There is little likelihood that Ethiopia will either reform or implode as its ruling party manages the transition from recently deceased Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to his designated successor Hailemariam Desalegn, a Washington conference heard yesterday.
The ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has consolidated its monopoly on power, but future eruptions cannot be ruled out, given the country’s latent ethnic tensions and the suppression of political space for the peaceful expression of dissent, analysts told a forum at the National Endowment for Democracy.
“Ethiopia would benefit from a more open political process in which the ruling EPRDF and opposition parties engage in open and inclusive dialogue,” Karen J. Hanrahan, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
In the run-up to local elections in 2013 and parliamentary elections in 2015, the authorities should explore opportunities for expanding political participation and inclusiveness, she told the Toward a Democratic Ethiopia conference.
“By opening greater space for political dialogue, the government would be developing conditions that facilitate long-term stability,” she said. “More open dialogue would provide opportunities for persons to channel their needs through peaceful political process, thus reducing the possibility of violence.”
But the regime’s approach to dissent indicates little stomach for dialogue, said Mahdere Paulos, former executive director of the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyers Association.
The country’s NGO law amounts to “a de facto ban on civil society,” she said, condemning the government’s “draconian” approach to NGOs, which violates both the constitution’s guarantees of freedom of association and expression, and its obligations under international law.
Ethiopia receives more U.S. foreign assistance than any other sub-Saharan African country, but it is a mistake to assume that gives Washington’s any political leverage, said a former ambassador to Addis Ababa.
Some 85% of U.S. aid is humanitarian assistance, primarily food and health-related, which is considered politically untouchable in Washington, said Amb. David Shinn of George Washington University. In any case, he argued, private diplomacy tends to be more productive than public pronouncements or the occasional “bombast” from the State Department.
The influence of the U.S. and other Western democracies is further diluted by the emergence of “a lot of new players” in Ethiopian politics, including Turkey, Brazil, India and China, arguably the most influential economic actor, with $3 billion in concessionary loans and more Ethiopian-based businesses than others.
The smoothness of the post-Meles transition suggests that it’s “business as usual” rather than an opening for reform, said Shinn, who recently returned from Addis Ababa. While here is unlikely to be any substantial change in the raft of repressive laws restricting NGOs, freedom of expression and political dissent, there could be a “few positive straws in the wind” in the form of more liberal interpretation or implementation.
The fact that Amb. Shinn’s own website is blocked in Ethiopia is a telling indicator of the regime’s commitment to suppressing freedom of expression, said Dawit Kebede, Editor-in-Chief of the Awramba Times. With parliament no more than a “rubber stamp” and the judiciary picked and packed by the ruling party, the EPRDF has suffocated the space for critical voices, he said.
Ethiopia is a poster-child for the security-v-democracy dilemma that plagues policy-makers.
The country does face genuine security threats in a volatile region, but the regime’s “crushing of legitimate dissent” purchases temporary stability that may only postpone a more violent reckoning in the long term, said Sarah Margon, a senior analyst with Human Rights Watch.
Ethiopia is “a disaster waiting to happen,” she said, citing latent ethnic tensions and secessionist forces, unless the authorities begin to engage genuine reformers.
Such reforms might include the formation of an impartial election board, an agreed code of conduct and international election observers, said Old Dominion University’s Berhanu Mengistu. The EPRDF can choose one of two paths, “reform or concession,” he said, but it seems to have discounted the former and discarded the latter.
If the EPRDF is not as monolithic as it appears, the fissures may be evident at the forthcoming party congress, said Terrence Lyons, a political science professor at George Mason University. Recent protests by historically marginalized Ethiopian Muslims was “different from anything ever seen” in the country’s recent history and may provide a model for non-violent mobilization around a clear agenda of specific reforms, he said.
U.S. policy has in theory been based on a “three-legged stool” of security/counter-terrorism, development/economic growth and democracy, governance and human rights, but in practice the third category has been “trumped” by the others. But Washington can still make a difference by speaking out, “publicly as well as privately,” on such issues as human rights violations and the NGO law, and by taking advantage “as far and as creatively as it can …..of small, symbolic opportunities” to expand political space, said Lyons.
The fact that the U.S. and Ethiopia share critical security concerns should not deter Washington from raising human rights concerns, Gregory Simpkins, a staff specialist with the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, told the NED forum.
“If you can’t offer advice to an ally, how constructive is that alliance?” he asked, noting that Ethiopia’s paid lobbyists had succeeded in vetoing the Ethiopia Consolidation Act that addressed a range of human rights violations, from the post-election massacre of unarmed civilians and opposition supporters in 2005 to the villagization programs in which residents were forcibly evicted in order to transfer land to foreign ownership.
The succession of Hailemariam Desalegn following the departure of Meles is a signal of continuity and the EPRDF transitional process of replacing the Old Guard with a “new generation leadership,” according to Solomon Ayele Dersso, a senior researcher at the Addis Ababa Office of the Institute for Security Studies.
Hailemariam’s recent interview with Voice of America (above), in which he defended the ruling party’s close relations with China, was “worrisome,” former ambassador Shinn told the NED meeting.
“Our party has very close ties ….. because we have areas where we can learn from the work the Chinese Communist Party is doing,” said Hailemariam, “simply because we are people centered, where Chinese Community Party has experience with working with people at the grass root, so we learn with China, this kind of approach, it doesn’t mean our ideology is similar to China.”
The premier also defended the detention of several journalists and opposition figures under the anti-terrorism law. Human rights groups say the regime has abused the legislation to target dissidents, but Hailemariam was unapologetic, insisting that activists and journalists sentenced to long prison terms, such as award-winning blogger Eskinder Nega, were guilty of “wearing two hats.” “Our national security interest cannot be compromised by somebody having two hats. We have to tell them they can have only one hat which is legal and the legal way of doing things, be it in journalism or opposition discourse, but if they opt to have two mixed functions, we are clear to differentiate the two,” he said.
While the U.S. administration suggests that post-Meles Ethiopia provides an opportunity to be seized, the ruling party appears to think otherwise.
“It is a time of transition, as well as a time of uncertainty,” the State Department’s Hanrahan told the NED forum, expressing the hope that Ethiopia’s future “is one in which civil society is active, the media are free, and individuals are able to express differing viewpoints without fear.”
The sad, but realistic consensus of yesterday’s meeting suggests that such a future remains a distant prospect.