The Problem of Pardon by Waltenegus Dargie

January 22nd, 2011 Print Print Email Email

The biographers of CS Lewis (H. Carpenter, The Inklings (1979); A.N Willson, C. S. Lewis: A Biography (1990)) tell us that so many Oxford Dons, including some of his ardent admirers (Tolkien being one of them), were offended by C.S. Lewis’s attempt to explain the problem of pain in his book The Problem of Pain (1940). Both biographers assert that it was partly because of it and The Screwtape Letters that Lewis lost the Chair of Poetry at Oxford to C. Day Lewis in 1951. Until that time, the subject had been deliberately avoided even by a good number of qualified researchers for fear of superficial treatment. When latter Lewis himself experienced a profound loss, we find him in an utter helplessness in his book Grief Observed, completely deserted by his own philosophy.

To attempt to understand or explain the pain of others is a risky endeavour. At the same time, how can we live together with (and help) those who suffer, unless we believe that we share some of their feelings? The focus of this article is on the issue of forgiveness, pardon, and reconciliation (with regard to the Derg Officials) in Ethiopia. It does not, however, attempt to propose an alternative to the ones which have been proposed by some in the recent past; it rather reviews papers which are written on the subject by three individuals.

The article is based on the last three articles of three persons, namely, “The way to forgive and pardon the Derg” by Eskinder Nega (Ethiomedia, January 14, 2010); “Reconciliation? With whom? For whom? To what end?” by Mekonnen Endalkachew (Ethiomedia, January 19, 2010); and “Forgiveness, reconciliation, and pardon: a challenge to society”, by Tecola W. Hagos (Ethiomedia, Janzary 19, 2010). The articles express the insight and philosophy of people whose age, educational background, location, and past history are diverse. While the level and timing are different, all of them have experienced pain at a scale that cannot be considered small.

The articles vividly portray the difficulty and delicacy of the subject. Here are people who are articulate and comprehensive on a wide range of subjects, and yet, their own emotional involvement with this particular problem prohibits them to approach the matter with the necessary aloofness, objectivism, and clarity. We find them at times contradicting their own premises; rejecting established approaches to reason in favour of upholding deep rooted prejudices; and calling as witnesses personal grievances and unfounded fear when their arguments become feeble and inadequate.

Eskinder’s argument for an open, credible, legitimate, and comprehensive forum to bring together offenders and their victims is the strength of his article. It is a rational and well founded argument. I will consider the weakness of the article by pointing at the third and the last paragraph.

Towards the end of the third paragraph of his article, Eskinder Nega tells us, with a subtle impatience to anything religious, that many were surprised by the declaration of pardon by Mulugeta Asrat Kassa, one of the victims of the offenders. We are left to wonder what begat the surprise. I presume it was the mentioning of religion as the prime motivation, though most Ethiopians are religious. If this was the case, I can ask one fundamental question: if one should at all pardon an offence of any kind, what should then the motivation of the pardon be: one’s philosophy of life, the desire to co-exit (this was the answer given by Mekonnen Endalkachew, but I will come back to it shortly), psychological, anything but religion? Then we are left to wonder about the number of people who were surprised: 100, 1000, 10,000? How are these people quantified? As if anticipating the question, the author tells us at the beginning of the third paragraph that the assertion was based on an informal tally.

Throughout his article Eskinder questions, both implicitly and explicitly, the legitimacy of the TPLF government and its courts to try and convict the Derg Officials. Likewise, he questions both the motivation for and the ground of the Genocide label. But towards the end of his article, he exhorts the religious leaders (whose secretiveness he rightfully criticised previously) to mediate on behalf of the accused for a pardon. If the trial as well as the justice system is questionable, shouldn’t the appeal for pardon be questionable as well?

Lastly, Eskinder asserts that not even the ardent opponents of the pardon initiatives are against a pardon for the death penalty. While his horror and helplessness is understandable, we shall see latter that this argument is challenged by both Mekonnen Endalkachew and Tekola Hagos, who ardently insist for and vehemently argue on behalf of the death penalty, the former implicitly and the latter most explicitly.

Both Mekonnen and Tekola reject the reconciliation model of South Africa, a model, Eskinder argues, can be applicable to the Ethiopian context if adopted fairly, transparently, and seriously. For Mekonnen, the model was a necessity for South Africa, for the Black and White people to co-exist and to move forward (since the white majority control a good number of business, financial, educational, and legal institutions), while for Ethiopia inapplicable, since the people are not threatened by the Derg anymore (we shall see shortly that for Tekola, Derg is an undying and a well-organised monster, operating in clandestine at present, but waiting for the right time to spring to life in the future). In other words, according to Mekonnen, the model of South Africa was not truly a reconciliation model and no true forgiveness had taken place (and should not take place indeed). This is rather questionable, since it cannot be supported by any objective evidence on the ground (unless we claim to know better than the victims themselves). I myself have seen Black and Whites living together with an active and working peace after the deliberate and premeditated forgiveness and reconciliation process took its course. Admittedly, complete healing requires a considerable time.

The third article was the most difficult to read. It begins and ends by building a strong and insurmountable tower of defence. It set so many preliminaries for the reader to qualify for judging the ideas discussed in the paper. Once the fortress is penetrated, it is full of warning signs of dragons and orcs and demons. It also makes great assertions and claims which demand strong logical explanations or empirical observations.

The writer begins the article, correctly, by cautiously warning the reader that the question of pardon and reconciliation should be approached very carefully. This warning is followed by a reassurance that the writer himself has undertaken the necessary preparation, including an intensive research on the subject. But before long, we are to be confronted with a number of disputable assertions: (1) It is at once a weakness and despotic to forgive; (2) the reconciliation model of South Africa is a big lie and betrayal; and (3) Derg is alive and dangerous. In addition to these assertions, the article also tries to convince the reader that the nature and credibility of the justice and political systems in Ethiopia at present should be considered as distinct entities.

While provocative and controversial assertions are well accepted in the scientific community, they call for scientific explanation. The first assertion is by no means new or local. Even though it has appeared in the past in various guises, it had been most celebrated in the Hellenistic culture and literature. Latter it was inherited by the Romans. In these cultures, it was famously identified as Honour. The two great epic writers of the time, namely, Homer and Virgil, upheld honour above everything else; and honour typically punishes. Old Israel was no exception. The Mosaic Law requires an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. So when in the first century Roman Empire Christians preached and exercised forgiveness, they were despised by many and confronted with an utter contempt, particularly, by the philosophers. Soon the prejudice that Christians were weak took a more solid and morbid attire that in the 4th century they were held responsible for the decline and fall of Rome. The belief, thanks to the British historian Gibbon, resurrected in the 18 century and remains alive to this very day.
This unexamined assertion disregards the complexity of human imperfection and human wrong. It disregards the regeneration power of love and mercy. If indeed we agree in the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation, then who should forgive and who should reconcile with whom? In my opinion, neither forgiveness nor pardon makes sense where there is no offence. Only those who are wronged can forgive or pardon. By implication, the power of forgiveness is revealed by (or lies in) the depth of the wrongdoing. Given the nature of human beings to punish and avenge, in fact, it needs a strong and magnanimous heart to forgive. No weak person is able to do forgiveness or pardon.

In the 5th and 6th paragraph of his article, Tecola rejects Eskinder’s credibility to write about forgiveness, because the latter was young when the hideous crime was committed by the Derg Officials. I suppose this seems to imply that only the Red Terror victims should write about the problem of pardon or forgiveness. This is perhaps the shallowest surface in the article and does not need particular treatment. Needless to say there are much worse offences than murder.

The second assertion is a continuation of the first and it is not backed by any logical explanation. Why the model of reconciliation in South Africa is considered to be corrupt and a betrayal is nowhere in the paper properly examined. I suppose, if one simply accepts the first assertion as an established truth, it follows that any model of reconciliation based on forgiveness must then be corrupt, and, therefore, a betrayal. If, however, the first assertion is disproved, then the second cannot stand on its own.

The third assertion that Derg is alive is indisputable. What is disputable is the magnitude of life rendered to it. From the utter helplessness of the writer on this particular issue, it is apparent that he has suffered much under the Derg Regime and the pain and horror are still fresh. But the problem of the assertion must be stated. To begin with, a belief in the resurrection capacity of the Derg undermines the capability of the Ethiopian people to reject evil. Secondly, it makes it a necessity for the TPLF to stay in power. Third, the belief is under the false assumption (or one is tempted to assume) that the TPLF, and not the Ethiopian people, is the prime cause of the collapse of the Derg regime.

In conclusion, a careful examination of the articles written on the problem of pardon demonstrates that we are not yet properly confronted with the problem. I agree with Eskinder that this issue requires seriousness, openness, and time. It should also be undertaken at a large scale. How much the government is willing to facilitate the necessary platform so that the issue can be examined from legal, spiritual, psychological and economical perspectives is an open issue. Finally, the reader is kindly reminded that this paper by no means takes a position concerning the pardon initiative or the credibility of the justice institution to try the offenders.

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