A spring breeze for Ethiopia

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Torture prison closed, detainees free, Internet back on: The new PM seems to be serious about reforms. There is still a lot to do.

The new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has made a promising start. Only a week in office, and he has already made a list of changes in the direction of reform. The Internet is restored in many areas outside the capital Addis Ababa after five months. Internet and telephone in Ethiopia are monopoly of the state Ethio Telecom, and under the state of emergency the connections were shut down.

Abiy also paid a visit to a region where, since September 2017, one million people have been displaced by violence between Oromo and Somali ethnic groups. Abiy is himself Oromo.

Additionally, the new prime minister has closed the notorious Maekelawi Prison. His predecessor Desalegn Hailemariam had promised that before, but it was only now that it was made a reality. Maekelawi is called a torture chamber by human rights groups.

Eleven politicians and journalists who had recently been arrested were also released. The eleven were released in February after years in prison, but were imprisoned again shortly thereafter.

The best known of them is Eskinder Nega. He, like many hundreds of other journalists and bloggers and thousands of opposition politicians and government critics, has spent most of the past thirteen years behind bars. The ruling coalition EPRDF (Revolutionary Democratic Front of Ethiopian Peoples) does not tolerate dissent. Many of the several thousand political prisoners were convicted of terrorism, on the assumption that the state would not speak against such an accusation.

Eskinder was in and out of jail since 2005. In the parliamentary election that year, the opposition claimed electoral victory, but the electoral commission denied it and declared EPRDF the winner. There were protests, and Nega wrote flaming articles. He was imprisoned for treason. His wife, also a journalist, kept behind bars.

Her first child was born in prison. After seventeen months, he was pardoned. The then Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had problems with him, but admired him too. Eskinder comes from a family of academics, went to high school in the US and returned to his homeland as and ended the reign of terror of the previous Derg military junta.

Eskinder was imprisoned again in 2011 for criticizing the government for arresting journalists and activists. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison for terrorism. In 2013, his “Letter from the Ethiopian Gulag” was published in the USA. “I was arrested because I wrote that the ‘Arab Spring’ is possible in Ethiopia too, if the authoritarian government does not reform.”

That he is now free is a good sign of more freedom of expression under Ethiopia’s new prime minister. But to cheer it is still too early, according to some activists. Although Abiy Ahmed has made a name for himself as a reformer, there are still thousands of Ethiopian political dissidents in prison, often in humiliating circumstances. Opposition parties have no voice in parliament. Much reform is needed to make Ethiopia a democratic state. The people will watch every step by Abiy Ahmed with eagle eyes.