By Negasso Gidada
I visited Dembi Dollo, in Qelem Wallaga Zone of Oromia Region from September 18-28, 2009. During my visit, I tried to gather as much information as possible on the current political situation. I was unable to hold public meetings because the local administration was unwilling to cooperate. I therefore tried to meet as many individuals as I could. During the 10 days, I talked to over two dozen individuals, including cadres of the OPDO/EPRDF, business leaders, community elders, government workers (teachers and health workers), local qabale officials, vacationing university students, church leaders, private professionals, NGO employees and members and supporters of the OFDM.
This descriptive analysis summarizes and focuses on a few major issues. My general conclusion is that the OPDO/EPRDF totally controls and dominates the local political arena, and therefore, there could be no level playing field for the opposition in the Dembi Dollo area. Unless the situation changes dramatically in the next few months, I do not expect the 2010 election will be fair, free or democratic. The first step in correcting the current situation is by appointing well trained election officers to different levels of the election administration.
Strict Security Control and Surveillance
The OPDO/EPRDF which claims to have won the 2005 and 2008 elections seems determined not to allow any other political organization which could compete against it in the area. This goes as far as not welcoming individual visitors to the area. Visitors are secretly followed and placed under surveillance to determine where they have been, whom they have visited, and what they have said. The visitors would rarely be called for interrogation or approached by the security people. It is the local people who had contact with visitors that are summoned and grilled by security officials. In my case, my brother-in-law, with whom I stayed, made a copy of the letter I brought with me from the parliament and gave it to the security office. He also received telephone calls from the Dembi Dollo and Naqamte security offices. He was asked why I came, whether I came for preparation for the coming election or for any other purpose.
About two months ago Professor Haweitu Simeso of the USAID visited Dembi Dollo with colleagues from the Irish and Canadian embassies. The visiting group was followed from the time it arrived in Naqamte. After the group returned, several security officials interrogated leaders of the Dembi Dollo Bethel-Mekane Yesus Church who had spoken to Haweitu and his colleagues. One of the church leaders was even summoned to the zonal administrator’s office and asked detailed questions about the visitors from Addis. Three weeks before I went to Dembi Dollo, Dr. Belaynesh (member of the OFDM and an MP) was in Dembi Dollo. After she returned to Addis, all the people who went to her father’s house to greet her and others she greeted on the streets in the town were arrested, interrogated and held in custody for 24 to 48 hours. The houses of some of these individuals were also searched. A building contractor who arrived in Dembi Dollo on September 28 to inspect the construction of the new Bethel Church was also followed. He left the next day fearing that he will be summoned to the security office. OPDO/EPRDF in Dembi Dollo, besides using the police and security offices and personnel, also collects information on each household through other means. One of these methods involves the use of organizations or structures called “shane”, which in Oromo means “the five”. Five households are grouped together under a leader who has the job of collecting information on the five households every day and pass it on to a higher administrative organ called “Gare”. There are 30 to 40 households in a “Gare” group which has a chairperson, a secretary, a security chief and two other members. The security chief passes the information he collected to his chief in the higher administrative organs in the Qabale, who in turn informs the Woreda police and security office.
Each household is required to report on guests and visitors, the reasons for their visits, their length of stay, what they said and did and activities they engaged in. The “shane” leader knows if the members of the households have participated in “development work”, if they have contributed to the several fund raising programs, if they have attended Qabale meetings, whether they have registered for election, if they have voted and for whom they have voted. The OPDO/EPRDF runs mass associations (women, youth and micro-credit groups) and party cells (“fathers”, “mothers” and “youth”). The party cells in the schools, health institutions and religious institutions also serve the same purpose.
Understanding how the OPDO/EPRDF itself and its Woreda administration are organized is very important. There is the OPDO/EPRDF Qellem Wallagga Zonal office in Dembi Dollo. This office receives information and instruction from the regional office in Addis Ababa. It passes messages to the lower structures and oversees the propaganda and organizational activities of the party. This office has branches in every village, schools and health institutions. These branches are subdivided into basic cells. The branches of these cells are organized into supporter groups, candidate groups and full members groups.
Additionally, the party has organized the people into youth, women and micro-credit associations for tighter control and easy dissemination of its propaganda and to do party activities. Dembi Dollo town is a special Woreda Town Administration. The Administration is sub-divided into four large “Ganda” (villages). The town used to have seven Qabales but was restructured just before the Qabale election in 2008. Each Qabale has 15 in the Woreda Council. It is said that the OPDO/EPRDF presented the names of pre-selected council members to the Qabale Council and had them endorsed. There is also the Sayyo Rual Woreda (24 Qabales). The administration of Sayyo Woreda also has its seat in Dembi Dollo town. These are all appointees of the party and are believed to be “strongly committed” to it. The four “Ganda” (villages or some times called Kifle Ketema) have each their own councils. A council has 300 members. The members were “elected” in 2008. All the people I talked to confirmed to me that the party pre-selected the candidates. The Qabale has its own cabinet and these are also party members. A Qabale is further sub-divided into different zones. The zones are sub-divided into “Gare”. There are up to 17 “Gare” in each zone.
Misuse of Public Property, Finance and Civil Servants
The party’s propaganda and organization committees are located in the Zonal, Woreda and Qabale Administration building. The party does not pay rent for the rooms it uses. The committee members are party cadres but their monthly salaries and per diems are paid by the administration from public treasury. Their secretaries, cleaners and messengers also get their salary from public treasury. All civil servants are also members of the party. Monthly contribution of the members to the party are collected by the Woreda finance office at the time they pay the workers their monthly salaries. The party officials use government office materials, supplies and equipment, including official transport vehicles. The party uses town and qabale halls without paying rent. Meeting halls in health and educational institutions are also used without any payment and at will. This system is practiced from Zonal to “Gare” levels. But opposition to the OPDO/EPRDF are not allowed to rent rooms for offices from private owners or rent public halls in the town for meetings. Plasma televisions supposed to be used for school-net and Woreda-net are used for dissemination of party propaganda.
Dissemination of OPDO/EPRDF thoughts
All adults in the qabales and government employees are forced to participate in different seminars and workshops. The same is true of all school children who are in high schools and vocational training institutions. University students on vacation are also required to participate in such programs. Lessons in “Tarsimo” (Strategy) and “Bulchiinsa Gaarii” (Good Governance) are given to all residents (school children, college and university students, and private and government employees). Workshops on BPR have been held and each government employee is given Birr 25 for participation. The seminar for university students lasted five days. The per diem for this seminar was supposed to be Birr 35 per day for each participant for nine days. Every two weeks on Friday afternoon, all government employees participate in study circles of the party and cell meetings during work hours and in the public meeting rooms. No rent is paid for the use of the rooms. Fund raising programs are organized once in a while for support of the party. It is the administration’s finance officers who deduct the pledged amount from employees and transfer the money to the party.
During the 2005 election, I have witnessed that civil servants were deployed for two weeks for election campaign for the OPDO/EPRDF and that government vehicles (cars and motor cycles) were used for this purpose. OPDO/EPRDF members and cadres were busy disrupting public meetings I called in the field. One of my observers was bribed with Birr 200 and agreed to give the votes I received to my opponent (OPDO/EPRDF). In one qabale, I was prevented from holding an election campaign meeting 500 meters away from a market place. The qabale officials told me that my meeting will disturb “their market”. My posters were removed from several places and leaflets I distributed were collected and destroyed. I persistently appealed to the election officials to correct the OPDO/EPRDF illegal activities or cancel it from the election in accordance with the election law but no one heeded my appeals.
According to the people I talked to, the chief of an election office during the 2008 election was also a member of the OPDO/EPRDF. There is a rumor that the same person is being appointed to the office by the OPDO/EPRDF for the 2010 election. The OPDO/EPRDF appointed a supporter or a member to each polling station to stand by the voters and tell the voters in which box they should put voting signs or signatures.
Situation of the Opposition
The office of the OFDM has remained closed since 2005. Members and supporters were beaten up and imprisoned several times. They were intimidated or bribed. During the three weeks before my visit to Dembi Dollo, 60 people in Sayyo and 15 people in Dembi Dollo were arrested and kept in police custody for up to 48 hours. They had to pay one hundred Birr as bail before being released. They were reprimanded and warned for the 2010 election. They were told, “Be careful! Don’t support, or join or vote for the opposition as you did in 2005. We shall not give in like then. We defend ourselves even with guns.” OFDM is equated with OLF while the CUD or the “Qindomina” as it is called in Oromia, is equated with the “Nafxagna”. The campaign against the UDJ as a “Nafxagna” organization has already begun.
No private or independent newspapers exist in Dembi Dollo. Alternative news sources to the Federal and Oromia public media are only VOA and Deutche Welle. The Oromia information office and the OPDO send their press media to the area by bus. These are picked up by a government employee and distributed to different institutions and offices. All workers are forced to buy these news papers.
It is plain to anyone who has been to Dembi Dollo and surrounding areas that there is no political level playing field. I can not imagine how the opposition can enter into an election process under such conditions. If the ruling party is serious about having a peaceful, fair and democratic election in 2010 it has much to do, including the release of all political prisoners and putting a stop to new illegal arrests, intimidation, detentions and bribing opposition member, immediate reopening of offices of the opposition, providing immediate equal access to the public media, allowing public meetings organized by the opposition to take place freely, amending the Election Law so that neutral election officials can be appointed and making it possible for international election observers free access to ensure fair elections, and putting into place control mechanisms so that its supporters and members respect the constitution and the election laws. It must also start repaying rent for offices and halls it has used for its party activities over the past several years as well as for use of government office materials and equipment, fuel, telephone and electricity, and return the money it took out of the public treasury and paid as salaries to its members.
(Dr. Negasso Gidada is former figure-head president of Ethiopia from 1995 to 2001.)