Ethiopia's Shift to Democracy Depends on US Aid

AFTER 30 years of war, an uneasy peace has broken out in Ethiopia. With it comes an opportunity to break the deadly cycle of war and famine. To do so, however, Ethiopia will need the help of Western nations, led by the United States, which responded so generously during past famines. The donors must now provide critical support to foster the transition to democracy and to finance reconstruction.

The problems facing the new rulers of Ethiopia, dominated by the Tigrean People's Liberation Force (TPLF), are enormous. The most fundamental issue is the future of Ethiopia as a nation, as demands for ethnic self-determination escalate. The new government has already accepted the possibility that Eritrea will become independent. This will be decided in a UN-supervised referendum two years hence.

Having come to power through an appeal to their own ethnic nationalism, the Tigreans must show that they can govern the country as a whole and bridge ethnic divisions. The government's willingness to countenance an independent Eritrea is anathema to many Ethiopians. That, combined with the demise of an authoritarian dictator and the new freedoms of expression and association, could be an explosive mixture in a country with long-repressed but strongly felt ethnic loyalties.

Despite sporadic fighting in the south of the country, the government has so far done a credible job of preventing a return to civil war. Soon after taking power, the TPLF convened a national conference and formed a coalition government incorporating a range of political and ethnic forces. The government has redrawn provincial boundaries to reflect linguistic and ethnic groupings.

On the economic front the government is caught in a bind. Foreign donors are looking for major economic policy reforms, while the government maintains that it cannot implement reforms until the government gets an injection of cash to jump-start the economy. In fact, the country has been cash-starved since the new government took over because of low export levels and little foreign aid.

The agricultural sector, backbone of the Ethiopian economy, suffered incalculable damage from former dictator Mengistu Haile Miriam's policies of forced resettlement, price controls, and insecure land tenure. The new government is reversing these policies. Nonetheless, relief needs remain critical in regions where rains have failed and fields are barren.

ADDING to Ethiopia's burdens, an estimated 250,000 soldiers from Mengistu's army have been demobilized and are returning to their homes or to the cities. They must be reintegrated into civil society, or they will drain the economy and potentially pose a political or military threat. The government is also looking at ways to reintegrate up to 500,000 refugees returning from neighboring countries.

The United States played a pivotal role last year in facilitating a smooth transfer of power in Ethiopia when the rebels took over. The US should now support a nascent democratic government willing to address the root causes of famine. Under restrictions imposed by the congressionally mandated Brooke Amendment, however, aid to Ethiopia is restricted to emergency relief because of the approximately $6 million owed the US by the previous regime. Outrageously, the $6 million debt is for storage costs charge d to Ethiopia for goods the country never received.

Congressional action to waive the Brooke Amendment has been stymied by the inability of Congress to pass any foreign-aid bill. The executive branch also has the authority to waive the Brooke Amendment, but that process is bogged down in bureaucratic delays.

To Ethiopians, it makes no difference how the waiver is obtained. What is important is that the US demonstrate its commitment to support their fragile transition to democracy.

Given the current political climate against foreign aid in an election year, neither Congress nor the executive branch is exerting leadership on this issue. But let's be realistic. We are talking about a very small amount of funds for the poorest country in the world. That much is not beyond our means.

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