Monday, February 13, 2012

Why Ethiopia's authoritarian style gets a Western nod

Ethiopia's recent prosecution of opponents under an antiterror law has attracted widespread condemnation. But with its regional role as crucial as ever and donors still impressed by the government's antipoverty measures, the criticism is unlikely to result in significant changes.

Despite its status as a donor darling, Ethiopia's government is, once again, doing little to encourage the attentions of its Western suitors.
Often using a 2009 antiterrorism law, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's administration has prosecuted scores of opposition figures and a handful of journalists over the past year. Most are accused of links with banned groups, such as the US-based Ginbot 7, whose leaders gave up hopes of unseating Mr. Meles at the ballot box after the disastrous fallout from a 2005 poll.
Rights groups are unanimous in their condemnation. “There is no evidence that they are guilty of any criminal wrongdoing," Amnesty International said about a group including three Ethiopian journalists jailed for plotting terror acts last month. "We believe that they are prisoners of conscience, prosecuted because of their legitimate criticism of the government."
While Amnesty and Human Rights Watch consistently slam the government, others have only recently joined the fray. Five United Nations Special Rapporteurs expressed "their dismay at the continuing abuse of antiterrorism legislation to curb freedom of expression."
The world's media have also tuned in. A HRW report detailing coercion and abuse in the resettlement of tens of thousands in the nation's west was widely reported, and Nicholas D. Kristofdedicated a recent column in The New York Times to Ethiopia's treatment of two Swedish journalists caught embedded with a rebel group. "Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s increasingly tyrannical ruler, seemed to be sending a signal to the world’s journalists: Don’t you dare mess with me!" he wrote.

A more-silent West

However, criticism has not been so forthcoming from Ethiopia's Western partners.
On the first day of the Swedes' trial, which resulted in 11-year sentences for entering the country illegally and supporting a terrorist organization, the US ambassador to Ethiopia, Donald Booth, attended, but such provocative gestures are rare from Ethiopia's biggest benefactor.
Not only is Ethiopia neighbor to the two Sudanese nations teetering on the brink of conflict and wartorn Somalia, but its role is vital: Its troops are patrolling the flashpoint border district of Abyei and also backing up forces allied against the terror group al-Shabaab; Meles was also the key mediator in a recent attempt to broker an agreement over the oil-transit fees Juba, in South Sudan, should pay Khartoum, Sudan's capital city.
The reason for the deference is largely geographic. At the end of January, US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns dropped into Addis Ababa. Although concerns over the antiterror law were expressed, his mission was to "emphasize the strategic importance of that country to countering violent extremism in the greater Horn of Africa region." 

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