Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Has Failed To Reaffirm Human Rights, Rule Of Law

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Has Failed To Reaffirm Human Rights, Rule Of Law

By Kasembeli Albert, Editor of Security Africa Magazine contributed to

July 10, 2020

Abiy Ahmed

NAIROBI, Kenya Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali has failed to take advantage of a golden opportunity to reset the country’s human rights record and spur the democratisation process. On April 2, 2018, Abiy was confirmed and sworn in by the Ethiopian Parliament as Prime Minister, a week after the ruling coalition nominated him to succeed Hailemariam Desalegn.

Hailemariam resigned in February 2018, following months of protests in the Oromia and Amhara region that led to the deaths of hundreds of people.

The protests, which initially began over land rights, but later broadened to include calls for greater political representation at the national level, met a harsh government response.

Abiy, 41, a former lieutenant-colonel in the army and head of Ethiopia’s science and technology ministry, hitherto had a reputation as an effective orator and reformer. Many expected Abiy to place respect for human rights and rule of law at the center of his new administration.

It was a very historic moment for Ethiopia and for the ruling coalition in the country. He is the first Oromo PM. This was expected to pave the way for the stability and unity of the country. However, he has failed to bridge ethnic divides.

Abiy is a part of the establishment of course, but being a reformist and coming from a mixed religious background with a Christian mother and a Muslim father, the international community and Ethiopians across the board placed a premium on him. However, opposition expressed cautious optimism over Abiy’s election.

It is now clear, what he aims to achieve depends on what his party allows him to do. It is worth noting that after years of widespread protests against government policies and brutal security force repression, a series of human rights reforms were ushered in after Abiy Ahmed became prime minister in April 2018.

The government released thousands of political prisoners from detention, admitted that security forces relied on torture, committed to legal reforms of repressive laws and introduced numerous other reforms.

However, at the same time, there has been a significant break down in law and order in parts of Ethiopia amidst escalating ethnic tensions that has resulted in significant numbers of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).

It is important to note that the extra-judicial killing and arbitrary arrest of OLF supporters since December 2018 has created a situation in Oromia very similar to that in 1991-2 when thousands of OLF supporters were killed and scores of thousands detained and tortured.

Since Abiy took office, the state of human rights violation has escalated. The goodwill and support for Ethiopia from the international community has not helped. The current silence about killings and widespread imprisonment is eerily reminiscent of the rein of Melez Zenawe.

Recently a report on the state of human rights in Ethiopia painted a worrying scenario. This report includes information about 163 extra-judicial killings and the arbitrary detention of at least 933 all due to their suspected support for the Oromo Liberation Front, which officially returned to Ethiopia in September 2018.

For instance three students at Adama University of Science and Technology were killed and their bodies found in a garbage dump in Adama on January 4. Many students still remain in detention since 2016 although thousands of political prisoners were released in 2018. It’s a catalogue on those who remain in detention, victims of extra-judicial executions and expulsions from universities.

On January 22, it was reported (with photographic evidence) that, while elders were attempting to mediate between OLF and EPRDF forces in Ode Shakiso zone of Guji District, government forces deliberately set fire to Oromo property. On March 2, it was reported that government forces had robbed businessmen of their money, gold and burnt down houses of suspected OLF supporters in late February.

Last week protests erupted in several towns across Ethiopia in response to the June 29, killing of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular Oromo singer whose songs captured the struggles and frustrations of the Oromo people during the 2014-2018 anti-government protest movement. Unidentified gunmen shot Hundessa dead in Addis Ababa, the capital.

This protests should not been viewed in isolation from the deteriorating human rights situation in Ethiopia. It is warning shot to the government. The government’s responses to the protesters risks enflaming long-simmering tensions.

Further, the government cut internet services across the country, which only amplified concerns that people are being silenced and that human rights abuses and communal violence, having rocked the country last year, are not being addressed. The internet shutdown has also made it impossible to access information on those killed and injured in the protests.

Oromia nation appears to be under siege. Protesters were killed after Oromia police opened fire. A doctor in the town of Dire Dawa said that the hospital had received scores people with gunshot injuries after reportedly being fired at by security forces.

The government’s response took another worrying turn when authorities arrested political opposition leaders Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba of the Oromo Federalist Congress party, after a reported standoff with security forces over Hundessa’s funeral site. Another prominent political opposition leader, Eskinder Nega has also been detained.

Rather than restoring calm, the authorities’ internet shutdown, apparent excessive use of force, and arrest of political opposition figures could make a volatile situation even worse. The government should take prompt steps to reverse these actions or risk sliding deeper into crisis.

But analysts suggest Abiy’s policies are, simultaneously, too much too fast for the political old guard, and too little too late for the country’s angry youth, whose protests swept him to power.

Abiy needs to put into action his own words that his regime is a victory for democracy and justice. Apart from the crack in Oromia, journalists are increasingly becoming victims of political violence orchestrated by the regime. His administration should act to ensure that the rights of all, particularly marginalized communities, are fully respected.

Ethiopia today faces a wide array of human rights challenges, including rising economic inequalities, poverty and recurrent food insecurity.

Abiy should give particular attention to improving the lives of people in Oromia who have suffered inequality and discrimination. The prevailing goodwill from the Oromo people and the global community should not be wasted.

The Oromo people want to move on and feel a part of Abiy’s Ethiopia. They seek justice and a chance to get better. However, they don’t know where to get that help. They don’t want to keep being stuck in my own past.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed should commit to addressing legacies of violence by providing space for dialogue and for victim-centered approaches aimed at truth, justice, redress, and healing. While it is tempting to turn the page, asking people to simply forgive and move on isn’t so easy. Ethiopians have frequently called for both meaningful justice and a chance to tell their stories. If left unaddressed and without means for additional redress, competing narratives of historical injustices may continue to afflict society in various ways.

But state-sponsored killings and other serious abuses in Ethiopia did not begin, or end, with the Derg. Between 2014 and 2018, protesters, many of them students, took to the streets, echoing similar frustrations expressed by their counterparts in the 1960s.

Protesters initially expressed grievances over land reform, but their messages soon morphed into wider protests against decades-long repression. As in the past, security forces responded with brutal force, resulting in over 1,000 deaths, disappearances, and the imprisonment of thousands. The protests and crackdown eventually brought Abiy Ahmed to power.

There was hope that past crimes would finally be addressed under Abiy. In his inaugural address, he apologized for massive rights abuses and welcomed opposition groups back home. He’s since taken steps to resolve the lengthy border conflict with Eritrea and ushered in domestic reforms, actions that resulted in his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

But to truly break with the past, Ethiopia needs to meaningfully pursue truth, justice, reconciliation, and redress —and not embrace one approach to the detriment of others. And yet, over the last two years, Ethiopia has experienced growing unrest and communal violence. The rise in violence, has led to deaths, displacement, and property destruction.

Kasembeli Albert is a Nairobi based practicing journalist with special interest in the Horn of Africa and Editor of Security Africa Magazine

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