Ethiopia’s crackdown on dissent drives opposition to push for ‘freedom first’ The Guardian

June 11th, 2015 Print Print Email Email

Government’s critics weigh options after ruling party landslide leads to loss of faith in ballot box while case of Zone 9 bloggers discourages free speech

On the very day Ethiopia’s ruling party celebrated another crushing electoral victory, a young blogger on trial under anti-terrorism laws in an Addis Ababa courtroom lashed out at the authorities.

“You yourself should respect the law,” said Abel Wabella, 28, from the Zone 9 blogging group, after judges denied him the chance to protest against the tortuous pace of legal proceedings that began more than a year ago.

The case of nine journalists and bloggers arrested in 2014 has been decried by human rights groups as an example of Ethiopian authorities’ crackdown on dissent. The nine were detained on allegations that they worked for foreign human rights groups or had used social media to incite violence.

Prosecutors have yet to present any evidence of illegal activity against the Zone 9 defendants, who say they merely exercised their constitutional right to freedom of expression. Wabella’s frustration is symptomatic of a generation of politically engaged Ethiopians who have no faith in the ballot box and are wary of expressing dissent through other channels in a country that is regularly criticised by rights groups for stifling basic freedoms.

The latest landslide at the ballot box means that Ethiopia will be ruled until at least 2020 by the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a former rebel group, which took power in 1991 by unseating a military regime. All 442 constituencies announced so far have gone to the ruling coalition, giving them a majority in the 547-seat parliament.Opponents of the government despair at this stagnant environment, said one government critic on social media, who did not want to be identified for fear of being harassed by the authorities. “If Zone 9 is not tolerated then it seems there is no political space to engage,” he said.

The opposition lost in all 23 constituencies in Addis Ababa last month, including the one seat they had won in 2010. Local newspaper reports suggest the EPRDF increased its share of the popular vote by 10% to 64%.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s government says it has delivered economic development and stability, but critics maintain this has come at the cost of human rights.

Yilkal Getnet, leader of opposition rising star the Blue party, says the claims of economic development are “not real”. The Blue party captured 16% of the vote in Addis Ababa this time, but failed to secure a seat under the first-past-the-post electoral system.

Getnet says the opposition’s plan is to push for “freedom first” rather than challenging the government’s policies.

Abel Asrat, an online entrepreneur who is politically independent, said the Blue party shrewdly capitalised on popular anger over the execution by Isis militants of Ethiopian migrants in Libya in April.

But the party, which was formed in 2012, now needs a more substantial and moderate programme, he said. “The vast majority of the voters are in the middle. You have to focus on them rather than those that have made up their mind.”

With more than 2 million Facebook users in Ethiopia, the opposition should also use social media more to reach out to young undecided voters, Asrat said.

Blue party spokesman Yonatan Tesfaye said he was encouraged by the “huge” support the party received in the May vote. Now it wants “dialogue with the government on reforming election and press laws in order to create a fairer environment”. If that doesn’t work, “it will be up to people to come out and confront repression,” he said.

There are tentative signs that some ruling officials recognise a need for change: privately, individuals fret at the lopsided results produced by the party’s ruthless efficiency and the first-past-the-post system.

Getachew Reda, a special adviser to Desalegn, said the overwhelming victory is natural given the EPRDF’s achievements and protest votes against opponents who were “there for the noise and blood of it”, rather than as serious contenders.

The most significant challenge to the EPRDF’s domination came in a 2005 vote, when an opposition coalition made significant gains in urban areas. The results were disputed, and thousands of people took to the streets to protest. Security forces killed 193 people and opposition leaders were imprisoned. Seven policemen were also killed.

The government said the opposition was trying to use violence to force an unconstitutional change. It enacted laws to restrict dissent and began to solicit investment for projects such as roads, universities, low-cost apartments, hydropower dams and sugar factories.

Since then, electoral politics has presented a dilemma for the opposition, which participates in a process it calls undemocratic. Some observers say the opposition must work within this narrow political space to build from the grassroots, aiming to make gains first in local elections in 2017. In addition to the federal parliament, the EPRDF holds almost all other elected positions in the country.

Beyene Petros from the Medrek coalition, the main opposition party, disagrees, arguing that peaceful resistance is necessary to “push this group to the negotiating table on levelling the electoral landscape”.

The idea of urban disobedience forcing change is anathema to the EPRDF, which styles itself as the party of the rural masses.

Addis Ababa University lecturer Nahusenay Belay, who supports the EPRDF, points to what he identifies as the failures of the Arab spring, where elites “mobilised primarily against the incumbent regime rather than for a common set of values or policies”, to warn against any similar attempts in Ethiopia.

“The suggestion for every political actor is therefore to stick to the hard but the possible and relevant political path available, ie the formal democratic way,” he wrote in an essay in May.

Some opponents agree that new leaders won’t change systemic problems. What is needed is a shift to more consensual politics that accommodates Ethiopia’s diverse viewpoints, said the critic on social media, who did not give his name.

Asrat, the entrepreneur, is pessimistic about the chances of change or of increased political engagement, given the EPRDF’s entrenched dominance. Could social media activists like him ramp up the pressure?

“I think my own fate would be like [that of] Zone 9, and that scares me a lot,” he said.

  1. aha!
    | #1

    TPLF/eprdf’s regime crackdown on dissent has started long before the 2005 election, which still continues with intimidating and detaining political members and leaders even to this day, without pinning it down to the Zone 9 blogger, with no political agenda, but related to press freedom in terms of freedom of speech.

    Election as a tool for implementing democracy had been conducted in a tightly controlled manner by the TPLF/eprdf regime allowing the loyalist opposition parties with ethnic agenda a limited number of seats, until the regime was about to loose the in the 2005 election by CUD Kinijit, which was rigged and left with a sizeable number of seats with no legislative power.

    From then with CUD dismantled into KAUEP, UDJP and Ginbot 7 on the armed struggle, the process before election was nothing but negotiations with the TPLF/eprdf regime, in which KAEUP came up with preconditions for elections and code of conduct agreements, while Medrek, a mirror image of the TPLF/eprdf party is set on bilateral negotiatios with the TPLF?eprdf regime over unkown parameters, which was denied, but went on to copete in the 2010 election without signing on to the pre-conditions and the code of conduct agreement, where by in the 2010 election Medrek with ethnic agenda competed for seats in the Amhara and Tigre regions for votes against KAEUP with the national agenda, resulting in one seat from the Addis Abeba region, I presume but never the less won a sizeable popular vote. Whether they win a sizeable seat or not it would not have an iota of difference from the existing set up of the TPLF/eprdf regime with the ideologies of “System of political ethnicity”, ethnic federalism, secessionism, totalitarianism and/or state capitalism, which denies individual rights and free market capitalism to the silent majority of Ethiopians has the norm for a free and fair elections going to be implemented when there are independent braches of government and independent election board and independent observers in place, where is no free campaign free of intimidation, and party alignments along a national agenda does one contemplate a democratic process of elections to put a government in place that rules by the consent of the governed.

    That trend is not set by Zone nine bloggers but by those under Ethiopian Nationalism of Ethiopia as a one nation state with the goals for unity, territorial integrity, sovereignty of Ethiopia and Ethiopians, who have been on the rights track in engaging the regime for freedom (political and economic) freedom from the outset, not the ones stipulated in this article calling freedom, when in fact to coalesce with the national agenda based on reflective thinking on the current ideologies of TPLF/eprdf regime as a means of disintegration of Ethiopia, and not a positive force of integration, future boundary conflicts, ethnic cleansing, out migration, and ethnic cleansing on top of lack of economic and political freedom to the silent majority of Ethiopians.

  2. Shemsu
    | #2

    It is very regrettable that the British taxpayers` money is being abused to finance the brutal ethnic regime committing all kinds of crimes against the defenseless people of Ethiopia. The British government should stop all kinds of support to the fascist and racist regime of the TPLF.

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