As winter begins, an African Spring heats up

By John Lloyd / December 9, 2011
Ethiopia Will Prevail Photo: The shadow of a supporter of Ethiopia’s Unity for Democracy and Justice party (UDJ) is seen through an Ethiopian flag during a demonstration in the capital Addis Ababa, April 16, 2009. REUTERS/Irada Humbatova

The Arab Spring’s effects continue to ripple outward. As Tahrir Square fills once more, it gains new momentum. For months now, the autocrats of Africa have feared it would move south, infecting their youth in often-unemployed, restless areas.

That fear has come to the ancient civilization of Ethiopia, the second-most populous state (after Nigeria) in Africa. There, since June, the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has cracked down hard on dissidents, opposition groups and, above all, journalists, imprisoning some and forcing others into exile.

The latest refugee is Dawit Kebede, managing editor of one of the few remaining independent papers, the Awramba Times. Kebede, who won an award for freedom from the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists last year, fled to the U.S. last month after he received a tip off that he was about to be arrested.

Also in the past month, apparently reliable reports have circulated of a teacher in his late twenties, Yenesew Gebre, who burnt himself alive in protest against political repression in his home town of Dawra, in the south of the country. It has also been reported, by sources who spoke to the opposition satellite station, ESAT, based in the US, that Gebre had been dismissed from his teaching post because of his political views.

The move recalls the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi – another young man in his twenties – in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia in January this year, a catalyst for the protests there and elsewhere in the spring. The parallel is being widely made in oppositionist sites and media.

One of the oppositionists in exile is a journalist who, with others, founded a newspaper in October 2007, named Addis Neger. It was tolerated for two years, then closed down in December 2009. The founders, fearing arrest, left the country: Abiye Teklemariam came to the UK, where I spoke with him.

“The self immolation of Yenesew Gebre is an extraordinary thing,” he said. “The more so since it’s absolutely not in the tradition of Ethiopia to take one’s own life like this. It is an expression of how far people are prepared to go, how frustrated they are. Part of the problem is that the foreign states who give aid – like the United States and the United Kingdom – don’t seem to care. The government now says that because it has strong growth, civil rights must suffer. And the foreign donors have accepted that: so there is no pressure on the regime.”

Ethiopia isn’t, for the most part, like the Arab states who rose in different kind of revolts this past year. It’s bigger than most – with a population of some 82 million it’s slightly bigger than Egypt – and though still poor, it’s been growing strongly in the past decade. It also has a parliament with elections and opposition parties, which have had seats in the parliament.

In the 2005 elections, the opposition groups won about one third of the parliament’s 546 seats. After that, however, oppositionists say there was a massive crackdown on the opposition, who engaged in widespread protests against what they saw as rigged elections. Some 200 people died in these protests, mostly at the hands of the security forces.

Among the biggest political victims of the crackdown was Dr. Berhanu Nega, an academic and businessman, who was elected mayor of the capital, Addis Ababa, and whose party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, achieved just under 20 percent of the vote in the national election. With other leaders of his party, he was imprisoned, released in 2007 and fled to the US. There he has created an opposition party in exile, Ginbot 7, which calls for a revolutionary overthrow of the government of Prime Minister Zenawi, who has led the country since August 1995.

In the last elections, in May 2010, the government claimed over 99 percent of the parliamentary seats for its main party, the Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front, and its allies. Zenawi, in a public address after the poll, said any repeat of the 2005 protests would not be tolerated. Ginbot 7, and other oppositionist groups, have been labeled as terrorists: Nega has been sentenced to death in absentia.

The Ethiopian government was asked, through its embassy in London, for a response to charges of repression, but they declined to comment.

Let the new march start afresh "Let the incoherent activities end. Let the petty bickering stop. And let Ethiopians unite against poverty, hunger, corruption, injustice, discrimination, humiliation…in their own country. Let the new march start afresh"Abebe Gellaw

I called Ephraim Madebo, spokesman for Ginbot 7, who is based in New York, to ask him if there was any possibility of a rapprochement between the many oppositionist groups and the government, so that open elections might take place. He said that “there is no chance whatsoever. They are using laws, especially the media law and the anti-terrorist law introduced after 2005 to put their enemies in jail or drive them to exile. You cannot win democratically against the government. People must rise against it. And the government knows something is coming. They just don’t know when”.

One of the outstanding opponents of the regime is Eskinder Nega (no relation to Dr. Nega), a US-educated journalist and newspaper publisher, who was imprisoned with his wife after the 2005 elections. His wife gave birth to his son in prison, though she and the child were later released. Eskinder, however, remains in prison. According to Madebo in New York, he has issued calls for Ethiopians to “fight like the people have done in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Libya”.

In London, Teklemariam has also been labeled as a terrorist – though unlike Ginbot 7, he opposes any use of violence against the regime – and he has been told that Ethiopia will ask the UK to extradite him (the two countries have no extradition treaty, so that is unlikely to happen). He’s less optimistic than Madebo: he says that “the space for collective action is very limited – even though it is growing, if slowly.”

Teklemariam thinks that, as in the Arab states, the internet and the social media networks are crucial to the development of a widespread movement – but Ethiopia lacks both. The net is largely confined to the capital, and social media users are few: in large part, he says, because the government ensures that connections are very slow and often dysfunctional.

The Ethiopian elite is small and badly served by communication, but Teklemariam says that “it really matters in Ethiopia. So the government has to make it hard for them to communicate. There was very little access to news about the Arab Spring.”

You can see why some African governments want to suppress news of the revolts in the north. Their transplantation south, and their even partial success, means loss of power, loss of wealth – or even, if it comes to outright conflict, loss of life (the jerky videos of the last minutes of Gadaffi’s life are a hideous toxin for all autocrats). Ethiopia’s rulers have sought a prophylactic against such radicalism in preventative arrests, seeking to neutralize all those who might lead or give shape to dissent.

But Gaddaffi’s end spells a lesson other than suppression. It is to allow and encourage the growth of democratic habits and freer speech. For one of the few hopeful signs in this doom-laden world is that suppression now works badly, for shorter periods, and that a democratic opening may find men and women willing to make it work. As we enter winter, spring may come again.