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Wednesday, 15 August, 2001, 21:56 GMT 22:56 UK
Ethiopia downplays official's defection
Protests in Addis Ababa in May
Some blame a lack of democracy for the recent defections
By Nita Bhalla in Addis Ababa

The Ethiopian Government has played down the defection of a senior member of the administration to the United States.

An official in the parliament denied on Wednesday that the defection of the Speaker of Ethiopia's upper chamber of parliament, Almaz Meko, was linked to politics and said that it would be seen by most as a personal decision.


In over 10 years, she was never seen as an Oromo activist and didn't ever mention ethnic politics

Parliament official Almaz Mekonnen
Ms Meko, who was tipped by some to succeed as president, earlier this week applied for political asylum in the US.

The ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), of which Ms Meko was a member, has been undergoing considerable upheaval in recent months, which has resulted in a number of resignations or defections by key members.

Disbelief

But Almaz Mekonnen, the head of public relations at the Ethiopian parliament, said that the political reasons Ms Meko gave for fleeing the country were not credible.

Ms Meko has accused the government of persecuting the Oromo people, who are the largest ethnic group in the country.

She blamed the prime minister's Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) - the main component of the ruling coalition - of plundering the resources of the Oromo people in order to develop the Tigray region, where the prime minister and other senior officials are from.

The public relations official at the parliament, Ms Mekonnen, said this was ridiculous.

"Almaz complains about Oromo resources being plundered for the sake of Tigray, but she was in charge of revenue allocation for more than five years, so she could have done something about it, if she wanted," she said.

Oromo rights

Ms Meko has now joined the exiled OLF - Oromo Liberation Front - a separatist movement which commands guerrillas, organising armed attacks on government forces in some parts of Ethiopia.

The defected official said that this was the only way to further the cause of the Oromo people.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
Meko blames the prime minister's party for exploiting the Oromo people
But Ms Mekonnen said Ms Meko's interest in Oromo rights was questionable.

"In over 10 years, she was never seen as an Oromo activist and didn't ever mention ethnic politics. It is surprising now she has jumped on the Oromo rights bandwagon. She was always complaining about the OLF and condemning them," she said.

The defected official has also accused the prime minister of being a dictator and of bringing about "untold miseries and sufferings" on the Oromo people.

But Ms Mekonnen again denied this, saying: "It's natural when someone seeks asylum that they condemn the government they are fleeing from.

"An asylum seeker will say anything to gain refuge. As a refugee who have to tell your host country that you are being persecuted so that they let you stay," Ms Mekonnen said.

Public reaction

There has been a mixed reaction to news of the defection on the streets of Addis Ababa.

One person was not surprised by Ms Meko's decision to leave due to the lack of freedom of speech or democracy in the country. "The next in line (to leave) could even be the prime minister!" the person said.

But another person was sceptical that Ms Meko's reasons for defecting were genuine, arguing that "If she wanted to defect for the reasons she has cited she should have done many years ago ... Maybe she just wanted to go to the promised land, which many say is the States".

Ms Meko's party, the ruling EPRDF, has been facing an internal power struggle, after a splinter group of the TPLF was dismissed after challenging the prime minister.

During what the party has termed as "a renewal process", many officials have been sacked and some have even defected.

Political analysts say this recent defection of such a senior official will be a big blow to the government, but they predict more defections are likely, as many will feel disgruntled that the principles and ideologies that brought the EPRDF to power a decade ago are now being abandoned.

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