Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Case of Rwanda: Lessons for Ethiopia

By Dawit Woldegiorgis 
July 22, 2016

This is article is meant for Ethiopians to remind them to learn lessons from the Rwandan genocide. Some might think that such kind of scenario will never happen in Ethiopia. But just think about it: who thought that a country called Somalia with one language, one ethnic group and one religion would so rapidly fall apart and be a failed state for two decades? Who would have thought that the former Yugoslavia would disintegrate and result in the kind of genocide and ethnic cleaning we have seen in the heart of Europe, sending many leaders to the international criminal court? Who would have thought that South Sudan, which had its independence in 2011, after decades of war, would descend to a civil war that is causing the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese? Who would have thought that Muammar Gadhafi would be overthrown in such a swift and brutal way and the country plunging into civil war and becoming the breeding ground of terrorists like ISIS, an evil that slaughtered many innocent young Ethiopian migrants.  And the list can go on.

Let me tell you a first hand story about the genocide in Rwanda just to remind you, though I know that you have read and heard about it and you may have watched the movie Hotel Rwanda.  In 1994, in the month of August I received a call from Ellen  Sirleaf Johnson (current president of Liberia) who was then the UNDP Africa Bureau Chief. I was asked if I would be willing to head a UN emergency coordinating team to Rwanda. I accepted the offer.

That was just a few weeks after the genocide, the greatest mass murder since the holocaust, of close to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus ended and the Rwandan Patriotic Front had just entered victoriously to Kigali. I had never been to Rwanda before. Flying over Rwanda is an incredible experience.  The scenery does not seem real. It is a beautiful country, a country of mountains as it is called in French (mille collines) and looks as if a green carpet has been plastered over the thousands of mountains with beautiful well-structured villages.  But being inside Rwanda at that time would give one a very eerie experience that one would never forget.

I had come to a country where in the last 100 days (April 6 to July 16, 1994) an estimated 800,000 to I, 000,000 Tutsis and some moderate Hutus were slaughtered; between 250,000 to 400,000 women raped (67% of these were later infected with HIV); etc. The statistics on the number of survivors, orphans, disabled people, widows etc. are staggering.   There are two major ‘ethnic’ groups in Rwanda Hutus composing of 84% and Tutsis 15% and the rest Twas, the pygmy population who comprise around 1%.

Though the two groups are one culturally and linguistically united people, they had a very brutal past. The genocide was a culmination of accumulated hatred by the majority Hutus towards the minority Tutsis; hatred and mistrust that had its roots in the Belgian colonial era.  In 1860, a certain British officer by the name of John Hanning Speke:

 “ declared that all culture and civilization had been introduced by the taller sharper featured people who he considered Caucasians from the Horn of Africa, Ethiopians” and I may add perhaps the Oromos in particular. He considered Ethiopians to be of “Caucasian origin, descendent   from the biblical King David and therefore superior race to the Negros.” Of course this is not substantiated neither by history nor by science and therefore considered either oral history or just a legend. (I however don’t wish to make this subject of discussion since the intention of this article is to look into the genocide and the lessons that can be learnt). Such a contorted categorization of Africans was a convenient way for Europeans to divide and rule, in this case,  by creating the illusion that Tutsi blood was more like them than was the Hutus. We see the same pattern in South Africa apartheid system where the whites were classified as first class citizens and the coloreds (half casts) who were to be the closest to the whites and therefore treated better as second class and the Indians who, though they are black, have sharper features third class and the   black Africans came last in the ladder of categorization of South Africans and rights and privileges distributed in that order.
In Rwanda this categorization resulted in the complete marginalization of the majority during the colonial period.  By the end of the Belgian presence in Rwanda in 1959, “forty three chiefs out of forty five were Tutsis as well as 549 sub-chiefs out of 559” in a country where peoples’ lives and land holding system were controlled by chiefs.  The result was a political and economic monopoly by the minority ethnic group. The college enrollments for example was:

 1932 forty-five Tutsi and 9 Hutus
 1945 forty-six Tutsi and three Hutu;
 1954 sixty-three Tutsi and 19 including 13 from Burundi
 1959 two hundred seventy nine Tutsi and 143 Hutu.

Obtaining secondary education for Hutus was very difficult and even those who got the education had difficulty getting employment. This resulted in the creation of a special Rwandese Tutsi minority elites that controlled the lives of the majority and who believed in the Belgian and the Tutsi contorted history that made the Tutsis very different from the Hutus, a superior race narrative, which eventually was embedded into the minds of Tutsis for which they eventually paid a very dear price.  The Hutus who were denied everything they had prior to the coming of the colonialists and repeatedly told they were inferior to the Tutsis, began to hate all Tutsis. “The time bomb was set and it was now only a question of when it would go off …Rwanda was not a land of peace and bucolic harmony before the arrival of the Europeans (but) there is no trace in its pre-colonial history of systematic violence between Tutsi and Hutu as such…. ideas and myths can kill, and their manipulation by elite leaders for their own material and power interest does not change the fact that in order to operate they first have to be implanted in the souls of men.”  (Gerard Prunier, the Rwanda Crisis.) Tutsis started a movement for independence and this angered the Belgians who quickly changed sides and replaced the Tutsi chiefs by Hutus.  When Hutu leaders got this power they started settling scores and in 1959 killed over 100,000 Tutsis. A huge number of Tutsis fled to neighboring Uganda, Zaire and Burundi.  It was by these refugees that the Rwandan Patriotic Front was established.

In 1994 the RPF, had intensified the war and was closing in Rwanda.  Radio des Milles Collines  (RTLM) financed by the government launched its program of hate and extermination just after the Arusha Accord. When the president was returning from Arusha, his plane was struck and he was killed. That incident triggered the genocide though the preparation to eliminate the Tutsis had been going on for quiet sometime.  A highly educated Rwandese professor, Ferdinand Nahimana was heading the radio programs. It was full of vitriolic propaganda of hate and clear messages for Hutu extremists to go out and kill.  The radio was sending out messages that Tutsis were controlling everything and seeking supremacy and this evil and injustice perpetuated by this minority group can “be cured only by their total extermination” calling them hyenas, snakes, cockroaches, etc. It was hateful, dehumanizing, and designed to incite the people to rise up and kill Tutsis, capitalizing on the years of oppression that Hutus have endured under the real or perceived, direct and indirect control of a minority that only represented 15% of the population. It was not a spontaneous uprising. It was an uprising that had been in the making since the Habermanya government took over (the last government before the genocide). But the root of the problem goes back to the colonial period.

Many of the killers believed the Tutsis were evil people who have taken everything for themselves and treated the majority as second-class citizens and therefore deserve to be eradicated.   Children wee not spared according to Radio Milles Collines “"you must also kill the rat in gestation; it will grow up to be a rat, like the others."

They used languages too graphic to repeat (if interested read Hate as a Contagion: the Role of Media in the Rwandan Genocide by Maria Armoudian).  Hutus were killed for helping the fleeing Tutsis because, according to the media they were “inyenzi’ cockroaches. Rwandan Hutus were called to rise up and finish the Tutsi once and for all. They were told to use knives, machetes and clubs.

The first few weeks in Kigali were extremely traumatizing for me. Though the RPF had been there for a month and cleaned up the city as much as it can, there were still bodies littered on the outskirts of the city   and roadblocks that have not yet been cleaned up, road blocks made of human corpses. We could see bodies floating on river Kivu though thousands had already been swept away down stream, ‘to Ethiopia’ as their killers stated when they threw them in to the river. One church was still full of corpses, with over 700 Tutsis who had run to the church hoping to get protection.  The churches all over Rwanda had been the traditional sanctuary for these deeply religious people but on this occasion they became the convenient place where they were killed in mass.   Many churches have been used as killing fields because there were a large concentration of frightened people in one small area.  In one case over 2000 people had sought refuge in the largest Catholic Church Saint Famille and all of them were killed after the parish priest handed them over to their killers. Apparently he was a supporter of the Hutu extremists.  The Ntarama church, where I saw over 700 corpses, has now been turned over to a genocide museum. At the time I arrived there were still some dogs feasting on human corpses and RPF had to go after stray dogs and shoot them.

Prior to the genocide, Rwanda had come a long way where it had become sometimes difficult to make a distinction between a Tutsi and a Hutu. There were many instances where Tutsis were mistaken for Hutus and spared from being killed. Moderate Hutus were killed because of their association to the Tutsis and because they did not want to be part of the killing machinery that was being put in place.

During the first days after the president’s plane was hit, on 6 April 1994, the ‘Interahamwey’ (Hutu militia) started systematically killing Tutsis and Hutu moderates in the villages and neighborhoods by imposing curfews and roadblocks.  “The roadblocks and barriers were staffed by soldiers and gendarmerie on the main roads, while communal police, civil self-defense forces, and volunteers guarded others. Together, they successfully stemmed the flight of victims who tried to escape the genocide. Anyone who tried to hide was tracked down by search patrols that scoured the neighborhoods, checking in ceilings, cupboards, latrines, fields, under beds, in car trunks, under dead bodies, in bushes, swamps, forests, rivers, and islands. By April 11, after barely five days, the Rwandan army, interahamwe, and party militias had killed 20,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu" (OAU May 2000).

In villages where both Tutsis and Hutus were living together people knew who was who and therefore identifying the Tutsi was not difficult.  But in the towns and particularly in Kigali, the business and political capital, where people did not know each other, identification was difficult. The roadblocks were the key locations where many were massacred. Fleeing people were asked their ID cards.  Tutsis were automatically hacked to death and those who don’t have ID cards were killed as well including Hutus who were suspected of being moderate or associated with Tutsis.  In Rwanda of those times all ID cards had to show the ethnic group one belongs to.

Jean Kambanda, Prime Minister of Rwanda during the months of the genocide, pleaded guilty to genocide and admitted that "he ordered the setting up of roadblocks with the knowledge that these roadblocks were used to identify Tutsi for elimination" and that he participated in the distribution of arms knowing that these would be used in massacres of Tutsis (OAU May 2000).

There are many lessons leant from the Rwandan genocide. Most relate to the response of the international community once the killing machinery was set off. Effective and active response would certainly have helped to reduce the level of carnage that took place in Rwanda in 1994, but it would never have been able to remove the level of anger and hate that were embedded in the minds of most Rwandese.

So we come to the most important lesson that Africa and particularly Ethiopia should learn from the genocide in Rwanda. The genocide in Rwanda happened because of ethnic politics and state sanctioned incitement to hate and kill. The responsible officials were disseminating contempt and demonizing the other group. The supreme court of Canada reviewing the response of the Canadian government based on the report of the then commanding Lt. General Romeo Dallaire stated “…. the holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers-it began with words. These are the chilling facts of history-the catastrophic effects of racism” and the Rwandan Tribunal stated “these acts of genocide were preceded by-and anchored in-the state orchestrated demonization and dehumanization of the minority Tutsi population-using cruel, biological of Tutsis as ‘inyenzi’ –prologue and justification for their mass murder.”  Yes genocide starts with words. Words are the means through which hate or love is expressed. In cases of genocide and crimes against humanity, words are the means through which the flames of hate and intolerance are fanned.

The situation in Ethiopia has not reached that level yet but if it is allowed to reach that level there is no way to stop it. The rhetoric and irresponsible statements coming out from some people including government officials, from community leaders and from the major ethnic groups, which spreads faster and effectively through social media, suggests that if left on its own the situation   could escalate to wide spread hatred and retribution, civil war, crimes against humanity and possibly to genocide.  ‘Genocide is defined in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948)’

Rwanda showed the worst that human beings can be. It showed how human beings could be manipulated to hate and kill through irresponsible leaders and members of the community in general who may harbor hatred. The hate and anger directed at particular ethnic group accumulates overtime and knows no boundaries when it is unleashed through a concerted effort of hate groups created by the deliberate polices of a government and elite groups who seem to care more about power than the long term consequences of their actions. Ethiopian leaders are accountable for what is happening now and worse on what may happen unless remedial measures are taken. “ Africa’s redemption is not only clasp in the hands of the leadership, but moreover in the active participation in change of the average person, in the home, in the school, in the work place and in their private relationship.”  (African Holocaust Society)

The damage done on the relationship between the various ethnic groups in Ethiopia is grave and warrants the intervention of the international community to exert meaningful pressure to stop this build up of tensions that could lead to a catastrophic end with very severe consequences that could dwarf the Rwandan genocide. The government should be made accountable and be willing to take steps that could restore sanity and heal the gaping wounds. For this to happen, Ethiopia needs leaders who are not consumed with narrow ethnic and personal interests but leaders who capitalize on the common thread that binds the people and the common vision for unity and democracy.

The international community’s indifference to the early warning   signs and faultiness is not acceptable. At this moment the major preoccupation of millions of Ethiopians has become individual and group security, stocking arms and guarding themselves from the excesses of a minority government. Some ethnic groups are spewing hate and vengeance and as in Rwanda   (where Hutus hated all Tutsis) people are unjustifiably beginning to hate all Tigreans. This, of course, is unfair to the large majority of Tigreans who are themselves victims of the policies of the current government which does not truly represent the best interests of the majority of Tigreans. When such a sense of insecurity, mistrust and hate is stretched to its logical conclusion it can lead to war and possibly genocide. The silence of the international community in the face of this build up is disturbing. The international community is needed now to ensure that sanity prevails and a system that addresses the grievances of all ethnic groups is installed sooner than later because at this stage the crisis is preventable. Conflicting western interests might not make an effective intervention possible but silence would not be appropriate either. Reconciliation, election, power sharing would not solve the fundamental problems and grievances once war starts because the stakes become higher as groups dig in deeper, the divisions become sharper and the sacrifices too many to allow easy compromises. The voice of the international community at this early stage could prevent this country from going into war with itself.

With such kind of catastrophe no one wins. In the end every body loses. There will be no Ethiopia to fight about.  Each ethnic group in Ethiopia has treasures of wisdom. Let them tap to those wisdoms, let them see what is happening around the country, let them take note of the signs of difficult times ahead, let them prevent harm on each other, let them go back to the drawing table and begin with the common factors that unite them, let them dwell less on their differences and more on the common ties that bond them or else they become one of those countries they never imagined to  be. Let Ethiopians have the courage to stand together to challenge the status quo and build a democratic system that would answer the grievances of all, because it is possible.  Africa has over 3000 tribes and 2000 languages and there are only  54 states. There is, therefore, no alternative to peaceful coexistence.

I worked in Rwanda for two years and had the honor to know closely President Paul Kagame, then vice president and head of the military. His challenge and the challenge the people faced were enormous. With half a million Hutu refugees ‘interahamwes’ most of them just across the border, to build a peaceful country and begin reconciliation was indeed a very tall order. The threat of ‘Interahamwes’ unleashing another war was always there until in 1996 they returned in mass. The reconciliation program started in earnest only then. There was no family in Rwanda, in both the Hutu and Tutsi communities that were not severely affected by the genocide and yet there were no alternatives to re reconciliation and the task had to begin soon. It was difficult to bring about a majority rule as well. Democracy, in the way that has been defined by the western world posed a great danger in a country where reconciliation has not yet been complete and the memories of 1994 are still fresh in many minds. The President had to walk a fine line and the majority had to accept the reality. Pragmatism and common sense than idealism prevailed.

 I left Rwanda after two years but what I saw and heard during those years haunted me for a long time until I returned to Kigali after ten years to see a population truly trying hard to leave the past behind, learn from the lessons and move on as one people and one nation. During my two years there I had been to the prisons and talked to former 'Interahamwes' who have been implicated in the genocide. Some were still proud that they did what they did. The unrepentant voices of some were scary and had made me   doubt whether there could ever be a true reconciliation. The numerous voices of the survivors were also bitter. But the government and the people chose the right path. For over twenty years people are slowly learning to live together ad heal the wounds together even when they know that some in either communities have been killers and still harbor hate.

There were thousands who were identified as perpetrators of the genocide locked up in various prisons in Rwanda. To bring about justice and reconciliation, the Rwandan government introduced or reinstituted what is known in Rwandese tradition the Gacaca community court system.  In this system the communities select judges where the cases of perpetrators are heard. The court gives mitigated sentences for those who repent. In many cases those who repent are freed and allowed to go back to the community and be part of the reconciliation program where victims and perpetrators live side by side and talking to each other.

Unlike many other African countries where colonialists carved out the borders, Ethiopia was defined by its own people and its own history and the enormous sacrifices of every ethnic group.  It is their only home. Like any family in a home they had differences and on many occasions each encroached on the rights and freedoms of the other in the family. But they stayed together.

No conflict in Africa is similar to another. But the underlying reasons are always the same: leadership and governance. Ethiopia does not need a genocide or civil war to learn from its own lessons. It had its own turbulent years of nation building. It is now time to learn from its own past and from what has happened elsewhere in Africa and form one united people with freedom, justice and democracy for all.

As Bob Marley said: “One love, One Heart … Let’s get Together and Feel Alright.”

Friday, June 10, 2016

Ethiopia Stifles Dissent, While Giving Impression Of Tolerance, Critics Say

June 8, 20164:06 PM ET

Gregory Warner (NPR)

Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn (left), walks alongside President Obama during the U.S. president's visit to the African nation last July. Critics say Ethiopia has cracked down hard on the opposition, but makes modest gestures to give the impression it tolerates some dissent.

The Oromo Federalist Congress, an opposition party in Ethiopia, represents the largest ethnic group in the country, the Oromo.
Yet its office in the capital Addis Ababa is virtually deserted, with chairs stacked up on tables. A chessboard with bottle caps as pieces is one of the few signs of human habitation. In a side office, the party's chairman, Merera Gudina, explains why the place is so empty: Almost everyone has gone to prison.
The deputy chairman? Prison. The party secretary general? House arrest. The assistant secretary general? In prison. Six members of the party's youth league? All in prison.
Critics of the Ethiopian government regularly land in prison. So why isn't Merera Gudina, the chairman of the party and an outspoken critic of the regime, also behind bars?
The reason, he says, is what he calls "the game of the 21st century." Less-than-democratic regimes are getting more sophisticated, and instead of completely crushing dissent, they seek to create the appearance of tolerance or even a multiparty democracy, explains Merera. (Ethiopians go by their first names).
In the case of Ethiopia, a strategy was laid out by the late former prime minister, Meles Zenawi, after the 2005 election, in which opposition parties won 32 percent of parliament and appeared poised to challenge the government.
"Wait for the opposition to grow legs," Meles said in a meeting with top party officials. "And then cut them off."
Merera says he is the current example of that strategy. He describes himself as a "floating head," while the legs of his party — all his deputies, his candidates, his organizers — are either imprisoned or threatened.
Criticism On Human Rights

Human rights groups are extremely critical of Ethiopia, but it is a member of the international community in good standing.
President Obama paid a visit in July of last year, the first ever by a sitting U.S. president, and held a press conference with Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

"We are very mindful of Ethiopia's history, the hardships that this country has gone through," Obama said. "It has been relatively recently in which the Constitution that was formed, and elections put forward a democratically elected government."
A number of human rights groups criticized Obama, saying he should have pressed much harder.
Shortly before Obama's visit, Ethiopia released several noted opposition journalists and politicians. The deputy chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress, Bekele Gerba, was among those freed, and he promptly flew to Washington to sound an alarm bell.
"Every one of us is in a very high risk," he told NPR's Michele Kelemen. "Because anybody who criticizes the government is always a suspect."
Bekele said his wife, a high school teacher, was also forced out of her job because of his politics. Bekele declined to use this trip to the U.S. to stay and apply for asylum. Instead, he said, he was determined to go back to Ethiopia, no matter what would happen.
Opposition Figure Re-Arrested

Soon after his return, Bekele was arrested again, and remains in prison today. Bekele is considered a moderate and he counsels nonviolence. He used his free time in prison to translate the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Merera, the party leader, says that targeting Bekele has a boomerang effect.
"When you are suppressing the moderate voice, then what you get is the radical voice," he warns.
The arrest of moderates inside the country may be amplifying more radical rhetoric in the diaspora, such as rhetoric about "government overthrow" that Ethiopian officials are quick to highlight.
Genenew Assefa, a government spokesman, points out that Ethiopian opposition "tends to be extremist," but also takes his own Justice Ministry to task for arresting so many opposition members.
"And then we put them in jail, and then it's a vicious circle," he says with a sigh. "And this is how it works. I personally, you know, would like to deal with this differently."
He says that he would like Ethiopia to counter criticism with politics, not with police.
But Ethiopian politics appears to be moving away from democratic freedoms, not toward them. In last year's election, the ruling party won 100 percent of the seats in parliament. Even the "floating heads" no longer have a token parliamentary seat.
Merera says that the Ethiopian strategy isn't working.
"You can't arrest everybody," he says. He says that what is brewing is "an intifada (uprising), an Ethiopian intifada — even now, they don't need leadership."
Last November, ethnically Oromo regions of the country erupted in popular protests. Activists say 350 people have been killed, and thousands more arrested. There's a growing fear that Ethiopia's "cut off the legs" strategy is splitting the country.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Freed From Prison, Ethiopian Bloggers Still Can't Leave The Country

By National Public Radio (NPR)

Zelalem Kibret remembers the day: July 8, 2015. He was in a prison library reading a biography of Malcolm X, his own copy, when some guards called his name and handed him a piece of paper. The message: All charges against him were withdrawn. He was being released.

"I was asking why," says Zelalem, a 29-year-old lawyer and blogger. "And nobody was giving us a reason."

Zelalem, who'd been in jail for more than a year on terrorism charges related to his blog posts, suspected the reason. His release, he believes, was a "personal gift" to President Obama, then three weeks away from an official visit to Ethiopia, the first ever by a U.S. president.

The U.S. had been pushing quietly the release of Zelalem and five other members of Zone 9, his blogging crew. Zone 9 takes its name from the eight zones of the infamous Kality Prison outside Addis Ababa, where political prisoners and journalists are held. Activists joke that the 9th Zone is everything outside the prison walls — the rest of Ethiopia.

"Zone 9 is Ethiopia with relative freedom, but still you felt that you are in detention," Zelalem explains.

Zelalem and the other Zone 9 bloggers had been critical of corruption and repression by the Ethiopian government, but their blogs and Facebook posts were seen as a relatively safe space for criticism in a country with about 3 percent Internet penetration.

But the arrest of six bloggers, including Zelalem, and three other journalists in 2014 sent a signal that as Facebook was becoming more popular in Ethiopia, digital reportage might now become just as censored as print journalism. Journalists are regularly imprisoned under Ethiopia's wide-ranging anti-terrorism law, which makes it a crime to have contact with any group that the Ethiopian government deems is trying to overthrow it.

At a press conference during Obama's visit, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn conceded, "We need many young journalists to come up." But, he said, "We need ethical journalism. There is also capacity limitations in journalism."

The phrase "capacity limitations" — and its cousin, "capacity building" — came out of development lingo of the 1990s. Ethiopian officials often use "capacity" explanations to assert that journalists are jailed not because they are critical of the government — but because they are less professional, more unethical and more incendiary than Ethiopia's fledgling democracy can tolerate.

In keeping with this theme, Hailemariam nodded to Obama's traveling press corps and asked them to "help our journalists to increase their capacity."

Obama had offered an opportunity for just that, promoting his Young African Leaders Initiative, which gives scholarships for 1,000 African leaders to study in the U.S. each summer.

Zelalem, out of prison but unable to get back his university teaching job, followed Obama's advice. He applied and was accepted to the Young African Leaders Initiative. This summer, he was supposed to study civic leadership at the University of Virginia.

He won't be going. Ethiopian immigration officials confiscated his passport at Bole International Airport in November. They also took away the passports of four of his five colleagues who were released in advance of Obama's visit.

That's when Zone 9 became more than a metaphor. They were literally imprisoned in their own country.

Zelalem sees this as evidence of a new strategy. In past years, Ethiopia has been willing to let its critical citizens flee the country. (For several years, Ethiopia has ranked on or near the top of the list of countries with the most exiled journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.) Now, Zelalem says, the government may be deciding that it's better to keep critics close by.

"Especially for people like us working on social media," Zelalem says. "Whether we are here or in America or somewhere else, we may write and we can reach our audiences. Therefore, it's better to keep [us] here and silence [us]."

When I brought up Zelalem's case with Ethiopia's Minister of Communication, Getachew Redda, he said he wasn't familiar with it. But he offered a different explanation for the blogger's rough treatment at the hands of Ethiopian Immigration: Ethiopia's young institutions, he said — including its judges and immigration officials — could zealously overstep their bounds. They could even make mistakes that would take months or years to correct.

The minister's solution? "More capacity building."

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Heading the Wrong Way: The Ever Closing Political Space in Ethiopia

May 22, 2016 at 11:22 AM

By Adotei Akwei,Managing Director for Government Relations and Kayla Chen, Government Relations and Individuals at Risk Intern at Amnesty International USA
Sub-Saharan Africa is facing a growing trend of evaporating political space. Non-governmental organizations are being heavily and often violently restricted, and newspapers, bloggers and other voices of dissent or criticism are being silenced or intimidated into exile.

In some countries such as Uganda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, heads of state are rewriting their constitutions to eliminate term limits, in the process using security forces to squash protests from both political opposition and civil society. In other countries such as in Angola, the governments make use of their control over their judiciaries to intimidate or bury critics and youth activists in legal processes that cripple them financially or trap in never ending trials. Elsewhere, governments invoke the specter of terrorism and threats to national security as justification for passing sweeping laws whose interpretation empowers them to impose draconian penalties on oppositional parties and civil society, with little regard for international standards of due process or international and regional rights standards on freedom of expression, association and assembly.
In several countries government authorities have cracked down on nonviolent protests with violence. On Monday May 17, the Kenyan security forces brutally beat nonviolent demonstrations organized by the opposition Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD), led by former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, to demand the dismissal of the members of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.

Protestors run from water canons after Kenya’s opposition supporters demonstrated in Nairobi, on May 16, 2016. (CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images)

On the 6th of May the Ugandan police beat demonstrators who had gathered after it was announced that opposition presidential candidate Kizza Besigye would face the death penalty for charges of treason.
Ethiopia has been at the forefront of this wave of violent intolerance. Members of the Oromo ethnic group are facing a brutal crackdown following initially peaceful protests that started in the fall of 2015. Some estimates place the number of persons killed at the beginning of 2016 at over 400. Thousands have been detained and hundreds of homes and businesses have been destroyed. The violent crackdown is consistent with the violent security force crackdowns in Oromia in 2014 and in Konso in March 2016 as well as against other protests.
Closing of Political Space in Ethiopia
This is the reality facing Ethiopians whom the  government  designates opponents of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The government heavily restricts freedom of expression and association, and severely constrains political space, especially for civil society organizations.
In the 2015 elections, the EPRDF and its allies claimed all of 547 seats in Parliament amid concern over the lack of conditions for free and fair elections. It has become virtually impossible to question, challenge or protest against any action of the government.  According to the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index,  Ethiopia ranks 91 out of 102 countries with severe constraints on government powers and fundamental rights.  Freedom House also rated the country “not free”. Ethiopia scores 6 out of 7, on a scale of 1-7 from free to not free, on both civil liberties and political rights. Civil society organizations have been forced to close, thousands of political prisoners are languishing in prisons, and human rights defenders who dare to speak out are forcibly imprisoned and beaten.
The use of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation Act continues to be used to silence journalists and other critics who dare to speak out. People like noted journalist Eskinder Nega, Oromo leader Bekele Gerba, and Anuak Land rights activist Okello Akway Ochalla are all behind bars and charged with terrorism for opposing the government policies. They are just three individual stories of many who are suffering under the Ethiopian government’s crackdown on human rights.
Eskinder Nega was sentenced to 18 years in jail in 2012 for fulfilling his role as a journalist and questioning the use of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to arrest those that criticized the government.  This was not the first time Eskinder had faced unjust retaliation due to his refusal to be silenced.  Eskinder’s son Nafkot was born in prison in 2005 when both Eskinder and hjs wife Serkalem were imprisoned for criticizing the government’s killing of nearly 200 people in post-election protests in 2005. Four years later after he was unjustly convicted and imprisoned once again, Eskinder Nega still languishes behind bars and more convictions have been handed down using the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.
Bekele Gerba, a prominent leader of the Oromo Federalist Party, visited the United States last August after his release prior to President Obama’s visit to Ethiopia. He told NPR that Obama’s visit to Ethiopia last summer was a trip that sent the wrong message of solidarity to a repressive government with very little support from its own people. He also expressed uncertainty in regards to his freedom when he returned back to Ethiopia. A few months after his return Bekele was arrested on December 23, 2015 and held in a 4m X 5m cell with 21 others.  Bekele and his counterparts were charged on April 22, 2016 with various provisions  set forth in the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.  This charge is clearly meant to silence him and others who dare to criticize and oppose the current regime.
Okello Akway Ochalla, a Norwegian citizen, was abducted from Juba, South Sudan, two years ago and ended up in an Addis Ababa court where he was sentenced to nine years in prison on April 27, 2016. Okello was the governor of the Gambella region, a key location of land grabbing and forced relocation by the Ethiopian Government, before escaping the country following a massacre of his people, the Anuaks, in 2003.  Abducted from South Sudan in 2014 and brought back to Ethiopia, Okello was charged under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation for speaking to the international media about the massacre of his people and the ongoing struggle of the people of Gambella. Rights groups are alarmed that the primary evidence used to convict Okello was a confession obtained while Okello was in solitary confinement. There have been reports that Okello was beaten and tortured. His trial highlights serious failures of due process and the rule of law in the Ethiopian courts.
More laws are being drafted by the Ethiopian government that confirm it will continue to suppress opposition and dissent. Current government policies of making access to education, government jobs and services contingent on party membership, forcing citizens to undergo “policy trainings” of indoctrination, and widespread monitoring of all public spaces has created an environment of fear with no room for public debate.
Despite all this, the ruling ERPD still enjoys support from the international community.  The United States recently renewed a new defense and security cooperation agreement with Ethiopia, which is being trumpeted as U.S. support of the Ethiopian government’s policies, including the military’s excessive use of force. Ethiopia also continues to receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the United States, the European Union and other countries in development and humanitarian aid.
It is crucial that governments that commit human rights violations be held to the spotlight and pressed to be accountable. Countries that provide assistance to those governments need to prioritize respect for, and protection of human rights for several reasons.
First, grave human rights violations can further stymy development and it potentially drives voices of dissent to abandon non-violence.
Second, supporting an oppressive regime for the sake of regional security will only further destabilize a region already ravaged by conflict, unclear borders, poverty and lack of respect for the rule of law, all in the pursuit of short term stability.
The Ethiopian people deserve better than that.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Using Courts to Crush Dissent in Ethiopia

By Felix Horne, HRW
May 10, 2016

For the past six months, thousands of people have taken to the streets in Ethiopia’s largest region, Oromia, to protest alleged abuses by their government. The protests, unprecedented in recent years, have seen Ethiopia’s security forces use lethal force against largely peaceful protesters, killing hundreds and arresting tens of thousands more.

The government is inexorably closing off ways for Ethiopians to peacefully express their grievances, not just with bullets but also through the courts. In recent weeks, the Ethiopian authorities have lodged new, politically motivated charges against prominent opposition politicians and others, accusing them of crimes under Ethiopia’s draconian counterterrorism law.

Just last week, Yonatan Tesfaye Regassa, the head of public relations for the opposition Semayawi Party (the Blue Party), was charged with “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt” of a terrorist act. The authorities citied Yonatan’s Facebook posts about the protests as evidence; he faces 15 years to life in prison, if convicted.

In April, Bekele Gerba, deputy chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), Oromia’s largest registered political party, and 21 others, including many senior OFC members, were charged under the counterterrorism law, four months after their arrest on December 23, 2015. Bekele is accused of having links with the banned Oromo Liberation Front, a charge frequently used by the government to target ethnic Oromo dissidents and others. Deeply committed to nonviolence, Bekele has consistently urged the OFC to participate in elections despite the ruling party’s iron grip on the polls. Bekele and the others have described horrible conditions during their detention, including at the notorious Maekalawi prison, where torture and other ill-treatment are routine.

The authorities also charged 20 university students under the criminal code for protesting in front of the United States Embassy in Addis Ababa in March, 2016. The “evidence” against them included a video of their protest and a list of demands, which included the immediate release of opposition leaders and others arrested for peaceful protests, and the establishment of an independent body to investigate and prosecute those who killed and injured peaceful protesters. They face three years in prison if convicted.

The Ethiopian government is sending a clear message when it charges peaceful protesters and opposition politicians like Bekele Gerba with terrorism. The message is that no dissent is tolerated, whether through social media, the electoral system, or peaceful assembly.