Can democracy be salvaged in Ethiopia by the 2010 elections?

EthiopianReview.com | October 22nd, 2009

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

While U.S. attention is fixed on Afghanistan’s contested elections and the need to insure a democratic process, in another part of the world, democracy has been under siege at the ballot box with terrible consequences.

African elections have devolved into rituals of absurdity. In the last five years we have witnessed attacks on democracy in Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

In Ethiopia in 2005, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Party was thumped in parliamentary elections by the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy. Zenawi hijacked that election and bushwhacked the opposition by simultaneously declaring victory and a state of emergency. In the following months, his security forces killed nearly 200 protesters and imprisoned over 30,000 others.

In Kenya in 2007, the opposition Orange Democratic Movement swept the political landscape, cleaning out the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki’s cabinet, including his vice president, foreign and defense ministers, and a host of plutocratic parliamentarians. Yet Kibaki held on to power, leading to riots that killed 1,500 people and displaced more than 250,000 Kenyans.

In Nigeria, after nine months of legal wrangling, a presidential election tribunal in 2008 upheld Umaru Yar’Adua’s declared victory, despite evidence of widespread rigging and fraud. In the same year Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF suffered massive defeat in Zimbabwe’s national elections. After intimidating supporters of his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, with violence, Mugabe, at 84, “won” an uncontested runoff election.

Warnings from the West have had no effect. For example, in response to Zenawi’s crackdown on the opposition, European governments temporarily withheld aid, and multilateral institutions suspended loans to the regime. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill (H.R. 2003) to hold Zenawi’s regime accountable, but it failed to clear the Senate. And in Kenya and Zimbabwe, though the West pressed Kibaki and Mugabe to form coalition governments, the country remains more divided than ever.

Spanish philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Because of Africa’s failure to implement reforms, we are ready to restart that cycle, as parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in Ethiopia in May 2010.

This time Zenawi seems even more determined to circumvent Ethiopia’s democracy. In April, his regime announced that in local elections, the opposition won a paltry three out of 3.6 million “contested” seats.

Elections in Ethiopia under Zenawi’s dictatorship, now spanning two decades, have manifested two recurrent patterns. First, Zenawi has spared no effort to eliminate his opposition. He has used intimidation, threats, arbitrary arrests and detentions, bogus prosecutions, extreme violence, fraud and trickery to wipe out his opposition. Recently, Zenawi invited the opposition for 2010 election talks, but promptly demanded that they sign a “code of conduct” before discussions could be held. Leaders of an alliance of opposition parties under an umbrella organization known as Forum for Democratic Dialogue in Ethiopia walked out of the talks, plainly sensing a trap. Zenawi retaliated by initiating a campaign of harassment and intimidation that sent nearly 500 opposition members to detention.

Zenawi has succeeded in distracting the opposition from making the election about issues or a referendum on his regime to inconsequential issues about personalities and individual grievances. There is little discussion by the regime or the opposition about the formidable and apocalyptic issues facing the country.

Famine threatens to wipe out one-fifth of the Ethiopian population. There are thousands of political prisoners held in regular and secret prisons without trial. Gross abusers of human rights walk the streets free. Ecological catastrophes, including deforestation, soil erosion, over-grazing, over-population and chemical pollution of its rivers and lakes, threaten the very survival of the people. Galloping inflation has made life unbearable for most Ethiopians. Rampant corruption and plunder of the public treasury has left the country with only a few weeks of foreign currency reserves. And there has been no accountability for the reckless intervention in the Somali civil war, the squandered resources and wasted young lives, among many other issues.

Can Ethiopian democracy be salvaged by the 2010 elections? Many of us think it can be saved, but only if we restore the pre-2005 opposition. Back then, there were real opposition parties that were allowed to campaign vigorously. There were free and open debates throughout the society. A free private press challenged those in power 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, voters did something unprecedented in Ethiopian history: They used the ballot box to pass their verdict. That’s how the 2010 election can be saved – by letting the people pass their sovereign verdict.

Only a transition to a constitutional democracy can end the kind of dictatorship that robbed Ethiopians of a chance to advance. As President Barack Obama said, “Africa needs strong institution, not strong men.” Ethiopia’s history is full of strong men on horses, in tanks and boardrooms. As a result, Ethiopia has weak legislative, judicial and electoral institutions.

Clues to saving Ethiopia and other African countries from strongmen may be found in Ghana’s nascent democracy. Since Ghana’s military dictatorship ended in 1992 when it adopted a new constitution, Ghanaians have shown the essential prerequisites for a successful multiparty democracy in Africa. They institutionalized the rule of law and conformed their laws to meet international human rights standards. They created a strong judiciary with extraordinary constitutional powers that made failure to obey a Supreme Court order a “high crime.” They included strong protections for civil liberties, allowing Ghanaians to freely express themselves without fear of government retaliation.

Ghana established an independent electoral commission responsible for voter registration, demarcation of electoral boundaries, conduct and oversight of all public elections, referenda and electoral education. Above all, Ghana’s uncompromising constitutional language made it illegal to have tribal or ethnic-based political parties, the root of most conflicts in Africa.

The glimmer of hope shimmering in the Ghanaian experiment proves that multiparty democracy can be successfully instituted in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa, without bloodshed. Failure to do so may once again force Africans to prudently heed Victor Hugo’s admonition: “When dictatorship is fact, revolution becomes a right.” If it gets to that point, it’s going to be a quagmire too difficult to get out of this time.

(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 almariam@gmail.com.)