By MARK SCOLFORO, LEWISBURG, Pa. – An economics professor at a Pennsylvania university said Saturday he supports efforts to spread democracy in his native Ethiopia, but denied backing an alleged coup attempt there that led to the arrests of 35 people by the government.
“I’m very suspicious that there was an attempt at all,” said Berhanu Nega during an interview at his home outside of Lewisburg in north-central Pennsylvania. “This is not a government that has any credibility whatsoever in terms of telling the truth.”
He said he did not know who may have been arrested, and said it could have easily been some sort of overreaction.
“The government, every time, it panics,” he said. “It’s always treason, always acting against the government.”
Berhanu, 51, said he came to the U.S. as a young man in 1980, is married to an American citizen and has two sons. He is an associate professor of economics at nearby Bucknell University, a private liberal-arts school that enrolls about 3,400 undergraduates.
He previously taught at the university from 1990 until 1994, when he returned to Ethiopia to work at Addis Ababa University, according to a profile on the university’s Web site.
In 2005, he became the country’s first elected mayor when he won the mayoral race in Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital. But post-election violence over the election results led the Ethiopian government to shoot 193 protesters and to later jail Berhanu, other opposition leaders and thousands of supporters. Berhanu said the party was not responsible for the violent demonstrations.
The opposition leaders stood trial for nearly two years on charges of challenging the constitutional order — the charge was lessened from treason. The main clique of 38 opposition leaders pleaded guilty and were pardoned in 2007 after appealing to the government.
Berhanu and several other party leaders then left for the U.S., returning to the country in August 2007. He rejoined Bucknell as a visiting international scholar in economics in Spring 2008.
“It became very clear immediately after our release that they will not at all tolerate any opposition, meaningful opposition,” he said.
Berhanu also urged President Obama’s administration to “carefully revisit its policy toward Ethiopia.”
“It is just unseemly for any democratic government such as the United States to have any relationship with it,” he said.
Associated Press writer Anita Powell in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.