Thursday, January 18, 2007

Roll Rastafari Chariot Along - Part 2.5: Ridin' Dirty

In Part II of this series, I raised questions about Ethiopia's regional ambitions vis-a-vis Somalia and Eritrea, and how those aspirations might create a conflict of interest whereby Ethiopia would be tempted to exaggerate the threat of the Somali Islamist government (ICU) in order to garner US assistance. Such ulterior interests also create the possibility for the emergence of some tension down the road between Ethiopia's long term designs and those of the United States.

Whereas, ideally, it would be in the interest of the US to help create a peaceful, stable Somalia whose population would not be drawn to radicalism like that preached by al-Qaeda, Ethiopia might be better served by a weak, divided, chaotic Somalia that would remain unable to effectively challenge Ethiopia in the arena of the two nations' border disputes and other competing territorial claims (regardless of al-Qaeda's good fortunes as a result).

In this addendum to Part II, I wanted to further shine a spotlight on the party that's riding shotgun with us in this dubious military endeavor. Matt Yglesias provides a useful segue:

[O]ne of the costs of these kind of proxy wars is that Bush has married us not just to Ethiopia, but to a particular Ethiopian faction and thereby gotten us involved in all manner of issues and controversies your average American -- even your average American foreign policy professional -- doesn't really understand or care about.
This point should not be underestimated. Ethiopia itself is a nation of diverse ethnic, religious and political affiliations. The government and policies of the current leader, Meles Zenawi, do not represent a strong consensus of Ethiopians - despite the way the Ethiopian/Somali conflict is framed in the Western media. From Mik Awake:

Although every story about this East African Fiasco ends by punctuating the "historically Christian" Ethiopia, they fail to mention that Ethiopia is as historically Muslim as it is historically Jewish as it is historically Christian. They fail to cite the facts: that Ethiopia is more than 50% Muslim. That certain tribes on the border share a Somalian and an Ethiopian identity, passports, family members, etc.
Consistent with this myopic view of Ethiopian society, Mik Awake takes note of a recent World Bank decision that seems to take the lesson learned from generous US aid delivered to tsunami victims in Muslim Indonesia (hint: our approval ratings increased dramatically), and turn it on its head:

This all leads up to what I just read in today's headlines. In a shocking move, the World Bank has approved of $175 million in aid to be given to the Ethiopian government. Though aid has its problems, that's not the disgusting part. This is:

"The program is focused on the very poorest of the poor in Ethiopia and on its own merits it needs to continue," [Trina Hague of the World Bank] said, "It doesn't cover the Somali region of Ethiopia and we will under the program be starting some piloting under the safety net. It won't be financed by the World Bank, but will have some bilateral food aid contributions," she added.
In essence, the World Bank has promised this money to Ethiopia, with the express stipulation that the Somali region of Ethiopia (which is a legitimate part of the country and has been for centuries, and which is also one of the neediest) not see any of it.
Perhaps there are legitimate safety concerns that are driving the regional application of the aid, but this seems like a tremendous opportunity to squander. $175 million could buy a lot of hearts and minds. Or at least rent them for a while. More than the Vulcan Cannons firing out of AC-130 gun ships.

Unfortunately, all indications are that the Ethiopian government will use the recent US/World Bank generosity to further its own anti-democratic faction at the expense of its Ethiopian rivals. At least if the pattern holds. This Washington Post article provides a glimpse into the political life in Ethiopia. It also raises additional questions about the motivations driving our putative ally:

Last year's [Ethopian] elections began with high hopes and degenerated into a bloodbath. Opposition groups, who made significant gains but did not win a majority according to the national election board, accused the government of rigging the tally and flooded the streets to challenge the results. During the rallies in May and November last year, unarmed protesters were sprayed with bullets while others were hunted down, killed inside their homes and in their gardens, in front of children and neighbors.

Though the official government report released in October listed 197 demonstrators killed, some members of the government's own commission and human rights groups have estimated that the number could be as high as 600. Seven police officers were killed.

While most of the 30,000 prisoners taken after the election have been released, several hundred opposition leaders remain in jail, including the elected mayor of Addis Ababa, Birhanu Nega, who was a professor in the United States, and Haile Miriam Yacob, who served on the U.N. commission settling a border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea. [...]

As Ethiopia and Somalia's Islamic Courts movement inch closer each day to all-out conflict, a widespread view among people here in the capital is that Meles is using the conflict to distract people from a vast array of internal problems and to justify further repression of opposition groups, including ethnic Somalis in Ethiopia.

In particular, opponents of war say he is playing up the claim that there are al-Qaeda operatives within the Islamic Courts in order to maintain the support of the U.S. government, which relies on a steady flow of Ethiopian intelligence that some regional analysts say is of dubious value. [...]

..."This regime is democratic only in words. They kill people without any law, and they arrest people without a reason. This government is trying to stay in power by using different mechanisms, like claiming the Somalis are invading. But this is not the case. Meles is trying to externalize his problems."

And those problems are vast.

After 12 years in power, Meles presides over a nation that still does not produce enough food to feed its own people, relying on the U.N. World Food Program to supplement struggling farmers. The number of people infected with HIV is rising every year: At least 500,000 Ethiopians are living with the virus now, according to government figures. At least half of the population lives on less than $1 a day, which is not enough to buy a single meal. [...]

...Meles said the Islamic Courts have already attacked Ethiopia by arming secessionist Ethiopian Somali groups in the Ogaden region along the Somali border, a claim opposition leaders believe is both exaggerated and hardly a justification for war.

"Our argument is that all the governments we've known since 1960 say they want the Ogaden," said Beyene Petros, leader of the main opposition group, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, referring to Somalia.

In an effort to rehabiliate the Ethiopian regime's image (or provide a preemptive whitewash, depending on the audience), many cite the fact that the Meles government is backing the UN-recognized Somali government in its battle with the ICU. Given Ethiopia's track record in terms of human rights abuses internally, as well as its lack of regard for the UN generally speaking, this reeks more of opportunism than an enlightened approach to issues of sovereignty. As a commenter over at the Armchair Generalist's solo digs observed:

Ethiopia is in violation of a UN-brokered peace treaty with Eritrea, which is something else that isn't often reported. A UN commission drew a new border after hearing both sides of the dispute, which Ethipoia promptly disregarded, touching off the last couple of rounds of fighting between the two countries.
No worries. There's an explanation for that as well. You see, Eritrea is now a state sponsor of terrorism, so Ethiopia is just doing us all a little favor. This new designation comes regardless of the fact that that same Eritrean government happened to be a member of the "Coalition of the Willing" during the Iraq invasion. Yeah, but what have you done for me lately Eritrea?

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