Zenawi turns its critics into untouchables – Zoe Alsop and Nick Wadhams, Special to The Globe and Mail

July 27th, 2007 Print Print Email Email

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. (more…)

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.”

  1. kok
    | #1

    DR. Merera is a committed polititians, i especillly love his verbal reactions he used to provide for devilish acts of TPLF. Atleast,he speaks directly without fear when he get the opportunity. The only two individuals in the parlament who directly oppose TPLF are Dr merera and Bulcha demekisa.

    Dr. merera, I appreciate your effort, please continue to show the reality to the world. don’t give up.

  2. kendie
    | #2

    Ato Beyene Petros and Prof. Merera Guidina, do you know the saying ” YEWEDEDUT KITA SETET BLO WETA ”
    You guys went to so called parliament in support to the worst dictator of all the time, the world never witnessed a dictators selling the country he ruled piece by piece, Melesse doing it even as we read this, you very well placed to know that, you gave him the legitimacy that he badly needed by going in his rubber stamp parliament and also you made sure to stay on your personal pay roll,pretty smart move. Gentlemen you should know better that leading people also require paying some sacrifices. Today what makes you different from the opportunist and traitors’ ato Lidetu? Please your time is up, go to teaching and helep the younger generation making sure to tell them your Owen mistakes and how to be good leaders in any level of the society.
    No hard feeling gentlemen, mistakes are human but recognize its own mistake is also another form of sacrifice and greatly benefit the people and country you love.

    Thank you

  3. adie
    | #3

    Dr.Merara you said good things but did bad things.you have been an instrument for Meles when our people and heroes were in prison. Any way thank you for that, at least you said something against this devil regime.
    now you hav a chance to do something since the devil is there if you and your followers are realy still suffering from this ugly regime.
    Long live Ethiopia
    God bless our Golden heroes

  4. Shumet Menywab
    | #4

    So what can you say to Prof. Gudina who believes he can challenge Meles in the parliament and bring more change to his people. I am not blaming the Professer to continue believing what he believes but I am blaming Meles for what he says to his fund supporters, the West, is different than what he does to the opposition group whom he claims are doing well in his democracy. What Mr. Gudina and Petros do is to stay fighting the Meles regime in the Parliament for whatever time it takes for Mr. Meles to willingly convince himself one day he will feel the peoples’ suffering and decide to resign himself from power. Some how some way, Meles needs to be asked ‘if you do this good to your people, you will remain to stay in the government, other wise, you are no good to your people so it is enough’. When peaceful struggle is being pushed by a government security forces forcefully to the side, the consequence of one’s society security is paramountly high. This is why the ‘Shimagles’ are intervining to control the situation and trying hard to bring everyone to a reconciliation. One must be wise to take this advantage and stop political confrontation. Ethiopians shall evercome their differences through reconciliation and live in true democracy!

  5. Sol Getaneh
    | #5

    I agree with Kinde comment 100 %, thank you.

    Dr. Beyene Petros & Merara Gudina betrayed the Ethiopians not only once but twice. The first time when they said nothing when Eritrea separated from Ethiopia, second time when they decided to join the Weyane parlama when the whole country advised them not to join. Therefore, you are a politically dead animals atleast for now and please go teachig !!

  6. Korratu
    | #6

    After learning what prof. Gudina said (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.”) i am very curious to know as to why he and Dr. P Beyene joined the parliament. I do not believe they did this to save them selves from prison. I am afraid to say that both of you did let us down.

  7. Tigist
    | #7

    I agree with Korratu’s assessment. If Prof. Gudina and Petros have nothing do in Parliament, why waste their time. Getting in Parliament only gives an impression that there is a Democratic government in Ethiopia. The good thing is at this point the whole world knows Meles for how he really is. However, there is no doubt that Prof. Gudian and Petros’s decision to join the Meles parliament helped Meles a bit to survive the uprising in Ethiopia.

  8. | #8

    wedeshe ketedefashe biregetushe ayekefashe dr you disereve what you get .face the music

  9. | #9

    Surprisingly, Dr. Merara and Dr. Beyene have been in some way supporting TPLF totalitarian regime. Melles uses the participation of opposition parties (UEDP) for his propaganda. But both of them (Beyene and Merara) do not bring solid impact for the current struggle rather they are dragging the struggle. I do not know why they would like to participate in the parliament. In one-way-or another TPLF regime is benefited. Despite the fact that I do have very great respect for both individuals, they did not have any noticeable challenges for the past years.

    “We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” Abigail Adams

    God bless Ethiopia

  10. Desta
    | #10

    I do have respect for both professors as they are educated and are potential opponents.However, I do not think that they understood what they benefit Meles and how they retard the move towards change. If you chose to be a poletician you have no choice but following what your people are craving for. “Ethiopians crave for change”

  11. cara
    | #11

    he is and was and will be like his creator MESON
    a ” mehal sefari ” noting more and notig less.

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