Addis Ababa – When a small, rag-tag band of rebels from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray province took up arms against the government in 1975, few thought they could win a minor scuffle, let alone lead a whole country.
But the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) saw its members swell in ranks over time, and it joined with other guerrilla movements to finally topple Mengistu Haile Mariam’s brutal regime in 1991.
Thirty-five years after its founding, the TPLF – now well entrenched in power in the EPRDF coalition – celebrated its anniversary this week amid looming elections and pledges of economic prosperity.
“This day is being marked at a time when Ethiopia is registering a growth rate of more than 10% for the sixth consecutive year,” Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said in a speech marking his party’s celebrations.
The Horn of Africa nation will hold elections on May 23, and the ruling party is already ratcheting up its campaign by lauding its achievements.
‘A revolutionary system’
Under Meles’ 19-year reign, Ethiopia’s education and health coverage has more than doubled, according to UN figures, and the 55-year-old former rebel leader usually flourishes these like trump cards against critics.
Yet for some, the TPLF’s most notable gain was avoiding the “Balkanisation” of the country.
By implementing an ethnic-based federal structure, party members say they have been able to coax Ethiopia’s disgruntled ethnic groups into unity.
“Our biggest achievement was implementing the constitution and achieving unity based on equality,” founding member Sibhat Nega told AFP.
“We are implementing a revolutionary system that will accelerate economic growth,” he adds. “But nothing is perfect yet.”
Now 76, Sibhat is no longer a member of the tight-knit group’s central committee, but is known to exercise immense influence behind the scenes.
In recent times however, the ruling party has faced scathing criticism over spiralling rights abuses and restrictions on the political oppositions.
Ethiopia has passed a raft of legislation since 2007 that many see as obstacles to democracy, including an anti-terror law which Human Rights Watch says can be used for arbitrary prosecution under the guise of national security.
Some experts blame existing hardliners within the party for the backtracking of the democratisation process.
“They are a concern. Although it is refreshing that they have a vision larger than filling their pockets, they are still the Marxist bush fighters that resist change,” a Western diplomat told AFP.
“They have backtracked significantly since 2005, when they realised they could have lost,” another diplomat said.
The 2005 polls ended in chaos when the opposition accused the regime of rigging the vote, sparking massive protests throughout the country.
According to a government investigation, 200 people were killed in two bouts of violence, and Meles, once praised by former US President Bill Clinton as a “Renaissance leader” turned villain overnight.
Five years on, opposition leaders are once again accusing the ruling party of pulling out all the stops to stay in power, using a familiar arsenal of arbitrary arrests and trumped-up coup charges.
Birtukan Mideksa, chair of Ethiopia’s largest opposition party, was re-arrested 17 months ago after her pardon from a life sentence was revoked on grounds that she denied expressing remorse.
Sibhat defends the measures: “The law is the pillar of the country, you cannot violate it. All those who do so face the consequences be it from the bullet, lethal injection, or incarceration.”
Some experts accuse Western powers like the US of turning a blind eye in order not to put Ethiopia’s role as a reliable regional ally at risk.