BY AARON MAASHO
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopia’s new prime minister Abiy Ahmed has told opposition leaders the country will strengthen a range of political and civil rights, in the latest sign he may be willing to push through reforms announced in the wake of violent protests.
The 42-year-old former army officer was sworn in as premier on April 2 after his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn resigned in February amid unrest that threatened the ruling EPRDF coalition’s tight hold on Africa’s second most populous nation.
“So far, democracy has not been implemented in our country in a manner that satisfies us all,” Abiy said when he met dissident politicians and civil society leaders – some of whom had spent several years behind bars – on Thursday.
“Together, we need to strive to strengthen our adherence to our constitutionally-mandated rights that include the accommodation of varying political views, equality before the law, accountability, human rights and freedom of assembly,” he said in a speech shown on state television.
Since 2015, hundreds have died in violence triggered by demonstrations over land rights in Ethiopia’s Oromiya region. The protests have since broadened into rallies over political rights.
Sandwiched between volatile Somalia and Sudan, Ethiopia is often accused by rights groups of using security concerns as an excuse to stifle dissent and media freedoms. Its 547-seat parliament does not have a single opposition member, with dissident parties accusing the EPRDF of rigging the last election in 2015. The ruling coalition denies the charges.
Abiy acknowledged that the EPRDF’s efforts in developing a democratic system had so far been “insufficient”, but that it had carried out a review of “its shortcomings” and is pushing through reforms.
Among those who attended the event included opposition leaders Merera Gudina and Bekele Gerba, who were released in January and February respectively having been jailed on charges of incitement during the protests.
“His speeches have been great. He seems to understand the problems that Ethiopia has been facing for a long time now,” Bekele told Reuters. “But speeches are one thing and implementation is another. We want to see changes on the ground and nothing has happened so far.”
Bekele said opposition parties still faced restrictions on political activities such as opening offices. He said Abiy should also lift the state of emergency imposed in February.
Abiy’s meeting came a day after he visited Ambo, a town in Oromiya that has been at the heart of protests and clashes with security forces since 2015, where he promised to address grievances.
Faced with growing unrest, Addis Ababa pledged a series of reforms in 2016 in an attempt to reduce tensions. Since January, authorities say nearly 6,000 prisoners have been freed, most of which were detained for alleged involvement in the mass protests.
On Wednesday, Ethiopia’s attorney general’s office said it had pardoned 114 prisoners who had been jailed on terrorism charges. Reports on Friday said several had been released.
(Editing by George Obulutsa, Elias Biryabarema, Alison Williams and David Stamp)