* Aid workers say government controls system
* Opposition says food used as political weapon
By Barry Malone
ADDIS ABABA, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Aid workers in Ethiopia will investigate how foreign humanitarian relief supplies are delivered after opposition political parties alleged that their members were being denied food ahead of elections in May.
A coalition of eight opposition parties called Medrek, or the Forum, accuses some officials of only allowing ruling party members to benefit from a long running food-for-work programme that helps more than seven million Ethiopians survive.
The authorities have denied the allegations by Medrek, which analysts view as the most potent threat at the ballot box to the almost 20-year-old government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
"A number of foreign aid organisations are going to examine the system here together," a senior aid official based in Addis Ababa, who did not want to be named, told Reuters.
Foreign charities rarely criticise the government in public because their staff have been expelled from the country and barred from certain areas. The authorities say 6.2 million Ethiopians will need emergency food this year — on top of the more than seven million on the food-for-work scheme.
Aid workers would not confirm which agencies would be involved in the probe, but said that the aid departments of some Western donor governments would take part. The World Bank is the main funder of the food-for-work scheme — known as the safety net programme — followed by Britain and the United States.
The senior aid official said donors believed the problems were at a regional level, with local officials settling scores.
"But, at the moment, we don’t believe it’s sanctioned at the highest levels of government," the senior official said.
Ethiopia’s last elections ended violently in 2005 when security forces killed about 200 protesters after the opposition accused the government of rigging its victory. Meles said the protesters were marching on state buildings to overthrow him.
MELES DEMANDS PROOF
He has rejected the latest opposition charges, but said that he could not vouch for every person in the distribution system.
"So all I can ask is give me the proof and the person will be kicked out," Meles told a news conference earlier this month.
Analysts say Meles will win again easily in May. The opposition says that is because they are harassed. The government says the opposition is trying to discourage foreign aid and discredit a poll that it has no chance of winning.
In Ethiopia’s arid eastern Somali region, where the government is fighting a rebellion, locals told Reuters that committees deciding who received food aid often discriminated.
Other parts of the country of 80 million people employ different systems for deciding who gets food, but the government is involved in the distribution everywhere, aid workers say.
A company controlled by the ruling party also owns three of the biggest trucking firms carrying food aid, Reuters has learned. A senior U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) official said that Ethiopia was one of few countries where the government had almost total control over the distribution of relief food.
"But that’s not necessarily a negative point," Lynne Miller, WFP’s deputy director in Ethiopia, told Reuters.
"We try to improve the ability of countries to respond to their own emergencies and Ethiopia is now very capable."
Miller said WFP was broadly satisfied with the distribution system and that it would investigate any specific complaint. (Editing by Daniel Wallis and Giles Elgood)