Seeds of change in Ethiopia

Ethiopian protest

By Graham Peebles 

The people of Ethiopia have been suppressed and controlled for generations. Under the current Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government, freedom of expression has been curtailed and an atmosphere of fear and intimidation fostered. Peaceful assembly has not been allowed, even though it is guaranteed under the constitution, and all political dissent is suppressed.

In 2005, after parliamentary elections that many, including the European observers, deemed to be unfair, students took to the streets in the capital, Addis Ababa, to demonstrate against what they saw as electoral fraud. The regime responded by deploying armed security personnel who, according to Human Rights Watch, killed “dozens of protesters and arbitrarily detained thousands of people across the country”. Some estimate that up to 200 people were killed by government forces.

“We call for respect of the constitution”

Unsurprisingly, since then the streets of Addis Ababa and other major towns and cities have been quiet, and people have felt unable to protest – until 2 June 2013, when the relatively new Smayawi (Blue) Party organized demonstrations at various sites across the capital. Reuters news agency report that around 10,000 people participated, although local people put the figure much higher. Throngs of mainly young people marched through the city, demanding the release of political leaders and journalists, and serious measures to address corruption and economic problems. Protesters carried banners reading “Justice! Justice! Justice!” Some held pictures of imprisoned opposition figures, while others chanted: “We call for respect of the constitution.”

Members of opposition parties and journalists critical of the government are among those who have been arrested and charged under the universally condemned Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. Human Rights Watch reports that 30 journalists and opposition members were convicted in 2012 under the “vague” law introduced in 2009, granting the Ethiopian authorities what Amnesty International described as “unnecessarily far-reaching powers”. They went on to make clear that the legislation “restrict[s] freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and the right to fair trial”. It contains an easily distorted, ambiguous definition of terrorism, covering legitimate political dissent and “damage to property and disruption to any public service, for which an individual could be sentenced to 15 years in prison or even the death penalty”.

According to Human Rights Watch, this draconian law is being used “to target perceived opponents, stifle dissent and silence journalists”, and to restrict freedom of expression, assembly and association”. In addition, human rights workers have been forced to flee the country, and rights groups have been closed down or forced to “scaled-down” their operations to exclude the human rights aspect from their work. Independent media have also been effected: “more journalists have fled Ethiopia than any other country in the world due to threats and intimidation in the last decade – at least 79, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists”.

The time for change is now

The year 2011 saw the rise of pragmatic, peaceful expression of people power, as mainly young people across North Africa rose up against injustice and to demand freedom. It was the year in which Time magazine named “The Protestor” as its person of the year. People, it said, “dissented; they demanded… they embodied the idea that individual action can bring collective, colossal change”. Since what became known as the “Arab Spring”, Greece, Spain, Russia, Syria, Turkey and Iran have all seen popular uprisings against injustice, corruption and suppression. Unified actions, consistently spearheaded by young people, the Occupy movement in America, Britain and elsewhere, called for economic justice, sharing and social equality.

The old structures, built on divisive foundations, are worn out and inadequate, and they do not serve the needs of the vast majority of people. Governments such as Ethiopia’s which reinforce injustice, violate human rights and deny their citizens freedoms are out of step with the times and must be swept aside.

With over 65 per cent of the population of Ethiopia under 25 years of age, and a median age of just 17, the young are the great hope for the country. They know well that sharing and justice are the keys to peace and freedom, commonsense truths that the men of the past, acting from narrow ideological positions that distort and corrupt, do not understand. They cling to power and privilege, fearful of the changes that the people demand.

Unity is the key

The need for unity is a worldwide need. In Ethiopia, where over 70 different ethnic tribal groups speaking dozens of dialects make up the country’s population of 85 million, unity is essential if there is to be fundamental social change.

A single demonstration as seen in Addis Ababa on 2 June will have little effect unless it serves as the beginning of a coordinated, strategic movement. Dictatorships such as the one enthroned in Addis Ababa do not suddenly renounce brutality and embrace democratic ideals of freedom and participation. Relentless, orchestrated peaceful calls for liberty, justice and the observance of human rights need to be made by the people of Ethiopia, establishing an unstoppable movement, a people’s tsunami that will wash away all opposition to change.

Let Meskel Square in Addis Ababa become the Ethiopian Tahrir Square of Egypt’s protests. A unified, inspired response to the impulse for change is needed, led by the young people of Ethiopia, organized and determined, uniting under the banner of justice, freedom and peace for all.

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