By Jonathan Manthorpe | Vancouver Sun
After Ethiopia’s previous dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam murdered the man he had deposed, Emperor Haile Selassie, he capped his triumph by having the body buried under his office floor.
Ethiopia’s current leader dictator, Meles Zenawi, who led the rebellion that deposed Mengistu in 1991, has not been quite so utilitarian in how he disposes of his opponents.
But critics say Meles has been just as effective in creating what amounts to a repressive one-party state in what was once a country carrying reasonable hopes of leading a democratic upsurge in Africa.
There is a fine example of Meles’ skills as an elected despot in the results of last Sunday’s vote which will give his Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) all but one or two seats in the 547-seat parliament.
Election observers from the European Union say all the power and influence of the government was marshaled behind Meles’ EPRDF.
The chorus of criticism was taken up on Tuesday by Washington where the assistant secretary of state for Africa, Johnnie Carson, said: “While the elections were calm and peaceful and largely without any kind of violence, we note with some degree of remorse that the elections were not up to international standards.”
No doubt the remorse in the United States is genuine because Meles is Washington’s and Europe’s man in the Horn of Africa.
Washington has on occasion expressed concerns about Meles’s repressive instincts, especially after the last elections in 2005 when the opposition took to the streets claiming massive fraud. Two hundred people were killed in the crackdown and many more are still in prison.
But criticism has been muted because Meles has been the go-to guy for American administrations attempting to control the upsurge in Muslim fundamentalism in Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan.
Meles is also the recipient of close to $1 billion a year in foreign aid, more than two-thirds of it from the U.S. and much of the rest from Europe.
And as many African potentates before Meles have discovered, accepting western aid seldom increases the outside pressure for reform. All too often donor countries become captives of their aid budgets and unwilling to use leverage on recipient countries for fear of upsetting domestic political priorities.
That certainly seems to be the case with Ethiopia, where there has been growth in the gross domestic product of more than 10 per cent for several years. So government aid agencies in Europe and the U.S. chalk Ethiopia up as a success and do not look at what is happening in other areas of the country’s civic life.
But other arms of government do look. Last year in its report on global human rights, the U.S. State Department accused the Ethiopian government of “unlawful killings, torture, beating, abuse and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, often acting with evident impunity.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch published a scathing report in March.
“Expressing dissent is very dangerous in Ethiopia,” said the report.
“The ruling party and the state are becoming one, and the government is using the full weight of its power to eliminate opposition and intimidate people into silence.”
The way Human Rights Watch describes it, it was not necessary for the EPRDF to stuff ballot boxes last Sunday.
Right down to the village level, governing party cells and local administrations are interwoven. They ensure government services, such as the allocation of seeds and fertilizers, and microcredit loans, do not go to government critics.
So it can be a choice between supporting the opposition or feeding your family.
But there is an opposition and it may yet take to the streets in revulsion at this election as it did in 2005.
One of the leaders is a 35-year-old lawyer and former judge, Birtukan Mideksa, who is sometimes called Ethiopia’s Aung San Suu Kyi. She is a leader of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy and was arrested for taking part in the 2005 demonstrations. She was pardoned in 2007, but rearrested the following year and is now serving a life sentence.
Meles has not buried her under his office floor, but he might as well have done. Last year he said she will never be released and she is “a dead issue.”