By Terrence Lyons, CSIS / September 3, 2008

Ethiopia is becoming increasingly authoritarian and potentially faces a convergence of challenges that will stretch the regime’s capacity to manage multiple crises. The ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party weathered the immediate domestic crises that followed contentious national elections in 2005. Non-competitive local elections in April and the promulgation of a draft proclamation to restrict civil society organizations in July indicate that the regime is intent on deepening its control. Across the strife-torn Horn of Africa, Addis Ababa faces an extraordinarily tense and militarized border with Eritrea as the debilitated Algiers peace process that brought their 1998-2000 war to an end has collapsed. Eritrea remains intensely militarized and totalitarian, and recently clashed with Djibouti over their border. The December 2006 intervention into Somalia in support of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has left the Ethiopian military bogged down in Mogadishu, unable to withdraw, yet provoking a violent reaction.

The interlinked conflict within the Ogaden region has developed into a massive humanitarian disaster where brutal military tactics have left large areas depopulated. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has been in power since 1991, and he and his party have demonstrated resiliency and the capacity to outmaneuver rivals in the past. If internal and regional conflicts escalate simultaneously, however, this convergence may destabilize Ethiopia and the broader region.

The Bush administration has viewed Ethiopia as a strategic ally in the war against terrorism, but Meles has ignored Washington on questions of democratization, human rights, and the need to implement the Algiers Agreement. Furthermore, the close links between Washington and Addis Ababa associate the United States with a sometimes brutal regime as well as its regional conflicts in Somalia, in the Somali-inhabited Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia, and with Eritrea. The next administration will need to balance interests in retaining a strategic partner in an increasingly dangerous neighborhood with interests in democratization, human rights, and regional stability. In particular, Washington should look for opportunities to encourage both the EPRDF government and the full range of opposition parties to initiate talks to re-create the opportunities for peaceful political competition in the period leading up to the 2010 national elections.

The prospects for meaningful electoral politics in Ethiopia has declined sharply since the 2005 elections. In contrast to boycotted elections in 1992, 1995, and 2000, the 2005 elections presented the Ethiopian people with a meaningful choice. Two large opposition associations, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and the Union for Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF), contested the ruling party, swept the urban areas and won significant votes across the major regions. A chaotic counting process and allegations of fraud, however, generated demonstrations that ended in violence and mass arrests. Despite increasing the number of opposition seats in parliament from 12 to 172 key CUD leaders boycotted the parliament. This decision represented a historic miscalculation that has cost the opposition dearly. In November 2005, top CUD politicians along with journalists and civil society leaders were arrested and charged with genocide and treason. In July 2007 the CUD leaders were convicted but then pardoned and released. The damage, however, had been done: the opposition coalition was shattered, civil society was silenced, and many activists despaired that peaceful change through the ballot box was not possible.

While the opposition had been marginalized, by its own decisions as well as by official repression, the EPRDF continued to face fundamental challenges in relating to two large constituencies that are essential for any Ethiopian regime to govern successfully. First, the EPRDF’s Oromo wing, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, has failed to develop a significant base of support among the Oromo people and remains in power through intimidation and ever more pervasive systems to monitor the population. Second, the May 2005 elections saw an almost complete sweep by the CUD in Addis Ababa and the other main cities. Without a firm basis for support in these two key constituencies, the EPRDF’s ability to govern is inherently precarious and must rely upon force, which in turn alienates more of the population.

Cynicism and disillusionment with electoral politics has replaced the hope and optimism that characterized the period leading up to the 2005 vote. Disenchanted with nonviolent strategies, some now argue that “all kinds and means of struggle” are necessary to remove Meles. A 2007 poll conducted by Gallup found that only 13 percent of Ethiopians have confidence in the honesty of their elections, 25 percent have confidence in the judiciary, and 28 percent have confidence in national government. These numbers are approximately 30 percent points lower than the (very low) average for sub-Saharan Africa and suggest that the population has acquiesced to—but not endorsed—the regime’s authority. The 2005 elections demonstrated high levels of opposition, but failed to usher in an orderly transition based on peaceful multiparty competition.

The outcome of local and by elections in April 2008 suggest that the EPRDF plans to increase its level and extent of control over the population and restrict political and civil liberties. The opposition only managed to register some 16,000 candidates for the nearly 4 million posts up for election. The EPRDF won 137 of 138 council seats in Addis Ababa, despite the opposition sweep in 2005, and in many areas ran unopposed. Even those parties such as the UEDF and Oromo Federal Democratic Movement that participate in the national parliament found it impossible to identify candidates or to campaign, particularly in the Oromo region. According to numerous reports, opposition supporters faced harassment, arrest, and physical violence when they tried to run against the ruling party.

In addition to restricting political space, the ruling party used these elections to deepen its control over the the smallest, subcommunity level of administration, the kebelle councils. While kebelles are quite small, some of the councils have up to 300 members. As a result, some 4 million Ethiopians in a country of 75 million—1 in 20—are now part of an EPRDF-controlled council. The EPRDF, always an extraordinarily effective party, is now ubiquitous and entrenched throughout the country.

The “Charities and Societies Proclamation” under consideration in July 2008 also indicates that the lesson the EPRDF learned from the 2005 elections is that more control is needed. The government argues that the proclamation will increase NGO accountability. Its restrictions on organizations engaged in human rights activities and organizations that accept foreign funding, however, seem designed to direct and monitor civil society organizations and punish those who challenge the ruling party. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch argue that the draft proclamation represents an “assault on civil society.” The arrest of civil society leaders in the aftermath of the 2005 elections already had a chilling effect and the proposed regulations will make civil society organizations bound to the government in ways that will further stifle independent voices.

Unless this creeping authoritarianism is reversed, Ethiopia is likely to face a political crisis in the run up to the next national elections in 2010. Under current conditions, the opposition will almost certainly boycott. The main opposition parties in parliament have consistently demanded reforms to the National Electoral Board, allocation of time on state controlled media, international electoral observation, and most fundamentally an end to harassment, arrests, and violence against their supporters in order for them to participate. The 2008 elections have underlined these essential political liberties. Some opposition leaders, particularly those in the diaspora, are increasingly convinced that the ruling party will not be removed through the ballot box. As opportunities to operate as a nonviolent opposition party or as an independent member of civil society disappear, opposition will increasingly move toward more violent options with potentially violent and destabilizing consequences.

As the EPRDF seeks to increase domestic control, it faces regional conflicts along its border with Eritrea, in Somalia, and in the Somali-inhabited Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia. The Algiers Agreement collapsed in 2008, as the Eritrea Ethiopia Border Commission (EEBC) closed its doors without delimiting the border on the ground, the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea withdrew from Eritrea after Asmara cut off fuel supplies, and Eritrean troops re-occupied the Temporary Security Zone. Ethiopia remains in control of areas that the EEBC’s demarcation placed on the Eritrean side of the border, notably the symbolically important town of Badme, and Ethiopian and Eritrean troops are just a few hundred meters apart. Despite these alarming tensions, the underlying stalemate remains stable. Asmara and Addis Ababa both believe time is on its side and that there is no need to act immediately. More likely sites for escalation are in Somalia or through increased support for neighboring insurgent groups. If domestic and regional conflicts converged it will be difficult for Addis Ababa to manage the multiple threats.

Washington feels it needs a close relationship with Ethiopia in order to pursue its strategic interests in the Horn of Africa. This relationship, however, comes with costs. As with other pivotal states in difficult regions such as Pakistan and Egypt, these sometimes awkward bedfellows receive U.S. support for security reasons but then pursue their own, sometimes brutal, agendas regardless of pressure from Washington. Addis Ababa and Washington both opposed the Islamic Courts in Somalia, for example, but for very different reasons. Ethiopia worries about the assistance these groups provide to the regime’s enemies in Eritrea and among Oromo and Somali insurgent groups, while the United States is concerned with links to al-Qaeda. This linkage furthermore undercuts U.S. policy toward democratization and human rights in Ethiopia and Washington’s support for the implementation of the Algiers Agreement. If the growing domestic and regional pressures converge and destabilize Addis Ababa, an uncontrolled and potentially very violent transition is possible.

The next administration needs to unravel its cooperation in pursuit of common counter-terrorism goals from policies where the two states have less agreement. Washington should speak plainly about its concerns regarding democracy, human rights, and humanitarian issues in Ethiopia. The United States should press Ethiopia to implement the EEBC border decision and remove its forces from Badme and other areas. Finally, Washington should pressure both the government and the broad range of opposition parties to engage in discussions so that the 2010 elections are not another missed opportunity to promote democratization and stability.

Terrence Lyons is Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution with George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.