July 23, 2021

The Man in the Arena


Appreciation of Dr. Sileshi Bekele’s Speech at the UN Security Council A Triumphant Trial and an Exemplary Exhibition of Diplomatic Magnanimity.

Avatar: Zerihun Addisu
By Zerihun Addisu

Zerihun Addisu studies public policy at York University, Toronto, Canada. He is an active member of the Ethiopian community in the Greater Toronto Area, Ontario, Canada and serves in various leadership capacities and roles . He frequently writes on various political issues in Ethiopia and Africa including global affairs affecting the region. Currently he serves as the policy head of the Society of Ethiopia Canada Chamber of Trade, a think-tank that works to promote business, policy innovation & development, and knowledge transfer between the two countries.

 The Man in the Arena

On April 23, 1910, Theodore Roosevelt gave what would become one of the most widely quoted speeches of his career. Roosevelt delivered an inspirational and impassioned speech called “Citizenship in a Republic,” which some refer to as “The Man in the Arena.” The message drew huge applause: "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

On July 8, 2020, Dr. Sileshi Bekele, was befitting such magnitude of expression and responsibility as Ethiopia was appearing at the UNSC hearing. This very venue and avenue have never been availed to discuss such issues. It is this remarkable enthusiasm that has garnered tremendous applause and celebration among many Ethiopians. 

It is the weight of a nation with one of the biggest stakes that were presented on the table by the man whose shoulder is huge to carry the nation’s burden. The man appeared like a gladiator in the arena against all odds, skepticism, and misconceptions. The shackles of inherently unfair world order, the unjust inequality and imbalance of power structure among rich and poor nations, the greed and plundering by multinational corporations to control resources in the peripheries, the undue influence of powerful interest groups, various detractors, and mounting Western bias and stereotypical perception. Adding insult to injury, this makes the conundrum so complex and sophisticated with the ongoing political problem in another part of the country. 

Standing Alone! 

These forces acted in the consortium and working in tandem through a coordinated fashion as pairs of fitters connected and networked together by a chain as used to fasten a prisoner’s wrists or ankles together. It is a conspiracy to arrest an entire nation from walking her walk and carrying on the journey towards her destiny. So much of it has to do with Ethiopia’s nonconformity and unconventional assertion in the global arena that has survived seismic forces trying to disparage its dignity, exceptionalism, and tarnishing its unique place in the history of mankind. 

Many Ethiopians are still puzzled, flabbergasted, and perplexed by the gargantuan furor the nation is receiving from its supposed allies and friends. Once again, the nation finds herself in a place where she had been before; a place where she faithfully joined the international community yet again, she was treated with betrayal and left with a sense of ambivalence. 

Professor Wendy Laura Belcher, the leading scholar on the Ethiopian medieval period and author of Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson, Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author, has critically observed this tragedy. She succinctly states “Ethiopia has been relegated to the footnotes of world history in the last fifty years, perceived as little more than a remote, impoverished locale of catastrophic famine and war, a television channel of dying children clicked through on the way to more pleasant sights. The Ethiopians are reasonable to insist on their centrality, however. Not only have they been central to world history, as they declare, but for a long time, European scholars were among the first to say so. Indeed, a scholar like myself must soon realize her lack of singularity. Discovering and then announcing Ethiopia’s historical centrality has been the repeated if the obscure, project of individual European scholars for at least four hundred years. 

Unfortunately, forgetfulness has been a vital part of the mechanism of the modern subjugation of Africa. The case of Ethiopia is only an extraordinary example of this disavowal. My argument in this chapter is a double one: the historical record indicates not only that Ethiopians have been central to world history but also that they have been engaged for millennia in convincing powerful outsiders to recognize and respect them. Dwelling at the intersection of immense religious and technological differences and surrounded by powerful empires-Egyptian, Roman, and Byzantine, to name just a few-the Ethiopians responded to this limitation by making costly investments in broadcasting their own achievements and singularity, as I will show.

Another new book published earlier this year by historian Verena Krebs Medieval Ethiopian Kingship, Craft, and Diplomacy with Latin Europe, is a story that flips the script. Traditionally, the story centered Europe and placed Ethiopia as the periphery, a technologically backward Christian kingdom that, in the later Middle Ages, looked to Europe for help. But by following the sources, Krebs showcases the agency and power of Ethiopia and Ethiopians at the time and renders Europe as it was seen from East Africa, as a kind of homogenous (if interesting) mass of foreigners. It’s not that modern historian of the medieval Mediterranean, Europe and Africa have been ignorant about contacts between Ethiopia and Europe; the issue was that they had the power dynamic reversed. The traditional narrative stressed Ethiopia as weak and in trouble in the face of aggression from external forces, especially the Mamluks in Egypt, so Ethiopia sought military assistance from their fellow Christians to the north—the expanding kingdoms of Aragon (in modern Spain), and France. But the real story, buried in plain sight in medieval diplomatic texts, simply had not yet been put together by modern scholars.”

Yet the modern version of this dismissive narrative and mechanism of subjugating continues to haunt her as the country must appear before the UNSC for a second time within a week. The country has become almost synonymous with a rogue state that defies international norms and the global political order. It has become a mind-boggling question to wonder why Ethiopia is the center of diplomatic attention and the talk of the town in the foreign policy corridors of Europe and America. It is not because of the risks and dangers it is pausing to the universal values.

These two agendas are significantly different and unrelated matters. Yet some foreign powers and actors still found a way to make a link of the two and create a debacle of a diplomatic mammoth on the country that has been a leading and remarkable partner in its unwavering belief and commitment to the multilateral arrangement since the establishment of the League of Nations. Yet it is suffered more than any nation on a grand scale of violations with brutal betrayal and defeating silence at the face of adversity when the fascist invaders knocked on her door violating the very foundations of the League on a fellow member state. Ethiopians were left bewildered by the shocking and horrific backstabbing by the western powers that had failed to protect or condemn the fall of a founding member to the horror of Italian aggression and the use of an internationally banned poison gas to massacre civilians.

The GERD, A means to achieving self-reliance and self-preservation 

It is high time now to standby poor nations so that they become stronger and prosperous to help the world become more peaceful and stable. If the UN and other organizations are still genuinely committed to the peace and security of the world in one of the regions affected by intractable conflicts it is the right time to support GERD-like endeavors. 

Therefore, the south can no longer become the safe haven of conflict, deprivation, war, and terrorism that has been a breeding ground for radicalization and hostility. In this regard, Ethiopia’s plea is simple, smart, and logical; just letting Ethiopia define her fate and make her destiny of becoming a better version of that historical country so that she can feed her own people. This is an African solution for an African problem. The GERD and the Nile are Africans in origin and all the riparian countries are found in Africa. So why do we need the US or EU-led negotiation or a third party outside of the continent? Why do not the two riparian countries trust the continent’s platform committing to its vision and agenda of policy ownership to African destiny? Egypt and Sudan need to believe in the efficacy of the Union’s values and organizational avenues to resolve the current GERD crisis. This even helps build on the gains of the negotiations and could contribute significantly to the making of peace and stability in the continent with a tested approach and experimenting on the continental frameworks to resolve the issues. And it is doable and achievable. Above all, it is the best feasible and reliable option that can guarantee a lasting solution to the problem. 

Dr. Sileshi’s speech has another perfect tone. A well-crafted message with stories, facts, and arguments in defense of Ethiopia’s natural right for equitable use of the waters of the Nile. 

When Ethiopians talk of development and energy they are not talking about luxury or extravagant projects that could be substituted or altered by another power plant or source of energy from other sources. 

They are talking about the everyday struggles and challenges of not being able to have adequate clean water to drink and for sanitation; not being able to have three meals a day at this 21st century of economic surplus and intensive productivity that the world has made so much progress and stride in overcoming those man-made hunger and starvations. The right to life and decent life with dignity is the fundamental human right that everybody ought to enjoy in order to exercise the other rights to freedom of expression and liberty. 

So, it is absolutely unacceptable to assume that when Egyptians talk about the right to life and survival it is fair and legitimate whereas when Ethiopians raise it is far from reality. This is a total work of propaganda and false information propagated to mislead the wider public. Ethiopia’s fair and legitimate plea for harnessing the water to which it contributes significantly is one of its highest potentials to mitigate these hard realities and challenges that every Ethiopian suffers from. Whether agriculture, industry and manufacturing, education, health, transportation, energy, and power, etc. Ethiopia desperately needs GERD. 

But in doing so it has no intention of causing significant harm to the downstream countries. So, Dr. Sleshi has done a great job of addressing this dilemma of foreigners and international observers who see the GERD as an industrial and solely energy-related megaproject that has little or nothing to do with affecting the livelihoods of Ethiopians from all walks of life. Though it cannot change singlehandedly the complex structural problems of the economy, yet it could help significantly in reducing the many challenges Ethiopians are facing today. So, it is a question of survival and the right to life for all Ethiopians to finalize and responsibly use this project.  

Dr. Sileshi delivered a clear and on-point message. The presence of a technical and expertise delegation reaffirms that Ethiopia’s effort is developmental and self-sufficiency of agriculture and energy. The leadership and presence of the negotiating team clearly demonstrate its desire to keep the GERD issue a development and livelihood matter rather than political or diplomatic warfare with Egypt and Sudan. 

It is a method of de-escalation and restraint to abstain from giving the wrong impression of being an aggressive and belligerent nation that does not care about the lives of its neighboring peoples and riparian countries. Instead, Ethiopia has chosen the high road of ascertaining her national interest with dignity and charisma with a clear intention to listen, negotiate and reach an agreement on a workable win-win outcome without harming any party. This intention was boldly and firmly stated in a loud and clear manner so that the rest of the world could understand her plea and the ambiguity on the Nile.

Another excellent part of his speech is the substances and contents incorporated are significantly important in addressing many issues. The points are multidimensional, multi-sectoral, comprehensive, and all-inclusive of the stakes and concerns of the UN members across the board. It targeted addressing the less aware and less informed audience in the Council and those watching live all over the world. 

It is indeed a moment of national awakening that helped galvanize unity and solidarity among millions of Ethiopians who have been desperately searching for a foreseeable outcome to bring them together and a joyful moment. It brought the nation together to defeat another round of effort for diplomatic attack and condemnation for solely decided to fairly utilize the water that runs through its territory. It is a trial of a nation for pursuing a just cause of emancipating her people from abject poverty and deprivation. It is a reckoning moment that the nation has spoken with a loud and clear message delivering to one of the highest branches of the UN, the world’s biggest multinational platform. 

As Ethiopia has reiterated it was not a viable and appropriate avenue to discuss issues of development and natural resources at the world’s foremost platform for peace and security. Yet Ethiopia used the opportunity by raising to the occasion and seizing the moment delivering one of the best arguments in defense of GERD and other future projects that are capable of significantly contributing to the alleviation of its people out of abject poverty and becoming a middle-income economy.

Debunking western hypocrisy 

One important section deserves a special mention here. Particularly with regards to EU Dr. Sileshi’s message perfectly and clearly resonates with Brussels’ argent concern for high inflow of emigrants, border crossing, and human trafficking of African youth. Since 2000, the EU has underscored the urgency of the matter in launching a new plan for economic assistance for Africa to curb migration. 

However, this plan has resulted in mixed reactions across African countries as it is entirely focused on the EU’s unilateral interest in blocking migrants rather than tackling the structural and systemic problems of Africa. Part of the plan is giving more money and aid, boosting the extractive sector of mining and resource exploitation, a means to tap into the contentment’s raw material and age-old dependency path to maintain the status quo of its peripheral position. 

Amid unprecedented arrivals of migrants and refugees in 2015, the European Union’s executive branch announced an ambitious plan to tackle irregular migration at the source. At the heart of the strategy to address the “root causes” of migration was development assistance, particularly in Africa. This continent is not the primary origin of migrants and asylum seekers in Europe but was where European policymakers saw population growth, lack of economic opportunity, and violent conflict as long-term triggers for future unchecked irregular migration. That November, the European Commission codified the effort in the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), which over the next five years would support more than 250 migration- and displacement-related programs totaling 4.8 billion euros across 26 countries. The last of the money is scheduled to be committed by the end of 2021, and the fund will be succeeded by a new development mechanism with a small focus on migration, the Neighbourhood, Development, and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI).

The creation of the EUTF mirrored broader global interest in addressing poverty, poor governance, and insecurity as the underlying drivers of irregular migration. According to this logic, development assistance remedying those issues would reduce the incentive for people to migrate and obviate the need for aggressive migration controls at national borders. The notion has continued to gain popularity, although some scholars criticize it for underestimating the necessary amount of funding and ignoring Western policies that contribute to instability in migrants’ origin countries, such as military interventions or environmental degradation. Recently, U.S. President Joe Biden has offered a similar argument in calling for his country to provide $4 billion in aid over four years to Central American countries that are the origins of most asylum seekers and other migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

It is at the backdrop of these discussions and decisions that Ethiopia’s delegation led by Dr. Sileshi Bekele delivered a well-crafted and powerful message that reaffirms the country’s development plan and vision. It aims in achieving self-sustaining growth and development with a policy and implementation ownership of the plans and projects. What Sileshi did was sharing the EU’s concern and plea and tabling a perfect solution for the human tracking crisis and the migrant youth languishing in substandard inhuman prisons and sanctuaries that are dangerous to human life and safety. What Ethiopia is asking is just to be allowed to pursue its goals and vision to emancipate its youth and women from such suffering and inhuman condition. This is an effective full display of a powerful case of debunking western hypocrisy at a time when the nation rises to the occasion of making lives better at home in her own backyard. Ethiopia’s effort to self-sufficiency in food, clean water, energy, and power is an essential stride that helps change the economic and livelihood landscape. Out of the UNSDG Goals which the UN set to meet by 2030 many of the core goals are strongly in line with the GERD project. Ending poverty in all forms everywhere, ending hunger and achieving food security, sustainable management of water and sanitation, ensuring affordable, sustainable, reliable, and modern energy for all, promoting inclusive growth, etc. are directly linked to Ethiopia’s initiative of building the GERD. Where is the support and solidarity to back it up as we envision meeting the SDG Goals of the decade? I believe this is one of the strongest and most powerful points that punched the crux of the matter putting the nail on the coffin.

The Way-forward 

Finally, the approach to rallying Ethiopians around the GERD and public diplomacy is one of the things that this leadership has achieved better than its two predecessors. This alone deserves to be credited as this is happening in the face of mounting national and international pressure with the conflict in the country. It has also come at a time when many of us are strongly criticizing the diplomatic and foreign policy/strategy of the government in its approach of managing the international diplomatic and propaganda warfare that has been waged against the nation. 

Many Ethiopians believe the administration is failing big time in its leadership, clarity, coherence, and organizational ability to guide the nation to a better course of history capitalizing on its huge advantages. As a caveat, the foreign ministry and diplomatic branch need a deeper re-examination, reconsideration, and recalibration so that it maintains and scales upon the gains. 

This speech has delivered a resounding and powerful message that the nation is not alone when it is carrying a grand national interest and when the stakes are so high to ignore or be indifferent. 

It is a critical time to act, get together, and come together galvanizing the popular support rallying around one nation that can rise against all odds and challenges. Last week Ethiopia was on trial at the UNSC. However, it is the world’s biggest multilateral organization and its member states who acted in bad faith that were clearly being inducted. Ethiopia has emerged victorious and triumphant as its more than 110 million people have a just and noble cause of self-sustenance and self-preservation of the nation. 

This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Addis Zeybe will correct clear factual errors.