Oct 26th 2006 | NAIROBI
From The Economist print edition
More disturbing news from a former aid darling of the West
THE story is reminiscent of a cold-war spy tale: two diplomats risking everything to smuggle a dissident out of the country with the secret police just one step behind. Except that in today’s Ethiopia the secret police proved to be one step ahead and Yalemzewd Bekele, a young human-rights lawyer working for the European Commission office in Addis Ababa, never made it. She was dragged aside by a plainclothes officer at the border with Kenya on October 19th and is now in prison and at risk of torture. The two colleagues from the commission who had taken her to the border were arrested and deported.
Ms Bekele’s plight is probably connected to the arrest, on October 5th, of Alemayehu Fantu, a businessman. Mr Fantu was charged with distributing calendars with pictures of imprisoned opposition leaders on them. The calendars called for a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience to bring down the government””and seem to have driven the secret police berserk. A student was shot dead for handling them and those suspected of printing and distributing the calendars have been rounded up. Amnesty International, a human-rights pressure-group, is concerned that three of them may already have been tortured to death. Mr Fantu had difficulty walking when he appeared in court on October 12th. Senior diplomats believe he was injured by electric shocks.
The brutality is nothing new. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians were killed in the late 1970s by a Soviet-backed Marxist regime trying to cement its hold over an intensely religious, impoverished and ill-educated populace. But it is a disappointment. Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, had been close to Britain’s prime minister, Tony Blair, and a favourite of aid donors. His government has shown some leadership in reducing poverty, not least by extending the reach of primary schools, health clinics, electricity and roads.
But the government’s grip on power is slipping. An instinct for self-preservation may explain the former rebel fighters’ return to Soviet methods. Things began to fall apart last year when a disorganised opposition disputed the results of a general election. Street protests followed in the capital in June and again in November. Around 80 people were believed to have been killed, including some police, after which opposition leaders, journalists, human-rights activists and businessmen were arrested. Many have since been charged with treason and genocide.
The government promised a speedy trial but has reneged, dragging out the process while keeping it far from view. Most of those arrested are still languishing in Kaliti prison in Addis Ababa. The cells there are baking hot by day, freezing by night, infested with roaches and mice, and thick with mud in the rainy season. The government has so far used a mix of spin and harassment of journalists (local more than foreign) to avoid international condemnation. But that may be changing.
An independent commission into the June and November killings has become an embarrassment. The government had stacked the commission with its supporters but eight out of ten of them still decided that the government had used excessive force. The commission members claim Mr Zenawi tried to get them to reverse their decision earlier this year; when that failed the government sought to bury the findings. The head of the commission and his deputy fled to Europe, fearing for their safety. Their investigation says at least 193 people were killed, nearly all by the security forces, including 40 teenagers, some shot at close range, others strangled. Some 20,000 young Ethiopians were said to be imprisoned in labour camps, though a government spokesman calls this “absolute rubbish”?.
The government is spending more on its secret police as well as on state media. Well-placed sources claim an Israeli-trained unit now monitors e-mail and blocks opposition websites. Yet there is also disloyalty in the security apparatus. Berhanu Nega, the imprisoned mayor-elect of Addis Ababa, managed to write a book in Kaliti entitled “Dawn of Freedom”? that is now being widely distributed in samizdat. Some people say 200,000 of the opposition calendars have been sold, often for several times their cover price.
The government could claw back some credibility by releasing the political prisoners, but this is unlikely. And that credibility took another knock last week when Mr Zenawi was forced to admit, after months of denial, that Ethiopian troops had indeed been sent to intervene in the growing civil war in neighbouring Somalia. Donor countries are disgusted by the treason trial, but equally terrified that the country could once again fall miserably apart if they dare to stop their aid.