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Is Ethiopia’s strongman Meles Zenawi shooting in the dark?

Source: Africa Review
Is Meles Zenawi becoming paranoid? Or is he laying the ground for a new round of crackdowns on his government’s favourite targets–the media and the opposition?

Ethiopia observers were left groping for answers after the country’s prime minister recently launched into a tirade against perceived enemies, leaving no doubt that something had unhinged him.

The October 20 outburst seemed to have been inspired by the capture of Col Muammar Gaddafi just an hour before the Ethiopian premier was scheduled to address parliament.

Col Gaddafi was to be later killed sparking a global debate, but few African leaders, including Ethiopia’s premier, have made their feelings about the former Libyan leader’s fate known.

Mr Meles’ presence in parliament was to mark its first opening in the year 2004 (according to the Ethiopian calendar), but he instead used his two-and-a-half hour stay to rail against journalists, who termed vagabonds, and the opposition, who he referred to as terrorists.

The prime minister said he had evidence that the senior leadership in the main opposition party coalition, the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum–known in Amharic as Medrek, were backed by arch-foe Eritrea and were plotting terrorist acts.

“We know in our hearts that they are involved in terrorism acts. However, we are aware that this is not enough before a court of law. So we will be patient until we are certain we have enough evidence against them,” he said.

“We don’t want to ruin everything by moving hastily.”

A surprise

The fierce speech was a surprise to many given that the prime minister bestrides his country’s affairs like a colossus. The former revolutionary has been in power since 1991 and in last year May elections won a new term, taking 99.6 per cent of the vote

His ruling coalition party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front controls all but one seat in the 547-member parliament.

But despite such power, it would seem the leader of Africa’s second-most populous nation of about 83 million people is not resting easy.

About 175 people are already in jail following crackdowns this year on dissenting voices.

Ruling party supporters.

Mr Meles in his speech further threatened another round of arrests once he had the evidence to back up his claims. The earlier arrests have mainly been based on a far-reaching anti-terrorism law passed in 2009 but activated this year.

Widely criticised, the law curtails reporting on the activities of organisations labelled as terrorists, a list that includes the key opposition groupings.

The country’s parliament designated three armed opposition groups–the Oromo Liberation Front(OLF), Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Ginbot-7 as terrorist organisations, classifying them in the same category as Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab.

Vaguely worded and prescribing heavy penalties and jail terms, human rights groups have said that it is subject to subjective interpretation and it tailored at muzzling critical media.

“This latest outburst by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is part of a systematic campaign to use allegations of terrorism to wipe out critical journalism in Ethiopia. The smear campaign by state media contributes to the climate of fear,” said media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists East Africa Consultant, Tom Rhodes.

“Through this intimidation of the private press, Ethiopia is sacrificing its legitimacy as a democratic government,” said Mr Rhodes.

‘Not journalism’

Since the Arab Spring started, the Meles government has arrested more than 175 people, mainly opposition party members but also including six journalists.

Two Swedish journalists captured without proper documentation in eastern Ethiopia in September on terrorism charges remain in jail. “This is not journalism, such journalists are vagabonds and messengers of terrorists,” Mr Meles was quoted on the two journalists.

Ethiopia’s private media churns out only 40,000 copies of newspaper every week, while only two critical papers remain in the market. But with Mr Meles’ capacity for criticism seemingly decreasing, their future is unclear.

Two reporters of the Awrambe Times are in jail on terrorism charges while the other independent newspaper, Fiteh, is not sure about its fate. Bosses of the two outlets have already expressed their concerns over this and have called for solidarity in the face of government criticism.

In supreme control: Zenawi

The country’s opposition has been divided since the controversial 2005 election, with some moderates remaining at home hoping to challenge Mr Meles peacefully. Others are in exile and have set their sights on all means of struggle to bring change to Ethiopia.

Since the Arab uprisings the OLF, ONLF and Ginbot-7 have reportedly been exploring ways of working together. “The negotiations are underway and we hope that we will have a united front soon,” said Mr Andargachew Tisige, the secretary general of the exiled Ginbot-7, which favours armed struggle.

“We have a common agenda with the other opposition and there is no better way than a collaboration.”

Simmering discontent

While such talks may have spooked Mr Meles, it would appear that he may also have been trying to deflect criticism of his government’s policies.

While the country’s economy has been one of the fastest growing on the continent at an average of eight per cent every year, the benefits of this expansion have failed to trickle down to ordinary citizens.

Key indicators, such as aid dependence and inflation, which at about 40 per currently in one of the highest in Africa, have anchored murmurs of general discontent.

Unemployment, increasing inequality and deep-rooted poverty have chilled Ethiopians’ sentiment toward the government, despite the goodwill generated by the slew of big infrastructure projects that dot the countryside.

But Mr Meles remains in supreme control, propped by the large army and a vast intelligence network in the hands of loyal tribesmen.

Western government backing despite criticism of his human rights record has also served to strengthen his hand, with the US recently opening a drone air base in southern Ethiopia. Critics charge that his undeniable intellect and oratory skills have blinded them to his patchy rights record.

But with popular disobedience becoming an easy tool to overthrow regimes, it would appear that the Ethiopian strongman is not taking any chances. The warning to his opponents has been quite clear.

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