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Tuesday, 14 August, 2001, 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK
Ethnic tension sparks Ethiopian defection
Meles Zenawi
Meles Zenawi: Struggling to keep a lid on tensions
By Nita Bhalla in Addis Ababa

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has suffered a major blow to his position with the news that one of his most ardent supporters is seeking political asylum in the United States.


I have however decided to continue my struggle for the just cause of the Oromo people by joining the OLF

Almaz Meko
Speaker of the House of Federation, the upper chamber of parliament, Almaz Meko, has announced that she is defecting because the government had "brought untold miseries and sufferings" on the main ethnic group - the Oromo people.

Despite attempts to consolidate his position in recent months following internal dissent from within his party, the defection will cast more doubt over the prime minister's future and come as a shock to many.

The Speaker was a popular figure in the government and even tipped by some senior officials to succeed the president when he finishes his term later this year.

Oromo anger

According to sources, Ms Meko, who is in her 40s, had stopped in the United States, on transit on her way back to Ethiopia after attending a convention of women MPs in the Caribbean.

Ethiopian soldier
Political opposition is growing since the border war with Eritrea ended
But instead of going home to Addis Ababa, she applied for political asylum in the United States.

Ms Meko, who is an Oromo herself, said the Oromo people were not being democratically represented and accused the Prime Minister's Office of having direct rule over the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organisation (OPDO) - the party which represents the Oromo population in coalition government.

She accuses Mr Meles's Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the most influential component of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government, for being the dominant force in the persecution of the Oromo people, who make up more 30% of Ethiopia's 63 million population.

"OPDO is being prevented from becoming an autonomous organisation representing the Oromo national interest in the government and is reduced to a rubber stamp for TPLF rule over Oromia," she said.

"As a result thousands of innocent Oromos have disappeared, perished in detention centres from torture and many more forced to flee the country."

She said that Oromo resources were being mobilised and looted in order to develop Tigray, the region where the prime minister is from.

OLF

Ms Meko, who had been Speaker of the House of the Federation for five years, and a key figure holding a seat in the central committee of government, said that she had tried to bring about change. but was accused of being a sympathiser for the exiled Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a separatist movement which commands guerrillas, who organise armed attacks on government forces in some parts of Ethiopia.

She said that efforts to bring change "were not only met with resistance, but also put me in a black list as a sympathiser of the OLF".

And she announced her intention to "continue my struggle for the just cause of the Oromo people by joining the OLF".

There has been no comment from the authorities in Addis Ababa but political analysts believe this defection will be a huge blow to the prime minister who continues an uphill struggle to consolidate his position amid an internal split in his party and rising dissent.

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Ethiopian Govt Adviser,Kinfe Abraham
"Defections happen, you adjust very quickly"
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