25 March 2010 –THE United States, the richest and most powerful nation on earth, is also the most generous donor to one of the poorest, Ethiopia. America says it gives $1 billion in aid every year to Africa’s second-most-populous country, which also happens to host the African Union’s headquarters.
Yet Barack Obama’s administration has barely stirred itself to protest against recent attempts by Ethiopia to jam programmes in Amharic, the country’s main language, beamed by the Voice of America, a respected state-funded broadcaster. Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, brazenly says he will continue to jam the signal for as long as it incites what he calls hatred. He has compared the Amharic service to the hate speech spewing from Radio Mille Collines, which helped provoke Rwanda’s genocide in 1994. The State Department called the comment inflammatory but seems loth to make Mr Zenawi suffer for it.
One reason is that the Pentagon needs Ethiopia and its bare-knuckle intelligence service to help keep al-Qaeda fighters in neighbouring Somalia at bay. Many of Washington’s aid people argue that, though Mr Zenawi is no saint, he still offers the best chance of keeping Ethiopia together; even now, as one of the world’s least developed countries, it cannot feed itself.
Human-rights campaigners think the limpness of America and European Union countries, especially Britain, in the face of Mr Zenawi gives him a free rein to abuse his own people. This week’s report by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based lobby, claims that, after 20 years in power, Mr Zenawi’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has “total control of local and district administrations to monitor and intimidate individuals at a household level.” With a general election due on May 23rd, opposition supporters, says the report, are often castigated as subversives by the government, denied the right to assembly, and harassed. The press has been “stifled”. Newspapers avoid writing about opposition parties or people the government says have terrorist links.
Furthermore, says Ben Rawlence, who wrote the report, “Meles is using aid to build a single-party state.” Foreign governments, he says, have colluded in eroding civil liberties and democracy by letting their aid be manipulated by Mr Zenawi. Because of his party’s stranglehold at village level, its members can decide on entitlements such as places for children in school and the distribution of food handouts. Peasants who back the opposition get less. Farmers complain they are denied fertiliser for the same reason.
The Ethiopian government has denounced the report as outrageous and ridiculous. Mr Zenawi says that groups such as Human Rights Watch interpret human rights too narrowly. The only way to guarantee Ethiopia a free future, he argues, is to keep it stable while it continues to develop. His political calculations are straightforward. He reckons, for instance, that reporting by the Voice of America does more harm inside the country than outside criticism of his censorship.
In any case, Mr Zenawi has signed up for a code of electoral conduct and invited foreign election observers in. He still has time to win over critics before the election, for instance by freeing an imprisoned opposition leader, Birtukan Mideksa, as a goodwill gesture.
Aid-giving governments, for their part, are unlikely to change their minds. Even after hundreds of protesters were shot dead by the police after the last elections in 2004, aid to Ethiopia was only repackaged in different forms, not suspended. Besides, foreign politicians have promised their own voters that they will dish out large amounts of aid and argue that at least Ethiopia is less corrupt than many other African countries. Mr Zenawi understands this well—and exploits it.