Opposition Party Sees Opening as Ethiopian Government Vows Changes

An Ethiopian opposition party whose chairman was freed after more than a year in prison plans to step up its activity as the Horn of Africa nation’s government pledges greater openness in the wake of mass protests.

The Oromo Federalist Congress will open an initial 20 offices in the Oromia region and “start to organize our people,” Chairman Merera Gudina said in an interview in the capital, Addis Ababa. That could make it a competitor to the ruling coalition’s regional sub-party in elections due by 2020 in a central region that’s been roiled by more than two years of often fatal demonstrations.

Photographer: Chris Stein/AFP via Getty Images

“We have reached a stage where people have refused to be ruled in the old way, and the ruling party cannot rule in the old way,” Merera said. Arrested in Ethiopia after taking part in a 2016 discussion panel in Brussels, he was freed in January as state-linked media reported the pardoning of a first wave of more than 500 detainees.

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Unrest that began in Oromia in late 2015 has damaged Ethiopia’s reputation as an investment destination and posed one of the biggest challenges to the ruling coalition since it came to power in the early 1990s. The government has said the release of some political detainees is intended to “widen the political sphere.”

Opposition Merger

Merera said his party, which was formed from a 2009 merger of two opposition groups, has written to inform Oromia’s regional government of the decision to open offices, but that there’s officially no restriction. The region’s spokesman, Addisu Arega, didn’t respond to two phone calls and two text messages seeking comment.

Merera didn’t rule out working with the ruling coalition’s local branch, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization. “If OPDO leaders have the political will to think outside the box and develop a capacity to think outside the box, we will support them,” he said.

The OFC chairman also called for Ethiopia’s National Election Board to be “transformed” into an independent and neutral body, alleging it’s controlled by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which made a clean sweep at the last vote in 2015. The former deputy head of the board, Addisu Gebreziabher, didn’t immediately respond to two calls and two text messages seeking comment.

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Jailed Supporters

“The government’s talking about national reconciliation, national dialogue, national consensus, but there are a lot of political prisoners, not only from our party,” Merera said. He estimated the number of OFC supporters jailed at “hundreds or thousands,” including some key party officials.

The ruling party-linked Fana Broadcasting Corp. reported Thursday a new round of pardons for 746 detainees, including 400 jailed by federal authorities on charges such as inciting violence and religious extremism. Authorities in Oromia and the northern Amhara region have previously pardoned a combined total of about 5,500 people.

Attorney General Getachew Ambaye didn’t respond to calls and text messages seeking comment on the detainees.

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