African business, politics and lifestyle
Ethiopia Elections: Will the West be watching?
When you work for a news organisation in a country like Ethiopia, people often tell you “nobody cares” about the stories you report. What they mean, of course, is that nobody in the West cares. Most of the time, they’re right.
But with Ethiopians about to hold national elections for the first time since a 2005 poll ended with a disputed result, about 200 protestors killed in the streets by police and soldiers and opposition leaders jailed after Prime Minister Meles Zenawi accused them of trying to stage a revolution, there’s every reason for the public in the West to take notice.
Their governments have been meddling in Ethiopia for a long time now – but quietly – and with an attitude that has angered some here. Western powers are engaged for sound foreign policy reasons, and although most in the West are unaware of it, for the people of this country it’s a constant coffee house topic.
Ethiopia is often referred to as the “key U.S. ally” in the Horn of Africa – a dodgy neighbourhood by any standards. It’s the West’s friend here because – despite its population being almost 50 percent Muslim – they are overwhelmingly moderate and the government is avowedly secular.
The U.S., Britain and others see Ethiopia, with the biggest army in East Africa, as a bulwark against the rise of Islamic extremism in the Horn. Meles, with tacit U.S. backing, entered Somalia in 2006 and routed an Islamist group who had taken control of capital Mogadishu. He now keeps a close eye over the border as militants surge against Somalia’s weak government again.
Cash, as ever, is also a factor. This country is huge – its 80 million people making it sub Saharan Africa’s second most populous nation. And most of those teeming, aspirational masses don’t yet have mobile phones or bank accounts.
Western nations, and their corporations, see potential big earnings as the government winks at them that it may soon liberalise its potentially massive telecommunications and banking sectors. And why jeopardise that?
All of the above, the opposition says, leads Western countries – who Ethiopia relies on for billions of dollars in aid – to fetishise stability and analysts say they have decided that Meles is the only man who can deliver that.
But the opposition says the government is going to steal the election. They say their candidates are harassed and jailed. They say the government flouts human rights laws. And they want Ethiopia’s foreign backers to intervene.
They counter the stability argument by saying that, without democracy and freedom, Ethiopians will get frustrated and angry, which could provoke violence, shaking Ethiopia and leaving the Horn more vulnerable than ever.
Losing hope in the West, opposition parties are looking to international election monitors to back their accusations.
The only credible international organisations that monitor elections, the U.S.-based Carter Centre and the European Union, have been invited to observe the May 23rd poll, despite government misgivings about their involvement in 2005.
The Carter Centre swiftly declined the invitation. They put in a request to arrive back in December but the foreign ministry said it was “too busy” to deal with them because of an AU summit in Addis — a claim many found laughable.
Sources tell me the EU will soon announce its participation, although some wonder how effectively they can monitor the elections now that there are less than two months left to polling day and candidate registration is closed.
The government often seems exasperated by constant negative media reports and accuses the opposition of making wild accusations. And it is true that opposition accusations often come with little or no proof to back them up.
Many foreign diplomats say Meles is democratising Ethiopia, slowly but surely, and plead patience for a government that has genuine achievements in poverty reduction and economic growth that it can rightly be proud of.
They say they favour “quiet diplomacy” when dealing with Meles on human rights and claim the former rebel is listening.
The endless tit-for-tat, he-said-she-said accusations, aggressively slung back and forth by the government and the opposition, often without any real substance, are starting to frustrate Ethiopians, too.
“There are no new faces,” an Ethiopian friend told me recently. “Just the same angry, old men. It’s a vicious circle. We say we want new faces but these destructive politicians put young people off getting involved in politics.”
Watchful foreign eyes on the election could be some small help to normal Ethiopians trying to see through this bitter fog.
But what hope do they have? Will Ethiopia’s bankrollers in the West give their genuine opinion about what happens on May 23rd? Will the EU be able to effectively monitor the election given that they are not even here yet? Is the West right that Meles offers stability? Or are they being short-sighted? Is Ethiopia democratising “slowly”? Or is the West being hoodwinked by Meles?
PHOTO CREDIT: Ethiopian men sit outside a polling station during the country’s 2005 election. REUTERS/ Radu Sigheti