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.

By , Correspondent

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    Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi attends a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, January 26.
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Ethiopia's recent prosecution of opponents under an antiterror law has attracted widespread condemnation. But with its regional role as crucial as ever and donors still impressed by the government's antipoverty measures, the criticism is unlikely to result in significant changes.

Despite its status as a donor darling, Ethiopia's government is, once again, doing little to encourage the attentions of its Western suitors.

Often using a 2009 antiterrorism law, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's administration has prosecuted scores of opposition figures and a handful of journalists over the past year. Most are accused of links with banned groups, such as the US-based Ginbot 7, whose leaders gave up hopes of unseating Mr. Meles at the ballot box after the disastrous fallout from a 2005 poll.

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Rights groups are unanimous in their condemnation. “There is no evidence that they are guilty of any criminal wrongdoing," Amnesty International said about a group including three Ethiopian journalists jailed for plotting terror acts last month. "We believe that they are prisoners of conscience, prosecuted because of their legitimate criticism of the government."

While Amnesty and Human Rights Watch consistently slam the government, others have only recently joined the fray. Five United Nations Special Rapporteurs expressed "their dismay at the continuing abuse of antiterrorism legislation to curb freedom of expression."

The world's media have also tuned in. A HRW report detailing coercion and abuse in the resettlement of tens of thousands in the nation's west was widely reported, and Nicholas D. Kristof dedicated a recent column in The New York Times to Ethiopia's treatment of two Swedish journalists caught embedded with a rebel group. "Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s increasingly tyrannical ruler, seemed to be sending a signal to the world’s journalists: Don’t you dare mess with me!" he wrote.

A more-silent West

However, criticism has not been so forthcoming from Ethiopia's Western partners.

On the first day of the Swedes' trial, which resulted in 11-year sentences for entering the country illegally and supporting a terrorist organization, the US ambassador to Ethiopia, Donald Booth, attended, but such provocative gestures are rare from Ethiopia's biggest benefactor.

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."

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." 

The guiltiest culprits here, Ethiopian critics say, are those who believed Ethiopia would quickly transform into a Western idyll: The government has always directed the market, and even more carefully managed elections – 2005 aside. Now more than ever, the intention to improve the lives of the nation's poor rural populace without distractions from critical journalists or divisive opposition politicians is clear.

Even if Western donors desired to change this, given Ethiopia's strong bonds with emerging powers, they have few strings to pull.

Double standards?

This dynamic makes it unlikely that Western concerns will alter thinking on the terror law, which Meles said this week is copied "word-for-word" from the West's own statute books. In parliament, he berated the West for double standards over Ethiopia's criminalization of the media, using the treatment of WikiLeaks' Julian Assange and Britain's phone-hacking journalists to illustrate his point.

Mr. Pham has some sympathy for the charge of Western hypocrisy. Turkey, an EU candidate, has a prime minister who "regularly brings both civil and criminal cases against commentators who criticize him," he says. "Canada is viewed as a bastion of civil liberties, yet it allows foreign journalists to be prosecuted for alleged 'hate speech,' " Pham argues.

Other commentators differ. "The antiterrorism law is so all-inclusive and broadly written that it seems to cover almost any pronouncement or action," says former US Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn. "Perhaps that was the goal, but this leaves it wide open to abuse."

With its domestic control and international goodwill, the intolerance bemuses Mr. Shinn. "I have always been perplexed why the government responds so harshly" to its media opponents, he says. "It would be well advised to ignore criticism."

Others, such as Ethiopia expert Kjetil Tronvoll, believe the ruling party's Marxist-Leninist origins mean that crushing critics is inevitable. In a post-liberation state, where liberation parties equate themselves with the state, all dissent is seen "as threatening not only to the party but to Ethiopia's overall development." Recent arrests are an "attempt to crack down on possible opinion leaders which may mobilize the broad masses," in light of the Arab Spring, he believes.

Whichever analysis is more accurate, the government's unbending response marks the way forward. "This barrage of criticism emanates from ideological and political differences," senior government official Bereket Simon says. "Organizations like HRW do not accept our independent path of development."

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