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  • After era of kings, is multiparty politics an illusion in Ethiopia? Posted on 23 June 2015

    By By Andualem Sisay Gessesse

    Over the past few months, the ruling party in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has been busy selling its manifesto to different groups — from students to youth and women.

    Beyond familiarising the public with its strategies and policies, some say the discussions have also helped it to understand the public mood ahead of the May 2015 general election. It will be the fifth election after the fall of the military Derg regime.

    However, during these discussions and workshop sessions, the one recurring question among critics has been:

    “Why is it that the ruling party’s accounts are not audited while all political parties in the country are forced by law to report the sources of their income?”

    The party has denied owning any businesses, with its leader, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn saying they belong to individuals. Another question has been why do ethnic conflicts persist, 24 years after the ruling party introduced the federal government system?

    The EPRDF introduced region-based federalism after overthrowing Mengistu Hailemariam’s Marxist Derg (military) regime in 1991. The ruling EPRDF and its affiliate political parties are based on either tribe or region.

    The opposition parties on the other hand take a nationalist look in a bid to win over all ethnic groups and regions. So the multiparty system in the past four elections has been a contest between the nationalist parties and the pro-ethnic federalists.

    However, for a country that has been under the leadership of emperors and the military for centuries, introducing a democratic system has not been easy.

    From King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela of the 12th century known for building a church from a single rock at Lalibela and Emperor Menelik II (1889-1913) who introduced telephone and railway services to the country, to Emperor Tewodros known for forcing a British missionary to manufacture a canon (Sebastopol) for him, to Ras Tefari (Emperor Haile Selassie) from 1930-1974, the country was ruled by kings.

    Most of the kings came from the central and northern regions of the country, and often claimed to have been appointed by God, tracing their roots to King Solomon of Israel.

    Mengistu Hailemariam, a former soldier of Emperor Haile Selassie, established the military state through a coup in 1974, and hijacked a university students’ movement calling for the end of a feudal regime.

    All the opponents of the emperor including founders of the EPRDF were promoters of Marxism. To align his regime with the students’ movement of the time, Mengistu declared the country a Marxist nation under the slogan “Land to the tiller!”

    Most of those who chose to fight Mengistu lost. While some were forced into exile, others sided with the Derg regime. At the time, the activities of the Ethiopian Red Terror, a violent political campaign, were most visible.

    The Derg continued its fight in the northern part of the country against guerrilla groups like the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) of Isaias Afewerki.

    As it got closer to overthrowing Mengistu’s regime in 1991 in a joint operation with other ethnic and region-based factions, the TPLF took the lead in the establishment of the coalition party, EPRDF.

    Rough transition

    From 1991-1995, the late Meles Zenawi served as president of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia. During this period, a new constitution was introduced paving the way for the referendum that saw the Eritrean people vote for independence in 1993.
    Ethiopia also introduced a federal system, which was criticised by many opposition groups as divisive and a threat to the country’s nationhood.

    EPRDF also invited armed groups that advocated cessation including the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) to take part in the establishment of the transitional government. But the two groups gradually developed a mistrust of EPRDF, leading to fresh fighting.

    In 2007, the two groups were labelled terrorist organisations by the Ethiopian Parliament along with Ginbot 7, which came into existence following the controversial 2005 general election, and Al Shabaab, which forced Ethiopia to enter Somalia in July 2006 backing the Transitional Federal Government.

    The government claimed that these groups in partnership with the Eritrean regime and Islamic extremists in Somalia such as Islamic Court Union had planned to destabilise Ethiopia and posed “clear and present danger.”

    On the other hand, OLF and ONLF claimed they went to war because EPRDF denied them the constitutional right to secede.

    Isaias Afewerki, who co-founded EPLF in 1970, has been leading Eritrea since 1993. He led the fight for Independence claiming that Eritrea was being colonised by Ethiopia. After cessation, Eritrea went to war with Ethiopia in May 1998 over a border dispute in the region of Badime.

    Reports show that as of March 2000, over 370,000 Eritreans and approximately 350,000 Ethiopians had been affected by the war while tens of thousands had lost their lives.

    The humanitarian situation in parts of Ethiopia was exacerbated by a severe drought, which led to the emergence of a major food crisis that affected almost eight million people. UN humanitarian agencies prepared programmes for both countries, aimed at mobilising international resources for multi-sector emergency interventions.

    Most importantly, as a result of the conflict, Eritrea lost the chance of making millions of dollars by providing port services to the land-locked Ethiopia. This led Ethiopia to shifting from using Eritrea’s Red Sea Port of Assab to the smaller neighbour port of Djibouti.

    Today, the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea is neither one of peace nor war even though the two countries signed a peace deal in Algiers in 2000 to end the war.

    Since then, Ethiopia has been pointing fingers at Eritrea for collaborating with terrorist groups, especially following the aftermath of Ethiopia’s May 2005 election crisis.

    Turning point

    One of the turning points in Ethiopia’s attempt to develop multiparty democracy was the May 2005 national election. The coalition of the opposition parties, Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) formed at the 11th hour of the election, won the minds and hearts of many Ethiopians.

    CUD claimed that they had won over half of the 547 seats of Parliament and almost all the Cabinet seats. But the electoral board said that although CUD had won in major cities including 137 of the 138 seats of Addis Ababa administration, EPRDF won the election because it got more votes in the rural areas.

    The CUD refused to join parliament and take over Addis Ababa. To make matters worse, immediately after the election, EPRDF announced that Addis Ababa City had become the capital of the Oromia Region. The crisis led to the killings of about 200 civilians with thousands of arrests and exile of opposition and civil society leaders as well as journalists.

    A parliamentary commission that was tasked with investigating the incidents reported that the security forces did not use excessive force. But defecting commission leaders said there had been excessive use of force that led to the death of 193 demonstrators, and alleged that their findings had been changed by the government.

    Opposition figures such as Birhanu Nega, Birtukan Mideksa and Hailu Shawulwere jailed. Thirty-four prominent Ethiopians in exile were also charged in absentia.

    The government pardoned and released some of the opposition figures, including Dr Nega who then fled to the US. It was Dr Birhanu among others that founded Ginbot 7, which the government has labelled a terrorist group. Ginbot 7 refers to the month and date of the 2005 election (May 15) in the Amharic and Ethiopian calendar.

    Its leaders including Andargachew Tsige, an Ethiopian-born British citizen who was arrested and delivered to Ethiopia while transiting through Yemen last June, have been sentenced to death.

    Ginbot 7, which reportedly runs a satellite TV and radio (ESAT) from The Netherlands and the US, has been broadcasting the views of exiled opposition members and ex-members of the ruling party who wrote books revealing alleged secrets of the party. Through its media outlets, the group claims the ruling party is not ready to leave power.

    Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who is from the Welaita tribe in the southern region, was deputy leader of the EPRDF before the death of Meles Zenawi of the Tigre tribe from the Tigray region. Hailemariam has warned those bent on taking power through undemocratic means that they will not succeed.

    “People have some illusions that there might be of some kind changes that can take place forcefully through undemocratic means,” he said. “This will not be possible because we have strong support from the farming community.”

    He was responding to a question by The EastAfrican on whether multipartyism was on its deathbed in Ethiopia.

    “If we do not have a proper multiparty democracy, this country is going to end up like Somalia. This is imperative” he said. “It is up to the people to decide on how many seats should be given to the opposition and how many to the ruling party.”

    He added: “The multiparty system is gauged by the process of the election; not the result. The result is up to the people… Therefore, I say democracy is not dying, it is flourishing and it will continue to flourish; of course, with all its limitations,” he said.

    No level playing field

    Although Ethiopia has been praised for a double digit economic growth since 2010 with the exception of 2012, the government is often criticised for limiting the freedom of expression and denying a level playing ground for opposition political parties through restrictive laws such as anti-terrorism and telecom fraud.

    International rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, have been accusing the government of limiting human rights by arresting opposition party members and journalists.

    Given that 99.6 per cent of the parliamentary seats in the 2010 election went to the ruling party and that the political space has shrunk dramatically since then, there is little in the name of a viable opposition that can raise questions about government policy, according to Felix Horne, a researcher, Africa Division of the United States human Rights Commission.

    “…This situation leaves Ethiopians with no real means to express concerns over the policies and development strategies imposed by the government. They either accept it, and face threats and imprisonment for speaking out, or they flee their country as thousands have done,” Mr Horne said.

    But responding to reporters’ questions on his government’s rights record, the Prime Minister said: “We cannot embrace their (rights organisations) neoliberal ideology by force. They tried colour revolution in 2005 and now they are planning street havoc. My government will not bow down to any ideological driven push,” said Hailemariam Desalegn.

    Politics and business

    That business and politics are strongly intertwined in Ethiopia is also a challenge to building a multiparty system. According to a 2010 research by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

    “State-owned enterprises still dominate many manufacturing industries and service sectors, and party-affiliated endowments have taken many of the business opportunities left for private engagement,” notes the study.

    Equally, a UK Aid (DFID) and Irish Aid sponsored paper on EPRDF-affiliated business by Sarah Vaughan and Mesfin Gebremichael notes that within months of EPRDF coming to power and establishing the Transitional Government of Ethiopia, a series of share companies began to be established by individual shareholders who were prominent members of the TPLF (and in some rare instances other EPRDF parties), using resources amassed by the TPLF/EPRDF during its war against the Dergue.

    “The speed with which these companies were established indicates a strategy that had been planned and prepared well before the change of regime in May 1991,” the paper states, listing dozens of companies engaged in various businesses ranging from manufacturing, construction, import-export trade to banks, mining, transport and logistics.

    But Hailemariam Desalegn denied that the ruling party owns businesses.

    “Ethiopian law does not allow a political party to own profit-making organisations. Those companies are endowments owned by the people of different regions of the country,” he said, adding that his party raises money from the private sector and its members.

    According to Girma Seifu, the only opposition MP at the Ethiopian parliament representing Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ)-Andinet party, there is no level playing field for the ruling party and the oppositions.

    “There is no space for the opposition parties to exercise their political freedom. … There is no means or media for the opposition to communicate with the people. The state media is under control of the ruling party. And the government is also making hard the survival of private media,” Mr Girma said, adding that the few private media in the country prefer either to report on other countries’ politics rather than Ethiopia’s or talk about social issues as they are afraid of the system.

    According to Mr Girma, the public has a legal right to free engagement in politics but this happens only on paper. This, he said, makes public participation in politics and building multiparty system difficult.

    “You cannot engage in political activities without freedom of expression and freedom of assembly as well as organising yourself in a political party. This is how the ruling party designed it deliberately to stay in power for 30, 40 years and so,” he argued.

    But the Prime Minister said that while the ruling party had some advantage as the incumbent, there were legal frameworks that the opposition can use to access public resources such as media.

    “If they [the opposition] want to win the upcoming election, they have to come to our base [farmers, which represents 80 per cent of the total population of the country] and compete with us,” the premier said.

    But Mr Girma believes that the upcoming elections may be the turning point for Ethiopia if the opposition uses the weaknesses of the ruling party to its benefit. He argued that most of the situations created by the ruling party such as high cost of living and the lack of freedom will gradually separate it from the public.

    “These among others, I think are some of the opportunities that will lead the public to turn its back on the ruling party and elect the opposition in the upcoming May election paving the way for multiparty system. The challenge is how smart the opposition will be in showing better alternatives to the public,” said Mr Girma.

    Of the total budget allocated by the government for political parties’ campaign, 55 per cent goes to the ruling party because it has more seats in parliament, while the remaining goes to those with more female candidates and only 10 per cent is distributed equally among all other contesting parties.

    By December 23, last year, a total of 60 political parties had registered to take part in the May election, according to the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia.

    “If they [the opposition] want to win the upcoming election, they have to come to our base [farmers, which represents 80 per cent of the total population of the country] and compete with us,” the premier said.

    But Mr Girma believes that the upcoming elections may be the turning point for Ethiopia if the opposition uses the weaknesses of the ruling party to its benefit. He argued that most of the situations created by the ruling party such as high cost of living and the lack of freedom will gradually separate it from the public.

    “These among others, I think are some of the opportunities that will lead the public to turn its back on the ruling party and elect the opposition in the upcoming May election paving the way for multiparty system. The challenge is how smart the opposition will be in showing better alternatives to the public,” said Mr Girma.

    Of the total budget allocated by the government for political parties’ campaign, 55 per cent goes to the ruling party because it has more seats in parliament, while the remaining goes to those with more female candidates and only 10 per cent is distributed equally among all other contesting parties.

    By December 23, last year, a total of 60 political parties had registered to take part in the May election, according to the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia.

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