ISS Today
29 March 2006



ADDIS ABABA, March 27 (Reuters) - A series of five blasts killed one person and injured at least 14 others in Addis Ababa on Monday, the first fatality in a string of mysterious explosions in the Ethiopian capital. One person was killed and three others injured when the first blast ripped through a minibus in the southern part of the city.




EthiopiaThe most recent surge in urban violence comes soon after other explosions in Addis Ababa earlier this month in which several people were injured. While these incidents are certainly alarming in themselves, they also indicate a rapidly deteriorating political environment since the disputed May 2005 parliamentary election, which claimed the lives of some 80 people. As such it is difficult to assume the culpability of any particular group for the blasts. Historically the government has placed the blame for domestic disturbances on either its bête noire Eritrea, the majority opposition group the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) or the outlawed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which has fought for independence since 1993.


Since the announcement of the election results in October 2005, Ethiopia, and Addis Ababa in particular, have seen numerous protests organised by the CUD, who won almost all the seats in the capital city, but refused to take up their parliamentary seats (109) in protest against he outcome of the election which they believe was won by vote rigging. The ruling Ethiopian People`s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took 327 seats in the 546 lower parliamentary chamber, the Council of People`s Representatives. The report by the European Union Electoral Observer team has also pointed to irregular electoral practices that violated democratic standards.


The National Electoral Board has also been accused of being partisan to the ruling party in refusing to recognise for example the CUD as a single unit, and maintaining that each of the CUD constituent parts had its own legal status.  This strategy is likely to fragment the opposition, which finds itself effectively leaderless since its core leadership have been detained. The entire leadership pf the CUD and thousands of other protestors were arrested last November in a major crackdown.  Although several hundred people were released, more than 100 remaining prisoners have been charged for committing acts of treason and genocide.


According to the government the latter charge is based on the targeting of the Tigrayans who dominate government and business circles but who are the third largest group in the country after the Oromo and Amhara. Certainly the creation of an ethnic based federation has been Meles`s key to retaining power. This system has ensured that neither the Oromo nor the Amhara can use their numbers to dominate the national system, and indeed the gesture contained in Article 39 of the constitution that allows for the secession of any ethnic group offers a false sense of ethnic equality. However an ethno-centric base for political mobilisation offers little by way of substantive democracy and will act as a guarantor of continuous identity based politics as we have seen throughout the past decade.


Any opposition to government is perceived as being an attack on a particular ethnic grouping and less likely to be addressed as a structural challenge to democracy. This is most crucial when we look at rising inequality and impoverishment in the rural countryside. Although, on coming to power, the EPRDF government quickly changed its previous communist ideology to one in favour of the market, in order to survive in a reconfigured global political order, it has nevertheless maintained its control over land tenure. Thus, the government owns all the land in the country and offers only long-term leasing of plots. This means that the security of land tenure is intricately linked to political allegiance and patronage. It is no surprise then that the EPRDF`s main source of power is in the countryside. In addition to land, the question of access to credit for farming inputs is also reportedly linked to patronage. Human Rights Watch has reported that farmers who criticise the government while being unable to repay their credit loans are often imprisoned.


It is also unsurprising that as domestic tension is rising so we see an increase in the hostile posturing along the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The much needed diversion from the scene in Addis to the Badme border issue suits both Meles and Eritrea`s Afewerki who is also under domestic pressure. Moreover, Ethiopia`s geo-strategic size and location in proximity to Somalia is such that it has been able to capitalise on joining the US-led coalition in the “global war on terror”. The actions of the Somalia based network Al Ittihad Islamia on Ethiopian soil has allowed the government to use the threat of international terrorism as an incentive for both increased military funding but also allows it to associate opposition movements as having links to terrorist organisations. The American interest in the global war on terror means it will probably play down the shortcomings in the domestic Ethiopian political environment in favour of achieving its own strategic goals in the region.


One of the key challenges to face Meles`s regime in the coming months will be on social delivery in light of threatened cuts to budgetary support from the UK and the EU worth $375 million following the recent violence. The UK alone is withholding 50 million pounds of budgetary support.  Ethiopia is highly dependent on foreign aid, since some 15 percent of its budget comes from donor funds. Added to this is the current drought induced humanitarian crises affecting the larger Horn region which will likely add further fuel to ethnic based conflicts. It is here that we are also more likely to see a larger role for China which has a growing and aggressive interest in the energy possibilities in the Horn region and might extend credit lines that will make up for the withholding of donor support. All in all, the current violence in Ethiopia offers an interesting insight into the broader legitimacy problems of the incumbent regime, to which no answers are to be expected in the immediate future.


Mariam Bibi Jooma

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