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Opinion: Ethiopia looks increasingly autocratic as it votes

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

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.