FREEDOM 4 ALL ETHIOPIANS

FREEDOM,DEMOCRACY.JUSTICE.AND UNITY FOR ALL ETHIOPIANS …by DANIEL TESFAYE

A LOOK AT ETHIOPIA AFTER MELES ZENAWI| SWEDISH MEGAZINE

220px-Meles_Zenawi_-_World_Economic_Forum_Annual_Meeting_2012
October 15th, 2013 –

When Meles Zenawi died a year ago, many people hoped for a liberalization of state control in Ethiopia, while others feared bloody power struggles and revolts.

Both hopes and fears came to naught. A new Prime Minister was appointed, with roots in the southern region. The same ruling group retained control of Ethiopia and many say: “Meles still rules.”

There is no tradition of democracy in Ethiopia, the authoritarian patterns are deeply rooted and the country has experienced only short spells of freedom to debate and criticize.

A divided opposition has been easy for Ethiopian security services to handle. Trying to quell a third of the population who feel their religion is oppressed can prove a lot more difficult.

Prime Minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi died a year ago. He led the armed uprising that toppled the military dictatorship in 1991. For 20 years, he cemented his power in Africa’s second most populous country. When Meles died, many people hoped for a liberalization of state control in Ethiopia, while others feared bloody power struggles and revolts.

Both hopes and fears came to naught. What happened, on the surface, was that a new Prime Minister was appointed − Hailemariam Desalegn − with roots in the southern region. The same ruling group retained control of Ethiopia and many say: “Meles still rules.”

In June, the opposition held demonstrations that were not put down brutally. This brought hope and led to new manifestations − where demonstrators were reportedly arrested and killed. Ethiopia’s development agenda is defended with harshness. Neither critical journalism or demands for more religious freedom by Muslims, nor nomadic groups’ claims for a reasonable pace of life changes are really listened to.

There is no tradition of democracy in Ethiopia, the authoritarian patterns are deeply rooted and the country has experienced only short spells of freedom to debate and criticize.

Ethiopia is composed of a large number of ethnic groups. Soon after taking power, the governing coalition party EPRDF instituted a federal reform. The regional administrative divisions aimed at developing the whole country but it has not led to significantly greater devolution and control over resources.

Meles was Tigrean. This ethnic group represents only 8 per cent of the approximately 85 million Ethiopians but the Tigrean Peoples’ Liberation Front TPLF led the overthrow of the military dictatorship in coalition with three other parties. The military and security services are dominated by Tigreans.

It is easy to imagine that the fragmentation and division could have disastrous consequences. Eritrea’s liberation was preceded by 30 years of bloody struggle, followed by a devastating − for both sides − war in 1998 and continued tensions affecting the entire development of the Horn of Africa.

Ethiopia has for several years enjoyed impressive economic growth. The education and health services are being expanded and many curves point in the right direction. Massive housing construction projects are transforming cities, replacing corrugated sheet slums by flats.

But inflation is sky high. In the cities there are widespread discontent with the price hikes, unemployment, lack of opportunities and political repression.

Many people dream of leaving the country and everyone seems to have close relatives abroad. The political opposition is based in the U.S. Intellectuals and journalists flee the country to escape imprisonment. Countless young women are part of the so-called ‘maid trade’, working in households in various Arab countries.

The urban population has been favoured at the expense of the rural areas. Now this is being partly reversed. Market reforms and the introduction of new technologies have given farmers the tools to raise themselves out of poverty. In the past, a farmer had to sell to government agents, but now the producer can sell to anyone and use a cell phone to find out the prices in town.

Many are excited about the progress, despite Ethiopia’s rural areas being still very poor. Land is formally owned by the state and the uncertain land rights have discouraged farmers from investing. But farmers can now get legal titles to the land they farm. The roads are better and the products can be transported to market.

There is also a safety net in the form of food assistance from the government via donors if there is lack of food before harvest or during droughts.

There is a three–pronged strategy to accelerate Ethiopia’s development: (i) New hydropower projects to provide electricity for the rural areas and export earnings when excess electricity is sold abroad; (ii) Expanding manufacturing to produce goods hitherto imported as finished goods; ( iii ) Production of sugar, rice, soybeans and other crops in large plantations to turn Ethiopia’s large imports into even greater exports to a richer and fatter world.

The government has been blamed for extensive land-grabbing with displacement of nomads and poor peasants. It is understandable that Ethiopia would like to use the sparsely populated lowland areas to increase growth and exports and create jobs for a growing population.

The scheme intends to create irrigation systems that benefit the farmers. Roads and schools will be built. There will be development. The lease is very cheap but the government is supposed to set conditions for investors to ensure wider development impact.

People move to new villages with schools and clinics. The government claims that this is voluntary, but human rights organizations have testified about forced displacement when land is being developed.

There is no empty land and the record-breaking land-leasing to domestic and foreign investors for commercial agriculture threatens to destroy traditional ways of life and wildlife habitat. There has been a veritable scramble for land in Ethiopia. Still the positive results have not been seen.

Hydropower is an important driving force for the development the Ethiopian government wants to achieve. An enthusiastic expert advisor highlights: “The rivers start flowing in this country. We must be able to make use of them ”

It is not as obvious as it sounds. Egypt wants exclusive rights to the Nile waters. Ethiopia’s construction of the big dam on the Blue Nile has been dogged by conflict-ridden negotiations with the downstream neighbours Egypt and Sudan. But Egypt is now weakened by domestic crises and Sudan has just been divided into two countries. Ethiopia is accelerating construction.

The Ethiopian government is negative towards civil society organizations working on human rights issues. Foreign-funded organizations grew up like mushrooms after the fall of the military dictatorship. In 2009 a law was passed that banned groups working on human rights to receive more than 10 per cent of their financing from abroad. There was an outcry. But the government had decided: foreign money should not influence policy.

Civil society is thus depressed. The political opposition is mostly in prison or in exile. Terrorist laws introduced in 2009 are used arbitrarily to detain people. Journalists and opposition take big risks. Bloggers write critically. However, security is effective. In the 80s when I lived in Addis, it was the East Germans who helped with the mind control. Now it is the Chinese.

Critical websites are blocked at a brisk pace, new ones opened just as fast. But there is opposition from a new perspective. About a third of the inhabitants of this country with a long Christian history are Muslims. There is a pride in that the groups have co-existed peacefully.

But now there is growing discontent among Muslims who accuse the government of interfering in the internal religious questions. This contradicts the country’s constitution which guarantees freedom of religion. Muslim groups have for nearly two years conducted peaceful protests outside mosques. The government has in some cases responded with violence and 29 Muslim leaders are detained under terror laws.

The threat of real terrorism is quite realistic in Ethiopia which is allied with the United States, has a military and political key role in the Horn of Africa and has troops fighting Al Qaeda-allied al Shabaab in Somalia. But the authorities’ heavy-handedness against peaceful religious practices may well contribute to a political radicalization of the protests.

A divided opposition has been easy for Ethiopian security services to handle. Trying to quell a third of the population who feel their religion is oppressed can prove a lot more difficult. (By Cecilia Bäcklander)

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Source: October 2013 issue of Sida’s magazine Omvärlden via Nordic Africa Development Policy Forum

posted by Daniel tesfaye

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