Ethiopia frees opposition leaders from prison, announces political dialogue

The move to free leaders from several ethnic groups is the
most significant breakthrough since war broke out in the northern Tigray
region, threatening the unity of Africa’s second-most populous state.

Some leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF),
the party fighting Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s central government, are among
those freed.

“The key to lasting peace is dialogue,” a
statement from the government communications office said. “One of the
moral obligations of a victor is mercy.”

The state-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation’s list of
those being freed included two senior political leaders from Oromiya: Bekele
Gerba, a senior leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress party, and Jawar
Mohammed, founder of the Oromiya Media Network. Bekele Gerba’s son Samuel
Bekele later tweeted the two men were freed. The two men were charged in
September 2020 with terrorism offences.

Oromiya is home to Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group and is
Abiy’s political heartland. Oromiya has a long-running insurgency rooted in
grievances about perceived political marginalisation and rights abuses by the
security services.

The leader of the Balderas for Genuine Democracy opposition
party, Eskinder Nega, has been released, his party announced on Twitter.
Eskinder, an ethnic Amhara journalist and blogger, was charged alongside Jawar,
Bekele and more than a dozen other political activists.


Among those freed are Abay Weldu, a former president of
Tigray, and Sebhat Nega, the founder of the TPLF.

Getachew Reda, spokesman for the TPLF, could not be reached
immediately for comment.

Will Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst at the Brussels-based
thinktank International Crisis Group, said the announcement was “the first
signs in some time that the federal government is looking to take serious
actions towards political reconciliation.”

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But he warned that the release of a few prisoners did not
mean the resolution of the war.


After war broke out in November 2020, Abiy’s forces –
supported by the Eritrean military – quickly captured the main cities. The
government declared victory three weeks later.

Months of fighting and reports of grave rights abuses
followed. The Ethiopian and Eritrean militaries withdrew from most of Tigray at
the end of June, but the UN said a “de facto government blockade”
prevented aid from entering. The government has denied blocking aid.

Saying they wanted to reopen supply lines for humanitarian
aid, Tigrayan forces then pushed south and east into the neighbouring regions
of Afar and Amhara in July, leaving reports of rights abuses in their wake.

They announced an alliance with the insurgent Oromo
Liberation Army in August, threatened the capital and tried to cut a key
transport corridor. But the military – with support from newly bought drones –
pushed Tigrayan forces back into Tigray in December.

Some sporadic fighting and airstrikes in parts of Tigray
continue. No humanitarian aid has entered since Dec 15; doctors in the region’s
main hospital say it is a week from collapse.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Friday that he
looks forward to improvement in humanitarian access to all areas affected by
the conflict as he welcomed the release of opposition leaders. He called for
parties to the conflict to build on what he said was a “significant
confidence-building step.”

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