Ethiopia: From Europe, Exiles Keep Eye on Ethiopia's Fledgling Democracy

Dozens of Ethiopian activists, journalists and politicians have lived in exile for many years, having fled their country when dissident voices were repeatedly suppressed and jailed over the past few decades. Ahead of elections set to take place in their homeland in six months, the first since the previous government collapsed in 2018, the exiles are closely watching the current unrest and are contemplating how they can help.

Kinfu Assefa remained active as a journalist even after being forced to move to the Netherlands. From there, he has seen the changes at home, and he worries about the strength of Ethiopia's democratic institutions.

"I didn't see proper preparation for the upcoming elections,” he said. “Neither the ruling party nor the opposition groups have done anything so far to mobilize the nation. Activists and exiled journalists could contribute a lot towards a positive development in the country. We can engage ourselves to ongoing changes through dialogue and discussion. We can contribute a lot through knowledge transfer, for instance."

Ahmed's reforms

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed released many political prisoners and won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending hostilities with Eritrea in the past year and a half. His reforms also opened up more space for civil society organizations.

Activist Bekele Wocheya has been living in exile in Britain for the past 14 years, working with civil society organizations. Because of his experience, he co-founded the Ethiopian Institute for Leadership, Communication and Organization, in the hope of strengthening civil society ahead of the elections.

"The agenda of the country should be set by ordinary citizens, folks on the ground, who are actually having life on a daily basis, who are exposed to problems,” Wocheya said. “So it is they who should decide what is important for them. It's not the elites who are further away from the reality that should decide the agenda of the day. So it's important for me and others to stay and bring support in organizing folks."

Activist won't return

Many new parties will stand in the elections scheduled for May 2020. One is Ginbot 7. Outlawed by the previous government, it merged with seven other political parties.

Seblework Tadesse was part of Ginbot 7, but her political activism landed her in prison for 18 months.  Facing possible arrest again, she moved to Australia.  Despite political reforms in Ethiopia, she does not see herself going back and running for office.

"I myself was engaging in Ethiopian politics from an early age,” Tadesse said. “And I'm lucky, I had a chance to be part of that. I know it's not easy. It's very hard.” She said she would like to mentor more young women and encourage their interest in the country, its politics, economy and social structure.

Ethiopia is plagued by ethnic tensions and violent unrest that analysts warn could disrupt the election if they are not resolved.

A successful referendum was held in November, granting the Sidama ethnic group self-determination. But it took several postponements before the vote could go ahead peacefully.

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