LSE’s Awol Allo argues that blanket US support for the Ethiopian regime risks dismantling the country’s already beleaguered opposition.
It was only two months ago during the Israeli election that the White House was scrambling to convince the American public that the United States does not intervene in the electoral processes of other democracies.
“This administration goes to great lengths to ensure that we don’t give even the appearance of interfering or attempting to influence the outcome of a democratically held election in another country,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in defense of President Barack Obama’s refusal to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But the U.S. makes no apologies for its interventions on behalf of autocratic regimes elsewhere. For example, during a recent visit to Ethiopia, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman praised Ethiopia as a vibrant and progressive democracy.
“Ethiopia is a democracy that is moving forward in an election that we expect to be free, fair, credible, open and inclusive,” she said. “Every time there is an election, it gets better and better.”
Sherman’s remarks drew the ire of activists and human rights organizations. Daniel Calingaert, the executive vice president of Freedom House, dismissed her praise as “woefully ignorant” and at odds with the reality of life as lived by ordinary Ethiopians. Not only were her claims inconsistent with human rights reports, but they also fly in the face of her department’s annual country surveys, which tell a radically different story.
In its latest Ethiopia report, for example, the State Department identified significant human rights violations, including restrictions on freedom of speech, Stalinist-style show trials, and crackdowns on free press, opposition leaders, activists and critical journalists. The report and others by human rights groups reveal a consistent and widespread pattern of abuse, including torture, arbitrary killings, restrictions on freedom of association, interference in freedom of religion and the politicized use of the country’s anti-terrorism proclamation.
Defending status quo
Sherman’s comment was not an isolated gaffe. Since the death in 2012 of Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi, the US government has moved from tacit support to publicly defending the regime in Addis Ababa, concocting irresponsible, make-believe stories. After Zenawi’s death, Susan Rice, then the top US diplomat at the United Nations and Obama’s current national security adviser, eulogized Zenawi as a selfless and tireless leader “totally dedicated” to his people. She praised his intellectual prowess and called him “uncommonly wise, a man able to see the big picture and the long game.” She ended her tribute by calling for the continuity of his legacy.
Contrary to Sherman’s claims, Ethiopia is an authoritarian state. Instead of getting better and better at strengthening democratic institutions and opening up democratic spaces for free and fair elections, it got better at building surveillance structures that allow the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), now in power for nearly 24 years, to exercise total control over the population.
With a general election set for May 24 2015, EPRDF retains a monopoly over politics and has the technical and institutional capabilities to monitor and intimidate individuals. The government allegedly monitors exiled journalists and activists using Chinese- and European-made spyware.
Over the last 10 years, Ethiopia has fostered an increasingly invasive technical capacity and a bureaucracy that enabled authorities to conceal and hide its oppressive profile. Since 2005, the country has adopted a slew of draconian laws with the aim of restricting democratic politics. This includes the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and the Charities and Societies Proclamation, which effectively destroyed the conditions necessary for credible, free and fair elections. Together, the two laws allowed the government to circumvent or indefinitely suspend basic guarantees of the constitution. Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, the regime exiled, prosecuted and convicted several opposition leaders, journalists, community leaders and activists.
This and many other instruments of control enabled the EPRDF to win 99.6 percent of the votes in the 2010 elections, losing only two of the 547 seats in the federal Parliament and one seat out of the 1,900 in the regional assemblies. Five years of intimidation and harassment of the opposition and war against free press means that Sunday’s voting will be anything but fair and free.