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Sunday, December 18, 2005

A Losing Bet in Ethiopia

Los Angeles Times -- ETHIOPIA IS edging toward renewed conflict with Eritrea that could result in tens of thousands of deaths and spark a civil war that would claim many more lives. But the Bush administration, a strong supporter of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, appears to have neither the vision nor the will to avert catastrophe.

It would not be the first time Africans died because U.S. policymakers failed to recognize the dangers of backing a ruthless, doomed regime.

In the former Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the U.S. supported former President Mobutu Sese Seko's tyrannical rule almost to its bitter end — and more than 2 million people died in the internal wars that followed. In Liberia, the U.S. looked the other way as Samuel Doe, an illiterate thug without popular support, brutalized his population and stole the 1985 election — and tens of thousands subsequently died. And in Sudan, the U.S. continued to give economic and military aid to then-President Gaafar Nimeiri as he fought a long civil war in which more than 2 million eventually died.

In all these cases, U.S. policymakers, despite clear evidence to the contrary, insisted that continued aid and support — and quiet diplomacy — were the best ways to reform a troubled client. Then, when that lie became untenable, the U.S. walked away, leaving Africans to pay the consequences.

Ethiopia is not yet Zaire, Liberia or Sudan, but the situation is dangerous because not only is unrest inside Ethiopia growing, military tensions on Ethiopia's border with Eritrea are increasing. The two countries fought a war in the late 1990s.

Meles has been a U.S. client since 1991, when his rebel movement seized power. He is good at talking the language of democracy and development — and even more adept at manipulating Western fears of terrorism.

Parliamentary elections held in May were supposed to cement Meles' claim to be a democratic reformer. Instead, they revealed his lack of national support. According to official tabulations, disputed by opposition parties, Meles' ruling party won a majority of seats. But as Human Rights Watch reported on the eve of the May elections, Meles squashed political dissent in Oromia, the country's largest region, thus denying voters there a real choice in the elections.

Most experts on Ethiopia believe that if the Oromo Liberation Front, which was forced to leave the country in 1992, had participated, it would have won a majority of votes in the region. That would have left Meles and his party with only a minority of parliamentary seats. Since the elections, there have been two waves of protest in the Ethiopian capital. Both times government forces shot scores of protesters and locked up opposition figures.

The government is now planning to put opposition leaders who have refused to take their parliamentary seats on trial for treason. It has also arrested many independent journalists. There are also reports of growing restiveness in the countryside, especially in Oromia.

Meles will be unable to maintain his monopoly on political power. His base, the Tigrean ethnic community, makes up less than 10% of the population. As the demand for democratization grows, he will have to either share power or increase repression. Given that most Ethiopian soldiers are drawn from disaffected ethnic groups, Meles can't count on security forces to stifle opposition.

Eritrea's intentions complicate the situation. It may decide the moment is right to launch a war to take back disputed territory it lost in the last war.

In the past, Meles has wagged the Eritrean dog to rally Ethiopians behind him. But if war breaks out, his opponents might move against him, perhaps causing the Ethiopian army to disintegrate.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's unwillingness to talk to the Ethiopian opposition and pressure Meles to permit real democratization has undercut opposition moderates and greatly increased the prospects of war. After the elections, the Oromo Liberation Front abandoned its sporadic and ineffective struggle against Meles and sought a peaceful accommodation. In October, it asked Rice to support Norwegian efforts to get the negotiations going. But the Bush administration rebuffed its entreaties and instead dispatched a mid-level State Department official to persuade Meles to avoid war with Eritrea and make some internal conciliatory gestures.

Washington's refusal to deal with the Oromo Liberation Front is bewildering. The party is one of the few in the Horn of Africa to bridge the Christian-Muslim divide, and there is a strong democratic tradition in Oromo civil society. It has never adopted terrorism as a tactic.

If the Bush administration continues to bet on Meles, it shouldn't forget that the lives of millions of Africans were lost in the Congo, Liberia and Sudan because of similar misjudgments.

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