Ethiopia: How many more killings will it take to make a ruler a dictator?
[Makeda Tsegaye is an Ethiopian woman with a Masters degree in
International Peace Studies (with specialization in Economic
Development and Peace) currently working for an international
development agency in Nairobi, Kenya.]
Ethiopia remains tense after security forces opened fire on
post-election demonstrators, killing up to 40 people. Makeda Tsegaye
paints a picture of a brutal regime - whose Prime Minister served on
UK Prime Minister's Commission on Africa - that will stop at nothing
to retain its grip on power and asks how many more millions of people
have to starve in Ethiopia before the world realizes that the root
causes of the problem is not lack of rains but failed economic
policies that are making people more vulnerable?
After what happened in Ethiopia last week, I would be surprised if
anyone had difficulty in understanding the true nature of the ruling
party and its leadership.
Is it surprising that the security forces of the Ethiopian Prime
Minister, who was appointed to the Commission for Africa by the UK,
and is viewed by the US as a key ally in combating terrorism and a
stabilizing force in the strategic Horn of Africa, killed over 40
innocent civilians, arrested thousands, instigated violence and
hatred in the country? Is it surprising that in spite of these acts,
the ruling party perceives itself as not guilty? Is it surprising
that the Prime Minister extended the ban on peaceful demonstrations
by another month despite protests that this edict was entirely
unconstitutional and illegal? Is it surprising that his security
forces killed opposition party members outside the capital two days
after signing the European Union-brokered peace pact on June 10 to
peacefully resolve election-related disputes?
None of these is surprising to Ethiopians who endured 14 long years
of similar persecutions, economic hardships and man-made disasters
under a deceptive, incompetent and clearly authoritarian leadership.
This was not the first time that the ruling party killed peaceful
demonstrators. For instance, in 1992 and 2001, security forces opened
fire on Addis Ababa University students who peacefully demonstrated
against the ruling party's failed policies, killing more than 35,
wounding over 400, and arresting and torturing hundreds of students,
while 22 university professors were sacked.
In 2002, security forces shot protestors in Southern Ethiopia,
killing over 35 people. While these are examples from urban areas
only, it should not be difficult to imagine the situation of
dissidents in remote areas where little is known due to lack of
communication and the absence of human rights activists.
In spite of all these, the ruling party never admitted its mistakes
apart from giving shamefully lame excuses for its irresponsible and
barbaric acts. For example, in 1992 its excuse was that its riot
police did not have the right equipment to disperse peaceful
demonstrators. However shocking such an irresponsible statement
seemed to many families who lost their loved ones, the ruling party
could simply get away with it without any form of accountability.
Just last week, another round of killings claimed the lives of over
40 civilians. Appallingly, the ruling party labeled these civilian
victims as 'unemployed hooligans', as if to imply that their lives
were worth nothing.
Despite the rhetoric that Ethiopia is 'democratic', persistent
abuses of civil and political rights, and lack of an inclusive and
responsive political system characterizes the current regime. In
fact, the regime is typified by what Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way
(2002, pp. 51-65) describe as 'Competitive Authoritarianism',
which is a hybrid regime where formal democratic institutions are
widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising
political authority. However, the incumbents violate those rules so
often and to such an extent that the regime fails to meet
conventional minimum standards for democracy.
Although the Ethiopian regime may have appeared to be an economic
and political reformer in the past, a closer review of its policies
reveals otherwise. Notwithstanding its rhetoric about liberal
economic policies and privatization, the ruling party and its
benefactors control key economic sectors. In fact, strategic control
of the economy is one of the tactics that the ruling party employed
to manipulate the political process in the country.
For instance, state-owned land was viewed as a key instrument to
control the political opinions of eighty-five percent of rural
Ethiopians who are entirely dependent on agriculture for their
livelihoods. There were reports from many rural constituencies that
prior to the recent elections, cadres of the ruling party were
threatening to deny those who voted for the opposition parties access
to land. The ruling party's false confidence in winning the elections
in most rural areas was thus prompted by this unlawful act.
Nevertheless, none of these threats made sense to millions of
desperate farmers who hardly benefit from their 'less-than-a-hectare'
land and whose lives are largely sustained by relief rosters year in
and year out. On the contrary, most people viewed the election as an
opportunity for ensuring a productive life whereby responsible
citizens could earn a living and lead a dignified life. The ruling
party was blind to this reality owing to its gross underestimation of
the intellect and pride of the rural people.
Ironically, it is also this grave miscalculation of the ruling party
that provided the platform for the participation of opposition
parties in the recent elections. However, the fact that opposition
parties were able to mobilize millions of supporters within a short
period of election campaigning, despite massive harassment and
intimidation, sent an important warning signal to the ruling party.
Hence, it immediately got busy retracting its seemingly democratic
gestures. It did not stop there. Terrified by the stiff resistance
from the people who are determined to decide their future, its true
nature became self-evident. In effect, it was forced to reveal its
real identity to the world that it only managed to appear democratic
aided by a situation in which it could control the playing field by
selecting its own team, the referees and even the spectators. In the
absence of any or all of these, it had to resort to the original
tactics of any dictatorship, which is typified by mass killing,
arrests, torture and so on. In fact, the ruling party was
panic-stricken that it started to take any measure that appeared to
support its desire to salvage its greed for power. It was interesting
to see how in the course of last week, it even targeted every
possible means of effective communication including disrupting
cellular phone services. Toward the end of the week, the
state-controlled telecom agency announced that due to technical
problems it was no longer able to provide SMS (text messaging)
services. It is to be noted that, in the absence of other media,
Ethiopians were exchanging information of a political nature through
It is apparent that the current situation in Ethiopia is extremely
tense. Given its repeated records of violent confrontation, the
ruling party will not refrain from engaging in more brutal and
barbaric acts to suppress dissenting voices and the people's struggle
for political and economic freedom. The question remains, how many
more killings will it take to make a ruler a dictator? How many more
millions of people have to starve in Ethiopia before the world
realizes that the root causes of the problem is not lack of rains but
failed economic policies that are making people more vulnerable?
Last week we heard that the US is set to pledge US$674 famine funds
as part of a joint US/UK initiative to 'get Africa back on its feet',
of which a large amount is destined for Ethiopia. During the same
period, Ethiopians were raising their voices to tell the world that
it is the presence of responsible leadership in the country, and not
relief assistance, that could fully mitigate the effects of disaster
and poverty. While Ethiopians are immensely grateful for the relief
support that the US has provided to the innumerable victims of poor
governance and resource mismanagement, it has become apparent that
charity will not lead to prosperity. If this were the case, Ethiopia
would have been Africa's most prosperous nation in the last 14 years.
What is needed in Ethiopia is responsible, competent and committed
leadership that can create an enabling environment for citizens to
work hard and create a prosperous and peaceful Ethiopia.
Ethiopians have long recognized this need and their recent admirable
participation in the legislative elections indicates more than ever
their determination to change the image of their country and lead a
dignified life, wherein the rule of law, accountability, and
transparency provide the platform for development and lasting peace.
Simultaneously, people are anxious to harness their ethnic and
geographic diversity in order to create a better Ethiopia for all
citizens. However, it is shameful that a divisive leadership that is
not even capable of fully grasping the values of and strengths in
national unity is attempting to suppress these noble objectives.
On Monday June 13, 2005, the Prime Minister was quoted as saying in
his televised address to the nation that, "there was no reason for
riots in Addis Ababa [where] EPRDF has conceded its defeat". This
remark clearly indicates the PM's divisive strategy that has
threatened to erode the concept of nationalism from the minds of
Ethiopians for the last 14 years. Fortunately, his self-centered and
anti-development psychology has long been rejected by Ethiopians who
embrace unity not only among themselves but also among their fellow
African brothers and sisters. It is important that all peace and
freedom-loving Africans individually and collectively stand up with
their Ethiopian brothers and sisters who are struggling to end the
suffering of their fellow citizens and create a bright future for the
 Levitsky, Steven and Way, Lucan A. "The Rise of Competitive
Authoritarianism." Journal of Democracy. (2002) 11:2: 51-65
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