Six months before a crucial election, one of Ethiopia's small band of opposition MPs has a simple question: How can he campaign for votes when he cannot even hold a public meeting or meet voters freely?
Negaso Gidada, a former president of Ethiopia and now an independent MP, tried to visit his constituents in southern Ethiopia recently. It was an arduous journey.
He was not permitted to hold any meetings in public places. He was kept under surveillance, and his hosts were interrogated. Those who met him were questioned by police. He was given no coverage in the media.
"People are so intimidated that they are afraid even to speak to me on the phone," he says. "Campaigning is totally impossible. How can it be a fair election?"
Four years ago, foreign election observers concluded that the last Ethiopian election had been rigged. Opposition supporters took to the streets, and an estimated 30,000 people were arrested in a crackdown on dissent. Nearly 200 people were killed when Ethiopia's police opened fire on the protesters. Dozens of opposition leaders and activists were jailed.
This time, with an election scheduled for May, the ruling party is taking no chances. Ethiopia is sliding deeper into authoritarian controls. Police agents and informers are keeping a close eye on the population, with harsh restrictions imposed on opposition leaders and civil society groups.
The election matters because Ethiopia is strategically important. It is the second most populous country in sub-Saharan African, and a key U.S. ally in the Horn of Africa, where Ethiopian troops have repeatedly intervened in Somalia. And it is one of the biggest recipients of Canadian foreign aid, with $90-million donated by Canada in 2007 alone.
Mr. Negaso, who was president of Ethiopia from 1995 to 2001 but later split from the ruling party of autocratic Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, has managed to hold only a few public meetings as he travelled around the country in the past year.
One meeting in August was broken up by dozens of thugs, including some whom he recognized from the ranks of the ruling party. They shouted, whistled, grabbed the microphone and prevented people from speaking. "We were chased out," Mr. Negaso said.
In another district, he said, the police told opposition leaders that they needed a special permit if they wanted to use a megaphone.
Even his e-mail messages and phone calls are monitored, he said. But he refuses to be intimidated. "If you are afraid," he says, "you can't do anything."
Another opposition leader, Seeye Abraha, is a former close ally of Mr. Meles from the early 1970s when they were both young revolutionaries fighting the military junta known as the Derg, which they finally overthrew in 1991. He became the defence minister but was jailed for six years on corruption allegations after a falling out with Mr. Meles. Now he says he is under constant surveillance, his phones and e-mails monitored, his movements constantly followed by security agents.
"In restaurants, spies sit close to me, and you can't ask them to leave," he says. "There is no private life, no private property. And there is nowhere you can complain. You can go to the police, but they will do nothing."
In a desperate effort to communicate with voters, the opposition sometimes tries to distribute cellphones to its supporters. If it sends campaign letters to voters, the letters must be kept hidden from security agents. "Families are afraid to pass the letters from one to another," said Bulcha Demeksa, an MP who heads an opposition party.
Earlier this year, eight of Ethiopia's opposition parties formed a coalition with Mr. Negaso and Mr. Seeye in a bid to defeat the ruling party, but the move has been little help. "If tomorrow I go to my constituency and speak to people under a tree, the police will disrupt it," Mr. Bulcha said.
The International Crisis Group, an independent think tank based in Brussels, says the Ethiopian government is controlling its population with neighbourhood committees, informers, media controls and high-tech surveillance.
"Thanks to Chinese electronic monitoring-and-control software, the government is able to block most opposition electronic communications when it desires," the group said in a recent report.
"Few journalists, academics, human-rights advocates and intellectuals dare to publicly criticize the government. While self-censorship existed before the 2005 elections, it has now become widespread."