Forgiveness, reconciliation and pardon: A challenge to society – By Tecola W. Hagos

January 19th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

derg2Recent proliferation of articles and comments on the issues of forgiveness, reconciliation, and pardon concerning the convicted Derg Officials, some facing death sentences and others long prison terms, have brought out the confusion, misunderstanding, misapplication, and anger in many of the participants in the discourse and in the general public both in the Diaspora and back home in Ethiopia. I have contributed my fair share to that state of affair. This is an article incorporating a number of ideas from current research as part of the on-going discourse and also from my earlier material that I had written on the subject of “forgiveness” a few years ago, which is in book script. In a way, I do have this advantage of long standing interest and field research since 1993 on the subject of genocide and crime against humanity and very close “workshop” participation in 1994 studying the process of the political transformation surrounding the demise of Apartheid in South Africa.

It is important that we deal with these issues in a coherent, rational, and extensive manner. It will not suffice to deal with such important subject matter that involves political, social, philosophical, and legal considerations in short journalistic expose. I have decided to bring to your attention a more extensive and in depth analysis of the question of “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” taking into account both the South African experience and also as a general subject of discussion as it pertains to the on-going discourse on the issue of “forgiveness and pardon” of convicted Derg Officials. In particular, I intend to show the false assumption or claim of the South African experience as a model for ethical and political landmark processes. I will show that that the South African case of “forgiveness and reconciliation” was in a major way a corrupt betrayal of the legitimate cause of self-determination and sovereignty of the Black people of South Africa. The Nobel endorsement of the activities of the leaders in such process is just a farce. There is not that much to show for now as honorable or enlightening in that process. Thus, all reference and acclamations and accolades of the South African so called “forgiveness and reconciliation” are misplaced at best or ignoramus at the worst.

In a political rear-view mirror, things that appear to be near, profound, and honorable may be in reality remote, ordinary, and even corrupt. When speaking or writing about social justice or injustice and the development of civil society, one must restrain oneself from going blindly overboard, in praising or condemning any one individual or any one particular event, especially when one is being carried on the crest of populist political waves. This is easier said than done, for I too in the past have written essays overlooking some of the virtues of some of the leaders I severely criticized. Our time in history is a period of great disappointment and as a result a time of self-examination and of genuine reevaluation of all events that we have held sacrosanct for some time now. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Immanuel Kant, [Trans. Isaiah Berlin] This quotation indicates that Immanuel Kant, in all probability the greatest philosopher of moral certitude, is decidedly having second thought about our human moral condition. Thus, it is only commonsensical for me to revisit some of our current controversies in the concepts of forgiveness, pardon, and reconciliation.

I am starting this essay with the assertion that weak and/or despotic societies “forgive,” but powerful/democratic communities dispense justice. This assertion may be as provocative as it is simple, indeed. It is also my observation that people who are too eager to forgive their abusers, tend to abuse others in their turn. It is a fact that those who are publicly perceived to be the paragon of virtue are often wanting in their private lives where virtue truly matters. In a world where people have difficulties going over a much lower threshold of “fairness,” it is appropriate to set “justice” as a social goal rather than pursue acts of “forgiveness” as a solution in social conflicts or crimes.

Our personal experience matters. I learned recently that the courageous journalist Eskinder Nega was imprisoned for a couple of years by the Government of Meles Zenawi on some criminal charges involving freedom of the press. I learned also that his wife is still in prison on such similar charges. It is understandable that a person who suffered injustice like Eskinder would have an acutely developed empathy to the suffering of others. However, because it seems that Eskinder was less than ten years old, a child for all practical purposes, during the height of the Red Terror of the Derg, his direct experience about the unprecedented brutality and viciousness of the Derg is very much limited. Thus, his comparison of events with the atrocities of the current Ethiopian Government with that of the situation of the convicted Derg Officials is in some aspect a syndrome of righteousness.

It is true that Eskinder Nega is in very strong ethical position in his well written series of articles on forgiving and pardoning the criminal Derg Officials, because he is arguing more or less a tautological proposition. A person who is promoting piety and nobility of judgment has already won the hearts and minds of his readers by sheer force of the weight of the subject of his discourse. But that will not bring about good social order and the rule of law. To be generous and forgiving might make us feel good about ourselves, but leaves the victims and the aggrieved in perpetual sense of loss and injustice. Even then one must be reminded that “the kindness that gazes upon itself in a mirror turns to stone, and a good deed that calls itself by tender names becomes the parent to a curse.” Those are not my words, but that of the great mystic and poet Khalil Gibran. Such piety on “pardoning” Derg criminals in our Ethiopian setting is, simply put: “በሰው ፡ ቁስል፡ ስንጥር፡ ሰቅስቅበት።” I realize my insistence that the convicted Derg Officials be punished for the horrendous crimes they committed is an upward battle, especially since it implies the legitimacy of the current Ethiopian Government under whose watch such a judgment was passed by a body that is presumed to have no independence from the dictatorial political-power in Ethiopia. My stand on the “pardon” issue makes me look vicious, vengeful, and mean—so be it, for the cause of justice for all the voiceless victims of the Derg, I stand.

No matter how fair the sentencing of the Derg Officials may be, considering the degree of the severity of their crimes and the public knowledge of the activities of the accused/convicted Derg Members, any such judgment by functionaries of the current Government will be suspect and subject to harsh criticism. Thus, the approach by Eskinder and other supporters of the “forgiveness and pardon” process in of itself is not free from reverse bias in the presumption that anything done in the current government is deficient; it is also a logical fallacy as indicated below.

We have to understand that the State of Ethiopia is a distinct entity from the political organizations that are running the Government of the State of Ethiopia. The laws and court systems of a state supersedes and outlives any particular government, for the law of the land forms part of the state organically. For a state, such as Ethiopia, there is no need to reformulate or repromulgate its laws every time there is a change of government. It seems to me that the people advocating for the “pardon” of the convicted Derg Officials are, in fact, simply registering their objection as to the administration of justice/law by the current Government of Meles Zenawi and are not objecting to the “law” of the State of Ethiopia. By the same token, Ethiopian political organizations and the leaders of such political organizations that promoted and actively participated in anti-Ethiopian political programs, and those who pursued violent means are all alleged criminals under the existing Penal Code of Ethiopia. Whether they can be tried for criminal offences is another matter.

One must not undermine the great danger paused to Ethiopians by the convicted Derg Officials, if such criminals are pardoned and freed. They may have aged by twenty or so years since last time they commanded murderous security men and over zealous Kebele enforcers, criminals who are mostly hiding in broad daylight within Ethiopia. The only safety and stability for Ethiopia is to execute those sentenced to death, and incarcerate for life those who have shown remorse and have committed less violence against individual Ethiopians. We ought to understand that it does not take much to mobilize former Derg officials, Derg functionaries, Derg executioners, Derg security personnel, et cetera for clandestine criminal operations against particular ethnic groups and individuals who have advocated change during Mengistu’s Government and undermined the Derg based institutions. Taking into account the many faceted campaign against so called “Woyane” Government of Meles Zenawi taking place both in Ethiopia and in the Diaspora, I am convinced that the convicted Derg Officials are part of an on going conspiracy lead by Mengistu and his close associates and supporters residing in the United States and in several European nations. They are quietly using far more innocent or totally untainted individuals to fight their cause in the discourse/debate going underway on the issue of “pardon.” I do not see the likes of Kassa Kebede, Mengistu’s right-hand man, writing anything on that subject.

In my opinion, the Derg is still alive, under the radar; it is a well organized and well funded subversive organization. It has the potential to overthrow Meles Zenawi and his EPRDF Government. And some of its sympathizers or former officials are right at the pinnacle of power in Meles Zenawi’s Government too. Behind the scene, they are also the moving forces and leaders of very many Political Parties and civic organizations. By freeing the convicted Derg Officials, what would happen is a kind of political surgery that reattaches the severed head of the Derg/Dragon to its giant dragon body that is in repose waiting to be revived. Meles is making a monumental mistake in instigating this “pardon” debacle in an attempt to draw attention away from his numerous corrupt deeds and insiders’ fighting for power. In the alternative, the whole scheme can be seen also as desperate attempt by Meles Zenawi to make sure the continuity of law and order with mild chaos in order for him to leave office peacefully and to allow him to live in great opulence on the fabulous wealth he looted from Ethiopia.

My sympathy to the future Prime Minister Desalegn Hailemariam for he seems to know very little the grave danger that awaits his leadership. I have heard from different sources that he is a very efficient technocrat fit to be president of an academic institution, but acutely lacking both political fangs and claws of a predator to be an effective leader in an Ethiopian setting of political jungle. He has no strong following, thus he may benefit from having a well entrenched Derg based organization to maintain him for few years once he is in power. In either case, it is political suicide to pardon and free the convicted Derg Officials. In any case, if there is some political fallout in Ethiopia in the near future, leading to disorder, the Derg is one cohesive force under its old leadership that would take power and relive its Red Terror era all over again. The convicted Derg Officials know where all the bones are buried, and if granted pardon and freed they would be in a position to resurrect the power of the Derg and take state power.

Foremost, in the discourse underway at political forums, universities, civic organizations et cetera on the issue of national “reconciliation,” there may be serious confusion or misunderstanding of conceptual terms such as “forgiveness,” “amnesty,” “mercy,” “immunity,” “clemency,” and “reconciliation.” In regard with truth and/or reconciliation commissions, there have been several truth or reconciliation commissions (tribunals or committees) in the last thirty years in many parts of the world in almost all of the Continents.3 However, I do not believe the human condition has improved at all due to such effort of forgiveness and reconciliation—thus, this essay.

Very many well intentioned individuals inadvertently have polarized the issue of justice with their advocacy of forgiveness and pardon and reconciliation by bringing into the debate the case of South Africa. There is a degree of confusion in the approach of placing the idea of forgiveness as part of the process of political and legal solutions to the injustices suffered by many in South Africa or elsewhere in the World, in our Ethiopian context. It amazes me to realize that in almost all instances of the infliction of tremendous suffering on Africans and their descendants in the rest of the World, it is the Africans and their descendants who are expected to forgive their abusers and exploiters who are mainly White men and women. A clear example of such distorted morality can be observed in the case of South Africa where we find Black African religious and political figures speaking out promoting the idea of “forgiveness and reconciliation,” which effort ends up exclusively benefiting the former Apartheid government officials, the White industrialists, the White wealthy farmers, the White mine owners et cetera exploiters and “criminals” by any measurement, and furthermore end up creating a corrupt Black Africans who now share in looting the wealth of a people long held hostage between opportunist scavengers and their old nemesis dressed in new covers of “democracy of new South Africa.”

One other serious problem for any government that is implementing the principles of “forgiveness” or where such government is involved in the granting of “amnesty” to individuals who have committed “genocide” or “crime against humanity” would be the possibility of such government’s violation of the Rome Statue4 that came into force as of 2002. The Rome Statue created the International Criminal Court, and the Court is in session at this moment. Signatory states have the obligation to cooperate with the International Criminal Court in the prosecution of individuals who have committed such crimes such as genocide or crime against humanity. However, Ethiopia has not ratified the Rome Statue.

II. Logical Fallacies

I cannot emphasize enough that there is no substitute for a well reasoned argument in a discourse. This reminds me of a proverb I heard uttered by my Grand Mother, W/o Seheen, who is from Ambasel and Yeju, once said to us when we showed incoherence as school children and yet carrying numerous big books. “የየጁ ደብተራ ቅኔው ቢያልቅበት ቀረርቶ ጨመረበት።” This is a good proverb for us to follow, for it tells us that it is not enough just reading big books or wearing several academic gowns but that we need to have understanding and reason. I often observe a type of reasoning, identified by logicians under the general name of Argumentum ad Hominem that is being used by a number of Ethiopians writing essays posted in Websites or writing synaptic remarks in the Internet blogs, chat groups, et cetera on political issues.

I am not undermining the force of this form of fallacy because on first blush, at least on the surface, it appears to be an effective tool in exposing the presumed error of an opponent, but is disappointingly hollow on closer scrutiny. It only momentarily diverts our attention from the basic issue at hand because it does not address the point of contention on that particular argument and diverts our attention on to the opponent’s individual character or alleged past errors. Argumentum ad Hominem sometimes is also identified as a Red Herring or a Straw Man argument. The argument that is often employed by those who are promoting the “pardon” of Derg Officials is based on the fallacious reasoning pointing out that the current Ethiopian Government controlled by Meles Zenawi and his EPRDF political organization that convicted those Derg Officials have committed similar atrocities, and thus should not be in a position to judge those Derg Officials. This is also a form of ad Hominem fallacy with a mouth twisting technical name; it is called Argumentum ad Tu Quoque or “two wrongs make right” fallacy.

“Tu Quoque is a very common fallacy in which one attempts to defend oneself or another from criticism by turning the critique back against the accuser. This is a classic Red Herring since whether the accuser is guilty of the same, or a similar, wrong is irrelevant to the truth of the original charge. However, as a diversionary tactic, tu quoque can be very effective, since the accuser is put on the defensive, and frequently feels compelled to defend against the accusation.” [S. Morris Engel, With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies, 5th edition, St. Martine’s, 1994, pages 204-206.]

I am going to some length pointing out the danger of using that form of the use of argument because similar format is used also to justify the brutal and murderous activities or actions of one group by indicating that there are also similar activities or actions by other groups. In other words, “two wrongs make right” form of reasoning—a tu quoque fallacy. In our Ethiopian setting, the debate that is underway whether to forgive and pardon convicted Derg Officials is hotter than an iron smelting furnace. Do two wrongs turn into right? By definition fallacious rhetorical devices are intentional, but they may be also implemented unknowingly without understanding the fallacy in the structure of ones argument. There is no substitute for correct and logical reasoning. Any form of slanter/rhetoric device used by cleaver writers or by writers unknowingly falling into the use of such device because it is appealing to the emotion, looks convincing on the surface, seems an unassailable et cetera, are not doing anyone a favor, but dirtying the water and mangling the discourse, and diverting the attention of readers away from the real issues.

Most recently the perfectionist challenge is identified as the Nirvana fallacy. That type of fallacy inheres due to the insurmountable demand exerted on an individual to show the validity of his argument by comparing actual things with unrealistic, idealized alternatives, in this case “standard of justice.” It can also refer to the tendency by some in assuming that there is a perfect solution to a particular problem. It is identified also as the Perfect Solution fallacy. The other equally hurtful fallacy is the fallacy of either/or fallacy, or the false dilemma fallacy. For example, the form of arguments presented in editorials even by dedicated organizations like the EPRP-D and Ginbot-7 avoided taking a clear stand on the issue of the “forgiveness and pardon” of the convicted Derg Officials by claiming that the whole exercise is futile due to the fact that the Government of Meles Zenawi is a dictatorship and not in a position to judge anyone else on issues of crime against humanity or on the crime of genocide. And a number of outspoken public intellectuals, who would have otherwise crowded the Websites, simply avoided the discourse on the subject of “forgiveness and pardon” like an ostrich burying its head in the sand to avoid being shot at by a hunter. This cleaver avoidance of having to take a clear stand by such political parties and outspoken public intellectuals is still a fallacy and in case of the latter a disgrace.

The crimes of the current Government of Meles Zenawi cannot be immunized from future prosecution for the atrocities committed by its officials against tens of thousands of Ethiopians. None of its activities now in an attempt to paint itself as a benevolent Government by “pardoning” the convicted Derg Officials would shield it from future prosecution. Many writers, including EPRP-D and Ginbot-7 in their respective editorials, have eloquently pointed out that the issue of “pardon” was thrown to us as a diversionary tactic by Meles Zenawi and his political associates. Why would the head of the Orthodox Ethiopian Church and other religious leaders be concerned with convicted criminals who had committed some of the worst violations of human rights and murdering tens of thousands innocent Ethiopians, while the nation itself is being looted, its national integrity being violated, its citizens divided by ethnic politics, its population in dire poverty, and thousands in detention or being murdered for their political beliefs? However horrendous the crimes of Meles Zenawi and his political group is, let us discipline ourselves not to mix these two distinct issues. It is not at all helpful to the tasks at hand to use fallacies in our reasoning.

(*Some of the ideas in this series are incorporated from some of my past Essays and Articles.)

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