The announcement by the Ethiopian government that it will soon release some prisoners of conscience is a bold move that deserves commendation.
The move by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn should set an example to all countries in the region that are allergic to dissenting views, and is a strong indication that the authoritarian Horn of African country is ready for reforms and opening up of democratic space.
This is a lesson for countries like Burundi and South Sudan that have been imprisoning opposition politicians, civil society members and journalists that high-handed rule finally caves in.
It is encouraging that the Ethiopian government has announced that some politicians and journalists will be pardoned while charges against those awaiting trial will be dropped.
PM Desalegn said that the release of the prisoners is meant to “foster national reconciliation.” But it is also an indication that the government has realised that the country was on the verge of an implosion after two years of suppressing anti-government protests and growing ethnic tension.
Ethiopia has been experiencing a rise in negative ethnicity as the majority Oromo and Amhara communities rose against the Tigrayan dominated regime demanding equal distribution of resources, freedom of speech and a stop to annexation of ancestral land by the central government.
While the Prime Minister’s move will help foster peace by easing the inter-ethnic tension, it is also an admission by the government that the political landscape might be shifting beneath it.
It is also no secret that PM Desalegn, who took over in 2012, following the death of Meles Zenawi, has not been sitting pretty within the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition that has also been inflicted by inter-ethnic jostling for power and resources.
It is a pity that Ethiopia, which has been listed among the 10 fastest growing economies in the world and leading in eastern Africa, had also been flagged as one of the most repressive with tens of thousands denied their basic rights following a declaration of a state of emergency occasioned by the protests.
Government records show about 669 people were killed in demonstrations that began in Oromia in November 2015, but civil society groups maintain that the figure could be three times higher.
Prior to the protests, opposition politicians and journalists had borne the brunt of the authoritarian government, with a number imprisoned under the anti-terrorism law. In October 2016, the government imposed a state of emergency that allowed it to restrict internet access and social media use.
A 2017 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists listed Ethiopia as the second-worst jailer of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa, with a total of 16 journalists behind bars. Most journalist have gone into exile for fear of persecution.
However, signs that the government is willing to embrace reforms came in August when parliament voted to lift the 10-month state of emergency.
It is our hope that the government will maintain the tempo and widen the democratic space.