LA Times — Ethiopia's deadly postelection crackdown on dissent is threatening to undercut more than a decade of painstaking diplomacy to shape the once-Marxist government into a democratic model for the Horn of Africa.
The clashes, which left 36 people dead, erupted last week after the government claimed victory in disputed May elections. The violence has subsided and the streets of the capital, Addis Ababa, returned to normalcy this week. But residents said downtown businesses closed early on Thursday and that tensions remained high.
Human rights groups and local newspapers estimate that as many as 4,000 people, including journalists, human rights investigators and members of opposition parties, were arrested in massive government sweeps.
A newly elected opposition lawmaker, allegedly shot by police, was among the dead.
On Wednesday, Britain suspended a planned $36-million increase in aid to Ethiopia and called for the government to give Red Cross workers access to detainees. U.S. officials have urged restraint and are working behind the scenes to pressure the government to settle the dispute peacefully.
The international backlash poses a serious challenge to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, whose party seized control of Ethiopia in 1991.
Meles has been praised in the West as a visionary who has worked to bring democratic reforms to one of the world's poorest nations. He has cooperated with U.S. anti-terrorism campaigns and served on British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Commission for Africa.
But his government's heavy-handed response to its apparent poor showing in the May 15 national election has dealt a blow to Meles' credibility.
"If this continues, it will be an abortion of democracy in Ethiopia," said Adam Melaku, general secretary of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, which says six of its investigators were taken from their homes and offices after documenting and photographing allegations of police mistreatment. "We still don't know what happened to them."
Melaku called on Western governments to intervene.
"It's up to the international community to react," he said in a telephone interview. "They are the ones who have been grooming this government for the past 14 years."
Meles' information minister, Bereket Simeon, did not return phone calls Thursday.
In recent days, the Ethiopian government has blamed the violence on "looters," "hooligans" and the leading opposition party, which it says provoked the unrest in order to seize power.
Western officials say they are watching closely and remain hopeful that the government will resolve the election dispute without further bloodshed.
"It's frustrating," said one Western diplomat in Addis Ababa who declined to be identified. "The government simply doesn't want to give up any power."
The May 15 vote was the first real test of the popularity of Meles' Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front. Election Day went smoothly, drawing approval from international observers and even a short-lived endorsement from the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, the key opposition alliance.
But as votes were counted, it became apparent that the opposition had performed surprisingly well, winning inside the capital and in other urban districts. The ruling party, however, appeared likely to retain control thanks to its support in Ethiopia's vast rural areas and claimed victory based on provisional results.
When the government announced that official results would be delayed until July, students violated a ban on demonstrations. Taxi drivers in the capital went on strike. The protests turned violent, and police responded, wounding 100 people in addition to killing 36.
Opposition leaders accused the government of retaliating against citizens for voting against the ruling party.
"If this election was a test, the government failed," said opposition leader Befekadu Degefe, a former economics professor who is with the coalition. "The government was caught by surprise by the election results, and now they are responding with desperate measures."
According to provisional results, the opposition bloc won about 189 seats, only one-third of the seats in parliament, but a sharp increase from the 12 it previously held.
Befekadu and a handful of other coalition leaders found their homes surrounded by police after last week's protests, though the government has since lifted the house arrests and is negotiating with the group.
But Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other rights groups said they had received reports since Monday of mass arrests in at least nine cities apart from the capital. Government officials said many had been released.
Analysts and Western officials say there is still hope to get Ethiopia back on a democratic track, after what many hoped would be its freest and fairest election ever. The country's election commission is investigating complaints of voting irregularities in nearly 300 of 524 districts.
"If that's a credible process, this could still be the first democratic opening in Ethiopia in 14 years," said Matt Bryden, a Horn of Africa expert at the International Crisis Group, an independent conflict-resolution consultant