Will Zenawi’s successor usher in a brighter Ethiopia for human rights?

Without question, Meles Zenawi was one of the most well-known African statesmen in recent history. I would put him alongside Kagame, Mugabe, Goodluck Jonathan and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, at least in terms of notoriety, while perhaps not in regard to political alliance. The Financial Times describes Meles as “short in height, but during 21 years leading the Horn of Africa’s most populous and powerful country, he became a towering figure on the continental stage.”

I would have to agree. Mr Zenawi shot to global political fame between 2004 and 2005 when Prime Minister Tony Blair set up the much celebrated Africa Commission. This was the time when the UK wanted to tackle global poverty once and for all at the 2005 G8 summit in Gleaneagles, and when ‘dealing with Africa’ was at the top of the global political agenda.  At the time, Tony Blair enlisted the help of several key figures including Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Mr Zenawi.  Pretty soon, Zenawi’s credentials on delivering development and economic growth across Ethiopia – a country previously known for horrific images of famine and strife – made him a rising star on the global stage. He was often described as the ‘darling of the west’. As the Independent reports, he was also a "good friend" and strong security partner of the US in its "war on terror", which resulted in Ethiopia receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in aid over the years, and hosting the US military drones that patrol East Africa.

Things were looking good for Zenawi at the start of 2005, but pretty soon he fell from grace on the political stage after some of the most brutal human rights violations were committed by Zenawi’s government at the time of the  2005 November elections. The Economist described it as how 'a darling of the west turns nasty', highlighting the massive crackdown on opposition activists and human rights defenders during Ethiopia’s 2005 elections.  The Independent reminds us that this massive crackdown on journalists, human rights defenders, political opposition activists and other civilians resulted in the death of more than 200 people and as many as 30,000 people arrested.

And sadly that wasn’t a blip on Zenawi’s human rights record.  As Amnesty highlighted yesterday, Zenawi’s government “stamped out dissenting voices, dismantled the independent media, obstructed human rights organisations and strangled political opposition.” Amnesty has also repeatedly reported that torture and ill-treatment is commonplace in Ethiopia with state resources and assistance being used to control the population.

And as we pointed out in a report earlier this  year  human rights work has been 'crippled' in Ethiopia as a result of heavy new laws.

It’s fair to say that Amnesty's opinion isn't shared by all.  In the New York Times, two respected commentators praised the work of Meles Zenawi during his tenure (although they do give a nod to his ‘democratic deficit’).

The Inde describes Zenawi as a ‘polarising PM’. It certainly seems that way judging by the disparate news reports and tributes paid to him upon his death.  Whether you love him or loathe him, one thing is clear, Zenawi made his mark on the development and human rights record of Ethiopia during his 21 year tenure – for better and for worse.  While economic growth and sustainable development is welcomed, it should never be at the expense of – or instead of – the promotion and respect of basic human rights.  Ethiopia has definitely made progress on the global stage in one way.

But it now has a real opportunity to dramatically change its human rights landscape, for the better.  The next Prime Minister has the chance to make history in ushering in a new era of greater respect for the rights of all Ethiopians.

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