For long time, top officials of the Ethiopian ruling regime have been denying the existence of political prisoners. Why is the Ethiopian regime now prepared to release political prisoners it never had?

By Alemayehu G. Mariam (The Hill) |

On Jan. 3, 2018, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn made an equivocal announcement that political prisoners in his country will be released at some future date. He provided no details. Hailemariam said, “Some members of political parties under prosecution will be released” and that those convicted will be pardoned based on an assessment “to establish a national consensus and widen the political sphere.” He promised to close the infamous  Maekelawi prison and convert it into a museum.

For over a decade, the ruling regime repeatedly declared there are no political prisoners in Ethiopia. The late prime minister Meles Zenawi in 2006 claimed, “There are no political prisoners in Ethiopia.” He later told the Financial Times, “Nobody has been imprisoned for criticizing the government. No one.” Only those engaged in “overthrowing the duly constituted government by unconstitutional means” and “pushing the country towards chaos” were  jailed. In 2012, Hailemariam Desalegn told Al Jazeera (forward clip to 7:53), “There are no political opposition that are languishing in prison.” In 2013, Getachew Reda, Hailemariam’s spokesman repeated, “We don’t have any single political prisoner in the country.”

Why is the Ethiopian regime now prepared to release political prisoners it never had?

There may be several contributing factors. Over the past two years, the regime has been unable to contain the ongoing unrest and civil resistance throughout the country. There has been mounting international pressure on the regime to release political prisoners and open up the political space. More recently, there has been deteriorating ethnic strife in the country, with telltale signs of a creeping civil war.

While these factors may have played crucial roles in the extraordinary announcement, I believe critical mass was reached when the Trump administration delivered its message of human rights and aid accountability directly to the Ethiopian regime.

In September 2017, President Donald Trump said he was “sending Ambassador Nikki Haley to Africa to discuss avenues of conflict and resolution and, most importantly, prevention.” Haley visited Ethiopia in October but did not disclose her discussions with Ethiopian leaders in her press conference or official statement. According to Herman Cohen, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Haley “bluntly told the Ethiopian authorities that they face growing instability if undemocratic practices continue. She has also encouraged the government to do more for the youth, many of whom do not see a promising future.”

In early December 2017, Acting Assistant Secretary Donald Yamamoto met with senior leaders of the Ethiopian government.

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