Government moves on dissident group

The Ethiopian government is holding a group of party dissidents in the former emperors palace in Addis Ababa, and preparing to bring corruption charges against the leading figures. Opposition sources in the Ethiopian capital told IRIN that those held included former defence minister, Siye Abraha Hagos.

“They are confined, and have no means of communication,” an opposition source said. A regional diplomat said he had been told that a number of the dissidents were being held in the palace, but could not confirm names.

Attempts to reach the Ethiopian government for comment were unsuccessful
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was confronted last week by a walk-out of 12 members from the central committee of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is the dominant party of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. Meles said the move - in his own party - had “posed a grave danger to the country”. According to the official account of the party crisis, the dissident TPLF members had objections over issues concerning corruption and ideology. Known as the “Siye group”, the dissidents were reportedly led by the former defence minister, who was removed from his position by Meles in 1995.

An EPRDF source said that the issue of corruption had preoccupied the EPRDF executive committee over the past year. One of the issues raised by members of the EPRDF executive committee was that Siye was involved in procuring weapons for the conflict with Eritrea, and was accused of siphoning off hard currency into foreign bank accounts. According to the source, the government is in the process of an investigation, including a probe into an account in the US.

According to the source, although the TPLF normally dominates the EPRDF executive committee meetings, representatives from the Amhara, Oromiya and Southern regions have been “forward” in accusations of corruption. But the source said the division within the TPLF also concerned “key issues of ideology”.

Corruption was a central issue in the split within the TPLF, a western diplomatic source agreed. Meles is known to have prepared a 700-page report on corruption within the government, which was presented at the TPLF conference, but has not been made public. The type of corruption at issue is “more to do with party control of various private sector enterprises operating in Tigray”, said the source. But the general division within the TPLF is seen to be broadly that a slim Meles-led majority feels it is time to broaden out from the core revolutionary ideas that brought the front to power. The minority hardliners feel that the revolutionary focus and party loyalty have been abandoned.

Tension has existed between Meles and Siye Abraha since the former defence minister was moved from his post and sent to Mekele, capital of Tigray. Siye was appointed chairman of EFFORT (Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray), but disagreements continued over a number of issues.

These included demobilisation of TPLF fighters and the creation of a national army; land redistribution; and mass mobilisation, an expert on Ethiopian political history told IRIN.

TPLF politburo member Abay Tsehay, former secretary-general of the TPLF and one-time chairman of the influential - but now disbanded - Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray, was one of the most prominent critics. Other influential members who supported Siye included Alemseged Gebreamlak, head of political affairs, and Tewolde Woldemariam, head of organisational affairs for the TPLF.

The “Siye group” also accused Meles for failing to act quickly or decisively enough over the crisis with Eritrea, and said he was too “pro-Eritrean”, the source said. “Meles was certainly seen as a reluctant warrior.” The TPLF hardliners have also been critical of the peace deal with Eritrea, believing the “military option” did not go far enough. Siye represented what became known as the “Greater Tigrayans” - hardline nationalists who have been accused of pushing the regional borders.

Discontent among the group also grew over the fact the “miltiary option” with Eritrea had failed to secure access to the coast, and had stopped short of destroying the Eritrean army and regime.

Although the crisis came to a head last week, it has been played out for some time. Regional analysts say that support for Meles is narrow, and has depended on persuading a handful of people to join the prime minister’s group. Kinfe Gebremedhin, internal security chief, reportedly voted against Meles earlier in the year, but swung back behind him in the last week - a critical move. Meles has already been seen to turn to the EPRDF for support, and faced the press flanked by the leader of the Oromiya Regional State, Kuma Demeska, and Abate Kisho, leader of the Southern Ethiopia Nations’ Nationalities’ and Peoples’ Regional State. Dependency by Meles on the EPRDF may dilute the power of the TPLF, which had “always been the controlling element”, one Ethiopian political expert said. But it may also strengthen the hand of political forces in some of the regions, the source said. The issue of central versus regional government control was reportedly one of those in dispute, and two of the dissident members - Belay Bitew and Solomon Tesfaye - had been acting as the TPLF’s trouble-shooters.

The power crisis has shaken the government, and may make the peace process with Eritrea - which borders Tigray - more precarious, diplomatic sources told IRIN. The situation has stabilised, but “remains fluid”, one regional diplomat said. Meles is said to be worried about the possibility of opposition surfacing in the TPLF congress in Tigray. At present, he is assured of the full support of the army, led by General Tsadkan Gebretensae and General Samora Yunus, but will be worried about the influence of the former defence minister on Tigrayan units, a regional analyst said. Since the crisis surfaced last week, guards for Meles office were heavily reinforced and more troops brought into the city, local media said.