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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Teaching Ethiopia Democracy


Sisay Asefa, a professor at Western Michigan University, speaks at a panel that discussed violence, civil unrest and democracy in Ethiopia. The event was organized by Nebyat Demessie, a University graduate student in the school of Health Management and Policy. (JUSTIN BASS/Daily)

Michigan Daily -- In a democracy, the government is elected by the people.

This is the lesson graduate student instructor Menna Demessie taught her students in Introduction to American Politics. But in her home country of Ethiopia, this lesson is being put to the test.

Ethiopia, which held its first open parliamentary elections last May, has been torn by violence since the ruling regime refused to recognize the results of a disputed election in which the opposition party may have won a majority.

The government, led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front party, delayed announcing the official vote count, leaving some to speculate that Zenawi’s administration rigged the election.

Eventually government officials announced that the opposition party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, had won only about 174 of the 547 parliament seats — far fewer than was indicated by preliminary results. The ruling party declared it had won a clear majority with 327 seats.

CUD leaders called the election results fraudulent and protests have continued for many months. Clashes between opposition supporters and police have led to hundreds of deaths and thousands of arrests.

Inspired by the events in Ethiopia and her desire to show her students how to become politically active, Demessie asked her two political science sections to help her organize an event to bring the problems with democratization to the attention of the American government and local community members.

“We talk about this in lecture, so we figured what better way to learn about this than to actually do it ourselves,” Demessie said.

The students called members of Congress and publicized a forum held yesterday called, “Ethiopia Emergency Briefing: Violence, Civil Unrest, and ‘Democracy’ in Ethiopia,” which aimed to educate people on the current situation in the country.

They also documented the opinions of panelists and attendees in order to create a short film to send to members of Michigan’s congressional delegation and the Congressional Caucus on Ethiopia and Ethiopian-Americans, Demessie said.

Speakers at the forum included University graduate students who traveled to Ethiopia last year through a class in the Ford School of Public Policy and Ethiopian professors from universities across Michigan.

“At a very local, campus level, we’re trying to make a lot of noise about what is going on,” Demessie said.

Participants in last night’s event criticized the Zenawi government for creating a “make-believe democracy” and ignoring the will of Ethiopian citizens.

“(The people) are saying enough is enough. Let’s listen to them,” said panelist Meskerem Baalu Girma.

In the aftermath of the election, the opposition party refused to participate in the government and organized protests throughout the country.

On Nov. 1 it called for a week of civil disobedience to protest electoral fraud and the imprisonment of thousands of opposition supporters. Since the protests began, 46 individuals have been killed and many more arrested. Some protestors face death if convicted on charges of treason.

Event participants stressed the need for international, especially U.S., diplomatic intervention in the African nation.

“Now the problem is contained within Ethiopia. Let’s just give it a little bit of time and this problem will become the world’s problem,” Girma said.

The United States has supported the Zenawi government because it has maintained political stability in a relatively volatile area of the world and because it is also an ally in the war on terror, Demessie said.

But, the opposition party would be much more effective in preventing the growth of terrorism within Ethiopia and Africa because it has the mandate of the people, she added.

“In order to combat terror in the long run you have to free people,” agreed panelist Solomon Addis Getahun, a professor at Central Michigan University.

During the past week, Demessie and her students also collected more than 400 signatures for a petition calling on the Bush administration to use all diplomatic means possible to stop the violence and promote democracy in Ethiopia.

The current situation is a turning point for Ethiopia, said event participants.

After years of dictatorships, military regimes and semi-democratic rule, the country now has a chance to become fully democratic if it can receive the necessary international support, panelists and organizers said.

“Even though the democratic train appears to be derailed,” said Sisay Asefa, a professor at Western Michigan University. “It is necessary to put it back (on track).”

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