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Ethiopia: Democracy Deferred

AfricaFocus Bulletin
May 25, 2010 (100525)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"Behind an orderly facade, the government pressured, intimidated and threatened Ethiopian voters, ...Whatever the results, the most salient feature of this election was the months of repression preceding it." - Rona Peligal, acting Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

There is little surprise in Ethiopian election results now beginning to come out, with the ruling party being returned with overwhelming majorities in all parts of the country. Nor has there been any large-scale violence reported, although some observers warned that new crackdowns on opposition might follow the election, But both Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian critics warn that the most important issues are structural, and that the appearance of democracy is belied by an authoritarian system.

While privately critical of the Ethiopian government, international donors have continued to favor it as a recipient of aid funds, ignoring reports that government political favoritism is one of the key mechanisms of control (see Helen Epstein in the May 13 issue of the New York Review of Books, cited below). Foreign aid receipts, at more than $3 billion in 2008, amount to more than those received by any other sub-Saharan African nation.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from an article by Ethiopian diaspora scholar and democracy activist Alemayeho G. Mariam, highlighting the view of imprisoned opposition leader Birtukan Midekssa, and a recent press release by Human Rights Watch on the current elections.,

For additional articles on Ethiopia by Alemayehu Mariam, see

Other useful background sources include

(1) Report of mid-April Conference on Good Governance, Peace, Security, And Sustainable Development in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, hosted by Advocacy for Ethiopia, Africa Action, and TransAfrica Forum, at

(2) Jan Abbink, Political Culture in Ethiopia: A Balance sheet of post-1991 ethnically-based federalism

(3) International Crisis Group, "Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism and its Discontents" September 2009.

(4) Helen Epstein, "Cruel Ethiopia"

(5) Human Rights Watch report "One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure": Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia, March 24, 2010

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Ethiopia, visit

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'Ethiopia is the country of the future'

An interview with Birtukan Midekssa

Alemayhu Mariam

Pambazuka News, 2010-05-20, Issue 482

[Excerpts only. For full interview see
Additional testimony and statements by Midekssa are available at and

This article was originally published by The Huffington Post. Alemayhu Mariam is professor of political science at California State University (CSU) San Bernardino.

Though currently incarcerated in Akaki federal prison, Birtukan Midekssa remains a key figure in the suppressed pursuit for democracy in Ethiopia, writes Alemayhu Mariam. Mariam presents Midekssa's concerns and hopes for the future in this interview, ...

Except for elements inserted in the nature of narrative licence, syntax and independently established facts, this interview is based on English or Amharic translations of public statements, hearing testimony, speeches and other declarations of Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history and that country's most famous political prisoner. Her re-imprisonment in December 2008 on allegations of denying a pardon was a tactical move by dictator Meles Zenawi to incapacitate and eliminate his only serious and formidable challenger in the May 2010 elections. In March 2010, the US State Department declared Birtukan a political prisoner. In January 2010, the United Nations Human Rights Council listed her as a victim of arbitrary detention. Amnesty International named Birtukan a prisoner of conscience in 2009. This interview is done partly for the benefit of Western governments and their diplomatic representatives in Ethiopia in light of the May 2010 elections. It seems that Western governments in general have taken a solemn vow to say nothing, see nothing and hear nothing about Birtukan. As they hide behind a diplomatic shield of shame and give lip service to democratic ideals while coddling a dictator, I hope with this interview they will at least begin to appreciate this extraordinarily brilliant, thoughtful, enlightened, perceptive, humorous, cultured, humble and compassionate Ethiopian woman political leader.


Alemayhu Mariam: The reason you were returned to prison to serve out a life term is that you allegedly denied receiving a pardon when you were released in July 2007. Did you deny receiving a pardon?

Birtukan Midekssa: I have never denied signing the pardon document as an individual prisoner. I, along with the other opposition political prisoners, asked for pardon through the elders according to the document that was written on June 18 2007. This is a fact I cannot change even if I wanted to. In my opinion the reason why all these illegal intimidations and warnings were aimed at me have nothing to do with playing with words, inaccurate statements I made or any violations of law. 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.

Alemayhu Mariam: As you know, elections are scheduled for May 23 2010. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Birtukan Midekssa: It is hard for me to say much locked up at the "Akaki Hilton". I get no newspapers, magazines or books. I have no radio or television. But I can tell you how it was in 2005 and you can judge for yourself what the situation is like today.

In 2005, public interest and participation in the electoral process was massive. The European Union observer team estimated voter registration at no less than 85 per cent of all eligible voters, based on lists containing 25,605,851 names of registered persons. The total number of candidates for the House of Peoples' Representatives was 1,847. A total of 3,762 candidates ran for regional councils. The total number of women candidates to the House of Peoples' Representatives was 253, and 700 in the regional councils. To its credit the government in 2005 allowed limited media access, established the Joint Political Party Forum at national and constituency levels, conducted regular consultations with electoral authorities to resolve problems in campaign and election administration, facilitated special elections-related training programs for the police and the judiciary, encouraged pledges of nonviolence between the ruling and opposition parties for election day and invited international election observers and so on. As election day approached, the government started to use its power to influence the outcome of the election. There was widespread interference by local authorities in the conduct of public gatherings and opposition party rallies, and threats and intimidations by some local public officials. In some instances, force was used to disrupt public gatherings and detain opposition supporters throughout the country. In the days preceding the elections, there was a spike in negative campaigns on radio and television using images and messages designed to intimidate by associating the genocide in Rwanda with opposition politics. Even though the election board was required to announce the official results on 8 June, that requirement was superseded when Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared a state of emergency, outlawed any public gathering, assumed direct command of the security forces and replaced the capital city police with federal police and special military units. The elections board simultaneously ordered the vote-tallying process to stop, and on 27 May the board released its determination that the ruling party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), had won 209 seats, and affiliated parties 12 more. The report indicated opposition parties had won 142 seats. Our party filed complaints in 139 constituencies, the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) lodged 89 complaints, while the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) raised concerns over irregularities in more than 50 seats.

That's how it was back in 2005.

Alemayhu Mariam: The ruling regime continues to make public accusations that the opposition in the current 'election' is inciting violence as it did in 2005. ... How do you assess the situation?

Birtukan Midekssa: As the 2005 elections have shown, if there is any violence to occur in the current election it is not going to come from the opposition. The Inquiry Commission established by the government in 2005 to look into the killings and excessive use of force against demonstrators decided that there was not a single protester who was armed with a gun or a hand grenade as alleged by the government. The shots fired by government forces were not intended to disperse the crowd of protesters but to kill them by targeting their heads and chests. The historical facts speak for themselves. If there is election-related violence today, one need look no further than the usual suspects.

Alemayhu Mariam: The ruling regime likes to trumpet to the world that Ethiopia is governed democratically, human rights are fully protected and the rule of law observed. Do you agree with these claims?

Birtukan Midekssa: Dictatorship and democracy are not the same thing. There is no democracy in Ethiopia today, despite empty claims of 'recent bold democratic initiatives taken by our government, the immense progress in creating a competitive, pluralistic system of government and a more open civil society'. The fact of the matter is that there is neither pluralism nor commitment to democratic principles and practices in Ethiopia. The government's claim of political pluralism has not gone beyond the stage of political sloganeering. ...If pluralism means increased and diverse participation in the political decision-making process and giving everyone a stake in the political process, it does not exist in Ethiopia. ...

We are all aware that democracy in Ethiopia will not be accomplished overnight. But we must start the process now in earnest by installing its critical pillars of support.

Alemayhu Mariam: What are the pillars you believe are important in establishing democracy in Ethiopia?

Birtukan Midekssa: There are many. Let me start by mentioning the need for an independent judiciary. I know a thing or two about that having served as a judge and also being a victim of a judicial system that has me imprisoned for life. In 2005, I and the various opposition leaders were prosecuted for various state crimes including genocide, treason, incitement to violence, leading armed rebellion and other charges. Our prosecution occurred in a court system that has little institutional independence, and one subject to political influence and manipulation from the ruling regime. It is a judiciary that is used as a tool of political harassment, intimidation and persecution. Judges are selected not for professionalism or legal knowledge but for their loyalty to the government. ...

Judicial independence is guaranteed by article 78 of the Ethiopian constitution, but it does not exist in reality. Although judges are supposed to be free of party politics, many are under the direct control of the party in power ...

Alemayhu Mariam: What other pillars of democracy do you believe are missing in Ethiopia?

Birtukan Midekssa: Press freedom is another essential requirement necessary for building democracy in Ethiopia. Without a free press, there can be no meaningful democracy. People in Ethiopia, particularly in the rural areas, do not have access to important political information because of exclusive government control of the media. Political parties need to have equal access to media controlled by the government so that they can effectively communicate with the people. Various international human rights organisations have ranked Ethiopia at the top of the list of countries where there is little freedom of press.


Alemayhu Mariam: How do you assess the human rights situation in Ethiopia?

Birtukan Midekssa: Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled. Many of these rights are secured under international law and the Ethiopian constitution. The ruling regime has sought to put up a fa‡ade of commitment to human and democratic rights. But its practices contravene all of its obligations under the Ethiopian constitution and the human rights conventions that bind Ethiopia.


The fact is that the ruling regime observes neither its own constitution nor the requirements of well-established international human rights conventions. The regime's own Inquiry Commission in 2005 has documented widespread excessive use of force by government security forces. ...

Alemayhu Mariam: Do you think Western governments, particularly the US, can play a role in improving the overall situation in Ethiopia?

Birtukan Midekssa: As the largest donor country, the US is in the best position to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia. In general, Western governments must insist on the release of all political prisoners and the immediate restoration of democratic rights. They must insist on accountability and transparency since they provide substantial aid to keep the government afloat. They must promote human rights by supporting civic society organisations and implementing other mechanisms that can facilitate adequate monitoring and reporting of human rights violations. The West must insist on the functioning of a free press without censorship and restrictive press laws, and help strengthen private media in Ethiopia.... we want to make sure that US security assistance to Ethiopia be used for peacekeeping and counter-terrorism operations, and never against the civilian population.

Alemayhu Mariam: What are your views on the future of Ethiopia?

Birtukan Midekssa: I believe Ethiopia is the country of the future. Ethiopia has many problems, including a legacy of repression, ethnic division, corruption, mismanagement, lack of accountability and transparency. It will not be easy for us to confront the past and move on with lessons learned. The most important task now is to build the future country of Ethiopia by fully embracing democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Only through dialogue, negotiation and compromise can justice, stability and peace be guaranteed in Ethiopia.

Alemayhu Mariam: Thank you Birtukan for this interview. Stay strong!

Ethiopia: Government Repression Undermines Poll

24 May 2010

press release

Human Rights Watch (Washington, DC)

Nairobi -- Ethiopian government and ruling party officials intimidated voters and unlawfully restricted the media ahead of the May 23, 2010 parliamentary elections, Human Rights Watch said today.

In assessing the polls, international election observers should address the repressive legal and administrative measures that the Ethiopian ruling party used to restrict freedom of expression during the election campaign, Human Rights Watch said.

"Behind an orderly facade, the government pressured, intimidated and threatened Ethiopian voters," said Rona Peligal, acting Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Whatever the results, the most salient feature of this election was the months of repression preceding it."

In the weeks leading up to the polls, Human Rights Watch documented new methods used by the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to intimidate voters in the capital, Addis Ababa, apparently because of government concerns of a low electoral turnout.

During April and May, officials and militia (known as tataqi in Amharic) from the local administration went house to house telling citizens to register to vote and to vote for the ruling party or face reprisals from local party officials such as bureaucratic harassment or even losing their homes or jobs.

The May poll was the first national parliamentary election in Ethiopia since the government violently suppressed post-election protests in 2005; almost 200 people, including several police officers, died after the 2005 poll and tens of thousands of people were arrested, including opposition leaders, journalists and civil society activists.

In a March 2010 report, "'One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure': Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia," Human Rights Watch described the complex and multi-faceted way in which the government has sought since 2005 to silence dissent, restrict the media and independent civil society, and leverage government resources such as civil service jobs, loans, food assistance and educational opportunities to encourage citizens to join the ruling party or leave the opposition.

The government's efforts to ensure the election outcome continued right up to polling day in Addis Ababa, according to Human Rights Watch's research in different areas of the capital, including in Merkato, Piazza, Wollo Sefer, Meskel Flower, Aya Ulet, Kera, Gotera, Hayat, Kotebe-CMC and Bole neighborhoods.

"Intimidation to register and to vote for the ruling party is everywhere," a resident of Addis Ababa told Human Rights Watch. "If the local administration is against you, they'll be after you forever. They can come and round you up at will."

Residents of Addis Ababa described numerous forms of intimidation in Addis Ababa in recent weeks.

Pressure to register to vote

Many people told Human Rights Watch that tataqi, local kebele (or neighborhood) militia members came house-to-house asking to see registration cards and checking if people were members of the ruling EPRDF party.

A couple living in the Meskel Flower area said they were visited on a weekly basis by members of the neighborhood militia who were checking whether they were registered as EPRDF members. The wife told Human Rights Watch: "One of them approached my husband. 'We know who you are,' he told him. 'If you don't want to register, no problem, but then don't come to the sub-kebele and ask for your ID renewal, or for any other legal paper. We won't help you. It's up to you, now." The following day the couple registered.

Pressure to join the ruling party when registering

Different sources across the capital confirmed to Human Rights Watch that alongside registration, voters were requested to sign a paper, under a heading "Supporter of EPRDF," that included ID number, age, and address.

An Addis Ababa resident said, "There's a lot of pressure for you to obey. They have your name, they ask you to sign. If you don't, it means you're against them. And they can come back to you whenever they want. At the end of the day, you just have to do what they force you to do."

Pressure to vote for the ruling party

Pressure to vote for the EPRDF appeared to take a number of different forms. Pressure was particularly acute among civil servants, people living in government-owned housing, and those living in poor neighborhoods.

An elderly resident living in state-owned housing said local government officials visited her house a few weeks before the elections asking to see her registration card. She said they wrote down her house number and told her, "We are going to check. And don't forget to vote for EPRDF. We provide you the house, we can have it back." She said that she was frightened by the threat and registered even though she had not intended to vote.

Civil servants are particularly pressured to vote for EPRDF, saying that ruling party officials remind them that it is the EPRDF government that employs them. Patterns of intimidation of teachers and others that were recently documented in Addis Ababa echo the examples previously documented across the country by Human Rights Watch in "'One Hundred Ways Putting Pressure'." For example, a teacher in a public school in Addis Ababa said: "A few weeks ago my headmaster called us all. He asked us to show him our registration cards. He wanted to know whom we were going to vote for as well. I refused. He harassed me and said, 'You better get your card, and vote properly, otherwise after the elections you might lose your job.'"

Residents also described an EPRDF pyramid recruitment strategy called One-for-Five. A coordinator (ternafi) had to identify five recruits or fellow voters (teternafiwoch) among family members, friends, colleagues or neighbors. Coordinators then tried to compel their five signers to go to the polling stations and vote all together.

A woman in Aya Ulet area said, "A neighbor came to me. He said: 'I know you voted for the opposition last time. Are you going to vote for them again? Do I have to report it to the kebele?' I am a civil servant; I know that party officials and local administrators are the same thing. For fear of losing my job, the next morning I went to his place and signed."

Pressure on the media and foreign diplomats

Simultaneous with the increased pressure on voters, in the weeks before the polls the Ethiopian government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi acted to restrict electoral scrutiny by independent media and foreign diplomats.

The government issued several codes of conduct covering media and diplomatic activity. Initial drafts of the media regulation restricted foreign and local journalists from even speaking to anyone involved in the election process, including voters on election day, in violation of the right to freedom of expression. Several journalists in different countries told Human Rights Watch that when they applied for media visas to cover the elections, they were extensively questioned by Ethiopian embassy diplomats.

The government told Embassy staff they needed travel permits for any movement outside of Addis Ababa between May 10 to June 20.

"The government has used a variety of methods to strong-arm voters and try to hide the truth from journalists and diplomats," said Peligal. "Donor governments need to show that they recognize that these polls were multi-party theater staged by a single-party state."

Repressive context of the elections

Since 2005, Human Rights Watch has documented patterns of serious human rights violations by the Ethiopian government. Members of the security forces and government officials have been implicated in numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity both within Ethiopia and in neighboring Somalia. The pervasive intimidation of voters and restrictions on movement and reporting are serious concerns for the integrity of the electoral process, but represent only one aspect of the Ethiopian ruling party's long-term effort to consolidate control.

The EPRDF's main instrument for stamping out potential dissent is the local administrative (kebele) structure, which monitors households and can restrict access to important government programs, including seeds and fertilizer, micro-loans and business permits, all depending on support for the local administration and the ruling party.

Since 2008 the government has also passed new laws to clamp down on independent civil society and the media. The Charities and Societies Proclamation restricts Ethiopian nongovernmental organizations from doing any human rights work, including in the areas of women's and children's rights, if they receive more than 10 percent of their funding from foreign sources. Since the law's adoption in 2009, the leading Ethiopian human rights groups have closed most of their offices, scaled down their staff, and removed human rights advocacy from their mandates. The new regulatory agency established by the Charities and Societies Proclamation froze the bank accounts of the largest independent human rights group, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council. At least six of Ethiopia's most prominent human rights activists fled the country in 2009.

Another law, the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, has also been used to threaten with prosecution human rights activists and journalists for any acts deemed to be terrorism under the law's broad and vague definition of the term. Several journalists also fled in 2009, including the editors of a prominent independent Amharic newspaper, and in February 2010 Prime Minister Meles acknowledged that the government was jamming Voice of America radio broadcasts.

Human Rights Watch urged the international election observer teams from the European Union and the African Union to take into account in their public reporting the insidious apparatus of control and the months of repression that frame the 2010 polls.

Ethiopia is heavily dependent on foreign assistance, which accounts for approximately one-third of government spending. The country's principal foreign donors - the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, which provide more than US$2 billion annually in humanitarian and development aid, - were timid in their criticisms of Ethiopia's deteriorating human rights situation ahead of the election.

Human Rights Watch called on the principal donors and other concerned governments to publicly condemn political repression in Ethiopia and to review policy towards Ethiopia in light of its deteriorating human rights record.

"Ethiopia is an authoritarian state in which the government's commitment to democracy exists only on paper," said Peligal. "The question is not who won these elections, but how can donors justify business as usual with this increasingly repressive government?"

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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