[dehai-news] (IPS) ETHIOPIA: Political Space Narrowing

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From: Biniam Tekle (biniamt@dehai.org)
Date: Mon Jan 12 2009 - 15:05:48 EST

ETHIOPIA: Political Space Narrowing
By Michael Chebsi

*ADDIS ABABA, Jan 12 (IPS) - Bertukan Mideksa has a reputation in Ethiopia
as a competent politician, but voters will not be able to cast ballots for
her in the next national election. The revocation of her 2007 pardon has
sent a chill through Ethiopia's opposition parties.*

After the 2005 elections, opposition protests against irregularities in the
polls were followed by violent clashes in the streets. More than 100
opposition leaders were arrested. Mideksa was charged with treason, outrage
against the constitution, inciting armed rebellion and more.

She spent two years in jail before being convicted and sentenced to life in
prison in July 2007 along with 34 others. They were immediately pardoned by
President Girma W. Giorgis; the government announced that they had requested
a pardon and expressed remorse for their wrongdoings.

But while on tour in Europe in November 2008, Mideksa denied making a
request for state pardon for the post-election violence. And on her return
to Ethiopia, she told Unity for Democracy and Justice party adherents that
her release from jail was the result of political negotiations, not
government sympathy.

The Ethiopian government responded furiously with an ultimatum demanding
that she categorically retract her claims within three days or face
revocation of the pardon.

"I have yet to compose my thoughts, and make a decision," Mideksa told IPS
in a telephone interview in Addis Ababa on Dec 28, just a day before she was
sent to a federal prison.

*Worrying sign for opposition*

Her re-arrest has caused great indignation among opposition politicians who
have condemned the act as part of a familiar pre-election strategy by the
ruling party to intimidate its opponents ahead of elections scheduled for
May 2010.

Mideksa is not the only opposition politician to be thrown in jail of late.
On Oct. 30, the federal police commission arrested Bekele Jirata, the
secretary general of another opposition party, the Oromo Federalist
Democratic Movement. He is accused of having a clandestine links to the
rebel group Oromo Libration Front (OLF).

Opposition politicians are worried that the signal sent by these arrests
will reinforce those who think peaceful political change in Ethiopia is not

After their release in 2007, Mideksa and Dr. Berhanu Nega, at the time
mayor-elect of Addis Ababa, debated this question. Nega came out of prison
believing that armed struggle is the only way to attain political power in
Ethiopia. Mideksa resisted the idea vehemently. Nega is now in the United
States heading Ginbot 7, a new political party.

In an opinion piece published in the largest Amharic weekly Addis Neger, in
reaction to the government's ultimatum, it was argued that the government's
actions would make Nega feel vindicated.

"The government is totally reducing us to nothing," says Professor Beyene
Petros, opposition MP and chairman of the United Ethiopian Democratic
Forces. "The ruling party that first assumed power with a coup is indirectly
telling the opposition to follow suit; that gaining power through the ballot
box is impossible."

The veteran politician sees a country sliding backwards in terms of creating
a competitive political landscape. "The door that was half opened in the
2005 election is now fully closed," he said.

Petros is not the only opposition leader who has gloomy picture of what has
to come. Engineer Gizachew Shiferaw, deputy chairman of Mideksa's UDJ,
shares his concern. "The arrest of Mideksa is a clear sign of intimidation,"
he told IPS. "We will only participate in the upcoming election if it is
free and fair."

The incarceration of the mother of one has exacerbated the existing
political impasse between the opposition and the government with officials
bashing critics. The opposition insists her arrest is part of a plan by the
ruling party to create a single party supremacy in the country, shunning a
multi-party system.

The government rejects opposition claims that the ruling party is sabotaging
multi-party government.

"Her arrest is legal and not political," says the Justice Ministry.

But the decision of several prominent leaders of Ethiopia's opposition to
remain outside the country indicates fading belief that peaceful opposition
will bear fruit. Many of those who remain in the country expect very little
from national elections next year.

The fear is that a growing number may instead consider following the route
of armed struggle as taken up by the OLF years ago.


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