Ethiopia under a state of emergency law finally wants change:             “People no longer agree to the old way in which this country has been governed”

28 Apr

Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)
by Journalist Elli-Alina Hillamo, Iltalehti*

Ethiopia got a new Prime Minister as a result of prolonged protests. It is hoped that he would be welcomed, but Merera Gudina, who has just been released from prison, it’s no time yet to be happy.

Ethiopian opposition leader Merera Gudina’s home is hard to find. The streets of the outskirts of Addis Ababa are suspicious of people asking his whereabouts. “Are you to hurt him?” asks a young man at the junction of the sand dunes.

Professor Merera Gudina is said to be Ethiopian’s most influential opposition politician. “After my release from prison, I’ve put together and organized people across our country. Yet I still worry I could be imprisoned again; but in terms of the new Prime Minister, I am cautiously optimistic. (JUSSI INTERVIEW)

Gudina was released from prison in January with hundreds of political prisoners. Before that, the Ethiopian Government did not even acknowledge the existence of political prisoners, and their release came to many as a surprise.

– Demonstrators’ demands for our release were so great that the ruling party had to bend. However, all political prisoners have not yet been released, says Gudina in the living room of his detached house.

By this time a year ago, Gudina was in jail for quite a year. He was arrested in December 2016 when he returned home from Brussels. Mr Gudina was speaking to the European Parliament about the human rights situation in his country, together with the Ethiopian Rio Olympic medalist Feyisa Lilya. Already there, Gudina knew on his return prison was possibility.

– I was already in jail for ten years in the past.

Gudina describes the prison conditions as horrible. One young activist had no legs, but he did not get any support or treatment for his pain.

Tumultuous Ethiopia

The beginning of the year has been full of events in Ethiopia. Two months ago, a state of emergency was declared after Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn had announced his resignation. Desalegn, who studied for a long time in Tampere, resigned after three years of protests, and which continued through the beginning of the year. They started as a land issue — land grab — in the Oromo region. However, in no time the protests widened across the nation as civil rights and demand for democracy.

The protests have been violent, and in three years the country’s security forces have killed hundreds of people and arrested thousands.

– It is because people no longer agree to the old way in which this country has been controlled.

Gudina leads the Oromo Federalist Congress. It represents Ethiopia’s largest, but politically underrepresented ethnic group, about thirty million Oromos. In addition, Gudina is the leader of the opposition Ethiopian Coalition.

The opposition does not have any seats in the Ethiopian Parliament and human rights organizations have been criticizing for some years the country’s way of stifling dissidents, censoring the media, and limiting the activities of non-governmental organizations.

Gudina has a long history as a political activist. He was involved in a student movement that brought about the overthrow of the last Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, and dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, the leader of the communist military junta. Under the latter administration, Gudina was imprisoned for seven years.

Ethiopian protest against genocide in Berlin in February 2018. (IMAGO STOCK)

The party in power

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has been in power for 27 years now. According to Gudina, the problem is that the new government immediately started acting as a communist military junta and building its own, unambiguous system.

– We thus have a totalitarian system in power. All institutions, including the media and universities, are under the control of a single party. Our country is undergoing a crisis due to the one party system and therefore also its state of emergency in effect.

Abiy Ahmed, 41, the new Ethiopian Prime Minister took office at the beginning of April. Ahmed is the first Oromo Prime Minister in Ethiopia in the past three decades. Gudina is cautiously optimistic about the new prime minister, although Ahmed is a part of the ruling party.

– Abiy can only work within the limits of the party. Much depends on the extent to which the ruling party is ready to change. The country is now at critical crossroads.

If the ruling party is ready for a radical change towards more democratic Ethiopia, Gudina says the new leader has better chances to succeed.

– During the last twenty-seven years, the ruling party has made so many promises none of which have been realised. It has promised again and again only to fail. In Ethiopia, especially the young now want to see real change, says Gudina.

Finland’s partner country

Ethiopia is a partner country for Finnish development cooperation, with a total of EUR 55 million for bilateral development cooperation from 2016 to 2019. Opposition leader Merera Gudina states that donor countries have the opportunity to use their position either by threatening to cut off or suspending aid.

“I am, as I was before arrested, in constant contact with the international community,” says Gudina, explaining that he has also met representatives of the Finnish State during the visit of Foreign Trade and Development Minister Anne-Mari Virolainen. She visited Ethiopia last March in an export promotion mission.

– Our message is clear, says Gudina. We want a fair game and they ( international community) should push this government towards a more free political debate.

Deputy of the Finnish Embassy in Ethiopia Jukka Pajarinen states that the serious interaction can have a greater impact than, for example, publicly threatening to end the co-operation. Pajarinen emphasizes that Finland has a wide range of dialogues with Ethiopia, including the opposition, civil society and the private sector.

According to Pajarinen, the political stability of Ethiopia over 100 million inhabitants is very important for the whole of Eastern Africa, and the country’s decisions may also have implications for European migration.

– This is a huge country with a fast population growth. The conditions here determine how one builds own future, or be compelled to leave altogether, says Pajarinen.

Ethiopia is geopolitically at a strategic country, for example, in the fight against extremism and radicalism. In Ethiopia’s neighbouring South Sudan there is a civil war as well as on the other side of Somalia. There is the terrorist organization Al-Shabaab.

Pajarinen says the current political climate in Ethiopia has long been anticipated.

– Still, of course, one cannot say how the promises by the new prime minister, such as the opening up of a political space, will begin to move forward. The impression is that the people are hopeful.

According to Pajarinen, the optimism arises from the fact that Ethiopians have experienced their voices are heard. As a result of the demonstrations, prisoners have been released and a new prime minister elected. This is new not only in Ethiopia but also in the African political context.

* The above is machine translation as found on the paper, presented here with some editing. Iltalehti (Evening Paper) gives option of reading the story either in Finnish or machine translated English at above address.

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