15 September 2018

Ethiopia: Show of Force

In keeping with a long line of opposition parties returning home, the leadership of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) touched ground in Addis Abeba on Saturday, September 15, 2018.

Led by its Chairman, Dawud Ibsa, the leadership was greeted by a massive crowd that lined the streets of Addis Abeba from Bole International Airport to Mesqel Square. Traffic was closed along the way, and even the Addis Abeba Light Rail Transit paused its trains for the first time since it began service in September 2015.

It was not, however, the first time the OLF's rebel leadership held a rally for its supporters at Mesqel Square. In 1991, the OLF leadership led by Gelasa Dilbo was welcomed when the OLF joined the EPRDF to form the transitional government. Throughout the past week, a welcoming ceremony was planned, with supporters hanging flags and painting public property, which created skirmishes with other youth in the city.

Trekking from as far away as Hararghe, OLF supporters began to gather in the dead of night the day before the leadership's arrival, despite rain and cold. The massive gathering, where chants and the colours of OLF's flags were in abundance, dispersed peacefully in the afternoon.

The event last Saturday comes six days after the arrival of another opposition movement in exile that, like the OLF, had been designated a terrorist organisation by Ethiopia's Parliament. The leadership of Patriotic Ginbot 7, led by the once mayor-elect of Addis Abeba, Berhanu Nega (PhD), was greeted by another crowd, many carrying the Ethiopian flag without the emblem. It held its reception at the Addis Abeba Stadium, where Deputy Mayor Takele Uma, who was also present at OLF's welcoming ceremony, appeared.

Neither was it the first time for its leaders to enjoy massive support. In 2005, many leaders under the Unity for Democracy & Justice witnessed one of the largest crowds gathered at Mesqel Square in solidarity to their cause. In the past week, Addis Abeba was prepared for Patriotic Ginbot 7's reception a week in advance. Streets, as well as vehicles, were decorated with the green, yellow and red flags. There was likewise the sporadic painting of public property. Almost a week later, the delegation was in the city of Bahir Dar, greeted with a similarly warm reception.

Such highly politicised atmosphere comes in the wake of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's (PhD) call to overseas-based opposition parties to return home as long as they are willing to engage in electoral politics, renounce violence and accept the constitutional order. Both the OLF and Patriotic Ginbot 7, which had armies stationed in Eritrea, parts of which have since crossed the border into Ethiopia, have heeded the call, promising that democratisation is their chief goal.

Their respective supporters - pictured above - demonstrated a show of force, signalling the start of the electoral battle ahead.

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