Earlier this year the Ethiopian government announced it would release political prisoners and shut an infamous Addis Ababa prison in an effort to "foster national reconciliation".
This came as a surprise from a regime that had previously denied the very existence of political prisoners and whose heavy-handed approach to opposition had become an Ethiopian reality. Positive reactions, however, were muted as the government has promised reforms in the past, but rarely delivered. Within days the government back peddled on its statement saying it was "mistranslated" from Amharic by the media and only some political leaders would be pardoned. Days later one of Ethiopia's most prominent opposition politicians, Bekele Gerba, was sentenced to six months in prison for contempt of court after singing a protest song during proceedings. A few days after that the government dropped charges against 528 inmates as part of the first phase of releasing prisoners, and freed Merera Gudina, an influential opposition leader.
Although the extent and sincerity of the reforms are still unclear, it's obvious the government recognises the magnitude of the opposition it faces, and is at least entertaining a less repressive solution.
Over the past three years an uneasy Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition dominated by members of the Tigrayan ethnic minority has struggled to appease political and civilian elements of some of Ethiopia's larger ethnic groups like the Oromo and the Amharas. These groups have long protested marginalisation from Addis Ababa and the Tigray elite, and feel excluded from Ethiopia's otherwise remarkable development story. After protests against a "master plan" to expand Addis Ababa into Oromo land in 2016 snowballed into countrywide demonstrations, the government imposed a state of emergency which was in effect until late last year. During the months of unrest that followed, hundreds of people were killed and thousands arrested as Ethiopians demanded reforms to a political system steeped in authoritarianism and marginalisation.
As it stands the EPRDF is at risk of internally fracturing and knows it must provide concessions or face the consequences. "The EPRDF have understood that this is a critical time in the history of the country," says Fisseha Tekle, Ethiopia researcher for Amnesty International. "If they don't use this opportunity it's going to be very difficult not only for the ruling party but...