African business, politics and lifestyle
Will democracy work in Ethiopia?
Six Ethiopian opposition parties have joined forces to go up against the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in next year’s parliamentary elections, but their chances of bringing change look slim at best and they complain of heavy-handed tactics by the ruling party.
The foremost opposition figure in Africa’s second most populous country, Birtukan Mideksa, a 34-year-old former judge, has been in solitary confinement since December. She was jailed after the first democratic poll in 2005, which ended in rioting that was bloodily suppressed, was pardoned in 2007 and rearrested last year after renouncing the terms of her pardon.
Bekele Jirata, a top official from another party, recently spent four months in prison after being accused of working with rebels from the Oromo region, though he is now out on bail.
The government dismisses as “baseless” opposition accusations that political activity is restricted.
“The political space is continually widening,” Bereket Simon, the government’s head of information, told me recently.
Meles points to achievements such as a reduction in infant mortality to 123 deaths for every 1,000 births from 166 in just five years. A programme to help seven million Ethiopians who regularly suffer from food shortages is meant to ensure the catastrophic famine of the mid-1980s is never repeated. Meles is a key regional friend of Washington and sent forces into Somalia to fight Islamists in late 2006, only withdrawing this year.
But Western allies and donors are frustrated by what they see as the restrictions on democracy. Human rights groups have lambasted a new law that restricts groups that get outside funding from working on issues of democracy, human rights or criminal justice. The government says only Ethiopians should be involved in Ethiopian politics.
So is the ruling party restricting its rivals unfairly to ensure it keeps power or trying to protect an emerging democracy in a volatile part of the world?
Picture: Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi speaks to Reuters in 2007. Andrew Heavens/Reuters