The Eerie Silence of Ethiopia’s Election Campaign

A giant poster of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
A giant poster featuring current Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi displayed in downtown Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

By Zoe Alsop, Time | Addis Ababa, Ethiopia,  Saturday, May. 22, 2010

Ethiopia is quiet as it heads into Sunday’s parliamentary elections — and that is part of the problem. The somberness of the capital Addis Ababa is in stark contrast to the massive demonstrations led by the opposition that took place before the vote in 2005. Though the opposition won an unprecedented number of seats that year, many international observers judged the electoral exercise as flawed. When opposition supporters took to the streets to protest results the government reacted by having security forces open fire — more than 200 people died. Tens of thousands were detained. The legacy of that repression continues. When the editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper Arwamba decided to remark upon the quiet in this campaign season, he says he was directly warned by the government that it was watching him and his paper closely. Woubishet Taye, 32, chose to resign instead. He had simply entitled his essay, “Where did the people go?”

It’s not that there isn’t any campaign activity. In the streets of the capital rumble scores of buses, emblazoned with the industrious bumble bee symbol of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and carrying flag-waving party members to rallies held across Addis Ababa. But bystanders on the street grumbled that the demonstrators were being paid. Meanwhile, a solitary truck carrying a banner for the opposition coalition puttered in the opposite direction. There were no opposition rallies. It wasn’t that they hadn’t tried. Behind a cemetery and down a dirt alley flanked by sleeping beggars is the tattered headquarters of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement. There, parliamentarian Bulcha Demeksa explained that Addis Ababa’s municipal council had refused the opposition coalition, known as Medrek, — meaning the Forum — permission to hold rallies. “We asked two weeks ago for permission to rally in the new stadium today,” says Demeksa. “They said it was busy.” As it turned out, the ruling party was holding a rally there. “As the incumbent government, we get the incumbent’s advantage,” explains the EPRDF’s parliamentary whip Haile Mariam Dessalegn. “But that is true everywhere.” (See pictures of the spectacular and diverse tribal landscapes of Ethiopia’s Omo Valley.)

The diplomatic community, which considers Ethiopia to be a cornerstone in Africa’s volatile Horn and relies on Prime Minister Meles Zenawi as a staunch ally in the global war on terror has offered scant criticism of the country’s brand of democracy and free speech. The EPRDF likes to show off what it calls its economic successes. “We knew that we had to address the urban population properly with job creation,” says Dessalegn, who pointed to new city jobs in construction, food production and parking lots. “Five years of double digit growth has yielded fruit, which has created huge support among the youth.” The frustrated urban youth who were behind demonstrations in 2005 are employed and happy now, an EPRDF leader told TIME pointing to statistics that rank Ethiopia the fifth fastest growing economies in the world — though it is still a microscopic economy. Ethiopia receives more foreign aid than any other sub-saharan country according to 2008 statistics. Malnutrition is on the rise in the country, according to the U.N.; more than 6 million Ethiopians rely on food aid. (See pictures of Ethiopia’s harvest of hunger.)

There is certainly unhappiness beneath the surface. “The silence doesn’t reflect what’s on the ground,” says Eskinder Nega, a journalist whose wife and publisher gave birth during the two years they spent in prison after the 2005 elections on charges of inciting genocide and treason. “Whatever the ruling party has achieved in terms of growth, after 19 years, people want change.”

In the fertile, rolling countryside some 200 miles to the west of the capital, opposition candidates told TIME that local officials from the ruling party had buttressed their incumbents’ advantage with force, driving rivals from their constituencies with beatings, threats and guns. Opposition members from East Wellega, part of the Oromo region — Ethiopia’s largest and most populous — are necessarily a hearty lot. Take Seleshi Belay. Elected to regional parliament in 2005, Belay, 30, spent three of the past five years in cramped jails as a suspected member of the Oromo Liberation Front, an armed insurgent group. His case was not heard until last year, when he was released for time served. Belay’s first three attempts to speak to his constituency were foiled. On his first, armed community police allegedly surrounded his mother’s house, detained her and jailed him. He has not spoken with her since. He says he walked away from his second visit with just a beating. The third time he turned up in East Wellega authorities forbade hotels from giving him a room, the police allegedly smashed his car with rocks, then threatened to fire-bomb it when he tried to get a bit of sleep in a parking lot.

“Militias, local officials and police were there,” he says. “There were more than 50 people there with rifles. They said they would bomb the car. That’s when people told us to flee, because there was a gas station nearby.”

It was not until his fourth try that, for the first time in five years, with less than two weeks to go to Sunday’s election, he finally managed to address the people of his district for about an hour. As he spoke, he noticed a lone woman, on the fringes of the crowd, trying not to look as though she might be listening. “I saw my mom on the outskirts of the group,” he told TIME. “She was crying. She is always asking me to leave this work. She is always thinking that I may die. I am her only son and she raised me without a father.”

As if to underscore his mother’s fears, gunmen in an unmarked car stopped Belay and his colleagues as they were trying to drive to a rally in a neighboring town, quieting their 2010 campaign after just an hour. But Belay will be standing in Sunday’s election. Though the ruling party is projecting a landslide victory, he expects to win. “People were very grateful when we came and they were giving us support and the spirit was good,” he says. “I faced all of this because I want change. If you want change, you have to face difficulties and that’s what I chose.”