Saturday, September 1, 2012

Will Change in Leadership Bring Progress on Human Rights in Ethiopia?


Political opponents are arrested. Journalists have beenimprisoned. “Tens of thousands of people” have been “forcibly evicted” for development projects.
Welcome to the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Africa’s second largest nation boasts some 80 million people... and human rights have taken a back seat during the 21-year rule of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
The 57-year-old Meles died Monday August 20 in Brussels after months of speculation that he was ill. In their trademark secrecy, the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front initially did not reveal how or where he died.  The European Union later released the details that Meles had been treated for an undisclosed illness in Belgium.
“Meles deserves recognition for his lifelong contribution to Ethiopia’s development,” said President Obama in a statement.  "The death of Prime Minister Meles has robbed Africa of one of its greatest sons," added the African Union, one of many international organizations headquartered in Addis Ababa, often described as the “diplomatic capital” of Africa.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon echoed these remarks, adding that Meles will be remembered for “exceptional leadership.”  
None of these statements mentioned that Meles leaves a troubled record on human rights. Meles ushered in “a sharp deterioration in civil and political rights, with mounting restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly,” reports Human Rights Watch.  
Others were far less charitable and applauded the death of the man they described as a “blood-sucking … genocidal terrorist tyrant.”
Meles seized power in 1991 from a military junta that had achieved global infamy for policies that contributed to the famine, starvation  and deathof more than a million people. As many as 500,000 people alone were killed during Mengistu Haile Mariam’s violent political campaign known as the  “Red Terror” of the late 1970s. This was after the despotic 44-year-rule of Emperor Haile Selassie that Mengistu overthrew in 1974.
Meles’ two decades in power pales in comparison to the horrors of his predecessors. Meles also presided “over one of the most successful...economic experiments” in Africa, reports The Economist. Ethiopia’s economic growth has averaged 11 percent in the past eight years.
All of this was obvious in my first visit to Ethiopia in December 2011, when I reported from the high-level International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa. The trip was sponsored by the Ethiopian government. Construction cranes dotted Addis Ababa’s skyline. Range Rovers and Mercedes Benzes were a familiar sight on Bole Road. Impeccably dressed men and women chatted away on iPhones and BlackBerrys.

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