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A critical look into the Ethiopian elections

Friday 3 June 2005.

By Yohannes Woldemariam*

June 1, 2005 — Ethiopia has a bicameral Parliament. The House of Federation (upper house) has 108 seats and the House of Representatives (lower house) has 547 seats. Members of the House of People’s Representatives are elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms. At stake in this election are the 547 seats in the House of Representatives. In contrast to the May 2000 elections, when the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) swept 479 of the 547 seats, there seems a credible challenge to the EPRDF in this election. The May 2000 election was a low-key event, which was overshadowed by the EPRDF offensive against Eritrea. This time, Ethiopians should deservedly celebrate their election exercise. A successful management of the tremors and after shocks of this important milestone by Ethiopians is crucial. It would be a positive example for the region and Africa, and could be emulated by all multi ethnic and diverse countries. Conversely, failure could bring disastrous consequences to the country and the region. But even as Ethiopia is being congratulated and praised for holding elections, there are significant uncertainties and reasons for concern.

One of the areas of concern is the language used both by the Ethiopian regime and the opposition which has been extremely vitriolic and sensational. In particular, the hate filled language by the Prime Minister does not bode well for the future of democratic governance. Things could turn ugly, if the post election situation is not handled carefully. Historically, hate filled language has been a precursor to major atrocities. Each modern case of genocide has been preceded by a propaganda campaign transmitted via mass media and directed by a handful of political leaders. Soon after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, his chief of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, gloated and uttered that "radio and press are at our disposal" Throughout the 1930s, the Nazi-controlled media spewed virulent anti-Semitic propaganda. Incitement is a hallmark of atrocities, and it may be a prerequisite for it. If such campaigns could be stopped, or their masterminds deterred, genocide and violence might be averted. Long before this election, there was an unforgettable example of the exploitation of ethnicity by the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, who tried to justify his deportation of 70, 000 plus Eritreans. In an interview with Radio Ethiopia on July 9, 1998, he said, "the deportees were "foreigners," adding that .any foreign national, whether Eritrean or Japanese etc. lives in Ethiopia because of the goodwill of the Ethiopian government. If we say ’Go, because we don’t like the color of your eyes,’ they have to leave."

The Ethiopian Prime Minister has a pattern of resorting to incitement and hate filled language, whenever he senses political pressure or it serves political expediency. His reaction to the dramatic rally, by hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters in this election provides another insight into his mindset. During a television interview, he said: "I call on the people of Ethiopia to punish opposition parties who are promoting an ideology of hatred and divisiveness by denying them their votes at election on May 15. Their policies are geared toward creating hatred and rifts between ethnic groups similar to the policies of the Interahamwe when Hutu militia massacred Tutsis in Rwanda. It is a dangerous policy that leads the nation to violence and bloodshed." Clearly, the reference to the Interhamwe genocidaires by the Prime Minister is an irresponsible emotional attempt to mobilize his supporters and scare voters from voting for his opponents. Such language could incite mobs and have potentially dangerous consequences.

The Prime Minister is also the head of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is the core of the EPRDF [1] . Formed by Marxist Tigrayan students who split from the civilian left during the Ethiopian revolution of the early 70s and launched a rural-based struggle against the state from Tigray, the TPLF mobilized non-Tigrayan groups after the movement decided to be pan Ethiopian, when military victory against the Mengistu dictatorship became imminent. In early 1990, it announced the creation of the EPRDF. Its minor ally, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (EPDM), was later transformed into an explicitly Amhara group to match the country’s new ethno-political template, and in most regions the EPRDF fostered surrogate people’s democratic organizations (PDOs), the largest of which is the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). Tigrayan dominance of the EPRDF is clear. Differences within the Tigrayan leadership over its relationship with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) contributed to the start of the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in May 1998. Divisions resurfaced over the terms of the peace deal signed with Eritrea in December 2000, rekindling deeper divergences over the significance of foreign economic assistance and policy conditionality.

The TPLF have consistently come under attack by the local indigenous populations in the south of the country. The southerners express resentment toward the Tigrayans by characterizing them as land-grabbing and greedy foreigners. Politicians play upon ethnic differences to divide and conquer, and distribute resources to one group or another in order to build coalitions. Resources have been appropriated and concentrated and structured according to ties of region, bloodline and kinship in Ethiopia. The TPLF developed powerful commercial wings, interlocking investment and trading conglomerates. For example, the parastatal known as the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT) enjoys a monopoly in terms of access to credit and market because the members of the ruling TPLF own it. EFFORT as the economic arm of the ruling group is protected and has lucrative economic niches with special access to foreign aid and investments. TPLF has selected development schemes in Tigray that otherwise would have been more productive and viable in other locations in the country. For example, the water storage site known as Teccaze 5 lies near Mekele, the capital of Tigray province. According to John Waterbury there are better sites for storage than in Teccaze 5 but Teccaze 5 was chosen because it is within Tigray, the home of the TPLF. The contract for the construction of the Teccaze 5 hydroelectric dam was granted to a Chinese state firm which bid the lowest figure. The sum of 1.9 billion birrs was the price asked by the China National Water Resources and Hydropower Engineering Corporation (CWHEC) to build the 180-meter-high dam on Teccaze River in Tigray, against more than two billion birrs from the other consortiums in competition with it. According to international experts, the offer illustrates Chinese firms’ dumping policy, which sometimes brings them to find subcontractors to do the job or overrun costs. But the CWHEC’s important card up its sleeve, was its alliance with Ethiopia’s Sur Construction Company which is part of the Tigrayan EFFORT group of firms run by Sebhat Nega, the real number two man in Addis Ababa. The head of Sur Construction, Arkebe Oqubay Mitiku, is also one of the leaders of the TPLF and the mayor of Addis Abeba.

Such privileges that Tigreyans enjoy have contributed to resentments, which have taken root at the local level and are being mobilized at the national level, and have added to the growing anti-Tigreyan sentiment in Ethiopia. Faced with such growing resentment, the actions of the regime are worrisome. Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a 64-page report entitled "Targeting the Anuak: Human Rights Violations and Crimes against Humanity in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region"; has documented the crimes of the regime which amount to crimes against humanity, according to HRW. These abuses against the Anuak forced them to flee their homes for camps across the Sudanese border, while others have sought refuge in the relative safety of Gambella’s larger towns. The Anuak situation can be compared to the Janjaweed crimes in Darfur-minus the publicity. In a 44-page report entitled ’Suppressing Dissent: Human Rights Abuses and Political Repression in Ethiopia’s Oromia Region’, HRW citing a widespread systematic repression and intimidation to instill fear among voters from the Oromo ethnic group has dubbed the elections a "hollow exercise." Against such evidence, the protest of the Prime Minister in calling his opponents Interahamwe can only be described as shedding crocodile tears.

The primary beneficiaries from the excesses of the regime have become a hastily organized coalition of four Ethiopian opposition parties known by the acronym as CUD (Coalition for Unity and Democracy [2]) that swept all 23 parliamentary seats in the capital, Addis Ababa. The chairman of CUD is an engineer named Hailu Shawel who is also a wealthy businessman. Another significant coalition of twelve parties is the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF [3]) chaired by Dr. Merera Gudina. In late 1992, the Addis-based opponents formed the Coalition of Alternative Forces for Peace and Democracy in Ethiopia (CAFPDE). CAFPDE lacked a clear policy agenda, boycotted elections and proved incapable of mobilizing mass support. This was despite a number of factors in its favor, such as widespread malaise among the educated, cosmopolitan urban classes; a fiercely anti-government private press; the government’s clumsy repression of both press and urban opponents; anti-EPRDF sentiment among many exiles in the US; the desire of liberal donors to foster a loyal opposition; and the internal schisms within the EPRDF. The opposition has come a long ways from its divided and ineffectual days. Only time will tell, as to how cohesive and effective it will be in the long run; but it has certainly become a force to be reckoned with in this election. To be sure, the Ethiopian opposition is full of fanatics and perhaps even more dangerous for the peace process with Eritrea. Its key leaders have made venomous and hateful statements. For example, Lidetu Ayalew, spokesman of CUD, is quoted to have said "negotiations were the only way to end the conflict [with Eritrea], but added that most Ethiopians disliked Eritreans and so supported the war." Another unnamed leader said, "If Ethiopia starts the war, the army should go beyond Badme to Ras Kassar, on Eritrea’s border with Sudan on the Red Sea. Eritrea, Eritreans and polio would be eradicated from Africa by the year 2000."

The unexpected dynamics of the Ethiopian elections have undoubtedly sent shock waves to Prime Minister Zenawi and his EPRDF party. He has already lost his most important and hand-picked supporters in Addis Ababa including the mayor, Arkebe Oqubay Mitiku. There is great likelihood that the Prime Minister will become a lame duck at best, even if he barely manages to retain his position by rigging the rural vote. According to a preliminary report by the Carter Center, "observers witnessed a large number of underage voters. There also were unconfirmed reports of vote buying. In addition, the bags that the ballots were delivered in were opened one day before voting commenced." This complaint was made, despite initial statements from the Carter Center which was very charitable and full of effusive praise for the process calling it "free and fair election." In a bizarre knee jerk reaction, Mr. Bereket Simon, the foreign minister declared that the ruling party had won the election with more than 300 parliamentary seats even while the voting was still in progress. Some Ethiopians have sarcastically compared Bereket Simon with the former Iraqi Information Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, dubbed "Comical Ali" for his deadpan insistence that Iraqi forces were crushing the invading Americans to the end. Let’s for arguments sake, assume that Bereket Simon is right. He was probably hoping that the Kebelle militias (relics from the Dergue era which are still used by the TPLF as instruments of coercion) will deliver. The Kebelles are still a potent and omnipresent force in the life of all Ethiopians. This is especially true in the rural areas where if the voters do not support the ruling party, people fear exclusion from essential resources distributed by the state.

But this election in Ethiopia was meant to serve as a public relations exercise for Mr. Meles Zenawi. It was meant to further cultivate his image as progressive, democratic, and earn his regime glory and increased foreign aid. Despite his domestic human rights violations and his refusal to abide by the Hague verdict in the conflict with Eritrea, PM Zenawi is very popular in the West. Tony Blair has picked him as one of the 17 members of the African commission. Ethiopia is considered key for U.S. anti terrorist campaign in the Horn of Africa and is a recipient of a generous military and economic aid estimated at 1.9 billion dollars. Under the pretext of fighting terror, Mr. Zenawi is unleashing a reign of terror on the predominantly pastoralist and clan based Ogadeni people and manipulating the Somali situation, in order to plant the pro Ethiopian Somali warlord, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, as a puppet regime. The Oromo and the Ogadenis are not valued as people legitimately fighting for freedom and democracy: they are labeled as terrorists. Ethiopia is also one of the countries picked for the doubling of aid by the G8 in its Millennium Development goals of reducing poverty in half by the year 2015. However, Mr. Zenawi’s PR exercise in democracy seems to have backfired by emboldening an opposition that he clearly underestimated. He has certainly made himself a lot more vulnerable. At the very least, his reputation is tarnished in the eyes of some of the very donors that he was trying to please. The EU Election observation mission, which had initially praised the peaceful conduct of the election, is in a confidential report leaked to the Associated Press revealing vote rigging and other irregularities. The statement singled out the EPRDF and the state-run media — radio, television and newspapers for criticism. The EU mission ’regrets the way in which the counting of the votes at the constituency level is being conducted as well as the way in which the release of results is being handled by the electoral authorities, the government and the political parties.’

In a jittery and panicky reaction to the Million Man demonstration in the capital, Mr. Zenawi said "there is not going to be a ’Rose Revolution’ or a ’Green Revolution’ or any color revolution in Ethiopia after the election," referring to the 2003 popular revolt that ousted the former government of Georgia and current unrest in Central Asia. He then ordered a month-long ban on demonstrations and took control of the security forces in the capital, Addis Ababa. Despite the strong words from the EU observation team on the Ethiopian elections, it is unlikely that we will see Tony Blair, the Carter Center, the White House, or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, hammering Mr. Zenawi. We won’t hear many in Washington calling for free elections in Ethiopia. The former strongmen of color-coded, "revolutionary" Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan were monsters who had to be removed for "freedom and democracy" to prevail. So is the dictator of Zimbabwe, Mr. Robert Mugabe. Not Mr. Zenawi. He’s "our" dictator.

Nevertheless, there is fear that the country could face the danger of instability and ethnic fragmentation. As a diversionary tactic in search of a unifying target, he may even declare war on Eritrea by claiming that Eritrea attacked him first. How will Prime Minister Zenawi react? How will events in Ethiopia impact the peace process with Eritrea and its relationship with its neighbors? What does the future hold? It’s the million dollar question facing Ethiopia and its neighbors.

*Yohannes Woldemariam is an Eritrean living in the U.S.

[1] Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is composed of the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and Southern Ethiopia People’s Democratic Front

[2] Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) is composed of the All Ethiopia Unity Party (AEUP), the Ethiopian Democratic Union Party-Medhin (EDUP-Medhin), the Rainbow Party, and the Ethiopian Democratic League (EDL).

[3] This coalition is a partnership between the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF), All Ethiopian Socialist Movement (MEISON), Council of Alternative Forces for Peace and Democracy (CAFPDE), Ethiopian Democratic Union - Tehadiso (EDU Tehadiso), Ethiopian National United Front (ENUF), Ethiopian People Federal Democratic Unity Party (HIBREHIZB), Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), Gambella People’s United Democratic Front, Oromo National Council (ONC), Oromo People’s Liberation Organization (OPLO - IBSO), Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Coalition (SEPDC), and Tigrean Alliance for Democracy (TAND).