New ‘red line’ allegedly designed to fight extremism & terrorism is targeted against those unallied with Ethiopia’s regime

8 Oct

by Keffyalew Gebremedhin, The Ethiopia Observatory

                                                –I–

Since last Friday – the 4th of October 2013 – Ethiopian civil society has found itself on the cusp of newer governance-related difficulties in its relations with the TPLF/EPRDF-led regime. In this article, ‘civil society’ refers to the broader society, the scope and goals of which are the defense of human dignity. Through its vitally important kinship with democracy, civil society endeavors to facilitate and improve societal governance, especially in this era of globalization, terrorism and counter-terrorism.

Therefore, in that sense civil society encompasses the majority of Ethiopians the state has since 2009 subdued by its harsh and most repressive anti-terrorism law. On the other hand, as an instrument of repression such a law has best served the interests of the Front in reducing Ethiopian society into total submission.

As if that were not enough, we have as of October 4, 2013 come to learn the introduction of an additional intrusive mechanism of repression and triggers for state violence, among others, empowering the security forces for any action, exerting controls over schools and higher institutions of learning, and reorienting recruitment and promotion of the civil service within the bureaucracy – religious affiliation and attitude as litmus tests.

Therefore, the new sheriff now is the so-called new, new ‘red line’, the prime minister announced on October 4 in a hastily organized press conference immediately on his return from New York, where he spent about ten days attending the 68th UN General Assembly session.

I am now writing this article now because, of late I have been convinced that Ethiopia is increasingly inching into the crossroads. This may redefine the country in a way its citizens may not like. It seems to me that the only thing that can be done now is for citizens to wake up in time and decide in earnest how the country should sort out the myriad of political, governance, economic, security, social and religious problems that for a long time have been assailing our people and our country in one form or another. All these ordeals, because the TPLF team has its grand design for Ethiopia, which it only likes so long as it is in the driver’s seat.

Hailemariam may merely be a messenger in this situation. On account of that thus most ascribe to the TPLF this, as its supposed response to threats of terrorism, presumably in the wake of last month’s Al-Shabab’s horrendous attack in Nairobi. Nevertheless, like many of my compatriots, I find it hard to believe that is the real intention of political and official Ethiopia. Rather this is a political subterfuge and means to a selfish end.

In other words, this so-called ‘red line’ is an attempt by the TPLF/EPRDF to consolidate its controls over Ethiopian society, given that the days are fast wearing off into the 2015 election. Bear in mind that this comes for the ruling party against the backdrop of its weakening grips, especially in the last two to three years because of people’s hunger for freedom and the increasing restiveness. Further necessitating this for the Front at the moment is also the much-talked about internal divisions within the ruling party that has come with Meles Zenawi’s expiry a little over year ago. Hailemariam vigorously denied this last Friday, as “wishful thinking of dreamers.“

Nonetheless, no doubts should be considered misplaced, when it comes to the public anger and apathy in the face of the worsening economic problems in the country. There are many evidences that this equally is unsettling for the party; added to this is also the problem of nepotism that has found efficient vehicle in ethnicity as an official policy. Furthermore, not to be forgotten is the worsening problem of state inefficiency, poor and diminishing services (water, electricity and transportation) – as evidences of bad governance the party has admitted in its various public self-criticisms since the beginning of 2013.

There are also the immense official civil and military corruptions that have angered the public, with the real culprits still sheltered to continue enjoying their loots, powers and privileges; what they have done is to allow the public outrage ventilate, with a few scores of individuals made sacrificial lambs.

In this situation, what could be more revealing of that the goal of the regime is protecting state power in the same hands than the prime minister’s singling out of two groups as targets of the new, new ‘red line’? Here we are, Ethiopia’s Muslim youth and the legally recognized opposition parties now to taking the rap until the regime exacts the submission it expects from the broader society.
 

                                                –II–

For nearly two years now, mainly Ethiopian Muslim youths throughout the country have been clamoring for religious freedom. Without this finding adequate resolution, then is added the demand for the release of their community leaders, who have been in prison for over a year as coordinators of the stubborn Muslim movement the state could not bring to an end.

Further hardening this demand is also the leaked story and claims that, in this Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia under obligations by numerous international instruments against torture, these Muslim protest leaders have been subjected to tortures, as victims of the country’s cruelest anti-terrorism law.

It appears that, as mentioned above, the ruling party in Ethiopia has now resolved to use the horrific Westgate Mall tragedy that has befallen friendly Kenya. Its apparent objective is to hit hard its opponents and would be challengers in the country – a practice about which the party has a repertoire of experiences from these past two decades.

Nevertheless, what is lost in official Ethiopia today is the fact that, if at all Al-Shabab were to have the means and capacity to attack Ethiopia, it would have loved to have done it at any cost long ago – not once but again and again. It is an incontestable fact that Ethiopia heads Al-Shabab’s list of its dangerous and most loathed enemies. But thank God, the terrorist group does not and cannot get the opportunity to do so and, therefore, it is better not to give it the credence it does not deserve merely eyeing short-term political gains.

Moreover, Ethiopians come together in times of threats to the nation, including by terrorism since citizens inherently abhor and reject it. I have no doubt that this would remain so due to the strong love citizens have for their country and a sense of decency long history has bequeathed Ethiopians – an attribute of strong state tradition – despite continuing attempts by the powers to be to weaken it for short-term political ends.
 

                                                –III–

At the October 4 press conference, Ato Hailemariam seemed to exude unwelcome temerity – a sign of being caught in and by the moment; this is a setback politicians usually suffer under unsettling circumstances. He therefore, chose to turn to accusing the victims of his regime’s cruelty – the Ethiopian Muslim protestors – of “extremism”, “radicalism, “fundamentalism” and “terrorism”.

What eludes me is how it is lost on him and his colleagues that to date the Ethiopian state has hardly managed to produce an iota of evidence to that end. We have waited and saw nothing, save the usual duplicity about smearing.

In fact, on the contrary, notwithstanding the state’s efforts to create wedge between the Muslim community and other Ethiopians, the Muslim protestors have in their public platforms condemned terrorism, even when the state has been repeatedly and inhumanly beating, torturing and killing them, most of it in 2013 – only their firm resolve and discipline winning them respect.

Moreover, in spite of their unfortunate circumstances, it is good enough for most Ethiopians to learn from the slogans the Muslim youth have made the country realize that they have a cause they love to die for, but never a cause to kill.

On the other hand, their predicament is difficult. For instance, the prime minister last week also accused the Muslim youth of engaging in “political struggle”, as if these were a crime and could stick in the public’s consciousness, or perhaps because the state has said it. In that context, The Reporter quotes a bizarre view of the prime minister’s where he stated, “For me, combating religious radicalism and fundamentalism is a political struggle.”

How could he refer to what he does to the protestors a political struggle, after he has reportedly and repeatedly given the shoot to kill order in and around mosques, when they protest; or in the face of the endless false propaganda by the state and the campaigns thereon a political struggle, with the state as the accuser, the witness, the judge and the jury?

He has lost me there, failing to show me what is wrong with Ethiopian Muslims also engaging in political struggle against a repressive state in order to gain their religious freedom and respect for their fundamental human and civil rights? Is it not better that they come forth as members of society and, consistent with the provisions of the constitution, engage in an open and transparent political struggle than going underground to use weapons to destroy lives and society?

As a citizen, I am not certain I understand why the state keeps on digging for blood in its nose. Nor could I get a sense of where it is headed with this kind of policies and strategies. I would like to believe that either the prime minister has been misquoted or misrepresented. Otherwise, there is something crooked about labeling as terrorists those that are asking the state to get out of their religion. Surely, the state has no place in anybody’s religion.

After all, religion ought to be left as a private matter between the individual believer and his/her God, where in the realm of civil society the church, the Mosque and the temple should have been allowed to remain a neutral territory – free from official diktats or from becoming fishing grounds for exploitative politics.

PM Hailemariam at the press conference (Photo courtesy: The Reporter)

PM Hailemariam at the press conference (Photo courtesy: The Reporter)

                                                –IV–

Those who think with their knuckles often forget or overlook the fact that behind the young Muslim group(s) are parents, families, friends and supporters of their ideas, without themselves being Muslims. In Ethiopia, the Muslim population is a third of the nation and this is a sizable constituency either to be mistreated or ignored.

I also strongly believe that the state has gone out of its wits, when it decided to choose religious denominations for citizens in this age and time. This does not mean I am a terrorist because I support their demands; nor are those young Muslims because of their demands for respect of their rights. If national and international law is allowed to adjudicate this, the verdict would be in their favor already, amongst others, under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, etc. Ethiopia is a party to the latter, in addition to accepting the UDHR. However, the convention’s Article 18 (1) reminds Ethiopia, contrary to what it does to its citizens, insisting:

    “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

In the circumstances, what gives Ethiopian officials the power to violate these rights of peaceful citizens?

Admittedly, while I do not have all the information the prime minister has, as a citizen, however, I have constantly asked myself and wondered whether the state has not exceeded its limits and if it were necessary in the first place to do so. In this 19 months-old struggle of Ethiopian Muslims for religious freedom, what I have seen is that the state has been pushing these young activists, their sympathizers and others too far. I could give the state the benefit of the doubt and say that it may be trying to buy insurance or security against terrorism. Unfortunately, it has gone about creating far worse problems unable to manage respectful of the law awakening of the youth, constantly resorting to its outdated formulae and statist approaches.

More importantly, it helps to recognize that the youth that largely is the spear of the Muslim protest movement in Ethiopia may be countable, if only one sees them as individuals or limited groups that constantly congregate in mosques and chant their protests, or scribble criticisms and objections on the social media.

In that connection, I must state that my faith and confidence is in the judgment of the Ethiopian people. They see terrorism; they know it. As a country that has behind it centuries of experiences with the two major religions and inter-marriages and shared names in a wonderful state of loyalty, friendship and peaceful coexistence, I have my doubts that those that may want to do the stupidest thing, if any, could escape the people’s watchfulness – perhaps not that of the careerist political cadres. I have to be frank that, from my vantage point and years of experience with government and international organization, I see more the danger of terrorism coming from the state itself.

Also keep in mind that behind those activists are all those who sympathize with the causes they articulate. In fact, it is common to learn this from discussions and articles by Ethiopians who identify with what the youth espouse. I have noticed two things. First, there is growing tendency to view the Muslim youth actions as part of the general struggle of the Ethiopian people for the respect of their fundamental human and civil rights, each citizen needs and aspires for himself. Secondly, Ethiopian Muslims – like any other Ethiopian – love their country.

For example, I am not a Muslim; but I support their call for religious freedom in an extremely repressive environment that has left our society naked and suffering. We live under a state that has assumed total power, the extent of which even goes as far as robbing Ethiopians of their citizenship by decision of a certain Joe – for him the simplistic criteria being whether one supports or opposes the TPLF regime.

If the state were to be right in its latest action in introducing the ‘red line’, which I strongly doubt it is, it means that all these people – the activists and those behind them as discussed above – are all in danger of being railroaded by the cruelty and harshness the TPLF regime is capable of.

That is why, while Ethiopia has been one of the oldest countries in the world, its continued tragedy is it could only be described as a country where the role of government has become a collection of anecdotes of failed governance records, instead of well-watered fountain of national consensus as the surest source of stability and the energy for forward movement.
 

                                                –V–

The second target of the ‘red line’ is the legally recognized opposition political parties. Against them, the prime minister is known to be hawkish, a legacy of his education as Meles Zenawi’s lieutenant. In the current press conference, therefore, Hailemariam chose to reduce them to being: (i) foreign agents and (ii) condescendingly referring to them as a group (as a collective) without any cause of their own. In that respect, The Reporter quotes him stating, “the question that is being raised by the opposition is not theirs but of outside forces.”

Our prime minister who is beginning to go to Eritrea and make peace with that country finds it difficult to talk to the opposition as partners in the business of governing the nation, if democracy were allowed to overcome the impediments of entrenched political greed in our country.

Ato Hailemariam has shown strong capacity in seeing the moth in the eyes of the opposition, but not the regime he heads as prime minister. Therefore, like the Muslim protestors, he has labeled the opposition parties as “terrorists”. At the same time, there is lack of clarity on his part as to the groups’ crimes or sins and why they have not be prosecuted.

Since the last few months, there has been persistent effort to link them to terrorism, via the support they give to the demands of the Muslim protestors. The reference to foreign agents is unclear, since the foreign interests the opposition serve is not explained.

In the years past, the close relations between the opposition and the Ethiopian diaspora have resulted with the state accusing them of extremism. In that respect, “extremism” as political lingo, has for a long time been a defining attribute of the diaspora. Since 2012, it has been made strictly applicable to Muslim protestors, given the manner state officials address them.

What is ignored here is that behind these parties and the leaders of the parties there are members, supporters and families, whom the ‘red line’ is equally targeting. As in the case of the demands of the Muslims, I say, as far as the opposition is concerned the state has proved time and again heavy-handed and duplicitous.

When I state this, it does not mean that I am doing it because I am a member. That is not the case, since I do not belong to any of the political parties – opposition or pro-government. I do write this from principle and the conviction that the interest of our nation would continue to be jeopardized. There are many who strongly feel as I do and this needs changing, more importantly it would help us get our country into the right track.

On one occasion, the prime minister spoke of the role of the people in fighting terrorism. In that regard, he said on October 4, “[T]he best way to fight terrorism is by involving the public, allied to strong intelligence and security.”

How I wish this were true and a reality in the practices of Ethiopia’s political establishment. Unfortunately, that is not our country’s reality. What we know, when the state makes reference to the role of ”the public“, it is the ruling party itself, its activists and its ‘careerist’ political cadres promoting their stale ideas, the deception of which the public very much resents.

The prime minister also accused the opposition parties of not being loyal to the constitution. Nevertheless, in contradicting himself about the question of loyalty to the constitution, The Reporter quotes him threatening to end the right of Assembly. He suggested banning any form of protests organized by the opposition. If the constitution is a document that can be folded away, when it does not suit the state, this is troubling – actually the crux of our country’s problems. For all we know, the ax is now hanging on Article 30, which recognizes the right of citizens to protests and engage in demonstrations.

Who is in violation of the country’s constitution and international law here? The opposition or the state, Article 30 is part of international human rights instruments? For instance, Article 21, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in which each state party’s implementation of the provisions is subject to periodic reviews, states:

    “The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

This is what Hailemariam wants to deny, or abrogate, although Ethiopia is a state party that has ratified the convention. What gives him or the regime the authority to take away the right to peaceful assembly on the ground that the demands are repetitive, when for all inexplicable reasons the demands have not even been addressed by the state?
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                                                –VI–

All said and done, what the state intends to do is two things: (i) Adherents of faith, as reported by Walta, must “restrain themselves from religion encrusted politics.” In that context, in particular the prime minister advised the youth especially “girls to pin down themselves from participating in terrorist activities.” He clearly indicated, as did Meles on several occasions, they would be “pinched.”

(ii) The opposition is told to stop campaigning for the release of political prisoners and journalists, or supporting the demands of the Muslims demanding respect of their rights and release of their leaders. Otherwise this would be taken as violation of the constitution. For the state, the opposition groups are a source of its trouble, because they have become voice for voiceless political prisoners and are advocating justice for those that have been denied of it.

The fact that they have provided platform to the Muslim protestors has angered Hailemariam and his colleagues. The best way out of it is respecting the rights of citizens. This has nothing to do with terrorism or extremism.

The question now we need to answer is whether this new ‘red line’ is something new for Ethiopia. The answer certainly is a resounding no! By way of example, we recall here four different instances in which the state employed similar measures, much in the same manner as Hailemariam’s ‘red line.’

The first one was, after in the early 1990s, when Meles seized power at the head of his guerrilla movement. The TPLF’s instinctive reaction to control the situation was to carry out terrorist activities, including the bombing of gas station. It calculated that it would help it to put the blame on others. By so doing, the TPLF sought to make out of some ethnic groups the fall guys (groups) and subject them to blame by others and create division.

This was also repeated in 2005 (?), around that stolen election. The whole idea was to get the public blame the opposition. Recall that the US embassy from Addis Abeba was the first to give testimony to Washington, as leaked by WikiLeaks.

The second time this happened was in 2000/2001, during the TPLF split. Many were falsely accused and forced to exile themselves for fear or accused of coup attempts, betrayal of Ethiopia’s interests and all sorts of other things, while others were eliminated and some remain in secret prisons in Tigrai itself, they say even in this day and time.

The third action took place around the time when in 2009 the anti-terrorism anti-civil society laws were adopted. In turn, these created their victims, including the largest number of political prisoners – journalists and political activists and students. Ever since, Oromos as ethnic group have continually been sentenced as terrorists, which continues to this day. They are thrown to prison with or without infringements or for minor infractions. Because of this, today in Ethiopia the Oromos have become the largest prison population. Again, many Ethiopians were compelled to become refugees, which continues to this day.

The fourth time was around the 2010 election, when some individuals were killed, including in Tigrai – home of the TPLF. The reason for this is TPLF’s fear that its enemies would somehow endanger the Front’s continued stay in power.

There is no doubt that the ruling party has its eyes on the election of 2015. This is overlapping with the country increasingly becoming restless and still tensions rising in different regions.

In other words, putting the two together the Ethiopian state has resolved to be out on a war footing against citizens, which it cannot win against a broad cross-section of the country. The question then is now that whether this really is what Ethiopia needs now – when most of our citizens are hurting, wallowing in profound poverty and backwardness?

I don’t’ think so!

That is why I consider this latest ‘red line’ as one of the most serious and unmistakable indicators yet since 2009 of the state’s preparedness to use all its powers, including the laws and state violence, to silence everyone with fear, to imprison, kill and create more sufferings and refugees than ever before – just to enable some people (groups) remain in power.

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