THE PEOPLE vs. TPLF (EPRDF)—TIGRAI, ADDIS ABABA… SCALE UP DEFIANCE – By Genet Mersha
As the countdown to May 23rd election is ticking, the month of March has witnessed the most intense political activities in Ethiopia to date in this election season. (more…)
As the countdown to May 23rd election is ticking, the month of March has witnessed the most intense political activities in Ethiopia to date in this election season. We see a questioning public mood; we hear lots of accusations and counter accusations by the parties. There is no doubt that March has not been a favourable month for the governing party.
The tide has been beyond the capacity of TPLF’s well-greased propaganda machine. It has failed to dispel the attack by opposition political parties in three out of four debates to date. Nor does the TPLF image appear well shielded from the arrogance of power that has now linked it to some horrendous crimes and scandals that it desperately is trying wash off Nonetheless, some appear too sticky to whitewash and may even have serious repercussions going forward, whether the Front wins the election or is booted out by popular decision.
Not surprisingly, after a lot of dilly dallying, the situation dictated that on 18 March Prime Minister Meles Zenawi should come to the firing line and shoot his own. Claiming to have a peep hole to the inside, some say the date was determined rather by the urgency the 14 March gathering at Mekelle the leaders of Medrek had and what transpired. They have defined who the TPLF is and appear to have won hearts and minds in Tigray, once TPLF’s exclusive preserve. This time, Ato Meles agreed even to give the usual parliamentary oral response to members, which, as one parliamentarian hinted, he had been postponing several times during the past half-year, fully immersed in preparations for the fourth national election.
Clearly, Ato Meles needed the parliament’s forum this time to respond to some of the charges flying around hitting his party hard. As it happens, all the questions raised by the parliamentarians were either sort of inquiry into the credibility of the person of the prime minister and his government. This appears evident from the questions, among others for instance, whether he had betrayed Africa’s interests at the Copenhagen Climate Conference or, if his party has indeed intensified its harassment of opposition parties on the eve of the election, or if it were true that the TPLF was involved in arms deals using international humanitarian aid, shipped for the victims of the 1984 famine.
So serious is the situation for the ruling party, therefore, that it became necessary for its chairman, the prime minister on that same day, following his engagement with parliament, to give two press conferences (to local media and the international press) with a view to achieving two purposes: The first is to expound further in a detailed fashion to the media some of the allegations already parliamentarians had raised, among others. It seems he is a believer that even lies could become truth, if they are repeated sufficiently.
Secondly, he wanted to seize another opportunity to discredit the opposition, a thing that he has been enjoying lately as the run up to the election is gaining momentum. Unfortunately, his heavy doses of both verbal and physical attacks against the opposition must have reached their maxima (points of diminishing returns) that they seem to lack affect on the public whatsoever, especially if one takes as barometer the meetings of the opposition in Tigray, TPLF’s homeland, and in Addis Ababa, its headquarters and the nation’s capital.
In Mekelle, Tembein, Adowa and Axum on 14 and 21 March, the coalition was given rousing welcome, despite, efforts to stop the public from attending the meetings and grubby attempts to disrupt them. For good reason, Ato Seye Abraha, former defence minister and once a senior figure in the TPLF, was the main attraction. The residents of Tigrai got the opportunity to hear firsthand from him: (a) the truth of why he was ejected from the ruling party and imprisoned, (b) about the true nature of the TPLF that they have all this long treated as a leader with no alternative, and (c) to hear about Medrek that he is now involved with, especially its stand on democracy, human rights and about ensuring Ethiopia’s unity and territorial integrity.
If the applauds are evidence of agreement with Medrek’s programme and the speeches of its leaders, then the TPLF in deep trouble. Nevertheless, it is equally important to note that the March 14 and 21 political meetings with the residents of Tigrai and Addis Ababa came at the heel of three major developments:
• First, on March 2, a 39-year old Aregawi G. Yohannes, a member of ARENA, was fatally knifed in Mekelle, allegedly under inspiration by the governing party. The allegation is based on the fact that Ato Aregawi, a businessman and restaurant owner, was very well known to the security forces in the past in connection with his political activities. According to news reports, he was already arrested twice in December for attending opposition meetings and distributing his party’s leaflets (Bloomberg). This happened at a time when the prime minister was constantly asking the public at every corner to do its part to ensure that the election is carried out in a peaceful manner, and urging opposition parties to abide by the code of conduct, which parliament has adopted as the law of the land.
• Secondly, the prime minister had used inciting words from that very city where this cruel act was committed, barely two weeks before Aregawi’s assassination, attacking opposition groups in the country in an irresponsible manner, purportedly his way of denying them public support in the election. Unfortunately, as the words he often employs are unrestrained, they were as inflammatory this time. Indeed, some of them were too guttery for use by holder of a high office and a national leader. Therefore, there is strong suspicion that his insinuations and vitriolic attacks, coming as they did in an electoral environment, if not the prime instigator, they could have contributed to Ato Aregawi’s murder.
• Third, on March 3 BBC reported that it has found credible evidence how the TPLF had diverted international humanitarian aid for arms purchase, thereby severely challenging TPLF’s credibility. This story has and continues to inundate headlines and the blogs. In fact, in spite of angry denials by Ato Meles, the who is who of the Ethiopian government and Bob Geldof, there seem to be more people coming out to give credence to the story. The latest now is the 85-year old John James, formerly Band Aid’s field director in Ethiopia, who in an exclusive interview with The Daily Mail (March 9) has added his voice that indeed is true. Investigation is already underway in Britain, at least for their own purposes, BBC being a government-funded propaganda outfit. As far as Ethiopians are concerned, the accusation only has a familiar ring to it. The ruling party is often engaged in/accused of using food distribution to win the political support of beneficiaries, and forcing party membership of students and civil servants, the refusal of which entails denial of access to vocational and degree-level education, and further studies and job opportunities.
It is against this background and, despite threats by cadres of the ruling party to stop public participation in the meetings and refusal by the police to stop those sent to disrupt meetings, the political gatherings in the above mentioned cities and towns took place. According to reports from these meetings, the public was both “irritated and ashamed” by these horrendous actions of the governing party (UDJ/Andinet radio interview, March 16). The cruelty of murder of an opposition candidate, despite the party’s pulsation on the adoption of its code of conduct, must have sounded ironic to most of them. Common revulsion must have galvanised the conscience of citizens.
In his press conference on 18 March, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi denied everything, which was not surprising, since the credibility of his government has always been under constant questioning. Moreover, the past has shown Ethiopians that any allegation the regime vehemently denies has often turned out to be true.
It should be mentioned that three interesting points figured prominently during the prime minister’s oral response to parliament and during the press conferences. The first is categorical denial that the opposition have been ill-treated at any time. He retorted, “They are saying that their members are being intimidated and beaten up. This is a pack of lies.” Secondly, he made it clear that his government has “incriminating document in our hands and we will take legal steps [against the opposition]”, who with their falsehoods defame the TPLF, or incite violence. He said riots were planned in higher learning institutions and secondary schools…, according to the Reporter.
What is worrisome is that, such a sinister reaction by the prime minister presages more than what it is saying. In other words, it reflects TPLF’s established pattern of changing gears. As the opposition groups enjoy public support, the ruling party gets nervous and desperate. This attempt by power to ensure its preponderance might allow things to go out of hand, as happened in 2005. From the way situations are fermenting, there is a compelling need to give the benefit of the doubt to claims by experts about the likelihood of conflict in connection with the election. This sinister sounding phrase “legal action” may necessarily mean a repeat of the tragic past.
Thirdly, the prime minister went public in saying he would authorise his officials to jam the Voice of America, Amharic Service, if Ethiopia has a radio jamming capacity. He denied there was any such capacity in the country, as far as he knew and informed by his officials. This is a cockeyed misrepresentation of the truth. Since 1998, TPLF has been jamming, on and off, “the shortwave transmissions of Voice of the Broad Masses of Eritrea (VOBME), as Eritrean state radio is known,” according to Hans Johnson of Shortwave Central, using Voice of the Tigray Revolution from Mekelle.
Moreover, Hans Johnson reports that the practice of jamming in Ethiopia has longer life. Voice jamming is the technique mostly used to create interference on other/ foreign radio broadcasts, i.e., beaming another radio on the same frequency at the same time. The Emperor had jammed radio Cairo Amharic service, which was broadcasting ELF propaganda against Ethiopia in the 1970s. The military regime jammed the Amharic service of VOA and the voice of Germany, when it was under intense internal and external pressures. Therefore, this claim by Ato Meles now that Ethiopia has never jammed is either foolhardy, intended to cover his record of thought control, or an effort to get the Americans to talk to him face to face so that he would tell them that the practice would take place, in return asking them to close their eyes to TPLF-induced problems, especially in connection with the election. Right at this moment, the TPLF is extremely worried; it is trying every means, including fabricating its own version of events and truths, by way of putting out the fire that has engulfed it.
There is no doubt that the public is increasingly becoming defiant, as seen in Tigrai and Addis Ababa, despite monstrous efforts to stop them from attending opposition meetings. The opposition could not be stopped, despite harassments and imprisonment of their leader, their members and supporters. In a way, this changing public mood is demonstration of the fact that the conscience of Ethiopian society is still alive and well. The French phrase “conscience collective”, which is associated with Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), indicates that the fabrics of society’s conscience are woven out of its common norms, values and beliefs and shared by its members. It is the sole mechanism by which society differentiates right from wrong.
It seems to me, it is in recognition of this that, in his 1971 book A Critical Sociology, Norman Birnbaum, the great American thinker and sociologist, writes, “The truth of human beings is not constituted by a set of propositions about reality but, since man is a political (which is to say moral) animal, the truth about society is ultimately a true condition, a manner of organisation consonant with man’s potential.” Therefore, when we discuss now the political events during this month in Mekelle, Tembein, Adowa, Axum, and Addis Ababa, etc, we are talking about a great revelatory moment, how truth has finally confronted our society.
In all this, two things have appealed to me. First, the fact that the sense of morality and ethics that Ethiopians are known for have once again resurfaced. In the past they used it with great distinction to keep themselves united, when their leaders became irresponsible and incited them to turn one against the other, especially against Eritreans, Oromos and Tigreans.
This time, the great awakening has symbolically united the people of Ethiopia against the murder that stole the life of a family man—father of six and husband. Of course, the usually slow Ethiopian justice system has moved with unusual swiftness to get the assassin sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in less than ten days. However, opposition parties claim, justice has not been done, perhaps rightly so. They say the assailants were six, and only one of them is sentenced, while five accomplices were lined up as witnesses. This will not get easily erased, as the prevailing suspicion is has as its target the TPLF.
Secondly, from warmed up public reactions toward Medrek in all the above mentioned places, one senses the hypothesis of the scholarly Alcuin (730s – 804) at work, who said “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” The French may have overinvested themselves, but their claim that fifty Frenchmen cannot be wrong is complementary to Alcuin’s hypothesis. Imagine for a moment, the people weathering off incessant threats on their jobs and livelihood, concerted and violent actions to stop them. They came to the meetings and opened up a window of opportunity to heal and renew the deep and longstanding familial ties between Tigreans and other Ethiopians, which TPLF’s self-serving ethnic politics has strained for some time now for its ends. I do hope in earnest that March 14 has set in motion the process of its renewal on a more firm course.
The moment’s outstanding question, however, is whether the voice of the people could be allowed to find its fullest expressions on May 23rd to become the voice of God. Irrespective of whether the incumbent wins, or is pushed out, by their actions, the people of Ethiopia have sent strong message to all sides of the political divide that they can no longer be taken for granted, not today, not tomorrow and not beyond this election.
For all its imperfections, genuine election is the most peaceful and potent tool people have. Through it, they determine how their country should be governed and how their peace and security should be ensured. Nothing will change the fact that today Ethiopians are hungry for freedom, genuine democracy, and equality, clean and transparent system of governance and national development that strives to create a prosperous country for all its citizens. Therefore, the voters should no longer allow election to be reduced to a circus. Instead, it should become analogous to spring-cleaning (end of year cleaning in Ethiopian tradition) of the house and everything inside. The purpose is to discard the useless, the unclean and unwanted. It is a ritual to put things into order, especially by removing things that are at odds with its environs, in this case TPLF’s unyielding desire to chokingly control the lives and destinies of citizens.
At the end of every year, in Ethiopia village children dance and sing in the Buhe by the fireside outside, as by early evening the heads of families’ burn torches all members of the family holding it together leading it from the inside to outdoors. In the meantime, touching with it the door and taking out, symbolically to drive out disease, hunger and any ill-will against the family and in return asking God to bring in peace, health and riches. Similarly, millions of Ethiopians want the forthcoming election to clean out the arrogance and abuse of power, politicking and governance by street-wise mercenaries, violence, deception, hatred, malfeasance, irresponsible divisiveness that is endangering the nation and corruption.
Voting is a form of free speech, recognised by law, at least under true democracy. In the next part of this article, I would present my rationales why the TPLF (EPRDF) would not receive my vote and approval.