ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In stories from countries ruled by authoritarian regimes, it's common to hear that leaders of the opposition have been put in jail. But in Ethiopia, the regime has stood that well worn strategy on its head. NPR's Gregory Warner reports.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The late former prime minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, has some interesting advice for his followers in 2005. This was just after an election where opposition parties had won 32 percent of parliament. This was a first in Ethiopian history. And Meles counseled patience. He said, we wait for the opposition to grow legs, and then we cut them off. Merera Gudina explains the idea of with this phase in Amharic.
MERERA GUDINA: Ayarlai Mansafaf.
WARNER: Ayarlai Mansafaf, which means...
GUDINA: It means you simply make the leadership float in the air.
WARNER: Now, Merera should know. He is one of those floating heads. He's the chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress, an opposition party that represents Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, the Oromo. And as the party leader, Merera is free to criticize the Ethiopian government publicly and not get arrested. Those just under him - the legs of the party, so to say - almost all in prison.
GUDINA: For example, my closest friend is in prison.
WARNER: He goes through the roll call. His deputy chairman - in prison, the party secretary general - on house arrest, the assistant secretary general - also in prison.
GUDINA: Six leaders of the Youth League, the chairman, the vice chairman, head of the organization, head of the public relations. These people are in prison.
WARNER: Do you ever give people a warning speech? Like, do you tell them, look; if you join me, there could be risks.
GUDINA: No, we know that. We - they know it. We know it. That's what's a game of the 21st century.
WARNER: If the game of the 21st century dictatorship is to stifle dissent while observing the ceremony of democracy, the game of the 21st century Ethiopian activists may be to speak out even knowing you're walking into a spider web.
Last year at our NPR studio in Washington, we got a visit from Bekele Gerba. He's the deputy chairman of this opposition party.
BERKELE GERBA: Every one of us is in a very high risk because anybody who criticizes the government is always a suspect.
WARNER: If he sounds tired, he was. He'd just been released from Ethiopian prison. He said his wife, a high school teacher, was also forced out of her job because of his politics.
GERBA: I'm not sure what will happen to me, but I'm determined to go back again.
WARNER: And soon after his return to Ethiopia, he was tossed in prison again, where he is today. And Berkele is a moderate. He counsels nonviolence. He used downtime in prison to translate the writings of Martin Luther King. And Merera says that targeting somebody like that has a boomerang effect.
GUDINA: The problem is, when you are suppressing the moderate voice, then what you get is the radical voice.
WARNER: The arrest of moderates inside Ethiopia maybe amplifying more radical rhetoric in the diaspora, rhetoric about government overthrow that Ethiopian officials are quick to highlight.
GENENEW ASSEFA: It has been a disservice for Ethiopia that the opposition tends to be extremist.
WARNER: Government spokesman Genenew Assefa also criticized his own justice ministry for arresting, he said, too many opposition members.
ASSEFA: And then we put them to jail, and then it's a vicious circle. And this is how it works. Although I personally, you know, would like to deal with this differently.
WARNER: He'd deal with opposition criticism through politics, not through the police. But Ethiopian politics appears to be moving away from democratic freedoms, not towards them. Unlike 2005, when opposition parliamentarians won all those seats, in last year's election, the ruling party won 100 percent - all the seats of Parliament. Even the floating heads no longer have a token place.
Six months later, some ethnically Oromo regions reasons of the country erupted in popular protests. Activists say 350 people have been killed and thousands more arrested. There's a real fear that Ethiopia's cut-off-the-leg strategy is splitting the country. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Addis Ababa.
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