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Ethiopia Election 99.6

Of Elections and Diapers in Ethiopia

Alemayehu G. Mariam

Note: Over the past week, I have received numerous requests from those who read my last commentary “Ethiopia at the Crossroads of History[1], to share my views on the on the question, “Where do we go from here?” in the aftermath of the so-called May 2010 elections.  I am pleased to oblige in a series of forthcoming commentaries. Here I offer my analysis of the “election” and what I perceive to be the ruling regime’s future direction.

The 2010 Election: Putting Lipstick on a Pig

Some say, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but at the end of the day, it is still a pig.” Others say, “You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper and call it an ‘election’. It’s still gonna stink.” Well, one can certainly say that you can stampede throngs of  “esteemed residents of Addis Ababa” into the public square and lecture them on how the “whole world knows the 4th national election has taken place in a peaceful, democratic and credible manner,” but at the end of the day a phony election with a 99.6 percent win is still a phony election. In fact, the spectacular margin of electoral victory claimed by dictator Meles Zenawi is second only to the victory claimed by the late dictator Saddam Hussien who won 100 percent of the 11,454, 638 yes votes in a referendum in 2002.

For the past year, I have been predicting that the 2010 Ethiopian “election” will prove to be a sham, a travesty of democracy and a mockery and caricature of democratic elections.[2]  Without my literary and rhetorical flourish, that is now the exact conclusion of the international election observers. The “Preliminary Statement” of the European Union Election Observation Mission- Ethiopia 2010 stated: “The electoral process fell short of certain international commitments, notably regarding the transparency of the process and the lack of a level playing field for all contesting parties.” The White House issued a statement expressing “concern that international observers found that the elections fell short of international commitments. We are disappointed that U.S. Embassy officials were denied accreditation and the opportunity to travel outside of the capital on Election Day to observe the voting.” Johnnie Carson, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the State Department told the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee that  “we note with some degree of remorse that the elections were not up to international standards… The [Ethiopian] government has taken clear and decisive steps that would ensure that it would garner an electoral victory.” Even Herman Cohen, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State who served as “mediator” in the so-called May 1991 London Peace Talks which resulted in the establishment of the Zenawi regime decried the outcome: “This time opposition media and opposition groups were not given fair time on the media and opposition media tends to be suppressed and in that sense I don’t think it was a fair election.”

Only the 60-person African Union (AU) observer team led by former Botswana president Ketumile Masire concluded the “elections were free and fair and found no evidence of intimidation and misuse of state resources for ruling party campaigns.” Masire proclaimed:

The [elections] were largely consistent with the African Union regulations and standards and reflect the   will of the people… The AU were unable to observe the pre-election period. The participating parties expressed dissatisfaction with the pre-election period. They did not have freedom to campaign. We had no way of verifying the allegations.

With all due respect to Masire, it seems that he made his declaration clueless of the observation standards he is required to follow in the AU Elections Observation and Monitoring Guidelines[Guidelines] [3]. If he had done so, he would have known that there is no logical, factual or documentary basis for him to declare the “elections were largely consistent with the African Union regulations and standards.” For instance, pursuant to Section III 9 (e) of the Guidelines (“MANDATES, RIGHTS AND OBLIGATIONS OF THE OBSERVERS”), Masire’s team had a mandatory duty to “observe the political parties and groups as well as the population at large in the exercise of their political rights, and the conditions in which such rights are to be exercised.” Masire by his own admission made no such observation. (“The AU were unable to observe the pre-election period ‘s team made no such observation.”)  Under Section V (13), the Guidelines mandate that “AU Observers should ascertain that… (b) all competing political parties have equal access to both the print and the electronic media (radio, T.V.).” Masire said his team “had no way of verifying” pre-election complaints, including complaints of unequal access to state-controlled media. Under Section V (B) (d), the AU observers had a mandatory duty to ascertain “the campaign process is conducted in conditions of serenity, and that there are no acts of provocation or intimidation capable of compromising.” Masire’s team failed to make such inquiries. Under section B (24), the Guidelines mandate: “The atmosphere during the campaign should be carefully observed, and among the factors to consider in this regard include … (iv) persistent or reported cases of human rights violations.” Masire’s team does not appear to be aware of such a requirement, let alone to actually make the observation. It is truly regrettable to say of a former African leader that he showed no evidence of having read or understood the numerous mandatory election observation duties set forth in minute detail in the AU Guidelines before shamelessly and pathetically declaring the elections “were largely consistent with African Union regulations and standards.”

Where Do the Dictators Want to Go From Here?

In his victory speech (an event billed as a public protest against Human Rights Watch for its critical report on the regime), dictator Meles Zenawi boldly stated that he ain’t going nowhere. He is staying put where he has been for the past 19 years. It will be business as usual. The political game will be played out on the same 19 year-old zero-sum field; and his team will always win and everybody else will always lose. But there will be a change in style, form, appearance and public relations in the post- “election” period.

Hide the Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove

“Hide the iron fist in a velvet glove. Speak softly and carry a big stick.” That was the essence of Zenawi’s “victory” speech (a/k/a demonstration against Human Rights Watch) on May 26. It was a grotesquely Churchillian speech. It was Winston Churchill who said, “In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity”. In the “election” battle, Zenawi was resolute. For months before election day, he had threatened to prosecute opposition leaders for their “inflammatory” and “hateful” campaign statements calculated to “incite violence”. He even threatened to burn them at the stake if they withdrew from the elections at the last minute and agitated the youth to demonstrate in the streets[4]. In his defeat — that is, the complete loss of credibility that comes from winning an election with 99.6 percent of the votes– he was defiant. (By the way, he gave a solemn promise to the 0.4 percent of the people who did not vote for him: “I would like to confirm to those who did not vote for us that we will work hard to look into your reasons for not voting for us with the view to learning from them and correcting any shortcomings on our part. We will work day and night to obtain your support in the next election.” In 2015, the vote will be 100 percent for Zenawi and his party!)  In his 99.6 percent electoral “victory”, he was magnanimous – “let bygones be bygones.” (yalefew alfwal.)

The velvet glove/big stick strategy is based on a simple idea of totally demoralizing and humiliating the opposition, hoodwinking the Western donors and simply fooling the people. Zenawi’s velvety message was that he “does not want to be forced to embark upon the business of tracking down people committing crimes. I would like to appeal to some opposition parties… not to force the Government to take measures against them.”  He is still carrying a chip on his shoulder from the drubbing his party got in 2005. The opposition humiliated his party in 2005 by wining every seat in Addis Ababa, and now it is their turn to be humiliated.  “It is to be recalled that in the last election, five years ago, we, the EPRDF lost every seat in the capital due to our failure to achieve our goals..” Not this time. We won them all. (Hee…hee). In 2005, the opposition accused him of rigging and stealing the election; well, let them get a load this in 2010: “We all know the destructive role some political parties have been playing so far. [They have] attempt[ed] to mar and discredit the polling process. They have tried to cause delay by instructing their observers to arrive late at the polling stations. They have tried to disrupt the queues, make all sorts of shouts and cries,…[and even] sen[t] in their members with grenades to detonate among people queuing at polling stations… We have also observed successful and unsuccessful attempts by members of some of the opposition parties to snatch away ballot boxes and burn the votes of the people.”

But there is an olive branch extended to the opposition wrapped in condescending cordiality and paternalism.  Now that the opposition has been vanquished, they will be allowed to lick the crumbs off the table (and the shoes of the victors) as long as they keep their tails between their legs. “We make this pledge to all the parties who did not succeed in getting the support of the people, during this election, that whether or not you have won seats in the parliament, as long as you respect the will of the people and the country’s Constitution and other laws of the land, we will work by consulting and involving you in all major national issues. We are making this pledge not only because we believe that we should be partners… [but also] you have the right to participate and to be heard.” In other words, we will let you speak, if we want to; and we’ll shut you up when we want to. Your political existence depends on our good will, whim and fancy.

Birtukan Midekssa, the first female political party leader in Ethiopia’s recorded history and that country’s no. 1 political prisoner had said it all before she was re-imprisoned for life in December 2008:

The message is clear and this message is not only for me but for all who are active in the peaceful  struggle. A peaceful and law-abiding political struggle can be conducted only within the limits the ruling party has set and not according to what the country’s Constitution allows. And for me it is extremely difficult to accept this.

Now that the “election’ is over, Zenawi will probably trot out the tired old  “elders” to begin reconciliation talks to help him buy time until the dust settles around the “elections” controversy. He may even tantalize some opposition leaders with offers of fancy appointments and positions to divide and neutralize them. He is very good at the divide-and-rule thing, which he has successfully used for the past 19 years. Unsurprisingly, some will fall for his tricks, as history shown time and again. He will make promises to democratize, uphold the rile of law and all that just to buy enough time for the opposition and the people to fall deeper into the vortex of hopeless and despair.

The bottom line for Zenawi’s regime is: For the foreseeable future, the opposition will know who the Boss is; and if they have any doubts, the iron fist will be unsheathed from the velvet glove and the big stick pulled out to drive that  point home. No political prisoners will be released, including Birtukan Midekssa. More will be added. There will be no independent press. Civic society organizations will not be allowed to operate freely. Judges will remain in the back pockets of the ruling regime. Justice, and pieces of the country, will be up for sale to the highest bidder; and on and on. Business will be conducted in the same way it has for the last 19 years!

Hoodwinking the Donors

The contempt and disregard Zenawi has for the Western donors is exceeded only by his utter scorn for the opposition. He warned the donors with diplomatic finesse: “We have seen those we believed were friends and partners behaving like king makers and an appeal court for Ethiopia’s politics. Our proud people would still like to extend a warm welcome of friendship and partnership. We say to you: Please give due respect to the decision and the sovereign power of the people to elect their own leaders.” His strategy in dealing with the Western donors is simple: He is the only game in town. The donors have no alternatives to him because he has wiped out the opposition. The donors want stability above all things and will tolerate anything he does. They don’t really believe in democracy and human rights anyway; they believe only in advancing their national interests. They do not have the guts to take any action against him because he will threaten to cut them off and go with the Chinese. In any case, they have never taken any serious actions against him and never will. He regards them as a bunch of hypocritical, forked-tongue, double-dealing and double-talking windbags. America is not going to do anything because of her preoccupation with terrorism in the Horn. To ease the criticism on the donors, he will give them  diplomatic cover by touting that he has achieved “double digit economic growth”, built roads, schools and other infrastructure. In any case, if push comes to shove, he will attack them by claiming that they are interfering in the country’s sovereignty and affronting the Ethiopian people.

If truth be told, Zenawi would not be necessarily inaccurate in his view. The U.S., Britain and the European Union have poured in tens of billions of dollars of aid to support his regime for nearly two decades while pontificating about democracy and human rights endlessly. They took no action when he passed a so-called press law criminalizing free speech and the free press. They just moaned and groaned about it a little. They took no action when he passed a so-called civic society law that effectively banned civic organizations. They have taken no action against him despite a nearly two decade uninterrupted record of gross human rights violations and criminality. All they have done is dump the blame on the opposition: “There is no viable alternative in the opposition.” They know full well that the opposition is subjected to daily threats, intimidations, arbitrary arrests and detentions and violence, yet they have mustered the audacity to blame them for being “not viable”.  As I have argued previously[5], the Western donors have entered into a conspiracy of silence to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil of Zenawi.

You Can Fool All of the People All of the Time on Planet Ethiopia

It is said that “you may fool all the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.” Not so for Zenawi and company on Planet Ethiopia. If you think you have fooled the people for 20 years, you can try and fool them for another five or more. In his speech, Zenawi told the people:

The voters have given us their support freely and democratically. Women are the real backbone of our organization… The youth of our country who have started to benefit from the ongoing development. We are ready to learn from [our] mistakes…. The important point in the election process is not the result of the election. It is not about which party won the election. It is Ethiopia’s renewal. The winner is Ethiopia’s democracy and all Ethiopians. We say congratulations to all the electorate and to our country’s forces of peace and democracy… The residents of Addis Ababa are fully aware of our respect for their decision. I believe that the people of Ethiopia, beyond recognizing the efforts of the EPRDF and voting it into power have unequivocally sent a clear message to the opposition parties in our country…

It is all about humility and how they can learn from their mistakes and all of the improvements they will make to earn the trust and confidence of the people and so on. We have heard it all before. No need to recite that litany of lies and false promises.  Of course, if Zenawi wants to find out the truth all he has to do is ask the people one simple question: Are they better off today than they were in 2005?

I have expressed my views on the limitations of the regime on previous occasions[6]:

The dictators of Ethiopia are trapped in a historical time warp. They have clutched the reigns of state for two decades and ostentatiously display the trappings of political power and wealth. But they have not been able to transform ‘bushcraft’ into statecraft… In their armed campaign against the Derg junta, decision-making was left in the hands of the few. The few leaders exercised raw, brute power over their followers and the communities they controlled. They silenced dissent and criticism ruthlessly, and leaders who disagreed were marginalised, labeled as traitors and removed. Everything was done in secrecy. Power was understood not as a public duty but as a means of self-enrichment, political patronage and intimidation. Leadership meant the cult of personality. The best they have been able to do is to transform the ‘politics of the bush’ fighting the Derg into a one-man, one-party state, whose guiding motto is, ‘What is good for the TPLF/EPDRF is good for Ethiopia!’

The transition from ‘bushcraft’ to statecraft requires tectonic transformations. Democratic statecraft requires an appreciation, understanding and application of basic democratic principles such as the rule of law, separation of powers, checks and balances and constitutionalism in the governance process. The dictators have little experience with or practical understanding of such principles… They never had free elections in the bush; and it is no wonder that they were totally surprised when they got thumped in the 2005 elections. Upholding the rule of law is absurd to them because they believe themselves to be THE LAW… They scoff at civil liberties and civil rights as Western luxuries because they never lived in a system where the powers of government are constitutionally subordinated to the rights of the individual. In short, it is wishful thinking to expect from them the kind of statecraft necessary for democratic governance.

Mr. Zenawi and company need to understand a simple fact about elections: “Politicians are like diapers. They both need changing regularly and for the same reason.” Arrrrgh! The thought of poor Ethiopia wearing the same diapers for another 5 years….

Free Birtukan Midekssa and all political prisoners in Ethiopia.


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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.