- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 29, 2005

Kassahun Ayele, Ethiopian ambassador to the United States, wrote about the Ethiopian May 15 election (Forum, Oct. 23). The misrepresentation of the story starts with the title: “Ethiopian Vote: Problems and Celebration.” As we shall see, there were only problems and no celebration.

The ambassador stated: “On May 15, Ethiopian democracy shone as more than 90 percent of eligible voters went to the polls and freely cast their votes.” The author forgot that on May 16 the ruling party, which he represents, darkened what shone on May 15.

To say that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi allowed the freest election is not to say that he allowed a free election. Look at the safeguards Mr. Meles put in place to insure his and his party’s return to power. The European Union observers reported:

First, government agents did interfere with the opposition, especially in rural areas where voters are totally dependent on the government for their survival. These agents harassed candidates and supporters and threatened would-be opposition voters. They even imprisoned candidates.

Second, the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), the group tasked with administering fair campaigns and elections, was, despite protests, composed of members handpicked by the prime minister.

Third, Mr. Meles placed the distribution of ballots and the custody of ballot boxes under the exclusive control of local members of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), Ethiopia’s ruling party.

Fourth, he limited the number of independent election observers and, in many places, barred opposition representatives from observing the distribution of ballots, the casting of votes, the opening of ballot boxes and the counting of votes.

The initial results, particularly the oppositions’ sweep of Addis Ababa, shocked Mr. Meles and put him in a difficult bind. What could he do to retain power, while still appearing the committed democrat to his friends in the West? A review of the things he did to manipulate the situation shows:

(1) Mr. Meles declared victory the day after the ballots were cast.

(2) He declared a month-long ban on protests, since extended for a second month.

(3) He declared a state of emergency on May 16, the day after the elections, and put the police and security forces under his direct command. He disarmed the Addis Ababa police, fearing this force would not obey orders to shoot at peaceful demonstrators, and replaced it with his own soldiers.

The May elections took place in the absence of enough observers. Indeed, the European Union and the U.S., through the Carter Center, had fielded about 300 observers. This number is insignificant, given the rugged nature of the country where 80 percent of the voters live. Also, the Carter Center people are unreliable, as Rep. Chris Smith, New Jersey Republican, has implied.

David Peterson, Africa director for the National Endowment for Democracy, put the situation very clearly at a May 5 congressional hearing on Ethiopia and Eritrea: “The reports that I have seen … certainly suggest that, in rural areas especially, the opposition is harassed and that the government has maintained a very tight control over the political competition.” During the hearing it was revealed that Norwegian Sigfried Pausewang, probably the leading expert on elections in Ethiopia, was forced by the Ethiopian government to withdraw from the EU observer delegation.

From the hearing, the report of the EU Election Observation Mission and other sources, the good ambassador, the U.S. and the EU knew well from the start that the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), the dominant member of the EPRDF, did not want so many observers. Herman Cohen, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, recently stated in an interview with Voice of America the TPLF would never give up power and accept defeat at the polls. To sum up, the whole world knew that because of the ruling party’s interference, the elections “did not live up to international standards and to the aspiration of the Ethiopian people.”

That is where the standoff now remains. People have refused to be ruled by the party they did not elect. There will be no celebration until their votes are respected and the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, which won the elections, takes over the administration.

GETATCHEW HAILE, Ph.D., F.B.A.

Regents Professor of Medieval Studies and Cataloguer Emeritus of Oriental Manuscripts.

Saint John’s University, MN.

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