War on terror trumps promoting Ethiopian democracy

Letter from Washington
By Janine Zacharia
Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON: In 1998, President Bill Clinton hailed Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia as the leader of an African renaissance. Today, human-rights groups say Zenawi’s security forces are raping and murdering civilians while fighting insurgents seeking autonomy in the Ogaden region.

While the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill linking some Ethiopian military aid to support for human rights and democracy, President George W. Bush remains firm in his backing of Zenawi, 52, whom he considers an important ally in preventing Al Qaeda from gaining a foothold in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia is the latest example of how the war on terror is trumping Bush’s goal of spreading democracy around the globe.

“Security concerns have prevailed as the thing that drives U.S. relations with Ethiopia at the moment,” said Terrence Lyons, associate professor of conflict resolution at George Mason University in Virginia. The administration hasn’t been willing to alter its “strategic relationship on behalf of other goals and interests,” he said.

Ethiopia is waging a U.S.-backed war in Somalia to shore up an unpopular transitional government after ousting the Islamic leadership from the capital, Mogadishu. Thousands of residents have reportedly been killed and 400,000 displaced. Zenawi has also arrested and jailed some dissidents and members of the press.

Bush opposes the House bill, which was approved Oct. 2. While the measure may not trigger a demonstrable change in U.S. policy – it has exemptions for peace-keeping and counterterrorism assistance and a national-security waiver – the vote showcases Ethiopia when few African issues, save perhaps the fighting in Darfur, grab attention.

“When you start seeing the U.S. Congress engaging in efforts like this, it’s a strong signal that something has gone really wrong in a country,” said Saman Zarifi, an advocate with Human Rights Watch in Washington.

In July, Zenawi’s government expelled the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders from the Ogaden region. The latter reported treating civilians who said they had been beaten, shot and raped by Ethiopian security forces after several dozen soldiers were killed in a rebel attack on an oil platform.

Ethiopian troops are “among the most abusive on the continent,” Zarifi told a House panel before the vote. While the Ogaden “is not Darfur yet, it is probably only a few months away from sliding over the edge into a full-blown humanitarian crisis of massive proportions.”

Ethiopia is the second most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa after Nigeria and one of the poorest countries in the world, with a gross domestic product of $160 per capita, according to the World Bank.

The Bush administration requested $481 million for Ethiopia in the 2008 budget, mainly for health, education, civil-society groups and economic-development projects. The total includes $1.5 million in military assistance and $5 million in economic-support funds, some of which may be used for military aid.

The House bill would add $40 million over two years to support development of democratic institutions. The measure was referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; no date has been set for consideration in the upper chamber.

Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, called the measure one-sided and said it would constrain what Bush is able to do to manage U.S. government interests.

She also said the Ogaden dispute was “not something we can address,” calling it a matter Ethiopia should deal with “internally, through a political process.”

Samuel Assefa, Ethiopia’s ambassador to Washington, said the bill violated Ethiopia’s sovereignty and was “destructive to regional security.”

While acknowledging that “democracy is unfinished business for us,” he said the House had ignored Zenawi’s efforts at reform, including pardons for some opposition leaders. He blamed the Ogaden rebels’ “active PR machinery” for the reported crimes against civilians.

Ethiopia has hired a former House majority leader, Dick Armey, and the Texas Republican’s lobbying firm, DLA Piper, partly to fight the legislation.

Armey’s opponents include the Ogaden rebels, who sent a delegation to Washington last month. Abdirahman Mahdi, foreign relations secretary of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, said it “will commit a mass rebellion” if there’s no international intervention.

Ethiopian Americans, who are concentrated in the Washington area, are also lobbying hard for the bill. They have organized rallies and started letter-writing campaigns to lawmakers in cities including Atlanta and Dallas with significant Ethiopian constituencies.

Disputed elections in 2005 for the Ethiopian Parliament and local councils helped galvanize the democracy movement after soldiers clashed with demonstrators alleging fraud. Nearly 200 people were killed, and several dozen opposition leaders and journalists were arrested.

Other members of the press have also been targeted. Nine reporters who were acquitted in April on anti-state charges face retrial in November. If convicted, they may get the death penalty, the Committee to Protect Journalists says.

Berhanu Nega, a 49-year old, U.S.-educated economics professor, was imprisoned after winning the race for mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005. He never took office and was released in July after 21 months in jail.

“The enthusiasm, the commitment for democracy in Ethiopia is unbelievable right now,” he said after meeting with Representative Donald Payne, Democrat of New Jersey, a leading sponsor of the House bill, during a visit to Washington last month. “People are tired of living under tyranny.”