Ethiopian Elections: First Blood?

The title of this post is not an attempt to be flippant, but a serious question: does the stabbing death of a candidate in Ethiopia’s parliamentary elections signal that more violence lies ahead?

Tigray Region, Ethiopia

An opposition candidate for Ethiopia’s Parliament was stabbed to death early Tuesday in what opposition leaders said was part of a widening campaign of repression ahead of May elections.

The candidate, Aregawi Gebre-Yohannes, was killed at a restaurant he owned near the town of Shire in the Tigray region by a group of six men who had shadowed his movements for the previous two days, said Gebru Asrat, a leader of the Arena party, a member of an alliance of opposition parties.

“They cut him, they stabbed him in the stomach, and he died,” Mr. Gebru said. “It’s becoming very difficult to run” a political campaign, he added.

Bereket Simon, the government’s communications minister, dismissed political motives for the attack and said the opposition was trying to tarnish the government’s image.

[…]

A different opposition parliamentary candidate was beaten in Tigray on Sunday by members of the Ethiopian Army, and he was hospitalized, said Negasso Gidada, a former president of Ethiopia who has now joined the opposition.

[…]

Mr. Bereket, the government minister, who is also a senior official in Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, said that the candidate beaten on Sunday had been pressuring a student who was not aligned with the ruling party to read opposition campaign literature and that the two had fought as a result.

Gebru Asrat, quoted above, told VOA that this violence has the opposition rethinking its decision to participate in the elections: “This is not an election,” Gebru said. “This is just war. War against us.”

VOA also calls attention to the ethnic tensions surrounding the campaign:

Tigrayans, an ethnic minority in the north,  make up about six percent of Ethiopia’s population, but comprise the majority of the EPRDF’s decision-making inner circle. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who is seeking re-election from his Tigrayan birthplace, celebrated the TPLF’s anniversary* last month with a speech in which he was reported to have urged supporters to “fight the enemy”.

Siye Abraha, a former senior TPLF leader who served as EPRDF’s first defense minister, is now a Medrek leader and a opposition candidate for parliament in Tigray. He called the prime minister’s speech “inflammatory.”

“As head of the ruling party, and head of the government, he’s supposed to give a clear constructive guidance,” Siye said. “But instead he’s trying to portray the opposition as people out for insurrection, or enemies of peace. No, we are not enemies of peace, we are responsible citizens who care about peace and stability in our country.”

Ruling party spokesman Hailemariam disputed Siye’s characterization of the prime minister’s speech. He described Mr. Meles’s remarks as simply an attempt to rally the ruling party’s base.

International Crisis Group has more on ethnic politics in Ethiopia in their report “Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism and Its Discontents.” That report produced a real backlash from the government of Meles Zenawi last year upon its release, indicating the sensitivity of the issue. If we accept opposition accounts of these incidents, does it mean that the regime will not tolerate opposition activity in its ethnic stronghold?

Ethiopia’s elections in 2005 resulted in major bloodshed, and observers have feared a repeat this time around. For a time I had been predicting to myself that the opposition would perform poorly and that the story would more or less end there. Now I’m not so sure. Hopefully no one else gets hurt.

*For context on the TPLF, here’s VOA again: “Tigray, in northern Ethiopia, is the home ground of the [party in power, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front], whose forerunner, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, seized power in Addis Ababa in a 1991 coup.”

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