Save for yesterday’s vague ‘apology’ from Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, the ruling party in Ethiopia is dead silent on the scale of the tragedy that gripped Ethiopia recently. But it only takes a simple drive through villages within 100 -300km radius and a sit-and-talk session with villagers to understand that what happened in the last four months (and is happening to a lesser extent) has, by and large, left an ugly rupture in Ethiopia’s already wobbly state-citizen relationship.
The “Oromo Protests”, as it came to be popularly known, has left families reeling from the inexplicable pain inflicted upon them. The lives of young men and women on whose future the nation depends on are left hanging in the balance; and precious inter-religion and inter-ethnic bonds are left wondering on how exactly to mend a frightening rift. All this is owing to the state excesses in exercising what should have otherwise been exercised judiciously, with political maturity and caution.
Despite the unnerving silence by the state and its staunch supporters, however, the question of “what should be done next?” can fairly be summarized as the nation’s question. It is a troubling (and at the same time the only right question).
It is troubling because the answer to it directly points a finger at the political responsibly the governing coalition in Ethiopia must take as the first step to undo the mess its security apparatus is leaving behind. And it is the only right question because no state-citizen relationship in a democratic country (which the government in Ethiopia claims to be one) has ever escaped unscathed to last for long after similar damages; not at least since the early 1980s. (In 1983 President Raúl Alfonsín of Argentina created a truth and reconciliation commission called the National Commission on the Disappearances of Persons. He did so in an attempt to heal a nation that was devastated by the previous regime’s program of the National Reorganization Process).
Save for the controversies surrounding the end results, in Africa similar attempts made by the governments of South Africa in the wake of the collapse of the Apartheid regime, Rwanda and Kenya in the wake of the 1994 genocide and the 2007/8 post-election massacre respectively are but few examples that need reckoning.
Informed by history, it should be said, more and more countries that adopted their constitutions since the early 1980s have included passages that hold state-led excesses accounted for judicial procedures.
Despite it being undermined by cracks mostly attributed to its making it was exactly for this reason that the makers of Ethiopia’s current constitution included Article 12 of the constitution that provided the bases for conduct and accountability of the state.
It is a token of tribute to acknowledge that the countless young men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifices in the wake of the recent protest in Ethiopia have done so not only demanding what is rightfully theirs, but also in an act of bravery to protect the very constitution from a government that claims to have mothered it. They died not only fed up with state excesses but also demanding that the conducts of the state be answerable to the supreme law of the country.
Break the chain
This may be the first time that a sitting prime minister appeared vaguely apologetic on behalf of the federal government but this is not the first time that Ethiopians are ailing from a state inflicted pain. Since the establishment as a Federal Democratic Republic more than two decades ago (since the guns that defeated generations after generations of Ethiopians were supposedly silenced), countless young men and women have been killed in the hands of state security forces – all at peace times. From those who were killed protesting against Eritrea’s referendum in 1994, to those who died in early 2000 protecting academic freedom in state universities; from those who were killed opposing post Ethio-Eritrea political settlement in 2001 to those who were shot dead in broad day light in post 2005 election massacre; and the killings in 2014 which is as fresh in our memories as the killings that trailed it in the recent protest. Ethiopia is soaked with the blood of its own children killed in the hands of those who were supposed to protect them.
But in all these the only investigation of a sort into state-led killings Ethiopia has ever seen was the post 2005 killings inquiry commission. Tasked with investigating the wrongdoings, the inquiry commission delivered its verdict a few years later only to see its top inquirer become an asylum seeker after fleeing the country for his safety. (The inquiry commission already suffered withdrawal of credible individuals in protest against the state’s manipulation.)
Be that as it may, Ethiopians have not seen their government taking any responsibility (political or administrative) even after the inquiry commission delivered its verdict implicating the state in excessive use of force against unarmed protesters.
It may be fair to say that Ethiopians are resilient survivors; after each tragedy of a similar sort they have picked themselves up, dust themselves off and have started all over again. But what happened in recent months is testing the nation’s fortitude.
It is going to take more than a head in the sand and a deafening silence followed by a vague apology (as good a gesture as the later may be) to repair the rupture in state-citizen relation the recent crackdown left in its wake. It will take a brave political responsibility to heal the wounds cracked open by the lives of hundreds who were killed; to repair the shattered lives of thousands; and to return the countless numbers of young men and women sent into prison.
The ruling party in Ethiopia should understand that doing so is going to do it good than bad.
ED’s note: This editorial was first published in the February edition of the magazine under the title “Political responsibility to heal broken trust”.