By Oromsis Adula*
Blogging: the Next Frontier as Ethiopians Grapple with Repression
The Ethiopian regime, in power for two decades, took, in the words of the smooth talking and Machiavellian Prime Minister, “a calculated risk” during the 2005 election. In the same interview Mr. Zenawi went on to add “one of the most enduring qualities of our party is never ever to make the same mistake twice.” This time around EPRDF took no chances and no déjà vu.
After the dubious 2005 election, the Ethiopian government slowly but surely emasculated the country’s fledgling free press, using a draconian press law that went into effect despite international condemnation and local outcry, followed by a similarly heavy-handed legislation enfeebling an otherwise budding civil society. The two combined to take the steam, energy, and vitality out of an already fragile and fatally fractured pro-democracy movement.
At the absence of independent media and a vibrant civil society, the ruling party enjoyed a free-ride, in the government’s own language an incumbency advantage, leading up to the 2010 election.
In the closing days of the campaign and for the most part on Election Day, the western media, which traditionally carried single-theme stories about endless wars and the ever present famine, provided a wider coverage, albeit superficial, for the most part repeating old clichés. However, blogging proved to be an indispensable alternative in a country where state-sanctioned and state-controlled media predominate.
Considering the regime’s vow to mute-out all media critical to its policies and practices, for example, the Prime Minister’s open admission of jamming the U.S government-funded, Voice of America; I was pleasantly surprised come election day inundated with the sheer volume of real-time information.
In that regard, the newly re-branded addisnegeronline.com, andinet.org and abugidainfo.com ruled the way. On the other end of the continuum, much like in Iran and other countries that recently held elections, social media offered the much needed free-speech neighborhood, even if only virtual.
According to a FaceBook informant based in Addis Ababa, prominent Oromo and Ethiopian websites including Opride, Gadaa, EthioMedia, Nazret and EthiopianReview, among others, remained blocked throughout the Election Day. At Opride.com, we are able to validate this claim as the site registered zero visitors from Ethiopia, quite unusual since it is one of the most frequently accessed sites.
Much like the second “national election” in 2000, the 2010 election was uneventful, and lacking drama or surprise. It was marked with a record low turn-out indicative of the absence of competition and voter apathy. Yet, the intriguing and unprecedented real-time nationwide Election update by AddisNeger reporters kept us – the Diaspora – interested and somewhat connected to the events in the country. That I think shows a tremendous potential for pro-democracy and human rights activists in charting the next course of the struggle against a ruthless, cunning and highly entrenched dictatorship in Ethiopia.
Wide-Spread Report of Intimidation and Irregularities:
The bloggers generally painted a bleak picture. Intimidation of opposition activists and supporters, observers and a host of irregularities are reported throughout the breath and length of the country. The situation was most dire in the Oromia region, where the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), the regime’s affiliate, was pitied against Oromo People’s Congress (OPC). The flashpoint was Ambo, a hotbed of Oromo Nationalism with a rich history of resistance to the regime, dating back to the waning days of the previous regime when EPRDF was a ragtag rebel army less sure of itself. Ambo was peculiar in the sense that it saw high turnout, defying the national trend. Fearing the outcome in which high turnout favors the opposition, the regime barred all opposition observers from the polling sites.
The situation was not any better in Tigray, where the ruling party faced its first challenge from disgruntled former members. In Tambien, where Siyye Abreha, a popular leader of the opposition and a former defense minister, ran security forces fired into the air and gunned video camera to scare off would be opposition votes.
The situation in the capital, normally a bastion of the opposition, was not any different. False reports of withdrawal from the contest forced Negasso Gidada, a former President (a nominal position) and a former member of the ruling party, to issue a frantic rebuttal, but the damage was already done.
When Results start to come out in the coming days: what to watch for?
The opposition is made to melt away empty handed with their tails between their legs. No opposition leader secured his seat. Absent from the new parliament are Marara Gudina, Siyye Abreha, Hailu Shawel, Aregash Adane, Beyene Petros, the longest serving opposition MP, and many others. Even the pro-government Lidetu Ayalew, maligned by the opposition as an EPRDF Trojan Horse, is not spared.
The EPRDF came out with vengeance and wiped out the opposition from the electoral map, not with the power of its ideas, platform or popular support, but by the power of fear and intimidation. With its most colorful, albeit token, voices all but gone, the new parliament would eerily sing to the old music and dance to the tunes of EPRDF. Meles remains the star actor and most of the luckless EPRDF parliamentarians would yawn and daydream undisturbed sweating in their seats for 5 more long years.
Medrek: What’s next?
Electorally speaking, Medrek is all but extinct. It was a highly incoherent hodgepodge and an amalgamation of interests to begin with, and now that it is rendered into disarray, the immediate question is whether it would knell down to the fear unleashed by the EPRDF and accept the lopsided result or reject it as a blatant assault and a blemish on democracy.
The regime has upped the ante. An albatross in the form of trumped up charges is hanging over the neck of most of the opposition leaders. Merera is alleged to have been implicated in a bizarre murder of a policeman. It is a preposterous and baseless allegation, but enough to intimidate into submission loyalists of even a proud man, such as Dr. Merera. Gizachew and Mr. Shawel served time in the aftermath of the 2005 election and will loathe to grumble lest risk going back to Kalitti. Siyye was incarcerated for six years under bogus charges of corruption. Bulcha has already called it quits.
The public is too intimidated to come to the rescue of the opposition. Many have lost nerve as to see any glimmer of hope on the horizon. Support for the opposition carries the certain prospect of imprisonment, dismissal from work, constant harassment, loss of business and employment opportunities.
Given their woeful lack of independence the courts are a dead-end as an avenue to seek a judicial redress. The electoral board is nothing but an arm of the EPRDF.
The international community is unlikely to come to their aid, either. The Chinese and the Asians would not risk their burgeoning investment ranging from agriculture to construction all the way to mining. The rise of the Shabab in next door Somalia sends shivers through the spine of the West. And hence, the West is too preoccupied with the “war on terror” to risk alienating a reliable ally. The sense of stability that Meles promises to provide, however short-sighted and fragile, would drown the call for democracy and human rights. The African Union is too beholden to the status quo to even symbolically challenge a person at the head of the club of Africa’s Big Men.
The Future of Ethiopia: Development without Freedom
For Meles Zenawi, the Chinese example is more than an academic interest. The Prime Minister’s talks of the model of Southeast Asian Tigers is more than intellectual curiosity.
The EPRDF leader believes economic development is the quickest route to political legitimacy. The reason is that rapid progress requires a “developmental state.” The thesis is that the public would be amenable to lack of political liberty if the regime delivers the economic goods.
EPRDF cadres are openly talking of a 50-year reign in the footsteps of the Chinese Communist party.
Non-Violent or Armed Struggle: Revisited
The local and regional elections of 1992, now a distant and fading memory, forced OLF, which was slated to carry Oromia, the vote-rich state, in a landslide, out of the political process and into the bushes. The same process in 1994 prompted ONLF to pick up arms after being cheated out of an electoral victory. The 2000 election and the conflagration within the EPRDF that followed it forced many prominent leaders to defect and go into exile. The frustrations of the botched 2005 election forced the most dynamic wing of the CUD to renounce the “legal and peaceful” route to power, hence the birth of Ginbot 7.
Although the fallout of the 2010 election is yet to take shape, it is clear that the 20-year political experiment is coming to an abrupt end. The conclusion that EPRDF is not going to allow being unseated at the ballot box is tested by one group after another, and found to be an unassailable truth.
Armed struggle as an alternative has also not delivered, either. Even the ONLF, the most militarily active resistance group, is reduced to a ghost of its recent past. OLF is no more militarily. Eritrea, to whom those aspiring to lead armed resistance against EPRDF gravitated over the last decade, is too weak, not to mention too disoriented, to lend a hand. The Eritrean regime is no friend of democracy and freedom in Ethiopia and cannot be counted on as an ally in the fight against EPRDF.
The Oromo movement as we have come to know of it has failed to effect change. Without a fundamental restructuring and consolidation, it is on the verge of kissing the angel of death. OLF, the most promising of all Ethiopian rebel groups, is too busy with its internal divisions. Many of its 1970s era leaders are oblivious, deaf and blind, to the radically transformed reality on the ground. Pro-Ethiopia groups are either wedded to the barren election-based strategy or old dreams that can no longer be realized.
The dire situation calls for a novel approach, a brand new course of action. The youth, especially students, need to be at the forefront of this new movement. The Oromo need to abandon playing only in half of the court of the soccer field if it hopes to win an entrenched and adroit enemy playing on all positions and corners of the field and also outside. The Amhara need to relinquish taking the Oromo factor as an after-thought as EPRDF cannot be removed without a country-wide effort with the Oromo at its very center.
The youth of Ethiopia has to learn from the successful example the Serbian student movement provides. To adapt the strategy to Ethiopia one has to take into account the issue of diverse interests. The Oromo could not do it alone. The Amhara could not do it alone, either. The two could also not do it by excluding the rest of Ethiopians. Unlike the students of the 1970s the rallying motto needs to be democracy and freedom. The land issue and the general dispossession of the weak, poor and vanquished by the powerful has become a central organizing platform. Students need to organize around these central issues or choose to forgo political liberty as a pipe dream and an unrealizable ideal and march forward with the vanguard party, EPRDF, however distasteful and nauseating.
Ladies and gentlemen, Welcome to the new Ethiopia, a poor sister country of the Communist China.
* Oromsis Adula is the Editor-In-Chief of Opride.com, a multimedia weblog that aggregates Oromo, Ethiopian and Horn of African news. Oromsis writes regular news commentaries and Op-Eds on current issues that affect the Oromo people in Ethiopia.