The Pursuit Of Dominance Deepens EPRDF’S Arbitrariness , Violations Of Human Rights – By Genet Mersha
A NEW DAY IN WAHSINGTON DC, AROUND THE WORLD!
A NEW DAY IN WAHSINGTON DC, AROUND THE WORLD!
This January 20, 2009 is a historic day in the United States. Under the envious gaze of the peoples of the world, Americans relished the true moment of history and peaceful transition of power that has sparked a great deal of hope for a better world. At last, freedom has rung in USA and on this day, the first black man, Barack Obama has been inaugurated the 44th President of the United States.
On their part, the people of Ethiopia seize the opportunity this momentous occasion has afforded them to tell the new president how proud and hopeful they are of him, cherishing the hope he has generated and the illustrious example he has set. More than ever before, the new president’s determination to stand for principles strengthens their faith. They also note happily the signal in his inaugural address to those “…who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent.” In his speech, the president urged them to know that they are on the wrong side of history and that he would extend a hand if they choose to unclench their fists.
The Ethiopian government’s approach is different. It hastened to rent James Monroe’s Mansion and threw an inaugural ball to African ambassadors in an attempt to be seen to be felicitous about Barack Obama taking power. There is no mistaking; its objective is to ingratiate itself to the new administration, as if that would whitewash its horrendous records of brutality. Its pretence is an attack on the principles these men stand for. Not surprisingly, there are now two stories here: the silenced aspirations of the Ethiopian people and the public relations stint of their government, the narration and essence of which are distinctly different. Therefore, the truth deserves telling.
DEFINING THE EPRDF REGIME
The post-2005 behaviour of the Ethiopian government has become increasingly arbitrary and its actions ruthless. Its impulse has left the rule of law hanging by thread. This is not to imply its pre-2005 records were any better, as its pledges have been undermined by its actions. Simple reference to the opening sentence of the 2009 report of Human Rights Watch and its conclusion therein indicate that the human rights record of the Ethiopian government is “poor, marked by an ever-hardening intolerance towards meaningful political dissent or independent criticism.”
The ruling party’s political relations with civil society have often been tense, although in recent months they have been worsening reviving in their wake an undercurrent of political polarization. Moreover, the fragile economy, faced now by the storm of global recession, has exacerbated not only the already known ills of society, but also the desperation of government and its nervousness fostering governance by crises. The relevant point here is that the impunity with which laws are broken and the disastrous human rights conditions are scarcely caused just by these or are passing phenomena or temporary bleeps. They reflect a consistent pattern of the regime’s political and ideological convictions.
The degeneration in the country, especially of the human rights situation may appear paradoxical to those who are aware that the core of the EPRDF leadership—the TPLF—has its origin in a nearly two-decade long struggle, presumably for democracy and respect for fundamental human rights. Nevertheless, with the TPLF at the driver’s seat, the EPRDF as the government has chosen not sincere engagement in search of peace, the building of democracy, or the eradication of poverty. Instead, all along it has been sharpening its skills in tightening the screws of repression to ensure its permanence in power. Its latest jumpy actions that have evoked strong international reaction are part of its usual reflexes, this time short-circuited by the fast approaching 2010 election.
Evidently, the sense of safety Ethiopians so much need and only the rule of law could provide has eluded them. Similarly, the sense of security they have been crying for and the possibilities only an improved economic performance with a sense of equity could afford them have moved further afar. Their place is taken over by corrupt practices, nepotism and brute force. Several factors have contributed to this situation. The most important ones are the ruling party’s belief in proprietorship of power. This has given rise to insecurity in power on one side and on the other the arrogance of power that has become stubbornly resistant to tolerance, the strengthening of the foundations of peace through national consensus and an uninhibited search for political settlements. Its actions are marked by poor policy choices along the road.
Consequently, today the policies and strategies of the EPRDF under Ato Meles Zenawi’s leadership have become cynical, self-serving and grudging. Their hunger for power seems to have succeeded in alienating and terrorizing the people, to the extent that now fear is the dominating force in every citizen’s life. One only needs to see as evidences the disappearance of public space, government’s heavy-handedness and the severe economic malaise that has deepened poverty and resentments. An estimated forty to fifty million Africans have suffered malnutrition in 2008 alone, according to World Bank, and more than four hundred million people already live in extreme poverty. Given this sense of magnitude and the rampage of double-digit inflation, food shortages, frequency of droughts and famines, and the consequent loss of assets in Ethiopia, it would not be difficult to imagine what percentage of Ethiopians belong under the above two categories.
In simple terms, in curtailing civil rights—the right to a free media, free speech, and the right to assemble and organize—the regime has denied citizens the opportunity to change their destinies. Instead, the fear it has unleashed has become a major obstacle to the pursuits an improved life. In that regard, government has declared open war not only against its citizens but also against democracy and fundamental human rights.
WEAKENED RESPONSE BY CITIZENS
EPRDF’s mockery of elections and democracy is made unmistakably clear in the April 2008 local election. In a strange logic, and without the opposition participating, it claimed it had won 99 percent of the votes, that is, 137 out of 138 seats. The idea is EPRDF’s way of showing that it won exactly the same number of seats its mortal enemy, the CUD had won in 2005, a party it destroyed after the 2005 election,. The one seat remaining, the EPRDF awarded it to a new party it has reconstituted affixing on it the name of CUD—a CUD without popularity and following. In an interview with Addis Fortune on 27 April, Ato Bereket Simon, EPRDF’s point man on election matters and adviser to the prime minister, revealed,
We did not know we would win all the seats prior to the results. As any party we competed for all the seats; the gains could have been 90pc, 95pc or any percentage. It just happened that one of our candidates was not up to the standard that had been set by EPRDF, so we withdrew his candidacy, thus leaving one seat up for grabs.
To the question who voted to the EPRDF, what Ato Bereket Simon said is revealing:
The youth have taken part in the election, I am sure of that. I am not sure about the elite; there are some who have voted although the number cannot be known.
EPRDF’s vanity and political shenanigans have not escaped the attention of Human Rights Watch, which, in reference to that election observed,
Local-level elections in April 2008 provided a stark illustration of the extent to which the government has successfully crippled organized opposition of any kind-the ruling party and its affiliates won more than 99 percent of all constituencies, and the vast majority of seats were uncontested.
There is no doubt that the regime has weakened opposition groups, the sign of its desire to run the country by itself. In reality, instead of strength, this appears as an indication of EPRDF’s failure to win hearts and minds. The fact is, however, on a seemingly calm surface, people burn with smouldering rage and resentments. Of that situation, one protestor anonymously wrote a powerful viewpoint, entitled Not in My Name, expressing how horrified he was by the actions of the government he had supported for some time. His piece appeared on Ethiomedia on 8 December 2005, and still its description of the situation in the country is relevant today. Its essential message reads:
Personally, I have never lost a peace of mind in my life as I have now because some of the crime is done in the name of the Tigrai people. I have a cousin who died fighting along the side of the TPLF. I know he would roll in his graves if he sees what is now done in his name. I personally have supported the TPLF in many ways and for many years although I don’t call myself an active supporter. I am now ashamed by what the Meles and Sebhat clique do in the name of the Tigrai people. Meles accuses the opposition of being against the constitution but I find his actions to be the most unconstitutional and criminal.
The attitude of citizens toward the regime is not differentiated by ethnicity, the regime’s card it effectively used to divide and conquer. All Ethiopians are affected in the same manner, although only the fear of reprisals are forcing people to suffer in silence. That is why there is need to expose the true nature of the regime and galvanize the people onto a disciplined and sustained resistance to dictatorship. There is a strong need for a campaign to promote the goal of forcing the regime to open up itself to negotiations with genuine democratic groups, especially those on the ground. So far, experience has shown that a few days of protest and demonstrations in foreign lands might vent Ethiopian anger and frustrations. However, they have not proved potent in either driving the message to the regime or in awakening the consciences of taxpayers in donor countries to exert pressure on their governments whose aid monies are being used to commit the cruellest form of repression against the Ethiopian people.
The unanswered question here is what the political and ideological motives of the Meles regime are. That in mind, this paper will attempt to provide possible explanations why the regime behaves the way it does.
? Politically, the unfortunate situation in Ethiopia is the outcome of TPLF’s long-standing obsession in establishing its pre-eminence and permanent dominance over the country’s political landscape. To distract attention from that, Ato Meles Zenawi has cobbled up phoney political organizations constituted as the EPRDF, with him and a few of his trusted collaborators at the centre. The use of the TPLF nomenclature here is not necessarily, what it implies, that it is a purely Tigraian movement behind which all Tigraians rally. In reality, this is not the case; much in the same way they are at the receiving end of repression. It has been shown clearly in many instances that Tigraians with good conscience do not necessarily condone the criminal activities of the EPRDF.
? Ideologically, the theory of the ‘developmental state’, to which Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is a proponent, is convinced that choice must be made at the very start between societal freedom and economic growth. Without this, he claims, the goal of national development is hardly attainable. The taste of power has convinced Ato Meles that democracy is a flawed system with excessive ‘fussiness about rights.’ In that regard, there is the sense in his writings that, in countries such as Ethiopia, freedom and democracy are impediments to economic growth and national development at this stage. Therefore, his first instinct is to solidify the dominance of his party on a strong political base, unshakable by unwanted election outcomes that may threaten his grip. Hence, in political discourse he subtly presents freedom and democracy as derivatives of economic growth and development.
POLITICS & IDEOLOGY OF THE DOMINANT PARTY
For a long time now, Ato Meles Zenawi has been transparent in stating forthrightly his intentions to direct Ethiopia along the path of a ‘developmental state’. His argument is that, at its realization, the ‘developmental state’ could offer a better future for citizens. Interestingly, the ‘developmental state’s lack of a second leg—that of societal freedom and respect for fundamental human rights—has not escaped his attention. Nevertheless, this awareness has barely dampened his determination from settling down to sequencing development and democracy. Therefore, in an environment devoid of the rule of law, the consequence is our present reality of government impunity, which has egged him to engage openly in massive violations of human rights and the continued curtailment of civil rights, even without bothering to suspend the constitution.
It appears, according to the theory of ‘developmental state’, the state has dual objectives: rapid economic growth focussed on single-minded implementation of development policies and ensuring the dominance of the ruling party. There is no doubt that there is every incentive for the ruling party to work hard to ensure economic growth, as it is directly linked with its survival in power. For public consumption, Ethiopian leaders articulate the right message on the importance of democracy and human rights. In practice, however, they use repression as their chosen tool, which has not made them any different from the universally condemned dictators that have disparaged democracy, destroyed national aspirations to genuine freedom and the flourishing of the human spirit.
From the theory standpoint, the developmental state’ considers itself the prime engine of growth—the architect and originator of policies and source of investments. For that matter, in a country such as ours that is at the elementary stage on that path, citizens and the fledgling private sector play only a secondary role. Viewed from this angle, it is not surprising to see Ethiopian officials taking secret comfort when they talk about the experiences of countries X or Y that have ushered in some degree of material wealth at the expense of human freedom.
In his paper entitled, “AFRICAN DEVELOPMENT: DEAD ENDS AND NEW BEGINNINGS”, Ato Meles has tried to assert boldly that in a ‘developmental state’, there is ‘need’ for the ruling party either alone or in coalition with others to remain in power, so tot say, indefinitely. He justifies this by claiming that the task of development can hardly be accomplished within a single or two terms of office of an elected government. To assuage the concerns of rights-conscious citizens, the prime minister has struggled to address, without much success, the question of democratic deficit in a ‘developmental state’. Regrettably, he leaves the reader with clear impression that democracy is dispensable, but not economic development.
To that end, he gives the impression that he sees nothing wrong in the ruling party illegally muscling the opposition out of the fray. As far as he is concerned, who cares, so long as it enabled him to consolidate power and establish his organization as the dominant party? Nonetheless, the regime’s historical mistakes have kept on compounding, one misstep after the other throughout Ato Meles’s stay in power in the past eighteen years, that the Ethiopian situation has become extremely disturbing.
A little over a year ago, in an article entitled “Is Ethiopia’s Economic Growth Sustainable?”(email@example.com), this writer openly expressed her fears that the smouldering tensions in the country are engendering more alienation and more harshness that could endanger all the bright prospects and possibilities the country could have. The writer questioned the sustainability of the country’s economic growth and the country’s stability mainly because of the following fears:
The present policies have sowed too many bad seeds that have put citizens and government on suspicious course, which in some sense has become our ticking bomb. Were the state to prove itself true to the objectives for which it claims to have committed itself, it ought to seek resolution of the problems of conflicting visions, policies and practices and heal the divisions. Unfortunately, Mr. Meles’s weapon of choice is not political solution but consistent resort to violence and continued suppression of the rights of citizens.
One long year later, this writer has again found more reasons to shudder, especially EPRDF’s choice of policies, including its defence of the indefensible, which only shows that the seeds she referred to are germinating frighteningly.
In 2008, we witnessed several instances where Ato Meles’s government jumped on certain courses of action because in the short-term they detracted the objectives of his political opponents. He does not care about the negative consequences they entail to the country. Included in this are, some policies that were and are detrimental to the country’s long-term interests, its image, its sovereignty and in general the dignity of its citizens. Over a long time, many experienced citizens have articulated their concerns. At this moment, as a part of his preparation for the 2010 election, Ato Meles Zenawi has firmed up his hold on rights and freedoms; he has already imprisoned illegally several opposition members, supporters and a couple of leaders, whom he saw posing serious challenges to his goal of strengthening EPRDF’s dominance.
This paper will discuss some of these problems in a moment. Let us first get done with the misrepresentations and phoney romance that is fanned in connection with the theory of ‘developmental state’.
In refuting the criticisms against the ‘developmental state’, its proponents, including Ato Meles, pick Japan as an example. True, Japan’s achievements in the economic field, technology, industrial advancement, human welfare and development and the robustness of its democracy are stellar. However, there is a tendency on the part of ‘developmental state’ theoreticians to downplay the fact that Japan has hardly ever been a typical ‘developmental state’, mainly due to historical reasons and the policy directions it has pursued.
First, modern Japan is a product of war and a liberal constitution, what Japanese themselves refer to as ‘the Macarthur Constitution.’ However, in spite of the stigma of its foreign origin, they took advantage of it and later acknowledged that it has tamed power in a humiliated and angry war-torn country. Its implementation has created a sense of proportion and reality through the firmly instituted balance of powers system. In turn, this has fostered the right environment for the development of a dignified and prosperous society. There is no credible evidence to suggest that Japan had consciously chosen development over democracy and human freedom.
Secondly, Japan’s experience is unique that, highly educated professionals have run the country, in the technical sense, not the whims of politicians and party operators, who are popular for their tons of pledges, but not in delivering the goods. The country’s system of governance has given broad mandates to the civil service system/bureaucracy, which has enabled it to distinguish itself for its devotion to the flourishing of the society in all spheres. Because of that, some social scientists see Japan as a creation of modern bureaucracy, good educational system and technology.
In comparison, the starting point for Ethiopian politicians is to walk with Dogan’s Torch in search of enemies, especially amongst educated citizens, the youth, businesses, urbanities, and those who attempt to organize in unions, professional associations and defend their rights. At the same time, there is insinuation of favouritism to this or that ethnic group or cardholding EPRDF membership. This practice is persisting even after eighteen years, as the EPRDF struggles to consolidate its power by force in some parts of the country.
Thirdly, all along Japan has attached strong importance to and appreciation for its vital assets—its industrious people, aware that they possess rights and are, thus, its very sources of power. In return, this has earned the ruling party the trust and respect of its citizens. In all these years, the country’s system of governance has exerted enormous efforts to unite the country behind common cause. In contrast, division of the country into ethnic groups and territories has enabled the EPRDF regime to divide and rule, disable citizens from seeking to stand as one for democracy and human dignity. In some parts of the country, ethnicity as a basis of federalism has fostered frequent conflicts and bloodsheds, including along religious lines. Even there, government heavy-handedness has only exacerbated the situation, with religious fanaticism rearing its head, a phenomena barely known in Ethiopia.
Although the constitution in Ethiopia acknowledges the equality of nationalities and is an important step, in practice, however, those equality of rights deriving from the presumed equality of the different ethnic groups—the nomenclatures and their localities—seems to be lost with respect to the attributes and rights of the individual citizen, the bearer of those identities. It often reminds me of the saying by famous economist, “Any society that puts equality ahead of freedom will end up with neither. But the society that puts freedom before equality will end up with both greater freedom and great equality.”
‘Developmental state’ adherents, including the Ethiopian prime minister, attribute the Japanese success merely to the indefinite term of office a ruling party enjoys, citing the example of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that has ruled Japan since the end of the Second World War. It is true; a single party has ruled Japan since the end of the war. The fact, however, is that there are no records accusing the LDP of forcing itself upon citizens, or using illegal and corrupt means or violence to win elections. For decades, the public simply rejected the opposition’s attempt to come to power, in view of their inadequacy to demonstrate clearly ability to put their acts together and win national confidence that they could replicate the achievements of Japan under the LDP.
Most importantly, it would be prudent to recognize in the case of Japan that it prides itself not only in its economic successes, as the second largest economic power in the world. Also in its democratic system of government, its commitment to abide by the rule of law, facilitation of conditions for a free and robust press the Macarthur Constitution has legitimized. In his book “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II”, MIT Prof. John Dower, long-time Japan expert, attributes this success to a democratic constitution, which Japan has loyally implemented. Its rich culture in the background, from the beginning Japan has created a political environment that sees virtues in hard work, accommodation and compromises, not the use of force, political shenanigans and election stealing.
In a country where the war had obliterated sixty-five cities, Japanese society transformed itself into a strong anti-war movement, which still is its typical feature. From the beginning, this compelled political forces to devote all resources and energies of the country to national development. Immediately after the war, Japan braced up itself and embarked upon unprecedented economic reconstruction and national development that since the late 1960s has become an expression of its prowess in the eyes of the world. In spite of such a long tenure in power by a single party, Prof. Dower sees Japan’s system of democratic governance, despite the one and one-half party system as no less than Western democracies. It is enriched by an independent judiciary, strong national institutions a free and robust press.
The secret of Japan is the proper care it gave to the seeds of democracy when they were planted in day one side by side with national reconstruction and visionary measures toward economic growth. Working for it are policies that have given precedence to national cohesion, sense of community, fostering capable national institutions that are open to the public and hardly intimidated by new ideas. This has instilled in the ruling party, opposition groups and citizens a shared conviction that the taste of the pudding has been in the eating.
THE MUCH-NEEDED AWARENESS OF CHANGE
The year 2009 has broken with two worrisome signals in Ethiopia’s prospects: political polarization and an economy in a dire straight. If Prime Minster Meles Zenawi is sincere about leading Ethiopia on the path of ‘developmental state’, he should ponder carefully the fact that, without democracy, vibrant opposition and respect for fundamental human rights, he would be in no position to mobilize the people toward the achievement of that goal. The reasons for that are the following:
? First, the continued source of strength for any nation is the knowledge and sense of citizens that they have a stake in all the country’s undertakings. In spite of eighteen years of campaign on the platforms of peace, democracy and development, Ethiopia is neither is at peace within itself, nor the country’s stability assured and its citizens convincingly geared toward a common goal. The country’s political atmosphere is hardly conducive to foster continually the sense of Ethiopian-ness. The politics of objectives not fully shared by citizens breeds numerous challenges. A lesson to learn from the developed and well-established countries is that they still attach importance to inculcating what it means to be, say, an American, Canadian, German, Japanese…In contrast, as mentioned earlier, what is obvious is that EPRDF policies and sentiments are anti-educated citizens, anti-urbanites, anti-business, and its policies constantly underlining ethnicity. As a result, on the major issues of the day, Ethiopia remains divided, mired in a number of political, economic, social, attitudinal and institutional problems, the very factors that seem to hinder the realization of Ato Meles Zenawi’s goal of ‘development state’ that is supposed to ensure sustained economic growth and alleviate poverty. As a result, what we witness is the worsening of the human condition in Ethiopia and the lack of shared national vision.
? Second, missing in Ethiopia’s present circumstances are policies that tolerate and encourage the free flow of information, exchange of ideas and tolerance of dissent. These are all guaranteed by law, but denied in practice. In an environment that challenges existence, humans and animals react in the same ways in defending themselves and their families. To counter that reaction, the EPRDF has relied on the use of brute force or threat of use of force and imprisonment, rather than dialogue and persuasion that could have enabled it to identify the sources of the problem in the first place. For many citizens, especially the young generation and elites, the country is growing by the day far removed from its pledges in the constitution and its willingness to ensure equality and protection before the law.
? Third, in order to achieve its political objective of dominating the political landscape exclusively by itself, the EPRDF has now resorted to using the constitution as an instrument of repression. Ms. Birtukan Mideksa, President of UDJP, in solitary confinement since last December to serve her life sentence has become the symbol of what is wrong in our country today. The sense is that the nation would witness more of such lawlessness, as the clock ticks toward the 2010 election. Already now, because of EPRDF’s hostility to sharing power, the ruling party has demonstrated repeatedly its capability to destroy its challengers, their careers and families. To what can one attribute the fate of many nameless political prisoners, especially arrested in 2008? Surely, as in the days of the Dergue, the EPRDF has found it easy to incriminate individuals alleging connections with this or that banned opposition group or liberation front. Last October, Ato Bekele Jirata, Secretary General of the OFDM—a legally recognized party in the country, was thrown to prison, along with many members and supporters of his party. The charge against them is again connection with the OLF, an Oromo movement struggling, if possible for independence. Government policy of divide and rule has succeeded, as mentioned earlier, since it has spread fear, suspicion and mistrust throughout the country. In fact, this situation is evidence of EPRDF desperation, which is seeking security and a sense of comfort by replaying the crimes of the Dergue. The irony is that the Dergue never succeeded fighting individual Tigraians or Eritreans or Ogadenise by either eliminating or throwing as many of them as possible into its dungeons, accusing them of belonging to the TPLF or as EPLF agents, or as instruments for Somalia’s historical irredentism. Why would the EPRDF think it would succeed in this manner, when all the signs indicate it has not and it will not?
? Fourth, EPRDF is a very secretive and dishonest organization, with enormous capabilities at distorting facts to benefit its political objectives. For purposes of public consumption, it has often taken liberty to stretch truth. For instance, its political opponents are accused invariably of greed and corruption, while the corrupt in its inner circles are walking the streets free and live in luxury. EPRDF does not even show concern whether due process is followed during arrest of individuals, trials and sentencing. It is not clear why citizens should be expected to repose confidence in the policies and actions of a government that does not show loyalty to its own constitution. The very words used by Bereket Simon on VOA yesterday portraying the government as rule of law abiding to refute the criticisms directed by four US senators is one clear evidence of the regime’s blind denials and distorted sense of authority that does not recognize the rights of its citizens.
Nothing describes the behaviour of the regime today better than the words of Prof. Christopher Clapham who in an open letter in 2005 expressed his disappointment by the tragic manner in which that vibrant election ended up. He was surprised by the government’s unwillingness to abide by the very laws whose development it has spearheaded through a little over a decade-and-a-half of its rule. Prof. Clapham observes,
In some respects, indeed, the EPRDF regime may be compared to the Haile-Selassie monarchy, whose slow demise I observed some forty years ago, and which had likewise created expectations that it was then unable to realise. Just as Haile-Selassie did much to create the class of educated Ethiopians who eventually turned against him, so the EPRDF, through its opening up of political space and especially the mobilisation of ethnic identities, has helped to create the forces that are now challenging it.
If Professor Clapham were to write a sequel to that letter, I pray he does, he would note with profound regret the fact that those early EPRDF stints and faint attempts at opening up political space have now reached their dead-end. He would be hard pressed to understand why, Ato Meles Zenawi, a man of high calibre, should stoop down into sham elections and violence to remain in power. The fact is that Ato Meles knows this has already destroyed his credibility in the eyes of the nation and the international community. As a result, he is constantly confronted by a gruesome reality his rhetoric could no longer disguise. The Ethiopian people have been deprived of the fruits of genuine freedom and democracy.
WHAT DO EPRDF’S RECORDS TELL THE WORLD?
On the occasion of the International Human Rights Day on December 10, 2008, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, whose members suffer serious attacks and frequent imprisonments, observed,
Ensuring the independence of institutions, protecting freedom of expression as well as freedom of association is now facing, more than ever, serious obstacles. There are noticeable trends towards adopting laws and practices that blatantly violate the rights to freedom of expression and free association which are given explicit recognition under the FDRE Constitution as well as international and regional human rights instruments ratified by Ethiopia.
Moreover, evidence against the EPRDF’s egregious violations of human and civil rights in Ethiopia is contained in the recent report of the United States Government, a prime sponsor of the regime. Its report captures the essence of what characterizes the Ethiopian regime as a repressive government, by citing:
limitation on citizens’ right to change their government during the most recent elections; unlawful killings, and beating, abuse, and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces; poor prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention, particularly of those suspected of sympathizing with or being members of the opposition or insurgent groups; detention of thousands without charge and lengthy pre-trial detention; infringement on citizens’ privacy rights and frequent refusal to follow the law regarding search warrants; use of excessive force by security services in an internal conflict and counter-insurgency operations; restrictions on freedom of the press; arrest, detention, and harassment of journalists for publishing articles critical of the government; restrictions on freedom of assembly; limitations on freedom of association; violence and societal discrimination against women and abuse of children; female genital mutilation (FGM); exploitation of children for economic and sexual purposes; trafficking in persons; societal discrimination against persons with disabilities and religious and ethnic minorities; and government interference in union activities, including killing and harassment of union leaders.
As usual, the response of the Ethiopian Prime Minister to such criticisms ranges from total dismissiveness to indirect apologies. For instance, in a 26 March interview with Al Jazeera, Ato Meles Zenawi briskly disparaged the report and its author in the following words,
I have not read it; but I know having read the department of state reports on human rights for over a decade now that they do tend to get things wrong; that what they write is not always the last word in the Bible.”
On the other hand, in a 23 January 2008 interview with The Guardian, his response to the question of concerns as to what would happen if the Kenyan-style disturbances arose was to play it down by claiming that concerted efforts are underway “to connect and engage with ordinary citizens.” While he did not elaborate what the nature of that engagement might be, in an implicit admission of past allegations of human rights violations, he said, “We are learning from our mistakes.”
Unfortunately, the ‘learning from our past mistakes’ of Ato Meles’s government, does not seem to have any credibility, as the behaviour of his regime remains unchanged. During the April 2008 bi-election, a new and effective approach of intimidating voters had already been tested, according to Ato Beyene Petros, Chairman of the UEDF. At the height of the food crisis in the country last spring, he told the media that the ruling party cadres had pressured the electorate by threatening to cancel their food ration cards, if they voted for opposition groups. A number of opposition leaders including, also alleged that the government was involved in intimidating their members and supporters and imprisoning candidates with recognized skills and abilities. In the end, three main opposition parties suspended their participation. This and many other unlawful practices have already cast their shadows over Ethiopia’s forthcoming election in 2010.
WHAT ARE THE POSSIBILITES NOW?
Should common sense prevail, Ato Meles could help the nation out of the present obstacles on its path. The run up to the 2010 election offers him enormous possibilities. Most importantly, he should recognize that, without free and open public space, participatory democracy is unthinkable. He should also be reminded that, in his first press conference in Addis Ababa nearly eighteen years ago, he started out by announcing his government’s commitment to participatory democracy and pledging that it would become the new reality of Ethiopia. It earned him the immediate accolade of many Western governments, while Ethiopians persisted with their doubts. Surely, events have proved those distrusts deserved, as subsequent actions of the regime have shown.
Too much time has lapsed since then. However, it is never too late in a nation’s life to right the wrongs. The possibilities are already there, in front of him, if only he is willing to redeem himself, his promises, and the name of his party before history and the people in time before the 2010 election. In that regard, the recognition he gives to the following would contribute to some positive movement in the current situation.
? First, the issue of participation every Ethiopian and legally organized groups in the 2010 election rests on his willingness to create conducive environment for participation. In the absence of independent court, neutral election board and free press, and freedom to organize without hindrances and be able to reach the electorate, there cannot be meaningful participation.
? The many political prisoners Ato Meles has rounded up are locked up not because of crimes, but because of his need to remove his main challengers. The strategy he employed may allow him to run alone, but never to win public acceptance and international respectability. The past years have shown that international disapproval of records of the regime on human rights has hurt his regime, and indeed the country, as the declining flows of bilateral aid from several countries (other than the UK and US) have tapered of, not to speak of the scar it has left on his regime.
In the meantime, citizens would need to think harder to break the logjam. Perhaps as a starting point, it may be necessary to link the issues of the release of political prisoners with a persistent demand for respect of the human and civil rights in the country. This time there is every possibility that sustained Ethiopian campaigns would find receptive ears at the international level. This conclusion is reached in view of the change of administration in Washington and Mr. Barack Obama’s commitment to restore America’s credibility, its moral authority and global leadership. At a time when America itself is already in the process of investigating itself internally for all that has gone wrong under the outgoing administration, there is no justification for the Meles regime to escape scrutiny.
At this stage, it would be prudent on the part of my country people not to push decision of either participation or non-participation in the forthcoming election. Clearly, if no participation decision is encouraged, without putting his regime on notice and giving Ato Meles the chance and possibilities to rethink, it would surely be an outcome he would jump upon outright. It would enable him to put the blame on those who refuse to participate.
While the prime minister ponders on these issues that have evoked Ethiopian anger and concerns and open criticisms by some important members of the international community, a three-pronged campaign needs to be launched. The campaign needs to be sustained and the objectives should aim:
? the release of all political prisoners, especially highlighting Ms. Birtukan Mideksa’s case would have serious impact, as she is already very well known internationally. Such an approach would bring focus on the illegal and undemocratic behaviour and actions of the government. Bear in mind also that the appeal of UDJP on 3 January to the Ethiopian people is for the release of its chairperson and solidarity with the party.
? on impressing the need to end his curtailment of civil rights and open up public space in the country and be bound by national and international laws on the vital importance of ensuring respect for fundamental human rights. Cases should be made against the government’s clamp down on freedom of the press, speech and organization journalists. Based on the outcome of that, Ethiopians should make judgement whether the condition in the country is conducive for a free and fair election. Even without the question of election, these are fundamental and inalienable human rights whose suspension cannot be justified;
? fostering common position amongst Ethiopians, democratic groups and organizations is the primary and essential task of citizens. The time we are in and the situation in the country demand that Ethiopian energies be utilized to mobilizing support for the building of genuine democracy in Ethiopia. This would help send the appropriate message to the regime as well as Ethiopia’s partners. In this context, we should appreciate Ato Seye Abraha’s call on all Ethiopians to transcend petty divisions and squabble is of vital importance. The lack of resistance and weakness of opposition has enabled the regime to get away this long with its utter lawlessness.
In addition, I see wisdom in Prof. Messay Kebede’s article that appeared on Ethiomedia on 4 January on the role of the Shimagles and their good offices. His hope is that their role should not be allowed to die out quietly, while still they are custodians of the agreements between the regime and the political prisoners. Their continued silence has become disturbing even more now in the face of the revocation of Ms. Birtukan Mideksa’s pardon and her subsequent return to prison to serve her life sentence. If this is allowed to go on unexposed, not only that it is tantamount to condoning the arrogance of power, but also the probability is that others are likely to follow her in Kaliti. The regime is liable to use any means that helps it to scare citizens.
Therefore, it is time the shimagles spoke what transpired during their rounds of intermediation. Although the government has announced the closing of the door on the shimagles, I am confident that that is not the last word on this matter and some efforts must be exerted. If anything, it would help expose the duplicity of the regime. The Shimagles owe that to the Ethiopian people and the international community.
Prof. Messay Kebede is also urging the Tigrian community to weigh on the release of the political prisoners. As citizens who share the same destiny with the rest of the Ethiopian people, they need to bring pressure to bear upon the ruling party. Any positive outcome of such actions would only make them beneficiaries of a democratic struggle that the people of Tigrai, like other Ethiopians, have been denied of. Obviously, the loyalty of many Tigraians with the regime is simply a result of a sense of insecurity the regime has engendered for its benefit. Democratic-minded Tigraians have realized all along that this is not in the interest of Tigraians, as it has not been in the interest of other Ethiopians. As a recent article on Ethiomedia has shown, Tigrai has already paid its dues to the Meles regime with 14,000 political prisoners already locked in. They no longer need to be associated with the crimes of this regime, which in the past several years has endeavoured to weaken their ties with the rest of the Ethiopian people. There is need for concerted action by everyone to awaken Ato Meles Zenawi and his regime to realize in time the consequences of their actions against the Ethiopian people. I quote the relevant part of Prof. Messay Kebede’s views/suggestion here:
I hope that the shimagle will intervene, but this time with a determined and genuine goal of achieving a compromise, which alone opens the democratic path. But no conciliatory effort is likely to succeed if the Woyanne government is not pressured to compromise by means of sustained and wide protest. In particular, the Tigrean community can play a decisive role by openly showing its disagreement over the imprisonment of a leader [Birtukan Mideksa] whose commitment to democracy and peaceful struggle can hardly be doubted.