EPRDF, Medrek, AAU students and Election 2010

By Eskinder Nega / May 7, 2010
The title of the most famous book about the First World War says it all: All is calm on the Western Front. And so it is in Addis these days as the election season comes to a close: All calm. Not even the nudge at Addis Ababa University’s sidist kilo’s campus, where a scuffle between two students escalated into group fights that shut down the campus was able to alter the broader setting: too eerily calm for many; no less, confirm sources, for the increasingly restless (and thus dangerous) EPRDF executive committee.

The EPRDF executive committee is now a shadow of its former self, when in its heyday it had multitude of heavyweights sitting at the same table, but still remains crucial in implementing the party’s decisions. When it sat down for a hyped meeting at the beginning of this week to deliberate on, according to an official statement, “issues related to replacement of leaders,” recent events in distant Kyrgyzstan preoccupied the attention of many of its members, sources say.

Five years ago, Kyrgyzstan, a small mountainous former Soviet republic, now independent, became known as the land of the Tulip Revolution; which brought to power an opposition leader by way of street protests. Five years later, the hero of those days, Kurmmanbek Bakiyev, had turned villain, and the prospect of dislodging him through another revolution looked too remote and too soon. But after only three days of street protests he was gone, and an interim government headed by the opposition was sworn in to power.

It all started on Tuesday, April 6 2010, when street protests were triggered by the arrest of an opposition leader in the north-western city of Talas. Thousands of protesters overrun a government building an anointed a people’s governor. They also demanded the resignation of the President, seemingly safe far away in the capital, Bishkek. But it was not to last. Only a few hours later, riot police sent from the capital easily retook the building and established governmental authority. All seemed lost for the protesters. But then the unexpected happened, as it once did in so many other countries: Romania, East Germany, the Philippines, Iran (1979), etc. The protesters came back, overwhelmed the riot police and retook the building. The government was stunned, and responded heavy handedly elsewhere in the country by arresting as many opposition leaders it could find.

But the genie had come out of the bottle. The following day, on April 7, hundreds of people gathered in front of the opposition headquarters in Bishkek, not too sure about what to do. No one, however, was planning on bringing down the government in less than 48 hours. But that is exactly what was to happen. The hundreds swelled in to thousands, and the inevitable clash with riot police took place. It was a mismatch made in hell; with one side, the police, heavily armed; and the other, unarmed civilians, with no more than an enraged righteousness, facing off. And miracles of miracles, it was the police that fell back. Once the tide turned, the people headed for the ultimate prize—the presidential palace. They were met with a storm of bullets and had to retreat. But others stormed the national TV and radio, parliament and the police headquarters. By late afternoon, imprisoned opposition leaders had been freed and set up an interim government. All too fast to either comprehend or follow.

But there will not be a repeat of these events in Ethiopia, at least not this year or the foreseeable future, all agree—except, that is, leaders of the EPRDF, who believe the opposition are bent on at least stirring riots.

And thus comes from the EPRDF the most sensational accusation of the election season---outdoing the outrageous charge against Professor Beyene on Monday.--- custom-made to sway opinion( both domestic and international) in the direction of the executive committee , on Friday, May 1:“Forum(Medrek) has killed an EPRDF member, Etana Edosa, at his home in Dao Wereda. Also, 8 Forum (Medrek) members entered the home of an EPRDF member in Elo Gehan wereda of West Shoa Zone( were Dr Merera’s party is popular), Oromia sate and stabbed his father and sister. The EPRDF member escaped because he was not at home at that time. The victims are receiving treatment at Ambo Hospital.”

This is the first time ever that the EPRDF has accused the opposition of killing - and trying to kill--- its members, a disturbing reminder to many of EPRP’s tragic urban warfare against the Derg in the mid- 70s. How then are the thousands of EPRDF’s officials expected to react to news about their fallen comrades? With vengeance, if what happened during the mid-70s is an indicator of what could ensue. “Most Revolutionary Guards(during the red terror) were enraged beyond reason by news of killings of their kind, rather than a clear and present danger they were facing,” says a pundit who was a member of the EPRP thirty years ago. “ The EPRDF leadership is playing with fire.”

But that is a risk that the EPRDF leadership seems ready to take. It is evidently preparing for—not simply worrying about—a worst case scenario that it clearly is blowing out of proportion. And no doubt the rapid turn of events at Addis Ababa University has only strengthened its convictions.

The university library was closed on Saturday, so most students, unable to venture off campus with their limited budgets, hung around their dorms; most trying hard to concentrate on their studies for the approaching exams. The day passed uneventfully, hardly anyone giving much attention to the exasperation of one student who profusely complained about his stolen cell phone—for the third time, he told his friends, with clenched teeth. Time, he reckoned, to confront the suspect. Little did he suspect that this was to snowball in to a major crisis, highlighting the division between the students that has persisted stubbornly over the course of the entire two decades of EPRDF’s reign. “Students tolerate each other. There is reluctance to cross over linguistic, cultural and class barriers and interact, make friends. This campus is an island of segregation in a melting pot city; and the EPRDF, I suspect, is quite content with it because it works against the unity of students,’ told me a fourth year student on Wednesday.

And it is this group mentality that took over when an argument between two students—an accuser and an accused over a mundane issue---ended up in a fight on Saturday evening, around 8:30PM. Soon groups of students were at each other throats, fist fighting and throwing stones. Perhaps the tension generated by the election, in which the dominance of the EPRDF is widely resented, was a contributing factor, but the majority consciously stirred clear from the mayhem. “ Medrek has the support of a cross- section of the student body. The only question is its extent; not its existence. And its mere presence is a moderating influence against the convention of the past two decades. But what happened on campus is a reminder of the dangerous times we live in,’ says the student.

Another round of group fights, this time even more serious than the events on Saturday, erupted on Tuesday evening, and scores of students were injured. In both instances, the police intervened too late. “Why?” asks the student.

Well, maybe because some like seeing them divided.

The tally up to last weekend

Ethiopia’s state security, now a leading source of news for pro-EPRDF newspapers for two successive elections, 2005 and 2010, is desperately trying to counter growing assertions of narrowing of political space by stealthily releasing data that show the number of public meetings held by the opposition this election season.( Up to last week end.)

Medrek, which has fielded the most candidates after the EPRDF, has, according to state security, until last weekend organized a total of 40 public meeting throughout the country. Of the forty, UDJ, the party of Birtukan Mideksa, held a total of 20 meetings: 13 in Addis, 3 in Amhara, 2 in Orormia, and 2 in the South.

Dr Merera’s OPC, a member of Medrek, which is being savagely attacked by OPDO for forging an alliance with “Neftenags”, but is nevertheless expected to do well, organized 10 meetings in the vast Oromo region, with the leaders of the party hurriedly shuttling between the towns in four wheel drives.

Arena Tigray , headed by the popular and well meaning Gebru Asrat, has also presided over 10 public gatherings in Tigray, the success of Mekele’s meeting even being acknowledged by state security. It has also grudgingly admitted that the turnout in Adwa, where PM Meles Zenawi is running against Aregash Adane, was bigger than all but that of Mekele.

Hailu Shawel’s AEUP trails Medrek with a total of 10 public meetings around the country. Of these, 5 were held in Addis, 2 in Amhara, 2 in Tigray and 1 in the South.

Lidetu Ayalew’s EDP, which made the most noise in the debates, managed only 7. Of these, 1 was in Addis( no surprise here, since even Lidetu concedes that they have no chance in Addis) 2 in Amhara ( but none in Bugena, where Lidetu is running. Will he do it this weekend?) and 4 in the South.

Ayele Chamiso’s CUD, the laughing stock of this election season, and once fiercely (and inexplicably) promoted by the Bush administration, held two meetings; one in Addis and the other in Baher Dar. A 100 people, according to state security, showed up for its meeting in Addis. But only 14 showed up in Baher Dar. Yep! Fourteen!!!....You may now laugh!!!

The writer, Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years in the limbo, Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: serk27@gmail.com