Correction to This Article
Mesfin Mekonen was incorrectly identified in the article as chairman of the International Council of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy in Ethiopia. He is chairman of the foreign relations committee of the organization.

Ethiopian Envoy Furious Over Bill to Limit U.S. Aid

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 4, 2007

Ethiopia's ambassador to Washington reacted furiously yesterday to a bill moving forward in Congress that would make future U.S. aid conditional on key democratic reforms.

The Ethiopian Democracy and Accountability Act would withhold aid from Washington's chief counterterrorism ally in the Horn of Africa unless Ethiopia accepts outside human rights monitoring, builds an independent judiciary, allows freedom of the press and permits $20 million in U.S. assistance to bolster democracy. The bill passed the House on Tuesday on a voice vote but still needs to be approved by the Senate and signed by President Bush before it can become law.

Samuel Assefa, Ethiopia's ambassador here, warned that withholding aid from Ethiopia would have dire consequences in the Horn of Africa. "This is not about a humanitarian cause, nor about compassion or Africans who go against one another," he said.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), one of the bill's backers, told the House on Tuesday that shielding the Ethiopian government from opprobrium because it is assisting Washington in its fight against terrorism is faulty reasoning. "The regime's actions will breed more terrorism," Smith said yesterday.

"We are very disappointed because the House did not pursue an agenda that is recognizably that of the U.S., Ethiopia or friends of democracy," Assefa said in a telephone interview yesterday. "You are telling extremists: 'This is your day.' The bill basically sends a chilling message to all those who wish to see society heal." Assefa said Ethiopia has made huge strides but also suffered huge setbacks in its attempts to build a democracy.

"Ethiopia is very complicated," he said. Speaking of the widespread riots two years ago following the country's flawed elections, and a government crackdown against opposition politicians and journalists, Assefa said, "This is not the last word on Ethiopian democracy."

Ethiopian opposition leaders in Washington described the bill, which had been stalled for many months, as a milestone in their country's quest for true democracy.

The possible loss of security assistance has infuriated the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, which finds itself embroiled in the fight against insurgents at home and in Somalia, which it invaded in December, and in the midst of a prickly standoff with neighboring Eritrea, which it accuses of harboring radical Islamic fighters.

U.S. military and counterterrorism officials have treated Ethiopia as a bulwark against al-Qaeda fighters known to have been organizing and networking in East Africa since 1998, when the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed.

"Passage of the bill sends a strong signal to the Ethiopian regime, the State Department and the international community. It shows that the U.S. government is on the record in supporting human rights in Ethiopia. For us this is historic," said Mesfin Mekonen, an Ethiopian American who is chairman of the International Council of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy in Ethiopia, a group active in Washington.

Passage of the bill came after intense lobbying by Ethiopian democracy activists. Hailyu Shawel, president of the coalition and an opposition prisoner who was recently released by the Ethiopian government, attended the House session for the vote along with dozens of others.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company