Ethiopia’s Transition to Democracy in Peril as Government Security Forces Unleash Violence

Oromo Advocacy Alliance

AbiyAmnesty International’s most recent report on Ethiopia (May 29, 2020) reveals that the government of Abiy Ahmed oversees a security force that releases enormous violence against local populations in Oromia and is directly implicated in brutal attacks on Qimant people by armed locals in Amhara Region.

The implications of these findings are far-reaching. They spotlight the failing of Ethiopia’s much-touted democratic transition and they pave the way for an honest conversation about Abiy Ahmed’s handling of the task entrusted to him – getting the country to free and fair elections. The report highlights massive human rights violations carried out by well-armed and equipped security, special police and military personnel, all coordinated under Command Posts.

Amnesty Exposes Brutality That Has Remained Hidden

To those who follow Ethiopia and the Oromia Region closely, Amnesty’s report has exposed just the tip of the iceberg. But their revelations break new ground in the global human rights world. Until now, the international community has been distracted from scrutinizing the Abiy administration’s performance at the district and local levels, perhaps due to his widely publicized accolades or constant personal visibility on the global stage. Few have had access to what occurs in the localities. Amnesty focuses attention on the government brutality taking place against residents in local communities. Findings show what researchers were able to learn in late 2019 despite a government-imposed communications blackout in the West and travel lockdowns to the Western and Southern parts of Oromia.

According to the report, local citizens who call for promised elections, express disappointment with the government or show real or imagined opposition are targeted. They are actively tracked down, assaulted, beaten publicly, detained for months, tortured, raped and abused. Some are shot on sight, houses are burned, livelihoods destroyed and communities ransacked.

Amnesty reveals that in the Amhara region, armed regional and ‘Special Security’ police and local Kebele militia join well-organized armed locals in attacking resident Qimant people, killing scores and displacing thousands from their homes.

Follow-up Investigations Necessary

Amnesty’s report offers the valuable glimpses of the situation on the ground in Oromia and elsewhere. The extent, depth and magnitude of human rights violations carried out by government security forces across the country is yet to be investigated. We appreciate the report for its commitment to shedding light on atrocities and human rights violations shared in the two case studies. The cases examined there provide examples of what occurs throughout many regions of the country – all of which deserve immediate follow-up and thorough inquiry. Since the time that their research was carried out, tens of thousands more special police have been trained and deployed, a country-wide State of Emergency has been imposed and the reports of widespread brutality and killings by government forces are escalating in the Sidama region, Western, Central and Eastern Oromia where the newly trained Oromia Special Police forces arrest and execute local people without constraint. We encourage Amnesty, other local and international entities, media, and scholars to conduct further research in areas not covered in this report.

Vast Majority of Ethiopia’s Population Seeks Change

Deeper inquiry will uncover what has remained hidden about the nature of the betrayal on Ethiopia’s path to democracy. It will expose a lack of transparency, absence of accountability and pressures on failed and unreformed institutions. All of these shortcomings cripple the ability for the government to deliver on the many promises made to the people of Ethiopia when Abiy Ahmed came to office in 2018. The country’s transition to democracy is in jeopardy.

The overwhelming majority of the population continues to demand the promised implementation of federalism and is still willing to sacrifice for it. But Abiy’s forces are utilizing repressive strategies, right out of the old playbooks of the country’s former leaders — treating a generation of active youth as a liability rather than an asset, trying to brutally suppress a dominated majority to silence them and drag them back to a past in which they suffered mightily. Ethiopia’s populations, led by their intrepid youth, still yearn for democracy and opportunity. They want to make the constitution work as designed.

Youth Commitment to Democracy Requires Sustained Engagement

The sacrifices, vision, and determination of the youth provided hope and energy to various local and diaspora groups. Our own organization was formed to advocate for the freedoms, democracy and opportunities championed by the 2014-2018 youth movement. Still, the youth are persisting and calling for transformation and searching for opportunity. Such advocacy efforts led international groups to condemn the harsh repression carried out by the previous regime against the youth. The youth’s persistence inspired international calls for freedoms, democracy and opportunity. In 2016, the European Union and U.S. Congress endorsed grassroots led resolutions. These resolutions later became a checklist for sweeping reforms. In 2018, House Resolution 128, calling for respect for human rights and inclusive governance became a signature text that contributed to the political opening and expectation still held by Ethiopia’s people today.

Continued Multisector Collaboration Ensures Accountability

Abiy’s government has failed to live up to those expectations. In practice, the government disregarded the core principles of the movement – calls for equality, freedom, security, fair and equitable access to resources and representation in an inclusive federal system. The worries and concerns of the people are not being addressed by the institutions that were established to support reform. However, it is the role of international organizations from both the private and public sectors to call out the abuses, set clear expectation and invest in shaping discourse. By staying engaged in this way, multi-sector collaboration ensures transparency and accountability. Expecting that antiquated institutions carried over from previous eras and protected by a loyal old guard can implement change is unrealistic. That old administrative structure can only be expected to cause delay and impede the kind of once-in-a-generation progress that this country is destined to achieve if all stakeholders remain committed to those actively seeking to usher in change.

Ethiopia’s Transition to Democracy in Jeopardy under Abiy’s Administration

If Abiy Ahmed’s administration has forgotten its role and responsibility to youth and its people, it is necessary for all concerned players and the international community to continue, or resume, amplifying the call of those who have sacrificed their livelihoods and also to firmly remind the administration of its obligations. It is important to remember that Abiy and his government have not been elected to the position they hold. The Amnesty International report reveals that they are abusing the temporary authority that they were ceded to bring democracy through constitutionally mandated elections. The youth, whose voices and efforts brought the opening that Abiy stepped into, remain the country’s biggest asset if their aspirations are honored and supported. Embracing their vision for an inclusive and participatory democracy is the challenge now facing Ethiopia and all who have an interest in its future.

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