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Ethiopian prime minister calls for multiparty democracy


Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has said his country must seek a path to greater democracy through strong institutions that "respect the rule of law." Ethiopia has been governed by the same coalition for 27 years.

The prime minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, said on Sunday that his country faced "no option" but to pursue multiparty democracy.

Abiy's chief of staff tweeted the remarks during a meeting the prime minister held with leaders of more than 50 national, regional and political parties, some from overseas, who were demanding reforms to Ethiopia's election law.

Read more: Germany welcomes developments on Horn of Africa

"Given our current politics, there is no option except pursuing a multiparty democracy supported by strong institutions that respect human rights and rule of law." Chief of Staff Fitsum Arega wrote on Twitter.

Although Ethiopia allows competing parties, the country has been ruled by a single coalition, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, since it rose to power in 1991. 

Abiy's favorable comment on multiparty democracy in Ethiopia follows the government's decision to lift a ban on opposition groups that were considered terrorist groups.

These efforts to strengthen the country's democracy could make the 2020 elections much more competitive and could mean a profound change in Africa's second most populous nation.

Read more: Ethiopia: East Africa's new economic power

A reformist prime minister

Since taking office in April, the 42-year-old prime minister has carried out profound reforms, such as releasing political prisoners, loosening state control of the economy and leading a historic effort to make peace with Eritrea, Ethiopia's northern neighbor.

Read more: Peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea will promote democracy

The dramatic changes have not come without resistance. Last month, at a large political rally in the nation's capital, a grenade attack killed two people and wounded more than 150. The blast occurred shortly after Prime Abiy had addressed the crowd.

The ruling coalition has vowed to push on with Abiy's reform agenda and blamed "desperate anti-peace elements" for the attack.

jcg/tj (AP, Reuters)

Ethiopia welcomes its enemy in open door strategy
Drifting across the desert

"It took us four days traveling from Asmara," a 31-year-old Eritrean man says about the trek from the Eritrean capital, 80 kilometres north of the border, after arriving in Ethiopia. "We travelled for 10 hours each night, sleeping in the desert during the day." With him are another three men, three women, six girls and four small boys.

Ethiopia welcomes its enemy in open door strategy
No turning back

"Living conditions in Eritrea are more dangerous than crossing the border," says a 39-year-old Eritrean soldier - now a deserter after crossing into Ethiopia - who served 20 years in the military. After being collected by Ethiopian soldiers patrolling the border, Eritreans are sent to a registration center to begin the process to claim asylum in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia welcomes its enemy in open door strategy
Camp life

New arrivals are allocated to one of four refugee camps in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. The Hitsats camp is the newest and largest, sheltering around 11,000 refugees, with 80 percent under 35 years of age. "Even if they are seeking political asylum, there will be an economic side to it as they are young and need to generate income to live their lives," says camp coordinator Haftam Telemickael.

Ethiopia welcomes its enemy in open door strategy
Making the most of the situation

The camp’s infrastructure is simple but neat. There’s little rubbish lying around, and people make their accommodation feel as homely as possible. "When I drink a cup of coffee among the flowers it feels good," says John, 40, standing in the small garden full of flowers around his Hitsats camp home that he shares with his 10-year-old daughter. His wife is in America.

Ethiopia welcomes its enemy in open door strategy
Hard-fought gains

"The Eritrean people are good," says Luel Abera, an Ethiopian official who helps coordinate refugee arrivals before they move to a camp. "They fought for independence for 30 years. But from day one, [Eritrean President] Isaias [Afwerki] has ruled the country without caring about his people’s interests." Isaias has ruled Eritrea for more than 25 years.

Ethiopia welcomes its enemy in open door strategy
Constant influx

"I don’t want to talk about why we crossed," says 18-year-old Haimanot who runs a small shack in Hitsats that recharges mobiles for one Ethiopian birr (0.04 euro) a charge. In February 2017, 3,367 Eritrean refugees arrived in Ethiopia, according to Ethiopia’s refugee agency. Around 165,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers reside in Ethiopia, according to the UN.

Ethiopia welcomes its enemy in open door strategy
Sleeping more easily

"In Sudan there are more problems, we can sleep peacefully here," says Ariam, 32, who came to Hitsat four years ago with her two children after spending four years in a refugee camp in Sudan. Refugees claim the Eritrean military conducts raids in Sudan to capture Eritreans. Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea is much more heavily guarded against incursions.

Ethiopia welcomes its enemy in open door strategy
Generosity or strategy?

"Ethiopia's response is to manage the gate, and figure out how it can benefit from these inevitable flows of people," says refugee analyst Jennifer Riggan. More money is also spent hosting refugees nowadays due to international efforts to stop secondary migration to Europe. It may also be a way for Ethiopia to bolster its international reputation after controversy about recent protests.

Ethiopia welcomes its enemy in open door strategy
Comradeship trumps hate

Military positions from the 1998-2000 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea still stand alongside today’s border. All the while both governments accuse one of plotting against the other. But Ethiopia appears willing to differentiate with ordinary Eritreans. "We are the same people, we share the same blood, even the same grandfathers," says Estifanos Gebremedhin with Ethiopia’s refugee agency.

Ethiopia welcomes its enemy in open door strategy
Moving away

"My children are in America but there is no point my going—I am an old man now," says 74-year-old Tesfaye in Shimelba, Tigray’s first Eritrean refugee camp which opened in 2004. Thousands more Eritreans live in Ethiopias cities outside the camps. Many others decide to leave Ethiopia and migrate onward, some legally, like Tesfaye’s children, many more illegally, often dying trying.

Ethiopia welcomes its enemy in open door strategy
Shared past not forgotten

"The Ethiopian soldiers who found us were like brothers to us," says 22-year-old mother-of-two Yordanos. Eritrea was Ethiopia's most northern region before a referendum officially giving it independence in 1993 made Tigray the most northern. Hence many Eritreans who cross the border share the same language, Tigrinya, and the same Orthodox religion and culture as Tigray’s inhabitants.

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