The 2005 election in Ethiopia and its painful lessons
Hearing in the European Parliament, Brussels
Dr. Berhanu Nega
April 26th 2010
Honorable Ana Gomes,
Members of the European Parliament
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me first thank the organizers of this hearing for inviting me to offer my remarks on the current troubling political situation in our region in general and on Ethiopia in particular. My remarks on the lessons of the 2005 elections and the events that follow it as well as the coming sham election in Ethiopia comes from my own intimate participation in 2005 as a member of the CUD leadership and its campaign manager, my role as head of the negotiating team with the ruling party following the election as well as my active engagement with the diplomatic community throughout the election and post election process.
The May 2005 election was a major political milestone in the over three thousand years history of Ethiopia. In 2005, Ethiopians witnessed the fundamentals of a democratic process, yet as they started participating in the process, they found themselves far-off from democracy. Between May 2005 and May 2010, the Ethiopian people have dangled between hope and despair, between power and helplessness and between joy and sorrow. This agonizing emotional rollercoaster has obligated many Ethiopians to re-examine the past and look for alternative ways of solving the seemingly intractable dilemma of their country.
Unlike the previous two elections, the May 15, 2005, elections presented the Ethiopian people with a remarkable opportunity to experience what a multiparty election could look like. This was not because the Meles regime had any sudden democratic epiphany. Far from it. It was because it very seriously miscalculated its own popularity, it overestimated the value of incumbency and the vast resources it put at its disposal. Its sheer arrogance and serious underestimation of the capacity of the opposition to mobilize the population also helped to let its guard down and open the political space a bit, which the opposition parties effectively exploited. The two large parties, Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and the United Ethiopian Democratic Front (UEDF) competed vigorously with the ruling party. Televised debates on a wide range of political, economic and foreign policy issues, and active campaigning by party candidates around the country invigorated the citizenry and raised their hopes that may be, just may be, change through the ballot box was possible.
On May 7, 2005 the opposition held a huge peaceful rally in Addis where an estimated three million people turned up to show their support for the CUD. The peaceful rally ended peacefully witnessing the readiness of Ethiopians for civilized political engagement and multi-party politics. On May 15 twenty six million Ethiopian voters waited in line for as long as 10 hours to cast their vote. Election Day activities were pretty much peaceful. However, as it became apparent that the CUD had won all 23 of Addis Ababa’s parliamentary seats and 137 out of 138 City Council seats, and as the vote count in some rural areas started to show a potential upset, the Prime Minister panicked and ordered the vote counting to stop, outlawed any form of protest and took direct control of the Ethiopian Security Forces. This unconstitutional act convinced the people that the government was trying to manipulate the election outcome; and fear and anxiety pervaded on what was supposed to be a historic election.
A day after the election, the EPRDF claimed victory while votes were still being counted while the opposition expressed its optimism, and it said it was winning in places where the vote counting was completed. The opposition got this confidence from the reports it got from its election observers. I know this because I was the one following the results closely. I was in the CUD office in the wee hours of the morning after the election collecting data from rural constituencies where vote counting was completed the same evening as per the rules of the National Election Board. In fact, the EU exit poll result that was internally circulating within the mission at the time have only confirmed what we have observed on the ground indicating that the combined opposition has actually won the election. As allegations of vote rigging circulated ferociously- ‘respect our vote’ became the battle cry of a deeply traumatized citizenry plunging the country into deep political crisis.
The opposition offered the ruling party numerous peaceful alternatives to get out of the crisis, which the ruling party totally rejected. We even offered the government to accept the results of an obviously stolen election in lieu of an agreement on the future democratization of the country. The only demand of the opposition was to negotiate with the government to take its own constitution seriously and allow the independent existence of key institutions such as the election board, the media, the judiciary and the security forces. The government refused to even discuss these issues. This demands and the government’s rejection did not take place in closed meetings. Representatives of the international community were present and participated in these discussions. At the beginning of October, the CUD passed a resolution to join parliament on conditions that the government undertakes required institutional changes for future democratic elections. Furthermore, there were requests that the government agrees to abide by its own constitution. When parliament convened on October 11, the EPRDF refused to hand over the Addis Ababa city government which it has admitted of losing. The NEB representatives were sitting as unconcerned observers in a meeting when the ruling party declared that it will not hand over the city. On November 1, when the government refused to accept any of the suggested changes, the CUD called for non-violent protests in Addis Ababa. On November 2 and 3 the government security forces deliberately provoked violence across the city and the Ethiopian military killed over 193 unarmed civilians including the 42 people it killed in June. Following the violence, most of the CUD leadership, journalists and many political dissidents in addition to over 50,000 peaceful protestors, were sent to detention centers throughout the country.
All these are familiar stories to participants of this meeting. These are not contested facts. The real issue for our discussions today is what are the lessons from this experience? What does this show us about future political developments in the country? Is 2005 just a one time subversion of a hopeful political process or an indication of a dire political future for the country? To answer this question, we need to briefly look at the measures the government has taken since the suppression of the democracy movement in 2005.
Methods Employed by the Ruling Party to stay in power since 2005
Enacting draconian laws to monopolize power: Between 2008 and 2009 the Ethiopian government enacted three laws that prohibitively limit the role of multi-party politics in Ethiopia. The media law criminalizes the messenger when the message is not in line with the whims of the rulers, the NGO law paralyzes the role of civil societies, and the Anti-terror law puts society at the mercy of the security forces. The later simply criminalizes peaceful dissent outside the purviews of what the executive allows.
Human Rights violations: Since 2005, the government’s violation of human rights has become bolder and egregious. The crimes against humanity it committed against the ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden region and in Southern Somalia, open torture and degrading treatment of political prisoners, brutal murder of political candidates such as Aregawi Gebre-Yohannes, the obscene arrest and subsequent violation of the basic human rights of Bertukan Mideksa (refusing to implement court order to ensure her visitation rights by friends and relatives) for the crime of telling the obvious truth, are also well documented by independent institutions such as HRW.
The Complete capture of state institutions: Whatever doubt that anyone could have about the existence of independent institutions, particularly the judiciary, is now dead. The travesty of the CUD trials (with international observation) and subsequent show trials of Oromo activists, alleged Ginbot 7 members and others have confirmed, without a shadow of a doubt what the opposition has been saying all along. There is really no judiciary worthy of the name in today’s Ethiopia.
Scope for peaceful political participation: It is now an uncontested fact that what determines the scope of political participation is not the law or the constitution. It simply is what Meles and his team decides is acceptable. Political assembly has been made illegal (save for the limited and carefully controlled meetings during the election campaign). No media that the government doesn’t allow or that it doesn’t clearly censor itself is allowed to operate in the country. The openly admitted jamming of the VOA and other media outlets, puts contemporary Ethiopia under Meles, one of a handful totalitarian regimes that openly admits jamming a media outlet.
The establishment of a fear society: Finally, what has clearly emerged in Ethiopia after the 2005 election is a “fear society” that Natan Cheransky uses in his depiction of the former Soviet Union. Getting the 2005 election message that it cannot rule legitimately by getting the consent of citizens, the TPLF/EPRDF has determined that it can only rule by terrorizing the society. The ubiquitous presence of security forces everywhere, the control of the citizenry by ruling party cadres and locally “elected” officials (to the tune of 3.4 million local officials for 80 million people: roughly one for every 12 families) has put Ethiopia in the ugly tradition of fear societies that totalitarian states have been known for.
Again, these are not contested facts. The message that Meles is sending is clear. Election 2005, can never be allowed to be repeated in so far as the TPLF/EPRDF is in power. The “election game” to fool willing participants in the west, who are more interested to assuage their guilt for willingly supporting the dictatorship at the expense of the Ethiopian people, will continue, but real, meaningful election? Don’t even think about it!
Beyond the 2010 Election
In the last forty years, the Ethiopian people’s struggle for freedom and democracy has been frustrated as one dictator replaced another. The Ethiopian people optimistically helped the TPLF when it was fighting one of the most hated regimes in Ethiopian history. Today, after 19 years in power, the TPLF itself is the most hated regime in Ethiopia.
Despite Zenawi’s violence and brutality, Ethiopians gave him the benefit of the doubt for 19 long years. However, the 2005 mass massacre in Addis Ababa, the genocide in Gambela and crimes against humanity in Ogden forced the Ethiopian people to look for alternative strategies to remove Zenawi’s ethnic dictatorship. The possibility of a gradual peaceful change to liberty, is buried with the brutality of 2005. Today, most Ethiopians agree on mixing alternative strategies to bring down Zenawi’s brutal regime; and one of the most preferred strategies is the ‘Multi-faceted’ strategy that mixes peaceful struggle with self-defense and preservation.
The inevitable transition to a ‘Multi-faceted’ strategy is not the preference of the Ethiopian people; it is a choice they were forced to adopt because we Ethiopians are faced with the devil’s alternative. Self-defense as a preferred method of struggle has nothing to do with Ethiopia’s past, it is all about the future. Twenty years of peaceful options such as dialogue and negotiations have achieved nothing except undermining the struggle and extending the collective pain of the nation. There is a strong belief that Meles and his gang will never relinquish power by peaceful means. Had they accepted the peace deal, violence and the causes of violence would have come to an end five years ago. Even more, time is not on the side of those seeking liberty, unity and stability. Every additional time the ethnocentric regime stays in power, it uses it to work hard to dismantle the country and threaten its very existence. This struggle is about saving the country and its people.
The Illusion of Stability
Western nations enigmatically believe that maintaining the status quo and keeping Zenawi in power regardless of the realities on the ground, is the prudent policy to follow. This is what one academic calls the policy of cynical realism. However, this flawed thinking and policy is not only short sighted, but it’s premised on two false assumptions: 1) Zenawi's government is a force for stability; and 2) there is a legal and constitutional framework for a legitimate opposition to operate in Ethiopia. It is hard to believe that Western governments bought into Zenawi’s definition of himself as the savior of the nation and the opposition as weak and divided elements that cannot muster a credible alternative. Hence, they insisted on creating a moral equivalence between a murderous regime and the opposition even as the opposition was being badgered by the full weight of a violent state.
But what should be clear for the financial backers of this regime is that Ethiopia under Meles is not a durable stabilizing force. In fact it is one of the most unstable and potentially explosive countries in an already destabilized Horn of Africa, region. Ethiopia is home for more than 60% of the region’s population and it is also the only country that shares boarder with every country in the Horn of Africa. A closer look at the recent history of the Horn of Africa reveals that Ethiopia was involved directly or indirectly, by its own choice or by others, in almost all of the conflicts that took place in the Horn of Africa. This trend shows us that it’s literally impossible to have peace and stability in the Horn of Africa without first stabilizing Ethiopia.
It is sad that a regime terrorizing its own people is a trusted ally in the fight against terror in the Horn of Africa. It must be acknowledged that fighting terrorism is in Ethiopia’s own national interest no matter which government is in power. Obviously, peace and stability in Ethiopia requires the rule of law and building a democratic order. But, this has been impossible as long as Meles Zenawi’s ethnocentric regime is in power.
I very strongly believe that we Ethiopians are primarily responsible for the affairs of our country. Having observed the operation of the international community very closely over the past few years, I am even more convinced today than ever before, that the solution to our problems can only come from within ourselves. But, I also believe that the problems of the Horn region have international dimensions. Major international players, like the US and the EU, can constructively contribute to the stability of the country and the region if they engage with the region without trading their fundamental values of freedom, justice, and democracy for short term stability, or their own myopic geo-strategic interests. They should know more than any other country that there will never be stability where there is no freedom and justice.
Foreign Aid as the Instrument to Sustain Dictatorship
The International Financial Institutions and donor countries have helped Ethiopia for the last six decades. But, despite absorbing billions and billions of aid fund and food assistance for more than sixty years, Ethiopia is still one of the poorest and one of the worst totalitarian nations in Africa. If foreign aid would lift countries out of poverty without fundamental institutional changes within these countries Ethiopia, should have been way ahead by now.
It is now an accepted wisdom among development economists that democratically accountable countries perform much better in using their resources for the development of their people than dictatorships (e.g. Botswana, Mauritius). Ethiopia, a country that follows a failed communist ideology of revolutionary democracy, has neither democratic institutions nor good economic policy. Internally, the support for Zenawi’s regime has narrowed down to its few trusted ethnic security guards, and the only force keeping the dictator in Addis Ababa afloat is the large sum of financial aid that comes from Western donors. Western financial aid to Ethiopia has been more than $2 billion a year. But this money is largely feeding corruption and even more, going right back out in the form of capital flight. In 2004 capital flight from Ethiopia was $1.8 billion. For that year, it was the sixth highest from Sub Saharan Africa including South Africa. The five countries that have higher capital flight for that year were South Africa, Nigeria, Congo, Sudan and Angola. The other sad story of Western aid to Ethiopia is that, it is used to muffle freedom of speech and freedom of information in Ethiopia.
With a more principled approach from donors, this money could be used to leverage a more peaceful transition to democracy in Ethiopia. We believe that only a credible threat of sanctions by donor nations who currently are supplying the life lines for the otherwise moribund regime can pressure Meles to a meaningful negotiation with all political forces to bring about a peaceful transition. In the absence of that, conflict is inevitable. It is already underway. Only those who have lost all self respect can be asked to accept such brutal tyranny without resistance. And I am certain Ethiopians will not.
Lessons of the Past and Looking Forward
Internally, the increased brutality and violence of Zenawi’s regime has killed the hope of democracy in Ethiopia. Externally, the international community’s [EU, the US] choice of stability over freedom has infuriated the Ethiopian people. As a result, most Ethiopians believe that donor money is emboldening Zenawi’s brutal regime than helping poor Ethiopians. The Ethiopian people want to make sure that Meles Zenawi is the last dictator in Ethiopia; hence, the objective of this generation of Ethiopians is beyond removing the TPLF regime. In fact, building a democratic society is the main objective of Ethiopians. They certainly hope that this is would be the last major political fight they have to fight. With the establishment of a genuine democratic order, they believe they can resolve whatever political differences they have peacefully in a spirit of give and take, as people who share the same destiny.
In the last five years, many international organizations and dignitaries such as the honorable Ana Gomes, Donald Payne, and Russ Feingold have shared the pain of the Ethiopian people and have condemned Zenawi’s regime that caused this pain. We Ethiopians are sincerely thankful to all who were with us during our hard times, and we are particularly indebted to farsighted people like the honorable Ana Gomes who closely witnessed the 2005 election and told the world the true story of the election. Since 2005, the Honorable Ana Gomes has repeatedly told the EU and the world that Zeanwi’s regime is a regime to be dealt with not a regime to deal with. Her genuine empathy with victims of repression is far beyond an intellectual predilection. It is a product of a deeper understanding of the brutality and deception of dictatorships that she experienced in her own country. That is why she wouldn’t fall for the deceptive shinenigans of the Meles regime, like many other policy makers in Europe and the US. Freedom loving Ethiopians all over the world are forever grateful for her and for those who stood for the fundamental values of human liberty
This month the EU made a decision to observe Ethiopia’s highly managed election against the advice of Ana Gomes. Recently, EU’s diplomat in Addis Ababa said: “The elections in Ethiopia will be observed by international standards”, but Ethiopia’s election is already way below the threshold of the international election standards. Its results are already known. What is left is to announce the margin of victory that the ruling party gives itself, to make it palatable to its foreign financiers
Ethiopians are neither interested in being eternal foreign aid receivers nor do they wish to see foreign aid used to perpetuate dictatorship. Freedom is a God given natural property of human beings; therefore, it must not be sweet to some and bitter to others. The freedom journey of the Ethiopian people has started, and it will never stop until the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are secured to all Ethiopians. We sincerely hope that the west, particularly the EU will seriously reconsider its position of supporting brutal tyranny in Ethiopia in the name of stability. Because, at best, it will only achieve delayed instability, but it is important to also realize that the passage of time will certainly make the instability more intense. For those who believe that gradualism is the only reasonable way foreword, that people have to be patient, the question they must answer to themselves is how long should Ethiopians wait for liberty? How much time is a reasonable time to wait for liberty? Is it morally acceptable to kill change in the name of gradualism? Those who advocate supporting dictatorships in the name of peace and stability, did not seem to heed the advice of the most prominent advocate of peaceful struggle, Martin Luther King. Here is what he said:
This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood
Martin Luther King, JR
For us Ethiopians, now is the time for our liberty and freedom. And we will not rest till we have it.