During the Cold War, the United States often supported repressive dictators if they were pro-West. As a result, people like Mobutu Sese Seko in the Congo (Zaire) raped and pillaged his own nation while we poured billions of dollars into to his coffers simply because he was anti-Soviet.
Today, we seem to be advocating the same type of policy. If a nation proclaims itself as an ally in our battle against terrorism, we overlook any brutality that might be occurring internally. Ethiopia is a classic example.
President Meles Zenawi is evolving into a brutal dictator and political opposition to his government is vanishing. Terrorized into silence, opponents are often tortured and imprisoned. The United States and Britain, however, are thrilled that Zenawi sent troops into Somalia to thwart Islamic extremists. However, while military action has blunted the impact of terrorists operating in Somalia, they may quickly reconstitute and threaten the country again now that Ethiopia has withdrawn its troops.
Meanwhile, the West has pretty much allowed Zenawi the freedom to do as he pleases with his own internal opposition. While some in Congress have called for an embargo, the Pentagon has made clear it support Zenawi’s invasion of Somalia, no matter how effective it turns out to be in the long term. When pressed, State Department officials say that a hard line against President Zenawi would hurt the poor of Ethiopia. Remember, we heard similar arguments against an embargo on the old pro-apartheid regime of South Africa.
The Economist, one of the best magazines around for coverage of Africa, gives us a view into this brutal regime and the slamming of the opposition:
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”.
Even worse, killing and torture have become common place as a way to suppress people’s desire for freedom.The Economist continues:
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.
Given clear evidence of human rights violations, the U.S. should cease military aid to Ethiopia and possibly consider a trade embargo if Zenawi continues his campaign of oppression.