In Africa, are 'donor darlings' stifling democracy?

Clashes between opposition protesters and security forces in Ethiopia killed more than 46 people in the past week.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In Africa's decade-plus experiment with multiparty democracy, there appears to be significant backsliding, ironically, among some heads of state once heralded as the next generation of great leaders on the continent. And the slippage, observers say, is sometimes being abetted by the US and other rich-nation donors - in part because of the war on terror.

The most current example is Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who was a member of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Commission for Africa and is an important partner in America's terror war. After a disputed election in May, he's mounted a brass-knuckles crackdown on opponents in which at least 76 people have died. He's also edging toward restarting one of Africa's most deadly wars.

Other examples include the leaders of Uganda, Eritrea, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe. All have one thing in common: They came to power as rebel fighters. Many have opened some democratic space, for instance allowing opposition parties. But they're balking at the final step in democracy's process: giving up power.

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"These guys fought for 17 years in the bush to get into power," explains one capital-city resident about Ethiopia's ruling party. "So they're going to give it up after one election? No, no, no."

African revolutionaries have stepped down. Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda did in 1991. So did Ghana's Jerry Rawlings in 2000 and Kenya's Daniel arap Moi in 2002. But it hasn't become the norm.

In Ethiopia, the most recent crackdown began after the opposition last week refused to join parliament - in ongoing protest of what they call a rigged May 15 election, which they believe they won. With mobs throwing stones and smashing cars, police have arrested thousands of opposition members and supporters. At least 46 people have died in the clashes, in which security forces reportedly used live ammunition against protesters. The violence has now mostly morphed into a tense calm in the capital. But unrest has reportedly spread to outlying towns.

One reason the opposition is so fierce is because their expectations were high going into the elections. In the campaign, the government allowed eight televised debates in which opposition candidates lobbed rhetorical bombs. Their supporters began to expect to win. When they didn't - in an election outside observers saw as flawed - it created a democratic whiplash and sparked anger.

The ruling party was "willing to accommodate the opposition - but not to the point of conceding power," says one local observer, who asked not to be named because of the tense situation. Since the election, he says, "The government has really changed. They don't feel like they can afford the luxury of democracy any more, and they're heading toward being an authoritarian regime."

In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni is also tilting antidemocratic, most notably by changing the Constitution to enable him to run for a third term. His words from a 2002 speech reverberate: "We are people in suits by day but in uniform at night. We fought a liberation war," he said. "Don't play around with freedom fighters."

Diplomats could turn the screws to force democratic reform. Donors fund roughly half of governments' budgets in Ethiopia, Uganda, and other African nations, but they haven't wanted to push too hard.

After touting these leaders as paragons, and investing billions in them, "The west doesn't want to say, 'We failed,' " says the local observer.

The terror war is also key, especially for the US. Ethiopia is the biggest regional power in the terror-prone Horn of Africa. US troops deployed here keep an eye on chaotic Somalia and other places.

Meles, Museveni, and others have also fostered strong growth. Ethiopia's economy surged by 12 percent last year. Addis Ababa is full of scores of new buildings. And Meles has mostly averted serious famines.

In Ethiopia, there's also a sense among donors that Meles is still the best option. There's little confidence in the opposition, which is seen as irresponsible. And many domestic Meles critics are very hawkish about Eritrea, the neighbor Ethiopia fought in an inconclusive war that ended in 2000. His critics would be more likely to restart the war - another reason for diplomats to favor Meles.

Yet donors are increasingly in a bind. "What they saw as a fairly legitimate and palatable situation is looking increasingly less so," says Matthew Bryden of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "So you'll probably see a tougher line being taken."

On Saturday, Meles appointed a commission to investigate police conduct in the violence - a donor demand, and evidence of growing pressure on him.

Mr. Blair has received fresh criticism from conservatives in Britain over his ties to Meles. And members of the generally anti-Meles Ethiopian diaspora staged a protest outside the White House.

There's growing concern in Washington. "This is becoming much bigger than, 'Do we like Meles or not?' " says Stephen Morrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. If instability continues or worsens, he expects the US to get tough - to even threaten to punish Meles through the UN Security Council and the World Bank. Of the US he says, "They're looking very seriously at stepping up their engagement."

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