Critics of the Ethiopian government regularly land in prison. So why isn’t Merera Gudina, OFC’s chairman and an outspoken critic of the regime, also behind bars?

By Gregory Warner (NPR) |

The Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), an opposition party in Ethiopia, represents the largest ethnic group in the country, the Oromo.

Yet its office in the capital Addis Ababa is virtually deserted, with chairs stacked up on tables. A chessboard with bottle caps as pieces is one of the few signs of human habitation. In a side office, the party’s chairman, Merera Gudina, explains why the place is so empty: Almost everyone has gone to prison.

The deputy chairman? Prison. The party secretary general? House arrest. The assistant secretary general? In prison. Six members of the party’s youth league? All in prison.

Critics of the Ethiopian government regularly land in prison. So why isn’t Merera Gudina, the chairman of the party and an outspoken critic of the regime, also behind bars?

The reason, he says, is what he calls “the game of the 21st century.” Less-than-democratic regimes are getting more sophisticated, and instead of completely crushing dissent, they seek to create the appearance of tolerance or even a multiparty democracy, explains Merera. (Ethiopians go by their first names).

In the case of Ethiopia, a strategy was laid out by the late former prime minister, Meles Zenawi, after the 2005 election, in which opposition parties won 32 percent of parliament and appeared poised to challenge the government.

“Wait for the opposition to grow legs,” Meles said in a meeting with top party officials. “And then cut them off.”

Merera says he is the current example of that strategy. He describes himself as a “floating head,” while the legs of his party — all his deputies, his candidates, his organizers — are either imprisoned or threatened.

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