The Economist: Should the West back Ethiopia?

We noted that the current (Feb. 22) issue of The Economist has an uncharacteristically favorable article on Eritrea, saying it can “help or hinder progress in the Horn.” The same issue has an equally uncharacteristic slap at the rival Ethiopian regime, asking “Should the West go on helping a repressive Ethiopia?” It starts out with an outline of aid projects in Ethiopia, as if “the West’s” only interest in Africa was fighting poverty. Only at the very end does it mention the strategic struggle in Somalia which is driving the West’s alliance with Addis Ababa. This is pretty indicting, but we smell empty hand-wringing—or, at best, a warning that Meles Zenawi may not prove to be a stable proxy in the long run… An excerpt from The Economist:

…Meles Zenawi’s government is finding it hard to run the show. Some 80% of the people in Addis Ababa probably back opposition parties. In response, the government has become harsher, muzzling free speech and forcing independent newspapers to close. Many journalists are in jail on trumped-up charges. Dissidents have been disappearing, along with critical websites. Telephones are often tapped. For more than a year, text messaging on the country’s small number of mobile phones has been hampered by “technical difficulties”.

The government keeps up a hum of fear with attacks on opposition supporters. Teachers are a favourite target. Some have been beaten so badly in detention they could not stand up in court. Even schoolchildren have faced the authorities’ wrath. In Ambo, west of the capital, some 14 of them in a secondary school were detained; some were allegedly tortured. The usual charges, if brought at all, are sabotage or treason. Suspects are often “found” to have links with familiar bogeymen: neighbouring hostile Eritrea; the Oromo Liberation Front, a movement in the centre and south; or, in the heartland of the once-ruling Amhara around Addis Ababa, “terrorist groups” whose existence is fuzzy.

The opposition’s lot may be worsening. Dissidents say as many as 250 supporters were rounded up on terrorist charges after the African Union summit last month; some have disappeared. The opposition’s main leaders have been in prison for over a year. Torture, especially against lesser-known prisoners, is common. If rural areas are taken into account, extrajudicial killings may run into thousands. But the opposition is divided, often has regional rather than national allegiances, and tends to take its cue from radicals in exile.

Moreover, despite help from abroad, the economy is struggling. Exports are worth $1 billion against imports of $5 billion. Sales of coffee and flowers to the West have increased but not enough. Mr Zenawi has applied for membership in the World Trade Organisation. He has also asked China for loans—some say for $3.5 billion.

But most of all he is banking on keeping up his friendship with the EU and the United States, whose administration was delighted by the Ethiopian armed forces’ recent success in invading neighbouring Somalia, capturing its capital, Mogadishu, and smashing the Somali Islamists who had taken over there. Still, there are conflicting attitudes to Ethiopia in Washington. Congress has lambasted Mr Zenawi’s human-rights record and demanded cuts in aid. The Pentagon, on the other hand, is dead keen to boost his armed forces.

In September, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians from their vast and far-flung diaspora are expected to visit their homeland to celebrate the coming of the third Christian millennium, according to their ancient church’s calendar. Some hope Mr Zenawi, in a gesture of conciliation, will free some of his opponents from jail before then. But do not bet on it. Mr Zenawi has got used to wielding an iron fist.

See our last posts on the Horn of Africa and Ethiopia.