Ethiopia: current situation, possible solutions
May 19, 2006
They have learned capitalist-speak with which they woo donor nations, but their repressive regime thwarts democratic processes, abuses human rights, and purposefully intensifies ethnic distrust. Such distrust and hatred unleashes the human rights abuses that our speakers tonight (Obang Metho, Andargachew Tsege, and Peter Takirambudde) so graphically described (as they had done earlier this week before a Congressional sub-committee hearing), abuses inflicted by those representing what the Germans call "der innere Schweinhund," or the evil spirit within.
The title of the government, “FDRE,” with all its democratic deficits, reminds me of the New Yorker cartoon which asks, “Has there ever been a country that had the word ‘Democratic’ in its name that was?” Examples of the wisdom of the cartoon abound worldwide but especially in Ethiopia.
What a difference a few years can make. In 1991 with the fall of the Derg, the world had high expectations for Ethiopia. The new EPRDF regime made admirable promises: to hold democratic multiparty elections, to establish a pluralist society with a free press, to establish respect for human rights, and to promote the rule of law with equal status for all peoples. Promises were made, but promises were broken.
And in 1991, the U.S. State Department said that Ethiopia would have to implement democratic reforms if it wanted continued American support. Warnings were given, but warnings were ignored. What happened to all those expectations and promises in the past 16 years?
The U.S. State Department Depiction of the Ethiopian Regime
Because the U.S. Department of State played a prominent role in legitimating the current EPRDF leadership, the U.S. Government, until 2000, depicted the current regime in the most favorable light possible. For eight years after the EPRDF came to power in 1991, the annual U.S. State Department's Human Rights Report (country report) conveyed the impression that the Ethiopian Government was committed to improving human rights and the democratization process. But according to the New York-based Lawyers Committee on Human Rights, the State Department’s reports were biased and misleading and created very different impressions of the regime in question, depending on the strength of U.S. economic and strategic ties. The country reports for Ethiopia, with their selective reporting and carefully crafted phrases, were sharply criticized as being of dubious authenticity in describing the human rights situation.
For example, the Oromiya Support Group, headed by the respected British physician, Trevor Trueman, has recorded 3,604 extrajudicial killings and 903 disappearances in Ethiopia since 1992. The Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights listed over one hundred cases of disappearances in Ethiopia from 1992-1996. Nevertheless, the U.S. State Department's 1997 Human Rights Report asserted “there were unconfirmed reports of extrajudicial killings by Government security forces, however, the very high numbers claimed by human rights activists and ethnically based NGOs could not be substantiated.” The fact that the reports of killings and disappearances could not be substantiated did not mean that they did not happen, but more likely, that they had not been investigated by U.S. embassy staff. The 1997 Report also asserted “there were no confirmed reports, but numerous unsubstantiated reports, of alleged disappearances” in Ethiopia. Yet, the same report also conceded that security forces arrested and held people “incommunicado for several days or weeks.” Thus, the 1997 Report seemed to admit that disappearances did in fact occur.
The U.S. Department of State’s 1999 through 2005Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Ethiopia are far more candid accounts of human rights abuses than were their predecessors. These reports admit that “the Government's human rights record remained poor;” that “some local officials and members of the security forces committed human rights abuses;” that “security forces committed a number of extrajudicial killings;” that “security forces at times beat and mistreated detainees, and arbitrarily arrested and detained citizens;” that “prison conditions are poor, and prolonged pretrial detention remains a problem;” that “the Government infringes on citizen's privacy rights, and the law regarding search warrants is widely ignored;” that “the Government limits freedom of association;” and that “the Government restricted freedom of movement.”
Where and to whom human rights abuses were perpetrated are described in these reports, some with specificity. The record of the Ethiopian Government as equal opportunity oppressors of literally all ethnic groups, regions of the country, organizations, and professions is laid out in such detail that the contrast is startling for those who have read the earlier reports. Although there are still assertions with which many observers of the Ethiopian scene would disagree, the general tone of the chronicles is a vast improvement in veracity. The reports appear to burst the bonds of restraint that for so long had kept the Ethiopian summary mild and indulgent compared to many other country reports. The generally frank, forthright, and honest assessment of human rights abuses and deficits of democracy in Ethiopia—with all its faults--should alert the world to the harshness with which the EPRDF deals with those it suspects of opposing its policies.
The Bush Administration has announced a goal of spreading democracy throughout the world. But what is this “democracy” in President Bush’s goal? Is it simply the holding of elections? Never have I heard members of the Administration talk about democracy being a system of government in which political power is widely shared, where citizens have easy access to positions of decision-making. By no stretch of the imagination could the Bush administration believe that the FDRE approaches this definition of democracy.
Perhaps the President should be reminded of the old sayings that democracies feature certain political procedures but uncertain political results, while authoritarian regimes feature uncertain political procedures but certain political results. In a democracy, procedures for handling political conflict are regularized. There is consensus on the rules of the game, and the rules are codified into law. Democratic electoral processes permit opposing forces to depose and replace current office holders. Authoritarian electoral systems do not permit electoral defeat of those in power and serve as an instrument of mass mobilization and legitimation for the regime. By such definitions, what form of government exists in Ethiopia?
EPRDF Finagling of Elections
The thwarting of democratic electoral processes in 2005 by the EPRDF should be no surprise to observers of post-Derg Ethiopia. The same script has been followed by the ruling party in every election held since the flight of Mengistu Haile Mariam. The EPRDF’s bag of dirty tricks is repeatedly brought out at election time.
Take, for example, the sorry tale of the quashing of the United Democratic Nationals (UDN), a multi-ethnic, pan-Ethiopian political party organized in 1991. Meetings of the party were carefully monitored by EPRDF informants, and any statements that could be interpreted in any way as “anti-government” were reported. EPRDF cadre attempted to disrupt meetings and harass those attending. The mass media, especially radio, were used to vilify the UDN, which was called a “chauvinistic Amhara organization harboring former members of the Derg. The EPRDF attempted to co-opt the UDN by offering to make its meetings “a joint panel for discussion”—a “generous” offer the UDN prudently ignored. The EPRDF tried to prevent mass meetings or demonstrations. When a large contingent of UDN supporters marched to Meskel Square for a rally, gunfire was heard by the marchers and military vehicles were driven through the crowd at high speeds. Troops along the route taunted the demonstrators to the point that rocks were thrown at them (were the rock-throwers EPRDF “plants” in the procession?). At Meskel Square, shortly after the formal program began, the electricity mysteriously went out making loud speakers useless.
The next day, UDN leaders were arrested for being responsible for the rock throwing. They were charged with making “seditious statements” in their remarks at the demonstration. The Government ignored a habeas corpus order from a court, and the UDN leaders were released on bail only upon the urging of the Embassy of a donor nation. Once released, the UDN principals were under constant surveillance. Some fled the country when foreign embassy officials tipped them off about plots to assassinate them! The UDN never officially was banned but its offices were physically occupied by the EPRDF. Rank and file members of the UDN were tormented by the Woyane, and the fledgling party was not allowed to participate in the 1992 elections.
A potentially popular political party was rendered impotent by the repeated harassment and intimidation of its members by the Government and the EPRDF. Some UDN members were abducted by the Government and their whereabouts are unknown to this day. Others were jailed and tortured. The full force of Government power was used against those who legally opposed its policies. Human rights and due process simply could not exist for non-Government approved opposition. Where Government sanctions could not be invoked, the EPRDF could act either subtly or blatantly against “enemies” without fear of having to answer for violating the law or denying others human rights. The same script of oppression was used by the EPRDF in the 1992, 2000, 2001, and 2005 elections. The human rights abuses in the 2000 and 2001 elections were well documented in the book Ethiopia Since the Derg.
I served as an international election observer in the 1992 District and Regional Elections and saw first-hand the dominant role played by the National Election Commission (NEC), supposedly a non-partisan entity but in reality an EPRDF appendage. The NEC carefully kept other parties or the general public uninformed about electoral processes until shortly before deadline expired thwarting meaningful participation my many. These and other election shortcomings were pointed out by American and European elections observers—who were pointedly never invited back in subsequent elections. Cleverly, Meles Zenawi acknowledged that the process was flawed but nevertheless was “an important step toward democracy,” an apologia used to mute criticism after every election. And after every election, the Government assures all of its willingness to redress any irregularities, even repeating elections in some areas if need be. But after the returns are in, who is it that chooses which elections will be “redressed?” Not the opposition parties! In 1992, I observed the Government create an Election Review Board, supposedly an impartial body of 21 members representing NGOs and civic groups. But you can be sure that an overwhelming majority of the Board members were EPRDF loyalists!
The Need for Opposition in a Democracy
What the EPRDF did not want was opposition as understood in parliamentary democracies. Public disagreement is an essential instrument of popular government. Democracy, to a great extent, is government by public discussion, not simply the enforcement of the will of the majority. Not any "will," but only a will formed in vigorous and wide-open debate should be given sovereign authority.By confusing opposition with rebellion, the FDRE prevents key players from participating in deliberations. Without being threatened or deprived of their livelihood by the FDRE, Ethiopians were unable to articulate and publicly defend nonconformist political views. Consent was meaningless without institutional guarantees of unpunished dissent. The popular sovereignty claimed by the EPRDF was pointless without rules organizing and protecting public debate. The rhetorical commitment of the FDRE to protection of rights of expression, assembly, and association vital to political opposition were shams in practice. The legally protected right of opposition provides an essential precondition for the formation of a democratic public opinion - something that has not been allowed to develop in Ethiopia. A political system that limits government can prevent rulers from insulating their decisions from future criticism and revision. Rules forbidding punishment of dissenters might compensate for a lack of better motives by EPRDF leaders.
The EPRDF has no difficulty with one fundamental norm of democratic government: after a decision is made, the outvoted minority must submit to the will of the majority. But the rules of the game of democracy allow losers to mount aggressive campaigns of public sarcasm and to focus public opinion irritatingly on the unforeseen consequences of the decision reached--a situation the EPRDF will not tolerate. In the long run, such momentarily annoying arrangements make for better decisions. In other words, rights are not designed merely for the protection of the minority but also for the correction and instruction of the majority. Thus, the restraints of constitutionalism tend to make government more intelligent--a condition badly needed in Ethiopia.
Lessons from history tell of the ultimate futility of such attempts to compel adherence as are being used against Professor Mesfin and Mayor-elect Berhanu and the other prisoners of conscience. From the Roman drive to stamp out Christianity as a challenge to its pagan unity down to the terror of the Derg as a means to Ethiopian unity, dictatorial rulers have failed in their efforts to prescribe what will be orthodox in politics, nationalism, or other matters of opinion. The TPLF should heed the warning of the American jurist Robert Jackson: "Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard."
Dirty Tricks Observed in Political Asylum Cases
I am especially aware of the tactics used by the EPRDF against members of opposition political parties because of my experience as an expert witness in over 100 political asylum cases of Ethiopians from all major ethnic groups and from all walks of life, most of whom are under the radar of international observers. The tactic frequently used against members of opposing political activities is that of incremental persecution. Government operatives harass known or suspected political opponents by illegally breaking in and searching their homes in the middle of the night, arresting them without warrant, detaining them for short periods of time during which they are questioned, beaten, or tortured, and releasing them only after they have signed a pledge to no more take part in political activities and requiring them to sign in daily or frequently at their kebele office. Far too often, these incidents are increased in frequency and/or intensity over time until finally the suspect is arrested and detained for a long period--or even disappears. In addition, the suspect’s family and their dwelling may be put under surveillance by Government forces.
The Government engages in incremental persecution because: first, there is not enough space in prisons to hold all members and alleged sympathizers of opposition groups; and secondly, in order to gain support from donor nations and the international community, the Ethiopian government tries to keep its persecution of political opponents and other people as secretive as possible.
Therefore, being perceived as a sympathizer of an opposition group renders an individual vulnerable to incremental persecution, up to and including torture, long periods of detention, and even disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Also, being a family member of such persons can certainly subject an individual to persecution.
Being an actual or a suspected member of an opposition political group will place an individual in danger of persecution at the hands of the Ethiopian Government. Far too many Ethiopians have learned that open, peaceful opposition to the Ethiopian government is a risky undertaking. Members of legal political parties and organizations, time and again have found themselves threatened and beaten or incarcerated for taking part in politics and expressing their beliefs. Many opposition politicians have fled abroad, and others have been in prison for much of the time that the current government has held power.
It should be noted too that the EPRDF Party in Association has sought to transform the socioeconomic substructure of Ethiopia into a web of ideologically alliances subservient to the party. The EPRDF control of the Ethiopian Teachers Association and CETU are examples of this.
Without the safeguard of a free and uncensored press, the fawning government-controlled media informed the public of only what the EPRDF thought appropriate. Government policies and activities were routinely praised rather than being questioned by the mass media. The EPRDF/FDRE effectively cut off the "breathing space" for criticisms of public officials or government institutions or policies and stifled any "commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open" and "may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." Instead, party line propaganda passed for "news." The watch dog press had been neutered into a lap dog media yapping only on command.
Violations of citizens’ due process of the law have been well documented by EHRCO. So many of these persecution have been made on the basis of ethnicity, the most gratuitously evil of totalitarian malignancies--ethnic hatreds fanned by the regime.
The EPRDF Strategy Document
All of these violations of human rights and deficits of democracy are a part of the strategy of the EPRDF. Although the EPRDF’s strategy document was published in English in the Ethiopian Register in 1996 and summarized in my book in 1999, I have never heard a U.S. State Department official nor a member of Congress refer to this document.
The EPRDF’s Political Strategies ensure permanent hegemony for the party. At the hear of the document is the statement: “Only by winning the elections successively and holding power without letup can we securely establish the hegemony of Revolutionary Democracy.”
Economic strategies provide for government-backed profits for party and party faithful. Property belongs only to the state, and let me add parenthetically that I belive that the lack of private property is the root cause of Ethiopia’s never living up to its potential as bread basket for Africa—something that some of the world’s best scientists have been predicting for over fifty years.
The Hidden Agendas of the Strategy Document
Behind the facile Marxist-Leninist ideas of the document are the concerns of ideologues under stress. In a world where communism and Marxist-Leninist regimes, with a few exceptions, have faded away, how can EPRDF theorists be true to their Marxist principles and at the same time appease donor nations? In the face of "people power" that said "No!" to authoritarian regimes in so many Marxist states during the past twenty years, how can a small elite of former guerrilla fighters follow the old communist pattern and boldly proclaim that they know what is best for Ethiopia and its people?
To answer these questions, the strategy document provides techniques for avoiding conflict with "the imperialists" while creating a facade of democracy, the protection of human rights, and free market capitalism. New "masters of deceit" give instructions in how to beguile donor nations and international bodies with what the party appears to do even as the Front follows a very different agenda in its actions.
At the top of the agenda is the party's goal of permanently establishing hegemony. Lacking confidence that the people would accept its self-proclaimed legitimacy, the EPRDF feared "losing the elections even once." Thus, the Front will do whatever it takes to win all elections and to destroy effective political opposition. Backed by an army that is "free and neutral in appearance" but really the EPRDF military, the Front will not hesitate to cite "any relevant legal article" to punish its detractors.
Following Lenin's advice, the EPRDF seeks to "control the commanding heights of the economy." To scale the heights, the Front will get a boost from its two-track public and private powers. Government fiscal policy will reduce taxes on EPRDF-backed forces while "piling up" taxes on others. Front workers will receive "pay and training far better" than others. Trade unions will be infiltrated by party loyalists. Economic "revolutionary democratic" forces, euphemistically companies affiliated with the Front, will "invest as one individual in those economic sectors which have no direct state influence." This use of "party capitalists" is a clever ploy that allows the EPRDF indirectly to play an economic role that the Front knows the West would not let it play directly.
As described in the strategy document, the use to the fullest extent possible of "key propaganda tools," including schools, religious organizations, and mass media is a shrewd scheme to present the Front in the best possible light. The document also cunningly recommends propaganda that "is not openly presented as propaganda" as effective in the party's use.
The strategy document gives instructions in the latest version of the Lenin two-step, a dance for the Front artiste featuring far more than two steps backward to avoid bumping into the forces of imperialism while doing one step forward to demonstrate ideological adroitness for the comrades. The EPRDF has well learned the choreography and, as we have seen, has skirted around Western nations and international bodies on the main dance floor. Meanwhile, the Front continues to affront fellow citizens who refuse to cheer its performance with a crude stomp dance.
Ending the Conspiracy of Silence and Bringing about Change
If there were a scripture for a sermon on present day Ethiopia, it should come from the book of Isaiah: “Open the bonds of wickedness, dissolve the groups that pervert justice, let the oppressed go free, and annul all evil decrees...Then your light will burst forth like the dawn.”
The story of Ethiopia under EPRDF rule remains generally unreported or overlooked by most of the world, unlike the stories of Tibet, Burma, and South Africa, where Nobel Peace Prize winners have vividly dramatized the plight of their people. Instead, Ethiopia suffered from a conspiracy of silence. Representatives of donor nations, playing to their own strategic interests, are among the conspirators, as are some journalists and academicians.
Ethiopians of the diaspora are vociferous critics of the regime, but their jeremiads are ignored or downplayed as part of the conspiracy. All too often, as they rage against the dying of the light that was Ethiopia, they are talking to sympathizers, and the difficulty of making themselves heard is intensified by many Westerners' indifference to or ignorance of events in Africa. Within Ethiopia, those who have maintained their powers of integrity and their capacities of independent judgment, well know that they can speak out against the government only with caution. As South African playwright, Athol Fugard says, "It's always like that when there is a very powerful, repressive government in place. People are frightened to talk, frightened to see what is happening around them." Under such circumstances, it has been arduous to make known the story of the EPRDF's tyranny.
Cracks in the conspiracy of silence appeared when the tragedy of unintended consequences overtook the EPRDF leaders. President Clinton's visit to East Africa in the late 1990s threw a spotlight on the murky underpinnings of the "new generation of African leaders." A few American journalists from the mainstream press joined British colleagues from the BBC and the Economist in giving a fair critique of the state of democracy and human rights in the FDRE. The later border squabble between Ethiopia and Eritrea drew further journalistic probes into the records and motivations of the ruling parties of the two nations. Belatedly, the coverage of U.S. media went beyond official pronouncements of the Ethiopian government or the craftily worded apologia of U.S. diplomats.
Exposed was the blatant record of the EPRDF's tyrannical rule by fear. Opened for investigation was what one Ethiopian journalist has called the EPRDF/TPLF's "insidious, all-encompassing, relentless war" on Ethiopia. Ready for further analysis are the weapons--legal, educational, judicial, economic, political, diplomatic, ideological, and military--used by the Front to reduce Ethiopia into "a collection of weak and dependent ethnic homelands." And open to question is the need for U.S. and Western acquiescence in EPRDF repression--the compost of secret treacheries that are an integral part of diplomatic relations.
With the conspiracy of silence broken, freedom-loving Ethiopians can hope for a more empathetic response to their appeals for support. It should be made clear that there is an alternative to ethnic fundamentalism: that it is democracy with concomitant protection of human and civil rights; political pluralism and dialogue; freedom from harassment, imprisonment, and assassination for one's convictions; free elections; and an independent judiciary. Who, knowing the context of the argument could disagree with the right of the Ethiopian people to decide whether to opt for democracy or to continue with the problematic ethnic federalism and an authoritarian regime?
The lack of freedom of choice has plagued Ethiopians during the twentieth century. The monarchy, the Derg, and the EPRDF have all been self-anointed rulers, who, once in power, have never given the people an opportunity to change the government. It is for such an opportunity to be available to Ethiopians that the opposition political parties make their case. By letting the people decide for themselves what governing arrangements they want, there is hope for a well-ordered Ethiopian society. Then Ethiopia can get on with fulfilling its destiny as the jewel in the crown of Africa. Then there will be a better chance for the government to provide economic security for the people and alleviate the suffering caused by poverty and disease. Then at last the nation can put away its image as a famine-wracked land and become the bread basket of Africa that it is capable of being.
The people planning this democratic transformation will need wisdom, ability, and vision to create such a society. They also must be carefully prepared and imminently resourceful. Changing the nation's political culture will not be easy. The hard road ahead to democracy will traverse conflict, bargaining and compromise, reverses, new attempts at reform, and possibly violence.
But a critical mass of Ethiopians shares a sacred hunger for democracy. They tire of a leavening of malice in their daily bread. With opposition at home and abroad finally organized, pressures for democratic change will mount on the government. An increasingly threatened regime has become overly repressive in an attempt to survive. That will invite a return to civil war. The alternatives make a negotiated attempt at establishing a liberal democracy all the more attractive.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia, having completed its transition from one Marxist-Leninist regime to another, limps on, wearing the thick boot of authoritarianism at the end of one leg, and the iron of ethnic hatred on the other.
A Plan of Action
What can be done? What can Ethiopians do to oppose those who refuse to allow democracy in their native land?
This past Tuesday, 28 March2006, in testimony before a Congressional Subcommittee on “Ethiopia’s Troubled Internal Situation,” Lynn Fredricksson representing Amnesty International laid out a series of recommendations that I don’t think can be improved.
To paraphrase her eloquence: We call on the Government of Ethiopia to:
We call on the Government of the United States to:
Critics of a human rights foreign policy worry it will undermine U.S. relations with a strategic “frontline state’ bordering the Sudan. The choice between the promotion of human rights and democracy on the one hand and a concern for regional stability on the other is a false dichotomy. The United States can pursue both—while actually furthering its goal of really spreading democracy.
Let us make personal freedom the mandate of the 21st Century. Let us make this our mission: To use the full panoply of weapons in the democratic arsenal to bring pressure to bear on democratic donor nations to live up to their aspirations and to withhold all but humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia until human rights abuses and glaring deficits of democracy have been meaningfully addressed by the FDRE.
And let this be our duty: To continue to bring pressure on the FDRE to live up to its name. To continue a campaign of shame: to bring the full light of publicity to the wrong doings of the perpetrators of evil in your heaven-blessed homeland.
Carrying out our mission and our duty will not be easy. Few things of value are. But in the strongly religious nation that is Ethiopia, let the people move forward in discharge of their mission and their duty, fearing God and nothing else.
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