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Are African Dictators Becoming Environmentalists?

New America Media/Ethiomedia.com, Commentary, Alemayehu G. Mariam Posted: Sep 22, 2009

Recently, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi warned that the African delegation he is expected to lead to the climate change talks in Copenhagen in December would walk out of any negotiations that threaten to be another rape of the continent.

The Ethiopian dictator, who was speaking in Addis Ababa at a meeting arranged by United Nations Economic Commission for Africa to promote the African negotiating position, demanded that the West pay billions of dollars annually in exchange for Africas acquiescence to a global warming agreement. African Union Chairman Jean Ping took an even harder line, threatening to never accept any global deal that does not limit global warming to the minimum unavoidable level, no matter what levels of compensation.

It is unprecedented for African dictators to take the moral offensive against the evil Western imperialists, who for centuries have exploited Africa and ruptured its social fabric. In the climate change debate, Africas leaders many with blood on their hands profess to capture the moral high ground and name and shame the West for its abuse of Africa and the planet in general. The strategy is refreshingly Ghandian: Use moral outrage and international civil disobedience to make the West squirm into doing right by Africa. Ghandi taught Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good. He exhorted that the only way to get the British to abandon their evil ways in South Africa and India was to actively resist their colonial rule through civil disobedience, particularly through a campaign of non-cooperation. For Zenawi and company, that message translates into a very public act of non-cooperation with the Western overlords on issues of fair play, equity and environmental justice.

But are African leaders genuinely concerned about climate change, or are they motivated by the sheer potential for billions of dollars of annual compensation to line their pockets. Are they engaged in non-cooperation or political extortion?

The answer is obvious. The bluster about walking out and delegitimizing the Copenhagen talks is nothing more than a cynical appeal to lofty moral virtues in order to guilt-trip and shakedown Western countries into paying billions in blood money. That is certainly the conclusion of the Economist magazine, which in its recent issue stated that the wrath of African leaders is aimed at making the rich world feel guilty about global warming. Meles has made it clear he is seeking blood moneyor rather carbon moneythat would be quite separate from other aid to the continent.

In the end, all of the climate change pontification is about African dictators extorting a $67 billion bribe every year to enrich themselves. It has very little to do with remedying the ecological disasters facing Africa.

Consider the case of Ethiopia. While Meles has managed to convince other African leaders to make him the point man at the global warming negotiations, he has ignored the ecological apocalypse facing Ethiopia. Though he speaks with moral fervor and indignation about the negative role of the West in aggravating the environmental consequences of climate change on Africa, he has not made a single statement or offered a single policy initiative on environmental issues in Ethiopia.

The environmental facts on Ethiopia are incontrovertible. Ethiopia is facing ecological collapse caused by deforestation, soil erosion, over-grazing, over-population, desertification and loss of biodiversity and chemical pollution of its rivers and lakes. Even the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Institute a government agency admits that the country loses up to 200,000 hectares of forest every year. The Institute has warned that if the trend continues the country would lose all of its forest resources by the year 2020. Other studies have also shown that between 1990 and 2005, Ethiopia lost 14 percent of its forest cover and 3.6 percent of its forest and woodland habitat.

Just a few kilometers outside the capital, Lake Koka has attracted considerable international attention and become the iconic image of the countrys environmental decline. A community of 17,000 people is facing severe illnesses and high morbidity from drinking and using the lakes water. Massive pollution caused by the sugar factories in the country have resulted in illness and deaths of tens of thousands of people. Nothing has been done to hold criminally or civilly accountable the parties responsible for the environmental crimes.

Africas knights in shining armor should take care of environmental disasters in their own backyards lakes, rivers and factories before mounting their steeds on a crusade to save Africa from global warming. As for Ethiopias arch dictator and Africas chief climate change negotiator, he is merely trying to rehabilitate his image from the continents foremost human rights abuser to its chief environmental redeemer. Before Africa can be rescued from the ill effects of climate change, it needs to save itself from predatory dictators like Zenawi. For Ethiopia and most of Africa the rallying cry should be, Regime change before action on climate change.

Alemayehu G. Mariam is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He can be reached at almariam@gmail.com.

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