First biggest opposition rally since 2005 held in Addis Abeba

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By De Birhan Staffers 

June 2, 2013

Read the piece as you listen to this brand new Ethiopian music. 

When did political rallies begin in Ethiopia? Speaking of the history of modern Ethiopia, we won’t be hasty to say it was during the times of Emperor Hailesellasie. Our families, who were part of the then students’ rally and revolution vividly remember how civilized, decent and matured were the protesters of those days. History repeats itself and the protesters of today are still the same decent, civilized, peaceful and matured Ethiopians.  When students protested during the 1970s, the Emperor had allowed and recognised peaceful demonstration and even listened to the questions of the protesters, which in those days were centered on the rights of the rural people “Land to the tiller”, however, he was not quick to act, records have it.

Then came the brutal communist and militarist junta of Mengistu Hailemariam’s Derg, which snatched the students’ struggle and sneaked in through the openings to form its own dictatorship. During the Communist Junta’s 17 years rule from 1974 to 1991, there was not a single day when oppositions or Ethiopians had a chance to protest or take to the streets unless it was to attend public holidays and celebrations that were called by the regime.

When the current regime of the EPRDF took power in 1991 through an armed struggle, many had cherished hoping it was a new beginning of democracy, freedom and equality. EPRDF’s regime did not embarrass many; it partly opened the media to all, allowed all religious groups to freely function and made some other reforms. However, as the policies of the new regime came out clearer and people began to oppose, the new regime started to apply what its predecessors had done. It closed many newspapers, arrested scores of journalists and politicians and killed many that protested. Especially, after the historic 2005 election, when the first biggest State recognized march was held, the opposition won many seats in the parliament,  the entire hopeful scenario ended in bloodshed, when the regime killed over 200 protesters arresting thousands; the glimmer darkened. The past eight years have been the government’s most brutal and repressive periods in its 22 long years of rule. It enacted new laws of  “anti terrorism and CSOs”, accused, convicted and detained many that had opposed the regime including peaceful journalists and politicians that live in the Diaspora. The fear level skyrocketed both inside and outside the country. Demonstration and public assembly was banned. Scores of young and enterprising journalists, politicians and critics have been locked up.

Amidst all this “savagery”, the public continued to suffer from a sky rocketing cost of living. Already a poor country dependent on foreign aid, the Country began to move into a state of despair and hopelessness  added with the discriminatory tribal politics.

Life in general got unbearable. The public begged for a messiah.

Most opposition parties active at home, were led by aged politicians, who were engaged in inter and intra -party competition and staying in power than fighting for the people. The regime then got a free hand to infiltrate and weaken the already staggering opposition parties. Frustrated by the weak, ‘jealousy dominated’, obsolete leadership in the opposition camp, two years ago, emerged a new color party that was mainly composed of the youth and women. It is called Semayawi Party (Blue Party).

A new comer in the two decades of opposition struggle, Blue Party joined the list of scores of opposition parties incorporating two most senior politicians as it advisors; Professor Mesfin Woldemariam and Dr. Yacob Hailemariam. Many had not expected much from this new party, considering it as the same old grouping in the “business of opposition party “. However, it didn’t take Blue Party long to catch the attention of the media and the public. Very recently, they held a protest march in Addis Abeba against the building of a statue to the Italian war criminal, who massacred thousands of Ethiopians in 1933, Graziani and they were detained for two days.

And last month they called for a peaceful demonstration outside the African Union (AU) on the date that the AU celebrated its 50th anniversary, May 25, 2013. They had four main demands:

1. The release of all prisoners of conscience such as politicians and journalists,

2. Measures on the forced eviction (ethnic cleansing) of Ethiopians,

3. Government’s interference in religious affairs to stop and

4. Calls the regime to act on injustice, high cost of living and corruption.

The date was when leaders of the world gathered to meet for the African Union’s 50th Anniversary in Addis Abeba.  The government had two options; refuse to recognize it and if they still take to the streets – take measures or recognize them and negotiate for the date to be changed. They went for the second. For the first in 8 years, since the last major opposition rally was held in May 8, 2005, the Addis Abeba City Government sent a letter to the opposition Blue/Semayawi Party on May 24, 2013 ‘permitting’ them to hold their planned demonstration in Addis Abeba but on a  different date and place in Addis Abeba.

Today’s was historic 

The peaceful demonstration began around 9:15 am outside the Head Office of Blue Party located in Ginfele, Addis Abeba. There were around 2000 people outside the Party’s office listening to the speech of the Deputy Chair of the Party and waiting for the start of the walk. The walk started at 10:00am.

As the marchers trekked shouting the following slogans, “We need Justice”, “Government should respect the Constitution as much as citizens”, “Government should stop interfering in religion”, “Detain all thieves of the government”, “Free all journalists, politicians and unfairly detained” and many other similar rights related slogans, onlookers and residents joined them. Many people were holding the photographs of detained journalists, opposition party leaders and religious scholars.

After staying for a while in Martyr’s Square, Arat Kilo, the gradually growing crowd headed to Piassa joined by elders, the youth, mothers, Christians, Muslims and all other faith and opposition political groups. When the demonstrators reached Piassa, De Birhan learned that there were already over 10,000 people waiting for the initial team at the Ethio-Cuba Sq., which was their last destination. The large number of protesters then headed to Tewodros Avenue via Churchill Road before arriving at the Ethio-Cuba Square.

In the presence of “around 100,000 protesters” according to the Party officials, Dr. Yacob Hailemariam, advisor of Blue Party, told the crowd,

Ethiopians evicted (ethnic cleansed) from different parts of the Country should be compensated and returned. The charges on Muslim Arbitration Committee members should be dropped. This is a historic march since 2005. Ethiopia doesn’t deserve a dictatorial regime as EPRDF. The old opposition leaders should give up leadership to the youth. I don’t say this because I don’t like their appearance or anything but there are scientific reasons to support this. You can refer to the Gaada System of our own Oromo people.

Following Dr. Yacob, a representative from Ethiopians of the Amhara ethnic origin, who have been evicted from Benishangul region of Western Ethiopia, and another representative from the Muslim participants of the march addressed the demonstrators.

Alemu Godebo, lawyer and father of detained journalist Reeyot Alemu also addressed the public. He said “we need to put pressure on the government through the peaceful and legal means”.

Followers of other faith groups gave way and embraced Muslim worshippers as they prayed in the middle of the protest. There were also police and other people taking photographs and video clips from the Ethio Telecom and Ethiopian Television buildings.

Finally, Engineer Yilekal Getent, Chairman of the Blue Party addressed the public. His speech was different from the others because he had given the government an ultimatum of three months. Yilekal said “unless the government gives an answer to our four demands within the coming three months, we vow to do more and continue our peaceful struggle”.

The first ever State recognized opposition demonstration since 2005, ended peacefully. Police and security protected and cooperated with the demonstrators.  The  journalists, opposition figures and critics such as Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu and Andualem Aragie serving  jail terms of 5 to lifetime imprisonment under the  2009 anti-terrorism law, have been echoed loudly.

Last year, an Ethiopian court handed sentences of eight years to life to 20

“It was a success and made me reaffirm my long held belief in peaceful struggle” said Yilekal later on an interview.

De Birhan, as would the social responsibility theory of the media attest it and we value it, has always been urging the government respect the rights of the people, cease its tribalist politics open up the space for people to breath out and say their frustration as the extremely increasing repression was leading the people to rather resort more and more to armed struggle. A Nation that has been plugged in war, conflict and poverty, does not deserve another war that leaves many of Ethiopia’s innocent, humble and God fearing people in yet another pain and suffering. The ball is still in the hands of the government and the ruling Front which has the opportunity and capability of reaching the mass, opposition and rebels and sit at a round table for the peaceful and reconciliatory solution of the Nation’s mess.

Prevention is better than cure! Love wins!

—— Later today, Redwan Hussien, Head of EPRDF Secretariat said to EPRDF’s Voice, Radio Fana “Blue Party’s protest revealed the Party’s religious extremism agenda. The Party has used the protest for an unnecessary purpose. They have interfered in religious affairs by calling for “members of the Muslim Arbitration Committee” to be released and they will be liable to it” he said.

Some of the pictures from today’s peaceful march are posted below,

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