ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - When Ethiopia’s opposition leaders were freed from jail in 2007, the three most prominent were hailed by fanatical supporters as leaders-in-waiting for sub-Saharan Africa’s second most populous nation.
Now, Birtukan Mideksa sits in a prison cell, Berhanu Nega is exiled in the United States, convicted in absentia of plotting a coup, and Hailu Shawel only recently re-appeared in public.
That leaves many Ethiopians wondering where a challenge to the almost 20-year-old government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi could come from when the country holds elections next May for the first time since a disputed 2005 poll ended in violence.
Despite accusations of a crackdown on dissent, diplomats in the capital say the West would be comfortable with Meles staying on — as long as he remains a loyal ally in the volatile Horn of Africa and liberalises his potentially huge economy.
Secular Ethiopia is Washington’s key supporter in the region and sent troops into neighbouring Somalia in 2006 to oust an Islamist group which had seized the capital.
“Most Western governments want Meles to continue because there is no alternative in the opposition,” said one diplomat in Addis Ababa who did not want to be named.
“As long as the elections are semi-democratic, they’ll probably stay quiet, keep giving aid, hope for liberalisation of the economy and leave full democracy for later,” he said.
Foreign investors, who are showing interest in exporting commodities and exploring Ethiopia for probable oil and gas deposits, want stability, analysts say. If the opposition takes power, the future would be uncertain and investments delayed as foreign governments and lenders jostle for influence.
Rich nations are also hoping the government will relinquish control of its potentially lucrative telecommunications and banking industries in a nation of more than 80 million people.
Eight opposition parties are trying to register as a coalition to contest the polls under the name Medrek, or the Forum, while retaining their own structures and leadership.
But most people in the country, and even some opposition leaders, agree that Meles’ ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) will easily win in 2010.
The opposition says this is because candidates are routinely intimidated and jailed. The government says the opposition parties make the accusations because they know they have no chance of victory and want to discredit the poll.
“The EPRDF has done its best to weaken the opposition in view of the 2010 elections,” Rene Lefort, an Ethiopia analyst, told Reuters. “Fear of repression is the main factor which refrains most opposition members from campaigning actively.”
Birtukan, Berhanu and Hailu, leaders of a previous opposition coalition, were jailed in 2005 with other figures after they were convicted of inciting supporters to march on state buildings when the government declared victory.
About 200 protesters were killed by police and soldiers on the streets of the capital in that unrest.
Ethiopia has never had a peaceful transition of power. Meles himself took over in 1991 after a rebel group led by him and others overthrew a brutal communist regime.
The opposition leaders were pardoned and released in 2007, along with some journalists and aid workers, on condition they take responsibility for the violence.
But Birtukan, a popular 36-year-old single mother, was jailed for life last December after denying she had accepted blame for the 2005 bloodshed. Authorities said that violated the terms of her pardon.
The government has said it will invite international election observers, most likely from the European Union, and last week agreed a “code of conduct” for next year’s elections with three parliamentary opposition parties.
Medrek — seen as the most significant threat to Meles — refused to take part, demanding bilateral negotiations on issues they say were left out, including electoral board reform.
Diplomats in Addis Ababa are now trying to persuade the opposition coalition to sign the code of conduct deal.
Some ruling party members privately told Reuters they were frustrated a deal could not be agreed, and Birkutan released, so there could be a genuine campaign on Meles’ achievements.
While some 13 million Ethiopians still rely on some form of foreign aid for survival, the government has reduced infant mortality and poverty rates and says the economy has been growing at an annual rate of more than 10 percent.
“I don’t agree with jailing Birtukan,” a senior EPRDF member, who did want to be named, told Reuters. “She’s a strong opponent, but Meles is good for Ethiopia and I wanted us to debate openly and show the people our economic achievements.”
Editing by David Clarke