On the day Ethiopians learned that their leader, Meles Zenawi, had died, life went on for the regulars at a nondescript compound on the outskirts of this city. The first client showed up about 3 p.m. and sat down under the porch awning. In minutes, a waitress had placed a raindrop-shaped beaker in front him and filled it with a dark yellow liquid from a Johnnie Walker bottle – tej, the traditional homebrew honey wine.
A group of three friends soon entered, ordering a bottle of tej for themselves. Then, they opened up about their dead prime minister, sort of.
"It would have been better if people had been told he had cancer or whatever," said the most vocal of the group. "You can suppress the truth for only so long."
His friend on his left chimed in. "As a leader for foreign affairs, he was perfect," he said, but for Ethiopians, "he was not that good." He looked down at his beige flat cap that rested on his left knee. "Things will get worse, believe it or not. I fear we will have a civil war."
The third friend, asked what he thought, simply shook his head: "My friend, I don’t want to give you any comment about it."
Asked their names, the first complied but asked that it not be printed. The other two simply declined to reveal their identities. "We are well-known here," one said.
The fear that grips Ethiopian society – and, some say, keeps the country’s ruling party in power – was painfully obvious in the wake of Meles’ death late Monday in Brussels. People out on the street did not feel comfortable talking, hence the visit to the inconspicuous bar. Most of those who did speak refused to give their names.
Of the many people approached over several hours, only eight agreed to be interviewed. Of those only one gave both a given name and a surname. Some gave their first name, most gave no name at all.
The brave soul who acquiesced to being identified with two names then joked nervously: "But I won’t tell you my third name." (In Ethiopia, the second name is your father’s, the third name, your grandfather’s, making each name an additional tool for identification.)
Although Ethiopia’s economy boomed under Meles, and its international reputation as a regional powerbroker soared, at home his government was best known for a level of Orwellian oversight best described as paranoid. A powerful intelligence service suppressed domestic dissent, and dissenters were often imprisoned, or simply disappeared.
That repression was given a legal boost when Ethiopia adopted terrorism laws – a popular new weapon in the armory of dictatorial regimes over the past decade. The Ethiopian law carries an obscure provision that allows prosecution for providing "moral support" to loosely defined terrorism. According to the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, 11 journalists have been convicted under that provision since December. One Ethiopian journalist was sentenced in July to 18 years in prison under the law.
Citizens seem all too aware that speaking out can bring trouble. Even after several minutes of a note-taking interview, most seemed unprepared when asked for their names – as if one should know better than to ask.
One man who spoke candidly for about five minutes suddenly stood up and rushed out. Two others refused to speak inside a cafe that had fewer than a dozen customers. "Look, you think we can talk to you?" one asked. "Do you see how the others are looking at us?"
Another man asked to be identified only as Hassim then refused to speak except in the confines of a taxi speeding through the city. Meles, he said, "didn’t do anything for his native country, except for the Tigray," referring to the former prime minister’s ethnic group, which holds outsized power in the government. When the taxi pulled up to his workplace, Hassim ended the conversation, hopping out and disappearing inside.
Ironically, even as they whispered with shifting eyes, most Ethiopians did not have anything all that scathing to say. Most credited their late leader with the same traits that won him accolades abroad: his sharp intellect, eloquence and leadership skills.
While they expressed little sorrow over a lost leader they feared more than loved, there was also little jubilation over his death. For most, the day’s mood seemed accurately expressed in the afternoon rainfall: a steady drizzle, but no downpour of grief.
But they knew better than to say that openly. At one point during the day, when another Ethiopian declined to speak, an interpreter apologetically explained: "They have good reason to fear, you know."