The forthcoming Ethiopian elections: why do they look ugly but have not got much international attention?

In just two weeks and a half (on May 23rd), will take place the Ethiopian elections. Elections which have gathered – at least in my opinion – much less public and international attention that the elections in Sudan (which took place in the middle of April). This, in many ways, shouldn’t necessarily have been the case – for Ethiopia, like Sudan, is an important country in the African continent. While Ethiopia is smaller and has a lower GDP, it has double the population of Sudan, and both countries are the largest recipients of aid from the OECD ( Ethiopia received $3,327 billion and Sudan $2.384 billion in 2009).
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Data from WolframAlpha (a wonderfur resource, by the way)

Furthermore, both countries occupy important places in the international and strategic context of the Horn of Africa and East Africa. In Sudan decades of civil war between North and South ended in 2005 with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), and since then political and diplomatic moves have sought to maintain the peace and move towards the 2011 referendum for the South’s secession, while at the same time stopping the violence in Darfur and the abuses of power of President Omar Al-Bashir(accused by the ICC of war crimes). Ethiopia for its part is a key player on the Horn of Africa, and the stability of a region which has unruly players like Eritrea and Somalia. In December 2006 a US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somali sought to end the rule of the Islamic courts in Mogadishu and other Somali regions, and the country is still a key ally on the “war-on terror” in the African continent. All of these should secure an important attention from the international media for the forthcoming elections, but this is not the case.
And we cannot argument that perhaps Ethiopia’s elections, unlike Sudan, are going to be “free and fair” and should grant less concerns for international observers and analysts. The run-up to the elections in fact is being quite agitated, and violence has made an appearance. On March 2nd a parliamentary candidate for the oposition was stabbed to death, and since then (and before) the oposition has continued to denounced the harrassment to which they are subject. During the past two months the tension has increased in what is clearly perceived as a “preventive crack-down” ahead of the polls. At the end of March, Human Rights Watch released a 59-page report denouncing:

the myriad ways in which the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has systematically punished opposition supporters. Since the 2005 polls, the party has used its near-total control of local and district administrations to undermine opponents’ livelihoods through withholding services such as agricultural inputs, micro-credit, and job opportunities. The report also documents how recently enacted laws severely restrict the activities of civil society and the media.

Accusations which were quickly denied by the Addis-Abeba government.
The pressure has increased since with the government accusing the oposition of willing to use violent means, while at the same time acting to reduce both freedom of expression – with local and international media (like the Voice Of America whose Amharic boradcasts were jammed in March) being attacked – and all non-supportive political activities – a second oposition member was killed two weeks ago. All of this has been denounced by NGOs, activists and intellectuals like Alemayehu G. Mariam, lawyer and political science proffesor, and contributor to media like Pambazuza News and The Huffington Post, among others. Mariam has denounced the harrasment to which media and activists are subject, and has recently povided us with a very pessimistic vision of what is to be expected from the elections later this month. On an article for The Huffington Post on Monday, Mariam writes:

In the last three weeks prior to the “election”, we are witnessing a repeat of the 2005 Election Endgame. It is all so obvious. The poor opposition leaders are being set up for the final coup de grace as they stand helplessly crying out for democracy and the rule of law.
The ruling dictatorship will crank up the propaganda machine to the max in the next three weeks to fabricate stories that will create a negative public perception of the opposition leaders…
The regime will seek out any convenient pretexts and excuses to declare a state of emergency beginning at the close of the polls on May 23, just as they did in 2005. Political gatherings of any kind will be prohibited for the months following the “election”. The regime will declare victory on election day before all the votes are counted; and they will stage repeated delays in announcing the official election results in the following weeks to give the impression that meticulous vote counting is being made. And on and on. Of course, all of this is also intended to give the international community early warning of a massive crackdown that will take place, and to prepare them not to “overreact” when the sledgehammer falls on the opposition’s head.
It is all deja vu. We saw this farcical Kangaroo Theatre Production in 2005.

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Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (Photograph: Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images)
This last reference to the international community, and their complicity with the regime of Meles Zenawi is key to understanding – in my opinion – why not much is being said about how ugly the forthcoming elections in Ethiopia look. Ethiopia is, as noted above, a necessary ally on the fight against Somali insurgents (especially the pro-Al Quaeda Al-Shabaab group) and a key player in granting stability to the Horn – given its size and its role as enemy of mutual enemies Eritrea and Somalia. But furthermore the Zenawi regime has been, and still is one of the largest recipients of international aid. This is justified by the regime when it presents its most amicable face on internationam forums, as Helen Epstein writes on The New York Review of Books:

Meles’s Ethiopia is now the subject of an informal experiment to see whether “the big push” approach to African development will work. Its foreign aid receipts, which have tripled since 2000, amounted to some $3 billion in 2008, more than any other nation in sub-Saharan Africa…
The big push has financed 15,000 village health clinics, seventeen universities, countless schools, and the beginnings of a new road network that will bring trade and services to many previously isolated rural areas.
Unfortunately, this aid is also subsidizing a regime that is rapidly becoming one of the most repressive and dictatorial on the continent…
aid agencies need to ensure that their programs don’t exacerbate the political problems that are keeping people poor in the first place.

Ethiopia’s development rhetoric has thus captivated the international community in many ways. This positive image on an African success-story however, has nevertheless contributed to a biased perception of the “not-so-shiny” aspects of Ethiopia’s economic development and political life. For example, the revelation by the BBC that $95 million of aid sent to Ethiopia after the 1984 Live Aid were diverted to fund arms purchases by Meles Zenawi’s Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have been dismissed by both Zenawi and Bob Geldof. Similarly, the construction of the Gibe III dam on the Omo Valley, key for the development of the country according to Addis Abeba and which counts with international support and funding, has been critcised by activists and NGOs like Survival International who claim that it will devastate the lives of 200,000 people as well as having disastrous environmental consequences. A final example will be the lack of international criticism which will meet the May elections despite all the signs that freedom of expression and political activity are being increasingly threatened by the government (that is, unless major violence erupts after the elections, which although unlikely, if it happens, it will definitely alter the current situation).
Ethiopia is a large and complex country with a multi-etnhic society, and a troubled recent history whose consequences are still felt nowadays. Meles Zenawi’s government has made important progresses in the country’s economic development, and for this (and for its key role on the war-on-terror), Ethiopia has received large amount of international. All of this however, should not mask the negative outcomes which development programmes sometimes have had or can have, or (crucially) the dirty tricks in which Zenaw has engaged, and is still engaging, in order to cement his control of the country.
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Construction begins on the huge Gibe III hdyro-electric dam at the Omo river site in southern Ethiopia. Photograph: Xan Rice/The Guardian

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