Ethiopia: A year after the elections

Erkyihun Lagere
It’s more than a year since the May 2005 Ethiopian elections collapsed in chaos, resulting in violence, arrests, imprisonments and a press crackdown. How can the country move forward towards elections in 2010? Now is the time for the government to dodge the election trends of other African governments. Now is the time for dialogue and tolerance, writes Erkyihun Lagere. Only if this happens can Ethiopia truly fulfill is reputation as a mosaic culture.
The parliamentary election in Ethiopia in May 2005 was unique in Ethiopian history, and can be compared to the South African elections of 1994 where all South Africans, after 40 years of segregation, went to the polling stations and queued for hours to exercise their democratic rights and put in place a Government of National Unity. It was the first in Ethiopia’s history, especially in a multi party platform, where Ethiopians became aware of and exercised their power to elect their legislators and form a government. Politicians consented not to use the barrel of the gun to access power. It was this sense of assurance that encouraged eligible Ethiopians to go to the polling stations and exercise their newly found democratic rights.
During the Communist regime, the process was manipulated, votes were rigged and members of the communist party were declared the winners at any cost. After the overthrow of the Communist Derg regime in 1991 by the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) armed insurgency, the EPRDF’s Meles Zenawi reorganized Ethiopia’s regions along ethnic lines and constructed a political machine that has dominated Ethiopian politics for the past 15 years. Despite widespread opposition to this system among a number of ethnic groups in Ethiopia, the EPRDF and Zenawi had been able to maintain their power. However the existence of a better organized, united opposition combined with an energized electorate strongly contributed to the hope that surrounded the 2005 elections.

The May 2005 Ethiopian Elections

The May 2005 elections drew the attention of Ethiopians at home, the diaspora, and even the international community. It was the first time in Ethiopian history where the incumbent government provided facilities, gave access to government owned media and allowed the opposition to campaign “freely”. While the incumbents still enjoyed some advantages, the pre-election processes were nevertheless unprecedented in several ways:

1. It was the first [1] election that took place in a multi-party platform. According to the Associated Press, it was “the most competitive election in the country’s 3,000 year history” [2].
2. There was an open debate (discussion) in the media between the incumbent and opposition political parties.
3. All political parties condemned violence and requested their supporters to go to the polling stations and cast their vote.
4. The four major parties signed a non-violence pact.
5. It was the first election in Ethiopian history where Ethiopians went to the polls believing that they could cast votes and elect a government of their choice.
6. It was a practical demonstration of attempts to accommodate the interests of opposition political parties. The hope was perhaps best captured by Desalegn Rahamato from the Forum for Social Studies who was quoted saying: “We do not expect a miracle, certainly nobody expects the government to lose but we are hoping that the composition of parliament will change substantially so there will be more opposition.” [3]

What went wrong?

The Prime Minister’s premature announcement of EPRDF’s overwhelming victory [4] was the beginning of the rift in the political process, which subsequently led to allegations and counter allegations that increased the gap between opposition political parties and EPRDF [5]. This premature announcement challenged the power of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) which was the only institution empowered to declare the election results.
The NEBE’s inability to intervene immediately to stop the incursion increased dissent, led to civil violence and forced the residents of Addis Ababa to demonstrate and express their dissatisfaction with the handling of the election results. Although the incumbent government claimed that the opposition political parties instigated and backed the civil violence – the government’s violent suppression of demonstrations also escalated and triggered more violence.
The incumbent government breached the non-violence agreement signed before the election, and violated the people’s constitutional right to peaceful demonstration and gathering. Even worse, mass arrests of students, innocent civilians and leaders of the opposition were carried out. Some of the imprisoned opposition leaders had won Parliamentary seats even in the rigged election.
The derailment of the democratic processes led to the curtailment of press freedom, the arrest of journalists and the closure of private newspapers. Further, it created tension among ethnic groups and sporadic violence in the southern part of Ethiopia that could have been exploited by politicians to orchestrate ethnic violence. In the Diaspora, the consequences were a series of demonstrations, public meetings, vigils, and lobbying of governments and donors to reconsider their relations and restrict development assistance.

Elections in Africa

Was the process in Ethiopia different from other African countries? What are the election trends in Africa? At this junction it would be useful to briefly analyze the election trends within other countries in Africa in order to shed light on the Ethiopian case.
It is a public knowledge that most African elections are marred with fraud and vote rigging. In most cases in Africa, opposition political parties claim victory in major cities while the incumbent governments do so in rural areas. In the post conflict environment of most African countries, an incumbent government rarely wins votes in metropolitan areas. The rationale being that the cities hold the enlightened members of the society (the elites, unionized labor force etc.) who are politically conscious, and rely on the often poorly provided services (water, electricity, health) of the incumbent government.
Further, they are also the immediate victims of government policies, which are designed to attract donors, and the international community to demonstrate governments commitment to good governance. Thus, the perpetually dissatisfied urban electorate demonstrate their anger through huge turn outs at polling stations to vote against the incumbent government that threatens their livelihood; though they know that their vote will not make a huge impact on the overall result. In addition, the presence of the international community and international observers predominantly in urban areas makes it more challenging for the incumbent government to rig votes in cities compared to rural areas.
However, in rural Africa with low literacy rates, difficult living conditions, and well established control mechanisms, the electorate can be coerced, bribed and manipulated to vote for the incumbent. If they vote against an incumbent that stays in power, they will be denied access to fertilizer, insecticide, veterinary care, healthcare and other essential services the government provides. For the sake of survival, the rural communities have to comply with the instructions of government officials. As mentioned earlier, the lack of transportation and hospitality infrastructure limits the number of international or even domestic observes in rural areas, making it easy to rig the vote. As an emerging democracy, Ethiopia is affected by all these factors and it should be no surprise that the incumbent EPRDF claimed victory in rural Ethiopia while losing in the big cities.

The consequences of the May 2005 election

Why did the incumbent government rush to declare its party as a winner? I think it was due to a lack of confidence in its own system. The EPRDF believed that they had won the confidences of the electorate in Addis Ababa and other metropolitan areas which in the end turned out to be woefully wrong. As the election results started to become public in the metropolitan areas the party became increasingly frustrated and insecure.
However, the EPRDF should have been conscious of the elections trend in Africa and been prepared for such an outcome: Robert Mugabe’s party ZANU-PF lost in Harare and Bulawayo, Daniel Arap Moi’s party KANU lost in Kisumu, Nairobi, Nakuru and Naivasha. By rushing to announce the result, EPRDF failed to comply with the guidelines of NEBE and this demonstrated a lack of experience in multi-party politics.
Accepting defeat was difficult and unfamiliar in the culture, and the social and political systems. With the exception of rare cases such as Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia, most incumbents in many African countries have rarely accepted defeat and handed over power to the victorious political party. This highlights a crucial issue in African politics – leaders who come to power using the barrel of the gun do not have the confidence to leave the government mansion willingly and become an “ordinary” citizen.
I can understand their fear. Such leaders, while in power, are not interested in developing a system that could provide them a means that would enable them to live as an ordinary citizen, because they do not want to leave power. It has become fashionable to amend Constitutions, extend terms of office, and stay in power for life. This alienates them from the community and they cannot assimilate back if they leave power because of injustices they committed and unlimited powers they exercised over the people. They are foreigners who would only feel secure living in exile from their homeland usually after a last minute peace deal brokered by a western government.
An important question one should ask is why it was necessary to violate the non-violence pact signed before the 2005 Ethiopian elections where the major political parties agreed “[t]o peacefully resolve our differences or other disagreements between and among ourselves”. [6] Why was it necessary to change a relatively smooth democratic process to a violent event where over 40 people lost their lives, thousands (including leaders of opposition political parties, human right activists and civil society organizations, etc.) ended up in detention camps, and freedom of press was curtailed severely.

Losing the elections in Addis Ababa, where the African Union and some international organizations have their headquarters, was an embarrassment for the EPRDF government. As the parliamentary election results continued to become public formally and informally, it became evident that while some senior government officials including the Minister of Education Genet Zewdae, speaker of the House Ato Dawit Yohannes, etc. lost their parliamentary seats in Addis, still more government officials lost in the regional towns. Thus, the EPRDF government, on the notion of maintaining order and peace in the country, banned public meetings and rallies, intimidated, harassed and retaliated against the electorate who voted against EPRDF, using excessive power and denying the people the right to express their views publicly on the results of the election.

It is worth remembering that retaliation or revenge breeds violence and creates a downward spiral of violence. Ethiopians at home and in the Diaspora witnessed and remember how revenge and retaliation spiraled into violence during the early days of the Marxist regime. Loosely translated, one of the slogans that bred violence was “the blood of one revolutionary can be matched by the blood of a thousand anarchists”. It is thirty years later now and I am sure most Ethiopians remember how the retaliatory chain of violence labeled “Red Terror” and “White Terror” wiped out thousands of young and educated Ethiopians.

More recently, Ethiopians will also recall how the EPRDF, which took power in 1991, used this terror to identify with families of the victims, win trust and confidence of Ethiopians and show the atrocities the Communist government committed against its own people. There is no justification for any group including EPRDF to use revenge (violence) as a means to solve the current problem in Ethiopia.

It has become clear that the legal system is too slow, either due to limited capacity or a lack of good will, to provide remedy for those who seek justice, especially those jailed in connection to the May 2005 elections. As all concerned Ethiopians and the international community continue to advocate for justice, it is a ripe time to plan and discuss how the democratic process should continue in Ethiopia. The parliament has only three years and ten months to finish its term and visionary people and their leaders must start preparation for the next elections, which are slated for 2010.

From the contested election results of May 2005, Ethiopians have demonstrated their ability and commitment to use the ballot box to elect leaders who can form a government that respects the rights of its citizens, and is dedicated to good governance. Every politician and even the highest organ responsible for implementing the elections recognized the power of the electorate, as indicated by the NEBE chairman’s comment that “[t]he determination of the people to exercise their democratic rights is a sure guarantee that democracy is here to stay”. [7]

If this is the principle that guides the people of Ethiopia and is the motto of the Board, then it will be appropriate to give elections another try. Opposition political parties and those who would like to participate in the next election have to develop a strategy and road map on what should be accomplished between now and the next elections. Willingness (Preparedness) to engage in dialogue should be part of strategy. Dialogue can help shed some light into what happened during the 2005 elections and provide space to identify future opportunities. Identifying lessons learned and building on that foundation is one sign of growth, and would minimize chances of similar mistakes in the future.

What can be done to reinvigorate the democratic processes in Ethiopia? It is true that innocent people have died and leaders of the opposition political parties, human rights activists, and CSO leaders are languishing in jails still waiting for justice. With this in mind, following are suggestions on how to break the stalemate, and continue building the democratic process that was halted.

Looking Forward

While the outcome of the elections strangled an emerging democratic culture and increased polarization among various groups, I would argue that it is in the best interests of Ethiopians at home, in the Diaspora, and the international community that the process be given another chance.

While some groups now contend that change can only come via the barrel of the gun, I do not see the rationale, yet, for further blood shed! As an Ethiopian, I am against all violence and do not want to see any Ethiopian take up a gun and kill another Ethiopian. We have had enough of that - violence breeds violence. We have grieved for the last forty years, exhumed graves to collect human remains, and we have been pointing figures at others who were involved in killing our innocent brothers and sisters. If we opt for violence as a means to solve the current problem in Ethiopia, this will only increase the prison population, intensify divisions among groups, create new groups of victims and result in yet another exodus of refugees. Are we ready for another round of demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants? Have we even finished reintegrating ex-combatants from the communist regime? We have not yet fully addressed the psychosocial problems in our communities and the economy is staggering to grow. We need to break the cycle of violence. We need to reconcile, heal wounds and build a democratic society. What are the options?

1. A need to stop the zero-sum mind set

The incumbent government and opposition political parties perceive the political landscape as a small cake, each one of them determined and eager to get a bigger portion at any cost – today. They fail to look into the future or explore if there are other alternatives and opportunities. The ‘here and now’ perception should be challenged. All have to agree to expand the cake and get a good share for each and look to the opportunities in the future. In spite of the differences in their political manifestos all political parties have to invest in the future. The cycle of elections is five years and this is not a long time to wait. Looking into the future will generate options. Since more elections are coming, there are opportunities to win, “benefit” and demonstrate their talent and commitment to good governance. Therefore, there is a need for compromise and a move out of the cocoon of “all for me attitude”.

2. Need to develop a culture of dialogue and tolerance

History and experience have proved that a culture of political dialogue among Ethiopians is missing. Dialogue helps to reestablish relationships, to develop a shared vision and commitment [8] and subsequently to increase tolerance, which include among other things the ability to listen and engage. At this juncture it is appropriate to ask whether dialogue is new to Ethiopians. Among many groups in Ethiopia, there are different forms of dialogue: “afersat”, “idir”; “ikub”, “mahibir”, etc. which are used at different levels in the society, family, and community to address issues of mutual concern. Afersata, for example, is used to identify criminals, investigate crime, mediate inter group and inter community conflicts, etc. Communities under the leadership of the community elders attend a series of meetings to weed out criminals from their community. In similar ways, Idir and iquib are used to address social issues and financial needs. However, politicians do not have such a platform and fail to develop such a model in a multi-party environment to negotiate and discuss crosscutting national issues.

Among most Ethiopians, losers are not welcome and this is reflected in our culture and value system. This is inculcated in early childhood. Therefore, most of us (including politicians) who grew up in a social system that considers defeat as a disgrace can rarely accept defeat and would rather retaliate or take revenge. It is crucial to change this attitude, and teach people that accepting defeat is not the end of the world, but an opportunity to explore other possibilities, and look to the future.

Conclusion

Ethiopians at home and in the diaspora have an obligation to nurture what was planted prior to the election in May 2005. It requires gentle hands using appropriate tools that can nourish it, removing weeds that have the potential to strangle its growth, and provide good nutrients so that it continues to grow and bear fruit. If the government and opposition political parties continue to use a heavy hand, the democratic process will become stunted. Suppressing and punishing any form of political dissent will not help the democratic processes in Ethiopia to grow. A polarized approach will increase the rift among groups who are interested in taking the process forward.
It is time to remove the stigma attached to elections; another election is coming in about three years time and it is coming with new opportunities. Let us stop blaming and blackmailing others if the person expresses an opinion which is different from that of our own. Different views would provide room for growth and if all Ethiopians promoted just one ideology life would be monotonous. It is time to continue to promote our mosaic culture, and appreciate our differences. It is the drum, the kirar, the masinko, embelata, etc. which have important but distinct roles in producing the rhythm in our music.

* Erkyihun Lagere is an Ethiopian working in the field of conflict analysis and resolution for an NGO based in Europe Contact lerkyihun@aim.com
* Please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org or comment online at www.pambazuka.org

Notes

[1] The elections in 1995 and 2000 could not be claimed to be multiparty because there was not strong opposition
[2] “Ethiopia’s governing party claims victory” Associated Press, International Herald Tribune, May 18, 2005
[3] Quoted from the BBC News website 11/05/06 ‘Election fever hits Ethiopian cities’.
[4] Ethiopia’s governing party claims a victory, International Herald Tribune, May 18, 2005
[5] See J. Abbink, Discomfiture of democracy? The 2005 election crisis in Ethiopia and its aftermath. African Affairs Volume 105, Number 419, April 2006. p.183
[6]The full text of the Ethiopia Electoral Non-Violence Pact from http://www.electionsethiopia.org/Whats%20New22.html
[7]Ethiopia PM warns of ‘hate’ poll, 6 May 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4522205.stm
[8] Harold Saunders Saunders, Harold. 1996. Prenegotiation and Circum-negotiation: Arenas of the Peace Process, in Chester A. Crocker and Fen Osler Hampson, Managing Global Chaos: Sources of and Responses to International Conflict. Washington, D.C. USIP. Pp.419-432.

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