The Struggle of the Ethiopian People for Democracy and the Reaction of the Totalitarian Regime: A Briefing to the Academic Community
Getachew Metaferia, Ph.D.
Morgan State University

"Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely" ( Lord Acton, 1952).

This paper is to brief colleagues in academia about the current political crisis in Ethiopia and direct attention to the serious situation that is unfolding. The situation is a manifestation of citizen's struggle to build democracy and withstand a totalitarian regime that clings to power by all means possible. That situation is neither an aberration nor a sudden and spontaneous occurrence. It has been in the making since the current government came to power.
The nature of the current government.
The current amalgam of ruling ethnic organizations, under the umbrella of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Forces (EPRDF)), was created by the Tigrai People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and came to power in 1991 after the overthrow of the military regime. Tigrai is a province in northern Ethiopia adjacent to Eritrea. As the country had suffered under the totalitarian military regime, the TPLF-dominated-and- controlled-EPRDF was seen as a relief from the previous regime. The majority of the people gave the TPLF the benefit of the doubt and extended their support despite knowing of the previous objective of the TPLF to have Tigrai province secede from Ethiopia. Major decisions of the government soon alienated it from the public.
After coming to power, the TPLF/EPRDF divided the country's political map along ethnic lines based on the premises of bringing autonomy and devolution of power to the ethnic and linguistic-based regions. Article 39 of the government-imposed current constitution even allows the ethnic regions to secede. This, however, has created ethnic conflicts and administrative confusions. Although no one seems to object to the democratic rights of ethnic groups, the majority of Ethiopians felt that the EPRDF undermined Ethiopia as a nation-state. The leaders paid little respect to the long history of Ethiopia and claimed that Ethiopia's history spans only a century. In fact, Ethiopia was a bulwark against European colonialism and maintained its sovereignty for centuries, hence is seen as a symbol of freedom and national independence for countries and peoples that were under the yolk of colonialism and subjugation.
The current Prime Minister, Melese Zenawi, defamed Ethiopia's national symbol by calling the tricolor flag of Ethiopia a mere shred of cloth. That "shred of cloth", the green, yellow, and red flag of Ethiopia, is often called the pan-African flag as several African countries, upon gaining their independence, patterned the color of their flags after that of Ethiopia. In Jamaica the Ethiopian flag adorns houses and politicians take advantage of it to court voters, especially the Ras Tafarians.
The TPLF/EPRDF is responsible for the loss of Ethiopia's outlet to the sea as a result of the secession of Eritrea, the northern part of Ethiopia. Thus Ethiopia, with a population of 77 million, became the only large land-locked country in Africa. The Eritrean referendum took place before there had been a genuine dialogue among the peoples of Ethiopia and Eritrea. The referendum was a vote on the choice between "yes" and "no" to freedom. Eritrean voters were not given any alternative to secession. Other choices such as federation, confederation or unity with Ethiopia were not entertained.
The government dismantled the national defense force that had taken more than half a century to build and was pivotal to Ethiopia's security. As irrational as the dismantling was, it did not take the government a long time to go deeply into debt to rebuilding its army when it engaged in a large-scale war with Eritrea, even though it had previously facilitated and endorsed the secession of Eritrea. The Eritrean liberation fighters under the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and the TPLF had once been allies during their guerilla war against the military regime.
Before the border war of 1998-2000 took place, the two organizations --- (EPLF and TPLF/EPRDF) asserted their full control of Ethiopia. Eritrea declared independence in 1993 but continued benefiting economically from Ethiopia with the support of the TPLF/EPRDF. That honeymoon did not last long. The unexpected fallout in 1998 led to a war under the pretext of a border dispute, although the bone of contention remained the poor economic performance of Eritrea. Under pressure from the Tigrai people, stringent requirements were imposed for cross-border trade, and goods leaving Ethiopia for Eritrea through the province of Tigrai were obstructed. Any cross-border trade above 200 Ethiopian Birr required purchase with US dollars, of which Eritrea had a short supply. After initially adopting the Ethiopian currency (Birr), Eritrea decided to issue its own currency, Nekfa, and required exchange parity between the two currencies, which was unacceptable to Ethiopia. Ethiopia also made a surprise move by issuing new currency notes.
Eventually Eritrea took military action to punish the TPLF. Its planes bombed a school, killing children, and destroyed a pharmaceutical plant in Mekele, the capital of Tigrai region. A devastating war that employed modern weaponry and WW I-type trench fighting unfolded. The result was the loss of about seventy thousand lives (brothers and sisters bound together by blood, history, culture and destiny) on both sides, displaced people and separated families. Currently, as the border demarcation remains unsettled, saber rattling has continued. Both countries also exploit the impasse to divert the attention of their citizens from pressing economic, social and political concerns.
In spite of its egregious errors, the TPLF/EPRDF leadership has remained arrogant and totalitarian. It states loudly that democracy and development are well established but, in fact, the majority of Ethiopians feel alienated and marginalized and believe that their fundamental rights are being violated.
Prime Minister Melese Zenawi and the West
The current leader of Ethiopia, Prime Minister Melese Zenawi, has managed to convince the West that he is a visionary leader and has even been described as one of the leaders of the African renaissance. He has projected himself as an ally of the US and UK in the war against terrorism, in the manner of the Cold War tactic of the alliance against communism. In the past, such alliances resulted in the birth of dictators, such as Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), who became corrupt totalitarians in the face of the suffering of their people. In the current global situation, developing a long-range relationship with the people is more important than investing in a corrupt government. Supporting peoples' devotion in fighting poverty, improving the quality of life, upholding justice, and protecting human rights are assets of the West in fighting terrorism.
Since Melese came to power in 1991, Ethiopia has received generous assistance amounting to more than $20 billion. More than 20% of the national budget comes from such external flow of funds. His military and security apparatus is bolstered by the guise of fighting terrorism. Such support has legitimized the extension of his authoritarian rule, the abuse of human rights, and the stifling of democracy. Ethiopians opposed to Melese's policies and excesses have been conveniently dismissed by the West as disgruntled Amharas or remnants of the Derg military regime. The West, unfortunately, buttresses Melese. He is, for example, included in Prime Minister Tony Blair's project, Commission for Africa, whose objective is to "take a fresh look at Africa's past and present and the international community's role in its development path."
In addition to claiming to be an ally of the US and UK in the fight against terrorism, Melese Zenawi claims to uphold democratic principles and good governance. His government and supporters, especially foreigners, see the regime as an improvement over the military regime that it toppled. Ethiopians, except the few beneficiaries of the current regime, do not think of his government as better than the military junta. Ethiopians see him as arrogant and aloof, believe that he has failed to protect national interest and is indifferent to the country's diverse ethnic groups, except for the Tigrigans. Recently people think him to be worse than Mengistu Haile Mariam of the military regime. The democracy that his government claims to follow is symbolic only and is devoid of substance. The elections that took place in 1995 and in 2000, which the government purported to have won, were subsequently reported to be shams and not free and fair, according to both international observers and local civic organizations.
The current situation
According to election observers, including those from the European Union, the third election of May 15, 2005, was fraught with gross election improprieties. Unlike the previous two elections, this third election was open and debates between parties were broadcast live. The two major coalitions, the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UDEF) and the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) formed an alliance against the ruling party ---- TPLF/EPRDF. Town hall meetings held by CUD and UDEF showed a great enthusiasm by the people. Public demonstration, dubbed as "celebrating democracy", by CUD, was allowed prior to the election and brought out more than two million demonstrators. For the first time in Ethiopia's history the public openly expressed dissatisfaction with the ruling party and supported opposition groups.
On Election Day, voters came out in droves (a 95% voter turn-out), stood in line for long hours and gave their verdict, in most cases, by voting against the ruling party (TPLF/EPRDF). The government had not been close enough to the people to read the public pulse and expected a landslide win. When that was not the case, both the government and its foreign supporters were stunned.
Melese Zenawi, one of "the leaders of the African renaissance" and the "darling of the west," had lost the confidence of the voters. Melese managed to win in the Adwa electoral district, his birthplace, only because opposition candidates were harassed and barred from running. It was apparent that the ruling party lost most districts where international observers were posted. For example in Addis Ababa, one of the opposition groups, the CUD garnered all seats. On election day, when the vote counts continued showing the opposition groups (CUD and UDEF) leading in some areas, the government panicked and prematurely announced that it had won the majority seats in the rest of the country. The opposition groups also claimed winning in most areas and their supporters were elated. Prominent officials of the government lost elections. That was the case of, for example, the speaker of the house; the minister of defense; the president of the Oromia region; and a close friend of the Prime Minister who was the minister of information; as well as the minister of education, to mention a few. The Prime Minister then made his first dramatic decision by declaring a state of emergency in Addis Ababa and banning peaceful demonstrations and public gatherings for a month. The official reporting of the election results was postponed for a month.
The opposition groups accused the government of fraud and rigging the election. The government accused the opposition of plotting to destabilize the country. Reelection took place in some electoral districts. However, some opposition candidates who had won earlier, were harassed by government cadres, some were forced to withdraw from the second round of elections, and candidates of the ruling party (TPLF/EPRDF) were declared to have won. The National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), responsible for election, is established by the government and is accused by the opposition of being partial. The important thing was not who voted but who counted the votes.
Voters felt that their votes were stolen by the government and peacefully demonstrated against election improprieties. The government responded by shooting and killing some 40 demonstrators in June 2005.
Candidates and members of the opposition parties who had actually won election and their supporters were harassed and threatened by government cadres and agents. One of the major political parties, the CUD, refused to join the parliament, claiming that its vote had been stolen. The government immediately stripped parliamentary immunity of the elected representatives of CUD and detained them. Among the detained political leaders are women and elderly persons who are not in the best of health. Some of these political leaders are now on a hunger strike to pressure the government to halt their atrocities. Among those languishing in prison are highly educated individuals who earned their degrees from American universities. Some were faculty members in American colleges and universities.
Thousands of persons alleged to be CUD supporters are held in the malaria-infested lowlands of Dedesa, Western Ethiopia, and Zwai in the southern part of the country. When citizens demonstrated against the government's actions, more than 40 demonstrators were again killed in November 2005. That brought the total number of protesters murdered to more than eighty. Those murdered included children as young as seven years old, elderly people and women. Even the budding free press is banned and their owners and journalists jailed. The government's action demonstrates that totalitarian regimes are increasingly intolerant of those who criticize them or challenge their policies. Compromise is not in their political vocabulary.
A few opposition members, including from CUD and the elected members of UDEF, have joined the parliament in the hope of challenging the ruling party from within. However, strict parliamentary procedures have been passed to curtail their contributions to the agenda for deliberations.
The Prime Minister has claimed that the opposition leaders are responsible for the public uprising and the ensuing murder of unarmed demonstrators. According to the Prime Minister, the political leaders who are in prison will be charged with treason that is punishable by death. In a country where there is no separation of power, the court feeble and the executive branch omnipotent, the Prime Minister's pronouncement is considered to be law. Such a statement by the totalitarian Prime Minister echoes the circumstance that led to the massacre of more than sixty officials in 1974. When the international community that has bolstered Melese Zenawi exerted pressure on his regime to release all political prisoners and journalists, they were told to cease interfering in the internal affairs of Ethiopia. Their request to visit prisoners was rejected. There was a call for an independent commission to review the case and make its findings public. A commission has recently been appointed by the parliament. This commission is controlled by the ruling party, and considered to be partial to the government. It is considered a sham by most Ethiopians, by opposition members who are in parliament, by opposition leaders who are in prison, and by opposition parties who are in exile.
What is currently unfolding in Ethiopia is of concern to all interested in the dynamics of democracy, citizens' political participation, and the struggle against totalitarian regimes. The situation in Ethiopia is also of grave concern because the politics of the country has an ethnic dimension that could polarize the society and put it on an ever more dangerous course. The core of the ruling party, TPLF, comes from Tigrai ethnic minority and tries to convince Tigrigna speakers that the opposition harbors ill motives against them. The government has managed to convince some Tigrigna speakers but many have challenged the allegation. The opposition groups, (both CUD and UDEF), on the other hand, are multi ethnic and have Tigrigna speakers both in their leaderships and in their ranks.
The Prime Minister and his ministers have reminded the country of the gory Rwandan Interhamwe (meaning 'those who stand together or kill together') killers and have tried to create apprehension and fear by warning that the opposition is planning a similar move. As will be remembered, it was the Rwandan government that committed genocide by unleashing the Interhamwe on unarmed civilians in 1994 and the world was late to offer help to stop the blood bath. The after-fact analysis and apology did not make a difference for the millions who died because of the hatred generated by the government to create deadly conflicts between different ethnic groups. We must deter such a tragedy from happening in Ethiopia. The government has utterly lost its morality by unleashing its special militia force, the Agazi, composed of a single ethnic group and secretly trained to maim and kill civilians and create division within a pluralist society.
Freedom of speech and association, which are the hallmarks of democracy, no longer exist in Ethiopia. People are afraid to speak in public and there is no independent media to inform them. The only source of alternative news comes from overseas, from the Voice of America (VOA), the German Radio (Deutsche Welle), and other radio programs broadcast by diaspora Ethiopians. The current Ethiopian government, similar to its predecessor, the military regime, has even tried to jam some stations, especially the VOA which was compelled to change its radio frequency.
Following the military era, Ethiopians in the diaspora have grown in number, are organized, and use current communications technology. They manage websites to inform citizens about what is unfolding in the country. They expose state terrorism in Ethiopia and lobby foreign governments to pressure the government to release political prisoners. Because they are vocal, some Ethiopian academics, artists, media personalities and individuals in the diaspora are blacklisted, according to a newspaper with close ties to the government. The Ethiopian government is trying to stretch its totalitarian rule and silence even those who live in free societies, trying to muzzle all voices of reason and conscience.
The western media glorifies what it calls democratic steps taken by the Melese regime. Undeniably, there have been some positive trends that could have contributed to a democratic process. The laws that are passed immediately after even the merest signs of democratic steps have obstructed and stifled these gestures. For example:
1) Despite the purported democracy in the country, separation of power is non-existent. The Prime Minister has complete control over the three branches of government: executive, legislative and judiciary. When judges free political prisoners, the police send them back to prison. The parliament, controlled by the Prime Minister, passes laws that give him a free hand. For example, when the opposition won several seats, he amended the law making it impossible for political parties that garnered less than 51% of the members of parliament to place an item on the agenda for debate. In addition, opposition members who are considered by the EPRDF as unruly can be forced by the police to leave the parliament.
2) Free press was allowed but when journalists became critical of the government, a law that curbed their role was passed and independent journalists are harassed and detained and find it impossible to function.
3) The government claimed to liberalize the economy but made it difficult to invest through its investment laws by manipulating tariff laws and creating bureaucratic red tape. Friends, associates and the ruling party directly or indirectly control the economy and benefit through tax breaks and low interest rates --- a classic case of crony capitalism. Nevertheless, the government claims that it has taken a capitalist route.
4) Regional autonomy or the devolution of power is professed but in actuality power is centralized and is in the hands of a single ethnic-based group. Regional authorities are corrupt and lack the proper training. What counts is only their loyalty to the central government.
5) The inner circle of the ruling elite that forms the kitchen cabinet and sets policies belongs to the same ethnic group and members are connected through blood or marriage. The handful of ruling elite or the extended family, therefore, has full control of the economy, politics, security, bureaucracy and the media. It is no wonder that the corruption rating of the government by the Geneva-based Transparency International (2005) is 139th out of 159 countries. There is a wide divide between the state and the society. The government treats the people as subjugated subjects and not as respected citizens.
Several fallacies, therefore, have been glossed over by donor countries. When the current crisis unfolded, the international community continued defending the government. Some have sided with the government of the day and shift the blame for the current crisis to the opposition. Recently, some have started speaking or writing against the killing of innocent civilians. More is needed to pressure the government to release political prisoners and listen to the voices of reason. The human rights abuses and the efforts to stifle the citizen's desire for democracy have brought political crisis in Ethiopia. The government is armed to the teeth and believes might to be right and has no respect for the people's voice. Power tends to corrupt; absolute power has corrupted the regime absolutely.
Future prospects: not to miss the opportunity
In spite of the glaring problems that the country is faced with, we must look forward. The public is outraged that the TPLF/EPLF still remains in power even in the areas that it lost. The citizens and the government are at loggerheads. The May 2005 election would have given the opportunity, the first time in Ethiopia's history, for the ballot to have the power. The opposition has consistently called for peaceful resistance to totalitarianism, although the government claims otherwise. The opposition has called for peace and reconciliation conference.
Even the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), that challenges the government militarily, has also called for a peaceful solution to Ethiopia's political problem through dialogue between all political and civic organizations. The OLF waged an armed struggle against the military regime. It was part of the transitional government that was formed after the overthrow of the military government. It withdrew from the transitional government in 1992.
The government may have won some seats but its landslide win remains questionable. Most important is that it has lost the people's trust not because of its ethnic background, as it wants to purport, but solely because of its policies, its human rights abuses and its corruption. The government must be pressured to immediately proceed with the following measures:
? Release all opposition leaders and political prisoners and uphold basic human rights of all citizens as stipulated by international law and by its own constitution.
? Dialogue with all opposition groups.
? Allow the private press to function.
? Convene a national peace and reconciliation conference as suggested by political and civic organizations. The conference must critically and frankly evaluate the past; set strategies and procedures that will extricate the country from the existing dangerous path; and determine the course that Ethiopia must take to ensure peace and stability in the country and build a democratic system.

Why this briefing to colleagues in the academia is needed?
As we learn from Ethiopia's recent history, its intelligentsia has been at the forefront in criticizing undemocratic governments. The fall of the monarchy attests to that. Intellectuals and the young were also targeted during the Red Terror period (1977) of the military regime. Those who survived the atrocities left the country, the first time Ethiopians had fled from their country, and the emigration remains unabated today. The brain drain from Ethiopia has affected its development. There are, for example, more Ethiopian medical professionals outside of the country than in Ethiopia. That kind of drain has crippled the development of Ethiopia. Once again, the young and the educated are in the forefront and are active in the struggle for democracy. They are exposing the terrible economic, political, and human rights conditions in the country. Unfortunately they are murdered, imprisoned and tortured.
We in the academia must examine and analyze situations in countries like Ethiopia where people struggle for democracy and the reactions of totalitarian regimes to curtail peoples' movement for freedom. Our objective analysis would assist the international community to make the correct decisions in promoting good governance, alleviating poverty, and protecting human rights. We must also speak against atrocities wherever they occur.
Unfortunately some western academics who have professional interest in Ethiopia were courted by the current government and were blinded to see the trend of the current crisis. Ethiopia's current government has tried to make it look as if it is hated because of its ethnic origin. It has managed to garner some support for this allegation by convincing a few foreigners --- including some academics --- that this is indeed the case. Those who have supported the TPLF/EPRDF because it overthrew the military dictatorship should conduct an unbiased examination of Melese's totalitarian regime. The fact that the regime has unleashed the Agazi force indicates the government's insecurity and its mistrust of others. This government is to take any measures to remain in power and that is the modus operandi of all totalitarian regimes.
In the last thirty years Ethiopia has been in political turmoil and has suffered economic hardship. The political conditions under the successive governments are to blame for most of the malaise that the country has faced. Political leaders, therefore, must be urged to uphold the rule of law and galvanize Ethiopia's resources to build the country. To that end, a lasting solution must be designed to overcome the current political impasse and bring in a vibrant future. The country must be able to keep its trained nationals, on whom scarce resources are expended, and provide them with the freedom to utilize their knowledge and expertise for national development and to exercise their fundamental rights. Activist scholars should show solidarity with colleagues who are struggling against totalitarian rulers. Academics in free societies have the opportunity and obligation to study objectively and speak out when they observe atrocities committed by totalitarian regimes. Ethiopians, Ethiopianists, Africanists and other professors around the world should hold discussion forums, as was done at Harvard University and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. What is unfolding in Ethiopia should be of grave concern to all who believe in democracy and in the right and duty of citizens to participate in its building.