Political Space Widens at Long Last



It was not long ago that Getachew Ambaye announced that the charges of 528 people would be dropped. Amongst them was Merara Gudina (PhD), a prominent opposition leader that had been in jail since 2016. His release, and that of others, was applauded by international institutions and a large number of people such as those who greeted Merara at his home. It is not apparent though if this is the beginning of the path towards the consolidation of good governance by the ruling party.


Belated as it may seem, the charges of 528 people have been dropped. That many people who were behind bars have now been released to breathe fresh and free air. But the chapter, one of many in the current Ethiopian political sense, is not yet closed.

One among the detainees to be released was Merera Gudina (PhD), an opposition leader from the Oromo Federalist Congress. Upon release, a great many number of supporters, friends and family greeted him at his residence near Addis Abeba. For the impassioned leader, the pardon could not have come sooner, for he did not deserve to be put there to begin with.

The goodwill from the part of the government was not an isolated event this month. Back in early January, Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegen, in a communique he gave with the three other prominent figures of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), promised that the facility famously known as Ma’ekelawi will be closed, and then turned into a museum.

Critics rightly questioned, Why now? What is the reason for the decision?

The answer is complicated though, and one that officials are giving us – “to widen the political space” – makes little sense for this is a party that has vowed to do as such all through its incumbency.

If Merera is to be freed then why not Bekele Garba?

Both are from the same party and, at least through my eyes, the charges levelled at them are not right. But for some reason, the administration of Hailemariam has chosen to nitpick whom to hand out pardons.

The most critical bottleneck for Ethiopia’s endeavour towards democracy is the state of the judiciary. It is a government body whose components are a model of weak institutions. It often sings along to the tunes of the executive body of the government. Prison systems are likewise non-transparent, often a source of grievance for the families of those that have been sent to jail or are awaiting sentencing there.

Many people were in suspense even after it was announced that Merara would be released. It has become such an era of uncertainty, even the words of senior public officials are taken with a grain of salt. And in this instance, where the government has found it hard to keep its word, it is difficult to blame people for their scepticism.

It has become effortless to spot the asynchrony between the government and the people. One can see it in Getachew Ambaye’s, attorney general of Ethiopia, explanation during the press-conference where he announced that over 500 people’s charges would be dropped, that there are no political prisoners. He told reporters that there are only members of political parties that may be in jail, despite the popular belief otherwise.

Upon release, Merera made a call to the government to continue to release prisoners. He also said that he would be happy to continue the struggle peacefully and lawfully. And indeed, I expect he will. The hard work and effort of people such as him then should be abated by the government, if officials can listen, where they should ensure that democratic processes are enshrined, and institutions such as the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) are utterly independent.

And the arm of the law, instead of focusing on people such as Merara, should extend towards those that commit corruption – those that are stealing from taxpayers that work hard to contribute to the public coffer.

But based on EPRDF’s deep soul-searching, it is easy to lose hope. After a meeting that lasted over a couple of weeks, the chairpersons of the Executive Committee only came out to say that they take full responsibility for the state of the country. But they failed short of announcing that anyone of the senior party officials would be held accountable for what is happening.

The next question is how the opposition parties of Ethiopia could rebound – pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and join together to ensure that the type of political pluralism the Ethiopian people deserve exists.

Many peace-loving people have received Merera tumultuously at his home. Many were present at an unrestrained reception in a field near his home. This is because his release inspired in them hope for the future – that things will slowly get better.

What people now await is the release of other influential figures, either journalists, bloggers or opposition party members. It is heartbreaking that such people are in prison – in institutions that were instead set up to ensure those that are violent do not do society any harm.

But can any of the above people do society any harm?

I doubt it. Instead, they would contribute to the betterment of democratic processes, and widen the political space.



By Girma Feyissa


Published on Jan 27,2018 [ Vol 18 ,No 925]


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