Culprits and Victims of Ethiopia’s State of Emergency Decree
Despite a new calendar year, the outlook for human rights conditions remains grim in Ethiopia, following last year’s state of emergency, media crackdowns, and violent protests.
Following the Ethiopian government’s emergency decree last October, a military-like collective body named Command Post has since been running the country’s security affairs. In a series of mass roundups, the amorphous Command Post detained more than 24,000 people, mostly from the regions of Amhara and Oromia, which are the epicenters of the mass anti-government protests. Despite human rights violation reports, no investigation was ever conducted in the poorly managed military detention camps before ten thousand were released at the end of December. The release itself occurred in part to intense American diplomatic pressure. More than 2,500 detainees are, however, to face criminal charges.
- This column’s topics will include literature, art, education, history, and political culture in Ethiopia, as well as society and politics in the Horn of Africa. Moreover, I will address the tribulations of journalists and the ill-fated constitutional right of freedom of expression under Ethiopia’s deceptive authoritarian regime. I will try to be the voice of the voiceless, be it persecuted journalists at home or exiled journalists abroad. These themes will make Ethiopia’s uniqueness and absurdities evident.
- Chalachew Tadesse is an Ethiopian journalist and columnist. He has previously worked as a full time journalist for The Reporter and The Sub-Saharan Informer English newspapers. He was also a columnist for the much-acclaimed Fact magazine, before the Ethiopian regime closed it in October 2014. A political science student by training, he works as a university lecturer and is known for his sociopolitical commentaries on the Ethiopian private press.
No one knows how many people died when the state security forces unleashed massive violent crackdown aided by the deployment of the national army over the last four months. Prior to the state of emergency, international human rights organizations claim that the security forces killed more than six hundred civilian protesters in a few months.
In the military camps—which Command Post romantically calls “rehabilitation centers”—the detainees were given “trainings.” Ironically, the “trainings” covered a range of topics including “democracy” and the immorality of “color revolutions.” In the regime’s vocabulary however, the term “training” simply means partisan political indoctrination. What then was the core message the “trainings” were intended to convey? It’s plain and simple: never again! In fact, the same words were inscribed on the t-shirts worn by the “trainees” during their “graduation” broadcast by state media. The regime also forced the “trainees” to swear an oath of unwavering devotion to the democratic constitutional order. And this was done in the presence of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn—the ceremony’s guest of honor—who also made a speech warning the “trainees” against what he called “future violent protests.” That is indicative of the level of the regime’s moral deficit.
Independent journalists Elias Gebru and Anania Sori, editors of the now defunct Addis Gets magazine, have been in detention since November for supposedly violating the state of emergency. No formal charges have been filed against them though. Another detainee was Befkadu Hailu, co-founder of the award-winning Zone 9 bloggers’ collective for presumably criticizing the government’s handling of protests of international media outlets. Hailu was subsequently released without charge a month later. Independent journalists from the few publications that exist today, are often caricatured by the government as “doomsayers” calling for a curse upon the country.
Strangely enough, in Ethiopia independent journalists are often presumed guilty until proven innocent. In 2015, Ethiopia was ranked as the third highest jailor of journalists in Africa by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Even moderate opposition politicians were never spared by the all-powerful Command Post. Merera Gudina is a veteran opposition leader, longtime government critic and former member of Parliament, and until the sudden termination of his contract on the basis of his political stance, Merera was also a veteran political science professor at Addis Ababa University. In fact, over the course of the last 20 years, I took several of his political science courses. Last November, Merera was apprehended upon his return from an EU-sponsored meeting between Ethiopian dissident opposition politicians and activists in Brussels, at which Berhanu Nega, a dissident rebel leader of Ginbot 7 Patriotic Front—an insurgent group based in neighboring Eritrea—was also in attendance. Alas, the ambiguous state of emergency criminalizes “all sorts of private physical meetings and communications with outlawed and anti-peace groups.” For this reason, the authorities used the meeting as justification to arrest Merera. In part, this is how the regime tries to weaken peaceful and legitimate opposition voices. Nothing underpins the complete lack of tolerance to dissent on the part of the regime more than the decision to arrest Merera, who has always called for peaceful democratic transition.
Incidentally, the decree also casts shadow on the routine normal life of Ethiopians. In the capital, most people are reportedly fearful of holding even social and business meetings. Why? In part due to the decree’s ambiguity on what is allowed and what is prohibited. Besides this ambiguity, the police also reportedly harass book vendors on the streets of the capital, even though such activities aren’t prohibited at all. More specifically, books with political content have been targeted. Even more worrisome is that independent publishing companies have started to censor new publications, both fiction and nonfiction alike, in case they have explicit or implicit political content that may offend the Orwellian Command Post.
Social media—long labeled by the regime as the main culprit for inciting violence, disseminating hate speech, and bigotry—was the sole surviving fortress of dissent until it was banned after the August press crackdown. But at the end of last year, the government said it lifted the blanket ban partially and cautiously, especially the ban on Facebook, Twitter and Internet on mobile phones.
It was not a true end to the ban, however. Social media still remains very difficult to access inside Ethiopia, in which the sole Internet server provider belongs to the state. Thus, only few Ethiopians with advanced digital knowhow can use virtual private networks (VPNs) in order to access websites, which otherwise remain entirely inaccessible for tens of millions of non-Wifi connection users. Dogged by a year-long protest, the regime is determined not to leave a single stone unturned before suppressing all critical voices. This despite the repeated warnings of economists about the huge economic impact of the Internet shutdown.
In the wake of widespread popular protests, the regime and the bizarre ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), claimed they have undergone “deep self-examinations” at all levels. No doubt that the whole essence of the stated “campaign of renewal” appears very absurd to any sane observer. In reality there is a strong and widespread perception that regime has reached an incorrigible level so much so that its ills are almost beyond redemption. However, that doesn’t matter much to Ethiopia’s rulers who are known for their preposterous assertions and claims. Subsequent to the regime’s absurd “renewal,” the authorities promised to make some vaguely outlined political reforms aimed at addressing the people’s grievances. Nonetheless, six months have already elapsed before they took any positive and concrete step to that end beyond a cosmetic cabinet reshuffle. Surely, that move was an insult to the intelligence of the protesters.
By simplifying the causes of the protest and portraying them as economic and governance problems, the incumbent often seeks to downplay the people’s demand for freedom and democracy, the main enduring problem. The incumbent therefore seeks to downplay the people’s demand for freedom and democracy, the main enduring problem. Regrettably, the government has intentionally taken a dangerous path of the “overly securitization of legitimate grievances.”
What is very absurd in Ethiopia today is the hegemonic governing party that controls the parliament in its entirety. There is not even a single seat left for the opposition. Signals such as loosening repressive anti-terrorism legislation, media and civil society laws, and releasing jailed opposition figures, activists and journalists would have been seen as positive confidence building measure. Sadly, the Party has not yet attempted any of these actions. In fact, only the opposite of such actions have occurred; the regime’s reputed duplicity and sporadic arrests show no sign of ceasing.
That is why we have every reason to be skeptical about the likelihood of democratic transition under this regime. That is to say, the incumbent’s promise of reform serves no other purpose other than appeasing regime’s Western backers and buying extra time to tighten its grip on power. Unusually, American diplomats during the Obama administration were increasing pressure on the regime to reform and hold broad-based dialogue with the opposition. Will the newcomers under Donald Trump’s presidency have appetite to step up the momentum? Most likely, they won’t.
Nevertheless, let’s say the incumbent opens dialogue with the Opposition. Do Ethiopians expect optimistic outcomes from political dialogues? Nothing much, indeed. This can also be explained by the state of affairs for the long-suffering opposition is frustratingly hopeless; thanks in large part to the heavy clampdown, almost all are extremely fragmented and weak. Regardless, notwithstanding the regime’s persistent belligerence to the opposition few people expect it to employ genuine dialogue with the aim of at least averting large-scale political crises. For this reason, most Ethiopians don’t give the brutal regime the benefit of the doubt any more. In the light of this grim situation one can imagine the country’s uncertain and bumpy road ahead.
There is no doubt that few Ethiopians lose sight of the strength, cohesiveness, and stability of the state security machinery under the regime’s disposal. The brutal machinery allows it to exert perpetual violence against citizens and subdue any form of dissent, be it peaceful or violent. This also explains why not even a semblance of a military rule was not instituted by the state of emergency replacing, partially or wholly, the civilian administration. And yet assurance isn’t yet forthcoming as to whether or not the emergency law will be lifted in the coming May. That said, it is also true that no one loses sight of the fact that the barrel of the gun will eventually give in to the people’s irresistible lust for democratic change. As the demand for change is prolonged by force, one thing is surely becoming clear: The optimism for peaceful political change is vanishing by the day, thereby forcing people and political groups to resort to violent insurrection. As the rhetoric from the extremist Diaspora and the government gets toxic one can easily sense that the country may be scenting an inevitable protracted violence. A recent warning by an American diplomat perfectly captures the existing state of affairs: Ethiopia is now like a “boiling pot.” Despite the two-decades long repression and harsh incarcerations, the clouds of pervasive fear quickly vanishing. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.
No doubt a semblance of of normalcy seems to have returned to the country since the imposition of the infamous emergency decree. This sense of normalcy is, however, false, and only masks the stark reality underneath: anger, deep-rooted resentment, and sense of alienation. For a close observer, Ethiopia’s prevalent state of affairs is therefore disturbingly illusive and precarious. Since the regime is always under a veil of illusion, it seems that it has definitely taken the current peaceful state of affairs for granted. Alas, as if it had the mandate of heaven, the ethnocentric hegemonic ruling party considers itself as high priest bestowed by the providence of history to salvage dystopian Ethiopia and transform it to Utopia. To Ethiopians, this is hugely ironic.
Against this bleak backdrop, Ethiopians have entered the Gregorian year 2017 (Ethiopia is still in 2009 in the Julian calendar) and the perpetuation of the nation’s agony under a reclusive regime has continued unabated. George Orwell’s book 1984–which is ironically getting large readership in Donald Trump’s America–perfectly resonates with today’s dystopian Ethiopia. Amid an optimistic wind of change blowing across Africa . Regrettably, my column “Double-Faced Ethiopia” is regrettably still doomed to tell the tragic story of a troubled nation: a story that is, in most part, akin to a fictitious horror story in wonderland.