By Alemayehu G. Mariam
Déjà Vu: Here We Go Again With the Charade
Last April, we commented that the whole business of elections in Ethiopia is “much ado about nothing”. We offered a catalogue of reasons why the whole election rigmarole and ritual under the current dictatorship was an exercise in futility and absurdity:
The insufferably meaningless  election ritual is now almost over. But for a few more days, we’ll have to put up with the regime’s self-congratulatory blabber and vacuous sloganeering about Ethiopia’s unstoppable march on the road to democracy. Mercifully, in another week or so, no one will even remember there was an ‘election’ in Ethiopia in 2008.
Perhaps we spoke too soon. Here we go again with another election charade!
We are once again being finessed into talking about “the 2010 election” as though it is a real election. It is as real as Mickey Mouse, Pinocchio, Bugs Bunny and Mr. Magoo. It is just crazy: How is it possible that we fall for the same old trick over and over and over…? How can one conceive of contesting an “election” in 2010 that has already been won in 2009? How does any reasonable person believe that the same crooks that rigged the 2005 election will sit in their rocking chairs on the front porch watching a real election being held? Didn’t the same gang of election thieves tell us last April that opposition party members won ONLY 3 seats out of 3.5 million elected seats won by their party? What they call an “election” is the three ring circus where they will be formally announcing their landslide victory in May 2010.
But the charade goes on. It was reported that Ethiopia’s arch dictator “has set up talks with the opposition about drawing up a code of conduct for [elections] next year.” As usual, he tried to pull a fast one by trying to get opposition party leaders to sign it. Ato Seeye Abraha, a former defense minister who is now in the Forum for Democratic Dialogue in Ethiopia [FDDE] (a coalition of eight opposition parties) said, “The code of conduct assumes a context where there will be independent administration of elections, freedom of movement, freedom of expression, no intervention by security forces.” FDDE members pulled out of the talks. It was a simple case of “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
Jamais Vu: What in the World is Going on in Ethiopia?
When the familiar seems new or bizarre, psychologists call it “jamais vu”. Something strange is going on in the relationship between the pro-democracy opposition parties and the one-man, one-party dictatorship in Ethiopia. They seem to have finally come to a complete agreement on political strategy. They have all become Ghandians. Ethiopia’s arch dictator has threatened to use the collective numerical power of African countries and walk out of the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen in December if the “rapists” of Africa do not pay up $67 billion a year as “blood money” for their centuries-long abuse of the continent:
If need be we are prepared to walk out of any negotiations that threatens to be another rape of the continent… While we reason with everyone to achieve our objective we are not prepared to rubber stamp any agreement by the powers… We will use our numbers to delegitimise any agreement that is not consistent with our minimal position… Africa will field a single negotiating team empowered to negotiate on behalf of all member states of the African Union…
The FDDE “using its numbers” wants to negotiate with the ruling “Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front” to contest the “2010 elections”. But they walked out of the negotiations when the dictatorship began a campaign of arrest and intimidation against their members. Ato Bulcha Demeksa, leader of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement bitterly complained, “The ruling party cadres throughout the country are jailing our potential candidates on false charges… We want to negotiate with the government and ask them to stop arresting and jailing our potential candidates.” The capo dictator in his polished Orwellian gobbledygook was sarcastically dismissive: “Those parties that apparently are concerned about harassment are not concerned enough to participate in the devising of a code of conduct that is designed to put an end to it, if it exists, or to prevent it if it doesn’t… The intent of these individuals is to discredit the election process from day one, not to participate in it.” The dictator’s reptilian consigliere, Bereket Simon, with his signature condescension, contempt and mockery of the opposition quipped, “Nobody is being jailed for being a politician… To walk away from [the talks] is disastrous and is to walk away from democracy.”
We are now witnessing an epic Ghandian confrontation over how to use “numbers”. To use or not to use one’s numbers, that is question in Ethiopia and Africa today: Whether African countries or opposition political parties in Ethiopia should “use their numbers” in negotiations for a fair outcome in climate change or election negotiations? Whether a group of countries or political parties should “use” their “numbers” to delegitimize a concocted climate change deal agreement or a bogus code of conduct to facilitate rigged elections? Whether “numbers” should be used to resist and fend off Africa’s and Ethiopia’s “rapists”? Whether African countries should rubberstamp a lopsided climate deal agreement with the West or opposition political parties a one-sided code of conduct with a dictatorship?
In a Ghandian confrontation, there are no losers, only winners. Africans will certainly win if they use their “numbers” in the climate change negotiations. So will Ethiopian opposition political parties if they use their “numbers” to insist on holding an open and free election.
Climate Change and Regime Change
Climate change and regime change are actually two faces of the same coin. Think about it. Climate change affects the ecological well-being and survival of the entire planet; regime change is about the political ecology and welfare of human beings in a small corner of the planet. The mechanism for positively transforming both is the same: Attain moral clarity and act decisively and courageously on sound and unassailable moral grounds. If walking out of negotiations is a good and prudent moral act to save Africa from the “Western rapists”, it is also good and prudent enough to rescue Ethiopia from her rapists. If it is moral and prudent for “Africa to field a single negotiating team empowered to negotiate on behalf of all member states of the African Union,” it is moral and prudent for the FDDE to do the same in Ethiopia. If it is a moral act to “delegitimise any agreement that is not consistent with minimal positions on climate change” using one’s “numbers”, why would it not be an equally compelling moral act to delegitimize any “code of conduct,” “election” or “regime” that does not meet “minimal positions” of universally accepted standards of human rights and democratic practices? Those who point an index finger at the Western predators and “rapists” of Africa for hypocrisy, chicanery and underhandedness should look at their own clenched fists and see that three fingers are pointing directly at them. Regime change before action on climate change!
Just in passing…
What is the “2010 election” about anyway?
Is it about famine that is now voraciously consuming one-fifth of the Ethiopian population? The confinement of hundreds of thousands of political prisoners in prisons and secret detention facilities without trial? Prosecution of torturers, murderers and other human rights abusers? The ecological catastrophes facing Ethiopia? The galloping inflation? The rampant corruption and plunder of the public treasury? The complete lack of legal accountability of Ethiopia’s dictators? The millions of dollars worth of gold bars that walked straight out of the bank in 2007? The lack of access to clean safe water (only 24% of the total Ethiopian population has access to “clean and safe water”)? The reckless intervention in the Somali civil war, the squandered resources and wasted young lives? The massive human rights violations and absence of the rule of law? The establishment of an independent judiciary, freely functioning of civil society organizations and press? Improving one of the worst educational systems in the world (only 33% of boys and less then 20% girls are enrolled in school in Ethiopia)? Improving one of the worst health care systems in the world (only about 20% of Ethiopians have any access to some form of primary care, one physician for every 40,000 people, one nurse for every 14, 000 people)?
Or is it about “None of the Above”?
Real elections took place in 2005. Back then there were real opposition parties who campaigned vigorously. There were free and open debates. The private free press challenged the dictators and scrutinized the opposition. Civil society leaders worked tirelessly to inform and educate the voters and citizenry about democracy and elections. Voters openly and fearlessly showed their dissatisfaction with the regime in public meetings. On May 15, 2005, the voters did something that had never been done in recorded Ethiopian history. They used the ballot box to clean house. That was a lesson in real elections!
It is time for all Ethiopian pro-democracy forces to wake up and refuse to be pawns in the dictatorship’s silly little game of “elections”. The dictators want the opposition to participate in their “election” so that they could use the “participation” as a stage prop when they go panhandling Western donors for aid. The key to Ethiopia’s future is based on building coalitions and organizations that strive to create strong bonds and linkages across ethnic, linguistic, political, regional and ideological lines. FDDE holds great promise in this regard. Until pro-democracy forces inside and outside Ethiopia develop a consensus and a plan of action for democratic change, the dictatorship will continue to put up election circuses and make puppets of us all in its freak show.
It is foolish to believe the “2010 election” will make any difference in the lives of Ethiopians. It is an election about NOTHING; and we should condemn it as a travesty and caricature of democracy and a shameless mockery of popular sovereignty. We are entertained by Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Pinocchio and Mr. Magoo, but we do not believe any one of them is real. And so it is with the “2010 elections” circus in Ethiopia….
(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 firstname.lastname@example.org)