ADDIS ABABA — Ethiopian opposition supporters carried out their first peaceful protest against the government in eight years last week. The demonstration has raised hopes the ruling coalition will give political opponents more room to operate. Three opposition leaders from the past said that no matter what happens, the opposition faces major challenges.
Thousands of Ethiopians took to the streets last week in the capital, Addis Ababa, in a demonstration against Ethiopia’s government. It was the first time authorities had allowed such a protest since the disputed 2005 elections and was organized by the Blue Party, a relatively new party with many young active members.
Hailu Shawul is one of the opposition leaders imprisoned following post-election demonstrations in 2005 that turned violent. He said last week’s demonstration was a huge success but he questions the long-term effect.
“I can assure you, not much will change, but it encourages us to probe the people into action," Shawul said. "The whole point of the demonstration is for people to steam off, it's for the government to listen and maybe change their policies, but here, this has never happened.”
Ethiopia has been ruled by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) since 1991. The four-party coalition controls virtually all of the seats in parliament, and critics have accused it of turning Ethiopia into a one-party state.
Opposition leader Asrat Tassie shared his prison days with Hailu and is still politically active as secretary-general for UDJ (Unity for Democracy and Justice), the only opposition party with a seat in parliament. He too believes the demonstration was a big achievement.
“I hope this new spirit after 2005 will gain momentum, and hope all the others will follow. There is no choice for the opposition parties but to keep on pressuring the government,” stated Tassie.
Beyene Petros, an opposition leader since 1991, also applauds the efforts of the Blue Party and its young members, but said there are many challenges ahead.
“It may sound like it is an easy road to ride on; they need to be seasoned. They need to be addressing these complex Ethiopian political parties within a broader perspective, and not only narrow interests," Petros said. "I see their likes simply pick one line of thinking and then try to harp it. And that will not be a solution.”
During the 2005 elections, four opposition parties worked together and won a large block of seats in parliament. After disputes over the election results, massive protests broke out and hundreds of demonstrators and opposition members were either imprisoned or killed.
Asrat reminds the younger generation in the opposition that fighting for their beliefs comes with many sacrifices. “We have to struggle for our freedom, and freedom is not free. There are going to be risks, otherwise we have to close our shops if we are not able to courageously confront the government,” he said.
The Blue Party says it will hold another demonstration in three months if their demands, such as releasing political prisoners and more political freedom, are not met. Because of the big turnout of last week’s protests, other opposition parties are currently also looking into organizing public protests.