ADDIS ABABA , 7 June 2010 – After harvesting just 50kg of grain last year from his tiny plot in an arid corner of Ethiopia’s Amhara region, Asmenaw Keflegn knew he would have to ask for help. But when the 44-year-old member of the opposition All Ethiopia Unity Party asked his village chairman to put him on a list of those eligible for emergency food aid from foreign donors, he was refused. The chairman told him, “Let the party that you belong to give you aid.”
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and its allies won 545 out of 547 seats in the parliament in May elections, amid opposition charges – dismissed by the government – that it employed a broad-based campaign of harassment, intimidation and coercion, including the systematic denial of food aid to opposition supporters. Despite annual economic growth of over 7 percent in the past five years, about 13 million Ethiopians – nearly one-sixth of the population – receive some form of foreign aid.
The ruling party vigorously denied the reports and said the opposition was fabricating such evidence to discredit the elections and undermine the government. The accusations are “outrageous and stupid”, Meles told reporters. “There is no such system. There will never be such a system.”
“The government at this level of development doesn’t need any coercive measures [in order] to be elected,” says Bereket Simon, Minister of Communication Affairs. “Regarding governance, regarding social development, the people of Ethiopia know for sure the future of Ethiopia lies with this government and so we have no need to compete in an undemocratic way.”
However, a March report from New York-based Human Rights Watch, A Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure, states that government services, including food aid distributions, are “tools used to discourage opposition to government policies, deny the opposition political space, and punish those who do not follow the party line”.
Food for votes
In the district of Tembien in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Seeye Abreha, a losing candidate from the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party of jailed opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa, said the two main donor-funded relief programmes were manipulated by the ruling party before the election.
From 17 May, farmers who were owed three months of relief payments under the Productive Safety Net Program, a western-funded food-for-work scheme, were given one month’s payment and told by local government officials they would receive the remainder after the election “provided they let down Seeye and vote for the EPRDF candidate”, says Seeye, a former minister of defence under Meles.
“Emergency food aid and Safety Net were very much employed as a tool for influencing the result of the election,” he added. “I am not against the distribution of food aid because there are a lot of people who need it very badly. My point is that the food provision should be independent of politics.”
Donors say they have no evidence to prove their aid has been used as a campaign tool. The US, which gave Ethiopia US$937 million in aid last year, sent a team to southern Ethiopia accompanied by government officials in December to investigate the allegations. US efforts have found “no evidence that food aid is being denied to supporters of the opposition”, wrote Alyson Grunder, a spokeswoman for the US embassy, in an e-mail to IRIN.
A team led by the World Bank analyzed data on aid distortion from the PSNP and found no widespread pattern of aid misuse, said Kenichi Ohashi, the World Bank’s country director for Ethiopia.
Paying the price
Noting that Ethiopia is a major ally in western counter-terrorism efforts in Somalia and one of the largest aid recipients on the African continent, rights groups and opposition leaders suggest such investigations have been half-hearted.
“When all of their development programmes are being administered by the Ethiopian government, there is a structural incentive to underplay the human rights situation and to believe what the Ethiopian government tells them,” says Ben Rawlence, an HRW researcher. “This becomes a particularly difficult and embarrassing contradiction when faced with a more than 90 percent election victory.”
“The US can launch an investigation and it may work if it’s done independently, but if it goes around accompanied by government officials it’s not going to find out anything,” says Hailu Araaya, a leader of the UDJ opposition party.
The Bank’s Ohashi says donor efforts to investigate the issue have not been designed to uncover such problems. “These mechanisms are essentially not able to catch the kinds of things Human Rights Watch alleged to be happening,” he said. “Unless you go and do some undercover investigation you’re not likely to find it.”
In December, the government detained seven farmers from northern Ethiopia who travelled to the capital Addis Ababa to testify about aid politicization to foreign donors and human rights groups.
Rawlence was expelled from the country, and a foreign journalist who later travelled to northern Ethiopia to meet the farmers was detained for two days and threatened with expulsion, according to HRW.
The government has criticized HRW for what it views as the organization’s flawed methodology in reporting about human rights violations in Ethiopia. “Basically it is the same old junk,” says Bereket. “It has nothing to do with human rights or any discrimination or intimidation whatsoever. It’s a report that intends to punish the image of Ethiopia and try if possible to derail the peaceful and democratic election process.”
But opposition supporters in the countryside say the denial of food aid has proven to be a potent political weapon in a famine-prone country. Yimer Ahmed, 45, an opposition candidate for the regional council in the central Amhara region, said his wife recently divorced him because his membership of an opposition party had kept their family from receiving US food aid.
“Because life is hard, people are saying that being a member of the opposition will invite hunger,” he says. “This aid is coming through the government and without this aid they will starve, so they don’t want to have any problems with the government.”