A new International Crisis Group report says Ethiopia is becoming an authoritarian one-party state, and warns that government policies there could lead to a violent eruption ahead of next year's elections. The report also faults the international community for downplaying Ethiopia's weak democracy.
The 40-page report by the International Crisis Group says that despite its democratic rhetoric, the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is unwilling to give up power. Moreover, it says the government's cornerstone policy, known as "ethnic federalism," has heightened tensions and sparked growing discontent in Ethiopia, with potentially explosive consequences.
The government says that its federalism policy is designed to give Ethiopia's many ethnic groups equal power. But critics say that the country's Tigrayan minority effectively controls most of the levers of power at the expense of the larger Amhara and Oromo ethnic groups.
Government spokesman Bereket Simon declined immediate comment on the report, saying he would schedule a news conference in a few days.
The Crisis Group report says authoritarianism in Ethiopia is a legacy of the government's origin as the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, or TPLF, that ousted former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in a 1991 coup.
The study notes that the decision-making and organizational principles of Prime Minister Meles's ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, reflect the Marxist-Leninist philosophy that has guided the TPLF from its beginning.
Political scientist Merera Gudina at Addis Ababa University is an expert on Ethiopia's competing ethnic nationalisms, a member of parliament and leader of the Oromo People's Congress.
He accuses the government of using terms like "democracy," "federalism," "rule of law," and "free and fair elections" to satisfy Western donor countries, while it tightens its grip on power.
"The EPRDF is not committed to multi-party democracy," said Merera Gudina. "The multi-party democracy the EPRDF is doing is really to play American music and to do their own dance. They play American music, multi-party democracy, free and fair elections, rule of law. All that is good in the Western books of democracy. They want to play it, but they never dance it, that means implement it. So 'Revolutionary Democracy' is really the hegemony of one, one group."
The Crisis Group report also has harsh words for Western countries that, it says, consider food security more important than democracy. The United States is the largest single donor of food assistance to Ethiopia, giving hundreds of millions of dollars in aid last year.
The Crisis Group report calls on the international community to take Ethiopia's governance problems more seriously and adopt a more principled position toward the government of Meles Zenawi.
Merera Gudina warns that Ethiopia's outward calm could break down unless the people's aspirations for democracy and federalism are fulfilled.
"In a modern sense, you can say there is no federalism without democracy," said Gudina. "In fact, you know what destroyed the USSR and Yugoslavia? False federalism and false elections. The real danger in Ethiopia is false federalism and false elections. You simply call people to elect, but you deny people to elect whom they want. You say federalism and then deny it; praise federalism, but the reality on the ground speaks differently. That is the danger."
Merera says given Ethiopia's recent history of election-related violence, the best outcome for next year's election might be a power sharing agreement. He points to Zimbabwe and neighboring Kenya as examples.
The author of the report, the International Crisis Group, is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization headquartered in Brussels. The group is involved in 60 areas of conflict or potential conflict on four continents.
Its board includes many prominent figures, including former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. It is co-chaired by former European Commissioner for External Affairs Chris Patton and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Thomas Pickering. Its President and Chief Executive Officer is the former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and International Criminal Tribunals Prosecutor, Louise Arbour.