Why Ethiopia’s authoritarian style gets a Western nod By William Davison

February 10th, 2012 Print Print Email Email

Ethiopia’s recent prosecution of opponents under an antiterror law has attracted widespread condemnation. But with its regional role as crucial as ever and donors still impressed by the government’s antipoverty measures, the criticism is unlikely to result in significant changes. (more…)

Ethiopia’s recent prosecution of opponents under an antiterror law has attracted widespread condemnation. But with its regional role as crucial as ever and donors still impressed by the government’s antipoverty measures, the criticism is unlikely to result in significant changes.

Despite its status as a donor darling, Ethiopia’s government is, once again, doing little to encourage the attentions of its Western suitors.

Often using a 2009 antiterrorism law, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s administration has prosecuted scores of opposition figures and a handful of journalists over the past year. Most are accused of links with banned groups, such as the US-based Ginbot 7, whose leaders gave up hopes of unseating Mr. Meles at the ballot box after the disastrous fallout from a 2005 poll.

Rights groups are unanimous in their condemnation. “There is no evidence that they are guilty of any criminal wrongdoing,” Amnesty International said about a group including three Ethiopian journalists jailed for plotting terror acts last month. “We believe that they are prisoners of conscience, prosecuted because of their legitimate criticism of the government.”

While Amnesty and Human Rights Watch consistently slam the government, others have only recently joined the fray. Five United Nations Special Rapporteurs expressed “their dismay at the continuing abuse of antiterrorism legislation to curb freedom of expression.”

The world’s media have also tuned in. A HRW report detailing coercion and abuse in the resettlement of tens of thousands in the nation’s west was widely reported, and Nicholas D. Kristof dedicated a recent column in The New York Times to Ethiopia’s treatment of two Swedish journalists caught embedded with a rebel group. “Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s increasingly tyrannical ruler, seemed to be sending a signal to the world’s journalists: Don’t you dare mess with me!” he wrote.

A more-silent West

However, criticism has not been so forthcoming from Ethiopia’s Western partners.

On the first day of the Swedes’ trial, which resulted in 11-year sentences for entering the country illegally and supporting a terrorist organization, the US ambassador to Ethiopia, Donald Booth, attended, but such provocative gestures are rare from Ethiopia’s biggest benefactor.

The reason for the deference is largely geographic. At the end of January, US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns dropped into Addis Ababa. Although concerns over the antiterror law were expressed, his mission was to “emphasize the strategic importance of that country to countering violent extremism in the greater Horn of Africa region.”

Not only is Ethiopia neighbor to the two Sudanese nations teetering on the brink of conflict and wartorn Somalia, but its role is vital: Its troops are patrolling the flashpoint border district of Abyei and also backing up forces allied against the terror group al-Shabaab; Meles was also the key mediator in a recent attempt to broker an agreement over the oil-transit fees Juba, in South Sudan, should pay Khartoum, Sudan’s capital city.

“From the point of view of Western and especially US geopolitical considerations, it would be a monumental disservice to national interests to do anything to undermine engagement with Ethiopia,” says J. Peter Pham, director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.

But it’s not just due to geopolitical scheming that donors remain loyal – it is also the government’s commitment to improving health, education, and infrastructure. Donors may give $150 million a year to build on improvements in education, reported Voice of America this week.

Even Mr. Kristof says – among a barrage of barbs – that “Meles has done genuine good in fighting poverty.” A British government aid official says the anti-terror law will be “high on the list” of points to raise in bilateral discussions. A radical response would be awkward given that Ethiopia was made the UK’s biggest beneficiary of aid last year on the basis of its record of social and economic progress.

Exiled journalist Abiye Teklemariam – himself recently convicted in absentia under the law – recently skewered Western cheerleaders for Meles. Noting the shifting characterizations of the former Marxist rebel over the last two decades, he said that with few heralding his democratic credentials these days – one opposition member won a seat in a parliament of 547 in 2010 elections – Meles is now portrayed “as a technocratic, if dictatorial, leader who had been able to crack the code of East Asia’s rise and download it into an Ethiopian hardware.”

The guiltiest culprits here, Ethiopian critics say, are those who believed Ethiopia would quickly transform into a Western idyll: The government has always directed the market, and even more carefully managed elections – 2005 aside. Now more than ever, the intention to improve the lives of the nation’s poor rural populace without distractions from critical journalists or divisive opposition politicians is clear.

Even if Western donors desired to change this, given Ethiopia’s strong bonds with emerging powers, they have few strings to pull.

Double standards?

This dynamic makes it unlikely that Western concerns will alter thinking on the terror law, which Meles said this week is copied “word-for-word” from the West’s own statute books. In parliament, he berated the West for double standards over Ethiopia’s criminalization of the media, using the treatment of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and Britain’s phone-hacking journalists to illustrate his point.

Mr. Pham has some sympathy for the charge of Western hypocrisy. Turkey, an EU candidate, has a prime minister who “regularly brings both civil and criminal cases against commentators who criticize him,” he says. “Canada is viewed as a bastion of civil liberties, yet it allows foreign journalists to be prosecuted for alleged ‘hate speech,’ ” Pham argues.

Other commentators differ. “The antiterrorism law is so all-inclusive and broadly written that it seems to cover almost any pronouncement or action,” says former US Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn. “Perhaps that was the goal, but this leaves it wide open to abuse.”

With its domestic control and international goodwill, the intolerance bemuses Mr. Shinn. “I have always been perplexed why the government responds so harshly” to its media opponents, he says. “It would be well advised to ignore criticism.”

Others, such as Ethiopia expert Kjetil Tronvoll, believe the ruling party’s Marxist-Leninist origins mean that crushing critics is inevitable. In a post-liberation state, where liberation parties equate themselves with the state, all dissent is seen “as threatening not only to the party but to Ethiopia’s overall development.” Recent arrests are an “attempt to crack down on possible opinion leaders which may mobilize the broad masses,” in light of the Arab Spring, he believes.

Whichever analysis is more accurate, the government’s unbending response marks the way forward. “This barrage of criticism emanates from ideological and political differences,” senior government official Bereket Simon says. “Organizations like HRW do not accept our independent path of development.”

  1. Koster
    | #1

    The WEST talks of peace and democracy but in reality they love war and “friendly tyrants” like Meles Zenawi who are willing to sell their country and terrorize their people. From Mobutu to Mubarek – Meles shows this. It is very unfortunate that the WEST preferred a “parasitic” relationship with the so-called third world countries i.e. install friendly tyrants and loot material and human resources.

  2. Eyoba
    | #2

    I’m no fan of Meles, but I can see what he is trying to achive and I can’t help it but think it is the right thing he is doing. He is doing what must b done rather than what should b done. It is easier to speak of freedom of speech when u live in a country like US or a continent like Europe because the enviroment u live in alows u to practice and understand freedom of speech in a risponsible way. Hate speech in Europe wil not lead to unrest and chaos. But it is a different story here in Ethiopia. One stupid hate speech from one dim witt famous person can lead to an ethnic based fight becouse our understanding of freedom of expression is undeveloped. If the peace we hav now continues as it is for long, for me the means justifies the end.

  3. yosef
    | #3

    people don,t be fool by those rats cheap propaganda.the regime in adiss and his brother in asmara they work together to stay longer in power and to smash ethiopia people by creating war and misirey the agenda is simple use your brain and think they back ground

  4. Anonymous
    | #4

    @Koster
    The West does not love war; it loves its own interests and will sleep with tyrants or democrats just as long as doing that will further its aims. And when they are of no further use …

  5. meyesaw
    | #5

    weather the tplf the splinter group in ethiopia like it or not change will come to ethiopia.it is the ethiopian people who is deciding the future of ethiopia not others for us.now the world knows the brutality of the regime in ethiopia it is up to the ethiopian people to rise up and remove the bloody dictator from ethiopia and form a democratic government.the economy situation in ethiopia is harsh millions are still starving and living in outside help.the ethiopian spring has to happen now rather then later.victory to the ethiopian people struggle to remove tyrants from adiis ababa!!!!!!!!

  6. Anonymous
    | #6

    well said !

  7. Anonymous
    | #7

    trust me no body cares about Ethiopian people. They care about their business. Who cares as far as who is ruling Ethiopia if that person is in line with their interest? Ethiopians don’t wait for anyone. Get up and do your home work.

  8. Sam
    | #8

    Meles accused the West for double standard. To illustrate his point he mentioned “the treatment of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange and British phone-hacking.” That is a comparision which makes sense, if at all, only to Meles. First, Julian Assange and the British journalists who will one day may appear in court will get an impartial judical system. In Ethiopia, however, “political justice” serves only the interest of the state. Second, the journalists in England were accused of phone-hacking private citizens. The British government has the duty to protect its citizens. The people who was accused of anti-terrorism in Ethiopia had no any squabble whatsoever with private citizens. Third, Julisan is not a US national, so he could not claim the right to have whatever information the US government possess for his use. In fact, as I understand it certain security information might be witheld from even American journalists despite the freedom of having information access than any country’s journalists in the world have. There is no double standard. In Wikileaks case and the phone-hacking, there is a rule of law in book which at the end might serve the State or the accused based on evidence. One cannot say the same about Ethiopia. The judiciary is the most inept Ethiopia ever had. In fact, even in the Mengistu regime the judiciary was not compelled to sink this low. Whenever the Mengistu regime used the “Stalin Better” his cadres and political appointees made the decision. They spare the judiciary from being dragged to be political. A wise decision. I wish the EPDRF politicos and cadres give the final verdict on those who were accused of terrorism. The outcome will be the same who ever give the verdict. After all it is a political witchhunt.

  9. Gigi
    | #9

    That is some thing!!!!!,

  10. kentu
    | #10

    while i am driving my taxi here in dc still i can lead ethiopia you know why we already abused by our parentes, teachers, noughbours etcso the main object is not weyane or derg it is stigma from generation to generation .Look i went to addis for a vacation one manth ago so i went one of the best international standard hotel ,there when i order my whisck the waiter refuse service i ask him why he told me you gays you didnt know tips there is a lot foergners here, then i move to a small bar to drick a beer and to date a waiter even she refuse my date when i ask here why she told me she is allready reserved by foeigners i went my country after many years i come back with sadnes i feel like a second citizen in my oun country.in addis 50% are foirners suck the blood of ethiopian we are like slave in our own land we have open jobs like maid,cook, guard, driver,our kids , land, jobs,sold so what is the last option we have we need to do surprise by attacking the fake oppositions and weyane at the same time start in the head the other parts collapse by itself that means ADDIS ABEBA

  11. kentu
    | #11

    We need to delit one proverb that is KERAS BELAY NIFAS(ከራስ በላይ ኒፋስ)the a big obstacl in our stragle.You know what is that mean if i am happy i don,t care about others but we are fool we have to understand that staff comes to our self soon or later .

  12. Abel
    | #12

    We are not united, we cannot be trusted with money, difficulty to do things together in many instances we have to blame ourselves for not doing anything to challege the tyrant. We always like to blame Eritrea and others for our weakness. Let us stand up and do something. The power is in our own hands. We can’t even agree with anything. We are conspiracy theorists. Let us be positive not negative.

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