ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopia’s ruling coalition has lost its authority and all parties must help map the country’s future, an opposition leader said on Friday, suggesting political tensions in Africa’s second most populous country are unlikely to ease soon.
Mulatu Gemechu, deputy secretary of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, spoke a day after the surprise resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who said he was leaving office to smooth reforms.
Mulatu said Ethiopia needed a completely new political system after years of political unrest in the two most populous regions of the Horn of Africa country. “Ethiopians now need a government that respects their rights, not one that keeps beating and killing them,” he told Reuters.
Rights advocates have frequently criticised Ethiopia’s government for mass arrests and long jail terms handed to political opponents and journalists.
Pressure on the ruling coalition, in power since 1991, began building in 2015 when protests against an urban development plan for the capital Addis Ababa sparked larger demonstrations demanding more freedom and civil rights.
More than 6,000 political prisoners have been freed since January as the government struggles to placate simmering anger among the two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and Amharic, who complain they are under-represented in the corridors of power.
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A wave of strikes and demonstrations hit towns near Addis Ababa this week as protesters successfully pressed demands for jailed opposition leaders to be released. On Friday, the U.S. embassy suspended travel outside the capital for its staff.
The Oromo Federalist Congress is one of seven parties that make up the biggest opposition coalition, MEDREK.
Mulatu’s views were echoed in the Oromo heartlands of central Ethiopia, the site of a series of violent protests against Hailemariam’s government in 2015 and 2016.
“Our land can’t continue being taken from us. Oromos should not be jailed for exercising their rights,” said Dinkissa, a university student in Ambo, a town in the region.
“Oromos have been always mistreated. His (the prime minister’s) resignation will not mean anything unless our rights are respected. Whoever comes to power should know that. Otherwise, we will not stop protesting.”
The government has also grappled with several armed groups in the past decade, some of which it has designated as terrorists.
Among them are the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which has fought the government since 1994 and draws support from some of the country’s ethnic Somali population. Somalia and Ethiopia share a long and porous border.
This week the ONLF and Ethiopian authorities held private talks in Nairobi, an observer present at the discussions told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
A tentative accord was reached on a ceasefire, prisoner releases, boundaries between the Somali and Oromiya regions of Ethiopia, and economic development, the observer said. But a final deal was not signed since the ONLF wanted a signatory from Ethiopia’s central government, rather than the head of the Somali region, who represented the government at the talks.
Reporting by Aaron Maasho; Writing by Duncan Miriri; editing by Mark Heinrich