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Former Top US Official Says Situation in Ethiopia Is Not a Happy One


Yesterday marked the first anniversary of the controversial parliamentary elections in Ethiopia, won by incumbent Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. International observers called the elections seriously flawed, and the opposition says it was robbed of victory. The government says the elections were the freest in history and that the official results were legitimate. Here in Washington, Ethiopian expatriates are holding two days of demonstrations to mark the anniversary.

So one year after the elections, where does Ethiopia stand today? Herman Cohen is former US assistant secretary of state for Africa. He shared his thoughts with English to Africa reporter Ashenafi Abedje. “The political situation is still very discouraging. You have journalists in prison. You have no explanation for the deaths of demonstrating students, a stalemate between Ethiopia and Eritrea with very high tension on the border. Ethiopia is not in a very happy situation.” Ambassador Cohen says the current atmosphere in Ethiopia discourages investment. “When you have such a situation, there is no investment and the people of Ethiopia seem condemned to underdevelopment and annual handouts of humanitarian aid.”

The former US top official for Africa says he sees no legal merit in the ongoing trial of Ethiopia’s opposition leaders and journalists. “I think these are specifically political trials of the people in power in Ethiopia who are minority of the people and they feel deeply threatened. And when they are threatened and backed into a corner, their only option is repression. It’s only the actions of a totalitarian state.”

Regarding the international community, Ambassador Cohen says conflicting interests prevent westerners from applying more pressure on the Ethiopian government in the areas of governance and human rights. “The western countries have to balance interests. They are interested in better human rights and more democracy in Ethiopia. At the same time, they are interested in maintaining stability and security. So it’s very difficult for the west to be harsh with the Ethiopian government while at the same time ask for their cooperation.”

The former US official has a message to donors. “The international community should understand that economic development in Ethiopia will be impossible as long as you have this political stalemate and repressive form of governance. There is no reason to continue economic development assistance until this is corrected. Ethiopia should remain an object of humanitarian assistance until there is internal change.”

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