Opinion: Ethiopia looks increasingly autocratic as it votes

WASHINGTON — Ethiopians are understandably offended that their country is known mainly for horrendous recent famines, and not for its sophisticated culture and ancient civilization.

Indeed, its medieval churches and castles present unparalleled opportunities for visitors to learn about Ethiopia's rich and fascinating history. Sadly, based on a recent trip I made there, it is totalitarianism rather than tourism that threatens to define Ethiopia in the coming years.

Ethiopia holds its election Sunday and it appears the authoritarian Meles Zenawi will be returned to office, although the fairness of the elections is up to question.

This is no isolated backwater. Ethiopia is the United States’ principal strategic partner in the horn of Africa, surrounded by problematic places like Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea, and just across the Red Sea from turbulent Yemen.

With 85 million inhabitants, Ethiopia ranks as the second most populous nation on the African continent.

Ethiopia is one of the 28 priority countries earmarked for U.S. aid to boost its effectiveness as an ally against terrorism, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. Ethiopia is collaborating with Washington in fighting Islamists in Somalia, deploying peace-keeping troops to various African hotspots, holding joint trainings and hosting U.S. military delegations.

Its reward has been generous U.S. bilateral assistance in areas including food aid, health, education and economic growth, making it one of the top 10 recipients of American foreign aid. In addition, Ethiopia benefits from U.S. military training and anti-terrorism funding.

Amazingly, Washington so values its African ally, that relations have remained cordial despite the fact that for past two months, the regime in Addis Ababa has been jamming local language radio broadcasts of the Voice of America.

The U.S. is far from the only country to try to purchase close relations with Ethiopia. Both the European Union and the United Kingdom have given lavishly: From 2007 to 2009, Ethiopia was the second largest recipient of British bilateral aid in the world. To the surprise of many, Canada recently announced that Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was being invited to attend the G-20 summit in Toronto this coming June, a singular honor for a man many view as no friend of democracy.

The elections Sunday are a reminder to many that the last polls, in 2005, were widely viewed as a disaster. The Carter Center reported that “what began with a comparatively open period of campaigning and an orderly voting process on election day was followed by flawed counting and tabulation processes in many areas; repeated incidents of serious postelection violence, including the killing of many dozens of people during electoral protests; a significant delay in finalizing election results; and an ineffective complaints review and investigation processes.”

Prime Minister Zenawi viewed it otherwise, accusing the opposition of attempting to mount an “insurrection.” Thus, it is little surprise that this May’s elections seem to be eliciting little enthusiasm from ordinary Ethiopians. The campaign speeches and political posters that characterized 2005 are largely absent, and the general mood seems to be one of ennui rather than enthusiasm.

Resignation aside, Ethiopians are also aware that the heavy hand of the state is everywhere. The recent passage of national legislation tightly restricting civil society and advocacy organizations is typical. Despite a constitution that guarantees freedom of association to every person, the new law essentially prevents any group from advocating for the advancement of human rights, gender equality, the rights of children and disabled persons, and the efficiency of the justice system. Presumably then, promoting the rights of Ethiopia’s many war amputees, or arguing against female genital mutilation would be a crime.

As Churchill might have said, the current Ethiopian government is the worst, except for all the others.

The years from 1930 to 1987 saw the apathetic feudal monarchy of Emperor Haile Selassie I succeeded by the blood-soaked Marxism of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Famines, deportations, executions and war resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of Ethiopians.

Today, universities are sprouting all around the country, there is a strong export economy based on coffee and flowers, and new businesses are being launched with funds from the large number of Ethiopians living overseas.

So despite the bar being low, Meles and his ruling EPRDF coalition can justifiably claim to have provided virtually every living Ethiopian with more democracy and prosperity than any of his predecessors.

But of course ordinary people rarely view their lives in broad historical terms. Instead, they look at others and ask “why not us?” So Ethiopians, proud and intelligent, wonder why their country remains among the world’s poorest, why a third of the population depends on imported food aid, and why they cannot be trusted to start their own advocacy organizations or vote for whom they want.

These are reasonable questions and in a country with an long history of civil conflict, ethnic and religious strife, and political conspiracy, not taking them seriously may have ugly consequences.

Chris Hennemeyer is a Washington, DC-based analyst who has lived and worked in Africa for nearly 25 years.