U.S. trading silence for military cooperation in Ethiopia?


On May 23, Ethiopia’s incumbent Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was reelected in a landslide. Despite claims of fraud and coercion, Zenawi said: “We have no regrets and we offer no apologies.”

Ethiopian journalist and democracy activist Abebe Gellaw has worked for the Ethiopian Herald, the only English daily in the country, and is a founding editor of Addis Voice, an online journal in English and Amharic that focuses on Ethiopia. The visiting scholar at Stanford is currently working on a book, Ethiopia Under Meles: Why the Transition from Military Rule to Democracy Failed.

He has an op-ed piece, “Ethiopia’s Embarrassing Elections,” in Monday’s Wall Street Journal.

He spoke to the Stanford News Service about the election.

What are the implications of Meles Zenawi’s win for human rights in Ethiopia?

It is a serious setback. The reason why this 99.6 percent election victory is outrageously ludicrous is due to the fact that it can simply be interpreted as if Ethiopians have unanimously endorsed their suffering and abuse under the Meles regime. This can’t happen anywhere.

Supporters of Ethiopia’s opposition coalition have been beaten, harassed and jailed, and one of the country’s last independent newspapers closed in December after its senior staff fled the country for fear of arrest. One opposition parliamentary candidate was stabbed to death, although the government denied involvement. A candidate was arrested while campaigning and sentenced to six months in prison on a contempt charge. Despite government claims, isn’t that evidence of fraud?

The whole situation is even worse than that. There is no question that the elections have been fraudulent. No repressive regime that kills, muffles, harasses and jails innocent citizens can win free and fair elections.

Yet the United States doesn’t seem prepared to put pressure on a stable government in an otherwise war-torn region. Why?

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is considered a key U.S. ally in the war on terror despite his appalling human rights record and making matters worse in Somalia. It appears that the chaos in Somalia, the turbulence in the Sudan and the anti-American stance of Eritrea has bought U.S. silence in exchange for security and military cooperation.

Many Ethiopians see the reactions from Washington as a lip service, a kind of “rest in peace” for democracy.

The U.S. State Department expressed “concern” and urged Meles’ administration to strengthen its democratic institutions and offer a “level playing field” to electoral candidates free from intimidation and favoritism in order to ensure “more inclusive results.” Is that going to mean anything?

Not really. This call should have come five years ago. The process of killing any hope for democracy started in earnest in the aftermath the 2005 disputed elections.

When the Meles regime realized the danger of allowing relatively contested elections, it launched a series of measures that derailed any democratic gains in the last years.

Over 13 popular newspapers were closed down, critical websites were blocked, civic society organizations were crippled as they were forbidden from raising funding from foreign sources. The Voice of America was jammed, peaceful assembly was almost totally banned, freedom of expression was criminalized and serious dissidents like “Ethiopia’s Aung San Suu Kyi,” Birtukan Mideksa, were locked up. Where was the U.S. during that time? Almost nowhere.

The Bush administration even blocked the passage of HR2003, the Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007, which was aimed at consolidating respect for human rights, democracy and economic freedom in Ethiopia. After the bill passed the House of Representatives, it died in the Senate. The Ethiopian government had hired DLA Piper, which received $50,000 per month to lobby against the bill, and was threatening that the Ethio-U.S. alliance would be over.

What can and should the U.S. government do?

The Meles regime has received tens of billions of dollars from the United States since it came to power in 1991. The financial, military and diplomatic support of the United States has undoubtedly consolidated the regime. Meles continues to pretend that his regime can survive without America’s support, but he knows full well that he still needs a lot of propping up. Over 30 percent of the national budget comes from foreign aid.

The future of Ethiopia is now more uncertain and it can potentially join Somalia if serous conflicts break out. What makes Ethiopia a ticking time bomb is that the regime has fragmented the country along ethnic lines in pursuit of its divide-and-rule tactics.

Advocates of armed struggle as the only viable option to bring about change are likely to get serious listeners.

The warlords in Somalia and the regimes in Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea are part of the problem, as their tyrannies and irresponsible style of governance will continue to make the sub-region more unstable and violent.

The U.S. can actually send stronger messages to Zenawi, who has been convinced that he is indispensable and irreplaceable. It should not turn a blind eye to the atrocities being committed against the people of Ethiopia. President Obama should also live up to his promise of standing by the bitter struggles of oppressed people to end tyranny. There must be no exceptions.

A few months ago, you said expressing your views can be “extremely dangerous” in Ethiopia.

The majority of Ethiopian journalists who dared to do their jobs honestly suffered immensely. The reason why hundreds of journalists live in exile is due to the fact that the regime jails, tortures and harasses journalists. In Ethiopia, the regime has been engaged in the business of closing down so many serious newspapers and attacking journalists without any consequences for the last 15 years.

As an example let me mention the difficulties even the Voice of America is facing in Ethiopia. In 2005, four VOA broadcasters and reporters as well as one manager, all naturalized U.S. citizens and permanent residents, were accused of fictitious treason and genocide charges – charges later dropped under international pressure.

Since earlier this year, the Voice of America has been jammed. When reporters asked Zenawi why his government was jamming VOA, he said the station “copied the worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda” and he accused it of instigating genocide.

An Ethiopian journalist, who declined to give his name for fear of retribution, told the Wall Street Journal that many Ethiopians expected the United States to do more than send food. “People are starving for freedom, not just for food.” Would you agree?

Food aid is starving Ethiopia. Food aid has made the regime think that feeding the starving millions is the responsibility of the West. Earlier this month, I had a chance to raise a question to Meles Zenawi at the World Economic Forum on Africa, which was held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

He was a panelist on vision for African agriculture. I plucked up my courage and asked him why millions of Ethiopians are still starving under his leadership while the country has huge water resources and unutilized virgin land. I asked him why he is giving away hundreds of thousands of hectares of land to Saudi Arabia and China to grow food for their own people. I also wanted to know why he is not privatizing land instead of using it as a means of control for the ruling party.

He was visibly unhappy about the questions. According to him, distributing food aid was an achievement. It is very unfortunate that Ethiopia is being led by people who lack creative thinking and courage to take responsibility.

The hunger for freedom is something that cannot be addressed with food aid from America and Canada. Credible research indicates that democracies and free countries never suffer from extreme food insecurity and famine. The Nobel Prize winner economist Amartya Sen, for instance, theorized that in countries where there is relative freedom and democratic governance famine can hardly occur. Unfortunately, food aid has now been institutionalized in Ethiopia. That is a disaster for Ethiopia, which is a very proud nation.

(Cynthia Haven writes for Stanford University News.)