April 11, 2010


Birth pangs of democracy (Harold Jackson, 4/11/10, Inquirer)

Ethiopia is more than 2,000 years old. It is referenced in the Bible, including an account of what many consider the first Christian baptism of a non-Jew, an Ethiopian eunuch, by St. Peter. Today, 60 percent of Ethiopians are Christian.

But the country's significance to America has more to do with its geography. Its neighbors include Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Yemen - countries that would pop up on any quiz about the cultivation of terrorists.

That Ethiopia is not a member of that club is significant. Ethiopia's government, more quickly than Pakistan's, recognized the potential danger to it from jihadists and has fought to keep them at bay.

That has tightened Ethiopia's bond with the United States, which provides it military aid. But to remain Ethiopia's friend, the United States has tolerated its government's inclination to swat political opposition.

Knowing Ethiopia's modern history may make acceptance of its current repression more palatable. "Less than 20 years ago, Ethiopia was ruled by a brutal communist regime," a senior U.S. Embassy official explained to me.

He was referring to the Derg, a military junta also known as the Red Terror. Think of it as Ethiopia's version of the Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot, infamous as lords of Cambodia's "Killing Fields" in the late 1970s.

It was the Derg that deposed Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, ending a monarchy that except for a brief Italian occupation from 1936 to '41 had ruled Ethiopia for centuries. Subsequent uprisings, drought, and refugee problems led to a 1991 revolution that toppled the Derg government.

It was replaced by a coalition of rebel groups, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which remains in control today. A constitution was adopted in 1994, and the country's first multiparty elections were held in 1995.

Ten years later, there was a strong political challenge to the EPRDF, with opposition parties greatly increasing their parliamentary representation. But that election ended with violent antigovernment protests, which led to a government crackdown resulting in massive arrests.

There was no violence in 2008's local elections, and none is predicted for parliamentary elections scheduled for May 23. The EPRDF is again expected to win a controlling number of seats, with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi retaining the post he has held since 1995. [...]

Ethiopia's democracy is less than 20 years old; perhaps it will become more tolerant of dissent with age. Some of its pressures now are related to a federal system in which the country is politically subdivided into states according to its 80 ethnic groups.

People hold more allegiance to their ethnic group than to Ethiopia as a nation. It is a reminder of a time in America when people considered themselves Virginians or Pennsylvanians first. In fact, state vs. federal rights remains a divisive issue in this country.

Ethiopians are trying to figure out how to preserve the distinct culture and language of their particular ethnic groups while remaining loyal to a federal government that is dominated by a different ethnic group. Some believe that is impossible and are talking about secession, which their federal constitution actually allows.

We did neither them nor us a favor by greenlighting their invasion of Somalia.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 11, 2010 7:15 AM
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