Ethiopia Opinion Oromia

Ethiopia needs deeper reforms beyond release of jailed politicians and closure of Maekelawi

Written by Bona Geshe

(OPride) In a joint press briefing on Wednesday leaders of the four political parties that make up the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) announced plans to release “imprisoned politicians” and shut down the infamous Maekelawi prison known for its use of torture and other inhuman treatment detainees.

According to the statement, the plan includes the release of political prisoners awaiting pending prosecution as well as the pardon of those already convicted. The government hopes the conciliatory gesture will foster a national dialogue and consensus and open up the political space.

Explaining the decision to shutter the Maekelawi prison, Hailemariam cited the facility’s historical association with torture and other atrocities under the Dergue regime. However, in doing so, he is absolving his regime of responsibility for the ongoing torture and inhuman treatment of detainees, particularly political prisoners.

Major gain for Oromo protests

The announcement is a major political victory for the resilient Oromo protests which gripped Ethiopia since 2014 despite a brutal crackdown that resulted in the death and imprisonment of thousands of Oromo civilians.

The Oromo protests also prompted citizens in other regions mainly the Amhara State to organize similar demonstrations opposing the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated government. This in turn emboldened their respective state leaders, namely the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) and Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), both members of the EPRDF coalition, to embrace the protesters’ calls for political, economic, and security reforms.

Hailemariam’s vague wording raises serious concerns about what constitutes a ‘political prisoner’ and whether this applies to prisoners held since the incumbent regime came to power a quarter of a century ago. Ethiopia uses oppressive legislations passed by the EPRDF-controlled legislature, where the ruling party controls 100 percent of the seats, to persecute political opponents and dissidents. Government prosecutors have relied on a slew of oppressive legislations to initiate, inter alia, terrorism and corruption charges and lock up students, teachers, opposition party members, even critical members of the ruling party and journalists.

EPRDF press release

The surprise announcement came shortly after the end of 18-day meeting of EPRDF member parties. In an earlier press statement, the EPRDF Executive Committee largely dismissed the dire crisis facing the country and denied allegations of TPLF hegemony.

The statement instead blamed the activities of ‘parasite elements’ acting in the name of nations or organizations. It also faulted state-run regional media outlets for fanning division in an apparent reference to Oromia Broadcasting Network and Amhara Mass Media Agency.

At the joint briefing, the heads of the four sister parties also emphasized differing themes of concern to their constituents. While the head of TPLF, Debrestion Gebremichael, focused on the ‘deep reform’ that is being adopted by EPRDF to tackle the lack of good governance, the chairman of OPDO, Lamma Magarsa, stressed that the crisis facing the country trumps the reputation of one party or individuals.

Addressing underlying causes of grievance

Hailemariam cited the need for national reconciliation and consensus as a rationale for the release political prisoners. While the release of political prisoners is one of the key demands of the Oromo and Amhara protests, the underlying grievances are much wider in scope and systematic.

A century old political, economic and social marginalization have relegated the Oromo, who makeup nearly half of the countries 100 million population, to a secondary citizen status in their own country. Although the 1995 Ethiopian constitution established a federal state structure on linguistic basis, decision-making remains highly centralized under the hegemony of TPLF. Constitutionally guaranteed rights of the Nation, Nationalities and People’s of Ethiopia have not been implemented through a genuine practice of federalism.

The judiciary lacks even a semblance of independence from the executive branch. It fact, it acts as a tool of oppression by applying oppressive legislations often without regard to constitutional rights of the accused and arrested people or those detained without charges. As such, one major step toward national reconciliation would be the repeal or amend of the draconian  legislations adopted over the last decade to target Oromo and other dissidents.

Ethiopia needs real national reconciliation process to address the Oromo and other oppressed groups demands for self-determination, equality, and justice. The release of jailed politicians, who should not have been jailed in the first place, while welcome, isn’t nearly enough. All stakeholders should press the Ethiopian government to free all political prisoners without any delay or distinction.

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About the author

Bona Geshe

Bona Geshe is a former lecturer at the Law School of University of Gondar and researcher on areas of Constitutional Law and Human Rights. He can be reached at boniswrld@gmail.com

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  • This is a welcome start. Three further actions must be taken for the ruling party to show it is sincere. First, reporters must be allowed into the country to interview the prisoners. Second, since most were jailed and tortured on flimsy charges and for no other reason than because the ruling party could jail and torture, each prisoner should receive compensation of some kind. Third, the ruling party should begin to re-register civil society organizations de-registered by the fiat of the late Meles Zenawi following ruling party defeat at the 2005 elections.