BY JOSHUA E. KEATING | JANUARY 31, 2011
Record: The 2010 election, in which Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s party won a remarkable 99.6 percent of the vote, was the culmination of what Human Rights Watch called “the government’s five-year strategy of systematically closing down space for political dissent and independent criticism.” This included attacks and arrests of prominent opposition figures, the shutting down of newspapers and assaults on journalists critical of the government, and doling out international food aid as an incentive to get poor Ethiopians to join the ruling party.
In addition to attacks on domestic media and NGOs, the government also jammed broadcasts by Voice of America and Deutsche Welle in the run-up to the elections. The U.S. NGO Freedom House downgraded Ethiopia to “Not Free” for the first time in its annual Freedom in the World survey this year.
U.S. support: Bordered by Sudan and Somalia, Ethiopia benefits from being an at least nominally pro-American government in a very dangerous neighborhood. In 1998, U.S. President Bill Clinton described Zenawi as the leader of an “African Renaissance.” Washington’s strong support for Addis Ababa continued under President George W. Bush, who saw Zenawi’s primarily Christian government as a bulwark against Islamic extremism in East Africa, and poured in millions in military aid. Bush opposed legislation linking military aid for Ethiopia to human rights and gave tacit support for the country’s 2006 invasion of Somalia.
The rhetoric is somewhat less enthusiastic under the Obama administration — the State Department strongly criticized the 2010 election, for instance — but the U.S. will continue to fund Ethiopia to the tune of $583.5 million this year, despite evidence that the government is directly using this aid to suppress dissent.