By Genet Mersha, 1 May 2010 — Exactly 23 days from today, Ethiopians would go to the polls, under the foreboding shadow of the failed and tragic May 2005 election that has left a huge political and emotional scar on Ethiopian society. Therefore, it goes without saying that this election comes with heavy baggage: preparations stained by violence and harassment, unresolved disputes from the past, profound distrust of the ruling party/government, and abounding fears. On the other side, there is lack of confidence in the divided opposition that since 2005 has made the electorate once bitten twice shy, as the saying has it. Although encouraging efforts have been made to strengthen their unity, especially within Medrek, the challenges facing UDJ are testing that hard built unity, much as unaltered habits and deft hands are at work undermine it.

Consequently, Ethiopians would need to assess how Ethiopia’s national interests could be served best and first, organisations second as mere tools for their realisation. This becomes an imperative necessity, given that outcome of the election could be noted for handing a poison chalice to the winner—irrespective of whoever wins. If the past is a good indicator, the governing party would have difficulty uniting the country and forging a national consensus. The eight rounds of the political debates between the parties have shown that the two sides have nothing in common. This is a big disadvantage for the ruling party and for the programmes it has. Opposition parties are as varied as the spots of a leopard. Even those that seemed to have attracted the diaspora are personalities rather than party programmes, the whys and hows of whose implementation have scarcely been discussed. After all, would a defeated TPLF (EPRDF) be governed by laws of power transfer, or would make the country ungovernable? Or, would a victorious EPRDF choose, having learnt from experience to make peace with all Ethiopians?

The credibility and integrity of the election under questioning

As it stands, with no interest in healing the profound division within the country, the ruling party/government has immensely contributed the integrity and credibility of the election to be in doubt this long. First, the unfair and illegal imprisonment for life of Judge Birtukan Mideksa, President of UDJ party, since December 2008 has been and will continue to be a grave mistake. Some from within confide that this harsh sentence is not because of government commitment to the rule of law, the drill to their cadres, but to remove any linkage with the true reason of her imprisonment—Judge Birtukan seen as the most formidable challenger to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

To the dismay of the regime, especially the prime minister who bristles these days at the mentioning of her name, the profile of the 36-year old opposition leader, whom many domestically and internationally see as the Aung San Suu Kyi of Ethiopia, has grown exponentially worldwide. Consequently, throughout the preparatory stages of the election, her unfair and illegal treatment stands as strong evidence against the integrity of the election and its anticipated outcome, even if she would be released a week or a year later.

Analysts predict that the ruling party would win. Certainly, there are a number of factors that make this most likely, the primary one of which is its determination to win by any means and stay in power. In its latest issue, Addis Fortune observes that Addis Ababa is gripped with fear ahead of the election. In there it writes, “There are now laws on every side putting restrictions on everyone. The revised criminal code, the media law, the charities and societies law, and the antiterrorism law, not to mention a couple of other restrictive bills the incumbent wants to push through the legislative process” (Addis Fortune, Fear of Unknown Grips Addis Abeba Ahead of National Polls”, April 25, 2010). Opposition groups, Ethiopian and foreign experts and the international media have written about the problems extensively, which would certainly continue to put legitimacy of the ruling party under questioning.

The governing party is aware of these and is trying to come out of it, by more grievous means

Demonising the opposition

Throughout the preparatory stages of the election, in anticipation of these problems the governing party has campaigned on a platform of exaggerating its successes and demonising opposition groups. In the course of these past few months, it has been accusing the opposition of conspiring to incite violence now and during the election, although at no time evidence has been made available to back up this claim. Therefore, during the eight rounds of political debates, representative of the ruling party portrayed the opposition as “foreign agents”, whose objective it said to discredit the election. It has accused them of rejecting achievements of the government, because of which it constantly referred to them in Amharic as ጨለምተኞች / literally meaning denigrators/destructive.

Foreign conspiracies

Lumped with opposition are the Ethiopian diaspora, insurgent groups (especially OLF and ONLF), Eritrea, international NGOs, and yet unnamed governments. This has been repeated ad infinitum by officials from the prime minister down to the ordinary cadre. Latest instance of this is found in an exclusive interview with Bloomberg of 27 April, where Tedros Hagos, TPLF’s Political Bureau chief in Tigrai, claims “some NGOs, oppositions and governments think that the government in Ethiopia can be changed through street violence. They want to provoke violence during the forthcoming elections. We know what their ultimate objective is, they want to instigate violence.” Once again, the ruling party has not named any specific NGOs, country or governments.

Exaggerated successes could undermine credibility or could become hindrance to sensible policy development

In the course of the eight political debates, we have seen on the part of the ruling party to assure the people that it is in charge and it has successfully implemented its programmes. Its representatives cited many statistical data to make their case, with no evidence in reality to support many of their claims. The fear of this writer is that, in such situations, government could begin to believe its own propaganda and empty lies and may lose sight of the needs of the nation. A few examples could be cited.

Food self-sufficiency

In Debate #5, the minister of agriculture dwelt at length on Ethiopia’s rural development policy and its successes. He claimed that agriculture has “succeeded in ensuring the food security of the country.” He said that the measure of Ethiopia’s success must be seen in the light of the fact that the population has doubled in the past twenty years, the equivalent of which is the whole of Kenya and Ethiopian agriculture has been able to feed 74.8 million people. Recall that the Ethiopian government has been arguing since the Hawassa party congress that the total population of Ethiopia is only 76 or 77 million. The question is in a country where there is cyclical drought and crop failure, poor agricultural productivity, food deficit areas and structurally food aid dependent population, it is not clear how they officially claim that the country has become food self-sufficient.

Some foreign experts estimate that, although there is no famine on a huge scale, close to 12 or 13 million people are in need of supplementary food aid. Instead, government says it is only a little above five million people. Last October, in a speech to parliament the prime minster criticized what he called the ‘food aid industry’ that is deliberately inflating the number of Ethiopians in need of aid. He suggested that their motive was more about profit than about saving lives (Peter Heinlein, VOA; November 3, 2009).

Which way one cuts it, the evidence is on the side of the view that Ethiopia has not become food self-sufficient. In its November 2009 report, UNICEF estimated that more than half of Ethiopian children under five years old are stunted (quoted in CNN, November 19, 2009), which is symptom of nutritional inadequacy.

Moreover, Ethiopia is known to be importing several hundred thousand tons of wheat. This has happened in a row since 2008. The minister of agriculture seems to be fascinated with the GDP figures, not the plight of these people. A response or coincidence, international financial and development organisations have been releasing their data, which do not tally with Ethiopia’s. For instance, government says the economy would grow this year by 10.1 percent. Its main funder, the IMF, is not comfortable with that claim and has reduced its own September growth projection of 7.0 percent to 4.3 percent on April 21.

In addition, although the IMF recognises that inflation has been lowered from 2009, it is concerned that “non-food inflation remains close to 20% and has been rising in recent months.” Nonetheless, as this writer has always maintained, the economic growth figures do not have any meaning to ordinary citizens, who have been hit hard by the high cost of living, high inflation, birr losing its value at a rapid pace. The IMF has encouraged Ethiopian authorities to pay serious attention to the rising public external debt, to reinforce financial sector supervision, promote private sector development and financial deepening, and improve the national account statistics.” This says a lot.

Foreign policy

The ruling party’s representative on April 10 in Debate # Six asserted, “The EPRDF has succeeded in building the equality of people, which has enabled the governing party to manage differences, because of which within the framework of a multiparty system Ethiopia has successfully ensured the human rights of its citizens” [writer’s translation]. The lesson for every country is that a nation is at peace when all citizens within its sovereign jurisdiction live in peace and security, irrespective of their number or natural resource endowments. The Ethiopian government has not enjoyed peaceful relations with Ethiopians in some corners of the country and those residing abroad. Therefore the above remark is not consistent with Ethiopian reality of conflicts in the last eighteen years in Gambella, Ogaden, Oromia, Ethiopian communities abroad and etc.

A nation’s foreign policy is successful, when first and foremost the domestic policy it is capable of addressing its internal problems. This does not mean that there have not been successful leaders internationally, who are mired in internal problems and rule by force. This is the problem of foreign policy becoming a vehicle to advance the interests of a single individual, not of the nation. Although the acceptability of a national leader internationally could also help to promote the national interest, in the case of our country many of the international actors (both governmental and non-governmental) that are expressing persistent concerns are increasing in number. In such circumstances, the national interest cannot be served well, as the US has learnt from its relations with Yeltsin’s Russia, where relations became rather personal instead of national.

By all available information from credible institutions, Ethiopia is still recognised for five things: (a) prevalence of poverty, hunger and increasing dependence on international food aid; (b) it is one of the largest refugee contributing countries owing to political problems and ineffective poverty reduction measures that have now begun to witness rising level of poverty in the country; (c) denial of civil liberties and lack of respect for fundamental human rights that has pitted government against its citizens and a number of governments and international human rights organisations; (d) danger of instability from internal problems and external pressures from neighbouring countries; and (e) the country’s potentials for growth are immense but management of macroeconomic policies has not enjoyed sustainability leading to bouts of very high inflation, or deflation, usually expressing itself with very high costs of living and un-affordability of food price to urban residents in particular.

Whoever wins the election, the primary task must be healing the nation, without which it is not possible to attain the goals of all polices that we have been told time and again.

A couple of times, the EPRDF’s representative to Debate # Six claimed that Ethiopia is a democratic country. If Ethiopia were democratic it would not have needed to spend its meagre resources on fighting revolts and insurrections at every corner. Ato Arkebe also asserted Ethiopia has become East Africa’s major force for peace and economic power, an achievement which he said has gained the county international respectability. It sounds good to the ear, if only the fundamentals for it exist and the regime enjoys public support, instead of relying on one of Africa’s strongest army to ensure that it is not challenged internally. If that is the success of Ethiopia’s foreign policy of the past two decades, the question is for how long Ethiopia should waste its scarce resources in attempts at containing insurgencies, instead of seeking political solutions.

In its conversations and policy approaches, the regime has always boxed the question of internal conflicts into a quixotic policy framework of denial. Mentioning of this problem is confronted with attacks, intimidation and in fact nowadays are used as subterfuge to discredit and subdue the legal opposition or independent minded critics. The problem is still there, despite denials. Innocent citizens are thrown to prisons for alleged support of insurgents, or being one. How can a citizen overlook the fact that guns are still roaring in some parts of the country and the government claims it has pacified the country twenty years after seizing power? These conflicts continue to claim lives and scarce resources, and continue to be among the contributory cause for the violations of rights and dignities of citizens.

Recently, there have been some movements regarding ONLF. If true, it should be encouraged. However, Ethiopia badly needs its internal peace and therefore this should include all insurgents, with whom this government has been cross in its 19 years in power. Otherwise, as the security situation in the region gets complicated (Sudan after the referendum, the deepening problem in Eritrea, Somalia and Egyptian machinations in the region—surprisingly this time from Addis Abeba), and the prospect of economic growth becoming more ify with every passing day (Euro and Europe, sovereign debts, international trade, commodity prices, fuel, etc), Ethiopia should carefully put its house in order, instead of the narrow party and personal interests of which Ethiopians have seen enough.

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