The Dimensions of the Code of Conduct of Four Political Parties for the 2010 Elections in Ethiopia

November 8, 2009

On October 30, 2009, four political parties in Ethiopia signed an agreement for the Code of Conduct for Political Parties for the upcoming 2010 legislative elections in the country. These political parties include the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF,) the All Ethiopia Unity Party (AEUP,) the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP,) and the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) political groupings.

This agreement has been epitomized by the handshake between Engineer Hailu Shawel, representing the AEUP, and Ethiopia’s current Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, representing the EPRDF.

In 1974, Meles Zenawi dropped from a college education at the Addis Ababa University to join the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF,) the core of the EPRDF. A Wikipedia entry for the TPLF notes that this organization was born from another organization formed by seven university students about the same time Meles Zenawi left college. As the name suggests, the TPLF was set out to liberate Tigray from Ethiopia.

Meles Zenawi became the leader of the TPLF, which formed the EPRDF in 1989 and marched to Finfinne (Addis Ababa) in 1991 in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet Union had weakened the Dergue, the political grouping that ended the monarchical rule of Emperor Haile Sellassie I. Lieutenant Colonel Menghistu Hailemariam led the Dergue from 1974 to 1991, which the TPLF fought against for as many years.

The Dergue was characterized by its fight for the unity of the country, ending the feudalistic land holding system, and its dictatorial rules, including its oversight of the Red Terror, a reaction to the White Terror. The latter is believed to be an urban unruly movement instigated by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP,) a political grouping that was opposed to the Dergue’s taking the leadership role in Ethiopia.

The resignation process of Menghistu Hailemariam in 1991 is shrouded in mystery. A New York Times article published on May 22, 1991, under the title “Ethiopia’s Dictator Flees; Officials Seeking U.S. Help,” notes that after Menghistu’s resignation, “officials of his government then called on the United States to try to arrange a settlement with Ethiopian rebels…,” which included the TPLF, Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF.)

The New York Times report also indicates that a month prior to his resignation, Menghistu Hailemariam had “told former Senator Rudy Boschwitz, a special envoy of President Bush, that he would leave his post if it was the only way to keep Ethiopia united.”

If Menghistu has left any legacy for his rule, perhaps, his unconditional fight for the unity of the country comes to the forefront.

Engineer Hailu Shawel has served as a top leadership member, including a ministerial appointment, of the Dergue that the TPLF fought against for seventeen years.

After the fall of the Dergue, the late Professor Asrat Weldeyes, a renowned surgeon, came to the political scene of Ethiopia to oppose with determination Eritrea’s secession that rendered Ethiopia a landlocked country by the political maneuvering of the EPLF, which sought the independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia. Meles and his TPLF accepted the EPLF’s mischievous maneuvering; he and his organization even went beyond accepting to give it a tangible support.

Professor Asrat later founded the All Amhara People’s Organization (AAPO.) Both Engineer Hailu Shawel and Lidatu Ayalew, the leader of the EDP that also signed the mentioned Code of Conduct, were active leading members of the AAPO. Lidatu Ayalew reportedly led the youth movement wing of the AAPO.

Meles Zenawi oversaw the death of Professor Asrat in prison over political disputes about the direction in which the country was headed. Engineer Hailu later formed the AEUP and Ato Lidatu Ayalew formed another political organization that eventually led to the formation of the EDP. Both Engineer Hailu and Ato Lidatu are currently the leaders of their parties that signed the agreement.

In the run up to the 2005 legislative elections, these two political figures helped the formation of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) political grouping, which also included two other parties, the Rainbow Movement for Democracy and Social Justice in Ethiopia (RMDSJE) being the notable one that has continued its political movement in different forms since then.

The CUD elected Judge Birtukan Mideksa as its second top leader around the time of the 2005 elections. The disagreements over the results of the elections between the CUD and the EPRDF led to violence that caused the death of about 200 people, as officially reported.

The CUD has been split into four factions since then. While both Engineer Hailu and Ato Lidatu fell back to their former parties, Judge Birtukan’s faction formed the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party, Dr. Berhanu Nega formed the Ginbot 7 Movement, and Ato Ayele Chamiso went after retaining the legal custody of the CUD. Engineer Hailu, Judge Birtukan, and Dr. Berhanu were jailed following the disputes with Meles Zenawi’s government regarding the election results and the violence that followed it.

They were later released in a process marred between negotiations involving a group of elderly committee led by Professor Ephraim Isaac, a Harvard University faculty member, and legal proceedings in a court system formed by Meles Zenawi’s government and overseen by judges appointed by the same government.

Judge Birtukan is currently in prison following a subsequent dispute over her explanation in Sweden to an Ethiopian audience about this exact marred process that led to their release.

Dr. Berhanu is currently in exile in the U.S. leading his Ginbot 7 Movement. He was recently accused of taking part in a reported attempt of a coup on Meles Zenawi’s government.

Despite all these factions of the former CUD, what they have in common is their unflinching stand for the unity of the country. CUD’s manifesto that was published in preparations for the 2005 elections even went to the extent of planning to dissolve the current federal structure in Ethiopia.

After all these trials and tribulations, to the extent that the signed Code of Conduct guarantees them the continued unity of the country, the AEUP, EDP, and CUD that signed it can be viewed to have achieved a strategic victory.

On the other hand, after having been stretched for far too long, out of its own volition, between the ideas of separating the Tigray region from Ethiopia and maintaining it as part of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi’s signing of this agreement is bound to make the TPLF a signatory to the strategic victory of the unflinching quest for unity by the other three parties. On the flip side of it, putting the quest of the other three parties to dissolve the current federal structure on the back burner may be seen as the EPRDF’s provisional victory. As it was evident in political campaigns in the run up to the 2005 elections, the CUD saw those elections as the only opportunity left to dissolve it.

A more fundamental analysis of this agreement should go beyond should go beyond the parties. For all practical purposes, the agreement can be viewed as one between the representatives of the Amharic and Tigre language speaking sections of Ethiopia.

As far as we know, both Meles Zenawi, on the one hand, and Engineer Hailu and Ato Lidatu, on the other hand, started or got in their recent political career through the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the All Amhara People’s Organization, respectively.

There have been historical rivalries between the political figures from the two sections of the Ethiopian people. The agreements and disagreements between King Yohannes IV of Tigray and King Menelik II of Shawa have been documented at length.

To the extent that the driving political activities of Meles Zenawi and Hailu Shawel can be traced back to the figurative leaderships of these kings and other historical rivalries, the handshake between these two present day Ethiopian politicians can be viewed as the beginning of a new chapter in Ethiopia’s history.

At the same time, to the extent that greater Ethiopia constitutes a diverse history and political leanings and to the extent that the agreement of these sections stands as a symbolic beginning for the parties involved, it has also brought to the surface the dangerous cleavage between historical adventures and grievances in Ethiopia’s politics.

Independent Oromo political organizations, notably the Oromo People’s Congress (OPC,) the Oromo Federal Democratic Movement (OFDM,) and the South Ethiopia Peoples Democratic Coalition (SEPDC) have recently formed arguably the largest alternative political grouping called the Forum for Democratic Dialogue (FDD.) The Oromo people alone number more than the Amharic and Tigre language speaking peoples combined and occupy a strategic geopolitical and economic location in Ethiopia. While the CUD refused to enter parliament after the 2005 elections, the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front (UEDF) continued its peaceful struggle in the parliament. The UEDF, which recently became part of the FDD, has not yet signed the Code of Conduct that the various factions of the CUD signed.

Reportedly formulated on the basis of guidelines from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, there appear to be some rich impetus in the signed document for a future healthy political processes in Ethiopia’s emerging democracy. The ultimate test of the signed document rests in its implementation processes. Its immediate test and how it will solve the outstanding cases of political prisoners, including that of Judge Birtukan Mideksa, remains to be seen.

From Ethiopia’s historical political perspective, this agreement has laid down a monumental milestone. The venue of deliberations has shifted from faraway places such as London, Paris, Atlanta, and Nairobi to the capital of Ethiopia. The now famous handshake between Engineer Hailu Shawel and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi also seems to signify the emerging conscious capacity of the negotiators to resolve their differences and seal their agreements by themselves.

The removal process of Emperor Haile Sellassie I from power was apparently kept a secret until the last minute at which time a group of army officers read to him a prepared diplomatically worded statement. As was seen in a recently released video recording of the event, he had to ask his aide to fully comprehend the message. He was immediately driven away and not much has been heard from him ever since, if any.

Since then, the rivalry for political power among different political factions in Ethiopia has always been epitomized by severe conflicts. This handshake has made a monumental departure from these episodes of unhealthy political rivalry, especially given that so many lives have been lost because of the political differences between the parties these two individuals have been leading.

In the final analysis, in a span of less than forty years, this agreement is likely to be a watermark in a political trajectory of transitions from a monarchical rule that claimed a divine mandate to rule the people to a single party dictatorial rule that claimed popular legitimacy to rule the people to what appears to be a thorough deliberation for a transition to a meaningful multiparty system that will eventually make the people the source of political power, or to put it bluntly, public service. Its success is bound to be tested by its inclusiveness, the transparency in its implementation, and its ability to produce meaningful results. These are badly needed for our society whose attachment to nature is still firm and who has been paying heroic sacrifices through that firmness.

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