Ethiopian Political Marketplace

Tipping points in the Ethiopian political marketplace


Pambazuka News Weekly Forum for Social Justice in Africa
Kasahun Woldemariam (2006-03-16)

As bomb blasts rip through Addis Ababa and opposition leaders stand
trial for treason, Kasahun Woldemariam charts the rise of the
Ethiopian state, providing background to the turbulent May 2005
election period and the subsequent regime crackdown. The government
of Meles Zenawi, he writes, needs to tune in its listening devices to
the voices of the people rather than appeasing and appealing to
external forces.

Since 1991, Ethiopians have gone to the polls three times (in 1995,
2000, and 2005) to cast their ballots. The three elections were never
perfect by any measure, but given the communication, political, and
other constraints, they were instrumental in providing the basis for
evaluating the performance of elected public officials and whether
they remained true to their campaign platforms and promises. The 2005
multiparty elections, particularly, challenged the commitment of the
ruling coalition and opposition parties to democracy and peaceful
resolution of conflict.

The question then becomes whether Ethiopian political leaders were
genuinely committed to the rule of law and multiparty politics. Did
the ruling elites that came to power after the collapse of the
military regime of Mengistu Haile-Mariam (1974-1991) essentially open
the political marketplace to ride the post-Cold War current? What are
the long-term implications of the behaviors and actions of the
political leaders? What lessons could other Africans draw from the
Ethiopian experience?

This article presents a critical and condensed overview of the
political history of Ethiopia with emphasis on the prominence of
internal legitimacy for the survival and continuity of a political
system. This is followed by a detailed account and analysis of
multiparty election outcomes and the implication of post-2005
election allegations and counter-allegations of electoral fraud and
the imprisonment of opposition party leaders on eroding public
confidence in the political process as well as in government. It then
makes a brief summary of the main points of the article and concludes
with a few policy-oriented remarks.

Contemporary Political Developments in Ethiopia

The end of the Cold War in the late 1980s fundamentally shifted the
African political landscape. By the early 1990s, almost every African
authoritarian ruler jumped on the bandwagon and became carried away
by the conveyer belts of political and market liberalism.

The case of Ethiopia is unique in many respects. The departure of
Mengistu left a political vacuum and opened an unprecedented
opportunity for the declaration of Eritrea as an independent state.
Numerous political parties also emerged. Many among these demanded
secession while a few others looked to meet the separatist claims
without causing the disintegration of the country into unstable and
unviable ethnic Bantustans. The 1990/91 London negotiation, chaired
by the former United States Assistant Secretary of State, Herman
Cohen, was an attempt to engage the various contending political
parties in a negotiation and to figure out strategies to reestablish
peace and security in Ethiopia. Among the delegates were
representatives from the military government, the Tigray Peoples
Liberation Front (TPLF), the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), and
other nationalist and secessionist party members.

At the London Summit, it was decided that the TPLF would replace the
outgoing military regime, and Eritrea would be declared independent
from the oppressive regime of Ethiopia. Initially, the TPLF did not
camouflage its separatist tendencies within the rubrics of national
integration, nation-building, and all the other politically and
diplomatically appealing aphorisms. Indeed, beginning in the
mid-1980s, the Front had expanded its spheres of guerrilla warfare to
other provinces, especially to the predominantly "Amhara" provinces
of western Ethiopia. Even there, the Front held its banner and
continued to depend on the peoples' willingness and kindness to
shelter, feed, and fight alongside with the party's armed wings. What
is interesting is that the TPLF leadership believed and mobilized its
Tigray dominated guerrilla groups to fight against the allegedly
Amhara dominated central government of Ethiopia.

Since the late 1970s, the TPLF had sought to make practical the
Leninist rhetoric of the rights of minority groups to
self-determination, including and up to secession. Yet, as the
military regime begun to crumble, the TPLF leadership abandoned its
separatist fervor in favor of the gains that come with ruling greater
Ethiopia, as opposed to forming an independent state with
questionable viability.

How did the TPLF transform itself from a disintegrative, separatist,
force to an arguably integrative, unionist, party? The various ethnic
groups had to be brought into an overarching framework. The grand
coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front
(EPRDF), was established to avoid the possible disintegration of
Ethiopia into unstable states. At the same time, the establishment of
the grand coalition was ostensibly designed to protect the interests
and rights of minority ethnic groups and to ensure that they would
not be short-changed in the interest of national unity. These
polarized tensions among the various groups created the opportunity
for the TPLF leadership to skillfully maneuver themselves to the peak
of the political hierarchy.

From the outset, there was really no genuine commitment to making
the outcome of multiparty elections unpredictable and, as a result,
the playing field in the political marketplace has been biased in
favor of the grand coalition, the EPRDF. The EPRDF is not a
constellation of equals; rather it is established to elevate the
politically and demographically minority party, the TPLF, to the
summit of the highly hierarchical grand coalition party.

If political power translates into economic power or vice-versa, then
the Tigray ethnic group in Tigray (northern Ethiopia) must have been
having a field day since the rise of the former secessionist party to
power. For instance, the current Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles
Zenawi, comes from one of the demographically minority ethnic groups
in Ethiopia, the Tigray ethnic group. This ethnic group represents
approximately 6% of the population of Ethiopia and, yet, a
disproportionate number of cabinet posts and other key government
posts are controlled by individuals from members of the Tigray ethnic

But it is not ethnicity, rather it is loyalty to the status quo, the
continued domination of power by one party, that determines whether
or not one qualifies for appointment as a high-ranking official.
Therefore, some observes who over-emphasize the role of ethnicity in
the allocation of political power and economic resources need to ask
themselves why a significant number of internally displaced,
homeless, and beggars in Addis Ababa are from the Tigray ethnic group
and why there is developmental and public and private sector
investment differentials within the Tigray regional state such as
between Adwa and Mekele.

The EPRDF comprises a number of parties, including the ANDM, ADP,
GPDF, OPDO, South Ethiopia Peoples' Democratic Front (SEPDF), and
TPLF. Since the EPRDF is a mechanism for centralized control of power
and since the majority member parties of the grand coalition are not
expressions of the wishes and desires of the people, the central
government's development policies and priorities are reflections of
the interests and visions of the party that has settled at the top of
the organizational hierarchy. Essentially, public funds for
investment in education, health, and physical infrastructure, as well
as setting the criteria for central government budget allocation for
reconstruction and rehabilitation are authoritatively determined.

Having created an unholy alliance among parties which mushroomed
after the collapse of the military regime, the EPRDF won the 1995
parliamentary elections overwhelmingly and secured a position to
dictate the country's social and economic policies. Interestingly,
even though the grand coalition maintained its dominant position,
after the 2000 elections, the leaders of the ruling coalition were
irritated by the loss of an additional 2% of the parliament seats to
loyal opposition parties.

To be sure, the 12% or so total occupancy of the federal parliament
by members of the opposition parties has done more than anyone had
expected. The ways in which they stood against a concrete political
wall is not only fascinating but, more importantly, it is a testament
of their commitment to play by the rules and to ensure that the voice
of the voiceless is heard loud and clear. In spite of intimidation,
harassment, imprisonment, and extrajudicial assassination, opposition
party leaders continue to rise to the occasion.

To the extent that the rise of elective dictatorship in Ethiopia is
not substantiated, then one is justified to ask why the government
allowed opposition party members to remain increasingly outspoken
against the government's position. First, given the growing public
disenchantment against public officials' complacency towards the
conditions of the majority, keeping opposition parties in some
irrelevant corner of the legislative process gives the illusion that
the regime may gradually democratize.

Secondly, disputing the notion of authoritarian regime under the
illusion of democracy, some take the view that if anything else the
current regime is much better than the patently and unpretentiously
authoritarian military regime of Mengistu Haile-Mariam, which soaked
its hands with thousands of innocent civilians' blood. They go on to
insist that the holding of elected officials in prison with or
without charges may violate their constitutional rights of immunity
from prosecution, but they did not disappear mysteriously, which
would have been the case during the iron-clod rule of Mengistu. But
banning opposition parties from participating in elections and the
subsequent ceremonial debate at the parliament floor would definitely
upset the ruling party's alternative sources of legitimacy and
financial support - the West - especially the Americans and the
Britons. Keeping opposition party members hanging in a political
limbo, without conceding any meaningful political space, would be
striking more than two birds in one stone.

The 2005 Elections and Subsequent Political Crises

For the leadership of the grand coalition, a slight dwindling in the
absolute ownership of the political space signaled the erosion of
legislative and executive power away from the center of gravity - the
Minister's office. Five years later, the regime reached a tipping
point both in terms of availing its true characteristics and the
decline in the internal legitimacy of the state. The 2005 elections
and the ways in which the opposition parties organized themselves
were remarkable on many counts.

By early 2003, it was evident that the 2005 parliamentary elections
would be different from the previous two elections. On a number of
occasions, leaders of opposition parties held talks on how best to
prepare for the 2005 parliamentary elections. Even though the EPRDF
was more a symbolic and loose alliance than anything else, it
nonetheless brought together the various political parties, continued
to serve as an essential political instrument of domination and
marginalization, and facilitated the conditions for the rise of the
TPLF to the pinnacle of power. Combining historical lessons of the
liberation struggle and the formation of the grand coalition and its
impact on the inequitable distribution of power, four opposition
parties were able to forge a strategic alliance and form the
Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD).

The May 2005 parliamentary elections evolved as if opposition parties
launched a surprise attack on the ruling coalition, testing its
tolerance to adversarial views and commitment to stepping aside
gracefully. It certainly tipped the balance of power in favor of
opposition parties and significantly eroded the confidence of the
public in the electoral process. Despite persistent intimidations,
imprisonment of candidates as well as delays in the delivery of
election material to and early closures of polling stations,
opposition parties were able to exert pressure on the ruling
coalition to play by its own rules of the political game, or face the
consequences of grossly diluting its image before the international

The CUD achieved a landslide victory at the capital city, which came
with a reward of 23 parliamentary seats. This was a politically
significant win for the country as a whole and for opposition parties
in particular. Many observers noted that the opposition were leading
the ruling coalition party by a measurable margin, but prior to the
conclusion of the elections the government declared that it had won
the majority vote.

Opposition parties quickly discredited the government's claim and
called for a recounting of the votes and rerunning of elections in
disputed areas. Except perhaps for the African Union and the Carter
Center, election observers from the European Union, Scandinavian
nations, and others held the view that the elections were not free
and fair. It was generally riddled with voter intimidation and
numerous impediments against supporters of opposition parties, and
backed the oppositions' allegation of fraud. The European Union
proposed that the best outcome for the country and the parties in
dispute would be to hold dialogue and mediation and develop a
mechanism for the peaceful resolution of political conflict. This
proposal never materialized, and by mid-November 2005 the opposition
called for a five-day strike.

Subsequently, security forces went on a rampage, killing at least
forty, wounding hundreds, and arresting over 2000 civilians.
Twenty-four members of the opposition party are presently standing
trial on charges of treason and coup. Some of the victims of the
political violence were children who had nothing to do with the
elections or the strike.

Because of gross human rights violations by the Ethiopian government,
the World Bank cancelled its aid to the Ethiopian government and,
instead, fund civil society organizations based in Ethiopia. The
European Union also cancelled its aid to the Ethiopian government,
making the combined $375 million withholding of foreign aid one of
the largest since the current regime came to power in 1991. With very
little or no indignity, the government reacted to the cancellation of
foreign aid by claiming that Ethiopia hardly relied on foreign aid
and that the survival and continuity of the state has always been and
will always depend on the will of the people. Hypocrisy aside, when
the World Bank and Western allies of African governments suspend
foreign aid, you know that there is something seriously wrong with
how ordinary citizens are treated by the state.

Irrespective of the weaknesses that may exist and the apparent
restrictions it faces, the Ethiopian free press was the only means of
policing the state. The problem of scarcity of information resources
is compounded as one moves out of the capital city into regional
state capitals and rural areas. In their daily interactions and
formation of mutual understanding around an issue, Ethiopians
transcend ethno-linguistic, religious, and class boundaries which
have been put up as barriers to collective mass mobilization against
the ruling elites. Thanks to the resilience of traditional values and
extended family networks, each resident of the capital city remains
in touch with his/her roots from the rural areas and, given their
comparatively greater access to the mass media, the citizens of Addis
Ababa are the information links of rural Ethiopia within the country
and beyond. Given the existence of a relatively improved
communication network in the capital city, it is also much easier to
mobilize residents of the city in support of a platform or to express
dissent against an incumbent regime. And, since each resident of the
city comes from diverse backgrounds, news and activities originating
in Addis Ababa easily spreads to other regions as well. Therefore,
winning Addis Ababa was not only politically significant but it was
also strategically important.

Concluding Remarks

What has occurred in Ethiopia since the May 2005 parliamentary
elections is a manifestation of hypocrisy at its best. Sheer
arrogance and the flexing of military muscle on an unarmed civilian
population never quite worked for the repressive regime of Mengistu
Haile-Mariam. If the military regime stood firmly against domestic
and regional rivals and made measurable progress in the provision of
public goods, then why did the regime suddenly collapse? To put it
simply, it lost the confidence of the general public, which worsened
by the ushering in of a new international political climate.

This point cannot be overemphasized, and restoring public confidence
in government should be taken as an important component of building
democracy and bringing about economic development. Furthermore,
unless one rejects the value of history and the unique experiences of
Ethiopians, the current ruling elites did not introduce Ethiopians to
the idea of "government by the people," call it democracy or elective
dictatorship. Even so, as Wole Soyinka noted, past contribution to
society should not inhibit future progress.

Therefore, contemporary African leaders, especially Ethiopians, need
not go far to the West or the East to draw lessons on public
administration, building the capacity of the state to deliver public
goods, and bringing about sustainable development and enduring
democracy. The most reliable source of state legitimacy is one that
emanates internally and crosses over linguistic, ethnic, class,
religious boundaries. That is, a regime's continuity and
effectiveness lies in its ability to achieve internal legitimacy by
tuning in its listening devices to the voices of the people rather
than appeasing and appealing to external forces. Alternatively, a
state that seeks to restore public confidence and derives its
legitimacy from the people also contributes to regional peace and
security and is one less troubled spot for the international
community to worry about.

Imprisonment of opposition party members, journalists, and civilians
without a warrant clearly illustrates that the executive branch of
the regime is acting and behaving above the law. In a political
system where no one is policing the state, where ballots no longer
serve as sticks and carrots, and where parliamentary elections are
meaningless processions to the polling station, then the regime is
nothing but an "elective dictatorship" and a constellation of
opportunist elites.

The first step in restoring public confidence in government would be
to release and engage in a genuine dialogue with opposition party
leaders. Such dialogue could be best facilitated by Ethiopian elders,
Ethiopian religious leaders with no political affiliation to any of
the parties, and by government representatives who have nothing to
lose or gain from the outcome of the dialogue and mediation.

At the end of the day, the political leaders from all sides must come
to terms with the fact that there is a limit to blind loyalty and
that the time for critical citizenship is never too late.

* Kasahun Woldemariam received his Ph.D. in African Studies from
Howard University and numerous awards, including research and
teaching fellowships from the University of Witwatersrand, South
Africa; the Institute for the Study of World Politics, Washington,
DC; and Howard University. He has written articles, including
"Investment-Friendly Image of Africa," "The Real Power of Ballots,"
and "NEPAD Needs NGOs to Work." His forthcoming book examines "Social
Capital" from an African Perspective."