February 9 at 8:00 AM

Supporters welcome Merera Gudina, leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress party, on Jan. 17, after his release from prison in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)

Is Ethiopia opening — ever so slightly — to democracy?

Some observers were cautiously optimistic after Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s surprising Jan. 3 announcement that the government would release some political prisoners, including opposition leader Merera Gudina. Starting in mid-January, Gudina and hundreds of Ethiopians detained during a 2016 wave of anti-government protests were released from a federal prison.

That release, however, was partial. The government is still holding thousands of other opposition figures and protesters, along with journalists who have reported critically on the regime.

On Thursday the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corp. reported that 417 people serving sentences for terrorism, inciting violence and similar offenses to be freed.

Here’s what you need to know:

The ruling party installed and promotes ethnic federalism — which has stoked interethnic competition and violence

In 1991, the previous communist dictatorship fell after years of civil war. Since then, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), an ethno-nationalist militia movement, has dominated Ethiopian politics, despite the fact that the Tigrayan ethnic group makes up less than 7 percent of the country’s population. Four parties make up the ruling political coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), but its elites essentially function as members of one political party. As the strongest of the four, the TPLF has controlled party agendas and dominated coalition’s policy, along with the security apparatus of the state.

Under TPLF/ERPDF rule, Ethiopia adopted a constitution that established ethnic federalism, in which regions’ boundaries were drawn according to ethnic and linguistic classifications. Implemented in 1995, the new constitution was ostensibly designed to promote groups’ rights. But the ethnic federal model hasn’t ended ethnic inequality. Rather, it has created winners and losers.

In my research, I find that the regime uses ethnic federalism to maintain power — putting it into place selectively, as suits its needs. While many regions are governed by majority ethnic groups, some are administered by minority ethnic groups — assigned by the ruling party. The central government allows regional states to limit minority groups’ rights, since ethnic groups controlling administration affairs are considered sole owners of the regions. The ruling TPLF-led government has used this approach to attack individual rights. Ethiopians from various backgrounds become second-class citizens when they migrate to another area in the country; they are labeled settlers when living in regions where their ethnic group is a minority, for they are considered exogenous groups.

Divisive ethnic violence and protests are endemic

Movements from the two largest ethnic groups, Amharas and Oromos, have regularly protested the regime’s divisive rule. For instance, in 2016 ethnic Amharas based in the Wolkait district opposed a federal plan that reorganized their land and placed it within the boundaries of the Tigray Regional State. The Wolkait Amharas wanted to reunite with Amhara regional state, across the border.

In the same year, Oromos opposed the regime’s attempt to expand Addis Ababa’s city limits, which is encircled by Oromia region. Addis Ababa has been labeled a multiethnic federally administered city. Oromos consider the expansion a plan to uproot Oromo farmers, whom the TPLF targeted with forced evictions and mistreatment. Faced with mass protests and violence in Wolkait and Oromia, with regime security forces killing hundreds and imprisoning thousands, the government canceled its effort to redraw these boundaries, and left the demands of Wolkait Amhara unresolved.

Since then, in late 2017, Ethiopian-Somali administration, which has strong ties to the Tigrayan elites, carried out yet another massive eviction of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Oromos from Ethiopian-Somali regional territories, killing hundreds of civilians.

More recently, on Jan. 12, as the city of Woldia’s residents were celebrating the annual Ethiopian Orthodox holiday of Epiphany, the regime’s security forces opened fire and killed roughly a dozen individuals, including children. The regime accused protesting youths of provocations such as chanting anti-government slogans and carrying the old Ethiopian flag, which the government considers unconstitutional.

The turmoil escalated when residents, who are ethnic Amharas, attacked some ethnic Tigrayans, accusing them of helping the security forces, since the vast majority of Tigrayans support the regime. Similar ethnic violence previously erupted in the city of Gondar, dominated by Amharas, and the city of Nekemte in Oromia region, dominated by Oromos.

These episodes targeted ethnic Tigrayans. But between 2016 and 2017, in the Ethiopian-Somali region, the dominant ethnic Somalis targeted ethnic Oromos; in the Benshangul Gumuz region, the dominant Gumuz and Berta groups targeted ethnic Amharas. In both cases, these attacks came after regional governments run by the locally dominant ethnic group carried out forced evictions and arbitrary killings against the minority.

So what comes next?

Observers of Ethiopian politics agree that the ruling party and its policies are responsible for the country’s ethnic violence. The regime’s recent pacifying statements and its prisoner releases are promising. Such efforts could be designed to cool down protests and ease pressure on the ruling coalition.

But these actions only treat the symptoms of the strife, not the cause: ethnic federalism. But some within the ruling coalition may be starting to acknowledge that deeper issue. On Feb. 6, OPDO (Oromo People’s Democratic Organization), the Oromo wing within EPRDF, issued a statement saying that the old regimes practiced class oppression rather than ethnic inequality. That’s a bolder statement than it may seem outside Ethiopia. If oppression by the wealthy was the deeper problem in the past, then ethnic politics would be irrelevant to bringing about political equality in Ethiopia — and ethnic federalism no solution.

The decision to pardon more political prisoners and journalists is an encouraging sign. To signal a move toward more democracy, the regime could announce a national dialogue in which all stakeholders were free to speak, in order to end instability in the country. Such a public reconsideration of the state’s organization could help build Ethiopian national unity and improve the growing economy.

Yohannes Gedamu is a lecturer in political science at Georgia Gwinnett College. He is working on a book titled “Ethnic Federalism and Authoritarian Survival in Ethiopia.” Follow him on Twitter at @yohanethio.