After Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned on February 15, opposition leaders in Ethiopia hoped that it would usher in the end of the unrest that surfaced in the country in 2015 when the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) announced a plan to expand the capital city into the region of Oromia. Opposition Blue Party leader Getaneh Balcha said that Desalegn’s surprise resignation was “great news for Ethiopians,” explaining that “other officials also need to follow this and transfer the power to the public.”
Some opposition leaders, however, believe that the resignation will not be enough to heal the damaged legitimacy of the ruling party. Beyene Petros of the opposition Forum for Democratic Dialogue in Ethiopia responded that “[Desalegn’s] resignation is no guarantee that the whole government will resign. The situation is not clear yet.” Desalegn is slated to keep his post as caretaker prime minister until a new leader is selected.
Explaining his decision, Desalegn said, “the level of unrest, with its high death toll and costly damage, has led to a reform process within the ruling EPRDF coalition” and that he wants “to become part of the reforms and the solution to the problems.” One day before the event, Former-President of South Africa Jacob Zuma resigned as leader of the African National Congress and as president, in what is just one of multiple seismic political shifts in Africa in February 2018.
The resignation came after the EPRDF announced that it would release political prisoners and close the Maekelawi Detention Center in Addis Ababa, which had been used to interrogate political activists and is infamous for its “coercive methods” like torture, Human Rights Watch reports. Among the prisoners released was Merera Gudina, chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress. Over one month after the EPRDF revealed its plan, the government pardoned 746 prisoners, including journalist Eskinder Nega and political activist Andualem Arage.
The response to the pardons by human rights organizations was positive: Human Rights Watch researcher Felix Horne reported that the news was “welcome,” while Amnesty International’s deputy regional director Sarah Jackson announced that the group hopes “the release of this courageous journalist [Eskinder Nega], along with hundreds of other prisoners, heralds a new dawn in the Ethiopian government’s handling of political dissent, a dawn of tolerance and respect for human rights.” Jackson added, however, that the positive change must be further cemented with legal reforms.
Hopes that the ruling party would finally address the historic concerns of Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups, which include “state exploitation,” were assuaged after the national government declared of a state of emergency on February 16. The government supported the declaration by deeming it “vital to safeguarding the constitutional order.” The 2018 state of emergency prohibits “protests and publications that incite violence,” according to Defense Minister Siraj Fegessa in an AfricaNews report. Ethiopia’s last state of emergency was declared in October 2016 and lasted for ten months. The 2016 state of emergency was notable for its restriction of movement, communication, and protest and its mass detentions, according to a Human Rights Watch report. It was preceded by over 1,000 deaths during anti-government protests and resulted in over29,000 arrests.