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.
Uncowed, 90 percent of eligible Ethiopians cast ballots on May 15. But as it became clear that the ruling party was in danger of losing power, the government stopped the vote counting and moved to manipulate the results. The partisan National Electoral Board called for reruns in thirty-one “disputed” areas. Amid even greater intimidation and violence, many EPRDF candidates regained their seats. During subsequent mass protests, on June 8 and November 1, police opened fire, killing 193 according to the government’s own report. Meles had scores of opposition leaders and journalists arrested, and about 100 face charges of treason. Meanwhile, thousands more have been detained. Virtually all independent media has been shut down, and the new EPRDF-dominated Parliament remains a rubber stamp. The government continues to face limited armed resistance from two ethnic rebel groups, the Oromo Liberation Front and Ogaden National Liberation Front, but its most vocal opposition comes from Ethiopians in diaspora, particularly the relatively wealthy Ethiopian communities in the United States.
And yet for all his abuses, Meles remains our friend. In July 2006 US Representatives Chris Smith and Donald Payne introduced a bill to cut US military aid to Ethiopia unless it ended political repression. But the bill was quashed by Republican leaders doing Bush’s bidding. After all, Meles had pledged his support for the President’s war on terror. And after it became clear that CIA-funded warlords in Somalia–including one whose militia killed eighteen American troops in 1993–could not defeat that country’s Islamic Courts Union, Washington turned to Meles to make good on his pledge. (Gen. John Abizaid’s early December meeting with Meles in Addis Ababa is believed to have been the final go-ahead.)
The invasion was a rout. But it also was very unpopular in Ethiopia. “Somalia is not a threat to Ethiopia,” said Negasso Gidada, the former Ethiopian president who served alongside Meles but recently has emerged as one of the prime minister’s most outspoken critics. “The Somalis didn’t attack us, so why are we fighting them?”
Most felt that the attack was a diversion, both for Bush, from Iraq, and for Meles, from international scrutiny of his domestic affairs. Bush’s gambit may not have worked: Already, as Ethiopian troops withdraw, the Islamic Courts are regrouping, and there is little hope that the US-backed transitional government, a fractious collection of warlords, can hold Somalia together.
But for Meles, Somalia wasn’t the risk. It was the prospect of losing Washington’s support, and the Somalia adventure helped insure that didn’t happen. “What I can’t understand is why the Americans fall for this,” Gudina said. “Do they think that if Meles was gone and terrorists attacked Ethiopia, that we wouldn’t respond?”
It’s a hypothetical Bush seems not to have pondered. And so Meles is further emboldened, a Washington-backed Big Man who now has ruled Ethiopia for as long as the Communist dictatorship he deposed.