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  • Ethiopia’s Extended Transition
  • John W. Harbeson (bio)

Beginning on 15 May 2005, Ethiopia conducted the first genuinely competitive multiparty elections in its long history. As of this writing in early September 2005, it appears that the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has been at the heart of a de facto single-party regime for 14 years, has secured a further five-year mandate. Yet the EPRDF saw its majority in the 547-seat Council of People's Representatives (CPR) drop dramatically from the 481 seats that it had won in 2000 to just 327 seats five years later. Two opposition coalitions and an array of independent candidates collectively garnered 45 percent of the popular vote and as many as 200 or more seats. Elections in the Somali Region, delayed by political unrest and flooding, gave all 23 seats to an independent party that collaborates with the EPRDF.

The election season offered unprecedented opportunities for political expression, including greatly enhanced media coverage. Both before and since election day, however, credible charges of election fraud and government harassment of opposition politicians have surfaced. Doubts about the impartiality of the National Election Board (NEB) played a role in sparking violence that has taken the lives of at least 36 people in the capital city of Addis Ababa. The election process has thus reflected and dramatized the Partly Free rating that Ethiopia has received continuously since 1991 from Freedom House.

In a circumstance that is unique in the history of post–Cold War sub-Saharan Africa, the opposition has now succeeded in subjecting the EPRDF's redefinition of the state (in this case, as a "multiethnic confederation") [End Page 144] to an electoral test. Closely interwoven with this issue have been the implications for Ethiopia of Eritrea's successful 1993 secession (also sui generis in postindependence Africa) as well as the still unconsummated UN-brokered denouement of the war that Ethiopia and Eritrea fought from 1998 to 2000.

The 2005 elections constitute the most recent chapter in the extended struggle of parties, peoples, and regimes to determine on what terms, if any, the African empire of Haile Selassie (d. 1975) and his predecessors might be transformed into a modern state.

From Empire to Ethnic Confederation

Ethiopia is perennially among the world's half-dozen poorest countries. With 72 million people, it is also Africa's most populous country after Nigeria. The now-secular government presides over a country that is nearly 50 percent Muslim and perhaps 40 percent Ethiopian Orthodox (Coptic) Christian. In ethnolinguistic terms, the Oromo peoples of southern Ethiopia comprise an estimated 40 percent of the population. The next-largest group is the Amhara, who account for somewhat more than 20 percent of the population and produced many emperors, including the last four. The Tigre people form about a tenth of the population and also make up the core of the EPRDF. Subdivisions within these communities, plus the presence of many other ethnic groups, make Ethiopia one of Africa's more culturally diverse countries.

Ancient imperial Ethiopia corresponded roughly to the northwestern quarter of the modern-day country, the remainder having been incorporated by the conquests of Haile Selassie's predecessor Menelik II (1889–1913) before and after he became emperor. How much of even that quarter, including Eritrea, was a part of Ethiopia historically depended on the varying strength and skill of individual emperors. In the nineteenth century, Italy wrested away what is now Eritrea. Later the territory would become a British trust and then federate with Ethiopia under UN auspices following the Second World War. In the 1950s, Haile Selassie effectively cashiered this federation and began a program of forced unification with Ethiopia. This sparked the liberation war that culminated in Eritrea's independence in 1993.

The course of political development in Ethiopia since the critical year of 1974 may be divided into three phases. The first saw a genuine grassroots push for revolutionary political and economic change that engaged nearly every Ethiopian community during the first half of 1974. This revolution began with popular protests over reports that exposed the Haile Selassie government's efforts to hide the extent of devastating drought and famine conditions...


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pp. 144-158
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