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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 June, 2005, 15:45 GMT 16:45 UK
High stakes in Ethiopia stand-off
By Martin Plaut
BBC News

Ethiopia has for the first time allowed foreign diplomats to visit a prison in which thousands of political prisoners are being held.

Policemen patrol the street of the capital, Addis Ababa
Security is tight in the capital following the violence

Irish, Swedish and American diplomats saw about 2,000 prisoners who were picked up during the violent protests that followed last month's elections.

They are being detained at Ziway, 150km south of the capital, Addis Ababa.

They said the conditions were no worse than in other Ethiopian jails, but that the prisoners wanted to know why they were being held without charge.

There are reports that hundreds of prisoners were released before the diplomats were allowed access to the jail.

Three days of protests began on 6 June against alleged electoral fraud in last month's parliamentary elections. During the demonstrations police fired on the crowds, killing at least 36 people.

These facts are widely acknowledged. What is less clear is why the current situation developed.

'Genocidal child's play'

The government's version of events was given by Minister of Information Bereket Simon, who said that Ethiopia had been driven to the edge of disaster by the behaviour of the opposition, following the election.

The government accuses the opposition of stoking the fires of ethnic differences, as a means of winning power. This - in the minister's view - explains why such tough measures were adopted.

Policeman with arrested men
The alternative would have been much more disastrous where you might find millions... perishing within the coming days and months
Bereket Simon
Information minister

"The alternative was strife between the different nationalities of Ethiopia which might have made the Rwandan genocide look like child's play," he said.

"If you allow people who defy law and order, [to] take matters into their own hands and government sits idly, not discharging its responsibility of maintaining law and order, anybody who feels they are capable of taking matters into their own hands will reign over society and that will definitely bring the whole Ethiopian society into turmoil."

Observers in Addis Ababa believe the government saw the student protests, followed by strikes by taxi drivers as the beginning of a concerted campaign to undermine its authority.

And Mr Bereket says the governemnt was determined to avoid potential ethnic strife.

"The alternative to this would have been much more disastrous where you might find millions or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands perishing within the coming days and months."

Spectacular results

The opposition, which is united around two broad groupings - the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces - sees the situation very differently.

Opposition supporter
The opposition has overwhelming support in the capital

At the last election in May 2000 the opposition won just 12 seats.

In May this year it did spectacularly well, taking every seat in Addis Ababa, and winning constituencies in large areas of the country.

The opposition believes the vote is being rigged to prevent it taking power.

The National Election Board has rejected more than half of the nearly 300 fraud complaints, although these also included around 70 complaints from the ruling party.

Gizachew Shiferaw, a member of the CUD's executive committee, is concerned about the way in which the Election Board is adjudicating these disputes.

"We have reservations about the rejection of our complaints in 185 constituencies, on the grounds that the documentation and evidence we have provided is not adequate enough," he said.

"They have made these decisions without our participation. We should be part of the process. We should be on the board."

Pressure and aid

The international community is attempting to hold the Ethiopian authorities to their promise of holding free and fair elections.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
The British government is particularly embarrassed by the turn of events

They are attempting to persuade all sides to participate in the investigation of the complaints that the National Election Board is scheduled to begin undertaking on Monday.

This process should allow the opposition the opportunity it is seeking to participate in the process.

The British government is particularly embarrassed by the turn of events.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is a member of the British led Commission for Africa.

And the central recommendation of the Commission is that African governments should improve their governance.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair telephoned Mr Meles to express his concern at the killing of demonstrators.

This was followed by a visit to Addis Ababa by the British development minister, Hilary Benn, during which it was announced that a planned increase in aid of $24m would be suspended.

But relinquishing aid could be a small price to pay when the stakes are so high.

On Thursday, diplomats in Addis Ababa met Mr Meles.

Speaking after the meeting Tim Clarke, the head of the European Union mission to Ethiopia, said a list of 237 names of imprisoned opposition supporters had been handed to the prime minister.

He promised that all those who were needed to participate in the review of complaints about the election procedure, which begins on Monday, would be freed.

The future of Ethiopia is in the balance, as all sides decide whether they can live with the outcome of May's multi-party elections.

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