Ethiopia’s Opportunity: A New Day Beckons – OpEd


The death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, announced on 22nd August after his mysterious two-month disappearance, presents a tremendous opportunity to Ethiopia. Let a new day dawn for the people, one filled with hope and fundamental change, where human rights and justice are respected, where freedom is encouraged and cultivated in all areas and where fear is banished to the past.

Meles rose to power as a revolutionary to overthrow a dictatorship. Ironically he too fell under the spell of power, and the freedom fighter became the dictator, the greatest obstacle to freedom and liberty. He had been in power since 1991, when the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) lead a coalition of armed opposition groups in overturning the rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Control and repression

No matter the repeated accolades and platitudes expressed by heads of State upon his passing, let us be clear, PM Meles Zenawi presided over an undemocratic regime that repressed the people, tolerating no political dissent, and as Human Rights Watch state in One Hundred Ways of Putting on Pressure, “since the controversial 2005 elections – Ethiopia has seen a sharp deterioration in civil and political rights, with mounting restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly.”

In fact under his leadership the EPRDF government have tramped on the human rights of the Ethiopian people, centralized power, falsely imprisoned in large numbers, members of opposition parties and journalists and responded with brutal force to demonstrations after the 2005 unfair elections, when the security forces murdered over 200 innocent people on the streets of Addis Ababa. Not too mention the killings of hundreds of people in Gambella, the persecution of the people of Oromia, along with human rights violations in Afar and the Ogaden.

The media is party/state controlled, so too the sole telecommunications company, as well as the judiciary, all of which is contrary to federal law enshrined in the constitution. PM Meles, whose record, the BBC (22/08/12) rather generously state “has, at best, been patchy and rather uninspiring” go on to say “He orchestrated a discreet purge of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the administration, demoting, sidelining or reassigning key potential rivals and opponents.” And as the Inter Press Service (IPS) 22/08/12 succinctly put it, he “ruled with an increasingly authoritarian fist for more than two decades” Let us hope such times will now be consigned to the murky past.

Unity – The way forward

If responded to with intelligence and love, patience and tolerance, the political space created by Meles departure could be a beginning in which firm and lasting steps towards an open, just, free civil society may be taken, broad ethnic participation encouraged and divisions set aside. A peaceful social revolution, long overdue, in which the perennial values of democracy are fostered, enabling the people to step out from the repressive shadow of the late prime minister and his EPRDF dictatorship and unite as one people, diverse yet unified, synthesizing the many and enriching the country. Such is the opportunity.

The keynote for the time ahead in Ethiopia should be unity, unity in diversity.

There are a great many ethnic and tribal groups in Ethiopia, some 77 according to the US State departmenti, “with their own distinct language. Some of these have as few as 10,000 members.” The people of Oromo make up the single largest group and along with Amhara and Tigreans account for around 70% of the 85 million population. A further division exists along religious lines, with roughly 50% Orthodox Christian – living mainly in the highlands and 50% Muslim, inhabiting the lowland regions. Historically these two groups and government have co-existed peacefully, however as the International Crisis Group (ICG) report ‘Ethiopia after Meles’, states “tensions are mounting between the government and the large Muslim community. Muslim committees have protested perceived interference in religious affairs. The authorities sought to link their demonstrations to Islamic extremism and terrorism, and Meles exacerbated matters by accusing the protestors of “peddling ideologies of intolerance” This from a man who effectively outlawed all political dissent and banned freedom of expression. Christian Orthodox priests have also protested political interference and expressed their support for their Muslim brothers.

Such religious discord needs a sensitive response, not cliché name calling, predictably the T word has been wheeled out by a government that has sought to impose ideological control in every area of Ethiopian society, including the church. Let such repressive practices be buried along with Prime Minister Meles and let the current EPRDF government learn what is perhaps the greatest lesson of responsible government: to listen to the people who they are in office to serve.

Designed to divide

Amharic is the official language and until recently was used in primary school instruction, it has been replaced in many areas by local languages such as Oromifa and Tigrinya, reinforcing ethnic divisions, that contrary to the policy of ‘Ethnic Federalism’ designed by the TPLF, have been strengthened under the Meles premiership. The highly centralized EPRDF has employed divide and rule tactics to weaken political opposition, fuel separation along ethnic lines, disempowering the community, engendering competition for land, and natural resources as well as government funds. Fragmented ethnic groups competing for resources and bickering amongst themselves have little time or energy to protest government policy and make easy prey for a regime seeking total control.

Division spawns conflict and as the ICG found “Exclusion and disfranchisement have provided fertile ground for ethnic and religious radicalization, already evident in some lowland regions, where the ruling party exploits resources without local consent.” The massive land sales is one issue alluded to here; displacing thousand of indigenous people, forcing subsistence farmers and pastoralists off the land, destroying large areas of forest and wildlife habitat, that for a few dollars are turned over to international corporations who cultivate crops for their home market. Without let us add any form of consultation with local groups.

Democracy is participation, the opportunity before Ethiopia is to create an environment in which participation is encouraged and the people have a voice, unity seen as the means and the goal. Where the Oromo people, those in the Ogaden, Amhara and Tigrae and the other ethnic groups are fully included and the development of community groups is facilitated.

The opposition and diaspora

Under the Meles regime not only have the main Ethnic groups been divided and disempowered, but so too the diaspora opposition, that has been weak and ineffective. Fractured and despondent activists and opposition members of the various bodies need to unite at this time of uncertainty and opportunity and work collectively to establish a dialogue with the EPRDF government. A national dialogue is needed in which opposition groups inside and outside the country and the people, for too long silenced, are allowed to participate and indeed be listened too. Such a move would set a new and inclusive tone and would engender hope that the ruling EPRDF recognizes the mood of the country.

The diaspora’s role is crucial in any movement towards democracy in Ethiopia. Consensus amongst the various factions is essential and ideas of opposition, the pre-occupation of the past, that serve only to strengthen division and thus play into the hands of the EPRDF, forgotten. Constructive creative contributions should be encouraged, holding in mind the underlying principle of unity to soften government resistance to change and cultivate trust. As the ICG expresses it “Opposition forces may now be able to agree on a basic platform calling for an all-inclusive transitional process leading to free and fair elections in a couple of years. Such an arrangement should include all political forces armed and unarmed, that endorse a non-violent process to achieve an inclusive, democratically-elected regime.”

The Federal Constitution, written by the TPLF, full as it is of articles of decency and acceptability, disregarded by the government, is vague and ambiguous regarding the process of transition and succession in the event of the Prime Ministers death. Al Jazeera 23/08/12 reports “The Ethiopian parliament has been recalled from recess to swear-in Zenawi’s successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, the deputy prime minister, who will most likely lead Ethiopia until 2015, when the current term of the ruling party comes to an end.” This is by no means certain, Desagelen is reportedly unsure about accepting the mantle of PM.

A provisional cross party government is called for. One with broad support that would initiate reforms, repeal the unjust Anti Terrorist Proclamation and other repressive legislation, free the media, most importantly television and radio and begin to build a vibrant active civil society. Such progressive steps would establish the foundations of a strong democratic platform that could be developed up to and after the 2015 elections.

Responsible support and development

The development much championed in Ethiopia, where the partisan distribution of aid, including emergency food relief is an open secret, does not correspond to a definition that those who believe in equality, justice, human rights, and freedom of expression would recognize. Al Jazeera 23/08/12 “Zenawi has been praised for bringing development and economic growth to one of Africa’s poorest nations but his critics say that came at the cost of respect for democracy and human rights.”

To put Ethiopia’s much trumpeted economic growth in perspective, let us note that the average annual income in Ethiopia equates to just $3 a day, food staples have quadrupled in price in the last four years, largely as a consequence of the extensive land sales, and according to Bloomberg Business, Ethiopia’s “annual inflation rate climbed to 34.7 percent in May as food prices surged, Inflation accelerated from 25.6 percent in the previous month, food prices jumped 41 percent in the year.“ In addition the gap is increasing between the majority who are poor and the small number of wealthy Ethiopians, who are primarily members of the ruling party, as IPS (22/08/12) reports “development has yet to reach the vast majority of the country’s population. Instead, much of this wealth – and political power – has been retained by the ruling party and, particularly, by the tiny Tigrayan minority community to which Meles belonged.” These party members have followed the trend of other dictatorships and invested their accrued wealth overseas.

Development and democracy are closely related, not some western idea of democracy, but a living social movement of participation and inclusion, evolving out of the actions and creativity of the people themselves. An idea PM Meles did not recognize, the ICG report quotes Meles stating he did not “believe in bedtime stories and contrived arguments linking economic growth with democracy.” In truth he did not believe in democracy at all. The price of his short sighted-ness and ideologically driven policies has been paid by the people, whose human rights were ignored, their freedoms stolen. Suppressed and silenced for too long, now is the time to listen to their cries for justice and freedom, all efforts should be made to encourage and mobilize the people of Ethiopia. It is not simply calm that is needed, as many have reiterated, but action. It is time for the people, so long inhibited to act, to demand their rights and express their vision for the future of their country.

Ethiopia is the recipient of over $3 billion a year in development aid, second only to Indonesia. The USA, Britain and the EU, along with the World Bank are the main donors. In exchange for what amounts to over a third of Ethiopia’s annual budget, the west has a strategically placed ally in the Horn of Africa who will act when asked to and function as a military outpost for America who launch drone attacks from its soil.

Those supporting development within Ethiopia share the opportunity and responsibility for change within the country. Mediation between the various ethnic groups and political parties, encouraging openness and facilitating discussion is an obvious role that could and indeed should be undertaken. International donors have a duty to the Ethiopian people to play a major part in the transition towards democracy and must insist in the observation of human rights, trampled on under Meles rule. As the ICG point out, “Ethiopia’s core allies, the U.S., UK and European Union (EU), should accordingly seek to play a significant role in preparing for and shaping the transition. Not only must development aid ‘lift people out of poverty’ it must release them from repression and fear and not be employed to strengthen such regressive conditions as it has been in Ethiopia.

Required action

In order to realize the opportunity before Ethiopia, certain basic steps showing a renewed adherence to international and federal law need to be taken immediately by the EPRDF

  • All so called political prisoners must be released.
  • The internationally condemned Anti Terrorist Proclamation repealed.
  • Freedom of the media, assembly and dissent allowed

These are fundamental requirements in moving Ethiopia forward and establishing an atmosphere of hope that will encourage political and civil participation and safeguard against the potential radicalization of opposition groups.

International donors need to recognize their collusion in a range of human rights abuses that have taken place under PM Meles and ensure these demands are acted on, linking development assistance to there swift implementation. As Human Rights Watch (HRW) demand “Ethiopia’s international partners should call on the government to support fundamental rights and freedoms in the country and a prompt rollback of repressive laws. Ethiopia’s government should commit to respect for human rights and core rights reforms in the coming days and weeks”

Denied good governance for many years the people of Ethiopia have suffered much, too much and for too long. Let the current space afforded by the passing of PM Meles be filled with their united voices, articulating their grievances, expressing their hopes and concerns, and with the responsible support of international friends and partners demand fundamental change, freedom and social justice, long overdue.

Graham Peebles

Graham Peebles is an independent writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in India, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia where he lived for two years working with acutely disadvantaged children and conducting teacher training programmes. Website:

11 thoughts on “Ethiopia’s Opportunity: A New Day Beckons – OpEd

  • September 5, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    I wish it was that simple to bring about true democracy in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is not at a stage of carbon copying democracy from well developed nations. In fact, most people don’t understand what democracy is let alone practicing it the right way. The Ethiopian problem can only be solved when the so called intellectuals internalize democracy and teach it to others. off course, democracy in Ethiopia can only be molded to the diverse society culture and economic power. most definitely, outsiders, even human right activist, can’t tell Ethiopians what the problem is and what to do to fix it. Only Ethiopians can diagnose and prescribe the medicine for the issues at hand.

  • September 5, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    Thanks Graham you are a good friend to Ethiopia and the voiceless Ethiopians. This is such a wise and good advice. Hope our no clue leaders in Ethiopia get it. I also hope the west notices such knowledgeable advices and pressure the rulers for their realization.

  • September 5, 2012 at 5:46 pm

    mr.Graham don’t say the word Galla or choose to die….sorry u may not know,but it is the name conservative ‘neftagnas’ gave to the Oromo people.

  • September 5, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    First of all I’d like to thank for the writer,that’s our need &wish!!! but I fear to say any more.

  • September 5, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    all human right activist are u allways think that abusing of human right is done by only gov’t authorits? pls be fair i know manyothers are also abusing whatever zey can b named like ….
    but i realy intersted to learn more abt human right

  • September 5, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    You sound more of a Diaspora opposition rather than an independent analyst. Democracy and human rights issues are indeed issues that need more attention in Ethiopia. But be aware of the historical circumstances, the nature of the immature and dangerous trends of the opposition then and the overblown NGO sensationalism that does not always reflect the objective reality in Ethiopia.

    You grossly represented the ethnic relationships in Ethiopia. people are more united than ever before. Please think again and be guided by facts.

  • September 5, 2012 at 10:38 pm

    Great article. Graham, you are simply the best. Thank you for being honest and kind.

  • September 5, 2012 at 10:55 pm

    A very true analysis. The whole article is based on facts. The only problem is the remnants of the regime are as absurd as the dead leader and they will not pay any attention to outside ideas. Althought the West is helping them with a third of their badget, they do not care. They have accumulated enough money each one of them, they will not let go of their power. They will end up taking the money and their family to the donor countries and leave the country behind in a mess. They do not have the courage to stand and face the people when the people rise up.

  • September 6, 2012 at 4:12 am

    I am amazed that supporters of the ruling party in Ethiopia keep on telling us that Ethiopians do not understand democracy. We do and have been practicing democracy in many level s of our traditional social interactions until modern government systems corrupted such practices. We have ider, Ikub and other institutions where we elect and remove our leader democratically. In the Oromo region we have Geda system that is uniquely democratic. In these systems people elect and remove their leaders using traditional democratic means. Anthropologist could tell you many of the democratic system they discovered even in remote tribal areas of the country. The problem with the EPRDF has been the destruction of these indigenous democratic and other modern developing systems and replacing it with autocratic and corrupted ones. The question is could the new leadership in Ethiopia learns from its past and reverse its course of actions??

  • September 6, 2012 at 5:32 am

    Dear Mr Peebles
    I would like to congratulate your excellent and timely piece. I also would like to inform you that in recent years the TPLF dominated regime of Addis Ababa has allocated a budget and employed many fulltime staff to monitor the internet and attack writers that produce articles that are not favouring the ruling party. Therefore one should not be surprised by the amount of negative response one sees to critical articles like yours. In fact I am surprised why you are not as savagely attacked as previous critical writers. Maybe the fulltime TPLF soldiers of the internet are still in shock as a result of the death of their paymaster PM Meles Zenawi. I am an insider who has a full knowledge of what goes on within the ruling party. I am not writing on hearsay. The Instruction given to these internet soldiers comes from a body headed by Bereket Simon. The two prominent members of this committee are Genenew Asefa, the brother of Genet Zewede, the ex-minister for education now an ambassador to India and other person is Zerihoun the husband of Mimi Sibhatu that owns the radio Fana in Addis, funded by TPLF. These soldiers of the internet are well coached how to attack. They can present a response that sounds sophisticated but pushes the party line. They would admit that democracy in Ethiopia is not perfect and will point out how long it took in the West to reach perfection. They also point out to the economic backwardness of the country and the challenge it poses to bring about a democratic order and that priority should be given to economic progress than democracy and human rights. The lines of these seemingly sophisticated arguments are many but all are designed to justify the positions and actions of the regime irrespective of it consequences to the welfare of the nation of Ethiopia and its people. The other line of attack is very abrasive, vulgar and personal designed to demoralise the author of the critical piece. In short what I am trying to say is critical writers should know that there is a well-oiled machinery set up by TPLF to monitor and respond to critical writers. Let’s not forget, on the corollary, the body set up under Bereket lobby and pay writers and shower praise on them when the articles it has sponsored comes out on the Internet. In short nobody should be surprised by the efficiency and the number of such responses. Writers like you represent the views of the large majority of the Ethiopian public that is not allowed to organise, have access to any form of the media including the internet or have fund to come out in the open and give you its full support. Your article is a well-balanced, based on facts and reality much closer to the truth than any insider could produce. I thank you on behalf of us that are muzzled in this big prison we all call Ethiopia.

  • September 6, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    I don’t know what U are talking about. Our unity is too strong, we have full democracy &human rightes. I hope U don’t know any thing about our Eth. Or ur lieng. About Meles(our great & beloved leader/father/ ) & EPRDF, U can’t be a witness & nothing concern U. Our country is n’t suitable for terrorism &terrorists for ever,they have been punished &will be punished. Nothing will be changed for future, U have seen the unity of the true Ethiopians during the death of our father (PM ) So the witness is the people of Ethiopi not terroristes. Stop Ur gutter/stupid/ propoganda no one is listening Ur rediculous idea.


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