Connect to share and comment

Opinion: Ethiopia looks increasingly autocratic as it votes

Strategic US ally in containing spread of radical Islam is increasingly authoritarian itself.

Supporters of Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi carry his poster during the final rally by the ruling Ethiopian Revolutionary People's Democratic Front party in the capital Addis Ababa May 20, 2010. (Barry Malone/Reuters)

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.”