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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

"Year of Living Dangerously" in Ethiopian Capital

Reuters AlertNet -- In Addis Ababa, the cool highland nights are no longer the only chill in the air.

Fear has crept back into the wide boulevards of Ethiopia's capital since Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government unleashed a harsh crackdown on opposition members and arrested thousands following post-election violence.

"It's the 'Year of Living Dangerously,'" said a Western embassy official, referring to the 1982 movie, starring Mel Gibson, about political turmoil in Indonesia.

Even months after relative calm was restored, the kind of paranoia last felt under the oppressive Derg military dictatorship is gripping people, residents and expatriates say.

Addis has a reputation as one of sub-Saharan Africa's most urbane and hospitable capitals. Ethiopian eateries are set beside Italian restaurants and shops pour the country's famous coffee from state-of-the-art machines.

In a reminder of Ethiopia's feudal history, tin-roof slums sprawl within sight of five-star hotels favoured by visiting diplomats and politicians. While the signs of poverty may be nearly everywhere, crime levels are relatively low.

But people are treading carefully these days in this city of 5 million, perched 2,400 metres (7,875 feet) above sea level in the Horn of Africa.

"You have to watch every step, you have to watch your mouth, look behind you," one salesman said, refusing to give his name for fear of reprisal. "Such things were not happening before. We were free. It's never been like this under Meles."

No one Reuters spoke to said the current environment was even close to the ruthless repression dealt out by socialist military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam's Derg regime, which Meles and his guerrilla army comrades overthrew in 1991.

But the feeling that Big Brother is watching is back.

"Now, we have it again. If you are identified with the opposition, all kinds of covert action will be taken against you," an Addis resident who is in the agricultural business said, also declining to give his name out of fear of the government.

"NOT THE SUM TOTAL"

Adding to the sense of limbo is the fact that the opposition won control of the administration of Addis Ababa in last May's parliamentary elections but the reins of power have yet to be handed over in what critics say is government plot.

The government blames a logistical delay.

In a recent interview in the capital, Meles told Reuters fears were overblown and said people assumed the mood of Addis reflected feelings across the country.

"Obviously, Addis is a very important part of Ethiopia, but it is not the sum total," he said, adding that 85 percent of Ethiopia's 73 million people live in "perfectly stable" rural areas.

In June and November last year, more than 80 people were killed as troops and soldiers clashed with opposition protesters who said the May poll was rigged, charges the government denies.

Meles, who won another five-year term in the vote, said the violence did unsettle the public.

"We had disturbances in Addis and a few other towns. That is very bad, but that is not the end of life. We will overcome that," the prime minister said.

Only those conspiring to overthrow the government illegally have anything to be worried about, he said. That is why 130 leaders from the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) are on trial for treason and genocide, he added.

Arrests have continued: on Monday, the state-run Ethiopian News Agency said security forces had foiled a plot to "unleash armed urban terrorism" in Addis by a group linked to the CUD. It said security forces had arrested several people and seized explosives, bombs and small arms.

FEWER NEWSPAPERS

Another bad sign for civic life in Addis, residents say, is a drastic drop in the number of newspapers on sale or the outright closure of private papers since the election. News stands are less full and Ethiopian journalists are nervous.

Critics say the jailing of local journalists working for private media and the expulsion of a British reporter for an international news agency are further signs that Ethiopia is retreating from democratic gains which won it praise from the West as a new African model.

Meles said no journalists were silenced because of what they wrote, as long as they stuck to the truth; those reporters charged as part of the opposition trial were arrested for their role in the conspiracy, he added.

"I know that the private media is here, is alive and kicking. And as always, it has been kicking the government in every direction," Meles said. "They are as critical as ever and we will tolerate that because that is the law of this country."

And while the Associated Press reporter was kicked out of Ethiopia, several journalists from Western news organisations have been allowed into the country since then to report freely, after registering for the required press licence from the Ministry of Information.

But few on the streets of the capital are interested in talking to anyone, let alone the press.

"The cleanest way of living in Addis is to keep yourself to close friends," the agricultural businessman said.

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