Ethiopia: The Fire Next Time – Alemayehu G. Mariam
It is the same two act play (farce) of May 2005. The stage is the same. The director is the same. The stagehands are the same. The script is the same. The players are the same stage veterans. The stagecraft (lighting, makeup, props) is the same. The audience is the same. Act I, last scene, “End Game”. (Kick the propaganda machine in overdrive and pump up the media volume! Ethiopian opposition leaders, enter stage right.)
On April 28, 2010, Reuters reported:
The Ethiopian opposition may provoke violence during the first national elections since a disputed 2005 poll ended with street riots and the jailing of politicians, the ruling party has said. The government said in 2005 that the violence was planned to force an unconstitutional change after a vote in which both sides claimed victory.”
On April 13, 2010, dictator Meles Zenawi issued a thinly veiled threat to Ethiopian opposition leaders that he will hunt them out of their hiding places and burn them at the stake if they boycotted the May, 2010 “election”, or agitate the youth for political action:
If my estimation is correct, some of you are walking this direction [boycotting the election] I think you are making a huge mistake because to light the fire and at the last [moment] to go into hiding, would not be good, because to light the fire and [be] behind it, and also to fight and use the blood of children, that would not be something that is useful.
It is plain to see that the political and “legal” stage is now set for a round-up of opposition leaders once official victory is declared over the already-won “election” scheduled for May 23. (How else could Zenawi make such arrogantly confident threats unless he is absolutely certain that he has already won the “election”?) A cascade of distortions, accusations and allegations of incitement to violence, charges of “acting against the constitution” and other malicious hyperbole are flooding the media as part of a calculated pre-emptive campaign of pre-“election” intimidation of opposition leaders, and in preparation of public opinion for the inevitable incapacitation, neutralization and paralysis of all opposition in Ethiopia in a post-“election” period.
Prof. Beyene Petros, an opposition party leader for the past 18 years, is the most recent victim of accusations of inciting violence. He is alleged to have said that “if the public is not happy with a government they can create some kind of problem, can protest and can bring down the government without elections.” He immediately rejected the allegations: “Violence was not implied at all in my argument. I was just talking about normal democratic process. They [the ruling regime] have been trying to find something in an effort to incriminate us… I spoke of a public that votes into and votes out of power, all through the ballot box. And that is mandated by the constitution. There was no incitement to violence.” Eskinder Nega, the distinguished and highly respected Ethiopian journalist who, together with his equally distinguished and internationally acclaimed journalist wife Serkalem Fasil, has long suffered at the hands of the ruling dictatorship, in his latest piece in the series “Letter from Ethiopia” described Beyene as “one reliable politician, by universal consensus, that sincerely abhors any prospect of violence.”
A few months ago, opposition Medrek-coalition leaders Gizachew Shiferwa and Gebru Asrat were accused of allegedly declaring that they will boycott the May 2010 “election”, drawing Zenawi’s ire and threats. They denied making any such declarations. Another Medrek leader, Seeye Abraha, is now a victim of a vilification campaign in Tembien district in Tigray where he is running for a parliamentary seat. Voters in Tembien are being told the reason they are getting only partial deliveries of foreign food aid is because Seeye has persuaded the Americans to cut back. Muktar Keder, head of the office of the ruling party, three days ago accused Seeye of “paving the way for violence” by allegedly stating that if he did not win in Tembien district, it meant the elections were rigged.
For the past year, Zenawi has repeatedly accused the opposition of bad faith in the international media: “The intent of these individuals is to try and discredit the election process from day one,” declared Zenawi at a press conference on September 16, 2009. (It baffles the reasonable mind to comprehend a credible election in May 2010 when opposition candidates in 2008 won just three of 3.6 million seats in local and by-elections. But facts and logic play no role in this political drama.) Zenawi has also accused opposition leaders of whipping up passions with inflammatory rhetoric, and charged that unnamed opposition elements were collaborating “covertly and overtly” with Eritrea. When opposition leaders protested the harassment and intimidation they were facing at the hands of the ruling party and complained that over 200,000 monitors appointed for the May “election” are either members or supporters of the ruling party making it impossible to hold free and fair elections, Zenawi blasted them: “These accusations are meant to incite public unrest and violence. I would like to remind you (opposition) that this would result in dire consequences on yourselves.” In the past few months, Zenawi and his spokesmen have repeatedly threatened to arrest and prosecute opposition party leaders who have violated the so-called election code of conduct after the “election” is over.
All of the pre-election wrath and fury signifies two things: 1) intimidation of opposition leaders into permanent silence, and 2) if they insist on speaking up and challenging Zenawi, to set them up for kangaroo court prosecution and imprisonment. The grand plan is now in place and the die cast to round-up opposition leaders and jail them after the “election” regardless of what they do or do not do. It is a question of when, not if.
We have seen this play (farce) staged time and again. They used the same frame-up to re-arrest and jail Birtukan Midekksa, the first female leader of a political party in Ethiopia’s history in December 2009. Zenawi fabricated the most absurd and ridiculous charge one can possibly imagine as a pretext to knock her out of the running in the May 2010 election. He said she had denied receiving a pardon in July, 2007 in a talk she gave in Sweden. She was ordered to retract. A big media buzz was created to stir up anxious anticipation. Then with the precision of a Delta Force commando unit, a horde of security thugs in unmarked vehicles literally snatched Birtukan off the street like some murderous terrorist for the ultimate Hollywood-style dramatic effect. She was immediately thrown into solitary confinement where she remained for six months.
The fact is that Birtukan had never denied receiving a pardon. In Q’ale (My Testimony), her last public statement issued a couple of days before her street side abduction, she made full acknowledgement of receiving a pardon by signing an official document to that effect. The U.S. State Department Human Rights Report (2010) stated that Birtukan “was held in solitary confinement until June , despite a court ruling that indicated it was a violation of her constitutional rights.”
Flashback to November 2005. Zenawi ordered the arrest and imprisonment of nearly the entire opposition leadership, human rights advocates, journalists and civil society leaders. He said they had orchestrated street violence in the post-2005 election period that resulted in hundreds of casualties. He claimed they had incited the use of violence to change the government, the same charge leveled at Prof. Beyene and other opposition leaders:
It’s very obvious now that the opposition tried to change the outcome of the election by unconstitutional means. We felt we had to clamp down. We detained them and we took them to court. In the process, many people died, including policemen. Many of our friends feel that we overreacted. We feel we did not. There is room for criticism nevertheless it does not change the fact that this process was a forward move towards democracy and not a reversal. Recent developments have simply reinforced that. The leaders of the opposition have realised they made a mistake. And they asked for a pardon, and the government has pardoned them all.1
The very official Inquiry Commission that Zenawi himself set up in 2005 to investigate the post-election violence totally and completely exonerated the opposition leaders and the demonstrators of any wrong-doing, and totally and completely pinned the blame on the security forces who were under Zenawi’s direct command and control2:
There was no property destroyed. There was not a single protester who was armed with a gun or a hand grenade as reported by the government-controlled media that some of the protesters were armed with guns and bombs. The shots fired by government forces were not to disperse the crowd of protesters but to kill by targeting the head and chest of the protesters.
Of course, Zenawi knew the opposition had nothing to do with any street violence or insurrection in 2005. He had hatched a plan to jail the opposition leaders long before the 2005 election was ever held, as he is doing right now. For instance, on May 6, 2005, nine days before the elections and months before the occurrence of any street demonstrations, Reuters reported that Zenawi had accused opposition leaders of trying to cause a “Rwanda-type genocide” by spreading ethnic hatred and strife, organizing a violent uprisings aimed at overthrowing the government, and treason. Indeed, after opposition leaders were arrested in November 2005, they were charged with genocide, which was dropped after the international legal community and media and unnamed diplomatic sources described the purported evidence of genocide as “laughable”.
Zenawi was pretty candid about how he orchestrated the arrest of the opposition leaders in November 2005. Congressman Christopher Smith, Chairman of House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations recounted a revealing conversation he had with Zenawi in his opening statement at a hearing (H.R. 4423 “Ethiopia Consolidation Act of 2005”) on March 28, 20063:
During my visit to Addis last August , I met with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and I asked him why he had not investigated the June shootings of demonstrators by agents of his government. His response was that the investigation might require the arrest of opposition leaders, and he didn’t want to do that while by-elections were still scheduled. He went on to tell me that he had dossiers on all the opposition leaders and could arrest them for treason whenever he wanted. Thus, their arrests were all but certain even before the events that ostensibly led to their being incarcerated.
What we are witnessing today is that same pre-planning that was set in motion in 2005 to swoop down and scoop up the opposition leaders who have challenged Zenawi after the election. For the past weeks, theer has been a barrage of the same types of allegations, accusations and charges made in 2005. When Zenawi says opposition “accusations are meant to incite public unrest and violence,” he is setting them up for a charge of violation of Article 240 (Armed Rising or Civil War). When he says opposition elements are “covertly and overtly” collaborating with certain groups and countries, he is preparing to charge them with violations of Article 248 (High Treason). When Sekoutore, the ruling dictatorship’s spokesperson, declared on April 28 that “Any statements that propagate violence and illegal ways of changing government are banned by the code of conduct,” he is signaling a charge of violation of Article 238 (“Outrages against the Constitution or the Constitutional Order”).
Facts are being fabricated in the Dirty Tricks department of the ruling regime for election day shenanigans to charge the opposition leaders with violations of Article 239 (“Obstruction of the exercise of Constitutional Powers”). There will likely be episodes manufactured between now and “election” day to pin on the opposition allegations of sabotage or terroristic acts in violation of Article 247 (Impairment of the Defensive Power of the State). There is no question whatsoever that opposition leaders will be charged with violations of Article 269 (Genocide) as it can be proven beyond a shadow of doubt that all of them have listened to the Voice of America Amharic Service programs, which according to Zenawi “has copied the worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda in its wanton disregard of minimum ethics of journalism and engaging in destabilizing propaganda.”
In the last 3 weeks prior to the “election”, we are witnessing a repeat of the 2005 Election Endgame. It is all so obvious. The poor opposition leaders are being set up for the final coup de grace (final blow) as they stand helplessly crying out for democracy and the rule of law.
They ruling dictatorship will crank up the propaganda machine to the max in the next three weeks to fabricate stories that will create a negative public perception of the opposition leaders. The regime will use every trick to put the opposition in false and bad light in the media (while denying them an opportunity to respond to charges and allegations in the ruling party-run state media). They will distort, exaggerate and misrepresent the public statements of opposition leaders. They will ratchet up the general climate of fear, paranoia, anxiety and uncertainty in the country as election-day day approaches. There will be daily talk about threats of violence. There will be arrests of individuals committing violence. There specter of “Shabia” and “Al Shabab” conspiracies will be raised. Just yesterday, it was announced that the regime had arrested 10 members of the Somali Al-Shabab Islamist group and the Oromo Liberation Front as they were allegedly preparing to launch terrorist activities in Ethiopia ahead of the “elections”. There will be reports of mysterious occurrences of explosions in which the “evidence” points to the opposition. Late last week, the ruling regime in a press conference accused Medrek of attempting to kill one of its party members in the Ilan Gelan woreda in the Western Showa Zone of Oromia region. There was a reported fight at Addis Ababa University (AAU) between regime and Medrek supporters resulting in injuries in the last 48 hours.
The regime will seek out any convenient pretexts and excuses to declare a state of emergency beginning at the close of the polls on May 23, just as they did in 2005. Political gatherings of any kind will be prohibited for the months following the “election”. The regime will declare victory on election day before all the votes are counted; and they will stage repeated delays in announcing the official election results in the following weeks to give the impression that meticulous vote counting is being made. And on and on. Of course, all of this is also intended to give the international community early warning of a massive crackdown that will take place, and to prepare them not to “overreact” when the sledgehammer falls on the opposition’s head.
It is all deja vu. We saw this farcical Kangaroo Theatre Production in 2005. When will they open up the “dossiers” on the opposition leaders? When will the sledgehammer fall? When will they scoop them up? May 23? May be the 25th? June 30th? When will they join their leader Birtukan for a long post-election rest and relaxation at the Akaki Hilton Spa and Resort (AHSR) [a/k/a Akaki Federal Prison]?
There is an old prophesy told in the lyrics of a song of African slaves from the harrowing days of slavery in America: “God gave Noah the Rainbow Sign: No more water. The fire next time!”
No Rainbow Sign for Ethiopia in 2010!
Intermission: Act II resumes on May 23, 2010.
Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on pambazuka.org, allafrica.com, newamericamedia.org and other sites.