Looking drained last month, thousands of Ethiopian detainees swore on their release from prison to “Never Again” protest against the government. Or at least that’s what was written on their t-shirts in the well-choreographed scenes shown by the state broadcaster.
On 21 December, 2016, this group of mostly young men was departing Tolay, a military camp turned detention center in south-western Ethiopia. They had been incarcerated for over a month undergoing what the government refers to as a rehabilitation program.
Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn attended the ceremony that marked their release. In his speech, he reminded the former detainees that they have a “constitutionally enshrined right” to express dissent, but warned that if they resort to violence, they will “pay a price”. For many observers, there was a cruel irony to seeing a government educating people about their right to protest having imprisoned thousands over the past few months for exercising it.
Until a year or so ago, Ethiopia had been enjoying strong economic growth and relative stability in a shaky region for a decade. But in November 2015, anti-government protests began to pose a threat to the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, which has been in power since 1991.