News / Africa

Opposition Protest Could Mark Change in Ethiopian Policy

Thousands of Ethiopian opposition activists demonstrate in Addis Ababa, June 2, 2013.
Thousands of Ethiopian opposition activists demonstrate in Addis Ababa, June 2, 2013.
Peter Heinlein
A peaceful protest rally in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, has sparked speculation the government may be relaxing its tight restrictions on political demonstrations.  The large turnout at the rally has also raised the profile of a little-known opposition party that seems to be attracting a large following among Ethiopia’s disaffected youth.

Sunday’s demonstration drew thousands to the streets of Addis.  But estimates of how many thousands varied widely.  State-run television reported it was 2,000, while organizers said it was more like 15,000 to 20,000.

Whatever the figure, the event was significant.  It marked the first time authorities have allowed a mass political protest in Addis Ababa since 2005, when police gunned down demonstrators who accused the ruling party of fraud in parliamentary elections.

Pictures and video of the demonstration created a sensation on the Internet, prompting speculation about whether Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s government might be easing restrictions on political speech imposed by his predecessor, the late Meles Zenawi.

It also raised questions about whether a new generation of opposition leaders might be emerging.  The rally was organized by the Semayawi (Blue) Party, a small offshoot of an opposition group that collapsed following the 2005 election.

Party president Yenekal Getinet said the Blue Party represents the desire for change among the 70 percent of Ethiopians under the age of 35, who he said want to break away from the Marxist ideas that have dominated the country’s political thinking for more than a generation.

“This is a new generation of leaders," said Getinet. "Many political leaders for the last 20 years, be it in the ruling party or opposition are from the leftist ideology or Marxist-Leninist mindset and ethnocentric.  So this is the new generation from the globalization era, a bit liberalized, vibrant and knowledge-based; and this may be the reason why, I am from the new generation.”

The protest was mainly called to demand the release of political prisoners, including opposition leaders, journalists and the organizers of last year’s Muslim protests that called for an end to government interference in religious affairs.

Government spokesman Shimeles Kemal was quoted Monday as saying the overwhelming majority of the protestors were Muslims, including Islamic extremists.  But law professor Yakob Hailemariam, who is representing the Muslim protest organizers in court, and was the keynote speaker at Sunday’s rally, said the demonstrators represented a broad spectrum of Ethiopian youth.

"Actually, the number of Muslims was only one-fifth, it was not very significant.  They stand out because of their clothes, but they were not that many.  But the demo was espousing their cause that Muslim jailed leaders should be released, so that was one of the demands, but it has not religious sentiment to it," said Yakob.

Yakob, who is gained prominence as a senior prosecutor with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, expressed surprise that Ethiopia’s ruling EPRDF party had allowed the demonstration.  He said it is too early to know whether this represents a change in the tight restrictions on protests that have been in effect since the 2005 post-election violence.

"It Is hard to tell.  The EPRDF is secretive and it is difficult to know what their intentions are.  I have been wondering why they allowed this demonstration.  Are they opening up?  Is this an indication?  Because they have been prohibited since 2005.  Strictly prohibited," said he said.

Blue Party leader Getinet declined to speculate about whether authorities would tolerate more protests.

Other opposition figures, including Yakob Hailemariam, have noted that the demonstration permit had been issued just before last month’s African Union summit, when the government’s restrictions on political speech were under scrutiny by a host of international visitors, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Yenekal said the test will come in three months, when the Blue Party plans to ask for another demonstration permit to press its demands for release of political prisoners.

Critics allege Ethiopia has become a de facto one-party state, noting the ruling EPRDF’s near total domination of all elections since 2005.  The late prime minister Meles Zenawi rejected that label, however, calling it a dominant-party state.

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Comment Sorting
by: Alem
June 04, 2013 10:21 AM
Peter, Thank you for covering this story. Please continue to let the American people know what is going on in Ethiopia. The ruling minority in Ethiopia has hired hands in North America and Europe churning out lies about the situation in the country. The world is told there is peace and stability when the truth is return to Mengistu's police one-party state that will not allow free speech or free and fair elections. We are told there is fast growth but nothing about aid money being smuggled out of the country [Global Financial Integrity reports over $16.5 billions in the past ten years alone; the report uses World Bank, IMF, and Ethiopian gov data].

Indeed, the present public demonstration signals a change. I know you are a seasoned journalist and, unlike the Swedish journalists, was spared a harsher treatment during your last assignment to cover a story in Addis. Never forget there is no free press in the country; what that means is that the government could charge leaders of the march on unrelated and concocted incident to detain, torture, and exile them. There is already accusation by the gov that this is the work of Muslim extremists [always works with uninformed and lazy donor community]. I should inform you also that the so-called Muslim "uprising" was mostly staged [in the hope of exploiting the fears of the US and Britain].

Another overlooked matter is that the party of Meles Zenawi literally manages the church and the mosque. You may want to check who Meressa Reda is and what Faith and Religion Directorate is all about. My greatest fear now is not the ruling party in Ethiopia but the appeasement, collaboration and vacillation of Obama Administration. Why does the Obama Admin continue to send in millions when billions of taxpayer's dollars are unaccounted for? and aid money is denied to some communities for not supporting the ruling party? Shouldn't the American people know their hard earned money is not promoting democracy and the protection of human rights but to sponsor state terrorism where to write a column critical of the ruling party leads to unspecified and unverified charges and jail term?

by: Musa from: Addis
June 04, 2013 5:21 AM
Was it "2,000" or "20,000"? Rough counting of the persons on the demonstration picture is enough to get the answer. It is unwise lie.

by: Gragn Ahmed from: USA
June 03, 2013 7:31 PM
Who cares if there are a few extremists? The majority are peaceful any way. Plus an internationally renowned lawyers is the leader of the movement. Are they calling them one of those extremists? I tell you what American government does not know who "Wayanes' are. These are a few bandits who claim they serve Tigray people but in realty are bent on defying gravity at all costs. They challenge even America and try to scare them.

But America should know that these liars are really very retarded cowards. Why not tell them to go away??

by: Meyisaw Kasa from: USA
June 03, 2013 6:58 PM
Government spokesman Shimeles Kemal was quoted Monday as saying the overwhelming majority of the protestors were Muslims, including Islamic extremists. REALLY??? In a country where there is no terrorist activity at all you make that statement? Shame on you. But I have no worries about any body falling for your foolish statement because the demonstrators speaks for themselves. Not even a single stone was thrown. Unlike you and your bandits would like the world to believe that this demonstrators had a secret mission the entire world knows what they are asking for. BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS.

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