The Dallas Morning News
Uncertainty grips Ethiopia
U.S. ally in fighting terror is in disarray after leader resigns
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Ethiopia, an authoritarian East African country where protesters, bloggers and journalists are often jailed, faces uncertainty after the unexpected resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
Desalegn’s announcement Thursday came after years of growing instability and protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions of the country, and what critics call a heavyhanded response from security forces.
Eight hundred protesters were killed in 2015 and 2016, and thousands more were jailed, many of them without trial.
Ethiopia, a nation of more than 100 million in the Horn of Africa and a close ally of the United States in its counterterrorism strategy in Africa, has impressive growth of more than 7 percent. But critics say the strong economic performance comes at the cost of democracy and freedom, with the current government in power since 1991.
Desalegn announced his resignation on television, saying it was “vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy.” It was unclear how soon he would vacate the office and who would replace him.
His departure as prime minister and chairman of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition comes as Ethiopia faces a crisis on how to deal with the mass protests by members of the nation’s two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and Amhara.
Despite the arrests and killings, the government has been unable to regain control or to respond adequately to protesters’ demands for freedom of speech and democratic governance.
A state of emergency was declared Friday by the Ethiopian Cabinet, known as the Council of Ministers.
The hard-line approach to the protests has divided the government. Under intense pressure from the Oromo and Amhara parties in the governing coalition, Desalegn announced reforms last month, promising that all political prisoners would be freed and that a jail in the capital, Addis Ababa, known for torture of dissidents would be closed.
Jubilant celebrations, nevertheless, erupted in the streets after the announcement of his resignation, which came on a day a prominent group of journalists and opposition figures was freed from jail.
Desalegn said Thursday that the country was at a “gravely concerning stage,” adding that it was important to offer answers to the questions Ethiopians were raising in protests. He said the country would continue with a reformist path, adding that he wanted to be part of the solution.
His departure throws open a succession struggle that will determine whether the nation will adopt a more reformist, democratic approach or pursue the authoritarian repressions of government critics.
Several thousand opposition figures and protesters have been released in recent weeks, including an opposition leader, Bekele Gerba, who had been jailed since 2015. Gerba and seven other prominent figures, including journalists Eskinder Nega and Woubshet Taye, were released Wednesday.
Last week, authorities demanded Nega sign a confession admitting to being part of a banned opposition group, in return for freedom, but he refused. Nega and Taye had been jailed for nearly seven years, accused of terrorism. Nega’s 18-year jail term related to a column he wrote in 2011 accusing the government of arresting journalists.
After his release from prison, Nega said the protests had demonstrated “the potency of unarmed justice to triumph over armed injustice.”