On a dilemma in the Horn
The Economist | ADDIS ABABA
Feb 22nd 2007
THE second most populous country in Africa and one of the poorest, Ethiopia is a test case for the West in its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty on the continent. But its government's undemocratic leanings have presented donor countries with a dilemma. Should they continue to funnel their taxpayers' money to a country that routinely jails and tortures its critics or should they turn off the tap and thereby hurt the blameless poor?
Most donors are keeping up or even increasing their giving. Britain, with qualms, is upping its aid from $180m last year to $260m this year. Some donors have harmonised and even pooled their support. Many have signed up to schemes to promote transparency and hold the government to account. Whether the nastier bits of Ethiopia's government will co-operate fully is moot.
So the donors—Western governments and charities—think that on balance they should continue to improve farming, health care, education and access to water in the rural areas where 85% of Ethiopians live. There are signs that the government's ambitious poverty-reduction strategy is working. Infant mortality is down, school attendance and literacy are up, though only 40% of Ethiopians can read and write.
Farming practice may be improving. In Ethiopia's wet highlands farmers may try to diversify crops. Ethiopia hopes to export hydroelectricity to neighbouring Djibouti and Sudan. Some agronomists think that, with enough investment, Ethiopia will be able to feed itself. That may be optimistic. The population of 75m-plus is growing by about 2m a year. Food prices in Addis Ababa, the capital, rose last year by 27%.
In any event, Meles Zenawi's government is finding it hard to run the show. Some 80% of the people in Addis Ababa probably back opposition parties. In response, the government has become harsher, muzzling free speech and forcing independent newspapers to close. Many journalists are in jail on trumped-up charges. Dissidents have been disappearing, along with critical websites. Telephones are often tapped. For more than a year, text messaging on the country's small number of mobile phones has been hampered by “technical difficulties”.
The government keeps up a hum of fear with attacks on opposition supporters. Teachers are a favourite target. Some have been beaten so badly in detention they could not stand up in court. Even schoolchildren have faced the authorities' wrath. In Ambo, west of the capital, some 14 of them in a secondary school were detained; some were allegedly tortured. The usual charges, if brought at all, are sabotage or treason. Suspects are often “found” to have links with familiar bogeymen: neighbouring hostile Eritrea; the Oromo Liberation Front, a movement in the centre and south; or, in the heartland of the once-ruling Amhara around Addis Ababa, “terrorist groups” whose existence is fuzzy.
The opposition's lot may be worsening. Dissidents say as many as 250 supporters were rounded up on terrorist charges after the African Union summit last month; some have disappeared. The opposition's main leaders have been in prison for over a year. Torture, especially against lesser-known prisoners, is common. If rural areas are taken into account, extrajudicial killings may run into thousands. But the opposition is divided, often has regional rather than national allegiances, and tends to take its cue from radicals in exile.
Moreover, despite help from abroad, the economy is struggling. Exports are worth $1 billion against imports of $5 billion. Sales of coffee and flowers to the West have increased but not enough. Mr Zenawi has applied for membership in the World Trade Organisation. He has also asked China for loans—some say for $3.5 billion.
But most of all he is banking on keeping up his friendship with the EU and the United States, whose administration was delighted by the Ethiopian armed forces' recent success in invading neighbouring Somalia, capturing its capital, Mogadishu, and smashing the Somali Islamists who had taken over there. Still, there are conflicting attitudes to Ethiopia in Washington. Congress has lambasted Mr Zenawi's human-rights record and demanded cuts in aid. The Pentagon, on the other hand, is dead keen to boost his armed forces.
In September, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians from their vast and far-flung diaspora are expected to visit their homeland to celebrate the coming of the third Christian millennium, according to their ancient church's calendar. Some hope Mr Zenawi, in a gesture of conciliation, will free some of his opponents from jail before then. But do not bet on it. Mr Zenawi has got used to wielding an iron fist.