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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Ethiopia Counts Cost of Election Strife

Financial Times -- Elsa, a young receptionist, winces in agony as a doctor lifts her left arm, which has been mangled by a gunshot wound. Yared, 11, looks up from his hospital bed, his face gripped with fear and pain, as nurses describe how a bullet entered his chest and exited his abdomen.

Across Addis Ababa residents are counting the cost of violence that rocked the capital 10 days ago, leaving more than 40 dead and hundreds wounded, including women and children. Elsa was in her family compound when a bullet tore through a fence and struck her arm. Yared was on a street where stone-throwing youths battled security forces.

The concern among many is that another bout of bloodshed could be around the corner as Ethiopia grapples with perilous tensions that surfaced after disputed May elections. At stake is the future of an impoverished nation of 77m people, which receives about $1bn international development aid and is regarded as critical to regional stability and an ally in the war on terrorism.

How the situation unravels will also be a test of the democratic development of a country with a history of oppressive rule and conflict. So far, the crisis seems more an example of a supposedly reformist government - courted by donors - resorting to autocratic measures when challenged. And it has been a surprise to donors.

"The international community was pleased with the economic reforms and people felt the democratic process was moving forward, but there still seems to be some command and control mentality," says Tim Clarke, the EU ambassador. "There also still seem to be significant human rights abuses."

Ethiopia is the largest recipient of EU development assistance in Africa. Days after the violence truckloads of police and special forces armed with sniper rifles patrolled streets as many shops and businesses remained closed. Each morning hundreds of people queue outside Red Cross offices searching for relatives who disappeared in a government crackdown.

The May polls, which were regarded as an examination of prime minister Meles Zenawi's democratic credentials, were initially described as the nation's most open. But the mood changed as it became clear that the opposition had made unprecedented gains. Mr Meles, a former Marxist rebel who was one of two African leaders appointed to the UK's Commission for Africa, banned all demonstrations in the capital, while the opposition alleged widespread irregularities.

Official results were finally announced in September, handing victory to Mr Meles's Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has ruled since seizing power in 1991. By then, the tensions that have polarised the capital - an opposition stronghold - had already emerged. Dozens of people were also killed in June clashes.

The government blames the main opposition group, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), for inciting violence. The CUD ref­used to take up its seats in parliament unless the government agreed to condit­ions. Before the latest clashes it called for peaceful protests.

Its leadership and thousands of supporters have since been rounded up and detained, with the government accusing the CUD of seeking to overthrow the EPRDF. More than 1,700 people, detained during the violence, were released without charge by the authorities at the weekend, although it is still unclear how many have been arrested.

CUD officials and others say the stone-throwing protests were spontaneous, the result of widespread poverty and high unemployment in the sprawling capital and disillusion with the government - feelings exacerbated by its use of force.

The concern now is how rec­onciliation can be ach­ieved, with neither the government nor CUD seemingly willing to compromise. The crisis also has an ethnic dimension, with supporters of the government, whose leadership is dominated by Tigrayans from the north, condemning the opposition as chauvinist Amharas, the group that in the past has produced the country's elite.

There were reports of violence in towns outside Addis Ababa. But it is the capital, where fear, frustration and anger linger, that is the tinderbox. "Our government is a dictatorship," says a male undergraduate shot in the leg. "When I feel better I will throw the stones, because the first time I did not throw them. I'm peaceful, but they still shoot people."

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