The intrigue behind Ethiopia coup allegation and denial

Elias Kifle | May 6th, 2009

By Barry Malone | Reuters

A plot is defined as “a plan made in secret”, but even by the usual shadowy nature of such matters around Africa, the recent conspiracy to overthrow the Ethiopian government has been hard to see clearly.

The story broke two weeks ago when the government of Prime Minister Ethiopia’s dictator Meles Zenawi said 40 men had been arrested for planning a coup after police found guns, bombs and “written strategies” at their homes. But a few days later the government communication office was asking journalists not to use the word coup anymore. The “desperados”, they said, had planned to “overthrow” the government by using assassinations and bombings to create enough chaos to get supporters on the streets to topple the government.

The sensitivity surrounding the language and the details of what was actually going on highlight the caution that still exists in sub-Saharan Africa’s second most populous country after a disputed 2005 election ended with police and soldiers killing about 200 opposition street protesters who were marching on government buildings.

Understandably, many Ethiopians are sceptical that people would take to the streets again. And others question whether the will is still there to march against a government that most analysts consider the most effective the desperately poor nation Horn of Africa has ever had.

The suspected involvement of an Ethiopian economic professor who teaches at an American university was a detail that caught the interest of the international media. Berhanu Nega, who called the accusation “baseless”, was elected mayor of Addis Ababa after the 2005 poll but was imprisoned along with about 100 other opposition members when the government accused them of orchestrating the street protests.

He was released in 2007 after a pardon deal and soon fled to America, where he teaches economics at Bucknell University in Philadelphia. Another leader released as part of that pardon, 36-year-old former judge Birtukan Mideksa, was rearrested last year after the government said she violated the terms of the pardon. She remains in prison.

Ethiopians love to talk politics in the bars and cafes of capital Addis Ababa — often in very hushed tones, which is perhaps a hangover from 17 years of brutally repressive communist rule that ended when the rebel group led by Meles Zenawi came to power in 1991.

And the “coup” is now the subject of those whispered chats. Some say there was a real threat to the government that came from Berhanu and his allies in the sizeable and vocal diaspora. Some say there was dissent in the military and Berhanu simply provided a convenient excuse for the government to move against that in its early stages.

And one opposition leader even told me that the government may have invented the coup plot so it could arrest potential politicians ahead of national elections due in 2010.

“Without third party verification I can’t believe there was a plot,” said Bulcha Demeksa, leader of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement.

Amnesty International now says the government is arresting more people in secret.

This intriguing story will surely develop over the weeks to come as the Ethiopian government has said it is preparing evidence that will be presented before “an independent judiciary” and has promised the 40 accused will appear in an Addis Ababa court next week.

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