January 13, 2009

ETHIOPIA: Political Space Narrowing

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 viable.

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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