Power Politics Trumps Democracy in U.S.-backed Ethiopia

Alex Stonehill Apr 11, 2008


ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia—Dawn in the Merkato breaks over a tangle of streets jammed with shouting hawkers and towering pyramids of ripe produce from Ethiopia’s fertile countryside. Today it is a popular destination for sunburnt foreign tourists, expensive cameras poised to capture lively scenes from one of Africa’s largest open-air markets.

Few of them, unloading from tour buses today, know that less then three years ago these bustling streets were stained with the blood of murdered citizens who had flooded into the center of Ethiopia’s capital city to protest the contested re-election of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

“People were pissed off,” says Eskinder Nega, who was a columnist and publisher for several Ethiopian newspapers during the 2005 protests. “It was the first time we really had hope, and when the elections were stolen, people were angry. … It wasn’t planned — people just started pouring into the streets,” Nega said.

The government reaction was swift. According to Amnesty International, 187 civilians were killed during those demonstrations and thousands of others arrested.

Protesters, mostly young people and students, fell in the streets of the Merkato with bullets through their hearts and foreheads, a detail that led many to believe they were purposefully killed by specially trained military snipers, not regular riot police.

Ethiopian publications and journalists that covered these events, especially those that focused on mounting human rights abuses, didn’t escape the wrath of the government either. At least 14 journalists, editors and publishers were arrested and all private newspapers that criticized government actions during or after the elections were shut down.

When they first saw their photos on the news, Nega and his wife, Serkalem Fasil, went underground. They were in hiding for almost a month until the authorities finally caught up with them in the fall of 2005. For Fasil, who was one month pregnant at the time, it was her first trip to jail for journalism deemed seditious by the Ethiopian government. It would be Nega’s seventh.


The police were angry when they first captured the couple, explains Nega, sitting in an airy cafe in Addis Ababa nine months after their acquittal and release. Both of them were roughed up during their capture.

Nega recalls even harsher treatment during a previous stint as a political prisoner in Ethiopia.

“I was in an isolation cell at that time. They came for me in the middle of the night,” Nega recalls, calmly explaining how one night he was blindfolded and dragged by his armpits into another room he can only refer to as the “torture chamber.”

“They flip you over onto your back with your feet in the air, and then hit you on the bottom of your feet, and everywhere with an electrical cord. I couldn’t move for weeks afterward.”

Nega’s story echoes accounts of intimidation, arrests and beatings recounted by journalists in many parts of the world. Alarmingly, these accounts of iron-fisted censorship emerge not only from the notoriously repressive regimes that often make the news such as North Korea, Burma or Iran. Just as often they come from the political darlings of the United States’ foreign policy; places like Pakistan, Egypt and more recently Ethiopia.

The “War on Terror” has allowed U.S. leaders to re-introduce a Cold War-style paradigm, in which countries slip simply into the categories of democratic and undemocratic. But most of the world eludes these dogmatic categorizations — with many countries caught in a web of geopolitical forces and troubled histories manipulated by authoritarian leaders who are tolerated, if not supported by the “democratic world.”

These countries linger in the great swath of gray ignored by the black and white rhetoric of the “War on Terror”; leaders here are often seen as strategic to the Western world in ways that allow for a blurring of democratic expectations. A kind of collective squinting obscures some of the brutal realities that threaten to muddy the path on the way to larger strategic goals.


“I want a democratic country for Ethiopia, I want to contribute to that. I am a child of the First Amendment,” says Nega, who spent his formative years in Washington, D.C., after his parents fled the communist Derg regime that ruled Ethiopia during the 1970s and 1980s.

When the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), led by current Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, drove out the Derg in 1991, Nega returned armed with democratic values he says he picked up in the United States, and began a career in journalism. But the end of communisim, it turned out, did not automatically signal the beginning of democracy.

“[Before the 2005 elections] we had press freedom not because the ruling party wanted it, but because we paid the sacrifice” says Nega, referencing his previous stints in prison as well as those served by scores of fellow Ethiopian journalists. Those who dared to ask for more from their government, using the press to push for reforms, representation and accountability, or even tried to amuse readers by poking fun of their leaders in political cartoons, would often receive a late-night visit from the police.

Over the course of seven years Faisal and Nega owned three different Amharic-language papers all of which were criticized for having an “anti-government bias” and later even inciting violence. Nega rebuffs these claims, saying their papers were independent, having no association with specific opposition parties, and that they attacked the government primarily for its human rights record, which he insists is a nonpartisan issue.

But any illusions Nega might have still held that his country was on a rocky but progressive march toward democracy were shattered after the 2005 elections.

With political alliances and development aid from Western countries on the rise, the Ethiopian government was under pressure to produce internationally-endorsed election results. Ninety percent of registered voters in the country showed up eagerly at the polls in May 2005 — but how they actually voted is still a matter of contention.

When early returns indicated a surprising amount of support for the opposition, the vote counting was disrupted and eventually the ruling party declared itself the victor. Angry voters responded in two waves of protests that shook Addis Ababa over the course of the next six months.

As the blood of protesters was spilled in the streets of Addis, and many of their colleagues were swept up in mass arrests, Nega and Fasil knew this wasn’t just another routine round of political intimidation.

They hid, watching their photographs flash on the government TV station as charges of genocide and high treason were leveled against them. In fear for their lives, they tried to flee to Kenya, but their location was given away before the proper travel plans could be made.

As horrified as Nega was with the actions of his own government, his disillusionment was only deepened by the reinforcement the EPRDF received from the leaders of a country he’d admired for so long. While the European Union decried widespread irregularities in the 2005 elections and condemned violence and arrests, The Carter Center (officially representing the United States) expressed concerns over alleged irregularities but supported the National Election Board’s declared results.

As Nega and Fasil sat in prison over the next 17 months, Ethiopia’s relationship with the United States was only strengthened. Today, a year after their release, the ties that bind the two governments are as strong as ever.


The rise of the “War on Terror” has turned a nation of 77 million people defined in the West by poverty and famine into a powerful military force strategically situated in the tumultuous Horn of Africa. While Ethiopia received only $928,00 in military aid from the United States from 1999 to 2001, it received $16.8 million in assistance from 2002 to 2004, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

When Islamist judges in neighboring Somalia emerged from a decade of warlord driven chaos as a unified force in the summer of 2006, the United States and Ethiopia found themselves with a common enemy.

For the United Sates, still smarting from its military misadventure in Somalia in 1993, the idea of an Islamist government in the Horn of Africa, and a possible safe haven for terrorists, was unacceptable. For Ethiopia, looking to solidify its regional hegemony, and already battling an insurgency by its own Somali population in the Ogaden region, the reunification of Somalia under the banner of Islam was equally unpalatable.

Even with alleged support from Egypt, Eritrea and foreign Islamist fighters, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) government was easily driven out of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, within a matter of weeks by thousands of Ethiopian troops trained and supported by the U.S. military to an extent that neither government has disclosed to date. But in the year since, Ethiopia’s military dominance has proven susceptible to guerilla tactics in the same way American forces have in Iraq, and a continuing series of suicide bombings and insurgent attacks have led Mogadishu to be dubbed “Baghdad by the sea.”

Meanwhile, Ethiopian troops have also had their hands full on the other side of the border in the Somali region of their own country. Last April rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front attacked Chinese oil workers who were doing exploratory drilling in the region. In the ensuing military crackdown, Ethiopian forces have been accused of war crimes, including killing and raping civilians and burning villages thought to sympathize with the rebels.

But on the streets of Addis, it’s hard to imagine you’re in a country in the midst of two wars (and possibly on the verge of a third with neighboring Eritrea). Since the crackdown in 2005, the independent press has all but disappeared. The private newspapers that are left are careful to vet news of Ethiopia’s engagements in Somalia or Ogaden. Expatriate websites are blocked on the government controlled Internet server, so they can’t be accessed from inside the country without use of proxy servers.


But if Prime Minister Zenawi has been able to hide the realities of Ethiopia’s military entanglements, there is no mistaking that his is a country gripped by fear. In Addis Ababa, politics are spoken of in whispers, and many Ethiopians say they’d prefer to abstain from the topic entirely, at least for now.

Most attempts to engage Ethiopians in political conversations are rebuffed. The few willing to talk, such as a taxi driver who had been arrested during the 2005 protests or a young businessman trying to make enough money to start a family, did so only on repeated promises of complete anonymity.

Even once anonymity was guaranteed, their trepidation was palpable. In one case a young man reached for this reporter’s camera with shaking hands asking for reassurance that his picture had not been taken.

One of the elements most confounding to reporting on, or even just talking about, political issues in Ethiopia is determining how far the government’s reach really is into the private lives of citizens who disagree with its actions.

It’s unlikely that the government actually has the capacity to check up on random dissenting opinions, but, regardless, the effect is the same. Images of students shot dead in the streets and mass arrests have stifled political opposition in the population.

As one frustrated citizen admitted, “I don’t care for politics, politics is for only a few people in Ethiopia; 98 or 99 percent don’t have any say, so why should I extend my hand to politics?”

For Nega’s part, he says he still believes the United States could become a positive force in democratizing Ethiopia, and his unwavering faith in the democratic process strengthens his conclusion that he will see the pendulum swing back from the Bush administration’s hard-line “War on Terror” policies.

Still, he comes across as calmly disappointed with the political maneuvering that resulted in the double betrayal of being imprisoned by the country of his birth and overlooked by the country that nurtured his belief in democracy.

“The U.S. policy is a calculated complicity with tyranny because of the ‘War on Terror,’” he says. “Nothing matters except for the war. The democratic cause here is expendable.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa claims that the U.S. government is advocating press freedoms in Ethiopia through “ongoing human rights discussions with senior leaders.”

In the meantime Nega remains hopeful and sees signs that suggest the tide may be turning in America’s policy toward Ethiopia. A resolution calling for limited sanctions on Ethiopian officials involved in the 2005 killings has passed through the House, and is now under debate in the Senate.

Nega and Fasil’s tenacity stand in stark contrast to the disillusionment that hangs in the cool air of Addis Ababa. Following their eventual release from prison, they filed for a license to start two new papers, which was rejected by the government. Other Ethiopian newspapers won’t risk publishing their work. Fasil’s baby was born in jail in the summer of 2006, and their blacklisting has forced them to support the family on savings, as they refuse to be forced into exile.

To hear Nega tell it, speaking loudly in a café on Addis’ busy Bole Road, the struggle may be difficult, but the goal is inevitable: The people of Ethiopia will eventually win their freedom.

“Democracy is the destiny of all humans,” he smiles “That’s why I’m still here.”

Funding for this article provided by the Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting, (

Photo by Alex Stonehill

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