By Yohannes Woldemariam*
Nov 25, 2005 — An ongoing hazard of the "War on Terror" has been that tyrants like Zenawi would exploit the threat of terror to win support from the Bush administration and Tony Blair’s Britain. The Bush administration is trying to buy stability at the expense of liberty in the Horn of Africa and neither of these goals is attainable without liberty. Zenawi has been warmly courted by the United States since the Clinton era and continues to be pampered by the George W Bush administration which has anointed him as an ally on the open ended “War on Terror” in the Horn of Africa. He is propped up by the U.S. and the international financial institutions. From the U.S. alone, he receives $800 million a year and $500 million worth of food assistance. Ethiopia is set to have its debt cancelled that will forgive $18.3bn owed to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and others. Despite his massacre of students and workers demanding democratic rule, Meles continues to enjoy western support simply because he has had the wit to call himself an ally on the “War on Terror.” As long as you are on the right side of the "War on Terror," it is a safe time to be a dictator and tyrant.
Meles Zenawi is a complete thug. His jails are filled with thousands and possibly tens of thousands of political prisoners. In a vain attempt to silence the opposition, at least eighty people were killed in protests during June and November. Special Security forces known as the Agaazi (trusted forces from his tribe) have arrested thousands of opposition members. There were massacres including of the Anuaks in Gambella. The Human Rights Watch dubbed the Anuak massacre as "a crime against humanity." Increasingly, the Meles regime is becoming one of the nastiest in the world. Currently, Dictator Zenawi is preparing to put “treason” show trials of opposition leaders whose only crime is winning the elections. Meles has now graduated into a deadly python dressed in human flesh. The tactical use of constitutional amendments to deprive the elected representatives any power in parliament and an increasing willingness to use military force in a broad range of "security matters" suggest that the direction of Meles is fast approaching the dictatorship of the man he helped to overthrow, the butcher Mengistu Halemariam.
To polish the dent in his image resulting from the ongoing violence against the opposition and to secure the flow of aid money, Meles has hired another Public Relations firm in Washington. The Indian Ocean Newsletter reported that: “the government of Addis Ababa has taken on the services of a public relations company in Washington. The firm McGuire Woods Consulting registered on 15 September with the American authorities as accredited lobbyist for the Ethiopian government on all issues concerning this government’s relations and its public communication in Washington. Its task will be essentially to promote relations between Ethiopia and the United States at a time when the repression of the Ethiopian opposition is starting to arouse negative reactions in many quarters including among members of the American Congress. McGuire Woods Consulting is run by Frank B. Atkinson and L. F. Payne Jr. Last year, the Ethiopian government used another lobby firm, Hunton & Williams LLP (ION 1104). This firm had already been Ethiopia’s legal advisor in the past in the international arbitration process in its conflict with Eritrea.”
The fraudulent results of the May elections forced the elected members of the opposition to refuse to take their seats in protest. After the results, the European Union and the U.S. Embassy remained relatively mum. This is so despite the fact that the Euro-MP Ana Gomes who led the European mission to observe the Ethiopian elections in May urged her fellow Euro-MPs: “asking them to condemn the Ethiopian government’s repression of the opposition.” Ana Gomes wrote that “the EU observation mission had concluded that the Ethiopian election had not taken place in keeping with "international standards for genuine democratic elections". She lamented that the EU had come to a "business as usual" attitude with Meles Zenawi. Adding insult to injury, Germany’s President, Horst Koehler welcomed Meles to a conference in Bonn while his Agaazi troops were committing atrocities in Ethiopia during early November.
The Teflon Meles Zenawi is being imitated by the Ugandan leader Museveni, another donor darling, who has taken a lesson from the apathy and double standard of the West. Like Meles’s government, the regime of Uganda, is becoming increasingly repressive. ?Political analyst Andrew Mwenda says that [Museveni] had taken note of the muted foreign response to recent unrest in Ethiopia and Tanzania, and had decided the current mood among donors about African electoral turmoil was conveniently indulgent. But even if he draws criticism, he won’t care, Mwenda said. ?If it is a choice between staying in power and losing a little bit of international standing by cracking down on the opposition, the choice is very easy.’ Museveni followed Meles’s example and arrested a top opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, just days after his return from exile and charged him with “treason.” These dictators have realized that President Bush’s treatment of despots the world over is applied selectively, and that they are safe from any consequences for their autocratic rule. Meles has so far paid little price for his actions. In the short term, more repression may be an effective way for these dictators to quell opposition. But over time it could make matters worse. The deeper cause of discontent is political fossilization: dictators like Meles are rarely willing to give up power.
Is Meles a worthy ally against extremism in the Horn? Roughly 800 U.S. troops are stationed in Djibouti and working closely with troops from the Ethiopian government. U.S. Special Forces have provided training to the Ethiopian military. US troops have trained with Ethiopian troops that patrol the border with Somalia. This is supposedly collaboration against “terrorists” in Somalia. The irony is that by doing so, the U.S. may create the very thing it fears: Islamic terrorism in Somalia and the Horn. Islamism has never really been strong in the Horn. Yet Meles’s meddling in Somalia could give the Islamists their real opening in the region. Meles’s contention that he is besieged by Muslim extremists may eventually prove self-fulfilling.
Meles’s Ethiopia is far from being an anchor for the Horn of Africa; it’s more like a prison of nations, which without the life support system of foreign aid is in danger of imploding. The Bush and Blair affection for dictators like Meles who promote “America’s short-term political interests” is dangerous and sends the wrong message to those who struggle for democracy and human rights around the world. In fact, this strategy will make the world substantially less free than it was before he took office. It encourages dictators like Meles to represent themselves as deserving of U.S. support on the grounds that the alternative would be worse. If not me, the dictators say, the Islamists would take over. Ready U.S. acceptance of such arguments gives dictators every reason to ensure that their regime is always threatened by phantom Islamist violence. The need for allies on the War on Terror has pushed the U.S. toward unsavory “friends” like Meles.
The regime continues to round up opponents, and is refusing to take responsibility for the shooting of unarmed protesters. Another devastating war with Eritrea could soon be on the horizons, if Meles perceives that he can no longer contain the growing domestic opposition to his rule. Zenawi is now attempting to divert attention from domestic protests and his decline in the power base of his ruling party by threatening to restart the war with Eritrea. The latest lopsided Security Council resolution 1640, which threatens sanctions against Eritrea for restricting UNMEE movements, while carefully evading the word sanctions against the real violator of the EEBC verdict Ethiopia, may embolden him to ignite a war on Eritrea.
The Eritrean and the Ethiopian people are now convinced that the purported support for democracy and human rights by Bush and Blair is far from being a principled stand. It is easily sacrificed on the altar of ill informed and narrow security interests. It doesn’t seem that the George W Bush administration has learned the fundamental lesson of the 9-11 tragedy. The real lesson from the attacks of September 11 2001 is where repression and despair rule, extremism and violence breed. Rationalization of the partnership with Meles Zenawi that is justified by the adoption of a view of the war on terrorism that conflates Meles’s domestic opponents with terrorists will have a ripple effect. The United States makes little distinction between real terrorists and Muslim groups like in the Ogaden or Oromia which simply oppose the regime. By such a flawed policy, the U.S. is leaving resort to Islamism and Warlordism as the only alternatives to the hated Meles regime.
*Yohannes Woldemariam is an Eritrean based in the United States.