By Paul Ndiho
February 24 ,2012
Ethiopia is often lauded for its economic development and for its role in the fight against Al Shabaab militants in Somalia. Yet, like many countries with a strong ruling party and ethnic factions, multi-party democracy in Ethiopia has stalled.
In 2005, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians protested the disputed elections that resulted in the street violence that killed more than 200 civilians. The government’s repression of the protests, along with internal party leadership disputes, fragmented Ethiopia’s political opposition and left it unable to deliver democratic reforms.
But Birtukan Midekssa, a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, says the time to engage Ethiopia’s government is now.
“I think democratization is the only way we are left with and if Ethiopia is to democratize obviously opposition political parties would have an indispensable role to play.”
Birtukan Midekssa is a former federal judge and leader of the pro-democracy opposition in Ethiopia. Often hailed as the Aung San Suu Kyi of her country, she was among those sentenced to life in prison in 2005 after her party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, won an unprecedented number of seats in parliamentary elections.
After eighteen months in prison, she was pardoned in 2007, but rearrested in 2008. Midekssa says that she’s still committed to fighting for democracy. She also notes that Ethiopians in the Diaspora need to keep pushing for major reforms in the horn of African nation.
“The Diaspora has been playing a very significant role. But those efforts and activities have been very episodic for example in 2005 the Ethiopian Diaspora even managed to get a bill introduction in the congress of United States to support democracy in Ethiopia. But currently we may not see that kind of enthusiasm and influence but we should try to maximize that kind of influence from the diaspora because the local population is very constrained.
Ethiopia’s opposition parties have routinely accused the government of harassment since the violent post-election protests of 2005. Adrienne LeBas, a professor at American University, says that Ethiopia is yet another African country dealing with a protracted democratic transition.
“I think what Ethiopia really highlights are the challenges of organizing opposition actually building opposition parties are much more severe in these kinds of closed political systems. Democratization is going to take a lot longer, it’s going to take a lot more protests and confrontation and it’s just going to be a protracted process.”
Analysts say that over the past ten years, Ethiopia’s opposition has focused on building institutions from the top down. But the opposition has been weakened by the imprisonment of many its top figures. In 2010, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s ruling party won landslide victories which extend his term in office to nearly 25 years. Opposition parties cried foul and observers say the elections did not meet international standards.