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Ethiopia: The A B C’s of Stealing an Election

Alemayehu G. Mariam

It is a staple of the criminal defense bar to represent thieves, robbers, burglars, muggers, pickpockets, shoplifters, embezzlers, con men, fraudsters and swindlers. It is also the ineluctable lot of the defense lawyer to learn about the M.O. (modus operandi, techniques) of the criminal classes with professional detachment. But few defense lawyers could claim the dubious honor of representing criminals that specialize in election heists. So, when the Carter Center issued its post-mortem “Ethiopia National Elections Observation Mission 2005 Final Report”[1] recently, a unique academic opportunity became available to learn about how an election is actually stolen.

First, a detailed discussion of the specific findings of that Report is unnecessary. Anyone who has followed the May 2005 electoral process and observed the post-election period even with marginal interest is familiar with the facts presented and reviewed in the Report. Second, the diplomatically finessed conclusion of the Report tells the whole story. The 2005 Ethiopian election was stolen in broad daylight:

In spite of the positive pre election developments, the Center’s observation mission concludes that the 2005 electoral process did not fulfill Ethiopia’s obligations to ensure the exercise of political rights and freedoms necessary for genuinely democratic elections.

The real value of the Report lies in its plain depiction of how the 2005 Ethiopian election was stolen. One could say the Report is a sort of manual on the anatomy of election theft. To be sure, the Report effectively shows the “dos and don’ts” of a successful election heist and the specific things one must do in the “pre-election”, “election day” and “post-election” period. Carrying out the perfect election theft, however, is not for the faint of heart. One must have the cunning of a smiling villain, the audacity of a desperado outlaw and the brutality of a back alley thug to successfully steal an election in broad daylight. Above all, the accomplished election thief understands, masters and applies five basic principles.

Principle #1 (The Setup): Pander to your Western donors who bankroll you.

Elections in dictatorships are all about pleasing and trying to hoodwink Western donors, who are themselves all too willing to oblige with a wink and smile. They know elections in dictatorships are always stolen, but need an “election” charade to make plausible denials that they knew the election is stolen. In other words, they need a convenient cover story to shroud their hypocrisy in a garb of moral and intellectual virtue while concealing their criminal complicity in the theft. They pretend to maintain the appearance of neutrality and mediation in public while doing business as usual with the election thieves after dark. The smart election thief understands these basic facts and will do everything to make the donors happy, give them all the diplomatic cover they need and eventually squeeze more cash out of them.

The smart election thief will do just the right symbolic things to please the donors such as opening up “political space” for “competition and dialogue”, making grand pronouncements of “reforms”, giving lip service to open and vigorous electoral campaigns, not overtly interfering with civil society groups and the independent press and so on. It is a big deal for Western donors to see that “international election observers” are on the ground “watching” the “election” (from being stolen?!), and hopefully giving their blessings at the end. Western donors are kind of funny though: They want the local people to believe that an election could be stolen just a little and still be “free and fair.” But the people know that just as there is no such thing as a woman who is a little bit pregnant, there is also no such thing as an election that is a little bit stolen that is “free and fair”.

The Carter Center Report describing the 2005 pre-election period in Ethiopia stated:

The early pre-election period saw indications of growing space for political competition and dialogue. Government leaders, and opposition leaders met face-to-face to discuss the electoral process and needed reforms, with government agreeing to implement some of the key reforms called for by the opposition. International observers were invited and freedom of movement was assured. The Carter Center assessment team found the country’s political conditions conducive for an improved election. Government representatives exhibited openness to constructive criticism, and a willingness to consider recommendations for reforms. The opposition appeared ready to participate in the elections, and civil society was positioned to conduct voter and civic education and to observe the process…

Oh! What about democracy, free and fair elections, the people’s voice and all that good stuff? Not a problem. Western donors know the Ethiopian people are too poor, too hungry and too ignorant to understand or appreciate democracy. It is actually a simple problem of mind over matter: Western donors don’t mind (a stolen election) and the Ethiopian people don’t matter.

Principle #2 (Setting up the Heist): Use lots of smoke and mirrors.

Razzle-dazzle and theatricality are critical props before an election takedown. This requires keeping “the people” and the opposition distracted with all sorts of cute election games and amusements. One of the best election games is called “election code of conduct”. It is similar to a children’s game of marbles in which one player owns all the marbles. The game has only one rule: The guy who writes the “code” always wins the elections. As the election date nears, it is necessary to create hoopla and hype. The Carter Center Report describes:

The pre-election period witnessed unprecedented participation by opposition parties and independent candidates, and an unmatched level of political debate in the state-dominated electronic and print media and at public forums held across the country. Political parties agreed to a Party Code of Conduct, committing themselves to compliance with provisions calling for fair play and supporting peaceful political competition. Ethiopian civil society organizations were active in the pre-election period, observing election preparations and sponsoring a series of televised debates on public policy issues between government officials and opposition leaders.

Principle #3: (The Takedown) Snatch the election, faster than a New York pickpocket.

The smart election thief is lightening fast when it comes to the takedown. He does not wait for election returns, results or tabulations. He does not wait for verification reports and analysis of international observers or resolutions of vote challenges. On election day, he moves swiftly and declares victory before the votes are counted, imposes martial law and runs away with the prize in broad daylight in view of millions of stunned voters who look on in total disbelief. The Carter Center Report describes:

The May 15 voting process progressed relatively smoothly with Carter Center observers reporting that polling was calm and peaceful in the polling stations visited, with only limited incidents of disturbances reported. However, problems began to emerge during the counting and tabulation phases, with significant irregularities and delays in vote tabulation and a large number of electoral complaints. Preliminary but unconfirmed reports of election results from the political parties began to circulate on election night suggesting that the opposition parties had scored significant electoral gains, especially in Addis Ababa and other urban areas. On the night of the election, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared a one-month ban on public demonstrations in the capital and brought the Addis Ababa security forces (soon to be under the command of the opposition that won Addis Ababa) under the control of the office of the Prime Minister.

Principle #4 (The Getaway): Run them down if they get in your way!

As in any daylight crime, there may be witnesses. The smart election thief will use “shock and awe” to make a successful getaway. He will use extreme violence to deal with anyone standing in the way of his getaway. He will destroy any evidence of the theft and make it impossible to determine the full magnitude of the crime. He will boldly declare that it is necessary to kill unarmed demonstrators and jail nearly all of the opposition leaders to save democracy!

It’s very obvious now that the opposition tried to change the outcome of the election by unconstitutional means. We felt we had to clamp down. We detained them and we took them to court. In the process, many people died, including policemen. Many of our friends feel that we overreacted. We feel we did not. There is room for criticism nevertheless it does not change the fact that this process was a forward move towards democracy and not a reversal. Recent developments have simply reinforced that. The leaders of the opposition have realized they made a mistake. And they asked for a pardon, and the government has pardoned them all.[2]

The official Inquiry Commission set up to investigate the post-2005 election violence reported[3]:

There was no property destroyed. There was not a single protester who was armed with a gun or a hand grenade as reported by the government-controlled media that some of the protesters were armed with guns and bombs. The shots fired by government forces were not to disperse the crowd of protesters but to kill by targeting the head and chest of the protesters.

Principle #5: Deny, deny, then lie.

The smoothest criminals always deny, deny and lie that they have done anything wrong. It is no different for the smart election thief. In other words, once you get away with the heist, follow the wisdom of the Amharic saying “Ye leba ayne derek meles o leb adrik.” (A boldface thief will tax your patience by persistent denial.) Deny having stolen the election. Distract attention from oneself by pointing an accusatory finger at others and make ridiculous claims about “interhamwe” conspiracies, “blind hatred” and so on. Follow the teachings of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.

As any criminal defense lawyer knows, the criminal perpetrator gains special psychological advantages by following a strategy of denial. The act of denial enables the criminal to shield himself from the shocking reality of his wrongdoing. It also offers him an opportunity to admit a fact but deny the seriousness of the crime (rationalization). In many cases, denial enables the criminal to admit a wrongdoing and its seriousness while avoiding moral responsibility altogether.

Everyone, including the most ardent critics of the government, agrees that right up to election day the democratic elections in Ethiopia were exemplary, by any standard. The issue arises as to whether the counting of the vote was done in a fair and transparent fashion. Here, there are varied assessments. We argue that while there may have been mistakes here and there, on the whole it was a credible and fair count. The opposition did not agree. So we said: ‘Let’s check. Let’s review the counting in the presence of foreign observers.’ We did that. After we did that, two groups of observers the African Union and the Carter Center said that while there had been some mistakes, the outcome of the election was credible.[4]

Principle # 5.5: Go back to Principle #1.

If at first you succeed in stealing an election, steal and steal again! Welcome to Ethiopia Election May 2010!

Whoever said “crime does not pay” has not tried stealing an election! Steal an election and you can steal everything in sight (or out of sight) with impunity, indefinitely!

“The people who cast the votes don’t decide an election, the people who count the votes do.” Joseph Stalin

[4] See footnote 2.

Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on,, and other sites.

2 thoughts on “Ethiopia: The A B C’s of Stealing an Election

  1. I know professor Alemayehu G/Mariam is one of famus Ethiopians in the diaspora who does fight corrupted EPRDF leadership in Ethiopia. He does fight not with gun, but with his beautiful pen,however; I am usually as why he does not use simple english that middle ethiopians can read and understand. I am sure many may share with me that this is not the case in many of his writings.

  2. Excellent analysis, this is exactly what has been happening for so long in the developing nations by their respective ruthless dictators. One thing we musn’t forget, it is by the orders of the western donor countries these so called elections have been carried out. As a matter of fact, these donors don’t want a genuine democratic elections to happen in the developing countries, because it doesn’t serve their interests. All they want is to make it look like real elections conducted and the people have voted just to avoid critisisms for supporting these dictators and thugs. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if these sham elections were orchestrated by these same donor nations to begin with.

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