Obama: Failing the African Spring?
By Helen Epstein
February 26, 2013
Writing in the New York Review of Books, Helen Epstein says the Obama Administration's disregard for human rights in Africa has been a major disappointment. Though Obama had made new ambitious goals for Africa in July 2009, he has done little to advance his idealistic goals even after more than four years in office. Following is an excerpted section of Ethiopia that highlights Western disregard for human rights violations by the government.
But when Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died last summer, then-US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice praised him as a personal friend and a “talented and vital leader.” When she remarked that “he had little patience for fools, or ‘idiots,’ as he liked to call them,” some in the opposition believed she was referring to them—and approving Meles’s sentiments . Rice’s support for authoritarian leaders in Africa was highlighted by critics who opposed—and ultimately derailed—her nomination to be secretary of state.
Perhaps most worrying of all is the unwillingness of Obama and other Western leaders to say or do anything to support the hundreds of thousands of Muslim Ethiopians who have been demonstrating peacefully against government interference in their religious affairs for more than a year. (The Ethiopian government claims the country has a Christian majority, but Muslims may account for up to one half of the population.) You’d think a nonviolent Islamic movement would be just the kind of thing the Obama administration would want to showcase to the world. It has no hint of terrorist influence, and its leaders are calling for a secular government under the slogan “We have a cause worth dying for, but not worth killing for.” Indeed, the Ethiopian protesters may be leading Africa’s most promising and important nonviolent human rights campaign since the anti-apartheid struggle.
Yet the United States, along with other major donors to Ethiopia’s government, including Britain, has stood by as women and men have been hideously beaten by police, hundreds have been arrested , eight people have been killed, mosques have been raided by security forces, and twenty-nine Muslim leaders, including lawyers, professors, and businessmen, remain in jail, charged with trying to use violent means to create an Islamic state.
The demonstrations started in late 2011, after the government began forcing Imams to adopt an imported version of Islam. The Ethiopian government has a long history of trying to control civil society groups, including religious orders, by taking over their leadership. In 1992, Meles replaced the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church with a party insider. Many Christians still resent this. In 1995, he replaced the leader of the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, also known as the “Majlis,” again with someone from his party. Muslims grumbled about this, but did little more.
Then in 2011, on the pretext that the Islamic community was being radicalized by fundamentalist groups, Meles invited a Lebanese Islamic sect known as “Ahbash” to Ethiopia. The group, which was founded in Beirut by an Ethiopian exile in 1983, preaches obedience to government and opposes politicization of religion. All of Ethiopia’s Imams were required to go to meetings to listen to these newcomers, and were threatened with imprisonment if they refused. In the meetings, government officials were invariably present, and would lecture the imams about “Revolutionary Democracy,” the ruling party’s particularly rigid political doctrine. Most Ethiopian imams are volunteers, who work mainly as farmers, teachers, or in other trades to support themselves. But those who resisted taking part in the meetings and refused to preach the “Ahbash” version of Islam soon found themselves replaced by government-appointed, salaried adherents of the new official religion. The imams and their defenders began organizing nonviolent demonstrations that have since spread across the country.
In response, the Ethiopian government has attempted to portray the protesters as jihadists, most recently claiming in a government TV documentary that they are under the influence of Salafist extremists from Saudi Arabia. When a lawyer for the jailed movement leaders told a Voice of America journalist that the documentary undermined the presumption of innocence of his clients, he too was threatened with arrest. If this fear-mongering has been intended to send a message to the US, which supports Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism activities along the border with Somalia, it seems to have worked. Last year, former US Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn praised the Ethiopian reaction to the demonstrations, telling Reuters , “The government has done a pretty good job over the years in ameliorating religious differences where there are potentially serious conflicts.”
Ethiopian Muslims and Christians have long coexisted more or less in peace, as they do in Tanzania, Uganda, and other countries in the region. But since the demonstrations started, government officials have tried to infiltrate them and provoke violence among Muslim groups and between Muslims and Christians. It hasn’t worked. In recent months, Christians and secular human rights defenders have even joined in support of the Muslims, and the demonstrations have grown. The demonstrators use Facebook and secure Internet sites to outsmart government censors, and warn people to stay home when they learn that the government intends to plant violent hecklers among them to discredit the movement. When the movement’s leader, Abubakar Ahmed, who had been detained with other protesters (he is one of the twenty-nine awaiting trial), was paraded in chains before TV cameras, protesters showed up at the next demonstration with his picture on their T-shirts, and stood in a phalanx before the police with their wrists crossed, as if they too were in chains.
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