The Coming Elections
Five years ago elections left Ethiopia in turmoil. Voters are now heading for the polls once again. What are the prospects?by Barry Hillenbrand (Debre Markos 63–65)
The parliamentary elections in Ethiopia are less than two months away, and already they are besieged by controversy. Lots of controversies. Perhaps the only thing that is not shrouded in controversy is the date of the election: May 23. The entire National Parliament will be elected and a new Prime Minister will be chosen on the basis of the results. Or, of course, the present Prime Minister,
Meles Zenawi, may be chosen for his third term. The smart money is betting on Meles.
Indeed Meles himself generated the first election controversy by claiming in a speech filled with humility that he would retire and not run for a third term. But his government party set up howls insisting that the nation could not continue without him. He relented. He will be a candidate.
Next came the controversy over the rules of the election. Negotiations for a new election code were long and complicated. The opposition is made up of more than 60 parties. While alliances and coalitions are being formed – the Medrek (the Forum), a grouping of eight important parties, being one of the major ones – the opposition remains fractured. In January after a three day negotiating session, an election code was finally formulated to give opposition access to radio and television time. Rules were made for voter registration and balloting. Still many people are skeptical that the election will be conducted fairly.
Already violence has erupted. An opposition candidate was stabbed to death in March in what opposition leaders said was part of a widening campaign of repression ahead of the elections. The candidate, Aregawi Gebre-Yohannes, was killed at a restaurant he owned near the town of Shire in the Tigray region by a group of six men who had shadowed his movements for the previous two days, said Gebru Asrat, a leader of the Arena party, a member of the Medrek opposition alliance. “They cut him, they stabbed him in the stomach, and he died,” Aregawi said. “It’s becoming very difficult to run” a political campaign, he added. A suspect confessed to the crime and was sentence to 15 years in prison, but the killing was seen as a warning to the opposition.
Another opposition candidate was beaten in Tigray by members of the Ethiopian Army, claims Negasso Gidada, a former president of Ethiopia who has now joined the opposition. Like the candidate who was killed, the beating victim had previously been arrested for attending opposition meetings. “It is very bad news,” Negasso said. “My fear is such incidents may be intensifying.”
But perhaps the most controversial form of intimation is the continuing imprisonment on a life sentence of Birtukan Mideksa, one of the country’s main opposition leaders. After Prime Minister Meles himself, Birtukan is arguably the most famous and popular politician in Ethiopia. She along with many other leaders of the opposition alliance in the 2005 election was arrested and convicted of treason. The opposition group was pardoned and released, but Birtukan unlike many of the election leaders did not go into exile abroad. In a speech she repudiated her admission of guilt to the treason charge and was re-arrested and sentence to life in prison for treason. She has been held in solitary confinement for much of her time in prison. The U.S. State Department’s human rights report for 2009 said in March that “there were credible reports that Birtukan’s mental health deteriorated significantly during the year.” The report, later criticized by the Meles government, called her a political prisoner, echoing what many rights groups have claimed. Meles has said Birtukan was in “perfect” health, but that diplomats and journalists would not be allowed to visit her.
Another controversy revolves around foreign observers for the election. The Carter Center in Atlanta said that it would not send a team to monitor the election as they had for past Ethiopian elections. The Carter Center said that it had not been allowed to inspect the voter and candidate registration process and thus could not make an informed judgment on the entire election.
The European Union, after some wavering, announced that it would once again send a team of European and African parliamentarians to watch the elections. But the EU is worried about the terms of the election. Ana Maria Gomes, a Portuguese member of the European Parliament who led the EU’s monitoring mission to Ethiopia during elections in 2005, said that there was risk involved with the mission because at the moment “there are no conditions for genuine democratic elections.”
Still the election, genuine or not, will take place as scheduled on May 23. The results will take nearly month to tally. The winners will be announced on June 21, a date, opposition forces note, set so that global attention is focused on the World Cup Football competition in South Africa rather than any election controversy in Ethiopia. —BH
Static on VOA
Unhappy with election coverage and a U.S. Human Rights Report, Ethiopia jams Voice of America broadcasts
Reflecting the tensions over the election, the United States and Ethiopia are caught in a row over Amharic language short wave broadcasts of the Voice of America. In March the regular VOA broadcasts were suddenly jammed, making them unintelligible in Ethiopia. At first Ethiopia denied anything to do with the jamming, but later, in an interview, Prime Minister Meles said, rather vaguely, that yes, Ethiopia had tested some jamming methods and that may have been the cause. Meles added that VOA was guilty of broadcasting “destabilizing propaganda.” Meles compared VOA to Radio Mille Collines, whose broadcasts are blamed by many for sparking the 1994 Rwanda genocide. In a later interview with Reuters, Meles said “We have given up on the objectivity of the VOA service and we have been trying to beef up our capacity to deal with it, including through jamming,” In early April the jamming activities intensified, in part as a reaction to the U.S. State Department report on human rights abuses in Ethiopia and in part because of VOA coverage of the upcoming election.
The U.S. human rights report “is a smear campaign intended to portray the forthcoming elections as unfair and the conditions surrounding the election as undemocratic,” said Government spokesman Shimelis Kemal. “One can discern that the prime focus of this reporting is to create a kind of weak government in Ethiopia that would easily bend to pressures from foreign elements, foreign forces.” He continued: “VOA in the past has repeatedly broadcast programs and statements that tend to incite, foment hatred between different ethnic groups. Recently, it has transmitted a program alleging the government of Ethiopia had staged state sponsored genocide in Gambela.”
VOA broadcasts to Ethiopia were blocked around the 2005 election, and again before the 2008 local elections. Jamming of Amharic Service programs began again February 22 and in April was extended to other Ethiopian language broadcasts, in Tigrinya and Afan Oromo. In response, VOA set up satellite radio broadcasts in hopes of bypassing the jamming. The State Department in Washington condemned the attempts at jamming VOA. Gordon Duguid, a spokesperson for the State Department said that “a decision to jam VOA broadcasts contradicts the Government of Ethiopia’s frequent public commitments to freedom of the press.” —BH
Turbulence for Ethiopian Airlines
A tragic crash causes unaccustomed trouble for EAL and a heated dispute between Ethiopia and Lebanon
Usually stories in the HERALD about Ethiopian Airlines mark the continuing progress of what is Africa’s largest and most reliable airline. For example, there was news of Ethiopian increasing the number of flights from Washington to Addis from four a week to daily beginning in June. And Ethiopian Airlines is constantly buying new planes from Boeing and turning a profit.
But in January, the airline suffered a disastrous crash when a Boeing 737-800 crashed minutes after taking off from Beirut International Airport in stormy weather. All 90 people aboard were killed. Ultimately the aircraft’s voice and data recorders were recovered and sent to France for analysis, but the cause of the crash has yet to be officially determined. In a number of statements to the press, Lebanese officials implied that pilot error may have brought the plane down. They also ruled out terrorism.
Annoyed at what they consider premature judgments, Ethiopian Airline officials called media reports of pilot error “speculative.” In a statement Ethiopian Airlines said that it does “not rule out all possible causes including the possibility of sabotage until the final outcome of the investigation is known.” The investigation of the accident is being conducted by an international team including representatives from Boeing, the American NTSA, and Ethiopian Airlines staff , but led by the Lebanese. Still the Ethiopians remain deeply unhappy. The airline is now doing its own leaking to the Ethiopian press. Stories have appeared claiming that evidence from the flight recorders has been tampered with and voices of the pilots erased. Relations between Ethiopia and Lebanon have soured. —BH