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Saturday, 5 May 2007

Two dictators in the Horn: Meles Zenawi & Isaias Afewerki

By Roger Williams
Horn of Africa week continues here at Dictators of the World with an examination of Isaias Aferwerki's archenemy, Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi.
Meles Zenawi was a 22 year old medical school student when Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in a coup d'etat orchestrated by a group of military officers known as the Derg. The hostility of the Derg towards the people of Tigray [sic] prompted the young Zenawi (being Tigrinya himself) to join, and eventually lead, a Marxist resistance group called the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front who were bent on driving out the Derg, especially the eventual Derg chairman, dictator Haile Mengistu Meriam.
After decades of fighting, (and compliated political mergers) Zenawi got his big break when the Soviet Union collapsed, and Mengistu's primary source of military and economic aid completely dried up. By May of that year, the Zenawi led Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front chased Mengistu into exile, and Zenawi took power first as "transitional president" until 1995, when he took the title of Ethiopia's first elected Prime Minister.
"This is not your run of the mill demonstration. This is an Orange Revolution
gone wrong." - Meles Zenawi
Once in power, Zenawi became the darling of the industrialized west, who hailed him as a reformer and a democrat. While it was certainly true that Zenawi's rule was far more democratic than that of his predecessor, it's also true that he's either arranged or tolerated a wide array of "voting irregularities" that keep his party in power. His government has also been widely condemned for ordering an incredibly violent police crackdown on a crowd protesting the rigged elections in 2005 that left nearly 200 people killed, countless injured, and resulted in tens of thousands of arrests. Zenawi was quick to dismiss these condemnations, saying that the protesters in questions were harboring rioters armed with guns and hand grenades, an allegation denied by some eyewitnesses.
And then there's the war. In 1998, the former Ethiopian province of Eritrea led by former colleague Isaias Aferweki, led soldiers into the Ethiopian town of Badme. In no time at all, what had been a minor border dispute turned into a full blown war. During the conflict, the Zenawi government began to expel deporting Ethiopians of Eritrean descent across the deadly front lines to Eritrea, a flagrant human rights violation. Zenawi also used the war as a pretext to begin cracking down on his political enemies, throwing unknown thousands of dissidents in jail and harassing journalists deemed unfriendly to the government.
While less autocratic than his rival in Eritrea, Zenawi has certainly made it clear that he intends to stay in power, and does not mind resorting to vote rigging and political persecution to do so. Ethiopia's cooperation in the fight against Islamic militancy in Somalia has also led to a key alliance with Washington in the war on terror. This alliance has provided Zenawi with access to military and economic aid that might otherwise be denied, and has also caused Washington to look the other way when it comes to Zenawi's abuse of political and human rights in Ethiopia. Zenawi's dictatorship, while not entirely legitimized by the United States, European and African Unions, is tolerated, if only because they find his abuses of political and human rights "less egregious" than those in Eritrea, and because of Ethiopia's ability to keep rebel movements that are deemed to be even nastier in check. Zenawi's critics have rightly alleged that Zenawi has his hands dirty as well when it comes to sponsoring rebel armies in neighboring countries, and it is further suggested that should Zenawi ever find himself at peace at home and abroad he would face uncomfortable demands for political reform from his western patrons. A cynic might even suggest this provides Zenawi with motivation to pursue military solutions to problems that could be resolved peacefully, but as you all know by now, I'm certainly no cynic.
All of this leads us to the current fighting in the Horn of Africa. Will Zenawi or Afewerki come out on top in their proxy war in Somalia? Will they go back to the negotiating table, or simply declare war again?

Isaias Afeworki

You know, I hadn't actually intended to blog about the escalating violence in the Horn of Africa all week, but honestly, the renewed conflict between Eritrean strongman Isaias Afewerki and Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi is too compelling for anyone with an interest in dictators to ignore. I wrote about the tensions leading up to this conflict yesterday, but what I haven't done is talk about the men themselves, or what they've done to their respective nations.
I'll start with Isaias Afewerki, because quite frankly, he's the more authoritarian of the two. Under Afewerki's rule, the newest country in Africa has also become the most paranoid country in Africa. Under his rule, Eritrea has turned into one of the most totalitarian states in Africa, which is no mean feat when you consider the competition for that title.
As the old adage goes, one man, one vote, one time. Afewerki was elected just once after Eritrea's independence in 1993, and has stayed put ever since. A cautious man, he's decided that Eritrea's newfound independence was too fragile to risk multiple political parties or a privately owned press and has banned both. When foreign journalists in Eritrea started using the word "dictatorship", Afewerki simply kicked them out of the country.

"What is a free press? There is no free press anywhere."- Isaias Afewerki

How bad is it for reporters in Eritrea? Bad. Scandalously so, in fact. The international journalist watchdog group Reporters Without Borders ranked Eritrea's press freedom as the third worst on earth in 2006, behind only North Korea and Turkmenistan. The situation becomes even worse when you consider that Eritrea will be going down yet another notch to the second worst on earth, because Turkmenistan's rating can only improve after Saparmurat Niazov kicked the bucket. Eritrean information minister Ali Abdou provided a pithy summary of Eritrea's attitude towards freedom of speech and information when he quipped, "it's up to us what, why, when and where we do things." Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the government has noted with classic understatement that Eritrea's tourism industry "isn't living up to its potential".
As if the complete and suppression of political freedoms in Eritrea weren't enough, Afewerki has found a remarkably efficient way to expand the size and scope of his government on the cheap. The government has done this by mandating a compulsory (and often indefinite) "government service" scheme that pays people around $45 a month to work as government employees, whether in an office or providing manual labor. Those not inclined to give up their former jobs that actually provided enough money to support their families were given another option: prison without trial. Afewerki's scheme ran into snags when young Eritreans started fleeing to Sudan to avoid indentured servitude to their dictator. Undeterred, Afewerki ingeniously tackled the problem by simply jailing the families of people leaving the country to escape his state mandated poverty.
Finally, how could I fail to mention the state sponsored persecution of religious minorities in Eritrea? Or the country's appalling record on human rights? It's completely superfluous to note that rights and freedoms he's denied to his people isn't exactly keeping Isaias Afewerki awake at night. If there's any personal or political force motivating Afewerki's actions beyond his apparently intractable hatred for Ethiopia, it has yet to manifest itself any discernible fashion. I don't know if it's safe to presume that Afewerki will survive this latest round of badger baiting with Ethiopia, or if his decision to provide money and weapons to anti-Ethiopian militant groups will wind up backfiring on him.
Perhaps the only thing it is safe to say about Isaias Afewerki is that he won't be stepping down, holding multiparty elections, or going back to the negotiating table with Ethiopia anytime soon. We have a natural inclination to root for the underdog, which Eritrea clearly is in relation to Ethiopia. As long as Afewerki is in charge however, this inclination should be put permanently on hold, effective immediately. And speaking of Ethiopia, stay tuned, dear readers! I'll be taking a look at the other combatant in the Somali proxy war tomorrow; Isaias Afewerki's sworn enemy, Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi.