The European Commission issued a stinging rebuke to one of its lead partners on the African continent today, telling the Ethiopian government to “start addressing the legitimate grievances of the Ethiopian people”.
The warning came after the arrest of an Ethiopian opposition leader following his return from Europe where he had spoken out against a state of emergency imposed last month to quell anti-government protests which have seen hundreds killed.
As a major donor of EU development aid, and a key partner in the Commission’s new Trust Fund for Africa aimed at quelling so-called “irregular migration”, Brussels has been slow to publicly criticise the government in Addis Ababa.
However, the detention of Merera Gudina after his trip to Europe, appears to have changed the equation.
Speaking on Friday, a Commission spokeswoman told reporters: “We have raised our concerns over the arrest with the Ethiopian authorities.
“What Ethiopia needs now is political dialogue and interaction to start addressing the legitimate grievances of the Ethiopian people.
“We have repeatedly insisted with the Ethiopian authorities that the state of emergency should be implemented in a way respectful of human rights and in a way that serves the ultimate objective of needed political reforms.
“The arrest of Mr. Gudina is therefore detrimental to process the process of reconciliation and dialogue that the EU was eager to support.
“We call on the Ethiopian authorities to clarify the situation.”
Previously, when quizzed by EurActiv.com about the rising death toll in Ethiopia – estimated by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch several months ago as more than 500 in some 18 months – the Commisssion merely pointed out that Trust Fund money went to NGOs rather than the government of Hailemariam Desalegn.
Today’s comments are much more forceful.
Arrest of opposition leader Merera Gudina intolerable! Be careful #Ethiopia gov't you are going too far – even for your friends in DC. 1/2
— Bronwyn Bruton (@BronwynBruton) December 1, 2016
Gudina, the 60-year-old chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) was arrested at his home in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on Wednesday and is being held in an unknown location with three others, said Beyenne Petros, president of the Medrek opposition alliance of which the OFC is a member.
The government confirmed his arrest to the state-controlled Fana Broadcasting Corporate, saying that he was held for “violating (the) state of emergency”.
Officials told the broadcaster that Gudina is accused of meeting Berhanu Nega [see picture above], the leader of a banned group, while he was in Belgium.
Earlier this month, Gudina addressed the European Parliament in Brussels, alongside Olympic silver medallist runner and fellow Oromo tribe member, Feyisa Lilesa. EurActiv.com interviewed Lilesa during that trip, where he claimed the real death toll may be over 1,000.
Nega, an opposition activist sentenced to death in absentia, attended the same meeting.
At home in Ethiopia, Gudina has strongly criticised repression of the unprecedented protests that have posed the biggest challenge to the quarter-century rule of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
“This is the first time they are targeting the highest level of leadership. I don’t fully understand. Merera has always done things peacefully and played by the rules,” Petros said of Gudina, a veteran political leader.
In an interview with EurActiv, the Ethiopian ambassador to the EU blamed anti-peace elements for the protests, and disputed the death toll.
During the Rio games, Lilesa drew attention to an Oromo anti-government movement by crossing his wrists above his head — a gesture that has become a symbol of the protest movement. He has been in self-imposed exile since then.
Hundreds have been killed in a government crackdown since the unrest began about a year ago, according to human rights groups.
A state of emergency was announced in October, a week after more than 50 people died in a stampede in the Oromia region when security forces teargassed a religious festival where protesters were chanting anti-government slogans.
Since then, official figures show over 11,000 people have been arrested in the Oromia, Amhara and Addis Ababa regions where protests had been centred.
Among those arrested are leaders of small opposition parties, journalists and at least two bloggers.
Ethiopian authorities said last month that 2,000 of those detained had been released after undergoing a “re-education” and “counselling” programme.
A key complaint of the protesters is a political system which has meant that the ruling party holds all 546 seats in parliament.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in October promised electoral reforms, but Gudina said this was “too little, too late”.