Demonstration highlights Ethiopian human rights abuses

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by G.A.Ponsonby

A demonstration has taken place opposite Downing Street against Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi.

The protesters were highlighting what they claim are human rights abuses and misuse of aid under Zenawi’s rule.  Similar demonstrations were taking place across Europe and North America over this weekend.

Since March 2011, according to official Ethiopian Government figures, 121 members of the opposition have been arrested and held, many under the anti-terrorism laws Zenawi uses to help crush opposition.  Opponents put the figure at nearer 200 detained.  Many are being held at Maikelawi in Addis Ababa which is a centre well known for the use of torture.

Zenawi was the darling of the west and was courted by ex UK PM Tony Blair and George W Bush.  A Marxist, but one lauded as a new breed of African leader, he turned out to be of use to western leaders who were happy to ignore his increasingly brutal hold on Ethiopia.

Widespread opposition to Zenawi in the lead up to the Ethiopian elections in May 2005 saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets.  However during the month following the discredited election in a clampdown on the opposition, the security forces killed around 200 people, injured many more and around 3000 people were detained.

EU and other election observers complained about election fraud and many human rights organisations highlighted the abuse and possible torture of opponents to Zenawi and the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

During this time period, Labour leader Tony Blair took the opportunity to invite Zenawi to be his special guest at the G8 summit to be held the following month in Scotland at Gleneagles in July 2005.  He had already made Zenawi a member of his Commission on Africa.

However as time went on, it was becoming increasingly difficult for Blair and Bush to outwardly show their support for Zenawi and with threats to cut aid, Zenawi was to agree to become part of their “War against Terror”.

50,000 Ethiopian troops invaded neighbouring Somalia in 2006 but soon retreated after being met with fierce defence by Somalia.  It left 20,000 Somalis dead and up to 2 million homeless.

Although the USA condemned the move by Ethiopia at the time, a later WikiLeaks cable showed that they were behind the move and may explain why the USA has given around $3 billion in aid to Ethiopia since 2007 under both the Bush and Obama administrations.

At the last election in May 2010, the EPRDF claimed to have won 99.6% of the vote in elections once more condemned by international observers.  Despite this and continuing criticism from human rights organisations, the UK Coalition Government in London has continued to support the Ethiopian Government by making Ethiopia its biggest recipient of development aid over the next 4 years at a time when it has withdrawn aid to many other nations.

According to figures from the Department for International Development, Ethiopia will receive “an average of £331 million per year until 2015.”  However many have expressed disquiet at the way this aid may be used.

In October 2010 after a 6 month study visiting 26 districts in Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch claimed that aid money was used to bribe voters in the election.  The study found food aid being withheld from those who did not support the ruling party or support to gain a university education was only given if a student was a member of the EPRDF.

Zenawi’s latest crackdown on the opposition follows recent events in Egypt and Tunisia.  Reporting of these events has been tightly controlled in Ethiopia.  This weekend, Zenawi has sent a delegation on a charm offensive to North America in a hope to try to influence the diaspora.

Facebook pages have been set up recently calling for widespread opposition to Zenawi’s rule by taking to the streets next month on 28th May which marks the 20th anniversary of him coming to power in 1991.

Zenawi is particularly concerned about the diaspora’s role in organising this protest.   It is also reported that increases to the defence budget are being made to pay for the costs associated with controlling any uprising at home.