Election 2010 & Zenawi’s New Game

President Obama has clearly stated, particularly in his speech in Ghana, that African rulers cannot fool his government easily and he will not openly support their perpetuation of ‘strongmanship’. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s trip to a select few African countries also seemed an endorsement of that message, though it happened in accordance with America’s foreign interest in the region.

Both Obama’s speech and Clinton’s trip have made it clear that African rulers must first champion free and fair elections, respect the rule of law and win the trust of their population should they want any kind of open alliance with the Oval Office. With Ethiopia one of the US’s foreign aid recipients, the message from the White House must have intimidated Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s administration.

During Bush’s administration, the ‘War on Terror’ rhetoric worked really well in favour of Prime Minister Zenawi, who enjoyed unlimited support from the United States. Today however, he is having a hard time securing Washington’s undivided attention.

The Obama administration has carefully reserved itself from openly engaging Zenawi’s government due to the post-2005 election violence and other negative human rights records. There is also a huge presence of Ethiopians in the Washington D.C. area who are preventing Zenawi from having a smooth ride with Obama. Most of the diaspora Ethiopians heavily criticise and oppose Zenawi’s rule because of his party’s monopoly over the economy and politics. Just recently there was a March 4 Freedom demonstration right in front of Capitol Hill, condemning the government in Addis Ababa and accusing it of ‘genocide’.

When Zenawi was recently asked about current Ethio-US relations, he defended his government’s position by saying, ‘I don’t agree with everything under the sun, let alone with Obama. Do we express our disagreements openly when we disagree? Yes, we do. Does that create a feeling of tension from time to time? Perhaps it does. Does that mean that the relationship is fundamentally weak? No. And there is nothing new to the strains that you seem to notice; there is nothing specifically related to the Obama administration. If anything, the coming of the Obama administration may have eased some of the strains.'[1]

Given the current political insecurity in Ethiopia, having an open alliance with Prime Minister Zenawi will be a disadvantage for President Obama. President Obama, before he took power, promised millions, including the Ethiopian diaspora who voted for him in droves, that he would bring change to Washington’s foreign policy, which affects millions of poor people around the world. Breaking that promise means becoming another hypocrite – a typical politician who betrays people’s trust.


Zenawi’s loyalists may consider him a ‘renaissance man’ but for those who oppose his government he is just another ‘tyrant’. Those who oppose him are worried that his party, if not he himself, will cling to power for as long as possible through undemocratic means. They accuse his government’s senior, junior and low-ranking officials of corruption and exploitation, two unfortunate obstacles of progress that existed in Ethiopia even before Zenawi was born.

The fact is that poor Ethiopians are tired of whatever kind of authoritarianism: 40 plus years of Haile Selassie, 17 years of Mengistu and now 18 plus years of Meles Zenawi. The ongoing political chaos has weakened their spirit. It is too much to endure, although the people are partially to blame for the mess. After all, the rulers did not ascend directly from hell. Although the elites are to 99.99 per cent loyal to Western ideologies, they come from within the society and are shaped by its culture. The sad reality is that the burden is always placed on the poor people. The disempowered elites run away to safe havens when the worst comes to worst, leaving the country and the defenceless people to fend for themselves, while the powerful ones who remain behind exploit the people unrepentantly.

Today’s political fight in Ethiopia is still based around ideology, and remains fundamentally similar to the time when Meles was a militant student. Economically, the country still heavily depends on foreign aid, forcing some to conclude, ‘it’s addicted to aid.’ Although Zenawi argues that he will turn Ethiopia into a ‘middle-income economy’ soon, a growing number of children are exported to foreign countries as ‘orphans’. Most people in today’s Ethiopia are as poor as they were yesterday, if not more so. People with a ‘middle-class’ status barely exist. You are either on top of the pyramid or at the very bottom of it. So many young people die crossing deserts or deadly seas in search of a better life. The number of people who apply for the Diversity Visa (DV) Lottery to fulfil their American dream doubles every year. Many students who graduate from American or European universities rarely go back home. Most of those who graduate inside the country remain unemployed. There are few entrepreneurs; the concept of micro financing, which has changed lives in Asia, scarcely exists. A few, associated with the government, monopolise businesses. Doesn’t this disturbing fact eat Zenawi’s brain every time he goes to bed?

Twenty years from now, long after I am done with school, I wish to see an aid-independent, democratic Ethiopia where fair politics reign, and where people wake up every morning wanting to do something positive in their homeland instead of dreaming about foreign countries. I also wish my future children to grow up in a respected country, enabling them to be proud of their Ethiopian and African identity, not to mention their ethnic heritage and where they are free to express their thoughts and to criticise their leaders fearlessly, using their constitutional rights.

Ethiopia still has a huge chance to become a democratic and prosperous nation in the Horn of Africa. A significant number of South Africa’s population, for example, is still poor; however, South African politicians and lawmakers have transformed the country from apartheid to a genuine democracy with the result that South Africa’s economy is thriving and their democratic tradition is blossoming. There is no reason why Ethiopia cannot follow the South African path should there be dedicated leaders from both the ruling party and the opposition. If Zenawi and his party open up the space for a genuine multi-party system and establish a truth and reconciliation commission, historical antipathy between the various competing ethnic elites will surely be curbed and the poor will finally have their peace.

Zenawi, 54 years old, had been giving mixed signals for months that he might retire from office. However, because his party’s members ‘love him so much’ and because they see him as ‘irreplaceable’, they have ‘urged’ him to stay in power longer, until his 60th birthday. What a birthday present to a dedicated comrade, one may say! However, behind this love affair, there exists a calculated risk.

Zenawi, no doubt, is the political mastermind of the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), supposedly a coalition of four regional parties – the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SPDM) and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). However, the TPLF, as the founder of the other three pseudo-independent parties, monopolises everything. Considering the EPRDF’s present obstacles – Obama’s administration, human rights organisations, growing public discontent, global economic meltdown, and opposition parties – the presence of Zenawi as prime minister is crucial for the party’s survival. Thus it was the right decision for the EPRDF to keep its strongman in power. Zenawi explained the party’s decision to journalists, saying, ‘In order to ensure policy continuity, and success in the implementation of the party’s platform, the party felt that there was need for some additional time.'[2]

The EPRDF is determined to win in 2010. Given the difficult situations major opposition parties face, there is no doubt it will win.


For EPRDF politicians, the 2010 election is expected to be tougher than the 2005 election, which was disastrous, resulting in the government and the opposition forces blaming each other for the chaos. It was reported that about 200 people were killed and many injured during the crisis. Opposition leaders, their supporters, journalists and some employees of NGOs were thrown into jail and accused of ‘treason’. After that election, most opposition parties were crippled because of their internal litigations and government interference. Many political prisoners, including the first Ethiopian female opposition leader, Birtukan Mideksa, still languish in notorious prisons.

Recently a promising coalition of opposition forces has emerged, the Forum for Democratic Dialogue (FDD). This coalition seems by far the best candidate to challenge the EPRDF peacefully. Opposing ideologues have joined hands to address national and ethnic questions as one voice. This has already given a headache to the government, which sees itself as the only ‘genuine’ force in the country that ‘cares’ about ‘ethnic self-determination’. The FDD, no doubt, embodies the nature of the current Ethiopian political dynamics; nevertheless, a book cannot be judged by its cover but by what it delivers. If this new coalition avoids internal fighting and competitiveness and withstands the EPRDF’s intimidation, then it will definitely become a formidable opponent in the upcoming election.

People for sure will vote for the FDD if it listens to their heartbeat. Otherwise, if it acts in a ‘I know better than you and here I come to rule you’ manner like the EPRDF, then they may be inclined to say the following: ‘Kemayaqut Melak, Yemiyawkut Seytan Yishalal,’ which means, ‘A devil you know is better than an angel you don’t know.’

Opposition parties, unsurprisingly, have several challenges, imposed mostly by the ruling party. Professor Beyene Petros, the former leader of the United Ethiopia Democratic Front (UEDF), briefed the media, ‘Our participation in the coming election depends on whether the government is willing to discuss on the binding law of election. So far the government isn’t interested to sit and talk with us. It just wants to kill time; and at the eleventh hour, they might say now we can talk. This is their usual tactic.'[3] Bulcha Demeksa, leader of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM), further questioned, ‘How can we get ready for an election when we can’t get close to our people and talk to them on what they want? We don’t have money, we don’t have offices, and there is dispute everywhere. This doesn’t allow us to get ready for anything.’ A member of Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party, Temesgen Zewde, repeated the same frustration: ‘The ruling party purposely comes up with laws that draw a line to our right of participating in [a] democratic election.’ In addition to their internal problems, opposition parties face such undemocratic strategies of the government, which threatens their existence.

The fact that EPRDF prefers to intimidate its opponents rather than to open a political space for democratic elections says a lot about its fear of the inevitable challenge. One of the coalition members, Seyee Abraha, a former defence minister, wrote to a local newspaper recently saying, ‘The events in Mekelle, Debremarkos and Adama are clear demonstrations of how petrified the EPRDF is of peaceful struggle rather than armed struggle.'[4] According to reports, government cadres and security agents in major cities prevent the opposition systematically from reaching out to the public. Earlier, Negasso Gidada, the former president under the EPRDF, wrote a letter accusing the government of harassment after a mob disrupted a public meeting, which the UDJ organised on 16 August 2009.

But the prime minister, responding to the allegations, recently argued, ‘Those parties that apparently are concerned about harassment are not concerned enough in the devising of the code of conduct that is designed to put an end to it if it exists or prevent it from happening if it does not. My feeling is that the intent of some of these individuals is not to contest the elections in a serious manner. The intent is to discredit the election process from day one, not to participate in it in any meaningful way.’


In the mean time, Prime Minister Zenawi has engaged himself with a new hobby after realising that ‘the war on terror’ rhetoric may not hold water anymore. Fellow African rulers have anointed him to represent the continent in the upcoming climate change summit in Copenhagen.

It is difficult, however, to trust Zenawi’s genuineness and to believe his seriousness concerning the environment. Where is he when the very few factories in Ethiopia poison lakes and rivers with toxic waste? Various parts of Ethiopia are still prone to famine and drought despite the foreign aid coming into the country. There is a new law in Zenawi’s office that severely restricts NGOs’ humanitarian and environmental activities. Many indigenous communities suffer from diseases caused by contaminated air and water. The sufferers still cry for help, though no one listens to their cry. And now Zenawi is a champion of climate change?

Isn’t it an insult to tell poor Ethiopians that their ruler is going to ‘fight for Africa’ when they suffer from fluoride poisoning, cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), lung cancer, deforestation and other serious environmental disasters, which his administration has unsatisfactorily addressed? How will Zenawi make the case for Westerners to pay for ‘raping Africa’ when his own government gives a free ride to foreign companies in Ethiopia to exploit arable lands and to destroy the environment, disregarding the cries of vulnerable communities? How many trees are cut down each year to welcome Chinese, European, Indian and Arab investors? How many of those trees are replaced?

It is obvious and essential that a poor country like Ethiopia needs foreign direct investment and improved infrastructure to become self-sufficient; Zenawi should be commended for opening Ethiopia’s frontiers to investors and for improving the country’s infrastructures. However, Zenawi’s record doesn’t show that he has scored high on promoting sustainable development. Though his government prides itself for having very well-researched environmental policies, it rarely implements them to hold investors accountable for damaging the environment and for exposing communities to deadly diseases and homelessness.

Zenawi’s new game seems to be just pure hypocrisy. But hypocrisy doesn’t bother Zenawi as long as he can convince the West that he still is a ‘progressive African leader’. I will not be surprised if the Obama administration and other Western leaders fall for this trap. This is not, however, to say that Africans must not demand compensation from the industrialised world for suffering due to climate change. I am only saying that Zenawi may not be the right candidate to represent Africa’s interest in Copenhagen because he first needs to clean up his domestic issues.

It is already decided that Zenawi will represent Africa in Copenhagen, and may even become ‘Africa’s champion of climate change’ after the summit, but that will not pacify the public discontent inside Ethiopia. It is typical of Ethiopian rulers to act as ‘internationalists’ or ‘pan-Africanists’ when domestically they treat their people like commodities. The poor Ethiopians are used to such pretension and mistreatment; they are tired of it! Zenawi still needs to open a stage in Ethiopia for a genuine democracy, which he claims he fought for as a student and later as a leftist guerrilla.

Your Excellency, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, as a young person who wishes not to grow old and bitter, seeing Ethiopia go astray, and as a citizen, I demand the following: give power back to its rightful owners, the people!


[1] Media quotes are from http://www.jimmatimes.com, http://www.addisfortune.com and http://www.ethiopianreporter.com.

[2] See [1].

[3] See [1].

[4] See [1].


Article published on the following site:

Pambazuka News


1 Comment

Filed under Reflections

One response to “Election 2010 & Zenawi’s New Game

  1. Tessfa La Africa

    well written article, I believe that this new generation is the one that will make a diffrence in our country. How old are you?

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