Remembering the November massacre

By Eskinder Nega, Addis Ababa / October 29, 2010
 History will not forget the murdered innocents!! 
History will not forget the murdered innocents!!
WITH THE BENEFIT of hindsight,
Meles Zenawi’s repressed thread of thought in 2004 and 2005 that led to a brief phase of political liberalization is markedly apparent: a wild goose chase to justify an illegal purge in the TPLF (against Seye Abraha et al in the early 2000s) as a means to an end in which the nation becomes freer than ever before. And when this was buttressed by political and intelligence assessments about the opposition’s lack of preparedness (which were accurate), the 2005 elections looked like an ideal outlet for Meles Zenawi’s guilt-ridden conscience (the purged were his close, lifelong friends). A hitherto unprecedented electoral process -- there were three largely discredited ones as a backdrop -- was to placate his flustered conscience and sanctify his democratic credentials both to the public and history.

But by March 2005, this fantasy was turning more into one long nightmare.

Events upto March 2005

The most fateful of EPRDF’s decisions was its acquiescence to a long procession of live debates between political parties -- which were much longer and broader than is the norm in the West. What first happened in the US in 1960 -- live debates between Presidential candidates Kennedy and Nixon -- arrived 45 years later in Ethiopia, and in both instances changed politics forever. In the end, the mischievous attempt by the EPRDF to dilute the opposition’s message by insisting on equal time for major and minor parties was just not enough to undercut the transformative power of TV and radio.

By March, the EPRDF leadership was fully aware of the rising storm generated by the debates. Increasingly nervous, it expels SIX US election observers at the end of the month -- ironically, SIX weeks before election week. But not even the most adventurous spirits were yet predicting an opposition triumph over the EPRDF at this stage.

Events in April 2005

EPRDF’s belligerence is suddenly stretched to the limit. In a twist to actual events akin to the famed dramatic developments in Indian movies, the person the EPRDF entrusts to unleash havoc turns out to be not its favored attack dog (whom I hardly need to name), but one of its most unassuming personalities, the physical education instructor-cum-Deputy Prime Minister, Addisu Legesse. In a live public debate held on April 15th, fifteen days after the expulsion of the election observers, Addisu equates the opposition with the Rwandan Interahamwe militia, which was responsible for genocide. And thus, perhaps by deliberate design, but no less plausibly, by sheer blunder, the EPRDF becomes morally and legally challenged by the specter of hand-over of power to a genocidal opposition -- even if it was to win an election.

Events in May 2005

The first day of May marks the arrival of three hundred international observers -- representing the EU, Carter Center and the AU. Six days later, on May 7, the EPRDF surprises the nation with a massive rally at Meskel Square. Meles is ecstatic with joy. “There is no need for us to steal an election,” he tells the assembled emotionally. EPRDF critics are stunned to silence. Devoid as they are of divine powers, there was no way for them to predict vindication in less than twenty four hours. And in the absence of an alternative explanation, it had to be only the will of providence that compelled a miracle for the opposition on historic May 8.

Not a thousand words would suffice to describe what happened at city center that day. Too large to be captured by a single camera, this mass of humanity happened momentarily and passed away forever -- always to be imagined; never to be satisfactorily explained verbally or fully captured visually. (There seems to be space for oral history even in modern times after all.) It was now time for the EPRDF to be stunned to silence.

On Election Day, May 15, two millions Ethiopians head to the polls with pronounced optimism and enthusiasm. And in a show of remarkable restraint for a country with a “genocidal opposition”, the day passes without a single incident of election related violence. But the PM has a surprise in store for the next day. He looks and sounds unnerved. “The government has decided to bring all security forces, the police and local militias, under the command of the Prime Minister. All public meetings and demonstrations are outlawed for a month,” he tells a shocked nation on May 16.

The next day, May 17, brings more surprises; but this time, pleasant ones for the public. Unofficial results indicate a landslide for the CUD, one of the nation’s two major oppositions, in Addis Ababa. The speaker of Parliament, Dawit Yohannes, loses his seat. And so do several Ministers. As bellwether for nationwide sentiment, the implication of Addis’ results immediately sends shock waves through both the EPRDF and the opposition. Both are vividly caught off guard.

EPRDF reacts instinctively. Ignoring the tallying of votes then still in progress, it declares itself the winner. Anna Gomez, chief EU election observers, reacts immediately, “improper for a ruling party,” she tells journalists. On May 28th , the electoral board controversially certifies EPRDF’s claim of overall majority. The public is simply outraged. Eight days later, with the opposition looking from the sidelines, students protest accusing the EPRDF of fraud. EPRDF’s hasty claim of plurality thus triggers public protests. Police fire live ammunition. A young female student, Shibre Desalign, is shot fatally and becomes the first victim of post-election violence. Yusef Abdella, a student at Kotebe’s TTC, succumbs to a bullet wound, and becomes the second victim. A great tragedy is beginning to unravel. Two days later, June 8th , protests erupt again and bullets from security forces kill three 16 year olds: Nebiy Alemayehu, Fekadu Negah and Abraham Yilma (the latter two brothers). Security forces' bullets also somehow find and kill Zulufa Surur, a mother of seven. The government eventually acknowledges the death of 26 people. The real figure, however, is much higher. Over 1500 people are imprisoned. And EPRDF prepares for further repression.

Three days later, Meles Zenawi speaks of Ethiopia’s “maturing democracy” in an interview with Reuters. On the same day, MP-elect Tsegaye Adane, member of UEDF, the other major opposition, is shot dead in Arusi. And in a clear shoker, eight highly anticipated Air-force trainee pilots in Belarus refuse to return to “Ethiopia’s maturing democracy” and seek political asylum, symbolizing spreading dissent into the ranks of the military.

Ethiopia teeters on the brink of change. Thousands of Ethiopians in the US and Europe hold candle light vigils for the dead.

Events in July and August

Outgoing EPRDF dominated Parliament, whose members had mostly lost their seats, vindictively pass bill that strip most of the essential powers and responsibilities of Addis Ababa city government. Almost immediately, the first calls to boycott Parliament are aired. (Addis loses its public rally permit authority.) Dr Birhanu Nega becomes mayor-elect of Addis Ababa.

By the end of August, the EPRDF and EU observers are engaged in a war of words. Anna Gomez publicly rebukes the electoral process for “failure to meet international standards.” Meles’ response: “garbage.”

Events in September and October

Electoral board announces official results: EPRDF and allied parties 68% of parliamentary seats; 20% CUD; 12% UEDF. The opposition responds by calling for a rally to protest the results on October 2nd. Meles personally appears on national television and sternly delivers a warning: “The rally is illegal.” But the public is determined to defy the warning. An epic showdown seems to be in the making.

Three days before D-day, however, the opposition backs down and cancels the rally. An alternative stay-home action called for by the opposition for three consecutive days as of October 3 is universally ignored.

Western diplomats mediate between the EPRDF and the opposition but the talks almost immediately fail. Ten days later, CUD officially boycotts Parliament, pending the fulfillment of eight watered-down preconditions. UEDF breaks ranks with CUD and opts to join Parliament.

Parliament opens on October 10 and elects Meles as PM for the third time. The next day, October 11, MPs who boycotted Parliament are stripped of their immunity from prosecution. Meles accuses CUD of treason. “They want to remove the government through street action,” maintains Meles.

CUD calls for nation-wide strikes and stay-at –homes as of the first week of November. Many vow to follow its lead.

The massacres of November -- The Climax!

Merkato explodes early Tuesday morning on November 1. The government responds with immediate show of force. Scores die in the streets of Merakto. Many more are injured. By mid-afternoon, prominent CUD leaders are rounded up and newspaper offices are raided. Hailu Shawel, Birtukan Mideksa and Birhanu Nega are imprisoned. Police wantonly shoot and kill wife of an arrested CUD member in Addis; outraging the public. Wide reports of indiscriminate killings by police. Children and women amongst the dead and injured. The EPRDF is responding with massive force. The protests, however, are evidently unplanned and are mostly fueled by police brutality.

By the third day, protests spread to regional cities: Dessie, Gonder, Baher Dar, Awasa, Dire Dawa and Arba Minch. Tens of thousands are imprisoned. A fee of 1500 birr and forced confessions (absurdly absolving authorities of responsibility) are demanded to release corpses.

Describing the events that transpired over those days, Samuel Frehiwot, chairman of a commission established by Parliament to investigate the riots said, “ Old men were killed while in their homes. Children were also victims while playing in the garden.” His deputy, Welde-Michael Meshasha described how many died, “The majority died from shots to the head.”

People were shot, beaten and even strangled, the commission finds out.

“It was a massacre. There is no doubt that excessive force was used,” Welde-Michael told AP after he and Frehiwot fled the country before submitting their report to parliament.

The world watched in utter disgust. And in the end, the inevitable happened: the government prevails over its unarmed citizens. A pyrrhic victory if there was ever one!!

History will not forget the murdered innocents!!

(Note to readers: Second part of “Meles’ new cabinet” will appear next week. The massacred have precedence this week.)

The writer, prominent Ethiopian journalist 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 of tug-of-war with the 'system,' 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: