A Report on a Visit to the Country
in January-February 2006
by Paul B. Henze
We read the quotation which follows when we returned to Addis Ababa from a month of travel in the north at the end of January. It is the first paragraph of an editorial in The Reporter, the most sane and objective of major Ethiopian weekly newspapers:
Ethiopians living outside Addis Ababa are today leading a peaceful, stable and law-abiding life, while the capital, however, is still in a state of turmoil following the May 2005 elections. It is surprising and noteworthy from a historical perspective that while in the rural areas where opposition parties claim their votes were stolen there is peace and stability and people are leading their normal lives, the opposite is true in the capital where the government had conceded that they had won total victory and had asked them to take over the city's administration. There is peace where "fraud" took place, but there is no peace where there is no fraud.
These observations sum up our experience in four weeks of travel in the Ethiopian "boondocks" and a final week in Addis Ababa, though we personally experienced no turmoil in the capital either. A few days before we returned on 30 January, a rock-throwing incident by opposition supporters at Timqat observances on Jan Meda had caused a rise in tension. There were occasional disturbances at high schools but the University was quiet. The capital was (and at this writing still is) under interim administration because opposition elements who won a near-total victory in the May elections still had not been able to agree on how to assume administrative responsibility because they had fallen out among themselves.
I will conclude this report with observations on the confusion and commotion that resulted from the May elections, but will first report observations and experiences my wife and I had in the course of 4500 kilometers of road travel from Addis Ababa through northern Shoa and Wollo to Tigray and extensive travel to remote regions there. We returned south via the "Chinese Road" through Wadla Dalanta, Gaynt and South Gondar to Bahr Dar, and subsequently visited several areas in Gojjam. We spent our final weekend in Ethiopia traveling through Gurageland to Lakes Zway and Langano.
Conference in Aksum:
We set out for Ethiopia on New Year's Day in order to be able to participate in the Second Littmann Conference in Aksum, which met from 6 to 12 January. It opened exactly 100 years to the day on which the famous German archaeologist, Enno Littmann, had arrived in Aksum in 1906 to begin several years of excavations which brought the remarkable monuments of Aksumite civilization to world attention. The conference was organized by Dr. Steffen Wenig of Humboldt University in Berlin and Dr. Wolbert Smidt of the University of Hamburg with local support from the Tigray Cultural and Tourism Commission, Sheba College in Makelle and the Goethe Institute in Addis Ababa. The first Littmann Conference had met in Munich at the Museum fuer Voelkerkunde in early May 2002.
We were accompanied on our drive north by Dejazmach Zewde Gebre Selassie, now 79, whose father, then Governor of Tigray, had welcomed the Littmann Expedition in 1906 and facilitated its work. Traveling with Zewde was, in effect, a trip through Ethiopian history, for as a trained historian he has an encyclopedic knowledge of personalities and politics of both the recent era and the past. Every turn of the road reminded him of people and incidents. Haile Selassie appointed him Governor of Intichio when he returned from exile abroad as a young man in 1941 and he was given the job of pacifying the Raya region and Wejerat. We traveled through this region on the lowland route from Alamata to Makelle. Zewde described the uniquely democratic governmental system which had existed in Wejerat. Zewde served briefly as Foreign Minister under the Derg and as Ambassador to the UN. When the Derg slaughtered the 59 interned former officials the night of 23 November 1974, he resigned and spent the Derg years in exile, returning immediately on fall of the Derg in 1991.
Zewde was only one of many knowledgeable people at the conference which included five days of sessions in the conference hall of the Remhay Hotel where many of us stayed, while others stayed at the nearby Africa Hotel. We found ourselves always in the midst of tourist groups. Tigray Tourism and Cultural Commissioner Kebede Amare had told us in an e-mail before we left that tourism was "booming"; we discounted that characterization at the time but discovered it was indeed true, not only in Tigray, but in the Amhara region and in the south. Tourists included many Ethiopians from abroad. Sensational newspaper reporting and agitation among Ethiopian diaspora elements in Washington and Los Angeles has not discouraged tourists this year. They seem to have no concern about political commotion and, of course, there has not been much that has interfered with tourism. Tourists are from all European countries, the US, Japan and Israel. We met two Poles going on an expedition into the Afar. Hotels in Tigray were busy, so much so that after the conference we barely got a room at the Axum Hotel in Makelle which we used as base for travels into remote parts of Atsbi and sites in Enderta.
The Aksum conference not only featured lectures on archaeology, epigraphy, coins and the location of Punt, but included presentations on culture and recent history. Jacques Mercier summarized highlights of the recent book he and Claude LePage have published and gave a separate lecture on early Ethiopian art. David Phillipson gave a comprehensive summary of progress in Aksumite archeology in recent years and then took the entire group on a half-day walking tour of all the principal sites in and around the town. We were able to go into all the tombs in the stela park which have been excavated in recent years. We also visited the quarries from which many of the stelae had been excavated as well as the Lion of Gobedra and the extensive ruins of the palace of Dungur. On another morning we attended ceremonies held by the city of Aksum renaming the street that passes Mai Shum on the way to the tombs of Emperors Kaleb and Gebre Meskal for Enno Littmann.
Zewde Gebre Selassie gave a brilliant summary of the late 19th-century history of Tigray and Solomon Enquai, now retired from the position as Chairman of Parliament in Tigray, talked about the importance of regional studies. Two people from the Ethiopian National Archives in Addis Ababa described the holdings of this expanding institution and services it can provide for research. Prof. Husein Ahmed of AAU talked about Islam in Ethiopia and two instructors from the newly established History Department at Makelle University described about their plans and needs. Their primary mission is training high-school history teachers. The veteran Irish Catholic missionary, Kevin O'Mahoney, gave an account of the history and present condition of the monastery of Gunda Gunde. Martha Henze summed up recent discoveries and theories relating to the mysterious "Segli" curtains that are found in many Tigrayan churches and monasteries. I joined Kebede Amare in a presentation on the remarkable site of Maryam Nazre in Enderta where a huge building with Aksumite foundations appears to have been periodically rebuilt and used into medieval times. I also summarized information on unexcavated Aksumite sites I have visited during the past two years.
There were several talks on cultural preservation. Joachim Perzoon described efforts to help monasteries by helping them develop activities which contribute to their maintenance and support. Ethiopian architect and historian Fasil Giorgis, who is currently residing in Aksum overseeing the World Bank-supported construction of a new museum near the stela park, led the group through the site where work is proceeding rapidly with the assistance of David Phillipson and a British advisor, Crispin Paine. The group from Hamburg University described work they are doing in history and gave a progress report on work on the Encyclopaedia Aethiopia, of which the second volume (D through Ha, xxxviii/1082 pp.) has just appeared. Many participants in the conference had contributed to it and were glad to see the project moving ahead so efficiently.
Several important themes emerged from the conference: (1)
There is still an enormous amount to be learned from archaeology in northern Ethiopia. The city of Aksum itself developed comparatively late. The earliest settlement in the area appears to have been on the hill known as Beta Giyorgis, to the NW of the present town. Barely-explored sites in Shire, Agame, Atsbi and southern Tigray will in future years reveal much more about pre-Aksumite and Aksumite development. (2) What has up until now been considered the dark ages following the decline of Aksum may actually be a period of continued development of Aksumite civilization and spread southward--the concept deserves reexamination. (3_ The carving of rock churches appears to be a direct continuation of Aksumite (and perhaps pre-Aksumite) practice. David Phillipson is planning to concentrate on this subject during the next few years.
Many participants in the conference stayed longer to visit sites and pursue research in various parts of northern Ethiopia. Martha and I visited the monastery of Abba Gerima, Enda Selassie, and accompanied Zewde Gebre Selassie on a trip to a remote, very ancient monastery in Amba Saneiti, north of Nebelet, called Mekane Atist (Abode of Springs). It was the beneficiary of a restoration project sponsored by his father early in the 20th century. Zewde was received as a hero there; one of the monks exclaimed, "It is as if Abuna Aregawi himself returned to visit us!"
I subsequently had the fascinating experience of accompanying Zewde on a visit to Ato Zenawi Asres, Meles Zenawi's 80-year-old father, in Adwa. It would be hard to find the father of a prominent leader anywhere else in the world living in such modest circumstances. He occupies a simple house on an unpaved street not far from the church of Adwa Selassie, which had been destroyed by the Derg because it was thought to be a refuge for TPLF guerrillas. Zenawi said valuable relics of the 19th century battles of Gura and Gundet had been lost when it was destroyed. He recounted having been twice imprisoned by the Derg because of his resistance activity. He had gone to Addis Ababa when the EPRDF took over in 1991 and goes occasionally now but said he prefers to remain in Adwa. He described Meles, his third child, told us his two oldest still live in Adwa. Zewde had known Zenawi when he worked with him following the 1941 Liberation and then went to Addis Ababa together. The two reminisced about their early days as well as current developments.
Travel and Exploration from Makelle:
I had first traveled the recently improved west-east route via Edaga Arbi and Nebelet to Hauzien in June 2005. We took it this time to go from Aksum to Makelle, visiting historic churches on the way. We again stopped at Abraha Atsbaha, where the Tigray Tourism and Cultural Commission has been carrying out an extensive rehabilitation project. I was happy to find that it had made great progress during the intervening six months and is now nearly finished. A party of French tourists arrived while we were there. The highway from Makelle all the way to the Eritrean border is now smooth asphalt, so it took us only 40 minutes to go from Wokro on to Makelle.
My principal aim in eastern Tigray was to visit more unexcavated Aksumite sites and remote rock churches, so we concentrated on the Atsbi plateau, traveling each day out of Makelle north to Atsbi town and on to Atsbi-Dera where Ruth Plant had worked in the 1960s and Jacques Mercier in recent years. Kebede Amare took us to what appears to be an unusually promising future site for excavation, a place called Seqira where three tall stelae stand in a valley where the ground is littered with pre-Aksumite pottery. Local people told us of other ruins in the surrounding hills. North of the town of Dera, which we visited on market day (the market was reminiscent of Ethiopia of the 1960s) we hiked up to an impressive rock-cut church, Maryam Wokro. On another day we made a rugged drive to one of the most impressive rock churches in Tigray, Yohannes Gazien, at the northernmost extremity of Atsbi-Dera, where octagonal columns "support" the ceiling of an immense nave which gives access to four maqdas chambers.
Our final accomplishment in this region was being able to enter and photograph the ancient Aksumite built church at Zarema, which some specialists now date as early as the 6th century. It was known to Ruth Plant but seldom visited. A few years ago the local parish built a new church over the old one, using the old one as the maqdas. Consequently when Kebede Amare took us there in 2001 we were not permitted to enter. This time, with the help of the head of the Bet Kahenat in Atsbi town, we made arrangements to be permitted to enter and photograph as soon as the tabot was taken out at Timqat, so at sundown, Timqat eve, we finally got in to admire this extraordinary, unusually well-preserved, Aksumite structure, like no other still existent in Ethiopia. We devoted another day to visiting a cave on the escarpment with petroglyphs east of Edaga Hamus and then examined sites where local people were digging around Welowalo, where I visited two churches built around Aksumite remains in June 2005 which I had described at the conference in Aksum.
Our final excursion from Makelle was to Maryam Nazre in southern Enderta which I first visited in June 2005. On this visit, again with Kebede Amare and our driver/photographic assistant, my wife and I measured and photographed the huge building in detail so as to make a complete record for the use of future excavators. As part of the Tigray cultural preservation program, the building has been given a protective roof during the past few months which protects it from the elements but does not hinder examination of its architectural features. It appears to have been rebuilt on its Aksumite foundations over many centuries. In its present form it has distinct Islamic architectural features, though there is no evidence of a Muslim community in the area. Could an architect from Yemen or Egypt have been employed by an Ethiopian ruler?
On one of my final days in Makelle, on a Saturday afternoon, I was invited to speak to history students at Makelle University. I expected a small group of perhaps a dozen. I found myself walking into a lecture amphitheater filled with more than 200! I talked about the Aksum conference, archaeological and historical research, summarized my forthcoming books on the Derg era, commented on the condition of Eritrea and took questions. Unsurprisingly, many of them related to Eritrea and recent post-electoral political commotion in Ethiopia. The group, which consisted almost entirely of young men was hospitable, made intelligent comments and asked serious questions. The only one which surprised me was a student who told me he thought I was too harsh in my comments on Mengistu, for I failed to credit him with significant things he had done for Ethiopia. This did not seem to be a view shared by others in the audience. My comments on current political matters differed very little from those I expressed in my rejoinder to Christopher Clapham in November 2005, for everything I observed and learned in Ethiopia reinforced that analysis.
Before I left Makelle I was also interviewed by the EPRDF radio station, Dimtsi Woyane, on the Aksum conference and on Eritrea. I did not need to tell listeners about conditions in Eritrea--they are well aware of the oppression there and frequently meet young men who come across the border to escape service in Isaias Afewerki's army. An average of 300 per month were reported coming into eastern Tigray now, and at least that many more in the west. What I found curious in light of the press excitement over border tension that prevailed during January (and continues) was that no one I met in Tigray seemed fearful of an Eritrean invasion. Over and over again people expressed confidence that Isaias's armies would be soundly defeated and probably disintegrate if he were so foolish as to invade again. I also heard strong expressions of unwillingness to accept any revision of the border that would deliver Ethiopian citizens to Eritrean control. In my interview I criticized international advocates of human rights for failure to understand the border issue in human terms. People living in Badme and the Irob area are strongly opposed to being surrendered to Eritrea. Forceful implementation of the flawed border commission decision would either result in violent resistance and/or a new refugee problem.
En route from Makelle to Woldia we stopped to visit Mifsas Bahri at the southern end of Lake Ashangi, accessible over a track that leads a few kilometers to the west off the main highway a short distance before Korem. This site was discovered only recently and experimentally excavated by the Ethiopian archaeologist, Tekle Hagos. Here a small mound perhaps 100 m. up from the lakeshore is littered with huge red cut stones. Several have large ornamental crosses. The site is clearly Christian, but no inscriptions have been found. It may have been a late-Aksumite palace or a monumental church. Elementary surveying has disclosed other Aksumite remains in the surrounding area. Tekle Hagos's preliminary excavations uncovered remains of walls, pottery and evidence of storage of agricultural produce, but no further digging has been done and there are yet no carbon-14 dating results. The site is only a short distance north of the beginning of the route which leads from Korem over the Abba Mata Pass into Wag and goes on to Sekota. It is conceivable that future surveys will reveal evidence of Aksumite activity in Wag and Lasta and perhaps as far south as Manz.
Everywhere we traveled in Tigray there was evidence of the past year's excellent harvest. In some places threshing and winnowing were still in progress. Everywhere farmsteads had piles of yellow straw. Markets--we stopped at several from Enda Selassie to Dera--were well supplied with grain, legumes, vegetables and, in many places fruit. Fruit and vegetables seem now to be much more important parts of the local diet than they were 2-3 decades ago. This was also true in Gojjam. In many places we still saw white tents of the World Food Program but most of them were not "in business", for there was little need for emergency food distribution in northern Ethiopia this year. Trucks heavily loaded with bags of teff, wheat, barley and legumes were a frequent sight on roads. Other indications of agricultural prosperity are the increasingly frequent presence of new tin on roofs everywhere in the countryside and men on roads carrying rolls of tin roofing from markets. Other welcome signs of agricultural progress are the ponds, some as large as small lakes, created by earth and rock dams, and irrigation arrangements that will eventually bring about a substantial increase in food production. Across many of the regions through which we traveled we saw electric pylons silhouetted against the horizon, some already carrying electricity from Tisisat on the Abbay, others being readied to carry power from the new Takazze dam on which Chinese engineers have been working for several years and which is completion.
The Chinese Road:
This important east-west highway across the middle of Ethiopia, built by Communist China after Haile Selassie's 1971 trip to Beijing, has continued to be comparatively well maintained. Though it has a solid roadbed it is apparently not yet carrying enough traffic to qualify for asphalting. After passing through a lush farming region west of Woldia with fields of sugarcane and banana gardens around houses, the road climbs several thousand feet up the escarpment and crosses southern Lasta and Wadla Dalanta. Over the past 15 years I have taken this road several times when crops on the high treeless plateau had failed. On this trip it was a pleasure to see huge strawpiles around farmsteads and endless yellow stubblefields where great herds of cattle, goats and sheep were grazing. Passing through a desolate looking village called Kabaro Meda ("Fox Field") we came to a new settlement of tin roofed houses along straight streets where people who have been living in isolated villages on high, cold outcrops are being tempted to come down to live more conveniently. At Gashena, where I came in on the new road from Lalibela last June, another road leads off to the south and now, people told us, goes all the way to Dessie after going over the eastern end of the Daunt Plateau.
There had been recent rain in the highest parts of this region. It had the welcome effect of reducing dust from the road. Farther west, before the plateau breaks off toward the gorge that separates Wollo from Gondar, we passed through an area where people weave mats of natural wool in traditional designs and offer them for sale on racks by the roadside--a commendable example of local enterprise. At Chicheho at the Gondar end of the graceful bridge that spans the gorge, a pious local man has now carved seven rock churches in a small mountain that rises on the north side of the road. I visited him several years ago when he was carving his first one. Now he is carving a new set of rock churches on the opposite side of the gorge! The road then passes a Farm Africa nursery overlooking a rich valley to the north, climbs up steeply to the busy town of Nefas Mewcha, then descends gradually into Gaynt.
In Gaynt we were held up briefly by a flat tire and then drove on among herds of well-nourished cattle and flocks of sheep. Gaynt is a more hospitable region of farmland and forest than the area we crossed early in the day. After the harvest is finished the main occupation here is wood-cutting. For many miles the roadside was lined with piles of eucalyptus poles and logs waiting for trucks to haul them off. Shortly after we passed through a dreary little town called Kirrem Dingay ("Pile of Rocks"), a tire went flat again. Since we now had no spare, our driver had to hail a passing grain truck and take the tire back to Kirrem Dingay to a gommista. We remained by the roadside and were soon surrounded by a crowd of high-school students curious about ferenji travelers. Most said they were 10th-graders. Their English was poor but they were eager to practice it. What follows below are the main points of a two-hour repetitive conversation. They told us their school had been closed that morning by the police. Why? There had been a demonstration against the government and the police had come to break it up. "Why were you demonstrating? I asked.
"Because the government is corrupt. Our President is corruption. He sends everything to Makelle. Everyone in Makelle is rich. All industry in Ethiopia is there. Makelle is the real capital of Ethiopia. No one else in the country has anything. We have nothing."
"But," I countered, "there is a great deal of industry in Bahr Dar. It is developing very fast. I was there only a few months ago and surprised at the development I saw. We are going there today and will probably see more progress." They knew better, though it became clear that none of them had ever been to Bahr Dar:
"There is no industry in Bahr Dar. There are no factories anywhere in Ethiopia except Makelle. Meles Zenawi is corruption and everybody with him takes everything to Makelle. They are all rich." I shifted talk to their school, for to argue with them about development seemed futile: "What do you study in school?"
"Our school is not good. Teachers give us low grades. We cannot pass the exams. There are no books."
"Does the school have a TV?"
"Our TV is broken. It was broken today."
"How did it get broken?"
"A student threw a rock at a policeman. It hit the TV instead."
"What did the police do?"
"They killed the student. They took his body to the clinic. Eight more students were wounded. We think some of them may die. But the students killed one policeman too. And they wounded more. We are not sorry for them. They are corrupt. They drink alcohol and chew chat. They do not care about us. They closed the school. Now we will have no exams."
It was evident that something serious had happened, so I asked about the cause of the difficulties and the role of the teachers: "How do you know your government is corrupt?"
"The teachers tell us and Hailu Shawel says everything goes to Makelle. Kinejit wants to change this. Hailu Shawel should be our President, or maybe Berhanu Nega. The government cheated in the election. They didn't like what Kinejit said."
Another student had a slightly different view: "Lidetu Ayalew should be President. He understands what Ethiopia needs. He is a good man. He knows schools should give students good marks so they can pass exams and get jobs. We need factories. All industry should not go to Makelle." I turned the conversation to their classes and courses. They described them at length, but it was obvious that they were not learning much.
They kept coming back to their complaints about corruption. It was futile to argue with them about the state of the country. They had no basis for understanding, merely kept repeating formulas Kinejit had used in campaigning. They had no experience of the world beyond Kirrem Dingay. It was easy to believe that their school was poor. Their halting efforts to speak English made that clear.
We felt sorry for them, but could think of no advice to give them except to express the hope that they could again resume school. They--or their teachers--were victims Kinejit's rhetoric during the election campaign. We were happy when our driver jumped out of a passing bus with the repaired tire. But this was not the end of the story...
We told him what we had heard from the students. He told us that he been given a quite different story in Kirrem Dingay while talking to local citizens while waiting for the tire to be repaired. There had indeed been a fracas at the high school in the morning. People deplored that. Rocks had been thrown and windows broken, the TV wrecked, but no one had been killed--neither students nor policemen, and no one was seriously wounded. The school was closed. People in the town were unhappy about the incident and no one knew how long the school would stay closed...
We drove on wondering how this incident would be reported in VOA broadcasts or by Amnesty International, if indeed it would be reported at all...
Darkness had fallen by the time we reached Bahr Dar, for we had been held up again when our repaired tire went flat as we came to the edge of Debre Tabor. Getting it repaired by a busy gommista took the better part of an hour. The sun set splendidly over the lake as we came down onto the Tana plain at Woreta and turned onto asphalt on the Bahr Dar-Gondar highway. Tourism in Bahr Dar was booming. The reception desk of the Ghion Hotel where we hoped to stay was besieged by travelers and tourists seeking rooms. The manager, remembering me from previous visits, found what he said was his last room for us and we settled in for a good fresh fish dinner on the hotel's terrace watching birds coming in off the lake. Touring the city the next day, I found that development had indeed accelerated since I was there last June: buildings finished, new construction started, streets asphalted, markets bustling, the University expanding, a great deal of business activity, several new hotels. Only the Tana Hotel at the north end of the city seemed to be suffering from lack of business, though it enjoys a splendid location on the edge of the lake. Bahr Dar impressed us, in fact, as even livelier than Makelle--the Kinejit-brainwashed students in Kirrem Dingay would have their prejudices shattered if they could see it! As capital of the Amhara national state the city has finally come into its own after long years of failing to live up to the potential it seemed to have when it was established in the 1940s.
We were welcomed at the Amhara regional tourism commission and assigned a bright young man to accompany us into northeast Gojjam. Officials confirmed that they were having an unprecedented flood of tourists. They asked if we could advise them on organizing their new regional museum and suggested we visit it. It is part of a complex around a dramatic martyrs' monument that has been built on a hill on the north side of the Blue Nile. We saw its brightly lit tower as we came into the city the night before. It commemorates the struggle against the Derg by the EPDM (now the ANDM) The monument complex was inaugurated in ceremonies in December 2005 on the 25th anniversary of the founding of the EPDM. It incorporates a theater, conference rooms, a huge auditorium, exhibit halls and rooms for extensive museum displays. Its main concourse, which leads downhill to the river, features statues of fighters like those at Adi Haqi, the TPLF martyrs' monument in Makelle. On the whole, the complex impressed us as grander than its counterpart in Makelle where other buildings are separate.
Though we have traveled in Northeast Gojjam since the 1970s, there are always new things to discover and new experiences to be had, though the region itself seems to have changed little during the time we have known it. One can imagine that the attractive landscape must look much the same as it did when the Portuguese came to the region in the early 16th century. Our principal purpose on this visit was Martha's research in carpets and textiles. I was interested in learning more about the history of the region and photographing church treasures and architecture. Our goal was three major churches/monasteries: Mota Giyorgis, Qeranyo Medhane Alem, and Mertule Maryam. Over a five-day period we made very good visits to each of them. Our visits were facilitated by arrangements the Amhara Tourism Commission made with church authorities in Debre Marqos. Everywhere we were welcomed warmly and shown anything we asked to see. We saw signs of increasing prosperity throughout the region. The harvest this year was excellent. Threshing was almost finished. In many towns, Qeranyo, e.g., great piles of white hundredweight bags of teff lined the roadside waiting for transport. Traditional Amhara culture centered on the Orthodox Church remains strong throughout this region. At Mertule Maryam preparations were under way for the great annual festival, Tir Maryam. As the weekend approached, roads were busy with busses bringing pilgrims to the celebration. But we found no new hotels in the town and returned to Mota again for the night. The former forestry school outside of Mertule Maryam has been turned into a vocational college with impressive new buildings.
Having studied the history of Mertule Maryam and written several articles on its architecture, I took advantage of the opportunity to examine the ruins in detail again. As I noted in a footnote above, the effort which cultural authorities have made to protect the site has resulted in encasing the whole great ruin in a tin cage which destroys the aesthetic quality of the site and makes examination of the architectural features of the huge multi-roomed building difficult. Nothing has been done since the cage was erected several years ago to stabilize any part of the ruin (most of which, fortunately, remains in solid condition), to clear fallen debris, or to survey the surrounding area for stones which may have been carried off and used in local buildings. No effort has been made to expose buried foundations. A monk called my attention to a hole dug long ago not far from the modern round church where the corner of solid foundations with ornamental carving has been revealed, evidence of a substantial building possibly dating from the time the monastery was established (at the end of the 15th century). There is much serious work for archaeologists at Mertule Maryam.
At Qeranyo we were shown several things we had not seen on previous visits, including the church's entire collection of 18th century Anatolian kilims (22 in all, plus fragments) and several other Persian or Caucasian carpets. On another day the head priest, Melaka Melaik Tesfa Selassie, invited us back to see a huge wooden cross, said to have been brought from Jerusalem, which was hidden in a cave in a nearby arm of the Abbay Gorge during the Italian occupation. They regard it as their most precious possession. The Italians destroyed the original church at Qeranyo. It was rebuilt after the Liberation. Most of its treasures were hidden in the cave with the huge cross. We were led to the edge of the gorge and shown the location of the cave. Far below we saw the buildings of the monastery of Golgotha. It is located among cultivated fields, though the bottom of the gorge is covered mostly with thick forest said still to harbor wild animals. The monastery, we were told, has 33 monks and nuns. After this little excursion the Melaka Melaik, a kindly man who teaches large numbers of students, invited us to coffee and fresh lamb tibs at a megeb bet in the town.
At Mota Giyorgis we saw large collection of Persian carpets as well as a rich group of silk garments which had belonged to Woleta Israel, daughter of Iyasu II, who founded the church in EC1747, as well as a great many other vestments and possessions of other figures of the Gojjam nobility. The elegant and friendly head priest, Melaka Genet Nebret Onetu, oversaw our inspection of the church's treasures in the yard of its eqabet seated on an armchair. He assured me he remembered me from a visit several years ago. Mota Giyorgis also had interesting manuscripts, including a rare illustrated copy of an Iskinder, a romanticized history of Alexander the Great.
Having moved into the new Summerland Hotel before we left Bahr Dar, we returned there for an overnight stay, picked up baggage and prepared to return to Addis Ababa. This beautiful hotel has quickly become a favorite gathering place for affluent local people in Bahr Dar as well as visiting diaspora Ethiopians. Besides ourselves there was only one ferenji couple in the dining room on a Saturday night. We said goodbye to Bahr Dar the next morning and headed south. I had traveled to Addis Ababa in June via Wollega, over the second Blue Nile Bridge completed in 1992. This time we took the main highway through Injibara, Dembacha and Debre Marqos. Paving has improved life in all the villages through which the highway passes. The countryside gave further evidence of the excellent harvest northern Ethiopia has enjoyed this year. On the broad plains of southern Gojjam vast herds of healthy cattle were grazing. Nearing Dejen we passed through Yetnora, Mengistu's favorite village on which he lavished money and attention. It has now turned into an ordinary roadside town. The highway is now asphalted all the way to Dejen. The section across the gorge, however, is still being prepared for asphalting and the Shafartak bridge is being resurfaced. Consequently traffic across the gorge is stopped between 10 and 3 each day, so we stayed overnight in a new hotel in Dejen where heavy trucks were lined up to start early in the morning across the gorge.
We timed our crossing well, just after most of the trucks had gone. Air in the gorge was still dimmed by the dust heavy truck traffic raised. A crew of workmen was busy chopping off the surface of the bridge. The river was comparatively low. We were on asphalt again as soon as we climbed up to Goha Tsion on the Shoan side and had smooth going through northern Shoa all the way Addis Ababa, which we reached shortly after noon.
We spent our final week in Addis Ababa, arriving a few days after an American mission headed by Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer had visited. The mission came to assess the Eritrean situation but was told by Isaias Afewerki that would not be welcomed in Asmara. In Ethiopia they updated themselves on the post-election situation as well as the border demarcation problem and reached balanced and responsible conclusions in respect to both. The Subsaharan Informer of Friday,17 January, carried a headline, "Frazer tells Ethiopian opposition not to rely on US." Most Ethiopians we met welcomed this position. American Embassy charge Vicki Huddleston was widely praised for her moderating influence and good judgment in contrast to the position of many of the European embassies and the EU mission.
During the next five days we met great numbers of Ethiopian friends, businessmen, ferenji residents and officials. I worked with my publisher on my forthcoming books on the Derg era, visited the University and gave a talk on Aksumite archaeology to the Interest Group at the Hilton. In contrast to the provinces and the countryside where we had spent the previous four weeks, my wife and I found many people in the capital preoccupied with political debate and gossip. We were surprised how many people we met expressed opinions to this effect:
"It is a pity we had to have these elections--the country was doing well and prospects for continued progress appeared good; the elections have stirred up needless controversy and strain."
Other comments we heard frequently were such as these:
"Opposition groups took advantage of the government's openness and made a lot of wild propaganda, but they didn't demonstrate that they would be capable of governing or doing much more than the government is doing to develop the country."
"Some of the opposition people deliberately stirred violence and let young people risk their lives, but they didn't take any real risk themselves. This was irresponsible. The government had to take action against this kind of behavior." What were the police to do when demonstrators started throwing rocks at them--simply throw them back? Things don't work that way anywhere in Africa.
"Kinejit won in Addis Ababa and the government accepted their win immediately. Why can't they get together, take over the city show how they can improve things? Now they are fighting among themselves. Are they afraid of taking on the job?"
The government went into the elections without a plan and did a poor job of letting the population know what it had done. They should have shifted some people before the election and announced plans for the future.
Such statements were made by moderates--responsible, thinking people involved in business, civic affairs and development projects. They do not indicate abandonment of hope of democracy nor unthinking approval of everything the government has done. Its record is mixed, but it is still a puzzle to most thinking people why it lost the capital so decisively. All high officials I met reconfirmed an unequivocal commitment to democracy as well as to more effective performance by the government. But everyone now realizes that achievement of a smoothly operating democratic system is a long process that requires more than elections and rhetoric. It cannot be accomplished by vengeful accusations or unrealistic promises. There is universal regret that violence has occurred and people killed. There is deep concern about continuing outbreaks of rock-throwing and destruction of property which are attributed to Kinejit influence. Other opposition elements do not attract the same opprobrium as Kinejit. While there is fear that protests could get out of hand and spread, worry is tempered by the expectation that the government will move decisively to maintain order.
I was in Addis Ababa when the election took place in May 2005. I was impressed by the orderliness of the undertaking, the enthusiasm of the population for voting, and the fact that foreign observers were encouraged to watch the entire process. I was less impressed by the overheated rhetoric of many opposition politicians, but I dismissed it as conventional campaign excess. I was surprised when it appeared that Kinejit had swept Addis Ababa but impressed that the government immediately acknowledged their victory, though it was puzzling that Arkebe Oqubay, the mayor who had been praised to me time and again during the past two years had been so decisively rejected. A few days after the election I left for the north. Results came out slowly and controversy arose. The opposition alleged fraud; protest demonstrations occurred and were met by strong police response. Violence and killings shocked and disappointed everyone who had hoped that the election would mark the beginning of a new stage in Ethiopia's democratization, possibly the emergence of a genuine two-party system. Returning to a tense Addis Ababa through the Amhara region and Wollega in mid-June, I took part in a development conference sponsored by Western Michigan University and the Institute of Development Research (IDR) at AAU and left soon after for Europe with a feeling of apprehension about the way the post-election situation might develop.
In Europe and America during the rest of the year I followed Ethiopian developments via the Internet, press reports and information direct from Ethiopia. By November, when opposition leaders deliberately encouraged actions that led to a new wave of violence, most of them were arrested and imprisoned. I wrote an appraisal of the situation at that time which I reread on return from my recent visit to Ethiopia and concluded that I saw no reason to change the basic judgments in it. I will confine the remainder of this report to elaboration of some of these in light of what I have learned and what has transpired in intervening months. While I feel confident of these judgments in general, they may of course require adjustment in light of the trials of opposition leaders and supporters which are now taking place in Addis Ababa. If the government presents the evidence it says it has, it will demonstrate that some of these leaders contrived in the wake of the election to generate violence with the intention of causing a "Rose Revolution" and that it was confronted by an attempted coup. In an appendix to this report I summarize my own view of the evolution of political parties in Ethiopia and among the Ethiopian diaspora since 1974.
Questions and Tentative Answers:
Did the EPRDF Contrive to Commit Massive Fraud? We have only the claims of opposition elements which began to be made as soon as voting came to an end--which raises suspicions that the claims had been decided upon in advance (as has become almost habitual in recent elections in many developing countries). The government made elaborate preparations for the election, permitted propaganda, polemics and demonstrations by opposition groups and invited foreign observers who had access to polling places in the capital and provinces. The accusation seems inherently improbable because deliberate fraud would have required extensive planning and actions during the voting and counting which would have required enormous effort and skill to keep hidden from hundreds of observers and voters themselves.
If the government's plan was to win by virtue of massive fraud, why did it immediately announce that Kinejit had won the capital? And why did it acknowledge the defeat of a number of key government officials?
Both government officials and opposition observers at the polls in some constituencies may have engaged in spontaneous questionable actions to intimidate and influence voters. Such actions are not unknown even in advanced democracies. Both the government and opposition officials made accusations of such behavior. Voting re-runs in a number of constituencies resulted in changed results, some in favor of EPRDF candidates; others confirmed opposition wins.
Were Foreign Observers Objective? Irregularities reported by foreign observers were no greater nor more frequent or flagrant in kind than have usually been reported in Third World elections. The government lodged fewer complaints against Carter Center observers than against the much larger group sent by the EU. Instances of improper behavior before the voting by Ana Gomes, the head of the EU team, including consistent bias toward opposition, have been alleged by the government. Ms. Gomes is known to have invited CUD deputy leader Berhanu Nega to take her room at the Sheraton because, she said, she was worried about his security. The action was partisan and improper; if she was genuinely worried about his safety she had immediate access to the highest authorities and opportunity to announce her concern. Her action was taken by Kinejit as confirmation of their claim that the government planned physical action against their candidates. Ms. Gomes then leaked results of exit polls. The government protested Ms. Gomes' conduct to the EU. The EU has never responded.
Did some opposition leaders plan to turn the Election into a "Rose Revolution" in imitation of what has happened in the past two years in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan? A good deal of circumstantial evidence has accumulated. The readiness of some Kinejit leaders to unleash violence in November by calling for demonstrations and strikes looks irresponsible after the violence that occurred immediately after the election. Kinejit declarations revealed a desire to raise civic disorder to the level of an uprising on the streets. There is less evidence that Hibret leaders were as prone to risk violence as Kinejit leaders were. The degree to which violence leading to a revolutionary overturn may have been deliberately planned (and the degree to which it might have been inspired by the exile ex-MEISON revolutionary Negede Gobeze) will depend on the evidence the government provides in current trials. There can be little doubt about Negede Gobeze's intentions. In his book he urged that the opposition could best make gains by the classic radical method of "sharpening contradictions". The question is to what extent his advice was applied.
If some leaders' intention was to provoke a "Rose Revolution", they misunderstood the character of the revolutions that occurred in the three ex-Soviet republics during the past two years. These revolutions took place against governments that were led by ex-communists who had failed to break completely with Soviet practice; they brought governments to power that were anti-communist and more fully committed to democratization. The Ethiopian situation is entirely the opposite. Kinejit aimed to restore Amhara domination as it had existed under the imperial and Derg regimes.
To which extent is Kinejit neo-Dergist? Hailu Shawel, leader of Kinejit was a was an official during the Derg period. Among other things, he was in charge of state farms, one of the most costly and least successful of Derg undertakings. Other former Derg officials joined Kinejit component parties. Kinejit received financial and moral support from diaspora elements with substantial ex-Derg membership. Much Kinejit electoral propaganda reflected pro-Derg sentiment. All 4 Kinejit component parties are Amhara-centrist-based, have a history of anti-EPRDF orientation and advocacy of restoration of certain Derg policies and procedures.
How significant is Diaspora Support for Opposition Groups? It is
substantial. Diaspora parties in the US are strong supporters of Kinejit, propagandized for it before and after the election and provided funds for its activities in Ethiopia. Both Kinejit and Hibret received significant funding from its diaspora supporters. Immediately after the election leaders of both opposition coalitions flew to Washington to "campaign" among sympathetic diaspora groups, urging them to pressure the US Congress and the US Government to take action against the Ethiopian government. Ethiopia is almost unique among Third World countries in the degree to which its diaspora intervene in domestic politics. The major elements of the Hibret coalition recently appealed to the EPRDF government to provide funds to subsidize them after their diaspora "branch" in Washington DC cut off their funding because they permitted winning candidates to enter parliament!
How Democratic are Ethiopian Opposition Groups? All claim, of course, to be democratic. Conventional wisdom among journalists and Human Rights advocates abroad almost invariably take claims of being democratic by opposition groups as valid. In actuality, the democratic credentials of most Ethiopian opposition groups remain to be proven. There is much negative evidence. Kinejit, e.g., has been autocratically led by Hailu Shawel and his immediate associates. They have engaged in pressure tactics to keep their own winning candidates from taking seats in parliament or taking over administration of the capital. Kinejit leaders have also pressured Hibret to follow their lead, an effort which largely failed. Hailu's erstwhile lieutenant, Lidetu Ayalew, accused him of autocratic leadership and withdrew his party from the coalition. Both coalitions have fragmented since late 2005 and the process continues. The alliance between Kinejit and Hibret during the campaign and the election has collapsed as the most important Hibret leaders have sought methods of breaking the deadlock over parliamentary participation and cooperation with the government.
What is the Impact of Eritrea on the Situation in Ethiopia? A deplorable aspect of the situation since the controversy over the election developed has been the extreme opportunism of some opposition elements in respect to Eritrea. The situation is rich in contradictions and incongruity. Though some Kinejit candidates advocated reversal of Eritrean independence during the campaign as well as military action to take over the port of Assab (and these proposals were endorsed by diaspora groups) during recent months Kinejit has demonstrated completely contradictory behavior. Isaias Afewerki, desperate to discredit Ethiopia, has permitted Eritrean radio and TV to broadcast pro-Kinejit propaganda. The Oromo Liberation Front has likewise been utilizing Eritrean broadcasts. There is little evidence that this de facto cooperation between Kinejit, the OLF and the beleaguered Eritrean regime has had much impact in Ethiopia, but it is a measure of willingness of these people to ignore fundamental Ethiopian interests. There are also indications of de facto cooperation in the United States between Eritrean and anti-EPRDF diaspora groups, hitherto inimical to each other.
Did Opposition Electoral Programs Represent a Realistic Alternative to EPRDF Policies and Programs? In the early phases of the electoral campaign there was some serious debate about policies and programs. But as the campaign continued, rational debate about economic and social programs largely gave way to magnification of grievances and irresponsible prescriptions for change. Opposition campaigning became blatantly demagogic and unrealistic to the point of revealing lack of concern about the viability of the country and maintenance of its international position. Refusal to accept the validity of the 1995 constitution and reversal of the ethnic-based administrative system would entail a drastic restructuring of Ethiopia which would inevitably impact adversely on economic development momentum and leave no resources to implement the expansion of employment and educational opportunities which both opposition coalitions championed. No one has made a serious case that policies advocated by the opposition coalitions could be effectively implemented. There is, in fact, if election returns are carefully analyzed, little evidence that Kinejit, even combined with Hibret, could have gained enough votes to have formed a government. If the "Rose Revolution" some opposition leaders advocated had succeeded, Ethiopia is likely to have been set back to the level to which it had fallen at the end of the Derg. (See also footnote 28 above.)
Did Kinejit Advocate Genocide? Evidence of fanning of ethnic tensions, and particularly of incitement of hatred against Tigrayans was extensive and continues. Exaggerated accusations of EPRDF favoritism toward Tigray, false allegations of budgetary allocations among regions for infrastructure projects and allocation of foreign aid were repeated over and over again before the elections and have persisted since. These charges have been echoed and extended by diaspora sympathizers and supporters of Kinejit and, though to a lesser extent by supporters of Hibret. Many of the anti-Tigrayan allegations echo late Derg-period propaganda. There is a good deal of evidence that this approach has alarmed other non-Amhara ethnic groups. Whether Kinejit's declarations constitute intention to commit genocide, they certainly indicate a desire to exacerbate ethnic tension.
During our last weekend in Addis Ababa we traveled through Gurageland and down the Rift Valley to the Bishangari resort on the east side of Lake Langano. The trip was a visual demonstration of the economic progress that the EPRDF has brought about during the past 14 years. The highway from Alemgena to Butajira has been asphalted. A historical park has been established at Melka Kunture, the site along the Awash where remains of human habitation extending back two million years have been discovered. The simple exhibits and displays at the site make these discoveries understandable to visitors with explanations in English and Amharic. We saw in the guestbook that Russian Ambassador Afanasiyev and his party had just preceded us as visitors. Across the Awash we observed an enormous expanse of greenhouses, a horticultural project based on Israeli investment. As we traveled on southward, we passed several other flower-growing installations almost unbelievable in extent. Ethiopia is already rivalling Kenya as an exporter of cut flowers and is expected to gross $100 million annually in a year or two.
After an enjoyable stay at Bishangari, an ecologically compatible resort supported by the local Oromo community, we returned to Addis Ababa in heavy Sunday-afternoon traffic through an industrial corridor that is almost continuous from Mojo northward through Debre Zeit and Akaki. We passed several new textile factories, car- and tractor-assembly plants, industrial and consumer goods operations of many kinds. The disgruntled students at Kirrem Dingay could not have envisioned such industrial development in their wildest dreams. Diaspora visitors from Washington DC and Los Angeles would have to wear blinders to avoid seeing the progress that has been made along this corridor alone since the fall of the Derg. Mengistu, who had all commercial signs removed in Addis Ababa when he celebrated the establishment of his "Workers' Party in 1984 to show his Soviet and East European guests his hatred of capitalism, would hardly recognize Addis Ababa today with its new buildings, neon signs and rush-hour traffic.
The EPRDF took its accomplishments too much for granted as it approached the May 2005 elections. It had done no systematic polling to gauge attitudes among the population. It engaged in little publicity about the gains it has made. It failed to recognize that its success has generated rising expectations--people want progress faster than government can deliver it. The EPRDF let the most opportunistic and unprincipled elements in opposition coalitions misrepresent its policies and belittle its accomplishments. Some opposition people, especially in Kinejit, appear to be more interested in revenge against the EPRDF for having defeated the Derg than in the welfare of the Ethiopian people. They are supported by diaspora elements equally motivated by revenge--and with no intention returning to live in the country themselves. The EPRDF now needs to re-examining its past performance and rebuild confidence among those segments of the population that support it while bringing those to oppose it to understand the futility of their destructive tactics. Above all, the EPRDF needs to transform itself formally into a genuine national party to compete on a democratic basis with other national parties. The Ethiopian political system needs to be transformed to ensure that Ethiopian political decisions are made in Ethiopia itself, not among diaspora and ex-Dergists in Washington DC.
Paul B. Henze
10 March 2006
Political Opposition to the Derg:
Ethiopia had no political parties until the Revolution of 1974. During early Derg years several emerged. All had been brutally suppressed by the Derg by the end of the 1970s. It proclaimed its own Soviet-style "Workers' Party" in 1984. Meanwhile opposition went underground or took shape abroad, primarily in the United States. By the early 1980s three guerrilla groups had begun to coalesce inside the country: The Eritrean Popular Liberation Front (EPLF) in Eritrea; the Tigray Popular Liberation Front (TPLF) in Tigray; and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in the east and west of the country.
The EPLF, declaredly Marxist, enjoyed both communist and radical Arab support, and used rough methods to eliminate rival groups.
The TPLF was launched by ex-students who claimed to be Marxists but had no foreign support and relied on mobilizing the Tigrayan peasantry.
The OLF suffered from factionalism which reflected Oromo religious and social diversity.
While the EPLF and the TPLF developed powerful guerrilla forces armed with weaponry captured from Derg forces, the OLF's contribution to the defeat of the Derg was more modest. The TPLF fostered a parallel guerrilla organization among the northern Amhara, the EPDM, and the two merged at the end of the 1980s into the EPRDF.
Two early Derg-era parties survived in remote areas of the north. Members who escaped to Europe and America were active abroad:
The Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP), a Marxist but anti-military group, and
The All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (MEISON), originally established under Derg auspices, though it soon broke with the Derg.
Ethiopian exiles in Europe and America were continually joined by defectors, some very high-level, from the Derg. Some of these staffed broadcasts of the Voice of America and Deutsche Welle. Others, e.g. Dawit Wolde Giorgis, wrote memoirs that gained popularity at home. Some helped organize famine-relief operations and broadcasts from Sudan. These were commendable activities, but their direct contribution to the physical defeat of the Derg was minimal. It was the guerrilla movements and the rural populations that supported them who did the fighting, bleeding and dying. By the end of the 1980s, several diaspora parties and relief groups had become organized in the US. Except for pro-Eritrean and pro-TPLF groups, all were essentially Amhara-Centrist in character, anti-Tigrayan and strongly anti-EPRDF. The northern guerrillas gave the Derg's armies a series of stunning defeats in the late 1980s. The EPRDF advanced steadily southward during 1990-91. Mengistu fled in May 1991 and the EPRDF took over the country while the EPLF took control of Eritrea. Exiles in Washington descended on the State Department to denounce the US Government for recognizing EPRDF/EPLF victory and "giving away" Eritrea. VOA broadcasts by Amhara-Centrist sympathizers sparked riots at the American Embassy in Addis Ababa. These developments are worth recalling in light of events in Ethiopia in 2005.
Even before the EPRDF gained control of remote border regions, it invited all exile groups disavowing violence to a National Conference on Peace and Democracy in the first week of July 1991 to set up a Transitional Government. Many did. A large number of EPRDF-associated domestic groups, some hastily organized, also participated. The EPLF came only in observer status. Political groups in the US who denounced the US Government for recognizing reality in Ethiopia refused to take part. They soon began to be joined by Derg members and supporters who took refuge in America. Over time, ex-Dergists became active in many anti-EPRDF groups in Washington and in other parts of the US and Canada. This fact needs also to be kept in mind in judging the events of 2005.
Post-Derg Political Party Evolution:
At the July 1991 National Conference 20 groups constituting 100 members were given voting rights and became a de facto legislative council. They set up the Transitional Government which functioned until it was replaced in 1995 by the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia under the 1994 Constitution. During 1991-92 more than a hundred political groupings emerged in Ethiopia. The OLF participated briefly in the Transitional Government, then withdrew. Some factions turned to violence. They were quickly neutralized by the EPRDF. Ethiopia remained remarkably peaceful and orderly through the 1990s. Eritrea under EPLF control gained formal independence in 1993. Political opposition to the EPRDF was primarily ethnic in character and fragmented. Eventually a number of groups became consolidated around energetic leaders. Political dialogue revolved around demands for participation in government. Opposition party leaders concentrated their energies on appealing to foreign governments and NGOs to persuade or force the EPRDF to accept them as governing partners. While the EPRDF's component parties concentrated on administration and development, opposition parties gave little attention to debating policies, programs and priorities in ways that appealed to much of the population. They were primarily urban-oriented and did not develop grass-roots organizations. Foreign governments and NGOs concentrated many of their efforts on these opposition groups, reinforcing their tendency to orient themselves outward rather than inward. They did not become serious political competitors on the domestic scene and did not advocate programs opposed to EPRDF policies in any sense except encouraging NGOs and foreign governments to press for their representation. As diaspora Ethiopians became more affluent, they gave financial support to domestic opposition parties. This was particularly true of Amhara-centrist-oriented parties, the predecessors of those who formed the Kinejit coalition. The Hibret coalition also gained supporters abroad. These consisted primarily of non-Amharas and even included a few dissident TPLF types.
Thus, in comparison to most other ex-communist countries where neo-communist and neo-socialist parties emerged quickly and became competitors in elections, Ethiopia experienced no neo-Derg revival. With little substantive challenge to its policies and programs, the EPRDF implemented a liberal constitution in 1995, reorganized the administration of the country on ethnic lines, permitted a plethora of political groups and domestic NGOs to function and tolerated a varied and energetic private press, periodically taking punitive measures against journalistic excesses. After demobilizing the Derg's armies it devoted its primary energies to expansion of physical infrastructure and education, social services and economic rejuvenation. Of course its performance was not always efficient or above criticism, but it gained significant aid from the World Bank, the IMF, the EU and many governments on a bilateral basis. It gained praise for responsible international behavior by participating in efforts to enforce peace in Somalia and Rwanda and cooperating in anti-drug and anti-terrorism operations. It encouraged the expansion of an open society in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia's first national elections were held in 1992. Their purpose was to create local administrations, which was accomplished, but in other respects these elections achieved little progress toward democracy. Even at this early stage opposition parties focussing most of their attention on foreign embassies and NGOs in hopes that they could persuade them to pressure the EPRDF. They gave little thought to ways of seeking genuine compromise with the government. They advanced no coherent policies or programs. They failed to take advantage of opportunities that existed to participate in the domestic political process. Most adopted a policy of total rejectionism, refusing to participate in further elections, or referenda, or the constitutional process. Thus a marginalization of opposition to the EPRDF set in and continued for the next 12 years, through the constitutional referendum of 1994 and the regularly scheduled elections of 1995 and 2000.
In May 1998 Eritrea invaded northern Ethiopia, claiming several areas along the border. Why? Probably because Isaias Afewerki wished to divert his own population from his failures. He mistook the lively open society that had developed in Ethiopia as evidence of weakness and by invading aimed to cause the collapse of the EPRDF government. Eritrean forces destroyed schools, clinics, and infrastructure, confiscated Ethiopian goods in the ports of Massawa and Assab and forced hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to flee as refugees from occupied territories. But, as dictators often do, Isaias miscalculated. The EPRDF, which had maintained almost no military or security forces in the border region, mobilized to drive the Eritreans back and the entire country, including opposition political groups, rallied to support the government. Ethiopians had probably never been as united before in their history. Eritrea's army was driven back deep into its own territory by early 2000 Isaias sued for peace. In spite of its invasion Eritrea was indulged by the international community, including the United States, and under international pressure Ethiopia agreed to less than a satisfactory peace which left the border a contentious issue.
Defeating Eritrea cost Ethiopia heavily in money, lives and delayed development, but EPRDF leadership had established sufficient economic momentum that losses were made up quickly. National elections were held on schedule in May 2000 with modest gains by opposition elements who participated. The EPRDF remained firmly in control of the government but experienced internal dissension during the next two years which had remarkably little effect on development momentum or the society as a whole.
The 14th International Ethiopian Studies Conference met for five days at Addis Ababa University in November 2000. At it I delivered a paper comparing Ethiopia's experience in political and economic development with other ex-communist countries, with many of which I was personally familiar. Considering the country's initial underdevelopment and the damage done by misconceived Derg programs, it had experienced less strain and was recovering more successfully than many other ex-communist countries. Nevertheless it faced many challenges. I concluded this paper with the following observations:
Ethiopia...needs to accelerate developmental momentum to move well ahead of its rate of population growth if the well-being of its people is to increase. It needs to develop its potential for hydropower. Above all it needs to accelerate agricultural growth, open new lands and increase productivity of land under cultivation. It needs to increase exports to be able to afford more imports. It needs to expand education to the point where the entire population receives at least a few years of elementary schooling and becomes literate. It needs to increase the rate of expansion of higher education while maintaining quality. It needs to create opportunities for employment in industry, services and professions. Health care needs to be expanded. The spread of AIDS and diseases which are the consequence of it must be contained. None of these tasks should be left up to the government alone. Expansion of bureaucracy should be discouraged because excess bureaucracy encourages corruption. The federal government and state and local governments should create conditions that will facilitate private agriculture, private industry, private commerce and private initiative in fields such as health care, education, tourism development and a wide range of cultural activities, including preservation of the country's unique historical and cultural heritage.
Run-up to the 2005 Elections and Aftermath:
When opposition groups announced they would participate in the elections scheduled for May 2005 it appeared that they had finally abandoned their habit of rejectionism and non-participation. Though they had had little success in preceding years persuading foreign governments and NGOs to pressure the EPRDF in their behalf, they had developed vocal and affluent supporters in the diaspora whose resentment of EPRDF success and international standing was deep. They failed to devise coherent alternatives to EPRDF policies and programs but there was hope that electoral campaigning would force them to do so. It did not. The campaign was not fought on a level playing field. There was little serious, substantive debate. Opposition coalitions showed little awareness of the fact that successful politics is the art of the possible and democracy a process for compromise and peaceful accommodation to change. Kinejit, in particular, became obsessed with revenge, magnifying grievances and proposing dismantling of much of what the EPRDF had accomplished during the previous 14 years. They fell under the influence of neo-Dergists at home and abroad who finally felt free to express their resentment of the defeat that the northern guerrillas had dealt Mengistu's oppressive regime. After the election, rejectionism re-emerged as a dominant tactic. Though they made significant gains, especially in the capital, they failed to take advantage of them by taking office and governing. Kinejit leaders boycotted parliament--where they could have gained experience in real democratic procedure--and took measures against partners who did not follow their dictates. Diaspora supporters threatened measures against those among opposition winners who displayed a desire to engage in normal democratic political activity.
The result of the 2005 elections reflects far more discredit on the opposition parties than it does on the government, whatever its shortcomings may be.
To become a successful democracy Ethiopia needs a system where politics functions within the country and revolves around honest and realistic debate. The EPRDF and its supporters now face the challenge of creating such a system and cooperating with opposition to make it work. Otherwise democracy has little chance of developing in Ethiopia.
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