For more than two years, as his health deteriorated, Ethiopian opposition leader Bekele Gerba was locked up in a notorious high-security prison on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, accused of “terrorism” for leading anti-government protests.
This week, the authorities needed him for a different reason. He and many other opposition activists were invited to a palace to dine with Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister. The country needs “strong competing parties, more than ever before,” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told them.
It was the latest sign of a new era in Africa’s second-most populous country. While it remains dominated by an authoritarian government that has jailed hundreds in a state of emergency, there are hints of democratic reforms that could loosen the controls and allow greater political freedoms.
The new 41-year-old Prime Minister, Mr. Abiy, is the youngest head of government in Africa. In the two weeks since his inauguration, he has launched a charm offensive in an effort to defuse tensions: touring the country, freeing some prisoners, visiting the main regions where protests have erupted, restoring internet access in the restive Oromiya region and shutting down one of the most infamous prisons where dissidents were jailed and tortured.
Canada is among the countries that are watching closely. Canada gives more development aid to Ethiopia than any other country in the world, including an estimated $190-million in 2016.
The Canadian government has welcomed Mr. Abiy’s rise to the country’s highest office, but it has called on his government to end the state of emergency, release the remaining political prisoners, allow peaceful assembly and remove restrictions on the media. More than 1,100 people are still in detention under the emergency decree.
“Ethiopia is at a serious point in its evolution as a nation; this represents a historic opportunity to implement meaningful reforms in the interest of its people,” said a statement from the Canadian government.
Ethiopia has long been favoured by Western governments as a donor recipient and a strategic ally against Islamist militancy in East Africa. Critics say the West has turned a blind eye to autocratic rule and human-rights abuses in the country. Almost all of the 547 seats in Ethiopia’s parliament are controlled by the government and its allies.
Thousands of opposition supporters have been killed or arrested in the past two years as protests have spread, especially in the Oromiya region. Most recently, local elections were postponed for a year because of “security” concerns.
The protests began over the issue of land rights in Oromiya in 2015, but they have expanded into broader demands for political rights. Increasing tensions and violence have raised fears that a civil war or regional fragmentation could be looming. In parliament, some MPs have broken ranks to oppose the latest government decree that imposed a six-month state of emergency.
With the political pressures rising, Ethiopia’s ruling party opted to choose Mr. Abiy for the prime minister’s job. As a former military officer, he is acceptable to the security agencies. But he also represents a shift away from the Tigrayan ethnicity that has traditionally controlled the ruling party. He is multilingual, has roots in the Oromiya region and has a mixed religious background, with a Muslim father and a Christian mother.
In his inaugural speech last week, Mr. Abiy apologized for the deaths of anti-government protesters. “I ask forgiveness from the bottom of my heart for the many advocates of freedom and justice and the many change-seeking youths whose lives were cut short,” he told the Ethiopian parliament.
“We have suffered great harm due to the shortcomings that are compounded because of the lack of a mature democratic system,” he said.
“The lives of many of our citizens have been cut short and many private and public properties have been destroyed. All of us should have averted this. … We need to respect all human and democratic rights, especially to free expression, assembly and organization.”
His speech was widely hailed as a harbinger of democratic reforms. In cafés where people were watching the speech on television, there was frequent applause and cheering.
Mr. Abiy has repeated the same message in his national tour. “We are now on the path of change and love,” he told a crowd in a town in the Oromiya region this week. “I ask you to give us time.”
But some analysts and opposition activists are skeptical. They note that Mr. Abiy has said nothing about lifting the state of emergency and has given no details of specific reforms.
“His options are peaceful reform or face a revolution,” said Neamin Zeleke, an exiled opposition leader who is based in the United States.
He said he is willing to give Mr. Abiy time to move ahead with reforms, but he wants to see action, not just rhetoric. “The status quo is neither tenable nor sustainable any longer,” he told The Globe and Mail on Friday.
“The new Prime Minister should take concrete measures to demonstrate that he means what he says. Repeal the repressive laws enacted to criminalize political dissent. … Lift the state of emergency and start a national dialogue with all the political, civic and important sectors of the people outside and inside Ethiopia.”
Despite the praise for the Prime Minister’s inaugural speech, his rhetoric seems to be “old wine in a new bottle” and could lead to a worsening of the instability, Mr. Neamin said.