CRUEL ETHIOPIA or RUTHLESS NGO TRIBE

I have read Helen Epstein article, Cruel Ethiopia, which appears in The New York Review of Books. More than anything, the article is represents a standard paradigm of the latter day saints of Bleeding Heart Liberals. Rejected by the hitherto marginal Ethno-racial social groups since the Civil Rights Movement, disoriented by the defeat in the mainstream US body politics since the Reagan years, the Liberals are self-exiled in Africa and other poor parts of the world to continue concocting their poisonous potion. Ontologically sanctimoniously narcissistic, epistemologically snobbishly superficial, the liberals have transplanted themselves in Africa to discharge their ignoble missionary function to save the Africans from their congenital sins.

If Ms. Epstein was not a bleeding heart white liberal, I would not be bothered to write this response. I am directly challenging her self-professed moral authority and intellectual aptitude regarding the Ethiopian social-political condition. Evidently, Ms. Epstein has made her name famous by getting involved in the AIDS crisis in Uganda. However, she has incurred her namesake cultural capital by projecting her white liberal identity without reservation. Hence it is not her investment in the AIDS industry that has given her the license to write factually wrong and disconcertingly pompous political document.  AIDS is only the legitimizing vehicle allowing her to spew her venom.  Her real authority over everything Ethiopian in speculating what had happened, what is happening and what is going to happen is her white identity. 

However, even though the bottom line of her speculating power which is not apparent to her and her likes is blindingly bright to any Ethiopian, African, or any person of African descent anywhere for that matter. Especially, for people of African descent living in the West, the spectacle of self-assured yet empty diatribes of white liberals is laughable at best or disgusting worst. Dishonest by nature, paternalistic in personality, and racist by instinct, white liberals have transcended the threshold of common decency only to find themselves in the cesspool of colonial legacy.   

First, Ms. Epstein authoritative article is rippled with subjective and opinionated sentences such as: “I was surprised to see…“. “But I had always assumed…” ”There is probably some truth to the story…” The fact that the credibility of her argument is based on assumptions and probability would not hold in any other circumstances. I am sure Ms. Epstein a Biologist by training knows the importance of detached verification. So the logical question would be why she p\resents her prejudiced opinion as fact. The answer is simple; when it comes to Africa her word is the truth and her judgment is definitive.

Second, without any sense of embarrassment, just to make her point she resorts to factually erroneous points such as: “A nominally Christian country surrounded by largely Islamic Somalia, Sudan, and Kenya…”  Since when is Kenya largely Islamic? “Seventy opposition leaders… were later pardoned…”” Birtukan Mideksa remains behind bars…Birtukan was pardoned with the rest; her present incarceration is linked with a subsequent event that has no connection with her pardon. Again, why Ms. Epstein, even if her hate towards the Government has blinded her, does not acknowledge this simple matter of fact? At least she might say; she was pardoned and later rearrested on a trumped up charge. Even if the latter argument is not true, it is at least based on the actual sequence of events. Ms. Epstein does not even try to make her case by simple corroboration with actual turn of events because she clearly believes that her indictment does not need any validation. After all, she has the vested mandate to support or to condemn depending on her fancy.      

Third, with unabashed sense of certainty, Ms. Epstein takes for granted the words of infamous archenemies of Ethiopia. Even her legitimate sources themselves did not hide their absolute contempt and reckless partiality. “European Union observers criticized the conduct of the elections” Taking the words of Ms. Ana Gomez, the head of the European Union Election Observers, at face value without any qualification defies common sense; even for a biologist who ventured into the political wasteland of Europe Africa dynamics. The transgression is so out of touch with reality, even Ms. Gomez would be delightfully surprised by her new found credibility after she has openly discredited herself by becoming a leading player in the most extreme faction of the so-called opposition in exiled. “In March 2010 BBC report, a former TPLF Fighter described masquerading as a Sudanese merchant and selling bags of “grain” – many containing only sand…” Again this particular piece of news warrants at least a little bit of checking. If not for the sake of the Ethiopian government, she should at least give Bob Geldof the benefit of the doubt than sanctioning the invented words of some nameless and faceless aid workers.  

 Fourth, Ms. Epstein article makes the West a teflon making sure that nothing sticks on it. At the same time it brands Africa with a hot iron indelibly marked with original sin. For instance she states: “Western aid officials seem reluctant to admit that there are two Prime Minister Meles Zenawis. One is a clubbable, charming African who gives moving speeches at Davos and other elite forums about fighting poverty and terrorism. The other is a dictator whose totalitarianism dates back to cold war days. During the early 1970s, when Meles was a medical student in Addis Ababa, he joined a Marxist study group that eventually became the TPLF. Meles’s military performance was undistinguished, but he had a talent for speech-making, and was appointed head of the TPLF’s political wing. In the training courses he ran for recruits, he celebrated Stalin’s achievement in modernizing Russia, but didn’t dwell on the blood that was shed in the process.” The two most important characteristics here are charming African and dictator. I don’t think that Ms. Epstein is concerned that Prime Minister Meles have two faces. After all, it is not unusual even more so by Western standard for politicians to project two personalities.

Her real problem is that why Meles the African, instead of being a customary Negro by being either a Sambo (charming African) or a Nat (dictator) dare to exhibit the dual qualities of a politician. Right out of the Antebellum Southern US, she implicitly believes that Meles has to be domesticated or eliminated. Since the former is impossible, she believes the latter in the only option left. How dare he overstep his boundary into a privilege Zone that is only reserved for the superior breed? Her superiority complex is expressed thus: “Before I left Ethiopia, I visited an old church in the Amhara highlands. Orthodox Christian traditions in this part of the country date back 1,600 years, and it’s astonishing to think that these impoverished people had a written language and a sophisticated clerical hierarchy that long ago. I was shown a beautifully illuminated set of liturgical manuscripts created in the 1700s, in which images of almond-eyed saints loomed amid the gospels written out in Ethiopia’s ancient Ge’ez script. In some of the paintings, you could see the artists’ struggles to reconcile their turbulent cultural heritage by combining the doctrinal power of the sacred word with the abstract flourishes more typical of the cultures of the African interior.

Here the biologist has turned into a bonafide Orientalist doubting the literate culture of Ethiopia. As far as she is concerned, it is illogical for destitute niggers to have written language with sophisticated Hierarchical social order. At least next to the West it is only the Orient (China, India, and Islamdom) that are fitted with such distinction.  She is also an art critic interrogating the medieval Ethiopian artist’s state of mind. She tells us how he was possessed with deep seated schizophrenia attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable; the literate culture of Middle Eastern civilization with that of the barbarism of African interior. 

Fifth, the only truth in her article is when she inadvertently stated:  These events are unfolding as billions of dollars in foreign aid pour into the country. Foreign aid is important. It helps needy people, it creates allies for our causes and markets for our products, and redeems some of the damage inflicted on the third world during the cold war. But aid agencies need to ensure that their programs don’t exacerbate the political problems that are keeping people poor in the first place.” (1) Helping needy people; (2) creating allies for our cause and markets for our products; (3) redeeming some of cold war damages are not only different they are contradictory. It only makes sense in the logic of the post-colonial imperialist mind. It is post-colonial because it deals with current problems. It is imperialistic because the three pronged assault is tantamount to an old wine in anew bottle.

Helping people has always been a hegemonic justification to rape Africa. Helping needy people is the latest version of Western high standing.  Its precursors’ are Ending Slavery, Civilization Mission, and Developmentalism to name a few. Creating allies for our causes and markets is taken out nineteenth century textbook of Imperialism. They were the same reasons advanced to colonize the continent. Redeeming cold war damages is also not new. Each time when Westerners cast their net on Africa, they base their rationale on liberating the continent from the ills of their own making. The colonialist made the fight against slavery his purpose in life. The developmentalist claims that anti-colonialism is its calling. And the post colonial humanitarian tells us that cold war era dictatorship is its foe. In each case however, the blame is surreptitiously transferred to the African while the West is exculpated from responsibility.

Sixth, my only advice to Ms. Epstein is to wake up and smell the coffee. No black person is impressed by her ridiculous article. I just suggest that she reads a critical book that can absolve her from her delusional state of mind. Authored by Michelle Alexander, a talented African American woman scholar, a remarkable book titled The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness has recently hit the US book market. The main argument of this timely text is that despite its official termination with the enactment of the Civil Right Acts of 1964, Jim Crow has been revitalized in a new form since the Reagan years of the 1980s. Unlike direct segregation, this time around it is the satanic mill of the criminal justice system, which extends from prosecution, incarceration, to probation that is used to disfranchise the vast majority of the Black population. What makes the book incisive is its long-term/large-scale perspective, which exposes the ploy of putting old wine in a new bottle. It sheds light on how the institutional racism of Jim Crow is reproduced afresh in the Criminal Justice Apparatus. 

Seventh, if Ms. Epstein is truly sincere and well meaning, she should at least start her argument by starting from her own backyard instead of travelling halfway across the globe and shed her crocodile tears. Right at this very moment the state of Arizona has passed a law executing racial profiling so talking about the potential danger of Ethnicity in Ethiopia is preposterous. We have been leave under the spell of the Patriot Act, which basically invades people’s human and civil rights. Thus to be obsessed with Ethiopian political order is dishonest to say the least. The Black Victims of Hurricane Katrina are still waiting for rehabilitation, so lamenting about victimization in Africa is hypocritical. There are two Million prisoners in the US, most of which are black folks. Again complaining about systemic cruelty is Ethiopia is hollow.     

Eighth, so why Ms. Epstein is engaged in a politically pointless and intellectually fraudulent discourse? The answer is not that difficult to fathom. Using the colonial term of TRIBE that she utilizes without scruple, she is articulating the voice of the quintessential TRIBAL group of NGO. Although, they come in different forms and shapes, they are patently Western by origin and paternalistic by disposition. They are the latest embodiment of historical hegemony. The only thing that has changed this time around is that they don’t have the final say. It is precisely for this reason that the African Peoples in general and those in Ethiopia qualify them as TRIBAL. They meet the criteria of their own definition. That is they are narrow-minded in knowledge, parochial in interest, and Caucasians in makeup.  

Mehretab Assefa

04-29-10