Ethiopia's Blue Party Tries To Reacquaint Nation With Dissent

Mar 10, 2015
Originally published on March 10, 2015 11:53 am

Feven Tashome is a study in blue. The 21-year-old's toenails are painted a rich cobalt, her scarf is baby blue and her leather handbag is ultramarine. To ordinary passersby in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, it's a fashion statement; to members of Ethiopia's beleaguered political opposition, it's a secret handshake.

Feven (Ethiopians go by their first names) is showing her allegiance to an opposition party with an odd name, and an even odder theme song.

The Blue Party is one of Ethiopia's few remaining opposition parties. Ethiopia is technically a multiparty parliamentary democracy, like Britain, but it is effectively run like a one-party state, with 99.8 percent of parliamentary seats controlled by one ruling party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF.

After the Blue Party was founded three years ago, it organized a peaceful anti-government protest in a country that hadn't permitted public rallies for a decade. The parade of young Ethiopians demonstrating in jeans and blue T-shirts seemed a sign that the government was relaxing its grip. But with new elections this May, the Blue Party claims that subsequent rallies have been met violently by police. They say hundreds of their delegates have been fired from their jobs or beaten up by thugs.

Blue Party spokesman, 27-year-old Yonatan Tesfaye, says blue is a symbol of two powerful unifying images for Ethiopians: the Blue Nile, and the Red Sea (which is actually turquoise most of the year). Blue is also the color of Twitter and Facebook; social media are one of the last remaining outlets for relatively uncensored expression in the country.

But to the Ethiopian government, "blue" is a symbol of rebellion, like the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine or the failed "Green Movement" in Iran.

A documentary, the airing of which on Ethiopian state television last year was timed with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's official visit, accused Western human rights groups of trying to instigate the overthrow of the Ethiopian government in what the documentary calls a "color revolution."

Also timed with Kerry's visit, the government arrested and imprisoned nine bloggers and journalists critical of the regime. Kerry, who was mainly in Ethiopia to encourage American investment in the skyrocketing Ethiopian economy and to express gratitude for a military partnership (the Ethiopian army is a proxy for intervention in many African hotspots), advised the government to release the journalists and bloggers. He was ignored.

Genenew Assefa, the political adviser to Ethiopia's minister of communication, is a chain-smoker in a black jacket with a well-thumbed paperback of Hegelian philosophy on his desk.

He dismisses the Blue Party as insignificant (he describes them as "young people running around, screaming around") but at the same time warns that Westerners do not appreciate how Ethiopia's "fledgling" 25-year-old democracy is under siege by ethnic separatists and Muslim extremists — some of whom he claims take shelter in the Blue Party.

Ethiopia is majority Christian, "but we have problems with radical Muslims in this country," Genenew says slowly and deliberately. "And we will suppress. We will not tolerate."

The Blue Party says it is not Islamist, but secular, with a peaceful and reformist platform: pro-civil rights and anti-corruption.

But the party's PR strategy is unique in Ethiopian politics. In direct response to the government's attempt to paint opposition groups as violent and scary, the Blue Party has, from its inception, sought to portray the opposite image.

Even Yonatan, the Blue Party spokesman, says he doesn't expect his party to win a single parliamentary seat in the upcoming election. The ruling party, while politically repressive, has presided over the fastest growing economy in Ethiopian history. The former high school teacher says he'll be happy if the Blue Party just becomes an umbrella for people to voice their discontent.

"People are very scared of the politics — they fear the situation," and become disengaged and apathetic, he says. "So we're trying to break them out of the fear."

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What does the color blue mean for you? Is it sad or soothing, trustworthy, cold? In Ethiopia, the color blue has become a potent and controversial symbol for the future, meaning two very different things to different people. NPR's Gregory Warner sends this report from Addis Ababa.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: 21-year-old Feven Tashome is a study in blue when I meet her in the Ethiopian capital. Her toenails are painted cobalt. Her scarf is baby blue. Even her leather handbag is ultramarine.

FEVEN TASHOME: Nowadays, I love the color blue because of the Blue Party. That's why. Yeah.

WARNER: Now, the Blue Party is an opposition party in a country that's run like a one-party state. Ethiopia's on paper a parliamentary democracy. But 99 percent of the parliamentary seats are controlled by one party - The Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front. Feven enjoys expressing her political dissent with a symbol as ubiquitous as the color blue. It's like a secret handshake.

TASHOME: People who know that I participates on those activities - they know that's why I'm doing that.

WARNER: The trouble comes when the secret symbol becomes a public cry. The Blue Party says that its peaceful rallies of young Ethiopians in jeans and blue T-shirts have been met violently by police. They say that hundreds of their delegates, representing in the upcoming election in May, have been fired from their jobs or beaten up by thugs. And in a way, this conflict can be understood as a fight over what blue, in this case, actually means.

YONATAN TESFAYE: Blue means unity, peace and hope.

WARNER: This is Yonatan Tesfaye, a 27-year-old former high school teacher, the Blue Party's official spokesman.

TESFAYE: Blue is - it goes back to history, actually.

WARNER: The Blue Nile is blue. The Red Sea is turquoise for most of the year. And these are both powerful symbols for Ethiopians. But blue is also the color of Twitter and Facebook. In fact, the Blue Party logo is a very similar blue and white to the Facebook logo. Though to the Ethiopian government, which blocks many dissenting websites, the unblockable Facebook is the engine of the Arab Spring, which took place in countries just to the north.


WARNER: These are scenes are from a documentary that aired on Ethiopian state television last year, timed with Secretary of State John Kerry's official visit. It didn't mention the Blue Party by name but claimed that Western human rights groups were trying to overthrow the Ethiopian government in a, quote, "color revolution" like the Orange Revolution in Ukraine or the Rose Revolution in Georgia.

In the Ethiopian Ministry of Communication, I went to see the minister's political advisor, Genenew Asefa. He's a chain smoker in a black jacket with a well-thumbed paperback of Hegel on his desk. And he tells me he's fed up with Western journalists only asking him about Ethiopia's crackdown on free press and on opposition parties. He denies those crackdowns. But he also says that Westerners don't appreciate the fragility of Ethiopia's 25-year-old democracy.

GENENEW ASEFA: This is a fledgling democracy.

WARNER: What you mean?

ASEFA: It is in the process. You cannot - there are areas where which we cannot tolerate because it's not strong enough. Do you think we can afford a Nazi Party in this country?

WARNER: A kind of Nazi Party is how he spins the blue party, affiliated, he claims, with violent ethnic separatist movements and even Muslim terrorists. Ethiopia's majority Christian.

ASEFA: But we have problems with radical Muslims in this country. And we will suppress. We will not tolerate.

WARNER: Now, the Blue Party says it is not Islamist and it is secular, with a peaceful and reformist platform - pro-civil rights, anti-corruption. But their PR strategy is unique in Ethiopian politics. And it's in direct response to the government's attempt to paint the opposition as something violent or scary. The Blue Party formed three years ago to portray the opposite image. That was the reason for their odd choice of name and even their theme song.


WARNER: Now, if it's hard to imagine Ethiopia's new prime minister ascending the parliament to this disco beat, there's really no need. The Blue Party leadership doesn't even expect to win a single seat in this year's election. In part, that's because the ruling party, while accused of being politically repressive, has also improved in the economy. Yonatan, the spokesman, says that the Blue Party this year just wants to get the idea of protest through Ethiopians' front doors.

TESFAYE: People are very scared of the politics. They fear the situation. They usually does not engage. So we're trying to bring them out of the fear.

WARNER: And Yonatan himself gets scared sometimes of going to jail again, of getting beaten. But in these times, he has a trick. He looks up at the pale, blue Ethiopian sky. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Addis Ababa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.