Sunday, 24 May 2015

The African Democracy Change will come, but not now

Africa's second most populous nation after Nigeria, Ethiopia, goes to elections on 24 Many.Ethihiopians are voting in national and regional elections – the country’s first since the 2012 death of its longtime leader – with the ruling party expected to maintain its grip on power. More than 38 million voters are eligible to cast ballots on Sunday. Some opposition groups had threatened to boycott the vote, saying their members were being harassed and detained – charges the government denies.
The prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn – a former university professor – has been leading the country since the death of strongman Meles Zenawi, who built the ruling coalition into a powerful political organisation, while opposition groups complain of persecution. The ruling party, in power since 1991, is guaranteed a landslide victory. In the iron-fisted autocracy where no alternative voice is allowed to be heard, the only question is by what percentage they will “win” this time.  Iam eagerly waiting for this election to be over. Not that I buy a single bit of what American diplomat Ms. Wendy Sherman said about a ‘free and fair election’ or a ‘growing democracy’, discourse that angered very many Ethiopians who live and know the story otherwise. Also not because I expect any win by the opposition, or some sort of change whipping us with surprise. Not any time soon.

As essential as they are, I am skeptical about Ethiopian elections considering what they have brought to the country in the past – mostly fear, violence, confusion, dissatisfaction and forced exile for a number of citizens. It has been 10 years since the bloody 2005 elections. And this is the fifth time the nation will be voting since the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) took power in 1991. 

The 2005 Ethiopian elections (the third national elections) mark a significant timeline in the lives of Ethiopians and changed the way elections are perceived. The parliamentary and regional elections were the most competitive in the history of the country. The campaign period witnessed high-level public debates; the contending political parties were given an unprecedented level of access to state media outlets, including live broadcasts of the debates. According to some observers, “The government did so, on the basis of a false assumption that they would gain a large majority in the election. The government was both under international pressure to liberalize the media and they also wished to deny the opposition any opportunity to delegitimize their victory through claims of irregularities during the campaign period”[1] . High voter turnout at public rallies marked the pre-election period, and most observers hailed the whole process as peaceful, except for minor irregularities and intimidation of supporters of the opposition.


The paradox came when the ruling party declared it had won enough seats in the parliament to form the national government and then followed this with a month-long ban on demonstrations in the capital, Addis Ababa. That came way before the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) had finalized the counting of votes. The opposition on the other hand declared fraud and vote rigging and asserted that they had achieved victory. 

A wave of protests hit the capital, quickly spreading across the nation. Clashes with the security forces cost the lives of civilians. Opposition party leaders and supporters were arrested and charged with treason. The ruling party did not have the time to reflect on what to do differently to be as popular as some of the opposition parties of the time (apparently that is what competition should do for conscious competitors) or reach to the root causes of the bitter rejection of the election results. Instead, they concluded that nothing good could come out of opening up of the political and social spaces. The beginning of that election time had made many Ethiopians to believe that democracy had finally visited the land. But Doomsday arrived and many lives were lost; dreams were shattered. That experience still gives us the chills – we want to fast-forward. 

I recently read a piece on the Huff Post on why Ethiopians should vote that put three reasons forward. I am up all for empowerment and the exercise of agency, while I think it is much more than a matter of patriotism and willingness to sacrifice a couple of hours to take part in the exercise. It is a matter of survival for many, especially those who have the 2005 elections and its aftermath experience as a fresh memory: the intimidation, the arrests, and the alleged grudge the government to this day holds against the various localities where it lost. It is also easy to recall that the infrastructure boom in Addis Ababa only came after 2010 election, the claimed 99.6% win by the ruling party. But I don’t agree with the assertion that big gestures of voting for the opposition will send a signal to the government and encourage it to work harder, and better– it will rather make the lives of many people difficult in all ways, as the writer clearly put it, “Politicians know who votes each election”. 

Another reason why I want the election fever to be over is the ‘sunny’ government of EPRDF’s fresh round of propaganda overdose that we can’t live without it; the economy is growing at double-digit, and farmers are becoming millionaires, etc. There are the celebrations to indoctrinate the public on the need to be grateful to the government and to submit to the hard-won power after a long and tiring armed struggle. And the mind games played on the people by calling the opposition demons (or similar names – Interahamwe or ISIS in 2005 and 2015 respectively) and the threats that voting for them will bring an end of this great nation (This may be just a campaign tactic, but seriously speaking, it is more of a scare than anything else). 

And, out of curiosity, does the public really care for an economy that grows in some bizarre digits only the government and IMF understand, but doesn’t reflect in the lives of the people who barely make it to the end of the month with their meager earnings? How does a country with 85% of its population living in rural areas and earning their living through farming have a government that takes pride in a handful of successful farmers? (Ethiopia is the second most populous African nation after Nigeria. Its population is around 94 million). But, above all, isn’t there some sort of job description for the people in power: building roads (rail or other), providing for the public, making life better, ensuring security (human or otherwise), among others? This if-it-wasn’t-for-us narrative is getting too old now; with actually not much to show for it.

We are taught and expected to appreciate elections, as they have the potential to turn things around, generate unity at the national or sub-national level, with clear intentions of allowing the public to have a say in matters that determine the way their lives function and decide on whom to perform those functions. But in this ancient and great nation called Ethiopia, democracy is just a tag on the official name of the nation; it is not a practice. 

According to official reports, around 36 million out of 43 million people of voting age had registered to cast votes by Sunday. This is a good indicator for rising public participation. But unless those who register are well informed and educated on their rights, and not relying on the winks by the local cadres, it defeats the purpose of exercising one’s democratic right freely. Have the electorate been given the opportunity to identify whom they would like to vote for? Of course yes! The majority of the people are subjected to the ever boring and redundant propaganda produced by the state controlled media, therefore their choice is nothing but EPRDF. If the indoctrination will not be enough, there will be the National Electoral Board and local observers to take care of the outcome after the casting of the ballots. 

The Ethiopian government always pretends that it is not authoritarian; but then again Stalin and Mao had parliaments and constitutions full of guaranteed rights. The whole purpose of that and every other part of the government is to maintain the selected few in wealth and power, by all costs. That is all. The private media lives under constant threat and harassment. Civil society organizations perform on a tightrope. Political dissent is silenced in a systematic way. The social and political space is too tight and suffocating. It is actually a worrying matter that the only means for the public to speak back to its leaders is through the untrusted and feared ballot boxes, which are very much orchestrated, open to manipulation as a final resort, if the constant brainwashing, propaganda and mostly the signal of ‘with us or against us’ doesn’t bear the desired fruit. 

For a new comer in Ethiopia, Addis Ababa shows the face of a police state. There are armed forces on the streets, gesturing that something is coming up – it is only the election. In a democratic state, election time would be an easy period for festivities and happiness, not so much uncertainty and fear. In a recent detailed account on Elections in Ethiopia: Beyond Winning (And Losing), Tsegaye R. Ararssa confirms that: “The fear that grips the state on the eve of election is thus the fear of loss of control over the violence that keeps the state together, the fear of loss of power by the minority. In a sense, it is the fear of democracy, the fear of majority rule. Democracy means the end of Ethiopia, as we knew it so far. It is the end of authority to use force as a way of governing”. This gives us food for thought about when this will end and democracy actually become a friend, not a foe of Ethiopia and its people. 

To conclude, keeping in mind that this is a country where very level headed and professional journalists like Tesfalem Woldeyes and young and energetic bloggers like the Zone9ers and others are in jail for saying what they witness everyday, it is refreshing to come across new online platforms dedicated to the 2015 election. One of them is the election2015 site and facebook page with sober, well-researched and referenced continent. This adds a new dimension to the election debate and overall discussion, by providing not only information, but also a mock poll ahead of the election in order to exercise one’s right without any fear and hindrance. Fingers crossed, these and other platforms will remain open and functioning at least till the end of the election and even further, to let the public (at least those who have access to the technology) know what has been going on, including the poll results.

I want to fast-forward to the time when the nation would have passed through all the fear and uncertainties and made it to a bright day, when the majority of its people will exercise their full rights and potential, not only in the once-every-five-years elections, but in the economic, social and cultural spheres of every day life.

* "Tesfaye Yosef" is a pen-name. The author of this article is an Ethiopian citizen living in Addis Ababa, whose full details we cannot reveal due to the Ethiopian government’s extensive ruthless repression of critical voices.

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