Will Change in Leadership Bring Progress on Human Rights in Ethiopia?

Meles Zenawi

Political opponents are arrested. Journalists have been imprisoned. “Tens of thousands of people” have been “forcibly evicted” for development projects.

Welcome to the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Africa’s second largest nation boasts some 80 million people... and human rights have taken a back seat during the 21-year rule of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

The 57-year-old Meles died Monday August 20 in Brussels after months of speculation that he was ill. In their trademark secrecy, the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front initially did not reveal how or where he died.  The European Union later released the details that Meles had been treated for an undisclosed illness in Belgium.

“Meles deserves recognition for his lifelong contribution to Ethiopia’s development,” said President Obama in a statement.  "The death of Prime Minister Meles has robbed Africa of one of its greatest sons," added the African Union, one of many international organizations headquartered in Addis Ababa, often described as the “diplomatic capital” of Africa.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon echoed these remarks, adding that Meles will be remembered for “exceptional leadership.”  

None of these statements mentioned that Meles leaves a troubled record on human rights. Meles ushered in “a sharp deterioration in civil and political rights, with mounting restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly,” reports Human Rights Watch.  

Others were far less charitable and applauded the death of the man they described as a “blood-sucking … genocidal terrorist tyrant.”

Meles seized power in 1991 from a military junta that had achieved global infamy for policies that contributed to the famine, starvation  and death of more than a million people. As many as 500,000 people alone were killed during Mengistu Haile Mariam’s violent political campaign known as the  “Red Terror” of the late 1970s. This was after the despotic 44-year-rule of Emperor Haile Selassie that Mengistu overthrew in 1974.

Meles’ two decades in power pales in comparison to the horrors of his predecessors. Meles also presided “over one of the most successful...economic experiments” in Africa, reports The Economist. Ethiopia’s economic growth has averaged 11 percent in the past eight years.

All of this was obvious in my first visit to Ethiopia in December 2011, when I reported from the high-level International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa. The trip was sponsored by the Ethiopian government. Construction cranes dotted Addis Ababa’s skyline. Range Rovers and Mercedes Benzes were a familiar sight on Bole Road. Impeccably dressed men and women chatted away on iPhones and BlackBerrys.

Africa’s second largest nation boasts some 80 million people... and human rights have taken a back seat during the 21-year rule of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

But at what price?

Rights groups criticized Meles after the disputed results of the 2005 election.“Nearly 200 protesters were killed when security forces opened fire on the crowds in Addis Ababa,” reports Amnesty International. “Tens of thousands of people were arrested across the country.”

Meles’ government welcomed me and other international journalists—but with some conditions. Foreign journalists are required to provide the brand, serial number and model number of all electronic equipment when applying for a visa and media accreditation. Representatives from the FDR Ethiopia Government Communications Office randomly check published and broadcast pieces. 

Press freedoms have been curtailed. A leading blogger was sentenced to 18 years under the nation's controversial anti-terrorism laws. Two Swedish journalists were imprisoned last year for 11 years under those same laws—for entering Ethiopia illegally and “promoting the activities” of a rebel group in the war-torn Ogaden province.

But the White House has been reluctant to criticize its strongest ally in the volatile Horn of Africa. The lawless nation of Somalia is next door—home to Al-Qaeda and its proxy militants Al-Shabaab. Ethiopia also adjoins Sudan—which until this decade was recognized as a  “state sponsor” of terrorism.

Its neighbor to the northeast: Ethiopia’s former province of Eritrea, now described as “one of the world’s most repressive governments.” Eritrea’s independence in 1991 coincided with Meles’ rise to power. The two nations have been bitter foes ever since—the Ethiopians are particularly outraged because they no longer have a coastline on the Red Sea. The two nations have fought several wars.

None of these policies are likely to change in the short run. Meles’ deputy prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn has been designated as acting premier “and will run the country until an election in 2015,” reports Reuters. The EPRDF says  “there [i]s no scenario under which Hailemariam” would not remain in charge.

Lather, rinse, repeat. The more things change the more they remain they same-especially in this part of the world.

Rod McCullom has written and produced for ABC News, NBC and FOX, and his writing has appeared in EBONY, The Advocate, The Los Angeles Times and many others. Read his award winning site Rod 2.0. Follow him on Twitter: @RodMcCullom.