(OPride) — Ethiopian security forces on Wednesday arrested prominent Oromo opposition leader, Merera Gudina, upon his return from a trip to Brussels, where he met with EU parliamentarians. He is accused of violating Ethiopia’s six-month state of emergency decreed in October.
Being pictured with Oromo athlete and Olympic hero Feyisa Lilesa and the leader of the opposition Patriotic Ginbot 7, Berhanu Nega, during a November 9 hearing at the European Parliament. Among other things, the martial law forbids “communicating” with groups that Ethiopia considers terrorists and anti-peace elements.
Merera, chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), the only Oromo opposition in Ethiopia, has been a fixture in Ethiopian politics since the 1960s and a vocal critic of the incumbent regime. He is also the vice-chairman of Ethiopia’s main legal opposition party, the coalition Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum (MEDREK).
Merera, a former member of parliament, is known for his sharp and witty rebuke of those in power, which he often deployed eloquently while speaking to foreign journalists.
With Merera’s arrest, now almost all of OFC’s senior leadership is in jail. Six of Merera’s colleagues, including Deputy Chairman Bekele Gerba and Assistant General Secretary Dejene Xafa, are on terrorism trial accused of inciting the Oromo protests. The party’s general secretary Bekele Nega has been under virtual house arrest since December 2015. Most of the party’s rank-and-file, as well as district level officers, are also behind bars.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) follows a two-pronged strategy with respect to the opposition. Through its rhetoric, EPRDF says it seeks a robust multi-party democracy and usually laments the lack of a vibrant opposition. However, it waits “for the opposition to grow legs, and then cut them off” — leaving a few leaders like Merera “floating in the air.” In fact, while the authorities repeatedly accused Gerba and other OFC leaders for being rabble-rousers, they conveniently pointed to Merera as evidence of their tolerance for peaceful opposition. “Look,” EPRDF’s public relations spin doctors argued, “we are not against all opposition. For example, Dr. Merara, a vocal critic of the government, walks free.”
Now it appears that both the heads and legs of the Oromo opposition have been cut off. Merera’s arrest may herald the end of Oromo legal opposition as we know it. His arrest came on the same day that Ethiopia’s defense minister and secretary of the command post, Siraj Fergessa, held talks with the opposition. The next time Ethiopian authorities want to sit down with the Oromo opposition in the country, they might as well meet the leaders where they are—at Qilinto or Maekelawi prisons.
In a letter addressed to Federica Mogherini, the Vice-President of European Commission, European parliament member Ana Maria Gomes, who invited Merera to Brussels, called for “a more stringent approach” from the EU, adding the Ethiopian government “ is not listening” to calls that it “address the grievances of the population, open democratic space and respect the population’s fundamental freedom.”
The EPRDF regime is struggling to contain sustained and widespread protests in Oromia and Amhara states, which together pose the most serious threat to its power in its quarter of a century rule. More than 1,000 people have been killed in Oromia alone since the protests began in November 2015. Since the imposition of martial law, the regime disclosed that it detained 11,000 people. In reality, tens of thousands have been arrested across Oromia and Amhara regions in connection with the protests.
The state of emergency has brought about a temporary lull in street protests. But, away from the glare of media and amid internet shutdown and restrictive emergency measures, security forces have continued their unprecedented witch-hunt against activists, journalists and artists.
EPRDF leaders, embroiled in growing internal discord, appear unable and unwilling to heed the protesters’ demands. Instead, they continue to apply band-aid solutions such as a symbolic cabinet shuffle, which ignore the protesters’ calls for systemic changes. The ongoing crackdown has brought the country to a standstill. Investors are increasingly skittish. The economy has taken a huge nose dive.
Ethiopia’s military rulers cannot arrest their way out of the current crisis. The tide is turning against the possibility of a nonviolent solution to Ethiopia’s political crisis. In his 2014 book, Ethiopia’s Chaotic Political Journey and My Memoirs, Merera wrote, “a starving society left with nothing to eat will eat its leaders.”
As the military expenditure from the state of emergency deployment piles up and loss of foreign investment takes increasing toll, his warnings may soon prove prophetic. Unless the ruling party reverses course, Ethiopia’s crisis likely to go from bad to worse.