Ethiopia’s endangered democracy

Ethiopia is courted by the West as a key ally in the ‘war on terror’, an outpost of strength and democracy in a chronically unstable region. But Meles Zenawi’s Government stands accused of crushing dissent, imprisoning its opponents and stifling the free press.


Tekatay and Solomon part the curtain to reveal a dimly lit room where men sit in quiet groups, sipping Ethiopian coffee. This is where they gather to chew the stimulant leaf khat, whiling away the long, rainy, jobless afternoons. Tekatay rolls up a ball of leaves and shows me how to hold it in my cheek. ‘This is a safe place,’ he says, ‘we can talk freely here. First we will chew for half an hour, then we will tell you everything.’ My two friends, young Ethiopians who make an unsteady living as tour guides, have brought me here to air their views on their country’s politics.

The khat-house is fittingly cloak-and-dagger, but there is nothing melodramatic about their choice of location. Tekatay and Solomon are scared. Even here, where they feel secure, they speak to me in hushed voices, using the clatter of rain on the tin roof as cover for our conversation.

‘We never talk about these things publicly. The Government pays money to informers. If one of these people heard us the police would come in the night, they would kick us and break our bones. We would be taken to prison. They might not kill us, unless it was election time, but they could easily paralyse us. We have seen it happen.’

Suppression of dissent in this country – unlike in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or al-Bashir’s Sudan – goes largely unreported in the West. On the surface Ethiopia is a multiparty pro-Western democracy with one of the most disciplined armies on the African continent. More importantly, it is seen as a vital ally in the ‘war on terror’, a bulwark against Sudan, Eritrea and the chaos of Somalia. All these factors help explain the international media’s silence as Ethiopian democracy is eroded from within.

For 17 years the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), headed by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, has run the country. The party first emerged during the civil war against the communist regime of Mengistu Mariam. Mengistu’s Derg (military junta) ousted former Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and ruled through state terror. Supported by two armed groups, the Tigraian People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), the EPRDF entered the capital Addis Ababa in 1991, setting up a transitional government with Zenawi at the helm. Four years later, his rule was cemented in Ethiopia’s first-ever democratic elections.

Waning popularity

Over the next decade, however, Zenawi’s popularity waned. One of the EPRDF’s first moves was to federalize the country – the former Italian colony of Eritrea voted for full independence in 1993. Following Eritrea’s secession, a deeply unpopular development that deprived Ethiopia of its coastline, relations between the former wartime allies in the TPLF and EPLF rapidly degenerated into open hostility. A brutal two-year border war resulted in tens of thousands of deaths; much of Zenawi’s support evaporated, especially in the cities.

The elections of May 2005 were marred by allegations of fraud and widespread human rights abuses. In response to accusations of vote-rigging, Zenawi declared a state of emergency and ordered military units into the capital.

In early June, as the opposition continued to claim the vote had been stolen, protests erupted in the cities. The Government responded with a massacre.

‘When the police came, everyone started running,’ says Tekatay, rolling another ball of khat. ‘The police shot into the crowd with live bullets. My uncle was killed. Many others were wounded. Me and my friends spent two months in prison without charge. They didn’t beat us, but other people were tortured badly in other prisons, members of the opposition.’

An independent report estimated that 193 civilians died at the hands of Ethiopian security forces between June and November, after results of the contested election were published. ‘This was a massacre,’ said investigating judge Wolde-Michael Meshesha, who later fled the country after receiving death threats. ‘These demonstrators were unarmed, yet the majority died from shots to the head.’ The EU’s chief observer Ana Gomes agreed that ‘there were massive human rights violations’.

The massacres in Bahir Dar, Addis Ababa and other large cities did make international headlines. An embarrassed British Government suspended $110 million in financial aid.

‘It is time the EU and US realize that the current regime in Ethiopia is repressing the people because it lacks democratic legitimacy,’ said Gomes. But Zenawi’s position on the international stage was unassailable by this point. A member of ex-British PM Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa, he was working to foster development and democracy across the continent. Ethiopian troops were soon to enter Somalia to battle the Union of Islamic Courts which the US and Britain claimed were linked with al-Qaeda. The prospect of internal unrest in this strategic Horn of Africa state was anathema to the West and the story of almost 200 protesters shot down in the streets was quickly forgotten. Realpolitik looks set to dominate attitudes to this year’s elections too: with nearby Yemen being touted as a new front in the ‘war on terror’, it will be even more important for the West to keep Zenawi onside.

Also largely overlooked were the mass arrests that followed the killings: an estimated 20,000 people – including opposition leaders, activists, journalists and aid workers. The Government accused the main opposition party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), of conspiring to seize power by force. Prominent members were put on trial for treason and even ‘attempted genocide’.

‘After that, we were too afraid to protest,’ says Tekatay. ‘There were no more demonstrations. The Government taught us a heavy lesson. They will win again in 2010, there’s no other choice now.’

Being watched

Soon afterwards, my friends stop talking and ask me to put away my notebook. Solomon gestures to a man at a nearby table. In the dim light I see the man has a symbol like the figure 11 tattooed on his face. ‘That tattoo means he’s from Tigray, and he’s speaking Tigrinya. I think he was watching us just now. It’s better that we stop talking.’ A moment later, he laughs nervously. ‘You see, we are all paranoid now. We just don’t know who’s listening.’

The mountainous northern province of Tigray is home to the TPLF – the rebel faction that swept the EPRDF to power. Zenawi is from Tigray, as is the majority of his Government. People in other ethnic regions like Amhara and Oromia complain that resources are diverted north, that money is flooding into Tigray at the expense of the rest of the country. It’s a familiar African mix of tribalism and cronyism. More than once I am told: ‘Ethiopia has become a colony of Tigray.’

Later that day I meet Getachew, a young university professor. As we sit sipping macchiatos (a rather improbable legacy of the short-lived Italian occupation from 1935-41) he tells me about the effect of the crackdown on the country’s legal system and media.

‘I originally wanted to train as a journalist, but I couldn’t work in this climate. Critical journalists and editors are attacked in the street. The journalism they teach at universities is a sham. The teachers can’t say anything about free press or censorship – partly because they don’t want to get their students in trouble and partly because they can’t trust them. Someone in their family might be working for the Government. They might have connections with Tigray.’

‘All the good jobs in the country are reserved for EPRDF members. If you don’t join the party, it’s impossible to work. This is how the Government forces people to support it. University workers like me must swear their allegiance as a condition of employment. Even by speaking to you like this, I’m breaking that condition.’

Getachew describes the 2008 Political Parties Registration Law which obliges all parties to disclose the identity of their donors. In Zenawi’s Ethiopia, a regulation that would be standard in any healthy democracy is viewed as an attempt to intimidate the opposition. In the words of Temesgen Zewdie, an MP from the CUD, ‘the status of our political culture is clear: no-one will give money to the opposition if they know the Government will get their names and addresses.’

Last year also saw the passing of another controversial law that drastically curtails the remit of civil and human rights groups. Opponents say the law is designed to shut down any organization critical of government policy. The EPRDF has long been suspicious of NGOs, both domestic and foreign, claiming they are a cover for activists working on ‘other issues’.

Media crackdown

These developments have been mirrored by a steady squeeze on the press. Dozens of newspapers have been shut down since the unrest of 2005, and journalists tried on charges of treason.

‘In the Derg regime there was a Red Terror,’ says Getachew. ‘The Government would murder its opponents in broad daylight. Today there is a White Terror and it’s much more sophisticated. The Government will do something bad without leaving any traces. You might have an accident or be attacked by an anonymous gang. It happens to journalists, editors, politicians. You will just disappear.’

We hold this conversation in a public place, so Getachew urges me not to take notes. He agrees to talk further a few days later, at a location of his choosing. I wait a week, and he doesn’t call. When I try his phone, he doesn’t answer. Another week goes by, and my calls are being blocked. I can only assume he’s decided that talking to me is too risky. I hope his sudden change of heart isn’t anything more serious than a case of cold feet.

This is what I come to recognize as a typically Ethiopian symptom: getting tantalizingly close to the full story only to meet a brick wall, an inexplicable silence.

My final meeting takes place in the city’s poorest neighbourhood. Here I am introduced to Abebe, a former government worker imprisoned for speaking against the ruling party.

‘I supported Zenawi at first,’ he tells me as we make our way down a rutted, muddy track towards a collection of flimsy shacks at the bottom of the hill. ‘But I opposed Eritrea’s secession. When a country is landlocked, it’s like its eyes are closed. I said this at a public meeting. They threw me in prison for six months. When I was released, some party members warned me: “We don’t want you in our party and you must not join any other political party, ever.” So now I cannot do anything. I have been exiled from politics.’

Abebe takes me on a tour of the slums. He is obviously held in high regard here. We enter mud-walled, dirt-floored huts with leaky tin roofs and shared pit latrines, where residents provide for their families on less than 50 cents a day. But their lives are getting even harder. In every house they tell the same story: inflation is rampant, food prices skyrocketing. Worse, the rains are late this year, a desperate worry in a country where 70 per cent of the population survives from subsistence farming.

‘This is the reality of Ethiopia,’ says Abebe, gesturing at the filth, the malnourished children, the parents ravaged by AIDS. ‘This Government has turned its back on its people. They don’t care how the poor suffer. They are only interested in enriching themselves and their cousins in Tigray. If anyone heard me saying these things, I would go straight back to prison. But how can I not say them? I’m a true citizen. It’s my duty to speak.’

On the way back, he stops to exchange some words with a man in the road. Later, he tells me this is the person the Government has assigned to keep an eye on him. ‘He sees that I don’t get in any trouble, go to any meetings. He is an EPRDF member from Tigray.’

The Government does, undoubtedly, have points in its favour. Infrastructure is being improved: for the first time, with heavy Chinese investment, highways are being tarmacked and telecommunication cables laid. New universities have been opened. In the countryside there are government campaigns against child marriage, female genital mutilation and the spread of HIV. Even taking into account the post-election massacres, it’s an undeniable improvement on the conduct of previous regimes, from the absolute rule of the much-mythologized Emperor Haile Selassie to the Stalinist purges and state terror of the Derg. Zenawi has even publicly mooted the idea of standing down as leader (though recently he announced his intention to govern for at least five more years).

‘Government has turned its back on its people. They don’t care how the poor suffer. They are only interested in enriching themselves’

But the image the West so badly wants to see – Ethiopia as a beacon of African democracy – is clearly wishful thinking. Zenawi may still charm Western leaders and his troops may be back in Somalia fighting the spread of Islamism. But his Government has systematically smashed opposition and stifled dissent, discouraged political debate and shut down the free press. Support is maintained through coercion, bribery and fear. And, if ever these safeguards fail, the EPRDF has shown itself willing to fall back on old-fashioned terror.

Even the Government’s strongest critics concede that no other party is strong enough to threaten Zenawi at the polls. Much of the opposition has fled the country, while others have been silenced. Birtukan Mideksa, portrayed by her supporters as Ethiopia’s Aung San Suu Kyi, was recently sentenced to life imprisonment for refusing to apologize for ‘crimes’ committed after the last elections – her crime was encouraging anti-Government protests. Meles Zenawi is taking no chances. Having fought a civil war to overthrow a bloodthirsty regime, and with his feet planted firmly on the international stage, he seems to feel, in the manner of so many African ‘big men’, that only he and his cronies are entitled to rule the country. His native Tigray, historically oppressed by the emperors of the neighbouring Amhara region, is at last enjoying wealth and influence. The coming elections will demonstrate how much further he’s prepared to go to destroy the democracy that he himself created.

‘Zenawi tried democracy once,’ says Professor Getachew. ‘And he may even have meant it. But democracy bit the hand that fed it and he won’t make the same mistake twice. He’s too clever.’

Nick Hunt is a freelance journalist and writer currently based in London. His work can be seen on

All names in this article have been changed.