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Organizing the Determined

Seeds of Change in Ethiopia

by GRAHAM PEEBLES

Thousands march in the capital

The people of Ethiopia have been suppressed and controlled for generations. Under the current EPRDF government, freedom of expression has been curtailed and an atmosphere of fear and intimidation fostered. Peaceful assembly has not been allowed, contrary to the constitution, and all political dissent stamped on.

In 2005, after parliamentary elections that many, including the European observers, deemed to be unfair, students took to the streets in the capital Addis Ababa to demonstrate against what they saw as electoral fraud. The regime responded to this democratic display by deploying armed security personnel who killed, Human Rights Watch (14/06/2005) reported, “dozens of protesters and arbitrarily detained thousands of people across the country.” Some estimate that up to 200 people were killed by government forces.

Unsurprisingly, since then the streets of Addis Ababa and other major towns and cities have been quiet, and people have felt unable to protest, until Sunday 2nd June 2013, when the relatively new Smayawi (Blue) Party, to their credit, organized demonstrations at various sites across the capital. Reuters report that around 10,000 people participated, although local people put the figure much higher. Throngs of mainly young people marched through the city, demanding, The Guardian (2/06/2013) state, that the “government releases political leaders and journalists, and tackles corruption and economic problems”. Protesters carried banners reading “Justice! Justice! Justice!” Some held “pictures of imprisoned opposition figures,” others chanted: “We call for respect of the constitution.”

Members of opposition parties and journalists critical of the government are amongst those who have been falsely arrested and charged under the universally condemned Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. Human Rights Watch (HRW) report that “thirty journalists and opposition members were convicted” in 2012 under, the “vague” law introduced in 2009, granting the Ethiopian authorities what Amnesty International (7/07/2009) described as “unnecessarily far-reaching powers”. They went on to make clear that the legislation “restrict[s] freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and the right to fair trial.” It contains an easily distorted, ambiguous definition of terrorism, covering legitimate political dissent and “damage to property and disruption to any public service, for which an individual could be sentenced to 15 years in prison or even the death penalty.” (Ibid)

Under this draconian law that is being used, HRW says, “to target perceived opponents, stifle dissent, and silence journalists… freedom of expression, assembly, and association have been increasingly restricted.” Allied to the Charities and Societies Proclamation, which regulates nongovernmental organisations and “the government’s widespread and persistent harassment, threats, and intimidation of civil society activists, journalists, and others who comment on sensitive issues or express views critical of government policy”, a cocktail of suppression and fear has been created, the effects of which have “been severe”. Human rights workers have been forced to flee the country, groups have closed down and/or “scaled-down” their operations to exclude human rights work. Independent media have also been effected “more journalists have fled Ethiopia than any other country in the world due to threats and intimidation in the last decade—at least 79, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)”. Such unjust laws have been employed by the EPRDF government to control the people, who are at long last demanding such means of repression be repealed.

The time for change is now

 2011 saw the rise and pragmatic, peaceful expression of ‘people power’, as mainly young people across Northern Africa rose up against injustice, demanding freedom and an end to war. It was the year Time magazine named ‘The Protestor’ their person of the year, people they said, “dissented; they demanded… they embodied the idea that individual action can bring collective, colossal change.” Since what became known as the ‘Arab Spring’, Greece, Spain, Russia, Syria of course, currently Turkey, even Iran, have all seen popular uprisings against injustice, corruption and suppression. Unified actions, consistently spearheaded by young people, the occupy movement in America, Britain and elsewhere, calling for economic justice, sharing and social equality.

Extraordinary events, in what seems to be a unique time, “unlike anything in any of our lifetimes” as Time magazine described the historic happenings of 2011. A time in which it is not only possible to imagine the realisation of perennial ideals of old: the brotherhood of man, universal happiness and peace but a growing necessity. Such perennial jewels, held firmly within the hearts and minds of many throughout the world and dependent upon the inculcation of pure democratic principles: sharing, (social) justice and freedom, require new and inclusive political/economic/social forms to be built in order to accommodate the demands for change. The old structures, built on divisive foundations, are worn out and inadequate, and they do not serve the needs of the vast majority of people (“the 99.9%”). Governments like the EPRDF, that reinforce injustice, violate human rights and deny their citizens freedoms are out of step with the times and must be swept aside.

With over 65% of the population of Ethiopia under 25 years of age, and a median age of just 17, the young are an army; peaceful, unified and motivated, these young men and women are the great hope for the country. They know well that sharing and justice are the keys to peace and freedom, common-sense truths that the men of the past, acting from narrow ideological positions that distort and corrupt, do not understand. They cling to power and privilege, fearful of the changes that the people demand.

Unity is the key

The need for unity is a worldwide need; in a country where over 70 different ethnic tribal groups speaking dozens of dialects, make up a population of 85 million, unity is essential if there is to be fundamental social change in Ethiopia.

A single demonstration as seen in Addis Ababa on Sunday 2nd June, rightfully calling for justice – long overdue and the release of political prisoners, whilst highly significant and encouraging, will have little effect unless it serves as the beginning of a coordinated, strategic movement. Dictatorships such as the one enthroned in Addis do not suddenly renounce brutality and, seeing the light, embrace democratic ideals of freedom and participation. Relentless, orchestrated peaceful calls for liberty, for justice and the observation of human rights need to be made by the people of Ethiopia, establishing an unstoppable movement, a peoples tsunami, that will wash away all opposition to change. Let Meskel square in Addis Ababa become the Ethiopian Tahrir Square of Egypt’s protests.  A unified, inspired response to the impulse for change is needed, led by the young people of Ethiopia, organised and determined, uniting under one banner; justice, freedom and peace for all.

Graham Peebles is director of the Create Trust. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org