Ethiopia: Time for radical improvements By Alemayehu G Mariam

September 4th, 2012 Print Print Email Email

It is time to bury the hatchet and move forward in Ethiopia! Nelson Mandela taught that “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” I would add that your enemy also becomes your friend and your ally. Historically, when warring nations of Native Americans made peace with each other, they would bury their axes (hatchets) into the ground as a symbolic expression of the end of hostilities. I say today is the perfect time for all Ethiopians to bury the hatchet of ethnic division, religious sectarianism, regional conflict and human rights violations. It is the perfect time to shake hands, embrace each other and get our noses to the grindstone to build a new democratic Ethiopia where the rule of law is upheld and human rights and democratic institutions respected.

Today, not tomorrow, is the best time to put an end to historic hatreds and resentments and open a new chapter in Ethiopia’s history. Today is the best time to unchain ourselves from the burdens of the past, close the wounds that have festered for generations and declare to future generations that we will no longer be prisoners of resentments of the past. Nelson Mandela said that “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Mandela did not drink from the poison of resentment and managed to outlive most of his “enemies” and is still alive and kicking at 94. But today there is a lot of resentment going around in Ethiopia and in the Ethiopian Diaspora. There is the quiet and despairing resentment of those who feel wounded and defeated by loss. There is the gloating resentment of those who feel victorious and morally vindicated by the loss of others. Then there is the resentment of those who are indifferent because they just don’t care. Today is a great day to say good-bye to historic animosities. Today is a great day to end bitterness, not tomorrow. Reaching out to our adversaries must begin today, not tomorrow. Reconciliation must begin today, not tomorrow. Most importantly, “radical improvements in good governance and democracy” must begin today, not tomorrow.

Let’s Begin Radical Improvements in Good Governance and Democracy Today

In 2007, the late Meles Zenawi expressed his “hope that [his] legacy” would be not only “sustained and accelerated development that would pull Ethiopia out of the massive deep poverty” but also “radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy.” Today is the day to begin in earnest radical improvements in good governance and democracy. These improvements must begin with the release of all political prisoners, repeal of anti-terrorism, civil society and other oppressive laws and declaration of allegiance to the rule of law.

All political prisoners in Ethiopia must be released. Their situation has been amply documented for years in the reports of the U.S. Government, U.N. agencies and various international human rights organizations. The 2011 U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Ethiopia (April 2011) documented “unlawful killings, torture, beating, and abuse and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, especially special police and local militias, which took aggressive or violent action with evident impunity in numerous instances; poor prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention, particularly of suspected sympathizers or members of opposition or insurgent groups; detention without charge and lengthy pretrial detention…”

In its 2010 World Report-Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch (HRW) concluded that “torture and ill-treatment have been used by Ethiopia’s police, military, and other members of the security forces to punish a spectrum of perceived dissenters, including university students, members of the political opposition, and alleged supporters of insurgent groups… Secret detention facilities and military barracks are most often used by Ethiopian security forces for such activities.”

A report of the U.N. Committee Against Torture (November 2010) expressed “deep concerns about numerous, ongoing and consistent allegations concerning the routine use of torture by the police, prison officers and other members of the security forces, as well as the military, in particular against political dissidents and opposition party members, students, alleged terrorist suspects and alleged supporters of insurgent groups such as the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). It is concerned about credible reports that such acts frequently occur with the participation, at the instigation or with the consent of commanding officers in police stations, detention centers, federal prisons, military bases and in unofficial or secret places of detention.”

It is difficult to accurately establish the number of political prisoners in Ethiopia. International human rights organizations are not allowed access to political prisoners or to investigate their situation. But various reports provide estimates that vary from several hundreds to tens of thousands. Recent estimates by Genocide Watch peg the number of political prisoners at around one hundred thousand. Political dissidents, critics and opposition leaders continue to be arrested and detained every day. In the past year, an undetermined number of members of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) and the Oromo People’s Congress (OPC) have been detained for political reasons. Other opposition parties have reported similar arrests of their members. Alleged members of the Oromo Liberation Front continue to be arrested and detained without charge. In just the past few months, journalists, opposition political leaders and activists, including Andualem Arage, the charismatic vice chairman of the opposition coalition Medrek, Natnael Mekonnen, an official of the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, the internationally-celebrated journalists Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu, and editor Woubshet Alemu have been sentenced to long prison terms.

Radical improvements in good governance and democracy also require repeal of the so-called “Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009”. Over the past few years, this “law” has been used to round up and jail dissidents, journalists and opposition party political leaders as “terrorists.” The law has been condemned by all international human rights organizations. Human Rights Watch criticized the law as “potent tool for suppressing political opposition and independent criticism of government policy.” The vaguely drafted “anti-terrorism law” in fact is not much of a law as it is a velvet gloved iron fist used to smash any opponent of the regime. Speech aimed at “advancing a political, religious or ideological cause” and intending to “influence the government”, “intimidate the public”, “destabilize or destroy the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social institutions of the country” is classified as “terrorism”. Making or publishing statements “likely to be understood as encouraging terrorist acts” is a punishable offense under the “law”. Anyone who provides “moral support or advice” or has any contact with an individual accused of a terrorist act is presumed to be a terrorist supporter. Anyone who “writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicizes, disseminates, shows, makes to be heard any promotional statements encouraging, supporting or advancing terrorist acts” is deemed a “terrorist”. A person who “fails to immediately inform or give information or evidence to the police” on a neighbor, co-worker or others s/he may suspect of “terrorism” could face up to 10 years for failure to report. Two or more persons who have contact with a “terror” suspect could be charged with conspiracy to commit “terrorism”.

Under the “anti-terrorism” law, “The police may arrest without court warrant any person whom he reasonably suspects to have committed or is committing terrorism” and hold that person in incommunicado detention. The police can engage in random and “sudden search and seizure” of the person, place or personal effects of anyone suspected of “terrorism”. The police can “intercept, install or conduct surveillance on the telephone, fax, radio, internet, electronic, postal, and similar communications” of a person suspected of terrorism. The police can order “any government institution, official, bank, or a private organization or an individual” to turn over documents, evidence and information on a “terror” suspect. A “terror” suspect can be held in custody without charge for up to “four months”. Any “evidence” presented by the regime’s prosecutor against a “terror” suspect in “court” is admissible, including “confessions” (extracted by torture), “hearsay”, “indirect, digital and electronic evidences” and “intelligence reports even if the report does not disclose the source or the method it was gathered (including evidence obtained by torture).

As I have previously commented, the “anti-terrorism” law criminalizes democratic civic existence itself: “Thinking is terrorism. Dissent is terrorism. Speaking truth to power is terrorism. Having a conscience is terrorism. Peaceful protest is terrorism. Refusing to sell out one’s soul is terrorism. Standing up for democracy and human rights is terrorism. Defending the rule of law is terrorism. Peaceful resistance of state terrorism is terrorism. But one must be reasonable about “terrorism”. Nelson Mandela was jailed for 27 years as a “terrorist” by the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Following his release, he said, “I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists. I tell them that I was also a terrorist yesterday, but, today, I am admired by the very people who said I was one.” The “antiterrorism law” must be repealed.

The so-called Charities and Societies Proclamation No. 621/2009 must be repealed. This “law” has been severely criticized by all of the major international human rights organizations. Among its draconian elements include prohibitions on foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from engaging in human rights and democratic advocacy activities in Ethiopia including advocacy of gender and religious equality, conflict resolution or justice system and electoral reform. A local NGO that receives more than ten percent of its funding from foreign sources is considered “foreign”. Since few Ethiopian NGOs are financially self-sufficient, the vast majority depend significantly on foreign sources for their funding. This law has effectively put them out of business. The law allows an administrative body to have final authority over NGO disputes by granting it broad discretion to deny, suspend or revoke the registration of any NGO. Criminal sanctions and fines are also provided for violations of the law exposing NGO officials, members, volunteers and service recipients. Moreover, this law flagrantly violates various sections of the Ethiopian Constitution dealing with freedom of expression, assembly and association as has been pointed out by various human rights organizations.

Ethiopia today stands at the crossroads. It can march forward into democracy by taking confident steps that begin radical improvements in good governance and democracy. Or Ethiopia can continue to slide backwards and deeper into the vortex of dictatorship. Or it can free fall into chaos and strife. The choice is ours to make. There are important lessons to be learned by all. Those in power should be mindful that “making peaceful revolution impossible is making violent revolution inevitable.” Others should heed the message of Dr. Martin Luther King who once told the great Harry Belafonte his concerns about racial desegregation and its potential consequences: “I fear, I am integrating my people into a burning house,” wondered Dr. King metaphorically referring to the potential for racial conflict and strife that could result from outlawing discrimination. Belafonte, somewhat taken aback asked Dr. King, “What should we do?” Dr. King told him that we should “become the firemen [and] not stand by and let the house burn.’” We all need to be Ethiopian firemen and firewomen and begin “radical improvements in good governance and democracy” today, not tomorrow!!

  1. selamta
    | #1

    Didn’t you hear what the late PM ATO MELES ZENAWI said about you and ppl like you ? Fools and educated idiots PLEASE move on ,swallow your pride and help ETHIOPIA develop…..for you to do this you do not have to be ashamed of the ppls answer that was displayed in ETHIOPIA for two weeks, but take it as constructive criticism.
    cheers dear prof………

  2. aha!
    | #2

    “Yekotun awerd billa yebibtuan talech yemibalewn astesaseb yemelal”. As you already know these laws are dervived from the existiting constitutional frame work of if ethnic federalism, secessionism and totaliarinism as the major flaw to individual freedom, liberty and equality to precede ethnic and secessionist rights, to restore Ethiopian nationalism and the sovereignity of Ethiopia. Following the death of the prime minister that constituional frame work is still intact and so what at hand is a non-violent uprising to freedom, not burying the hatchet, nor neogotiations, reconciliation, demand for yelil mengistat ikulent mebt mekeber, ahead of individual rights and seeking for political space as the form of peaceful political struggle by the loyalist opposition clouts, does not a demand for individual freedom, liberty and equality make. Until that is achieved there is no fertile groung for democracy to prevail as a form of government for the people, of the people and by the people. Burying the decision to bring the perpetrators to justice is left to the newly formed democratic government with independent branches of the government and the ICC.

    Your aim should have been to achieve unity, territorial integrity, sovereignity of Ethiopia and Ethiopians with strategies to achieve those goals rather than to assume the repeal of the laws derived from the current constitution drafted by ex-libaration fronts spearheded by TPLF against the oppression of nations and nationalities with totaliarinism ideology built into it.

    Do’nt you think,if individual freedom is achieved and constituion is ratified with respect ethnic federalism, secessionism and totaliarinism with the individual as the center piece of the constituion and independent branches of the government are created all the laws created will dicipate, press freedom, peaceful demonstration and assembly will be reinstated, if we understand that the current constituional order is the source for humanitarian, economic and political crises perpetrated by TPLF/eprdf regime with security, federal police and military forces as part of ruling party apparatus nemaley TPLF, which is intact along with the teletafi (ethnic federalist) parties directly supporting it and the loyalist oppositon parties implicetely supporting the existing constitutional frame work, which confirms my contention of this artice according to the saying initially stipulated.

  3. befekadu abay
    | #3

    l would like to say tnx to pro.alem ayehu,am very imppresed ur idea totally i agree with ur idea,yes we need peace today,not towmorrow.

  4. respect
    | #4

    thank you selamta, tired of our dear prof rumbling on and on and….

  5. Dilalew Million Mekonnen
    | #5

    Examining Ethiopian Media Freedom
    By Dilalew Million Mekonnen

    Ethiopia as a multilingual, multicultural and multiethnic country has come a long way when one considers her democratic credentials. The year 1991 in particular has been framed as one of the most significant historical junctures that the country has ever experienced. Its significance, so the argument goes, lies in signaling the departure she has taken from totalitarianism and dictatorship to democracy. Perhaps democracy is too big a word to be used here, and I personally prefer a more modest account of the change and characterize it as being one of transition into democracy. Some might argue that the former is a fair account of what happened following the takeover of power by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) from the Communist Derg regime. However, one needs to be cautious about over generalizing and simplifying the nuances of the changes that occurred.

    The point worth making here is that although substantive changes were introduced we still need to critically examine the ‘democratic’ system that was supposedly put in place by the EPRDF. One of the areas where substantive transformation has occurred concerns the economic model adopted by the ruling party, which has practically been free market economy. With regulations of privatization and free market operations, the country has joined the global capitalist economy. Of course there are voices that are opposed either to the economic system as a whole or to the form it has taken in the country. However, the unprecedented economic development achieved over the past few years speaks volumes about the development agenda the country has embraced whole heartedly. There are interesting parallels that can be drawn between these economic trends and the changes observed in the social realm, which in turn have had implications for the nation’s politics. What I mean by this is that for the first time in history the constitution drawn up after the EPRDF took power has explicitly recognized the ethnic diversity of the nation, which put the previously disenfranchised minorities on a relatively equal footing with the majorities in so far as their legal and socio-political equality is concerned.

    Different commentators have argued against the legitimization of priority given by the government to group rights over individual rights. This argument is based on the notion that such an act of bias toward groups at the expense of individual rights is contrary to the liberal ideal of freedom. As much as I want to get down to the basic details of liberalism, suffice to say that I concur with this fundamental assessment with a slight reservation. The only issue I take with this assessment is that it tends to disregard the importance of acknowledging ethnic groups for what they are, i.e. culturally speaking. In other words, any liberal society, or an aspiring one, which is marked by a high degree of diversity cannot afford to push aside groups’ demand for recognition and hide behind the banner of individual freedom alone. A government and its institutions have the responsibility to strike a balance between these two components of the social equation. Sadly enough, this is precisely where the current Ethiopian government has performed badly in the sense that it has given, and continues to give, undue recognition to group rights. Social policies informed by such ideology have led to various segments of the community feeling disgruntled at the perceived or experienced infringement of their individual liberties. Besides, the hostility and suspicion of disgruntled people hasn’t been directed towards the government only; rather different groups have increasingly found themselves not only distrusting but also harboring resentment against each other.

    Having briefly sketched some of the most visible transformations that Ethiopia has underwent, for better or worse, I now turn to the most fundamental issue of media freedom which neatly feeds into the democracy narrative that the country wants to sell. This is actually the central theme that I want readers to pay closer attention to. The angle I am taking with this article is to question whether the ruling party’s rhetoric of democracy translates to actual media freedom on the ground. In addition to pointing out the faults in the narrative, I believe it is also crucial to take note of what the role of the independent media should be and how it should behave given provisions of free and independent existence.

    Democracy and freedom of expression are so inseparable that it is hard to imagine the realization of one without the other. We are used to such formulations in various kinds of discourses so much that they might sound like a cliché. It is nevertheless important to look past the expression to the essence which might otherwise be lost tangled up in it. To put it in layman’s terms, freedom of expression can be understood as a basic foundation of democracy. What this entails is that is it is a fundamental freedom to the extent that democracy could not be expected to exist, let alone thrive, in its absence. As many would agree, freedom of expression is not limited to only freedom of speech and media, but it also extends to freedom of opinion, culture, and intellectual inquiry. Constitutions which guarantee freedom of expression assert that everyone has the right to speak and write openly without state interference, and this includes the right to criticize social injustices, legal breaches, and political malpractices. This is where the media’s role to not only inform the public but also to hold public officials accountable comes into the picture, thereby directly contributing to proper functioning of democracy.

    The central question remains: Does the Ethiopian constitution guarantee freedom of expression? The answer to this question is obviously in the affirmative. In connection with this, one cannot help but ask whether this constitutional provision is respected in terms of its implementation. “Absolutely not” would be the most appropriate answer. The harsh reality has been that the constitutional provision which allows freedom of expression seems to have been sidelined when it comes to practice. One might argue that this provision by itself represents a hallmark of democracy as it ensures citizens’ right to hold opinions, thoughts, and free expression. However, I still have some issues with the government’s systematic refusal to ensure the exercise of this basic right. We all have witnessed different forms of censorship being put in place as the most common practice and used to justify restrictions to critical expression. Independent presses continue to be shut down; critics of the government and its conduct frequently imprisoned or persecuted; and written and artistic works tightly censored. This has meant that by tightening control over the media as a whole, the ruling party, along with its apparatus, has been able to exert a decisive power on the nature of the news and information the public can have access to.

    On a similar note, it is worth pointing out that the Ethiopian media landscape has drastically changed since the ratification of the contentious anti-terrorism proclamation in 2009 which led to the closure of independent newspapers, not to mention the detentions of journalists and bloggers. Among other things, the Press Law continues to allow the government to criminally prosecute journalists and members of the media for expressing their views and establishes a stronger foothold for greater government regulation of information. This can be exemplified by the fact that media criticism of the government and the ruling party is rare, if not absent. Many commentators have rightly observed that the government has particularly been sensitive to the publication or broadcast of information concerning conflict and food security. Consequently, journalists constantly practice self-censorship to keep out of trouble with the authorities, which in my view amounts to a serious blow to the true cause of journalism. The number of arrests and prosecutions in the year 2011 of both journalists and opposition members has been staggering, and it indicates a systematic attempt by the government to squash down any form of political criticism.

    In my view, the attempt by the ruling party to liberalize the media stands in stark contrast with the actual ownership of the media in the country. Nearly all radio and TV stations are owned by the government and interests close to the ruling party. Ethiopia’s print-media industry is small and highly concentrated in the capital, which is the result of literacy being an urban phenomenon in the country. However, while nearly all of Ethiopia’s radio and television stations remain under direct or indirect government control, many of the newspapers are privately owned. Their private ownership nonetheless does not translate into editorial independence, and that constitutes one of the unfortunate aspects of their operations. These outlets exercise a considerable degree of self-censorship – they contain very little criticism of the government – but they still enjoy a comparatively greater freedom of expression than most broadcasters.

    How about the relationship between the government media and the few running private publications? My answer to that would be that it has been one marked by severe strain. Many would agree that both sides are to take the blame for the partisanship they overtly demonstrate and for the polarization they cause. While the state-owned media continued to disseminate propaganda against the opposition groups and the private media, news and current affairs coverage of some privately owned newspapers in the capital and other major cities was dominated by shallow and largely uncritical reporting of the government. My argument here is that while the government is to take the blame for a great deal of irregularities and breaches of media freedom discussed above, the private media cannot be off the hook unless they conduct themselves ethically. To put it another way, the private media, just like any other form of media, whether public or state-owned, can legitimately claim their right to exercise freedom of expression on behalf of the public for whose benefit they take up their informational role in the first place. To me, this is where the concept of social responsibility comes into play. If the basic role of independent media is premised on the assumption that they serve the public interest vis-à-vis information, education, and entertainment, they ought to execute this role in a responsible manner.

    Of course, it would be wrong to lump together all privately owned media in the country and claim that they have been acting irresponsibly. Nevertheless, the tendency, as has been witnessed during elections and in times of social crises especially, has been to rush into taking sides against whatever the government has allegedly done. This is political partisanship in the extreme, which an independent media outlet should not have anything to do with. However, this has been the case with many, if not all, of the private media in the country. For an independent media outlet to serve its informational role responsibly and professionally, it should continuously strive for the highest standards of journalism. For it to be a reliable source of news, it should ensure that its reporting is characterized by fairness and balance. Sensationalizing every news item for the sake of increased readership does not only compromise journalistic integrity but also inadvertently robs the public of the chance to access accurate and objective information.

    Granted, journalists might come up with a list of factors for behaving the way they do, which I think is legitimate. For example, one of the major challenges seems to be lack of the necessary skills among journalists which in turn leads to lack of professionalism. Although it is hard to put the figure, commentators would agree that only a small percentage of those reporters working in the private media industry actually have journalistic training from a recognized institution. This is however changing as different higher educational institutions are producing skilled journalists in increasing numbers. In addition, many reporters working in the private media often complain that despite their relentless effort government officials hardly cooperate, making it difficult for them to do a balancing act between different sides of a story.

    Challenges facing the private media as discussed above have contributed, among other things, to the blurring of the line between hard news and opinion pieces. This is a very discouraging trend, and something must be done about it. And this brings me to what I like to call an articulation of measures to be taken in order to minimize, if not avoid, the challenges. First of all, as I tried to hint, journalists should look inward and try to always find their own ways to gradually perfect their craft. This might range from seeking to enhance one’s professionalism through training to learning from the experiences of other senior journalists whose persistence, expertise and pursuit of the truth can be exemplar. It is also my belief that both media scholars and senior journalists should take the lead in terms of tracking and reacting to irresponsible reporting, thereby instilling professional ethics in junior reporters. Besides, I strongly believe that setting the tone of the conversation about responsible journalism is something that media scholars and senior journalist should take the lead on. I would finally like to stress how indispensable it is for every media outlet to put in place journalists code of ethics and see to it that it is strictly adhered to by working reporters.

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