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.

You May Like

Video Getting to Zero AIDS Infections

More than 35 million people around the world are infected with HIV, a disease that is both preventable and treatable

Children, Childhoods Lost in European Refugee Crisis

According to UNICEF, 190,000 children applied for political asylum in Europe in the first 9 months of this year - twice as many as last year

What Happened When I Landed in Antarctica

Refael Klein chronicles what it's like to visit one of the coldest, most desolate places on Earth

This forum has been closed.
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.

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs