To donors: Time to stop aiding EPRDF

By Eskinder Nega / July 9, 2010
Coming only six years after the Watergate calamity, Ronald Reagan was almsot literally “the man on a horseback” who rode triumphantly into Washington to save the disconsolate Republican Party (and the country, many of his partisans insist). His victory was celebrated in many capitals around the world, too; but with no more passion than in Pretoria, South Africa, where a morally bankrupt apartheid precariously held sway.

By the time Reagan secured the presidency in the early eighties, UN resolution 1761, which called for comprehensive sanctions against South Africa, was two decades old. But because the practicality of sanctions, if not the moral grounds, was adamantly disputed by Western countries, the resolution was not implemented by most rich countries upon whom the South African economy -- the largest and best in Africa -- relied on for its vitality. As British PM Harold Wilson, of the Labor Party, opined in 1964, two years after the resolution was passed, “even if the sanctions are fully effective, they would harm the people we are most concerned about -- the (black) Africans.”

Reagan came to office not merely as a reluctant sanctions disclaimer in the tradition of Wilson, but a keen ally of South Africa against the spreading influence of the Soviet Union in Africa; delighting and invigorating the ruling National Party in Pretoria. Instead of sanctions, Chester Crocker, Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for Africa,, formulated a policy of constructive engagement; which envisioned using incentives to push South Africa away (slowly, he admitted) from apartheid.

But only three years later, a fatal blow against constructive engagement was to be delivered courtesy of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who called it “ an abomination, an unmitigated disaster” during a widely publicized visit to the US. The alliance (against communism) between Washington and Pretoria, he said, was “immoral and evil.”

Graciously but intractably rebuffed by “realists” in Washington, the Archbishop, a Nobel peace prize winner, returned home with few converts to his credit within the Reagan administration. But his effect on the rest of the nation, including the Republican Party, was so powerful it took only two more years before a Republican controlled Congress was to overturn a Presidential veto and impose devastating sanctions; which was one of the key ingredients that made a peaceful transition to democracy possible. In fact, the subsequent unconditional negotiation between the South African government and the ANC, the largest black liberation movement, would have been implausible without the burden of sanctions on the National Party. Thus came the abrupt end of constructive engagement, toxically tainted by association with apartheid, from the official discourse of US foreign policy. But almost three decades later, it is still stealthily the defining theme of many Western countries policies in multitude of authoritarian countries—Ethiopia being one of the best examples.

By the unanimous reckoning of donor countries embassies in Addis, the entire span of EPRDF’s two decades rule falls miserably short of international standards. Eighteen years ago, one year after the advent of the EPRDF to power, when Ethiopia’s first multi-party local election was held absent major opposition groups, notably the OLF, a key coalition partner of the transitional government then in power, the shortcoming was noted but tolerated amiably. Constructive engagement, by now rebranded quite insipidly as “quite diplomacy”, was deemed the best response. As such, bilateral and multilateral aid to Ethiopia rose phenomenally between 1992 1998, reaching peak levels in both average and total levels, when an unexpected war with Eritrea put a stop to a rising momentum. But even the war did not deter two countries, the US and UK , from sending more aid than ever to Ethiopia; no doubt anxiously hoping that it will buy them some leverage.

However, the EPRDF doggedly snubbed attempts to influence its internal policies. That something was amiss with donors’ strategy was vivid as early as 1995, three years after the first election, when a nationwide election under a new constitution, again held in the absence of major opposition groups, was marred by serious electoral irregularities as donor countries looked on helplessly. An additional three years later, an unexpected war was to break between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the ultimate test for “quiet diplomacy”, buttressed by years of diplomatic, political and financial investments, summarily crystallized. And much to the exasperation of its architects it failed the test wretchedly. The EPRDF remained impenetrable, oblivious, and perhaps even contemptuous, of its international partners. The policy of engagement had clearly and dramatically failed. It was apparent that sooner or later a radical alteration of policy was inescapable.

But something of truly momentous proportion was to happen in the meantime: 9/11. And everything -- that is, everything! -- changed.

Unsurprisingly, and quite reasonably, the war on terror was thrust to center stage; with anarchic Somalia elevating the relationship between the US (the largest and most influential donor) and Ethiopia to a new level of urgency and comradeship. But tragically, with the instinctive propensity of the Bush administration to hysteria, all other issues were not merely downgraded to lower levels but were doomed to irrelevance. This single-issue centered relationship was to culminate in the mid-2000s, at the height of Ethiopia’s backslide to overt authoritarianism in the aftermath of the 2005 elections, when Ethiopia became the largest recipient of US military assistance in the Horn, with more than 100 US military personnel training and working with the Ethiopian military. The US and Ethiopian military ties included, in the words of a Pentagon spokesperson (during the Bush presidency), “intelligence sharing, arms aid and training that gives Ethiopians the capacity to defend borders, intercept terrorists and," -- be prepared for this -- "weapons of mass destruction.”

With the advent of a new administration in the US, this time instinctively but not dogmatically wary of single-issue dominated relationships, aid bureaucracies, who overwhelmingly favor continuation of present policies, had to brace for renewed calls for reevaluation. Changing gear, a new line of argument was popularized, which maintains that Ethiopia is one of handful countries where aid money is disbursed transparently and efficiently; unlike the rest of Africa where much of it is squandered by corrupt officials. But independent researches have since gone to refute the assertion. The researches show that a substantial potion of aid money poured in to Ethiopia has been diverted to buy support and vote for the ruling party, admittedly a morally less reprehensible crime than outright corruption; but still a terrible waste of scarce funds that even donor countries could ill-afford to throw away indefinitely. And more damningly, Transparency International, the international corruption watchdog, ranks Ethiopia at 126, below Nigeria at 121, in its latest corruption perception indexes (2009)

The “results” of election 2010 has profoundly shocked donor countries (and even aid bureaucracies), too. There is now less resistance to a reevaluation of policy. Perhaps the only remaining hurdle is the lingering suspicion that the gains of the past few years will be reversed and that the poor will suffer disproportionately. These are legitimate concerns that need to be addressed thoroughly and intelligently. But no nation has democratized without some pain and sacrifice. The public knows this, and informal surveys show it overwhelmingly supporting a link between aid and democratization. If the donors are serious about the peaceful and legal means to change that they speak much about, this is the time to step in and support it. It is time for donors to stop financing the making of a one party state.

The writer, Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years in the limbo, Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: