Several Ethiopian opposition figures were tasting freedom on Saturday after an unexpected amnesty decreed by the government the day before to important political detainees, including leaders of the Tigrayan party.
The surprise announcement of the amnesty came after a call for “national reconciliation”, launched Friday on the occasion of the celebration of Orthodox Christmas by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose country has been torn for 14 months by conflict between the federal government and the rebels of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The aim of the amnesty is “to pave the way for a lasting solution to Ethiopia’s problems,” the government said in a statement.
“The key to lasting unity is dialogue. Ethiopia will make all sacrifices to this end,” according to the text, which lists the names of several opposition leaders, but also important members of the TPLF.
The TPLF fighters withdrew at the end of December in their stronghold in the northernmost region of Tigray in the face of a military offensive by government forces which regained control of a series of strategic towns.
Several TPLF figures were among those pardoned, as were opposition leaders from the Oromo ethnic group, the largest in Ethiopia, and the Amhara.
The TPLF has taken up arms since Abiy Ahmed sent the federal army to Tigray in November 2020 to remove the regional authorities – from the TPLF – who challenged his authority and whom he accused of having attacked military bases.
The number of detainees released was not immediately known. Nevertheless, the opposition Balderas party announced the release of its founder Eskinder Nega, an opposition figure.
It was not clear whether the government offered negotiations with the TPLF, the party that de facto ruled Ethiopia for three decades until Abiy took power in 2018, but is now seen as a group. terrorist by Addis Ababa.
Fighting has calmed down since the TPLF retired, although rebels accuse the government of continuing to carry out deadly drone strikes on Tigray.
Three people were killed in an airstrike on a refugee camp in the region, the UN reported this week.
The conflict in Tigray has claimed thousands of lives. The region, subject according to the UN to a “de facto blockade” of humanitarian aid, lacks food and medicine.
Abiy, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who traveled to the front lines in November to lead his troops, also called for “unity” on Friday.
However, in another statement on Saturday, he again blasted “foreign and internal enemies”, calling the TPLF “snakes”.
The amnesty coincided with a mission to Ethiopia by the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, who is trying to encourage peace talks.
Also included in the list of personalities amnestied is the former media mogul Jawar Mohammed, member of the Oromo federalist Congress. A former ally of Mr. Abiy – himself Oromo, the largest ethnic group in the country – Mr. Jawar had become one of his fiercest critics.
Like Mr. Eskinder, Mr. Jawar was arrested in July 2020 along with other opposition figures, after an outbreak of violence triggered by the shooting in Addis Ababa the previous month of a very popular singer, Hachalu Hundessa. , standard bearer of the Oromo ethnic group.
These demonstrations and violence had killed 239 people in a few days, against a backdrop of ethnic tensions and resentments.
Among the TPLF officials cited in the government press release are also Sibhat Nega – one of the party’s founders – Kidusan Nega, Abay Woldu, Abadi Zemu, former ambassador to Sudan.
Mohammed, an Oromo media mogul and former opposition ally of Abiy, and his Oromo Federalist Congress colleague Bekele Gerba have also been released.
Tuli Bayissa, a lawyer from Jawa and Bekele in particular, confirmed their release but told AFP he was working to release many other detainees, including Oromo personalities acquitted of any charges by the judiciary.
It was not immediately known whether the pillars of the amnestied TPLF – including one of its founders Sibhat Nega and the former president of Tigray Abay Woldu – were released on Saturday.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres hailed the amnesty, saying he remained “actively engaged in helping Ethiopia” to “restore peace and stability”.