Ethiopian opposition parties said on Wednesday that their members were being refused food aid to force them to join the ruling party before national elections are held in May next year.
The Ethiopian government says 6.2 million people will need emergency foo
d this year and has appealed to the international community for help.
Another 7 million Ethiopians are part of a long-running food-for-work scheme, which means more than 13 million of the country’s 80 million people rely on aid to survive.
“Our members can’t get on the food-for-work scheme,” Gebru Asrat, spokesman for the opposition coalition Medrek, told Reuters. “Only ruling party members can now join the programme, so it forces desperate people to leave the opposition.”
People who joined the ruling party would not be able to work for the opposition or stand as opposition candidates.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s administration rejected the opposition complaint.
“It’s simply a ridiculous and outrageous thing to say,” Bereket Simon, government head of information, told Reuters.
He said the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party had fewer than half the number of people currently enrolled in the food-for-work scheme.
Aid workers say a five-year drought is afflicting more than 23 million people in seven east African nations, with Ethiopia worst affected. Ethiopia’s latest appeal came on the 25th anniversary of the 1984 famine that killed more than 1 million.
“PROGRAMME FOR POOR, NOT POLITICS”
“The government is trying to control what parties people join,” Medrek’s Gebru said. “Food aid should not be used as a political weapon.”
Medrek is a coalition of eight parties and is seen as the most serious threat to Meles’ nearly 20 years in power.
The prime minister has agreed a “code of conduct” for the elections with three parliamentary opposition parties — two of which opponents say are government “satellites”.
Medrek refused to sign that agreement, demanding bilateral negotiations with the government on issues that they say were left out of the deal, including reform of the electoral board.
The government strongly denied the allegations of food being withheld from the opposition. “That programme is designed to help the poor in our society. Ethiopia doesn’t discriminate on political grounds when distributing food,” Bereket said.
Security forces killed about 200 protesters after the opposition said the government rigged elections in 2005. Seven policemen were also killed. Most analysts agree Meles’ EPRDF will win easily at the ballot box next year.
The opposition says this is because candidates are routinely intimidated and jailed — mostly in remote areas outside the capital Addis Ababa. The government says the opposition has no chance of victory and just wants to discredit the poll.
Ethiopia has never had a peaceful transition of power. Meles took over in 1991 after a rebel group led by him and others overthrew a communist regime.