Meles has been told rightly that these elections will be an important test

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The Irish Times – Monday, January 25, 2010
Ethiopia’s rulers

ETHIOPIA’S MELES ZENAWI, like Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, was among a new generation of African leaders who came to power in the early 1990s whose role in kicking out murderous regimes and commitment to democratic values was much admired. It seemed like Africa was fiinding a new voice. And there is no doubt that the Ethiopia Meles rules today is a far cry from the famine-ridden brutalised country of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. But on the human rights front Meles does have questions to answer.
Facing elections that will certainly see him re-elected prime minister, he can boast an economy growing at 7 per cent and dramatic improvements in health and education standards. As he tells Mary Fitzgerald in the foreign pages today: “We have succeeded in proving that Ethiopia can grow at Asian growth rates,” rekindling hope “in the possibility that Ethiopia will not for long be the poster child for poverty in the world.”
There is some way to go. Ethiopia remains an important recipent of Ireland’s aid, a “programme coutry”, where we contribute tens of millions to a food safety net programme that feeds 12 million people in return for public works. A further five million people are under threat of famine in the months ahead. Malnutrition is widespread with 47 per cent of children under five suffering from wasting or stunting. Over half the population lives below the national poverty line.
Donor countries have come under fire, however, from human rights groups who complain they are not sufficiently vocal about abuses. The 2005 elections tarnished Meles’s reputation with violence in which some 200 died and opposition leaders and activists were jailed. Although freed temporarily, Birtukan Mideksa, the 36-year-old head of the Unity for Democracy and Justice party (UDJ), has been sent back to jail for life after authorities claimed she flouted the terms of her pardon by denying that she had “expressed remorse”. Her release would go a long way to reassuring civil society about the fairness of forthcoming elections.
Meles is also unrepentant or in denial about widespread concern over recent anti-NGO legislation and the documented use of torture by police and military officials in official and secret detention facilities across Ethiopia. All are issues which Irish diplomats say are the subject of regular “frank” bilateral and multilateral discusssions with the government. Meles has been told rightly that these elections will be an important test of his democratic commitment.