What does President Obama “know” about the 2015 “election” in Ethiopia?
Last week, President Barack Obama met with a delegation of the regime in Ethiopia and said, “… the Prime Minister [Hailemariam Desalegn] and the government is going to be organizing elections in Ethiopia this year. I know something about that… And so we’ll have an opportunity to talk about civil society and governance and how we can make sure that Ethiopia’s progress and example can extend to civil society as well…”
(Let me state at the outset that I am addressing my commentary here in relevant parts personally to President Obama because he voluntarily injected himself in Ethiopia’s electoral politics by specifically commenting that he “knows something about” it. In light of his extraordinary declaration, I want to hold him accountable by demanding to know what he publicly declared he “knows about that” election. I also want to share with him the “something” I “know” about elections in that country.)
I was intrigued, confused and galled by the President’s curious choice of words. Did he mean he “knows something” in the sense that intelligence agencies “know something”? Could he have meant he “knows something” funny (monkey business) about elections in Ethiopia? I really want to know what President Obama “knows” about the 2015 “election” because the way he said it, it sounded like he was trying to make a “lie sound truthful”, as George Orwell might have said. Aren’t we all on pins and needles trying to find out the “something” he “knows”?
Does President Obama know that in the 2010 election, the ruling Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) won 99.6 percent of the seats in parliament? That is four-tenths of one percent away from a perfect 100 percent.
In May 2010, President Obama’s National Security Council issued aStatement declaring, “We are concerned that international observers found that the elections fell short of international commitments… An environment conducive to free and fair elections was not in place even before Election Day. In recent years, the Ethiopian government has taken steps to restrict political space for the opposition through intimidation and harassment, tighten its control over civil society, and curtail the activities of independent media…” Does President Obama know opposition parties and leaders today are harassed, intimidated, jailed, persecuted and prosecuted?
Does President Obama know that the best and brightest Ethiopian journalists who reported on the last “election” in 2010 are today languishing in subhuman prisons in Ethiopia? Does he remember naming and shaming the ruling regime in Ethiopia specifically for suppression of the independent press in his 2010 Statement on World Press Freedom Day declaring , “While people gained greater access than ever before to information through the Internet, cell phones and other forms of connective technologies, governments like China, Ethiopia, Iran, and Venezuela curtailed freedom of expression by limiting full access to and use of these technologies”?
Does President Obama know that as a result of the so-called “Proclamation on Charities and Society”, “the number of civil society organizations in Ethiopia was reduced from about 4600 to about 1400 in a period of three months in early 2010. Staff members were reduced by 90% or more among many of those organizations that survive”? Does he remember his Remarks on Civil Society in 2009 in which he said, “Make no mistake: Civil society — civil groups hold their governments to high standards.” Does he know in 2014 that there is a tiny fraction of civil society institutions (nearly all of them owned, operated and managed as cottage industries by regime supporters and cronies) in Ethiopia than were in 2009 or 2010?
Does President Obama know that in the past couple of months alone young men and women barely in their 20s have been arrested and jailed on “terrorism” charges merely for blogging on Facebook and speaking their minds on other social media? Does he know the free press in Ethiopia is suppressed, muzzled and shuttered? In the past few weeks alone, six popular independent publications including Afro Times, Addis Guday, Enku, Fact, Jano, and Lomi were shuttered and dozens of journalists jailed and exiled. Does he remember his 2012 Statement on World Press Day “calling on all governments to protect the ability of journalists, bloggers, and dissidents to write and speak freely without retribution and to stop the use of travel bans and other indirect forms of censorship to suppress the exercise of these universal rights.” Has President Obama ever called on the regime leaders in Ethiopia to release the young Ethiopian bloggers and internationally-celebrated journalists like Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye?
Does President Obama know that there cannot be an election worth the name where the press, opposition parties and civil society organizations are suppressed and persecuted and there is no level playing political field? Does he remember what he told the people of Africa in Accra, Ghana in 2009, “… This is about more than just holding elections. It’s also about what happens between elections. Repression can take many forms, and too many nations, even those that have elections, are plagued by problems that condemn their people to poverty. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves… No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top… No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, even if occasionally you sprinkle an election in there. And now is the time for that style of governance to end.”
Does President Obama know that Ethiopia today is under tyranny where corrupt thugs masquerading as leaders and their cronies who have a chokehold on the economy enrich themselves skimming international aid and loans while occasionally sprinkling their thugogracy (thugtatorship) with elections to make it look like a democracy? In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama said, “You know, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called ‘change.’ It’s still gonna stink after eight years.” Does President Obama know that you can put the lipstick of election on thugocracy to make it look like a pretty democracy, but at the end of the day it is still a thugocracy? Does he know that they can wrap a thugocracy in a piece of ballot paper called “election” but after 23 years it’s still gonna stink?
Knowing what we are talking about: Is there an “election” in Ethiopia in 2015?
In a 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell wrote, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.” Orwell argued, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
All of President Obama’s talk about an election in 2015 in Ethiopia is “pure wind”, language designed to make a bogus election sound truthful and a thugocracy appear to be a respectable democracy. The word “election” in the Ethiopian political context is nonsensical. To say, “An election will be held in in Ethiopia in 2015”, or “I know something about the 2015 Ethiopian election” is akin to repeating Prof. Noam Chomsky’s semantically nonsensical but grammatically correct sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” An “election” in Ethiopia is nothing more than an organized theft and robbery of the peoples’ voice in a three-ring circus called “election”. To call such organized election racket is to make a “lie sound truthful”.
Even before President Obama publicly declared he “knows something” about the 2015 “election” in Ethiopia, some Ethiopians and certain members of the international media have been talking about it. I have been asked to comment on whether there a chance for a free and fair election in 2015 (implying whether there is hope for a free and fair election in the absence of the master “election rig-ster extraordinaire” Meles Zenawi?) “What election?”, I exclaim with exasperation. “Woyane will steal the election again”, some snicker with apparently justified cynicism. Some tell me that a plan for a massive crackdown on opposition leaders and parties will be unleashed once the official campaign season is underway. I am asked, “Will opposition leaders and parties boycott the election?” The million dollar question I am asked in one form or another is, “Will the politburo of the TPLF dump Hailemariam Desalegn (the sitting ceremonial prime minister) and replace him with one of the old guards from the bush?” (I think the TPLF bosses will hustle Hailemariam straight to Dumpsville in 2015!)
What does “prime minster“ Hailemariam Desalegn know about the 2015 election?
In an interview with The Africa Report on June 11, 2014, “Prime Minister” Hailemariam Desalegn tried to clothe a manifest travesty of election in a golden gossamer robe of free and fair election.
Looking forward to the 2015 elections, are you expecting the opposition will gain more seats in parliament?
As far as the elections are concerned, we want to focus on the process. We have to make the process democratic, free, fair and credible in the eyes of our people. Then the result is up to the people. I cannot predict that this many seats are going to be given to the opposition or the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
Do you feel that the process is democratic?
Our institutional process and our laws and regulations are perfect. It is not the law that hinders but the implementation of these laws. Therefore, we have put in place the code of conduct of all parties. Strictly abiding by this code of conduct will help the process to be more democratic, free and fair and also credible.
If there is a similar outcome to 2010, where only one opposition candidate won a seat in parliament, do you think that may affect the credibility of the government?
I don’t think so because if the decision is taken by the people, all of us have to agree to it. We have to accept it whether it is sometimes irritating to some of us.
In the foregoing few words, Hailemariam Desalegn actually revealed his (I mean the TPLF’s) entire three-pronged strategy on how they plan to organize the theft of the 2015 election and repeat the 2010 crushing victory:
1) use state media and all other resources to hoodwink the people of Ethiopia that the 2015 election process will be democratic, free, fair and credible;
2) implement “our institutional process and our laws and regulations [that] are perfect” by
3) imposing on all political parties “the code of conduct” that his party has “put in place”.
The TPLF’s three-pronged strategy is actually the perfect game plan for the perfectly rigged election. The late Meles Zenawi wrote the perfect election rigging rulebook and “implemented” it in 2010. As a result, his party won the perfect election winning 99.6 percent of the parliamentary seats. Is it humanly possible to get a more perfect “election result”? (Only the late Saddam Hussein could boast a more perfect record when he won 100 percent of the 11,445,638 votes cast in the 2002 presidential election!). Meles’ ghost will be hanging over the 2015 “election” like “pall in the dunnest (dark) smoke of hell”, to paraphrase Shakespeare.
An “election” that is not “about people’s rule, but about ruling people”
As absurd and irrational as it sounds, in 2014, the powers that be behind Hailemariam still believe that they not only have the “perfect institutional process, laws and regulations” to run and win the perfect election in 2015, but also that they are the “perfect” rulers of Ethiopia who have “earned” the eternal right to be Ethiopia’s sole and exclusive rulers. In their thinking and worldview, the question of who will rule Ethiopia is out of the question. That issue is non-discussable, non-arguable and non-negotiable. Meles actually made that crystal clear in his victory speech following the 2010 “election”:
… We make this pledge to all the parties who did not succeed in getting the support of the people, during this election, that whether or not you have won seats in the parliament, as long as you respect the will of the people and the country’s Constitution and other laws of the land, we will work by consulting and involving you in all major national issues.
Simply stated, anyone who is unable or unwilling to accept the perfect results of the perfect 2015 “election” will be crushed. Period! Those who are willing to be good boys and girls, bow their heads and lick boots will be rewarded by getting the opportunity to be “consulted on all major national issues.” Woe to all opposition leaders, independent journalists, human rights advocates and civil society leaders who may refuse to accept the perfect outcome of the 2015 “election”: “Accept the ass kicking in the ‘elections’ or get an ass kicking in jail.”
What do others know about “elections” in Ethiopia?
In October 2009, I wrote a commentary entitled, “The Madness of Ethiopia’s 2010 “Elections”, posing the question: “Is it possible to have a fair and free election in a police state?” (That is a prosaic formulation of President Obama’s metaphorical question about the pig with lipstick.)
That commentary drew on campaign reportage by Dr. Negasso Gidada, who held the office of “President of Ethiopia” until his departure in 2001. Dr. Negasso, who was campaigning for a seat in parliament from Dembidollo in western Ethiopia depicted a system of command and control at the local level operated by the ruling regime that rivals those in the old communist bloc countries. He described the ruling party’s local party organization in Dembidollo as an interlocking system of security, police and other grassroots quasi-civil organizations which maintain integrated control over zones, towns, districts, villages, hamlets and households.
Dr. Negasso described the operation of a network of informants, agents and secret police-type operatives who use heavy-handed methods to harass, intimidate, gather intelligence and penetrate opposition elements with the aim of neutralizing them. He argued there is no structural or functional separation of political party and public security in Dembi Dollo. The two are morphed into a single political structure which totally controls and dominates the local political and social scene. Public employees, farmers, local youth, women, members of micro-credit associations and others are involuntarily inducted into the security-party structure. The intensity of control is so paralyzing, Dr. Negasso wrote, “Each household is required to report on guests and visitors, the reasons for their visits, their length of stay, what they said and did and activities they engaged in.” That was the failsafe strategy used by Meles in 2010 to produce the perfect election result of 99.6 percent. It will certainly be used to obtain theperfect result again in 2015 by the faceless, nameless, ruthless and visionless powers that be behind Hailemariam.
In commenting on the outcome of the perfect 2010 “elections”, Prof. Tobias Hagmann observed:
The 2010 elections are the culmination of a political strategy, on which the Ethiopian government had embarked after the humiliating 2005 elections. This strategy consisted of both sticks and carrots. The sticks included threats, harassment and imprisonment of opposition politicians and their potential supporters, while the carrots included mass recruitment of new party members and – as new analysis reveals – federal disbursement of funding to districts with a strong opposition showing for appeasement or buying of votes… [The] 99.6 percent result is a very strong indicator that in Ethiopia, democracy is not about people’s rule, but about ruling people… After 20 years in power, EPRDF has not only a de facto monopoly over political representation and decision-making, but also a de facto monopoly over the definition of what democracy means in Ethiopia.
Prof. Hagmann’s observations also point to the total absurdity and futility of any “elections” in Ethiopia in light of the dogmatic belief of the leaders of the TPLF (and its handmaiden the “EPDRF”) in their birthright to rule:
This is visible in the way EPDRF sees itself – namely as a vanguard party that has earned the right to lead the state, to determine what development is and how democracy is to be organized. Therefore, whoever is against the EPDRF is ‘anti-development’ or ‘anti-peace’ and whoever opposes its policies is anti-state.
What do I “know” about the 2015 elections in Ethiopia?
What I know about the 2015 Ethiopian elections is rather complicated. I often ask so many questions that there are things that are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns to me. Excuse me if I sound like former U.S. Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld who sometimes liked to speak in conundrums (riddles). He said, “there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
Let me be perfectly clear. I “know something” for sure. I know the TPLF regime will rig the 2015 “election” like a two-bit carnival game. I also know the TPLF regime will proclaim a landslide victory before the polling stations close on “election” day. That is a known known no brainer to me.
But there are known unknowns to me. That is to say, I know the TPLF regime will win the 2015 “election” by at least 99.6 percent but it is unknown to me whether it plans to win it by 99.7, 99.9, 100, or even 110 percent (that is if they count all of the dead voters since 2010). But it is an unknown unknown to me whether Meles will roll in his grave if the margin of victory for the TPLF in 2015 is less than 99.6 percent.
It is a known known to me that President Obama gave his implicit blessings in 2010 when the TPLF regime declared victory by 99.6 percent. He turned a blind eye and deaf ears. (Not so when he lectured Robert Mugabe for winning the presidential “election” in Zimbabwe in 2013 by 61 percent: “Zimbabweans have a new constitution. The economy is beginning to recover. So there is an opportunity to move forward but only if there is an election that is free and fair and peaceful so that Zimbabweans can determine their future without fear of intimidation and retribution.”) An election that was won by 61 percent is not “free and fair” and deserves public condemnation but an election won by 99.6 percent is free and fair and deserves private accolades?!
It is an unknown unknown to me the “something” President Obama said he knows about the 2015 “election”. Maybe he “knows something” no Ethiopian knows about the 2015 election.
It is unknown unknown to me whether the various factions of the TPLF will self-destruct in a battle royale for the office of prime minister in 2015. It is unknown unknown to me whether the various factions in the TPLF will stick together like dirty birr (dollar) notes out of pure economic interest. But it is a known known to me that (election) thieves have unwritten code of (dis)honor: “A thief shall not war on another thief in an election because there are no winners in an election war among thieves.” There are just too many unknown unknowns about the inner workings of the TPLF. Unfortunately, those who know the unknown unknowns about the TPLF do not talk and those who talk do not know the unknown unknowns about the TPLF. Aah! It is so confusing!
The real meaning and practice of “free and fair elections”
There are elections and there are elections. Rigged and fraudulent elections are just that. Determining whether an election is free and fair is not a matter of proclaiming, “Our institutional process and our laws and regulations are perfect.” The problem is also not having perfect processes and laws in the hands of imperfect people who cannot implement them. The problem is with the people whose hands wrote the perfect laws and created perfect processes who genuinely believe they are themselves perfect. After all, how could imperfect people create “perfect laws and processes”? Those who believe in their own perfection are incapable of understanding or recognizing that attitude is the height of gross imperfection. I am absolutely convinced that the powers that be behind Hailemariam Desalegn believe they are perfectly ordained to rule an imperfect Ethiopia and bring it up to their standards of perfection which includes Bantustanization (kililization), corruption and massive human rights violations.
Of course, no one is looking for a “perfect” election conducted by “perfect regulations, laws and processes” in Ethiopia. A “free and fair” one with minor imperfections, warts and blemishes will do. For such elections to occur, there are internationally agreed upon standards and principles which require opening of political space for the opposition, prevention of intimidation and harassment of opposition elements, loosening of control over civil society and guaranteeing the right of the independent media to report and inform the citizenry.
Fair and free elections do not happen on election day when the people go to the polls to cast their ballots. It takes place long before election day. As President Obama said in Ghana, “This is about more than just holding elections. It’s also about what happens between elections.” First and foremost, a free and fair election is possible only where the rule of law prevails and fundamental human rights are respected. The Ethiopian Constitution, the “supreme law of the land”, guarantees voters and candidates (and citizens in general) full freedom of speech and expression. It ensures freedom of press, which guarantees the right to publicly disseminate and share political messages and information in the run up to elections and post-election period. Why not abide by the Constitution?
The Constitution guarantees an electoral level playing field accessible to all voters, parties and candidates with an independent, non-partisan electoral organization to administer the process. There must not be arbitrary interference in citizens’ freedom of association and assembly to form political parties and civic organizations and hold political rallies and to campaign freely. The right of citizens to express political opinions freely and with impunity must be respected. Their right to seek, receive and impart information must be guaranteed. They must be able to move freely within the country to campaign and campaign on an equal basis with other political parties, including the incumbent party. Every candidate for election and every political party shall have an equal opportunity of access to the media, particularly the mass communications media, in order to put forward their political views. There must exist independent institutions capable of expeditiously and fairly resolving disputes over electoral and political rights. Why not follow the constitutional prescriptions?
There must be mechanisms in place to ensure fair access to the public media by opposition candidates and parties. Maximum care must be taken to ensure against improper use of the police, the military, the judiciary and civil servants and elections officials by the ruling party. Use of public funds and equipment for partisan political purposes must be strictly prohibited. The electoral process must guarantee unencumbered voter registration, accessible polling places, dignified treatment of elections officials, open and transparent ballot counting and verification processes, oversight of elections by trained and politically independent election officials and prevent election fraud.
The Final Report of the European Election Observation Mission of 2010 concluded:
The electoral process fell short of international commitments for elections, notably regarding the transparency of the process and the lack of a level playing field for all contesting parties. Insufficient efforts were taken to ensure a more equitable and representative electoral process… The electoral process was therefore constrained, as was the full, non-discriminatory, enjoyment of fundamental rights… The ruling party’s presence throughout the country was unrivalled by opposition parties, especially in rural areas which house up to 80% of the Ethiopian population… The freedoms of assembly, of expression and of movement were not consistently respected throughout the country during the campaign period, generally to the detriment of opposition parties… state-owned media failed to ensure a balanced coverage, giving the ruling party more than 50% of its total coverage in both print and broadcast media… The separation between the ruling party and the public administration was blurred at the local level in many parts of the country. The EU EOM directly observed cases of misuse of state resources in the ruling party’s campaign activities… Even taking into account the inherent advantages of the incumbency, the Mission considers that the playing field for the 2010 elections was not sufficiently balanced, leaning heavily in favour of the ruling party in many areas…
The late Meles Zenawi ripped the final EU EOM election report as “trash that deserves to be thrown in the garbage”. He said, “The report is not about our election. It is just the view of some Western neo-liberals who are unhappy about the strength of the ruling party. Anybody who has paper and ink can scribble whatever they want.” Of course, Meles was legendary for his mastery and exquisite delivery of gutter language in political discourse. He could out-tongue-lash, out-mudsling, out-bully, out-vilify and out-smear any politician on the African continent. Meles also called the 2005 EU EOM Report a “pack of lies and innuendoes”.
What President Obama should know and do about the 2015 “election”
Not knowing what President Obama knows, there are a few things he shouldknow and do to prevent a repeat of 2010 in 2015:
Pre-election environment: As the EU EOM observed in 2010, “the law provides that all political parties have the right to conduct their campaigns freely and on a level playing field.” President Obama should know that the TPLF regime continues to function as a police. He must use his leverage to ensure that there is a level playing field in the months prior to the election including free and equal access to public places to hold rallies and a political environment free from threats and intimidation throughout the country.
Use of state resources: The use of public resources for a particular party’s campaign is prohibited by law but in 2010 EU EOM observers witnessed wide use of such resources (vehicles, civil servants on duty campaigning for ruling party, in the ruling party’s campaign throughout the country, use of local administration offices to coordinate campaign activities, housing of ruling party offices in local administration compounds, etc.) President Obama should know that the TPLF regime has fully privatized state resources and institutions for its own political use. He should use his leverage to bring about an end to such practices.
Media environment: The EU EOM concluded that in 2010, state-owned telecommunications monopoly, the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation (ETC) controlled the country’s only internet server. Internet access is blocked and websites run by some segments of the Ethiopian diaspora are filtered. President Obama should know that the TPLF regime has shuttered all independent newspapers and magazines in the country, continues to block internet access and spends millions trying to jam satellite and radio transmissions. He should use his leverage to ensure that in the run up to the “election” there should be not only equitable access to state-owned media but also release of journalists and free function of the independent media and access to all sources of information.
Civil society: The EU EOM in 2010 noted the role of Ethiopian civil society organizations in the electoral process was severely curtailed by the enactment of the new Ethiopian Charities and Societies Proclamation. This “law” prohibits any organization that receives more than 10% of its funding from foreign sources to be considered as a local organization. Only local organizations are entitled to work in the fields of human rights and democratization.
A little over a week ago at the Clinton Global Initiative in N.Y. City, President Obama said, “It is the civil society leaders who, in many ways, are going to have the more lasting impact. Because as the saying goes, the most important title is not ‘president’ or ‘prime minister’; the most important title is ‘citizen’… Citizens remind us why civil society is so essential. When people are free to speak their minds and hold their leaders accountable, governments are more responsive and more effective.” President Obama should insist on the repeal or significant modification of the so-called “Charities law”. Since he believes civil society is the core of a democratic process, President Obama should use his leverage to ensure civil society institutions function freely in Ethiopia before the 2015 “election”.
What is President Obama’s leverage? Aid money. The hard earned tax dollars of the American people. American tax dollars given to African dictators in the name of helping Africans but end up in African dictators’ offshore accounts. Aid money talks and is heard loud and clear by the tone deaf TPLF bosses. As Dambissa Moyo documented in her book Dead Aid, the TPLF regime got a whopping 97 percent of its budget from foreign aid. Simply stated, the TPLF regime will not survive a single day without aid transfusion from the pockets of hardwroking America taxpayers into its blood stream. President Obama needs to wag the annual welfare aid check in the faces of the salivating TPLF panhandlers and tell them what he told Africans in Accra Ghana in 2009:
Development depends on good governance. Governments that respect the will of their own people, that govern by consent and not coercion, are more prosperous, they are more stable, and more successful than governments that do not. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny. And now is the time for that style of governance to end….
The 2015 Ethiopian “election” will be gone with the wind
In “Nineteen Eighty-Four” Orwell wrote, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” If you want a picture of the 2015 Ethiopian election, imagine an election stolen in broad daylight and the faces of those who chase after the thieves under the boots of the election thieves, but not for long, but not for very long.
President Obama’s talk of an “election” in Ethiopia in 2015 is “pure wind”, (a “pack of lies” to quote Meles Zenawi), political “language designed to make lies sound truthful.” History shows many things have “gone with the wind”. We should all know that “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.” The late Meles and his disciples today have profoundly troubled the Ethiopian house and they shall inherit the wind!
There is an election in Ethiopia in 2015. It is an “election” about “ruling people and not about people’s rule.” There is not an election in Ethiopia in 2015; there is an election waiting to be rigged.
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: