By Tadesse yimer
September 23, 2013
They speak of democracy but act violently to suppress dissenting voices and control the people through the inculcation of fear. They ignore human rights and trample on the people. They are tyrannical wolves in democratic sheep’s clothing, causing suffering and misery to thousands of people throughout Ethiopia.
The right to protest
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government repeatedly scoffs at international law and consistently acts in violation of its own federal constitution – a liberal document written by the regime to please and deceive its foreign supporters. It has enacted laws of repression: the widely condemned Charities and Societies Law and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation – the main tool of political control – together with the Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation form a formidable and unjust arsenal of government control. Freedom of the media (which is largely “state-owned”) is denied and political dissent is all but outlawed.
Against this repressive backdrop, the Semayawi (Blue) Party, a new opposition group, organized peaceful protests on 2 June in Addis Ababa. Ten thousand or so people marched through the capital demanding the release of political prisoners, “respect for the constitution” and justice. It was, Reuters news agency reported, an “anti-government procession… the first large-scale protest since a disputed 2005 election ended in street violence that killed 200 people” – a “disputed election” result that was discredited totally by European Union observers and denounced by opposition groups and large swathes of the population.
The chairman of the Semayawi Party, Yilekal Getachew, told Reuters: “We have repeatedly asked the government to release political leaders, journalists and those who asked the government not to intervene in religious affairs.” In keeping with the recent worldwide movement for freedom and social justice, he stated that, “if these questions are not resolved and no progress is made in the next three months, we will organize more protests. It is the beginning of our struggle.”
To the disappointment of many and the surprise of nobody, the government has made no attempt to resolve the questions raised and, true to their word, a second demonstration was planned for 1 September in Addis Ababa. In the event, as the BBC reported, around “100 members of Ethiopia’s opposition Semayawi Party were arrested and some badly beaten”, and “equipment such as sound systems were confiscated”, ahead of the planned rally, which was banned by the EPRDF. A government cock-and-bull story was duly constructed with Communication Minister Shimeles Kemal stating: “The venue [for Semayawi’s event] had already been booked by a pro-government group condemning religious extremism.”
Non-interference in religious affairs is one of the key demands of the Semayawi Party, a demand based on the constitutional commitment of religious independence from the state, which Muslim groups claim the government has violated. Enraged by government interference in all matters religious, the Muslim community has organized regular small-scale protests and sit-ins in the capital for the last two years. In early August, Reuters reported that demonstrators chanted God is great and hoisted banners that read “Respect the constitution”, referring to allegations that the government has tried to influence the highest Muslim affairs body, the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council.
Around 40 per cent of Ethiopia’s population (about 85 million) are Muslim. For generations they have lived amicably with their Orthodox Christian neighbours, who make up the majority of the population. The Muslim community is generally regarded as moderate in its beliefs and peaceful in its ways. The EPRDF, in contrast, is violent, intolerant and ideologically driven, “Revolutionary Democracy” being the particular tune to which the democratic dictatorship hums and drums its partisan rule.
The government’s response to the peaceful demonstrations has been intolerant and dismissive, describing the demonstrators as foreign-funded Muslim extremists seeking to set up an Islamic state.
Characteristically, it has also imprisoned Muslims, prompting Amnesty International to voice extreme concern and to demand an end to the widespread arrest of Muslim protesters and the repressive crackdown on freedom of speech and the right to peacefully protest.
Meanwhile, protests in Kofele in the Oromia region on 8 August ended in “the deaths of an unconfirmed number”. There have also been reports of large numbers of people being arrested in Kofele and Addis Ababa, including two journalists.
The EPRDF does not tolerate any independent media coverage within the country. It does all it can to control the flow of information out of Ethiopia and restricts totally dissenting voices.
Nor does the EPRDF care who the journalists it represses work for. In October 2012 a reporter from the Voice of America (VOA) covering a protest in Anwar Mosque in Addis was arrested and told to erase her recorded interviews, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported. This was not the first time a VOA journalist had been detained. “They are criminalizing journalism,” said Martin Schibbye, a Swedish freelance journalist who, together with another colleague, was jailed for more than 14 months in 2011 for entering the Ogaden region.
The Ogaden is a heavily militarized area where wide ranging human rights violations constituting crimes against humanity are taking place – violations which have been hidden from the international media and aid organizations since 2007.
Unjust laws of control
In July last year, hundreds of protesting Muslims peacefully demanding that the government stop interfering in their religious affairs and allow them to vote freely for representatives on the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council were arrested. Most were released, but 29 members of the protest committee were charged on 29October under the universally criticized Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, accused of “intending to advance a political, religious or ideological cause” by force, and of the “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt of terrorist acts”. Their arrest has been slammed by human rights groups as well as by the United States Commission on Religious Freedom, which said it was “deeply concerned that Ethiopia’s government is seeking to silence peaceful religious freedom proponents by detaining and trying them in secret under trumped-up terrorism charges”. Those detained claim to have been tortured and experienced other ill-treatment in detention.
The ambiguous Anti-Terrorism Proclamation was introduced in 2009 and has been used by the Ethiopian government “to severely restrict basic rights of freedom of expression, association and assembly”, Human Rights Watch states. It violates dues process which, like a raft of other internationally recognized and legally binding rights, is enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution.
The proclamation allows for long-term imprisonment and the death penalty for so-called crimes that meet the EPRDF’s definition of terrorism, and in some cases it denies a defendant’s right to be presumed innocent – the bedrock of the international judicial system. Torture is used without restraint by the military and police. Under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation evidence obtained while a prisoner is being beaten, hanged, whipped or drowned is admissible in court, which contravenes Article 15 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture (ratified by Ethiopia in 1994).
Ethiopia’s donors and international friends – primarily the US and Britain – have other, larger fish on their minds. Even though they give the country over a third of its federal budget, they seem unconcerned by the criminality being committed by the regime, much of which is taking place under the cloak of development.
Violent rule, however, is a storm that is imploding throughout the world. The people who have suffered long enough are sensing their collective strength and are awakening.
Need for unity
Contrary to the EPRDF’s pledge of ethical federalism, divide-and-rule is its methodology of choice. In a country with dozens of tribal and ethnic groups, and different religious beliefs, unity is the key to any popular social revolution. We are witnessing a worldwide protest movement for change. Age-old values of freedom, equality and social justice, brotherhood and peace are the clarion call of many marching and protesting people.
And so it is in Ethiopia. The Semayawi Party and other opposition groups, the Muslim community and the students are on the street demanding justice. Out of step and blind to the needs of the people and their rightful demands, the ruling party acts with violence to drown out their voices and suppress their rights: in Addis Ababa, where thousands marched in June; in Oromia and the Ogaden, where the people seek autonomy; in Amhara, where thousands have been displaced; and in Gambella and the Lower Omo Valley, where native people are being driven off their ancestral land into state-created villages, women raped and men beaten.
Unity is the song of the day. All steps need to be taken to remove the obstacle to the realization of unity throughout the country – ethnic prejudices and tribal differences must be laid aside. The Ethiopian regime may succeed in subduing the movement for change that is simmering throughout the country, but with sustained, unified action, peacefully undertaken and relentlessly expressed, freedom and social justice will surely come.
Posted by Tadesse Yimer