The talks on Friday and Saturday followed pledges by Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, to push through democratic reforms in the wake of unrest, mainly in the Oromiya region, that threatened the ruling coalition’s tight hold on Africa’s second most populous nation.
The Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) was formed in 2013 by former members of the secessionist Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and seeks self-determination for ethnic Oromos, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. ODF leaders have been living in exile in Europe and North America since the early 1990s when OLF turned against the ruling coalition and was designated a “terrorist“ group by the government.
“A high-level delegation of the government … and a delegation of the Oromo Democratic Front held a fruitful discussion, from May 11-12, 2018, regarding the reforms currently unfolding in Ethiopia,” the group said in a statement.
“Pursuant to its longstanding public position, the ODF reiterated its commitment to deepening and broadening the reforms and democratization process. The government delegation also expressed its enthusiasm to engage all those espousing non-violent means of struggle.”
It did not disclose where the talks were held but said they were the start of a wider engagement between the two sides, and it would soon send an “advance team” to the capital Addis Ababa for formal talks.
Government officials were not immediately available for comment.
The ODF previously held lower level discussions with the government in 2015, but government officials declined to meet party leader Lencho Leta when he travelled to Ethiopia from his home in Norway for the talks.
Oromos make up roughly a third of Ethiopia’s population of 100 million. Oromiya, which surrounds the capital Addis Ababa, has been plagued by violence since 2015, largely fuelled by a sense of political and economic marginalisation among its young population.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has been in power since 1991, when it took over from the Derg military regime. Abiy, who became prime minister in April, has told opposition leaders the country will strengthen a range of political and civil rights, in the latest sign he may be willing to push through reforms announced in the wake of violent protests.