A new opportunity for the opposition

By Eskinder Nega / July 25, 2010
Ethiopia’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, this week passed a ruling against Medrek’s legal bid for a re-run of the election in unyielding words: “No substantial case for a re-run has been presented.” The ruling put an end to Medrek’s 80-page petition, concurring in almost exact words with an earlier ruling by the Supreme Court. This being the end of the legal recourse (but not the constitutional and political recourse), Medrek, rather to the surprise of its supporters, did not even feign an outrage, but in line with its abruptly subdued tone after the election, simply relayed the news to select journalists.

Both the public and the international community received the news with a prolonged yawn. No one expected a fair hearing. EPRDF, and more specifically its principal extremist, Bereket Simon, whose mere presence, let alone prolonged engagement, is a kiss of death on democratic values (he headed a judges oversight body), has damaged the integrity of the judiciary to such an extent that, according to a study commissioned by the ECA (The African Governance Report 2—2009), the UN offshoot in Addis, experts deem it more corrupt than the Nigerian judiciary.

Eighty percent of judges, according to Western diplomats in Addis, hail from the nation’s least prestigious law school, that of the highly politicized Civil Service College. Ultimately, the legal scuffle only served to reinforce a long embedded -- both locally and internationally -- conviction about a judiciary trusted only by the EPRDF.

There is no question now, two months after the farcical election “results” were announced, that the opposition had faltered in its response to a looming threat against its existence. A public outraged by the election “result” had intuitively looked to it for leadership; but in a moment of irksome hesitation, it failed to respond in the prompt manner the situation had warranted. But hopefully, the final decision by the Court of Cassation would now compel it to a new beginning. The situation is redeemable; the people, though disappointed, could be swayed -- of course, all stringently within the constitutional and peaceful enclosure.

But as the beleaguered opposition ventures to a future that is tentative at best, it needs to ponder on two issues deeply: What caused the moment of -- still lingering -- hesitation when its very existence was under threat? And what could be learned from Lidetu Ayalew’s political oblivion, a fate from which the EPRDF (its Machiavellian benefactor) was unwilling -- and unable -- to save him from?

The danger of political vacillation is exemplified no better than in a recent event in the EPRDF. It is a narrative of how Meles Zenawi triumphed over his rivals in the TPLF in the early 2000s. He was virtually ousted from power after losing an internal debate over the Technical Arrangement, a blueprint for ceasefire drawn by the international community that ignored a fundamental Ethiopian demand: restore status-quo-ante before engaging in formal negotiation with the Eritrean government. At a low point for him, a group of African leaders, who were in Addis for an annual AU heads of state gathering openly queried “if a coup-detat had taken place in Ethiopia.” But even his ardent rivals, who were by then convinced that he should be removed, inauspiciously hesitated, calculating (wrongly, as we now know) that they could remove him with no less ease after the war had been fought and won. But the right moment to remove him elapsed, never to return again, even though the war he was against had gone Ethiopia’s way. A rare chance had been allowed to slip fortuitously. (But in fairness, he too had a share in the victory. But that is another story.) Having learned from his rivals’ mistake, Meles went on to demolish them at the first opportunity.

Meles’ rivals are now valuable part of the opposition. Their experience is instructive: in politics opportunity knocks only rarely. It should be exploited at the first opening. This is why if the new opportunity created by the ruling of the Court of Cassation is wasted, a long dry spell would be inevitable -- one that would threaten the existence of the legal opposition.

The opposition has an exciting assortment of leaders. They are educated, have experience, are well intentioned, and crucially, are trusted by the people. The post-election paralysis could not reasonably be attributed to the quality of leadership. The shortcoming is rather in the lack of strategy. No one was prepared for 99.6% “win” by the EPRDF. Its announcement triggered a confusion in which no one knew where the opposition was going, what objectives were suddenly reprioritized. It was a predictable reaction to a profound surprise. Considered from this perspective, the opposition’s moment of hesitation after the election “results” were announced is fathomable.

But two very long months have since passed. A new situation has cropped up in the meantime, and its time to craft a new strategy that will soberly define what the opposition’s response will be to the outrage of the election “result.” On this strategy hangs the fate of the legal opposition. This is an undertaking that will test the smarts of the very best the opposition has; and all things considered, the odds are in their favor to articulate a sagacious roadmap. But in these difficult times, the deeply entrenched blame culture in Ethiopian politics poses a particularly menacing threat to them. This is a time when the focus should be on opportunities and not on problems. Which way the opposition goes will be a reflection of the strength of leadership. It must establish the potency to fight and defeat the blame culture that has recurrently damaged the cohesion of the opposition.

The Ethiopian public abhors weakness more than injustice. In this respect, it is in tandem with a global trait; one that binds all cultures. This is why so many people express preference for the EPRDF over Lidetu Ayalew. Despite the cynical effort by Lidetu to spin his apparent cowardice in 2005 i to a chronicle of an ideological rift between an extremist and moderate leadership, his cowardly retreat from an epic confrontation ensued in the full glare of the public and has relegated him to political oblivion. Not only will this episode haunt his future political career (to his credit, he still hasn’t given up), but it will also dominate his legacy. The failure of the EPRDF to prop him at a crucial juncture goes to show, in part, how contemptuous it is of weakness and cowardice. ( But it hasn’t abandoned him altogether. They expect him to be handy if the opposition re-emerges strengthened.) EPRDF hates all things that is not part of it, but its David and Goliath story when it fought the Derg predisposes it to at least respect those who have the vigor to stand up for their beliefs.

There is a fine line between recklessness and cowardice. It is not beyond the power of opposition leaders to position the optimum balance between the two poles. By finding that point, the ruling by the Court of Cassation gives them an opportunity to lead from the center. They should seize it.

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