Yesterday, the body of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi arrived in Ethiopia from Brussels. No one is sure yet how he died, but that’s part of the secrecy which shrouded his authoritarian rule.
The story matters to America because Ethiopia’s dictator was an ally in the fight against Al-Qaeda in Somalia. Thanks to that allegiance, the US looked the other way on things like how the Zenawi regime jailed opposition leaders and journalists, and led Ethiopia to a ranking of 174 out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index, which measures human rights. We saw what an african police state looked like when I was in Ethiopia last month.
At the airport, it took an hour to clear customs – not because of lines, but because of checks and questioning. Officials tried multiple times to take us to government cars so they’d know where we went. They only relented after forcing us to leave hundreds of thousands of dollars of TV gear in the airport.
Outside the airport, we saw a crowd. Inside, it was empty. When we asked the people why, they said they’re not allowed to greet their arriving families and friends indoors because the police are worried about unrest. So the people wait outside, exposed to the elements.
One visual that ties some of this together is a photo of myself and our cameraman Christian next to a Lada. Those are the ancient Russian cars which are still the taxi cab of choice in Addis Ababa – left over from when Ethiopia was a socialist ally of the USSR.
Maybe that’s why the United States is so proud of winning Ethiopia over as an ally – it’s proof we won the Cold War. But despite supporting a regime that has deprived its nation of a free press, we’re not reaping the benefits you might expect.
Who is? Aside from the regime itself, the answer is China. Chinese businessmen are everywhere in the capital. China is the biggest investor in Ethiopia now, spending money on infrastructure and other construction projects and building better economic connections with the country.
Here’s the bottom line: the United States gives a billion dollars a year in aid to a dictator, looks the other way on human rights, and China gets the prize.