Leading article: Practise what was preached


The Year of Africa is ending on a distinctly mixed note as far as freedom and democracy are concerned. Improvements in Sierra Leone and Liberia have been more than matched by the continuing massacres in Darfur, the oppression in Zimbabwe, the marred elections in Tanzania, the political clampdown in Kenya and the arrests in Ethiopia.

Of all these, it is the government assault on the opposition in Ethiopia, where 131 politicians, journalists and civil rights activists were charged with treason and genocide yesterday, which is the most embarrassing to the West, and the UK in particular. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has not only been hailed as a "friend" of the British Prime Minister, but was a member of the Commission for Africa alongside Tony Blair, Bob Geldof, Gordon Brown and Hilary Benn - a commission which emphatically concluded that Africa must sort out its anti-democratic political actions as the price of debt relief and increased aid.

Yet here we are, only months after the G8 and only days after the IMF signed an accord to write off Ethiopia's debt, and one of the West's most favoured sons in the continent has not only arrested more than 4,000 civilians protesting against the flawed elections in the country last May but shut down any in the media voicing dissent. The group charged yesterday includes aid workers from Action Aid; if convicted, they could be liable to the death penalty.

The Ethiopian government has also embarked on an increasingly bitter confrontation with Eritrea. This has forced the UN peacekeepers to leave the area and threatens a resumption of the border war that killed some 80,000 and impoverished both countries in the two years 1998-2000.

The West cannot ignore what is happening in Ethiopia. If nothing else, the actions of the Ethiopian government confirm all the worst fears of those who argue that giving more aid to Africa is useless so long as rulers practise such poor governance. Bob Geldof cannot demand total debt relief for Ethiopia and declare his commission proof of how much Africa is changing so long as this is going on in the country of a fellow commissioner.

Ethiopia may have some cause for complaint both about the behaviour of Eritrea over the border and about the statements of returning opposition leaders at the time of its elections. But closing newspapers and arraigning Make Poverty History campaigners for treason and genocide are hardly the actions of a government committed to free expression and the rule of law. Britain has already threatened to cease its aid. Along with its European partners and the US, it should do so forthwith.

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