Bush's Somalia Strategy Enables
an Ethiopian Despot
by Paul Wachter
www.thenation.com, February 14,
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
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
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.