Ethiopian opposition leader takes fight abroad

By Timothy Gardner / september 6, 2007

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The man who was elected mayor of Addis Ababa said he is not sure whether he can hold public demonstrations there, so he is visiting the United States and Europe seeking support for a new era of democracy in Ethiopia.

"It is very difficult to know what it means to be engaged in political struggles in Ethiopia," Berhanu Nega, deputy chairman of Ethiopian opposition party Coalition for Unity and Democracy, or CUD, told Reuters in an interview in New York. "Can you organize demonstrations, can you organize discussions? All this is not answered."

Nega won the mayoral race of the capital city in 2005, but was jailed in November of that year after a government crackdown on a protest about the general elections where at least 193 civilians and six police officers died.

The elections, the freest yet in Ethiopia, had raised hopes of democracy after decades of feudalism and dictatorship.

Now Sub-Saharan Africa's second most populous country after Nigeria awaits to see whether the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the CUD will reconcile, or if there will be more authoritarian rule.

After Nega's release nearly two years later in July, Zenawi said Nega and other CUD members who had won seats in parliament and Addis Ababa's city council would be free to run for office in the future.

But Nega said it's too early to tell whether he will run in any future election.

"Most of the institutions that are necessary for democratic order don't seem to be operating right now," he said, adding that Ethiopia's judiciary, security forces, and election boards were all under control of Zenawi. SERIOUS PROBLEMS

He said the government has so far reneged on the release agreement, facilitated by traditional elders, that CUD leaders would meet with the government and third party negotiators on how to broaden democratic institutions. "Clearly what's at stake, so long as the bitter disagreement continues, is that it keeps the country from addressing its really serious problems such as overpopulation, looming famine, soil erosion and flooding," said Donald Levine, an expert on Ethiopia at the University of Chicago.

Until CUD knows whether it can hold public forums, it is meeting internally and working with the international community to raise support, said Nega, who this week will address academics at The New School for Social Research in New York, where he studied for an economics degree.

In addition, Nega will lead a delegation of fellow opposition members, who were also jailed after the protest, to visit New York, Washington, and Atlanta. For about a month they will visit Ethiopians who have relocated to the United States. He hopes the delegation will also meet with members of U.S. Congress and officials at the State Department to urge them to look closely at the Zenawi administration. The longer it takes for the government and the CUD to come together, the greater chance violence could spread through the country from places such as the remote Ogaden region where the government is leading a crackdown on rebels, he said. "If we don't fill the political space in this discussion with the commitment to settle this impasse peacefully, then these other forces are going to be the ones (the) government has to deal with," he said.