Ethiopia slides deeper into repression
Is the arrest of Andargachew Tsige the final straw for the people of Ethiopia?
Faced with a brutal repressive regime, Ethiopians inside the country and within the worldwide diaspora – frustrated, angry and desperate – are considering all options to elicit fundamental change in the country.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which seized power from the communist Derg in 1991, rules the country through fear and intimidation. Development aid, including food and other essentials, is distributed in a partisan manner, as are employment opportunities. The government’s human rights record is appalling and an arsenal of ambiguous, universally condemned legislation is used to control and suppress the populace.
The “deeply flawed” Anti-Terrorism Act, being the bluntest judicial weapon, is repeatedly employed to silence critical voices and imprison those who dare to speak out against the government. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), since the act was adopted in 2009 “the independent media have been decimated by politically motivated prosecutions… Blogs and internet pages critical of the government are regularly blocked,” and an all-pervasive atmosphere of fear is created by the paranoid dictatorship that spies on opposition members and journalists using surveillance practices that “violate the rights to freedom of expression, association, and access to information”, says HRW.
Although enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution (a liberally acceptable, consistently ignored document written by the EPRDF) as basic rights, as well as in various African and international conventions, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Ethiopia has ratified, freedom of the media, of assembly and association, together with all forms of political dissent are essentially outlawed. The opposition parties have up until now been marginalized and largely ineffective.
The latest innocent voice to be silenced is that of Andargachew Tsige, a British citizen and secretary-general of the Ginbot 7 (G7), a unity movement founded in 2008 to bring about “a national political system in which government power and political authority is assumed through peaceful and democratic process based on the free will and choice of citizens of the country”. He was charged in absentia and “sentenced to death while in exile for plotting a coup”, a trumped up charge that has no basis in fact, and which he has repeatedly vehemently denied.
On 23 June Yemeni security personnel detained Tsige while transiting via Sanaa to Eritrea. He is now imprisoned inside Ethiopia, where torture and violent mistreatment is commonplace. The British government, a major donor and misguided supporter of the Ethiopian regime, has a duty to apply all pressure to secure his immediate release.
The Ethiopian government, which in May signed an agreement of cooperation relating to economic, investment and security issues with the Yemeni authorities (although it is unclear if this includes extradition), welcomed the arrest, saying “he is a criminal, and he definitely will have his day in court”. The judiciary functions more or less as an arm of the government, enforcing EPRDF policy and denying justice. Getachew Reda, a government spokesman, predictably and spuriously “accused him of plotting terror attacks in Ethiopia”.
In 2011 the government unsurprisingly labelled G7 a terrorist organization, along with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which is fighting for the Ogaden people’s right to self-determination, and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which is struggling for independence for the Oromo population – the single largest group in the country.
To the untrained eye, Ethiopia appears stable in a region of almost total instability. It is a misleading social steadiness however, and masks deep-seated and widespread bitterness and simmering fury towards the ruling party.
The arrest of Andargachew Tsige is part of a government strategy to undermine any movement for change, to create an atmosphere of fear among those who are brave enough to speak out against the regime, and to cultivate a false impression, presumably aimed at Ethiopia’s principle donors (Britain, America, the European Union), that there is some kind of terrorist plot at work, and they are the righteous ones fighting alongside their Western allies against extremism.
Since the 9/11 attacks on America and George W’. Bush’s declaration of a “war on terror”, the “T” word has been used by repressive regimes throughout the world to tarnish opposition groups and civilian protest movements.
Terrorism is indeed operating within Ethiopia. It can be seen at work in Gambella, where villagers are forced from their homes into camps, their land taken from them and sold to foreign corporations; in the Omo Valley, Amhara, Oromia and the Ogaden region, where women are raped and mutilated, men killed and tortured children scarred for life, villages burnt to the ground. It is state terrorism. The terrorist commanders are the EPRDF politicians, the military and Liyu police the front-line henchmen carrying out their masters’ terrifying orders.
In many cases throughout the country the human rights violations committed daily by the Ethiopian government qualify as war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is time long overdue that the country’s allies acted to support the people and challenge what is a vicious criminal dictatorship.
Catalyst for action
The illegal detention of Andargachew Tsige in Yemen and his subsequent transfer to Ethiopia has enraged many in the country as well as those ardently working for change within the diaspora community. While some extreme voices may be calling for an armed uprising, the way forward is through sustained political activism, peaceful protest and community unity. If we are ever to build a just world at peace, and create a new civilization based on altogether different values, the destructive, violent patterns of the past must be laid aside. Revenge and retribution must give way to forgiveness and justice, tolerance and understanding. As Martin Luther King rightly said, “darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Fearful of government retribution, they [Ethiopians] have looked to others to act – the British, the Americans, the Europeans – and while they do indeed have a duty to stand up for the people of Ethiopia, it is the people themselves that must take their destiny in their own hands.
The understandable emotional reaction to the arrest of Tsige needs to give rise to sustained and coordinated collective action inside Ethiopia, supported by worldwide demonstrations by the diaspora. For too long the people have been silent in the face of injustice and violent suppression. Fearful of government retribution, they have looked to others to act – the British, the Americans, the Europeans – and while they do indeed have a duty to stand up for the people of Ethiopia, it is the people themselves that must take their destiny in their own hands.
With a population of 92 million spread across nine different states and dozens of tribal groups, it is essential that the people unite against the government and do not turn on one another. Many groups around the country are subjected to the same government abuse and mistreatment, in Gambella, Amhara, the Ogaden region, the Lower Omo valley and in Oromia; they are confronted by a common enemy and need to unite behind a collective cause.
Social revolution and collective action is often triggered by a catalyst, an event that demands action – a final straw that breaks the back of apathy and complacency. The arrest of Andargachew Tsige is such an event. Now is the time for the Ethiopian people to unite, and, overcoming the fear that has inhibited them for so long, demand an end to tyranny and their right to justice, freedom and fundamental democratic change.