Interview with former Amb. David Shinn on 2010 Elections

This is an interview with former US Ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn, conducted on June 27, regarding the 2010 elections in Ethiopia.  The interview was conducted by Namrud Berhane.
Washington, DC., June 27, 2010 (

Question:  The EPRDF, according to the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia, won by a landslide and took 99.8 percent of the seats in parliament.  Were you surprised by the results?

Answer:  Yes.  I thought the outcome would be about mid-way between the results of the 1995 and 2000 elections, when the opposition won virtually no seats, and the 2005 election, when the opposition did exceptionally well.  As it happened, the 2010 results were similar to the election results in 1995 and 2000.  This is a setback for democratic electoral politics in Ethiopia.

Question:  There is an ongoing debate that the outcome of the election is an indication of how weak the opposition is in Ethiopia, while others counter that argument saying it was the ruling party’s repressive tactics and intimidation that led to such results.  What is your take on that?

Answer:  There is some truth to both points and another, perhaps more important one.   The opposition parties were weak and divided, in spite of the effort by Medrek to bring many of the parties together under one umbrella.  The EPRDF also made it very difficult for the opposition parties to compete on anything approaching equal competition.  Perhaps most important, however, the EPRDF controls all the levers of power such as distributing fertilizer to farmers and apparently used these levers brilliantly in assuring an overwhelming victory.  To its credit, the EPRDF established a pretty solid record of economic development, but that alone would not result in such a lopsided victory.

Question:  What are the implications of the outcome of this result?  Some have already begun to say that Ethiopia has gone back to the pre-1991 condition where it was under a one party system.

Answer:  I do not agree that Ethiopia has returned to the pre-1991 situation, but it certainly has returned to the electoral politics of 1991-2000 and that is unfortunate.  For all practical purposes, Ethiopia has again become a one-party state but not of the pre-1991 variety.  There is an important difference between excluding the existence of opposition parties and allowing them to exist but making it almost impossible to perform well in a national election.

Question:  You once testified before the House sub-committee on African Affairs that U.S.-Ethiopia relations were a sort of balancing act.  You told the committee that the U.S. should commit to ensuring that human rights conditions were improving in Ethiopia, and yet that care should be taken that too much pressure would not make the Ethiopian government shift to allies such as India and China.  Do you believe that balance has not worked?

Answer:  Balance is a relative concept.  Rarely are competing foreign policy interests in perfect balance.  The scale usually tips somewhat to one side or the other.  In addition, there are other aspects of U.S. interests that you did not cite such as Ethiopian support for dealing with conflicts in the region and support for U.S. counterterrorism goals.  Since 1991, the U.S. has tipped the scale more in the direction of these other goals than putting pressure on Ethiopia concerning human rights and democratization.

Question:  During my last interview with you, I asked about Secretary Clinton’s visit to Kenya and you told me that the U.S. would have few better alternative allies to choose from in the Horn.  Your words then were “Let’s be honest there are very few potential allies for the U.S. to choose from throughout the region.”  Can Vice President Biden’s visit to Kenya and the discussions he held there on fighting terrorism indicate that maybe the U.S. is shifting towards Kenya as a regional ally?

Answer:  Although I am not privy to the conversations between Vice President Biden and Kenyan officials, they certainly covered more issues than countering terrorism.  For example, I assume the question of governance in Kenya was also on the agenda.  In spite of U.S. criticism in recent years of the political situation in Kenya, the U.S. has considered Kenya a significant regional ally almost dating back to Kenyan independence.  Relations have periodically been stormy, but they have always been important.  The recent visit by Vice President Biden may signal a slight improvement in the relationship, but not a major shift in the U.S. approach to Kenya.

Question:  How much is the jamming of the Voice of America Amharic-language transmissions and accusations that it was similar to Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) of Rwanda an indicator that relations between the U.S. and Ethiopia have become strained?

Answer:  This is not the first time the Ethiopian government has criticized or blocked the service of the VOA Amharic service.  Ethiopia has expressed concerns about this service dating back to the early 1990s.  In a few cases, the Ethiopian government’s concerns were justified to some extent.  In my view, the Ethiopian government makes a huge mistake by jamming any source of information unless it is aimed at illegally overthrowing the government.  Where Ethiopia really crossed the line on this occasion was to compare the VOA Amharic service to RTLM.  This was an outrageous claim that caused a great deal of anger in Washington and has contributed to a cooling of relations.

Question:  Prominent figures such as Bulcha Demeksa of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement indicated that they were going out of politics after hearing the results of the May 23 elections.  In your opinion, what chances do opposition parties have after five years of rule by a single party?

Answer:  Ato Bulcha is a good friend and respected Ethiopian.  He also emphasized in his interview contained in the 13 June 2010 issue of Fortune that having nearly reached the age of 80, it was time to step down and let younger Ethiopians take the lead in opposition politics.

Opposition politics will become meaningful in Ethiopia only if two major changes occur.  First, the EPRDF must make the policy decision that it is willing to permit a vigorous challenge to its rule by giving opposition parties a realistic chance of achieving victory.  I have felt since 1991 (there were no legal competing political parties in Ethiopia before 1991) that the ruling party operates on the 75 percent principle.  Anything less than 75 percent control of parliament and local councils is a political defeat.  You can actually rule with a 51 percent majority.  It is harder, but it also gives greater voice to the people. 

Second, the opposition parties must do a better job of focusing on issues that cut across ethnic lines in an effort to attract support.  They would also be stronger if there were fewer of them.  The political landscape is so cluttered with political parties, most of them based on ethnic ties, that it is no wonder they performed poorly.

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