Another Strongman for Ethiopia?

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Ethiopia human rights protest

Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s taciturn, ironfisted ruler, passed away after 21 years of increasingly autocratic rule, leaving the country and its global allies at an interesting and rare crossroads: Will the country continue along its current path of political authoritarianism and its extensive machinery of suppression, or will we see the rights of Ethiopian people restored in an more transparent, accountable political system?

Zenawi’s passing marks a major transition point in terms of political leadership and governance in sub Saharan Africa, as he was part of a third generation of  post-colonial leadership that succeeded in  establishing themselves on the global stage while creating governments that systematically  stripped individuals of their rights and then of their freedom.

Zenawi along with Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Jerry Rawlings of Ghana were touted in international circles as the new generation of leadership for Africa, the unspoken subtext being that as “enlightened strongmen”, they were- just what Africa needed.   These men also astutely milked that status and developed alliances with major donors while in return securing carte blanche support for their actions inside their respective countries.

\Meles supporters highlighted his economic record and compared him to his predecessors, who set alarming watermarks for repression and human rights abuses including the Red Terror of the regime of Haile Mengistu Mariam and the late Emperor Haile Selassie, whose prisons also bulged with dissidents.

The record of human rights reversal in Ethiopia is unfortunately extensive and dispiriting.

Following elections in 2005, widespread protests broke out after the opposition accused the government of falsifying the results. Nearly 200 protesters were killed when security forces opened fire on the crowds in Addis Ababa. Tens of thousands of people were arrested across the country and high profile treason trials took place of leading opposition members, journalists and human rights activists. The 2010 elections took place in a context of intimidation resulting in the government claim of victory with 99.5% of the vote.

The Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, passed in 2009, is sweeping legislation that led to trials of journalists and opposition members.  It effectively criminalizes Freedom of expression– peaceful opposition to the government or calls for peaceful protest are being interpreted as acts of terrorism. The law includes an excessively broad provision on what constitutes terrorist activities which can be used to criminalize peaceful and legitimate activities. The definition of “encouragement of terrorism” makes the publication of statements “likely to be understood as encouraging terrorist acts” punishable by 10 to 20 years in prison.  These provisions mean that critics of the government such as journalists, members of civil society and political opponents can be charged for encouraging terrorism based on the government’s discretion.  Since early 2011, over 100 journalists and political opposition members have been arrested and subsequently prosecuted, charged with terrorism and other offenses including treason.

The Charities and Societies Proclamation, also passed in 2009, has been an all-out assault on civil society. Throughout Ethiopia, human rights organizations struggle to operate due to severe restrictions placed on their work by the law.  Restrictions include denying human rights organizations access to essential funding and endowing the government’s Charities and Societies Agency with sweeping powers to interfere in the operations and activities of human rights organizations, which among other concerns further endangers victims of human rights violations by contravening essential principles of confidentiality.  This law has forced organizations to cut programs, close offices and lay off staff.  Using the law, the government has frozen the assets of the country’s two leading human rights organizations.

Torture and other ill-treatment by the Ethiopian authorities continues to be a consistent theme in the U.S. Department of State’s annual human rights reports. According to the 2011 report:

“Significant number of the journalists and opposition members cited above spoke of torture or other ill-treatment during interrogations.  Detainees reported beatings, including with pieces of wire, metal and furniture; suspension by the wrists; sleep deprivation; and being held in isolation and in complete darkness for prolonged periods. Many reported being forced to sign confessions and other documents that would later be presented against them as evidence.”

The 2011 DoS report also notes that there were an estimated 86,000 persons in Ethiopia’s prisons, and refers to the use of unofficial places of detention in military camps and private buildings, wherein torture is reported to take place. The unofficial nature of these detention facilities only increases the risk that detainees will be subjected to torture or other forms of ill-treatment.  Adding to the problem is the lack of effective action by the courts and the lack of access by independent monitors to detention facilities.

This same 2011 report pointed out that in November 2010 the UN Committee Against Torture noted that there were “numerous and consistent reports” about the government’s “persistent failure” to investigate allegations of torture and prosecute perpetrators. And the “the absence of information on cases in which soldiers and police or prison officers were prosecuted, sentenced, or subjected to disciplinary sanctions for acts of torture or mistreatment.”

The Ethiopian government has a track record of forcible displacement, evicting tens of thousands of people during 2010 from five regions of Ethiopia due to government development projects.

By whatever measure, the report by the U.S. Department of State echoes reports by Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch and is pretty damning. If one were to look at the diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Ethiopia, one would think that that Washington remains mired in its rosy tinted view of Meles as one of the drivers of what was billed in the 90s as the “African renaissance”.  One need only look at the last G8 Summit, where Meles was one of four African heads of states invited to attend, and the foreign assistance Ethiopia has continued to receive from donor countries, be it for food security or for military purposes.

It is against this background and in the face or armed insurrection in several regions of the country and an opposition that does not have any space to speak or differ with the government that the United States faces an Ethiopia on the verge of change and uncertainty.  The simplistic reliance on “strongmen” to keep order, do the bidding of Western allies and be given free reign inside their borders  has been exposed as  doomed to failure in dramatic fashion in the Middle East and North Africa.

If selecting  a new Prime Minister  were not enough of an opportunity, Ethiopia could also be looking for a new head of the army, a new Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and a new president for Oromia regional state- all significant positions that could play a role in helping the country change course.   It is long past the time that the international community, including the United States, lived up to its rhetorical commitment to human rights and helped the Ethiopian people establish a government that is accountable to the rule of law, transparent and committed to protecting  the human rights of the Ethiopian people.

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