by Awol Allo
Published on May 20, 2015 2:00AM ET
It was only two months ago during the Israeli election that the White House was scrambling to convince the American public that the United States does not intervene in the electoral processes of other democracies.
“This administration goes to great lengths to ensure that we don’t give even the appearance of interfering or attempting to influence the outcome of a democratically held election in another country,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in defense of President Barack Obama’s refusal to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But the U.S. makes no apologies for its interventions on behalf of autocratic regimes elsewhere. For example, during a recent visit to Ethiopia, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman praised Ethiopia as a vibrant and progressive democracy.
“Ethiopia is a democracy that is moving forward in an election that we expect to be free, fair, credible, open and inclusive,” she said. “Every time there is an election, it gets better and better.”
Sherman’s remarks drew the ire of activists and human rights organizations. Daniel Calingaert, the executive vice president of Freedom House, dismissed her praise as “woefully ignorant” and at odds with the reality of life as lived by ordinary Ethiopians. Not only were her claims inconsistent with human rights reports, but they also fly in the face of her department’s annual country surveys, which tell a radically different story.
In its latest Ethiopia report, for example, the State Department identified significant human rights violations, including restrictions on freedom of speech, Stalinist-style show trials, and crackdowns on free press, opposition leaders, activists and critical journalists. The report and others by human rights groups reveal a consistent and widespread pattern of abuse, including torture, arbitrary killings, restrictions on freedom of association, interference in freedom of religion and the politicized use of the country’s anti-terrorism proclamation.
Defending status quo
Sherman’s comment was not an isolated gaffe. Since the death in 2012 of Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi, the U.S. government has moved from tacit support to publicly defending the regime in Addis Ababa, concocting irresponsible, make-believe stories. After Zenawi’s death, Susan Rice, then the top U.S. diplomat at the United Nations and Obama’s current national security adviser, eulogized Zenawi as a selfless and tireless leader “totally dedicated” to his people. She praised his intellectual prowess and called him “uncommonly wise, a man able to see the big picture and the long game.” She ended her tribute by calling for the continuity of his legacy.
Contrary to Sherman’s claims, Ethiopia is an authoritarian state. Instead of getting better and better at strengthening democratic institutions and opening up democratic spaces for free and fair elections, it got better at building surveillance structures that allow the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), now in power for nearly 24 years, to exercise total control over the population.
With a general election set for Sunday, EPRDF retains a monopoly over politics and has the technical and institutional capabilities to monitor and intimidate individuals. The government allegedly monitors exiled journalists and activists using Chinese- and European-made spyware.
Over the last 10 years, Ethiopia has fostered an increasingly invasive technical capacity and a bureaucracy that enabled authorities to conceal and hide its oppressive profile. Since 2005, the country has adopted a slew of draconian laws with the aim of restricting democratic politics. This includes the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and the Charities and Societies Proclamation, which effectively destroyed the conditions necessary for credible, free and fair elections. Together, the two laws allowed the government to circumvent or indefinitely suspend basic guarantees of the constitution. Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, the regime exiled, prosecuted and convicted several opposition leaders, journalists, community leaders and activists.
This and many other instruments of control enabled the EPRDF to win 99.6 percent of the votes in the 2010 elections, losing only two of the 547 seats in the federal Parliament and one seat out of the 1,900 in the regional assemblies. Five years of intimidation and harassment of the opposition and war against free press means that Sunday’s voting will be anything but fair and free.
Ethiopia is the fourth-most-censored country in the world. Journalists are among the collateral damage of Ethiopia’s ever widening counterterrorism dragnet, with several reporters exiled or prosecuted and convicted on trumped-up charges under the country’s anti-terrorism law. At least 60 journalists have been forced into exile since 2010, and at least 19 have been imprisoned, according to Human Rights Watch. In 2014 alone, 30 journalists were forced to leave the country, 22 were charged with crimes, and five magazines and one newspaper were closed. The State Department has on several occasions called on Ethiopia to refrain from using its anti-terrorism proclamation “as a mechanism to curb the free exchange of ideas.”
The Ethiopian government has proved adept at creating facts, stories and images that imply an imminent disintegration of the country and destabilization of an already volatile region. Zenawi was successful in casting himself and his party as the best hope for a united Ethiopia and a stable Horn of Africa as well as a bulwark against Islamic extremism in an increasingly volatile region. With that, he drove a wedge between the pan-Ethiopian nationalists committed to the continuity of a unitary and centralized state and ethno-national forces pursuing ethno-cultural and linguistic justice for those on the periphery of Ethiopian politics.
This image of the EPRDF as the only guarantor of stability and continuity captured the imagination of Western diplomats whose fears of rampaging terrorism in East Africa trumped their objections to dictatorship.
Their endorsements are not merely influential but also consequential. For one, such blanket support bolsters the government, giving it license to silence and paralyze the already fragile opposition and disgruntled activists. It also risks encouraging the regime to perpetuate violence.
For most Western diplomats, Ethiopia offers what they want: the best chance at providing stability in the troubled Horn of Africa. However, propping up a minority regime and enabling the oppression of one ethnic group by another in a country where ethnic identity is the basic form of political expression and recognition is no way of guaranteeing stability. It is a principal marker of long-term instability and perhaps one of the many ticking time bombs threatening Ethiopia’s integrity.
Awol Allo is a fellow in human rights at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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