May 16th 2011, 12:14 by J.L. | NAIROBI
A COUPLE of years ago The Economist Group had to cancel an investor conference in Ethiopia because the government was not willing to allow opposition politicians to take the floor. Officials also objected to the presence in the welcome pack of articles—not always flattering—from The Economist about Ethiopia. Now it is the World Economic Forum’s turn in the hot seat. The Geneva-based organisation announced that next year’s meeting would be held in Addis Ababa.
At a press conference, Baobab pressed the Ethiopian foreign minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, on who would be invited. Opposition politicians? Human-rights activists? Ethiopian journalists critical of the government? “If the World Economic Forum deems it necessary to invite opposition parties, there will be no hindrance from the government,” Mr Desalegn stressed. The managing director of the WEF, Robert Greenhill, sitting next to the foreign minister, looked relieved. The WEF, Mr Greenhill said, would invite whoever they wanted. It was committed to a “multi-stakeholder” approach.
But what did Mr Desalegn mean by “opposition parties” in a country where the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front won 99.6% of the
vote seats in last year’s election? There was a pause. “You have to differentiate,” Mr Desalegn said, “between legally registered parties and those illegal parties in the armed struggle who present a threat to worldwide peace and security.”
This raises several points. The first is that it is good news that the WEF is going to Addis. Ethiopia deserves credit for making some progress in poverty reduction and rolling out clinics and schools in the countryside. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has mobilised Chinese money and know-how to build new infrastructure. And the government really does face the threat of several armed groups who are determined to violently sunder Ethiopia. The Oromo Liberation Front and the Ogaden National Liberation Front both receive help from neighbouring Eritrea and remain a danger.
But the Ethiopian government bundles many other critics together with these tiny armed groups. Mr Desalegn, in response to Baobab’s needling, insisted these critics are receiving money from al-Qaeda. That is absurd. Yet such charges are often brought inside Ethiopia, in a Kafkaesque manner, against anyone speaking out for the privatisation of land, calling for transparency in government spending (especially by the military), or demanding judicial reform. Opposition politicians have been arrested and charged with treason. Many ordinary citizens have been harassed. The government has deliberately limited access to the internet and mobile phones. It has put in place an extensive spy network in universities and workplaces.
Any dialogue which challenges Mr Meles’s Marxist-influenced policies on state ownership of land, price controls, access to capital and information is a good thing. But much depends on the terms of the contract the WEF has signed with Ethiopia. Will the WEF include a session in which Ethiopians critical of Mr Meles can outline charges of gulags or accusations of the withholding of aid from opposition supporters? If so, will Mr Meles allow the session to be aired live on state television, which usually favours the government? Mr Desalegn’s comments about human rights suggests Mr Greenhill, a former head of the Canadian International Development Agency, will have a difficult task. According to the foreign minister, there have been no human-rights abuses in Ethiopia. Those who suggest so are foreign agitators purposely trying to tarnish Ethiopia’s image.
Full Story (The Economist’s Baobab Blog)