Adios Election: A Dead End with No New Beginning

by    /  June 8, 2015  / No comments

Ethiopian election card. Photo via Flickr user: Dieter Zirnig.

The governing party’s landslide victory in Ethiopia’s first elections since the death of Meles Zenawi is a mockery of the democratic process.

Miscarriage of Democracy or…?

For the first time, Ethiopia had a relatively democratically contested election in 2005, in which the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), lost more than a third of the votes. However, after the killing of nearly 200 civilians in a post-election violence, it wasn’t meant to be. In an election described by the EPRDF as a “windfall” to the opposition the winners boycotted parliament, alleging massive fraudulence.

  1. Column_Tadesse
  2. This column’s topics will include literature, art, education, history, and political culture in Ethiopia, as well as society and politics in the Horn of Africa. Moreover, I will address the tribulations of journalists and the ill-fated constitutional right of freedom of expression under Ethiopia’s deceptive authoritarian regime. I will try to be the voice of the voiceless, be it persecuted journalists at home or exiled journalists abroad. These themes will make Ethiopia’s uniqueness and absurdities evident.
  3. Chalachew Tadesse is an Ethiopian journalist and columnist. He has previously worked as a full time journalist for The Reporter and The Sub-Saharan Informer English newspapers. He was also a columnist for the much-acclaimed Fact magazine, before the Ethiopian regime closed it in October 2014. A political science student by training, he works as a university lecturer and is known for his sociopolitical commentaries on the Ethiopian private press.

With hindsight, I presume it was just an unfortunate miscarriage of democracy for foreign observers. Such a thing isn’t, after all, uncommon in fragile African democracies. They might have expected Ethiopia to conceive democracy again. But the paranoid EPRDF had already been so haunted by the events in 2005 that it surprised the world with a 99.6 percent win during the 2010 election. Only one seat was left for the opposition. In my opinion, this was just for political dexterity. Alas, they don’t even have an iota of shame for what they did!

Now, nearly three years have passed since the demise of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the architect of Ethiopia’s deceptive authoritarian regime. Ethiopia conducted national and regional elections for the first time after his death on May 24, 2015. From the 75 percent of the votes counted so far, the “infallible” governing party won by 100 percent. No official explanation was given why the announcement of the remaining votes was postponed. What has transpired is simply a mockery of elections at its worst! Only the naive might call this election yet another “miscarriage of democracy.”

Needless to say, Zenawi was quintessentially one of Africa’s “lords of sham elections.” Near-total dominance is, therefore, the EPRDF’s special tribute to him. Even now, Zenawi’s ghost still shadows over the nation.

When the number of votes cast for opposition candidates turned out to be zero in several places, we sarcastically pondered if opposition contenders had voted for themselves! Sarcasm characterizes the discourse around Ethiopian politics. For now, that is the most Ethiopians can offer to the world’s political literature.

I must confess that I initially sought to write about the recent Nigerian, Polish, or Spanish elections, which knocked out the incumbent parties. I felt that our worthless sham in Ethiopia wasn’t deserving of putting pen to paper. Forgive me, I felt like writing a beautiful, fictitious story happening in wonderland.

I hope many people have watched The Dictator, a 2012 Hollywood comedy movie that showcases a sham athletics race between the eccentric dictator Admiral General Hafez Aladeen of the “Wadiya” republic (coincidentally, on the map “Wadiya” was made to represent Eritrea, Ethiopia’s northern neighbor and now a one-man dictatorship) and his contenders. Our election is reminiscent of this movie.

Joseph Stalin’s infamous statement also comes to mind: “The people who cast the votes don’t decide an election, the people [we] who count the votes do.” In our wonderland, people vote (in polling stations many voters are also told who they should vote for) but the EPRDF counts, announces results, and adjudicates election disputes.

Cognizant of this state of affairs, Professor Beyene Petros and Dr. Merera Gudina, two prominent long-time opposition leaders and former-parliamentarians from 2005 to 2010, categorically rejected the result as an “organized robbery.” The duo, like many other opposition politicians, lost their constituencies to the EPRDF. Hence, most of the largest parties have rejected the farce entirely.

Dr.Merera, a long-time critic of the incumbent regime, was dismissed last year from Addis Ababa University, where he taught me political science from the time I was an undergraduate to my PhD studies, which I did not complete. Apparently, Dr. Merera was let go because of his stern opposition to the regime. Now, he will neither have a voice in a secured place, nor a salary to sustain his life. The regime’s vengeance is boundless!

With nearly 20 journalists in jail and still others exiled, Ethiopia is the “fourth most censored country” in the world. Criminalization of dissent is a routine fact of political life. In essence, Ethiopia is a nightmarish Jurassic Park, where the bellicose EPRDF mercilessly squashes all its rivals and critics with disproportionate force. Ironically, the EPRDF chose a bee as its election symbol. That may be why a swarm of bees are often let loose to sting both real and perceived opponents to the EPRDF, so to speak.

No external monitors set foot in Ethiopia save the African Union (AU). Judging by its dismal record, we expected much hypocrisy from the AU observers. To be precise, we thought its report would be an insult to our intelligence. However, they took us by surprise when they pointed out several election irregularities. Quite interestingly, they have also refrained from labelling the election “free and fair.” Not yet, at least. But who knows? This is, after all, Africa. A devilish African spirit may turn everything upside down overnight and paint a rosy picture of the election.

For now, cynics associate AU’s boldness with Zenawi’s absence. Yes, they may have a point. Apart from hosting AU’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, Zenawi had, of course, become a self-proclaimed voice of Africa in the global stage. Had natural death not taken him out of the picture, he was even determined to bring the International Criminal Court to a brink of collapse by convincing Africans to withdraw en masse. Just to be a bit sarcastic, I ask: Whom could ICC prosecute save African leaders?

In contrast, optimists wonder whether Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the first female Secretary General of the Organization of African Unity and the AU, is turning the organization around. But under current arrangements, Zuma will never be Africa’s “Iron Lady,” but more of a secretary than a general.

Original Sin

Why have things kept falling apart in Ethiopia for a quarter of a century? The devil is in the details: the EPRDF’s hegemonic ideology of “revolutionary democracy,” a bizarre ideology that is neither revolutionary nor democratic. This is where the original sin lies. As “some animals are more equal than others,” the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, representing only one ethnic group at the core of the EPRDF, also wields much of the power.

Lately, this bizarre ideology has been “beautified” by what Zenawi called a “democratic developmental state”: a modified version copied from the late Singaporean autocrat, Lee Kuan Yew. Zenawi never hesitated to mimic anything under the sun to quench his fanaticism and insatiable thirst to power.

Strangely, the EPRDF has also involuntarily chained millions of citizens under what is called “one-to-five” small cells in which one individual supervises four others. What an innovative spy network! Not even bedtime love stories will remain secret any more. Everything, the EPRDF assumes, has political implications. Watch out, no one is beyond the reach of Big Brother’s eyes and ears.

In part, that is the raison d’être for the absence of violence this time. So our rulers would trumpet: “Our people defied violence! Ethiopians have proved the violence-mongers Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch wrong!” Hurrah for the EPRDF! In fact, “Thank Lord, the election was peaceful,” will be the reply if you ask people about the election. Yes, people have a strong sense of déjà vu. And yet, the kernel of truth remains hidden in “wax and gold,” Ethiopians’ ambiguous mode of communication.

Truth be told, the EPRDF has neither the mild authoritarianism of Zimbabwe nor the classic authoritarianism of Kazakhstan or Belarus. Because it uses a combination of brute force, sinister ploys, and manipulation of legal frameworks, the regime is in many ways distinct from the emerging new brand of modern authoritarianism.

If I have to call it like I see it, Ethiopia is effectively a de facto one-party authoritarian ethnocratic state where ethnicity, power and wealth are all played out from the bottom to the top. Alas, elections are simply legal masks used to conceal the regime’s ugly face. Not from Ethiopians, however.

A Looming Apocalypse?

As the old adage goes, “A leopard cannot change his spots.” Wittingly (with diabolical intentions) or unwittingly, the EPRDF is likely to remain under a veil of ignorance and arrogance. As the EPRDF’s womb is sterile, Ethiopia is more likely to remain immune to democracy, so to speak. This is almost as certain as the sun rising tomorrow.

Lots of worst scenarios are laid out these days, almost as many as the scholars writing about Ethiopia. Disillusioned with the current state of affairs of dystopian Ethiopia, some are even proposing an Egyptian-style military takeover as a panacea, however politically incorrect it would seem. What they overlook is that the army generals and politicians are one and the same.

As to me, a perplexing fear that keeps haunting me is this: something perilous is simmering underneath Ethiopia, which may engulf the nation sooner or later and sweep it away to a worse trajectory, be it ethnic conflict or fragmentation into ungovernable mini-states.

Under normal circumstances, I don’t claim to be prophetic on political issues. But this time pervasive repression, ethnic tensions, disillusionment and alienation are making a dangerous political earthquake inevitable in Ethiopia. I believe Ethiopia has reached a dead end, but there is no new beginning in sight that can dissipate my fears. My first column for Sampsonia Way was “Whither Press Freedom.” May God forbid it, but will I one day be unfortunate enough to write an article entitled “Whither Ethiopia?”

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