Meles Zenawi will probably win the election. But that may not bring calm
Jan 21st 2010 | ADDIS ABABA – From The Economist print edition — WORRIES about Ethiopia’s election, due in May, are growing. Aid-giving Western governments hope it will pass off without the strife that followed the last one, in 2005, when 200 people were killed, thousands were imprisoned, and the democratic credentials of Meles Zenawi, despite his re-election, were left in tatters.
Though poor and fragile, Ethiopia carries a lot of weight in the region. A grubby election could worsen things in neighbouring Sudan, where civil war threatens to recur. The borderlands near Kenya, where cattle raiding, poaching and banditry are rife, would become still more dangerous. A renewal of unrest in Ethiopia would be exploited by its arch-enemy, Eritrea, which already backs sundry rebel groups in an effort to undermine the country’s government. And it could make matters even worse in Somalia, where jihadist fighters linked to al-Qaeda want to weaken “Christian” Ethiopia, where a third of the people are in fact Muslim. Foreign intelligence sources have long feared a jihadist attack in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia is a country of contradictions. With its present population of around 82m growing by 2m a year, it is poised to overtake Egypt as Africa’s second-most-populous country after Nigeria, with around 150m. It hosts the seat of the African Union. It runs one of Africa’s biggest airlines. This year its economy is predicted to grow by 7%, one of the fastest rates in the world. It is wooing foreign investors with offers to lease 3m hectares of arable land. It is expensively branding its coffee for export.
Yet the grim side is just as striking. Hunger periodically stalks the land. Some 5m people rely on emergency food to survive; another 7m get food aid. Few people benefit from the country’s free market. Ethiopia has one of Africa’s lowest rates of mobile-phone ownership. Income per head is one of the most meagre in the continent.
All this is the responsibility of Mr Meles’s Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has run the show since 1991. The party is dominated by former Marxist rebels from Tigray, even though Tigrayans, among them Mr Meles, make up only 6% of Ethiopia’s population. Not that Tigrayans want to cling to power, says Mr Meles brusquely. It is just that Ethiopia needs consistency to pursue a long-term development agenda. And the EPRDF can point to some successes. Since Mr Meles came to power, infant mortality has fallen by half, school attendance has risen dramatically and life expectancy has increased from 45 to 55 years.
Nourishing a liberal democracy or upholding human rights, however, has never been central to that agenda, even less so after Mr Meles clobbered the opposition in 2005. Some Western diplomats insist, implausibly, that politics has got better since. The government and some opposition parties have, for instance, signed a code of conduct for the coming election. Some of the opposition groups are genuine, but others are in hock to the EPRDF. In any case, the main opposition grouping, Forum, refused to join the talks, arguing that the EPRDF would exploit any agreement for its own ends. The government has been smothering potential sources of independent opposition, such as foreign and local NGOs. It insists it does not censor the press, but newspapers continue to close and independent journalists are moving abroad. Some farmers allege they are being denied food aid for political reasons.
Forum is demanding the release of one its leaders, Birtukan Mideksa, from prison. She was jailed with other opposition figures after the 2005 election, later pardoned, then arrested again. She is unlikely to be let out again before the poll as she could, some say, pose a real threat to the EPRDF in Addis Ababa and other cities.
Yet most Western governments seem keen to downplay Mr Meles’s human-rights record, hoping his re-election will keep his country stable. America is to disburse $1 billion in state aid to Ethiopia this year, more if covert stuff is included. Ethiopia can expect a similar amount from the European Union, multilaterally and through bilateral arrangements with Britain and others. And climate-change deals may bring Mr Meles even more cash.