Boy, does it ever look like a case of “meet the new boss” in Ethiopia. A front-page story by Jeffrey Gettleman in the New York Times July 22 informs us that the government is blocking food aid to the restive Ogaden region. “Food cannot get in,” said Mohammed Diab, the director of the UN World Food Program in Ethiopia. Another anonymous “humanitarian official” said: “It’s a starve-out-the-population strategy. If something isn’t done on the diplomatic front soon, we’re going to have a government-caused famine on our hands.” The government says the blockade covers only strategic locations, and is meant to prevent arms from reaching the Ogaden National Liberation Front. The really sick thing is that this is a tactic pioneered by the exiled dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who has been convicted on genocide charges by the current regime. Back during the famines of the 1980s, Mengistu barred food aid from reaching the restive Tigray region (as the Library of Congress Country Studies page on Ethiopia recalls). Now the new (Tigray-dominated) regime is emulating this genocidal stratagem against its own ethnic enemies.
But the real news here is perhaps less that it is happening than that it is on the front page of the New York Times—as was Gettleman’s on-the-scene report of Ethiopian army brutality in the Ogaden last month. The new report also follows a July 17 AP story—also given prominent treatment by the Times—which found:
Both the Bush administration and Congress are growing exasperated over Ethiopia’s backsliding from democracy but are wary of applying too much pressure against a country that has become an important anti-terror ally in East Africa…
In the House of Representatives, the Africa subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee is completing work Wednesday on legislation that decries Ethiopia’s recent human rights record and opens the door for sanctions. The subcommittee’s approval would be a first major step, but the bill still would have to be passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by Bush.
Democratic Rep. Donald Payne, the subcommittee’s chairman, told The Associated Press he has had no response to his bill from White House officials, but “I think they would prefer if we just left it alone.”
Undoubtedly. But these media reports are an unsubtle message to Abbis Ababa that it is in danger of wearing out its welcome in Washington. Which explains why, in a surprise move, the Ethiopian government has ordered freed 38 political prisoners arrested after the 2005 contested elections. A July 22 AP report explicitly states that issuing of the pardons was the fruit of US pressure.
Not that the Bush administration gives a flying freak about human rights (needless to say). But it appears to be reacting to rumblings from the more enlightened members of Congress who realize that continued autocratic rule could lead to the destabilization of a strategic US ally—a process already well advanced in Pakistan.
See our last post on the politics of the Horn of Africa.