Unity – the path to change in Ethiopia

Haile Mariam Desalegn

The king is dead. Long live the king

By Graham Peebles

It is a new-year in Ethiopia and with it comes a new prime minister, Haile Mariam Desalegn, deputy prime minister under Meles Zenawi who died some time in August – or was it July? A fog of misinformation and uncertainty surrounds the final months of Meles’s life, ingrained secrecy being both a political and national characteristic that works against social and ethnic cohesion, strengthening mistrust and division.

It is unclear what route the deputy prime minister, a Protestant from humble beginnings in the small, desperately poor Wolayta community, took to step into the prime ministerial shoes. Some believe the US administration, through its powerful military machine Africom, engineered the sympathetic replacement. The US is Ethiopia’s main donor, giving around 3 billion dollars a year. Ethiopia, for its part and in exchange for such generosity perhaps, allows the US military to station and launch drones from its soil into Somalia, or indeed anywhere the Pentagon hacks choose and the deadly drones can reach.

New prime minister, same old regime story

The new prime minister has worryingly vowed to continue Meles’s “legacy without any change”, a legacy that is littered with human rights violations and injustices and has little to recommend it.

Meles ruled over a single party state in all but name, through the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), his Tigrayan inner circle and the complicity of other ethnic elites that were co-opted into the ruling alliance, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRD). His was a dictatorship in fact and form and, as is consistent with such regimes, brutal, controlling and intolerant.

Haile Mariam was chosen, it is alleged, simply to give the appearance of an ethnically-balanced leadership but he will have little independence and will dutifully toe the ideologically-driven line of “Revolutionary Democracy”. Whatever the method, and no doubt it was constitutionally correct, Haile Mariam and his deputy, Demeke Mekonnen, are now enthroned, so let us wish them well for there is much work to be done in Ethiopia.

Old injustices, urgent issues

Human rights issues cry out to be dealt with, starting with the immediate and unconditional release of all so-called “political prisoners”, tried and Imprisoned under the internationally-condemne and unjust Anti-Terrorist Proclamation, for the heinous crime of publicly disagreeing with the TPLF dominated government.

The Ethiopian government should, Human Rights Watch (HRW) demands, “amend the law’s most pernicious provisions, which are being used to criminalize free expression and peaceful dissent”. Journalists, mainly working outside of Ethiopia, and supporters of opposition political parties are the common targets, tried in absentia in Ethiopian courts by a judiciary that functions as little more than a sentencing body for the government and thinks nothing of handing down life sentences to dissenting voices, based on fabricated charges. HRW is clear about the illegality of this pattern, stating  that “the use of draconian laws and trumped-up charges to crack down on free speech and peaceful dissent makes a mockery of the rule of law”. both domestic and international.

The government, immersed in paranoia and determined to control all forms of debate and platforms of expression, fires off accusations of terrorist activity at anyone seen to disagree with its disagreeable policies. The ambiguous provision of “conspiracy to commit terrorist acts” is usually cited as criminal activity, or the even the more foggy crime of offering “moral support”, which has little or no specific meaning and, as HRW assert, “is contrary to the principle of legality.” Such ill-defined terms are employed to criminalize dissent and justify the unjust.

Each urgently required reform flows into and out of the other, connected, as it is by the fundamental need to observe basic human rights, at the heart of which sits freedom and justice. Constitutional law provides for the statutory observation of all freedoms of expression that are nevertheless denied in practice or at best grossly restricted. The press, TV and radio are almost exclusively state owned, television is firmly under government control and, with literacy resting at around 48 per cent of the adult population, it is the arm with the greatest reach and influence. Control of the internet is also in the hands of the EPRDF, the sole telecommunications company being listed in the extensive business portfolio of the government, which controls and restricts both internet expansion and use. Over 80 per cent of people live in rural areas and currently a mere 0.5 per cent (400,000) of the population have internet access, the second lowest in sub-Saharan Africa.

Unity in diversity

With between 70 and 80 tribal sets within the seven major ethnic groups and a 45/35 per cent Christian-Muslim split, cooperation, tolerance and unity are essential factors in the country’s wellbeing and strength, as well as its internal security. As imperial nations have long known, a united civilian population is a threat; divide the factions, separate the ethnic groups, fragment the people and make them compete or even fight among themselves and maintain dominion. This, contrary to the EPRDF’s policy of ethnic federalism, which was devised in 1991 when they took power, has consistently been the regime’s approach. All political authority rests firmly within the party controlled by the TPLF, as the International Crisis Group makes clear. It says: “Behind the façade of devolution, [the EPRDF] adopted a highly centralized system that has exacerbated identity-based conflicts.”

Self-determination and self-rule for the major regional groups was, on paper, a central component of ethnic federalism. However, as The international human rights group Advocates for Human Rights (AHR) found, the government “actively impedes the rights of disadvantaged ethnic groups to self-determination.” Far from building partnerships and cultivating cooperation and tolerance, policies flowing from the TPLF’/EPRDF desire to maximize control in all areas of society, including the powerful religious groups, work to encourage fragmentation, create religious dissonance, strengthen ethnic divisions and deny much needed social unity.

Ethiopia has the third largest population of Muslims in Africa and is thought to be the birthplace of Islam in the continent as well as the cradle of African Christianity. The government has for long controlled Muslim affairs via The Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, which is simply a mouthpiece for the ruling party. There have, as Crescent International reports, “been no election in the council for the last 13 years. The council has remained against the rights of Muslims, including wearing hijab and congregational prayer in universities”. Muslims have been calling with increasing intensity for the removal of the unelected council and the state-sponsored imposition of Al-Ahbash (Abyssinian) Islam, a movement that blends elements of Sunni Islam with Sufism. Protests against government meddling are now a regular extension to Friday prayers in Addis Ababa. A Washington Post on 2 November reported that the new prime minister had told parliament on 16 October that “the government fully respects freedom of religion” and “would not interfere in the affairs of religion just as religion would not interfere in matters of politics”. It does indeed seem he is determined to follow in word and deed in the dictatorial, duplicitous footsteps of his predecessor.

The government, with predictable consistency, has labelled these legitimate demands as the actions of “religious extremists: and in July this year resorted to violence in an attempt to settle the issue, killing four Muslims at prayer and arresting scores more. HRW reported that “Ethiopian police and security services have harassed, assaulted, and arbitrarily arrested hundreds of Muslims at Addis Ababa’s Awalia and Anwar mosques who were protesting government interference in religious affairs“. Religious extremists, as we all know, means terrorists. The US Army definition of terrorism is worth noting at this point. It defines it as “the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious or ideological in nature .. through intimidation, coercion or instilling fear.” Accordingly, if name-calling is the name of the game, the EPRDF’s policies qualify them unconditionally for the terrorist label, prefixed with the word “state”.

It’s worth noting that Orthodox Christian leaders have spoken out in support of their Muslim brothers and aired their own concerns at government interference in all things religious. The head Christian is also a regime appointee. The richness of the country’s culture lies in its ancient ethnic diversity and a deeply religious nature that infuses all areas of cultural life, expressed by both Orthodox Christians and Muslims who, despite the governments best efforts, have lived peacefully side-by-side for generations.

Ethnic division centralized discriminatory rule

Regional divisions are being strengthened as ethnic groups are forced to compete for life-saving handouts administered by the EPRDF through their network of regional councils. The Kebeles and Woredas reach into every village, household, stomach and mind in the country, distributing a range of development support from international donors, including emergency food relief, determined by allegiance to the ruling party. Along with this illegal, immoral act that needs the urgent attention of donors, whose silence and apathy makes them complicit in the regime’s criminality, AHR found that the EPRDF uses discriminatory tactics to “interfere with the rights of disadvantaged ethnic groups” in all areas of civil society.

Employment is all too often conditional on party affiliation. Teachers thought to be supporters of opposition parties are harassed. Trade unions –, supported within the liberal constitution – if not affiliated with the regime party face dismantling, their members and leaders intimidated and threatened. And Oromo business people, AHR discovered, “are denied business licenses without explanation and face police harassment targeted at customers, suppliers and employees.”

In schools and colleges both teachers and students are exposed to political indoctrination and “encouraged” to join the ruling party; continued employment and studies being a carrot, unemployment and expulsion the regime stick, membership of the Oromo Liberation Front a guarantee of both. In areas relating to culture, AHR found that Oromos “do not feel free to speak Oromiffa in public or to use distinctively Oromo names”. Leading Oromo cultural figures have been persecuted and the Charities and Societies Proclamation – another poisonous piece of legislation that needs revising or scrapping – restricts the development of cultural relationships to members of the diaspora.

Forced from village to villagization

Ethnic groups forced into villagization programmes by the government as they sell off large tracts of land to foreign corporations, make easy targets for a regime pursuing the fragmentation of society and the exploitation of the people. Large numbers have been forcibly relocated. In Gambella alone, HRW reports, “approximately 70,000 people were slated to be moved by the end of 2011” into settlements that provide no health services or clean water and often lack schools. Quick to capitalize on children’s plight, government officials, AHR report “force schoolchildren in these villages to abandon their studies to provide labour for constructing shelters”. An illegal action adding to the catalogue of state criminality or, to give it its US Army title, state terrorism.

It is projected that if the herding of indigenous people continues at the present rate, all rural dwellers – that’s 80 per cent of the population – will be living in one or other of these government-created villagization centres by the next decade, without any consultation with those affected, no matter the party line on participation and voluntary movement. It’s hard to discuss social engineering and ancestral land rights with armed solders while your home is being demolished. Violent coercion is widespread. According to HRW,  “security forces enforcing the population transfers have been implicated in at least 20 rapes in the past year. Fear and intimidation are widespread among affected populations.”

Divide and rule extends into the very heart of ethnic communities. Families are routinely broken up when driven into the villagization settlements, making women and children particularly vulnerable. As AHR found, “in rural areas, typically populated by disadvantaged ethnic groups, [people] are often victims of human trafficking. The government has taken no meaningful measures to prevent such trafficking or provide assistance or support to victims.” Trafficking of women within Ethiopia and overseas, often to the Gulf states almost always equates to prostitution or forced domestic labour, where sexual abuse, violence and degrading treatment is the common experience.

United in purpose

The EPRDF has divided, inhibited and controlled the people of Ethiopia. Fear and intimidation are their weapons of choice, wielded without recrimination, compassion or regret. The “international community”, which supplies a third of the national budget, is uninterested in this brutality and acts not in support of the people. The opportunity presented to and by the change of prime minister has to date proven to be nothing more than a hollow hope. The cry of the people is being ignored once more and their voices are cast into the darkness and dismissed.

The political opposition, fragmented and dysfunctional, offers no vision of change. However there is a powerful, alternative responsible group. It is the worlds “second superpower”, it is the rich diversity of the people and the strength inherent in their potential unity, standing together in peaceful defence of social justice, freedom and human dignity.

The people of Oromo and Amahra, Tigray and Somali, Sidama, Gurage, Wolaita and Afar, look to each other and fear not, look to your neighbours and friends, share your concerns, your hopes, and fear not; for fear is the weapon of the bully and the enemy of the good. Look to the next village, communicate and organize, fear not, for fear inhibits and controls. Look to the adjoining street and neighborhood where live others who too shiver in fear of the police and armed forces, the Kebeles and Woredas who in the full of light of day distribute food, jobs, education opportunities and health care based on illegal, partisan discrimination.

Unity of the people, rich in diversity united in purpose, is the need and song of the time, for Ethiopia and indeed for the world. Together there is safety and strength beyond measure. “When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you,” proclaims an African proverb. This truth applies to the individual, the family and the nation. Brothers and sisters of one humanity we are, our pains are shared, so too our joys and hopes. No government can withstand the unified strength of a people held together by a common and just cause, acting peacefully in honour of freedom and justice. Such is the need within the wonderful land of Ethiopia, the people of which have suffered much and for far, far too long.

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