Meles Zenawi’s repressed thread of
thought in 2004 and 2005 that led to a brief phase of political
liberalization is markedly apparent: a wild goose chase to justify an
illegal purge in the TPLF (against Seye Abraha et al in the early
2000s) as a means to an end in which the nation becomes freer than
ever before. And when this was buttressed by political and
intelligence assessments about the opposition’s lack of preparedness
(which were accurate), the 2005 elections looked like an ideal outlet
for Meles Zenawi’s guilt-ridden conscience (the purged were his close,
lifelong friends). A hitherto unprecedented electoral process -- there
were three largely discredited ones as a backdrop -- was to placate his
flustered conscience and sanctify his democratic credentials both to
the public and history.
But by March 2005, this fantasy was turning more into one long nightmare.
Events upto March 2005
The most fateful of EPRDF’s decisions was its acquiescence to a long
procession of live debates between political parties -- which were much
longer and broader than is the norm in the West. What first happened
in the US in 1960 -- live debates between Presidential candidates
Kennedy and Nixon -- arrived 45 years later in Ethiopia, and in both
instances changed politics forever. In the end, the mischievous
attempt by the EPRDF to dilute the opposition’s message by insisting
on equal time for major and minor parties was just not enough to
undercut the transformative power of TV and radio.
By March, the EPRDF leadership was fully aware of the rising storm
generated by the debates. Increasingly nervous, it expels SIX US
election observers at the end of the month -- ironically, SIX weeks
before election week. But not even the most adventurous spirits were
yet predicting an opposition triumph over the EPRDF at this stage.
Events in April 2005
EPRDF’s belligerence is suddenly stretched to the limit. In a twist to
actual events akin to the famed dramatic developments in Indian
movies, the person the EPRDF entrusts to unleash havoc turns out to be
not its favored attack dog (whom I hardly need to name), but one of
its most unassuming personalities, the physical education
instructor-cum-Deputy Prime Minister, Addisu Legesse. In a live public
debate held on April 15th, fifteen days after the expulsion of the
election observers, Addisu equates the opposition with the Rwandan
Interahamwe militia, which was responsible for genocide. And thus,
perhaps by deliberate design, but no less plausibly, by sheer blunder,
the EPRDF becomes morally and legally challenged by the specter of
hand-over of power to a genocidal opposition -- even if it was to win
Events in May 2005
The first day of May marks the arrival of three hundred international
observers -- representing the EU, Carter Center and the AU. Six days
later, on May 7, the EPRDF surprises the nation with a massive rally
at Meskel Square. Meles is ecstatic with joy. “There is no need for us
to steal an election,” he tells the assembled emotionally. EPRDF
critics are stunned to silence. Devoid as they are of divine powers,
there was no way for them to predict vindication in less than twenty
four hours. And in the absence of an alternative explanation, it had
to be only the will of providence that compelled a miracle for the
opposition on historic May 8.
Not a thousand words would suffice to describe what happened at city
center that day. Too large to be captured by a single camera, this
mass of humanity happened momentarily and passed away forever -- always
to be imagined; never to be satisfactorily explained verbally or fully
captured visually. (There seems to be space for oral history even in
modern times after all.) It was now time for the EPRDF to be stunned
On Election Day, May 15, two millions Ethiopians head to the polls
with pronounced optimism and enthusiasm. And in a show of remarkable
restraint for a country with a “genocidal opposition”, the day passes
without a single incident of election related violence. But the PM has
a surprise in store for the next day. He looks and sounds unnerved.
“The government has decided to bring all security forces, the police
and local militias, under the command of the Prime Minister. All
public meetings and demonstrations are outlawed for a month,” he tells
a shocked nation on May 16.
The next day, May 17, brings more surprises; but this time, pleasant
ones for the public. Unofficial results indicate a landslide for the
CUD, one of the nation’s two major oppositions, in Addis Ababa. The
speaker of Parliament, Dawit Yohannes, loses his seat. And so do
several Ministers. As bellwether for nationwide sentiment, the
implication of Addis’ results immediately sends shock waves through
both the EPRDF and the opposition. Both are vividly caught off guard.
EPRDF reacts instinctively. Ignoring the tallying of votes then still
in progress, it declares itself the winner. Anna Gomez, chief EU
election observers, reacts immediately, “improper for a ruling party,”
she tells journalists. On May 28th , the electoral board
controversially certifies EPRDF’s claim of overall majority. The
public is simply outraged. Eight days later, with the opposition
looking from the sidelines, students protest accusing the EPRDF of
fraud. EPRDF’s hasty claim of plurality thus triggers public protests.
Police fire live ammunition. A young female student, Shibre Desalign,
is shot fatally and becomes the first victim of post-election
violence. Yusef Abdella, a student at Kotebe’s TTC, succumbs to a
bullet wound, and becomes the second victim. A great tragedy is
beginning to unravel. Two days later, June 8th , protests erupt again
and bullets from security forces kill three 16 year olds: Nebiy
Alemayehu, Fekadu Negah and Abraham Yilma (the latter two brothers).
Security forces' bullets also somehow find and kill Zulufa Surur, a
mother of seven. The government eventually acknowledges the death of
26 people. The real figure, however, is much higher. Over 1500 people
are imprisoned. And EPRDF prepares for further repression.
Three days later, Meles Zenawi speaks of Ethiopia’s “maturing
democracy” in an interview with Reuters. On the same day, MP-elect
Tsegaye Adane, member of UEDF, the other major opposition, is shot
dead in Arusi. And in a clear shoker, eight highly anticipated
Air-force trainee pilots in Belarus refuse to return to “Ethiopia’s
maturing democracy” and seek political asylum, symbolizing spreading
dissent into the ranks of the military.
Ethiopia teeters on the brink of change. Thousands of Ethiopians in
the US and Europe hold candle light vigils for the dead.
Events in July and August
Outgoing EPRDF dominated Parliament, whose members had mostly lost
their seats, vindictively pass bill that strip most of the essential
powers and responsibilities of Addis Ababa city government. Almost
immediately, the first calls to boycott Parliament are aired. (Addis
loses its public rally permit authority.) Dr Birhanu Nega becomes
mayor-elect of Addis Ababa.
By the end of August, the EPRDF and EU observers are engaged in a war
of words. Anna Gomez publicly rebukes the electoral process for
“failure to meet international standards.” Meles’ response: “garbage.”
Events in September and October
Electoral board announces official results: EPRDF and allied parties
68% of parliamentary seats; 20% CUD; 12% UEDF. The opposition
responds by calling for a rally to protest the results on October 2nd.
Meles personally appears on national television and sternly delivers a
warning: “The rally is illegal.” But the public is determined to defy
the warning. An epic showdown seems to be in the making.
Three days before D-day, however, the opposition backs down and
cancels the rally. An alternative stay-home action called for by the
opposition for three consecutive days as of October 3 is universally
Western diplomats mediate between the EPRDF and the opposition but the
talks almost immediately fail. Ten days later, CUD officially boycotts
Parliament, pending the fulfillment of eight watered-down
preconditions. UEDF breaks ranks with CUD and opts to join Parliament.
Parliament opens on October 10 and elects Meles as PM for the third
time. The next day, October 11, MPs who boycotted Parliament are
stripped of their immunity from prosecution. Meles accuses CUD of
treason. “They want to remove the government through street action,”
CUD calls for nation-wide strikes and stay-at –homes as of the first
week of November. Many vow to follow its lead.
The massacres of November -- The Climax!
Merkato explodes early Tuesday morning on November 1. The government
responds with immediate show of force. Scores die in the streets of
Merakto. Many more are injured. By mid-afternoon, prominent CUD
leaders are rounded up and newspaper offices are raided. Hailu Shawel,
Birtukan Mideksa and Birhanu Nega are imprisoned. Police wantonly
shoot and kill wife of an arrested CUD member in Addis; outraging the
public. Wide reports of indiscriminate killings by police. Children
and women amongst the dead and injured. The EPRDF is responding with
massive force. The protests, however, are evidently unplanned and are
mostly fueled by police brutality.
By the third day, protests spread to regional cities: Dessie, Gonder,
Baher Dar, Awasa, Dire Dawa and Arba Minch. Tens of thousands are
imprisoned. A fee of 1500 birr and forced confessions (absurdly
absolving authorities of responsibility) are demanded to release
Describing the events that transpired over those days, Samuel
Frehiwot, chairman of a commission established by Parliament to
investigate the riots said, “ Old men were killed while in their
homes. Children were also victims while playing in the garden.” His
deputy, Welde-Michael Meshasha described how many died, “The
majority died from shots to the head.”
People were shot, beaten and even strangled, the commission finds out.
“It was a massacre. There is no doubt that excessive force was used,”
Welde-Michael told AP after he and Frehiwot fled the country before
submitting their report to parliament.
The world watched in utter disgust. And in the end, the inevitable
happened: the government prevails over its unarmed citizens. A pyrrhic
victory if there was ever one!!
History will not forget the murdered innocents!!
(Note to readers:
Second part of “Meles’ new cabinet” will appear next week. The
massacred have precedence this week.)
The writer, prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years of tug-of-war with the 'system,' Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: email@example.com