Ethiopia's Leader Is Proud to Show Israel the Way When It Comes to Refugees

On a visit to Israel, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn tells Haaretz his country has an open-door policy and will 'pay any price to help' asylum seekers

Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn speaking during the U.S.-Africa Business Forum in New York, September 21, 2016.
Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

The rains have come to Ethiopia. After three seasons of drought that hit agricultural areas hard, farmers are waiting for the grass to grow again so they will be able to pasture their herds. And the way Ethiopia dealt with the drought is a good example of the progress the country has made over the past 20 years. Although the drought was said to be the worst in 50 years, photos of skeletal children with bellies distended from starvation – which were largely the international image of Ethiopia at the end of the 20th century – did not materialize this time around.

“Green development, investment in small-scale agriculture, sustainable land management – 20 years of development allowed us to have resilience to crises,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told Haaretz during his visit to Israel last week.

Like the rain, life has returned in the cities of Gondar and Bahir Dar, the main cities of the Amhara region in the northwestern part of the country. Businesses are open and the streets are full of pedestrians. These are the same streets that were flooded with armed soldiers during the state of emergency the government declared last fall, after months of protests that were violently suppressed.

Hundreds were killed and thousands are still in prison after two years of protests by the country’s two largest ethnic groups – the Oromo and Amhara. The state of emergency has been eased somewhat, but it was still extended at the end of March by a further four months.

But Desalegn insists there are no ethnic tensions in his county. All ethnic groups in Ethiopia have the right to self-determination, he said, “up to secession.”

Reports of ethnic tensions and repression are “fake news,” he said, explaining that those involved are a small group of extremists and “provocations from abroad, coming from the U.S. and Britain” through social media. According to Desalegn, those responsible are people in political exile who fled the country after the toppling of the communist military dictatorship that ruled the northeast African country until 1991.

Desalegn also rejected accusations by international human rights groups – including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights – regarding the number of political prisoners in Ethiopia. “There is no political prisoner in my country,” he said. “There are only criminals put in prison by the courts.”

Ethiopia’s high place on the list of countries that imprison journalists doesn’t concern him, either. “We don’t repress freedom of speech. You can criticize the government and expose corruption,” he said. “There are a large number of private TV stations.”

The Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, Its light rail transit system, the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa, is changing the face of public transport in a city where almost 60 percent of the population walks to their destination.
Mulugeta Ayene/AP

According to Desalegn, the “journalists” who are in prison are working for armed militias backed by the Eritrean government, which is trying to undermine the stability in Ethiopia. “They are terrorist groups, not journalists,” he said.

Desalegn strongly rejected the idea of allowing international oversight of the human rights situation. “Do you allow [people] in your country for external investigation?” he asked rhetorically. It’s a question of sovereignty and national honor, he noted. “Ethiopia is a country which has never been conquered. We fight those kinds of people who think they are the neat ones, they are the perfect ones, while in their own cities there are a number of human rights violations taking place by their own security forces. We have a system to check. We don’t want anyone to check for us. As for criticism from the international community, let them do their own job in their countries,” he said.

Such scorn for international human rights groups sounds familiar to Israeli ears. The importance of Ethiopia as an island of stability in one of the stormiest regions in Africa, its key role in fighting terror in the Horn of Africa and its great contribution to peacekeeping forces in the region, restrict international criticism of the country’s human rights track record. That is true not only in the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, who is indifferent to the whole issue, but was also true of his predecessor, President Barack Obama, who took a major interest in human rights elsewhere.

Ethiopia can teach the West a thing or two about one aspect of human rights, though: taking in refugees. It has taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees from Somalia, South Sudan and even its enemy, Eritrea, in recent years.

Despite the economic burden on a developing country, Ethiopians do not intend to abandon this path. Desalegn said his country has an open-door policy: “The refugees are our brothers and sisters. We will pay any price to help them.”

Desalegn then addressed the Eritrean issue in more detail. The number of Eritrean refugees entering Israel in 2016 was zero. Refugee organizations also say there has been a sharp drop in the number of Eritreans reaching Europe. According to human rights groups, the reason for this is because the road from Ethiopia to Europe has become harder than ever – militias hound the refugees in Sudan; the security forces harass them in Egypt; and human traffickers lock them up and abuse them in Libya. But according to Desalegn the number of Eritreans fleeing their own country is rising sharply, and most of them are in Ethiopia.

While Ethiopia has been at war with the dictatorship next door since 1991 (Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993), there is still an open-door policy for Eritreans seeking to flee oppression in their country. Isolated Eritrea tightly controls all information coming out of it, which makes it difficult to properly understand the situation there. But according to Desalegn, the increasing flow of refugees – thousands of whom have entered Ethiopia in recent months – is a clear sign that “the regime in Eritrea is failing.”

While rejecting most criticism of his country as international hypocrisy, foreign provocations and fake news, Desalegn does concede that not everything is perfect. “Ethiopia is an ancient country but a young democracy,” he said. “Democracy cannot be copied, but has to be a culture.” Desalegn added that his government is working to inculcate a democratic culture, beginning in kindergarten. “Children learn how democracy works,” he enthused.

The prime minister also admitted that many improvements still need to be made in the workings of the Ethiopian parliament. In the previous election in 2015, his party garnered 100 percent of the seats in the legislature – not a sign of a healthy democracy. Members of the opposition claimed election fraud, but observers from the European Union said no significant irregularities had been documented in the voting.

Desalegn explained that the regional “winner takes all” election system is the reason for the lack of diversity in his country’s parliament. He cited the example of Addis Ababa, where his party took only 56 percent of the vote but got all of the seats. “We are working on turning the opposition support into seats in parliament,” he said.

And will the electoral reform be complete before the next election in 2020? “Yes,” the prime minister said firmly.