Our conversation stops as silent eyes glance to the knock that came from the door, a student appears to ask a question and leaves.
Talking about politics is a dangerous undertaking in Ethiopia.
Those who are willing to speak about such things, only do so under the agreement of remaining anonymous. Stories of people being harassed by the federal police are common. It generally starts with a warning phone call about a comment or activity that they call into question.
A newspaper publisher tells me about an opinion column he runs in his business newspaper. He heard once on a BBC TV interview with the current Ethiopia president that he doesn't plan to run again, and he shared that statement in his newspaper. He was called about it, and warned to write only about business, not politics, even though that decision would affect business.
After the student leaves, my office companion, whom I will call David says: “Did you see the marks on his eyebrows, that means he comes from the Tigrai region where the president is from.”
This communicates a potential loyalty to the current government.
Elections in 2005 were marked with irregularities, according to international officials observing the process. The irregularities are thought to be changed ballots or switched ballot boxes.
After the election, the word got out that the sitting government rigged the election.
“It was so obvious that everyone knew,” so students began to demonstrate peacefully, David says.
Another knock on the door, and our conversation once again stops. This time it is a student David wants me to meet.
“She's very clever and understands what is happening,” he says.
This student, whom I will call Tigist, shares some of her thoughts about the current situation.
“The people are frustrated, and because it is not safe to express one's opinion, they continue to swallow those frustrations. But one day, people will not be able to swallow any more, and we will explode like a volcano,” Tigist says.
When asked about the timing of that explosion, she pauses and says, “the economic situation is not good in Ethiopia. The inflation is running high, and if it continues, people will no longer be able to afford basic food. I feel it will happen sooner rather than later.”
Those peaceful demonstrations turned deadly as federal police opened fire on unarmed civilians, killing 22. People do demonstrate now, but only when the international press is around because the demonstrators know the federal police will not take action in front of international media, at gatherings like major football matches or running races where large groups make it hard to single out one person.
The opposition has a symbol, the peace sign that people in the U.S. would recognize from the 1960s.
“Once I was waving down a taxi using the same two fingers to let the taxi know there was two of us,” says David, “a federal policeman saw me, ran over and started beating me. I had a hard time explaining I was just trying to wave down a taxi.”
The people of Ethiopia are frustrated with the U.S. government. Many have family or friends in the United States, so it is hard to be critical of a place they feel connected to.
“But the U.S. government is supporting the corrupt government of Ethiopia, and that is bringing a larger suffering to the majority of the Ethiopian people as a whole,” David says.
People are just surviving, according to Tigist, and waiting for the next elections.
“I don't think there will be an election. Those who want to run are in prison. What ever you call the opposite of Democracy, that is what we currently have in Ethiopia,” David says.