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Ethiopian Turmoil Six Months After General Election

Six months after Ethiopia’s general election, the state continues to punish those who question the results, which returned Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to power. Clashes in June and November between Ethiopian authorities and protesters have killed more than 85 people.

The crackdown began amid clashes between security forces and opposition supporters who accused the Prime Minister of rigging the polls in May. Authorities have closed most private newspapers, jailed local journalists, and detained family members of journalists in hiding. They have threatened to charge both opposition leaders and journalists with treason, a capital offense. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who used to be regarded as one of Africa’s most democratic rulers, now accuses the private press and foreign media of fanning the violence.

Ethiopian journalist Ayenew Hailesalassie said considerable confusion continues to surround the results of the May election. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, he says ordinary citizens believe the opposition won the election, while the government insists it won. However, there is “no way to know the truth.” He added that many people would like to see the ruling party and opposition leaders begin negotiations. According to Mr. Hailesalassie, the tense political situation has affected virtually every journalist in Ethiopia, making it extremely to remain neutral.

The United States deplores the political violence in Ethiopia and has urged all parties to avoid actions that could incite violence. In early November, U.S. and European Union ambassadors called on all sides to abide by the rule of law. And they urged the government to release all political detainees and called for an independent investigation into the deaths and injuries arising from the events in June and November. In addition they urged a reopening of political dialogue. Tamrat Giorgis, managing editor of Fortune, a weekly business newspaper in Addis Ababa, said he welcomes Washington’s support, but thinks it may be too late for talks. However, he said he hopes those who have been jailed will receive an “open, independent, speedy, and fair trial.”

Richard Cockett, Africa editor of Britain’s Economist magazine, agrees. He noted that the Meles government has ignored European and American calls for the release of detainees, an independent investigation, and the reopening of political dialogue. And he questioned what the West could do to put pressure on Mr. Meles, except for withholding economic aid to Ethiopia, which he described as a “pretty blunt instrument.”

The internal political situation in Ethiopia has been compounded by a border dispute with Eritrea. Last week Eritrea rejected a UN Security Council resolution, which threatened sanctions against both countries if they use force to settle their dispute. Ayenew Hailesalassie said people in Ethiopia fear a return to the border war of 1998 to 2000, which killed 70,000 people. And Richard Cockett noted both regimes have serious domestic problems and described their behavior as a classic way to divert attention from those problems by uniting their people behind a national cause by “fighting a little war” with their neighbor.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.