February 24, 2006

“Year of Living Dangerously” in Ethiopian capital

By C. Bryson Hull

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - 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 favored 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 7,875 feet above sea level in the Horn of

"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


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

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.


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 organizations
have been allowed into the country since then to report freely,
after registering for the required press license 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.