21 June 2008

Ethiopia: A Tangled Political Landscape Raises Questions About African Ally of the U.S.

analysis

Addis Ababa — When it was announced last month that the ruling party of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had swept local polls in this vast Horn of Africa nation, few expressed surprise.

Zenawi's Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition was declared by the country's national electoral board to have won 559 districts in the kebele and woreda divisions of local government and all but one of 39 parliament seats contested in the by-election. Out of a total of 26 million registered voters, the electoral board claimed that 24.5 million, or 93 percent, voted.

April's ballot was the first chance for the EPRDF to flex the muscles of its electoral machinery since general elections in May 2005. Though early returns that year suggested an electoral triumph for the country's two main opposition parties, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF), Prime Minister Zenawi declared a state of emergency before final results were announced.

In the unrest that followed, hundreds of people were arrested and at least 200 killed by Ethiopian security forces. Official results -- not released until September -- gave 59 percent of the total vote to the EPRDF.

Cries of fraud stained the reputation of one of Washington's closest African allies, to whom, according to U.S. defense department figures, the Bush administration sold $6 million worth of weapons to in 2006, more armaments than went to any other African country. The weapons are used in part to aid Ethiopia in its war against Islamic militants based in neighboring Somalia, which Ethiopia invaded in late 2006 and where it remains involved in active combat to this day.

Some observers contend that this year's ballot was even more compromised than the 2005 vote. With an estimated 3.6 million posts up for election, Ethiopia's opposition parties were only able to register some 16,000 candidates due to obstacles placed in their path by the country's electoral council. In response, the UEDF, now the largest opposition party in Ethiopia's parliament, and the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) -- a political party claiming to represent the interests of the Oromo ethnic group (Ethiopia's largest) -- both boycotted the final round of voting.

Though international observers were not permitted, an electoral law passed in June allowed domestic organizations to formally monitor the ballot. However, local observers such as the Ethiopian Human Rights Council never received responses from the electoral board to their requests to monitor the elections.

One official at a foreign diplomatic mission in the capital, who surveyed polling places on the days of the vote, told IPS that "what we saw in Addis Ababa did not correspond" to 93 percent participation total announced by the electoral council.

"These elections weren't even good enough to be rigged," asserts Bulcha Demeksa, a former United Nations and World Bank official who currently leads the OFDM and serves in Ethiopia's parliament. "A genuine dictatorship has been evolving."

The situation of the Oromo people -- who form the majority in Ethiopia's largest and most populous state, Oromia -- is but one of the thorny poltico-ethnic quandaries confronting Ethiopia's ruling party today.

Running the gamut from the democratic advocacy of the OFDM to the violent militarism of the Oromo Liberation Front guerilla group, the struggle of the Oromo -- the Oromo were conquered and consumed into the Amhara-Ethiopian empire emanating from the nation's north near the end of the nineteenth century -- has found echoes in other regional struggles in the country.

In the southeastern Ogaden region, which abuts volatile Somalia, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) has been fighting to make the region an independent state since 1984. In a report earlier this month, New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused the Ethiopian government of having "deliberately and repeatedly attacked civilian populations in an effort to root out the insurgency." The attacks were by way of reprisal following an ONLF attack on a Chinese-run oil installation in April 2007 that killed at least 70 Chinese and Ethiopian civilians.

Amidst such internal dissent, several areas of the country currently are on the brink of famine, with the Word Food Program currently estimating that, of Ethiopia's 80 million citizens, 3.4 million will need emergency food relief from July to September, a number that comes in addition to the 8 million currently receiving assistance.

Given such a volatile political landscape, some observers have looked upon the EPRDF's crushing victory in the polls in an extremely circumspect manner.

"The complete lack of any semblance of organized opposition in most of the country reflects how difficult it is in Ethiopia for dissenting voices to emerge with out facing a huge level of harassment," says Chris Albin-Lackey, senior researcher with the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.

Albin-Lackey says that he regards the April ballot as "a stark illustration of just how far Ethiopia's political space has been closed off since the limited opening that preceded that 2005 polls."

The EPRDF has governed Ethiopia since 1991, when in its initial incarnation as a rebel army, it succeeded in ousting the violent Marxist military junta known as the Derg that had ruled the country since 1974.

In a statement put out before the April ballot, the EPRDF wrote that the vote "underscores the fact that the people and government of Ethiopia are making relentless effort toward the development and democratization of the nation."

Another source of concern to observers is the Ethiopian government's "Charities and Societies Proclamation," a copy of which has been obtained by IPS.

The proposed law seeks to strip domestic civil society organization of access to foreign funding by defining a "foreign" organization operating in the country as any body that receive more than 10 percent of its funding from abroad or has any members who are foreign nationals.

Such "foreign" bodies are also thus barred from addressing such issues as human rights and governance in their work. Any foreign human rights organization seeking to conduct research in Ethiopia would have to obtain the written permission of the Ethiopian government. A Charities and Societies Agency composed entirely of government officials and appointees would be charged with overseeing domestic organizations, maintaining the power to curtail the activities of or disband such organizations at will should they be deemed to be "contrary to the public or national interest."

Heavy fines and prison terms are mandated for those who contravene the new law, which bears more than a passing similarity to a draconian law overseeing civil society organizations passed by the government of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe in 2004.

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