By SHANNON FIELD
The New Age: Ethiopia is one of the largest recipients of development aid, receiving over US$3.3bn (R22.6bn) annually. Ethiopia is perceived by Western leaders as a largely Christian country bordering two unstable Islamic states, Sudan and Somalia, and viewed as a crucial ally in the “war on terror”.
Ethiopia’s President Meles Zenawi has charmed Western leaders so successfully that he has seen foreign aid more than double in the past six years, while his regime has become increasingly repressive.
Zenawi presided over what were regarded as fraudulent elections in both 2005 and 2010, and in an attempt to maintain his regime’s grip on power, detained tens of thousands of opposition supporters, imprisoned opposition leaders and executed demonstrators. The US State Department acknowledged in its human rights reports the “numerous credible reports of unlawful detention of opposition candidates in Ethiopia, and the politically motivated killings committed by the security forces”. Despite this, Ethiopia remains a top US client state in the East African region and has not been subjected to official public criticism for the ruthlessness with which it deals with its detractors.
Ethiopia’s geo-strategic importance to the US has become the overriding issue, eclipsing the government’s growing political repression. With escalating calls from within Ethiopian society for a people’s uprising, the US finds itself again propping up a dictatorial regime, at US$1bn (R6.8bn) a year, in addition to the provision of military training and weaponry.
The collaborative relationship between the US and Ethiopia has been developing for years, with the common purpose being the rooting out of Islamic radicalism, particularly inside Somalia. The Pentagon has trained Ethiopian troops for counterterrorism operations in camps near the Somali border, and the US believes these efforts have disrupted terrorist networks in Somalia.
The US backed the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006, and has shared its intelligence on the positions of Islamic militants with the Ethiopian military. The US has gone as far as using a base in Ethiopia to capture al-Qaeda leaders, and to use an airstrip in eastern Ethiopia to launch air strikes against Islamic militants in Somalia. Ethiopia’s geo-strategic importance is not only its proximity to Somalia, a known breeding ground for al-Qaeda, but as a backdoor to the Middle East.
This close relationship with Ethiopia is coming under the spotlight as the wave of people power in North Africa and the Middle East has inspired Ethiopian opposition movements to follow suit. In March, the Ethiopian Americans Council wrote to US President Barak Obama about the political situation in Ethiopia and the growing political suppression by the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). They claim the punitive legislation such as the Civil Society Law, Anti-Terror Law and Press Law hamper the ability to organise public meetings and rallies, and to raise funds. They have warned that Ethiopians are organising strikes and demonstrations for the coming months, and claim that an uprising has already begun in the southern region. It is alleged that security forces used deadly force against peaceful protestors on March 7 and 9 in the Gamgofa zone. The Council is seeking US support for the opposition’s campaign.
The Ethiopian regime is concerned about the power and influence of its massive diaspora, and their ability to stage demonstrations in cities around the world. This concern is well placed given that the diaspora is becoming more mobilised and determined to expose the draconian nature of the regime.
The regime is so concerned about the inevitability of a mass uprising at home that any gathering of more than three people in all urban centres has been banned, and there is a heavy military presence in the capital Addis Ababa. President Zenawi has articulated his concern about the political turmoil in Yemen, just 150km from Ethiopia’s northern border, and has claimed that some domestic opposition groups are trying to incite a similar uprising.
The regime has taken immediate measures to counter any potential uprising by arresting more than 200 members of the opposition during March to prevent the organisation of demonstrations. The regime has also resumed its jamming of the US-financed Voice of America (VOA) language service broadcasts to Ethiopia. The VOA is the only international radio service broadcasting in the three main Ethiopian languages – Amharic, Afan Oromo and Tigrayan. Any political broadcasts by the VOA are now disrupted, as they provide the opposition with a voice.
An immediate mass uprising may not materialise given the collective memory of the harsh crackdown following public demonstrations in 2005, where 200 peaceful demonstrators were killed by security forces, 765 were wounded, and 30000 detained. At the time the opposition had protested against what they termed fraudulent elections, where the manipulation of election results gave the opposition far fewer seats than they believe they won. Thousands were arrested, the independent media silenced and 131 opposition politicians and journalists were put on trial for treason, outrages against the constitution and genocide. While the Ethiopian Parliamentary Commission report said the security forces did not use excessive force, the commission leaders claim their findings were altered by the government prior to the report’s release.
The 2010 elections were arguably worse, with higher levels of intimidation and coercion used. In the 2005 elections the opposition had won all the national and regional council seats of Addis Ababa, but in 2010 the government claimed to have won them all back. The regime claims to have won an overall 99.6% in the poll.
Prior to the 2010 elections, the government also denied food aid to opposition supporters, using it to reward its political allies – a tactic employed in successive elections. In a country where 3 million people experience hunger every year, this was a gross politicisation of humanitarian assistance. Human Rights Watch has painstakingly documented the regime’s multilayered oppressive strategies in its 105-page report Development Without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites Repression in Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian public know any uprising would be dealt a swift and brutal response by the regime. Unless there is reason to believe that segments of the Ethiopian military and Western powers would support their calls for regime change, it may be too much of a calculated risk.
Compared to Egypt and Tunisia, Ethiopia has a much smaller, less educated middle class, with less access to the internet. Internet connection in Ethiopia is 0.5% compared to 21.2% in Egypt. Somalia, which has not had a stable government for more than 20 years, has a higher internet connection rate than Ethiopia.
For any uprising to succeed in Ethiopia a critical mass of support is needed , particularly among the youth, with clear objectives, a well-defined strategy, determination and at least some support from the armed forces. Nationally no political organisation has the influence or credibility to lead a popular revolt, but as in Egypt, a cohesive political leadership is not necessary for an uprising to succeed.
What would be pivotal is the support of the US to opposition forces in the face of a brutal government crackdown.
It is this solidarity with democratic forces that cannot be relied upon given the close relations with the Zenawi government nurtured over time to ensure a virtual US proxy in the region.
Shannon Field is a independent political analyst