The Quest For Political Freedom: The Topical Uprising In Ethiopia

History is chock-a-block with exemplars of the actuality that when people have been marginalised and oppressed, that a natural rejoinder is that they would fight back someday, against the forces behind their distress. And when they decide to do so, there isn’t much anyone can do to stop them. This has again been exemplified through the ongoing wave of protests in Ethiopia which started on 5 August 2016. The topical protests, the largest scale in the country’s last 25 years, can be termed a sequel to the protests of November & December 2015, in the country’s Oromia Region. The 2015 protests took about 75 lives while the current one has taken 90 lives according to the Reuters (400 according to international rights groups). These protesters were killed by Ethiopian security forces in their efforts to contain the protests in whatever possible ways. But despite such grave consequences, concerned Ethiopians have the resolve to be politically and economically free.

Despite Ethiopia’s dubious economic gains and infrastructural coup de maître, the country has traditionally had one of the worst records of human rights violations. There have been various instances of police high handedness in fashions such as harassment, illegal detention, torture, and killing of opposition groups’ members or journalists. In recent times, thousands of suspects have remained in detention without charge. Prison conditions have also remained reprehensible. Addis Ababa has often ignored citizens’ privacy rights & laws regarding search warrants; and continued to restrict freedom of the press. In addition, Addis Ababa limits freedom of assembly, especially for members of opposition groups, while security forces have often used excessive force to break up demonstrations.

In 2008, and according to a Human Rights Watch report, as part of a counterinsurgency campaign, the Ethiopian army has committed expansive executions, torture and rape in Ogaden. Following this, in early 2009, the Ethiopian parliament passed the “Charities and Societies Proclamation (NGO law). According to Human Rights Watch, the law criminalises most human rights work in the country. There are further reports of Addis Ababa’s large forceful relocation of indigenous people through land grabbing activities with nanoscopic compensations, shonky negotiations and human rights violations.

In efforts to counter these inhumane practices, and in contemporary times, Ethiopians (predominantly opposition members) trouped to the streets in 2005 to challenge the general elections and pseudo democracy. They believed there were massive electoral frauds, engineered by the ruling party, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has been in power since it won a guerrilla war against the military regime of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. There are claims that, as a response, the Ethiopian Police in an event lustrated “Ethiopian Police Massacre”, massacred almost 200 of these opposition protesters. The claims were entirely denied by the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Demonstrators chant slogans while flashing the Oromo protest gesture during Irreecha, the thanksgiving festival of the Oromo people, in Bishoftu town, Oromia region, Ethiopia, October 2, 2016. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Demands for social and political reforms, an end to human rights abuses and the political marginalisation instituted by EPRDF minority regime kicked off the 5th August 2016 protests. In addition to the list, encompass hundreds of killings and thousands of arrests in mid 2016, official status dispute over Wolkayt district, unfair distribution of wealth, and land seizures by Addis Ababa. Choreographed by the opposition, the protests took place in Addis Ababa, Oromia & Amhara regions, Nekemt etc. On 6 August, hundreds of protesters marched on Meskel Square chanting and carrying banners that read, “free our political prisoners” and “we want our freedom”. In the Amhara region, more than 500 people protested, with at least 27 people dying in one day Bahir Dar, the state capital. Angry protesters also stormed Sebatamit prison and freed 700 prisoners who were detained in the recent protests. Another attempted prison break happened in the Kaliti Prison. BBC News reported that there were at least 23 deaths in the break.

While using violent crackdowns and atrocious practices to contain the protests, Addis Ababa started by blocking internet access across several regions of the country, a channel it feared most of the protests were organised through. After this, the regime blamed “foreign enemies” for the protests. This was showcased through Prime Minister Desalegn statement that, “the government is aware that the ideas and slogans reflected in the demonstrations do not represent the people of Oromo or Gondar.”

Even if Addis Ababa extirpates the ongoing protests, Ethiopians will rise again against them as they have had enough and no longer pusillanimous of the regime. Following this, it is now a matter of urgency that Addis Ababa runs an inclusive government and work for inclusive economic development. This means that the current economic gains won’t be sustainable if Addis Ababa continues with its repressive practices. In a country where not a single member of the opposition is in the parliament, Addis Ababa must liberalise the political system and make the country’s democracy a real one. All manner of human rights abuses have to be checked. Issues of land grabbing by foreign investors and Addis Ababa have to be carried out in the best of ways with rights of the concerned locals observed in its grand total. Ultimately, the Western World should also jettison national interests and step in through its various mechanisms and put Addis Ababa in check, with respect to human rights violations and socio-economic marginalisation.

Mehari Fisseha is a PhD Scholar. He is a seminar leader for the following course: Governance of Security in conflict areas: Case of south Sudan at Bochum University, Germany. He has genuine interests in matters related with International Refugee Law, forced migration and asylum issues. His academic background in International Law, International Relations, and Development Studies at both undergraduate and Masters levels, provides him with a solid platform to better analyse and ascertain complex issues in the area of asylum, refugee and migration policies. He has specific interests on refugee protection and humanitarian intervention concepts that address the current migration crisis in Europe.  His research interests among others are: social justice, African politics and diplomacy in Sub-Saharan Africa.