Shortly after May 15 elections in Ethiopia were deemed free and fair by on-the-scene observers, things turned ugly for the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Demonstrations charging electoral fraud were outlawed by the government for a month. When the ban was ignored by the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy, police opened fire on the protesters, killing at least 36.
About 4,000 demonstrators were arrested. Most were released in about a week, but more than 200 remain in jail, and the government threatens to increase the number of those held, who have not been charged. The ban on protests has been renewed for a month.
An official investigation of electoral irregularities was conducted. The results were expected to be made public July 1 but were not. This has cast doubts over the 14-year-old government’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law.
So has the government’s reluctance to accept as final an arbitration ruling by the United Nations on a border dispute with neighboring Eritrea that triggered a 1998-2001 war.
As a result, Ethiopia finds itself under fire as the international community asks searching questions and leans on all parties to calm down.
At a June 23 meeting in Addis Ababa with ambassadors of a multinational donors’ group, Mr. Meles said his Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Party “will be loyal to the constitution of the land, and abide by the rule of law.”
“On the opposition side, the expectation is that they will also abide by the constitution and the rule of law,” he added, calling the postelection protests an “unconstitutional grab for power.”
“We had to put it down,” he said, “and if it happens again, we will put it down.”
In an interview this month at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington, Ambassador Kassahun Ayele described the postelection events as an “opposition conspiracy designed to bring down the government.”
“Fortunately,” he said, “the government anticipated the plot and outlawed any demonstrations for a month.” When the order was ignored, he added, “we had to put a stop to the protest quickly or face a worse situation.”
Mr. Kassahun said there are “two views of the electoral process” in Ethiopia. “While we sought to deliver a free and fair democratic exercise, the opposition intended to use the election for their own conspiratorial ends.”
Representatives of the opposition coalition see things differently.
Mesfin Mekonen of the Ethiopian-American Council said in a telephone interview that Ethiopians across America “are appalled at the postelection violence committed against a peaceful demonstration.”
Seyoum Solomon, Washington representative of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, said: “The outlook for a peaceful transition to democracy and the rule of law in Ethiopia is very gloomy.”
A letter to Mr. Meles from House International Affairs Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde of Illinois and its ranking Democrat, Tom Lantos of California, said:
“State-sponsored violence against, peaceful — if enthusiastic — demonstrators must be considered unacceptable in a civilized nation such as Ethiopia.”
The attempt to sugarcoat the reprimand points to the high value U.S. officials place on a nation of 73 million people. As the war on terrorism casts a cloud over many international relationships, Ethiopia is considered a key ally on the strategic Horn of Africa, near the Red Sea gateway of Djibouti and the failed state of Somalia.
An American official, who asked to remain anonymous, described U.S. policy on the electoral dispute as an effort to calm down all parties, and on the border dispute as a plea for all sides to accept the 2002 arbitration as final.
Eritrea has accepted the ruling. The question is whether the Meles government is free enough of internal pressures to do so.
Eritrea is known to have pushed for a stronger international stand against Ethiopia, including sanctions.
After the bloody three-year war, both neighbors agreed to U.N. arbitration. Both apparently were eager to end the fighting. When the boundary commission ruled that certain disputed areas — such as Badme, the cause of the war — belong to Eritrea, Ethiopia asked for “further dialogue.”
“There is the fate of families living there that we must take into consideration,” Mr. Kassahun said.
Though he did not elaborate, a number of Ethiopians living in the Washington area — there are about 300,000 in the region and more than a half-million in the United States — said the Ethiopian government is under many pressures, including that of families in Badme that balk at being turned over to Eritrea.