Ethiopia’s Democratic Sham
A government clampdown has rendered the outcome of Sunday's parliamentary elections a foregone conclusion. Washington doesn't seem to mind that its ally, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, is assured a win.
I first glimpsed the depth of suppressed urban anger toward the Ethiopian government a few hundred paces into the annual 10-kilometer Great Ethiopian Run in Addis Ababa in November 2008. An immensely popular fun-run organized by Ethiopia’s most famous marathoner, it is one of the very few occasions when the government still allows citizens to gather en masse. And the runners took advantage; as we surged through the city’s main artery in matching red race T-shirts, anti-government slogans began to rumble across the crowd around us. The chants rose in volume and intensity whenever we passed a bastion of federal power — the Justice Ministry, the Supreme Court, the presidential compound. One recurring refrain combined a demand for the release of a popular political prisoner with a rhythmic, insistent, "O-bam-a!" It had been just a few weeks since Barack Obama’s election, an event that had inspired many in Addis to hope that change would come not just to the White House, but to its approach toward their country and eventually to their own government.
On Sunday, May 23, Ethiopians will be out politicking again — this time heading to the polls to vote in parliamentary elections. But few will harbor any illusions about the likelihood of voting in a change. In the 18 months since that race, there has been no meaningful revision in U.S. policy toward Ethiopia, and there is today even less reason to anticipate change in the country’s leadership. As one opposition leader has put it, the question is not whether the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) will defeat its intimidated and harassed opponents, but whether this will turn out to be the election in which Ethiopia takes the last step toward becoming a truly one-party state.
This is what passes for democracy in Ethiopia today. As the election has drawn closer, the government has done everything it can to push the result in its favor, waging what Human Rights Watch called in March a "coordinated and sustained attack on political opponents, journalists, and rights activists." That was the same month that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi took aim at one of the few independent sources of news still available, comparing the Amharic-language Voice of America programming to the genocidal Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda and ordering its broadcasts jammed. Journalists have fled into exile at an escalating pace over the last year, while civil society has been effectively neutered by a deeply oppressive NGO law. Political activists on both sides have been killed in recent weeks, and the government has publicly accused the opposition of planning violence, raising fears that it might be laying out a pretext for a crackdown.
All this has revealed a deep-seated unwillingness on the government’s part to even contemplate sharing political power — an instinct that emerged out of the last set of parliamentary elections in 2005, when Meles was dangerously close to forfeiting his majority. That proximity to losing — and the subsequent crackdown that ensured he didn’t — has hung like a cloud over Ethiopia ever since. Indeed, as this year’s election approaches, memories of that vote are pronounced. On election night, Meles banned public demonstrations. Then, as the vote count proceeded and protests grew, he assumed direct control over the security services, which, in separate incidents over several months, killed nearly 200 demonstrators. At least 30,000 people were detained, and much of the opposition’s leadership was arrested on charges including treason and "attempted genocide." When the official results were finally released nearly five months later, the opposition had been awarded just a third of the country’s parliamentary seats — while the EPRDF won with a comfortable majority.
The ruling party has spent much of the subsequent five years ensuring that this year’s vote would not be nearly so close. Proffering theories to account for the government’s iron grasp of power is a popular parlor game in Addis’s diplomatic circles; they range from the cynical (the leadership enjoys the financial benefits of power) to the strategic (Meles’s circle, as members of a minority ethnic group, doesn’t believe it could win a fair election) to the psychological (Meles and his team believe that by defeating the Soviet-backed military dictatorship in 1991 they won the right to rule).
Whatever its motivations, one might expect such unapologetic repression to trigger policy reassessments in Washington and the capitals of Europe. If recent history is anything to go by, however, this is unlikely. The 2005 violence did initially cast a pall over what had until then been an internationally popular administration, poisoning Addis’s relations with eager foreign donors. But the dollars continued to flow; even the $375 million that the World Bank and its donors withdrew from direct budget support was soon routed through a newly designed program. In total, foreign assistance actually increased slightly in 2006 — from $1.91 million to nearly $1.95 million — and by 2007, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Jendayi Frazer, was congratulating the Ethiopian government on its improved political climate.
Today, Ethiopia receives the largest amount of aid of any country in sub-Saharan Africa. And while the diplomatic atmosphere in Addis remains suspicious and often tense, Meles is again a partner foreign capitals can and do work with. Depressingly enough, Meles’s Ethiopia, autocracy or not, is a near paragon of responsibility in an unstable and strategically important region that otherwise includes the roguish likes of Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan. The United States and its European counterparts appreciate Ethiopia’s contributions to the fight against extremists in the region. George W. Bush’s administration provided considerable support to Ethiopia’s costly invasion and occupation of neighboring Somalia. And the U.S. Defense Department today continues to maintain close ties with the Ethiopian military, despite widely reported abuses in its campaign against insurgents in the eastern part of the country.
But politicians are only half the problem. The development community also seems willing to hold its nose, determined to prioritize Ethiopia’s development gains (and the prevention of future food crises) over democratic qualms. Those development gains are real and impressive: In Meles, the donors have also found a capable and effective administrator. Ethiopian GDP grew annually at double-digit rates from 2005 to 2008, making it one of the best performers on the continent, though millions of Ethiopians are still at risk of starvation every year.
Wary of alienating Meles, the Obama administration has publicly criticized only the Ethiopian leader’s most blatant assaults on democracy. And indeed, with the failure to permanently reduce aid budgets following the 2005 violence, the West lost its trump card. At the end of the day, Meles knows that the United States and his other foreign friends can’t afford to back out.
All signs suggest that little about this will change with Sunday’s preordained election, barring any unexpected violence. Indeed, at least one country is already looking beyond the vote: Canada announced on May 8 that it had invited Meles to be one of two non member African representatives to the G-20 summit in Toronto next month. When runners next take to the streets of Addis this November, they’ll have even more to be angry about.