Turning a blind eye to Ethiopia's crimes against its own people


LETTER FROM ADDIS ABABA:Ethiopian stability is key to maintaining regional stability in the volatile horn of Africa

ETHIOPIA CONFOUNDS the senses. You land in the capital expecting grinding poverty and a harsh, arid climate. Instead, you stumble on a cityscape tucked between soft green hills, gleaming confidently with new glass buildings that rise and expand by the day.

Addis Ababa is enjoying an unprecedented construction boom. Ethiopia, once viewed primarily through the dark grim lenses of Live Aid and TV reports from the early 1980s, is riding high on the back of it.

The economy is now growing at close to double figures, when most western economies struggle to register anything over zero.

Lurking behind the city’s polished facade, however, is a more depressing reality.

Despite the Chinese-built motorways, the ultra-modern new glass and steel airport and cosmopolitan air, Addis Ababa and the rest of Ethiopia are a lot less like Europe and the rest of the western world than it might first appear.

After all, can you think of any government that purports to be a multi-party democracy, but manages to win all but two seats in the 547-seat parliament?

Last week, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRD) ran away with the national elections, giving its leader Meles Zenawi another term in office.

As prime minister, he has already served 19 years, a suspiciously long time, no doubt, but just two longer than our own Eamon de Valera did as Taoiseach. However, not even he managed to pull off a 99 per cent sweep of parliamentary seats.

According to international observers, opposition parties were subject to a long campaign of intimidation in the years and months leading up to the May poll.

Opposition candidates had their names taken off the ballots at the last minute while government services were withdrawn from the neediest if they stepped over the line and supported the opposition.

New York-based Human Rights Watch paints an even more depressing picture, stating that ordinary Ethiopians they surveyed told them how villages were organised into closely monitored cells, where local government officials and militia watched out for any signs of opposition among households.

“The government controls dissent in many ways,” says Ben Rawlence of Human Rights Watch, “from curtailing freedom of speech and using draconian anti-terrorism legislation all the way down to village-level intimidation, where ruling party members have a very tight grip on what you say, do and think.

“There is a very active programme of using government services as both a carrot and a stick, to encourage and intimidate people.”

This is most obvious at the village level, where people tend to be poorest and most dependent on government services. Farmers who support the opposition are less likely to get fertiliser or other products needed to till the land, while places in school and access to health services depend on whether you are a signed-up member of the EPRD or not.

“The separation between the ruling party and the public administration was blurred at the local level in many constituencies,” according to Thijs Berman, the European Union’s chief electoral observer in the country.

Meles Zenawi has dismissed allegations of a campaign against the opposition a “fiction”. Fortunately for him, the international community is unlikely to amplify its disquiet at the notional democracy at play in his country.

Long recognised as a buffer state in colonial times, Ethiopian stability is now key to maintaining regional stability in the volatile horn of Africa. With an army that is ready and willing to take on militant Islam, as it did in 2006 in Somalia, many in the international community are ready to turn a blind eye to the more heinous crimes committed against its own people.

These include the imprisonment of journalists and civic society leaders, not to mention the murder of opposition activists.

Ethiopians are a very proud people, and with good reason.

Whereas other countries were cut out of a cartographer’s map in Whitehall or the Quai d’Orsay, Ethiopia is one of the oldest continuous civilizations in the world. One of the first nations to officially adopt Christianity as a religion, it was the only country in Africa to maintain its independence in the face of European colonisation.

So outside criticism does not wash well and getting the government to change tack, especially when international donors are so willing to turn their heads at human rights abuses, will not be easy.

To paraphrase a line from the book of Jeremiah, getting an Ethiopian to switch his thinking is as easy as changing a leopard’s spots.