Ever since Abiy Ahmed took over as Ethiopia's Prime Minister, he has been making valiant efforts to cultivate a culture of democracy in the country, a feature that had been bereft from the country for a long time. He has been opening up the space for the voices that were once shut down to speak again. But this is not to say all is now rosy in Ethiopia.
Rebel leader Berhanu Nega, who had been exiled from Ethiopia for many years, finally returned to the country in an environment favourable towards democracy. He faced a death penalty at home because of how he coordinated attacks on Ethiopian soldiers from his base in Eritrea. This is now different from what he was doing a year ago, as he returned to Ethiopia in September, welcomed by tens of thousands of supporters. Berhanu had been fiercely critical of the Ethiopian government and believed the violence was the appropriate way to challenge the regime.
This alone speaks volumes about the reforms in Ethiopia being instituted at the initiative of Abiy Ahmed. Since Ahmed took office in April, dozens of political dissidents, former rebels, and secessionist leaders have returned home, and Berhanu is just one of the high profile figures among these. What Ahmed has been doing - opening up the space for these former "enemies of the state" - is creating a perception that Ethiopia is on the path to finally embrace democracy. However, the journey will not be smooth and there is a long way to go.
The human rights situation in Ethiopia has not been the most tolerable. Past elections have been said to be sham elections marked by a clampdown on popular opposition politicians including Berhanu. Repression has led to unrest and demands for greater political and social freedom, especially the period between 2015 and 2018, where the Human Rights Watch said that security forces killed more than 1,000 protesters and jailed tens of thousands of people. This was all because of the heavy-handedness of the ruling EPRDF coalition.
"Seven, eight months ago the question was whether the country is going to survive or not, whether it’s going to explode into a civil war," Berhanu who is aged 59, revealed this to Reuters in Addis Ababa.
But ever since the coalition elevated Ahmed to the post of Prime Minister, the outlook of the democratic situation has exuded confidence and hope. Ahmed made a promise to create a new path and discard the authoritarian approach to governance. In a region surrounded by autocratic inclinations from countries such as Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda where opposition leaders are jailed, Ahmed's approach inspires a hope for change.
Berhanu ordered the armed group he led, Ginbot 7, to stop attacking Ethiopian troops and end its armed struggle as soon as Ahmed assumed office. Abiy’s arrival "was real change," Berhanu said. "It did not take us a minute... We have no particular interests in violence. We just said: 'Are you serious, is this something you are committed to? Yes, good, we are done.'" Berhanu said that Ahmed "really has this mission of changing society toward what he believes the public deserves: to live in freedom and democracy."
Berhanu has always been at the forefront of challenging brutal rule. When the Derg, a brutal military regime, toppled Emperor Haile Selassie, Berhanu became active against it in the late 1970s. He was imprisoned but escaped to Sudan where he eventually got asylum in the United States and attained a doctorate in Economics. In 2005, he ran for municipal office in Addis Ababa but the results were nullified by the Meles Zenawi-led government, and Berhanu was jailed.
He was released in 2007 and returned back the States, but in 2014 he moved to Eritrea to put full focus on his rebel group Ginbot 7. He adopted violence as a necessary and acceptable way to bring change, being of the strong belief that the brutal EPRDF regime could not leave power "through any kind of peaceful means." Eritrea provides him relative safety especially on the backdrop of US protection.
Berhanu is of the thinking that this is Ethiopia's final chance to embrace democratic change. To him, a chance was missed in 1974 when Emperor Haile Selassie was toppled by the Derg, and in 1991 when the rebels toppled the Derg. "If we screw this one, then that’s it. I really don’t believe we have another chance."
Ethiopia now faces the uphill task of deciding what to put first - putting the rights of the citizen first or of the ethnic group first. Ethiopia is still very much structured on ethnic lines and it is something that will need to be dismantled if "citizenship-based" politics is to be realized.
Even though the democratic space is being opened up, not all rebel groups have laid down their arms. The Oromo Liberation Front is still not keen on agreeing for its fighters to be disarmed. But there is a prevailing and overwhelming feeling of citizens voicing their opinions on the streets and social media without any fear of being arrested.
Header Image: Ecad Forum