Hun­dreds of thou­sands in Ethiopia wel­come back once-banned group

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - WORLD - BY ELIAS MESERET

AD­DIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Hun­dreds of thou­sands of Ethiopi­ans gath­ered Satur­day to wel­come re­turn­ing lead­ers of the once-banned Oromo Lib­er­a­tion Front amid sweep­ing re­forms to bring op­po­si­tion groups back into pol­i­tics.

The OLF and two other or­ga­ni­za­tions were re­moved from a list of ter­ror groups ear­lier this year af­ter Prime Min­is­ter Abiy Ahmed took of­fice. He in­vited them to come home as he vowed to widen the po­lit­i­cal space in a coun­try where the rul­ing coali­tion, in power since 1991, and af­fil­i­ated par­ties hold ev­ery seat in par­lia­ment.

Ear­lier Satur­day, some 1,500 OLF fight­ers re­turned to Ethiopia from neigh­bor­ing Eritrea. The group since the 1970s has ad­vo­cated the “right to na­tional self­de­ter­mi­na­tion” for the Oromo peo­ple, Ethiopia’s largest eth­nic group.

A large con­cert was held in Meskel Square in the cap­i­tal, Ad­dis Ababa, to wel­come OLF leader Dawud Ibsa and oth­ers ar­riv­ing from Eritrea’s cap­i­tal. Events also were held in Oro­mia, the largest re­gion among Ethiopia’s fed­eral states.

“I’m happy to be here af­ter 26 years of strug­gle from out­side of Ethiopia,” the OLF leader told re­porters. “We have been strug­gling to bring the changes that we are see­ing now in Ethiopia. We are now see­ing pos­i­tive signs that in­clude the re­spect for rule of law. That’s why we came here.”

The prime min­is­ter’s chief of staff, Fit­sum Arega, warmly wel­comed the OLF lead­ers. “A peace­ful con­test of ideas will move us from a cul­ture of con­flict into a cul­ture of peace,” he said in a Twit­ter post.

Abiy, the first Oromo politi­cian to be­come prime min­is­ter since the rul­ing party came to power in 1991, took of­fice af­ter more than two years of deadly anti-gov­ern­ment protests in the Oro­mia and Amhara re­gions spread through­out the coun­try and led to a state of emer­gency. Ten­sions in restive ar­eas have dra­mat­i­cally de­clined as the new gov­ern­ment re­leased sev­eral thou­sand pris­on­ers, un­blocked web­sites and wel­comed op­po­si­tion voices.

“This is a day that we have been long­ing for,” Milkessa Hunde, a univer­sity lec­turer, told The Associated Press. “This is why thou­sands of Qeeros [youths in Oro­mia] sac­ri­ficed their lives. We are eter­nally in­debted to them.”

Af­ter clashes in re­cent days be­tween youth from Oro­mia and the cap­i­tal over dis­plays of the OLF flag in Ad­dis Ababa, the prime min­is­ter con­demned any in­cite­ment of vi­o­lence. He added, how­ever, that “the right of free­dom of ex­pres­sion in­cludes the use of a flag of choice.”

Po­lice used tear gas to sep­a­rate the two sides as some busi­nesses closed.

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