The Ethiopian government’s sudden announcement to close an infamous prison and release political prisoners caught almost all by surprise. But is it a genuine sign of much-needed reform, to quell growing anger, and of space finally opening for the political opposition, or another ruse by the government to distract and deflect? James Jeffrey reports.
The drab building in the centre of the Ethiopian capital, known by its Amharic name of Maekelawi, has for decades been associated with torture and police brutality; it is a symbol of the dark underside of the authoritarian nature of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
But on 3 January, Ethiopia’s PM, Hailemariam Desalegn announced the government would close the detention centre and release prisoners, including those from political parties. An unprecedented move for a government not known for compromise, it took most by surprise, resulting in guarded praise from even the government’s staunchest critics, such as international human rights organisations. Since the announcement, though, subsequent proclamations from the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party have muddied the issue and led many to question the government’s sincerity, amid general confusion on all sides regarding the practicalities and terms of prisoner release.
“The balance of forces remains indistinct, the game is far from being over, no strategy to get out of the crisis has been fixed,” says René Lefort, who has been visiting and writing about Ethiopia since the 1974 revolution that ended Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign and brought in the Derg military dictatorship that would fall to the EPRDF. “It is too premature to state if Ethiopia is or isn’t on the road of sincere reforms.”
What most observers seem surer of is that the episode illustrates the speed and scale of change occurring among the four parties that have constituted the government in power for the last 26 years.
The EPRDF was the brainchild of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a Marxist-Leninist movement that spearheaded the defeat of Ethiopia’s former military dictatorship, the Derg.
In the final days of Ethiopia’s civil war, the TPLF orchestrated the creation of three satellite parties from other elements of the rebel force: the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDP), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), to ostensibly represent their respective ethnic groups, but which enabled the TPLF to consolidate its grip on power. That grip became vice-like over the years – the TPLF dominates business and the economy as well as the country’s military and security apparatus – much to the consternation of Ethiopia’s other ethnic groups, especially the Oromo.
Constituting 35% of Ethiopia’s population, the Oromo are its largest ethnic group, compared to the Tigrayans who constitute just over 6%. The Oromo also form the largest proportion of inmates at Maekelawi and in the country’s other federal and regional prisons.
“The decision [on the prison] was a concession to the very strong demand made by the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation,” says Awol Allo, an Ethiopian lecturer in law at Keele University in the UK. “There is a disproportionate and indiscriminate repression of the Oromo because they are suspected to pose a threat by virtue of their status as the single largest ethnic group in the country.”
That perceived threat has only increased in the government’s eyes since November 2015, when Oromos took to the streets around their home state, Oromia, at the start of a protest movement that continues to this day.
Furthermore, since the protesting Oromo were joined by the Amhara in 2016 – the two ethnic groups representing 67% of the population – the government has had to recognise the depth and scale of anger against it. Hence it is now trying to appease the groundswell of discontent in the country that poses the greatest threat to national stability – perhaps even affecting the survival of the Ethiopian nation state itself – since 1991. The risk of state failure in Ethiopia saw it ranked 15th out of 178 countries – up from 24th in 2016 – in the annual Fragile States Index by the Fund for Peace. The problem, though, with such mollifying efforts by the government, is that they usually don’t go the necessary distance.
“The EPRDF has taken responsibility for the political crisis in the country and has apologised for its leadership failures and undemocratic actions,” says Lidetu Ayalew, founder of the local opposition Ethiopian Democratic Party. “But it has not accepted the presence of political prisoners in the country. These are contradictory outlooks and a clear manifestation that the ruling party is not ready to make genuine reform.”
The EPRDF has long been criticised for using draconian anti-terrorism charges to detain political prisoners, and then arguing those charges mean there are no political prisoners in Ethiopia. Human rights groups have estimated political prisoner numbers in the tens of thousands.
With the prison and prisoner release announcement, however, it initially appeared the government was making a clear break with the past and acknowledging the existence of political prisoners. But soon afterwards the government began vacillating about what had been meant by political prisoners.
“The announcement of the release of prisoners is symptomatic of the disorganisation, if not the cacophony, among the leadership,” Lefort says. “This decision could have been the most resounding proof of the sincerity of the EPRDF to launch a democratising process. But as it has been announced in successive versions, lacking essential points – who exactly is affected; when will they be freed; and will it be unconditionally or, as in the past, only (after) having apologised – this decision has largely lost its potential impact.”
Such political flip-flopping and indications of infighting in the government leave some with little confidence about the chance of meaningful change.
“The closure of the torture chamber does not signify anything because the government will undoubtedly continue the same practice at other locations,” says Alemante Selassie, emeritus professor at the William and Mary Law School in the US. “For anyone vaguely familiar with the history of the TPLF, which is very steeped in the practice of torture as it waged a guerrilla struggle, there will be no change in its practice.”
Others are less sceptical of the government’s motives.
“It’s not a smokescreen, it’s been under discussion within the context of the interparty dialogue ever since the parties stated their wish lists in 2017,” says Sandy Wade, a former EU diplomat in Addis Ababa. “It is a necessary step in the run-up to the 2018 and 2020 elections – and for the future of the country – if [the government] wants opposition participation, which they do.”
On 15 January, Ethiopian Attorney General Getachew Ambaye gave a briefing saying that charges brought against more than 500 prisoners had been dropped as part of the first phase for releasing jailed politicians and other convicts.
Two days later, the leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress party arrested in 2016 was one of 115 released from a federal prison on the outskirts of Addis Ababa.
The attorney general added that during the next couple of months, across the country’s regions, jailed political figures who have been ‘convicted’ would be given amnesty.
Nevertheless, it appears the jury remains very much out on whether the government is genuinely committed to democratisation and achieving a national consensus in the longer term.
“If they are, this would be a transformative moment for Ethiopia,” Awol says. “Either way, Ethiopia cannot be governed in the same way it has for the last 26 years.” NA