The End of EleCtions and Dictatorship and the Beginning of Free and Fair Elections and Democracy in Ethiopia (Part I)

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

Author’s Note: As the 2020 Ethiopian general election looms, I am filled with hope and expectation that Ethiopia for the first time in its millennia-long history will have a free and fair election and transition to democracy.

Ethiopia today is at a crossroads.

On May 22, 2015, in anticipation of general elections that month, I wrote a commentary entitled, “Ethiopia at the Crossroads of History” and posed a single question:

Are the people of Ethiopia better off today than they were 5 years ago?

Do they have more press freedom? More human rights protections today than five years ago? Is there more accountability, transparency and openness in government today than five years ago? Do young Ethiopians today have more confidence in their future than they did five years ago? Do Ethiopia’s youth have more employment opportunities today than they did five years ago? More academic freedom in the universities? Do Ethiopians have more access to the vast universe of information available on the internet than they did five years ago? Do Ethiopians today have more confidence in their future, their rulers and public institutions than they did five years ago?

In the past 20 months, all of these questions have been answered with resounding affirmation! There is vastly more human rights protections, press freedom, accountability, transparency and openness in government and the rest than there ever before in the history of Ethiopia!

But the burdensome economic legacy of the regime of the Tigrean People’s Liberation (TPLF) still lingers on and hangs on the necks of every Ethiopian like an albatross. The unemployment rate in Ethiopia increased to 19.10 percent in 2018 from 16.90 percent in 2016.  The TPLF had completely depleted the country’s foreign exchange reserves and the “crisis with hard currency will not be solved today, nor will it in the next 15 or 20 years.” Ethiopia’s population in 2015 was 100.8 million. In 2018, it was 109.2 million.

But Ethiopia is in the twilight of a new, free, prosperous ear. The tectonic transformations that have taken place over the past two years in Ethiopia point in the direction of an Ethiopia rising from the ashes of dictatorship.

Democracy looms over the Ethiopian horizon.

Democracy is not a magic wand that can be waived to fix inter-generational social and political problems. It is a process by which people in a society select those to whom they will delegate their sovereign power for a period of time under the principle of the rule of law. The essence of democracy is popular sovereignty, constitutional accountability and transparency in policy and decision-making.

In Part I of this commentary, I shall reflect on elections past, my role as a commentator on Ethiopian elections and examine the legal and scholarly standards for a free and fair election.

In Part II, I shall examine the recently enacted Proclamation No. 1162/2019 (The Ethiopian Electoral, Political Parties Registration and Election’s Code of Conduct Proclamation).

Special challenge to Ethiopian scholars, academics, intellectuals and others: Let us be “Ethiopia’s eyes, ears and mouths and teach and preach to the younger generation and the broader masses” as the 2020 election draws near.

I got involved in Ethiopian human rights advocacy as a result of the massacres that took place in Ethiopia following the 2005 election (see discussion below).

I have written dozens of commentaries on elections in Ethiopia over the past 14 years as part of my personal commitment to civic education to my regular readers and others as well as in protest to the TPLF’s election travesties.

As the 2020 election looms, I challenge all Ethiopian scholars, academics, intellectuals and other informed commentators to join me in civic public education.

I re-issue the challenge I made in my July 2012 commentary;

Ethiopia’s intelligentsia could play the roles described by Said and Havel, and even go beyond their prescriptions and serve as consensus-builders, bridge-builders, facilitators, promoters and pacifiers. I would like to challenge and urge them to become Ethiopia’s eyes, ears and mouths and teach and preach to the younger generation and the broader masses. They do not have to be concerned about dumbing down their messages to the people, for when speaking truth to power the people get the message loud and clear.

Never look back unless…

I coined the word “eleKtion” to describe the “elections” that were taking place in Ethiopia since the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front took power in Ethiopia in 1991, and particularly after 2005.

The “K” in “eleKtions” is for kangaroo elections.

In my February 2015 commentary “Ethiopia’s Perfekt Elektion”,  I suggested the parliamentary “election” scheduled for May of that year was “much ado about nothing.” I likened it to the proverbial pig in lipstick. At the end of the day, a pig in lipstick is still a pig just as a rigged election dressed in democratic haberdashery is still a rigged election.

Not to disappoint, the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TTLF) in May 2015 declared it had won 100 percent of the seats in its kangaroo parliament.

In 2010, TPLF claimed to have won 99.6 percent of the seats in its “parliament.”

I have written an extensive analysis of that election.

It is said that there are at least four different types of elections: (1) free and fair elections, (2) unfree and unfair elections, (3) unfree but fair elections and (4) free but unfair elections.

I would add kangaroo elections as the fifth type of elections.

…you want to know how far you have come along!

In less than two years, Ethiopia has taken a warp drive journey from ethnic dictatorship to multiparty democracy.

The bogus front party created by the TPLF, for the TPLF and called “EPRDF” is buried and on it grave have arisen many political parties, especially Prosperity Party.

There are over 100 self-declared political parties and opposition groups operating in the country. They should winnow down to 3 or 4 strong and competitive political parties and offer the people real alternatives.

Ethiopian eleKtions and I or how the 2005 Ethiopian parliamentary eleKtion changed my life

Until the 2005 “parliamentary election” in Ethiopia, I had at best an academic interest in Ethiopian politics and affairs.

As I have recounted on numerous occasions, I joined the Ethiopian human rights struggle after the Meles Massacres of 2005 and to vindicate the sacrifices of those who were murdered and maimed protesting that stolen election.

Following the 2005 election, the late Meles Zenawi, boss of the TPLF crime family, gave an order to shoot any protesters who demonstrated against the election results. As a result of that order, an Inquiry Commission established by Zenawi himself documented the extrajudicial killing of 193 individuals and severe gunshot injury to nearly 800 others.

I was outraged by the crimes against humanity committed by Meles and his TPLF gang. It was a defining moment: Either the moment defined me or I defined the moment.

I had four clear choices before me: 1) pretend the massacres did not really happen; 2) express fleeting private moral outrage and conveniently forget the whole thing as too many did; 3) hope someone will take up the cause of these victims of crimes against humanity and I can watch indifferently from the sidelines making excuses, or 4) take an active advocacy role and prosecute the criminals and their foreign supporters in the court of world public opinion, and if ever possible in a court of law.

I decided to live out the wisdom of the old saying, “The only thing necessary for the persistence of evil is for enough good people to do nothing.”

For the past 14 years, I have committed to using my pen/keyboard every week to prosecute and convict the TPLF criminals against humanity in the court of world public opinion.

Indeed, in February 2019, I put on “trial” “Bereket (The Curse of Ethiopia) Simon for Crimes Against Humanity” in the 2005 election massacre.

I have written extensively on Ethiopia’s “eleKtions” over the years.

In my April 2008 commentary, “The Emperor Has No Clothes”, I called on people to stand up and bear witness for democracy. “Speak up! We must tell the truth, the naked truth: ‘The emperor has no clothes!’ We must raise our collective voices and shout out, ‘These elections are a sham, a fraud and a scam!’ We must bear witness for democracy.”

In my December 2008 commentary, “To Catch an Election Thief”, I commented on the actions of the Thai  Constitutional Court of Thailand which convicted a boatload of election thieves for vote buying, vote rigging, conspiracies to defraud voters and other fraudulent electoral practices. I thought the 2005 election thieves would also be brought to the bar of justice.

In my October 2009 commentary, “Much Ado About An Already Won Election!”, I called it like it was. I argued the 2010 election was already won because the same crooks that rigged the 2005 election will be managing the 2010 election. I was right. The same crooks “won” 99.6 percent of the seats in parliament.

In my two-part commentary on “The Madness of Ethiopia’s “2010 Elections”,  I argued the TPLF was using the game of “election code of conduct” as a cover of legitimacy but the outcome will be the same old zero-sum game the TPLF has played so well for the past two decades.

In my March 2010 commentary “The A B C’s of Stealing an Election in Ethiopia”, I observed elections for the TPLF were the same as they were for Stalin who said, “The people who cast the votes don’t decide an election, the people who count the votes do.”

In my May 2010 commentary, “Of Elections and Diapers in Ethiopia”, I told Meles Zenawi and his TPLF crew a  simple fact about elections: “Politicians are like diapers. They both need changing regularly and for the same reason. What a pity the poor Ethiopia had to wear the same diapers for another 5 years plus!”

In my August 2013 commentary, I wrote about “Dishonor Among African Elections Thieves”, I observed, “Change is inevitable even though African dictators believe they can remain in power indefinitely by stealing elections and harassing, jailing and killing their opponents. African dictatorships have fallen from their own internal weaknesses and contradictions. Behind the tough and gritty exterior of regimes such as those in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia remain fragile structures and confused and ignorant leaders who are clueless about good governance and what to do to remain in power legitimately.” I was right!

In my May 2014, a year before the May 2015 election, in my commentary, “Of Elections and Diapers in Ethiopia”, I warned, “The ghost of Meles Zenawi will hang over the 2015 elections like “pall in the dunnest (dark) smoke of hell”, to paraphrase Shakespeare. Meles was the supreme playwright of stolen and rigged elections. He wrote the script and playbook for rigging and hijacking elections in the bush, long before he held the mantle of power. “

In my May 23, 2015 commentary, “Aaargh! T-TPLF ‘Wins’ Again!”, I offered the TPLF sarcastic congratulations for winning a flawlessly rigged election which it claimed to have won by 100 percent!

In my July 2015 commentary, “Laughing at Ethiopia’s 2015 Elektion”, I took to task Barack Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice for laughing her butt off about Ethiopia’s election. She said the TPLF’s 100 percent electoral victory was democratic.

In 2009, Obama told the people of Africa “Make no mistake: History is on the side of these brave Africans, not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”

In July 2015, Barack Obama and I parted ways after he visited Ethiopia and declared the TPLF regime “has been democratically elected” and he “opposed any group that is promoting the violent overthrow of the government of Ethiopia.”

In 2015, Obama stood on the wrong side of history with the strongmen in Ethiopia who steal elections in broad daylight.”

It is 2020 I am looking forward for the first ever free and fair election in Ethiopia.

What makes for a free and fair election?

“Free and fair election” is an overused phrase with divergent meaning even among political scientists and scholars. In general conversation, the phrase is often loosely used to signify the need for transparency, inclusivity, accountability and equitable opportunities to compete in the electoral process.

Political scientists use “value-free measures, such as the quality of elections electoral self-determination and electoral integrity” to discuss electoral integrity.

I share the view of political scientists who comprehend “freeness” of an election in terms of the “the right of adult citizens to register and vote as well as having the right to establish and join parties and campaign freely within the country.” The “fairness” element “refers to every voter’s entitlement to exercise his or her right equally with others.”

However, there are at least ten variables that should be considered in a comprehensive evaluation of a given election: legal framework,  electoral management bodies, electoral rights, voter registration, ballot access, campaign process, media access, voting process, role of officials and counting votes.

Beyond scholarly standards, “free and fair elections” are guided by various international conventions and resolutions.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though non-binding, under article 21 (3) provides “everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives” and “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, binding upon signatories including Ethiopia, under article 25 provides, “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions: (a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives; (b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors; (c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country”.

The African Union Declaration on the Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa lists 13 conditions under which democratic elections are conducted as part of the strengthening of the democratization process. Of special significance are the requirement for an AU observation and monitoring of elections.

The Declaration  of Criteria for free and Fair Elections of the Inter-Parliamentary Council (the international organization of the parliaments of sovereign states” has set 13 provisions on election rights and obligations.

In all of the foregoing, there is consensus on the core elements of a free and fair election.

Stars aligning for the first free and fair election in Ethiopia’s history

There is substantial evidence to show that Ethiopia is poised to have its first free and fair election in its long history.

Legal Framework:

The legal framework established in Proclamation No. 1162/2019 (The Ethiopian Electoral, Political Parties Registration and Election’s Code of Conduct Proclamation) provides a comprehensive scheme of rights, guarantees and obligations. (Full discussion of the Proclamation will be provided in Part II of this commentary.)

Electoral Management Body:

The duties, responsibilities and independence of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia are set forth in minute detail in Proclamation No. 1162/2019. The Board is led by Birtukan Midekksa, a former judge, political prisoner and Harvard graduate.  The Board has substantial power in all aspects of the electoral process Proclamation guarantees independence and impartiality to the Board and decisions of the Board may be appealed to the Federal High Court.

Voter Registration:

Extraordinary care is given in the Proclamation to prevent voting fraud and irregularities. Part III of the Proclamation provides detailed procedures for voter registration, verification and vote counting.


Chapter Two of the Proclamation provides detailed procedures for qualification for candidates, nominations and issuance of certificate of candidature, among other things.

Campaign Process:

Chapter Three of the Proclamation provides detailed procedures on how to conduct election campaigns, code of conduct, use of mass media and prohibited practices.

Media Access:

Article 44 of Chapter Three provides use of mass media, article 126 of Chapter Five addresses the responsibilities of journalists.

Voting Process:

Chapter Four of the Proclamation provides detailed guidelines on the voting process including operation and security of polling stations, election observers, voting hours and casting votes.

Role of Officials:

Chapter Eight of the Proclamation provides various safeguards to prevent manipulation of votes to distort voting process. It has provisions to prevent intimidation and violence, process for filing grievances and complaints, transparency and any violation of the Proclamation.

Counting of Votes:

Chapter Five of the Proclamation provides detailed procedures for vote counting, accountability, transparency, invalid votes and provisional votes.

Will Ethiopia have free and fair elections in May 2020?

Whether Ethiopia will have free and fair elections in May 2020 is a question of empirical proof once the election takes place.

However, in my assessment there will be a free and fair election in May 2020. My reasons are set forth above.

But there are those who  doubt there will be a fair and free election.

In September 2018, it was reported that certain opposition groups were threatening to boycott the election because of a requirement for a national party to produce signatures of 10,000 voters, up from 1,500. Regional parties will need 4,000 signatures, up from 750.

Other opposition leaders had argued the new Proclamation will disadvantage opposition parties seeking to challenge the ruling party’s “grip on power.” There was also objection to a provision civil servants must vacate their jobs if they are going to run for office.

However, despite “complaints from the Joint Council of Political Parties, representing 107 opposition parties, and a threat to boycott Ethiopia’s 2020 general elections, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) chairwoman, Birtukan Mideksa, stood by the new Electoral and Political Parties Law of Ethiopia.”

Some have argued for the postponement of the 2020 election and formation of a “grand coalition government for the coming three years to debate and implement social-political reforms.”

Almost a year ago, foreign doomsayers-cum-commentators have declared, “The probability that Abiy and the EPRDF would be defeated in 2020 is high, assuming it is a “free and fair” process.” One of the doomsayers recently threatened to lead a demonstration against PM Abiy during the Nobel Peace Prize Oslo ceremonies.

I like to see the sunny side of Ethiopia. I see an Ethiopia Rising in the Horn of Africa. The others see the sun setting on Ethiopia.

To be continued… Part II…

I am willing to bet my bottom dollar that in May 2020 Ethiopia will be basking in the sunshine of peace, prosperity, progress and liberty!


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