The current Ethiopian prime minister is nothing if not media savvy. To many outside the country, he comes across as proactive and progressive, keen to emphasise the gains Ethiopia has made under his regime in building infrastructure and promoting health and education. Indeed, influential figures around the world have succumbed to Zenawi’s charms. Many express admiration for his leadership over issues like climate change and youth employment - the latter of which he is set to speak on at the upcoming African Union summit.
Yet he has often been accused of using such issues as gimmicks to distract Western donors from the reality of life inside Ethiopia. The leader’s more draconian policies include the jailing of political opposition leaders, such as the head of the Unity for Democracy and Justice party Birtukan Mideksa in 2005. His government also adopted the Charities and Civil Societies Law in 2008, which rival parties claim was designed to choke off their supply of funds from outside the country. Journalists frequently complain of Western-style anti-terror legislation placing heavy limits upon press freedom – such as the forced closure of the popular independent newspaper Addis Neger, in November 2010.
Concerns have similarly arisen over the legitimacy of the country’s elections. In May 2010, Human Rights Watch claimed that Zenawi’s party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), had resorted to restricting jobs at local government level to punish opposition party supporters. The regime likewise admitted to blocking transmissions from the Amharic branch of the foreign radio station Voice of America for being too subversive.
Little appeared to have changed since the hugely controversial elections in 2005, where the opposition insisted the vote-counting process had been fraudulent. Observer bodies such as the European Union agreed, with Zenawi himself even admitting in a 2007 interview for Time magazine that many saw the environment of the elections as “not credible”. The EPRDF was similarly accused of violently clamping down on demonstrations during the process. Although the prime minister tried to explain it away by claiming the opposition was attempting to illegitimately warp the outcome of the elections, he managed to conveniently avoid explaining why this demanded the shooting of civilians.
Such a tactic is often typical of Zenawi. Although he is lauded for supposedly being ‘pro-Western,’ in interviews he frequently deflects criticism by drawing attention to Western human rights failings. For example, when quizzed on the jailing of opposition politicians, he retorted by citing American abuses against inmates in Guantanamo.
In some ways, such a stance is admirable in its refusal to conform to notions of the West as the standard-bearer of human rights and civilisation, compared with the supposed 'barbarism' and 'savagery' of Africa. To have an African leader refuse to overlook European and American hypocrisies whilst attempting to champion a positive image of the continent has been applauded. Zenawi seems fiercely proud of Ethiopia’s heritage, stressing its ancient Orthodox Christian roots and passionate independence in the face of European and American encroachment, from the days of colonialism up until now. However, the rhetoric is too often seized on by outsiders desperate for a ‘model’ African leader to act as an example to others on the continent. In so doing, the Ethiopian prime minister’s more illiberal tendencies go without adequate scrutiny.
His relations with Ethiopia’s neighbours also paint a decidedly unflattering picture. Many in the region of Ogaden as well as the state of Eritrea, Ethiopia’s neighbour to the north, have accused him of violations that include the burning of villages, the internment of civilians in camps and even outright genocide. In retaliation, in 2007 Zenawi accused the secessionist group the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) of having terrorist links and being responsible for massacres of Ethiopian civilians.
In terms of Ethiopian-Eritrean relations, Zenawi has long been a hated figure for his perceived treachery when leading the group the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Former allies, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) accused the TPLF of blocking food supplies in 1985 when famine was raging across the region. The two countries also locked horns in 1998 in a war over border disputes that cost over 10,000 lives – a coda to the drawn-out and bloody conflict that had raged between the two throughout the 1980s over Eritrea’s right to secession. Zenawi’s government was similarly criticised for its US-backed invasion of Somalia in 2006, which many feared would spur radical factions in the country, supported by Eritrea, into embracing violent nationalism. Despite its reputation for internal stability, Ethiopia’s foreign policy towards those bordering it under Zenawi has therefore often been less than diplomatic.
Human rights 'when the time is right'
Yet another Zenawi tactic for diverting criticism of his military ventures has been to cleverly accuse organisations like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch of pandering to the exaggerated claims of a few dissenters, while insisting that evidence of atrocities is based purely on speculation. Under the rubric of asserting Ethiopia’s independence, he has criticised international watchdogs of being meddlesome, anti-African and corrupt. His supporters on the outside have often supported his remarks, lauding him for placing the country’s economic growth and stability first so that it can fully embrace human rights and democracy when the time is right. Such assertions are based on policies like Zenawi’s lessening of Ethiopia’s reliance on foreign aid and his attempts at negotiating international terms of trade more beneficial to Africa.
But despite its heartening optimism, there are major flaws with such a view. The problem arguably lying at the heart of the West’s perspective on Ethiopia is one that plagues analysis of African politics at large: it is either based on Conradian images of barbarism and endemic warfare that are seen to justify international interference, or one that sees despicable practices as necessary and natural in allowing any African country to develop.
It is indeed important not to overlook the achievements made by any African leader – yet at the same time it is nonsensical to maintain that an emphasis on economic growth dictates a sacrifice of civil liberties. Such a standard is not one that we would apply to any Western country, and to do so for an African state risks pandering to an ignorant and stereotyped view of the continent.
A recent report from Wikileaks claimed Zenawi’s health was deteriorating. Regardless of the views of Western onlookers, there are many within Ethiopia and the Horn at large who undoubtedly greeted the news with applause. In this light, Zenawi’s many failures as well as his achievements must therefore not be ignored.