Angered by the arrest of Merera Gudina, his party leader, hours earlier for allegedly “making contact with terrorist groups”, a senior figure in Ethiopia’s opposition said he was willing to commit a crime under the country’s strict state of emergency laws by criticising the ruling party.
“People want total change. This means the EPRDF has to hold a free and fair election,” he told the Financial Times in an interview. “But they interpret that as wanting to overthrow the government by force. They will cut your neck for saying so.”
At first glance Addis Ababa, a city of more than 3m people at the centre of one of the continent’s fastest-growing economies, appears to be normal. But beneath the surface it is clear that Ethiopia’s authoritarian rulers are in a fight for survival as they combat unprecedented levels of discontent.
The regime, which is dominated by ethnic Tigrayans, who comprise only 6 per cent of the population, admits that more than 500 people have probably been killed since anti-government protests began 13 months ago. Two months into what is expected to be a six-month state of emergency, 11,600 people have been arrested.
Opposition groups say the real figures are several times this. However, both sides’ claims are impossible to verify since neither gives evidence and the internet has been shut down in vast swaths of the country, stifling communication.
The strategy of Hailemariam Desalegn, prime minister since the death in 2012 of long-time strongman Meles Zenawi, appears to be to crush dissent, reshuffle the cabinet and focus on inclusive growth.
“Our democratisation process is still nascent,” he said recently. “It is moving in the right direction, but it has not yet come up with inclusive engagement.”