Democracy's Bid Fades in Ethiopia

IT is a tragic irony that Ethiopia, one of two African countries that successfully resisted colonization, may now be the last to join the growing community of emergent democracies on the continent. In 1991 the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) overthrew the military dictatorship of Mengistu Haile-Mariam and established the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE), ostensibly to introduce democracy for the first time in the country's history.

Regrettably, the TGE has since reversed gears. It must draft a new constitution and conduct presidential and parliamentary elections before its mandate expires in February 1994. But the credibility of the state has been shattered by its domination and manipulation by the EPRDF, the alliance of satellite ethnic groups controlled by the Tigre Peoples' Liberation Front (TPLF). The first blow came when the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a major partner, withdrew from the TGE and boycotted the June 1992 region al elections. Those elections were won by the EPRDF and its satellite ethnic organizations.

Since then, the TGE has taken a number of steps to consolidate its power and crush all genuine opposition to its rule. In January this year, EPRDF security forces shot and killed at least one Addis Ababa University student and seriously injured scores of others as they protested the role of the United Nations in the Eritrean independence referendum.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRC), the first independent and only openly critical human rights group in the country, has come under sharp attack from the TGE for exposing human rights abuses. Its founder, Mesfin Woldet Mariam, was denied an exit visa to attend the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in June.

The EPRDF has treated disagreement with its transition program as unpatriotic. In April the southern coalition, an important group of non-EPRDF parties, was expelled from the government after attending a meeting of opposition parties in Paris.

The constitutional commission, the body mandated to draft a new constitution, was handpicked by the EPRDF. It has no real plans to involve the citizenry in drafting the constitution.

ETHIOPIA'S long and remarkable history, dating back thousands of years, has been dominated by absolute monarchs and rulers. Many had hoped that the TGE would reject the repressive past. Sadly, it appears to have failed, many believe, because those responsible for creating the new state are incompetent, inexperienced, and most important, intolerant and undemocratic. The current minister for economic planning, Duri Mohamed, is also a force from the past. He was also recently appointed president of Addis Ab aba University, the position he held under Mengistu and reportedly used to recruit students to fight against the EPRDF.

Many others are simply not qualified. The prime minister and the head of the Ethiopian Peoples' Democratic Movement, Tamrat Layne, is a high school drop-out. Another influential official is Dawit Yohannes, a law school drop-out who is a legal special adviser to the president. An unreconstructed Marxist, Mr. Yohannes is the president's man in the Constitutional Commission.

Behind these senior officials stand four political godfathers, the core of the TPLF, who dictate the political process. These are: Meles Zenawi, the young and bright president of the TGE and secretary general of the TPLF; Sie Abraham, minister for defense and a TPLF commander; Seyoum Mesfin, minister for foreign affairs, and Sebhat Nega, one of the founders of the TPLF and now responsible for organizing the EPRDF. None of the four believes in open political competition, which spells doom for the transiti on process.

Indications are that they intend to use any means necessary to entrench the EPRDF in power and in effect create a one-party state. Such an imposition is foolhardy; it may lead to another savage civil war and the total disintegration of Ethiopia.

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