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Critical look at the responses of Ethiopians to decades of political repression


Sharing the Sources of my Anxiety: A Critical Look at the Responses and Strategies of Ethiopians to Decades of Political Repression, Divisive Ethnic Policy, Continuing Impoverishment and Territorial Disintegration

By Maru Gubena*

Feb 15, 2006 —Before embarking on the issues to be explored in the coming article, let me make a few key remarks related to the historic, remarkable and indeed ridiculous measures undertaken recently by the unelected leadership of Mr Meles Zenawi, which is currently ruling my country, not by the will of the people and the rule of law, but with the barrel of the gun. Firstly, the incarceration of elected MPs whom Ethiopians consider to be their undisputed leaders. Since these victims have done nothing wrong, people feel that the TPLF leadership and its persistent refusal to release them unconditionally clearly shows not only the undemocratic nature of Mr. Meles Zenawi and his followers, but also their non-Ethiopianess and the animosities they hold against Ethiopia and its people.

Secondly, the charging and criminalization of Ethiopian leaders, journalists, and other Ethiopian political activists, including those of US and European nationals of Ethiopian origin who have been working tirelessly day and night. These individuals are still sacrificing their time, energy and money in an attempt to redirect the current course of immeasurable political repression, to be a contributing force for socio-political and economic changes in our country, to free Ethiopia from the yoke of a divisive ethnic policy imposed by a self installed regime, and to help our people escape from periodic and endless handouts provided by western governmental and non-governmental charity organizations. The charges against them on grounds of treason and genocide provides obvious, solid evidence that Meles Zenawi and those surrounding him are in a state of complete panic; they appear not to know how to deal with and respond to the rationally formulated demands of, and various charges made against them by the people of Ethiopia. The hastily, preposterously formulated charges, simply intended to intimidate Ethiopian intellectuals whom Ethiopians from border to border are proud of, suggests an obvious realization among the members of the self-installed ruling party of the incalculable damages they are inflicting on both Ethiopia and its people. The preposterous charges are therefore meant to be tactical and defensive. One may wonder whether the leadership of EPRDF and its dependents, especially those working for Meles Zenawi in the judiciary system, have ever been aware of or paid the necessary attention to the definitions of “treason” and “genocide,” accusations levelled against a large number of concerned Ethiopians among us.

Historical Sources of Current Political Turmoil, Divisive Ethnic Policy and Continuing Economic Impoverishment

Let me now go back and attempt to outline the complex, critical issues stated in the title of this article; for me these issues are the source of much anxiety, which I feel compelled to share. These have become not only the most challenging blockages to working with each other cooperatively and collectively, but are also instrumental in extending the duration of power of repressive regimes, the ongoing loss of an incalculable number of human lives, and the deterioration of the economic and health sectors of the country of Ethiopia.

Much to my dismay and disappointment, however, many Ethiopians, even well known Ethiopian and foreign historians of Ethiopian politics and the changing face of Ethiopia, speak today about Ethiopia finding itself at a “crossroads.” Most express themselves even more explicitly, saying that Ethiopia has been at a crossroads since the 15 May 2005 national parliamentary election, as if Ethiopia and Ethiopians have not always faced
testing and defining moments, and endless tragedies and persistent sufferings at the hands of successive dictators, assisted at one time by the former Soviet Union and another by the United States and its allies.

Indeed, as far as Ethiopians are concerned, Ethiopia has often faced periodic tragedies and political crises, particularly since the upheaval of the bloody 1974 Ethiopian revolution which marked the end of Emperor Haile Selassie’s forty-four year rule and the disintegration of the long existing feudal system, including the suspension of Ethiopia’s constitution. The subsequent years of the Ethiopian revolution were not only terrifying, cruel and most bloody, leaving an irremovable scar among Ethiopians and on the geo-political map of Ethiopia, but can also be characterized as the darkest years in the history of our country and its people. Tragically (and disappointingly), however, it was during this painful period that Ethiopian intellectuals, political actors and activists became divided and hostile to each other, even paralyzed. There was neither an ability to link together the efforts, energy and skill of Ethiopians to work cooperatively - creating wisely crafted, well-structured and respected political and socio-economic organizations operating meaningfully and professionally, upon which the voiceless majority of Ethiopians of the period could depend - nor to collectively challenge and fight back against the uninvited, unexpected emergence of the fascistic enemy of the military regime known as the Derg or Committee, which, after deposing the aging Emperor Haile Selassie on 12 September 1974, became the Provisional Military Administrative Council and the uncontested and most ruthless ruler of my country and oppressor of my people. The newly emergent dictatorship of Mengistu Hailemariam, previously unknown in the land of Ethiopia, was soon accompanied by the most appalling urban bloodshed, by mass indiscriminate executions of tens of thousands in their own houses, in offices and in the streets, day and night, without any charge or trial; and for the first time in the history of Ethiopia, there was a mass exodus of Ethiopians into neighbouring countries in all directions, using all available means of transportation, whether cars, horses, donkeys or of course, on foot.

As historical records clearly indicate, the power grab by a group of army officers from the people’s revolution and the toppling of Emperor Haile Selassie were the beginning of massive repression of Ethiopians by their own successive regimes - by their own compatriots, colleagues, neighbours - with a total terrorization of the entire population of Ethiopia that persists to the present day. It was also after the downfall of Emperor Haile Selassie’s government that internal and external conflicts and wars became rife - a common phenomenon in every corner of Ethiopia - and the impact of periodic drought and famine began to be felt more heavily. It is also true that the upheaval of the 1974 Ethiopian revolution and its consequences have changed the face of Ethiopia itself, including its decline in status within the international community from a highly respected nation to a beggar, and from a stable country to a battleground of newly emerging fronts and hostile groups. Now, due to the persistent and irreparable divisions that arose among Ethiopian opposition groups of the period (mainly caused by internal power struggles and widespread unfounded suspicions towards each other), most Ethiopians today, but especially the generation who had been in the forefront of the revolution, look back to the Ethiopian revolution with pain and regret for their role in the downfall of Emperor Haile Selassie, and profound nostalgia regarding his rein.

The Current Political Turmoil in Ethiopia: Responses, Opportunities and the Challenges of Resistance

Events and political crises in Ethiopia, with systematic killings and atrocious crimes being inflicted upon our people, are presently worsening day by day. The political position of the unelected leader, Meles Zenawi, is trembling, and his political status, including the positive perceptions he had tactically created among the leaders of the international community, is now vanishing in the eyes of world leaders, international journalists, and the leaders of human rights organizations and other non-governmental institutions. The creatively invented accusations he directs at his political opponents are finding no listeners either inside or outside Ethiopia. The TPLF-controlled media talks day and night but for many years has had no audience. Saddest of all, even when the TPLF media occasionally presents a factual news item, because it came from a transmission of the discredited TPLF leadership, Ethiopians tend to believe it only if the authenticity is confirmed by other media channels or other information sources. Also, the leadership of the unelected ruling party in Ethiopia has recently been progressively exposing its true, natural face and behaviour, not surprisingly given the unpopular and hostile measures undertaken, this is creating more and more enemies both at home and in the international community.

Additionally, it is undeniably also true that Mr. Meles and those surrounding him have, both knowingly and unknowingly, been engaged in providing Ethiopians at home and abroad, who are struggling for their freedom, equality and dignity, with a goodly amount of fuel conducive to generating additional energy and encouragement to collectively and uninterruptedly intensify the political and diplomatic war to end the nearly fifteen years of repressive rule of the TPLF and its entire leadership.

In more explicit terms, the most vicious measures undertaken in recent times by the unelected ruling party against the innocent and peace loving Ethiopians - including the incarceration of our leaders, journalists, and leaders of civil society; the continuation and intensification of killings, including women and children; and the open criminalization of those whom Ethiopians see as their most indispensable human assets, charging them with treason and genocide must be employed as appropriately and effectively as possible by all peace loving Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia both to fuel our energy and motivation, and as forces of unification to increase the direct participation of our people in the resistance and consolidate our voices, speaking in a dramatic fashion against the illegal rule of our people and country by an unelected quasi-foreign enemy.

Indeed, in logical terms, it would be reasonable to expect that the incalculable, appalling crimes currently being committed against our people - which for the TPLF leadership have become an obsession and a permanent culture - and the selection of Ethiopian political activists and human rights defenders to be charged, with the intention to hunt and imprison or kill us, would have had some positive effects. It would have been used as an effective bridge to link and strengthen our efforts, bringing together the knowledge and management capacities and the lobbying experience of various political and legal actors to enable us to achieve the goals desired by the people of Ethiopia.

Regrettably and most disappointingly, however, this has not been the case. While the situation described above is the reality in today’s Ethiopia and the daily experience of Ethiopians, and while wide-ranging opportunities have been created to free our people from decades of political repression, divisive Ethnic Policy, continuing impoverishment and gross and persistent human rights violations, it is only a few Ethiopians who are actively, tirelessly working in the forefront of the political and diplomatic wars being currently waged against the unelected leadership of Meles Zenawi, sacrificing their energy, time and money and even their lives. I am aware that uncovering for public discussion and debate the long-existing wounds and suggesting that new differences, disputes and divisions are developing among Ethiopians at home and abroad may have unintended effects and consequences, especially in these uncertain and sensitive times. It is, however, my deepest conviction that the culture of “don’t mention and don’t discuss at this time” applied to the actors and factors that are smoldering in our minds and hearts as we stand at the beginning of a journey, confronting hugely long distances to travel in the fight against a common enemy with an enormous and complex arsenal of power, can stand in our way. That is, a culture of not treating the wounds and not tackling the unfolding differences and divisions in a timely fashion can have dramatically harmful effects, serving as an obstacle - a bottleneck - standing in the way of the progress and eventual achievement of the intended goals and desires of our people. These are the factors that have in recent times become major sources of my anxiety. It is indeed disappointing and even hurtful to witness that, while almost the entire Ethiopian population would like to see the immediate removal of the quasi-foreign and most ruthless leadership of Meles Zenawi, with its divisive policies, from the land of Ethiopia; while millions of knowledgeable and skilled Ethiopians are well aware that Ethiopia is badly in need of their efforts, management and legal skills and other experience; while they, the silent majority, eagerly await the days of liberation and are prepared to test and share the fruits of freedom - yet they remain reluctant to stand side by side in the forefront of resistance, hand in hand with their compatriot sisters and brothers, collectively facing the complexity, challenges, anxieties and pains being experienced today by a limited but determined section of Ethiopian society.

It may also be healthy to state specifically that, while complex, multiple strategies still need to be wisely crafted, and projects need to be planned and carried out on various fronts - huge efforts that will require our collective hands and efforts - some of our compatriots continue to show unwillingness and inability to compromise, to accept the universal saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and the principles of a “one-man, one-vote” system, and to work together harmoniously within the resistance for the collective well-being of our people and the future liberation of our country. In recent times this has become a source of wrangling, frustrating highly motivated, active and productive supporters of Kinijit, thereby incapacitating the Kinijit Support Group itself and increasing the sources of my anxiety - the likely extension of the duration of stay of Meles’s regime in power. Indeed, it is more than depressing, it is frightening, even appalling to continually hear uncompromising statements, rigid standpoints and controlling behaviours from our compatriots, who are spending a good amount of time wrangling over issues such as “who is going to be the leader of the Kinijit Support Group,” or themselves believing and tirelessly making all possible efforts to convince others that, without their leadership and secretively devised methods, the established or planned Kinijit Support Groups will be either snatched or destroyed by those of Meles’ cadres who are primarily wandering aimlessly through some States and European countries. As a result, constructive ideas meant to help in approaching and enlisting those among the silent members of each community within the Ethiopian Diaspora and friends of Ethiopia who have managerial, diplomatic and lobbying experience - so as to add their voices to the broader camp of resistance and effectively utilize their badly needed skills - have often been resisted and rejected with the traditional argument and suspicion that those who are not yet involved might possibly (or perhaps must) have previously served or be otherwise associated with the regime of Ethiopia’s enemy - Meles and those surrounding him. This, at least in my view, is a very bad assumption, a self-centered and damaging strategy - a potential challenge and a possible bottleneck to the resistance.

Given the exceptional issues facing us, and especially given that our leaders and a disproportionately high number of other Ethiopians, including women and children, are languishing in TPLF’s disease-infected jails and concentration camps, it is time to regain our senses. If we mean to achieve our desires and goals, we will need to sacrifice our energy, time and money and to do this in a constructive, productive and meaningful fashion. We will need first of all to separate ourselves from the bad, old and destructive habits and cultures of suspicion, from unnecessary and unhelpful secretiveness and from looking at each other so arrogantly and disparagingly. In this respect, it is my view and deepest conviction that the door of our resistance should be open to every peace-loving Ethiopian and friend of Ethiopia. This should include those who have previously been a part and parcel of the unelected regime of Meles Zenawi, if they are fortunate enough to defect and manage to reach the camp of the people’s resistance, and on the condition that they wholeheartedly believe in and support the people’s struggle.

Purpose of the Main Article

The text above presents an overview of my previous and recent talks addressed to gatherings or courses on issues of the Horn of Africa, combined with some fresh observations of events and political turmoil in Ethiopia. It is my idea to go further with this material, also incorporating new thoughts, when I have the opportunity. The main purpose of the coming article “A Critical Look at the Responses and Strategies of Ethiopians to Decades of Political Repression, Divisive Ethnic Policy, Continuing Impoverishment and Territorial Disintegration” will be to take a close, critical look at the strategies and collective responses of Ethiopians to the 1974 Ethiopian revolution, including the achievements, challenges and failures of the resistance groups at the time to the rise of the Provisional Military Administrative Council, otherwise known as the Derg or Committee. The attempt will be to understand and draw lessons that might be helpful in the current struggle. The factors and actors that may have contributed to the creation, expansion and strengthening of the military, the power structures of the TPLF and EPLF, and their eventual takeover of the whole of Ethiopia from the previous dictator, the regime of Mengistu Hailemariam, will be examined. An attempt will also be made to briefly assess the moods, anxieties, responses and experiences of Ethiopians to the arrival of the invading TPLF/EPLF forces in their villages, towns and cities in May 1991. The extent of the involvement, activities, participation and contributions of opposition groups to the process of democratization in Ethiopia since 1991 will be briefly highlighted. The general development of the current political crisis, and more specifically the confrontation between the quasi-foreign leadership of Meles Zenawi and the people of Ethiopia, are the primary focus of the paper. Therefore substantial attention will be allocated to dealing with the professionalism and organizational structures of major opposition parties both prior to and after the May 2005 parliamentary election, including the involvement and support given by the Ethiopian Diaspora to the opposition. Particular attention will be devoted to the preparations made by Ethiopians for the possibility that the TPLF leadership would employ its usual violent means in the face of losing the election. This includes their responses and newly devised strategies to limit or even eradicate some negative sources of division and destruction in our culture, replacing them with a sense of togetherness great enough to be capable of galvanizing the forces of unity and resistance so as to effectively challenge the inhuman and atrocious criminal measures undertaken by the unelected leadership currently ruling our country by the barrel of the gun.

* Maru Gubena, is based in Leiden. Readers who wish to contact the author or inquire about the availability of the main article can reach him at info@pada.nl

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