The newly elected leader of Ethiopia's largest opposition group says his party faces a monumental task in trying to unseat what he calls "dictators" bent on silencing dissent. The party held leadership elections even as some of its top officials are being tried on terrorism charges.
Hundreds of regional party leaders clapped in approval as former Ethiopian president Negasso Gidada was elected head of Unity for Democracy and Justice, the largest faction of the Medrek (Forum) opposition coalition. The election was the first since former UDJ leader Birtukan Mideksa fled into exile earlier this year after being freed from prison, where she had been serving a life sentence.
Negasso's acceptance speech was sober, free of the celebration that often accompanies victory. He called for the release of Andualem Arage and Natnael Mekonnen, two rising stars in the party who are on trial in federal court on terrorism charges. They, along with journalist Eskinder Nega, face the death penalty if convicted.
Negasso called on Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's ruling party to open up political space for opposition parties to operate freely. In a VOA interview, he charged that while publicly advocating democracy, the ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front, the EPRDF, is intent on suppressing dissent and creating a one-party state.
“The system is from the old communist, it is the Marxist-Leninist way of thinking, and that is why we see, for example, that it is working with the Chinese Communist Party, because they have the same kind of belief. Therefore, it's a character of EPRDF to say it is the only one which is correct and it has to lead.”
Negasso said the current system makes it impossible for the opposition to win elections. He said the only hope for changing the government is through peaceful struggle.
“We have seen dictators cannot exist forever. We have seen that," said Negasso. "At one time, the people will say no. It may not happen this year, or after two years or so, but at some time the people will be angry and will stand up. That's what is going to happen.”
Negasso expressed particular concern about what he called a trend to use the state-run media to demonize opposition groups. He pointed to a recent three-part series on state television called Akeldama, or Land of Blood. The program suggested that UDJ leaders such as Andualem and Natnael were using their political work as a cover for terrorist activities linked to the outlawed Ginbot Seven party.
“Even if they had connection with Ginbot Seven, which the government thinks is terrorist, what the program did was accuse people as criminals and then try to prove what it says by bringing fake evidences, and giving judgment," he said. "People who are accused are innocent until proven by the court. What the program did is a big violation of the constitution.”
Government spokesman Shimeles Kemal, a former prosecutor, said the purpose of the Akeldama series was to warn citizens about the threat of terrorism. In a phone interview, Shimeles said opposition groups have been warned to guard against terrorist infiltrators.
“Medrek and some of its member party organizations have made themselves vulnerable to get infiltrated by terrorist elements," he said. "And the police have time and again advised these organizations to check through their own internal recruiting criteria as well as internal mechanisms so as to sift out infiltrators from their local members.”
Shimeles defended the decision to air Akeldama at a time when Andualem, Natnael and Eskinder are on trial, facing the death penalty. He said the government's Anti-Terrorism Task Force has a duty to disclose its activities to the public, adding “This is perfectly in accord with any democratic practice, including in the United States."