Darfur vs. Ogaden, Mugabe vs. Meles

If the neutral left is really neutral, why does it keep coming down hard on the West’s official enemies while ignoring the West’s henchmen?

By Stephen Gowans

Many left activists and progressives claim to be equally opposed to oppression, whether practiced by the friends of imperialist powers or their enemies, but are virtually silent on the well documented oppressions of such US client states as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Ethiopia, while exhibiting an uncritical zeal in denouncing the enemies of Anglo-American imperialism, often for crimes that have been exaggerated or invented to be used as pretexts for Western intervention and fulfillment of imperialist goals.

There is no better illustration of this tendency to profess principled neutrality while regularly exhibiting a pro-imperialist bias, than the current obsession with the alleged genocide in Darfur and the claims of unjustified political oppression in Zimbabwe, while a virtually unremarked series of crimes and oppressions is carried out by the US and British client government of Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia.

In an anti-guerilla war conducted in the country’s Ogaden region, “Ethiopian troops are burning villages, raping women and killing civilians as part of a systematic campaign to drive them from their homes.” Refugees say dozens of villages have been destroyed and have “accused the Ethiopian government of forcibly starving its own people by preventing food convoys reaching villages and destroying crops and livestock.”*

“A former Ethiopian soldier who defected from the army said how he had been ordered to burn villages and kill all their inhabitants. He said the Ethiopian air force would bomb a village before a unit of ground troops followed, firing indiscriminately at civilians. ‘Men, women, children – we killed them all,’ he said.”

The little-known conflict in Ogaden parallels the more widely known war in Darfur. The conflict began when rebels killed scores of Ethiopian guards and Chinese employees at a Chinese-run oil field. The government replied with a harsh crackdown.

“Human rights investigators are gathering evidence of widespread use of rape, with women reporting gang-rapes by up to a dozen soldiers. In some villages, men have been abducted at night, their bodies dumped in the village the next morning.

“While in Darfur, aid agencies have been able to establish camps and provide humanitarian support, they have been blocked from setting up operations in the Ogaden. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been thrown out and Medicins Sans Frontieres has also been prevented from working. Journalists trying to enter have also been banned – those that have tried have been promptly arrested.”

But while neutral leftists have worked themselves into a state of high moral dudgeon over Sudan’s counter-insurgency in Darfur, which “has been described by the US as ‘genocide’ and by the UN as ‘crimes against humanity’”, they have been virtually silent on Ethiopia, a recipient of US and British military and humanitarian aid.

“America’s top official on African affairs, assistant secretary of state, Jendayi Frazer, visited one town in the Ogaden last month.

“On her return to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, she criticized the rebels and said the reports of military abuses were merely allegations. ‘We urge any and every government to respect human rights and to try to avoid civilian casualties but that’s difficult in dealing with an insurgency,’ she said.”

The West’s official enemies are never allowed the same latitude in dealing with their own (often US and British financed and instigated) insurgencies – a double standard backed by neutral leftists through their voluble condemnations of the anti-insurgency efforts of official enemies and comparative silence on those of Western client states.

“The US provides some $283m (£140m) in military and humanitarian aid to Ethiopia and has trained its military – one of the largest and strongest in Africa.”

Compare Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. For trying to invest Zimbabwean independence with real content (land reform and indigenization of the economy), Mugabe has been calumniated by British and US officials and the Western media as a strongman who will do anything to stay in power, from stealing elections to repressing the opposition. The elections Mugabe was said to have stolen were endorsed by the South African Development Community, an organization of neighboring states, and the opposition operates freely, despite being openly backed and financed by Western powers in pursuit of a regime-change, anti-independence agenda.

For doing the West’s bidding in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia’s Meles is showered with US and British aid and was handpicked by Tony Blair to sit on Britain’s Commission for Africa, to lead the “African renaissance.” Neutral leftists say little about “the British Government’s – and the West’s – favorite African leader”, channeling their energies instead into calling on the US to intervene militarily in Darfur and in competing to see who can exercise the greatest stridency in denouncing the Mugabe government (contributing to the program of ushering Mugabe and his pro-independence policies out and the MDC and its pro-Western dependence policies in.) Somehow, the end result of all this is to put the West more firmly in control of Africa.

And yet the political repressions of which Mugabe is accused are practiced ardently by Meles. Indeed, even if every charge leveled against Mugabe were true (and most are not), he would still be an angel against Meles.

Following Ethiopia’s May 2005 general election, which the opposition claimed was rigged, “security forces opened fire on protesters, killing 193 people.” Thousands of opposition supporters and leaders were rounded up and thrown in jail.

“More than 100 opposition leaders were put on trial for treason while the police crackdown intensified. Text messages, which had been used to organize the demonstrations in 2005, were banned.”

The state asked that the death penalty be imposed on 38 opposition leaders, including the founder of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, a former UN war crimes prosecutor and the mayor-elect of Addis Ababa. The court rejected the prosecution’s recommendation, but sentenced the opposition leaders to life imprisonment. They were later freed, but only after the US intervened.

“Britain still gives Ethiopia £130m in humanitarian aid each year – more than any other African country,” while carrying out an unremitting campaign of demonization against Robert Mugabe and blocking Zimbabwe’s access to international credit.

How it is it that Meles, who has carried out much graver crimes than any Mugabe has been accused of, is showered with honors and humanitarian aid, while Mugabe is treated as Africa’s version of Hitler and his country is subjected to a campaign of economic warfare?

The answer lies in the reality that Meles acts as Washington’s attack dog in the Horn of Africa, invading Somalia to put down a pro-independence government, while Mugabe pursues an independent foreign policy and implements reforms to give Zimbabwean independence meaningful content.

How is that many left activists and progressives, though professing neutrality, channel much of their energy into campaigns deploring the official enemies of Anglo-American imperialism, while remaining virtually silent on oppressions carried out by US and British client states?

The answer has much to the do with the media and how left activists and progressives react to it. The news media are structured to report on what state officials say and do. To garner support for their policies, state officials make public statements on issues they want to draw public attention to, while steering clear of events they prefer remain unnoticed. Because Western state officials make frequent references to Zimbabwe, and few, if any, to Ethiopia, dozens of media news stories appear on Zimbabwe for every one that appears on Ethiopia. In this way, state officials, working through the media, are able to establish a public agenda, not only for the media but for the neutral left to follow – one which places Mugabe scores of rungs ahead of Meles, and Darfur much higher than Ogaden. Left activists and progressives talk about Mugabe and Darfur because the media do and the media do because Western state officials do. But neutral leftists hardly ever talk about Meles and Ogaden because the media hardly do, and the media hardly do because Western state officials almost never do (and don’t want to.) The result is that while professing neutrality, many left activists and progressives have been unwittingly recruited into agendas set in Washington and London.

These are the conditions that, in part, lead the neutral left to channel considerable energy into denouncing the official enemies of Western governments, while spending little time talking about or campaigning against oppressive regimes that receive Western aid and support. Neutral leftists are quick to denounce the military government of Myanmar (an official enemy) for its crackdown on a religious group, while saying virtually nothing about the military government of Pakistan (a client state) for an equally bloody crackdown on a religious group. Neutral leftists are acutely sensitive to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur (officially condemned), while saying virtually nothing about the much larger humanitarian crisis in Iraq (officially ignored) or the humanitarian crisis in Ogaden (also officially ignored.) Neutral leftists say virtually nothing about Meles Zenawi, a strongman accused of rigging elections who threatens political opponents with the death penalty, has invaded another country, and carries out crimes against humanity within his own borders (and is supported by the West) while spitting out contempt for Robert Mugabe, who has done none of these things (but isn’t supported by the West).

In all it does, despite professions of neutrality, the neutral left is pro-imperialist, not neutral. The moment its members devote half as much energy to railing against the governments of Egypt, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey as they do against Zimbabwe, the Taliban, north Korea, Belarus and Iran, will be the moment their claims to support neither imperialism nor its official enemies unconditionally become something more substantial than deceptive rhetoric.

* All quotes from Steve Bloomfield, “Ethiopia’s ‘own Darfur’ as villagers flee government-backed violence,” The Independent, October 17, 2007, http://news.independent.co.uk/world/africa/article3067244.ece

15 thoughts on “Darfur vs. Ogaden, Mugabe vs. Meles

  1. Dear Mr. Gowans,

    Thank you for sharing your article. Some excellent points on Ethiopia in particular, though I am somewhat surprised you did not also mention the brutal oppression of the Annuak people in the Gambella region of Ethiopia. If you ever have the opportunity, I would humbly suggest reading the TPLF Constitution created in 1973. Very interesting and enlightening with respect to PM Zenawi’s domestic policies. Given the precident set by Kosovo, do you believe personally that the Somali region of Ethiopia will declare independence if they can ever become stable and form an opposition party that will recieve legitimacy in the eyes of the international community? There is such a long road ahead without any civil society or even provinical-level gov. institution development. Given all the U.S. military bases in Ethiopia and their willingness to act as a proxy in Somalia, the stakes are very high for the West to continue support for their Ethiopian client, especially if the incoming president and their advisors are realists. What do you think is the solution for leftist activists who want to promote human rights for everyone in Ethiopia? Thank you.

  2. Thank you for your article. As a person from that region I do know that all the facts you presented in your artcile is true 100%. I think it is in the best interest of all humanity-all people both in the West and Africa to understand that supporting injustice in anywhere in the world will not help anybody.We need the journalists who tell the truth-although the truth might be hard to tell or might make them to go to prison.

  3. To Keith Harmon Snow.

    Thanks Keith. Next time I’m on Mars, I’ll look you up.


  4. Thanks very much Mr Gowans for speaking out against the injustices of the west’s client regimes both in Africa and the world at large.

    Furthermore, you have my gratitude and appreciation, as well as many other Ogaden citizens for stating the truth and highlighting their plight.

    The atrocities commited by Zenawi and his ill-displined, forcefuly conscripted rag-tag malitias in Ogaden, are beyong comprehention and reasoning.

    Hopefuly one day they will be held to account for the slow, behind the scenes genocide that they commited in Ogaden.

  5. Who is John Bredenkamp? One of Britain’s 50 richest men. He picked up these nukes that Cheney lost from a failing B-52 at sea off Somalia in 1991-2 and he has been peddling these nukes around. That is why Mugabe is under attack — he’s too close to Bredenkamp. Its really Bredenkamp they want.


  6. hello

    Why do you set out comparing DARFUR and ETHIOPIA — and then switch to MELES versus MUGABE?

    You point on the first — DARFUR versus ETHIOPIA — is right on, but you have no idea what you are talking about regarding Mugabe.

    Using Mugabe is a mistake. Mugabe committed a massive genocide in the 1980s, AND he sent ZIM troops to war and plunder in DRC. So Mugabe’s gang shares responsibility for ten million dead in Congo.

    Mugabe was brought to power by John Bredenkamp and his friends and it was NEVER meant to be a liberation struglle (afer 1979). Then the Ndebele genocide was perpetrated, the Gukurahundi. Mugabe doesn’t pursue an “independent” foreign policy — even if it is not what Washington wants.

    And what is the “neutral” left?

    This is another problem of the left: when the system gets tired of an intractable dictator — mugabe (mobutu) — and attacks him suddenly he is OK to the left — simply becuae he is under attack by the system he served for decades.


    keith harmon snow

  7. The wholesale killing,rape and systematic displacement of the civilians by burning entire villages must be war crimes.Meles is trying to hide these crimes by chasing NGOs and other witnesses.It`s very discouraging to see the Western powers giving this bloody dictator a free hand to slaughter our people.We,Ogadenis will not be stopped in our fight to realize our God-given human rights.Thank you Mr. Gowans for telling Meles`ugly crimes agaibst our women and children.

  8. Amazing article, i wonder how you choose the comparison, only a few have ability to display such an excellent article. As you know after the cold war the western powers were using a clear double standard to the whole international politics. I a prutal dictator like Meles Zenawi becomes a client and becomes attack dog they ignore his wrong doings internally and externally. instead they help him with more weapons and money, If another dictator is not a cooperator they critize him and sometimes impose santions.

    What i wonder is what happened to the international media, why they do not speak more loudly to stop the passive and clear genocide that taking place in Ogaden. can we say the modern international media is part of imperialst policies guided by some of western leaders. Where is the moral obligations of the journalists. Untill now we did not any new from neither BBC or CNN. Some times these channals they broadcast minor news events, while they did not talk. the widespread and systematic killings,tortures, mass arrests, rape, village burning and imposing mass hunger to the entire natuion of 5000000 people in Ogaden.

    We hope the people of Ogaden shall one day get thier basic human rights and they will live their mother land with peace and respect instead of being slaves for Ethiopians

  9. Excellent, thanks Mr. Gowans, you did well, and based on this, the international community should come up with action about the humanitarian crisis in Ogaden.


  10. Well as we all know and have seen or heard about on the news paper, TV, or private journalist and so forth; Ethiopia or Melez regime has deliberately burned down the villages, raped the women and young girls, robber, and abducted the men and dump their body in lakes. According to the international law what Ethiopians are doing is genocide and as matter of fact no one is acting up, regardless of who they are if it is the so-called U.N or International law. Let’s remember this there is no justice in this small world that we live on, everything that is happening is injustice. We as nation of Ogedenia we need to stand together and help our people our mother’s have being raped so as our sisters, our father’s have being persecutor as well as our brother’s so let’s stand up together and fight for our rights.
    We can this, we can make so let’s do together
    Allaa wayn ninki aaminaa awood leh

  11. We ogadenis are being suffered by the hand of U.S Britain backed-Meleze regime hundreds of Ogadenis are fleeing the atrocities committed by Abyssinians most of Ogadenis has met the fate dozens are detained the break-away so-called somaliland deported and then handed-over the tyrant regime of Abyssinia we strongly urge with the American people British people,and the rest of the world to comment the the Genocide of Ogaden we are very sorry to say western diplomacies are part of the problem you are backing those killing,raping,hanging,and arresting our people,The history tells itself if you do not stop the ethnic cleasings of Abyssinia !Allah Almighty will punish you!the sooner is the better. stop the Army brutality of Abyssnia Amhara/Tigre tyrant what crime we did why you keep silence is it crime to be Muslim?
    we Ogadenis wish and send Allahs blessings every-one who willing to stop the crime against humanity it is both wrong and unfair to watch like this.Our Thanks duty to Mr.stephen Gowans for this revealing and telling the truth of Ogaden

  12. The article of Mr Gowans exposes again the moral perfidy of the west. This is the dictator who slaughtered more than 200 peaceful anti-government demonstrators in Addiss abeba two years ago only to be invited to the global conference in Gleneagles with blood on his hands. He was suppose to be in prison but the likes of Mr Bliar (tony blair)rewarded him with a red carpet. Believe me, Mugabe becomes a saint when you see and hear the atrocities committed by Meles and co.
    Kudos again to Mr Gowans for this excellent article.

  13. You have written a remarkable article filled with truth and genuine humane feelings for people who are really in a dire situation.
    Please, keep up voicing the truth until it reaches every human being, including those who are intentionally blinding themselves negating their own pledges for standing human rights justice and democracy. Thank you Mr. Gowans.

  14. You have written an excellent article. It is thru writers such as yourself, that will help get the message out – that the Ogaden is in dire need. We need the Left, Right and Middle to understand that there is real suffering in Ogaden. Women are being raped, men are killed, children scarred for life, whole villages are burned to the ground…. We need intelligent reporting as you have shown here. Thank you Mr. Gowans.

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