Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and the Politics of Naming
By Stephen Gowans
July 10, 2007
When Africa scholar Mahmoud Mandani looks at the slaughter and displacement of civilians in Darfur he notices something odd. The mass death of civilians in Darfur has been called a genocide, but slaughters of civilians of similar magnitude in Iraq and on a larger scale in Congo have not.
According to the World Food Program, about 200,000 civilians have died in Darfur, 80 percent from starvation and disease, and 20 percent from violence. Close to 700,000 have been displaced(1). This, the US government, calls a genocide.
But 600,000 Iraqis have died since 2003 as a result of violence related to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq (2) and 3.7 million have either fled to neighboring countries or are internally displaced (3).
"I read about all sorts of violence against civilians," says Mamdani, "and there are two places that I read about - one is Iraq, and one is Darfur ... And I'm struck by the fact that the largest political movement against mass violence on US campuses is on Darfur and not on Iraq." (4)
If Darfur is modest in comparison to Iraq, both are pipsqueeks compared to Congo. There, some four million civilians have been slaughtered over several years, largely as a result of intervention by US proxies, Uganda and Rwanda.
In Somalia, 460,000 civilians have been displaced by fighting sparked by a US-backed and assisted invasion by Ethiopia (5). That invasion was aimed at ousting the popularly-backed Islamic Courts Union, which had brought a measure of stability to Somalia. "In the six months the Islamic courts (governed Somalia), less than 20 people lost their lives through violence. Now, that many die in 10 minutes," observes Hussein Adow, a Mogadishu businessman (6).
Why is there is a Save Darfur Campaign, but no Save Congo Campaign and no Save Somalia Campaign?
Mamdani says that people in the West don't react to the mass slaughter of civilians but to the labels their governments and media attach to them.
"Genocide is being instrumentalized by ... the United States," he explains. "It is being instrumentalized in a way that mass slaughters which implicate its adversaries are being named as genocide and those which implicate its friends or its proxies are not being named as genocide."
Mandani calls this "the politics of naming."
The politics of naming isn't limited to the question of which slaughters are named genocide and which aren't. It applies too to the question of which regimes are called dictatorial, repressive and brutal (and so must be changed), and which are not (and so should be left in peace.)
Take the case of Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. Tons of printer's ink have been consumed by Western newspapers denouncing Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe. According to the Western narrative, he is as a dictator who steals elections, represses the opposition and cracks heads to stay in power.
But Mugabe's government, in view of concerted efforts from outside and within to overthrow it, is remarkably restrained. Archbishop Pious Ncube, one of the government's most vociferous critics, recently called on Zimbabwe's former colonial master, Britain, to remove Mugabe through military means. "We should do it ourselves," he added, "but there's too much fear. I'm ready to lead the people, guns blazing, but the people are not ready." (7) (Imagine Noam Chomsky calling for a coalition of Russia, China, Venezuela, Iran and north Korea to invade the US to force Washington to end its occupation of Iraq. "I'm ready to lead the people, guns blazing," he might say, "but the people are not ready." How long would it be before Chomsky was hustled off to jail?)
Ncube isn't the first government opponent to threaten a campaign of violence to oust Mugabe. And yet Ncube and others remain at liberty to call for sanctions, outside military intervention and insurrection to depose the government.
Ethiopia, on the other hand, is a cipher. It receives little coverage from the Western media, and even less attention from people who routinely denounce the Sudanese and Zimbabwean governments from the left.
That's odd, for the Ethiopian government has all the flaws the Zimbabwean government is said to have that arouse so much moral indignation.
Ethiopia "jails it citizens without reason or trial, tortures many of them, and habitually violates its own laws.
"The government was ... severely criticized for a 2005 crackdown in which tens of thousands of opposition members were jailed and nearly 200 people killed after elections in which the opposition made major gains.
"Ethiopian officials ... have expelled many foreign journalists and representatives of human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch." (9)
Disputed elections, crackdowns on the opposition, expulsion of journalists: this resembles the charge sheet against Mugabe. So why isn't Melawi as thoroughly excoriated as Mugabe is?
A July 9th Reuters' report says, "Ethiopian prosecutors demanded the death penalty for 38 opposition officials convicted of trying to overthrow the government, treason and inciting violence.
"The officials were convicted last month of charges relating to violent protests over disputed elections in 2005 that the opposition says were rigged.
"Nearly 200 people were killed in clashes between protestors and security forces over the vote.
"Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said he regretted the post-poll violence, but blamed it on opportunistic rioters and an opposition conspiracy to topple him by force."
I read the Reuters' article to a friend, but replaced Ethiopia with Zimbabwe and Zenawi with Mugabe. There seemed nothing out of the ordinary to her. And indeed, it's likely that most people in the West would not have detected the deception. It meshes with the Western narrative on Zimbabwe. If you've been reading Western press accounts, you would expect Mugabe to round up the opposition (whose leaders have long threatened the violent overthrow of the government), charge them with treason, and seek their execution. But he hasn't.
Had he, a storm of indignation would have swept the Western world. Yet Zenawi does the same, and no politician works himself up into high moral dudgeon, no calls are made for sanctions or Western military intervention, and no emergency meeting of the UN Security Council is convoked. Just a solitary Reuters' dispatch. Why?
The answer is that Ethiopia is fully within Washington's orbit, acting as a reliable proxy enforcing US geopolitical interests in the resource-rich Horn of Africa. Zimbabwe, by contrast, pursues the opposite tact, implementing policies that seek to free itself from Western domination and to frustrate US imperial designs on the continent.
Zimbabwe indigenizes its agriculture and economy; Ethiopia intervenes militarily in Somalia at the behest of Washington, to restore a US-puppet government.
Weeks before Ethiopia invaded Somalia, US General John P. Abizaid flew to Addis Ababa to arrange for Zenawi to unleash the US-trained Ethiopian military on Somalia. Washington even went so far as to shelter Ethiopia, whose military relies on equipment made in north Korea, from penalty for violating UN-sanctions against north Korean arms sales. Ethiopia needed to import replacement parts from north Korea if the invasion was to go ahead without a hitch. Washington, which championed the sanctions, said "go ahead." (9)
Numberless people are being manipulated by Western governments and media, their outrage harnessed to achieve geopolitical goals that have nothing whatever to do with human rights and democracy, and everything to do with the question of who gets to control the oil spigot, mining concessions and vast tracts of fertile land.
Mamdani calls those caught up in the Save Darfur Campaign innocents. The same could be said of those caught up in the dump Mugabe campaign.
1. UN High Commissioner for Refugees' estimate, cited in The Guardian, June 20, 2007.
2. Johns Hopkins study, published online by The Lancet, cited in The Guardian October 12, 2006.
3. UN High Commissioner for Refugees, cited in Workers World, February 15, 2007.
4. Interview with Mahmoud Mandani, Democracy Now! June 4, 2007.
5. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees (Guardian, June 20, 2007).
6. Quoted in the The London Times, cited in Party for Socialism and Liberation, July 3, 2007.
7. The Sunday Times, July 1, 2007.
8. The Globe and Mail, May 29, 2007.
9. The New York Times, April 8, 2007.