Ernest Mpinganjira: Ethiopia on the verge of a political turmoil

A political disaster is looming in Ethiopia. The Government cracked down on opposition supporters in a desperate attempt to prevent Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s rivals from entrenching themselves at the grassroots.

One of the parties boycotted village, district and provincial elections. Another party threatened to follow suit in protest about uneven playing field and repression against opposition.

Against the backdrop of blatant human rights abuses, international organisations have raised concerns about the West’s silence over its ally’s excesses.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report last week accuses Addis Ababa of harassment of the opposition and independent Press. The report also questioned whether the US military aid to Addis Ababa has been used to suppress the opposition and entrench Zenawi into power.

The report noted: "The Ethiopian Government’s repression of registered opposition parties and ordinary voters has largely prevented political competition ahead of local elections that began on April 13.

"These widespread acts of violence, arbitrary detention and intimidation mirror long-term patterns of abuse designed to suppress political dissent in Ethiopia."

HRW Africa Director, Mr Georgette Gagnon, expressed dismay that while the ills persisted, the US has not raised concern over curtailment of democracy and independent media.

HRW said the repression was a preamble to national elections slated for November.

"It is too late to salvage these [grassroots] elections, which will simply be a rubber stamp on the EPRDF’s (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, Ethiopia ruling party) near-monopoly on power at the local level. Still, officials must at least allow the voters to decide how and whether to cast their ballots without intimidation," Gagnon said.

Ethiopia’s election chaos comes hot on the heels of the debacle in Kenya that resulted in 1,200 deaths and more than 350,000 people displaced. In 2005, Ethiopian forces killed 200 opposition supporters and detained dozens of others for protesting Zenawi’s poll win.

The US’s silence about Zenawi’s political mischief has elicited international concerns. The Economist magazine questioned the silence, which could encourage some African governments to ignore the rule of law and suppress democracy.

The magazine provided a glimpse of what thinking in Washington could be: The close military ties between the two countries that involve the civil strife in Somalia.

The US, it said, fears that Somalia may have already become an incubator of international terrorism, hence its reluctance to criticise Zenawi, lest he welcomes the terrorists in reaction to criticism.

"That is why America backed Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia at the end of 2006. Its own air raids on supposed terrorist targets in Somalia have relied on Ethiopian intelligence, though nearly all appear to have missed.

"American officials praise the Ethiopian troops who are still in Mogadishu, Somalia’s battered capital, as peacekeepers; most Somalis see them as occupier," writes the magazine.

Civil strife

Kenya’s political chaos after the disputed December 27 polls seem to have shielded Addis Ababa from international criticism on gross abuse of human rights.

Until last December’s disputed presidential poll in Kenya, Nairobi was the presumptive anchor of US interests in the larger East African region. Recent political turmoil have weakened this position, hence the Bush administration’s partiality to the savagery in Ethiopia.

"...The Pentagon wants to make Ethiopia a bulwark in a region where Somalia is a dangerously failed state, Sudan and Eritrea are pariahs and Kenya has troubles of its own," The Economist noted.

Some of the reasons the magazine gives for Ethiopia’s persistence in abrogation of human rights, which are largely true, are appalling.

"The African Union is based there. Its ancient Christian history stirs American evangelicals. Its poverty and population of 80 million, (Africa’s third-largest) attract development-minded foreigners," The Economist says.

But as the international community busied itself with the developments in Zimbabwe, where presidential poll results are yet to be released, Addis Ababa was clamping down on opposition during grassroots elections.

Said HRW report: "The nationwide local elections…are crucially important. It is local officials who are responsible for much of the day-to-day repression that characterises governance in Ethiopia. Many local officials in Oromia have made a routine practice of justifying their abuses by accusing law-abiding government critics of belonging to the outlawed Oromo Liberation Front."

The report said that as a result of the intimidation, candidates allied to the EPRDF are elected unopposed in the vast majority of constituencies across Ethiopia.

This was after opposition coalition, the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF), withdrew its candidates for fear of persecution.

"UEDF officials complained that intimidation and procedural irregularities limited registration to only 6,000 of the 20,000 candidates they attempted to put forward for various seats," the HRW report says.

Just as was the case in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nigeria in 2006, Ethiopia’s National Elections Board (NEB) came under stinging criticism for bending the rules in favour of the governing party.

Against this pattern of abuse, HRW London Director, Mr Tom Porteous, took issue with the West for backing a brutal regime.

"If Western governments were more consistent and less selective in their reaction to human rights abuses around the world, they might be less inclined to turn a blind eye to Ethiopia’s failure to abide by international norms …" Porteous observed last week.

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