Ethiopia: Dividing Lines; Alex Harrington Reports on Recent Events in Ethiopia from the Government's Point of View, and Tells How Some European Union Diplomats Compounded the Problems over the Elections by Aligning Themselves with an Opposition Bent on Violence

By Harrington, Alex | New African, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Ethiopia: Dividing Lines; Alex Harrington Reports on Recent Events in Ethiopia from the Government's Point of View, and Tells How Some European Union Diplomats Compounded the Problems over the Elections by Aligning Themselves with an Opposition Bent on Violence


Harrington, Alex, New African


"Ethiopia in flames", "Friend of Blair blots copy-book in riots". Such was the situation in post-election Ethiopia as reported in much of the Western media, most of which had not bothered to send reporters to see for themselves. The reality is, in fact, far more complicated and encouraging.

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This has been a difficult time for Ethiopia, but claims that democracy is dead there are very wide of the mark, as are claims that the ruling party did not win the majority of seats. If diplomats and correspondents went beyond the capital, Addis Ababa, and travelled around the country, where 85% of the population lives, they would get a fairer picture.

With the notable exception of a few members of the EU observer mission (of which more later), thousands of election observers from other African countries and from around the world, including the Carter Centre, concluded that Ethiopia's May elections saw the ruling party--the EPRDF--win a clear majority of seats, although a coalition of opposition parties gained about a third of the seats in the 547-seat parliament and won every seat in the capital, including the city administration.

The number of women MPs increased to an impressive 116. There were irregularities in certain seats and re-runs were held in 31 of them in August, after the National Election Board (NEB) had examined complaints from all sides.

In the course of the post-election riot on 8 June, over 30 people died in Addis Ababa. Before the full facts could be known, the British government, in an astonishing knee-jerk reaction, suspended aid to Ethiopia. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government and the police had claimed that the violence was instigated by the main opposition party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), but Hilary Benn, the British secretary for overseas development, and his diplomats on the ground in Addis, had stopped listening, at least to the Ethiopian government.

Claims that the British had switched allegiance were exaggerated, but their actions encouraged an already vociferous opposition to jockey for more power than they had actually won at the ballot box. The CUD called for a boycott of parliament and for strikes.

After a summer of fall-outs among the coalition partners, and expulsions from at least two of its parties, the CUD announced that they had not called for action during Ramadan "out of respect for our Muslim brothers". But then a riot broke out on 1 and 2 November, two days before Eid,

casting a dark shadow over the national holiday for many Muslims, though tens of thousands of them gathered at the national stadium for Eid on 3 November. Tellingly, the BBC thought that Muslims were demonstrating against the government and reported this, until corrected.

But, once again the reporting of the November riots was deceptive, the full facts were there for those who wanted to find them--seven policemen were killed in the riots (another later died of grenade wounds), over 330 policeman were injured, buses and taxis were smashed and burnt, streets were blocked and businesses were attacked and looted.

This was not a "peaceful demonstration" as the CUD had claimed, but a deliberate attempt to wrest power. Since then, Ethiopia's parliament has set up an independent commission to examine what caused the June and November riots and whether excessive force was used. Opposition leaders have been arrested and the government says they will face charges relating to an attempt to take power by force.

But the opposition would never have been so successful unaided--the most serious offender being the head of the EU election observer team. Shortly after polls closed in May, her office leaked estimates of results in a range of unrepresentative seats to the media. One of the journalists who received the leaked results--a press agency correspondent in Addis--confirmed that the opposition parties asked him to give them the leaked results, but he and other correspondents refused. …

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Ethiopia: Dividing Lines; Alex Harrington Reports on Recent Events in Ethiopia from the Government's Point of View, and Tells How Some European Union Diplomats Compounded the Problems over the Elections by Aligning Themselves with an Opposition Bent on Violence
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