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Ethiopia: Democracy Deferred
May 25, 2010 (100525)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
"Behind an orderly facade, the government pressured, intimidated
and threatened Ethiopian voters, ...Whatever the results, the most
salient feature of this election was the months of repression
preceding it." - Rona Peligal, acting Africa director at Human
There is little surprise in Ethiopian election results now beginning to
come out, with the ruling party being returned with overwhelming
majorities in all parts of the country. Nor has there been any
large-scale violence reported, although some observers warned that
new crackdowns on opposition might follow the election, But both
Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian critics warn that the most important
issues are structural, and that the appearance of democracy is
belied by an authoritarian system.
While privately critical of the Ethiopian government, international
donors have continued to favor it as a recipient of aid funds,
ignoring reports that government political favoritism is one of the
key mechanisms of control (see Helen Epstein in the May 13 issue of
the New York Review of Books, cited below). Foreign aid receipts,
at more than $3 billion in 2008, amount to more than those received
by any other sub-Saharan African nation.
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from an article by
Ethiopian diaspora scholar and democracy activist Alemayeho G.
Mariam, highlighting the view of imprisoned opposition leader
Birtukan Midekssa, and a recent press release by Human Rights Watch
on the current elections.,
For additional articles on Ethiopia by Alemayehu Mariam, see
Other useful background sources include
(1) Report of mid-April Conference on Good Governance, Peace,
Security, And Sustainable Development in Ethiopia and the Horn of
Africa, hosted by Advocacy for Ethiopia, Africa Action, and
TransAfrica Forum, at http://advocacyforethiopia.org/?page_id=1740
(2) Jan Abbink, Political Culture in Ethiopia: A Balance sheet of
post-1991 ethnically-based federalism
(3) International Crisis Group, "Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism and
its Discontents" September 2009.
(4) Helen Epstein, "Cruel Ethiopia"
(5) Human Rights Watch report "One Hundred Ways of Putting
Pressure": Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in
Ethiopia, March 24, 2010
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Ethiopia, visit
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++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++
'Ethiopia is the country of the future'
An interview with Birtukan Midekssa
Pambazuka News, 2010-05-20, Issue 482
[Excerpts only. For full interview see
Additional testimony and statements by Midekssa are available at
This article was originally published by The Huffington Post. Alemayhu Mariam is professor of political science at California
State University (CSU) San Bernardino.
Though currently incarcerated in Akaki federal prison, Birtukan
Midekssa remains a key figure in the suppressed pursuit for
democracy in Ethiopia, writes Alemayhu Mariam. Mariam presents
Midekssa's concerns and hopes for the future in this interview, ...
Except for elements inserted in the nature of narrative licence,
syntax and independently established facts, this interview is based
on English or Amharic translations of public statements, hearing
testimony, speeches and other declarations of Birtukan Midekssa,
the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history and
that country's most famous political prisoner. Her re-imprisonment
in December 2008 on allegations of denying a pardon was a tactical
move by dictator Meles Zenawi to incapacitate and eliminate his
only serious and formidable challenger in the May 2010 elections.
In March 2010, the US State Department declared Birtukan a
political prisoner. In January 2010, the United Nations Human
Rights Council listed her as a victim of arbitrary detention.
Amnesty International named Birtukan a prisoner of conscience in
2009. This interview is done partly for the benefit of Western
governments and their diplomatic representatives in Ethiopia in
light of the May 2010 elections. It seems that Western governments
in general have taken a solemn vow to say nothing, see nothing and
hear nothing about Birtukan. As they hide behind a diplomatic
shield of shame and give lip service to democratic ideals while
coddling a dictator, I hope with this interview they will at least
begin to appreciate this extraordinarily brilliant, thoughtful,
enlightened, perceptive, humorous, cultured, humble and
compassionate Ethiopian woman political leader.
Alemayhu Mariam: The reason you were returned to prison to serve
out a life term is that you allegedly denied receiving a pardon
when you were released in July 2007. Did you deny receiving a
Birtukan Midekssa: I have never denied signing the pardon document
as an individual prisoner. I, along with the other opposition
political prisoners, asked for pardon through the elders according
to the document that was written on June 18 2007. This is a fact I
cannot change even if I wanted to. In my opinion the reason why all
these illegal intimidations and warnings were aimed at me have
nothing to do with playing with words, inaccurate statements I made
or any violations of law. The message is clear and this message is
not only for me but for all who are active in the peaceful
struggle. A peaceful and law-abiding political struggle can be
conducted only within the limits the ruling party has set and not
according to what the country's constitution allows. And for me it
is extremely difficult to accept this.
Alemayhu Mariam: As you know, elections are scheduled for May 23
2010. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Birtukan Midekssa: It is hard for me to say much locked up at the
"Akaki Hilton". I get no newspapers, magazines or books. I have no
radio or television. But I can tell you how it was in 2005 and you
can judge for yourself what the situation is like today.
In 2005, public interest and participation in the electoral process
was massive. The European Union observer team estimated voter
registration at no less than 85 per cent of all eligible voters,
based on lists containing 25,605,851 names of registered persons.
The total number of candidates for the House of Peoples'
Representatives was 1,847. A total of 3,762 candidates ran for
regional councils. The total number of women candidates to the
House of Peoples' Representatives was 253, and 700 in the regional
councils. To its credit the government in 2005 allowed limited
media access, established the Joint Political Party Forum at
national and constituency levels, conducted regular consultations
with electoral authorities to resolve problems in campaign and
election administration, facilitated special elections-related
training programs for the police and the judiciary, encouraged
pledges of nonviolence between the ruling and opposition parties
for election day and invited international election observers and
so on. As election day approached, the government started to use
its power to influence the outcome of the election. There was
widespread interference by local authorities in the conduct of
public gatherings and opposition party rallies, and threats and
intimidations by some local public officials. In some instances,
force was used to disrupt public gatherings and detain opposition
supporters throughout the country. In the days preceding the
elections, there was a spike in negative campaigns on radio and
television using images and messages designed to intimidate by
associating the genocide in Rwanda with opposition politics. Even
though the election board was required to announce the official
results on 8 June, that requirement was superseded when Prime
Minister Meles Zenawi declared a state of emergency, outlawed any
public gathering, assumed direct command of the security forces and
replaced the capital city police with federal police and special
military units. The elections board simultaneously ordered the
vote-tallying process to stop, and on 27 May the board released its
determination that the ruling party, the Ethiopian People's
Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), had won 209 seats, and
affiliated parties 12 more. The report indicated opposition parties
had won 142 seats. Our party filed complaints in 139
constituencies, the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF)
lodged 89 complaints, while the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary
Democratic Front (EPRDF) raised concerns over irregularities in
more than 50 seats.
That's how it was back in 2005.
Alemayhu Mariam: The ruling regime continues to make public
accusations that the opposition in the current 'election' is
inciting violence as it did in 2005. ... How do you assess the
Birtukan Midekssa: As the 2005 elections have shown, if there is
any violence to occur in the current election it is not going to
come from the opposition. The Inquiry Commission established by the
government in 2005 to look into the killings and excessive use of
force against demonstrators decided that there was not a single
protester who was armed with a gun or a hand grenade as alleged by
the government. The shots fired by government forces were not
intended to disperse the crowd of protesters but to kill them by
targeting their heads and chests. The historical facts speak for
themselves. If there is election-related violence today, one need
look no further than the usual suspects.
Alemayhu Mariam: The ruling regime likes to trumpet to the world
that Ethiopia is governed democratically, human rights are fully
protected and the rule of law observed. Do you agree with these
Birtukan Midekssa: Dictatorship and democracy are not the same
thing. There is no democracy in Ethiopia today, despite empty
claims of 'recent bold democratic initiatives taken by our
government, the immense progress in creating a competitive,
pluralistic system of government and a more open civil society'.
The fact of the matter is that there is neither pluralism nor
commitment to democratic principles and practices in Ethiopia. The
government's claim of political pluralism has not gone beyond the
stage of political sloganeering. ...If pluralism means increased
and diverse participation in the political decision-making process
and giving everyone a stake in the political process, it does not
exist in Ethiopia. ...
We are all aware that democracy in Ethiopia will not be
accomplished overnight. But we must start the process now in
earnest by installing its critical pillars of support.
Alemayhu Mariam: What are the pillars you believe are important in
establishing democracy in Ethiopia?
Birtukan Midekssa: There are many. Let me start by mentioning the
need for an independent judiciary. I know a thing or two about that
having served as a judge and also being a victim of a judicial
system that has me imprisoned for life. In 2005, I and the various
opposition leaders were prosecuted for various state crimes
including genocide, treason, incitement to violence, leading armed
rebellion and other charges. Our prosecution occurred in a court
system that has little institutional independence, and one subject
to political influence and manipulation from the ruling regime. It
is a judiciary that is used as a tool of political harassment,
intimidation and persecution. Judges are selected not for
professionalism or legal knowledge but for their loyalty to the
Judicial independence is guaranteed by article 78 of the Ethiopian
constitution, but it does not exist in reality. Although judges are
supposed to be free of party politics, many are under the direct
control of the party in power ...
Alemayhu Mariam: What other pillars of democracy do you believe
are missing in Ethiopia?
Birtukan Midekssa: Press freedom is another essential requirement
necessary for building democracy in Ethiopia. Without a free press,
there can be no meaningful democracy. People in Ethiopia,
particularly in the rural areas, do not have access to important
political information because of exclusive government control of
the media. Political parties need to have equal access to media
controlled by the government so that they can effectively
communicate with the people. Various international human rights
organisations have ranked Ethiopia at the top of the list of
countries where there is little freedom of press.
Alemayhu Mariam: How do you assess the human rights situation in
Birtukan Midekssa: Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms
to which all humans are entitled. Many of these rights are secured
under international law and the Ethiopian constitution. The ruling
regime has sought to put up a fa‡ade of commitment to human and
democratic rights. But its practices contravene all of its
obligations under the Ethiopian constitution and the human rights
conventions that bind Ethiopia.
The fact is that the ruling regime observes neither its own
constitution nor the requirements of well-established international
human rights conventions. The regime's own Inquiry Commission in
2005 has documented widespread excessive use of force by government
security forces. ...
Alemayhu Mariam: Do you think Western governments, particularly
the US, can play a role in improving the overall situation in
Birtukan Midekssa: As the largest donor country, the US is in the
best position to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of
law in Ethiopia. In general, Western governments must insist on the
release of all political prisoners and the immediate restoration of
democratic rights. They must insist on accountability and
transparency since they provide substantial aid to keep the
government afloat. They must promote human rights by supporting
civic society organisations and implementing other mechanisms that
can facilitate adequate monitoring and reporting of human rights
violations. The West must insist on the functioning of a free press
without censorship and restrictive press laws, and help strengthen
private media in Ethiopia.... we want to make sure that US security
assistance to Ethiopia be used for peacekeeping and
counter-terrorism operations, and never against the civilian
Alemayhu Mariam: What are your views on the future of Ethiopia?
Birtukan Midekssa: I believe Ethiopia is the country of the future.
Ethiopia has many problems, including a legacy of repression,
ethnic division, corruption, mismanagement, lack of accountability
and transparency. It will not be easy for us to confront the past
and move on with lessons learned. The most important task now is to
build the future country of Ethiopia by fully embracing democracy,
human rights and the rule of law. Only through dialogue,
negotiation and compromise can justice, stability and peace be
guaranteed in Ethiopia.
Alemayhu Mariam: Thank you Birtukan for this interview. Stay
Ethiopia: Government Repression Undermines Poll
24 May 2010
Human Rights Watch (Washington, DC)
Nairobi -- Ethiopian government and ruling party officials
intimidated voters and unlawfully restricted the media ahead of the
May 23, 2010 parliamentary elections, Human Rights Watch said
In assessing the polls, international election observers should
address the repressive legal and administrative measures that the
Ethiopian ruling party used to restrict freedom of expression
during the election campaign, Human Rights Watch said.
"Behind an orderly facade, the government pressured, intimidated
and threatened Ethiopian voters," said Rona Peligal, acting Africa
director at Human Rights Watch. "Whatever the results, the most
salient feature of this election was the months of repression
In the weeks leading up to the polls, Human Rights Watch documented
new methods used by the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary
Democratic Front (EPRDF) to intimidate voters in the capital, Addis
Ababa, apparently because of government concerns of a low electoral
During April and May, officials and militia (known as tataqi in
Amharic) from the local administration went house to house telling
citizens to register to vote and to vote for the ruling party or
face reprisals from local party officials such as bureaucratic
harassment or even losing their homes or jobs.
The May poll was the first national parliamentary election in
Ethiopia since the government violently suppressed post-election
protests in 2005; almost 200 people, including several police
officers, died after the 2005 poll and tens of thousands of people
were arrested, including opposition leaders, journalists and civil
In a March 2010 report, "'One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure':
Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia,"
Human Rights Watch described the complex and multi-faceted way in
which the government has sought since 2005 to silence dissent,
restrict the media and independent civil society, and leverage
government resources such as civil service jobs, loans, food
assistance and educational opportunities to encourage citizens to
join the ruling party or leave the opposition.
The government's efforts to ensure the election outcome continued
right up to polling day in Addis Ababa, according to Human Rights
Watch's research in different areas of the capital, including in
Merkato, Piazza, Wollo Sefer, Meskel Flower, Aya Ulet, Kera,
Gotera, Hayat, Kotebe-CMC and Bole neighborhoods.
"Intimidation to register and to vote for the ruling party is
everywhere," a resident of Addis Ababa told Human Rights Watch. "If
the local administration is against you, they'll be after you
forever. They can come and round you up at will."
Residents of Addis Ababa described numerous forms of intimidation
in Addis Ababa in recent weeks.
Pressure to register to vote
Many people told Human Rights Watch that tataqi, local kebele (or
neighborhood) militia members came house-to-house asking to see
registration cards and checking if people were members of the
ruling EPRDF party.
A couple living in the Meskel Flower area said they were visited on
a weekly basis by members of the neighborhood militia who were
checking whether they were registered as EPRDF members. The wife
told Human Rights Watch: "One of them approached my husband. 'We
know who you are,' he told him. 'If you don't want to register, no
problem, but then don't come to the sub-kebele and ask for your ID
renewal, or for any other legal paper. We won't help you. It's up
to you, now." The following day the couple registered.
Pressure to join the ruling party when registering
Different sources across the capital confirmed to Human Rights
Watch that alongside registration, voters were requested to sign a
paper, under a heading "Supporter of EPRDF," that included ID
number, age, and address.
An Addis Ababa resident said, "There's a lot of pressure for you to
obey. They have your name, they ask you to sign. If you don't, it
means you're against them. And they can come back to you whenever
they want. At the end of the day, you just have to do what they
force you to do."
Pressure to vote for the ruling party
Pressure to vote for the EPRDF appeared to take a number of
different forms. Pressure was particularly acute among civil
servants, people living in government-owned housing, and those
living in poor neighborhoods.
An elderly resident living in state-owned housing said local
government officials visited her house a few weeks before the
elections asking to see her registration card. She said they wrote
down her house number and told her, "We are going to check. And
don't forget to vote for EPRDF. We provide you the house, we can
have it back." She said that she was frightened by the threat and
registered even though she had not intended to vote.
Civil servants are particularly pressured to vote for EPRDF, saying
that ruling party officials remind them that it is the EPRDF
government that employs them. Patterns of intimidation of teachers
and others that were recently documented in Addis Ababa echo the
examples previously documented across the country by Human Rights
Watch in "'One Hundred Ways Putting Pressure'." For example, a
teacher in a public school in Addis Ababa said: "A few weeks ago my
headmaster called us all. He asked us to show him our registration
cards. He wanted to know whom we were going to vote for as well. I
refused. He harassed me and said, 'You better get your card, and
vote properly, otherwise after the elections you might lose your
Residents also described an EPRDF pyramid recruitment strategy
called One-for-Five. A coordinator (ternafi) had to identify five
recruits or fellow voters (teternafiwoch) among family members,
friends, colleagues or neighbors. Coordinators then tried to compel
their five signers to go to the polling stations and vote all
A woman in Aya Ulet area said, "A neighbor came to me. He said: 'I
know you voted for the opposition last time. Are you going to vote
for them again? Do I have to report it to the kebele?' I am a civil
servant; I know that party officials and local administrators are
the same thing. For fear of losing my job, the next morning I went
to his place and signed."
Pressure on the media and foreign diplomats
Simultaneous with the increased pressure on voters, in the weeks
before the polls the Ethiopian government of Prime Minister Meles
Zenawi acted to restrict electoral scrutiny by independent media
and foreign diplomats.
The government issued several codes of conduct covering media and
diplomatic activity. Initial drafts of the media regulation
restricted foreign and local journalists from even speaking to
anyone involved in the election process, including voters on
election day, in violation of the right to freedom of expression.
Several journalists in different countries told Human Rights Watch
that when they applied for media visas to cover the elections, they
were extensively questioned by Ethiopian embassy diplomats.
The government told Embassy staff they needed travel permits for
any movement outside of Addis Ababa between May 10 to June 20.
"The government has used a variety of methods to strong-arm voters
and try to hide the truth from journalists and diplomats," said
Peligal. "Donor governments need to show that they recognize that
these polls were multi-party theater staged by a single-party
Repressive context of the elections
Since 2005, Human Rights Watch has documented patterns of serious
human rights violations by the Ethiopian government. Members of the
security forces and government officials have been implicated in
numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity both within
Ethiopia and in neighboring Somalia. The pervasive intimidation of
voters and restrictions on movement and reporting are serious
concerns for the integrity of the electoral process, but represent
only one aspect of the Ethiopian ruling party's long-term effort to
The EPRDF's main instrument for stamping out potential dissent is
the local administrative (kebele) structure, which monitors
households and can restrict access to important government
programs, including seeds and fertilizer, micro-loans and business
permits, all depending on support for the local administration and
the ruling party.
Since 2008 the government has also passed new laws to clamp down on
independent civil society and the media. The Charities and
Societies Proclamation restricts Ethiopian nongovernmental
organizations from doing any human rights work, including in the
areas of women's and children's rights, if they receive more than
10 percent of their funding from foreign sources. Since the law's
adoption in 2009, the leading Ethiopian human rights groups have
closed most of their offices, scaled down their staff, and removed
human rights advocacy from their mandates. The new regulatory
agency established by the Charities and Societies Proclamation
froze the bank accounts of the largest independent human rights
group, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council. At least six of
Ethiopia's most prominent human rights activists fled the country
Another law, the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, has also been used to
threaten with prosecution human rights activists and journalists
for any acts deemed to be terrorism under the law's broad and vague
definition of the term. Several journalists also fled in 2009,
including the editors of a prominent independent Amharic newspaper,
and in February 2010 Prime Minister Meles acknowledged that the
government was jamming Voice of America radio broadcasts.
Human Rights Watch urged the international election observer teams
from the European Union and the African Union to take into account
in their public reporting the insidious apparatus of control and
the months of repression that frame the 2010 polls.
Ethiopia is heavily dependent on foreign assistance, which accounts
for approximately one-third of government spending. The country's
principal foreign donors - the United States, the United Kingdom,
and the European Union, which provide more than US$2 billion
annually in humanitarian and development aid, - were timid in their
criticisms of Ethiopia's deteriorating human rights situation ahead
of the election.
Human Rights Watch called on the principal donors and other
concerned governments to publicly condemn political repression in
Ethiopia and to review policy towards Ethiopia in light of its
deteriorating human rights record.
"Ethiopia is an authoritarian state in which the government's
commitment to democracy exists only on paper," said Peligal. "The
question is not who won these elections, but how can donors justify
business as usual with this increasingly repressive government?"
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