Ethiopia’s Opportunity: A New Day Beckons

The death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, announced on August 22nd after his mysterious two-month disappearance, presents Ethiopia with a tremendous opportunity, one filled with hope for fundamental change wherein  human rights, justice,  and  freedom are encouraged, and fear assigned 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) lead a coalition of armed opposition groups in overturning the rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Control and Repression

The repeated accolades and platitudes expressed by heads of State upon his passing do not change the fact that PM Meles Zenawi presided over an undemocratic regime that repressed the people, tolerated no political dissent, and as Human Rights Watch state in 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 his leadership the EPRDF government trampled on the human rights of its people, centralized power, falsely imprisoned members of opposition parties and journalists, and responded with brutal force to demonstrations after the 2005 elections, when the security forces murdered over 200 people on the streets of Addis Ababa, killed hundreds of people in Gambella, persecuted the people of Oromia, together with human rights violations in Afar and the Ogaden.

The media, the sole telecommunications company, and the judiciary are party/state controlled, contrary to federal law enshrined in the constitution. PM Meles, whose record, the BBC rather generously describe as  “has, at best, been patchy and rather uninspiring” adding:

He orchestrated a discreet purge of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) 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”

Unity – The Way Forward

If responded to with intelligence and love, patience and tolerance, the political space created by Meles’ 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; a peaceful social revolution, long overdue, in which the perennial values of democracy are fostered, enabling the people to escape 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.

According to the US Department of State there are 77 ethnic and tribal groups in Ethiopia “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 together with Amhara and Tigreans, account for around 70% of the 85 million population. A further division exists along religious lines, with roughly 50% Orthodox Christian, living mainly in the highlands, and 50% Muslim, inhabiting the lowland regions. Historically these two groups and government have co-existed peacefully; however, as the International Crisis Group (ICG) wrote 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’.

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 Prime Minister 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, that contrary to the policy of ‘Ethnic Federalism’ designed by the TPLF, have been strengthened under Meles.  The highly centralized EPRDF has employed divide and rule tactics to weaken political opposition, fuel separation along ethnic lines, disempowering the community, engendering competition for land and natural resources as well as government funds. Fragmented ethnic groups competing for resources and bickering amongst themselves have little time or energy to protest 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 thousands of indigenous people, forcing subsistence farmers and pastoralists off the land, destroying large areas of forest and wildlife habitat that for a few dollars are turned over to international corporations who cultivate crops for their home market, without any form of consultation with local groups.

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

The Opposition and Diaspora

Under the Meles regime not only have the main Ethnic groups been divided and disempowered, but so too the diaspora opposition, which has been weak and ineffective. Activists and opposition members of the various bodies need to unite and work collectively to establish a national dialogue with the EPRDF government so that opposition groups inside and outside the country are allowed to participate and indeed be listened too. Such a move would set a new and inclusive tone and would engender hope that the ruling EPRDF recognizes the mood of the country.

The diaspora’s role is crucial towards democracy in Ethiopia. It is a consensus amongst the various factions and not a pre-occupation with the past that is needed.  Constructive creative contributions should be encouraged.  As the ICG expresses 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,  is vague and ambiguous regarding the process of transition and succession in the event of the Prime Minister’s death. Al Jazeera reports:

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.  Desagelen is reportedly unsure about accepting the mantle of PM.

A provisional cross-party government is needed, one with broad support t0 initiate reforms, repeal the unjust Anti Terrorist Proclamation and other repressive legislation, free the media, most importantly 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, does not correspond to a definition that those who believe in equality, justice, human rights, and freedom of expression would recognize. As  Al Jazeera points out:

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, the average annual income in Ethiopia equates to just $3 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 percent in May as food prices surged.  Inflation accelerated from 25.6 percent in the previous month, food prices jumped 41 percent in the year.“ 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.

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, an idea PM Meles did not appear to recognize.  The ICG report quotes Meles as stating he did not “believe in bedtime stories and contrived arguments linking economic growth with democracy.”

Ethiopia is the recipient of over $3 billion a year in development aid, second only to Indonesia. The USA, Britain and the EU, 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 who will act when asked to and function as a military outpost and a base for the launch of America’s drone attacks.

Those supporting development within Ethiopia share the opportunity and responsibility for change, and international donors have a duty to the Ethiopian people to play a major part in this transition. As the ICG points out, “Ethiopia’s core allies, the U.S., UK and European Union (EU), should accordingly seek 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.

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 political prisoners must be released;
  • The 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 PM Meles, and to ensure these demands are acted on, linking development assistance to their swift implementation. As Human Rights Watch (HRW) states:

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.

The people of Ethiopia have been denied good governance for many years. The passing of PM Meles provides an opportunity for them to unite, articulate their grievances, express their hopes and concerns, and with the support of  international friends and partners,  seek fundamental change, freedom and social justice.

Graham Peebles is an independent writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in India, Sri Lanka, Palestine and Ethiopia where he lived for two years working with street children, under 18 commercial sex workers, and conducting teacher training programmes. He lives and works in London. Read other articles by Graham, or visit Graham's website.