By Edmund Blair
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) — Girma Seifu Maru, Ethiopia’s sole opposition politician in a 547-seat parliament, says the authorities risk provoking social unrest if they do not offer more political space to critical voices.
The 47-year-old economist and consultant said his party, Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), is pushing for greater openness with a petition against an anti-terror law that critics say is used to stifle dissent, and by a campaign of protests.
But it is an uphill struggle for opponents of the ruling coalition in a nation that Girma said was following China’s model in a bid to drag swathes of its 90 million people, many still subsistence farmers, out of poverty by 2025.
“The Chinese model is that economic development is the primary issue, don’t ask about human rights issues, don’t ask about your freedom, keeping silent on people’s rights so that a few politicians get the economic benefits,” he told Reuters in an interview at a modern hotel, where the imprint of China’s growing influence in Africa was evident on many of the fittings.
But he said the government risked a “violent struggle” if it continued that path until parliamentary elections in 2015.
“That will be a seed they are just giving water to at this time if they don’t change their route and give hope to peaceful activities,” he said in Addis Ababa, adding that his party was committed to change by peaceful means.
Ethiopia has won international plaudits for delivering double-digit growth for much of the past decade.
Once known for “Red Terror” purges of the 1970s and famine in the 1980s, the capital is at the heart of a building boom, while new highways are starting to connect far-flung regions.
But economists say the government’s preference for a command economy may be hurting growth prospects by squeezing out private business, while opponents say a heavy-handed state is curbing freedoms that may be bottling up ethnic and other tensions.
In 2005, a disputed election ended in violence and the killing of 200 people. Opposition candidates won 174 seats but many did not take them up, saying the vote was rigged. The government denies this and other charges about quashing dissent.
Girma was the only opponent to win a seat in 2010, saying the government used state institutions to keep out most rivals. Dressed in a tracksuit and sipping a local St George beer, he brushed off with a smile the idea he was lonely in parliament.
“I am one and they are one,” he said, referring to what critics see as the monolithic nature of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and its allies.
“SPIRIT OF FEAR”
In its bid to ease what he calls the public’s fear of speaking out in the build up to 2015, Girma’s party has launched a campaign he called “millions of voices for change.”
In the past three months, he said his party activists had launched a petition to repeal the 2009 anti-terrorism law, which rights groups say has been used to lock up opponents. Human Rights Watch says 13 journalists have been convicted since 2011. He did not say how many signatures had been collected so far.
“A spirit of fear is very dangerous,” he said. “So if individuals can become free of this fear they can bring change.”
He said the party was organising demonstrations for freedom around the country, including one in the capital where protesters raised political and economic gripes. Witnesses said hundreds turned up, although Girma put the figure higher.
In June, witnesses said thousands of Ethiopians staged an anti-government protest that was the largest since 2005.
Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said last week the government was not to blame for the opposition’s poor showing.
“Shall we say to the people elect this guy or that guy?” the premier told Reuters, speaking from offices in the hill-top gardens of what was once the imperial palace of Haile Selassie. “It is the people who decide.”
Girma said his party and the other dozen or so groups in the opposition Medrek coalition only wanted a level playing field.
Girma said his party advocated a more market-led economic system that would relinquish state control of the nation’s mobile phone operator and end state banks’ dominance.
“The only way they can continue as a ruling elite is by controlling the economy,” said Girma, who was studied economics at Addis Ababa University and runs a business consultancy.
Girma also said the EPRDF, made up of four ethnic and regional parties, has entrenched ethnic rivalries rather than united the diverse nation.
“They think it is keeping the balance,” he said. “But if they lose that balance you lose everything.”