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Ethiopia opposition leader Berhanu Nega leads new party

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi
Posted on Tuesday, 14 May 2019 10:16

Berhanu Nega, an exiled Ethiopian Ginbot 7 rebel leader speaks at his office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

With 12 months to go to Ethiopia’s next elections a new political landscape is shaping up, as parties seek working coalitions and national reach.

With Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed leading from the front, opposition parties are also increasingly working together to build bigger political platforms.

  • The ruling coalition, EPRDF, has been working on merging its constituent and supporting parties to build one large party. Last year, Abiy Ahmed’s political party rebranded to Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and merged with the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF). The merger was seen as a build-up to a bigger one within the ruling coalition, which Ahmed will head as Ethiopia’s goes into its first competitive elections since 2005.
  • In September 2018, the opposition parties Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) also merged.

Seven opposition parties dissolved themselves last week to create a new entity called Ethiopia Citizens for Social Justice (ECSJ).

The new party’s leader is Professor Berhanu Nega, an economics professor who has been involved in Ethiopia’s opposition since the late ‘70s.

The seven parties are:

  • Patriotic Genbot 7,
  • Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP),
  • All Ethiopian Democratic Party (AEDP),
  • Semayawi Party,
  • New Generation Party (NGP),
  • Gambella Regional Movement (GRM),
  • Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party

Nega’s party, Patriotic Genbot 7, was listed as a terrorist organization until July last year.

The party’s co-founder, Andargachew Tsege, was abducted from Yemen in 2014 and released around the same time his party was decriminalized.

  • Both Nega and his new deputy, Andualem Arage, have been prisoners of conscience at Kaliti prison, and both had previously been sentenced to death.

Berhanu Nega’s journey into opposition

Nega was first exiled as a freshman in 1977 after participating in the student movement against the Derg regime.

He returned to Ethiopia in 1994 and established himself as an entrepreneur and academic. He was also involved in opposition politics, which saw him elected the mayor of the capital Addis Ababa in 2005.

  • Genbot 7 (15 May), the party Nega and Tsege founded, is named for the aftermath of that election, which led to the deaths of about 200 people.

Nega was jailed and released in 2007, after which he went back to his job as an economics professor at Bucknell University. While in prison, in 2006, he wrote a popular book titled Yenetsanet Goh Siked (“The Dawn of Freedom”).

  • He moved to Eritrea in 2014 to lead Genbot 7 in an “an all inclusive struggle,” which meant both violent and non-violent means.
  • Nega’s return from exile, and the release of many political dissidents including Tsege, were some of the most significant signs in 2018 that Ethiopia’s political landscape had shifted.

Part of Abiy Ahmed’s political philosophy of Medemer (synergy) has been a rapid reform of both the political environment and crucial institutions.

At the moment, his ruling coalition has an absolute hold on the legislature, but his government’s actions to decriminalize opposition parties and roll back the authoritarian hold of his predecessors will change that.

At the head of the Electoral Board is Birkutan Mideksa, a former judge and opposition leader, who was appointed last year.

  • Her task in facilitating the voting process for over 37 million voters will be put to the test in an environment that’s still trying to find its footing as a democracy.

For EPRDF, overcoming internal differences to put up a united front is difficult by itself, especially as Ahmed’s ascension to power upset more than two decades of Tigray dominance.

  • The opposition parties have an even harder task, as they battle it out amongst themselves and the ruling party.
  • In the last elections, there were more invalid votes (nearly 1.4 million) than there were votes for any single opposition party.
  • A good number of the opposition parties in play had armed wings just one year ago, which makes the recent developments promising in maintaining Ethiopia’s delicate peace.

By ending his government’s use of violence and repression, Prime Minister Abiy removed the biggest threat, and cause, for the armed groupings. This has not ended violent clashes between different groups, but the developments in Addis may hold the key to a peaceful future.

At the country’s border with Sudan, two opposition parties are caught up in ethnic violence between the Amhara and the Benishangul-Gumuz.

Political reorganization is crucial to Ethiopia’s future, as its current political structure complicates national politics. While mergers on both sides somewhat solve this problem, the multi-federal structure means that ethnic parties are not about to go away any time soon.

Rules of the game

Ethiopia’s political parties signed a code of conduct on May 14th,

Some 107 parties signed the code, meaning about 27 new parties came were formed between Prime Minister’s Ahmed’s call for mergers and the signing of the code of conduct.

  • In a region where ruling parties rarely ever lose elections, the chances of any single opposition grouping in Ethiopia defeating the ruling party next year seem low. Even without the use of authoritarian tools that kept his predecessors ahead of the competition, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has many advantages going into the campaign period.

Bottom Line: What seems sure, however, is that his party’s absolute majority in the legislature will end. That, by itself, is a good thing.

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