It may be too early to tell what, if anything, has been accomplished by the recent US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, but at least on the streets of Addis Ababa one thing has become clear. Here in the Horn of Africa, as elsewhere, Washington is all too happy to overlook the undemocratic excesses of a dictator who will do its bidding in the “war on terror.”
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has ruled Ethiopia since 1991, when his minority ethnic guerrilla group, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, overthrew the country’s postimperial Communist regime, the Dergue, which had murdered, tortured and imprisoned tens of thousands during its brutal seventeen years in power. Like most contemporary resistance groups in Ethiopia, the TPLF began as a Marxist-Leninist party. But by the time its fighters marched into Addis Ababa, Meles had realized the global political winds had changed and that he would be better off with patronage from Washington and London. “So Meles started talking about free elections and free markets–anything that was sweet to American ears,” said Merera Gudina, an opposition parliamentarian and political scientist at Addis Ababa University.
Meles’s ideological switch has paid off. By introducing several Western-friendly economic reforms, he was applauded by President Clinton as a sterling example of the “new generation” of African leaders and later by President Bush as one of the “strong friends of America.” Development gurus chimed in. Meles combined “intellectual attributes with personal integrity: no one doubted his honesty and there were few accusations of corruption within his government,” wrote Joseph Stiglitz in his 2002 book Globalization and Its Discontents.
But Meles is corrupt. He has turned the state and its resources into a trough for the ruling umbrella party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), in which the TPLF is pre-eminent. To take just one example, when Ethiopia’s auditor general, Lema Aregaw, reported last year that about $600 million in state funds were unaccounted for, mainly in regional coffers, Meles fired him and publicly defended the regional administrations’ “right to burn money.”
Meles enjoys little support from Ethiopia’s two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and Amhara. Instead, he has appointed Tigrayans to the most important and sensitive government positions. But even among Tigrayans, who account for only 7 percent of the population, his support is waning. “The people are sick of the corruption, about the lack of government services, and they only support Meles out of fear,” said Gabro Asrat, the former governor of Tigray. Asrat and several other top TPLF officials were expelled from the party in 2001, after they called for an inquiry into the handling of the disastrous 1998-2000 war with Eritrea. Meles, with no trace of irony, justified their dismissal as part of a crackdown on corruption within the party.
In 2005 Meles’s transgressions at last came to the world’s attention during that year’s parliamentary elections. The two previous contests, in 1995 and 2000, had largely been boycotted by the opposition, which felt the election process was heavily rigged in the government’s favor. But in 2005 Meles opened up the process a little, granting opposition parties some access to the media and allowing international observers to monitor the vote. Still, in the run-up to the elections, “there were arrests, beatings and intimidation of candidates and supporters from the two main opposition groupings,” reported Amnesty International.