Four and a half months after Ethiopia’s most recent parliamentary elections, in which Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) scored a massive victory, Meles continues to consolidate his already substantial power. After his swearing-in ceremony earlier this week, Meles moved to re-structure the government. Changes include increased responsibility for Hailemariam Desalegn (a rising figure in the EPRDF), an increased emphasis on poverty reduction, and a continued “preference for the Chinese model of government-driven economic growth.” Growth has been a core achievement for Meles and his party, and they appear committed to a platform of “more of the same.” The forward-looking and confident mood of the party (they hold 545 of the parliament’s 547 seats) apparently also goes hand in hand with a willingness to ease up on adversaries. Yesterday, the government released Birtukan Mideksa, a prominent opposition activist.
VOA gives some background:
The 36-year-old former judge was among scores of opposition leaders sentenced to life in prison on treason charges following violent protests that followed Ethiopia’s disputed 2005 election. All were pardoned in 2007, after signing a letter admitting they provoked the violence. But Birtukan was ordered back to jail after she publicly denied responsibility for the troubles and said she had not asked for the pardon.
Ethiopia’s Justice Ministry issued a statement saying President Girma Woldegiorgis had pardoned Birtukan on the recommendation of the federal prison board.
The statement said Birtukan had made a formal request to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi last month regretting that she had ‘deceived’ the Ethiopian people by denying she had asked for the earlier pardon, and begging the prime minister for a second pardon so she could care for her aging mother and child.
Birtukan’s pardon is seen as a magnanimous gesture to the international community at a time when Ethiopia’s weak opposition parties have been effectively demolished. The U.S. State Department’s latest human-rights report listed Birtukan as a political prisoner, while independent human-rights groups described her as a prisoner of conscience.
Several outlets reported that hundreds of supporters greeted her upon her release, but to me her freedom indicates the EPRDF’s confidence that she poses no political threat to them. Her release also strikes me as an indication that Meles, despite his government’s orientation toward the Chinese and his occasional criticism of the West, wants to maintain goodwill with Western countries who are concerned about Ethiopia’s human rights record. With Western support – or at least indifference – and internal control, Meles’ political position will be strong indeed.