoned, abused and exiled countless Ethiopians over the last two decades. They regard him a dictator because he only allowed sham elections in one of which he claimed to have won 99.6 percent of the votes after making sure that opposition figures are either in prison or in exile. They regard him a brutal dictator because under his rule, more than two hundred Ethiopian protestors were shot and killed in the capital Addis Ababa in just two days in 2005. They call him a dictator because he did not consult with them when he redesigned the Ethiopian national flag and insulted them when he called the flag “a piece of fabric”.


Human Rights Watch called his regime a regime that committed “war crimes and crimes against humanity” because the regime did exactly that in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Amnesty International has called his regime a regime that “systematically attempted to crush dissent in the country by jailing opposition members and journalists, firing on unarmed protesters, and using state resources to undermine political opposition.” Amnesty also said he ran a regime “engaged in repeated electoral corruption and repression and sought to instill fear in ordinary citizens.


Sadly, a policy of keeping a blind eye to all of these serious violations of freedom and human rights in Ethiopia is adopted by the Western countries that have funded the Meles Zenawi regime to the tune of at least US$3 billion a year.


Adding insult to injury, President Barack Obama's representative at Meles Zenawi’s funeral this month praised the dictator as “an uncommon leader, a rare visionary, and a true friend to me and many.”


Representing a country that prides itself on being an advocate of freedom, democracy and human rights, America’s Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice stood in front of thousands of Ethiopians in the Ethiopian capital to tell them that even other African leaders looked to Meles Zenawi “to help them make peace and jump start their economies.”


In a spectacularly undiplomatic fashion, America’s top diplomat also took a swipe at Meles Zenawi’s political opponents in the same speech at his funeral, saying: “He had little patience for fools or idiots, as he liked to call them.”


Ethiopians are understandably outraged by Rice’s remarks, but America’s friendship with tyrants is nothing new at all.


Before the American-led invasion of Iraq, the Saddam Hussein regime enjoyed the support and friendship of the Americans particularly during the Iran-Iraq War. President Ronald Reagan was quoted as saying his administration "would do whatever was necessary to prevent Iraq from losing the war with Iran." In December 1983, Donald Rumsfeld was seen meeting Saddam Hussein in Baghdad to discuss US military aid to Iraq. The war cost Iran an estimated 1 million casualties and Iraqi casualties are estimated at 250,000–500,000 killed or wounded.


But then under the presidencies of George Bush Senior and Junior, the Americans turned against Saddam Hussein and not only was he removed and his execution televised internationally, but the invasion of Iraq has caused widespread destruction of the country and the killing of more than 100, 000 civilians. Donald Rumsfeld was famously at the heart of the invasion of Iraq just like he was famously at the heart of supplying the tyrant Saddam Hussein with so-called US military aid in the 1980s.


Until the day the people of Egypt toppled their tyrant dictator Hosni Mubarak in the world famous popular uprising of February 2011, he was an ally of the US and enjoyed the military aid that was provided to him for over 30 years.


While accepting billions in US military aid, Mubarak restrained from attacking Israel and conducted fraudulent elections, allowed only government-controlled trade unions, silenced the press and jailed dissidents subjecting them to horrific torture as documented by human rights organizations.


During the massive protests on Cairo's Tahrir Square that led to Mubarak's resignation, the American President Barack Obama did not even want to say a word of criticism against Mubarak and his regime – a regime that was so clearly not liked by the people of Egypt to which the American administration gave at least US $1.3 billion every year.


In central Africa, Mobutu Sese Seko was of one of the continent’s worst dictators that ruled the Democratic Republic of Congo for 32 years. He formed an authoritarian regime and ruled with an iron fist while having the US as the third largest donor of aid to support his rule. It is a well-documented fact that Mobutu befriended several US presidents, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior, and was the first African head of state to visit George Bush at the White House in June 1989. In 1984 his personal fortune was estimated to amount to US$5 billion, most of it in Swiss banks, which was almost equivalent to the country's foreign debt at the time.


Today’s Somalia is in a state of anarchy and has been so since 1991. But the military regime that ran the country until the start of the civil war in 1991 was an ally of the US. Mohamed Siad Barre was the military dictator and President of Somalia from 1969 to 1991. America was a strong supporter of the Barre regime for whom it provided at least US$100 million per year in economic and military aid until 1989.


After 20 years of military rule, Barre's Supreme Revolutionary Council was eventually forced from power in 1991 by a coalition of Somali opposition groups. A civil war broke out, and in October 1993, the Americans fought with Somali militia fighters in Mogadishu and the Somalis managed to shoot down two American Black Hawk helicopters over the city, killing 18 American soldiers. The Americans killed thousands of Somalis in retaliation before the Bill Clinton administration suspended their operation leaving Somalia to descend into full-scale civil war, which is still ongoing claiming the lives of at least 500,000 people.


In South Asia, Pakistan’s former dictator Pervez Musharraf, who became President after ousting the democratically elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a 1999 coup, was another ruthless tyrant to enjoy the friendship of the US regardless of his well-documented violations of human rights. Musharraf gave the US the use of three airbases when America attacked the Taliban regime in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks. In return for Musharraf’s support on America’s War on Terror, Musharraf and his military were provided with billions in cash and he was among the 194 candidates nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.


In oil-rich Nigeria, General Sani Abacha was a corrupt and repressive dictator. Supported by oil wealth, Abacha tried to cover his repression under a mantle of fraudulent elections which only served to guarantee his continued control. During elections in 1994, Chief Moshood Abiola, considered to be the likely winner, was arrested and placed in prison before the rigged results were announced. In the same year, more than 100 executions occurred and numerous pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by police. Shell Oil provided most of the country's wealth by extracting oil from the Ogoniland region while in the process causing severe environmental destruction and devastating the local economy. The greatest travesty occurred in November 1995 when environmental leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and 8 associates were hanged despite an international outcry. Shell supported Abacha's policies by remaining silent. Despite the outcry that Nigerian oil be boycotted, the US government refused to do so.


In 2006 the Palestinian Authority held parliamentary elections. International observers agreed the elections were free and fair. Hamas, a conservative Islamist party, won the elections. The US and Israel refused to recognize the results and encouraged fighting between Hamas and Fatah, the other major Palestinian party.


The following year, military battles broke out between Fatah and Hamas. Fatah took control of the West Bank. Hamas took control of Gaza. Israeli officials said they couldn’t hold peace talks as long as the Palestinian leadership remained divided. When Fatah and Hamas agreed to form a joint government in 2011, Israel said it could never negotiate with the terrorist group Hamas.


The US has remained equally consistent. It calls for the resignation of Bashar al Assad in Syria but makes no such pronouncements about pro-US dictators in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or Jordan.


Many of the world's most repressive dictators have been friends of America. Tyrants, torturers, killers and corrupt puppet-presidents have been aided, supported and rewarded handsomely for their loyalty to US interests. Traditional dictators seize control through force, while constitutional dictators hold office through voting fraud or severely restricted elections. In any case, none have been democratically elected by the majority of their people in fair and open elections.


For the last two decades, Ethiopia has been governed by a single political party by the name of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). They came to power through more than thirty years of guerrilla warfare, eventually toppling the Mengistu Hailemariam regime in 1991. The regime’s history over the years has been shrouded in various acts of oppression.


Thousands of Ethiopian dissident have been killed, imprisoned, abused and exiled under the EPRDF regime. The-Meles-Zenawi-led regime is also well known to have been popular more among Western leaders than its own people. The relationship between the regime and Western leaders has meant that Ethiopian sham elections were necessary so that the relationship can be justified and attracts less criticism than it would otherwise.


So sham elections are held in Ethiopia every five years. In 2005, the then main opposition party took the “election” seriously and campaigned heavily. The people were fed up with the regime and most voted for the opposition. The opposition won and the regime decided not to relinquish power. Ethiopians took to the streets to demonstrate and more than 200 of them were shot and killed in broad daylight while demonstrating. Up to 45 thousand Ethiopian citizens were arrested in a period of two weeks ,the entire leadership of the opposition was detained facing treason charges, and widespread and recurring violations of human rights were recorded.


That was seven years ago and for the regime, it was time to do exactly the same in 2010. But this time it was different. Ethiopians knew better and consciously allowed the regime to rig the votes. After all there can only be one result in Ethiopia: that the regime must “win”. And they did – claiming 545 of the 547 seats in parliament.


Meles Zenawi was an Ethiopian dictator who had the nerve to declare that he won 99.6 per cent of the votes in that fraudulent election of 2010 in which his ruling EPRDF party ran against itself. As blatantly rigged the election results were, they were given the West’s stamp of approval and Meles Zenawi was congratulated on his “landslide victory”.


Armed by the Americans, the Meles Zenawi regime has been fighting a full-scale proxy war in Somalia to oust the Islamist al-Shabab forces that were trying to form a government in the government-less state. In return, the West has turned a blind eye to the regime’s deliberate attacks on civilians, mass displacement of populations and interference with humanitarian assistance in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have released details of the systematic human rights violations in the Ogaden region, calling it war crimes and crimes against humanity. But the outcry has fallen on deaf ears.


Regardless of his disregard for freedom and human rights that he amply demonstrated, Meles Zenawi never attracted condemnation from his Western allies and received approximately US$3 billion in funds annually.


President Obama, who in his inaugural address to the world in January 2009 said “to those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history,” could only have praise for Meles Zenawi and his authoritarian regime.


Following Meles Zenawi’s recent death, President Obama said: “Prime Minister Meles deserves recognition for his lifelong contribution to Ethiopia's development, particularly his unyielding commitment to Ethiopia's poor. I met with Prime Minister Meles at the G-8 Summit in May and recall my personal admiration for his desire to lift millions of Ethiopians out of poverty through his drive for food security.


Once again, the relationship between the West and the Meles Zenawi regime was a relationship that came at a cost to the human rights and freedom of Ethiopians and was founded on Meles Zenawi’s willingness to put first the interests of the West above the interests of his own people.


To the embarrassment of many Ethiopians, Meles Zenawi, not Ethiopia, was a member of the G-8 and G-20 and his role was to rub shoulders with his Western masters and take part in photo opportunities while his regime could not even tackle the chronic problem of food shortages that continues to affect the lives of many Ethiopians and the image of the country. So much for the “economic progress” that the Meles regime claims to have made, according to Human Rights Watch, “Ethiopia is the world’s second-largest recipient of total external assistance after Indonesia and excluding wartime Iraq and Afghanistan.”


The dictator that ruled Ethiopia for 21 years with an iron fist and only vacated his position when he died was once described by former American President Bill Clinton as being a part of a "new breed of African democrats" and by the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a "visionary leader".


So when they say democrats and visionary leaders, we know they mean corrupt puppets who work to advance Western interests and if they kill, jail, torture and abuse their own citizens to stay in power for as long as they can, it is just fine.


By Befekir Kebede for opinion section | Wednesday, 05 September 2012