By Helen Epstein
Today, Western nations give $3.5 billion a year in aid to Ethiopia, most of it for health care projects, food aid, and other development programs. Of this, the US alone provides roughly $700 million—an amount that has quintupled in the past decade, even as the nation’s human rights record has deteriorated to the point that Freedom House now designates it one of the least free countries in the world. The Ethiopian government has rigged elections, taken control of the economy, and outlawed virtually all independent media and human rights activity in the country—including work related to women and children’s rights, good governance, and conflict resolution. Thousands of political prisoners languish behind bars and dozens of editors, journalists, judges, lawyers, and academics have been forced into exile.
But when Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died last summer, then-US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice praised him as a personal friend and a “talented and vital leader.” When she remarked that “he had little patience for fools, or ‘idiots,’ as he liked to call them,” some in the opposition believed she was referring to them—and approving Meles’s sentiments. Rice’s support for authoritarian leaders in Africa was highlighted by critics who opposed—and ultimately derailed—her nomination to be secretary of state.
Perhaps most worrying of all is the unwillingness of Obama and other Western leaders to say or do anything to support the hundreds of thousands of Muslim Ethiopians who have been demonstrating peacefully against government interference in their religious affairs for more than a year. (The Ethiopian government claims the country has a Christian majority, but Muslims may account for up to one half of the population.) You’d think a nonviolent Islamic movement would be just the kind of thing the Obama administration would want to showcase to the world. It has no hint of terrorist influence, and its leaders are calling for a secular government under the slogan “We have a cause worth dying for, but not worth killing for.” Indeed, the Ethiopian protesters may be leading Africa’s most promising and important nonviolent human rights campaign since the anti-apartheid struggle.
Yet the United States, along with other major donors to Ethiopia’s government, including Britain, has stood by as women and men have been hideously beaten by police, hundreds have been arrested, eight people have been killed, mosques have been raided by security forces, and twenty-nine Muslim leaders, including lawyers, professors, and businessmen, remain in jail, charged with trying to use violent means to create an Islamic state... read more