Ethiopia Grapples with Violence, Democracy
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This week the government of Ethiopia released hundreds of people arrested after deadly riots earlier this month. There are thousands more, however, still in detention, including the top leadership of the political opposition. As NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Addis Ababa, some Ethiopians worry the crackdown could thwart efforts to establish democracy.
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JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:
The streets of Addis Ababa have returned to normal. Dirt-caked beggars wade out into traffic at intersections. Goats thread their way between blue and white Lada taxis and aging Volkswagen Beetles. Shops have reopened. Churches again broadcast their midday prayers. Fashionable young women are back at sidewalk cafes, cell phones pressed to their ears.
During the first week of November, Addis Ababa was shut down, first by political rights that left dozens of people dead, then by the truckloads of twitchy soldiers that took over the streets. The federal police say they arrested 7,500 people here during and after the riots. No one seems to know the real number of people detained or killed or even where all the detainees are being held. Mogus Wandamos(ph) says his family is desperately trying to find his 17-year-old brother, who disappeared during the second day of unrest.
Mr. MOGUS WANDAMOS: We can't get the answer from the government. We are asking some at the police station. They don't want to give the answer. They don't. Sometimes they beat us, and they--finally we are afraid (unintelligible).
BEAUBIEN: The International Committee of the Red Cross still hasn't been permitted by the government to visit the detention facilities. This is the second bout of deadly riots related to parliamentary elections that were held in May. Initial election results that trickled out in the day after the election appeared to favor the main opposition party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, or CUD. But then the ruling party shut down the ballot counting, kicked out CUD observers and announced that it had won. Three weeks later riots broke out when officials announced that official election results would be delayed for another month. Most of the leaders of the political opposition were rounded up after this month's protests and are now in prison, facing treason charges. They could be executed if convicted.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, speaking on government-controlled television, said the riots were orchestrated by the CUD.
Prime Minister MELES ZENAWI (Ethiopia): (Through Translator) The goal of CUD is violence. Unless the violence goal of the CUD is crushed, I don't see that peace will prevail in the city in sustainable manner.
BEAUBIEN: While state-run media repeatedly says that the CUD espouses violence, its leaders say they're pursing change in Ethiopia through non-violent, political means.
Ethiopia's the second-most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa, after Nigeria. It's also one of the continent's poorest. But until recently things have been going relatively well for Ethiopia. It's posted impressive economic growth over the last two years, albeit coming from a relatively low level. Western donor nations have looked favorably on Meles' government, giving the country more than $1 billion in aid in 2004. Ethiopia's had a succession of autocratic governments, from Emperor Haile Selassie to Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. But in the run-up to the May elections, many Ethiopians say there was a flowering of openness and democracy here. Fikre Zewde, who runs Action Aid Ethiopia, however, says the most recent round of police shootings and mass arrests has changed that.
Mr. FIKRE ZEWDE (Action Aid Ethiopia): The situation we have now has really shattered our vision of the future. There was great hope that, really, Ethiopia is moving into a very different, democratic culture. And that has really changed, very much changed, in the last two or three weeks.
BEAUBIEN: One of Fikre's top staff members, Ato Daniel Bekele, led a campaign to allow members of civil society--clergy, academics, development workers--to serve as non-partisan election monitors. His campaign was opposed by the ruling party. Now he's under arrest. So far no charges have been brought against him. According to Fikre, Bekele enthusiastically championed democratic freedoms. Now the only visits he's allowed in prison are from his family for five minutes on weekends. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Addis Ababa.
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