Free fair elections why do they matter? Ethiopia's aborted democratic experiment on May 2005 underpins the current socio political and economic turmoil in Ethiopia. This paper addresses the significance of free and fair elections in contemporary Ethiopia by raising two critical questions. Does Ethiopia need democratic elections? And how can Ethiopia's new generation be able to address the current socio political stalemate?
On May 2005, Ethiopian people's revolutionary democratic front (EPRDF) the current ruling party in Ethiopia was persuaded by the western powers to open up the political space via free and fair elections; and this lead to the opening up of the political space resulting in extended media coverage of the election campaigns amongst Ethiopia's various political blocks, unprecedented in the nation's history. Following this development, 26 million Ethiopians registered and casted their ballots on May 15 2005. The May election was thought by many scholars to have set an extraordinary example in east Africa. The preliminary election result also showed how Ethiopians were determined to change their history through democratic means casting their votes overwhelmingly for the then newly formed opposition parties, mainly the CUD (coalition for unity, democracy and justice). It was indeed a clear break from Ethiopia's past practice of coming to power through bloody and violent means.
However the national exhilaration and hope soon gave way to anger, fear and anxiety When EPRDF reverted its decision and decided to overturn the election result. In the capital Addis Ababa, where more than 4 million multi ethnic people reside, EPRDF did not win a single seat out of 23 parliamentary positions. Rattled by early results, EPRDF soon decided to overturn the election result and prematurely declared itself the winner even before the counting of votes started in rural areas. The Prime Minister Melese Zenawi showed up on TV and declared his party EPRDF the winner. He also declared a state of emergency and consolidated all power ordering all security forces to report to him. Contrary to the Ethiopian Constitution, he outlawed any kind of public gathering and blatantly rigged the election by deploying a Whole range of cheap tactics in voting stations where there were no international observers; opposition members and election observers were detained from voting stations and civic organizations were ordered to leave before or during the counting of votes by the regimes militia and cadres. Voters were intimidated and instructed to mark EPRDF's (Bee) sign.
Following EPRDF's vote rigging, violence ensued in Addis Ababa when University students started protesting against EPRDFs vote rigging and demanded the respect of the people's votes. The EPRDF soldiers then stormed the University campus arrested thousands and killed two students. The protest then spread throughout the nation and all members of society joined the protest. On June 8 2005 42 innocent civilians were massacred on the streets of Addis and more than 1500 Addis Ababa University students taken to Sendafa detention camp and tortured. Despite pleas from the international community including the United States the EPRDF regime illegally detained more than 3000 innocent youngsters from slums and poor areas accusing them of being CUD sympathizers, as if it was not their constitutional right. Thousands of innocent civilians were detained in malaria infested rural concentration camps in Zeway and dedessa.
A Sociological Analysis of Ethiopia's political crisis
"Each generation must discover, in some relative opacity, its mission: fulfill it or betray it." Franz Fanon
The concept "generation" is used in very different ways. The naive and original meaning of generation is without doubt a biological-genealogical one. It indicates that descendants of a common ancestor take on average about thirty years to marry and have children.(Hans Jaeger 1997) However, according to Mannheim's account, contemporaneous individuals are further internally stratified: by their geographical and cultural location; by their actual as opposed to potential participation in the social and intellectual currents of their time and place; and by their differing responses to a particular situation so that there may develop opposing generational 'units'( Jane Pilcher 1994). Many contributors to generational analysis have pointed out that the way in which Mannheim and others have used 'generation' is really in the sense of 'cohort' and that this would be a more accurate term to employ. A 'cohort' is defined as people within a delineated population who experience the same significant event within a given period of time.
Ethiopia's population is unevenly distributed, with nearly 80 percent of the 71 million inhabitants living in only 37 percent of the total area of the country (UNEP repot 2007). Rural areas, which contain an estimated 89 percent of the population, make up most of the country; it is the urban centers, however, that generate most of the country's political, administrative, cultural, and commercial activities. Ethiopia's population has grown dramatically in the last few decades, from 33.5 million in 1983 to 75.1 million in 2006. Christians make up 61.6% of the country's population, Muslims 32.8%, and practitioners of traditional faiths 5.6%. Life expectancy in Ethiopia is male: 48.06 years female: 50.44 years (2008 est.)
Another factor worth considering here is urbanization. According to UNHABITAT (2008a:2), "Africa had 39.1 % of its population living in urban areas with significant geographic variations ranging from 22.7 % in East Africa (the lowest) to 57.3% (the highest) in Southern Africa". Nevertheless, the process is featured by "disproportionately high concentrations of people and investments in the largest city, in most cases, the capital." In Ethiopia, for instance, urban primacy is high where "In 2007, an estimated 22.5 % percent of Ethiopia's total urban population lived in Addis Ababa and the city was more than ten times larger than the second largest city" (UNHABITAT (2008a:14)
Socio political change since May 2005
May 2005 was a key moment in Ethiopia's history, both CUD and EPRDF represented two stark approaches to Ethiopia's problems, however after the failure of the electoral process EPRDF's legitimacy as a ruling party was completely wiped; it was able to win a single sit in the capital Addis Ababa. CUD did not only win the election it also eradicated EPRDF's ideological and symbolic foundations by focusing on the right spot, individual freedom and free market capitalism. Which as a result Ethiopians on mass rejected EPRDF's ethno centric ideology and ethnic federalism, the business, academic and professional class that was always absent in Ethiopia's politics, successfully attempted to voice their opinion and access their individualistic aspirations through the ballot box. As the prominent CUD leader Dr Birhanu said "the jinee was out of the bottle". However, as time proved the ethno nationalist EPRDF resorted to violence and unapologetically squashed a very civilized liberal approach to solving Ethiopia's problems. EPRDF aborted the birth of the new Ethiopian renaissance which took hundreds of years to emerge. In such regards the west, the Bush administration in particular were accomplice to aborting Ethiopian's historic transition towards democratic self-government, to a higher social order that would accommodate and benefit Ethiopia's various ethnic and cultural groups.
Since 2005 EPRDF intensified its efforts to recruit ethno nationalism amongst young Ethiopia's forcefully assimilating all university students teachers, business men to become its members, as human rights watch documented Ethiopians today face a huge challenge especially students if they want to continue to study they must become EPRDF member; Indoctrinating the minds of aspiring university students, although a large part of Ethiopians have been able to synthesize a more ethnically accommodating individualistic liberal paradigm in their private life. A large part of the rural population is however marginalized by misinformation and propaganda Champaign orchestrated by minority EPRDF-TPLF government. Hence many are forced to dwell in their tiny psychic ethnic prison deeming all other ethnic groups as outsider enemies.
Despite EPRDF's ethnic federalism, ethnic discrimination, economic corruption and nepotism; significant majority of Ethiopia's urban population has been able to muddle through and individuate in to different personalities, some even beyond. As the Ethiopian sociologist Dersee stated that "Nothing could serve as a barometer of people's political consciousness than the music they compose. In a country like Ethiopia, popular Art is like the Pew and Gallup polls of the west. Recently, Ethiopia is awash with lyrics that fuse two or more languages and melodies: Amharic and Oromiyfaa songs, Tigirnya and Amharic songs, Afar and Amharic songs, Hamer and Amharic songs, Somali and Amharic songs. Hip-hop hits of Gamo, Sidama, Wolaiyta and Guraghe songs and their popularity among the youth has far reaching meaning than entertainment. I think being Ethiopian is getting reconfigured. The people are crafting ways to harmonize (celebrate difference) while tuning a single melody (a united one). Three issues seem to preponderate in many of these renditions: love, mutual respect and a sense of togetherness." (Derese 2010)
The need for democracy
Declaration on criteria for free and fair elections Unanimously adopted by the Inter- parliamentary Council at its 154th Session (Paris, 26 March 1994) states that "The key element in the exercise of democracy is the holding of free and fair elections at regular intervals enabling the people's will to be expressed". Following Ethiopia's aborted democratic experiment on 2005 the Current socio political and economic turmoil and the political gridlock stands as a glaring proof for the need for democratic change in Ethiopia.
Democracy is an ingrained need by complex human beings to ensure continued evolution and survival. It is not a luxurious enterprise for the rich or unaffordable luxury for the poor. It is a mechanism that facilitates the search for an optimal solution to multitude of societal problems through the individual agent; it is mankind's biological destiny in our obligation to endure as conscious beings. It is indeed unaffordable especially in modern times of great environmental, economic, social and political emergency to disregard the experience, the intelligence and the wish of the individual and to continue to pedal along ethno centric and traditional lines of collectivist authoritarian State dictatorship.
The May 2005 election may be considered as significant sociological event in two aspects, first it opened the political space for ordinary citizens and allowed them to engage in their government, and secondly it facilitated the collective critical reflection of the nation's socio political and economic challenges and triggered the emergence of a distinct generational consciousness and thereby facilitated crystallization of public opinion in to two distinct political blocks, EPRDF and CUD.
The Liberal democratic CUD party attempted to define and solve Ethiopia's socio political and economic challenges via individualism and free market capitalism; while EPRDF "revolutionary ideology" disregarded individual rights and prescribed Ethnic federalism to nations and nationalities. Despite their stark ideological differences the two political parties have been unable to craft a civilized path to modernity mainly due to EPRDFs refusal to exist in a pluralistic democratic political universe, under the rule of law.
The new generation and its challenges
Following EPRDF's refusal of the long awaited public desire for freedom and democratic change in Ethiopia the main opposition coalition had been shattered and its principal leaders imprisoned; civil society leaders and the independent Press had been harassed and intimidated into silence; despite immense need for democratic social transition in Ethiopia, it would thus be naÃ¯ve to expect a democratic transition under incumbent regime without setting the right international agreed legal precedent and proper institutional framework imperative for the conduct of free and fair election in Ethiopia.