Fighting for human rights, neoliberalism? Then make Ethiopia one now


Ethiopian government was forcibly moving tens of thousands of indigenous people in the western Gambella 
Tedla Desta  

The New Year has popped in jammed with fascinating news items. It kicked off with the joyfully astounding announcement of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) to a tragic one that took the lives of five tourists in Ethiopia’s remotest region, Afar and a car accident in the North. This tragic horror, committed by whoever is sinfully insane, was preceded a day before by a news item that gave a good blow to the Meles Zenawi Administration. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the Ethiopian government was forcibly moving tens of thousands of indigenous people in the western Gambella region from their homes to new villages under its “villagization” program. It said that these population transfers were being carried out with no meaningful consultation and no compensation and was despite government promises to provide basic resources and infrastructure. The relocations have been marked by threats and assaults, and arbitrary arrest for those who resist the move. Human Rights Watch produced the study after it interviewed over 100 residents affected in the first round of the villagization program in Gambella and found widespread human rights violations at all stages of the program.  A villager in Abobo Woreda, said in an interview with a HRW researcher,

We were told, “If somebody refuses, the government will take action”—so  the people went to the new village—by force.

This and many other research reports, press releases and advocacies were open to the elements from HRW in relation to human rights issues in Ethiopia. All the publications were, by the judgement of this writer, pro human rights, liberty, justice and democracy. These reports have been able to shade lights into what is happening behind the so called “developmental state” of Ethiopia and the glittering buildings of Addis Abeba. In such a time when, all forms of free media and communication have been blocked in Ethiopia creating a condition where both the insiders and outsiders have become unable to communicate and voice what is untold, the reports and statements by HRW are godsend for the millions of voiceless Ethiopians. This internationally reputable organisation is doing a favour to the millions of voiceless Ethiopians by producing cross cutting research reports and leveraging the international community to stand with the powerless and look at the truth than mere strategic interests. The Meles Zenawi regime has always been meddlesome of the HRW reports than any other organisation’s or countries annual reports. In the aftermath of the 2010 Ethiopian National election, the regime forced the city dwellers to demonstrate against HRW in Meskel Square. I remember watching an old lady holding a placard, stuttering to pronounce Human Rights Watch properly and shouting “HRW stop meddling in our politics”.  How many of those in the march knew what HRW does and what it really did?


Like always, the Meles administration responded to last week’s report by HRW by calling it an “ideological campaign” against the government. Meles becomes a revolutionary democrat when he likes and developmental democrat when it pleases him. Thus now he is a developmental democrat who is being “attacked” by the neoliberals.  

The Ministry of Federal Affairs in its response to HRW’s report said this,

These persistent and unfounded allegations of HRW based on its neo-liberal ideology will not deter Ethiopia from pursuing in its development path.

The statement also said the hostility of Human Rights Watch emanates from the market fundamentalism ideology advocated by neoliberals which Ethiopia does not accept.  Following the 2005 election, the Meles regime had two distinct enemies that it continued to savagely do violence to. These are neoliberals and rent seekers. The Ethiopian government had always argued against HRW’s reports by saying that they are “Newoliberalsit” campaigners who waged warfare against the “Developmental Democracy” Ethiopia. In short, HRW aspires to change Ethiopia into a newoliberal state, they say.

In line with the above outlook, a very recent EPRDF file called “The Strategic Significance of Election 2010” states,

Though rent-seekers of our country took on this confusion from their manipulators and fanned it after the election, this confusion had been widely spread by the fundamentalist neo-liberals prior to the election. In this respect the statements issued by the major proponent of this campaign, Human Rights Watch, before the election and on the morrow of the election can be taken as typical proofs for this. Moreover, one can easily guess that the conclusion of the EU Observers is the result of the pressure exerted by these fundamentalist neo-liberals. The attempt of the officials of Human Rights Watch to speak to and coax the leaders of the EU Observers is a public secret. So it should be underscored here that the campaign involved many actors, including the Human Rights Watch, and our rent-seekers who joined the band wagon late is an integrated one and would further be consolidated in the future to belittle the democratic victory of the people.

The file further continues and attests that HRW and the Eritrean government have been working to create a copycat of Darfur in Ethiopia’s eastern region, the Somali Regional State. This is with regards to the 2007 reports by HRW regarding alleged “genocide” and human rights abuse in the Region.

As is well known, the high expectation of forces such as Shaebia and the Human Rights Watch as well as local anti-peace forces to create an Ethiopian Darfur by consolidating anti-peace forces as never seen before and by simultaneously conducting wide campaign in the name of human rights concentrated on the problem in Somali Regional State. Their strong wish and expectation that the situation in the state would get out of control and become a huge problem similar to Darfur in the Sudan proved futile.

In a 2010 article on the EPRDF website titled “Revolutionary Democracy: A fitting Worldview for economic and political development in Ethiopia”, Adal Isaw shows his own and his party opposition to liberalism and newliberalism in a Lenisit undertone as such,

Revolutionary democracy rejects the philosophy of aggrandizing the individual as if he or she, by uncoordinated design, is the source of economic and political development.  Political and economic development is the result of a planned collective effort, not the result of a spontaneous interaction of self-seeking individuals.  For all these aforementioned reasons then, revolutionary democrats are cognizant of the fact that the arduous work to build a middle income democratic Ethiopia will be nearly impossible; one, if and when it is based on a liberal worldview that favors the unfair and controlling economic and political interest of the Western world; and two, if and when it is based on economic and political philosophy that exaggerates the inalienable rights of a self-seeking individual.

In a similar manner, Meles Zenawi in a recent academic paper titled ‘States and Markets: Neoliberal Limitations and the Case for a Developmental State’, 2012 contained in a book titled ‘Good Growth and Governance in Africa: Rethinking Development Strategies’ and published by Initiative for Policy Dialogue scrutinised the “theoretical and conceptual limitations of neoliberal paradigm and the need for Africans states towards becoming developmental”.  Echoing Joseph Stieglitz’s market fundamentalism and anti-neoliberalism concepts, the 34 page paper by Meles bashes neoliberalism as an ideology that ‘fosters rent seeking’ and lauds ‘his’ Developmental State Paradigm that “accelerates growth and limits socially wasteful rent seeking”. Last month, Head of the Government Communications Affairs Office (GCAO), Bereket Simon in his interview with Tefera Gdamu of Ethiopian Television said “The mother of all problems in Ethiopia is rent seeking.”

Generalising and arresting local opposition and critics under the umbrella of “rent seekers” and foreign and Diaspora based critics as “fundamentalist neo-liberals” has become the game of the day. In this century, when the war of ideologies has died out, EPRDF/TPLF is now up in hostilities with its own ideological ‘enemies’ – the neoliberals.


With the academic and political debates and arguments held aside, let’s read what the definitions of these chunk words mean. Many writers agree that Neoliberalism originates and shares aspects of liberalism which as to the Oxford English Dictionary (1989) is a political ideology which is “[f]avourable to constitutional changes and legal or administrative reforms tending in the direction of freedom or democracy”. Neoliberalism is a modified or revived form of traditional liberalism, [especially] one based on belief in free market capitalism and the rights of the individual” (Oxford English Dictionary, 1989a).  Libertarianism on the other hand is typified, as its name suggests, by a remorseless concern for liberty above everything else, especially economic or commercial liberty, coupled with a corresponding de-emphasis of other traditional liberal purposes and values such as democracy and social justice. This sets libertarians apart from many earlier classical liberals such as Smith and Tocqueville who, while they vigorously advocated quite extensive economic liberties, also acknowledge the validity and legitimacy of other concerns.

Neoliberalism promotes the ownership of the economy by the private sector than public or reduced state interventionism. Its policy proposals such as mainly of removing large deficits, redirected pro poor and growth public spending, trade liberalisation, privatisation of state enterprises, deregulation and similar others has gained momentum with many international organisations and countries.

Rent-seeking generally implies the extraction of uncompensated value from others without making any contribution to productivity. The origin of the term refers to the gaining control of land or other pre-existing natural resources. In the modern economy, a more common example of rent-seeking is political lobbying to receive a government transfer payment, or to impose burdensome regulations on one’s competitors in order to increase one’s market share.

The above definitions are not conclusive and broad enough; however they can give some clue about the terms and their relationship. Now putting the above academic definitions on the plate, let us assess what HRW really does. We do this by directly reading what HRW does and its missions are;

Human Rights Watch

HRW is one of theworld’s leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, it gives voice to the oppressed and holds oppressors accountable for their crimes. HRW’s rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For more than 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world, according to the official website of HRW.

HRW Mission

Human Rights Watch is dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world. We stand with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom, to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime, and to bring offenders to justice. We investigate and expose human rights violations and hold abusers accountable. We challenge governments and those who hold power to end abusive practices and respect international human rights law. We enlist the public and the international community to support the cause of human rights for all.
Be a neoliberal

Since writing of his “African Development: Dead. African Development: Dead. African Development: Dead Ends and New Beginnings”, Meles and his apostles started to utter the words of development, transformation and growth as the primary goals and missions of the government while sliding from their initial Revolutionary Democracy ideologies, human rights, democracy and freedom mantras. They squarely put the failure of African economies as the responsibility of “neoliberals, rent seeking and neoliberalism”. As can be comprehended from the above paragraphs, there is no single line or connotation that evidences HRW is a neoliberal institution or campaigns it taking it as its mission. In spite of this, the Meles administration prefers to label the rights group as a neoliberal organisation albeit it is rarely that we hear entities or persons tagged a “neoliberal” like we habitually say a “liberal” or “libertarian”.

Therefore, if defending and protecting human rights, upholding political freedom,  protecting people from inhumane conduct in wartime, bringing offenders to justice and challenging abusive governments is neoliberalism as the Meles’ love to hallucinate it, why not Ethiopia be a neoliberal nation and we also be neoliberals? Yes if human right was abused, injustice prevailed and repression reigned with the developmentalist state paradigm as we are witnessing now, why not we be Neoliberals?

Yes Neoliberals of the world Unite!

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