In the preparations for the next national elections in Ethiopia, the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is preparing for what looks like change, but what is more likely to end up with the same power structure as today. This is despite a seemingly dramatic political action by Meles.
A few weeks ago, Meles told Africa Confidential newsletter that it was time for the old guard to step aside in his dominant Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the broader Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition through which it rules. He reportedly said he would leave it up to his ruling coalition and his party whether he would run again, but no change was agreed to at the quarterly EPRDF meeting in February, which ultimately is not expected to ask him to step aside. Even if he were to step aside, his most often cited successors (Minister of Foreign Affairs Seyoum Mesfin, Deputy Prime Minister Addisu Legesse, Federal Affairs Minister Abay Tsehaye and Health Minister Tewodros Adhanom) are not considered to advocate positions that represent a break in policy with the current government. However, it is those very policies with which many Ethiopians take issue.
In the aftermath of a 2005 election process that was considered to be a distinct improvement over past elections, suspicions of a manipulated vote count provoked demonstrations in which nearly 200 people were killed by government forces. The Government claimed seven policemen were killed by armed demonstrators, but could never produce any weapons as proof. Thousands of Ethiopians were jailed without charge or without trial for more than a year. Even now, four years after that election, the Ethiopian government continues to harass and jail political opponents, such as Birtukan Mideksa, head of the Unity for Democracy and Justice party, who was rearrested for allegedly saying she didn’t apologize for her part in the 2005 violence in order to get out of jail. She has been sentenced to serve the previous life term. More than 30 other prisoners of conscience, as Amnesty International calls them, have been in custody since April 24.
Meanwhile, the Government of Ethiopia has virtually criminalized most human rights work in the country, according to a Human Rights Watch report, and has made it almost impossible for local civil society organizations to function in any meaningful way to monitor the next elections. The Charities and Societies Proclamation, enacted in January of this year, considers any civil society organization to be foreign if it receives more than 10% of its support from outside the country. In a poor country like Ethiopia, that means almost all such organizations would be considered foreign and forced to operate under limitations that would choke operations with red tape, cripple it with fines or place leadership in danger of jail terms.
The post-election mess of 2005 led to legislation in the U.S. Congress that would end some military assistance (except for peacekeeping and self-defense materials) and place very limited sanctions on those government officials involved in the violence. Republicans in the House blocked it when they were in control of Congress, but Democrats passed it in the House, though not in the Senate. It remains to be seen if former supporters such as Congressmen Donald Payne or Chris Smith will reintroduce legislation to spur electoral and human rights reform in Ethiopia in this session of Congress.