As winter begins, an African Spring heats up

December 8, 2011

By John Lloyd
The opinions expressed are his own.

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.

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.

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


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perhaps instead spring in the USA?

Posted by kordo | Report as abusive

Who is John Lloyd again??? Complete Nonsense! Full of lies carbon copied from the useless, undemocratic, desperate few vocal opposition.

In the past, you were dreaming of Rose/Orange/Avocado revolution for Ethiopia – it never worked. You are now dreaming of Arab Spring/Stream/River/ …it will never work! Just keep dreaming…

Posted by SolomonT | Report as abusive

REVOLUTION sweeps away a hated tyrant, unleashing a joyous jumble of hopes. Amid the cacophony a faint but steady drumbeat grows louder. Soon the whole country marches to this rhythm. Those who fall out of step find themselves shunted aside or trampled underfoot, sacrificed to the triumph of an idea that many exalt as noble but no one can define. It happened in Ethiopia when the mighty king of kings Hile Selasse, was deposed in massive uprising that shook the country and lead to the harsh reality of a barbaric military dictatorship. It happened in Iran when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini steered a broad uprising against the shah into a grimly Islamist cul-de-sac. It will also happen in Egypt, Syria, Libya as the Arab spring turn to a winter of discontent.

These is real politick, where if the ground is not ready nor fertile, no matter how hard you try you will end up with crushed dreams that will turn a promising and idealistic start to an even bleaker future. Today, Ethiopian politics is filled to the brim with people who were major actors during the red terror era. This is true in both sides, opposition and ruling elites. Unless and otherwise, these people are willingly or forcefully sidelined. Expecting change to come from these same people with a damaged or perverted sociological makeup is like buying an ox expecting to milk it.

My advice to my fellow Ethiopians living in Ethiopia is to learn from history and choose to put pragmatism before idealism. To never ever listen to any voices from the Diaspora but listen to anyone who choose to practice what they preach, ranging from Eskinder Nega to Meles Zenawi. Above all to make sure to never lose the hard gained peace and security of the country. Otherwise, there will come a day when we will look back in envy to these times and like a Somali, say what did we do to us?

Posted by ThinkFood | Report as abusive

Thanks to the western aid money that is sponsoring Tyranny Melse government to brutalized Ethiopian for such a long period.

Posted by Beka2011 | Report as abusive

The writer is a very biased one. He copied almost all of his ideas from the facebook campaign which some diaspora extremists call ‘Beka’ to mean enough. The writer stated that people in Ethiopia don’t know about the north Africa spring, and this is very false. Of course, there is no wide spread of internet connection, but everyone was watching the events on Television. There is some economical problem in Ethiopia for sure, but the biggest thing is difference in ideology and politics. Most of these few diaspora extremists like Dr.Brhanu don’t really care about the people, but about to win their ideology over the ruling party. Power in Ethiopia was controlled by feudalistic Haileselassie, and and them by Mengestu (dictator) before the current government toppled latter and introduced Federalism in country. This is not acceptable by these few individuals who seem to worry about the lack of freedom and democracy in Ethiopia. The reality is political difference and interest for power are the two focus of the people who are calling for revolution to happen in Ethiopia. They are even working with the Eritrean government (which is an enemy of Ethiopia) in the pretext of fighting for freedom and democracy in Ethiopia. The reality is that Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic country, and the only way that can keep them together is the federal system. As for the writer, he should have seen things both ways before writing all this from the extreme opposition only.

Posted by Bekele | Report as abusive

An outburst of public anger is inevitable in Ethiopia, and just like elsewhere no one knows how, when or where it will start. What we know however is that the drivers for a revolution exist: sky rocketing living costs, lack of political freedom and leadership that’s is surrounded by sycophants that tell it what it wants to hear and as a result is disconnected from the people, corruption, ethnic discriminations, and enormous wealth of the political elite groups.

For those that crow the economy has been growing, ask yourself who has benefited from it. Ethiopia today is filled with polar opposites whereby some can barely afford to eat 3 meals a day, while politically connected elite flaunt their wealth in the fanciest of cars. Three quarters of our population was born or joined the workforce during the reign of Emperor Meles and he is currently having his feeding his lions prime meat while the population starves.

It is never too late to change and make amends, save our country the price of a revolution and change before the people force you to change.

The dictator Meles has gun and the people have voices.

My advice to Dictator Meles: The Ethiopian spring is coming to your door step and you cannot do anything about it other than killing inocents like you did in 2005. Time is up.

Posted by EthioMekuria | Report as abusive

The comment by :ThinkFood: is interesting. It sounds genuine and independent but for the dire warning not to hear from any Diaspora or Meles? The fact that you compare the Diaspora or a jailed journalist with Meles is a dead giveaway or you are a bit naive. It is however not unexpected how fast the current Ethiopian regime’s propaganda machinery has moved into high gear to quash the above reporting. It is in fact an accurate description of events that are taking place in the country. Many radical changes started in tepid, seemingly disorganized resistance of individuals whose efforts were often dismissed as futile. But as it has been proven time and again, in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and now Syria; the time will come when the ferocity of a cruel dictatorship fails to stem the tide of change.
The Melese regime may pride itself in assembling an ethnically pure Tigrean Army which will not hesitate killing tens of thousands or protesters. This is what feeds the arrogance of the ruling regime in Ethiopia. Meles’ young Tigrean cadres & secret Eritrean mercenaries may massacre thousands, but in the end they will not be able to kill every one. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Tigreans does not have freedom of expression and cannot vote for any other party except the current one in power. They live in fear of two things; Meles’ own secret service constantly on the lookout for the slightest bit of critical opinion or outright opposition or what inevitably will come; a massive genocide of Oromo, Gurage, Amhara, Sidama, etc by Melese and his party IN THE NAME OF TIGRAI. The previous writer warns of chaos a-la Somalia. The better analogy may be Rwanda. Like Melese and his party; the Hutus were so filled with power they had no desire or interest in sharing the ruling of the country with the Tutsi. Without going into much detail here, decades later, things had changed and the shoe was on the other foot with the Tutsi in power. If opposition groups or individuals during an uprising were afraid to go forward because of a potential adverse outcome, not one of the dictators listed by ThinFood will have been toppled. Long before this happens in Ethiopia, Meles and his cronies will have left for some foreign country to enjoy the billions they have made for themselves and leave the Tigrai peoples, the original Ethiopians, holding the bag and this proud old African country even poorer if that is possible. It is in these difficult times that the true test of the Ethiopians will be manifested. Will the Ethnic groups understand how Tigreans have been as much a victim of this regime as the rest of the country and heal the wounds and form a united government? I believe so. Especially if some of the Tigrians join the fight against dictatorship. For freedom of speech and assembly. Against confiscation of property without due cause or hearing. For private property rights. I will bet with the Ethiopians, they will come together and disprove the naysayers. Rwanda will not be repeated in Ethiopia. But time is running out.

Posted by yamitulu | Report as abusive