ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - A year ago, rebel leader Berhanu Nega was coordinating attacks against Ethiopian soldiers from his base across the border in Eritrea and faced a death penalty at home.
In September, he returned to Ethiopia to address tens of thousands of cheering supporters in a stadium in the capital, Addis Ababa.
The journey of the mild-mannered former economics professor from exile to rock-star welcome says a lot about how much Ethiopia has changed in recent months. He is the most high profile of dozens of political dissidents, former rebels, and secessionist leaders who have come home since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in April. Their return has Ethiopians hopeful that the country of 105 million – Africa’s second most populous – can finally embrace democracy.
There’s still a long way to go.
The last two elections were decried by the opposition as shams following a messy poll in 2005, after which the government jailed popular opposition politicians like Berhanu. The clampdown fueled unrest and demands for greater political and social freedom. In recent years, the ruling EPRDF coalition cracked down even more harshly; security forces killed more than 1,000 protesters and jailed tens of thousands of people between 2015 and 2018, according to Human Rights Watch. It also shut off the internet, sometimes for months at a time.
“Seven, eight months ago the question was whether the country is going to survive or not, whether it’s going to explode into a civil war,” Berhanu, 59, told Reuters in a borrowed office in central Addis Ababa.
But in April, the ruling coalition installed Abiy as the new prime minister. The 42-year-old has promised to chart a new course and embrace multi-party democracy. Such a transition would buck the trend towards authoritarianism in nearby countries such as Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, where leaders are jailing opponents and rolling back restrictions on term limits to extend their rule.
Within weeks of Abiy taking charge, Berhanu ordered the armed group he led, Ginbot 7, to stop attacking Ethiopian troops and end its armed struggle.
Abiy’s arrival “was real change,” Berhanu said. “It did not take us a minute... We have no particular interests in violence. We just said: ‘Are you serious, is this something you are committed to? Yes, good, we are done’.”
Ethiopia’s new leader, Berhanu said, “really has this mission of changing society toward what he believes the public deserves: to live in freedom and democracy.”
Abiy’s chief of staff Fitsum Arega did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Berhanu has opposed authoritarian rule for decades. In the late 1970s he was active against the Derg, the brutal military regime that ruled the county. That eventually landed him in jail. After escaping to Sudan, he was granted asylum in the United States where he obtained a doctorate in economics.
Back at home in 2005, he ran for municipal office in Addis Ababa. Ethiopians, he remembers, “went out to vote until midnight, until 2 AM”.
But the government led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a former rebel himself and the leader of a group that toppled the Derg in 1991, nullified the results. The government then jailed Berhanu and other opposition candidates.
After his release in 2007, he returned to his job as an economics professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.
In 2014, he moved to Eritrea’s capital Asmara to work full time for Ginbot 7, which had moved from peaceful participation in the 2005 elections to “an all-inclusive struggle” that embraced violence as an acceptable way to bring change. The ruling EPRDF became “more and more brutal” he said, suggesting that it would never leave power “through any kind of peaceful means”.
In Eritrea, he says, he was relatively safe from threats from the security apparatus across the border. He even traveled on an Eritrean passport and U.S. green card to visit his family in the U.S. What he longed for during those years was the opportunity to have a leisurely conversation over coffee in Addis Ababa’s cafes.
He still does. Though he returned home to a hero’s welcome, he is following the government’s orders to exercise caution in public for his own safety.
“I’m very restricted in my own movements,” he said. “I am having a hard time living with (this). This is the price we pay for now, but it should not last”.
Abiy’s reform pledges have opened up some political space. As well as allowing politicians such as Berhanu to return home and hold rallies, the government has released thousands of political prisoners and in July removed three opposition groups from its list of “terrorist” organizations. Not all former armed groups have laid down their arms – the Oromo Liberation Front, rebels who fell out with the EPRDF shortly after it took power in 1991, is arguing over disarming its fighters – but for the first time in years citizens are openly airing their views on the street and on social media without fear of arrest.
Some in the ruling EPRDF worry that loosening the state’s iron grip has created a security vacuum. Abiy warned recently that “lawlessness” was sweeping the country.
Berhanu believes a certain level of disorder is inevitable.
“At the macro level, change always generates this unsettled feeling. There’s a lot of anxiety,” he said, referring to the ethnic violence that has displaced one million Ethiopians in the seven months since Abiy took office.
“We are coming out of a regime not only known for its brutality but also for deliberately dividing society.”
In his speeches, Berhanu, who sports a salt and pepper beard, has urged calm and patience.
His main message, he told Reuters, is that it is everyone’s responsibility to “work toward some kind of stability... a basic peaceful environment.”
After that, he hopes, society can begin discussing how to change laws and rebuild institutions – critical tasks if elections, due in 2020, are to be credible.
Then would come an even bigger question: Should the ethnic-based federal structure Ethiopia’s ruling coalition set up 27 years ago be dismantled in favor of “citizenship-based” politics?
Berhanu and Ginbot 7 will play a big part in that debate according to one European diplomat. It comes down to “Ethiopian nationalism vs ethno nationalism,” the diplomat said. “Where do you put the focus: On the rights of the individual, the citizen; or on the rights of the group, the ethnic group?”
In his interview with Reuters, Berhanu began to talk about that question and then cut himself short. “The long term political arrangement” is “too sensitive” to discuss now, he said.
Though he projects confidence in front of supporters, he is weighed down by a “feeling of numbness” given the scale of problems facing Ethiopia.
“We’ve screwed two changes,”, he said, referring to 1974, when members of the military toppled Emperor Haile Selassie, and 1991, when rebels deposed the military regime. “If we screw this one, then that’s it. I really don’t believe we have another chance.”
Reporting By Maggie Fick; Edited by Simon Robinson