The madness of Ethiopia’s 2010 “elections” (Part I)
By Alemayehu G. Mariam
October 19, 2009

City residents of Addis Ababa line up to cast ballots during the rigged 2005 elections
Residents of Addis at the 2005 polls voted overwhelmingly for the opposition but the results were reversed - and nearly 200 protesters killed - by the incumbent ruling party. Observers forecast a dismal future for the country, ruling out any fair and free elections.
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam
In part I, we explore whether, given the current circumstances in Ethiopia today, a free and fair election is possible in May 2010. In part II, we aim to explore the necessary preconditions for free and fair elections.

“Is it possible to have a fair and free election in a police state?” That is the inescapable question one must answer after reading former Ethiopian President Dr. Negasso Gidada’s recent reportage on his visit to Dembi Dollo in Qelem Wallaga Zone of Oromia Region1. In his recent widely read analysis, Dr. Negasso flatly declared that there is “no level playing field” in Dembi Dollo, and by implication anywhere else in Ethiopia, to have a free and fair election in 2010.

Dr. Negasso’s account of his visit to Dembi Dollo evokes the farcical theatricality of a low budget political horror film: The former president shows up for a visit in Dembi Dollo and is promptly shooed away and stonewalled by local functionaries. He is told he can’t hold mass public meetings or engage in other forms of discussion or dialogue with the public. In disbelief, he hastily arranges individual meetings with local businessmen, community elders, teachers, health workers, church leaders, qa’bale officials, private professionals, university students, NGO employees and members and supporters of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM). He is horrified to learn that the individuals who have met or spoken with him could be abused and victimized by local security operatives. He becomes aware of the a ubiquitous and omnipotent local security apparatus with its tentacles planted firmly into individual households.

To describe Dr. Negasso’s account on the “current situation” in Dembi Dollo as “downright chilling” would be a gross understatement. He depicts a local party organization nestled within an oppressive security apparatus consisting of layered and operationally interlocking committees (which could be best described as “commissariats”), mimicking Stalin’s NKVD (Peoples Commissariat for Internal Affairs) in the 1930s. Households, hamlets, villages, districts, towns and zones are hierarchically integrated into a commissariat for the single purpose of coordinating command and control over perceived “enemies of the people”. There is a network of informants, agents and secret police-type operatives who rely on heavy-handed methods to harass, intimidate, gather intelligence and penetrate opposition elements with the aim of neutralizing them.

The integrated overlay set up of the local security structure with the dominant OPDO/EPDRF party in Dembi Dollo is quite intriguing. According to Dr. Negasso’s reportage, there is no structural or functional separation of political party and public security in Dembi Dollo. The two are morphed into a single political structure which totally controls and dominates the local political and social scene. The special Woreda Town Administration is sub-divided into four large “Ganda” or villages with their own councils, each consisting of 300 members. Each qa’bale has representation in the Woreda Council, which is further sub-divided into zones and even smaller units called “Gare”. There are 30 to 40 households in a “Gare” group, which is overseen by a commissariat consisting of a chairperson, a secretary, a security chief and two other members. There are up to 17 “Gare” in each zone with branches in every village, schools and health institutions. There is also a larger network of 24 qa’bales under a Sayyo Rual Woreda. Public employees, farmers, local youth, women, members of micro-credit associations and others are involuntarily inducted into the security-party structure.

The security network is so sophisticated that it has Stalinesque quasi-directorates consisting of party and security organizations working together to maintain around the clock surveillance and generate and distribute real time intelligence on individual households through an established chain of command. It is clear from Dr. Negasso’s reportage that the local commissariats have expansive powers of investigation, arrest, interrogation and detention. They maintain a network of anonymous informants and agents who provide tips for the identification, investigation and arrest of local individuals suspected of disloyalty to the regime. They control and regulate the flow of information and visitors in and out of the town. Apparently, they have the power to deport anyone considered persona non grata from the town. In general, there is little question that the commissariats and the interlocking quasi-directorates engage in widespread human rights abuses against the local population.

One of the common methods of local control described by Dr. Negasso involves the use of highly intrusive security structures called “shane”, which in Oromo means “the five”. Five households are grouped together under a leader who is responsible for collecting information on the households every day and passing it on to the “Gare” officials. For instance, the “shane leader knows if the members of a household have participated in ‘development work’, if they have contributed to the several fund raising programs, if they have attended Qabale meetings, whether they have registered for election, if they have voted and for whom they have voted.” The “Gare” security chief passes information he has received from the security network to his superiors right up the chain of command.

Here are some excerpts from Dr. Negasso’s reportage:

The OPDO/EPRDF… seems determined not to allow any other political organization which could compete against it in the area. This goes as far as not welcoming individual visitors to the area. Visitors are secretly followed and placed under surveillance to determine where they have been, whom they have visited, and what they have said… Local people who had contact with visitors that are summoned and grilled by security officials. In my case, my brother-in-law, with whom I stayed, … received telephone calls from the Dembi Dollo and Naqamte security offices. He was asked why I came, whether I came for preparation for the coming election or for any other purpose.

[A USAID visiting group received the same treatment.] They were followed from the time it arrived in Naqamte. After the group returned, several security officials interrogated leaders of the Dembi Dollo Bethel-Mekane Yesus Church… One of the church leaders was even summoned to the zonal administrator’s office and asked detailed questions about the visitors from Addis.

[Individuals who came to greet] Dr. Belaynesh (member of the OFDM and an MP) were arrested, interrogated and held in custody for 24 to 48 hours. The houses of some of these individuals were also searched.

OPDO/EPRDF in Dembi Dollo, besides using the police and security offices and personnel, also collects information on each household.

Each household is required to report on guests and visitors, the reasons for their visits, their length of stay, what they said and did and activities they engaged in.

The “Election Code of Conduct” Game

The ruling dictatorship has been peddling the idea of an “election code of conduct” to entice the opposition to field candidates for the 2010 “election”. Foreign embassies have been enlisted to do cheerleading for such a “code”. Medrek, a forum for eight political parties, walked out of “election code” talks sensing a surefire trap down the road as the “election” date nears.

Lately, there has been talk of “boycotting” the “election”. The unjust imprisonment of Birtukan Midekssa and release of all political prisoners has become a central issue. Ato Gizachew Shiferaw, a member of the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party and vice-chairman of Medrek stated unambiguously: “Unless we take some sort of remedy toward these political prisoners, it will be difficult to look at the upcoming elections as free and fair.” Medrek is also demanding the establishment of an independent electoral board, an immediate stop to harassment of opposition candidates and supporters; it has also called for the presence of international election observers. Bereket Simon, the Machiavellian demiurge of the dictatorship, dogmatically pontificated: “We invited them to a dialogue in the presence of the British and German embassies. We invited them to join negotiations. They declined. The party who walks away from the negotiating table doesn’t have a moral right to accuse us of closing political space.”

Free and Fair Election: No Need to Re-Invent the Election Wheel

A free and fair election is possible only where the rule of law prevails and fundamental human rights are respected. There is no mystery to having free and fair elections. To be sure, in theory, there is no logical reason why there could not be free and fair elections in Ethiopia in May 2010 or at any other time. Its “constitution” which describes itself as the “supreme law of the land” guarantees voters and candidates (and citizens in general) full freedom of speech and expression; ensures freedom of press, which guarantees the right to publicly disseminate political messages and information in the run up to elections and post-election period; the right to vote and the secret ballot are secured; guarantees of an electoral level playing field accessible to all voters, parties and candidates with an independent, non-partisan electoral organization to administer the process are belabored in the constitution; freedom of association to form political parties and civic organizations are held inviolable; and freedom of assembly to hold political rallies and to campaign freely are upheld as hallowed rights.

Further, there are purported legislative and regulatory safeguards in place to ensure fair access to the public media by opposition candidates and parties, penalize the improper use of the police, the military, the judiciary and civil servants and elections officials. Use of public funds and equipment for partisan political purposes are strictly prohibited. The electoral process is guaranteed to ensure unencumbered voter registration, accessible polling places, dignified treatment of elections officials, open and transparent ballot counting and verification processes, oversight of elections by trained and politically independent election officials and prevent election fraud. Administrative and judicial challenges of election results are guaranteed by law.

Most importantly, it has been established beyond the shadow of doubt that Ethiopian voters are second to none in their understanding of the democratic electoral process. In 2005, an estimated at 90 percent of the 26 million registered voters in the country voted, according to the Carter Center. Ethiopian voters have gained solid experience in the electoral process. What is needed now is to replicate and improve the 2005 electoral process for 2010. There is no need to re-invent the election wheel.

The Fox Guarding the Hen House: Is an Election Code of Conduct Needed?

When the fox is guarding the election hen house, it is rather meaningless to talk about election housekeeping rules, which is what an “election code of conduct” is. Ultimately, the fox rules the henhouse with an iron fist; and though he may agree to “fair” rules of the electoral game, he knows that in the final analysis he holds all the cards and the opposition none. In other words, in a police state the “chief of police” knows that he is guaranteed victory in all of the zero sum games he plays because he owns the game. He also knows that his opposition is powerless to break his perpetual streak of “victory”. In all of the talk about elections, one question relentlessly gnaws the mind of the dictator: How to buy time and cling to power indefinitely while stringing along the opposition by trickery, false promises, double-dealing, double-crossing, shenanigans, razzle-dazzle using foreign embassies as intermediaries, duplicity and whatever gimmicks remain hidden in the dictatorship’s bottomless repository of political dirty tricks.

Towards an Election Code of Conduct?

The idea of an “election code of conduct”, at first blush, is appealing because it points in the direction of a peaceful and civil electoral process. Such “codes” have been used successfully in different countries. In principle, they are useful and facilitate an electoral process that is clean, and free from violence and vote rigging. But we must remain acutely aware of one fact: Those who clamor for an election code of conduct usually champion it to cloak and shroud the dirty political tricks they have concealed up their sleeves.

If such a code is to be had, it must be devised along the same lines as the criminal code. Just as the criminal code is designed with criminals and the criminal classes in mind, an election code should be designed with vote riggers, ballot stuffers, and election thieves in mind. As Dr. Negasso’s reportage plainly indicates, it is the ruling “EPDRF” party that has misused and abused official public resources, equipment, machinery or personnel for improper electioneering work. They are the ones who have improperly used public places to hold partisan political meetings and election rallies and prevented or made inaccessible such places on the same terms and conditions to opposition parties and candidates. It is the party in power that totally and completely dominates the print and electronic media, and misuses it to advance its partisan political agenda. It is the ruling party and its leaders that make illegal and corrupt offers and promises of financial payoffs, grants, fertilizers, roads, projects etc, in exchange for votes, not the opposition. It is the ruling party members who can travel everywhere, distribute pamphlets and posters, hold rallies and meetings at any location of their choice while opposition parties and candidates are at the mercy of the local police authorities who routinely deny them permission to engage in ordinary political activity. It is the ruling party that uses election propaganda that appeals to ethnic prejudices, inflames historical grievances and passions and heightens tension among different communities and groups, not the opposition.

Seeking to offer an answer to the question of whether a code of conduct can be drafted to bring sanity to elections in a police state -- or hold the fox guarding the hen house accountable -- may appear to be an exercise in futility given the dictatorship’s history of elaborate machinations and shenanigans, total lack of transparency and zero-sum blame games. So, the question needs to be emphatically re-phrased: Will the dictatorship agree to and in good faith abide by an election code of conduct that is based on the principle of respect for the rule of law and human rights, and conforms to its own constitution and election laws?


(In part II, we shall explore this question.)

The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at

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