Ethiopians are crying out for freedom and justice: Now is the time for change

Ethiopian protests 2016
By Graham Peebles

Usually, 11 September – or 1 Meskerem on the Ethiopian calendar – is a day of celebration. It is the Ethiopian New Year. However, this year there was a distinct shortage of happy gatherings or collective jubilation to mark the end of one year and the beginning of another, either inside the country or among the diaspora.

The country is in crisis and the majority of Ethiopians believe there is little to celebrate. Instead, many people spent the day in quiet reflection, dressed in black. Prayers were said at church services in Ethiopia and abroad for those who have been killed protesting by the security forces of the ruling regime.

As the movement for democratic change grows, the government continues to try to put it down by violent means. Security forces indiscriminately shoot peaceful protesters in the streets, beat and intimidate others. Human Rights Watch says they receive “daily accounts of killings and arbitrary arrests”, and estimates that up to 500 protesters have been killed since November 2015, although many inside the country put the figure higher.

Thousands have been arrested and falsely imprisoned; young people – who are leading the charge for democracy – are being specifically targeted. Torture is widespread in Ethiopian prisons and, for detainees who have expressed political dissent, it is virtually guaranteed. Witnesses have told ESAT News1 that some detained protesters have died as the result of torture, and are buried in the prison grounds.

… the democratic genie is out of the bottle and the regime’s heavy-handed, not to say criminal, actions are only serving to inflame the situation.

The ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), in power since 1991, was not democratically elected and has remained in power by stealing one election after another. It demonstrates no concern for democratic principles or human rights and, like all dictatorships, will do anything to remain in power. It seems unable to grasp the severity of the current situation, or understand the feeling among the population, the vast majority of whom despise the regime and are desperate for fundamental change. Protesters are calling on the government to step down, and for real and honest democratic elections to be held.

Government ministers and spokespersons repeatedly claim that “outside forces”, and “anti peace elements” (whoever they may be) are behind the popular uprising. This, of course, is nothing more than propaganda; complete lies promulgated to appease the EPRDF’s benefactors and maintain the false image of a democratic government concerned with national and regional stability and the wellbeing of its citizens. The government refuses to enter into meaningful discussions with opposition leaders and activists, and has sanctioned a policy of violence, which it presumably hopes will frighten the people into collective submission once more. But the democratic genie is out of the bottle and the regime’s heavy-handed, not to say criminal, actions are only serving to inflame the situation.

In an action that reveals the government’s crude and bullish approach, over a thousand regime soldiers have now been stationed in Bahir-Dar in the Amhara region, where a dignified “stay-at-home” protest has been taking place for weeks. Such an intimidating presence will further antagonise local people, and strengthen already existing anger. Troops were transported on Ethiopia Airlines planes on 1 September, and are now receiving their deadly orders from the chief of staff, Samora Yunis, who has set up base in the city. The internet (which is controlled by the government) in the region remains largely shut down, and locals suspect telephone calls are being monitored.

Growing unity

Freedom and justice are like healthy seeds. Once planted, their growth and realisation is inevitable, it is a question of when they blossom, not if. The desire for these basic human rights, so long denied, is now firmly rooted in the hearts and minds of Ethiopians throughout the country. People from various ethnic, tribal and religious groups are coming together, and despite the government’s attempts to divide communities, a growing sense of unity and shared purpose is evolving, strengthening the movement for change. There is a danger, however, that the anger felt towards the regime, which is dominated by men from the Tigray region, will spill over into hatred for all people from Tigray, fuelling an ethnic conflict. This would be a terrible mistake and should be avoided at all costs. Unity of all ethnic and tribal groups is the key for peaceful change in the country, and the signs are encouraging.

The people of Oromia and Amhara, who together constitute the majority of the population, are combining their efforts. Two opposition parties – the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) and Patriotic Ginbot 7 for Unity and Democracy (PG7) – have formed an alliance, and on the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, the Ethiopian Muslim Arbitration Committee “called on all Ethiopians to stand in unison, regardless of ethnic and religious background, in the struggle to restore justice in the country”, reports ESAT News. The committee went on to make clear that no amount of government coercion would “stop the people from reclaiming their freedom”.

Predictably, the government responded to this call for national solidarity with violence, attacking and detaining members of the laity, as well as Muslims in Dire Dawa and Aweday in eastern Ethiopia. The EPRDF’s sole response to calls for freedom and justice is to try to silence those making such democratic demands by any means.

Nationwide actions

What started as a dispute in the region of Oromia in central Ethiopia is turning into a nationwide movement that is increasingly well coordinated and determined. Throughout the country, different groups have different grievances but one enemy: the EPRDF government. Inter-related democratic fires have been erupting up and down the land as groups protest against a range of unjust government policies; unconstitutional policies that have been violently enforced for over two decades.

In the town of Konso in southwest Ethiopia, over 50,000 residents signed a petition calling for self-determination – a constitutional right. The regional council dismissed the request without discussion. Insulted and angered, the people went on strike, causing government offices and businesses to close down. Security forces were brought in and, ESAT News reports, killed scores of people, forcibly displaced up to 300 Amharas whose village homes were set on fire, and attempted to “incite ethnic violence” between Amharas and local indigenous groups. Frightened for their lives, “over 4,000 [Amhara] people have left Konso”, with many more planning to migrate to neighboring regions.

Protests over land have been taking place in Gondar in the north-west of the country for months. There is a huge military presence in the area now and residents had been ordered to hand over any guns held for self-defence. However, far from complying with the decree to disarm, furious locals attacked soldiers and gun battles ensued. In the Lower Omo Valley in the south-west, people from the Bodi and Mursi tribes united and blocked roads in protest at the government’s land-grab policy. Large tracts of ancestral land are being sold off by the regime to national and international companies, causing the displacement of thousands of indigenous people.

In the second incident to take place in a prison in a matter of weeks, a fire broke out at the high security Qilinto prison on the outskirts of the capital, Addis Ababa. Under cover of the fire, special forces personnel, who were brought in to replace prison guards, killed a number of inmates. While the BBC quoted the government-influenced figure of 23 dead, other sources claim military snipers shot at least 60 prisoners. Opposition party members, journalists and protesters are among those held in Qilinto.

It took the authorities over a week to release the bodies of those killed, a week in which the names of victims were also withheld, causing intentional anguish to the families and friends of those detained.

The Ethiopian diaspora has also been active, protesting throughout the Western world. And in what appears to have been a coordinated action, Ethiopians living in London, Frankfurt and Stockholm stormed the Ethiopian embassies. Protesters took down the current national standard, which bears the regime’s emblem, and replaced it with Ethiopia’s original flag, and they called for an end to the killing and arrests taking place in the country.

Change is coming

Ethiopia is regularly cited as an African success story and receives huge support from Western donors – both financial and political. The country’s primary donors are the USA, Britain and the European Union, all of which have allowed the ruling EPRDF to violate human rights on a colossal scale. To their utter shame, the government’s foreign “allies” have, with their virtual silence, continued to support the regime as it slays innocent people in the streets. The US, it is said, has raised “grave concerns” about the use of force against protesters, “concerns” which, unless backed up with actions to influence the regime, are simply hollow words, insincerely spoken.

All pressure needs to be brought to bear on the Ethiopia government to stop the violence, listen to the people and enter into serious dialogue with opposition groups. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ request for access to affected areas of the country was denied, and leading human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, have written to the UN Human Rights Council, calling for an immediate halt to “excessive” use of force by Ethiopian security forces against protesters.

The ruling party of Ethiopia will no doubt ignore such reasonable calls and continue with its violent response – it seems unable to react in any other way. But whatever the EPRDF may do, the movement for change is sweeping through the country and the struggle for freedom will go on. The fear that hung over the population for so long is at last losing its grip. People sense that the momentum is with them, and that with consistent, united action, change is a real possibility.

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