In Ethiopia, jailed singer is a political symbol

Times Staff Writer

Sequestered in a dank prison cell here, Ethiopia’s biggest reggae star awaits trial in a deadly hit-and-run case that has galvanized the nation.

Federal prosecutors say Tewodros Kassahun, dubbed the Bob Marley of Ethiopia, fled after striking a homeless boy with his BMW. They call it a case of celebrity bad behavior.

Fans say the singer, also known as Teddy Afro, is being framed because of his music’s perceived anti-government message. In one song, he accuses Ethiopia’s leaders of promising change, but bringing only “a new king.”


Fans also ask why Kassahun was not charged until April, though the boy was killed in 2006.

Kassahun’s controversial incarceration has spurred small protests, a rarity in this tightly controlled Horn of Africa country, and is fast becoming a national symbol of what some call Ethiopia’s latest democratic backsliding.

After a 2005 postelection crackdown, Ethiopia’s government tried to ease tensions last fall by pardoning thousands of jailed opposition supporters and allowing some independent newspapers to reopen.

“We’d hoped that was the beginning of an opening in the democratic space,” said Hailu Araaya, deputy chairman of the recently formed Unity for Democracy and Justice party. He spent 20 months in jail before his release in July 2007. “But the political space is contracting again. It’s clear the ruling party is determined to stay in power by any means.”

Government critics point to a string of new laws targeting political parties, journalists and humanitarian agencies.

Under one new law, political parties can no longer accept foreign donations and must disclose the names of domestic contributors. Opposition groups say that restriction has dried up their financial support because potential contributors fear government retaliation.

A draft bill would ban private aid agencies and civic groups from “political” activities, such as advocating human rights, if they receive more than 10% of their funding from foreigners.

A new media law permits government censorship and jail terms for journalists.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said the reforms were an attempt to bring Ethiopia’s laws up to international standards, noting that U.S. rules also ban foreign campaign contributions.

“We are institutionalizing democracy and getting the law right,” he said. “I don’t think the political space is in any way being constrained.”

But critics said restrictions on foreign funding and political activism were particularly galling considering that nearly 40% of Ethiopia’s government budget comes from international donors and that the ruling party has hired a Washington lobbyist to attack U.S. legislation seeking to tie aid to Ethiopia’s human rights record.

“This is a nationalist charade,” Human Rights Watch attorney Reed Brody said. Opposition leaders and some Western diplomats say the new laws appear to be an attempt to consolidate power before the 2010 presidential election.

Ethiopia is eager to avoid a repeat of the 2005 election, when opposition parties won in many cities, including Addis Ababa, the capital. Postelection wrangling led to the government crackdown in which nearly 200 people were killed and more than 30,000 opposition candidates and supporters were imprisoned.

In local elections this spring, the ruling coalition won handily in most locations. Opposition parties boycotted the polls after complaining that the government prevented them from fielding candidates in many districts.

Negasso Gidada, a former president who quit the ruling coalition in 2001, blamed its members’ roots as former Marxist rebels for the government’s heavy-handed approach. “They don’t claim they want a socialist state, but the ideology is still there,” he said. “They don’t tolerate other ideologies.”

Meles dismissed as “hogwash” claims that his government is ideologically driven.

His government is under heavy pressure from Western donors to improve Ethiopia’s democratic record.

Over the last two years, Ethiopian soldiers have been accused of killing, torturing and raping civilians in their battle against an insurgency in the restive Ogaden region and of similar abuses in neighboring Somalia, where thousands of Ethiopian troops are propping up Somalia’s weak transitional government.

Meles denied any systematic rights abuses in either region.

Opposition parties and rights groups are calling upon Western nations, including the United States, to use their leverage to push harder for reforms. The Bush administration, which sees Ethiopia as a key anti-terrorism partner in Africa, has dramatically increased aid to the country in the last two years.

“The international community espouses ideas about good governance, transparency and human rights, but then they help a regime that flouts and violates those fundamental rights,” said Araaya, the opposition official.

U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Donald Yamamoto defended Washington’s support, noting that most of the $800 million in Ethiopian aid this year is for emergency food and AIDS drugs. About $13 million is budgeted for military assistance.

“I don’t think the American people or the Congress are going to accept decreasing food when there are photographs from Ethiopia of starving children,” he said. “They are going to ask, ‘Why aren’t you helping these starving kids?’ ”

On the streets of Addis Ababa, some Ethiopians say they’ve noticed political improvements. But fear of government intimidation remains strong and many have interpreted the arrest of Kassahun as a warning against speaking out. Two Ethiopian journalists have been arrested for writing sympathetically about the singer’s case.

“Before, when we were operating in a full-fledged dictatorship, you knew what you could and couldn’t do,” said one Ethiopian, who was afraid to be identified. “Now there is more openness, but you don’t know where the line is -- until you’ve crossed it.”