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Quest for Democracy in Ethiopia

When Dr. Meqdes testified before the House Subcommittee on Africa on March 29, 2006, she was thinking of her father, Professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam. Professor Mesfin, a prominent Ethiopian human rights activist, has been incarcerated in Ethiopia since November of 2005. In thinking of her father and his situation, Dr. Meqdes also wondered why the United States is not doing more to help democracy in Ethiopia. As she stated in the hearing, "Honorable Members, for more than three decades, my personal and family life has been impacted by what my father has committed in his faith and belief that Government belongs to the people and that these fundamental freedoms that we all seek are a necessary element in allowing democracy to flourish in an environment where the rule of law is supreme."

Dr. Meqdes believes that the United States has not exerted enough pressure on the Ethiopian Government to release prisoners of conscience like her father. She and many others like her have been speaking out in support of democracy. Dr. Meqdes has been engaging actively to let the world know about her father's struggle for democracy. She spoke at several gatherings throughout the nation, wrote papers and led a hunger strike in opposition to the arrest of the political prisoners.

On June 27, 2006, three months after Dr. Meqdes' testimony, a comprehensive bi-partisan bill, H.R. 5680, the Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights Advancement Act of 2006 sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ), unanimously passed the International Relations Committee and was forwarded to the full House. The bill is expected to bring freedom, democracy, human rights and economic development to Ethiopia. On its passage, Rep. Smith said, "Violence against dissidents has increased significantly and yet there have been no credible accounts for the slaughter of protestors in the streets of Addis last year." He added, "We not only call on the Ethiopian Government to unconditionally release all political prisoners, but establish a program to tangibly assist them."

In his statement, Rep. Smith was referring to hundreds of political prisoners like Professor Mesfin. Professor Mesfin is a 76-year-old retired geography professor and founding member of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO). He is the winner of the 2006 Heinz R. Pagels Human Rights Award and among the 10 nominees for the European Parliament's 2006 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Prof Mesfin is currently one of the prisoners of conscience and a senior member of the main opposition party, Coalition for Unity and Democracy Party (CUDP). Along with many others, Professor Mesfin was imprisoned in November 2005 in connection with opposition demonstration against the Ethiopian Government. He is not alone at Kaliti Prison, where many of the political prisoners are jailed including Dr. Berhanu Negga, an economics professor and the newly elected Mayor of Addis Ababa; Ms. Birtukan Mideksa, a former judge and vice chairperson of CUDP; and Dr. Yacob Hailemariam, a former UN prosecutor in the Rwanda genocide trial in Tanzania.

During the years leading up to the election, Ethiopia was feted to be one of the African nations with emerging democratic systems. Under pressure from the United States and the European Union and in exchange for political and economic support, the 14-year-old Government of Ethiopia held a legislative election on May 15, 2005. This election was unparalleled in the country's history. Many vibrant opposition parties participated, media access was given to the opposition, and international observers were invited for the first time to witness the election. As a result, an astounding ninety percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. Despite some irregularities, the election was conducted peacefully and was commended by the international community. Many people hoped that democracy was finally emerging and bringing a lasting stability to Ethiopia - a prerequisite for social and economic development.

But, the post election period turned out to be tragic. The opposition parties allege that the election was rigged and ballot boxes stolen. The Carter Center, one of the invited international observers, stated in its final report that the handling of the post election results was disappointing. European Union observers, in their final report, also concluded that the election did not meet the international standard.

A critical dispute between the ruling party, Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the opposition parties gradually escalated and stalled the election process. In an effort to unlock the stalemate, CUDP issued an eight-point precondition. Several attempts made by donor countries to resolve the impasse failed.

CUDP, the party of Dr. Meqdes' father, boycotted the Parliament and called for a civil disobedience. Supporters of CUDP demonstrated and accused the ruling party of fraud. The demonstration led to violent confrontation. Over eighty people were shot and killed by the federal police in a series of pro-CUDP demonstrations, first in June and later in November 2005. Children and women were among the dead. Seven policemen were also killed at the riot. The election dispute brought the country to total crisis.

The United States and the European Union, in an effort to resolve the unrest, issued a joint appeal in November 2005, but the ruling Government of Ethiopia immediately turned it down. The U.S. and E.U. called for release of the political prisoners in the joint appeal. Such requests fell on deaf ears. At the time, Former Assistant Secretary for Africa, Herman Cohen said in an interview with the Voice of America, "the Government of Ethiopia," once considered a symbol of fledgling democracy, "has become authoritarian and even totalitarian".

A year after the May 2005 election, the crisis took a different turn. The ruling government appointed a new mayor and council members for the capital city administration. They replaced the elected representatives who are languishing in prison. Some elected legislative members of the opposition party, who were not arrested, were coerced to join the Parliament, in an attempt to split CUDP and give misleading image of the opposition's participation. CUDP formed an international leadership in exile. It also joined alliance with several opposition groups, some of whom have picked up arms against the regime.

Dr. Meqdes thinks that the US Government has acted in an inconsistent manner in attempting to resolve the impasse. Although the U.S. called for peaceful solution to the crisis, it has not exerted enough pressure on the Ethiopian Government to meet the appeal it issued jointly with European Union.

For many Ethiopians it seems that the US has put aside its democratic principles and seeks closer ties with the autocratic Government of Ethiopia. Dr. Meqdes believes promotion of democracy in Ethiopia has been limited and weakened by U.S. security interests in the Horn of Africa. The U.S. Administration has employed lenient policies on democracy promotion not to disappoint its Horn of Africa main ally in the war against terrorism - the main imperative of U.S. foreign policy post 9/11.