Thursday, May 16, 2013
By Martin Schibbye and Patrick Griffith This month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to attend the 21st African Union (AU) summit. The message he brings will speak volumes about the future of American engagement on the continent. In announcing the visit during a U.S. Senate hearing last month, Mr. Kerry expressed concern about the potentially negative impact of China's and Iran's increased presence in Africa. He noted that graft and poor development choices could undermine the stability of some African governments, and he acknowledged the need for more U.S. engagement. Further American cooperation on development and security would be good news for Africa. But the U.S. must continue to focus on another potentially destabilizing factor in the continent: ongoing violations of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. Since their inception, the AU and its precursor, the Organization of African Unity, have embraced the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The African Charter on Human and People's Rights expressly protects a raft of basic human rights, including freedom of association, free expression and political participation. But despite these affirmations, the protection of such rights remains inconsistent across AU nations. Some governments continue to ignore certain provisions entirely. If he needs an example, Mr. Kerry need only look out his window in Addis Ababa. This month the Ethiopian Supreme Court upheld an 18-year prison sentence against independent journalist Eskinder Nega. Though the Ethiopian government is often touted as a close U.S. partner on security and poverty-reduction efforts, it has a dreadful record on rights. After parliamentary elections in 2005, the government jailed opposition leaders such as former judge Birtukan Mideksa and independent journalists who reported on the post-election unrest. Mr. Nega and his wife Serkalem Fasil, herself a prominent publisher, were among those arrested. They spent 17 months in a detention center on trumped-up charges of treason and genocide before they were finally released. Pregnant at the time of her arrest, Ms. Fasil was denied prenatal care for seven months and gave birth to their son Nafkot while in custody. In the spring of 2011, as popular uprisings gathered momentum across North Africa and the Middle East, Mr. Nega wrote extensively about their possible impact on Ethiopia. Despite warnings that he was going too far, Mr. Nega continued to write and speak publicly, often criticizing the government and calling for democratic reforms, while emphasizing the importance of nonviolence. But like fellow journalists Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye, and opposition activists such as Andualem Aragie, Mr. Nega was charged in September 2011 under Ethiopia's widely criticized 2009 Antiterrorism Proclamation. He now faces 18 years in prison. The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights has expressed grave alarm at Ethiopia's persecution of journalists and peaceful activists. In April the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention also weighed in, declaring Mr. Nega's detention illegal under international law and calling for his immediate release. But these admonitions have so far not convinced Ethiopian authorities to change course. When U.S. President Barack Obama laid out his administration's agenda for sub-Saharan Africa last summer, he emphasized strong democratic institutions and respect for the rule of law, noting that these promote both prosperity and stability. But as long as journalists and political activists are imprisoned for speaking their truth to power, such principles will remain illusory. Mr. Kerry has an important opportunity this month to convey that very message to his counterparts in Addis Ababa. Mr. Nega and his colleagues deserve nothing less. Mr. Schibbye is a Swedish journalist who was detained in Ethiopia for 14 months under the country's antiterror laws and held at Kaliti Prison with Eskinder Nega. Mr. Griffith is an attorney with Freedom Now, a legal advocacy organization that works to free prisoners of conscience, including Mr. Nega.
Friday, May 3, 2013
Today, Freedom Now, Amnesty International, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, the Committee to Free Eskinder Nega, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, English PEN, the International Press Institute, the International Women’s Media Foundation, Media Legal Defence Initiative, the National Press Club, PEN American Center, PEN Canada, and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, condemned the decision by the Ethiopian Supreme Court upholding the 18-year sentence imposed against independent journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega. "By upholding the sentence, the Ethiopian government has missed yet another opportunity to respect its freely undertaken obligations under international law,” the groups said. “This failure is particularly striking in light of today’s World Press Freedom Day celebrations." "By misusing anti-terror legislation to stifle the peaceful work of journalists like Mr. Nega and his colleagues Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye, the government has, unfortunately, demonstrated that it is willing to disregard the legitimate rights of the Ethiopian people and undermine the credibility of international efforts to address real security threats in the region, all in an attempt to silence critical voices in the country. It is time for the international community to make it clear to the government in Addis Ababa that such violations will no longer be tolerated." The decision upholding the verdict came yesterday after the Supreme Court postponed the appeal proceedings on seven separate occasions. Mr. Nega, who has been detained by the government eight times because of his journalism, was arrested on September 14, 2011 after he authored a series of articles and spoke publicly about the possible implications of the Middle East and North African-style popular uprising spreading to Ethiopia. Authorities held Mr. Nega without access to family for nearly one month and without access to an attorney for nearly two months. At trial, Mr. Nega admitted criticizing the government but affirmed that his writings only called for peaceful democratic reform in the country. He was convicted on June 27, 2012 and sentenced to 18 years in prison on July 13, 2012. After his sentencing, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that the continued imprisonment of Mr. Nega violates Ethiopia's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a party, and called for his immediate release.
Monday, April 1, 2013
UN FINDS IMPRISONMENT OF ETHIOPIAN JOURNALIST ESKINDER NEGA ARBITRARY UNDER INTERNATIONAL LAW AND CALLS FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 1, 2013 Washington, D.C.: In an opinion released today by Freedom Now, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found the Government of Ethiopia’s continued detention of independent Ethiopian journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega a violation of international law. The panel of five independent experts from four continents held that the government violated Mr. Nega’s rights to free expression and due process. The UN Working Group called for his immediate release. Mr. Nega is serving an 18-year prison sentence on terror and treason charges in response to his online articles and public speeches about the Arab Spring and the possible impact of such movements on the political situation in Ethiopia. Arrested in September 2011, Mr. Nega was held without charge or access to an attorney for nearly two months before authorities charged him under Ethiopia’s widely criticized anti-terror laws. This is the eighth time during his 20-year career as an independent journalist and publisher that the Ethiopian government has detained Mr. Nega. His appeal has been repeatedly postponed, most recently on March 27, 2013. In the attached opinion, released in conjunction with an op-ed by the renowned Ethiopian opposition leader and former prisoner of conscience Birtukan Mideksa, the UN Working Group found that the application of overly broad anti-terror laws against Mr. Nega constituted an “unjustified restriction” on his right to freedom of expression. The UN Working Group’s opinion also recognized “several breaches of Mr. Nega’s fair trial rights,” further rendering his continued detention arbitrary under international law. “The Ethiopian government cannot continue to use anti-terrorism legislation to muzzle the work of independent journalists, even when it does not like what is being reported,” said Freedom Now Executive Director Maran Turner. “The targeting of journalists by resorting to overly broad anti-terror laws, just like the use of anti-state charges in the pre-9/11 era, is a violation of the internationally protected right to free expression and undermines international efforts to address real security threats.” Freedom Now represents Mr. Nega as his international pro bono counsel.
Wendy Laura Belcher. Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson. Pp. ix–286. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Cloth, £45. In 2008, I debuted my edition of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas (Broadview) by presenting to a group of Johnson scholars at the annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. After I described my edition’s emphasis on Johnson’s indebtedness to the oriental tale, an eminent Johnsonian demurred, declaring that Johnson ‘would have been disgusted’ by The Arabian Nights. Wendy Laura Belcher’s new book, Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson, definitively argues that Johnson, far from being disgusted by all things oriental, was in Belcher’s ingenious phrase ‘discursively possessed’ by Abyssinia from the very advent of his literary career and throughout his life. Belcher’s account radically reframes Johnson’s thought while also offering a new model—‘discursive possession’—for theorizing the relationship between European and non-European cultures that should have wide-ranging resonance beyond Johnsonian and eighteenth-century studies. Scholars need to take seriously Belcher’s claim that ‘The Western literary canon is a vast graveyard haunted by self-representing others, whose voices become the uncanny language of the very text that participates in constituting the other as an object of knowledge. The legible sign of the invisible other appears through the text that displaces heterogeneity even while being transformed by it’ (p. 18). Belcher’s animating paradigm of ‘discursive possession’ shows ‘how African discourse can animate European texts,’ locating ‘agency outside of the European traveler, author, intellectual’ (pp. 6, 7). As Belcher explains, discursive possession is more profound than intertextuality or influence studies because it accounts for the agency of a non-dominant discourse to shape the discourse of a dominant culture. Belcher critiques the ‘dominant models’ of post-colonial theory for ‘a failure to recognize that Africans produce discourse’ that powerfully affects Europeans (p. 7). To explain discursive possession, Belcher draws on African concepts of spirit possession and also shows how Johnson himself defines ‘possession’ as a lack of agency inherent to the creative process (pp. 48–9). The products of discursive possession are ‘energumens,’ texts ‘through which other texts and voices speak’ (p. 8). Belcher makes her case first by outlining the powerful discourse produced by the Habesha, the people of the Ethiopian highlands, an ancient discourse of cultural exceptionalism that had penetrated Europe as early as the Middle Ages via the Habesha’s own self-representing texts and ambassadors, tantalizing Europeans with accounts of the Habesha’s pure Christianity. Belcher shows that Europeans did not discover the Habesha, but were, one might say, discovered by them and were thus the recipients of their self-representations from the start of their cultural contact. In this way she offers a direct rejoinder to Edward Said and other post-colonial theorists of orientalism who believe (in Belcher’s summary) that ‘non-Western discourse … had little opportunity to shape the Western world’ (p. 98). It is important to note that Belcher’s emphasis remains on discourse. She is not suggesting that we find ‘real’ Abyssinians in Western texts; rather she is interested in ‘whether typical Habesha discourse – from Habesha texts and traditions – appears in the European text’ (p. 102). The Habesha discourse of cultural exceptionalism drew Europeans to Abyssinia, whether to attempt to reunite the Habesha with the Roman Catholic Church (as in the case of sixteenth-century Portuguese Jesuits), or to celebrate the Habesha as proto-Protestant models of a non-decadent Christianity (as did the seventeenth-century German scholar Hiob Ludolph). Belcher argues, Habesha discourse possessed the young Samuel Johnson at Oxford as he read deeply in scholarship on the ‘primitive’ church in his own spiritual awakening. In this way Belcher convinces the reader of the centrality for Johnson’s thought of his first published work, A Voyage to Abyssinia by Father Jerome Lobo (1735), a loose translation of a French translation/adaptation of a Portuguese manuscript about the Habesha, a work Johnson scholars have long dismissed as hackwork and that only a handful examined. Belcher points out that we must account for the fact that Johnson begins his illustrious literary career not with a Latin classic or with Shakespeare, ‘but with a text about a famous African people – an African people who have long been imbricated in European debates and thought’ (p. 45). Belcher believes Habesha discourse offered the young, questioning Johnson a model of religious practice that resonated with his desire for a pure Christianity that was ancient, like Catholicism, but was not the ‘aggressive political and colonial institution’ of Rome. The Habesha church ‘offered a way of separating the spiritual doctrines from the earthly power’ (p. 70). Belcher’s compelling reading of the significance of Habesha Christianity for Johnson’s thought offers a wonderful solution to the long-standing debate over the nature of Johnson’s ‘slightly peculiar,’ seemingly crypto-Catholic Anglicanism (p. 70). From her detailed reading of A Voyage to Abyssinia, spanning three of the book’s eight chapters, to her fresh interpretation of Johnson’s early play Irene, to her analysis of Habesha discourse in Johnson’s oriental tales published in the Rambler and the Idler, Belcher sheds definitive light on works that have received little scholarly attention, particularly in the past 40 years. Again and again she shows how Habesha discourse shaped Johnson’s writing. Her analysis of the complex palimpsest that is A Voyage to Abyssinia does a signal service to Johnsonian scholarship. She shows that ‘his translation’s effect, regardless of its motivations, is to recuperate the Africans and mortify the Europeans, much as the Habesha themselves might have wished’ when he ‘recasts the Portuguese as colonial aggressors, not devoted servants of God’ or when he ‘dramatically mistranslates in the Habesha’s favor, working against the negative presentation of the Habesha that Lobo and Le Grand are trying to communicate’ (pp. 91, 94, 95). Some of this has been pointed out piecemeal by previous scholars, but never before in the service of a larger argument about the agency of African discourse. Perhaps the most surprising chapter in the book is Belcher’s reading of Irene in which Habesha discourse appears in Johnson’s representations of ‘the oriental other as a complicated, rhetorically gifted Christian’ (p. 140). Belcher’s excavation of Habesha discourse—along with her careful attention to the variations between Johnson’s text in its final stage version—in this play convincingly explains some of Johnson’s seemingly odd dramatic choices in the play as well as its stage failure. Belcher concludes with two chapters on Johnson’s Abyssinian masterpiece, Rasselas, that argue against recent scholars’ readings of it as ‘the paradigmatic orientalist text, deploying the Middle East to explore unmistakably Western obsessions’ (p. 191). Instead, Belcher shows that Rasselas is ‘a text with deep links to non-Western thought and partially co-constituted by the Habesha’ (p. 193). Belcher takes the 50-year-old scholarship of Johnsonians such as Gwin J. Kolb and Donald M. Lockhart on Rasselas’s Abyssinian sources and gives it the theoretical sophistication of her ‘discursive possession’ model, elegantly melding what might seem like very different scholarly traditions. Her interpretation of the tale itself, especially an extended reading of the astronomer’s possession by age-old Habesha rhetoric of power over their land, is ingenious and original. The last pages of Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson gesture towards broader contexts in which the ‘discursive possession’ model can be useful. As Belcher notes, artists have long described the creative process as one of possession. Scholars need to take this seriously, to chart, as Belcher has done so compellingly, how ‘non-European thought, through such discursive possession, animates some texts of the European canon’ (p. 247). © The Author 2013. Published by Oxford University Press 2013; all rights reserved
Friday, March 1, 2013
By William Davison, Correspondent / February 28, 2013 ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA Of the many outreach programs run here by Germany’s Heinrich Böll Foundation, one caused special alarm for an official new Ethiopian agency that is starting to block and restrict the promotion of civil society ideas. The Böll program, “SurVivArt: Art for the Right to a Good Life,” dealt with notions of healthy, intelligent, and successful living, and illustrated differing concepts of home, food, and choice consumer goods – all done through sculpture and video arts. To a Western-oriented eye, it seemed harmless. But officials at the “Charities and Societies Agency” fairly flipped when they saw a word implying “rights” in the program title. "'Why has this got right in it?' they asked," remembers Patrick Berg, the foundation's former Ethiopia director, who just returned to Germany after deciding that the agency and its zealous application of a restrictive new law made meaningful work impossible. Read the full story here.
Helen Epstein America’s new drone base in the West African city of Niamey, Niger, announced by the White House on Friday, further expands our counter-terrorism activity in Africa. It’s also consistent with the militaristic emphasis of the Obama administration’s engagement with the continent. This may help contain the spread of jihadist violence in specific cases, but by failing to address persistent abuses of human rights by our African military allies, America is also undermining its own development investments that are intended to lift millions of people out of poverty and ensure the continent’s peace, stability, and economic growth. The administration’s neglect of human rights in Africa is a great disappointment, since the president began his first term by laying out ambitious new goals for the continent. In July 2009, when his presidency was only six months old, Barack Obama delivered a powerful speech at Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, the point from which millions of African slaves were shipped across the Atlantic. He called on African countries to end the tyranny of corruption that affects so many of their populations, and to build strong institutions that serve the people and hold leaders accountable. The speech seemed to extend the message of his much-discussed Cairo address a month earlier, in which he called for a new beginning for Muslim relations with the West, based on non-violence and mutual respect. Many thought that the policies of the new president, himself of Kenyan descent, would depart from those of the Bush administration, which provided a great deal of development aid to Africa, but paid scant attention to human rights. After more than four years in office, however, Obama has done little to advance the idealistic goals of his Ghana speech. The US finally suspended military aid to Rwanda last year, after it was forced to accept evidence of Rwandan support for the brutal Congolese rebel group M23, but has otherwise ignored the highly problematic human rights situation in that country. In Uganda, the US looked on for years as President Yoweri Museveni’s cabinet ministers gorged themselves on American and other foreign aid intended for impoverished farmers, war victims, roads, and health care. US diplomats have recently begun expressing support for Uganda’s many oppressed civil society groups, but one wonders what took them so long. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Uganda is a vital US military ally in Somalia, where Ugandan troops helped oust the Islamic militant group al-Shabbab from Mogadishu last year. Meanwhile, Kenya, another important US ally in Somalia that is soon to be receiving drones from the Pentagon, is preparing for national elections on March 4. But some observers say the country is more violent now than it was in 2007, when post-election ethnic clashes left 1000 people dead and caused economic chaos across East Africa. Presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto have both been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes connected with those events. It’s not clear what the US will do if Kenyatta wins, but it often seems as if Obama will work with any African leader who furthers America’s military aims, regardless of how that leader treats his own people. And then there is Ethiopia. Today, Western nations give $3.5 billion a year in aid to Ethiopia, most of it for health care projects, food aid, and other development programs. Of this, the US alone provides roughly $700 million—an amount that has quintupled in the past decade, even as the nation’s human rights record has deteriorated to the point that Freedom House now designates it one of the least free countries in the world. The Ethiopian government has rigged elections, taken control of the economy, and outlawed virtually all independent media and human rights activity in the country—including work related to women and children’s rights, good governance, and conflict resolution. Thousands of political prisoners languish behind bars and dozens of editors, journalists, judges, lawyers, and academics have been forced into exile. But when Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died last summer, then-US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice praised him as a personal friend and a “talented and vital leader.” When she remarked that “he had little patience for fools, or ‘idiots,’ as he liked to call them,” some in the opposition believed she was referring to them—and approving Meles’s sentiments. Rice’s support for authoritarian leaders in Africa was highlighted by critics who opposed—and ultimately derailed—her nomination to be secretary of state. To read the entire article on NYR, click here.
Thursday, February 28, 2013
Special report: Emerging Africa March 2nd 2013 The Economist ETHIOPIAN BORDER GUARDS at the arrivals terminal in Metema check every passport against a handwritten list of undesirables to be kept out. This a country in which the state knows best. That may be tiresome for visitors, but it has made Ethiopia one of Africa’s development stars. A newly built road leading away from the border is surrounded by intensively farmed fields of sesame, Ethiopia’s second-biggest export after coffee. Golden bundles of harvested stalks sit on fields flanked by streams. It is a long time since famine-struck 1984, when Bob Geldof sang about the country “where nothing ever grows / No rain or rivers flow / Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?” Now it is Christmas time in Ethiopia, up to a point. The country has a state-backed policy of boosting the economy and alleviating poverty, carried out by officials with near-dictatorial powers. Markets and foreign investors are allowed but mistrusted. The model borrows from China and is conceived as a rejection of Western free-for-all capitalism. It claims to nurture local employers and protect them from Wall Street predators. The government talks vaguely about moving to a liberal democracy in the future, but that is a long way off. The economy comes first. Meles Zenawi, the country’s late prime minister, developed a vision for the country of 85m that focuses mainly on improving its agriculture, which accounts for 46% of GDP and employs 79% of the workforce. To read the article in its entirety, click here.