(By George F. Ward)
The government of Ethiopia appears to have tentatively dipped its toes into the waters of toleration, only to pull back at least partly. Overall, the government led by Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has not improved significantly on the record of its predecessor, the late Meles Zenawi, in terms of respect for freedom of expression and other political rights. Nevertheless, the Hailemariam government last month issued a demonstration permit to the opposition Blue Party. The June 2, 2013, protest unfolded peacefully, drawing thousands into the streets of Addis Ababa for the first mass political protest since 2005.
According to Human Rights Watch, eleven journalists have been convicted and sentenced since 2011 under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law. Of these, three remain in prison. Three additional journalists are currently on trial. Given this record of continued repression, it was somewhat surprising that the government issued a permit for a demonstration. The government did not offer an explanation for its decision to grant the permit, but opposition figures noted that it came just before the African Union (AU) summit, which took place in Addis Ababa in May. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attended the summit meeting.
The organizing force behind the June 2 demonstration was the opposition Semayawi (Blue) Party. Almost unknown before the demonstration, the Blue Party was formed in January 2012 and claims to have 20,000 members. Its chairman, Yilikal Getinet, espouses moderate views. In his only available interview, Yilikal stated his party’s principles: “Our political philosophy is mainly based on individual rights. We believe that we promote a center-right-moderate liberal political outlook. We say rights start with an individual; if individual right is respected, the right of all/everyone shall be respected.” In other sections of the interview, Yilikal applauded federalism as an effective governance structure for Ethiopia, but criticized the support by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) for federalism as “nominal.”
Estimates of the size of the June 2 demonstration vary widely, influenced by political perspectives. State-run television said there were 2,000 participants in the protest. The demonstration’s organizers and their supporters cited numbers between 15,000 and 20,000. One organization representing the diaspora even asserted that “an astounding number of Ethiopians came out— estimated at hundred[s] of thousands.” From videos of the protest, it appears that the protest drew a sizable, but not overwhelming, crowd, probably closer to the estimates of the organizers than of the government. Protesters carried banners reading, “Justice! Justice! Justice!” Speakers urged the release of imprisoned political leaders and journalists, and they demanded action to address unemployment, inflation, and corruption.
Both the protesters and the government deserve credit for the fact that the event remained peaceful. The last previous government-authorized protest, in 2005, ended with street violence in which 200 people were reported killed. On this occasion, a few police officers stood back and watched the demonstration. The crowd was loud, but orderly, and refrained from provoking the police. Overall, it might be taken as evidence of political maturity on both sides.
The goodwill earned by the government for permitting the protest was probably somewhat diminished by a statement made by a government spokesman, Shimeles Kemal, on the day following the rally. The spokesman asserted that the majority of the protesters were Muslim, and included Islamic extremists. He also implied that the protest organizers had broken the law by demanding the release of those charged under terrorism statutes. For its part, the The opinions expressed in these commentaries are those of the authors and should not be viewed as representing the official position of the Institute for Defense Analyses or its sponsors. Links to web sites are for informational purposes only and not an endorsement.
Blue Party vowed to return to the streets in three months if its demands have not been met. The government will, it seems, have the opportunity to demonstrate whether its nod toward political tolerance was real or simply opportunistic.
Amb. (ret.) George F. Ward is the editor of Africa Watch and a Research Staff Member at IDA. He is the former U.S. Ambassador to Namibia.
* Originally published on Institute of Defence Ananalyses, Africa Watch, Vol. 1, on June 13, 2013, titled “Ethiopian protest demonstration: Gov’t liberalization or Symbolism”, authored by George F. Ward.