(15 Feb 2009) AFP – Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has said the arrest of the country’s opposition leader was not a political decision, arguing the authorities were left with no other choice.
Authorities arrested and sentenced Birtukan Midekssa to life in prison in January after she reportedly said she never expressed remorse to obtain a pardon in 2007. She was given three days to deny or confirm the reports.
“We were put in an almost impossible situation politically and legally. The law says if a pardon is given under false pretenses it has to be annulled,” Meles told journalists late Friday.
The Ethiopian leader accused Birtukan of banking on support from “powerful friends in powerful positions” — presumably Western nations — when she made the comments during a recent trip to Sweden and Germany.
“Had we indulged on her assumptions the message that we would have conveyed would be ‘nothing happens to you no matter what you do. If you have friends in all the right places, you can ride roughshod with everything’,” Meles said.
“That message I think is a very dangerous political message to convey in an emerging democracy. The rule of law and equality involves everyone.”
Birtukan, the head of the Unity for Democracy Justice party, had been detained with dozens of opposition figures and supporters following disputed 2005 elections.
The United States, a staunch Ethiopian ally and the country’s top aid contributor, has expressed concern over the arrest and called for more political freedom in the Horn of Africa nation.
Birtukan’s party made its most spectacular electoral gains ever in the 2005 polls and cried foul over reported fraud, claiming it was robbed of victory by Zenawi’s ruling party.
The ensuing unrest left close to 200 people dead and drew international condemnation.
Ethiopia’s next general elections are expected to be held in 2010.
Pana/Afrique en ligne – The Prime Minister says he is considering quitting the post and remaining as party leader if his party members agree to the position, but said he would make a final decision on this later.
“I do not think there is a conflict of policy here. My desire is that I have had enough here and I have to move on. I want to leave this position (Prime Minister) without leaving the party as leader but I have to respect the decisions of the party,” Meles told journalists.
The Ethiopian leader was asked about two conflicting signals he had given about his intentions not to seek a new mandate during the next elections in 2010. He said his personal decisions not to seek the post of Prime Minister must be balanced by the party position.
The EPRDF says it has yet to decide on who would be the next leader but the party has begun the search for a new leader of the party. The party sources say they are looking for the “new face of Ethiopia” if the current premier insists on not running for the post.
“I cannot be a member of the party and not respect its decisions. My open decision is that there will be no conflict between my position and that of the party. If there is a conflict, I will have the freedom to chose but I will try to resolv e the differences,’ the PM said.
The Ethiopian PM, who has been gaining momentum as one of Africa’s foremost leaders and respected spokesman on continental affairs, said he would not take personal credit for the party’s achievements during his tenure at the helm.
He said among his major achievements were leading the Ethiopian transition process from military rule to a democratic system that employs a parliamentary system of leadership.
The PM said he was glad Ethiopia’s transition from military rule to democracy did not suffer from setbacks such as those witnessed in Eastern Europe.
He said Ethiopia had transformed its political system to a full democracy, despite certain limitations the three arms of government still suffered.
He also said Ethiopia’s move from economic stagnation to rapid growth was equally an achievement during his tenure as Prime Minister.
“We took Ethiopia into one of the seven few elite states with a higher economic growth rate in the world, that is an achievement,” the Premier, who holds a record as one of the few African leaders to conduct regular press interviews, told a t hree-hour long briefing.
He said under his rule, steps to fight corruption had also been initiated but expressed disappointment at some very lenient sentences that some people charged with corruption were getting away with.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said on Friday he was in consultations with his ruling party about the possibility of quitting as Prime Minister and retaining his role as the party leader after next year’s elections.
The Ethiopian Premier, who has been at the helm of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) for the last 18 years, said on Friday that he has had enough and wanted to do something different after the next elections.
Ethiopia is about 15 months away from the next elections, due in 2010.