Mariam was painfully thin. Several of her 13 children peered out from behind her with hollow eyes. "I am trying to save my children. We are not living. We are subhuman," she told me. Food aid was available in her village in Southern Ethiopia. But not for her children. Her husband belonged to the wrong political party.
The same month I was interviewing this desperate mother in 2009, President Obama was telling Ghana's parliament that: "Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions." Meanwhile, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, one of Africa's longest serving strongmen, was using food aid as a weapon against opposition supporters, locking up opponents and journalists, and shutting down media and civil society organizations that reported on Ethiopia's slide into authoritarianism. In 2010, his party unsurprisingly won over 99 percent of the seats in parliament.
On May 19, President Obama will welcome Prime Minister Zenawi to the G-8 summit at Camp David to discuss food security in Africa along with the democratically elected leaders of Benin, Ghana, and Tanzania. The invitation to Meles demonstrates that whatever the Obama administration has learned from the Arab Spring, it doesn't apply to Africa. It should. Cosseting autocratic regimes rarely ends well for anybody.
Mariam wanted me to tell the world that their aid dollars were being misused. In a 2010 report, "Development without Freedom," we did. Yet the Ethiopian enigma is curious: the more repressive Ethiopia gets, the more aid it receives from Western governments. Why does a country with a human rights record rivaling those of repressive Sudan, Uzbekistan, or Zimbabwe enjoy such solid support in the U.S. and Europe?
Since the 2010 elections Meles's government has detained dozens, and possibly hundreds, of opposition members, perceived opposition supporters, and others. No one knows exactly how many people have been arrested because no independent organizations have access to all of Ethiopia's known and secret detention facilities, where torture and ill treatment are common. There are few Ethiopian human rights groups to investigate the detentions because in 2009 Ethiopia passed a law on non-governmental organizations that strangled most local human rights groups by cutting off foreign funding. And the government has regularly detained and deported journalists who try to access the embattled Ogaden region, successfully cutting off news of the situation.
Of course Ethiopia is a reliable partner on counter-terrorism and regional security and perceived to be an oasis of stability amid Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia. Ethiopia has held terrorism suspects from Somalia and Kenya for interrogation and hosts a U.S. drone base for operations in Somalia. Ethiopia intervened in Somalia in 2006 to oust the militant Union of Islamic Courts and deployed peacekeepers in the contested region of Abyei between Sudan and South Sudan.
But the security partnership is not the only reason. Ethiopia appears to be making strong progress on meeting development goals, and donor partners such as the World Bank are anxious to sustain their "investments." Yet the proportion of the population requiring food aid remains stubbornly high and the numbers of Ethiopians fleeing the country due to repression or in search of economic opportunities they can't find at home are exploding.
As long as Ethiopia appears to be making progress toward the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, donors seem to care little about how that progress is achieved.
Ethiopia even used some foreign-funded development programs to cement the ruling party's grip on power. As Mariam and many other people we interviewed told Human Rights Watch the ruling party discriminates against anyone it perceives as an opponent: access to donor-funded government services, food aid, housing, employment, promotions, educational opportunities, and land have all been used to encourage support for the ruling party.
The government is pursuing controversial resettlement programs, indirectly supported by foreign assistance, forcing people to leave their ancestral lands and in some cases leaving them worse off. It has also expropriated vast tracts of land and forced resettlement of indigenous communities in the Omo valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site, to make way for state-run sugar plantations.
Meanwhile the government has steadily whittled away what's left of the independent media. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more journalists have fled Ethiopia in the last decade than any other nation.
This month, PEN American Center awarded its prestigious Freedom to Write award to Eskinder Nega, who is fast becoming Ethiopia's best-known journalist. Eskinder is in jail for the seventh time, but this time he is charged under a 2009 counterterrorism law that, so far, has primarily been used to target opposition leaders and journalists. Fifteen other journalists and opposition members have already been convicted (or charged) under the law, including two Swedish journalists who attempted to report on abuses in the Ogaden region.
Before Zenawi's government deported me for reporting on the politicization of aid, Eskinder Nega told me that he thought President Obama's Ghana speech heralded a new era for democratic governance in Africa.
If Eskinder was right then, instead of inviting undemocratic leaders like Zenawi to Camp David, the Obama administration would review its approach to Ethiopia and call on the government to reverse its assault on human rights and democracy. But I fear that when Eskinder hears of the visit in his cell in Kaliti prison, he will know that his faith in President Obama's words was wrong.
Ben Rawlence is a Senior Researcher in the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch.