22 June 2018

Ethiopia's Blacklisted Groups - Terrorists or Activists?

With the "intention of widening political space", Ethiopia's government is freeing thousands of prisoners accused of a variety of charges, such as terrorism or incitement to topple the government. This includes several senior opposition leaders and members of Ginbot 7, which is among five groups blacklisted under the government's unreformed anti-terror legislation.

Ginbot 7 is an Ethiopian opposition political organisation that was founded in 2008. Their mission statement says the group goal is "the realisation of a national political system in which government power and political authority is assumed through peaceful and democratic process based on the free will and choice of citizens of the country". It was labelled a terrorist group by the Ethiopian government in 2011, after the government released a statement in 2009 claiming it had foiled a coup attempt by members of Ginbot 7. The organisation has maintained that the allegation was baseless.

Since then, several high-profile members of the group have been issued life sentences, even in absentia. The group's secretary-general, Andargachew Tsige, was sentenced to death in absentia in 2009, leading to his arrest in Yemen five years later and extradition to Ethiopia. Another leader, Dr Berhanu Nega, once a professor of economics at Bucknell University in the US, was also sentenced to death in absentia for leading the 2015 anti-government protests.

Other groups blacklisted by Addis Ababa under anti-terror legislation include the Oromo Liberation Front and the Ogaden National Liberation Front, as well as Al-Qaeda and Somalia's Al-Shabaab.

As part of the government's round-up, Oromo Federalist Congress chairman Merera Gudina was thrown into jail for more than a year for meeting leaders of the movement when he travelled to Europe in November 2016.

The Ginbot 7 rebel group, which has had to move its base to Eritrea, has declared that it wanted to return to Ethiopia to pursue a peaceful struggle, the Addis Standard reports. The party says it "will renounce its act of self-defence" and return to Ethiopia if Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali's government continued on the path of eliminating repressive laws and building democratic institutions.

Read: Ethiopia's Ahmed has inspired calm. But he must act quickly on promises

Ethiopia's Political Reforms

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali is pushing through democratic reforms as it tries to end three years of violent unrest, sparked by an urban development plan for Addis Ababa that critics said would trigger land seizures in the surrounding Oromia region. The protest then took a political turn over the publics' rights, which lead to the resignation of then Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

Ethiopian opposition leaders have been calling for the removal or revision of the prevailing anti-terror law for its vague language, which has essentially criminalised dissent and restricted the work of non-governmental organisations.

At the time that Abiy took office, the United States commended the peaceful transfer of power but urged Ethiopia's new leader to lift emergency rule. "We stand ready to support the government's rapid implementation of democratic and economic reforms and look forward to the lifting of the state of emergency," its embassy in Addis Ababa said in a statement.

Abiy is working to implement reforms, including reaching out to exiled opposition groups and asking them to return to the country. He was instrumental in the Andargachew Tsige pardon. About his release Tsige has said in an interview with the CGTN Africa network that he was still "mentally weighed down" by the complexities of the country's politics.

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