LIFE in Maekelawi, a prison in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, had a predictable rhythm. Three times a day, Atnaf Berhane and Befekadu Hailu were hauled from the dank, dark cell they nicknamed “Siberia” for three hours of interrogation and beating. Mr Befekadu was flogged across his bare feet with an electric cable. Mr Atnaf escaped this particular cruelty. “I was lucky,” he says.
The two Ethiopian activists, members of a blogging group known as Zone 9, were arrested in 2014. After three months in Maekelawi they were charged with terrorism. After 18 months behind bars those charges were dropped, though both are still accused of the lesser crime of inciting violence. Ethio Trial Tracker, a website, claims that 923 Ethiopians are in prison on terrorism charges. Human Rights Watch, a pressure group, counts thousands more detained for their political opinions.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has a habit, always denied, of jailing its political opponents. So many observers were surprised when, on January 3rd, the government announced plans to release some political prisoners, turn Maekelawi into a museum and “widen the democratic space”. On January 17th it freed Merera Gudina, the country’s most prominent opposition leader, along with 527 other prisoners. The attorney-general said more prisoners would be released in the coming months, including some of those convicted of terrorist offences. “If the government means what it says, then it has a chance to write a new chapter in Ethiopian history,” says Mr Merera. Since his release thousands have come to see him, some bringing oxen to slaughter in the festivities.
After years of anti-government protests and a nine-month state of emergency that was lifted last August, some detect signs of change inside the EPRDF. For months the party blamed dissent on “foreign enemies” and local malcontents. But this month it issued a statement admitting to “mistakes” and promising more democracy. The anti-terror law is being revised and other repressive bills may be changed.
Yet one should not read too much into all this. Most of the prisoners whose cases were dropped were minor figures. Prominent activists from Oromia and Amhara, the country’s two most populous regions and hotbeds of unrest, are still being held. Any changes made to draconian laws will probably be minor. And abuses continue: on January 20th government forces killed at least seven people at a religious festival.
More significant is the power struggle within the EPRDF, a coalition of four ethnically-based parties. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has long wielded influence disproportionate to the number of Tigrayans, who are about 6% of the population. But this may change. The Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation, which is also part of the ruling coalition, was seen for years as a puppet of the TPLF. Yet it has rebranded itself as a populist, quasi-opposition movement. Under Lemma Megersa, its charismatic new leader, it has adopted many of the protesters’ demands, including the release of political prisoners.
The embattled prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, may soon resign. If so, a successor must be found before the EPRDF congress scheduled for March, but sure to be postponed. Many in Oromia want it to be Mr Lemma, the country’s most popular politician. Yet the EPRDF is bitterly at odds over the succession. Fetsum Berhane, a sympathetic commentator, wonders whether it has enough zeal to reform. “I’m not sure anybody is fighting over any ideals or issues except power,” he says.
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Setting them free”