The Ethiopian Engima
> Ben Rawlence
Posted: 05/24/2012 2:07 pm
Mariam was painfully thin. Several of her 13 children peered out from behind
her with hollow eyes. "I am trying to save my children. We are not living.
We are subhuman," she told me. Food aid was available in her village in
Southern Ethiopia. But not for her children. Her husband belonged to the
wrong political party.
The same month I was interviewing this desperate mother in 2009, President
Obama was telling Ghana's parliament that: "Africa doesn't need strongmen,
it needs strong institutions." Meanwhile, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, one
of Africa's longest serving strongmen, was using food aid as a weapon
against opposition supporters, locking up opponents and journalists, and
shutting down media and civil society organizations that reported on
Ethiopia's slide into authoritarianism. In 2010, his party unsurprisingly
won over 99 percent of the seats in parliament.
On May 19, President Obama will welcome Prime Minister Zenawi to the G-8
summit at Camp David to discuss food security in Africa along with the
democratically elected leaders of Benin, Ghana, and Tanzania. The invitation
to Meles demonstrates that whatever the Obama administration has learned
from the Arab Spring, it doesn't apply to Africa. It should. Cosseting
autocratic regimes rarely ends well for anybody.
Mariam wanted me to tell the world that their aid dollars were being
misused. In a 2010 report, "Development without Freedom,"
> we did.
Yet the Ethiopian enigma is curious: the more repressive Ethiopia gets, the
more aid it receives from Western governments. Why does a country with a
human rights record rivaling those of repressive Sudan, Uzbekistan, or
Zimbabwe enjoy such solid support in the U.S. and Europe?
s-poll> 2010 elections Meles's government has detained dozens, and possibly
hundreds, of opposition members, perceived opposition supporters, and
others. No one knows exactly how many people have been arrested because no
independent organizations have access to all of Ethiopia's known and secret
detention facilities, where torture and ill treatment are common. There are
few Ethiopian human rights groups to investigate the detentions because in
ty-law-0> passed a law on non-governmental organizations that strangled
most local human rights groups by cutting off foreign funding. And the
government has regularly detained and deported journalists who try to access
the embattled Ogaden region, successfully cutting off news of the situation.
Of course Ethiopia is a reliable partner on counter-terrorism and regional
security and perceived to be an oasis of stability amid Eritrea, Sudan, and
Somalia. Ethiopia has held terrorism suspects from Somalia and Kenya for
interrogation and hosts a U.S. drone base for operations in Somalia.
Ethiopia intervened in Somalia in 2006 to oust the militant Union of Islamic
Courts and deployed peacekeepers in the contested region of Abyei between
Sudan and South Sudan.
But the security partnership is not the only reason. Ethiopia appears to be
making strong progress on meeting development goals, and donor partners such
as the World Bank are anxious to sustain their "investments." Yet the
proportion of the population requiring food aid remains stubbornly high and
the numbers of Ethiopians fleeing the country due to repression or in search
of economic opportunities they can't find at home are exploding.
As long as Ethiopia appears to be making progress toward the United Nations'
Millennium Development Goals, donors seem to care little about how that
progress is achieved.
Ethiopia even used some foreign-funded development programs to cement the
ruling party's grip on power. As Mariam and many other people we interviewed
told Human Rights Watch the ruling party discriminates against anyone it
perceives as an opponent: access to donor-funded government services, food
aid, housing, employment, promotions, educational opportunities, and land
have all been used to encourage support for the ruling party.
The government is pursuing controversial resettlement programs, indirectly
supported by foreign assistance, forcing people to leave their ancestral
lands and in some cases leaving them worse off. It has also expropriated
vast tracts of land and forced resettlement of indigenous communities in the
Omo valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site, to make way for state-run sugar
Meanwhile the government has steadily whittled away what's left of the
independent media. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more
journalists have fled Ethiopia in the last decade than any other nation.
This month, PEN American Center awarded its prestigious Freedom to Write
award to Eskinder Nega, who is fast becoming Ethiopia's best-known
journalist. Eskinder is in jail for the seventh time, but this time he is
charged under a 2009 counterterrorism law that, so far, has primarily been
used to target opposition leaders and journalists. Fifteen other journalists
and opposition members have already been convicted (or charged) under the
air-law> two Swedish journalists who attempted to report on abuses in the
Before Zenawi's government deported me for reporting on the politicization
of aid, Eskinder Nega told me that he thought President Obama's Ghana speech
heralded a new era for democratic governance in Africa.
If Eskinder was right then, instead of inviting undemocratic leaders like
Zenawi to Camp David, the Obama administration would review its approach to
Ethiopia and call on the government to reverse its assault on human rights
and democracy. But I fear that when Eskinder hears of the visit in his cell
in Kaliti prison, he will know that his faith in President Obama's words was
Ben Rawlence is a Senior Researcher in the Africa Division at Human Rights
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Received on Thu May 24 2012 - 12:10:35 EDT