Critics Stifled in Ethiopia

Wall Street Journal, 22 May—Elections in Ethiopia on Sunday are expected to return to power a 19-year-old regime that offers the U.S. a bulwark of stability in a strife-torn region, but has drawn fire for alleged abuses to silence its domestic opponents.

Supporters of Ethiopia’s opposition coalition have been beaten and jailed, and one of the country’s last independent newspaper closed in December after its senior staff fled the country for fear of arrest.

Yet in recent years, Ethiopia has remained stable while its neighbor to the west, Sudan, has been mired in civil conflict, and to the east, Somalia has become a haven for al Qaeda-linked insurgents and high-seas pirates.

Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006, occupying it for two years, after the Islamic regime declared holy war on its neighbor. As a new U.S.-backed Somali government took over, Ethiopia has tried to smooth the transition, facilitating political talks and training troops—steps in line with U.S. security interests in the region.

Ethiopian elections Sunday are likely to favor Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who has held the post for nearly 15 years. Voters will cast ballots for 547 members of parliament, who will elect the prime minister. Results are expected early in the week.

Mr. Zenawi’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, is the largest party. Its main challenger is Medrek, a coalition of eight opposition parties that have campaigned as the party for change. The coalition has gained popularity as an alternative to the EPRDF, though much of its energy has been focused on coalition-building.

“We want to liberalize the country,” said Negasso Gidada, a Medrek party leader. The ruling party “dominates everything. We want to change that.”

Mr. Zenawi’s government can claim some major successes. Ethiopia’s economy grew 9.9% last year, according to the International Monetary Fund, and is expected to grow nearly 7% this year. But the country remains poor: One in four of Ethiopia’s 80 million people lives on less than $1 per day, according to USAID, the aid arm of the U.S. government.

The U.S. gave more than $575 million to Ethiopia last year in extensive food, health and military support—about 70% of the total aid the country received.

Yet access to food aid, college admissions and job opportunities is restricted to those who support the ruling party, say opposition leaders and Human Rights Watch.

An Ethiopian journalist, who declined to give his name for fear of retribution, said many Ethiopians expected the U.S. to do more than send food. “People are starving for freedom,” he said, “not just for food.”

Washington has chosen quiet diplomacy, a senior U.S. official said, raising these issues in discussions with Ethiopian officials behind closed doors. “Our goal is to be effective, and I’m not sure that anything other than pursuing this dialogue … would be,” said a senior U.S. official. “It is a process.”

The nonadversarial approach to Ethiopia echoes Washington’s strategy with other regimes in regions where security is a priority, but contrasts with Kenya, where Ambassador Michael Ranneberger has publicly excoriated the transitional government for not implementing reforms.

Yelibu Lijalem Belew, a spokesman at the Ethiopian Embassy in Nairobi, said Ethiopia and the U.S. maintain a “very cordial” relationship, rooted in part in their commitment to fighting terrorism.

In the 2005 parliamentary election, nearly 200 people were killed by security forces and tens of thousands arrested during protests over claims of electoral fraud that favored Mr. Zenawi’s party.

This time, opposition leaders say their supporters have been beaten and harassed. In March, an opposition parliamentary candidate was stabbed to death. The government said his killing was part of a personal dispute.

On Sunday, a candidate was arrested while campaigning and sentenced to six months in prison on a contempt charge. The government said the arrest was a mistake and pledged to release her. Human Rights Watch said that four opposition parties have reported that over 450 members or supporters had been jailed for political reasons as of November.

The State Department’s 2009 human-rights report on Ethiopia said reported abuses included “unlawful killings, torture, beating, abuse and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, often acting with evident impunity.”

But the U.S. official said Ethiopia rejects the U.S. views of the political situation. “Documented incidents of human-rights abuses—we see those as facts on the ground,” said the U.S. official. “The government of Ethiopia would disagree.”

Mr. Belew said allegations of human-rights abuses documented by Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department weren’t accurate. “There are no deliberate human-rights abuses in our country,” he said, adding that he believed the allegations were planted by opposition parties to undermine the government.

Criticism isn’t likely to alter Ethiopia’s relationship with the U.S., he added. “They can say whatever they feel—that’s the normal thing,” said Mr. Belew, referring to government critics. “Our relationship is beyond that.”

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