The Ethiopian government announced Friday it was pardoning a number of high-profile political prisoners, including members of the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in a bid to promote “national dialogue”.
The surprise move comes amid a lull in the brutal 14-month conflict in northern Ethiopia after a dramatic shift in battlefield fortunes at the end of last year saw government forces retake a string of key towns and the TPLF retreat to its stronghold in Tigray.
“The key to lasting unity is dialogue. Ethiopia will make any sacrifices to this end,” the government communications service said in a statement announcing the amnesty.
“Its purpose is to pave the way for a lasting solution to Ethiopia’s problems in a peaceful, non-violent way… especially with the aim of making the all-inclusive national dialogue a success.”
It listed several prominent members of the TPLF as well as opposition leaders from the Oromo ethnic group, the largest in Ethiopia, and the Amhara.
It was not immediately clear how many of those granted amnesty had yet been freed.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed — a Nobel peace laureate who reportedly went to the battlefront in November to lead his troops — had also called for “national reconciliation” and “unity” in a statement issued as Ethiopia celebrated Orthodox Christmas.
The war in the north has claimed the lives of thousands of people and left hundreds of thousands more facing famine conditions in Tigray, which is under what the United Nations says is a de facto blockade.
The pardons coincided with a mission to Ethiopia by US envoy Jeffrey Feltman, who is pushing for talks to end a conflict that has threatened to tear apart Africa’s second most populous state and destabilise the Horn of Africa region.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in a statement on Twitter he welcomed the amnesty announcement.
“I will remain actively engaged in assisting Ethiopia to bring an end to the fighting and to restore peace and stability,” he added.
Among the prominent TPLF figures to be granted amnesty are Sibhat Nega — a founder of the party — as well Kidusan Nega, Abay Woldu, Abadi Zemu (also a former ambassador to Sudan) and Mulu Gebregziabher.
One of those already freed is Amhara politician Eskinder Nega, one of several leading government opponents rounded up after deadly protests erupted in 2020 over the killing of popular Oroma singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa.
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 held.
Jawar Mohammed, an Oromo media mogul and one-time Abiy ally turned opposition politician who was also arrested after the 2020 bloodshed, was also given a pardon.
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.
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.
Meanwhile Feltman — who this week resigned his post — held “constructive, substantive discussions” in Addis Ababa with Abiy, US 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.”
Fighting broke out when Abiy sent troops into Tigray in November 2020 after months of seething tensions with its ruling party the TPLF, accusing its fighters of attacking federal army camps.
He declared a swift victory but rebel fighters hit back, recapturing most of Tigray by the end of June and pushing into the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar.
The TPLF claimed to have been as close as 200 kilometres (125 miles) from Addis Ababa in November, prompting alarmed foreign nations to tell their citizens to leave.
But by the end of December they announced a withdrawal to Tigray after the government retook several strategic towns on the road to the capital, including the UNESCO heritage site Lalibela.