As bomb blasts rip through Addis Ababa and opposition leaders stand trial for treason, Kasahun Woldemariam charts the rise of the Ethiopian state, providing background to the turbulent May 2005 election period and the subsequent regime crackdown. The government of Meles Zenawi, he writes, needs to tune in its listening devices to the voices of the people rather than appeasing and appealing to external forces.
Since 1991, Ethiopians have gone to the polls three times (in 1995, 2000, and 2005) to cast their ballots. The three elections were never perfect by any measure, but given the communication, political, and other constraints, they were instrumental in providing the basis for evaluating the performance of elected public officials and whether they remained true to their campaign platforms and promises. The 2005 multiparty elections, particularly, challenged the commitment of the ruling coalition and opposition parties to democracy and peaceful resolution of conflict.
The question then becomes whether Ethiopian political leaders were genuinely committed to the rule of law and multiparty politics. Did the ruling elites that came to power after the collapse of the military regime of Mengistu Haile-Mariam (1974-1991) essentially open the political marketplace to ride the post-Cold War current? What are the long-term implications of the behaviors and actions of the political leaders? What lessons could other Africans draw from the Ethiopian experience?
This article presents a critical and condensed overview of the political history of Ethiopia with emphasis on the prominence of internal legitimacy for the survival and continuity of a political system. This is followed by a detailed account and analysis of multiparty election outcomes and the implication of post-2005 election allegations and counter-allegations of electoral fraud and the imprisonment of opposition party leaders on eroding public confidence in the political process as well as in government. It then makes a brief summary of the main points of the article and concludes with a few policy-oriented remarks.
Contemporary Political Developments in Ethiopia
The end of the Cold War in the late 1980s fundamentally shifted the African political landscape. By the early 1990s, almost every African authoritarian ruler jumped on the bandwagon and became carried away by the conveyer belts of political and market liberalism.
The case of Ethiopia is unique in many respects. The departure of Mengistu left a political vacuum and opened an unprecedented opportunity for the declaration of Eritrea as an independent state. Numerous political parties also emerged. Many among these demanded secession while a few others looked to meet the separatist claims without causing the disintegration of the country into unstable and unviable ethnic Bantustans. The 1990/91 London negotiation, chaired by the former United States Assistant Secretary of State, Herman Cohen, was an attempt to engage the various contending political parties in a negotiation and to figure out strategies to reestablish peace and security in Ethiopia. Among the delegates were representatives from the military government, the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), and other nationalist and secessionist party members.
At the London Summit, it was decided that the TPLF would replace the outgoing military regime, and Eritrea would be declared independent from the oppressive regime of Ethiopia. Initially, the TPLF did not camouflage its separatist tendencies within the rubrics of national integration, nation-building, and all the other politically and diplomatically appealing aphorisms. Indeed, beginning in the mid-1980s, the Front had expanded its spheres of guerrilla warfare to other provinces, especially to the predominantly “Amhara” provinces of western Ethiopia. Even there, the Front held its banner and continued to depend on the peoples’ willingness and kindness to shelter, feed, and fight alongside with the party’s armed wings. What is interesting is that the TPLF leadership believed and mobilized its Tigray dominated guerrilla groups to fight against the allegedly Amhara dominated central government of Ethiopia.
Since the late 1970s, the TPLF had sought to make practical the Leninist rhetoric of the rights of minority groups to self-determination, including and up to secession. Yet, as the military regime begun to crumble, the TPLF leadership abandoned its separatist fervor in favor of the gains that come with ruling greater Ethiopia, as opposed to forming an independent state with questionable viability.
How did the TPLF transform itself from a disintegrative, separatist, force to an arguably integrative, unionist, party? The various ethnic groups had to be brought into an overarching framework. The grand coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), was established to avoid the possible disintegration of Ethiopia into unstable states. At the same time, the establishment of the grand coalition was ostensibly designed to protect the interests and rights of minority ethnic groups and to ensure that they would not be short-changed in the interest of national unity. These polarized tensions among the various groups created the opportunity for the TPLF leadership to skillfully maneuver themselves to the peak of the political hierarchy.
From the outset, there was really no genuine commitment to making the outcome of multiparty elections unpredictable and, as a result, the playing field in the political marketplace has been biased in favor of the grand coalition, the EPRDF. The EPRDF is not a constellation of equals; rather it is established to elevate the politically and demographically minority party, the TPLF, to the summit of the highly hierarchical grand coalition party.
If political power translates into economic power or vice-versa, then the Tigray ethnic group in Tigray (northern Ethiopia) must have been having a field day since the rise of the former secessionist party to power. For instance, the current Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, comes from one of the demographically minority ethnic groups in Ethiopia, the Tigray ethnic group. This ethnic group represents approximately 6% of the population of Ethiopia and, yet, a disproportionate number of cabinet posts and other key government posts are controlled by individuals from members of the Tigray ethnic group.
But it is not ethnicity, rather it is loyalty to the status quo, the continued domination of power by one party, that determines whether or not one qualifies for appointment as a high-ranking official. Therefore, some observes who over-emphasize the role of ethnicity in the allocation of political power and economic resources need to ask themselves why a significant number of internally displaced, homeless, and beggars in Addis Ababa are from the Tigray ethnic group and why there is developmental and public and private sector investment differentials within the Tigray regional state such as between Adwa and Mekele.
The EPRDF comprises a number of parties, including the ANDM, ADP, GPDF, OPDO, South Ethiopia Peoples’ Democratic Front (SEPDF), and TPLF. Since the EPRDF is a mechanism for centralized control of power and since the majority member parties of the grand coalition are not expressions of the wishes and desires of the people, the central government’s development policies and priorities are reflections of the interests and visions of the party that has settled at the top of the organizational hierarchy. Essentially, public funds for investment in education, health, and physical infrastructure, as well as setting the criteria for central government budget allocation for reconstruction and rehabilitation are authoritatively determined.
Having created an unholy alliance among parties which mushroomed after the collapse of the military regime, the EPRDF won the 1995 parliamentary elections overwhelmingly and secured a position to dictate the country’s social and economic policies. Interestingly, even though the grand coalition maintained its dominant position, after the 2000 elections, the leaders of the ruling coalition were irritated by the loss of an additional 2% of the parliament seats to loyal opposition parties.
To be sure, the 12% or so total occupancy of the federal parliament by members of the opposition parties has done more than anyone had expected. The ways in which they stood against a concrete political wall is not only fascinating but, more importantly, it is a testament of their commitment to play by the rules and to ensure that the voice of the voiceless is heard loud and clear. In spite of intimidation, harassment, imprisonment, and extrajudicial assassination, opposition party leaders continue to rise to the occasion.
To the extent that the rise of elective dictatorship in Ethiopia is not substantiated, then one is justified to ask why the government allowed opposition party members to remain increasingly outspoken against the government’s position. First, given the growing public disenchantment against public officials’ complacency towards the conditions of the majority, keeping opposition parties in some irrelevant corner of the legislative process gives the illusion that the regime may gradually democratize.
Secondly, disputing the notion of authoritarian regime under the illusion of democracy, some take the view that if anything else the current regime is much better than the patently and unpretentiously authoritarian military regime of Mengistu Haile-Mariam, which soaked its hands with thousands of innocent civilians’ blood. They go on to insist that the holding of elected officials in prison with or without charges may violate their constitutional rights of immunity from prosecution, but they did not disappear mysteriously, which would have been the case during the iron-clod rule of Mengistu. But banning opposition parties from participating in elections and the subsequent ceremonial debate at the parliament floor would definitely upset the ruling party’s alternative sources of legitimacy and financial support - the West - especially the Americans and the Britons. Keeping opposition party members hanging in a political limbo, without conceding any meaningful political space, would be striking more than two birds in one stone.
The 2005 Elections and Subsequent Political Crises
For the leadership of the grand coalition, a slight dwindling in the absolute ownership of the political space signaled the erosion of legislative and executive power away from the center of gravity - the Minister’s office. Five years later, the regime reached a tipping point both in terms of availing its true characteristics and the decline in the internal legitimacy of the state. The 2005 elections and the ways in which the opposition parties organized themselves were remarkable on many counts.
By early 2003, it was evident that the 2005 parliamentary elections would be different from the previous two elections. On a number of occasions, leaders of opposition parties held talks on how best to prepare for the 2005 parliamentary elections. Even though the EPRDF was more a symbolic and loose alliance than anything else, it nonetheless brought together the various political parties, continued to serve as an essential political instrument of domination and marginalization, and facilitated the conditions for the rise of the TPLF to the pinnacle of power. Combining historical lessons of the liberation struggle and the formation of the grand coalition and its impact on the inequitable distribution of power, four opposition parties were able to forge a strategic alliance and form the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD).
The May 2005 parliamentary elections evolved as if opposition parties launched a surprise attack on the ruling coalition, testing its tolerance to adversarial views and commitment to stepping aside gracefully. It certainly tipped the balance of power in favor of opposition parties and significantly eroded the confidence of the public in the electoral process. Despite persistent intimidations, imprisonment of candidates as well as delays in the delivery of election material to and early closures of polling stations, opposition parties were able to exert pressure on the ruling coalition to play by its own rules of the political game, or face the consequences of grossly diluting its image before the international community.
The CUD achieved a landslide victory at the capital city, which came with a reward of 23 parliamentary seats. This was a politically significant win for the country as a whole and for opposition parties in particular. Many observers noted that the opposition were leading the ruling coalition party by a measurable margin, but prior to the conclusion of the elections the government declared that it had won the majority vote.
Opposition parties quickly discredited the government’s claim and called for a recounting of the votes and rerunning of elections in disputed areas. Except perhaps for the African Union and the Carter Center, election observers from the European Union, Scandinavian nations, and others held the view that the elections were not free and fair. It was generally riddled with voter intimidation and numerous impediments against supporters of opposition parties, and backed the oppositions’ allegation of fraud. The European Union proposed that the best outcome for the country and the parties in dispute would be to hold dialogue and mediation and develop a mechanism for the peaceful resolution of political conflict. This proposal never materialized, and by mid-November 2005 the opposition called for a five-day strike.
Subsequently, security forces went on a rampage, killing at least forty, wounding hundreds, and arresting over 2000 civilians. Twenty-four members of the opposition party are presently standing trial on charges of treason and coup. Some of the victims of the political violence were children who had nothing to do with the elections or the strike.
Because of gross human rights violations by the Ethiopian government, the World Bank cancelled its aid to the Ethiopian government and, instead, fund civil society organizations based in Ethiopia. The European Union also cancelled its aid to the Ethiopian government, making the combined $375 million withholding of foreign aid one of the largest since the current regime came to power in 1991. With very little or no indignity, the government reacted to the cancellation of foreign aid by claiming that Ethiopia hardly relied on foreign aid and that the survival and continuity of the state has always been and will always depend on the will of the people. Hypocrisy aside, when the World Bank and Western allies of African governments suspend foreign aid, you know that there is something seriously wrong with how ordinary citizens are treated by the state.
Irrespective of the weaknesses that may exist and the apparent restrictions it faces, the Ethiopian free press was the only means of policing the state. The problem of scarcity of information resources is compounded as one moves out of the capital city into regional state capitals and rural areas. In their daily interactions and formation of mutual understanding around an issue, Ethiopians transcend ethno-linguistic, religious, and class boundaries which have been put up as barriers to collective mass mobilization against the ruling elites. Thanks to the resilience of traditional values and extended family networks, each resident of the capital city remains in touch with his/her roots from the rural areas and, given their comparatively greater access to the mass media, the citizens of Addis Ababa are the information links of rural Ethiopia within the country and beyond. Given the existence of a relatively improved communication network in the capital city, it is also much easier to mobilize residents of the city in support of a platform or to express dissent against an incumbent regime. And, since each resident of the city comes from diverse backgrounds, news and activities originating in Addis Ababa easily spreads to other regions as well. Therefore, winning Addis Ababa was not only politically significant but it was also strategically important.
What has occurred in Ethiopia since the May 2005 parliamentary elections is a manifestation of hypocrisy at its best. Sheer arrogance and the flexing of military muscle on an unarmed civilian population never quite worked for the repressive regime of Mengistu Haile-Mariam. If the military regime stood firmly against domestic and regional rivals and made measurable progress in the provision of public goods, then why did the regime suddenly collapse? To put it simply, it lost the confidence of the general public, which worsened by the ushering in of a new international political climate.
This point cannot be overemphasized, and restoring public confidence in government should be taken as an important component of building democracy and bringing about economic development. Furthermore, unless one rejects the value of history and the unique experiences of Ethiopians, the current ruling elites did not introduce Ethiopians to the idea of “government by the people,” call it democracy or elective dictatorship. Even so, as Wole Soyinka noted, past contribution to society should not inhibit future progress.
Therefore, contemporary African leaders, especially Ethiopians, need not go far to the West or the East to draw lessons on public administration, building the capacity of the state to deliver public goods, and bringing about sustainable development and enduring democracy. The most reliable source of state legitimacy is one that emanates internally and crosses over linguistic, ethnic, class, religious boundaries. That is, a regime’s continuity and effectiveness lies in its ability to achieve internal legitimacy by tuning in its listening devices to the voices of the people rather than appeasing and appealing to external forces. Alternatively, a state that seeks to restore public confidence and derives its legitimacy from the people also contributes to regional peace and security and is one less troubled spot for the international community to worry about.
Imprisonment of opposition party members, journalists, and civilians without a warrant clearly illustrates that the executive branch of the regime is acting and behaving above the law. In a political system where no one is policing the state, where ballots no longer serve as sticks and carrots, and where parliamentary elections are meaningless processions to the polling station, then the regime is nothing but an “elective dictatorship” and a constellation of opportunist elites.
The first step in restoring public confidence in government would be to release and engage in a genuine dialogue with opposition party leaders. Such dialogue could be best facilitated by Ethiopian elders, Ethiopian religious leaders with no political affiliation to any of the parties, and by government representatives who have nothing to lose or gain from the outcome of the dialogue and mediation.
At the end of the day, the political leaders from all sides must come to terms with the fact that there is a limit to blind loyalty and that the time for critical citizenship is never too late.
* Kasahun Woldemariam received his Ph.D. in African Studies from Howard University and numerous awards, including research and teaching fellowships from the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa; the Institute for the Study of World Politics, Washington, DC; and Howard University. He has written articles, including "Investment-Friendly Image of Africa," "The Real Power of Ballots," and "NEPAD Needs NGOs to Work." His forthcoming book examines "Social Capital" from an African Perspective."
* Please send comments to