Ethiopia cracks down on biggest ethnic group, the Oromo (OFC)

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi speaks to the media at his office in Addis Ababa, April 13, 2009. REUTERS/Irada Humbatova

By Barry Malone

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopia’s most populous ethnic group is being targeted in a government crackdown ahead of the country’s first national election since a disputed 2005 poll, an opposition party said on Friday.

The Horn of Africa country’s last election results were challenged by the opposition and international observers. About 200 protesters were killed by security forces in street riots and the main opposition leaders imprisoned. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said they were trying to oust him.

“They are cracking down on the Oromo ethnicity because we are such a large group, not only many in men, but the Oromia region contains a lot of resources,” Bulcha Demeksa, leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) said.

Ethnic Oromos, who make up 27 million of the country’s 80 million people, have not held power in modern Ethiopian history. Ethiopia has more than 80 ethnic groups.

The nine considered the most powerful by the government, including the Oromos, administer their own federal regions.

Meles comes from the Tigryan ethnic group, who make up only 6 percent of the population but dominate the political and military elite.

The OFC, part of eight-party coalition Medrek, said candidates were beaten and tortured to scare them into leaving the party. It said opposition civil servants in Oromia had been transferred to remote regions and refused time off to campaign.

“We in OFC appeal today to friendly countries and their envoys in Ethiopia, and to the people of Ethiopia at large, to support us,” the party said in a statement.

The Ethiopian government says opposition candidates are not intimidated.

“This is a democracy,” Bereket Simon, government head of information, told Reuters this week. “We are continuously widening political space.”

Analysts say Medrek — or the Forum — is the main threat to the 19-year-old government of Meles, but his Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition is expected to easily win the May 23 poll.

The opposition says this is because they are harassed and jailed. The government says the opposition is trying to discredit a poll it has no chance of winning.