Historical Notes

Politics, Ethiopia and Eritrea Style

As an election approaches in Ethiopia and Eritrea faces international sanctions, a RPCV and former diplomat offers a bit of background and some careful reflections on what makes these two countries tick

by Dane Smith (Asmara 63–65)

(Editor’s note: Dane Smith joined the Foreign Service in 1967 specializing in African affairs. Dane has served as ambassador to Guinea and later to Senegal. In September 2009 Dane spoke to a reunion of his fellow Ethiopia II Volunteers in Denver. What follows is an edited version of that talk.)

I am not an expert on Ethiopia and Eritrea, but I do try to follow developments there. These are my impressions about the political situation in both countries.

ON A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD: Prime Minister Meles Zenawi

First let me deal with Ethiopia
In defeating the Derg in 1991 Meles Zenawi, the leader of the Tigre Peoples’ Liberation Front engineered an important change in direction in Ethiopia. Since his leadership was rooted in the Tigre minority — a mere seven per cent of Ethiopia’s population — he had to find a way to exercise political leadership in a highly diverse country. He created a broad movement uniting different ethnic leaders with his Tigre Liberation Front and called it the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, which is now the ruling party of Ethiopia. He announced the creation of a multi-party system and put in place a state formally comprised of units defined by ethnicity. Today the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia has nine semi-autonomous administrative regions, including such regions as Afar, Amhara, Harar, Somali, Tigray and the Southern Nations, and the two special federally administered cities of Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa. This arrangement is a special band of federalism in which small jurisdictions like Tigray have as much weight as populous ones like Amhara and Oromiya. That arrangement is not a coincidence.

The experiment came to a climactic test in the 2005 elections, the first relatively free and fair polling in the country’s two thousand year history. To its great surprise, the coalition of Opposition parties won 172 seats in parliament, nearly one third of the total, and scored a crushing victory on the Addis City Council winning 137 out of 138 seats. Instead of accepting that strong minority role and building on it, the Opposition Coalition claimed fraud in election and insisted that they had won an outright victory. They began boisterous demonstrations. Meles’ government, instead of relying on the courts to sort it out, came down hard. Police and troops killed at least 300 demonstrators. Opposition leaders were arrested and charged with treason. Many were given life sentences in noisy show trails. After a time in jail, they were released with “pardons” after they signed paper admitted their crimes. The pardons were mediated by a self-appointed Council of Elders, led by our friend Ephraim Isaac.

Since the election, there has been increased autocracy and repression. Some key developments:

  • Birtukan Mideksa, an Opposition party leader – and considered by some the leading opposition politician – was among those arrested in 2005. She was pardoned but rearrested 2008 supposedly for violating the terms of her pardon. Her supporters, aided by the international community, continue to press for her release, but her party has weak outside leadership and is facing internal revolt.
  • In 2008 Bekele Jirate a leader of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement, a party which has struggled to work within the political system, was arrested and charged with conspiring with the separatist Oromo Liberation Front.
  • In May 2009 Addis announced that former and current army personnel had formed a “terror network” aiming at selected assassinations and overthrow of the government. More than 40 people were arrested. The government claimed that they were led by Berhanu Nega, an Ethiopian-American professor living in Pennsylvania and one of the Opposition politicians who was arrested in 2005 and released in 2007.
  • A recent law designates any NGO receiving more than 10 percent of its funding from abroad as “foreign.” This means these NGOs are ineligible to work on issues relating to ethnicity, gender, and conflict resolution. An anti-terrorist law proposed this year could define criticism of the government as a “terrorist act” and become a tool of further repression.
  • Some parts of the country are afflicted with endemic violence. The worst is in the Ogaden, which is largely ethnic Somali, where a rebellion led by the Ogaden Liberation Front continues. In 2007 more than 70 workers at a Chinese petroleum drilling site were killed. The Ethiopian army has been accused of atrocities. Human Rights Watch in 2008 charged that the Ethiopians were following the same course as the Sudanese in Darfur.

Behind a façade of multi-party democracy there is Leninist democratic centralism. At the center of Meles’ ruling party is the central committee. It and the Prime Minister and his advisors run the show. And, in fact, the concept of ethnic nationalism or self-determination goes back to Lenin and Stalin, who set up the units of the USSR to reflect such divisions, but gave them no power to act on that self-determination. In Ethiopia, according to the International Crisis Group the government’s “ethnic federalism has not dampened conflict, but rather increased competition among groups that vie over land and natural resources, as well as administrative boundaries and government budgets.” It has promoted ethnic self-awareness among all groups. But thus far the parties which have carried the banner of ethnic self-determination are weak and have little life outside Addis.

A few words about Ethiopia’s relations with the US. Ethiopia is an important strategic partner of the United States in the war on terrorism. This partnership, which has deep roots in U.S. foreign policy since World War II, is today built on the need for a strong military ally in the Horn of Africa, where chaos in Somalia provides a potential continuing platform for al-Qa’ida. What Ethiopia, in fact, contributes to dealing with that issue is, of course, problematic. Although the U.S. carries on a dialogue with Meles about his democratic deficiencies, there is little evidence he takes American chiding seriously. Hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. assistance continue to pour into the country.

Now let me deal briefly with Eritrea
The Eritrean Government has been obsessed with the failure of Ethiopia to implement the 2002 finding of the Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Commission that Badme, the desolate scrap of land which was a cause of the war, fell under Eritrean sovereignty. The Commission was constituted by the Algiers Agreement ending the war; both sides had agreed to be bound by its decision. When the international community did not act to enforce the decision, the Eritrean Government, in effect, declared war on the U.N. and the West. It forced the U.N. peacekeepers to withdraw in 2008. It began supporting the radical Islamist faction in Somalia with arms shipments. It made border incursions into Djibouti, where French and U.S. forces are based. The U.N. and the European Union have both imposed sanctions of Eritrea.

RUNNING THE SHOW: President Isaias Afwerki

The war with Ethiopia had a deforming effect on the Eritrean political system. When in 2001 senior members of the government sent a letter to President Isaias Afeworki, criticizing his approach to the war, he arrested all those in the country. They have never been seen since. The group includes my most outstanding student, Mahmud Sharifo, previously Minister of Territorial Administration. No one knows whether he’s alive or dead.

Eritrea makes Ethiopia look like a liberal democracy. There is no constitution, no freedom of speech, press or assembly. The courts don’t operate with any independence. Freedom of religion has been sharply abridged. International NGOs are not permitted to work in Eritrea. It maintains a huge standing army.

During the liberation war the Eritrean insurgents depended on voluntary contributions from the diaspora. After independence they were able to develop a financing system based on a “voluntary” tax of 2% of income from Eritreans living abroad. Despite increasing dissatisfaction with Isaias, the government is still able to rely on these contributions. All payments to families go through the government. Remittances actually increased in the past decade.

Over half of Eritrea’s people are dependent on food aid. Per capita income is $130, or $.36/day. Eritrea appears on the list of countries with the highest rate of child mortality under five years.

In August there was a report of an assassination attempt against Isaias by a member of the Eritrean military who was shot dead. External opposition elements exulted, but there has been no further reporting on this episode. The Obama Administration is trying to decide whether to place Eritrea on the list of countries facilitating terror.

2 responses to “Historical Notes

  1. How sad to have confirmed our impression of the situation in Eritrea, which in the 1960s seemed a place of great hope when we visited there from our base in southern Ethiopia. We’ve just returned from Cairo where we worked with refugees, many having escaped Eritrea (and Ethiopia.) Their stories are chilling.

  2. I don’t know much aboute whats going on in Ethiopia, But regarding you are way wrong, for ex Eritrea is one of the few countries which are expected to meet Millenium Development Goals on reducing child mortality rate and other goals. Just mecause you kneew Mahmud Sharifo doesn’t give you the right to trush the Eritrean ppl endavours and achivements.

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