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Ethiopia's Opportunity:

A New Day Beckons After Zenawi

By Graham Peebles

Redress, Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, September 8, 2012

Graham Peebles argues that the death of Ethiopia’s dictatorial prime minister, Meles Zenawi, provides a golden opportunity for the country to embark on the long delayed journey to reunite its fragmented communities, restore human dignity and establish democracy and human rights.

The death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, announced on 22 August after his mysterious two-month disappearance, presents a tremendous opportunity to Ethiopia. Let a new day dawn for the people, one filled with hope and fundamental change, where human rights and justice are respected, where freedom is encouraged and cultivated in all areas and where fear is banished to the past.

Meles rose to power as a revolutionary to overthrow a dictatorship. Ironically he too fell under the spell of power, and the freedom fighter became the dictator, the greatest obstacle to freedom and liberty. He had been in power since 1991, when the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) led a coalition of armed opposition groups in overturning the rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Control and repression

Notwithstanding the repeated accolades and platitudes expressed by heads of state upon his passing, let us be clear: Prime Minister Meles Zenawi presided over an undemocratic regime that repressed the people, tolerated no political dissent and, as Human Rights Watch states in its report, “One Hundred Ways of Putting on Pressure”, “since the controversial 2005 elections, Ethiopia has seen a sharp deterioration in civil and political rights, with mounting restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly”.

In fact, under Meles’s leadership the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government has trampled on the human rights of the Ethiopian people, centralized power, falsely imprisoned in large numbers members of opposition parties and journalists, and responded with brutal force to demonstrations after the 2005 unfair elections, when the security forces murdered over 200 innocent people on the streets of Addis Ababa. Not to mention the killing of hundreds of people in Gambella, the persecution of the people of Oromia, along with human rights violations in Afar and the Ogaden.

Meles Zenawi “orchestrated a discreet purge of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front ... and the administration, demoting, sidelining or reassigning key potential rivals and opponents”.

Rashid Abdi, Kenya’s Daily Nation

The media are party/state controlled, as is the sole telecommunications company and the judiciary, all of which is contrary to federal law enshrined in the constitution. In addition, as Rashid Abdi of Kenya’s Daily Nation says, Meles “orchestrated a discreet purge of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front ... and the administration, demoting, sidelining or reassigning key potential rivals and opponents”. And, as the Inter Press Service (IPS) succinctly put it, he “ruled with an increasingly authoritarian fist for more than two decades”. Let us hope such times will now be consigned to the murky past.

Unity – the way forward

If responded to with intelligence and love, patience and tolerance, the political space created by Meles’s departure could be a beginning in which firm and lasting steps towards an open, just and free civil society may be taken, broad ethnic participation encouraged and divisions set aside. It could signal the start of a peaceful social revolution in which the perennial values of democracy are fostered, enabling the people to step out from the repressive shadow of the late prime minister and his EPRDF dictatorship and unite as one people, diverse yet unified, synthesizing the many and enriching the country. Such is the opportunity.

The keynote for the time ahead in Ethiopia should be unity, unity in diversity.
There are many ethnic and tribal groups in Ethiopia, some 77 according to the US State Department, “with their own distinct language. Some of these have as few as 10,000 members”. The people of Oromo make up the single largest group and, along with Amhara and Tigreans, account for around 70 per cent of the country’s 85 million population. A further division exists along religious lines, with roughly 50 per cent Orthodox Christian – living mainly in the highlands – and 50 per cent Muslim, inhabiting the lowland regions.

Historically, these two groups and government have co-existed peacefully. However as the International Crisis Group (ICG) states in its report, “Ethiopia after Meles”, “tensions are mounting between the government and the large Muslim community. Muslim committees have protested perceived interference in religious affairs”. The authorities sought to link their demonstrations to Islamic extremism and terrorism, and Meles exacerbated matters by accusing the protestors of “peddling ideologies of intolerance” – this from a man who effectively outlawed all political dissent and banned freedom of expression. Christian Orthodox priests have also protested political interference and expressed their support for their Muslim brothers.

Such religious discord needs a sensitive response, not cliché name calling. Predictably, the “T” word – terrorism – has been wheeled out by a government that has sought to impose ideological control in every area of Ethiopian society, including the church. Let such repressive practices be buried along with Meles and let the current EPRDF government learn what is perhaps the greatest lesson of responsible government: to listen to the people who they are in office to serve.

Designed to divide

Amharic is the official language and, until recently, was used in primary school instruction. It has been replaced in many areas by local languages, such as Oromifa and Tigrinya, reinforcing ethnic divisions. The highly centralized EPRDF has employed divide-and-rule tactics to weaken political opposition and fuel separation along ethnic lines, disempowering the community, and engendering competition for land, natural resources and government funds. Fragmented ethnic groups competing for resources and bickering among themselves have little time or energy to protest against government policy and make easy prey for a regime seeking total control.

Division spawns conflict and, as the ICG found, “Exclusion and disfranchisement have provided fertile ground for ethnic and religious radicalization, already evident in some lowland regions, where the ruling party exploits resources without local consent.” The massive land sales is one issue alluded to here; displacing thousand of indigenous people, forcing subsistence farmers and pastoralists off the land, destroying large areas of forest and wildlife habitat which, for a few dollars, are turned over to international corporations who cultivate crops for their home market.

Democracy is participation, and the opportunity before Ethiopia now is to create an environment in which participation is encouraged and the people have a voice, and where unity is seen as the means and the goal, one where the Oromo people, those in the Ogaden, Amhara, Tigray and the other ethnic groups are fully included and the development of community groups is facilitated.

The opposition and Diaspora

“A national dialogue is needed in which opposition groups inside and outside the country and the people – for too long silenced – are allowed to participate and indeed be listened too.”

Under the Meles regime not only have the main ethnic groups been divided and disempowered, but the diaspora opposition too has been weak and ineffective. Fractured and despondent activists and opposition members of the various bodies need to unite at this time of uncertainty and opportunity and work collectively to establish a dialogue with the EPRDF government. A national dialogue is needed in which opposition groups inside and outside the country and the people – for too long silenced – are allowed to participate and indeed be listened too. Such a move would set a new and inclusive tone and engender hope that the ruling EPRDF recognizes the mood of the country.

The diaspora’s role is crucial in any movement towards democracy in Ethiopia. Consensus among the various factions is essential and the ideas of opposition – the preoccupation of the past – which serve only to strengthen division and thus play into the hands of the EPRDF, must be left behind. Constructive and creative contributions should be encouraged, bearing in mind the underlying principle of unity to soften government resistance to change and cultivate trust. As the ICG puts it,

Opposition forces may now be able to agree on a basic platform calling for an all-inclusive transitional process leading to free and fair elections in a couple of years. Such an arrangement should include all political forces, armed and unarmed, that endorse a non-violent process to achieve an inclusive, democratically-elected regime.

The federal constitution, written by the TPLF, full as it is of articles of decency and acceptability but disregarded by the government, is vague and ambiguous regarding the process of transition and succession in the event of the prime minister’s death. According to an Al-Jazeera report, “The Ethiopian parliament has been recalled from recess to swear-in Zenawi's successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, the deputy prime minister, who will most likely lead Ethiopia until 2015, when the current term of the ruling party comes to an end.” This is by no means certain, and Desagelen is reportedly unsure about accepting the mantle of prime minister.

A provisional cross-party government is called for, one with broad support that would initiate reforms, repeal the unjust Anti-Terrorist Proclamation and other repressive legislation, free the media, especially television and radio, and begin to build a vibrant, active civil society. Such progressive steps would establish the foundations of a strong democratic platform that could be developed up to and after the 2015 elections.

Responsible support and development

The development much championed in Ethiopia, where the partisan distribution of aid, including emergency food relief, is an open secret, is at variance with equality, justice, human rights and freedom of expression. As Al Jazeera put it, “Zenawi has been praised for bringing development and economic growth to one of Africa's poorest nations but his critics say that came at the cost of respect for democracy and human rights”.

To put Ethiopia’s much trumpeted economic growth in perspective, let us note that the average per capita income in the country equates to just 3 US dollars a day, food staples have quadrupled in price in the last four years – largely as a consequence of the extensive land sales – and, according to Bloomberg Business, Ethiopia’s “annual inflation rate climbed to 34.7 per cent in May as food prices surged“. In addition, the gap is increasing between the majority who are poor and the small number of wealthy Ethiopians, who are primarily members of the ruling party. As IPS reports “development has yet to reach the vast majority of the country’s population. Instead, much of this wealth – and political power – has been retained by the ruling party and, particularly, by the tiny Tigrayan minority community to which Meles belonged.” These party members have followed the trend of other dictatorships and invested their accrued wealth overseas.

“International donors have a duty to the Ethiopian people to play a major part in the transition towards democracy and must insist in the observation of human rights, trampled on under Meles’s rule.”

Development and democracy are closely related – not some Western idea of democracy, but a living social movement of participation and inclusion, evolving out of the actions and creativity of the people themselves.

Ethiopia is the recipient of over three billion dollars a year in development aid, second only to Indonesia. The USA, Britain and the European Union, along with the World Bank, are the main donors. In exchange for what amounts to over a third of Ethiopia’s annual budget, the West has a strategically placed ally in the Horn of Africa which will act when asked to and function as a military outpost for the USA, which uses it as a base to launch drone attacks.

Those supporting development within Ethiopia share the opportunity and responsibility for change within the country. Mediation between the various ethnic groups and political parties, encouraging openness and facilitating discussion is an obvious role that could and indeed should be undertaken. International donors have a duty to the Ethiopian people to play a major part in the transition towards democracy and must insist in the observation of human rights, trampled on under Meles’s rule. As the ICG points out, Ethiopia’s principal allies, the US, UK and EU, should andeavour to play a significant role in preparing for and shaping the transition. Not only must development aid “lift people out of poverty”, it must release them from repression and fear and not be employed to strengthen such regressive conditions as it has been in Ethiopia.

Required action

In order to realize the opportunity before Ethiopia, certain basic steps showing a renewed adherence to international and federal law need to be taken immediately by the EPRDF:

  • All so-called political prisoners must be released;
  • The internationally condemned Anti Terrorist Proclamation repealed; and
  • Freedom of the media, assembly and dissent allowed.

These are fundamental requirements in moving Ethiopia forward and establishing an atmosphere of hope that will encourage political and civil participation and safeguard against the potential radicalization of opposition groups.

International donors need to recognize their collusion in a range of human rights abuses that have taken place under Meles and ensure these demands are acted on, linking development assistance to their swift implementation. As Human Rights Watch says, “Ethiopia’s international partners should call on the government to support fundamental rights and freedoms in the country and a prompt rollback of repressive laws. Ethiopia’s government should commit to respect for human rights and core rights reforms in the coming days and weeks.”

Denied good governance for many years, the people of Ethiopia have suffered much, too much and for too long. Let the current space afforded by the passing of Meles be filled with their united voices, articulating their grievances, expressing their hopes and concerns and, with the responsible support of international friends and partners, demand fundamental change, freedom and social justice.




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