Ethiopia: Final days of the ruling regime

Ethiopian unrest 2018

By Graham Peebles

Under relentless popular pressure the Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, has been forced to resign, and other members of the government are expected to follow. The ruling party responded with panic, and instead of entering into talks with opposition groups, imposed another state of emergency – this follows on from the previous one, which lasted 10 months (from October 2016), and achieved nothing. It is another mistake in a long line of errors by the government, which will do anything, it seems, to hang on to power.
In his resignation speech Hailemariam Desalegn acknowledged that, ”unrest and a political crisis have led to the loss of lives and displacement of many”, Reuters reports. That is, “loss of lives” of innocent Ethiopians at the hands of Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) security personnel. “I see my resignation as vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy,” he added.
This is a highly significant step in what may prove to be the total collapse of the ruling party. It has been brought about by the peaceful movement for democratic change that has swept across the country since late 2005. Protests began in Oromia, triggered by an issue over land and political influence and spread throughout the country.
A little over a month ago, Hailemariam Desalegn announced that the government would release “some political prisoners”, Aljazeera reported, “to improve the national consensus and widen the democratic space”. Since then a relatively small number of falsely imprisoned people (some Western media claim 6,000 but this is unconfirmed – nobody knows the exact number, probably hundreds, not thousands) have been released, including some high profile figures (Merera Gudina, the chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, Journalist Eskinder Nega and opposition leader Andualem Arage, for example). Many of those set free are in extremely poor health due to the ill treatment and, in some cases, torture suffered in prison.
Despite these positive moves and the ex-Prime minister’s liberal sounding rhetoric, the methodology of the ruling party has not fundamentally changed: the TPLF-dominated government continues to trample on human rights and to kill, beat and arrest innocent Ethiopians as they exercise their right to public assembly and peaceful protest.
The total number killed by regime forces since protests erupted in November 2015 is unclear: hundreds definitely (the government itself admits to 900 deaths), tens of thousands probably. A million people (Oromo/Somali groups), according to the United Nations, have been displaced – due to government-engineered ethnic conflict – and are now in internal displacement camps or are simply homeless. Tens of thousands have been falsely imprisoned without due process; their “crime” to stand up to the ruling party, to dissent, to cry out for democracy, for freedom, for justice and an end to tyranny.
All “political” prisoners, including opposition party members (British citizen Andergachew Tsige, for example) and journalists, should, as Amnesty International states, “be freed immediately and unconditionally… as they did nothing wrong and should never have been arrested in the first place”. Not only should all political prisoners be released forthwith, but the laws utilised to arrest and imprison them need to be dismantled, and the judicial system — currently nothing more that an arm of the TPLF – freed from political control.
The primary weapons of suppression are the 2009 Anti-Terrorist Proclamation and the Charities and Societies Proclamation. North are draconian laws, allowing the ruling party to detain anyone expressing political dissent in any form, and to use torture and information elicited during torture to be used in evidence — all of which is illegal under the UN Convention against Torture, which the Ethiopian government signed, and ratified in 1994.

Unstoppable movement for change

The release of a small number (relative to the total) of political prisoners and the resignation of the prime minister does not alter the approach of the government or its brutal method of governance. It is simply a cynical attempt by the TPLF to subdue the movement for change and to appease international voices demanding human rights be upheld.
Arrests and killings by TPLF security personnel continue unabated. Reports are numerous, the situation on the ground changing daily, hourly. At the end of January soldiers from the Agazi force arrested an estimated 500 people in northern Ethiopia reports ESAT News. In Woldia (also in the north), TPLF soldiers forced “detainees [to] walk on their knees over cobblestones. They [TPLF soldiers] have also reportedly beaten residents, including children and pregnant women.” These arrests follow the killing of 13 people in the town; “several others were killed in Mersa, Kobo and Sirinka”. Moreover, the BBC Amharic Service relates that six people were killed at the Hamaressa camp for internally displaced people (IDPs). According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA ), Hamaressa IDP camp was home to over 4,000 people internally displaced by the Oromo-Somali disputes in Eastern Ethiopia. The victims were protesting against the appalling conditions in the camp and demanding they be allowed to go back to their villages when they were shot.

The Ethiopian people have a common foe, a unified cause, a shared purpose. The TPLF is the foe, the cause is its removal and the purpose is to bring lasting democratic change to Ethiopia, and no matter what the regime does, this time they will not be stopped.

No matter how many people are killed, falsely imprisoned and beaten, the movement for lasting democratic change will not be put down. The principal target of protesters and activists is the dominant faction within the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, the TPLF, or Woyane (relating to men from the Tigray region), as it is known. This small group took power in 1991 and has controlled all aspects of life in the country, including the judiciary, the army, the media and the sole telecommunication supplier (enabling the regime to limit internet access and monitor usage) ever since. The issues driving the protests are broad, interconnected and fundamental: the fact that Ethiopia is a single party state in all but name; the wholesale abuse of human rights; the lack of freedoms of all kinds; the partisan distribution of employment, businesses and aid; the regime’s dishonesty and corruption; state-orchestrated violence false imprisonment and torture.
The people will no longer live under the suffocating blanket of intimidation that has stifled them for the last 27 years, and are demanding fundamental change, calling on the government to step down and for fair and open democratic elections. Until now the regime’s response has been crude and predictable. Rooted in force, shrouded in arrogance and unwilling to respond to the demands of the people, the government consistently falls back on the only strategy it knows: violence and intimidation. As the people march in unison, the regime unleashes its uniformed thugs. But whereas in the past fear kept people silent, now they are filled with the fire of freedom and justice; they may well be frightened, but in spite of the threats more and more people are acting, engaging in organised acts of civil disobedience (stay-at-home protests) and taking to the streets in demonstration against the regime – gatherings of thousands of people, innocent men and women, young and old, who refuse any longer to cower to the bully enthroned in Addis Ababa. And with every protester the regime kills, beats and imprisons, the light of unity glows a little brighter; the resolution of the people strengthens, social cohesion grows.
The demand for change is of course not limited to Ethiopia. Throughout the world large groups are coming together demanding freedom and social justice, cooperation and unity. The reactionary forces resist, but it is a global movement which, while it may be denied for a time, cannot be stopped. The TPLF is in chaos, its tyranny is coming to an end. It may cling on to power for a while yet, a few months, a year or two perhaps, but even if it remains in office it no longer has a hold over the population. The Ethiopian people have a common foe, a unified cause, a shared purpose. The TPLF is the foe, the cause is its removal and the purpose is to bring lasting democratic change to Ethiopia, and no matter what the regime does, this time they will not be stopped.

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