We are heartened to learn that President Obama is staying away from the funeral of Ethiopia's late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, whose death was announced last week, instead sending a comparatively low-level delegation led by the US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. (Nazret, Sept. 2) This may indicate a long-overdue distancing of Washington from Meles' odious regime, which we fear may change little with his passing. Meles, who ruled (either as president or prime minister) since 1991, made himself very useful to Washington, "renditioning" terror suspects for brutal "interrogations" in his prisons, and even now providing a military proxy force in Somalia. After Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 (with a US "green light," and probably military advisors), Meles' forces were shortly accused of war crimes by international human rights groups. (NYT, Aug. 16, 2007) Yet this now gets virtually no play in the overwhelmingly and sickeningly favorable media coverage of his legacy—contrary to Julius Ceasar, the evil Meles did is being interred with his bones.
Some media reports have noted that Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, wanted by The Hague over the Darfur genocide, will be attending the funeral without fear of arrest, because Ethiopia is not a signatory to the Rome statute. (Sudan Tribune, Aug. 30) But the fact that Meles himself was not wanted by The Hague is yet another testament to the double standards of international justice.
This official amnesia is all the more troubling given that Meles' abuses actually did receive plenty of mainstream coverage when he was alive. BBC News reported Aug. 5, 2011:
A joint undercover investigation by BBC Newsnight and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has uncovered evidence that the Ethiopian government is using billions of dollars of development aid as a tool for political oppression.
Posing as tourists the team of journalists travelled to the southern region of Ethiopia. There they found villages where whole communities are starving, having allegedly been denied basic food, seed and fertiliser for failing to support Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
The investigation has also gathered evidence of mass detentions, the widespread use of torture and extra-judicial killings by Ethiopian government forces.
Yet Western donors including Britain—which is the third largest donor to Ethiopia—stand accused of turning a blind eye by continuing to provide aid money despite being warned about the abuses.
Note that this is the same sort of stuff that Zimbabwe's much-reviled Robert Mugabe is accused of—and, more ironically, also what Meles' predecessor Mengistu Haile Mariam (overthrown by Meles' insurgent forces in 1991) was accused of. Yet we hardly even have to mention that the while Zimbabwe faces sanctions and isolation, Ethiopia's top aid donor under Meles was Washington.
For those few outside the region who are paying attention, the sense of "Meet the New Boss" to Meles' rule was truly sinister. Under the Soviet-backed Mengistu, as under the Western-backed King Haile Selassie before him, Ethiopia's traditional Amharic ruling minority were on top. During the famine of the 1980s, Mengistu notoriously denied food aid to excluded peoples who took up arms against his brutal rule—most notably the Tigreans, who were also forcibly relocated by the thousands from their homes in the northern highlands to camps in the southern lowlands in a counterinsurgency strategy of "draining the sea." (See The Telegraph, Jan. 12, 1990) Meles' Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), upon overthrowing Mengistu, went about establishing what even Voice of America (May 25, 2010) had to call a "de facto one-party state"—with the TPLF clique being the real power behind the officially ruling coalition of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). So a state dominated by minority Amharas was replaced by one dominated by minority Tigreans—and unfavored ethnicities continued to get slapped around. Principally, these have been the Oromo and Ogadeni.
The Oromo, in the west-central part of the country, are actually Ethiopia's largest ethnic group. The Oromo Liberation Front, which opposed Haile Selassie and Mengistu alike, now continues to oppose TPLF/EPRDF rule. The Oromia Support Group noted Meles' passing by accusing his regime of 4,407 extra-judicial killings and 992 "disappearances" since 1991. (QEERROO, Aug. 24)
The Ogadeni are the ethnic Somalis in Ethiopia's east, who have likewise waged an armed struggle against successive Ethiopian regimes. Ogadeni advocates on the Countercurrents website noted Meles' passing by accusing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay of suppressing a report on his "genocide" in the Ogaden region:
A report on the genocide in the Ogaden remains under lock and key in Navi Pillay's office under her direct order. The investigations this report was based on were conducted by at least two teams sent to the Ogaden in 2007 after the independence war and counterinsurgency being waged there first hit the worlds stage with the killing of a dozen or so Chinese oil workers exploring for oil despite being warned off by fighters from the Ogaden National Liberation Front.
According to persons with first hand participation in the investigation in the Ogaden in 2007 the report contains words such as "murder", "mass murder", "scorched earth policy", "food blockade", "medicine blockade", "crimes against humanity" and even "genocide".
Smaller peoples without an international diaspora to mobilize on their behalf have, we can imagine, fared even worse. Meles' regime was accused of a campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against the indigenous Anuak people in the Gambella region of Ethiopia's west—again with the apparent aim of clearing the territory for oil exploitation and corporate land-grabs.
The TPLF and the Eritrean liberation movement had been allied during the struggle against Mengistu, but when he was overthrown and Eritrea declared independence they shortly fell out. Meles fought a two-year war with Eritrea starting in 1998, and tensions remain high, with the border still in dispute. This conflict also occasioned another opportunity for Meles to emulate his old enemy Mengistu in forcibly relocating troublesome populations. Amnesty International reported Jan. 29, 1999 that in recent months 52,000 people believed to be of Eritrean origin had been arbitrarily deported from Ethiopia.
And of course it is practically superfluous to mention that dissent to all these abuses was kept under tight control. Columbia Journalism Review, to its great credit, noted upon Meles' passing how he muzzled the independent press and arrested reporters and editors who failed to toe the line.
As we have had plenty of reason to complain before, another Western-backed despot has died a free man. And this one still in power, to boot.