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The Struggle for Democracy in Ethiopia

Ethiopia's government files charges of treason and genocide against 131 people, all of whom raised questions about vote-rigging in recent elections. Does democracy have a future in the Horn of Africa?

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Twenty years ago, American and British pop stars sang out during the Christmas season for Ethiopia, where a civil war had exacerbated a famine and aroused the conscience of the world. The war ended in 1991 with the independence of Eritrea and the overthrow of Ethiopia's dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam. A border war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the late 1990s, and today two armies still bristle and fire artillery shells over the heads of a small, underarmed and decidedly non-aggressive UN peacekeeping force. Millions of people in both Ethiopia and Eritrea have been demanding and working toward democracy, but the attention of the world has mostly moved on.

Yesterday, the Ethiopian government of Prime Minister Meles Senzwai filed charges against 131 people for treason and genocide. The indicted are opposition members of parliament and aid workers, academics and three Ethiopian reporters who work for the Amharic language service, the Voice of America. That genocide charge is especially nasty. Under Ethiopian law, a person can be charged with genocide for issuing propaganda against the state. It's punishable by death.

Now the one trait the indicted seem to share is that they have all raised questions about vote rigging in recent elections in which the opposition still managed to win 40 percent of the seats. But the Ethiopian army opened fire on protesters in Addis Ababa on November 1st. Anna Gomes, a brave Portuguese diplomat who's the European Union's official observer, counted at least 40 people killed at one site and sent an urgent message to the European Parliament at the UN Security Council: `We must stop the killing of Ethiopians who dare to believe that democracy is possible in Ethiopia.' Ethiopians living in the US, Canada and Great Britain say that families and friends in Ethiopia are documenting thousands of mass roundups, detentions, and public beatings by the Ethiopian army. Ms. Gomes asks, `How can the UN enforce a peace and overlook a police state?'

Great Britain has sent a special representative to Ethiopia and is trying to redirect the $159 million it gives to Ethiopia through private organizations. The world has learned that economic boycotts often hurt those most in need and not a repressive government. The US gives Ethiopia $374 million each year. It's the 10th largest recipient of US aid.

Ethiopians are ultimately responsible for their own nation, but Americans, Europeans and the United Nations are responsible for the choices that we make with our money and support. The concern we once had for Ethiopia, like the victims of last year's tsunami disaster, shouldn't be just a season's pop song but a commitment to its people.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) ...in Africa this Christmastime. (Unintelligible) Where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow. Do they know it's Christmastime at all?

And it's 18 minutes past the hour.

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small