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Free and fair elections in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is preparing for pivotal elections in May that will determine the future political stability and economic viability of a critical U.S. ally in the Horn of Africa. Previous elections have been neither free nor fair, according to international observers and reports from sources such as the U.S. State Department and the European Union. Ethiopia is teetering on the edge of instability, and another fraudulent election could tip over the edge, with serious negative consequences for Ethiopia and for the stability of the entire region.
The U.S. State Department’s 2009 Human Rights Report, released March 11, 2010, highlights and documents the Ethiopian government’s violent suppression of democracy and human rights. It notes that prior to the most recent elections in April 2008, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) “used coercive tactics and manipulation of the electoral process, including intimidation of opposition candidates and supporters.” The report notes that “the preelection weeks and months were marred by innumerable and credible reports of harassment, intimidation, arrests, and killings of opposition party candidates and their supporters, and incomplete compliance by the NEB [National Electoral Board] with the Electoral Law, prompting some of the major opposition parties such as the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) and OFDM to boycott the election.” It also states: “Opposition parties fielded very few candidates in some regions. This was due in part to widespread harassment of opposition candidates and supporters as well as the delayed reopening of party offices in 2007, following forced closures after the 2005 elections. Together, opposition parties were able to register only an estimated 16,000 candidates countrywide. For example, in one area of Oromiya where the opposition won overwhelmingly in 2005, there were 60,955 EPRDF candidates running against seven opposition candidates.”
The Ethiopian regime portrays itself as a legitimate, democratically elected government that conforms to international norms of human rights. The State Department report, however, paints a picture of a dictatorial regime. It concludes that the Ethiopian government’s practices include: “unlawful killings, torture, beating, abuse and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, often acting with evident impunity; poor prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention, particularly of suspected sympathizers or members of opposition or insurgent groups; police, administrative and judicial corruption; detention without charge and lengthy pretrial detention; infringement on citizens’ privacy rights, including illegal searches; use of excessive force by security services in an internal conflict and counterinsurgency operations; restrictions on freedom of the press; arrest, detention, and harassment of journalists; restrictions on freedom of assembly and association; violence and societal discrimination against women and abuse of children; female genital mutilation (FGM); exploitation of children for economic and sexual purposes; trafficking in persons; societal discrimination against persons with disabilities and religious and ethnic minorities; and government interference in union activities, including harassment of union leaders.”
The State Department report also documents the Ethiopian government’s censorship and intimidation of the media. “The government continued to control all broadcast media except three private FM radio stations. Private sector and government journalists routinely practiced self-censorship.” The report noted: “During the year the government convicted and sentenced journalists for articles and reports in their publications. Journalists were intimidated, harassed, arrested, and detained on charges of defamation and threatening public order.” In addition, the “government restricted access to the Internet and blocked opposition Web sites.”
The international community, led by the United States, has poured billions of dollars in development aid into Ethiopia in recent years. Corruption, cronyism and incompetence on the part of the Ethiopian government diluted the effects so much that the Ethiopian people have seen little benefit from this generosity. Millions of Ethiopians go to sleep hungry every night, preventable diseases kill and maim millions more, and there is little hope for a more positive future without political change. The Ethiopian government perpetuates poverty by retaining ownership of all agricultural land, except the millions of acres it has sold to foreign agribusiness companies.
The BBC recently reported that the ruling EPRDF’s history of abusing international aid dates back to its origins. The BBC reported on March 2 that the EPRDF conducted an elaborate fraud during the 1984-1985 famine, stealing millions of dollars intended for food aid and using it to purchase weapons. Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, was directly involved in the fraud, according to the BBC.
Ethiopians, especially young people, are becoming disillusioned with the contrast between rhetoric from the U.S. and Europe promoting democracy and human rights in Africa and the reality they live with every day. The May elections are an opportunity, perhaps a last chance, for Ethiopians to regain their faith in civil society and in their ability to shape their own futures.
The United States cannot solve Ethiopia’s problems, but it can help by pressuring the Ethiopian government to allow free and fair elections which will allow the Ethiopian to people take charge of their destinies.
The U.S. and the international community have made some positive contributions, but continued attention is essential.  
The Ethiopian Partners Group (EPG), composed of ambassadors from the U.S. and Europe, has coordinated meetings between the ruling EPRDF party and the opposition, including the All Ethiopia Unity Party (AEUP), which led to agreement on a “a code of conduct (CC)” for the upcoming elections.
To date, the AEUP has fielded candidates for 380 of the 524 federal Parliament elections, and for 1024 regional elections. 
The code of conduct will be no more than a meaningless piece of paper, a fiction for the Ethiopian government to present to the outside world, if the international community does not hold the Meles regime accountable for abiding to the agreement.
Unfortunately, the Meles regime has already demonstrated its contempt for the agreement. Although some AEUP members had been released from jail, others have been unjustly imprisoned, even after the code of conduct was signed. The list of political prisoners includes Birtukan Mideksa and other high level AEUP council members: Ato Ali mirha Yaye from Afar and Ato Addisu Taddesse from Beni Shangol.
The code of conduct calls for the replacement of Election Board (EE) members with impartial individuals, but this has not happened. As a result, a pattern of electoral irregularities has persisted.

Mesfin Mekonen is the All Ethiopia Unity Party Advisory Board Foreign Relations Chairman.

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