“We must not be satisfied until we have real democracy,” he told thousands of his supporters in Ambo, a town in Oromia state that has been a hotbed of resistance to the government.
Mr Merera is the highest profile of more than 5,000 political prisoners released by Addis Ababa last month in an unprecedented move by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has traditionally used force to crush dissent.
Analysts regard the mass release as sign that the ruling coalition is willing to make genuine concessions to those demanding reform for the first time since it seized power in 1991. But it has done little to quell almost three years of violent anti-government demonstrations. Instead, opposition supporters are looking to expose deepening divisions in the EPRDF to push for change as the ruling party faces the biggest ever threat to its control.
Protests have continued despite the releases, with at least 20 people killed in demonstrations in the Amhara and Oromia regions in the past two weeks. And Mr Merera, chair of the Oromo Federalist Congress, an opposition party, and a thorn in the government’s side for years, says the EPRDF is not moving fast enough to meet the escalating demands of the country’s disgruntled youth.
“Revolutions for change usually do not come according to a timetable. We want more of an evolution, but if the government is not responding, young people can react very violently,” Mr Merera says. “A hungry nation can eat its leaders and we have too many hungry mouths, too many hungry young people and too many angry young people.”
The EPRDF has presided over one of Africa’s fastest growing economies since toppling the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam as it has spent heavily on infrastructure and positioned the impoverished nation as a manufacturing hub. But the economic progress has been accompanied by repression and a conspicuous favouritism towards the ruling elite.
Now, the regime’s failure to crush the wave of protests has triggered deep divisions with the four-party coalition as its leaders differ on whether to allow greater democracy or maintain its autocratic grip and focus on development.
The leaders of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation and the Amhara National Democratic Movement, two junior parties in the EPRDF, have allied against the dominant Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front and begun calling for greater democracy.
Lemma Mergesa, the president of Oromia state, has openly criticised senior Tigrayan politicians and, in an unprecedented move, Abadula Gemeda, the Oromo speaker of parliament, briefly resigned in October in protest at the slow pace of reform.
The Oromia and Amhara regional press have also become more open in articulating demands for greater democracy and an end to the Tigrayan elite’s dominance of the economy and the military. Tigrayans account for 6 per cent of Ethiopia’s 105m population, while the Oromia and Amhara people comprise more than 60 per cent.
“The change [within the EPRDF] in the last six months has been massive,” says Belete Molla a social sciences lecturer at Addis Ababa University. “If the regime continues to not answer people’s questions we will enter the last and ugliest chapter of the EPRDF. The protests will develop into open confrontation.”
Negeri Lencho, minister of government communications, admits the “democratisation landscape” is not what it should be — the EPRDF and its allies control all the seats in parliament. But he attributes “the nation’s problems” more to “a lack of good governance”, particularly in local administrations, than fundamental failings.
“The government has created greater opportunities for the youth, particularly those who are better educated at the more than 50 universities we now have,” he says. “So they have started raising questions and we need to answer them.”
But critics of the regime still doubt it is serious about reform, citing its continued use of force to put down protests. Security forces shot dead six people in a youthful crowd that was shouting anti-government slogans in Woldia town in Wollo district in Amhara, this month, according to local media. Angry youths responded by burning government offices in nearby towns, leading to fresh clashes in which at least 10 more people died.
Mr Belete says the fact that Wollo, which was largely peaceful for the past three years, turned violent “shows that things are becoming worse”.
“If the government is to survive and the country is to survive as a unified state it’s got to take radical [reform] measures,” he adds. “Reforming EPRDF will not be sufficient to solve our political problems.”
Mr Negeri insists the EPRDF is “highly united” after a “natural struggle last year to correct those individuals who were abusing their positions”.
But diplomats and analysts disagree, noting the repeated postponement of the EPRDF’s congress. “The country is on this ticking clock,” says one diplomat. “No one know how much time there is before it blows.”
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