Washington can foster solutions for Ethiopia


And as it responds to the Ethiopian government’s recent report that over 6 million lives are at risk if more food isn’t sent quickly, Congress should hold hearings and enact legislation to help Ethiopians create the conditions that are necessary to ensure that food aid is never needed again.

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In the short term the U.S. must and will help prevent another humanitarian disaster. But it should also help create the kind of civil society that is necessary to prevent it from recurring, for Ethiopia’s misery is rooted in a dictatorial government that respects neither human rights nor the rule of law.

Ethiopia’s famine is the result of deliberate government policies that tie the majority of the population to landholdings that are barely able to provide sustenance in good times, as well as corruption and ineptitude.

Food shortages are the terrible face of deeper problems: a government that commits flagrant human rights abuses with impunity, steals elections and suppresses dissent. Although the threat of famine is horrible, it could be merely the tip of the iceberg if these underlying issues are not addressed. Frustration with rigged elections might bring the kind of violence that recently afflicted Kenya, and repression of minorities could lead to the kind of anarchy that has plagued Ethiopia’s neighbor, Somalia, for a generation.

The government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi blames drought for the food crisis, but Martin Plaut, Africa analyst at the BBC, recently wrote that “large parts of the country have not been hit by drought” and the crisis “is in part the result of policies designed to keep farmers on the land, which belongs to the state and cannot be sold.” Plaut reported that as a result of the government’s policies, farms are “so small and the land so overworked that it could not provide for the families that work it even with normal rainfall.” He noted that keeping people impoverished in the countryside “is a way of preventing large-scale unemployment and the unrest that this might cause.”

Meles Zenawi has found it difficult enough to keep control of the 17 percent of Ethiopians who live in cities. The U.S. State Department’s 2008 Human Rights report contains a chilling inventory of the Ethiopian government’s practices. The list of abuses is too long to repeat here. Highlights include: “limitations on citizens’ right to change their government in local and by-elections; unlawful killings, torture, beating, abuse, and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, usually with impunity; poor prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention, particularly of suspected sympathizers or members of opposition or insurgent groups; police and judicial corruption; detention without charge and lengthy pretrial detention.”

The State Department also reported “societal discrimination against persons with disabilities and religious and ethnic minorities, and government interference in union activities, including harassment of union leaders,” as well as “restrictions on freedom of the press [and the] arrest, detention, and harassment of journalists.”

The Bush administration hailed Meles Zenawi as a partner in the war on terrorism. In fact, the terror he has inflicted on his own people threatens to turn a firm U.S. ally into a failed state and a haven for terrorists.

Despite the constant fear of violence and systematic government repression, Ethiopians have come together to form opposition political parties dedicated to a peaceful transition to democracy. They realize that Ethiopians must organize to save their country.

Ethiopians also know that in the absence of outside pressure, Meles Zenawi and his cronies will not change. It is essential that the international community, especially the United States, press the Ethiopian government to allow its people to exercise the most basic human and democratic rights.

With elections coming in seven months, the deadline for action is short.

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The U.S. government should align its rhetoric with its policies by enacting legislation making non-humanitarian aid to Ethiopia contingent on Meles Zenawi and the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front allowing the creation of an independent electoral commission and permitting international election monitors to travel throughout the country during both the campaign and the voting. Other conditions should include removing restrictions on foreign assistance to non-governmental organizations and giving opposition parties access to the media.

By helping Ethiopians gain the kinds of democratic freedoms and human rights that Americans take for granted, the United States will ensure that humanitarian disasters become only a memory, and it will find a stable, strong partner in a troubled, strategically important corner of the globe.

Mekonen is chairman of the All Ethiopia Unity Party International Advisory Board, Foreign Relations.