By Anita Powell |

Are you a journalist?” the young man asks me as we board the elevator.

In Ethiopia, this is a loaded question.  It earned me an extra 45-minute wait at airport immigration as officials thumbed through my passport, pawed through my luggage and asked me what my intentions were.

Several international human rights groups have documented the systematic repression of Ethiopian journalists who were openly critical of the ruling party.  About a dozen journalists and bloggers are in Ethiopian prison, accused of terrorism.  Many more have fled into exile and are covering this year’s election from afar.

“Yes,” I sigh.

“I’m not happy with this election,” he blurts out.  “There is no democracy in Ethiopia.”

Bold, I think admiringly.  This is new – when I was assigned to Ethiopia eight years ago, in the aftermath of the government’s violent reaction to an opposition gains in the 2005 election, those sentiments were rarely spoken aloud – and certainly not to random journalists.

Is he trying to bait me? I wonder.

“Oh?” I say, cautiously. “Yes, I’ve heard people say that.”

I get off at my floor, rattled.

On the campaign trail, the nation’s newest opposition party winds its way through Addis Ababa.  Crowds emerge to watch the procession.

“Please, I am journalist from America,” I say in Amharic at every stop, waving at my camera theatrically.  “Do you have opinion on the election please?  Will you give interview?”

No one volunteers.  One man covers his face when he sees me filming the street.  The guy next to him takes his phone out and points it in my direction.  I remove my sunglasses and stare at him.

Opposition members say they’re confident of getting support at the polling booth.  Blue Party spokesman Yonatan Tesfaye even predicts the various opposition parties will grab as many as 100 parliamentary seats, out of more than 500.  This would indeed be a triumph: in 2010, the opposition won just a single seat.

One opposition candidate, Yidinakachaw Addis, tells me he was arrested while trying to take food to his imprisoned friends, also opposition supporters.

“I know it’s very difficult to participate in politics, especially in our country,” he says.  “I know, even I will be in prison one day.  So I am happy, even if I will join my friends in prison, I will be happy for that.  I think I did something best for my country.”

Later, the internet has failed in my hotel room, sending me frantically down to the lobby to try to transmit a TV story on the opposition campaign.

People take part in a Blue Party election rally in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, May 21, 2015.

People take part in a Blue Party election rally in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, May 21, 2015.

Another young man on the elevator.  I gesture to my laptop, explain in Amharic, “There is no internet in my house.” (I don’t know the word for hotel room.)

“It’s the government,” he responds, to my surprise.  “There’s an election coming and they want to stop the internet.”

Overcome, I show him a snippet of my story.  “If you don’t follow them and if you don’t join them and if you don’t do what they need, you can’t do what you need,” says Abdurahim Jemal Araya, a self-described political refugee living in South Africa.  “And you need to follow them, each and every thing they are telling you, because there is no democracy at all in our country.”

The young man nods.

“That is my feeling too,” he says grimly.

Continue reading on VOA News


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