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Why Ethiopia's authoritarian style gets a Western nod

Ethiopia is a geostrategically important ally in the West's efforts to battle extremism in the Horn of Africa. Western leaders have also emphasized its progress in battling poverty.

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The reason for the deference is largely geographic. At the end of January, US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns dropped into Addis Ababa. Although concerns over the antiterror law were expressed, his mission was to "emphasize the strategic importance of that country to countering violent extremism in the greater Horn of Africa region."

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Not only is Ethiopia neighbor to the two Sudanese nations teetering on the brink of conflict and wartorn Somalia, but its role is vital: Its troops are patrolling the flashpoint border district of Abyei and also backing up forces allied against the terror group al-Shabaab; Meles was also the key mediator in a recent attempt to broker an agreement over the oil-transit fees Juba, in South Sudan, should pay Khartoum, Sudan's capital city.

"From the point of view of Western and especially US geopolitical considerations, it would be a monumental disservice to national interests to do anything to undermine engagement with Ethiopia," says J. Peter Pham, director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.

But it's not just due to geopolitical scheming that donors remain loyal – it is also the government's commitment to improving health, education, and infrastructure. Donors may give $150 million a year to build on improvements in education, reported Voice of America this week.

Even Mr. Kristof says – among a barrage of barbs – that "Meles has done genuine good in fighting poverty."  A British government aid official says the anti-terror law will be "high on the list" of points to raise in bilateral discussions. A radical response would be awkward given that Ethiopia was made the UK's biggest beneficiary of aid last year on the basis of its record of social and economic progress.

Exiled journalist Abiye Teklemariam – himself being tried in absentia under the law – recently skewered Western cheerleaders for Meles. Noting the shifting characterizations of the former Marxist rebel over the last two decades, he said that with few heralding his democratic credentials these days – one opposition member won a seat in a parliament of 547 in 2010 elections – Meles is now portrayed "as a technocratic, if dictatorial, leader who had been able to crack the code of East Asia's rise and download it into an Ethiopian hardware." 

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