Can the Ethiopian Opposition make a Difference in the upcoming Elections? – By Lanjori Barkari

April 12th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

At Edgewater’s Ethiopian Diamond, a restaurant frequented by Ethiopians in one of Chicago’s busy streets, Ethiopian men were arguing about politics eating wat, a spicy and mild stew served over injera, pancake-like Ethiopian bread. These men were talking about none other than the local and by-elections to be held tomorrow and a week later in their homeland. Berhim Melese, a resident of Edgewater, said his hopes of free elections in Ethiopia have been dashed in the turbulent conclusions of the May 2005 elections. Erku Yimer, another resident, says Ethiopians have no belief in the National Election Board and that most of them in rural constituencies registered as voters under duress. (more…)

At Edgewater’s Ethiopian Diamond, a restaurant frequented by Ethiopians in one of Chicago’s busy streets, Ethiopian men were arguing about politics eating wat, a spicy and mild stew served over injera, pancake-like Ethiopian bread. These men were talking about none other than the local and by-elections to be held tomorrow and a week later in their homeland. Berhim Melese, a resident of Edgewater, said his hopes of free elections in Ethiopia have been dashed in the turbulent conclusions of the May 2005 elections. Erku Yimer, another resident, says Ethiopians have no belief in the National Election Board and that most of them in rural constituencies registered as voters under duress.

Ethiopia currently finds itself lapsing into an election hanky-panky period after two full years of worsening dictatorship following a flagrant vote rigging by the EPRDF and its regional affiliates of historic polls in May 2005. Faced with unprecedented opposition to its tight grip on power and endless suffering of millions of citizens due to ill-advised policies and destructive political programs, the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (ERPDF) deftly postponed the issue of holding local elections for lower-level administrative posts in the multitudes of election constituencies in Africa’s most populous state. ERPDF deliberately fought shy of holding these elections at the right time according to the Constitution realizing that the occasion would only serve to fire up the popular objection, which it has been absconding from ever since the historic May polls. Also the ruling powerhouse considered the exercise premature since it was only just in the midst of systematically silencing any organized dissent against its barbaric rule. On the other hand the opposition in the rubberstamp parliament continued to stand up to the Meles-led regime not to postpone the elections just because it doesn’t suit its purpose of ensuring monopoly in the lower-level offices.

Nevertheless its unlawful dominance in the 547-member parliament gave the EPRDF the opportunity to muzzle any demands from the opposition for the holding of these elections. At the same time its continued harassment and intimidation on opposition party organizers and sympathizers as well as its stark-naked an eye-for-an-eye retaliations against potential opposition members, who voted it out of office, hoodwinked some of the legally registered opposition parties with substantial seats in parliament and the state councils to retract on their previous demands and call instead for the postponement of the elections since they needed time to pick up the pieces from the state-led assault and rebuild the internal powerhouses and organs of their respective parties. All this gave EPRDF respite from its worries and having systematically forced the opposition to accede to its previous demands of putting off the local and by-elections, it embarked on a nation-wide campaign of buttressing its internal party capacity through the formation of youth and women’s leagues camouflaging them as civic societies.

It was against this backdrop that the date for the by-elections and local elections for lower houses and state organs was fixed amidst apolitical stance by several opposition sympathizers and an aura of fear by most opposition. According to the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), the body constitutionally mandated to monitor and organize elections in the country and a same body, which helped rig the polls in May 2005 as nearly all its employees and heavyweights are party-affiliated and upstarts with negligible capacities of neutrally managing polls, a total of 31 political parties are taking part in the upcoming polls. What is rather appalling here is that the opposition have already been trounced by an onerous system of super-big local government offices.

Just before announcing the final date for the elections, the ruling party made sure that an unusually outsized number of candidates have to fill the vacant posts in local districts, sub-districts, sub-city administrations and zonal councils by introducing a draconian electoral law in the parliament. The opposition, United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF), Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), then led by the majority Temesgen group, Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM), and the sole independent Member of Parliament and former President, Dr. Negasso Gidada voiced a harsh protest over the measure, which was clearly an attempt on the part of the regime to outstrip its opponents. Also voicing its complaint over the measure was the Lidetu-led Ethiopian Democratic Unity Party-Medhin (EDUP-Medhin) with just four supporters in parliament.

As has rightly been pointed out by BBC’s Ethiopia correspondent Elizabeth Blunt in one of her recent news posts, “Key Leaders of the Ethiopian Opposition [are] absent in the elections,” Now that the CUD/Kinijit, which used to garner millions of supporters across the breadth and width of the country has become a shameful wreckage owing to the ever-growing mutual suspicions and outright trading of insulting accusations on each other by the leaders, the members and leaders of this once major opposition party with substantial gain in the May polls are not at all taking part in the April venture.

Also the fact that the name “Kinijit”, which had endeared itself to millions of Ethiopians and continues to symbolize peace, Ethiopiawinet , justice and democracy, has rather injudiciously been awarded to a tramp by the name Ayele Chamiso and that its election symbol of the “V” sign awarded to the mastermind of CUD’s destruction, Lidetu Ayalew and his self-styled, EDUP-Medhin minority thugs, has all the more convinced the electorate of distancing themselves from this meaningless venture. Worse still the majority of CUD parliament and state council members led by Temesgen Zewdie and the law-abiding and majority group of released CUD leaders led by Birtukan Mideksa, who could have presented at least a meaningful challenge to the rogue regime in the elections, have also been kept in the shadow owing to institutional maneuver by the EPRDF over acquiring legal forums and personality has also contributed to this state of affairs.

The question then is could the people expect anything at all from those, who have been allowed by the TPLF thugs to pose as legal and recognized opposition? For one thing all of them have not fielded candidates to the lowest local government posts (Kebeles) finding it extremely daunting and demanding since they neither have the financial or institutional capacity to do so. While ERPDF is now bragging of having fielded no less than 3.6 million candidates to fill the vacant posts in various state councils of Addis Ababa, Amhara, Oromia, SNNPR and Tigray, all the opposition combined have not even been able to field half a million candidates for vacant posts, which require no less than 4.5 million candidates! The proportion of EPRDF or its rapacious ethnic affiliates to the disadvantaged opposition is of course so incompatible.

Of a proportional concern to them were the harassment, intimidation and systematic cancellation of their candidates and poll watchers by the regime or rural-based election commission branches. A good many of them have time and again made it official that the trigger-happy nature of EPRDF or affiliate cadres have exacerbated the fear among members and sympathizers. Some candidates of both UEDF and OFDM were told pointblank that their necks will be broken if they took part representing the opposition. Olbana Lelisa, the head of Youth League of the Oromo National Congress (ONC/UEDF) said in one of the ETV-sponsored election debates that the ruling Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO) has only been engaged in scorched-earth campaigns to stamp out law-abiding opposition candidates despite repeated attempts to mollify its embattled and corrupt heavyweights. Similarly Ato Bulcha Demksa and Uregessa Wakene from the OFDM have complained of deliberate attempts by OPDO thugs to diminish their supporters and candidates by open intimidation in Yaya Gulele and Qimbibit constituencies of North Shewa Zone of Oromia. Similarly in Dembi Dolo, West Wollega zone of Oromia, 10 out of their 16 candidates have already resigned from the election in response to pressure from the local officials.

But apart from this numerical as well as institutional incompatibility what have the contestants of this election venture brought to the forum? What viable alternatives and political programs have they introduced in the fear-infested political arena, in which as Desalegn Rahmeto, a well-known political observer recently remarked, “most of the motors of the May 2005 Elections feel disorientated so that they are not taking part in this one,”? I have watched the TV-transmitted political debates in which these contestant opposition parties, which look more like escorts in a make-believe election drama, have taken part. Sad to say, but truth to tell I have found nearly all of them to be a mismatch to the expectation of Ethiopians, urbanites as well as the rural people.

The major source of my disappointment are some of these, who have unjustly been dubbed as “opposition” when they are no different in significant respects from the incumbent, particularly in their lethal stance on “tolerance”, a concept deliberately twisted by the likes of Meles Zenawi and Bereket Simon to mean insolvency by the opposition to an avalanche of maladministration and injustices.

The first of these is none other than the imposter Ayele Chamiso Album, previously a CUD candidate nominated by EDUP-Medhin in “Woreda 10” constituency for the Addis Ababa State Council. This coward, whose specialty seems to lie only in his rough-and-tumble approach with genuine CUD parliamentarians and publicly elected leaders, is only aiding the EPRDF by destabilizing unity among the opposition parties. Ayele and the only parliamentarian supporting his evil agenda of playing the TPLF way of “loyal opposition”, Legesse Biratu, have not presented anything likable by the residents of Addis Ababa. While blaming EPRDF for rampant unemployment and poverty of urbanites, they said they never knew why “Ethiopia has registered a remarkable economic growth”. As far as the sensitive issue of good governance is concerned Ayele and his surrogate Legesse as well as the power-hungry Sasahulih Kebede, also an elected member of Addis Ababa Council believe that the Arat-kilo based EPRDF thugs have done nothing wrong but that it was a problem of “incompetence by cadres”. What a folly! How can you blame incompetence at the lower-level when it is crystal clear that EPRDF doesn’t mind filling administrative posts with upstarts so long as they are loyal to its destructive politics of destabilizing Ethiopian unity and clinging to power at any cost? When confronted by ruthless ERPDF youth and women forum representatives with what their “CUD” would do if it gains stronghold in the elections Ayele and his flimsy lackeys floundered about filling the posts with “competent and efficient” administrators loyal to the constitution and the people. How can they expect loyalty to the Constitution by their cohorts when they are no near to being loyal to it themselves? While boldly declaring theirs as “the legitimate CUD” which has come out “at the eleventh hour just to take part in the elections having lost its golden preparation phase in internal struggles”, Ayele and his shameless colleagues seem to have forgotten how well-informed the majority of Addis Ababans are regarding their role of wrecking havoc on the CUD with divisive and unimportant leadership issues.

Second comes Tolosa Tesfaye’s “ONC”. It is well-known that Tolesa Tesfaye was just a junior organizing committee member in the 120,000-strong ONC led by Dr. Merara Gudina. Tolosa played a key role in infecting the aura of victory in the post-election ONC with hate politics, a role prescribed for him by OPDO thugs. Tolesa has placed himself in direct fender-bender with the Oromo by deliberately defaming publicly elected leaders of “unconstitutional moves” and trying to unseat Dr. Merara Gudina. The fact that he received support only from 1 out of a total of 39 MPs was a victory for the majority Merara-led group but it was sad that Dr. Merara and the majority of ONC leaders were robbed of the party name for which they tirelessly worked for at least a decade. During the disinteresting debate Tolesa blamed OPDO for displacing “thousands of farmers from their lands for the sake of expanding infrastructures and investment” but contradicted this with his lofty dream if elected of “bolstering investment in Oromia especially in the rural areas”. How else would he do it if not by displacing farmers? He said he didn’t believe EPRDF deliberately practiced maladministration but said at the same time that “EPRDF has not been genuine enough to press ahead with good administration.” Most of his platform has only been focused on begging the EPRDF to introduce less restrictive laws in investment, public administration as well as health. He never referred to any specific existing law as restrictive and yet claims to have introduced “a viable option for the Oromo people.”

Next in line comes The All Ethiopian National Movement (AENM) led by its fame-hungry Mesfin Shiferraw. This party remarked in one of the debates that it denounces, “Any move by some opposition parties, which look legal but have unconstitutional agendas,”

Mesfin Shiferraw rather recklessly accused “some opposition” of “undermining the constitutional order and destabilizing the ongoing democratization process in the country.” He said one of the “regrettable aspects of May 2005 election debates was the emotionality and rabblerousing nature of contestants.” Now what does that mean? Is he saying that CUD/Kinijit should not have exposed the wicked nature of EPRDF and its dirty party parstatals, which swallowed the nation’s resources? If so then he must be the most naïve politician on earth. Election campaigns have the nature of being rabblerousing and so too was ERPDF, which he is trying to depict as “guarantor of democracy”. Mesfin helped revenge-hungry EPRDF watchmen and security hunt some of the Kinijit members in his constituency since he had the “May 2005 complex”. He hates CUD leaders because they outshined his poorly organized AEDP during the debates. But while he says EPRDF has been “doing more or less good in bringing about a politics of tolerance”, he cancels out this very stance when he lambasted the ruling powerhouse of “deliberately filling administrative councils with incompetent cadres, who know nothing other than the ERPDF narrow politics.” He said the EPRDF has “miserably failed to bring about good governance as it attempts to silence opposition to it and showers its henchmen with fat salaries and lucrative benefits”. Oh! How inconsistent and disingenuous of him to speak like that! How can a regime, which miserably fails to bring about good governance, if we just take what he says for granted, be thanked for playing a good role for the prevalence of tolerance?

Also shameful was Mola Endale, a chocolate-colored man in his mid forties seated next to Mesfin, still from AENM. This man started by saying that the AENM “desperately wants a trusted economist to explain to them how on earth the nation is starving and poverty aggravating each day when there is a 10% economic growth.” He roughly categorized Ethiopian farmers into three; commercial, ordinary and modern. He said “the commercial farmers have done a laudable job and have rightly been rewarded by H.E PM Meles Zenawi.” Look at this treacherous approach! He was saying that “Ethiopia needs an agrarian revolution” and yet thanks a government, which by his own admission has failed to feed its population! This is definitely a hogwash argument not supported by evidence or a good secondhand knowledge. I think he just blabbered about agrarian revolution just to show off that he’s read the concept in a book. But we thank him since he’s also shown that his was only an insufficient reading. God forbid!

Even more treacherous than these bunches of cowards are Lidetu Ayalew and his minority EDUP-Medhin group. EDUP-Medhin was one of the founding members of CUD/Kinijit and all of its elected members received a winner’s accreditation from the election board, which recognized them as “CUD” and not EDUP-Medhin. Worse still the majority of the thirty-seven MPs from this party refused to recognize the existence of EDUP-Medhin. Lidetu Ayalew has helped ranger-wearing barbarous killers of the Zenawi regime hunt some of the vociferous and potential opponents of EPRDF as well as his group during the November 2005 killings. While his dirty role in assisting the crackdown on the opposition and the state-sponsored destruction of CUD/Kinijit has helped to taint his popularity once and for all, he unwisely tried to make a comeback through what he calls “The Third Way”, which is a kind of double-standard meant to deceive the Ethiopian people and the ruling party at the same time. But alas! The Ethiopian people have known the true identity of this filthy animal and they can no longer be fooled by some of his sweet-smelling but dubious talks.

During a recently held election debate in Bahir Dar town of Amhara Region, Lidetu’s EDUP-Medhin told participants that “EDUP-Medhin will not introduce anything different from EPRDF’s policy until it is voted into office.” Wow! This is unheard of in the 17-year-long Ethiopian history of multi-party politics. What were these double-crossing people saying? That they have nothing different from EPRDF? Well then how can we elect them? What is the need for them to pose themselves as an “opposition with a significantly different way from both the opposition and the ruling party?” As if this was not enough this man told the EPRDF-leaning Reporter newspaper that “The Ethiopian people have an entrenched but erroneous belief in the personality cult of opposition leaders, especially those, who have fat educational credentials.” He also accused the people of “sometimes even worshipping these leaders.” Well! Let’s dig some facts then, poor Lidetu. Isn’t it true that you yourself lauded Addis Ababans as “the most understanding and robust political forces I’ve ever seen” when they equated you with Mandela just before the May elections? Are you saying they were mistaken when they did this? Then you were mistaken yourself because you praised them as your Lord instead of saying the filth you are saying this time around.

It is undeniable that Lidetu Ayalew performed quite above the average during the debates due to his eloquence and presentation of some facts and figures to back up his major and convincing argument that “The Ethiopian economy has failed to pass through a transition from being entirely dependant on backward and rain-fed agriculture by using the service and industry sectors”. Good argument! As far as good governance was concerned he said he doesn’t believe that “EPRDF’s failed policy of revolutionary democracy could be instrumental in bringing about good administration. Liberal Democracy, on the other hand, is a viable alternative to do so.” Good again! But contradictory as he has always been, Lidetu can hardly be trusted. Like I said he told people in Bahir Dar that his “EDUP-Medhin doesn’t have anything radically different from ANDM/EPRDF in terms of policy but that his party would better implement EPRDF’s policy if voted into office”. Isn’t liberal democracy and calling for an industrial and service-sector-backed economy a radical shift from EPRDF’s policy of ADLI? This is where Lidetu gets it quite wrong.

This writer has come to the realization that the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) and the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) have done their level best to contribute towards the amelioration of the election-saga, development of endurance as well as respect for human rights. Playing by the rules of the game set up by the ruling power of the time, both of these parties have time and again been spearheading the movement for a broader and more inclusive political system despite the fact that they achieved no observable results. They have relentlessly pointed out that a clampdown on their party movements still continues to resonate even while it was clear right from the very beginning that the ruling party has an unmatched superiority in the contest and will fill 75% of the vacant posts even if there was a free election. Nevertheless I have two major concerns with these two parties.

First, what’s the political advantage to be gained by an opposition party by running in a contest, which will simply be a rubber stamp on the EPRDF’s near-monopoly on power at the local level? Why would an opposition party decide to run in an election, which has been rendered meaningless by systemic patterns of repression and abuse in many areas? These two parties were the first to cry foul even during the initial phase of the election when harassment, intimidation and systematic cancellation of their candidates and members began in earnest. It was clear from their statements that about over 55% of their members and supporters in the rural areas were either behind bars or under close surveillance by the ruthless watchmen of OPDO or EPRDF. So then it means that they couldn’t make a difference with remaining members, whose number is only a tiny proportion compared with the startling millions of their EPRDF counterparts. This writer felt a tinge of satisfaction throughout his body when UEDF announced rather lately, at the twelfth hour to be more accurate, that it has withdrawn itself from the elections. But why did UEDF subject its members and supporters to untold sufferings all the while and dwindled party money for the sake of election campaigns when it could easily have averted the danger? This writer is sorry that Bulcha Demeksa’s OFDM has chosen to see a trouncing defeat by EPRDF rather than acting promptly.

Second, these two parties are not free from the problem of polluting the political space of the country with the ethnicity factor. The appeal by ethnic difference fanning politicians may undermine the participation of the people as Ethiopian citizens first exercising their democratic rights to vote based on their selection of the ideas, policies and strategies that will transform the conditions of the people from a state of poverty and deprivation to a state of well being. Ethnic parties appeal to ethnic constituencies and this is likely to create problems for those parties that wish to pursue social agendas not contaminated with ethnic frames and assumptions.

The appeal of Kinijit has been to cut across ethnic boundaries and appeal to all the ethnic communities. It was not only the coming together of different parties, but also the people drawn from all ethnic groups that have made Kinijit a force for bringing together all those who feel, think and act and speak and are Ethiopians first and foremost in their identity matrix despite the fact they may also have numerous other identities. Whilst ethnic parties and ethnic based voting may take place, the critical matter is that the citizen-based and Ethiopian identity based and policies and programmes for change that are not only for ethnic areas must be built as a priority if indeed Ethiopian democracy is to exist for enduring time. What is rather worse here is the appeal made by UEDF both in the name of Ethiopian unity and ethnicity at the same time. This will never help the party and in the long run will only force it to rove in the narrow orbit of a few ethnic districts and zones rather than amassing support within the breadth and width of Ethiopia.

To sum up I feel that all the above-mentioned opposition parties, who have conveniently dubbed by the EPRDF-led regime as “legal and constitutionally-mandated opposition” will not bring tangible change by taking part in a make-believe and meaningless electoral process just for the sake of participation. Election is an exercise an opposition party takes part in only after a thorough preparation; it should not be a hasty and confused exercise one takes just for the sake of “expressing respect for the democratic process” as some lunatics from Lidetu’s EDUP-Medhin wrongly suggest. What we expect from our opposition is a clear vision and strategy, markedly different from that of the ruling party. If not then it means they don’t have an alternative program and therefore there is no need to cast vote for them.

Ethiopia needs to move on to a post- ethnic federal system where the ideals of national unification, modernization, democratization and social justice are the vision, the value, the challenge, the hope, the possibility and the opportunity. These four concepts- unification, modernization, democratization and social justice- must constitute the bedrock for a sustainable governance system to end all crises of governance in the country once and for all. We need a post-Kinijit movement, which has embraced all these key concepts; not unimportant catch-phrases like the ones used by Lidetu’s EDUP-Medhin.

The sate- society and economy must be interlinked in a system with the four concepts to bring about improved governance in the Government, public life and the economy based on the Ethiopian citizen as a primary unit for the bearer of rights and obligations.

Second they must make sure that the important institutions for a free and unbiased election such as an independent private press, neutral electoral commission and free and competent civil society are in place before jumping into another election crisis, in which only makes them look like horses pulling the ruling party’s cart of dominance camouflaged in clothes of liberal democracy.

In the fragrant and lively environment of Edgewater’s Yimer tells his friends that tomorrow’s elections will be just as unfair as other previous elections. “It’s much worse than the May 2000 elections in which the ruling minority Tigrean regime captured no less than 88.5%. This time the opposition will secure none of the seats in any of the regions because everything is prearranged for Meles Zenawi’s minority party to win clean sweep,”

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