Of protests and Ethiopia’s worst bad habit
If the recent spate of protests in various parts of the country is to end and Ethiopia stands real possibility of genuine democratization – which is central to its survival, the government should end this age-old worst bad habit. This should start with acknowledging that we indeed have this problem and it is so grave that we should relieve ourselves of it, writes Solomon Ayele Dersso (PhD).
In a recent article that featured on Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt of Harvard University made the fascinating observation that ‘most (all?) states have some ‘bad habits’ – well-established but questionable practices that remain in place even when the justification for them is no longer apparent (if it ever was)’.
Reading the piece got me into asking what Ethiopia’s worst bad habit is. In light of the widespread protests and the difficult but necessary political tumult in Ethiopia, this is a question of poignant concern.
Surely, there are several bad habits that many may easily put their fingers on. However, there is one that has always bothered me and occupies a nightmarish presence at the back of my mind and perhaps those of many others: Ethiopia is a country constituted and held together through iron and blood.
With no exaggeration most, if not all, Ethiopians and observers of Ethiopian politics may easily agree that the foremost worst bad habit of Ethiopia is indeed state violence. Historically force is at the heart of the making of the Ethiopian state. If Charles Tilly’s famous line ‘war made the state, and the state made war’ is anything to go by, Ethiopia is not unique in this.
Most notable is the fact that all of Ethiopia’s governments have used it as the main means of maintaining power. It has become so wired into the mindset and institutional tradition of the Ethiopian state. No change of time and conditions has been able to change it.
True, all of the country’s governments drew on other sources of legitimacy as well. The Emperor used religion and the legend of descent from King Solomon along with the modernization initiatives. Even the murderous Derg also tried to use its socialist and Ethiopia First slogans to prop up popular support. For the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) apart from its struggle credentials, it has banked its rule on the constitutional affirmation of the equality and self-determination of the diverse ethno-national groups making up the Ethiopian state and state led socio-economic growth.
While the other sources of legitimacy clearly varied with change of government, the use of violence has remained constant across these different governments. The Emperor built a modern security system able to instill fear, imprison and kill those defying and threatening his rule.
Going even farther, the Derg made the establishment of a military and police rule in the country its mission. At the height of its rule, it had the reputation of building the largest army on the continent. It built a notorious (in)security machinery that killed, imprisoned, tortured, disappeared and persecuted any one with opposing views either individually or in an organized platform.
Undeniably a lot has changed under the federal system that the 1995 Constitution put in place. A fair amount of the changes were for the better. Yet, this worst bad habit has not been broken under the EPRDF as well. Whatever improvements made towards democratization did little to dent, let alone undo, the hold of this bad habit. Indeed, the hold of this bad habit has been tightened during the past decade including through securitizing otherwise legitimate political and civic activities with draconian laws such as the press, civil society and anti-terrorism laws.
In the experience and imagination of ordinary people, the one institution that has become an embodiment of the bad habit of rule by brut force in present day Ethiopia is the Federal Police. Just ask any one on the streets of Addis or protestors in the Oromia region. For most, if not all, there is little else that Federal Police represents other than its chilling brutality. Following the small protests in Addis Ababa on 6 August, a minor illustration of this was circulating in various international media outlets showing a Reuters news agency video of federal police kicking and beating protestors with batons and sticks.
Although security institutions are supposed to be non-partisan, it is rightly observed that they ‘have in large part been taken over by political operatives of the incumbent’. Importantly, they have operated in a way that assures the security of the incumbent.
In its May 2016 edition, the monthly Addis Ababa based English magazine Addis Standard had the infamous Maékelawi as its cover story. Recalling that this was one of Derg’s institutions used for torture, abuse and terror, the sub-title of the story reads ‘Why is Ethiopia still running a “Torture chamber” from the past?’ Despite its notoriety and being a relic of the Derg’s repressive past, it is indeed outrageous that Maékelawi still operates serving as the site of the Ethiopian Federal Police Central Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Even more outrageous is that its past practices are thriving. The same interrogation methods involving life changing physical and psychological suffering during the Derg time are not uncommon today. Apart from the testimonies of those who spent time in Maékelawi for investigation and prosecution, the record of the court files of people held there is replete with accounts of torture and various other abuses.
A further test to find out that this worst bad habit continues in present day Ethiopia is to ask some simple questions. What has happened to opposition political parties, journalists, activists, and bloggers acting, speaking or writing in a manner threatening to EPRDF’s rule? What has happened to protests that erupted in Addis Ababa University at various points in the 1990s and early 2000s? How did EPRDF deal with the 2001 split in the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)? What happened in the aftermath of the contested elections of 2005? How about the protests in Oromia and Amhara regions of Ethiopia?
In a widely read article he wrote on the current political situation in Ethiopia, Tsadkan Gebretensai (Lt. Gen.), former chief of staff of the armed forces of Ethiopia, observed regarding the expulsion of some senior members of the TPLF after the 2001 split that ‘those persons were expelled from the party not based on the rules of the party but under duress and using security apparatus’ (emphasis added). Explaining how this was done, he stated that ‘the legislative (sic) was summoned to pass laws designed to detain and keep in prison a few persons perceived by some as threat. Some were thrown to jail even after bail was secured from a court of law.’
With respect to the protests and political upheaval that Ethiopia faced in the aftermath of the 2005 disputed elections, General Tsadkan observed that ‘EPRDF contained the resistance from the opposition by killing hundreds of people and throwing the opposition figures into jail.’ In a report that the US Institute of Peace published in 2007, it stated that ‘[i]t is now confirmed that at least 193 people died and hundreds of others were injured (following the June and November 2005 confrontation between protestors and security forces). By most estimates, tens of thousands were detained, many released without charge after some months, and some charged later with criminal offenses.’
The Dimtsachin Yisema movement involving members of the Muslim community has similarly been responded with a security crack down, with many of its leadership (pardoned on the occasion of Ethiopia’s 2009 new year) prosecuted with charges of terrorism.
The shooting of protestors carrying no firearms, the killings and maiming and the mass imprisonment of protesting youth have again become evident in the recent protests the engulfed the Oromia and Amhara regional states, the two most popular unites of the Federation that together make up more than 65 per cent of Ethiopia’s close to 100 million people.
In another cover story it featured earlier in the year with a heading ‘Why is Ethiopia killing its people again’, the editorial of Addis Standard observed on the outcome of excessive use of force by security forces in Oromia that ‘[s]ince November 12th 2015, when the first protest broke out in Ginshi, a small town 80km from Addis Ababa, countless households have buried their loved one; young university students have disappeared without trace; hundreds have lost limbs and countless others jailed.’ While government sources indicate a much lower fatality figure, various sources reported that several hundreds lost their lives from the months of protests in Oromia region.
The protests in Amhara region first started in the historic city of Gonder. It resulted from a confrontation following attempts by forces of the anti-terrorism task force to arrest individuals who are members of the Wolkait Amhara Identity Question Committee, a group campaigning for the recognition of the Amhara identity of Wolkait, which in the current federal arrangement forms part of the Tigray region.
When protests were first held in Gondar city at the end of July 2016, it ended without incident. Yet, subsequent protests have turned violent. It was reported that a confrontation that arose between protestors and security forces on 5 August 2016 resulted in death, bodily injury and rounding up of various people. As the protests spread to other parts of the region including the capital Bahir Dar, ‘[t]the city became the scene of unspeakable horror’, William Davidson, one of the foreign journalists covering the situation wrote in a recent article. He went on to say that a ‘peaceful anti-government demonstration there turned violent after a security guard at a government building opened fire on the crowds, provoking an angry backlash from protesters, according to witnesses. Security forces then gunned down dozens of demonstrators, killing at least 30.’
Not surprisingly, the protests in Oromia held on 6 August, which reportedly covered large parts of the region, were responded with no less brutal force than before. In the context of sporadic incidents of chaos during the protests, security forces reportedly shot and killed around 100 and rounded up many more.
There is thus very little to disagree with the view that, ‘[I]t looks like all that the EPRDF government got in its tool boxes to address popular grievances and policy reform demands are only guns and more guns.’
Taking into account its persistence across different governments, one can identify some seven manifestations of Ethiopia’s bad habit. First is the belief or political thought that force is central to governing the Ethiopian people. This belief has for generations defined the relationship between the people and government not in terms of citizen and agent but that of a subject and a ruler. This thinking still lingers on in one way or another.
Second is what John W Whitehead calls a nation of suspects. This is a politics of paranoia manifesting a sheer lack of trust towards members of society, particularly those with no active allegiance to the regime. It also entails the branding of those the government wishes to target as banda or traitor, reactionary or counter-revolutionary, secessionist, terrorists, etc.
A necessary corollary to this and the third manifestation is best captured in the famous line from George Orwell’s book 1984 that ‘big brother is watching you’. People are followed, constantly checked, harassed, intimidated and controlled. The surveillance is so pervasive and intrusive. It uses not only human intelligence but also electronic technologies to monitor and keep record of the movements and speeches of citizens, their phone conversations, their emails and social media activities.
Fourth is the establishment and use of a security institution both as an instrument and symbol of enforcing the regime’s power over the citizenry. As illustrated by Africa’s post-colonial authoritarian governments’ perverted reliance on colonial laws they fought against, this also involves the maintenance of the institutions and practices of repression of the oppressive old regime. The case of Maékelawi was earlier mentioned as an example.
Fifth is a rule by law. In this context, the government of the day uses draconian laws for clothing its authoritarian rule a façade of legality. A case in point in present day Ethiopia is the anti-terrorism law, which has been used to stifle political opposition and dissent. Reaching obscenely absurd level, it did not even spare bloggers of Zone 9, mostly new young graduates with passion for their country and politics.
Six is the use of the police and military force as a means of handling political contestations. As a hammer treats everything as nail, all manners of political conflicts are viewed as security problems.
Seventh is the lack of meaningful legal recourse for citizens against violations. Either no transparent and independent investigation is undertaken or no one is held for violations including killings. Even complaints of torture and other abuses presented to courts in the course of ongoing prosecution receive no sanction.
It was Frantz Fanon who wrote in his famous book Black Skin White Masks ‘[w]e revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breath’. Indubitably, the reasons for the protests in Ethiopia are many. However, it is sure that the country’s worst bad habit is one of the principal reasons.
There are various developments that make the continuation of Ethiopia’s worst bad habit untenable. There is less and less disposition on the part of the public to tolerate or acquiesce into submission to the state’s bad habit. Central to this are the important demographic changes the country has witnessed in recent decades.
Like in other parts of the continent, the young generation makes up the single largest section of the population. The size of the population having literacy and going to school has grown exponentially. Although its pace is not aggressive, the country has also been experiencing a process of urbanization and expansion of the middle class. Additionally, despite all its problems, use of mobile phone and the Internet has brought easy access to information to more and more people across the country.
All in all, today there is a high level of political consciousness and rising demand for democratic and responsive system of governance. All this is very good.
If the recent spate of protests in various parts of the country is to end and Ethiopia stands real possibility of genuine democratization – which is central to its survival, the government should end this age-old worst bad habit. This should start with acknowledging that we indeed have this problem and it is so grave that we should relieve ourselves of it. More concrete immediate measures that should be taken to this end include ending the resort of security forces to the use of excessive force in dealing with protestors, establishing an independent national commission of inquiry for investigating and reporting on all acts of excessive use of force against unarmed protestors. Similarly, the thousands of people who have been rounded up and being held in detention centers as part of the security crack down should also be released.
In the medium to the long term, transparent rules on the independent regulation of the activities of the security institutions in accordance with the Constitution should be put in place. Additionally, the laws relating to the press, political parties and terrorism should be revisited to ensure their conformity with the rights in the Constitution and the various international human rights instruments such as the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights to which Ethiopia is a party.
It is also paramount that those in government and society at large are able to disabuse themselves of the political thinking that force is central to governing the Ethiopian people. This demands a mind set shift towards a political thought that Ethiopians are to be governed by and on the basis of just laws made in accordance with democratic constitutional principles.
While Professor Walt in his insightful article warn unsurprisingly that ‘breaking a bad habit is not easy’, he is clear that a nation’s bad habit can indeed be broken. Breaking Ethiopia’s worst bad habit is not beyond the realm of the possible and it holds the key for the stability of the country.
Ed.’s Note: Solomon Ayele Dersso (PhD) is a legal scholar and analyst of peace and security issues in Africa. The views expressed in this article are made in his personal capacity and are not attributable to any of the institutions with which he is affiliated. It also does not reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].