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Ethiopia's Troubled Future


Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had a lot at stake in the May 15th parliamentary elections because they were seen as the first real test of his popularity among voters since he took office in 1995. But official results of the elections have been delayed until July.

Lencho Bati of the Oromo Liberation Front, based here in Washington -- an opposition group that monitors Ethiopian politics -- says there were many irregularities.

According to Mr.Bati, "The regime conducted this election only to get international legitimacy. Because of the large voter turnout, the government was not willing to accept defeat. Once the government saw the opposition was winning, they stopped counting votes and then began tampering with the ballot boxes and changing the numbers."

At least 36 people died during violent clashes between police and demonstrators during a week of protests after the elections. However, the Ethiopian Ambassador to the United States, Kassahun Ayele, blames the deaths on illegal activity. He says, "They [i.e., the protesters] had set out their clear objective to violate the constitution through an illegal way. It led to violence, which was uncalled for and which was unnecessary. There were complaints like there were anywhere else about the counting [of the ballots], but there are provisions to handle these complaints [within the law]."

The credentials for several reporters, including three for the Voice of America in Addis Ababa -- all Ethiopian citizens -- were revoked for alleged illegal journalistic activities and unbalanced reporting. In response, VOA Director David Jackson defended their coverage of the elections as being balanced and objective.

But according to Cedric Barnes at the University of London, the Ethiopian government is desperately trying to change its image as a home to brutal dictatorships. Mr. Barnes adds, "It can be seen as classic revolutionary progress in terms of the overthrow of the monarchy. A great variety of different political organizations from that emerged, the strongest group, which happens to be the military that established a one party state."

What followed was 17 years of bloody uprisings and wide-scale drought. In 1991, Meles Zenawi led a coalition of rebel forces, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, in overthrowing the Marxist government of Menghistu Hailé Mariam.

Charles Schaefer at Valparaiso University in Indiana says that today Prime Minister Zenawi is walking a political tight rope with opposition coming not only from large ethnic groups, such as the Oromo and the Amhara, but also from within his own political party following a two year border war with Eritrea that ended in 2000.

Mr. Schaefer says, "A number of the old guard Tigrenian [i.e., Tigray province] leadership was critical of the way Meles prosecuted the war and the way in which he backed down in the ceasefire and then the peace process allowing Eritrea to recoup itself. It came to a critical point in which Meles had to scurry to find his supporters within the politburo. Even within his own province, there is disunity."

Analyst Cedric Barnes says a major factor contributing to Prime Minister Zenawi's fragile hold on power is the Ethiopian economy, which grew an estimated 12% last year. "The economy in Addis Ababa is actually pretty dynamic," says Mr. Barnes. "The problem is: How much are people benefiting rather than just a few elites?"

For now, the political divisions in Ethiopia seem to be overshadowed by the country's growing stature in the world community. Prime Minister Zenawi says he is committed to reducing poverty and has been named to an international commission [The Commission For Africa] charged with revitalizing Africa by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Nevertheless, the recent unrest comes at a particularly bad time for Prime Minister Zenawi who is trying to convince the world's richest countries to forgive Ethiopia's foreign debt and to provide new aid.

Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government and opposition parties have renewed a deal to peacefully resolve their dispute over last month's parliamentary elections.

This report was broadcast on the VOA Focus Program. To see more Focus stories click here.

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