Reform or repression? Ethiopia ‘faces watershed moment’ after PM resigns



Ethiopia’s ruling coalition has lost its authority and all parties must help map the country’s future, an opposition leader said on Friday, suggesting political tensions in Africa’s second most populous country are unlikely to ease soon, Reuters reports:

Mulatu Gemechu, deputy secretary of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, spoke a day after the surprise resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who said he was leaving office to smooth reforms. Mulatu said Ethiopia needed a completely new political system after years of political unrest in the two most populous regions of the Horn of Africa country.

“Ethiopians now need a government that respects their rights, not one that keeps beating and killing them,” he told Reuters.

But some observers expect that a new state of emergency will be declare.

Desalegn’s resignation – unprecedented in Ethiopia’s history – followed a wave of strikes this week in towns near the capital and demonstrations successfully demanding the release of more opposition leaders, Reuters adds:

More than 6,000 political prisoners have been freed since January as the government struggles to placate simmering anger among the two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and Amharic, who complain they are under-represented in the country’s corridors of power.

Observers have said that the government’s reluctance to free prominent prisoners illustrated divisions within the ruling party over the release program specifically and of the march toward reform generally, The New York Times reports.

“There are elements within the ruling party who don’t want to do that, who want to resist it at every turn,” said Hassan Hussein, an Ethiopian analyst and professor at St. Mary’s University in Minneapolis.

Mohammed Ademo, an analyst of Ethiopian affairs running the website, which is often critical of the government, said the resignation was apparently moved up because the ruling party wants a more assertive person in charge during a time of crisis, The Washington Post adds.

“I think from the party perspective, it is clear he has no power and lost control of the streets,” he said. “We should be very clear, this change — the prisoner release and the fact that the party is trying to make amends and reform — is the result of years of relentless opposition and protest.”

An alternative route the ruling party might take is to declare another state of emergency, said Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Africa Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. Similar measures introduced in 2016 prescribed restrictions on freedom of speech and association, while codifying many abusive tactics by the security forces, including arbitrary detention, according to Human Rights Watch.

“If Hailemariam’s departure is intended to make way for the appointment of an Oromo leader to the prime minister post, then the move will go a long way to diminishing tensions in Ethiopia,” said Bruton. “If the ruling party chooses to replace Hailemariam, as feared, with a hardliner representative of the Tigrayan elite, or — worse — if it reinstitutes martial law by calling another state of emergency, the situation could easily explode,” she told Bloomberg.

The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomed the news that Ethiopian journalists Eskinder Nega and Woubshet Taye are free from prison after each served nearly seven years.

“We are pleased that Eskinder Nega and Woubshet Taye are finally free since their arrests and convictions were shameful miscarriages of justice,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal. “We now urge the Ethiopian government to drop charges against other journalists and to implement the reforms needed for a free press to flourish.”

“Much of the public anger stems from the fact that the Tigryan ethnic group, representing 6% of the population, control key business interests, hold senior level positions in government and the military, and own significant land at the expense of other ethnic groups,” wrote Ahmed Salim, vice president at Teneo global advisory firm in a briefing note.

Despite its economic growth, Ethiopia remains very poor, with its per capita income of just $500 being less than one-third of the sub-Saharan African average, The Daily Maverick adds. And Ethiopia has been widely criticized for the lack of democratic space among civil society. It is scored, for example, 12/100 by Freedom House (where 100 is most free, and zero least) including 6.5/7 on Freedoms, 7/7 on Political Rights and 6/7 on Civil Liberties (where 1 is most free, and 7 least free).

In Ethiopia’s May 2015 parliamentary elections, the long-ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), together with its allies, claimed a historic victory with 100 percent of the seats. Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow Simegnish “Lily” Mengesha (left) wrote in the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy January 2016 issue that this result is not a surprising as it might seem:

Since the 2005 general elections—the most contested in the nation’s history—the party has been using antiterrorism laws and harsh restrictions on media and civil society to silence voices critical of the regime. The regime justifies its repressive measures by telling citizens that the country is in danger of ethnic strife and that maintaining law and order requires a firm approach. Like most autocratic regimes, however, the EPRDF worries that the more informed and connected the people are, the more empowered they will be to hold the government to account.

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