The journey of the mild-mannered Ethiopian politician, a former economics professor, from exile to rock-star welcome says a lot about how much Ethiopia has changed in recent months.

By Maggie Fick (Reuters) |

ADDIS ABABA―A year ago, rebel leader Berhanu Nega was coordinating attacks against Ethiopian soldiers from his base across the border in Eritrea and faced a death penalty at home.

In September, he returned to Ethiopia to address tens of thousands of cheering supporters in a stadium in the capital, Addis Ababa.

The journey of the mild-mannered former economics professor from exile to rock-star welcome says a lot about how much Ethiopia has changed in recent months. He is the most high profile of dozens of political dissidents, former rebels, and secessionist leaders who have come home since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in April. Their return has Ethiopians hopeful that the country of 105 million – Africa’s second most populous – can finally embrace democracy.

There’s still a long way to go.

The last two elections were decried by the opposition as shams following a messy poll in 2005, after which the government jailed popular opposition politicians like Berhanu. The clampdown fueled unrest and demands for greater political and social freedom. In recent years, the ruling EPRDF coalition cracked down even more harshly; security forces killed more than 1,000 protesters and jailed tens of thousands of people between 2015 and 2018, according to Human Rights Watch. It also shut off the internet, sometimes for months at a time.

“Seven, eight months ago the question was whether the country is going to survive or not, whether it’s going to explode into a civil war,” Berhanu, 59, told Reuters in a borrowed office in central Addis Ababa.

But in April, the ruling coalition installed Abiy as the new prime minister. The 42-year-old has promised to chart a new course and embrace multi-party democracy. Such a transition would buck the trend towards authoritarianism in nearby countries such as Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, where leaders are jailing opponents and rolling back restrictions on term limits to extend their rule.

Within weeks of Abiy taking charge, Berhanu ordered the armed group he led, Ginbot 7, to stop attacking Ethiopian troops and end its armed struggle.

Abiy’s arrival “was real change,” Berhanu said. “It did not take us a minute… We have no particular interests in violence. We just said: ‘Are you serious, is this something you are committed to? Yes, good, we are done’.”

Continue reading “After years in exile, an Ethiopian politician returns home with hope and fear” on Reuters
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