As 2014 draws to a close, the recent defection of several high-level Ethiopian military personnel,[i] and the Ethiopian government’s bloody crackdown on protests in Bahir Dar[ii] highlight serious questions about Ethiopia’s tense internal socio-political situation and the West’s ongoing support for Ethiopia’s repressive government.
Late last week, in Bahir Dar, several people were killed and many others wounded after police abruptly opened fire on protesters defending a sacred site against government-sponsored demolition.[iii]On the heels of the crackdown, several military pilots and a technician absconded with MI-35 helicopters; notably, the defections are only the latest in a series of similar such high-profile desertions.
Although Ethiopia has witnessed several years of respectable economic growth, last week’s developments reflect “the politics of fear” that pervades Ethiopia’s socio-political landscape, and emphasize the country’s significant “challenges concerning human rights, political competition, good governance, and corruption.”[iv] Earlier this year, Ethiopian authorities arrested nine journalists and bloggers, subsequently denying them access to lawyers, family, and colleagues. They have been held on allegations they work for foreign human rights groups or used social media to incite violence.[v] Such allegations have become common-place, as Ethiopia’s highly-controversial anti-terrorism laws allow the government to hand down long sentences to anyone who “writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicizes, [or] disseminates” statements the government considers terrorism.[vi] The arrests of the bloggers coincided with mass non-violent protests led by students in the central Oromia region,[vii] ultimately seeing numerous protestors killed, wounded, and arrested.[viii][ix]
Furthermore, the Ethiopian army has systematically engaged in executions, rape, torture, arbitrary arrests, and various other abuses in its ongoing brutal counter-insurgency against the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).[x]Ethnic groups residing within and around the region have endured arbitrary detentions, torture, and mistreatment in detention, as well as severe restrictions on movement and commercial trade, and minimal access to independent relief assistance. Effectively, such abuses constitute direct threats to their survival.[xi]
As well, weeks ago, TV4 reported that H&M, the popular Swedish clothing company, has purchased cotton from regions in Ethiopia where land-grabbing and forced displacement have occurred.[xii] Problematically, a central component of Ethiopia’s developmental and agricultural strategy involves “villagization,” a program entailing the relocation of millions of people from locations reserved for industrial plantations.[xiii]Villagization has long been condemned by international organizations,[xiv] since it leads to greater food insecurity, a destruction of livelihoods, and the loss of cultural heritage of ethnic groups. Ethiopia’s program, which utilizes forced evictions, has been plagued by a plethora of human rights violations, with a variety of human rights groups documenting beatings, killings, rapes, imprisonment, intimidation, and political coercion by the government and authorities.[xv]
With national elections on the horizon (scheduled for May 2015), the potential for further instability, discord, and popular revolt loom large, especially considering past precedent. In 2005, following national elections widely believed to have been rigged, the Ethiopian government, under the late, authoritarian leader Meles Zenawi, “massacred” hundreds of protestors, many of them teenagers.[xvi] Moreover, in recent years, massive protests by the Blue Party opposition group and Muslim groups, have ended in deaths, repression, and state violence.[xvii] Finally, in November, a 166-page report on the plight of the Oromo people in Ethiopia was released.[xviii] Concluding that the Oromo people have suffered “sweeping” repression in Ethiopia, the report detailed that between 2011 and 2014, more than 5000 Oromos have been arrested based on their opposition to the government, with the majority of those arrested being peaceful protestors or members of opposition parties.[xix] Looking towards the 2015 elections, Berhanu Nega, Professor of Economics at Bucknell University and former leader of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy in Ethiopia, asserts that the Ethiopian government can “never have free and fair elections.” Specifically, according to Nega,
“[t]he reason why there’s so much repression, the reason why there’s so much muzzling of the press, the reason why the Ethiopian government is arresting opposition figures inside the country is precisely because they know that this is a despised government. It cannot last a day in an environment of freedom. This is a government that will lose catastrophically if there were [a] free and fair election.”[xx]
Last, it is noteworthy that Ethiopia’s various internal challenges are compounded by its transgressions which extend beyond its borders. Specifically, Ethiopia has continued to occupy sovereign territory of its northern neighbor, Eritrea, in direct violation of international law, and in blatant contravention of the rulings of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission.[xxi] The 12-year-long military occupation has frozen any possibility of developmental cooperation or economic partnership between the two countries, and the military occupation is seen as an influential factor to much of the instability within the Horn of Africa region.
In seeking to address Ethiopia’s flagrant dismissal of international norms and laws, a variety of measures could plausibly be undertaken (e.g. sanctions). However, the first, and possibly most far-reaching and effective response by the international community should be to withdraw its unwavering support for the repressive Ethiopian government. George Galloway, respected British politician, broadcaster, and writer, has often voiced concern of how the West’s (led by the US and UK) support for dictatorial, tyrannical regimes results in harming the populations of those countries. Regarding Ethiopia, Galloway has decried how the UK and US policy of encouraging, arming, training, financing, and facilitating the Ethiopian government’s “reign of terror” is “morally vacuous.”[xxii]Similarly, renowned international economist, William Easterly, has recommended that the international community “stop financing tyranny and repression” in Ethiopia.[xxiii]
An indication of the possible far-reaching effects of removing external support for a harsh, brutal regime can be seen in the example of Indonesia. Professor Noam Chomsky (MIT) has written and spoken extensively on how US and western support for the despotic regime in Indonesia played an indirect, yet extremely harmful role in the carnage and deaths of hundreds of thousands in East Timor.[xxiv] However, in 1999, after much pressure, the US finally “pulled the plug” on its support for the Suharto regime, quickly leading to the cessation of Indonesia’s brutal campaign. Specifically,
“[f]or 25 years, the United States strongly supported the vicious Indonesian invasion and massacre, a virtual genocide. It was happening right through 1999, as the Indonesian atrocities increased and escalated, after Dili the capital city was practically evacuated. After Indonesian attacks, the US was still supporting it. Finally, in mid-September 1999, under considerable international and also domestic pressure, Clinton quietly told the Indonesian generals “It’s finished.” And they had said they’d never leave, they said “this is our territory.” They pulled out within days, and allowed a UN peacekeeping force to enter without Indonesian military resistance. Well, you know, that’s a dramatic indication of what can be done.”
While the socio-political dynamics and historical contexts of Indonesia and Ethiopia are quite different, the comparison presents several clear similarities. Both regimes received decades-worth of external economic, military, and political support (particularly from the US). Additionally, both regimes systematically and persistently violated human rights, transgressed various international laws – such as through military occupation, and engaged in large-scale campaigns characterized as “genocidal.” Consequently, with Ethiopia continuing to overlook basic international norms, standards, and laws, the international community must end its complicity in and (in)direct support for Ethiopia’s various transgressions. As Clinton relayed to Indonesia’s leadership, the international community must tell Ethiopia, “It’s finished.”