Peaceful Opposition Protest Could Mark Change in Ethiopian Policy

Thousands of people staged a peaceful protest in Addis Ababa on Sunday in the first large-scale gathering of its kind and a rare show of public opposition in more than eight years. (VOA)

VOA News

Peter Heinlein

June 03, 2013

A peaceful protest rally in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, has sparked speculation the government may be relaxing its tight restrictions on political demonstrations. The large turnout at the rally has also raised the profile of a little-known opposition party that seems to be attracting a large following among Ethiopia’s disaffected youth.

Sunday’s demonstration drew thousands to the streets of Addis. But estimates of how many thousands varied widely. State-run television reported it was 2,000, while organizers said it was more like 15,000 to 20,000.

Whatever the figure, the event was significant. It marked the first time authorities have allowed a mass political protest in Addis Ababa since 2005, when police gunned down demonstrators who accused the ruling party of fraud in parliamentary elections.

Pictures and video of the demonstration created a sensation on the Internet, prompting speculation about whether Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s government might be easing restrictions on political speech imposed by his predecessor, the late Meles Zenawi.

It also raised questions about whether a new generation of opposition leaders might be emerging. The rally was organized by the Semayawi (Blue) Party, a small offshoot of an opposition group that collapsed following the 2005 election.

Party president Yenekal Getinet said the Blue Party represents the desire for change among the 70 percent of Ethiopians under the age of 35, who he said want to break away from the Marxist ideas that have dominated the country’s political thinking for more than a generation.

“This is a new generation of leaders,” said Getinet. “Many political leaders for the last 20 years, be it in the ruling party or opposition are from the leftist ideology or Marxist-Leninist mindset and ethnocentric. So this is the new generation from the globalization era, a bit liberalized, vibrant and knowledge-based; and this may be the reason why, I am from the new generation.”

The protest was mainly called to demand the release of political prisoners, including opposition leaders, journalists and the organizers of last year’s Muslim protests that called for an end to government interference in religious affairs.

Government spokesman Shimeles Kemal was quoted Monday as saying the overwhelming majority of the protestors were Muslims, including Islamic extremists. But law professor Yakob Hailemariam, who is representing the Muslim protest organizers in court, and was the keynote speaker at Sunday’s rally, said the demonstrators represented a broad spectrum of Ethiopian youth.

“Actually, the number of Muslims was only one-fifth, it was not very significant. They stand out because of their clothes, but they were not that many. But the demo was espousing their cause that Muslim jailed leaders should be released, so that was one of the demands, but it has not religious sentiment to it,” said Yakob.

Yakob, who is gained prominence as a senior prosecutor with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, expressed surprise that Ethiopia’s ruling EPRDF party had allowed the demonstration. He said it is too early to know whether this represents a change in the tight restrictions on protests that have been in effect since the 2005 post-election violence.

“It Is hard to tell. The EPRDF is secretive and it is difficult to know what their intentions are. I have been wondering why they allowed this demonstration. Are they opening up? Is this an indication? Because they have been prohibited since 2005. Strictly prohibited,” said he said.

Blue Party leader Getinet declined to speculate about whether authorities would tolerate more protests.

Other opposition figures, including Yakob Hailemariam, have noted that the demonstration permit had been issued just before last month’s African Union summit, when the government’s restrictions on political speech were under scrutiny by a host of international visitors, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Yenekal said the test will come in three months, when the Blue Party plans to ask for another demonstration permit to press its demands for release of political prisoners.

Critics allege Ethiopia has become a de facto one-party state, noting the ruling EPRDF’s near total domination of all elections since 2005. The late prime minister Meles Zenawi rejected that label, however, calling it a dominant-party state.

Thousands Hold Peaceful Demonstration in Rare Ethiopia Protest (VOA News)


Thousands of Ethiopian opposition activists demonstrate in Addis Ababa, June 2, 2013. (Marthe van der Wolfe/VOA)

Marthe van der Wolf

June 02, 2013

ADDIS ABABA — Thousands of Ethiopians demonstrated Sunday in Addis Ababa, the first political protest against the country’s ruling party since 2005.

The demonstrators were shouting they wanted their human rights to be ensured, that political and religious prisoners should be released, and accusing state television of only broadcasting propaganda.

“We have been raising lots of questions for the government and one is to release those political party leaders and journalists,” said Getaneh Banch, a member of the Blue Party, the opposition party that organized the demonstration. “And we have been also calling for the government to release also those who have been dislocated from their locations, because of their ethnic background.”

This was the first political demonstration since the 2005 elections, after which many protesters and opposition leaders were imprisoned.

One of the opposition leaders jailed after the 2005 elections, Jacob Hailemariam, says this demonstration is significant for Ethiopia.

“This will definitely encourage people to demand their rights that they have been very quite about, until today,” he said.

Many of the protesters were young men with a Muslim background who do not necessarily support the Blue Party, but do feel a change in government is needed.

“I am not happy with the political party of this nation,” said Mustafa, a high-school teacher. “I never support this party because if I am a citizen I can not believe in what I believe. We are suffering too much, our leaders are in prison.”

University student Shimelis says he does not expect any immediate change, but still feels it is important to be present.

“When we demonstrate, we express our idea, we express our thinking to the government and to the international community,” he said.

The Blue Party says it will organize more demonstrations if Ethiopia’s ruling party does not respond to its demands within three months.

Related:
Ethiopia: Free to protest (The Economist)
Thousands march for rights in rare Ethiopia protest (Reuters)
Ethiopian protesters take to streets (BBC News)
Ethiopia: Thousands Protest Political Repression (AP)

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1 Response to “Peaceful Opposition Protest Could Mark Change in Ethiopian Policy”


  1. 1 Ethiopia’s Opposition Vows Sustained National Protests Against the Ruling Party at Tadias Magazine Pingback on Jun 21st, 2013 at 12:17 am
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