Meles Zenawi's threat against opposition parties

By Eskinder Nega / April 9, 2011
A respectable crowd gathered to listen to him in a popular café in the middle of Piazza on Tuesday, March 15, 2011. They usually do, about once every three months, when he appears on televised sessions of Parliament. But this is hardly an assemblage in anticipation of a grand or an important speech. The irremediable draw is the battle of wills that ensues with fleeting looks, embroidered smiles and exchanges of pained or delighted expressions between his supporters and detractors.

The unwritten law is that no words are to be exchanged in support or disapproval of his speech. This is strictly a duel by body language and facial expressions. If something particularly meaningful to either side is uttered, an intermittent grunt is tolerated. In the end, both sides settle their bills, get up and walk out manifestly pretending that nothing had happened.

Welcome to freedom of expression in the land of the oppressed: stressed Ethiopia, where this article could not be read.

The setting: Ethiopia’s rubber-stamp parliament, where the opposition has only one seat in a 547-seat chamber.

The chief actor: besieged Meles Zenawi, who has been in power for twenty years, and still has four more official years to go. (Beware: “I love this job!” he has told the nation at his last press conference.)

He was universally ignored when he read his prepared speech. At least in this regard his supporters and detractors blended in perfect harmony. The hush came with the start of the question and answer session.

Would the PM kindly comment on the imprisonment of opposition members and the Grand Millennium Dam? Has the government altered its policy on Eritrea? And more questions on the economy.

Mumbled conversations drown the responses on the economy. No excitement to be expected there. When he spoke of the recent arrest of opposition members, however, an uneasy tension hangs in the air. There was none of the usual glee of his supporters.

Sixty-eight members of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) and 40 members of the Oromo People’s Congress (OPC), both members of the largest legal opposition coalition, Medrek, have been arrested since the beginning of March 2011. Amongst the detained, according to HRW, “are former members of Parliament and former candidates for election.”

The opposition claims 200 arrests but the government admits to only 121, which it insists are all being held under court orders. The detention of the remaining 79 under the notorious Anti-Terrorism Law may explain the government’s disquieting silence, which allows custody for up to four months without charge.

“They are members of the OLF,” said Meles. “They were using the legal opposition as a cover, perhaps with the complicity of the parties,” charged Meles ominously. “We will prove this in a court of law, which ought to provide the public with proof of how (the legal opposition)is at least being used as a cover,” he winded down somewhat pathetically.(Practically no one believes in the independence of the courts, including most government supporters.)

He also had harsh words for UDJ, another member of Medrek, whose two most visible leaders, Seye Abraha and Negasso Gidada, were once senior government officials who were purged (the former illegally) from the ruling party.

Meles, who savors nothing more than occasionally propping up his security services in public, had made it part of a calculated, primed statement this time. “I would like to warn members of Mederk,” he said with an intentional pause for effect here, “particularly Andinet (UDJ),” another pause, “to be very careful about inciting a hybrid of violence and terror. This is a government with many eyes and ears,” the words are now being delivered with marked pride, “it is able to see and hear thoroughly. Be very careful, you will pay the price,” a forceful finish.

There is creepy silence in the café now. There is no movement from either side. The tension is too much for the silent contest today. All eyes are rather transfixed on the TV.

His responses on Eritrea and the Grand Millennium Dam, two issues he is frantically promoting to deflect attention from sporadic but persistent calls for democracy, were followed with no less rapt attention.

On Eritrea there was an embarrassing retreat from the emotional bluff of a full fledged war. The new policy is “proportional response,” delivered with far less gusto than the “regime change with military action” he had vowed only three weeks ago. Common sense prevails, after all, perhaps with a little bit of propping from the international community.

(I will address his response on the Grand Millennium Dam in a separate article.)

There is considerable credence to UDJ’s claim that it is the most plausible successor to the CUD, the star performer of the 2005 elections. The core of its influential leadership were at one point leading members of the CUD. Most of them were imprisoned in 2005, subsequently convicted of attempts to overthrow the government, sentenced to life imprisonment, and then released under a conditional Presidential pardon in late 2007. The qualification stipulates that the pardon will be revoked if they are “ever to act in contravention to the Constitutional order.”

In a premeditated move to discourage dissent, the government revoked the pardon of Birtukan Mideksa in 2009 under the flimsiest of pretexts. The repercussion of Birtukan’s imprisonment on UDJ was simply devastating. The inability of the party to respond to EPRDF’s blatant provocation with mass protests, as many had predicated, went on to symbolize the weakness of the opposition. The beleaguered leaders of UDJ were soon disoriented. Moral plummeted amidst the grassroots. And thus the EPRDF eloquently underscored its intended message: its dominant position is unassailable!

But with the protests in the Middle East serving as a backdrop, EPRDF’s aura of invincibility is now unavoidably being questioned seriously. And Meles seems to be flirting with the possibility of refurbishing that image with more provocations against UDJ, perhaps calculating that the party is still not strong enough to trigger immediate protests.

I seriously doubt whether Meles’ Machiavellian design would have the same effect it once had. Ethiopians have changed forever since the North African uprisings, not only in how they perceive the EPRDF but also in how they will relate with their future governments. They have discovered new prospects to a peaceful transition to democracy. The thinking of the international community has also changed radically. The support of EPRDF’s international partners could not be taken for granted anymore. What has not changed is Meles’ thinking. He still romanticizes a world which broadly tolerates repression, a world in which he is always the winner. He is destined to fail.

The future lies with the blackmailed opposition, however vulnerable to bullying they may seem now. And in the grand perspective of things, that is what really matters most.

The end.

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