Ethiopia on Friday freed high-profile opposition leader Eskinder Nega, one of several leading government opponents rounded up after deadly protests in 2020, his party announced.
News of the release came after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed issued a statement marking Orthodox Christmas and stressing the need for “national reconciliation” after 14 months of brutal conflict in the north of the country.
It also coincides with a mission to Ethiopia by US special envoy Jeffrey Feltman, who is seeking to encourage peace talks to end the war between government forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The Balderas for Genuine Democracy, which Eskinder founded, posted a picture on Facebook of him and a colleague posing with fist-pumps outside the maximum security Kality prison in the capital Addis Ababa where they had been detained.
There is speculation that other prominent figures, including Jawar Mohammed, a media mogul turned opposition politician from the Oromo Federalist Congress, may also be freed.
They were detained in a wave of political arrests in mid-2020 after deadly protests in Addis Ababa and the surrounding Oromia region following the murder of popular Oromo singer and rights activist Hachalu Hundessa.
– Ethnic tensions –
Hachalu’s songs channelled marginalisation among his Oromo ethnic group, and were the soundtrack to anti-government protests that swept Abiy, the country’s first Oromo leader, to office in 2018.
In all, 239 people were killed in the demonstrations and violence over just a few days in June and July 2020 that saw Abiy grapple to maintain control and keep a lid on the simmering ethnic tensions and resentments.
Many of those arrested after the protests represented the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, while Eskinder is Amharic and had spoken out against government policies he argues favoured Oromos.
The 52-year-old Eskinder is a veteran journalist who is no stranger to controversy or prison.
A critic of several successive Ethiopian administrations since the 1990s starting with long-serving prime minister Meles Zenawi, Eskinder first rose to prominence with his ownership of several opposition newspapers and magazines.
His first stint in jail was in November 2005, and he was put behind bars on a number of occasions in the years that followed.
Eskinder founded a weekly Amharic language newspaper in late 2018 and one year later founded Balderas, whose stated aim was to fight for the rights of residents of Addis Ababa.
Meanwhile, US envoy Feltman is trying to nudge the warring parties in northern Ethiopia to the negotiating table amid a lull in fighting between government forces and the TPLF.
Feltman held “constructive, substantive discussions” in Addis Ababa with Abiy, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Thursday.
The United States will work to see that “any positive momentum from discussions can be quickly realised,” Price said.
“We continue to call for an immediate cessation of hostilities, an end to human rights atrocities, unhindered humanitarian access and a negotiated resolution to the conflict.”