Ethiopia waiting for democracy

Focus, Saturday, January 14, 2006, p. a17


LAST May, Ethiopia was the darling of western policymakers. After 17 years of Marxist-Leninism and 14 years under a glorified junta, its economy was growing at 12 per cent and multi-party elections were just days away. Ethiopia was looking like a model for African democracy.

The trouble began election day, May 15. Despite Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s assertion that “the election process in Ethiopia was free, fair, and transparent, by any standard,” organizations such as the Carter Center, Human Rights Watch, and the European Union Election Observation Mission beg to differ. Allegations of ballot-stuffing, intimidation at the polls, even political assassination, began to mar the election. While exit polling suggested a majority win for the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy party, Zenawi moved to ban public demonstrations for a month.

When students at Addis Ababa University cut classes in protest, riot police moved in and hauled them away by the thousands. Two days later, taxi drivers and shop owners joined the protest, effectively shutting down the city. On June 8, police shot and killed at least 42 people, including women and children, which prompted the British government to suspend more than $40 million Cdn in planned foreign aid.

Eventually, CUD emerged with 109 seats in the 547-seat parliament. (Zenawi’s party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, holds 327.) But Zenawi’s ruling government is accusing CUD bosses of plotting a coup. Berhanu Negga, Addis Ababa’s recently elected mayor, holds a PhD in economics from the New School University in New York City. Currently he’s on ice — incommunicado — facing a possible death sentence for treason, his request for bail just recently denied. Hailu Shawel, 70, CUD’s president, is also being held, as are Yacob Hailemariam, a former UN Special Envoy and former prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and five Ethiopian journalists employed by Voice of America. Indeed, according to The Economist (Dec. 17, 2005), up to 40,000 political prisoners are being interned in military camps.

Behind the political animosity lies ethnic strife. Zenawi’s EPRDF is ostensibly a federalist melange of Ethiopia’s various nationalities, but its base is the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front that overthrew the Amharic Mengistu regime in 1991. While the Amharas comprise just a quarter of Ethiopia’s population, and the Tigrayans just eight per cent, the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromos, make up nearly 40 per cent of the population. Once secessionist, the Oromo Liberation Front now seeks merely “self-governance” in the Oromia region, which includes Addis Ababa.

The OLF claims to disavow terrorism, but their rhetoric is growing fierce. They claim that agents of the Zenawi government are persecuting Oromos not only in Ethiopia, but also in Kenya, where many are claiming refugee status. The word “genocide” is being bandied about, though perhaps too freely.

Zenawi is doing his best to maintain a veneer of democratic legitimacy whilst pursuing policies that could politely be called autocratic. Beyond his intolerance for dissent, he has been criticized for a relocation program that has seen thousands of peasants rounded up from arid highlands and transported to fertile, but malaria-soaked, wet lowlands. Agriculture, particularly coffee, remains the most important economic activity, but the government, like the Marxist regime it replaced, owns all the land. The CUD wants to privatize the land, but the government, in typical authoritarian fashion, claims that it would be a mistake to do so, as the peasants, if given title to the land upon which they work, would sell the properties and head for idle lives in the cities.

Beyond civil unrest or international condemnation, Zenawi’s government must deal with the spectre of another war with Eritrea, which seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, taking the port cities of Assab and Massawa and leaving Ethiopia landlocked. Following the 1998-2000 war, the new borders were never properly demarcated. Another conflict seems imminent.

With an almost split-even population of Muslims and Christians, Ethiopia is indeed a model for religious tolerance and co-operation. With the right leadership, the country could prosper. But economic reforms and truly fair, free, and transparent elections will be necessary. Rather than mass relocations, the country should be focusing on irrigation development and boosting exports. None of this will happen so long as Zenawi remains convinced he’s the country’s legitimate democratic head of government.

“If I had my way,” Zenawi told the BBC last year, “this would probably be my last term.” For the sake of his country, he should take his retirement now.

Category: Editorial and Opinions
Uniform subject(s): Heads of State and heads of government; Elections
Length: Medium, 630 words

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