Ethiopia: Is this the start of reforms or just a pause in repression? The Economist

Ethiopia’s regime flirts with letting dissidents speak without locking them up

Is this the start of reforms or just a pause in repression?

 The Economist | ADDIS ABABA

LIFE in Maekelawi, a prison in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, had a predictable rhythm. Three times a day, Atnaf Berhane and Befekadu Hailu were hauled from the dank, dark cell they nicknamed “Siberia” for three hours of interrogation and beating. Mr Hailu was flogged across his bare feet with an electric cable. Mr Berhane escaped this particular cruelty. “I was lucky,” he says.

The two Ethiopian activists, members of a blogging group known as Zone 9, were arrested in 2014. After three months in Maekelawi they were charged with terrorism. After 18 months behind bars those charges were dropped, though both are still accused of the lesser crime of inciting violence. Ethio Trial Tracker, a website, claims that 923 Ethiopians are in prison on terrorism charges. Human Rights Watch, a pressure group, counts thousands more detained for their political opinions.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has a habit, always denied, of jailing its political opponents. So many observers were surprised when, on January 3rd, the government announced plans to release some political prisoners, turn Maekelawi into a museum and “widen the democratic space”. On January 17th it freed Merera Gudina, the country’s most prominent opposition leader, along with 527 other prisoners. The attorney-general said more prisoners would be released in the coming months, including some of those convicted of terrorist offences. “If the government means what it says, then it has a chance to write a new chapter in Ethiopian history,” says Mr Merera. Since his release thousands have come to see him, some bringing oxen to slaughter in the festivities.

After years of anti-government protests and a nine-month state of emergency that was lifted last August, some detect signs of change inside the EPRDF. For months the party blamed dissent on “foreign enemies” and local malcontents. But this month it issued a statement admitting to “mistakes” and promising more democracy. The anti-terror law is being revised and other repressive bills may be changed.

Yet one should not read too much into all this. Most of the prisoners whose cases were dropped were minor figures. Prominent activists from Oromia and Amhara, the country’s two most populous regions and hotbeds of unrest, are still being held. Any changes made to draconian laws will probably be minor. And abuses continue: on January 20th government forces killed at least seven people at a religious festival.

More significant is the power struggle within the EPRDF, a coalition of four ethnically-based parties. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has long wielded influence disproportionate to the number of Tigrayans, who are about 6% of the population. But this may change. The Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation, which is also part of the ruling coalition, was seen for years as a puppet of the TPLF. Yet it has rebranded itself as a populist, quasi-opposition movement. Under Lemma Megersa, its charismatic new leader, it has adopted many of the protesters’ demands, including the release of political prisoners.

The embattled prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, may soon resign. If so, a successor must be found before the EPRDF congress scheduled for March, but sure to be postponed. Many in Oromia want it to be Mr Lemma, the country’s most popular politician. Yet the EPRDF is bitterly at odds over the succession. Fetsum Berhane, a sympathetic commentator, wonders whether it has enough zeal to reform. “I’m not sure anybody is fighting over any ideals or issues except power,” he says.

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Setting them free”

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Posted by on January 26, 2018. Filed under FEATURED. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

5 Responses to Ethiopia: Is this the start of reforms or just a pause in repression? The Economist

  1. baraki Reply

    January 26, 2018 at 9:27 AM

    ዋናው ቁም ነገር ከብጥብጥ የሚተርፍ ነገር የለም። በተለይ ደግሞ በዱላ/በሃይል ከሆነ ነገሮችን ለመለወጥ የምንተጋው ነግ በኔ ስለሚሆን ቁም ነገር የለውም ። እንዲሁም ዘርን መሰረት አድርገን በተራራ ጸሃይ ሰውን መግደል ንብረት ማቃጠል፣ ወዘተ ጎዞዋችን ከወዲሁ የጨለመ መሆኑን በግልጽ ያሳያል። ለቀጣይ አንድ ስንዝር ያህል ለመጓዛችን እርግጠኞች ልንሆን አንችልም። የእንትና ደጋፊ፣ የእንትና ሰላይ ተብሎ በስማ በለው የሚደረገው ጥቃት ማድረስ ኪሳራው የከፋ ሊያደርገው ይችላል። ኪሳራው ሊሆን የሚችለው በአጸፋ መልስ ልንጠቃ እንችላለን ወይም ደግሞ የምናወድመው ንብረትና የሰው ህይወት የራሳችን ነው። በመሆኑም በቀጠታም ይሁን በቀጥታም ይሁን በተዘዋዋሪ የራሳችን ነው ይደርሰናልና። ስለዚህ በእያንዳንድዋ እንቅስቃሴ ትልቅ ዋጋ እየከፈልን መሆኑን ግልጽ ነው።

    በእርግጥ የአንድን ሰው የአስተሳሰብ ነጻነት መገደባችን በራሱ ጸረ ዴሞክራሲ ነው። የአንድን ሰው አስተሳሰብ እና እምነት የግል ነው መሆን ያለበት እንጂ የኔ ጥሩ ስለሆነ የግድ ተቀበለኝ አይባልም።ሃሳባችን ግን ማስረጽ ይቻላል። ስለዚህ ስራዎቻችን በሙሉ አስተሳሰብን ለመቀየር ያለመ መሆን ይገበዋል። ዛሬ ካልተሳካ ነገ መስራትን ይጠይቃል። በመሆኑም የምናራምደው አስተሳሰብ በስሜት ሳይሆን በአስተዋይነትና በሰከነ መልኩ መሆን አለበት። ብዙ ሞክረን ካልተሳካ ደግሞ የራሳችን አስተሳሰብ ላይ ጥያቄ ማንሳት ተገቢ ነው እላሎህ። ከዚህ አንጻር ሲታይ፥
    የትም አካባቢ የሚካሄዱት አመጾች ዘላቂነት የላቸውም። ይልቁንም መጠነኛ በሚባል የነበረው የመናገር፣ የመጻፍ፣ ጥያቄ ማቅረብ ወዘተ ዴሞክራሲ የበለጠ እንድጨልም ያደርጋል። በትግሉ ላይ የሚሳተፉ ሰዎች ይሰለቻሉ፣ ጉዞዋችን በሙሉ ተስፋ ቢስ ወደ መሆን ይዳዳዋል።

    • Zewdae Reply

      January 28, 2018 at 4:19 PM

      Indefelegn iyeregettnachhu tegezu new meli’ktu? Fetsmo ayhonm.

  2. Shegitu Dadi Reply

    January 26, 2018 at 10:42 PM

    Reform requires new leaders with new ideas who can transform the country for the better without introducing something radical in a short time or “old” leaders who have reformed and equipped themselves with a vision to change existing situation in order to improve it.

    The question is “have new or old reformist leaders emerged in the country to kick start one?”. The answer is a resounding “no”. Can such leaders emerge in the future? Doubtful. Why am I pessimist? Because of inherent weakness in the system.

    The weakness essentially manifests itself in how position is circulated among four organization via assignment. The way posision is circulated within TPLF-EPRDF and snatched from leaders makes very difficult for a reformists to emerge and thrive.

    What’s worrying is a trend that completely discourages reform even from thinking about it has been in place for décades in a manner that violates both the letters and the spirit of the constitution.

    I will take as an example how the position of the prime minister (PM) is “filled” and can be taken away – if needed – to explain my point.

    The practice until now is the leaders of the regional organizations viz. TPLF, OPDO, ANDM, Southern organization are elected by a small number of people from the central or executive committee of the respective organizations without the involvement of the rank and file members via representatives. Another small group of people that come from these organizations elect the leader to the EPRDF who then becomes the prime minster of the country.

    In reality, the fate of the PM is dependent on the few people who elected him than the entire members of EPRDF and the general population. The small group of people who elected him can also remove him after unfavorable evaluation (gemgema)including a refrmist tendencey. The other requirement to become a PM is election to HPR (federal parliament) in a remote local district of few thousands of people.

    I feel that this is totally undemocratic way of putting a prime minister to the highest office in the country.

    As I said above, filling the highest executive position of a regional government or office of the PM via evaluation (gemgema) violates the Constitution. Article 38 which deals with “the right to vote and to be elected” stipulates that positions of responsibility in political organizations are to be filled through elections conducted in a free and democratic manner.

    “Elections” for leadership – which is position of responsibility in the language of the Constitution – to TPLF, OPDO, ANDM, Southern organization falls far short of free and democratic practice. Evaluation (gemgema) does not involve elections let alone it becomes free and democratic because it does not involve members or duly elected representatives of the said organizations.

    Until a few of years ago, a TPLF/EPRDF leader (namely Meles) was the PM and now a leader of Southern organization/EPRDF (H. Mariam) is the PM. Next in line (without necessarily reflecting order) seems to be the leader of OPDO/EPRDF and ANDM/EPRDF. The other organizations from the five regions constituting the federation are out.

    Here is a concrete example. Just last month, less than forty people who form the central committee of TPLF (including some who were said no more in the committee) removed their leader and crowned another. Through what process was that done? Through evaluation (gemgema). Assuming that TPLF has a million members in Tigray, in the country and abroad, was there any mechanism by which the million strong participated to elect whom they call their leader? None whatsoever.

    A reformist leader is unlikely to emerge if:

    -there is no leadership campaign among members and supporters in which candidates present what they will do if elected to lead the party.

    -there are no delegates (at least ten thousand of them for a million members) who were to vote for the leader and back his plan at all stages of implementation and support him in case the top leadership is not happy with what he is doing.

    -nobody knows what the leader elected in closed doors plans to do. Not party members, not supporters, not the Tigray people.

    The entire process is like an appointment of a civil servant whose tenure is dependent on evaluation of his immediate superior. And the immediate supervisors in TPLF case are the few who elect the leader.

    That kind of election might have been reasonable during the civil war due to security concerns, but to maintain it for years after security risk is removed is unconstitutional, undemocratic and meaningless. It is a corrupt system that encourages loyalty to few groups of people rather than to members of organizations and the entire population. If it exists anywhere in the world, it might be only in China. Since our country is not China, it needs a constitutional and democratic way of electing party leaders.

    If and when the leader of OPDO/EPRDF becomes the prime minister, people might expect reform but he will be weak due to inherent weakness in the system. A bad legacy from TPLF war time practices carried over to peace time because it serves their desire of staying in power forever, OPDO also gets its leader without saying what he wants to do, without competing with others for leadership and the express support of members of his party and the Oromo people. Then he becomes a prime minister by few “king makers” to whom he will be loyal servant until they throw him out if he talks reform.

    If OPDO and ANDM aspire for change, they should begin by democratizing themselves – allow free and democratic leadership election from below up – even if TPLF does not want to do the same. That is the start of a major and true reform called leading by example.

    I can’t wait to see how OPDO/EPRDF guy fares once he walks in Menelik palace with his family without knowing what to do. People tell you he will implement EPRDF’s program – which has now become a code name to Meles legacy – but that’s not enough. Within the framework of EPRDF’s program, there are so many “refroms” to do on which candidates for leadership might defer attracting votes. I can’t also wait to confirm how the system of filling the office will undo him because he can’t say no to the “king” makers without a great cost to his life and liberty.

    If you’re waiting for a reform or change under such undemocratic administration, forget it.

  3. Bekabil Duguma Reply

    January 27, 2018 at 9:54 PM

    I like the concluding paragraph on The Economist which goes like this :

    “I’m not sure anybody is fighting over any ideals or issues except (for) power.””

    This remark was made by one Fetsum Berhane whom The Economist called “a sympathetic commentator wonders whether (EPRDF) has enough zeal to reform.” Sympathetic or not, the Fetsum is quite right in his observation.

    As Shegitu says the problem is the system TPLF introduced during the civil war and kept it until now because it serves its purpose. TPLF believed and still believes issues concerning the workings of TPLF – EPRDF are nobody’s business except themselves. That is a completely wrong view.

    Again as Shegitu said the constitution requires “positions of responsibility in political organizations” are to be filled through elections conducted in a free and democratic manner.

    The reason for this constitutional provision is clear. It is to accentuate the fact that the general public has interest in the inner workings of political parties that contend to lead the country and people.

    The public is supposed to exercises full “control” on political parties by voting them in or out of office. In our case, even the undemocratic one takes place once in four or five years.

    So many things happen in between elections which includes changes in leadership of political parties.

    The legal requirement that political parties fill important position through free and democratic elections is another area of public control.

    Undemocratic in-party practices such as filling positions through “gemgema” manifests itself on bad governance, corruption and patron-client relationship and nepotism.

    TPLF-EPRDF’s practices of filling important positions are not free and democratic and their inner workings are excessively undermined by centralism.

    If Elections Board was free, it could have enforced the constitutional requirement of “free and democratic elections” within EPRDF. The Board has in the past refused to register certain political organizations by giving the way elections were held as a pretext, but that does not work for EPRDF as well.

    As Shegitu said, “gemgema” (evaluation) is for civil servants and not for filling important position in political organizations. They can do their “gemgema” if they want but it should not replace the legal requirement of “free and democratic” elections in political parties.

    The constitutional requirement of “Free and democratic elections” for important positions in political parties suggests that there will be candidates who freely express what they will do if elected – campaign among members of their organization and the general public – and vote are cast by a representative number of members. The TPLF type closed door “election” is way below the constitutional requirement and should be abandoned.

    Now, would EPRDF listen and change its inner workings to “free and democratic” election of leaders? I agree with Shegitu that that’s where reform should begin. Like Fetsum, many of us wonder if EPRDF has “enough zeal to reform.”

    EPRDF is a coalition of TPLF, OPDO, ANDM and Southern organization and TPLF still wield some influence – persuasion combined with threat – over the leaders of the other organizations.

    TPLF cannot continue the way it has been running the country; it is time for it to seize the opportunity and reform itself by implementing “free and democratic election” within the organization. If it refuses, sooner or later OPDO and ANDM will have to try it.

    If OPDO and ANDM do not democratise, then TPLF – EPRDF will become illegal organization – in fact had been for decades because of its illegal and undemocratic inner workings – which violates the constitution. Elections Board should move to officially ban it.

  4. Zewdae Reply

    January 28, 2018 at 4:33 PM

    TPLF devised the Constitution in such a way so that they can control the PM’s election because they have no chance of winning by democratic elections. This system of electing PM must be abolished and replaced with democratic elections.

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