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Will democracy work in Ethiopia?

February 27, 2009

Six Ethiopian opposition parties have joined forces to go up against the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in next year’s parliamentary elections, but their chances of bringing change look slim at best and they complain of heavy-handed tactics by the ruling party.

The foremost opposition figure in Africa’s second most populous country, Birtukan Mideksa, a 34-year-old former judge, has been in solitary confinement since December. She was jailed after the first democratic poll in 2005, which ended in rioting that was bloodily suppressed, was pardoned in 2007 and rearrested last year after renouncing the terms of her pardon.

Bekele Jirata, a top official from another party, recently spent four months in prison after being accused of working with rebels from the Oromo region, though he is now out on bail.

The government dismisses as “baseless” opposition accusations that political activity is restricted.

“The political space is continually widening,” Bereket Simon, the government’s head of information, told me recently.

Meles points to achievements such as a reduction in infant mortality to 123 deaths for every 1,000 births from 166 in just five years. A programme to help seven million Ethiopians who regularly suffer from food shortages is meant to ensure the catastrophic famine of the mid-1980s is never repeated. Meles is a key regional friend of Washington and sent forces into Somalia to fight Islamists in late 2006, only withdrawing this year.

But Western allies and donors are frustrated by what they see as the restrictions on democracy. Human rights groups have lambasted  a new law that restricts groups that get outside funding from working on issues of democracy, human rights or criminal justice. The government says only Ethiopians should be involved in Ethiopian politics.

So is the ruling party restricting its rivals unfairly to ensure it keeps power or trying to protect an emerging democracy in a volatile part of the world?

Picture: Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi speaks to Reuters in 2007. Andrew Heavens/Reuters


PM Meles must be pressured to step down. The people will most certainly elect anyone but him. We, the international community, have to support this so that Ethiopia will continue to grow and prosper. A strange power sharing hybrid form of democracy is taking hold in Africa with regimes like Kenya and Zimbabwe. Ethiopia must set an example that dictators can give way to democracy.

Posted by Sarah | Report as abusive

why not?? it will work but the ruling party has to stop closing space and abusing people. all sides have to adopt peaceful means otherwise it will be a political stalemate and blame game that perpetuates tyranny until another rebel group takes power. america has to stop giving weapons to the regime and at the same time america and UK should not ignore armed groups (like ONLF leaders based in London). all sides should stop violence and work poeacefully, then dialogue and democracy will work.

Posted by Tesfaye | Report as abusive

Never, unless they consult with Mugabe, Mbeki et al

Posted by buffalojump | Report as abusive

Of course!!but every side needs to stop bargainig on the lives of millions rocked by tyrranny ever spinning to deep poverty-modern way of colonization

Posted by ferhun | Report as abusive

Democracy can work in Ethiopia. Ethiopians are not so different from the Ghanaians, the Senegalese, the Basutos, the Tanzanians, the Malawians, the Zambians where democracy is functioning halfway decently. Ethiopians are not so wildly violent. They are mild, polite, respectful, reasonable. If a leader tells them “that is the way” they go that way. No leader in Ethiopia ever faced mass disobedience. Civil wars (very few) were led by the elites of some ethnic groups. But the majority listens to the leadership. Ethiopians might arise in unison against what they perceive as outsiders (like the Italians) or usurpers but, even then, only with strong leadership.

I have lived in several African countries and America. I have not seen any radical difference between Ethiopians and any other society. Ethiopians want “democracy” and nothing else. They understand that democracy means respecting the rights of others including members of your family. Government has to keep the peace in accordance with the will of the people, but the government, like other citizens, must respect the rights of other citizens. Every Ethiopian knows how to take off his hat for a stranger, bow down and greet him profusely. Nobody forces him to do so. He knows he gets nothing for that. It is just an inner force of habit. I think that this is the stuff democracy is made of.

Bulcha Demeksa, Chairman, OFDM political party, Ethiopia

Posted by Bulcha Demeksa | Report as abusive

Refreshing to read something on ethiopian politics which contrary to the norm, looks deeper at the actions of Meles. All to often, all that has been published is highly emotive and lacks that which is embodied in this article and that which epitomises true journalism.

Posted by john | Report as abusive

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