By Oromsis Adula
The sharp-tongued and deceitful tyrant that ruled Ethiopia for the past 18 years, Mr. Meles Zenawi, teased the opposition and western media numerous times this year saying he will step down at the end of this term. Whereas the decision to rule Ethiopia until the current regime is forcefully ousted was a bygone conclusion, Meles wanted to give his image that is badly tarnished by reports of gross human rights violations a face-lift.
To that effect in recent months, Mr. Meles has been working hard to re-establish himself as an African statesman by representing the regional body at major world leaders’ gatherings. From the G20 summit in London to the upcoming gathering in Copenhagen on climate change, Meles has either posed or will pose with world leaders, thus casting himself as the sole representative of Africa.
Maybe Meles’s leadership is a true representation of what most of African countries are like. Meles Zenawi’s 18 years of tyranny, man-made vicious cycles of poverty and an increased repression of dissent surely exemplifies the current and past African tyrants from Sudan to DRC, Eritrea to Zimbabwe and elsewhere in between.
Despite his sometimes frantic attempts to repaint his legacy, Zenawi faces two great challenges. On the one hand, the United States and Great Britain’s one-time love affair with the double faced dictator of Ethiopia is eroding fast. Although these two great powers continue to finance the terrorist regime in Addis Ababa, many argue that a recent visit by US Secretary of State to Africa of which the itinerary did not include Ethiopia underscores the diminishing importance of Ethiopia as a major ally in the region. I was among the early enthusiasts and supporters of change in American policy towards Ethiopia. But despite higher expectations, the Obama administrations is showing little or no difference from its predecessor’s. Thus, the pro-democracy Ethiopian opposition must stand strong on its own and should expect nothing from Washington or elsewhere.
On the other hand, the ruling party is engaging in an all-out war to reorganize itself and ensure that the mistakes of 2005 election will not be repeated. It nearly silenced or to say the least, managed to weaken all major opposition parties. It continues to intimidate the public and the murky opposition groups. Not too long ago, we heard reports of prominent politicians including a former rubber-stamp President of Ethiopia (Dr.Negaso Gidada) crying out for help. The media has long been rooted out. Although there seems to be some temporary gains on this end, the likelihood of the upcoming election being fair, free and orderly is far-fetched.
The Way Forward in Ethiopia: Civil Disobedience or Armed Struggle?
In modern African history, we can count with our fingers how many leaders were changed through a peaceful transfer of power. Many have managed to rule African states since the days of independence. Scores of African leaders have looted resources, massacred innocent civilians and few are facing charges of genocide and crimes against humanity at the International Tribunal. Ethiopian history is a testament to that fact. Never in the recorded history of that empire had a ruler peacefully and democratically gave up a seat of power. The harrowing history of Ethiopia although falsely glorified and distorted to the liking of Ethiopian elites, is full of coups and scenes of beheaded rulers.
A fairly significant reformation was in effect early in the 1990s. And comparatively speaking in some respects, things have gotten better under the current regime (although much of the repressions are covert and only happen after darkness has reigned). Yet, the current regime clearly signaled (long ago) the continuation of that cultural and historical tradition of clinging to power by all means necessary for as long as it is possible.
That was when Mr. Zenawi stated in one of his speeches to the parliament, his party won the control over Ethiopia with bullet through a bitter struggle and that it won’t give it up peacefully per ballot contest. At that time, the opposition that is now crying foul was on Meles’s revolutionary democracy bandwagon and it was mostly the Oromo that received the announcement with greater uproar. That time has passed and the 2005 election proved to be a reality check for the Amhara dominated opposition as it was for most people (Ethiopians and otherwise).
The opposition at the home front; disfranchised, fragmented and marginalized than ever before, finds itself at a critical and defining moment. Whereas the Amhara based opposition groups with significant support in megacities and north of the country, are trying to regroup and regain momentum, the Oromo opposition has decided to huddle together to make inroads towards a stronger coalition. There is also a new mix of Tigrean opposition led by the likes of former Defense Minister Siye Abraha. With roughly eight months to the general election, the opposition is already complaining about intimidation, harassment and offices being closed. This is a good indicator of the bumpy road ahead and a tale of things to come.
In Diaspora, the Amhara based opposition generally faces the same challenges that were evident during the contested 2005 election. Due to the polarized political environment among Ethiopian communities, they are unable to rally the Oromo and others in order to garner a much needed moral boost. The Oromo camp, with the OLF at the fore, was once rumored eyeing to partake in the upcoming election. Swallowed by internal disputes and factionalization, they remain far from competing in the upcoming election. Although OLF enjoys a popular support among the Diaspora and have better equipped military, I doubt that it is in a position to take on the highly militarized and readied for upcoming election agazi forces.
Basically, with all options off the table, Mr. Meles is a clear front-runner and will secure the victory unchallenged. Yet, however dire and pessimistic the situation seems, the people of Ethiopia had enough and can rid itself off these thugs easily. How? You might be asking.
Let us make a laundry list of things impossible to accomplish in the upcoming election:
- Peaceful and Democratic Route: Not only was it tried and failed but also the opposition is weak, ill organized and unprepared.
- Would the International Community Intervene? The US and European Union knew clearly that TPLF was not the winner of the 2005 Ethiopian election. Nonetheless, they continue to funnel aid to the regime in order to safeguard their regional strategic interests. It would be a mistake and gross oversight to hope that the International Community would intervene this time or do anything different.
- Armed Struggle: Both the Ogaden and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) that has an organized army of sort is hijacked and weakened by the rogue regime in Eritrea. Eritrea is either too weak and/or too unwilling to make these guerrilla fighters effective. Other Horn of African countries would not dare to play any role in supporting these groups struggle against the repressive regime in Addis Ababa. A recent diplomatic row between Kenya and Ethiopia over a video documentary about the OLF is a very good example. So it is wishful (if not impossible) to expect a major offensive from these two groups. Furthermore, the effectiveness of a guerrilla group operating from outside of the country and/or from border lines is limited by multitude of factors.
- Diaspora: The Ethiopian Diaspora can do itself and the people of Ethiopia a great deal by playing a constructive role. I will come back to this point under the next subheading.
- Civil Disobedience Is The Only Way: I tried to point out that peaceful struggle through election contest is practically and virtually impossible in Ethiopia. An all-inclusive and well coordinated civil-disobedience is the only viable option to rid Ethiopia off the TPLF regime. In our recent memory and throughout the known history of Ethiopian Empire, students and other smaller pockets of the society have attempted, without a success, to disobey the government in order to force it to guarantee some citizenship rights. The student movements of the 1960s, many believe, pioneered the changes that happened since. Over the last eighteen years, Oromo students stood up to the current tyrants alone. With no outside or inside reinforcement, hundreds of them lost their precious lives by the bullets fired by cruel TPLF thugs.
In 2005, the opposition (mainly the now annihilated Coalition for Unity and Democracy) has rallied the public in urban areas, at first, successfully. But then they were caught off guard and when the leaders were jailed, the public lost touch with the leadership. Since then, the TPLF regime has master-minded and run a successful campaign to dismantle the CUD party structure. And they have done a darn successful job in keeping the once strong opposition group at bay. Just like the Tigrean led regime of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian people and Ethiopian opposition groups, needs to learn lessons from the 2005 election. First and foremost, the opposition needs to give up the ownership of peaceful protests and other non-violent resistance movements to the people, instead of creating what seems a cult of personality and an interest group owned by a single organization.
Not too long ago, when I was still a high school student in the godforsaken Ethiopia, every time there was a student uprising in Ambo/Shambu or Haromaya (towns in different regions of Oromia), Oromo students at every corner of the country took it to the streets in solidarity with their fellow students. That is a lesson worth learning and needs to be replicated if anything substantial is to be achieved through a non-violent struggle to topple the dictatorial regime of Ethiopia. At that time non-Oromo Ethiopian students (at various colleges across the country) went to classes normally as Oromo students were dismissed in sheer numbers. That is a mistake Ethiopians cannot afford to repeat.
But again as the political environment changed, the demographic pattern in terms of access to political power has drastically shifted under the current regime. It used to be the case that some sections of Ethiopian ethnic groups were favored. But now, everyone seems to be feeling the heat that the Oromo has been feeling for well over a century. For some groups, especially the Amhara, the Meles era marks a beginning of new experience with alienation from power. Don’t get me wrong here, the peasants and rural dwellers in the Amhara region may not have been as fortunate as the elites. But the difference is that they were never forcefully subdued, massacred, harassed, and humiliated because of their ethnicity, cultural and linguistic background. That is primarily because then it was the Amhara elites who were doing all the wrongs to the nations and nationalities in the south.
Media and the Ethiopian Diaspora
In this section, I will talk about the state of Internet Technology in Ethiopia, and the role a media powered and wired by the Internet can play in the upcoming election. I will also try to point out some lessons that can be drawn from recently contested elections from around the globe.
Internet Access and Usage in Ethiopia
Ethiopia is one of the early modern African states to develop telecommunication infrastructure dating back to 1894. And the country has seen a steady growth of Internet and mobile phone services in recent years. However, usage and development is lagging far behind most African nations owing to the repressive nature of the Ethiopian government. Perhaps, an overwhelming majority of rural Ethiopia haven’t heard about the phenomenon of Internet to date. Moreover, civil society faces a tremendous challenge to use the Internet in order to influence policy decision making or organize the public.
It’s not a coincidence that most of the opposition websites are blocked year-round in Ethiopia not to mention the alleged monitoring of incoming and outgoing email communications by Ethiopian authorities. Donors and international agencies have challenged the Ethiopian regime to privatize the service. Yet their efforts haven’t yet produced results and the reality on the ground doesn’t match the Ethiopian government’s rhetoric of privatization and economic growth.
The government argues that since it launched the Internet service in 1997, the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation (ETC) has taken initiatives to reduce Internet tariff and to upgrade the bandwidth using international satellite link. Also according to a case study by ITU, Ethiopia had upgraded its Internet service from 256 Kbps to 512 Kbps in Nov.1998. Currently, it is said that the upgrade from 512 Kbps to 1 MB is in process and the implementation is being carried out with the collaboration of United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and provided by France telecom (ITU, 2000). A similar report by United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) states that the upgrading process is intended to reduce the monthly fees making it more affordable. With the total of 6,152 Internet subscribers in 2002, several pilot tele-centers and cybercafés are being built around the country by agencies like the British Council, added the report (UNECA, 2002).
Internet Strategy and Policy
Ethiopia is a closed economy little affected by globalization. Though there have been rapid improvements in this regard since the downfall of the communist regime in 1991, there still remains a lot to be done to integrate the flagging economy into the global market powered by the Internet. As indicated above, Internet use and access is regulated by a state-run telecommunication agency.
According to a news report by Cyber Ethiopia (2006), since the contested May 2005 Ethiopian election and with the annihilation of the local free press, the activists in the country have taken turn to air their concerns through the Internet. The Ethiopian Diaspora used fresh reports by bloggers based in the capital and other places in the country to expose the mass atrocities. To combat the online activism by the opposition and the rights group, the regime had widely invested in implementing surveillance technologies. The report also noted that the Ethiopian government had “pioneered Internet censorship in Africa” with increased devotion of “resources and attention to controlling access to information via the Internet” (Cyber Ethiopia, 2006).
As a result of the pressure from global media watchdogs like Reporters Without Borders and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), “the Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation (the state monopoly and sole Internet Service Provider in the country) seemingly unblocks the access randomly for few hours in an attempt to confuse end-users in Ethiopia by suggesting a technical glitch from the website owners rather than censorship from the government” (Cyber Ethiopia, 2006).
In response to CPJ’s open inquiry letter to Ethiopian Ministry of Information, a government official has denied the reports, hinting that the government knows of an “illegal and unethical media in Ethiopia” according to Cathy Majtenyi for Voice of America news.
ITU (2002) also confirms that ETC monopoly over the Internet, poor infrastructure; limited service and unsatisfied demands are the contemporary challenges to the development of Internet technology aside from the unaffordable subscription fees. The report counsels privatization of Internet provision by ETC and “a clear policy on value added services such as web design, site hosting or cybercafés” would be the necessary steps towards an “open market”.
The Ethiopian Information and Communication Technology Development Agency (EICTDA) contends that the government of Ethiopia is carrying out a vigorous campaign to integrate Ethiopia into global market by promoting “ICT-driven socio-economic development process and transform[ing] Ethiopia from an agriculture-based economy and society to a predominantly knowledge- and information-based economy”. According to the document the key target of Ethiopia’s ICT policy is “to develop Ethiopia into a socially progressive and prosperous nation with a globally competitive, modern, dynamic and robust economy through the development, deployment and exploitation of ICT within the economy and society”.
At the face value, the rhetoric seems an ambitious plan on the part of the Ethiopian government, but critics dismiss these claims on the account of the government’s strict control over the Internet which is supposed to be “highly decentralized, self-governing, fluid, chaotic, and most importantly ‘access-to-all’ network” (Kinde, 2007).
Just for the record, Ethiopia’s Internet policy doesn’t even comply with the terms of its own constitution which proclaims “everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference…through any media of his choice. Freedom of the press and other mass media and freedom of artistic creativity is guaranteed…censorship in any form is prohibited” (Ethiopia, 1994). Furthermore, it is also in direct contradiction with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that states, “the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (UN, 1948).
That being the sad state where things stand in terms of Internet use and growth, there still seems a window of opportunity to systematically use the Internet to wage a strong campaign against the current regime of Ethiopia during the 2010 election.
It is naïve to compare Ethiopia to Kenya, Zimbabwe and Iran where recent election riots were highly publicized. If we look at the recent Iranian election, most of the news reports were not coming from CNN, BBC or other major cable news networks. Rather, in what some people referred to as “a revolution in social media”, social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and the giant video sharing site, YouTube, played a central role in the protest movement.
These are great lessons that can be replicated in Ethiopia. I urge the opposition groups to pay close attention to recent elections around the world and re-think their campaign strategies. Text messages, Facebook and other social media’s maybe blocked but the internet offers a wide array of possibilities. Instead of simply telling the Diaspora the reality on the ground is different from our perceptions of the happenings in Ethiopia, the opposition groups must reach out to all “Ethiopian” expatriates to effect change during the upcoming election. If nothing else can be accomplished, the Diaspora and opposition can work hand-in-hand to expose the naked truth about Ethiopian dictators.
In summary, I would like to reiterate that Mr. Zenawi and his allies will not give up their comfortable seats through democratic process. And that the Ethiopian people have all the means’s at their disposal to force the current minority junta out of power. Although there is a greater strength in numbers, forming alliance after alliances does not guarantee electoral victory in Ethiopia. I think that is “the reality on the ground” the opposition leaders need to inhale. Armed struggle is the proven best and viable solution to free Ethiopia and its people from corruption, misery and the TPLF regime, had it not been for a low-key and sporadic progress made in that front. Thus, at this juncture and as the regime is posed to once again claim a hallow victory from sham election, there left no alternative to a well coordinated (internal and external) and all inclusive non-violent resistance.
The Diaspora is making significant progress with the most recent march in the nation’s capital (Washington DC) and another planned protest in Pittsburgh, Ohio during the upcoming G20 summit. Yet there remains a lot to be accomplished as far as rallying all “Ethiopians” instead of simply claiming so. Communities like the Oromo would feel most welcome if themes other than “free Birtukan” are included. What still angers most people is the fact that “Ethiopian” activists call for release of few and prominent politicians in a country where an estimated 20,000 Oromos and countless others are illegally imprisoned.
As I said repeatedly, in Ethiopia, the Internet service is monopolized and controlled by government. Yet it still offers an abundance of opportunities if the opposition learned to capitalize on it. Maybe the elite Diaspora professors and political gurus can play a central role in devising purposeful campaign strategies that can be implemented in Ethiopia instead of engaging in an endless back-biting.
- UNECA. (2002). Ethiopia Internet Connectivity:<http://www.uneca.org/aisi/nici/country_profiles/ethiopia/ethiointer.htm>
- CyberEthiopia. (2006, September ). Internet Repression in Ethiopia.
- EICTDA. (2007). ICT Policy.<http://www.eictda.gov.et/Downloads/Policies/ICT_Policy_English.pdf>
- Kinde, S. (2007, November). Internet in Ethiopia – Is Ethiopia Off-line or Wired to the Rim?
- UN. (1948, December 10). Universal Declaration of Human Rights.<http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html>