There must be some sad, old lament about the futility of getting involved with Ethiopia – most likely it’s in Italian – but I can’t find anything particularly fitting. Of course, I could resort to the old standard: It’s sometimes the best of times, but it’s often the worst of times. (Were you looking for something different? Le Plus ca change….) Anyway, turn back the clock a few short months ago when the Meles regime earned itself a free round of shots at the White House canteen (whatever it is they’re drinking around there) after invading Somalia, kicking out the nasty Islamic militia of the Supreme Islamic Courts Council and ridding the Bush administration – and Somalia – of a disturbing trouble spot, not to mention a hang out for al-Qaeda. Of course, that was before the covers were pulled back on the governing style of Prime Minister Meles, who (continuing the clichés) went from being the toast of the town to the latest and baddest African thug on the block.
The Ethiopian military and its proxy militias have also been siphoning off
millions of dollars in international food aid and using a United Nations polio eradication program to funnel money to their fighters, according to relief officials, former Ethiopian government administrators and a member of the Ethiopian Parliament who defected to Germany last month to protest the government’s actions.
The blockade takes aim at the heart of the Ogaden region, a vast desert on the Somali border where the government is struggling against a growing rebellion and where government soldiers have been accused by human rights groups of widespread brutality.
Humanitarian officials say the ban on aid convoys and commercial traffic, intended to squeeze the rebels and dry up their bases of support, has sent food prices skyrocketing and disrupted trade routes, preventing the nomads who live there from selling their livestock.
Hundreds of thousands of people are now sealed off in a desiccated, unforgiving
landscape that is difficult to survive in even in the best of times.
First: A report from former Ethiopian judge Wolde-Michael Meshesha investigated government violence after the May 2005 general election that many felt was rigged. In all, Meshesha found that Ethiopian police killed nearly 200 protesters during the demonstrations. The BBC reported that Meshesha’s reported stated that the government had concealed the true extent of deaths at the hands of the police. “It said that 193 people had been killed, including 40 teenagers. Six policemen were also killed and some 763 people injured. They had been shot, beaten and strangled.”
This year, Mr. Meles’ government filed charges of treason and genocide charges against at least 100 people, mostly opposition politicians and party members. But you just can’t call Mr. Meles a dim-witted thug. Anytime international pressure gets too hot, he calls off the dogs by releasing a few journalists or other political prisoners. He did this most recently a few days ago with the pardon and release of 38 prisoners, 30 of whom had recently been sentenced to life in prison.
So how does he do it, mocking the chorus of international condemnation? Here’s the Economist's take. "Despite the misgivings of some congressmen, who think Mr Meles a dictator, some in the Bush administration see “Christian” Ethiopia (where half the people are in fact Muslim) as a bulwark against Islamist expansion in the Horn of Africa."
Sound a little far fetched? Well, it may explain this. According to this April 8 story in the Washington Post:
The United States did not act to prevent a recent shipment of arms from North Korea to Ethiopia, even though sketchy intelligence indicated the delivery might violate a U.N. Security Council resolution restricting North Korean arms sales, Bush administration officials said yesterday.
The decision to let the shipment proceed was made by relatively
low-level staffers, with little internal debate, and it was unknown to top
policymakers involved in the campaign to punish Pyongyang for its test of a nuclear weapon last October, officials said.
The January arms delivery occurred as Ethiopia was fighting Islamic
militias in Somalia, aiding U.S. policies of combating religious extremists in the Horn of Africa.
Intelligence reports indicated that the shipment included spare parts,
including tank parts, officials said. Nevertheless, the cargo was not inspected, making it difficult to know whether it violated the U.N. resolution. The value of the shipment is also unclear.
But Meles may just be better at playing Western countries off each other. This from a February story in the Financial Times:
However, fresh from his army's swift victory over a coalition of Islamists in Somalia, whose expanding rule and jihadist rhetoric Ethiopia deemed a regional threat, Mr Meles has recovered some of his standing. The US, which provides about $600m (€464m, £306m) in aid annually and considers Ethiopia one of four top strategic partners on the continent, has endorsed Ethiopia's action, shared intelligence and, according to Mr Meles, provided "vital diplomatic support".
The UK and other western donors, having initially suspended direct
budgetary support to the government because of concern over its human rights record, are again increasing development aid. Meanwhile, Mr Meles is drawing on China's appetite for lending to the continent, attracting, he says, $500m in concessional loans, $1.5bn in investment towards telecommunications infrastructure and a further $1.5bn in short-term trade credits.
But he strongly rejects concerns in the west that China's willingness to lend without asking questions is undermining western aid conditionality.
"I think it would be wrong for people in the west to assume that they can buy good governance in Africa. Good governance can only come from inside; it cannot be imposed from outside. That was always an illusion," he argued. "What the Chinese have done is explode that illusion. It does not in any way endanger the reforms of good governance and democracy in Africa because only those that were home-grown ever had a chance of success."
If the House of Representatives has its way, the U.S. may allow the Meles government to start footing some of its own bills. According to the New York Times story:The country receives nearly half a billion dollars in American aid each year, but this week, a House subcommittee passed a bill that would put strict conditions on some of that aid and ban Ethiopian officials linked to rights abuses from entering the United States. The House also recently passed an amendment, sponsored by J. Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican, that stripped Ethiopia of $3 million in assistance to “send a strong message that if they don’t wake up and pay attention, more money will be cut,” Mr. Forbes said.