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Inside Ethiopia’s “Retraining” Program for Thousands of Detained Protesters


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.