A Critical Analysis of Post Election Political Situation in Ethiopia

By Solomon Terfa (PhD)

(June 26, 2005)

Where exactly are we? What is happening in Ethiopia? Which of the two groups, the opposition or the government has the initiative? Where is the international community? The answers we provide to these and other pertinent questions will enable us to capture what has been swirling in Ethiopian politics the last four to five weeks.

The post May 15, 2005 election political climate has been electrified by the charges and countercharges of the protagonists and antagonists of the election which culminated in the slaughter of 36 innocent Ethiopians and in the imprisonment of thousands. The Addis Ababa University students have historically been the intervening variables in the Ethiopian politics. Their position and role on the social, economic and political issues of the country has significant contribution to their outcome regardless of whether it is positive and or negative. This was the case when General Mengistu Neway decided to overthrow the government of Emperor Haile Selassie. He had the full support of the student of the then Haile Selassie University in 1960. So was the case when, in 1974, another Mengistu successfully overthrew the government of the Emperor. They provided the rational for the need of socio-economic change by advocating the right of Ethiopia's peasant to own the land they tilled . Their slogan was "land to the tiller". The students are the heart, the conscious, and the soul of the Ethiopian people. They have been the drum-beaters of injustice in the society. True to their longstanding tradition of political culture of the university, the students challenged the claim, by the government, that it had won the election. They responded to the cry and plea of their peasant parents, their uncles, their aunts, etc. etc., who live in the countryside, as it is the case of almost 80 % of the Ethiopia's population. The people through their political representatives and leaders of peasant and district associations claimed that they had been robbed of their vote. The students decided to be the voice of the voiceless and amplify the frustration and disappointment of the same. Let the world know of the injustices perpetrated by the government. This, however, means that they would have to defy and transgress the "city wide on ban demonstration in the capital" imposed by the government.

Inspired by the ever present indomitable spirit of former students, Tilahun Gizaw, Birhane Masqel Reda, and others, the students decided to meet the challenge head on by demonstrating peacefully and calling the government to retract its announcement of having won the election. They refused to budge or flinch. Slowly but surely they were joined, as always, by the Addis Ababa community. In unison, they condemned the self-serving declaration that ban demonstration in Addis Ababa. The students seem to be aware of the importance of timing in politics. It is everything. And unless and until they aggressively but peacefully challenged the government's claim that it had won the country-side it will make it fait accompli. The government does not have credibility with most of the people and hence are not ready to start trusting it now. The students have logic with them for refusing to accept the claim of the government that it had won the country-side. Addis Ababa is a microcosm of Ethiopia. With close to four million people, Addis is a home of every ethnic group. And if the government is trounced in Addis, where most of the election districts were attended by foreign observers, 23 to 0, then the possibility for it to loose in the country-side goes without saying. It should be pointed out that there has always been a built-in contradiction between the goal of the government-democracy and its method of achieving it-cheating, lying, intimidation, imprisonment, and carnage. And the people are well aware of this.

Upon national and international condemnation for using lethal force and massacring peaceful demonstrators, the government made a frantic effort to blame the opposition groups for the problem. It claimed that the "opposition, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) was wholly to blame". The fact however was that it was the callous use of the Agazi-special forces-that snuffed out the lives of the 36 people. Let us just, for the sake of the argument, entertain the idea that the CUD is responsible for agitating the students to demonstrate. Doesn't a political organization have that right? Why should it concede when it has evidences that the government has rigged the election. Should the students and other innocent people be shot with the intent to kill? Whatever happened to the democratic values of freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of demonstration to which all peace loving and democratic groups have committed themselves to? Let us, once again, assume for the sake of the argument that the government was compelled to react by the circumstances. Shouldn't its reaction be proportional to the actions of the peaceful demonstrators.

Human Rights Watch has exposed the rapacious nature of the government as follows. "Last week's bloodshed in Addis Ababa was also not the first time that Ethiopian security forces have killed large numbers of protesters. In April 2001, police killed more than 30 people and wounded an estimated 400 more in putting down a student demonstration at Addis Ababa University. And in May 2002, police opened machine-gun fire on protestors in Awassa, killing an estimated 38 people".

What is new here? Nothing really. I dare say that the government is composed of people who are visceral and not cerebral. They are trigger-happy bunch who act and or shoot first and explain or justify latter why. I, along with other 41 professors, am victim of this irrational and vindictive people. They summarily dismissed us from the university holding us responsible for the students opposition and demonstration against UN Secretary General Butros Butros Ghali presence in Addis Ababa and for his decision to participate in the infamous Eritreans only referendum in that country's secession from Ethiopia. The government response was, as now, to shoot and kill a large number of students. Get this, it took a good ten years for the Prime Minister to come to his senses and recant, publicly, his government's precipitous and therefore wrong decision to expel the 42 professors. Once again the government has to look outside it to explain its recent irrational action. It will keep doing that as long as there are those who are easily gulled. The Prime Minister, a former student of the university knows better. He should remember, unless he has selective memory, that demonstrations, protests, standing and or advocating for justice on behalf of the oppressed and the downtrodden are part and parcel of the ethos of the university. They do not have to be shot for standing up for justice and expressing their frustration and opposition through peaceful demonstration. To an open and sober minded person, they were contributing their share to. strengthening the incipient and fledgling democracy in the country where democracy has remained to be an ideal and not a reality yet. I am a professor. That means I teach. But trust me there are a lot of times when I learn from my students. EPRDF had better adopt the principle of open mindedness and learn from the constructive criticism of the students. It does not have to take another ten years to confess. Bob Gildof offered his advise to the prime minister succinctly "....grow up".

The international condemnation that resulted from the massacre not only alienated the government from its international supporters and financiers, but also, most importantly, shifted the moral high-ground and the setting of the political agenda initiative in favor of the opposition and the Ethiopian people. The Voice of America, on 14 June reported that the government of the United States had issued a statement condemning " the unnecessary use of excessive force" and urged the government "to respect the rule of law, international principles of human right and due process of those arrested". The United States Congress on June 20, 2005 , after reminding the prime minister of their fear that Ethiopia " is at the brink of an even greater political and humanitarian crisis than exists today" called on him "to take all necessary steps to end the corrosive violence and the rampant violation of the human rights of Ethiopians". It is also an open secret that British Prime Minister Tony Blair had expressed his dismay and disappointment through his Secretary of State for International Development Hilary Benn and suspended the $ 50 million he promised to give the government. The European Union (EU), for its part, having condemned the tough line taken by the government urged it to respect human right. Amnesty International, on June 10 pleaded with the government to halt the police violence and set up an independent and impartial commission of inquiry. The Sudan Tribune on June 24, observed "....Meles once hailed by U.S. President Bill Clinton as part of 'a new generation' of African leaders, is under pressure to demonstrate transparency....Good governance by African leaders is one of the key issues under the spotlight ahead of the summit of G 8 rich nations in Scotland next month". It is mind boggling to learn that with all the atrocities and human right violations perpetrated by Meles and his government, the leaders of the developed world have a positive view of him. "One of the continents progressive leaders" is also how he is known.

At this juncture, I would like to take the liberty, if I may, to divert a bit and show how most Ethiopians know the prime minister. M. Peter Takirambudde, Executive director of Human Rights Watch Africa Division contend that. "....The Ethiopian government claims that the elections demonstrate its commitment to democratic principles. But in the run up to the elections, the authorities have intensified the repression they have used to keep themselves in power for 13 years".

Congresswoman Jackson Lee of Texas ( D ), on May 16, 2001, told the US Congress"...as we consider the authorization bills for our foreign policy agenda it is necessary to recognize the continuing human right violation...particularly in Ethiopia. Just recently I am outraged by the recent violence in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, especially the loss of life in the face of peaceful demonstrations on the campus at Addis Ababa University in April 11th ....I understand that as many as 41 brave individuals were killed on or near the campus at Addis Ababa University while another 250 persons were injured in an indiscriminate attack by the police force...In the past, I successfully fought for a legislative measure that would prohibit the government of Ethiopia from receiving aid until human rights abuses are eliminated. We must do more. The people of Ethiopia deserved to be treated humanely by their government"

Congressman Michael M. Honda (D) of California, on May 16, 2001, told US Congress that "....The crackdown continued through April 17th and there have been reports of more than 41 people, including university students and secondary students being killed during this period....Students were dragged out of local churches and mosques where they had sought refuge and taken into detention....The use of unprovoked and heavy violence inflicted by the federal police, who were armed with live ammunition, against peaceful student demonstration and the public must not continue".

Mr. Stockwell Day, member of the Canadian Parliament reminded the government of Meles that "....It is vital to the existence of democracy that student and anyone else for that matter, are allowed to protest when they believed they have been treated unjustly....I call upon the Ethiopian government to halt its use of repression, release the detained students, recognize the concerns voiced by our colleagues in the European Union, and finally to abide by all international human rights standards".

This is the Meles most Ethiopians know not the progressive or any exclamatory good and positive sounding adjectives. This misguided perception the Europeans hold of Meles reminded me of a story that I like to share. Mrs. Williams lost her husband of fifteen years to cancer. Without any exaggeration Mrs. Williams had had a very miserable and wretched life with him. He was a very abusive and violent man. On the day of the funeral, at a church, where his friends and relatives were gathered, as per the culture, his friends, one after the other started to reminisce and recollect the good times they had with Mr. Williams. Most agreed that he was a very nice, funny, thoughtful and generous man. Mrs. Williams started to fill that she was at the wrong funeral. She then whispered to her 10 years old son, Marvin, to go and see if the man in the casket was his dad or not. This is how most Ethiopians would be stunned when the image and story of the person they know first hand is embellished. This is not to deny the fact that some people may see the glass half full while others may see it as half empty. But for most Ethiopians, Meles is what they say he is.

I would, now, like to return to discussing my thesis of the shift of the moral high ground and the setting of the political agenda in favor of the opposition and against the government. In this connection, compounding the problems which the government had been facing, allegations of ballot rigging continued to intensify the pressure. European Union election confidential report obtained by the Associated Press indicated that "....EU might have to make a public denunciation of developments to distance itself from 'the lack of transparency and assumed rigging' of the vote. The confidential report continued to say "....The National Electoral Board does not seem to be in control of the counting operation by the constituency electoral committees and limits itself to passively receive the reports from a limited number of constituencies...". The confidential report chided former US President Carter who had led a 50 election observer for undermining the electoral process by " his premature blessing of the elections and early positive assessment of the results". The report concluded by warning the Ethiopian government. It said "....Unless there is a drastic reversal toward good democratic practice, EU will have to publicly denounce the situation or else EU and ex-president Carter will be held responsible for the lack of transparency and assumed rigging of the elections". President Carter also reminded Ethiopia's authorities that "....Some irregularities in procedures did occur, the most notable being that ID cards were not always checked. While officials consistently asked for voter cards they failed to be equally diligent on the presentation of ID documents....Limited accounts of underage voting were reported". The former president reminded the government that bags in which the ballots were delivered in were opened one day before voting commenced and that there were 'unconfirmed reports of vote buying'. He also indicated his readiness "...to declare Ethiopia's election illegitimate if he had reason to believe that they were marred by widespread irregularities".

As I have tried to make it clear, the government was not only desperately under pressure and in mode but also at the mercy of the international observers for its political survival. The international observers, as indicated, were also under pressure by the circumstances and threatening to declare the election null and void. This clearly indicate that the opposition and the Ethiopian people were in the driver's sit. They had the initiative and therefore could have dictated an outcome that would have favored them. I had said before and I will say it again. Blood has already been spilt and lives have been lost. It is not time to vacillate, dilly-dally or procrastinate. In politics time is everything. If the opposition does not rise to the challenges and call EPRDF' s bluff, then the blood thirsty regime will be resuscitated and emboldened. EPRDF know full well that it can not continue to take innocent lives with impunity. Like the murderers in Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, Iraq and many other places it will be made to be accountable for its pogrom.

What do I mean by ' in politics time is every thing'? There are ample evidences that will illustrate this contention. Machiavelli once said if you shoot at the king you had better kill him. It is obvious that if you do not, the king will kill you. We might remember the time when the Teferi Banti, Alemayehu Haile, Moges ...group changed the structure of the Derg and stripped Mengistu of all of his power they were being advised by their friends to seize the moment and opportunity and physically eliminate him from the scene altogether. Their innocent response was " what could he do now?" They thought that since they had incapacitated him that he was not going to be able to do anything. But Mengistu got a breathing space , plotted with Senai Like, Haile Fida and the rest of the gangs and guess what ? He eliminated all of them. Then, he sarcastically said when his "enemies were thinking about eating him for dinner, he ate them for breakfast".

When General Achempong, the military leader of Ghana in late 1970s, put Jerry Rawlings, the leader of the military group that was plotting to overthrow his regime, in jail, Achempong's advisers pleaded with him to eliminate him instead. The general insisted that he should be tried by a military court so that others will learn from his illegal and unconstitutional action. In the mean time Rawlings' friends took control of the jail he was in and liberated him. Rawlings immediately took action by eliminating the general and his associates.

During the 1991 aborted coup in Ethiopia, legend has it that the would be coup makers Generals Fanta Belay, Amaha Desta, Demissie Bulto and others were debating whether they should take action against Mengistu's plane while it was still on Ethiopia's air space. Mengistu was on his way to one of the East European countries. Fanta refused insisting that the coup would succeed and thus making it fait accompli for Mengistu to return. But Mengistu's group, once again, got the upper hand when they took control of the Ministry of Defense, where the coup makers were plotting. Mengistu eliminated all of them.

In the 2000 US presidential election between Al Gore (D) and George Bush (R) most TV stations began to announce, at about 8:00 PM, that exit polls were showing that Al Gore has won Florida and therefore the presidency. George Bush's Campaign Head Quarter immediately began calling those TV stations to say they were wrong and that they need to retract. All of them retracted as they were urged. This phenomenon is so natural and commonsensical that even in boxing match trainers would urge their guy to finish his opponent if he has him hurt and is on the rope. It is no brainner. If the opposition in Ethiopia had been aware of the fact that the government was on the rope, it could have made it difficult to recover. Even if they were urged by the EU to resolve the problem by negotiation, they could and must have gotten significant concession from the government. If what they are being offered during the negotiation, is not to their liking, they would resist and still be in the driver's seat and continue to navigate with the intention of maximizing their benefit. In light of what the EU knows, it did not have the moral authority to insist that the opposition concede when itself was on the verge of renouncing the election.

But for some reasons that are not yet clear to this author, the opposition signed an agreement with the government to "review the problems" at the behest of the international community. EU Ambassador Dick Clark, after the agreement was consummated, expressed his satisfaction as follows. "....What I am going to say now is personal and from the heart. I have been intimately involved over the last two days in assisting the political parties find a consensus on the document which has just been signed...we will all continue to work with you to ensure that the text signed this afternoon are not idle but they are put into practice in the spirit of compromise and reconciliation....We will do everything we can to assist and support the process to a satisfactory conclusion". Present during the signing ceremony were Ana Gomes, Chief EU observer, United States Ambassador, representatives from African Union, and the United Nations.

The so-called negotiated agreement does not, by any means, read as one but as rather as dictation. Dictated by those who were on the rope and looking for divine intervention. They got it. The document solely reflects the interest of the politically battered and internationally condemned government. Among the paragraphs that were agreed upon, one reads "....The signatories of the declaration re-assert their condemnation of all acts of violence or incitement to violence and agree to make all possible efforts to prevent such violence or incitement to violence, to exercise restraint, and seek resolution of all issues through legal and peaceful means only". What necessitated the inclusion of this paragraph into the agreement? To which of the two parties to the agreement is this paragraph directed to ? It is obvious that this paragraph was necessitated by the demonstration that took place right after the EPRDF declared that it had won most of the seats and therefore could establish a government. A demonstrating student is quoted by BBC as having said "....We are demonstrating because EPRDF is making a fraud, misleading the whole international community saying they have won". The underlying assumption of this paragraph is that the demonstration was illegal and that and the opposition was responsible for it. The government had on many occasion accused the opposition of inciting the students. It seems to me that the opposition by accepting the inclusion of this paragraph has implicitly accepted responsibility for the violence and massacre that took place.

Another paragraph reads "....the parties to the declaration accept the legal authority of the National Election Board of Ethiopia and the courts in those procedures and commit to abide by the decisions they make on the basis of authority invested in them by the laws of the country, and refrain from all acts intended to subvert such decisions, without prejudice to their constitutional rights". Here again whose interest is protected by this paragraph? How would the opposition express its trust and confidence to a Board which it had been accusing of partiality and favoring the government. Isn't it the same Board from which the European Union and te Carter Center declared their intention to disassociate themselves from and is it not the same Board the EU criticized by saying "...the National Electoral Board does not seem to be in control of the counting operation by the constituency electoral committees and limits itself to passively receive the reports from a limited number of constituencies"? Why wasn't there a paragraph that protects the life, security and right of the opposition politicians? Why should newly elected parliamentarians be murdered without any reason what so ever? Human Rights Watch has reported of "....mass arrests in at least nine cities outside of Addis Ababa since last Monday, June 20, 2005, it continued to say....security forces have also continued to arrest large numbers of CUD supporters in the capital over the course of the past several days". CUD leaders themselves have said that up to 120 of their staff throughout the country had been jailed. Expressing his frustration, Berhanu Nega, Vice Chairman of the CUD is quoted as having said "...its supporters must be released if continued peace talks with the ruling party to bear fruit". Shouldn't this have been negotiated?

Twelve days after the agreement was signed, June 22, 2005, Getahun Among, spokesman for the infamous Ethiopia's Electoral Board said "....it would investigate allegations of vote rigging in 135 constituencies out of the 299 where complaints were lodged following parliamentary elections on 15 May". It was learnt that until 22 June EPRDF has won 302 seats, its allies 26, and the opposition group has won 194 seats. As the EPRDF has the most seat to date, the continuation of the counting of the contested ballots becomes academic. They are not likely to change the outcome.

The idealist side of my being calls upon me to conclude on a high note. It urges me to call upon the international community the EU, AU, US, and the UN, the moral force behind the so-called the negotiated declaration, to prevail over Meles. It should not be lulled and or tricked by Meles' insincere gestures. Releasing innocent prisoners here and there should not cut it. While releasing in the Amhara region he is incarcerating in the Oromo region.

To Meles negotiation is not win-win but instead, for most part, it is win-lose enterprise. He has shown you his true nature. By consolidating power---head of the Defense Ministry, security and the police force--- he has not only reduced the parliament to a rubber stamp but also personalized power. Power in Ethiopia is no longer institutionalized. Thus giving him ample opportunity to terrorize the opposition and their supporters. And this, you have been witnessing. History will judge you awfully if you fail to do something positive to help the country come out of the quagmire it finds itself in. You have already established a precedent in Ukraine which is apropos to the situation in Ethiopia. Fairness calls upon you to treat the Ethiopian people equal to the people of Ukraine and declare the May 15 election null and void and call another election. As you also did in Ukraine, you could send 12,000 observers and not only 300. That way you can make sure the election is conducted fairly, openly, transparently with accountability. But if you decide to do otherwise and declare the election fair and sanction it as legitimate, you will be condemning the country to a one party dictatorship. Then you will be making Mugabe's dictatorship and ill-treatment of his people a child's play.

It is possible that there could be those who prefer the electoral problem in Ethiopia be resolved a la Florida, America. That is the Supreme Court of the United States getting involved in the 2000 election controversy created by the decision of the Supreme Court of the state of Florida. The Supreme Court of the state of Florida's decision was to allow the continuation of the counting of the ballot. The Bush's side took the case before the Supreme Court of the United States and argued that the decision was unconstitutional and therefore needed its intervention. Five of the nine justices of the Supreme Court of the United States found that ruling to be contrary to the Constitution of the United States and overruled the decision thereby, in effect, favoring George Bush. Now, the question here is why did Florida become important for both contenders. Because the United States has a unique system of electing its president. And it is called the Electoral College. It simply means that the winner does not have to win the popular vote as long as he or she has, of the possible 538 electoral colleges vote, the sum total of 270 electoral colleges vote. Had the system in the United States been otherwise, Gore would have won the election because he had over 500,000 more votes than George Bush. The Electoral Colleges system does not work in Ethiopia for two reasons. First of all the country does not have an Electoral College system. Secondly, and most importantly, the problem in Ethiopia was not to decide which person or persons lost or won but rather to decide whether or not the election in Ethiopia was fair, just, transparent and free of vote stealing, rigging and intimidation in the contested 200 or so sights. Hence, I argue that the method that was used to resolve Florida's problem has no place in Ethiopia. To insist otherwise is to commit the gravest mistake in the history of parallel. Simply put, it has no place in Ethiopia.

In this connection, I would like to draw your attention to what the European powers did to appease Hitler and Mussolini on the eve of the Second World War. By sacrificing Czechoslovakia and Poland in Europe and Ethiopia in Africa, they only wetted the appetite of the voracious eaters. The rest is history. Think about this when and or before you decide. Your decision on Ethiopia could end one party dictatorship in the whole of Africa.

Solomon Terfa (PhD)

Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations
Mississippi Valley State University.