Ethiopia’s national radio said on Friday that numerous opposition figures had been released from prison, as the government announced that it would resume discussion with political opponents following a 14-month battle in which thousands of people had been detained.
The decision to release leaders from several ethnic groups is the most major development since a civil conflict erupted in northern Tigray, threatening the unity of Africa’s second-most populous country.
Among those released are certain leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the opposition party to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s central administration.
“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.
SOME TPLF FREED
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.”
But he warned that the release of a few prisoners did not mean the resolution of the war.
14 MONTHS OF 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 U.N. 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.
In August, they proclaimed an allegiance with the Oromo Liberation Army, attacked the capital, and attempted to block a vital transportation corridor. In December, however, the military drove Tigrayan troops back into Tigray, aided by freshly purchased drones.
In several sections of Tigray, intermittent fighting and airstrikes continue. Since December 15, no humanitarian help has arrived, and physicians at the region’s primary hospital believe it is on the verge of collapsing.
On Friday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed his delight at the release of opposition leaders and expressed his hope for improved humanitarian access to all areas affected by the fighting. He urged the conflict’s participants to build on what he described as a “major confidence-building move.”