Ethiopia’s transition is an important opportunity for the country’s friends and foreign partners to pause and encourage a return to a democratic path, writes Ben Rawlence. But despite Meles’ passing, Ethiopia is continuing to conduct repressive policies, and international donors are continuing to ignore them.
Amid the tributes to Ethiopia’s recently departed prime minister was much twittering (and tweeting) about ‘stability’ and the ‘transition’, especially from Ethiopia’s foreign donors. There is considerable concern that without Meles Zenawi, the charismatic former rebel leader who ruled Ethiopia for 21 years until his death, the country may implode, infighting might engulf the ruling party or Ethiopia’s fragile economic growth might reverse.
On September 21, Meles’ former deputy and foreign minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, was sworn in as his successor as both prime minister and ruling party chief. In his inauguration speech, Hailemariam pledged to continue Meles’ policies. These, it should be remembered, included not only far-reaching plans for economic development, but crushing political opposition, the evisceration of independent media and civil society, and the use of arbitrary detention, torture, and other repressive measures to suppress dissent.
Three days later, the World Bank approved its biggest grant to Ethiopia, $600 million, for the third phase of its flagship Protection of Basic Services (PBS) programme, along with a new Country Partnership Strategy for Ethiopia, largely drafted before Meles died, that will underpin $1.15 billion in new loans. The new Country Partnership Strategy makes no reference to the deteriorating human rights situation over the past seven years or the complex political landscape that Ethiopia now faces with Meles’ death.
The new country strategy published on September 25 ignores the thorny questions of human rights, democracy and good governance completely, aside from a focus on fiscal accountability.
At least it has the advantage of clarity: it doesn’t attempt to square uncomfortable realities like how the World Bank’s social accountability component – designed to increase civic participation and programme accountability through monitoring by NGOs – is compatible with Ethiopia’s NGO law that has closed or shackled nearly all independent organisations working on good governance, human rights, advocacy and other sensitive issues. Nor does it answer the question of how a programme founded on good governance deals with a government that won over 99% of the vote in local and general elections.
Working on Ethiopia over the last four years I have become familiar with the confused reactions of diplomats and aid officials as they struggle to reconcile the official narrative about Ethiopia with their experience on the ground. As Human Rights Watch has presented report after report of compelling evidence of human rights abuses, some of them connected to foreign aid programs, donors have agreed with us in private, promised to investigate, publicly dismissed our findings, reneged on their promise to investigate, and then denied the problem exists. They cannot seem to decide whether Ethiopia is a development miracle or a brutal dictatorship. As one shrewd junior official put it to me, “Meles Zenawi messes with your head”.
The National Endowment for Democracy and the Wilson Center cordially invite you to attend a conference:
“Toward a Democratic Ethiopia”
Tuesday, October 9th, 2012
8:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.
National Endowment for Democracy
1025 F Street, NW, Suite 800
RSVP (acceptances only) with name and affiliation by Friday, October 5th, 2012
8:30 a.m. – Registration and coffee
9:00 a.m. – Panel 1: Civil Society, Media and Political Space
Dawit Kebede, Editor-in-Chief, Awramba Times
Mahdere Paulos, former Executive Director, Ethiopian Women’s Lawyers Association
Moderator: Abdulwahab Alkebsi, Director, Middle East and Africa, Center for International Private Enterprise
10:15 a.m. – Break
10:30 a.m. – Panel 2: Strategic Opportunities and Policy Challenges
Prof. Terrence Lyons, George Mason University
Amb. David Shinn, George Washington University
Berhanu Mengistu, Old Dominion University
Moderator: Lauren Ploch Blanchard, Specialist in African Affairs, Congressional Research Service
12:00 p.m. – Lunch
12:30 p.m. – Lunch Presentation
Introduction: Gregory Simpkins, Professional Staff, U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights
State Department representative (TBD)