Ethiopia moves to lift state of emergency two months early as tensions ease

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed waves to the crowd at a rally April 11 in Ambo, Ethi­o­pia. (Zacharias Abubeker/AFP/Getty Images)

ADDIS ABABA, Ethi­o­pia — Ethiopia’s government approved a draft law Saturday to end a six-month state of emergency two months early, the latest sign of easing tensions under a new prime minister.

The state of emergency, which prohibited most gatherings and gave increased power to security forces, was declared following the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn as prime minister in February. At the time, widespread strikes — objecting to the slow pace of political prisoner releases — disrupted supply and transportation links to the capital, Addis Ababa.

But since being selected by the ruling party and taking office in April, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has helped bring greater stability. He has freed thousands of prisoners and toured the country listening to people’s grievances. He has also reached out to opposition figures both inside and outside Ethiopia.

A number of opposition figures and experts have been cautiously hopeful that he seeks to bring real democratic reform.

“I am optimistic about Abiy; this measure is really encouraging, even though it should have been lifted earlier,” said Atnafu Berhane, a blogger who spent years in jail for his writings, was released and then detained briefly under the state of emergency. “Once again he did the right thing; it’s a good sign.”

Abiy’s chief of staff, Fitsum Arega, announced Saturday on Twitter that the Council of Ministers had “reviewed the security situation of the country. It noted that law & order has been restored. It has approved a draft law that lifts the State of Emergency.”

Parliament, which is entirely controlled by the ruling party coalition, is expected to approve the law.

This was the second state of emergency declared in as many years in Ethi­o­pia, Africa’s second-largest country by population and a key U.S. partner in the fight against extremists in the Horn of Africa.

The Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups, which make up two-thirds of Ethiopia’s population, have been protesting the government over the lack of jobs and lack of political freedom. Hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands imprisoned.

Abiy, an Oromo, is one of the youngest leaders on the continent at 41.

Among the prisoners he has released is Andargachew Tsige, a British citizen and leader of the opposition Ginbot 7, which the government had branded a terrorist group. Andargachew, who was arrested by Yemeni authorities in 2014 and turned over to Ethi­o­pia, returned to Britain on Friday.

While it has long had the trappings of a democracy, including elections and a parliament, Ethi­o­pia has functioned as an authoritarian state with a ruling party coalition backed by a powerful military. The last two elections saw almost no opposition presence in Parliament.

Abiy has reached out to the opposition and encouraged them to return to politics.

On Friday, he gave a speech to the military that made clear it had no role in the civilian politics of the country.

“We will face chaos if the army involves itself in party politics from A to Z or if it does so remotely, like proxy war, to influence outcomes,” he said. “The army should be able to continue serving under the party that is elected by the people.”

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