By Fikru Helebo
Two years ago this week I was furious at the combined Ethiopian opposition (CUD, UEDF, OFDM). Why? Because, just a few months after beating the EPRDF regime in the 2005 elections with all odds stacked against them, they blinked and failed to stand together in the decision about joining or boycotting parliament, thereby giving Meles Zenawi what he wanted: a divided opposition. In the debate about joining or boycotting parliament in 2005, although I leaned towards those who advocated joining parliament, I thought that it was very important for the opposition to have a single strategy regarding the issue of joining or boycotting parliament.
Now, two years later, I think it is safe to say that the opposition's inability to adopt a single strategy on joining or boycotting parliament did not serve them well. If the opposition had adopted a single strategy, join or boycott, most Ethiopians who voted for the opposition would have supported them. If they were united either way, I do believe that the political landscape of Ethiopia would have changed for the better. Unfortunately, it did not turn out that way and the rest is history.
The verdict on those parties who joined parliament under the highly charged atmosphere of 2005 is clear. But it is not quite as clear for the party that put preconditions on joining parliament, the CUD (Kinijit). Those who joined parliament have proven nothing by joining parliament. In fact, by staying in parliament after hundreds of innocent civilians were gunned down and thousands imprisoned by the Meles regime, they have discredited themselves as an opposition and, in the process, they have become a pariah among supporters of the opposition. The party which boycotted parliament, Kinijit, is also not served well by its decision to boycott parliament, at least from the results that we have witnessed so far. The decision to boycott may not have served Kinijit well in the short term, but it certainly has made Kinijit more popular among Ethiopians and it may help it in the long term. That, however, depends on many variables going Kinijit's way.
In as much as the decision to boycott parliament two years ago may have made Kinijit very popular, it is probable that the process Kinijit went through in reaching that decision may be the culprit for the current internal crisis that Kinijit finds itself in. It should be recalled that Hailu Shawel, the president of Kinijit, made quite a stir when he announced in Washington, DC three weeks before parliament opened on October 10, 2005 that Kinijit has decided not to enter parliament. Hailu Shawel's declaration was refuted a couple of days later by a press release which appeared on Keste-Demena's now defunct web site, Keste-Demena being one of Kinijit's member parties and one which was led by Berhanu Nega (kestedemena.org served as a de facto Kinijit web site at that time). I liked the statement on Keste-Demena's web site; it sounded mature and responsible. That statement combined with a joint statement by CUD and UEDF a few days later raised my hope that the opposition may be pursuing a united strategy regarding the issue of joining or not joining parliament. Unfortunately, everything unraveled a few days later after CUD and UEDF officials met with Meles Zenawi.
This episode revealed that there were serious disagreements within Kinijit regarding the issue of joining or boycotting parliament. Disagreements within a political organization are natural, but this disagreement highlighted the existence of a deeper disagreement within Kinijit on its vision and its strategy for dealing with its opponents. Fast forward to October 2007 and, it seems to me, Kinijit is still stuck in the disagreements that arose during the decision process about joining or boycotting parliament in 2005. Most had hoped that the release of Kinijit's leadership from jail last July would re-energize the opposition. One faction of Kinijit is actually trying its best to reinvigorate the opposition camp. Unfortunately, another faction seems more interested in winning the turf battle within Kinijit than wining the hearts and minds of Ethiopians across the ethnic, religious and geographical spectrum.
As I have attempted to discuss in an article titled "The Battleground Region" last year, the Ethiopian South is where the next election will be won, if free and fair elections are to take place. At this point in the evolution of Kinijit as a party one can not deny that the base of the party is in the Amhara region. Nothing wrong with that per se. But, for Kinijit to be a majority party in Ethiopia, it will have to reach out to people in the South and Oromia regions. The faction of Kinijit that is linked to Hailu Shawel is quickly proving to be a liability for Kinijit in its effort to broaden its support base in other regions of the country. The Amhara base of Kinijit is a very important constituency for Kinijit and it looks like this is the card that Hailu Shawel is playing to keep Kinijit under his firm grip. But with Hailu Shawel's dictatorial tendencies, which can easily be detected in the interviews he has been giving since he arrived in the US, and his inherent inability to inspire, it is highly unlikely that Kinijit can make further inroads into the South and Oromia regions.