IN THE latest chapter of Ethiopia’s escalating authoritarianism, young people, journalists and musicians have been the targets of the ruling regime’s quest to silence political dissent. For several weeks, students from the Oromo majority ethnic group have been protesting the government’s “master plan” to expand the capital territory of Addis Ababa into Oromo lands. Instead of addressing the concerns through dialogue, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime has responded with devastating violence. At least 140 people have been killed by police and security forces in the Oromia region, according to reports from Human Rights Watch. The government claims five have been killed and insists that protesters are trying to “destabilize the country” and that some have a “direct link with a group that has been collaborating with other proven terrorist parties.” Last month, police arrested Bekele Gerba, deputy chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress, Oromia’s largest registered political party. The government also has arrested and allegedly beaten Hawi Tezera, an Oromo singer, in connection with her song about the protests.
Ethiopian authorities also have begun attempting to silence media covering the demonstrations. According to reports, the government has arrested and charged several journalists, including Getachew Shiferaw, editor in chief of the Negere Ethiopia news site, under the country’s 2009 anti-terrorism legislation. Fikadu Mirkana, of Oromia Radio and TV, has also been arrested. The U.S.-based television channel ESAT, which has been covering the Oromo protests, claimed that the Ethiopian regime jammed one of its broadcasting satellites.
Ethiopia has long been celebrated by the United States for its economic growth and its willingness to engage in the battle against the Somali extremist group al-Shabab. Generous U.S. aid has been granted. But the EPRDF regime, which won 100 percent of parlimentary seats in last year’s elections, is not interested in democratic reform or human rights. It continues to clamp down on independent media and censor information. The country remains among Africa’s most prolific jailers of journalists.
In statements last month, the Obama administration expressed concern over the clashes in the Oromia region and the arrest of journalists but stopped short of explicitly urging the Ethiopian government to refrain from violently cracking down on protesters. The United States praised Ethiopia for releasing five of the detained Zone 9 bloggers shortly after President Obama’s visit to the country in July. But last month, the government summoned five bloggers back to court after they were cleared of terrorism charges. Government prosecutors are appealing their acquittal.
The Obama administration said last month that the “United States has consistently applauded Ethiopia for being a model and a voice for development in Africa.” But as long as Ethiopia’s authoritarian master plan for development includes the suffocation of political opposition, a blatant disregard for human rights and cracking down on media, U.S. praise of the EPRDF regime will continue to undermine its claim to support democracy on the continent.