Features

One-party rule a tough habit to break

Ethiopia | Hardline leaders risk civil war, practice oppression to stay in power

Issue: "Narnia unleashed," Dec. 10, 2005

When a reporter for Ethiopian Review donned a burqa to disguise herself as a Muslim woman, slipped into the village of Kore, some 125 miles from the capital city of Addis Ababa, and investigated reports of escalating violence, her findings were more grisly than many feared. The anonymous reporter said her clandestine visit Nov. 24 to a village largely off-limits to journalists found government officials inciting Muslims to attack Christian neighbors. At least 10 people were dead, some with slit throats. More than 100 homes had been burned, and thousands had fled the city to live in squalor at makeshift shelters.

Hostilities in Kore are a small piece of a much larger campaign of violence and oppression being waged by the country's ruling party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In early November, government security forces opened fire on opposition supporters in Addis Ababa, killing at least 40 and arresting hundreds more. A nearly identical scenario unfolded in June. In each case, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi charged that the protesters initiated violence, a cover for the government's crackdown.

Elias Kifle follows the developments from Washington, D.C., as editor of Ethiopian Review, an online news journal and alternative to the state-run electronic media in his native country. Mr. Kifle, who launched the publication 14 years ago, employs reporters like the one who traveled to Kore to dispatch news that is underreported or not reported at all. Lately, the news has not been good.

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Opposition leaders say government attacks have been unprovoked and designed to stamp out political reform in one of the poorest countries in the world.

The most recent conflict began in May after the government gave opposition candidates a chance to campaign in parliamentary elections for the first time. The opposition party, Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), campaigned against the long-ruling EPRDF, saying the party was dividing the nation by pitting ethnic and religious groups against one another. CUD also said the government's economic policies (such as state ownership of all land) have helped keep the majority of Ethiopians in abject poverty.

CUD's message resonated with voters: The opposition swept seats in Addis Ababa and defeated several powerful government ministers. Isaac Kisle, a CUD leader, told WORLD that the results stunned the ruling government: "They never realized that during 14 years of occupying power in Ethiopia they had never related to the people."

But CUD's celebration was short-lived: Just weeks after the election, the government announced it had won 296 seats in the 547-member Parliament, a number that CUD says is fraudulent. The ruling party then quickly changed parliamentary rules so that only a party with 51 percent of the seats could raise issues for discussion, in effect squelching the opposition's ability to advance any agenda.

When opposition supporters poured into the streets in June and November to protest the government's actions, violence ensued. Mr. Kisle, who attended both protests, says he watched security officials fire on "peaceful protesters," and "kill young people." The government's allegations that the protesters instigated violence, he says, are "outright lies." The opposition leader says police have also been conducting illegal raids and searches, shutting down all independent newspapers, and beating political detainees. Police have also arrested members and leaders of CUD, rounding up hundreds in Addis Ababa alone.

Alemzurya Teshome, 25, the daughter of another opposition leader, told The New York Times that police raided her home to arrest her father and then fatally shot her mother, who was screaming in protest. Ms. Teshome said when neighbors went to the hospital to retrieve her mother's body, they were told to sign a statement saying the opposition party was responsible for the murder. They refused, while Ms. Teshome expressed outrage: "I was there when they killed my mother. . . . I saw it with my own eyes."

The government has also detained at least 12 journalists for "involvement with the insurrection," according to Prime Minister Zenawi, who rebuffed international pressure to release political detainees. He said the journalists, along with CUD leaders, will face charges of treason, an offense punishable by death under Ethiopian law.

Mr. Kisle, 70, who has been a political activist in Ethiopia for more than 40 years, says opposition leaders have been "terribly disappointed" by the West's response to the recent conflicts. The United States and European Union, he believes, should withdraw their support of Mr. Zenawi's government. The U.S. State Department has released statements condemning the violence in Ethiopia but has stopped short of pulling support.

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