By Paul Schemm
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn submitted his resignation in a televised announcement on Thursday amid political turmoil in Africa’s fastest-growing economy.
The announcement came just after the government released hundreds of political prisoners, including some of the most prominent opposition members in the country, sparking massive celebrations in the cities and towns around the country.
A staunch U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism and the second-most populous country in Africa, Ethiopia is a regional powerhouse with grand economic ambitions but it has seethed with social unrest for the past few years that has killed hundreds and thousands have been imprisoned including top opposition figures.
According to the state Ethiopian News Agency, Desalegn resigned both as prime minister and chair of the ruling party “to be part of the efforts to provide lasting solution to the current situation.” He added he would stay on until a successor was chosen.
“Unrest and a political crisis have led to the loss of lives and displacement of many,” Hailemariam said in a televised address to the nation, according to Reuters. “I see my resignation as vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy.”
Earlier in the week, there had been widespread demonstrations by the country’s Oromo people, the largest ethnic group, over the perceived slow pace of prisoner releases promised in January.
Young men blocked roads leading out of the capital with rocks and burned tires disrupting public transportation networks. Businesses throughout the vast Oromo region were shuttered as part of a strike.
The strike was lifted on Wednesday with the prisoner releases. Opposition figures in Ethiopia’s extensive diaspora claimed the government had capitulated in the face of popular pressure.
Just two days before the resignation, U.S. ambassador Michael Raynor expressed a degree of concern over the unrest in the country and urged political opening and peaceful dialogue.
“People need to be free to express themselves peacefully, and to be confident that they can do so,” wrote on the embassy’s Facebook page. “Lethal force to protect the safety of the public, even in the face of violent protests, must always be a last resort. At the same time, people need to demonstrate their commitment to peaceful expression and dialogue.”
Desalegn became prime minister in 2012, succeeding Meles Zenawi, the architect of Ethiopia’s recent economic boom. The country saw a decade of double digit growth, based largely on state investment in infrastructure. Growth has slowed in recent years under pressure from severe droughts and social unrest.
Though ostensibly a democracy, the ruling party, a coalition of parties, controls 100 percent of the parliament and critics say the nation is dominated by the Tigrayan minority, which makes up just 6 percent of the population.
Desalegn, who comes from the south, was seen as a caretaker and consensus figure without a great deal of power himself. It was widely rumored he would be resigning after the party congress scheduled for next month.
Ethiopia’s Oromo people have been protesting for increased rights and against their perceived economic marginalization since the end of 2015 and at one point the government declared a 10-month state of emergency in October 2016 to restore calm to the country.
The ruling Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, of which Desalegn was once chairman, has also faced internal divisions, with the parties representing the other ethnic regions, particularly the Oromo and the Amhara, the nation’s second largest ethnic group, jockeying for position.
Following a party executive council meeting, the government announced in January a plan to start releasing political prisoners in effort to broaden the political consensus.
Source: Washington Post