by GRAHAM PEEBLES
There are tentative signs that the people of Ethiopia are beginning to organise themselves and stand up against the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government, a brutal dictatorship, albeit one dressed in democratic western garb.
After 23 years of suppression at the hands of the EPRDF, simmering discontent and anger appears to finally be spilling over onto the streets. Robbed of hope, the people have had enough, enough of the wide-ranging human rights abuses. The denial of constitutional rights, the arbitrary imprisonments and torture, regime violence, the displacement of people from ancestral land, the partisan distribution of aid, and the rising cost of living.
The right to peaceful protest
Like many democratic principles, the right to protest is enshrined in Ethiopia’s constitution. Written in 1991 by the EPRDF, the legally binding document of liberal correctness is routinely ignored by the regime, whose response to public protests has been consistently violent.
Last year Addis Ababa witnessed the first mass demonstrations since 2005, when “security forces killed dozens of protesters [some estimate that up to 200 people were murdered by government forces] and arbitrarily detained thousands of people across the country.” [Human Rights Watch (HRW)] Unsurprisingly since then the streets have been quiet. Until 2013 that is, when in June thousands found the courage to march through the capital demanding the release of political prisoners, “respect for the constitution” and “Justice! Justice! Justice!” [Reuters] And again in November, when enraged demonstrators gathered outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Addis Ababa and cities across the world to protest the appalling abuse meted out to Ethiopian migrants in the Gulf State. Many hoped this united response was the beginning of a coordinated movement of collective action, a long overdue movement for change.
Ethiopia is young, 65% of the population are under 25, the median age is a mere 17, and like protest movements elsewhere — Egypt, Brazil, Turkey e.g., it is the young who are leading the way. They see clearly the injustices, the violations of fundamental freedoms and the duplicity of a government that presents a democratic face to its international allies and benefactors whilst brutalising its own people.
Since 25th April, students have demonstrated throughout the Oromia Regional State, protesting against the government’s sinister sounding ‘Integrated Development Master Plan’. The Oromo people constitute Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group — around 27 million people — almost a third of the population. They have been marginalised and discriminated against since the 19th century when Empress Taytu Betul (wife of Menelikk II) chose the site of Addis Ababa for the capital. As the city grew Oromos were evicted from their land and forced onto the margins — socially, economically and politically: “time and again, Oromo farmers were removed from their land under the guise of development without adequate compensation.”[Geeska Africa]. Like tyrants everywhere, the paranoid EPRDF is hostile to all forms of dissent no matter the source; however they react with greater levels of brutality to dissenting voices in Oromia than perhaps anywhere else in the country, and “scores of Oromos are regularly arrested based on their actual or suspected opposition to the government.” [Amnesty International (AI)]
The proposed ‘master plan’ would substantially expand the boundaries of Addis Ababa into areas of Oromia surrounding the capital. “Protestors claim they merely wanted to raise questions about the plan — but were answered with violence and intimidation.” [BBC] They rightly feel smallholder farmers and other groups living on government land (all land in Ethiopia is government owned) would once again be threatened, leading to large scale evictions to make way for land leasing or land sales, as has happened elsewhere in the country. In addition many Oromos see the proposed expansion as a broader threat to their regional and cultural identity and say the scheme is “in violation of the Constitutionally-guaranteed protection of the ‘special interests’ of the Oromia state.” [AI] Constitutional guarantees that mean nothing to the members of the ruling party, or a politically controlled judiciary.
Killing, beating, intimidating
University campuses have formed the beating heart of the protest movement that has now spread throughout the region. On Tuesday 29th April around 25,000 people, “including residents of Ambo town in central Oromia, participated in a city wide demonstration, in the largest show of opposition to the government’s plans to date.” [Revolution News] Somewhat predictably, security forces, consisting of the federal police and military Special Forces known as the ‘Agazi’, have “responded by shooting at and beating peaceful protesters in Ambo, Nekemte, Jimma, and other towns with unconfirmed reports from witnesses of dozens of casualties.” [Human Rights Watch (HRW)] A witness told Amnesty International that on the third day of protest in Guder town, near Ambo, the security forces were waiting for the protesters and opened fire when they arrived. “She said five people were killed in front of her. A source in Robe town, the location of Madawalabu University, reported that 11 bodies had been seen in a hospital in the town. Another witness said they had seen five bodies in Ambo [80 miles west of Addis Ababa] hospital.”
Whilst the government says that “at least nine students have died” during the protests, “a witness told the BBC that 47 were killed by the security forces” — a misleading term for government thugs, who are killing, beating and intimidating innocent civilians: Amnesty reports that children as young as 11 years of age were among the dead. In addition to killing peaceful protesters, large numbers have been beaten up during and after protests, resulting in scores of injuries, and hundreds or “several thousands”, according to the main Oromia opposition party, the Oromo Federalist Congress (AFC), have been arbitrarily arrested and are being detained incommunicado. Given the regime’s history those imprisoned face a very real risk of torture.
In many cases the arrests took place after the protesters had dispersed. “Security forces have conducted house to house searches in many locations in the region, [looking] for students and others who may have been involved. New arrests continue to be reported,” [AI] and squads of government thugs are reportedly beating local residents in a crude attempt at intimidation. Amnesty reports the case of a father whose son was shot dead during a protest, being ‘severely beaten’ by security forces, who told the bereaved parent “he should have taught his son some discipline.”
The Oromia community has often been the target of government aggression, and recent events are reminiscent of January 2004, when several Oromia students at Addis Ababa University were shot and killed when protesting for the right to stage an Oromo cultural event on campus. Many more were wounded and 494 [Oromo Support Group (OSG)] were arrested and detained without charge or trial. HRW reported how “police ordered both male and female students to run and crawl barefoot, bare-kneed, and bare-armed over sharp gravel for three-and-half hours; they were also forced to carry each other over the gravel.” The Police, HRW goes on to say, “have repeatedly employed similar methods of torture and yet are rarely held accountable for their excesses.”
The recent level of extreme violence displayed by the State is not unusual and takes place throughout Ethiopia; what is new is the response of the people. Anger at the security forces criminality has fuelled further demonstrations in Oromo as friends and family of those murdered have added their voices to the growing protest movement. This righteous stand against government brutality and injustice is heartening for the country and should be supported with condemnation and pressure from international donors and the UN more broadly. Those arrested during protests must be immediately released and investigations into killings by security personnel instigated as a matter of utmost urgency.
Tools of control
The government’s heavy-handed reaction to the Oromo protests is but the latest example of the regime’s ruthless response to criticism of its policies. Political opposition parties, when tolerated at all have been totally marginalised, dissenting independent voices are quickly silenced and a general atmosphere of fear is all pervading. Despite freedom of expression being a constitutional right virtually all media outlets are either government owned or controlled; “blogs and Internet pages critical of the Ethiopian government are regularly blocked and independent radio stations, particularly those broadcasting in Amharic and Afan Oromo, are routinely jammed.” [HRW] The EPRDF has created “one of the most repressive media environments in the world.” Reinforcing this condition, “the government on April 25th and 26th arbitrarily arrested nine bloggers and journalists in Addis Ababa. They remain in detention without charge.” [Ibid] International human rights groups (whose activities have been severely restricted by the stifling Charities and Societies Proclamation of 2009) as well as foreign journalists are not welcome, and reporters “who have attempted to reach the current demonstrations have been turned away or detained,” [Ibid] making it difficult to confirm exact numbers of those killed by government security personnel.
The UN Human Rights Council recently reviewed Ethiopia’s human rights record under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Since the first review in 2009 the human rights condition has greatly deteriorated. The EPRDF rules the country through fear and intimidation, they have introduced ambiguous, universally condemned legislation to control and intimidate: the Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSO law) and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation specifically. Laws of repression that together have made independent media and civil society completely ineffective. Freedom of assembly – another constitutional right – is not allowed, (or as can be seen with the Oromo protests) is dealt with in the harshest manner possible; the Internet and telecommunications are controlled and monitored by the government and phone records/recordings are easily obtained by security personnel. Arbitrary arrests and false Imprisonment of anyone criticizing the government is routine as is the use of torture on those incarcerated. In the Ogaden region the regime is committing gross human rights abuses constituting crimes against humanity and in Gambella and the Lower Omo Valley large numbers of indigenous people have been forcibly moved into government camps (Villagization Programme), as land is sold for pennies to international companies. In short, human rights are completely ignored by the Government in Ethiopia. As the people begin to come together and protest, international pressure should be applied on the regime to observe the rule of law and uphold the people’s fundamental human rights.
We are living in extraordinary times, times of opportunity and change, times of great hope. With elections due next year now is the time for the various ethnic groups and factions inside and outside Ethiopia to unite, and speaking with one voice demand their rights, to freedom and justice and to live with hope in their hearts.