Ethiopia has released a handful of prisoners - but nothing else has changed
Two weeks after Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn pledged to release jailed politicians, Ethiopia on Wednesday pardoned 115 federal inmates, including top opposition leader, Merera Gudina.
Merera’s release comes as a welcome relief for a country gripped by three years of escalating protests and growing ethnic discord. Merera, an outspoken government critic, is a former Member of Parliament and Addis Ababa University professor. He is also the chairman of Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), an opposition party that represents Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo.
His release is part of an effort by Ethiopia’s leaders to “create a national consensus and widen the political space”, according to prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
Merera has been a fixture in Ethiopia’s politics since the 1960s. The 61-year-old has spent his career building bridges and fighting for democracy in Ethiopia, and his politics transcends party and ethnic divides. In that sense, Merera’s release is a significant first step toward much-needed national healing.
However, it will remain merely symbolic if it is not followed by serious legal and political reforms, as well as the release of all political prisoners and journalists jailed under a slew of repressive legislation.
Nearly all of Merera’s OFC colleagues, including Deputy Chairman Bekele Gerba and Assistant General Secretary Dejene Tafa, are on trial, accused of inciting recent protests in Ethiopia’s Oromia region. The party’s secretary general Bekele Nega has been under house arrest since December 2015. Most of the party’s rank-and-file, as well as district level officers, are also behind bars.
Merera himself was arrested in December 2016 and charged with conspiracy to “dismantle or disrupt social, economic and political activity” after he spoke at the European Parliament criticizing the country’s state of emergency, which had been declared a few months earlier to quell popular protests in the populous Oromia State. Ethiopia lifted the emergency decree ten months later in August 2017 but Merera and the tens of thousands who were caught up in the crackdown remained in jail.
Protests flared up again as soon as authorities lifted the emergency decree because demands for opening up the political space, starting with the release of political prisoners, were left unaddressed. The return of the protests coincided with an internal conflict between the Somali Regional State and the Oromia National State - which killed hundreds and displaced more than 700,000 ethnic Oromos from the Somali region in 2017.The humanitarian crisis remains dire. Tens of thousands of internally displaced people remain in makeshift shelters across the country. Locals in the Bale region, in southern Oromia, are sounding the alarm about mass starvation due to lack of food and other humanitarian aid. The federal government, which is accused by Oromo activists of complicity in the Oromia-Somali conflict, has largely remained on the sidelines.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), in power since 1991, faces a legitimacy crisis. In its quarter century rule, its leaders have broken reform promises as quickly as they have made them. In 2016, Merera told National Public Radio that EPRDF follows a two-pronged strategy with the country’s opposition. Rhetorically, it claims to be building a multi-party democracy and laments the lack of a vibrant and unified opposition. However, Merera said, in practise it waits for the opposition to grow legs - and then cuts them off.
Concerns remain that EPRDF has not departed from this formula, despite the release of some political prisoners. Ethiopian authorities continue to equivocate on the breadth of planned reforms and prisoner releases.
When the story first broke on January 3, local and international media reported that Desalegn has vowed to release “all” political prisoners. Within hours, authorities were in a damage-control mode, telling reporters Ethiopia does not hold any political prisoners.
True, Hailemariam never explicitly admitted to the existence of “political prisoners”. But while vague, his words were clear to everyone, perhaps except his government: Over the past two decades and a half the Ethiopian government has instrumentalized the courts and judiciary to jail and silence critics, real and imagined. There is no precise estimate of the number of political prisoners in Ethiopia, but rights groups say they are in the tens of thousands.
On Tuesday, announcing the latest clemency, Attorney General Getachew Ambaye laid out the preconditions for the release of prisoners. To be eligible for pardons, detainees must show that they did not partake in activities that involved killings and serious injuries to people, damage to major infrastructures, and conspiracy to dismantle the Constitution or the constitutional order, he said.
Meanwhile, officials in the Oromia state, the hotbed of protests since 2014, indicated that no criteria will be attached to the release of dissidents jailed for their political activities.
The disjointed messaging points to growing internal rifts within the EPRDF. Desalegn’s announcement came at the end of 17-day-long high stakes crisis talks by EPRDF leaders in the capital, Addis Ababa.
The meeting was held amid a bitter power struggle among EPRDF member parties. EPRDF is made up of four ethnic-based political organizations: the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement. As an authoritarian vanguard party, EPRDF insists that only it can provide stability for continued growth and propel Ethiopia into the league of middle income countries by 2030 - and that muzzling critics and the media and controlling access to information is a requirement to meet that goal. It also requires member parties to adhere to the mother party’s democratic centralism principle, which encourages vigorous internal deliberations but makes a final vote binding upon all members.
Ethnic Oromos and Amharas, who together make up more than 65 percent of the country’s 100 million people, resent the domination of the country’s politics, economy and security sectors by TPLF, the kingmakers in the EPRDF coalition. Under pressure from their constituents, the new leadership of OPDO under Lemma Megersa has embraced the protesters demands. ANDM has also joined OPDO in this regard and the two are now openly challenging TPLF’s hitherto unquestioned hegemony.
After three years of protests, in which more than 1000 people were killed by security forces, Ethiopians need something to change. Continued protests and repression risks unraveling even the modest economic progress the country has registered over the past decade. Donors and foreign investors are eyeing the developments in Ethiopia with growing alarm.
To assuage growing fears about state collapse, OPDO and ANDM leaders must continue to press for greater political and economic reforms. Half-hearted concessions won’t bring about national healing. EPRDF has a unique opportunity to turn a page on its checkered past. It must not squander it. To put the country on a stable footing, Merera’s release should be followed by the freedom of all those jailed over the past 27 years for exercising their right to assembly, free speech, and for demanding their basic rights and liberties.
Still, as long as the country’s repressive laws remain intact, there is no guarantee that Merera and all those pardoned today won’t end up back behind bars. To rebuild its depleted reserve of public trust, among other reforms, Ethiopian authorities should immediately repeal or replace legislation such as the Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation, the Charities and Societies Proclamation, and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. These sweeping and draconian legislations have been used to curtail opposition activities, muzzle independent journalists and silence government critics.
Only once all political prisoners are out of jail, and these restrictions on basic rights are lifted, can we start taking the Ethiopian government’s promises of reform seriously.
Mohammed Ademo is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. He’s also the founder and editor of OPride.com, an independent news website about Ethiopia. Follow him on Twitter at: @OPride.