For the past three years, Ethiopia has been Washington’s key ally in fighting terrorism in the Horn of Africa. Its two-year U.S. backed occupation of Somalia led to the ouster of one Islamist government in Mogadishu, but fueled the rise of a more radical group, known as Al-Shabab. But government’s domestic activities have put the most strain on the alliance. The disputed 2005 elections ended with security forces killing 193 demonstrators and the jailing of opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa and more than 120 other opposition figures, journalists and activists. Birtukan was pardoned in 2007 and released from jail, but landed in prison again in December after the government said she violated terms of her release. Many analysts say the jailing had more to do with Birtukan organizing a challenge in national elections next year. NEWSWEEK’s Jason McLure talked with Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin about democracy, Somalia and the durability of Ethiopia’s alliance. Excerpts:
Your government has said the invasion of Somalia was a great success. How so?
Ethiopia never invaded Somalia. We intervened in Somalia upon the request of the transitional Parliament and the government of [former Somali transitional president] Abdullahi Yusuf and on the basis of guaranteeing our own security. The Union of Islamic Courts was composed of not only moderate Islamists but extremists. Extremist groups from outside the region had been trying their level best to use Somalia as a springboard to launch terrorist activities in the region. Ethiopia has neutralized this force. Today there is only Al-Shabab and a few groups working as small units without any formidable organization. Their military backbone has been completely shattered.
Many people disagree. They say that while the intervention did oust the Islamic Courts, it fueled support for Al-Shabab, which is more radical and now controls a large part of southern Somalia. There are now 3.4 million displaced Somalis and piracy has become endemic.
This is absolutely wrong. Today they are reduced into fragmented groups. This radicalization has not come about as a result of Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia because for some time they were trying to establish a Taliban-type state in Somalia. Piracy is now a major threat to international waterways. This has not come as a result of the intervention of Ethiopia. These groups have been there and they are running this business not only from Somalia, but other areas as well.
There’s concern about a crackdown on political opposition in Ethiopia. At local elections last year, out of 3.6 million seats, opposition parties won three. There’s the passage of the NGO law cutting off funding for groups like the Ethiopian Human Rights Council and, probably most significantly, the jailing of opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa.
The EPRDF [Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front] government has made it abundantly clear that democracy and respect of political and human-rights groups is not a matter of choice. It’s a matter of survival for the nation. Ethiopia is continuously building institutions of democracy and good governance. Elections do not explain the whole sense of building institutions. Trying to micromanage the building of democracy from anybody outside is not going to help. This is a fledgling democracy. The challenges are huge.
Many people would argue that the EPRDF lost confidence in democracy after the 2005 elections.
Absolutely not. In fact, the EPRDF is building this institution of governance with utmost confidence.
Are you worried that by keeping Birtukan Mideksa in jail under a life sentence, she becomes a symbol of repression?
Birtukan was not imprisoned because she was a political figure. [After the disputed 2005 elections] she was involved in attempting to dismantle the constitutionally constituted government of the country. She was sentenced. She asked for a pardon. Then she went out of prison and said she had never asked for the pardon. Automatically, under Ethiopian law, a person who declares she did not ask for a pardon has to go back to serving her sentence.
Your government is due to welcome Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to Addis Ababa this month. What’s the message that you want to come out of this summit? And how do you think Western nations will react to seeing one of their closest allies in Africa cozying up to an indicted war criminal?
The real issue is that Africa, in a collective voice, has said that the International Criminal Court’s issuance of an arrest warrant is not going to serve the interest of Sudan or the victims of Darfur. It’s not going to achieve peace and stability. It brings more complexity and difficulty to the peace-building process. That’s why Africa, collectively at the African Union summit, asked the U.N. Security Council to defer the ICC process to allow Africa and Sudan to focus on resolving this situation.
Doesn’t this interfere with serving justice for the victims of Darfur?
Peace and justice are inseparable. How can one expect that justice will be served when there is no peace and stability in Darfur?