In Defense of Freedom of Speech and Association: The case of Zone9ners

By Dawit Teshome

“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”

Harry S. Truman

Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the core and the oldest of all EPRDF member parties, has a proven record to silence deliberately the voice of dissents and oppositions since its establishment. While TPLF’s military wing was compacting to bring down the “socialist-military” Dergue regime, its security apparatus was working day and night to silence dissents and people who have different narrations than its political leaders. In TPLF’s law of jungle, freedom of speech and associations were considered as enemy of the revolution, of the party and of the struggle. Women fighters were denied to establish an association which would handle women’s issues because it was seen as a feminist movement by leadership and considered as “an act of betrayal of the struggle”. TPLF formed EPRDF and assumed the state power and yet the practice of TPLF’s law of jungle did not transformed to a civilian government system rather it remained the only game in the town and institutionalized in the whole country.

The Origin of EPRDF’s Law of Jungle

Some see it from the ideological perspective, some from politico-cultural perspective and the rest from the organizational structure of the party in particular and the State in general. Indeed, Marxist-Leninist political parties consider the right of freedom of speech and association as principles of bourgeois’ political ideology, namely liberalism. The “Revolutionary Democracy’s” ideological underpinnings could be traced back to Mao’s “New Democracy” and Lenin’s theses on bourgeois democracy, proletarian dictatorship and proletarian democracy. Its three guiding principles are: the part is the only vanguard of the revolution; democratic centralism which assures internal cohesion of the party and legitimacy of its leadership; and limited right for different classes of the society. So, by principle and definition, there is no as such equal right for all. If there is no equal right for all, there will not be any so-called right of freedom of speech, thought and expression.

Some political sociologists, like Donald Levine, saw the Ethiopian political culture, in particular how political institutions are evolved and developed, as a fertile ground for a partisan politics, whereby political acknowledgment to and compromise with opposition parties/groups or individual are not the norm and the rule of the game. The winner group starts nation building from the scratch through deconstruction of the state as if its successor has done everything wrong. From this perspective, progressive political discourse is needed to nurture the political and socio-cultural landscape and institutional mechanisms in order to strengthen the right of freedom of speech and association. To quote from Donald Levine,

As I used to say to my Ethiopian friends in the 1960s, if only part of the courage required to take up arms and fight authorities were converted into non-violent public discourse about societal problems, Ethiopia would have the beginnings of truly productive and fruitful change.”

As a Marxist-Leninist Party offspring, it is clear from EPRDF’s organizational structure in particular and how the Ethiopian State is organized in general, that the right of freedom of speech and association are seen as antonym of the EPRDF’s political will, which is to be a hegemonic, vanguard and leader to “build developmental state”. To this end, EPRD and its satellite parties have established offices in parallel with the administrative structure and, by doing so, EPRDF effectively controls every units of the administration and, as a result, monitors the lives of every citizen every single day. EPRDF member parties do not have equal political barraging power, rather there is a unipolar balance of power within EPRDF where TPLF is a hegemonic power while the rest are the “good” followers. A political party, its power structure is unbalanced, could not have interparty democracy, which entitles members to have different views or to be a dissent, nor does it have intraparty democracy, which gives due credit for other opposition political parties’ and citizens’ rights.

However, a critical reading of EPRDF’s Ethiopia depicts the fact that the above three arguments are supplementary and intertwined. As Jean-Nicolas Bach, a researcher in Les Afriques dans le Monde in France, rightly notes that EPRDF has used Revolutionary Democracy as a “fighting tool to exclude internal and external “enemies”” from any public discourse and treat the state affairs exclusively as its own business. EPRDF’s experience shows that any individual or group, who has different narration than EPRDF leadership will be portrayed as “enemy”. Yamamoto, the ex US ambassador to Ethiopia, argued that “[…] “Revolutionary Democracy” reflects an approach to governance and development that, while arguably For the people, is neither OF, nor BY, the people”. The fact that the continuation of the historical characteristics of the state-society relationship, i.e. violence, personalized rule and institutional instability, marks the uncivilized nature of EPRDF’s Ethiopia.

The Motives behind the Crackdown

To understand the government’s motives behind the crackdown, it is of important to know what zone9ner group was doing form its establishment till the crackdown. Zone9ners activism is a multifaceted one, but the two main activities were online campaigns and awareness creation through numerous articles. In the past two years, the group had organized three online campaigns focusing on constitutionalism, freedom of speech, freedom of demonstration (right to a peaceful protest) and one motivational online program, which says come and lets dream together the Ethiopian future. In last year alone, the group has published more than 150 articles, which cover political, social, cultural, economical issues. They also prepared a compiled annual document in Electronic format, which contains their articles. All most of these activities gave due credit for the government for its accomplishments and pointed out also the gaps, mistakes and challenges ahead. This approach, off course, is new for our political culture where either blindly support or oppose is the norm. Their activities were not only critical to the government, but also for opposition political parties, private press, and so on. Their best quality, among others, is they debate on ideas and issues, not on personality.

If so, why the government wanted to crackdown these beautiful and the most peaceful souls? For me, there are three intertwined motives that led the government to silence them deliberately. The first motive could be the fear that their progressive approach will challenge its internal party cohesion. No wonder, any “rational” EPRDF member would agree with anybody when someone campaigns for constitutionalism, respect and implement the constitutions. Many Ethiopian oppositions see the constitution either as a means of Ethiopian territorial disintegration (unitary parties) or a document which does not fulfill their aspirations (ethnocentric parties). Zone9ners simply asked the implementation of the constitution even if they are well aware of its limitation. Such a question is regarded by EPRDF leaders as an approach to disassociate EPRDF from its usual role as defender or vanguard of the constitution. EPRDF is also well aware of the fact that not all its members are joined primarily because of ideological persuasion nor its political program. EPRDF drew this lesson from the 2005 national election. So, they don’t want to see anyone who is capable to persuade its members by rational thinking since this will put an end for its internal cohesion, order, and legitimacy, which is based on patrimonial networks and coercion. The number of people, who are either EPRDF members or pro EPRDF, who openly discontented the government’s move to crackdown zone9ners is a signal for a pathetic relationship between EPRDF leaders and its members/ supporters.

The second motive could be associated with the TPLF’s past history. TPLF/EPRDF sees, any organized movement whether it is big or small, and peaceful or armed, an image of itself when it overthrew the Col. Mengistu’s regime. In particular, if the organizers are young, determined for their cause, it is crystal clear that EPRDF leadership think that it is vital to eliminate such a movement before it gets wider support within the society. Except one, all Zone9ners members are under 30, enlightened (at least have a university degree) and determined for their cause.  Their activism is getting deep and wider through time. They started working with internal institutions like Article 19, Human Watch Rights and so on. Given EPRDF’s antagonistic relationship with these institutions because of its poor human right records, the EPRDF leaders may not want to see any individual or group who is working closely with them. The detained bloggers’ and journalists’ alleged crime is “working with foreign organizations that claim to be human rights activists and receiving finance to incite public violence through social media″.  The government is tirelessly working to create a hostile environment for people who cooperate or work with international human right advocacy organizations, Bekele Gerba is also a case in point here. So, Zone9ners could be seen as victims of this EPRDF’s arrogant ignorance political calculus.

Lastly, according to Redwan Hussein, head of Government Communication Office, the detained 6 bloggers and 3 journalists alleged crime is “creation of new facts”. According to him, “Facts are one and the same for all citizens but the perspectives and approaches which are used to analyze and interpret the facts may differ”. Put aside all philosophical questions and ask a simple question: who can create “the new facts”? Individual citizens, bloggers or journalists “do not have their own fact”, as he said. Only the government or the ruling party can create facts or set agendas for citizens to engage in. Criticizing the government based on “facts” which are not recognized by itself is a “crime”, by his definition. EPRDF is “clearly and intentionally pursuing a top-down approach through which political, economic, and even social activity must be either directed or condoned”.  Here, the point is the government is not tolerance for anyone who is going to challenge this top-down approach and its hegemony. As a centralist party, except the few top leaders, members of the party do not have the right to “create new facts”. This is not only primarily related to freedom of speech but freedom of thought. To put it differently, no one is not allowed to think independently and critically. Alas, if this the case, then jailing Zone9ners would be the “best” measure to be taken by EPRDF in order to silence the youth and dissents through fear and intimidations.


In EPRDF’s Ethiopia, the ruling ethno-nationalist parties do not have political and administrative capacities to take charge of the interests of their ethnic fellows nor does TPLF dominated central government have any of the capacities to meet the interests of its fellow citizens. The structure of political and administrative powers manifested merely the institutionalization of an oligarchy system where only few has transformed themselves from NOTHING to “THE NEW CLASS” basically through controlling the “national cake”. The few so far has been used propaganda and violence to perpetuate their power and they are motivated by power and its associated benefits (corruption). They fear IDEAS more than anything. Because, ideas have a power to change the way how society govern itself, accordingly change the barraging power of the ruled and the ruler, in favor of the oppressed and the exploited people. IDEAS can transform how political and economic power are structured. By this rule, anyone who has different narrations, ideas, vision and aspirations, which are critical of the government, is “the enemy of the state”, meaning the enemy of their interests! And it is the most rational thing to be critical of these few elites for the causes of the mass: liberty, freedom, prosperity and peace. This is the fundamental reason why EPRDF jailed innocent and most peaceful bloggers, journalists and politicians. EPRDF has been in power through violence and coercion to silence dissents. Through time, its repressiveness nature is getting wider and sharper. It has only one way to stay in power, it is only through terrorizing its fellow citizens where everybody fears about its security. None of us are free to feel secured, and the only thing we do not know until now is: WHO IS GOING TO BE NEXT?

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Posted by on June 1, 2014. Filed under FEATURED. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

3 Responses to In Defense of Freedom of Speech and Association: The case of Zone9ners

  1. አበበ

    June 2, 2014 at 12:38 AM

  2. Abe

    June 3, 2014 at 11:05 AM

    Some of our friends are so unhappy with Ethiopian government cozy relationship with China.They would like to see change of government.Since the so called opposition has low credibility and no chance of winning election in next millennium, they opted for other tried and proven (Egypt,Ukraine..)alternative, COLOR REVOLUTION. That’s where the so called Zone 09 fits in,they where recruited ,trained,financed and backed by no other than the state dept.The secretary of state had no shame mentioning their names one by one in front of Ethiopian people,it was no coincidence,only this time Ethiopian security was a little ahead.It has nothing to do with freedom of speech,bla,bla,bla…

  3. addissun

    June 9, 2014 at 6:55 AM

    Check this out TPLF – Undercover Spies following suspected Terrorist with helicopter in addis ababa