Change of prime minister fuels hope in Ethiopia

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In his first week of office, Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has announced the closure of a notorious torture prison. However, he still governs under the strict state of emergency.

Ethiopia is not considered a poster boy in terms of human rights. Amnesty International, for example, points out that opposition activists have been arbitrarily arrested, tortured and sometimes even deliberately killed.

Earliers this month, a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, took over the government. Observers are cautiously optimistic that they now struggle for social and political grievances without being arrested or killed. “In a first public speech Abiy tried to build important bridges,” says Constantin Grund of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) in the capital Addis Ababa. The state of emergency is no reason to give up hope for Ethiopia’s democracy.

In recent months, there have been some violent demonstrations in Ethiopia against the government in Addis Ababa. Security forces arrested journalists and critics. In February, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced his resignation on increasing pressure.

Hopes are now resting on new Prime Minister Abiy, who took the oath of office last week. With almost 102 million inhabitants, Ethiopia has the second largest population on the continent, behind Nigeria. Correspondingly, one of Abyy’s most important tasks is the creation of jobs for 25 million young Ethiopians, says Grund.

In his first week in office, the new head of government has already paved the way for democratic reforms that he had promised when he arrived. For example, according to local reports, mobile Internet services have been restored. Especially in rural areas, the regime cut off mobile phone users from the outside world with the aim of preventing mobilization via Facebook and Twitter. In addition, the government announced that it closed down the notorious Maekelawi prison. Branded as a torture chamber by human rights activists, the prisoners’ camp was mostly filled with government critics, journalists, activists and opposition politicians. They report physical and mental torture, including daylight deprivation as one of the most innocuous methods.

Abiy has the chance to fix the political failures of his predecessors: “If he can meet the high expectations directed to him in the coming weeks and months, it will be good for democratic development in Ethiopia,” says Grund.

By Markus Schönherr