Comment is free A prisoner of conscience’s call for sanctions against Ethiopia

Eskinder Nega

European aid has transformed my country’s economy but also props up one-party rule. Let EU donors give us democracy

To Ethiopia’s archaic left, which dominates the ruling party, the new euphemism for the west is neoliberal. Compared to the jargon of bygones days – imperialists – when Lenin and Mao were still in vogue, neoliberal sounds decidedly wimpy. But this hardly matters to Ethiopia’s ruling party. What it seeks is a bogeyman to tamp down rising expectations for multiparty democracy.

To this end, plying nationalist sentiment is the easy option. And so, we get a tale of heroes and villains in which there is a defender of national ethos, honor and economic growth (inevitably, the ruling party), and a foreign horde bent on subversion, domination and economic exploitation (infallibly, the west: the neoliberals).

In this narrative, Ethiopia’s recent economic growth, amidst a global slump, is ascribed to the stability afforded by one-party rule, as in China – and not, as many experts are prone to point out, the generosity of donor countries. Hence the paradox of well-intentioned European money promoting Chinese interests in one of the more important economies in Africa.

Aggregate aid is to the Ethiopian economy what Obama’s fiscal stimulus was to the American economy: minus these injections, both economics would suffer catastrophically. The theatrical blustering of the Ethiopian government notwithstanding, donor countries have a make-or-break power over the Ethiopa’s prosperity.

And European aid has done wonderful things in Ethiopia. Despite the government’s ingratitude, we – the disenfranchised majority – are grateful and appreciative. We have improved access to schools, health facilities and roads because of donor benevolence. But an aid policy tied only to economic and social needs is only half complete; a comprehensive approach entails a linkage with politics.

Ideally, aid should have an impact on GDP growth. Ethiopia now ranks in the world’s top ten fastest-growing economies, the pride of Eurocrats. But aid should also increase trade between donor and recipient, as was the case with US aid to Europe under the Marshall Plan. By this measure, Europe has failed. Ethiopian trade with China has exploded, while stagnating or shrinking with Europe. Again, China wins without lifting a finger.

Aid should also strengthen democratic institutions. Here is where European donors’ policy falters dramatically. The unintended consequence of indifference to democratic accountability translates into the subsidy and reinforcement of tyranny. The time for reassessment has come.

After two decades of one-party rule, Ethiopia is visibly aching for change. Even the traditionally placid Sufi Muslim community is increasingly restless. There is clear danger of communal strife.

As a prisoner of conscience committed to peaceful transition to democracy, I urge Europe to apply economic sanctions against Ethiopia. What short-term pain may result will be compensated by long-term gain. A pledge to re-engage energetically with a democratic Ethiopia would act as a catalyst for reform.

Sanctions need to be targeted – and the continuity of basic humanitarian aid without precondition is a moral necessity. But the EU should also impose travel bans on Ethiopian officials implicated in human rights violations.

We live in an age of global expectations. Our hopes have converged in many ways, none more so than in our democratic aspirations. The moral imperative is for Europe to align with the reform movement in Ethiopia. It is time to stand up for democracy.

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