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Story Publication logo July 28, 2007

Ethiopia Turns Its Critics into Untouchables


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U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops grabbed headlines in late 2006, invading Somalia to drive the Islamic...

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ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA -- Dressed in a black Adidas track suit and seated amid a comfortable clutter of term papers and political science tomes in his modest office at Addis Ababa University, Prof. Merera Gudina hardly looks like a menace. But, ever since he was elected to parliament two years ago, people have been avoiding him.

There was, for example, the time that local mechanics were too terrified to repair his car when it broke down on the way back from his mother's funeral east of Addis.

"The mechanic said somebody was giving him a signal and they ran away and we had to transport the car to Addis," Prof. Gudina said. "What they do is that they don't touch me as a person, but people in contact with me, after I leave an area, they harass them or detain them or whatever they want," he said of government security agents.

Optimistic visitors from the United States, which will give $500-million (U.S.) in aid to Ethiopia in 2008, like to point out that the Ethiopian opposition pulled off a feat that would be unthinkable in America or Europe when they unseated more than 150 ruling lawmakers two years ago.

But civil-society groups and supporters of the opposition throughout Ethiopia describe the country's parliament as little more than a Potemkin village. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's ruling EPRDF party puts on a show of democracy for international donors, while enacting a brutal crackdown on supporters of the opposition outside of the capital.

Leaders such as Prof. Gudina say they've been denied offices, staff and access to their constituents and the media.

"At this point, Ethiopia has some of the trappings of democracy, but none of the substance," said Bronwyn Bruton, a Program Officer for East and Southern Africa with the National Endowment for Democracy, which gets some funding from the U.S. government.

In the 2005 elections, the opposition made historic gains against the EPRDF, which is dominated by Mr. Zenawi's own Tigray ethnic group.

Hundreds of demonstrators were killed and tens of thousands more jailed, including journalists, the elected mayor of Addis Ababa and the head of the country's only independent human-rights organization.

The government only last week released 38 of the opposition activists who had been tried and found guilty of inciting violence, treason and trying to topple the government, but not before they signed statements admitting their guilt.

While a number of opposition members have boycotted parliament in protest against the election, scores of others followed the advice of Western countries including the United States and took office.

"I can't run away from this place and expect some miracle," said Beyene Petros, who has represented the opposition ever since Mr. Zenawi ousted dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.

Mr. Petros has seen so many colleagues jailed or killed that he seems somewhat bemused at his own survival.

"Not me. I'm sort of an alibi for a lot of bad things they do to others. They will say, 'Look, Beyene Petros has been this, he's a fierce opponent, he can say anything.' Instead of coming to me, attacking me, they have gone and killed my immediate associates, they have abducted some. That's not enjoyable position to be in."

The government's true face, people say, is shown in places like Dembi Dollo, a two-day journey from the capital along more than 480 kilometres of dusty, dilapidated roads. Few foreigners visit, and little news emerges from the area.

Dembi Dollo is the political heart of Oromia, Ethiopia's most populous region. It's the birthplace of the Oromo Liberation Front, a group once allied with Mr. Zenawi, but today the largest of half a dozen rebel fronts in the country.

It is here that men who once campaigned for an opposition party called the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement are still paying the price.

"You can say my home is the prison. I spend a lot of my life in the prison," said one elder who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. "Since 1991, every year I was in prison it's only this time now, this year, I didn't visit the prison."

Though support for the rebels runs high here, the town's elders campaigned for the OFDM, which eschews violence. Unfortunately for them, the local officials of the ruling party do not distinguish between political parties like the OFDM and the OLF, which was branded a terrorist organization by Mr. Zenawi's administration late last year.

The elders had been jailed and followed. Telephone and power lines to Dembi Dollo were cut off. The OFDM's office was vandalized and closed. After an elementary school teacher campaigned for the OFDM, riot police went after his 16-year-old daughter. They broke both her wrists, bludgeoned her in the abdomen and held her for a month.

"When she went to the court, the witnesses are the police who beat her - so how can this be?" said one teacher, who also insisted on anonymity.

Ethiopia's ruling party attributes any heavy-handedness against the opposition to growing pains. "In most cases there are no problems," said Bereket Simon, a senior adviser to Mr. Zenawi. "We feel there might be problems here and there because this is not a mature democracy like that of the West. It is an emerging democracy and we're bound to make mistakes."

Prof. Gudina has kept his full-time job at the university. After seeing 56 members of his party killed amid post-election violence, he says there's very little he can do in parliament, where, unlike representatives for the ruling party, he has no offices, no budget and no influence. "In a year and a half, I've attended five, six sessions, that's all," Prof. Gudina said. "There's nothing there to do. When Meles makes a report, you go so at least people see you are there."

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