The Case Against Kemal Bedri & NEBE
By Dr. Hagos Kahsay

July 10, 2005

It appears a bit awkward to address His Excellency Kemal Bedri. If one ventures to use his mouthful titles, he must be addressed as: "His Excellency Honorable Kemal Bedri, President of the Federal Supreme Court, President of the Council for Constitutional Inquiry and Chairman of the National Election Board of Ethiopia." With all his illustrious tiles and positions, he might be considered by the Guinness Book of World Records in the category of the longest political title.

In a recent interview with BBC's Stephen Sacker of Hard Talk, Meles could not properly answer rudimentary questions about the independence of the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). The questions were simple and Meles' answers were classically tricky.

'Let me ask you a simple question. Who presented the names of members of the election board to the House of Peoples' Representatives for approval'? Stephen asked. Meles held his breath and racked his brain for a little while. Then he said:'The National Election Board, the current board, was appointed over a decade ago, during the transitional period and that time the President submitted the names to the parliament. Now if we were to appoint new election board, it would be the Prime Minister, which [sic.] would put the names to the Parliament.' The answer was quite deceptive as it created the impression that the President and the Prime Minister were two different individuals with varied job descriptions and titles. However, the Hard Talk presenter was not easy to trick. To the PM's agony, the sharp journalist posed a follow-up question: 'Where were you at that particular time'?

There was no escape. Mumbling and looking blankly at the wall, Meles said: 'I was the President of the Transitional Government.' The journalist appeared a bit taken aback. 'You were the President'?

'Yes!' he answered with a bit of apprehension. 'So you still put forward the names'?

'Yes, I did' [sic.], said Meles. 'Well I think that is the point I am trying to get. You put forward all the names of the people who are on the election board'. And now you expect the opposition to believe this board would be entirely impartial'? That remains to be a million dollar question.

The Hard Talk interview, which has done a great deal of damage to the tyrant, highlighted once more that even Meles is short for words to answer a crucial question on the independence of the NEBE. The President and the Prime Minister, whoever they were, appointed members of the board. All the members of the board have dubious political background and links with the ruling party. In the process of appointing members of the NEBE, the PM made the gravest mistake. He appointed Kemal Bedri as Chairman of the Board in spite of the fact that he is not only Chief Justice in Ethiopia, despite his inexperience, but also President of the Council for Constitutional Inquiry.

The NEBE, under the guidance of Chief Justice Kemal Bedri, introduced an ordinance that effectively barred local civic groups from observing the election. The Chief Justice argued that local groups were required to have registered as election observers when they were originally set up. The decision was severely criticised by contesting parties as well as foreign observers, but Kemal Bedri and other member of the election board refused to budge. Despite the fact that election is held once in five years, the NEBE, which was supposed to be impartial and non-partisan, marred the election before it was even held with a ridiculously silly demand. Let alone in a country like Ethiopia, where we have nascent civic society, even in the most developed countries civic groups are not formed for the sole purpose of observing an election.

After a tumultuous legal battle, the Federal High Court passed a judgement against the NEBE. The Presiding Judge, Berhanu Teshome, reprimanded the NEBE for introducing the ordinance, which was found to have contravened the law of the land. The NEBE threatened it would appeal, though the appeal did not materialise.

During this unnecessary legal battle, time was deliberately wasted. The court ruling came too late, just 12 days before the general election, especially for a coalition of local civic groups, Organisation for Social Justice, which had planned to field over three thousand observers. The Chief Justice and his cohorts thwarted a crucial effort, which has made the election under observed in thousands of remote and inaccessible polling stations in the countryside.

Under heavy criticism from the EU observers and opposition parties, the NEBE made another blunder in the aftermath of the elections. While there were widespread allegations of vote rigging, it began to release results in trickles including those of disputed constituencies without any proper investigations and verifications. It declared that the ruling party had won the elections.

On 24th May 2005 the largest foreign observer group, the European Election Observation Mission, led by Ana Gomes issued a damning verdict against Kemal's NEBE. It said: 'The European Union Election Observation Mission regrets the way in which the counting of the votes at the constituency level is being conducted as well as the way in which the release of results is being handled by the electoral authorities, the government and the political parties, especially the EPRDF. Contrary to voting day when the people of Ethiopia demonstrated a high sense of citizen responsibility and patience, and contrary to vote counting at the polling stations, where order and transparency prevailed, the following irregular practices are of concern:

1. In a press appearance on Monday 16 [May], EPRDF claimed victory in the absence of any results having been made public by the National Electoral Board. A similar statement was released on May 23.
2. Ten days after the election, although electoral results had been posted outside the polling stations in most of the country, the National Electoral Board has only released results from 121 out of 547 constituencies.
3. Since election day, the state-owned media have been releasing on a daily basis provisional, unofficial results mainly showing the partial victories of the EPRDF in a number of constituencies and regions across the country. However, the same media outlets have ignored press conferences or any other statement about results made by opposition parties. For example, on May 18, while international media (e.g. CNN and BBC) covered the press conference by CUD, Ethiopian TV and Radio Ethiopia as well as the next day editions of the state-owned newspapers Addis Zemen and The Ethiopia Herald completely ignored it.
4. Regarding the European Union Election Observation Mission Preliminary Statement of May 17, the state-owned media reported the positive side of the statement while disregarding any critical comments?

The mission concluded: 'These practices, taken as a whole, are seriously undermining the transparency and fairness of the elections. They also risk increasing the scope for manipulation and consequently putting in doubt public confidence in the process. The European Union Election Observation Mission would like to recall that the state media has a duty to report on post election events in an even-handed manner. This duty includes allowing all parties access to the media, albeit while respecting the public interest."

Again Ato Kemal Bedri was on the defensive. To make matters worse, in an interview with Radio Fana, the ruling party's mouthpiece, he said NEBE did not lose control of the election process. As a matter of fact, he should have talked to the independent media to boost his already sagging credibility.

In the meantime, the main opposition group, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, went to court to challenge the PM's declaration of a state of emergency in contravention of the constitution. The matter was referred to the House of Federation's Council for Constitutional Inquiry, presided by the one and only Ato Kemal Bedri. The Council ruled that the Prime Minister was right even if the measure was clearly unconstitutional which contravened Articles 77 and 93. His involvement in the controversial election board had already made his judicial positions untenable and yet he presided over the council and came up with another great blunder.

Then came the ruling of the Federal High Court, which declared the release by the NEBE of disputed election results illegal. Kemal Bedri, President of the Supreme Court, vowed to have the decision overturned. The landmark ruling was overturned by the Federal Supreme Court, where the Chief Justice Kemal Bedri is the President.

The appointment of the current members of the NEBE, including Ato Kemal, whose independence is highly disputable, turned the first contested election in the history of Ethiopia into another farcical political exercise. That is why the call for a rerun of the general election, supervised by an independent election board, seems all the more resonant. It may be the only way forward to end the current political stalemate created by the TPLF, which is not yet ready for a real democratic change. During their Hard Talk interviews both Ato Meles and Ing. Hailu Shawel of CUD said a rerun of the election was a good idea. Nonetheless, whether there will be a rerun or not, it must be conceded that Ato Kemal and his colleagues have proved to be too partisan to serve a national election board, which is given the onerous task of overseeing a general election. Meles could not obviously get someone like Kemal Bedri and his colleagues to undermine the will the overwhelming popular quest for democracy.