By Jason McLure
(Bloomberg) — An Ethiopian opposition candidate was stabbed to death by six unidentified men in an attack described by government opponents as part of an intimidation campaign by the ruling party ahead of elections in May.
Aregawi Gebre-Yohannes was killed this morning at a restaurant he operates near his home in the northern region of Tigray, Gebru Asrat, chairman of the Arena party, said in a phone interview today from Addis Ababa, the capital. Communications Minister Bereket Simon, a member of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, said the killing wasn’t politically motivated.
“These guys who had been engaged in artisanal gold mining went to his bar to drink and finally there was a quarrel somehow between the killer and this person,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s not political, it’s a personal quarrel.”
Ethiopia holds presidential and parliamentary elections on May 23. The last vote in 2005 was marred by a crackdown on opposition protesters that left 193 people dead. Government opponents have complained that state media, which controls virtually all of Ethiopia’s broadcasters, is being used for pro- Meles propaganda in this year’s vote.
Last month, state radio reported that political opponents of Meles are “covertly and overtly” collaborating with neighboring Eritrea, Ethiopia’s arch-enemy.
Aregawi, a merchant and restaurant owner, had been arrested twice since December for attending opposition meetings and distributing Arena literature, Gebru said. The six men had followed him to his restaurant, provoked an incident late in the evening, and stabbed him, he said.
Members of the Arena party are facing harassment and intimidation by ruling party supporters in the Tigray region ahead of the vote, Gebru said.
“This is what the strategists tell the members of the ruling party, I think this is the direction they want to follow,” he said. “It’s becoming very difficult for us to run.”
A second Arena candidate for parliament, Ayalew Beyene, was beaten by soldiers on Feb. 28 near the northern town of Axum, said Negasso Gidada, a leader of the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice party. Like Aregawi, he had previously been arrested for attending an Arena meeting. No arrests have been made in connection with the beating, he said.
“It is believed that they are normal federal army members,” said Negasso, a former president of Ethiopia.
Bereket, the government’s communications minister, also disputed this report, saying Ayalew had “tried to pressurize a student to read Arena” campaign literature, and that the student and the candidate began fighting. Both Ayalew and the student were detained by police, he said.
“There is an absolute guarantee” that the safety of opposition candidates will be protected, Bereket said.
Calls to Demsash Hailu, a spokesman for Ethiopia’s federal police, didn’t connect. Tesfaye Mengesha, chairman of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia, said in a phone interview he did not have any information about the killing and referred queries to a spokesman.
The Atlanta-based Carter Center has declined to observe this year’s elections, the Addis Ababa-based Reporter newspaper said. A visiting electoral group from the European Union said last month it had not yet decided whether to send an observation mission.
The opposition has claimed that Western powers, including the U.S. and the U.K., have refrained from criticizing Meles in order not to offend a key ally in the Horn of Africa and preserve international aid efforts in the famine-prone nation.
‘Free and Fair’
“It would be premature to pronounce the Ethiopian elections either good or bad prior to the holding of those elections,” Johnnie Carson, the Obama Administration’s top diplomat for Africa, told reporters on Feb. 24. “We hope that this election will be run freely and fairly.”
Yesterday, Ethiopia opposition leader Lidetu Ayalew criticized the ruling party for dividing the nation along ethnic lines, a move he said would endanger the unity of the country.
The ruling party’s administration “is structured on our differences, it has no space for the things we have in common as a nation,” Lidetu, chairman of the Ethiopian Democratic Party, said in a televised debate last night. “The basis for federalism should not only be language.”
After Meles’s Tigray People’s Liberation Front rebels seized power in the country in 1991, Ethiopia’s administration was divided along ethnic lines, with administrative districts named after the largest ethnic group living there.
Critics including the International Crisis Group have said the system has fomented ethnic conflict, particularly since members of Meles’s minority Tigrayan ethnic group retain a disproportionate number of senior posts in government and the army.