No use quibbling over semantics!
The report published by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on January 1into the three-day unrest that rocked some parts of the Oromia Region in the wake of the murder on June 29, 2020 of the Oromo singing sensation Hachalu Hundessa makes for grim reading. EHRC found crimes against humanity were committed by large numbers of people, organized in groups, in a widespread and systematic attack against civilians on the basis of their ethnicity or religion over the three days of 30 June–2 July 2020. According to the report, moving in groups the perpetrators used axes, knives, machetes, sticks and other weapons to kill and injure civilians in gruesome ways that involved beheadings and torture. Altogether, it said, some 123 people died and more than 500 were injured in the carnage that also displaced thousands from their homes. It also stated that while security forces had the challenging task of restoring order in the face of such widespread violence, they employed disproportionate force in their attempt to restore order. The report further called on the Oromia and federal government to conduct probes into the matter and bring the individuals responsible to justice. Noting the repeated pattern of atrocity crimes in Ethiopia, the Commission also underscored the need to design and implement a comprehensive national strategy for the prevention of egregious crimes with a view aims to address the root causes of similar events and prevent their recurrence.
Understandably, Ethiopians were horrified by the report, expressing rage and revulsion over the slaughtering of defenseless compatriots in a display of barbarism seldom witnessed throughout the country’s history. While the report was welcomed by many for shedding light on the scope of and the cause behind the carnage, a handful of loud critics have taken EHRC to task for not declaring that the attacks constitute genocide, arguing its description of the horrendous acts as meeting the elements of crimes against humanity diminishes their gravity. Though the critics may have grounds to decry the Commission’s characterization, the important thing that each and every one of us ought to bear in mind is the painful loss of innocent lives and the trauma the affected communities are undergoing. Quibbling over semantics is of no use to anyone.
Sickening as they may be the appalling events covered by the report are by no means the only incidents of their kind. In fact some of them were more deadly. Ethiopia’s history is replete with heinous acts perpetrated by elements whose endgame was to accomplish selfish political ends by sowing the seeds of instability. The poisonous atmosphere characterizing Ethiopian politics for the past five decades has left behind a legacy of intolerance that continues to lead to bloody internecine strife. As Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) told parliamentarians a month back, an average of one conflict has been taking place across Ethiopia since he assumed the premiership in April 2018. The focus of the conversation regarding conflicts which result in mass killings, therefore, must not be on whether they amount to crimes against humanity or genocide. Although the two concepts have different political connotations, in the present context the distinction between is them is lost on the vast majority of citizens and is of scant comfort to the families and loved ones of the victims.
The proliferation of attacks of the sort that transpired in the aftermath of Hachalu’s assassination should serve as a wake-up call to Ethiopians that forces harboring nefarious agendas have no qualms about doing whatever is necessary, including stoking intercommunal and interfaith conflicts, in hopes of riding to power on the rubbles of the havoc they wreak. The false and vitriolic narratives these forces peddle are antithetical to democracy. They also threaten to unravel the fabric of Ethiopian society by undermining the age-old values that had helped them coexist in harmony and thereby endanger the nation’s very existence. If Ethiopians continue to squabble over matters of little consequence instead of strengthening the bonds which tie them, they will in effect be allowing enemies from within and outside to darken their future.
As we have said time and again if Ethiopia is to become a land of peace and prosperity its people should be able to exercise the right to self-govern and enjoy other constitutionally guaranteed rights through the peaceful pursuit of political objectives. This calls for, among others, the fostering of an environment that lends itself to the free flow of diverse ideas and enables all citizens to engage in a constructive dialogue. Misunderstandings must never be settled through violence. Even as the architects and perpetrators of the crimes set out in EHRC report feel the full force of the law, the report’s findings are a stark reminder of the exigency to undertake a broad consultative process which culminates in a consensus on the imperative to avert a repeat of crimes that are a stain on the nation’s conscience. This may not be achieved by engaging in hair-splitting over what constitutes a crime against or genocide over semantics. It can only be attained through a cathartic process that helps move the nation and its people forward.