THE release of Ethiopia’s best-known political prisoner, Birtukan Mideksa, seems to have been calculated to distract attention from a reshuffle of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The prime minister, Meles Zenawi, has replaced several long-serving ministers with younger men. He now faces little opposition either inside or outside the party. Speaking in New York last month, Mr Meles said that Ms Mideksa had begged for a pardon after only a “few weeks” in prison. In fact, she has spent most of the past five years behind bars, on trumped-up charges. She was more or less abandoned by Western governments keen to curry favour with Mr Meles. As a final humiliation, the government forced Ms Mideksa, as a condition of her release, to apologise in writing for “deceiving the Ethiopian people”.
The EPRDF won all but two of the 547 parliamentary seats in a general election in May. So much for its promotion of plurality. Government supporters point to wider ethnic diversity within the party, with support said to be growing among the Amharas and Oromos, two ethnic groups. But the security apparatus remains in the hands of Mr Meles’s Tigrayan minority. Mr Meles has been in power since 1991. Ethiopia has no term limits, but he says he will step down in 2015.
Mr Meles’s contempt for what he calls the “neoliberalism” of the West is as plain as his admiration for “generous” and “dependable” China. Chinese Communist Party officials were feted at a recent EPRDF conference. Hailemariam Desalegn, the new foreign minister and deputy prime minister, has been conspicuous in urging Ethiopia to follow China’s model.
Mr Meles argues that the free market has cost Africa decades of development. By siding with China, this will never happen again. The Europeans and Americans find this galling, since they continue to pay for many of Ethiopia’s hospitals and schools, as well as handing out free food. But trade between Ethiopia and China is increasingly what matters. It was worth $800m in the first six months of this year, up by 27% on last year.
China has invested $2.5 billion in Ethiopia, mostly in infrastructure. Mr Meles wants China to take a lead in building a new railway network. He has also promised to use Chinese loans to build a controversial dam on the Omo River in the south. And China has decided to lend Ethiopia $234m so that nine vessels are built in Chinese shipyards for the Ethiopian Shipping Line, which operates out of Djibouti.
Mr Meles’s ambitious plans to pep up his country of 85m people do not include a stock exchange. Enterprise, skills, and connectivity are years behind neighbouring Kenya. But Mr Meles is shrewd. He hopes Ethiopia’s massive trade deficit will narrow as his country’s new factories export goods under preferential trade terms. Last year exports to China rose by 140%.
Source: The Economist