Democracy in Ethiopia
- Malachy Harty.
We have arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city, during a period of post electoral unrest. In this article, we look at Ethiopia’s recent political scene from Emperor Haille Selaisse up to the recent disputed elections which have left 36 dead and widespread fear of continued civil disorder.
We have never been so aware of a country’s political situation as we have been in Ethiopia. Two days before we arrived, there were riots across the country, especially in the university towns. It seems ironic that the government has successfully rolled out widespread third level education, only for the students to hold demonstrations in revulsion of perceived electoral fraud. We ask people for news every day in an effort to avoid being caught in a violent storm.
Ethiopia’s recent rulers – From emperor to democracy
Emperor Haille Selaisse, the 111th emperor in the succession of King Solomon, ruled Ethiopia from 1931 until 1974. He is fondly remembered by Rastafarians the world over but historians and Ethiopians at home tell a different story. He maintained a high profile with Europe and America but failed to secure strong support among his own people. Italy briefly occupied the country during Mussolini’s World War II exploits, from 1936 until 1941. In 1962, Selaisse annexed Eritrea, igniting guerilla conflict with Eritrea which remains problematic. After a long but generally disastrous term, the last years of his rule were marred by rising inflation, corruption, and famine. In 1974, a group of junior military officers deposed Emperor Haille Selaisse and swiftly imposed a military dictatorship on the country.
The Derg, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, banned church activities, evicted the Americans, whom Haile Selaisse had courted, and managed to retain power with the assistance of Cuban and Soviet troops. The struggling socialist regime was hampered by several guerilla factions and amid a devastating famine in 1991, Mengistu fled the country allowing a coalition of rebel groups to control the country.
The Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), led by the Tigrayan, Meles Zenawi, has been the ruling party in Ethiopia for the last 14 years. In his early years as Prime Minister, Meles was seen as one of a breed of new African leaders to embrace good governance. The US has seen the country as an ally in the war on terrorism and the country is a benefit nation of Tony Blair's Commission for Africa, which has brought poverty reduction to the fore. Many point out that he has brought about widespread university education. With the help of foreign aid, including Irish government donations, sealed roads are replacing dirt ones and slashing transport times all over the country. Despite these positive signs, Meles and the EPRDF are facing huge public criticism from non Tigrayan Ethiopians.
Current Affairs in Ethiopia
The country has voted thrice since the EPRDF took over. On 15 May, about 22 million people voted in this year’s general elections. More than 300 foreign observers monitored the electoral process and 800 international and international journalists covered the election. Despite this strong international presence, there were hundreds of protests of irregularities. The main opposition party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), claims that there were beatings and threats preceding the election as well as destroyed ballots.
On 8 May, during riots in Addis Ababa, 36 people were killed by police and over 100 were injured. Ethiopian authorities said police and troops opened fire on stone-throwing crowds who were looting shops, robbing banks, attacking police and trying to free detainees in custody. In an effort to restore calm, all political parties have signed a deal to peacefully resolve their disputes. The first round of results show that the EPRDF has lost every seat in Addis as well as many seats in other urban areas. The government have marginally more seats than the opposition coalition. The final results will not be determined until these have been investigated and the last of the southern votes have been cast.
Otherwise, in 1998, tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia escalated into major conflict. In 2000, Ethiopia won back more than its original territories. The Boundary Commission is in the hampered process of marking an agreed border between the two countries. In the mean time UN peacekeeping forces are patrolling a 25 km buffer zone between the two countries. If the government fails to resolve the disputed election results peacefully, this is one area that could get warmer.
If we weren’t in Addis, this would all be easy reading. However, every day we search for updates. We fear that the election results announcement dates will be accompanied by some civil disorder and strikes, as happened a month ago. While we are watching the proceedings with great concern for our personal safety, the world is watching to see whether Prime Minister Meles will act in the spirit of the democracy he proclaims.