Ethiopian Elections Key to Advancing Democracy in Africa

Jim Fisher-Thompson
Washington, DC, May 10, 2005

Democracy endowment's Peterson tells Congress U.S. should press for change

It is hard to see democracy expanding throughout
Africa if a populous nation like Ethiopia -- a
country of enormous political and strategic
importance for the African continent -- drifts
toward "corrupt authoritarianism," says Dave
Peterson, Africa program director of the National
Endowment for Democracy (NED).

Peterson told a May 5 hearing of the House
Subcommittee on Africa that is looking into
political stability in the Horn of Africa region
that with parliamentary elections set for May 15,
"democracy is in Ethiopia's own best interest and
the U.S. needs to help."

Peterson said NED is doing its part by funding
initiatives to train people at the grassroots
level in democracy issues. "So far this year we
have made $312,213 in grants for projects in
Ethiopia, and we intend to allocate an additional
$160,000 by the end of the year with special
funds approved by the Congress," he said.

He told lawmakers, "There can be no doubt that
Ethiopia is far better off in terms of respect
for human rights, political pluralism, free press
and economic policies than â-oe at any other time
in its history." But the expulsion just before
the elections of three other democracy NGOs --
the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the
International Republican Institute (IRI) and the
International Foundation for Electoral Systems
(IFES) -- was an unjustified and arbitrary act
that is cause for concern, he said.

Time is running out for the institutes that
specialize in training election officials at the
grassroots level, Peterson said, adding, "We hope
the Ethiopian government will soon reverse its

In general, Peterson said, "I think it is
worthwhile for the United States to continue to
press Ethiopia to allow greater openness. I do
not think Ethiopia can afford the luxury of
taking a lot of time in its democratic
development. Nor do I believe that its poverty
should be considered an insuperable obstacle to

Peterson contradicted the argument by some
officials that Ethiopians do not want or need
reforms: "On the contrary, our experience in
Ethiopia has suggested that its citizens
understand and desire democracy, and that many of
the country's political and economic problems may
be more readily addressed in a more open and
democratic system."

With Ethiopia on the verge of either joining the
community of democratic nations or stagnating
into a kind of corrupt authoritarianism, reform
is critical in this second most populous nation
in Africa, Peterson said. "It becomes so
important now to invest strategically in the
country and tip the balance in the right
direction," he said.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African
Affairs Donald Yamamoto also said the fate of the
NGOs was "troubling and confusing, especially
since it is the first time these organizations
have been expelled from any country."

He told lawmakers: "Their expulsion on the eve of
parliamentary elections raises questions about
that process. It also raises questions about the
government's commitment to real, meaningful
democratic reforms and the development of truly
democratic institutions."

Contrary to the claim by the Ethiopian government
that the NGOs did not follow proper procedures
for registration, Yamamoto said the U.S.
government made a formal response to the
Ethiopian government "noting in detail the
actions of these organizations to file the
appropriate documents with various Ethiopian
governmental authorities."

"These organizations did not enter into Ethiopia
surreptitiously," Yamamoto said. "They acted with
the full knowledge and in full sight of the
government." Therefore, "we have asked the
government to allow these reputable organizations
to return to Ethiopia to continue their important
capacity-building work in advance of the

Asked by Representative Donald Payne (Democrat of
New Jersey) why the Ethiopian government was
allowing The Carter Center to monitor the
election and not the others, Yamamoto said he
could not answer that question. But Subcommittee
Chairman Christopher Smith (Republican of New
Jersey) jumped in to say that it might be a
belief that The Carter Center would be less
critical in its evaluation of the electoral

Referring to the expulsions, Smith told the
hearing: "Today, a number of colleagues joined me
in sending a letter to Ethiopian Prime Minister
Meles Zenawi, urging him to rescind the expulsion
of three American NGOs helping to build
democracy. â-oe For the sake of continuing
democratic progress in Ethiopia, we hope the
prime minister will respond positively to our

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