By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA, (Reuters) – When Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s ruling party was re-elected in 2010, analysts said he could take two paths: give the opposition scope to grow and secure a legacy of progress, or sideline them once and for all and tarnish his record.
With a crushing parliamentary majority and Washington’s staunch backing in the fight against Islamist militancy in the Horn of Africa, the government’s hold on power is firm.
After the vote, Meles unveiled plans to turn Ethiopia into a middle income nation and wean it off aid by 2015.
But despite a seemingly unassailable position that should mean Meles can see through a quarter of century in office with tangible economic gains, some analysts say a string of recent arrests show he may now be taking the second path to autocracy.
Since March, Ethiopia has detained more than 150 people, including 29 this month. Nine of the 29 were opposition party members and others detained this year include local and foreign journalists, and even one of Ethiopia’s most famous actors.
Many have been charged with collaboration with terrorists, espionage and plotting acts of sabotage and terrorism.
Members of Ethiopia’s opposition say they are being unjustly targeted in a crackdown designed to stifle any moves to more democracy — under the guise of a war against terrorism in a region that faces genuine threats.
“Terrorism should never be condoned, but these measures show there is no intention to establish a multi-party system in Ethiopia,” said Gizachew Shiferaw, deputy head of the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice party.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party has been accused of using state resources to skew the political playing field in its favour.
Although the European Union and the United States said the 2010 election fell short of international standards, they did not question the result, which left the opposition just one seat in the 547-member parliament.
Analysts say a combination of a weak and fractured opposition, the harassment of voters in some areas and development work by the Meles government in towns and villages led to such a crushing victory.
But the increased use this year of anti-terrorism legislation, introduced in 2009 to, jail some critics is starting to raise eyebrows at home and among rights groups.
“Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation contains an overbroad and vague definition of terrorist acts and makes the publication of statements ‘likely to be understood as encouraging terrorist acts’ punishable by imprisonment for 10 to 20 years,” Aloys Habimana, Deputy Africa Director at Human Rights Watch, wrote in a commentary piece this week.
“The government is exploiting the law’s overly broad language to accuse peaceful critics, journalists, and political opponents of encouraging terrorism,” said the New York-based rights group.
Ethiopia passed an anti-terrorism law in 2009 that labelled five groups as terrorist organisations and outlawed all contact with them. Many of the arrests fall under this legislation.
Al Qaeda and Somalia’s al Shabaab rebels are on the list, along with two Ethiopian secessionist groups and a group of Ethiopian exiles known as Ginbot 7, which is calling for the overthrow of the government.
The list includes the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a rebel group from the ethnic Somali dominated Ogaden province that has been waging a low key insurgency since 1984.
The fifth group is the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) rebels from the region of Oromia, home to Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group and the area that produces most of the country’s coffee.
On Sept. 14, the security forces arrested three officials from the opposition UDJ and the general secretary of the Ethiopian National Democratic Party.
This month, two Swedish journalists who illegally crossed into Ethiopia with ONLF rebels were charged with promoting terrorism. Three local reporters have also been arrested.
Some Ethiopian reporters now worry that even receiving regular emailed statements from the ONLF could have them convicted of terrorism.
“Rounding up and detaining people in this manner sends a chilling warning to other opposition politicians and journalists to either cease exercising their right to freedom of expression altogether, self-censor, or risk arrest,” said Michelle Kagari, Deputy Director for Africa at Amnesty International.
Amnesty said it had a delegation expelled from Ethiopa in August after meeting opposition officials.
Ethiopian officials point to a series of attacks in the past few years to explain the increase in arrests.
A bomb exploded in the capital in March this year wounding two people, another hit a bus in northern Ethiopia in May last year and there were several blasts in Addis Ababa in 2008.
Addis Ababa sentenced 14 suspected OLF members to lengthy jail terms after a foiled attack on an African Union summit in January and a United Nations monitoring group report pointed the finger at neighbouring Eritrea for the plot.
“We have been victims to numerous terror attacks in the past that resulted in the loss of innocent lives and property worth millions of birr,” Demelash Woldemikael, deputy commissioner of federal police, told Reuters.
Government spokesman Shimeles Kemal dismissed the notion the authorities had a hidden agenda to crush the opposition.
“We have more than 90 political parties operating in Ethiopia,” Shimeles told Reuters. “These individuals operated under the guise of political activity. Any claims that the anti-terror law is being misused are baseless.”
Horn of Africa analysts say Ethiopia has been no stranger to taming dissent, in particular around elections, safe in the knowledge that it was simply too important to Western powers as a bulwark of stability in the Horn of Africa.
Dozens of senior politicians and some journalists were sentenced to life behind bars after disputed elections in 2005.
All were pardoned after admitting responsibility for the chaos after the polls in which 193 protesters and seven policemen died during violence sparked by opposition claims of voting irregularities.
One Addis Ababa university lecturer said a number of exiled politicians, once allied to the opposition, have called for an armed struggle to overthrow Meles.
He said the government could be using those old ties as a pretext for the detentions, intent on sidelining a severely fractured opposition for good.
“Clearly there’s no love lost towards the local-based opposition — even if they have distanced themselves from that stance, and seek democratic elevation to power,” he said. (Additional reporting by Barry Malone; Editing by David Clarke)