Meles Zenawi's another risky "calculated risk"
By Ayal-Sew Dessye | June 1, 2010

Jailed opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa
Residents of Mojo town, 70 km south of Addis Ababa, line up at a polling station to cast votes on May 23, 2010. The electon was rigged by the ruling party of Meles Zenawi, which claimed a laughable 99.6% of the votes (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
Editor's note - Ayal-Sew Dessye, one of the authoritative voices on the political struggle in Ethiopia, writes about the risk Meles Zenawi took vis--vis the May 23 election that his ruling party rigged. Ayal-Sew sheds light on the implications of such 'risky' measures, as well as what lies ahead for the Ethiopian opposition. Indeed, an insightful reading.

In the wake of the political impasse following the 2005 general elections debacle, Meles Zenawi attributed his humiliating and crushing defeat at the polls to a "calculated risk" that he took. What he was referring to as a "calculated risk" was the opening of the political space that cracked open just a little that enabled the opposition to mount a more sharpened challenge to his rule and gave the Ethiopian people a chance to turnout en masse and vote for the opposition. Unlike 2010, although not as perfect a level playing field as it ought to have been to conduct free and fair elections by international standards, the political environment leading to the 2005 general elections was relatively better for the opposition parties and the electorate. Of course, that situation was not due to Meles' benevolence or his honest desire to see a truly multi-party and pluralist democratic order to flourish in the country. He was compelled to do that because of two important elements; the opposition was (although not solidly unified as one body as many of us wished) but much better organized in two blocks Hibret (UEDF) and Kinijit (CUD), and the international community was willing and in a better position to apply enough pressure on Meles to open the political space and allow free and fair elections.

Additionally, Mr. Meles Zenawi's "calculated risk" then was grounded in an erroneous belief that rural Ethiopia was solidly behind his regime (a twisted logic given his land policy that made Ethiopian peasants indentured laborers), his and his cadres' misreading of facts on the ground especially their underestimation of the disgust and revulsion of the Ethiopian people towards the regime's policies; policies that were (and remain to be) objectionable. That was, indisputably, the driving force behind the people's eagerness and readiness to defeat the regime at the polls. The regime also had other misjudgment that the people would not be united behind a unified opposition and the low expectation that opposition parties would perform as well as they did.

For Meles Zenawi, the reason for his humiliatingly defeat at the polls was that "calculated risk" that led to crack open the political space; nonetheless, a calculated risk that was based on those misjudgments. No question that "calculated risk' deeply humiliated and shook him to the core, leading him to react vengefully and to declare war on the people. Because of that vindictive reaction, innocent citizens were killed, thousands were arrested and exiled, civil liberties and freedoms were curtailed, draconian laws that made peaceful political dissent ever more difficult were stipulated and imposed, and a much more brutal dictatorial rule was put in place. Those anti-democratic and brutal measures did not come without a cost. EPRDF leaders lost whatever little credibility and trust they may have had with the Ethiopian people and gave at least discomfort to their erstwhile western supporters, to some extent muddying relations with them. Post election 2005, unlike the opposition block that lost its moral compass to strategically plan, solidify its ranks and give effective and decisive leadership to an eager and determined populace and one that lost valuable time splintering and fighting one another; EPRDF leaders were determined to never ever put themselves in a position of humiliating defeat again. They wasted no time making all-round preparations to that effect starting first with taking aim at overtaking the main engine of change, the youth, through an array of methods and mechanisms including coercion and intimidation.

By just looking at what EPRDF leaders were doing ever since that election debacle, be it in the form of legislation that imposed draconian laws to stifle political dissent or their aggressive campaigns forcing students, civil servants, peasants, etc. to join EPRDF if they wished to secure their jobs, businesses and prospects for advancement, etc., it was evident what direction they were determined to take the country to. They busied themselves using all resources at their disposal to create an environment of fear and despair. The intent was clear; EPRDF should stay in power no matter what, and did all they could to make sure that Ethiopians complied by hook or by crook. And their wish got an indirect help from the most unlikely corner, the opposition, by failing to coalesce and give credible and effective leadership.

For EPRDF leaders, being the government is an entitlement, not a privilege to serve the people. That was clearly proven in the 'Wereda and zonal' elections in 2008 where EPRDF was declared to have a sweeping "victory". Election 2010 is a mirror image of the one conducted in 2008. As most of us in the alternative democratic forces have been saying, the result of this election was predetermined and expected, but the extent of it was not, even to EPRDF's leaders themselves. I suspect that the reason has to do mainly with overzealous local cadres that took their leaders' marching orders not to let the opposition win anywhere literally and with extra vengeful rage; causing a little discomfort to the leaders, an overkill indeed! It is safe to assume that the announced results may have gone beyond the calculation and prevue of EPRDF leaders. This only signals what kind of more ruthless and shortsighted (more Catholic than the pope type) successors are being nurtured and groomed by the current leaders. That kind of new generation of EPRDF untamed cadres is what awaits the alternative democratic forces.

What are the ramifications?

First, by all measures, the last "calculated risk" by Meles and his regime resulted in taking the country to a one party domination, but this unannounced calculated risk has, for all practical purposes, put the country squarely and indisputably under one party dictatorship. This is the political reality in today's Ethiopia. Although the announced result may have gone beyond what EPRDF leaders calculated to be "needed" to have absolute majority in parliament, the overall direction and goal of imposing one party rule were predetermined and purposefully pursued in a deliberative and meticulous manner. With this election result, EPRDF leaders have kissed goodbye to a democratization process and multi-party system or any semblance of it. It simply is an affirmation of what has all along been said, especially after election 2005.

The second aspect of this new undeclared calculated risk by Meles and his regime shows their outright disrespect, low regard, disdain and contempt for and at the same time their inherent fear of the people of Ethiopia. Testament to their recklessness, this also reveals their low level of concern to international opinion and their utter disregard for and low esteem of the opposition. Meles and the rest of EPRDF leadership and their supporters should be ashamed of themselves for undermining, underestimating and insulting the intelligence of the Ethiopian people. What justification would their supporters now have?

No doubt about the arduousness of the task that this regime faces now. They have a balancing act to do; adjusting to the new reality and delivering at least some of their promises to the Ethiopian masses on one hand, and on the other addressing the concerns of many regarding human rights and political reform that are key to stability and big factor to continue getting foreign aid and assistance, without which much of their promises would be unattainable.

EPRDF leaders now seem to be taken aback a little as they are caught off guard by the extent of the announced results they were not quite ready for. I suspect that this may be what they might have planned to have for the next one, but not this time. They, therefore, have to adjust to the new reality their sheer greed and their zealous cadres brought upon them. Besides, now they control almost a hundred percent of everything, they have to fulfill the promises they made during the campaign to the Ethiopian people and satisfy their countless needs. A daunting task that they would, in all likelihood, have difficulty to fulfill. Of course, their new mantra will be development, development and development, and political reform of any significance will be shelved. They may think that to focus now on bread and butter (Kollo and Kita in our case) issues would buy them time to recalibrate their subsequent moves and mute any call for political reform. However, the regime will have a hard time to appease dissatisfied and growingly despondent populace that is now deeply hurt and feels insulted. This election could make the already edgy Ethiopian masses more desperate and may eventually be forced to take matters into their own hands. The situation may even aggravate further if relations with the donor community deteriorate and drastic punitive measures against the regime are taken by them.

Short to mid term, the regime's leaders could make some symbolic gestures, including giving one or two portfolios to selected individuals in the opposition (more aimed at further dividing the opposition), releasing or "pardoning" some prisoners including Birtukan (of course still arresting others including some prominent ones), project a nationalist sentiment without "offending" its core ethnocentric base and embarking on their much-vaunted development, with special emphasis on big development projects. No question that the regime will devise all kinds of gimmicks and make some earnest efforts to engage in limited developmental activities. But its capacity at that and especially its willingness is highly questionable. In light of that, this new calculated risk is an invitation for further alienation and disenchantment of the Ethiopian people. Therefore, the regime will have obvious difficulty to appease dissatisfied and growingly despondent populace, creating an environment of internal instability.

The third aspect is that, as this election result is a decision to institute one-party rule, it is nothing short of a death sentence on the prospect of democratization, the legal political process and is an affront on peaceful struggle. Because of this, opposition organizations would find it absolutely difficult, if not impossible, to conduct legal political activities and compel many to give up hope in any peaceful political process and some would be forced to engage in non-peaceful methods of struggle to get their points across; a prospect that could take the country in to chaos. Of course, there would be some groups among the opposition that are going to be quick to acknowledge the results without any question and applaud and congratulate EPRDF on its "victory". These are mainly those that have been serving the regime as "loyal opposition" and will now more than ever be needed by EPRDF to give it political cover.

The fourth aspect of this new calculated risk is the souring of relations with the donor community, the West. Donor countries and democratic nations will, as they already are, publicly disagree, sometimes strenuously, with the manner in which these elections were conducted and denounce the results as unacceptable and even condemn the regime for it. But, as I had discussed this issue in the write up series under 'Quo Vadis Ethiopia', those donor countries, for now, may have no choice but to hold their nose and continue to be cozy with EPRDF. Principle on human rights and the rest aside, when the dust settles, they will go back and cuddle the regime once again. No one should have any illusions about that. EPRDF leaders know that.

Surely, the West may have relatively less leverages now than five years ago. Suspension of military aid, a major pinch, will not be anticipated as that would create an unhealthy imbalance and jeopardize regional stability. There are very limited areas that could be considered for application without total disengagement and short of hurting the common people that could be helpful to encourage the democratization process to survive the onslaught by the prospect of a one party rule. There are areas of influence where the donor community could exert if the primary target is to help the democratization process and to address human rights issues. In my judgment, the West's concern about Ethio-Chinese relations, as important as they are, should not be the main driving force at this time. The most effective way to address concerns about adverse political developments is to first make sure that one party rule does not take root in Ethiopia.

There should be no doubt that this is the primary task of and can only be achieved by Ethiopians themselves. But they might need help to do that, and the donor community has a role to play. That role has two branches. First, by applying direct and indirect pressures on the regime by, for example, withholding certain non-humanitarian aid packages, diplomatic pressures including travel restrictions on certain officials, etc. Secondly by assisting primarily civil liberty and civic organizations, non-governmental humanitarian organizations (non-government controlled ones) and credible opposition political organizations inside the country, and extending diplomatic and political recognition and help to broad-based Ethiopian political organizations outside of the country, especially those with democratic and centrist agendas.

But one area that worries me personally is one possible aspect that the West; especially the US and Britain, would be taking to apply pressure on the regime. And it may not directly have to do with the democratization process necessarily or the regime's unacceptable behavior regarding human rights and what transpired in these elections. It would be rooted in the age-old East-West (China versus US) global politics and regional competition for energy resources. Particularly worrisome in this regard is the possibility of US (and Britain) giving aid and support, albeit covert, to secessionist and radical elements like ONLF for one main reason; that of sending a strong message of the West's displeasure with the regime's strengthening relations with China and using such elements as leverages to put pressure on it to change that. The reason I worry about such short-sighted approaches is that the result would be counterintuitive and highly counterproductive as it will further push the regime to be arrogantly defensive and kill any leverage from within to democratize - which is key to any prospect of democratic change from within. And it will be self defeating knowing too well its ramifications in regards to regional stability and the role radical forces like ONLF play in that.

For sure such measures could bleed the regime and the country profusely, but could not change the regime's attitude the way one may wish it would, or force it to reexamine its relations with China. In fact the reverse could be true; it could further strengthen the regime. If that approach were to be pursued, it could be used by the regime as a nationalist rallying point, would strengthen one party rule and further stifle any prospect of "legal" political activity, and would further destabilize Ethiopia and the region. If that venue were to be chosen, it would mean that the West has not learnt from its past mistakes of helping radical elements in the context of fighting a global ideological battle, just like aiding and abating the Osama bin Ladens of the Mujahedeen to fight former Soviet Union.

The fifth aspect regards the opposition. Now the role of the opposition and the manner and nature of its reaction matters greatly. Some in the oppositions, especially those that never were part of the process in the first place, would try to pat themselves on the back in self-adulation and proclaim "the correctness" of their "strategy", would even have the nerve to accuse those who took part in the elections for not "heeding" their advice. Some will attempt to make use of this election result for their fund-raising frenzy for armed struggle with no clear vision or strategy.

Those who try to criticize the opposition that took part in these elections, mainly to justify their own views, should recognize that EPRDF leaders would not have been exposed to the extent and in a manner they are now following these elections if those organizations were not determined and courageous enough to participate. If they (the opposition) are to be criticized, the criticism should be directed at their failure to stand together and run as a unified opposition. Even on that point no single organization outside the country, except those in UEDF, could have the moral authority to criticize those inside for failing to stand together, as these same organizations are on their own and not part of any unity. Others, including those that took part in the election, could withdraw altogether and few may wither away; whereas those that were appendages of the regime would continue to serve the regime, some among them may jostle to position themselves as the most loyal of the "loyal opposition". Still others may opt to calmly and deliberatively weigh their options as to how to conduct the struggle for democratic change and coalesce with others to form a formidable opposition.

Some Ethiopians may take the statements of some foreign governments condemning the election process and the unacceptable results way out of proportion and as a major political victory against the regime. As important as they are, these kinds of statements would mean nothing if the opposition is not in a position to aptly make use of them. Those governments have national interests to look after and give priority to. Therefore, the ball once again is in the opposition's court.

As egregious as the conduct of the elections and as unacceptable as the results are, this undeclared calculated risk by the Meles regime could be, I believe, an opportunity for the opposition. Election 2010 has disrobed this regime's leaders and shown their naked self to the whole world. They can no longer continue to pretend to be, as they say, "building democracy" or claim that the country is an "emerging democracy", etc. The results announced by the regime have clearly shown to what illegitimate and shameful extent EPRDF leaders could go to stay in power. Only under totalitarian regimes of the bygone era could there be such an outrageous and indefensible outcome in any election.

Nonetheless, I believe that there is no better environment and a better time than now for the opposition to reinvent itself and make a badly needed paradigm shift. But this is not a time to rush things through and engage in self-serving and short-sighted endeavors. It would be prudent to take enough time to reflect on the whole, self examine, reassess the situation, regroup and reorganize as a national (country-wide) force, chart a new course with comprehensive and clear strategy, and embark on a united and decisive struggle to do away with tyranny once and for all. Priority should be given to encourage and help those inside the country. They need to be assisted to stay afloat and function as much as they could.

EPRDF leaders may think they have won the battle, but in reality, they have lost the war. The fight is on. The battle for this particular election may have been lost, albeit deceitfully, but the war against tyranny continues and ultimately the Ethiopian people shall triumph. That is what we all need to bear in mind.

This belittling, disdain and disrespect of our people by EPRDF leaders should not stand. We need to stand together and say enough is enough to fight tyranny. We need to mean what we say. This can only be achieved through unity of purpose.

So help us God!
Long line Ethiopia and victory to its people!
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