Ethiopia: on a knife edge; The stakes were always going to be high in Ethiopia's multi-party elections. A potentially explosive aftermath was swiftly dealt with, some say oppressively, by the government, yet the situation still remains tense. John Muwendo reports.

Author:Muwendo, John
Position:Political conditions

Democracy in the Horn of Africa is not a particularly commonly used phrase. So when the time for voting came on 15 May, all eyes were firmly fixed on Ethiopia electoral system. Early signs indicated that for the most part, voting was peaceful and orderly. But it was when the results came, that the situation became prickly.


Allegations of electoral fraud and vote-rigging triggered three days of protest by supporters of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) concentrated mostly in the capital, Addis Ababa.

What began as peaceful student protests was quickly put down by security forces when they opened fire on the demonstrators with live ammunition. As the crowds dispersed, over 30 people lay dead in the streets. Mass arrest and detention followed as the authorities stamped out any dissent over the outcome of the elections. International condemnation followed, with Britain suspending a planned $24m aid increase.

It was hardly the greatest example of democracy in Africa, and it came as a huge embarrassment for Tony Blair's Commission for Africa, of which Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, is a central figure.

As one might expect, what actually happened vary greatly depending on which account you hear. Initially, the provisional results showed that Zenawi's Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) had won after securing over 300 seats of the 547-seat parliament, and retaining its overall majority.

However, the CUD, having won only a modest 12 seats in May 2000, made spectacular gains this time around by winning 189 seats nationwide. The achievement was none more so impressive than in Addis Ababa where the opposition cleaned up by taking every single seat.

Then came the storm. According to Bereket Simon, the minister of information, the country had been pushed to the brink of calamity by the actions of the CUD in the immediate wake of the elections. In justifying the authorities' heavy-handed response to the protests, he accused the opposition of fanning the flames of ethnic divisions as a method to gain power.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, the opposition sees things in a...

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