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2006-05-30 15:56:00
Embassy Addis Ababa
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DE RUEHDS #1499/01 1501556
P 301556Z MAY 06




E.O. 12958: N/A






E.O. 12958: N/A


1. (SBU) SUMMARY: The political dialogue between the ruling
EPRDF and opposition parties UEDF and OFDM yielded its first
fruit on May 22: a joint public declaration on respect for
the constitution and renewed space for peaceful political
activity. The government, UEDF and OFDM also agreed on a
joint commission to investigate political violence in the
Oromiya region and plans for a joint visits to Oromiya and
other areas. A separate dialogue has also been initiated
with Lidetu Ayalew's UEDP-Medhin party, which withdrew from
the CUD earlier this year. The EPRDF plans to offer a
dialogue to the reconstituted CUDP soon do so. The next,
critical phase of the dialogue with the UEDF and OFDM will
focus on reform of key democratic institutions, including
Parliament, the National Electoral Board (NEB) and the media.
Discussions will be supported by detailed comparative
analyses funded and conducted by international donors,
including the USG. Senior GOE officials have indicated that
the GOE is prepared to implement many of the international
community's recommendations for reform as part of its
dialogue with the opposition. Bereket Simon, senior advisor
to PM Meles, has also indicated the GOE's preference for
talking with all opposition parties together, but opposition
groups remain wary of each other. Comment: While the
Diaspora calls for immediate aid cut-offs and confrontation
with the EPRDF, supporting the current political dialogue,
spearheaded by genuine opposition leaders resident in
Ethiopia, provides the most promising and appropriate way for
the international community to put Meles' commitments on
democratization to the test. Most critically, doing so will
nurture democracy and development by fostering a stable
environment where political space can grow. Donors have
recently made clear in their parallel dialogue with the EPRDF
(reftel) that aid flows to Ethiopia will reflect progress on
democratic governance. Finding a positive way to resolve the
trial of CUD leaders and others will, of course, also play a
critical role in lowering tensions and bolstering democracy
in Ethiopia. End Summary.

--- -
Political Dialogue, Studies Set Reform Agenda
-------------- -

2. (SBU) Just two months after violent unrest rocked Ethiopia
and well known leaders of the Coalition for Unity and
Democracy (CUD), leaders from the United Ethiopian Democratic
Front (UEDF) and the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement
(OFDM) made a leap of faith and began a structured dialogue
with the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic
Front (EPRDF). The opposition parties were represented by
UEDF Chair Beyene Petros and Vice Chair Merera Gudina, as

well as OFDM Chairman Bulcha Demeksa. Prime Minister Meles
kicked off the dialogue on behalf of the EPRDF, but soon
turned the reins over to senior advisor Bereket Simon and
EPRDF parliamentary whip Shiferaw Jarso. Discussions moved
slowly at first; simply agreeing on a detailed agenda
consumed nearly two months. Much of the initial discussion
focused on charges of ongoing repression in Oromiya during
February and March. Nonetheless, the negotiating agenda that
emerged from the talks covered nearly the same elements as
failed talks that included the CUD in September 2005:

-- Respect for the Rule of Law, Human Rights and the

-- Revision of Parliamentary procedures

-- Media Law and Code of Conduct, Freedom of the Press and
State media

-- Reform of the National Electoral Board

-- Financing of Political Organizations

3. (SBU) In parallel to launching talks with the UEDF and
OFDM, PM Meles publicly commissioned several studies
comparing Ethiopia's democratic institutions with those of
four developed democracies: the UK, Canada, Germany and
India. He invited international donors to fund and carry out
the studies, which would include comparisons between the four
individual model countries with Ethiopia, as well as
synthesize best practices from each. Meles stated publicly
that he wanted Ethiopia's Parliament to operate at the level
not of emerging democracies, but rather that of
fully-established democracies in developed countries. Many

ADDIS ABAB 00001499 002 OF 005

donors were initially reluctant to participate in the
projects, skeptical that the results would be used to plan
reforms, or would even be disseminated beyond the EPRDF. A
number of donor countries also argued that no progress could
be made on democratization as long as senior CUD leaders were
detained. Post eventually persuaded European donors to take
the Prime Minister at his word and prepare the studies to
support the dialogue process. At the same time, the agenda
of the EPRDF-Opposition dialogue was arranged to allow time
for the studies to be completed before discussions began on
individual institutions.

-------------- --------------
Rule of Law Talks Focus on Unrest, Political Space
-------------- --------------

4. (SBU) Parties approached the first agenda item in the
political dialogue with vastly different priorities. EPRDF
representatives sought commitments from opposition parties to
respect the constitution and engage in strictly peaceful,
legal political activity. They argued that Oromo parties in
particular, including both the OFDM and the Oromo National
Congress (ONC), had been playing a double game: while
publicly professing that they pursued only peaceful political
tactics, the parties had at the same time incited their
supporters and others toward violent unrest and called for
ousting the government. The UEDF (which includes the ONC)
and OFDM, for their part, claimed that their supporters were
being harassed, beaten and imprisoned by EPRDF cadres and
local government officials in rural areas. They demanded an
end to the repression and permission to re-open party offices
and to conduct normal political activities again. While
these difficult discussions proceeded, Western diplomats
including Charge Huddleston met separately on a regular basis
with both sides and sought to foster understanding the

Agreement Improves Political Environment

5. (SBU) After more than two months of hard bargaining on
this agenda item, the two sides conducted a joint press
conference broadcast on State television and radio. They
announced agreement on the following points, among others:

-- Respect the constitution;

-- Engage in only peaceful political activity;

-- Actively oppose violent and unconstitutional activities;

-- Facilitate peaceful political activity, including through
the re-opening of party offices and visits to constituencies;

-- Appointment of a joint commission, with members from both
sides, to investigate reports of unrest and repression in

-- Joint visits to constituencies outside Addis to
demonstrate tolerance

-- A joint study of constitutional provisions concerning
local administration;

Several of these points are simply reiterations of existing
laws and obligations, but in the context of post-election
tensions and unrest they represent important, useful public
commitments. The joint investigative commission constitutes
a significant achievement for opposition leaders, since the
presence of their own, hand-picked members should ensure a
serious effort. The ability of the OFDM to re-open political
offices and hold meetings would also be an important step

6. (SBU) One potential complication for the UEDF, however, is
that Ethiopian courts have ruled that Merera Gudina and his
associates are no longer the legal leaders of the ONC; the
courts instead recognized in March (?) a break-away faction
led by Tolosa Tesfaye. The later group, which Merera charges
was financed by the EPRDF, appears to command little loyalty
among elected ONC officials or the general public. For now,
Merera's Federal MPs operated as UEDF members, while Regional
MPs are seated as "individuals" in Oromiya's parliament.
Merera has not indicated what strategy he might pursue to
re-establish a political entity.

ADDIS ABAB 00001499 003 OF 005

Next Phase: On to the Institutions

7. (SBU) While the initial phase of EPRDF-Opposition talks
was crucial for re-building trust and re-opening political
space in the short term, the next phase of discussions will
focus on more permanent institutional reforms designed to
strengthen the pillars of Ethiopian democracy. Progress here
would likely be more tangible and have a more powerful impact
on public confidence in the democratic process.
Donor-produced studies in all areas are now ready or nearly
so, and should pave the way for progress.

-------------- --------------
Parliamentary Rules: Strengthening Opposition's Voice
-------------- --------------

8. (SBU) A detailed study of Parliamentary rules of
procedure and practices of the institution itself was
completed in late January and distributed the following month
to leaders of opposition parties. The study contains a
number of hard-hitting recommendations on how the rules and
practices of Ethiopia's Parliament should be changed to
strengthen the voice and representation of opposition
organizations. For example, the study proposes:

-- Naming a Deputy Speaker from an opposition party

-- Awarding some Standing Committee Chairmanships to
opposition parties

-- A multi-party council to set the agenda and administer

-- Guaranteed time (e.g. biweekly) for debate of opposition

-- Major debate annually on the government's overall
legislative plans

-- "Question time" once a week where ministers must answer
opposition MPs

-- Rights for opposition parties or MPs to offer amendments
to bills or motions

-- Enlarging Standing Committees to allow more MPs to serve
on them

9. (SBU) Opposition leaders have expressed real enthusiasm to
post officers about the ambition of the study's
recommendations. Senior Advisor Bereket Simon told the
Charge and other diplomats on May 26 that the GOE expected to
implement many of the suggestions regardless of what
transpired in the next phase of dialogue with the UEDF and
OFDM. The Speaker of Parliament and the PM himself have also
indicated previously to the Charge that they hoped to have
consensus on modifications to parliamentary rules and
practices prior to the legislative recess in July.

-------------- --------------
National Electoral Board: GOE Builds Capacity in Private
-------------- --------------

10. (SBU) A donor-funded study of the NEB completed by
British consultant Hannah Roberts in March found that the NEB
had been seriously under-staffed and under-funded during the
2005 election cycle. Equally alarming was the conclusion
that the director of the NEB, an EPRDF loyalist, had
basically withdrawn from any role in the organization as of
November 2004, leaving the weak organization in the hands of
board chairman Kemal Bedri and NEB deputy director Tesfaye
Mengesha. The report suggested that the rest of the NEB
board had had little or no involvement in the organization
before, during or after the elections. The report
recommended that the board be made fully accountable to an
active board, rather than to Parliament as it is now. It did
not discuss how the board should be appointed. NEB staff
often lacked the skills for the positions they occupied and
electoral operations at the local level relied heavily on
poorly trained temporary workers from other GOE agencies,
especially the Ministry of Agriculture. The consultant's
report was prepared with the full cooperation and candid
assessments of current NEB staff, and has not been

ADDIS ABAB 00001499 004 OF 005

disseminated by the GOE to opposition parties or the public.

11. (SBU) Nonetheless, in March NEB Chair Kemal Bedri told
donor represeZi/QFTk plan for addressing weaknesses before
"politicians" became directly involved. In November 2005,
Parliament approved PM Meles' request to extend the mandate
of the current NEB board until June 2006, by which time he
expected the organization to have addressed weaknesses
revealed by May 2005 national elections. Kemal told donor
reps, however, that fixing the NEB would likely take the rest
of 2006 and hinted that the existing board's mandated might
again be extended to complete the project.

12. (SBU) The agenda of EPRDF talks with the UEDF and OFDM
includes an item entitled "Instituting a new Electoral Board
in accordance with the law." On this point, the EPRDF has
apparently agreed to a significantly broader discussion that
it would accept with (now jailed) CUD leaders in September

2005. Other sub-items include NEB staffing at the local
level and the conduct of local elections expected in 2007.
Ethiopian law already calls for board members, who are
appointed by Parliament upon a recommendation for the PM, to
be independent of political parties. Intra-party discussions
of how to guarantee that board members are truly independent
will be crucial to re-building shattered public confidence in
the electoral process. As the Roberts report indicated,
however, issues of institutional capacity will be as crucial
to facilitating free and fair elections as the naming of an
impartial board.

Media Reform: Freedom and Responsibility

13. (SBU) The crackdown on media following the November 2005
riots, including the arrest of a large number of Amharic
language tabloid journalists, ended a period of significant
press freedom in Ethiopia. While local and international
media watchdogs have decried the arrests and other practical
restrictions on the press, the GOE has charged that many
media outlets' irresponsibility and calculated subversion
contributed materially to street violence in November. PM
Meles issued repeated calls for donors to fund a comparative
study of legal frameworks governing the press in the same
four target countries. USAID ultimately agreed to fund the
study, which should be available the week of May 29.

14. (SBU) The political dialogue agenda on the media
includes three elements:

-- creation of a unitary press law

-- respect for freedom of the press as well as for the law

-- ensuring that state media operated according to the law
and "entertains the views of others"

In addition to discussions within the context of the
EPRDF-Opposition dialogue, PM Meles told Parliament in March
that a broad debate on the media would be held in the chamber
and would include the views of all stakeholders.

What about the CUDP?

15. (SBU) The EPRDF is likely to invite the leaders of the
re-formed Coalition for Unity and Democracy Party (CUDP) to
initiate a similar dialogue within the next two weeks. PM
Meles told Charge that the CUDP's decision to walk out on the
appointment of an interim government for Addis Ababa -- after
the PM had repeatedly extended the legislative deadline to
facilitate a CUDP take-over of the capital -- had
demonstrated that the new party "had no principles."
Nonetheless, senior advisor Bereket Simon told the Charge on
May 30 that the dialogue with the CUDP would begin soon.
(Comment: The CUDP's recent denunciation of the formation of
the Diaspora-dominated "Alliance for Freedom and Democracy"
might have helped restore the Ethiopian-based CUDP's
reputation in EPRDF eyes. End Comment.) Bereket also told
Charge and other diplomats that the EPRDF would prefer to
conduct the next phase of dialogue -- focusing on

ADDIS ABAB 00001499 005 OF 005

institutions -- with a joint group of opposition leaders,
rather than holding three separate discussions. He expressed
regret that some opposition leaders, particularly Beyene
Petros, did not want joint discussions. Charge said she
would encourage the leaders to accept joint talks.

16. (SBU) The EPRDF has began a dialogue with Lidetu Ayalew's
UEDP-Medhin party; post does not yet have details on those

discussions. Although part of the CUD prior to Nove=QNPalogue Puts Meles' Commitments to the Test
-------------- --------------

17. (SBU) The announcement of the first agreement to come out
of EPRDF-Opposition talks this past week was overshadowed to
some extent by the announcement of a new "Alliance for
Freedom and Democracy (AFD)" by opposition leaders in exile
(septel). The ongoing trial of jailed CUD leaders has also
claimed more of the public's attention than
largely-behind-the-scenes political dialogue. Nonetheless,
the ongoing dialogue between the opposition leaders operating
in Ethiopia and the ruling party provides the clearest, most
promising path to lasting progress on democratization. The
agenda of the talks directly addresses the fundamental
challenge of strengthening the country's democratic
institutions, and is very similar to the agenda that jailed
CUD sought through their ill-fated strategy of a legislative
boycott and civil disobedience. The advantage of the current
dialogue is that an insecure ruling party now has
counterparts that have clearly demonstrated their credentials
as a "loyal opposition," opening the way for the EPRDF to
make concessions without appearing to give in to pressure.

18. (SBU) Will the EPRDF agree to meaningful reforms that
could level the political playing field in Ethiopia? Despite
the ruling party's dubious history of undermining its
opposition, there are now indications that for whatever
reason -- statesmanship, legacy or political pressure -- PM
Meles is prepared to allow significantly freer democratic
competition and stronger institutions. Ethiopia would not be
in a position to make progress on opening real political and
economic space over the coming year if donors had accepted
Diaspora calls for immediate aid cut-offs and confrontation
with the EPRDF. Encouraging and respecting the current
political dialogue, spear-headed by genuine opposition
leaders resident in Ethiopia, provides the most promising and
appropriate way for the international community to put Meles'
commitments on democratization to the test. Donors' have
recently made clear in their parallel dialogue with the EPRDF
(reftel) that aid flows to Ethiopia will reflect progress on
democratic governance.

19. (SBU) We will want to monitor the EPRDF's commitments
against some benchmarks for progress. It would reasonable to
expect the political dialogue to result in multi-party
agreements on key reforms of Parliamentary procedures, the
media and the National Electoral Board during the second half
of 2006. Amendment of Parliamentary rules and practices
could some as early as July, and would provide and important
boost to public confidence in Ethiopia's legislature.
Finding a positive way to resolve the trial of CUD leaders
and others will, of course, also play a critical role in
lowering tensions and bolstering democracy in Ethiopia.