NAIROBI, Kenya, 20 May 2010— Diplomats, human rights groups and witnesses say the Ethiopian government is methodically stifling dissent in the prelude to this weekend’s national elections, denying food aid to opposition supporters, jailing political opponents and possibly killing a few activists, part of a broader pattern of repression in several of America’s closest allies in Africa, especially during election time.
Ethiopia is one of the poorest and most aid-dependent countries in the world, and the American government and the World Bank, two of its biggest donors, are investigating potential leaks in the aid system and allegations that the government is manipulating food aid to reward political allies and literally starve out political opposition.
“We have seen these reports, and we are looking into them, and we would object to any politicization of our humanitarian assistance,” said Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs. “We expect countries to use the aid in the manner in which it was given and to ensure that it reaches those who need it.”
The allegations, which the Ethiopian government strongly denies, seem to be part of an increasingly iron-fisted strategy to ensure that the governing party holds on to power while preventing the widespread protests that erupted after the last major elections in 2005.
Back then, opposition groups said they had won far more seats than the government acknowledged, setting off demonstrations that were violently suppressed. Security forces arrested tens of thousands and killed scores of unarmed protesters.
According to human rights groups, recent State Department reports and witnesses, the Ethiopian government has recently imprisoned opposition leaders on false charges, passed laws to stymie intellectual and human rights groups and silenced independent media. Ethiopia gets roughly a billion dollars a year in aid from American taxpayers; at the same time, the government is jamming radio broadcasts from the American-financed Voice of America, one of the few major independent media outlets left in the country.
The complaints pouring out of Ethiopia echo some of those from Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, American allies that receive hundreds of millions of dollars in aid each year.
Elections are looming in each of these countries, and though such contests are supposed to be the embodiment of democracy, they often presage harsh crackdowns. Human rights groups say strongman governments across the continent continue to use a variety of tools — arresting journalists, driving out human rights monitors and jailing opponents — to eliminate any serious political threat.
“More repression, less democracy and no real outcry,” said Daniela Kroslak, deputy Africa program director for the International Crisis Group. “That’s true for much of Africa today.”
In a recent report, Human Rights Watch describes how the Ethiopian government employs an extensive network of local officials, militias and spies to control who gets donor-financed fertilizer, seeds, food aid and jobs. It is part of a “complex and multilayered strategy aimed at preventing political opposition and dissent,” the report said, and the elections on Sunday will probably be “a veneer of democratic pretension hiding a repressive state apparatus.”
Many Ethiopians are terrified to discuss these issues openly, and the government has denied visas to several foreign journalists trying to cover the elections and is restricting the movements of foreign diplomats.
But some Ethiopians are speaking out. Hassan Ali, a farmer in central Ethiopia with seven children, was one of several villagers who said they were cut off from a donor-supported antipoverty program because they backed the opposition. He said local officials warned him in March, “Unless you join the E.P.R.D.F.,” the ruling party, “you could die and your family will starve to death.”
Some analysts go as far as saying that American aid to governments like Ethiopia’s is actually subsidizing the problem.
“Our findings show that the development assistance is helping to underwrite the repression” in Ethiopia, said Georgette Gagnon, director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch.
American officials say they have tried to broach these complaints with their Ethiopian counterparts, and the State Department’s human rights report on Ethiopia is unsparing: “There were numerous credible reports of unlawful detention of opposition candidates,” and, “Security forces committed arbitrary and politically motivated killings during the year.”
Since early March, two opposition activists and one candidate have been killed. Witnesses and some Western diplomats say the victims were singled out because they were outspoken opponents of the governing party.
The Ethiopian government says that the killings were common crimes, not assassinations, and that the opposition was fabricating abuses to discredit the election. The government has also lashed out at critics abroad, denouncing the State Department assessment and dismissing the Human Rights Watch report as “a smear campaign.”
Bereket Simon, Ethiopia’s minister of communication affairs, said last week that the government did not need coercion to win the election because “the people of Ethiopia know for sure the future of Ethiopia lies with this government.”
Supporters of the government say it has reduced poverty and improved infrastructure, unlike some African nations that get staggering sums of foreign aid yet have little to show for it because of corruption.
The United States has many delicate interests to balance in Ethiopia, a sprawling Christian-led country of 85 million people in a region struggling with Islamic extremism. Mr. Carson, the State Department official, acknowledged that a top priority was maintaining a “military-to-military relationship” with the Ethiopians, who received covert American help in 2006 to invade Somalia and oust a government that was tilting toward radical Islam.
Human rights groups are urging the United States to put more strings on the humanitarian aid to Ethiopia, but the Obama administration is against that.
“We should never tie our humanitarian assistance to political goals and objectives,” Mr. Carson said. “We are trying to ensure that poor people’s lives are saved.”
But he added that “other pieces of the aid package are subject to discussion when governments backslide on democratic reform.”
That backsliding is a problem across the continent, despite the money, effort and diplomatic capital spent on democratic reform. Sudan just completed its first multiparty election in 24 years, but many analysts say the previous election, in 1986, was freer and fairer. Kenya held a clean election in 2002, and a disastrously flawed one in 2007.
Few of Africa’s authoritarian governments, like Ethiopia’s, were previously bastions of liberty. The country has a long history of repression and rebellion. But critics contend that many of Africa’s former-guerrilla-fighters-turned-leaders are growing steadily more repressive as their terms stretch from years into decades. Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, has led the country for 19 years.
“They still have this leftist ideology that the vanguard party knows what is right for the people,” said Berhanu Nega, who was elected mayor of Addis Ababa, the capital, in 2005, then jailed for nearly two years, forced into exile in the United States and recently sentenced to death in absentia. “Anyone who opposes the party is an enemy of the people.”
Jason McLure and an Ethiopian journalist contributed reporting from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.