Democracy at bay!

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / May 12, 2009

There are thousands of unsung Ethiopian heroes of the 2005 elections; and on this fourth anniversary of that fateful election, we have a solemn obligation to remember them and honor their memory.
"There are thousands of unsung Ethiopian heroes of the 2005 elections; and on this fourth anniversary of that fateful election, we have a solemn obligation to remember them and honor their memory."
(In memory of those Ethiopians massacred and maimed by the dictatorship in power following the May 15, 2005 elections.)

Reflections on a Democracy Unplugged

“When the people fear the government, you have tyranny. When the government fears the people, you have freedom,” said Thomas Paine, one of the inspiring figures of the American revolution. On May 15, 2005, for the first time and for a fleeting moment in Ethiopia’s millennial history, government was forced to kneel down before the people, bow its head in trepidation and submit to their will and awesome power. Over 25 million Ethiopians voted on May 15, 20005; and with their signature dignity and civility, they evicted from the throne of power dictators that had lorded over them for nearly a decade and a half. “Enough is enough!”, the people said softly to the dictators in the voting booths. “We have no use for you. Leave, and live in peace!” But the dictators would have none of it. They declared war on the people. They shot them in the streets. They jailed them by the hundreds of thousands. They intimidated them into silent suffering and did everything in their power to eradicate hope and sow despair and division among them. They triumphantly put democracy on ice: No opposition political parties. No civil society organizations. No free press. No justice. No peace. No problems!

Not quite! Four years later, we have come to know that the dictators have failed in their diabolical plans totally and miserably. Democracy is alive and well in Ethiopia today. It remains safely at bay in the hearts and minds of every Ethiopian who believes in freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights. The flame of democracy and liberty still burns bright because Ethiopia’s unsung heroes paid the ultimate price.

Tribute to the Unsung Heroes of the 2005 Election

There are thousands of unsung Ethiopian heroes of the 2005 elections; and on this fourth anniversary of that fateful election, we have a solemn obligation to remember them and honor their memory. For if we do not, no one else will. They were not “important” people when they lived, and few cried for them when they were mowed down like blades of grass by the official executioners. None of them ever graced the pages of the newspapers and magazines. No one bothered to interview them on the radio or television. They did not have Ph.Ds or college education; they did not have money, cars or fancy houses. Nobody gave them medals; no public buildings were named after them; no statutes erected to remind the living of their sacrifices; no public holidays or awards to honor their memory. No flags draped their caskets and no memorials were ever held for them in their deaths. They don’t even have grave markers. But to me they will forever remain Heroes of Ethiopian Democracy : Tensae Zegeye, age 14, was gunned down peacefully protesting theft of the 2005 election. So were Debela Guta, age 15; Habtamu Tola, age 16; Binyam Degefa, age 18; Behailu Tesfaye, age 20; Kasim Ali Rashid, age 21; ShiBire Desalegn, age 21; Teodros Giday Hailu, age 23; Adissu Belachew, age 25; Milion Kebede Robi, age 32; Desta Umma Birru, age 37; Tiruwork G. Tsadik, age 41; Admasu Abebe, age 45; Elfnesh Tekle, age 45; Abebe Huletu, age 50; Etenesh Yimam, age 50; Regassa Feyessa, age 55; Teshome Addis Kidane, age 65; Victim No. 21762, age 75, female; Victim No. 21760, male, age unknown…. and the thousands of other victims of dictatorship who shall rest for eternity in honored glory known but to God. I remember them all, and I honor their memory and their sacrifices.

May 15, 2005: A Flash of the Possible

What occurred in Ethiopia in May, 2005 was a variation of a global theme that had been played out in the past two decades. Throughout the 1980s and thereafter the world witnessed the implosion of dictatorships and the explosion of democracy in the former Soviet bloc countries and many authoritarian societies in Asia and Latin American. Crippled by lack of legitimacy and intense popular demands for greater political space and economic liberalization, many of these dictatorships fell like dominoes. In Africa, a few slick operators -- previously sworn enemies of imperialism and champions of socialism -- took advantage of the situation and seized power promising free elections, free speech, free media, free markets and free everything. They pulled a huge wool over the eyes of Western donors and managed to get themselves canonized as the “New Breed of African Leaders”. But within a few years, the New Breed had morphed into the Vicious Breed of African Leaders. They filled their prisons with their opponents, killed as many as they could, banned the independent media, subverted the judiciary, held make-believe elections and fastened themselves to power like barnacles to a sunken ship. They secured their ship of state with the glue of corruption and one-party rule.

In May, 2005, the unimaginable had suddenly become the inevitable in Ethiopia. A system of criminal enterprise based on corruption, theft of the public treasury and repression collapsed in a tidal wave of popular repudiation at the polls. In that fleeting moment, we saw a flash of the possible. We witnessed a miracle: Peaceful transfer of political power through fair and free elections, the birthing of a government that derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, scattered seedlings of a functioning democracy complete with competitive political parties, burgeoning civil society institutions and wide political space for ordinary citizens to participate in government and express themselves. But that miracle of democracy was snuffed in its cradle; and a virulent dictatorship of mercenaries stood naked for the whole world to behold.

The Sun Always Rises

There is much to be learned from the elections of 2005. The greatest lesson of all is: Ethiopians united can never be defeated! When opposition political parties came together to oppose dictatorship, they won handily. When civic society institutions banded together, they won mightily. When Ethiopians in exile worked together to support democracy, freedom and human rights together, they won beautifully. But winning is not a one time event. Winning an election is great, but winning the hearts and minds of the people is the greatest victory of all. Those societies that have overthrown dictatorships and consolidated their electoral victories managed to do so by using the power of persuasion together with the power of the ballot to win hearts and minds. Solidarity (the first non-communist union) in Poland led a broad-based anti-communist movement by winning hearts and minds. So did the teachers, writers, journalists and students that spearheaded Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution”. Even in East Germany, pastors and laymen became the nucleus for a broad-based anti-communist movement. It was within these civil society institutions that the people’s imaginations about freedom, democracy and human rights were stoked and a successful overthrow of the communist dictatorships achieved. Civil society institutions actually defeated the most entrenched and most encrusted dictatorships the world has ever known. The story was no different for the military bureaucratic authoritarian dictatorships of Latin America.

There is no reason to believe that civil society institutions in Ethiopia could not prove to be important mechanisms in the struggle against dictatorship and in sustaining a functioning democracy. The best proof of this proposition is manifest in the current regime’s maniacal obsession to regulate and choke civil society organizations. The so-called “Charities Proclamation” of the regime has only a single purpose: Prevent the explosion of popular democratic impulses and growth of civil society groups that can challenge the arbitrary rule of the dictators. The regime’s explanation that the “law” is passed to hold the foreign NGOs and other domestic groups accountable, promote transparency and safeguard against corruption is as absurd as having bank robbers guarding the bank from other robbers.

The foundation of politics in Ethiopia today is ethnicity and the elimination of unity of the people in all forms by accentuating historical, social, political, economic, regional, etc. differences and grievances. Ethnic identity and loyalties are glorified, and identity in a common nationality mocked, scorned and ridiculed. The governing principle of the dictators is “Ethnicity before one’s humanity, and definitely before one’s nationality.” The evidence on the current dictatorship for the last 18 years unambiguously shows that they have succeeded to some extent in “atomizing” Ethiopia into ethnic enclaves. As a result, the country has outwardly become an archipelago of ethnic and linguistic “homelands” or bantustans. This type of ethnic policy and practice has spawned a culture of distrust, and forced people to develop deeply embedded habits of fear, loathing, doubt and suspicion that will have serious consequences in a post-dictatorship democratic society.

As we reflect on the sacrifices of the victims of the post-2005 election violence, we must honor their memory by creatively developing and cultivating civic society organizations that could lead an broad-based anti-dictatorship movement; and evolve into vital institutions that can mediate conflict, build bridges across ethnic lines, promote consensus and national unity and institutionalize a functional democracy in a post-dictatorship Ethiopia. The fact of the matter is that an active civil society offers unlimited opportunities to challenge dictatorships and usher in democracy. It will not be easy to sustain such institutions given the inhuman brutality of the current dictators. But that was exactly what the people of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union believed until they did what they had to do in creative ways to bring about freedom, democracy and human rights in their societies: Mobilize, catalyze, organize, educate and ACT.

Long live the memory of the victims of the post-2005 elections!

The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at