Ethiopia's Regime Stymies Opposition, Critics Assert
Rebels who ousted a police state are now being accused of intolerance
NAIROBI, KENYA — THE government that ousted one of Africa's most brutal dictatorships from Ethiopia and promised democratic reforms two years ago is showing less and less tolerance for dissenters.
The regime of Meles Zenawi has stymied opposition parties, dismissed outspoken professors, and has moved to gain control over key non-government organizations that could provide independent criticism of the government, say Ethiopian critics, Western diplomats, and human rights organizations.
Mr. Meles has "brought peace and eliminated the police state," a Western diplomat in Addis Ababa says. But "outside of Addis, [opposition] political party offices seem to be all closed down. The government does not want any independent, non-political associations."
In the wake of some journalists being questioned by police, "self-censorship has become the rule," says an independent Ethiopian journalist. "I wish they [the government] were a little more thick-skinned."
Chaired by Meles, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) led the final advance on Addis Ababa that overthrew the 17-year dictatorship of Mengistu Haile-Mariam in May 1991 and brought a 30-year civil war to an end. Meles became interim president, called for a national conference, and invited ethnic groups to form political parties. Most have.
In recent months, however, many opposition parties have been running into administrative roadblocks, allegedly set up by the government, such as denial of access to office space, say diplomats in Addis Ababa. Ethiopian human rights advocate Mesfin Wolde Mariam claims bank accounts of some opposition parties have been frozen.
Meaza Birru, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, denies both allegations.
But there are other indications of political tightening. Several southern parties were dismissed from the transitional government, which is dominated by the northern Tigre ethnic group, for disagreeing with state policies. The nation-wide Ethiopian Teachers Association (ETA), another source of political dissent, has been effectively neutralized in recent months with the closing of most of its offices.
Ms. Meaza says the ETA, which includes secondary school teachers, has two sets of leaders claiming to be legitimate. Mr. Mesfin counters that one, "a very, very small group," was organized by the government and has no legitimacy. The legitimate group was headed by Professor Taye Woldesmiate, Mesfin says.
Forty faculty members of the University of Addis Ababa, many of them well-known for criticizing the Meles regime, were fired in April. Leah Leatherbee, director of the Horn of Africa Program of the Fund for Peace in New York, says, "They were fired for political reasons."
Meaza, the government spokeswoman, asserts that some of the professors were dismissed because of age.
Government intolerence has apparently affected Tigreans - members of the country's dominant ethnic group - within the Meles regime. Dissident Ethiopians living in Washington claim the government has arrested about 50 Tigreans serving in government posts, possibly torturing some of them, for not supporting the party on government policies.
"The [EPRDF] has denied freedom of speech, freedom of opposition, freedom of ideas, within the party," a Tigrean living in Washington told the Monitor. A Western diplomat says the government is conducting an internal review of its officials, and that this might be what prompted such an allegation. Officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Defense, contacted by the Monitor, said they were unaware of any such arrests.
But Ms. Leatherbee of the Fund for Peace says political detention is a reality in Ethiopia. "Things are definitely closing up a bit," she says, asserting that 700 to 1,000 senior Ethiopian officials from the previous regime have been imprisoned. A Western diplomat confirms they are still detained.
Most Ethiopian dissidents today are urban elites, especially in Addis Ababa, says Abdul Mohammed, director of InterAfrica Group, a research organization in the capital.
Unlike most African governments today, the Meles administration "is basically a regime that upholds the interest of peasants," he says. The challenge of the government now is to come up with a formula that satisfies both urban and rural citizens, he says.