Over the last few years, it has become clear that the only groups the Meles regime can flex its muscles on are unarmed civilians and the peaceful opposition in Ethiopia. Since 2005, the regime has successively imprisoned political leaders as a show of force to external observers and as a warning to local politicians and civil society. A case in point is that of Birtukan Mideksa, the young opposition leader who has been imprisoned illegally since December 2008 and is currently serving a life sentence. The death and life imprisonment sentences passed on several people last month over an alleged coup conspiracy is also inline with recent experience.
While the regime generously doles out life sentences on its opponents, it has also clearly demonstrated its weakness when dealing with armed resistance. In the Ogaden for example, the regime has found it difficult to defeat a small group of fighters. Frustration led the regime to undertake a campaign where food was used as a weapon against civilians in the region. The regime also expelled several aid organizations, amongst whom, had reported that the government was burning entire villages.
The regime’s Somalia debacle is also fresh in everyone’s mind.
The current global economic downturn has also created problems for the regime. The crisis has left its western sponsors with fewer means to support it and Meles knows that this condition is likely longterm. On his recent trip to Copenhagen for example, Meles personally undermined the African position in an attempt to get support for his weakening regime. His actions baffled many observers, but numerous Ethiopians had earlier warned that sending Meles to represent Africa would have serious consequences for the continent.
The regime’s accelerated sale of fertile farmland to Saudi and Indian firms is also an outgrowth of the financial and legitimacy problems the regime is facing. Waning financial support from the west and the need to satiate the ever-expanding appetite of its corrupt cadre has made it necessary to find new sponsors. This almost-overnight reversal of a 19 year policy that prohibited local farmers from owning land shows the level of desperation the regime is in.
The regime is still trying to appear strong by muscling the opposition, but the weaknesses are clear for all who want to see closely.