Last week I suggested that the Ethiopian government’s heavy-handed treatment of the opposition before the election on May 23 is a sign of its anxiety.

The government has already assured its victory by hobbling the opposition leadership, interfering with their candidates and making sure that there will be no meaningful oversight of vote count. So, what is it afraid of?

I can only guess, but one possibility is that Meles is worried about public violence if the opposition has managed to connect with enough of the public, as it did last time. Ethiopia became remarkably politicized during the 2005 election campaign and its bloody aftermath — an unprecedented and heady experience in a country where feudalism didn’t end until 1974.  Urban youth in particular…high school age and above…were excited. Others were also caught up. The government was shocked at the depth of its unpopularity. Where those emotions went when the hammer came down. I doubt that they simply evaporated.

College students in Addis Ababa first became politicized when they supported the failed coup in 1960, after which they abjectly apologized to Emperor Haile Selassie.  But soon, annual protests against the Emperor led to broken heads, some gunshot wounds and an occasional death as the global tide of campus activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s reached Ethiopia from through students sent abroad to Europe and the US.  Eventually the students got more than they wanted after the Derg overthrew Haile Selassie and killed tens of thousands, including students, over the next several years, driving the hard core opposition underground.

Meles was one of them, going into the bush and emerging as leader of the group that replaced the Derg in 1991. He knows the danger campus radicals can pose, and now there are a dozen or more campuses around the country.  There is little doubt that his agents have infiltrated groups and cliques, collecting names and sowing mistrust, making it dangerous to conspire if there is in fact an impulse to do that.  In these extremely polarized times, how could such an impulse not be present?  Fear is one way to keep it in check.

Meles also seems to fear something or he wouldn’t be clamping down so hard on his political opponents.  Does he hear alarming reports from his agents about simmering anger?  Are there signs of it outside of Addis Ababa, where ethnic resentment at the Tigrean-dominated government is no secret?   Ethiopia now has cities with populations of hundreds of thousands (Awassa, Dire Dawa, Bahr Dar, Dessie and more), and probably a few dozen of between 25,000 and 100,000.  Even the heavily militarized/securitized Ethiopia with several armed military, paramilitary and police organizations can’t cover a country of 80 million.

Smaller numbers of election observers in the field will make it easier for the government to manage the news if trouble breaks out.  Last winter the Carter Center asked for permission to send observers at the critical early stage of setting up campaign machinery. It was the right way to do things, and the Center needed to atone for its shabby performance in 2005, when they and the former president disgraced themselves with vacuous statements about an acceptable election at the same time that the EU’s observers and others rightly condemned the obvious fraud.

The Ethiopian government turned the Carter Center down, which then declined to join the EU and the AU in providing a rubber stamp for another stolen election, which is what they will probably do. It would be nice to be wrong about this.

Is the Ethiopian government intentionally limiting the number of potential witnesses in the countryside, as it appears? Everyone, expatriate or Ethiopian, working for an embassy or international organization must get a travel pass from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before every trip. The application (I have a copy), asks where, when, for how long and why the trip is to be taken.  See the English language weekly, The Reporter for more. If there is trouble and ‘unmanaged’ news leaks out, the government will have a list of potential leakers.  Is there another reason for the passes?

The election and its aftermath might go smoothly. On the other hand, a nasty surprise like the one in 2005 can’t be entirely ruled out.  The government had badly underestimated the depth of political feelings aroused during that campaign. Could it happen again? We don’t have long to wait.