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Ethiopian Exiles Seek Talks with Government

Ethiopian opposition figure Berhanu Nega, shown at his home in Pennsylvania April 25, 2009, is calling for talks with the government in Addis Ababa following the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Ethiopian opposition figure Berhanu Nega, shown at his home in Pennsylvania April 25, 2009, is calling for talks with the government in Addis Ababa following the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Two high-level Ethiopian exiles branded traitors and terrorists for opposing Prime Minister Meles Zenawi are calling for renewed talks with government now that the long-time leader in Addis Ababa is dead.

Berhanu Nega, a former mayor of Addis Ababa, has been branded an enemy of the state in his home country. Abdulrahman Mahdi and his rebel group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, are officially classified as terrorists.

Both men have different ideologies and for years been waged separate battles against the government of Prime Minister Meles, who died in a Belgian hospital Aug. 20, after more than two decades in office. And both Berhanu and Mahdi, who live in exile, say they want the same thing now that Meles is gone: a voice in Ethiopian politics.

Talks not likely

A government spokesman says that is unlikely to happen.

“One thing that I think is clear, at least my reading of the Ethiopian public and the opposition, is that Meles should be the last dictatorship in Ethiopia," Berhanu said this week from his home in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, where he teaches economics at Bucknell University and remains involved in exile politics.

"Ethiopia can only be stable in and durable form, if and only if there there is a genuine move towards democratization and respect for the rights of its citizens," he said. "That, I think, is the only possible path towards stability, both in Ethiopia and in the region."

The Meles’ government convicted Berhanu of treason and sentenced him, in absentia, to life in prison after his political group-in-exile was convicted in 2009 of plotting a coup. He denies the allegation.

Berhanu's past

Berhanu left Ethiopia in 2007, when he was released from jail after being pardoned on a separate treason charge. He was among several hundred opposition leaders arrested after a contested 2005 election and charged, tried, and then pardoned on treason charges.

Despite his time in prison, Berhanu says he has no malice toward the late Ethiopian leader, but does believe the nation needs a new political system.

"It is the system that [Meles] created, the terrible system, the terrible system, the ethnocentric, terrible system he created that I have a problem with," he said. "So if we have a democracy, it does not matter who rules, really.

"I am really angry that my country and its 90 million people live under such darkness in 2012," Berhanu added. "I think it is a country with a very rich history, a long tradition, the only country that has never been colonized by Europeans , which is an indication of the degree to which people love their freedom."

But Shimeles Kemal, the Ethiopian government spokesman in Addis Ababa, says the current administration in Addis Ababa is unlikely to pay much attention to to Berhanu.

Opposition still considered terrorists

"Berhanu Nega is a proscribed terrorist," Shimeles said. "He is a fugitive of law. He is an incorrigible criminal. In our view, he does not represent an opposition."

Berhanu and his supporters have a very different ideology than the Ogaden National Liberation Front, or ONLF, a group that has for decades fought an armed struggle for self-determination in Ethiopia’s eastern region.

But ONLF spokesman Abdulrahman Mahdi said this week does not feel he and his militants should be branded terrorists because they do not advocate attacking civilians. He said the ONLF has met with other rebel groups and they all agree that negotiations are the way forward.

"We are of the same position," Mahdi said. "We feel that this change [the death of [Meles] will not bring much, but there is an opportunity that dialogue can start with the Ethiopian government on the migration movement and dialogue with other parties for a change of the current situation in Ethiopia ..."

But, Shimeles, the government spokesman, did not hold out much hope, saying, "Nothing will be changed. No one will be allowed. Everything will go as usual . Though we have lost a great leader, everything is in order."

Meles’ body is lying in state in Ethiopia as plans are being made for his funeral. State media reports indicate Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will run the government in Addis Ababa until elections expected in 2015.