Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi brushes off criticism ahead of polls

 Meles Zenawi
Meles Zenawi

Tristan McConnell, Addis Ababa | Times Online

As Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, for an expected victory in national elections tomorrow there are growing concerns that Britain and others are helping to support an increasingly autocratic government accused of human rights abuses and political oppression.

Ethiopia is a key regional ally and the biggest recipient of British aid in Africa, receiving £220 million last year. Critics say the money props up a regime that has suppressed political opponents since the bloody aftermath of elections five years ago. The powerful ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is expected to win a sizeable majority of the 32 million votes, extending its 19-year rule for another five years.

Its leader, Mr Meles, 55, a former Marxist guerrilla, seized power in 1991, ending the brutal rule of the Derg, a military dictatorship led by Mengistu Haile Mariam.

In recent years the EPRDF’s centralised control of the country has achieved impressive economic growth and improved the lives of many of the rural poor as it tries to haul many of its 80 million citizens out of poverty. But critics say that the gains have cost political and personal freedoms and that the fusing of state and party leaves little room for dissent.

In March the US State Department issued a scathing assessment of the country’s human rights situation, listing politically motivated killings and torture by state security services.

A Human Rights Watch report followed, describing local EPRDF apparatchiks controlling the distribution of foreign aid, handing fertiliser, seeds or the right to join in food-for-work schemes only to card-carrying supporters. TheThis strategy swells party numbers while punishing opponents, according to the advocacy group. “Our findings suggest that development assistance is underwriting the Ethiopian government’s repression,” said Ben Rawlence, a Human Rights Watch researcher.

Mr Meles’ Government angrily rejected both reports.

Donor countries, including Britain, have launched their own study into the allegations that aid is used for political ends. They are expected to conclude that while some aid has been misused there is no co-ordinated pattern of excluding non-party members.

Reports of growing political oppression are harder to write-off. After the last election up to 200 people were killed in violentprotests, tens of thousands of opposition supporters were briefly locked-up and 130 political leaders and journalists were put on trial charged with crimes including treason and “outrages against the constitution”.

Since then the Government has introduced laws limiting political freedoms, civil society and the media. In 2008 the EPRDF won a staggering 99.9 per cent of the vote in local elections, cementing its control of the localadministration across the country.

In the weeks before this Sunday’s election one opposition politician was arrested and three activists reportedly killed. “Ethiopia is not going towards what we define as a liberal democracy,” said Lovise Aalen, an Ethiopia researcher at Norway’s Christian Michelsen Institute.

Government officials refute these criticisms, saying that proof of its commitment to free and fair elections can be seen in an electoral code of conduct, agreed between the EPRDF and a handful of the 79 registered opposition groups, and because time was granted to opposition parties on state-owned media.

Nevertheless, opposition politicians and civil society activists accuse the international community of standing silently by as dissent is increasingly stifled.

“The diplomatic community wants to wish away [the] problems of Ethiopia’s democratisation,” said Beyene Petros, a senior official in Medrek, the largest opposition alliance.

Observers say the diplomatic reticence is partly down to Ethiopia’s success in fighting poverty in a country where 80 per cent of the rapidly growing population eke out precarious lives in rural areas.

It is also because Ethiopia is a key Western ally in the Horn of Africa. Its willingness to deploy the large and effective national army against Islamists in neighbouring Somalia, as it did in 2006, and its strong-armed stability make Ethiopia an important anchor in a rough region where Islamic militancy is on the rise.