[Author’s Note: This post first appeared in Ethiomedia on April 12, 2008 as an “editorial” without a byline. (Ethiomedia Editor’s Note – Ethiomedia will offer periodic editorial commentary on the role of the press, media and the vital necessity of free expression in sustaining democratic dialogue in Ethiopia.]
Abraham Lincoln said, “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time. But you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” That remains to be seen, because April is shaping up to be “Circus Show Time in Ethiopia”. On April 13, “local and national by-elections” are being held. Millions of people are said to be “registered to vote”. Countless political parties and millions of “candidates” are said to be running for office. “Debates” have been organized to “inform” the people. If the regime’s propaganda is to be believed, April will be Democracy Fest in Ethiopia.
For the past three months, the regime has been gearing up for make-believe elections. They have been scheming to hoodwink the world into believing that Ethiopia is a pluralistic democracy with open, free and competitive elections. That, of course, is hogwash and an insult to the collective intelligence of the international community. They have also unleashed their PR machine to bamboozle Ethiopians into believing that they have a real voice in their own governance. Ethiopians may appear to be deaf-mute from an enforced silence, but they are not stupid. They know when they are being hustled, scammed and flimflammed. Both the international community and the Ethiopian people know for a fact is that the so-called elections have no credibility. Human Rights Watch a few days ago concluded: “The run-up to these elections illustrates how meaningless the process of voting can be in an environment of intimidation and fear. The Ethiopian government must publicly commit itself to ending the systemic human rights abuses that have become part of the foundation of its hold on power.” The plain truth is that pretending to have elections without robust and competitive political parties, free speech, an independent free press and an independent judiciary is like pretending to have a church without a congregation or a school without students. Going through the motions of an election — that is, “registering” voters by threat, intimidation and inducement, refusing to “register” opposition candidates, lining up 30 purely fictitious “political parties”, assembling a robotic army of 4 million (!) handpicked “candidates”, organizing hollow and meaningless “debates”, operating a sham “elections board” that is in the back pocket of the regime — does not a democracy make.
What makes elections real and genuine, first and foremost, is the existence of freely organized political parties that have complete freedom to organize and communicate their messages, unfiltered and uncensored, to the voters through a free and independent media. Make-believe political parties and candidates that give the voters no real choice make for a travesty of democracy. We know for certain that in the April elections circus, the ringmaster determines the outcome: The regime and its “coalition party” will “win”, and “win” mightily. We’ve been victimized by that election hoax many times before.
But why does the regime insist on having make-believe elections when everybody knows the fix is in. That’s because real elections are risky business; and the regime is dreadfully scared of them. In the May, 2005 elections, the regime got routed, trounced, thumped and had its collective derrières kicked. That left them deeply shocked. They asked themselves, “What in the world were we thinking when we agreed to have free, open and competitive elections!?!” It was a rude awakening for them to find out that when the people are given the opportunity to freely choose their leaders, they will always vote for those whom they believe will help them achieve their dreams and hopes. In 2005, the Ethiopian people did just that, and without blinking an eye. Today, they are paying a high price for it. But the ruling regime has learned its lesson. They will NEVER allow a repeat of the 2005 experiment in real democratic elections: “Once burned, twice careful!”
What should we make of these make-believe elections? Not very much. Human Rights Watch said, “It is too late to salvage these elections, which will simply be a rubber stamp on the EPRDF’s near-monopoly on power at the local level.” We may be tempted to laugh and shake our heads in dismay at the deceptive audacity of the regime, and its arrogant gamesmanship with democracy. But we shouldn’t, because democracy is no laughing matter. Certainly, we can’t stand by idly when democracy is caricatured in a circus of make-believe elections. We can’t turn a blind eye, and plug our ears in disgust and pretend this is the way things have always been. If we do so, we risk trial and damnation in the court of our own conscience. We have a solemn responsibility to speak out: “Democracy is being hijacked in broad daylight, once again!”
We must 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. We must tell the world that there can be no democratic elections when opposition party leaders are tailed and shadowed by police informers, agents and security watchdogs day and night. No real elections when the real opposition parties can not register their candidates because of intimidation, detentions and physical assaults. There can be no free elections when independent journalists are jailed en mass for reporting and informing the public, harassed and forced into exile; and their papers shut down, banned or forced into insolvency. There can be no real elections when voters are threatened and intimidated into voting for the handpicked lackeys and flunkeys of the ruling regime.
The funny thing about the April elections circus is that the regime hopes it will provide a nice little distraction from all of the real pressing issues facing the people of Ethiopia — looming famine, rampant corruption, hyperinflation, massive repression and widespread human rights violations. The predicament for the ringmasters of the elections circus is that it is impossible to distract a man or a woman on an empty stomach, because a “hungry man/woman is an angry man/woman”.
But we should not be too preoccupied with the elections game other people play. We have our own issues and problems to face. As a pro-democracy opposition in the Diaspora, we seem to lack unity of purpose, organizational solidarity and strategic alignment to help build a genuinely democratic society in Ethiopia. If truth be told, we spend way too much time sniping at and criticizing each other. Our state of disarray and disharmony is a constant source of amusement and comic relief for the regime in power. We spend precious little time building bridges across ethnic, party and political lines, and waste our money, energy and efforts undercutting, undermining and underrating each other. We squabble and quarrel over crumbs while the crooks feast at the table of corruption and hypocrisy. We have done very little to help our young men and women develop leadership skills and political awareness; and we stand justly accused of failing to pass on to them a legacy of principled democratic values and practices to carry forward the long and hard struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. We often show great intolerance in speech, temperament and conduct in our relationships. We just as soon condemn our dearest friends for political disagreements than accept our differences of opinion as natural and desirable traits of democratic citizenship. WE’VE GOT A LOT OF WORK TO DO!
Just as the naked emperor who walked the public square pretending to wear fine clothes was deceiving himself, the ringmasters of the April elections circus should know they are only deceiving themselves in putting on make-believe elections. Abe Lincoln was right. “You can’t fool all of the people all the time.” But he forgot to add that the only person you can fool all the time is yourself. This time the emperor has succeeded in fooling no one, but himself. At any rate, we’ve got our work cut out for us. Let’s get busy!