Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Ethiopia's Struggle for Democracy

Daily Times -- To restore calm before a recount can be held, confidence-building measures are needed. The military must be taken off the streets. The ban on public demonstrations must be lifted. Those in jail must be released or given a fair trial

When we in Ethiopia’s political opposition agreed to participate in the election that
the government called in June, we were under no illusion that the process would be faultless. After all, Ethiopia has never known democracy. The dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam was Africa’s most blood-curdling Marxist regime, and was replaced by today’s ruling EPRDF, whose “Revolutionary Democracy” is but a more subtle variation on the same theme.

So we knew that there would be problems with the election, that voting would not be clean in the way Western countries take for granted. Yet we nonetheless believed that the opposition, led by the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), would have room to manoeuvre and campaign, owing to the government’s desire for international legitimacy. So we decided to test the waters and push for a real political opening and a genuinely competitive vote. Many Ethiopians appear to have agreed with this strategy.

The government did make some media available and engaged in more than 10 live televised debates. So, at least at first, there seemed to have been some intention on the government’s part to open up the process — if not completely, then somewhat.

Now, however, it appears that the authorities wanted only a small, managed opening, on the assumption that they could control the outcome.

About a month before the election, the government began to shut down the political space it had opened. Its election campaign took on a vilifying tone, charging that the opposition was bent on destroying ethnic groups through genocide. Indeed, it called the opposition “interahamwe,” invoking the memory of the Hutu militia that slaughtered 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis in 1994. The government also began to harass opposition parties, especially in rural areas.

This was unpleasant, but tolerable. So we continued campaigning. But things became nastier a week before the vote. Attendance at an official pro-government rally in the capital, Addis Ababa, was dwarfed by our rally the following day, when millions of demonstrators peacefully demanded change and showed their support for us. At that point, the government realised that its democratic opening was slipping out of its control.

Two days before the vote, our poll watchers and supporters were searched, arrested, and given one-day trials, with most sentenced to one or two months in jail. We feared that the voting would take place without the presence of our poll watchers. So we gave a press conference — all the opposition parties together — the day before the vote, demanding that the government release our party workers and allow people to vote freely.

Although the government met neither of these demands, the early results clearly showed that the opposition was gaining a large number of seats. It became obvious that we were winning in many constituencies and that we had won in Addis Ababa, as well as in most of the major cities and the rural areas.

What was surprising was the magnitude of the victory. In Addis Ababa, top government officials, including the ministers of education and capacity building, lost, as did the speaker of the House of People’s Representatives. In rural constituencies, opposition candidates defeated such EPRDF heavyweights as the ministers of defence, information, and infrastructure, along with the presidents of the two largest regions, Oromia and Amhara.

The government wasted little time in responding: the next day, it declared itself the winner, with not even half of the constituencies reporting their results.

No surprise, then, that the public erupted in anger. When university students protested, the police moved in, killing one. In demonstrations the following day, 36 more people were killed. Soon after, our office workers were detained, and Hailu Shawel, Chairman of the CUD, and senior CUD official Lidetu Ayalew were put under house arrest. One hundred staff members were taken from our head office in Addis Ababa alone, and many more from regional offices. Up to 6,000 people were jailed — CUD members and even ordinary citizens.

My fear is that the will of Ethiopia’s people will be stifled by government hard-liners. Doubts about the authenticity of the final results will create a danger of instability. Everyone — the government, the opposition, and the public — must commit themselves to a peaceful resolution.

To restore calm before a recount can be held, confidence-building measures are needed. The military must be taken off the streets. The ban on public demonstrations must be lifted. Those in jail must be released or given a fair trial. Those held simply because they do not support the government must be freed and allowed to participate in the democratic process. The government-controlled media must be open to diverse opinions; in particular, opposition access must be guaranteed.

Equally important, the international community must send observers — and thus a clear signal to the government that any attempt to maintain power by force or intimidation is unacceptable. The world must keep watching, just as it watched in Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon, and Palestine.

For the first time in our ancient history, we Ethiopians have voted our conscience. Our people have played their part with courage and discipline. They deserve the opportunity to build a genuine democratic political system. That is their only guarantee to live in peace and to achieve prosperity. —DT-PS

Dr Berhanu Nega is a member of the Executive Committee and Chairman of the 2005 election campaign of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, Ethiopia’s main opposition party. He was formerly the President of the Ethiopian Economic Association

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