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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Frail Illusion of Democracy Turns into Open Oppression in Ethiopia

By Marina de Regt, Kirubel Belete, Danae Issa
Anthropoly Department, University of Amsterdam


Since last summer, Ethiopia, a country with which many Yemenis have close ties, is experiencing a new period of oppression. The optimism after the downfall of the communist dictator Mengistu had already started dwindling some time ago, but the recent outbreak of violence and suppression led by the government of Meles Zenawi has reached unbearable proportions. Peaceful actions of the population as a response to the disdain of the ruling party for the results of the last elections (May 2005) were broken with fierce violence in which many people were killed, even more injured, and thousands arrested, among which opposition parties' leaders and members, journalists and editors. Ethiopia’s history seems to repeat itself, but this time under a fake colour of democracy, which makes it even more perverse than in the past.

In 1974 Haile Selassie, the last king of Ethiopia, was brought down by a military coup led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. The hard-line socialist regime of Mengistu confiscated land from landlords to give it to landless farmers who were previously employed on large farms. In addition merchants, among which many foreigners, lost their properties such as houses, shops and factories – this was one of the main reasons why many Yemenis decided to return home in the 1970s. The "Derg" (as Ethiopians call Mengistu's regime) laid stress on unity of the country and equality among the Ethiopian people, and therefore tried to get rid of ethnic, social and economic differences. But the notorious dark side of it was the extremely authoritarian way in which the dictator enforced his principles and in particular the violent suppression of any form of political opposition.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Front were the two main movements that fought an armed struggle against the military junta, with the aim to liberate the people from oppression, allow more independence to each province and ethnic group, and also fight poverty and underdevelopment. In May 1991, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of different opposition movements, succeeded in overthrowing Mengistu’s regime. Meles Zenawi, the chairman of the EPRDF and a former member of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front formed a transitional government and promised to establish a democratic state, improve the economy, fight poverty and work towards overall development of the country. On that basis, many Ethiopian people supported him, especially as they saw in him the hero who had put an end to Mengistu's rule and who would at last bring the air of democracy to Ethiopia.

In the first years of his leadership, Meles Zenawi was seen as one of the new enlightened leaders in Africa, notably by Western countries who were relieved to see the end of the communist regime and hopeful that Ethiopia would finally develop into a democratic state, and that an end would come to famine, war and underdevelopment. Strong hopes were put on him, permitting him to build very good diplomatic relationships with most Western governments and thus attract huge amounts of foreign aid. But internally, his position was already contested because he was a clear representative of the Tigray Liberation Front and people were afraid that he would not represent the interests of the whole population. In May 1995, Ethiopia’s first free and democratic elections were held and Meles Zenawi became Prime Minister. A new political system based on ethnic federalism replaced the centralised rule that existed during Mengistu. Ethiopia became the “Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia” and was divided into fourteen federal states based on ethnicity and region (regions became characterized by their ethnic majority such as Oromo, Tigray, Amhara or Somali). The rationale behind this policy was that every ethnic group could develop its own region, but the downside of it was that ethnicity became a dividing factor amongst the population. Unfortunately, it illustrated the well-known strategy to “divide and rule” rather than providing equal development to each region and all Ethiopians. Although a number of people in different provinces supported this policy because it gave them a certain degree of independence, most people suffered from its consequences: it became difficult to work and live in other places than the one one originally came from, and a certain form of inter-ethnic racism emerged. In addition, the system of ethnic federalism was not implemented completely, since all ethnic groups were clearly not equal: most key political positions were held by people from Tigray, even if members of other tribes were also chosen just in order to give a democratic appearance of fair distribution of posts. Many people lost their jobs because they were replaced by Tigrayans – notably in the army and in governmental organisations and companies. The accent was put on the development of Tigray much more than other provinces – indeed, the region benefited from a special tax system, some companies' headquarters were displaced from Addis Ababa to Tigray, etc. The result was that many Ethiopians of other backgrounds felt discriminated against, and felt that their interests were not represented by the government. Many regions were deprived of economic and social development and large famines occurred again in certain regions.

Opposition to the government of Meles Zenawi increased in particular after the independence of Eritrea in 1995, because the way in which this independence was established had a very heavy impact on the Ethiopian population. Originally from the North of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi has a special relationship with Eritrea: his mother comes from there, the current president of Eritrea Isaias Afewerki used to be his close friend and is even a distant relative of his, and their respective rebel movements had fought Mengistu together. So in 1995 the Ethiopian government allowed Eritrea to become an independent State even though this made Ethiopia lose its access to the sea. The economic situation in the country deteriorated even more, as the government gave special advantages to Eritrea. Following national and international pressure, the government decided to follow a fairer economic policy towards Eritrea, but the Eritrean president didn't accept it, and sparked off the notorious war between Ethiopia and Eritrea by invading Ethiopia near the town of Badme in 1998. Ethiopians from all over the country were forced to go to war, and the number of deaths in these two years of full-scale savage war is counted by tens of thousands. In 2000, the two governments under international pressure finally agreed on a cease fire, and a United Nations mission was sent to keep peace on the border zone and pursue an investigation to decide where the frontier between the two countries was to pass. It then declared that the symbolical town Badme would be in Eritrea. But the Ethiopian government didn't accept this decision, and lied to the population, announcing in the national media that the UN's declaration had put Badme in Ethiopia. When the people found out the truth, they felt betrayed and understood that many Ethiopian lives had been wasted for nothing. In June 2001, students of Addis Ababa University demonstrated to request the government to lay down clearly the issue of Eritrea, but also with other demands: to replace the system of ethnic federalism by a more equal system, to let poor people who had been displaced reclaim their land taken by investors, and more. The students' demonstrations were suppressed with unexpectedly fierce violence from the so-called "democratic" government. At least seven died, many were injured and a high number of students had to flee to other countries.

Opposition kept growing. After Ethiopia's second national elections which had re-elected Meles Zenawi Prime Minister in 2000, several opposition parties decided to unite into one single party: the Coalition for Unity and Development (CUD). The third elections in May 2005, which were the focus of so many hopes inside and outside of Ethiopia as they were supposed to be the ultimate recognition of the country's democratization, actually turned out to be the event which had the illusion of democracy in Ethiopia crumble completely – although signs had already appeared before, as mentioned above. For the first time in Ethiopian history, observers from the United States and from Europe were sent to supervise the electoral process. This time, the CUD won a high number of seats in parliament, all the seats for Addis Ababa and the majority in several other constituencies. Yet, the fact that it was more difficult to control the election process outside of Addis Ababa made it possible for the ruling party (EPRDF) to influence the election results in other regions. The European Union Election Observation Mission (EU-EOM) revealed a report stating that there had been irregularities in the election and the ballots counting process, and that the main opposition party (CUD) had most probably won the elections. But in the beginning of June, the EPRDF simply announced that it had won the elections by 296 to 228 seats, while there were still disagreements over the irregularities and some seats were not clearly allocated yet. Spontaneous riots broke out in Addis Ababa, and were suppressed by violence unprecedented since the end of Mengistu's regime. At least 36 people were shot dead and many were injured. Pretending to bring a fair solution to the situation, Meles Zenawi called for an "independent investigation" to find out the exact result of the elections, but this was unacceptable to the opposition since the Electoral Board in charge of the investigation was all made of people who had been chosen by Meles Zenawi himself! Besides, when the government and even some members of the international community blamed the opposition for not accepting to participate in the parliament with the number of seats the government had first published, they forgot to mention an important law that was passed by the parliament just after the elections and before the new parliament members actually entered into office: the minimum number of seats needed to make proposals or put themes on the parliament's agenda changed from 20 to…274, or 51 per cent, which meant that no matter how many seats they won, opposition parties would anyway never have any power at all in the parliament. These conditions make it more understandable why opposition parties refused the results. Yet, they still continued to use the official legal way to get heard, until the last limit.

Following international pressure, commissions were established to examine all the complaints that had been issued about the election process, and it was decided to re-run elections in 31 constituencies. The Prime Minister declared that "If the international observers say the opposition won, we will accept that decision". The new results published by the government showed that the ruling party had won all 31 seats of the re-runs, and thus some high government officials who had lost their seats according to the first results got them back. Again, the European Union Election Observation Mission stressed irregularities in the election process, but Meles Zenawi openly insulted the European Union and the Head of the Mission Mrs. Ana Gomez by writing in an official Ethiopian newspaper that their report was "garbage damp" and that she was a "self-appointed colonial viceroy hell-bent on twisting the arms of the government to force it to accept her dictates". (Meles Zenawi, in the Ethiopian Herald).

In such a situation, the CUD had no other means than protest to repair the injustice they were the victim of. The party announced peaceful actions planned at the end of Ramadan. On Monday, October 31st, a sequence of actions started, beginning with blowing car horns continuously in the morning, and a boycott of governmental companies and media. But even that was not tolerated by the so-called democratic government, as suppression started from the very first day: the police forced horn-blowing drivers to stop and arrested them, and thus had riots spark in several parts of Addis Ababa. In the whole city, that day and the following were marked by lethal violence, as the government's armed forces answered to stone-throwing demonstrators with gunfire, killing at least 46 people, and injuring so many so seriously that hospitals were overwhelmed. The number of arrests is kept secret by the government, but most probably reaches tens of thousands. One of the key weapons of the government, and the cause of anger of the opposing population, was the media: since the first day of protests, ETV (the Ethiopian governmental – and unique – TV channel) broadcasted a speech treating the protestors of "hooligans", "extremists", "criminals" and even "terrorists" and accused the CUD of being an "anti-peace", "anti-democratic" and "anti-unity" movement trying to thwart the development of the country... And every day, slander and rhetorical propaganda against the opposition continued and increased. Turning all the facts to its own advantage, the government thus allowed itself to take any measure, even the most anti-democratic…and it did. In addition to the visible part of the suppression, namely the killings and arrests in the streets, the hidden part of the crackdown was even worse: the police raided at night in people's homes to arrest all youngsters indistinctly, boys and girls, and sometimes mothers who were trying to defend their children – witnesses even report cases of resilient mothers shot dead by the police during these raids at night! The incredibly tragic individual stories of the victims of this fierce suppression are not mentioned in any news bulletin, but can only be heard by talking to Ethiopians in Ethiopia. The police control tightly every movement of the few foreign journalists who have dared, or shown the interest, to report on the recent Ethiopian events. Most opposition leaders have disappeared and are still held currently without any possibility of communication with anyone or any opportunity to defend themselves in court. All private media have been banished, and their editors imprisoned as well.

Foreign media and Embassies in Addis Ababa now claim that things are "back to normal", the streets being quiet, the shops having reopened and transportation restarted. But the only reason for this superficial "normality" is that tens of thousands are in prison, in hospital or dead, and that the government forced shops to open and taxi drivers to work against the threat that they would confiscate all the properties of the former and the driving licenses of the latter. The Ethiopian people are totally traumatized by what has happened and will need a very long time to recover from this shock. In the meantime, the Ethiopian government refuses to answer to requests by Western representatives to release imprisoned members of opposition parties and newspaper editors.


So that is what became of Ethiopian hopes of democracy. The more the Ethiopian government brandishes the rattle of democracy in its rhetoric speeches, the more it scorns it. Its lies can't fool anyone anymore: if it was really committed to making the country a democracy, as it keeps hammering all the time, then why wouldn't it simply accept opposition and political change, which is no less than the very basis and indispensable condition of a democratic system? Why wouldn't it hear people's protest, and try to solve such a crisis through dialogue, or at least a special parliamentary meeting first, instead of resorting to fierce suppression from the first day of pacific protest? The government's wild defensive reaction shows their fear of the opposition, and proves that they are obviously not prepared to accept democracy, let alone promote it. Unfortunately, Meles Zenawi can and will never be the enlightened leader who came to finally save Ethiopia from oppression, but just one more failed leader lost in the dark pages of African history. The main point which distinguishes him from his predecessors seems to be the hypocrisy of calling his rule a democracy. But his mask has now definitively fallen in Ethiopia, as even those who used to support him strongly are now bitterly disappointed (see "Open letter to Meles Zenawi" by one of his former supporters, and many other accounts).

The only fools left might be…the Western countries, who don't seem to accept that they've taken up a wrong bet. Indeed, the rather "soft" reaction of foreign governments and International Organizations in front obvious injustice and high infringement of Human Rights by the Ethiopian government is quite unsatisfactory. For example, the call for "both parties" to "stop violence" by the US and EU Ambassadors in Addis Ababa perverts the truth, as it has the events appear implicitly as a conflict between two equal enemies. Could they be really fooled, contrary to most Ethiopians? It is true that the Ethiopian regime, like any efficient dictatorship, takes a particular care in controlling and manipulating information (Bereket Simon, the Minister of Information, is one of the most prominent figures of the government), and knows which words to use when addressing Western countries in order to keep them on his side. One of these key words is "terrorism", which the government used immediately to characterize the demonstrators and the CUD, although it had absolutely nothing to do with the situation. Another of its leitmotivs is the reference to the Rwandan genocide, as a threat mentioned permanently by the government in order to justify its tough rule. The unscrupulous Minister of Information went as far as telling a journalist from BBC News that "The alternative [to violent suppression] was strife between the different nationalities (sic) of Ethiopia which might have made the Rwandan genocide look like child's play"! Yet, the Ethiopian case is very far from the Rwandan one and no Ethiopian swallows this argument. But of course, opposition parties have no access to the media that would enable them to give a different vision of the Ethiopian reality.

But even if we admit that foreign officials who don't know Ethiopia could have been duped by part of the government's political rhetoric, their reaction remains unsatisfactory after the tragic November events. Even without considering any other fact, even if the party of Meles Zenawi had won the elections, it should still be condemned and punished for its unjustified bloody and arbitrary repressive measures. In addition to the failure of Meles Zenawi to democratize Ethiopia, the current situation also gives one more example of the failure of the international community to react equally to cases of serious injustice and human rights violation. While Western powers could and should do much more, their cautious requests to the Ethiopian government are disappointing. In front of the above-described facts, it is a pressing international and human responsibility to TAKE URGENT ACTION to release all political prisoners including opposition members and editors; dispense justice for those who have lost relatives, have been injured or detained; establish clearly the truth about the elections and surrounding events; allow those who have been suppressed to be heard; and punish the current members of the Ethiopian government for their criminal actions.

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