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NAIROBI, Kenya — It has proven notoriously tricky for Africa’s rebel armies to transform themselves into democratic governments and Ethiopia offers perhaps the clearest case study on the continent of how and why this transition so rarely happens.
Ethiopia, under rebel fighter turned political leader Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, attracts huge donor support for its aid programs and no-holds-barred criticism for its human rights record.
In May 2010 the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition won all but two of the seats in the 547-member national parliament, a 99.6 percent landslide.
European Union election observers were among the few foreign monitors permitted into the country at the time and judged the election to have fallen short of international standards.
Often seen sporting a flatcap and glasses, Meles cuts a slight figure and looks more like a 1960s intellectual of the sort that might be found smoking Gauloises and discussing Foucault outside a Parisian cafe than a ruthless guerrilla fighter and military tactician.
Now aged 56, Meles seized power 20 years ago at the end of a long armed struggle to overthrow Mengistu Haile Mariam, who led the notoriously bloodthirsty "Derg" regime.
Before his 20th birthday Meles gave up medical studies to join the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which was part of the EPRDF anti-Mengistu alliance which rules the country today.
Meles set about rebuilding his country under a system he called “ethnic federalism” which would devolve power from the center and prevent domination and oppression by any single ethnic group.
Like Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Meles argues that with economic growth Ethiopians will eventually become rich enough that tribe no longer matters.
The Ethiopian economy has grown impressively, at about 5 to 7 percent a year recently, albeit from a very low base. Helping Ethiopia along Meles's path are international donors who see in Meles someone they can do business with and who talks their language.
The United States is one of Ethiopia’s biggest backers giving close to a billion dollars in aid in 2008 and in 2009, a figure that was expected to fall to between $500 to $600 million in 2010 and 2011 as food aid was reduced dramatically.
The aim of the aid is to improve the livelihoods of Ethiopia’s 82 million people by funding boreholes (deepwater wells), schools, hospitals, seed and fertilizer particularly in the rural areas where the specter of famine — such as the one that hit Ethiopia and Western television screens in 1984 — is never far away.
But late last year Human Rights Watch, a New York-based pressure group, criticized the delivery of hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid. It alleged that the Meles's EPRDF party uses the aid as a political tool, selectively disbursing foreign-funded support to party members or using the threat of withholding aid to coerce people to join the party.
“Assistance to Ethiopia's government has increased while its human rights record has deteriorated," said Rona Peligal of Human Rights Watch. "Donors are contradicting their own principles on human rights and good governance by increasing funding without adequate safeguards."
Peligal accused the government of manipulating aid and warned that donors may be contributing to human rights violations
The U.S. State Department’s own assessment of Ethiopia’s respect for human rights and progress toward democracy is scathing.
“Human rights abuses reported during the year included unlawful killings, torture, beating, and abuse and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, especially special police and local militias, which took aggressive or violent action with evident impunity in numerous instances,” said the most recent report, published last month by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
Human rights groups say there are 300 political prisoners held in Ethiopian prisons and in the run-up to last year’s elections Voice of America’s Amharic service was jammed as were broadcasts by Germany’s Deutsche Welle radio.
Meles, like other ex-rebel leaders on the continent such as Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe or Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerke, does not like his authority questioned.
Freedom House, a New York-based think tank, rated Ethiopia 168 out of 191 countries worldwide for its freedom of the press in a report published this month to coincide with World Press Freedom Day.
As if to underscore the point, an event to mark the day in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa was reportedly “hijacked” by government officials. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, independent speakers were replaced by pro-government reporters causing many of the journalists to walk out.
The respected annual survey, "Freedom in the World," also published by Freedom House this year ranked Ethiopia as “not free” for the first time since it began including the country in 2002.
The downgrading from “partly free” was attributed to, “national elections that were thoroughly tainted by intimidation of opposition supporters and candidates as well as a clampdown on independent media and nongovernmental organizations.”
One of the government’s most effective tools in curbing dissent is its monopoly hold over the entire telecommunications industry, and as a result Ethiopia has one of the lowest rates on the continent of internet and mobile phone penetration.
In most African countries it is the simplest thing in the world, upon arrival, to buy a sim card for a few dollars and some airtime on a scratchcard and start making calls. Equally, keeping up with events online is straightforward.
In Ethiopia getting a simcard requires paying-off a local to apply for one at great expense and on your behalf, and news websites are regularly blocked. Local journalists suspect their phone calls and text messages are tapped and their emails are hacked.
Such draconian control may well pay-off. In North Africa the rising costs of living sparked discontent with oppressive and corrupt governments which was then facilitated by social media websites.
Ethiopia maybe oppressive but a Facebook revolution is not about to happen on Meles’ watch even as year-on-year inflation creeps ever higher, reaching almost 30 percent last month.