Picture: Al Jazeera. The Omoro people protest their discrimination and disenfranchisement by the Ethiopian government.
The leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress, the opposition party representing Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, has been released after spending more than a year in prison. Gudina, a fixture in Ethiopian politics since the 1960s, has spent his career building bridges and fighting for democracy. Along with Gudina, the government has also annulled or pardoned the cases of 115 other politicians.
In December 2016, after returning to Ethiopia from Brussels, Gudina was arrested for charges including “association with terrorist groups” that violated the state of emergency in place at the time. Gudina and his supporters claim that the charges were simply an excuse for the government to lock away the opposition, although Ethiopia has always insisted that it holds no political prisoners.
Their claim proves extremely difficult to substantiate in this case, as the arrest of Gudina was made upon his return from the European Parliament, where he had criticized the state of emergency in a public address. The state of emergency in question had been implemented as a response to protests in the region of Oromo, where the people demanded that the government open up political space, allow dissent, and tolerate different perspectives. These protests left more than 1000 dead and led to countless arrests without charge.
Gudina, among the most prominent of those arrested without clear or justified reason, has long had the Oromo public calling for his release. He has, from his arrest, been a clear ‘political prisoner’ in the eyes of the people. Even though the government has accused him of conspiring to “dismantle or disrupt social, economic and political activity”, they nevertheless deny that he was arrested in December 2016 with internal political motivations.
Many see the release of Gudina and the other politicians as a sign of hope; others are far less optimistic. When news of the planned annulments broke two weeks ago, both local and international news outlets reported on Ethiopia’s plan to release its political prisoners. Almost immediately, government agencies stepped in to correct the news, telling reporters worldwide that Ethiopia does not hold political prisoners.
How then does the country consolidate its denial of oppressive tactics with its current attempts at enhancing democracy? With no other significant developments accompanying the pardons, it seems that the government has not given the prospect as much thought as activists would like to hope. While many western news outlets frame it optimistically regardless, the African newspaper Mail & Guardian covered this development with the headline: “Ethiopia has released a handful of prisoners – but nothing else has changed”. Progress will, in reality, continue to depend on the agency and motivation of the people to hold their government accountable for its serious flaws.