What next for Ethiopia’s freed leaders? – By Elizabeth Blunt, BBC News, Addis Ababa

July 23rd, 2007 Print Print Email Email

Ethiopia’s opposition leaders, freed from jail last Friday, have now had a few days to enjoy their freedom. (more…)

Ethiopia’s opposition leaders, freed from jail last Friday, have now had a few days to enjoy their freedom.

They have been receiving the congratulations of their friends and neighbours, meeting new grandchildren for the first time, and enjoying the pleasure of sleeping in their own beds.

But now they have to start thinking about the future and where they, and their organisation, go from here.

When Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced their release, he said two important things.

First, he said, pardon could be partial, or total.

Their pardon was total – as well as their freedom, their civic rights were restored and they were free to vote and stand for public office.

Secondly, he said, pardon could be conditional or unconditional. Theirs was conditional, on their abiding by the promises they made in the letter they signed, asking for pardon.

The first half of the prime minister’s statement seems clear enough.

Some of the former prisoners may now have decided they have had enough and want to retire from public life.

But many are clearly keen to get back to the fray. Several among them were successfully elected in 2005, either to parliament or to Addis Ababa city council.

They originally boycotted these institutions in protest against the conduct of the elections, but even if they are now willing to abandon the boycott they won’t just be able to walk straight back in and take their seats.

Uncertain politics

Shortly before it went into recess, parliament passed a motion declaring unoccupied seats vacant.

But by-elections for those seats will be held early next year, so the MPs among the group will have the chance to compete again and win back their seats.

berhanu_nega_07232007.jpg

Berhanu Nega was jailed after being elected Addis Ababa mayor in 2005

Similarly, since the Addis Ababa city councillors, and the man they chose as mayor, Berhanu Nega, refused to take up their posts, the government appointed an interim administration which has been running the capital for the past 18 months.

But again, when the council comes up for re-election – which should be next year – the ex-prisoners are free to compete.

Whether they will be successful is another question. In his press conference the prime minister hinted that the CUD opposition leaders are now yesterday’s men.

Having boycotted parliament for two years, he said, it might not be so easy to get re-elected.

And besides, he said, he believed that the CUD leaders had misunderstood why so many people voted for them in 2005.

In his opinion it wasn’t out of enthusiasm for the opposition’s ideology – which he subtly suggested was Amhara supremacism.

It was a protest vote against the failings of the ruling party, failings which – he said – the party had now taken measures to address.

It sounded like his first speech of the election campaign.

The CUD leaders will also now be trying to establish how free they really are.

The prime minister said they were bound by their promises in their letter asking for pardon.

So far none of the leadership has made any formal statement, but some have dropped hints that there are unresolved issues surrounding this document, about the pressure put on them to sign, and possibly about the contents of the document itself.

And although the letter only appears to bind them to behave within the constitution – not a difficult thing to promise – they may also find there are, in practice, other boundaries which they may not cross.

For a time at least they are likely to be feeling their way, until they can establish the full extent of their new freedom.

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