Ethiopia: Free to protest Jun 5th 2013, 9:30
A RARE flicker of political protest graced the streets of Ethiopia’s otherwise regimented capital, Addis Ababa, on June 2nd. Demonstrators marched peacefully through the city, many carrying pictures of imprisoned loved ones. Later they gathered on Churchill Avenue, the capital’s main thoroughfare, where they were told that a new struggle had begun. Yilekal Getachew, the chairman of the opposition Semayawi (Blue) party, demanded the release of political prisoners and railed against unemployment, inflation and corruption. Activists claim that as many as 10,000 people attended; government officials say the number was nearer 4,000. Whatever the true figure, it was the biggest demonstration in Ethiopia since 2005, when protests amid claims of election rigging were violently suppressed, leaving nearly 200 unarmed protesters dead and thousands arrested.
Over subsequent years the political opposition was eviscerated. Its leaders were jailed or went into exile, the media were muzzled and the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) acquired millions of new members. At the next election, in 2010, the party officially got more than 99% of the seats in parliament. By the time he died last year, Meles Zenawi, who had been prime minister since 1995, had created a single-party state in all but name. Little suggests that his system of "authoritarian development", which got the economy to grow faster at the expense of individual freedom, is now about to unravel.
Opposition numbers at the protest were swollen by Ethiopian Muslims who accuse the government of meddling in religious affairs, but were still modest compared with the million-strong crowds of eight years ago. That may explain the government’s muted reaction. It granted protesters permission to march, but with a week’s delay to ensure they did not embarrass the new prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, as he played host to the African Union summit. The police did not harass demonstrators.
Fears that the post-Meles transition would presage instability have so far not been borne out. But any suggestion that the protest marks a sea-change in the country’s politics may be premature.