A Realistic Step Forward: The Ethiopian Elections in Context

by J.PETER PHAM, PHD May 13, 2010
On May 23rd, voters in Ethiopia will cast ballots in the country’s fourth parliamentary election since the establishment of a federal republic in 1995. While not a single ballot has yet been cast, some have already begun sowing doubts about the legitimacy of the poll. While there are undoubtedly areas where improvements are not only desirable, but quite possible with the right political will, so unhinged in their hatred for the incumbent government have so many of Ethiopia’s critics become that they have lost all sense of proportion and fail to evaluate developments in their proper context. This lack of perspective is regrettable in itself, but, when it has to do with a part of the world as strategically important as the Horn of Africa, it is especially deplorable as what is at stake is nothing less than the security of the region and the broader interests of the international community in general and the United States in particular.
It is worth recalling how far Ethiopia has come since the overthrow of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Soviet client regime in 1991 by a coalition of oppositions groups led by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), whose political wing today forms the core nucleus of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). After overthrowing the Ethiopia’s millennia-old monarchy in 1974, Mengistu and his Derg (“committee”) regime, backed by massive Soviet support and tens of thousands of Cuban troops, had launched the “Red Terror” that saw thousands of Ethiopians killed outright and, following the Stalinist-style forced resettlement of peasants on collective farms, millions more reduced to mass starvation in the mid-1980s. Meanwhile, the Derg and its Cuban allies fought a brutal counterinsurgency campaign that reduced whole provinces of the country to wasteland. Less than two decades after the unlamented demise of that brutal communist dictatorship, despite the global economic recession, the International Monetary Fund predicts that the Ethiopian economy will expand by 10.1 percent in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, up from 9.9 percent in the previous year. These figures are in line with the 11.1 and 10.9 percent rates of growth registered the previous two years. While the CIA’s World Factbook registers slightly lower growth numbers, it nonetheless ranks Ethiopia having the fifth largest inflation-adjusted GDP increase in the world.
While the Ethiopian economy remains heavily dependent on agriculture, which accounts for almost half of GDP, 60 percent of exports, and employs more than 80 percent of the workforce, the country has, as I previously reported here, undertaken an ambitious infrastructure building project centered on exploiting its abundant water resources to create an electrical generation and exportation capacity as well as irrigation. Moreover, thanks to good rainfall and the expansion of fertilizer use in recent years, agricultural production has grown steadily and the ongoing transition from subsistence cultivation to commercial farming, thanks to institutional reforms and the expansion of infrastructure, especially roads, continues apace.
U.S. businesses have not failed to note the opportunities offered by markets in Ethiopia and last year saw the launch of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ethiopia, only the fourth organization of its kind in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Chamber has the mission of enhancing a bilateral trade relation that already sees Ethiopia exporting some $120 million worth of goods to the United States while importing $160 million in products from the American market. Unlike some African governments, Ethiopia’s has taken a decidedly business-friendly attitude. The Ethiopian Investment Agency (EIA), for example, is a “one-stop-shop” authorized to provide a full range of services to potential foreign investors from providing information about opportunities to issuing all permits necessary for investment, work, and residency to facilitating the repatriation of profits. It was recently reported that in just the first nine months of the current Ethiopian fiscal year, the EIA facilitated the creation of 1,205 local and foreign investment projects with a total capitalization of over 43 billion birr (approximately $3.1 billion). Significantly, 376 of the projects, with a total capital of 19 billion birr (about $1.4 billion), were in the manufacturing sector.
On the political front, Ethiopia has likewise come a long way since 1995, when the country held its first-ever free and democratic elections. In the last elections, in May 2005, which I witnessed firsthand, over 90 percent of registered voters went to the polls after a vigorous campaign. According to official returns, the ruling EPRDF coalition won 59 percent of the vote and 327 seats in the 547-seat House of Representatives, while the two largest opposition groups, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF), together won 30 percent of the vote and 161 seats, although a number of the opposition representatives ultimately refused to take up their seats. Altogether, however, the gains made by opposition parties, which went from 12 members in the previous parliament to 174 members in the legislature elected in 2005, were significant and represented a clear step forward.
While one might regret the way the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to the opposition provocations in the wake of the last election, one has to compare its record up to now to that of its neighbors. The northwestern region of Somaliland being the notable exception – and, even in this relative oasis, there has been a regrettable recent inability to hold elections on time – “Somalia” and “political process” are terms which probably should not be used simultaneously if the ongoing disappointment of the unelected and rather notional “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) is anything to go by, as I noted recently. In Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki’s rather ironically-named People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) has been in power since independence in 1993 and has yet to hold national elections. Moreover, as I reported here last year, the regime in Asmara has been sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council, the African Union (AU), and the subregional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), for supporting the Islamist insurgency in Somalia. Sudan’s recent elections, as I both predicted before the polls last month and subsequently confirmed, were a farce which is likely to speed up the country’s break up – and possibly amid violence at that. Kenya’s 2007 elections degenerated into an orgy of violence that, unless the root causes are addressed in the coming months, may well seem like a cakewalk as a new constitution is debated and the next presidential and legislative elections loom.
Beyond the favorable comparison to the politics of its immediate neighbors, Ethiopia has also been a key strategic partner of in advancing the security interests of the United States and other responsible members of the international community in a critical region rendered even more volatile by the linkages between al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) based in Yemen, a country whose ties to Ethiopia predate the Christian era, and Islamist insurgents in Somalia – whether of the Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (“Movement of Warrior Youth,” al-Shabaab) or the Hisbul Islam (“Islamic party”) factions—whose threat Addis Ababa recognized long before others. While some African countries have been ambivalent about their ties to the U.S. military, since 2006, Ethiopia has hosted the first-ever office on the continent of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, the lead Department of Defense institution for strategic security studies, research, and academic outreach in Africa. Last August, Addis Ababa even played host to an academic conference sponsored by the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which brought together several American scholars (including yours truly) along with our counterparts from seventeen African and three European countries as well as representatives of the African Union in discussing ways to promote democratic civil-military relations, build security sector capacity, and ensure civil-military cooperation in Africa.
Ethiopia, which has played a role in United Nations military deployment since the Emperor Haile Selassie sent the famous “Kagnew Battalion” of the 1st Division Imperial Bodyguard to fight alongside the U.S. 7th Infantry Division – most famously at Pork Chop Hill – during the Korean War, is a major contributor to United Nations peacekeeping operations, currently sending 2,409 military and personnel to five operations, including the UN Mission in the Central Africa Republic and Chad (MINURCAT), the AU/UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), and the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI). Currently, Ethiopia is the fifth largest African and twelfth largest overall contributor to UN peacekeeping.
In a world in which America’s capacity is not without limit and which foreign policy objectives must be prioritized, the value of stability in such a geopolitically sensitive space should not be underestimated. In a commentary widely disseminated on the internet last year, Ambassador David Shinn, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 1996 to 1999, sounded a cautionary note about the limits of what the Washington can actually do to influence the course of events in Addis Ababa:
The implication is that the U.S. government can resolve Ethiopia’s governmental, demographic, political and social issues. I beg to differ. The United States can impact the situation on the margins, but it does not have the power to force fundamental change even if there was agreement on what that change should be. While the United States does have influence in Ethiopia, in fact, more than most countries, there are distinct limits to that influence. Not only is Ethiopia a sovereign state but it interacts with dozens of other important countries and organizations.
Those in the Ethiopian diaspora who oppose the Ethiopian government usually suggest that American assistance to Ethiopia can and should serve as the leverage for forcing change in the country. The level of U.S. assistance in recent years has been impressive. In fiscal year 2007, it was about $474 million and in fiscal year 2008 about $456 million. It is important, however, to look more closely at this assistance…
In fiscal year 2008, by my calculations, 73 percent of USAID’s budget for Ethiopia went to HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention, 12 percent to child survival and health, 9 percent to development assistance, 5 percent for food aid and less than 1 percent for a combination of foreign military financing (FMF) and international military education and training (IMET). The amount for FMF was $843,000 and for IMET $620,000.
This is not an assistance program that has significant political leverage. In 2007, almost 95 percent of the assistance program went to HIV/AIDS, emergency food aid and child survival. In 2008, the figure was about 90 percent for these programs. There are very few members of Congress and even fewer in the Executive Branch who are interested in cutting funding for HIV/AIDS, child survival and emergency food aid in an effort to change governmental policies in Ethiopia.
In addition, the multiple fissures in the Ethiopian political opposition and what that portends for its governance capacity needs to be better understood. That Hailu Shawel, the leader of the main opposition alliance in the last parliamentary election, the CUD, is being challenged this time around in the very constituency in the capital that he won by a landslide – and by Hailu Araya, who led one of major components of the selfsame opposition, at that – says a great deal about the institutional weakness of and short- and intermediate-term prospects for those contending against the EPRDF.
While serious accusations have been leveled against the Ethiopian government, including a particularly harsh report from Human Rights Watch in March, it ought to be acknowledged that in the technical framework for democratic elections has improved considerably in the last five years, including the adoption of a political code of conduct by a majority of the parties vying in the poll which created, among other innovations, a joint party forum consisting of representatives of the parties to review any claims of violations. The parties have organized eight rounds of debates between themselves covering a wide variety of topics. In addition, public television and radio have devoted literally hundreds of hours to message from the various parties – much to the chagrin of not a few of my Ethiopian friends who perhaps prefer lighter fare for their entertainment. Moreover, the sheer number of political parties participating – at last count over 60 – as well as the decentralized structure adopted by the Ethiopian constitution has opened up a political space for many long-marginalized ethnic groups to seek meaningful autonomy within a federal structure.
There are, undoubtedly, a number of things that one might wish to see done differently, perhaps even better, with respect to the ongoing political development of Ethiopia. However true this may be, one ought to also take into account the context in which the current elections are taking place and acknowledge the objective advance represented by the polls, both in absolute terms and relative to the rest of a very troubled, but nonetheless geopolitically strategic, region. As Ethiopian-American historian Alemseged Abbay noted last year in the Journal of Eastern African Studies, “The democratization process appears to have a good chance of success if it is incremental and proportional to the country’s pace of economic development—a gradual learning process that cannot be brought about by a mere change of leaders every five or ten years..” In that perspective, it would behoove policymakers and analysts in the United States and Ethiopia’s other international partners to keep in mind Voltaire’s warning that “le mieux est l’ennemi du bien” and, tempering their criticism with a healthy dose of political realism about their own interests and those of the Ethiopia, devote their energies instead to encouraging and sustaining continued progress.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor J. Peter Pham is Senior Fellow and Director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also hold academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington,, D.C. He currently serves as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA).

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