In the AU's host city Addis Ababa, an oppressive reality in plain sight By MOHAMED KEITA | Monday, May 27   2013 at  12:37

The new Chinese-built African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa sit on the grounds of what was once a notorious prison for political prisoners, the realities of which remain in modern-day Ethiopia. FILE 

The African Union has been celebrating 50 years in Addis Ababa against a backdrop of developing infrastructure, a perfect postcard of Africa’s booming economic growth. Yet, on the outskirts of the city, hidden from the view of passing visitors, is a symbol of Ethiopia’s oppressive reality: a prison filled with people who should not be there-- leading Ethiopian dissidents and journalists.

For the African Union, this should be a shameful blemish, but it should also be an opportunity to recognise freedom, equality and justice for all as the basis, not consequence, of peace, stability and economic development for the next 50 years.

After all, it was in Addis Ababa on May 25, 1963 when African leaders inscribed in the OAU charter that "freedom, equality, justice and dignity are essential objectives for the achievement of the legitimate aspirations of the African peoples."

The leaders also inserted the doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of states. As a result, the OAU was silent as hundreds, if not thousands were murdered and imprisoned in a prison adjacent its offices in Addis Ababa during the days of the Red Terror under the rule of Soviet-backed dictator Mengistu Hailemariam (the new, Chinese-built extension of the African Union headquarters now sits on top of the erstwhile grounds of the prison).

With the advent of the African Union, came a new 21st century vision of democracy and development reflected in the AU’s consistent sanctions against coup leaders, for instance.

Yet, for all of the AU’s efforts to promote good governance (i.e. through the African Peer Review Mechanism), its own host country has steadily moved in the opposition direction since the ruling party nearly lost its grip on power in the contested 2005 elections.

Today, Ethiopia’s rulers self-style after China’s Communist Party, balking at ideals of democracy and press freedom as Western impositions, even though these values are enshrined in their own constitution.

Defied condemnation

They trumpet economic growth, restrict the press and the internet, and conflate peaceful acts of dissent with terrorism or anti-state activities. Gripped by the fear of a domestic popular uprising in the early months of the Arab Spring in 2011, authorities imprisoned dozens of opponents, both perceived and real, including leading journalists like Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye.

The government has defied condemnation from the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression on their imprisonment and sentencing to harsh prison terms on fabricated charges of involvement in "terrorism."

Ethiopia’s behaviour hardly reflects the values of the African Union, and show that the benefits of the progress in infrastructure and economic growth, as seen in Addis Ababa, or Kigali, have been exclusive to those unquestioning their rulers. There should be cause for concern.

The Africa Progress Panel noted that the benefits of growth have yet to trickle down to the poor and that in some cases, inequality is even on the rise, threatening the gains already made. Ethiopia for instance has made strides towards the Millennium Development Goals, especially in health and education, but remains dependent on Western aid for food and Chinese investments to develop its infrastructure.

The country also ranks in the bottom of various indexes measuring governance, transparency, rule of law and ease of doing business. By comparison, Kenya, with all its problems, surpasses Ethiopia in the dynamism of its private sector, including the press, or the quality of its telecom infrastructure which facilitates the flow of information, spurring trade, and the open dispensation of competing ideas necessary for innovation.

A measure of optimism

Notwithstanding, optimism permeates the air in Addis Ababa, and can be found in the most unlikely of places: Kaliti prison where journalist Eskinder Nega has called his home away from home five days after writing the following on September 9, 2011, five days before his arrest: "It’s easy to complain about the things we do not have. No freedom. Raging inflation. Rising unemployment. Rampant corruption. A delusional ruling party. An uncertain year ahead of us. And the list could go on."

"But consider the exciting prospects: [2012] could be the year when we, too, like the majority of our fellow Africans, will have a government by the people, for the people…. The gist of the matter is that there are ample reasons to hope."

The Ethiopian government would have the world believe that Eskinder is a dangerous man bent on inciting violent revolution, but his thoughtful critiques of the government articulated a hopeful vision of the future in line with the aspirations of not only Ethiopians, but also the African Union.

For Africa Progress Panel Chair Kofi Annan, broad-based or inclusive growth (i.e. lifting millions out of poverty) "will take bold leadership, and it means building up proper governance, solidifying democracy, embracing transparency and accountability, and strengthening governance, institutions and the rule of law."

The African Union should therefore more forcefully condemn regressions in governance and political freedoms, and the exclusion of critical voices in civil society and the media. It can begin with its host country, Ethiopia.

--Mohamed Keita is Africa Advocacy Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists (www.cpj.org), an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide since 1981.