On November 30, 2016, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) announced the arrest of a prominent opposition leader, Dr. Merera Gudina. Dr. Merera was arrested shortly after his arrival from Europe where he testified to the European Parliament about human rights violations and political crisis in Ethiopia.
The arrest comes at a time of high political tension which saw the Ethiopian government declare a six-month state of emergency in October. The emergency was issued after a yearlong protest by the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups opposing governmental policies. Since the emergency took effect, more than 11000 people have been arrested.
In a statement released by the Command Post, the body that oversees the state of emergency, Dr. Merera was arrested for violating article 2 of the state of emergency directive, which forbids any communication with “terrorists and anti-peace groups.” The Command Post alleged that Dr. Merera held discussions with Dr. Berhanu Nega, leader of the banned Ginbot 7 party. Like Merera, many other detainees are also charged for violating one or more prescriptions under the state of emergency directive.
From the beginning, human rights organizations vocalized their concern about the directive, saying it puts vague restrictions that undermine basic rights, including freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and go far beyond what’s allowed under international law.
Ethiopia signed and ratified two major international human rights treaties: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR). Although the ICCPR permits for derogation of some rights under extraordinary circumstances that endanger the existence of a nation, the ACHPR has no derogation clauses and hence does not allow its signees to derogate any rights.
The state of emergency directive violates some of the clauses on the ICCPR and completely goes against the instruments under the ACHPR. This shows that either the Ethiopian government does not care about its international duties or the ICCPR and ACHPR lack the proper provision to hold states accountable. In both cases, the situation does not help the current crisis in Ethiopia.
In an attempt to expose human rights violations in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian diaspora organized many mass demonstrations near the White House. But the United States is unlikely to make a major influence on the Ethiopian government as Ethiopia is a long standing ally for the fight against terrorism in the Horn of Africa.
So if there is any change that must come in Ethiopia, it must come internally.
We have seen signs of democracy in 2005, when the opposition party won 137 out of 138 seats in the capital, Addis Ababa, but it did not translate to transition of power for reasons that still remain mysterious. Even though the outcome of that election still remain heartbreaking for many Ethiopians, as long as we keep challenging the government on issues of democracy and human rights, there is no reason why that political movement will not be recreated.
The truth is, Ethiopian politics need a major makeover. We need a government that motivates critical thinking and opposition, not one that creates anti-terrorism laws that undermine and imprison free thinkers. We need a political system that is equal to every racial group, not one that is dominated by one. We need leaders who listen to people’s grievances, not ones who issues a state of emergency to silence them.
We need not look far to find encouragement. We have recently witnessed Ghana hold a successful election that saw a peaceful transition of power. The Ethiopian government must learn from this and open the arena for full and fair elections. The government should open up the political system and allow people with different views to contribute theirs in the pursuit of democracy.
And those who oppose the government must come together and keep challenging the government as a unit.
Like South Africans did after Apartheid, both pro and anti-government groups must find it in their hearts to forgive one another and work for a united, peaceful, and democratic Ethiopia.
I will start.
I for one forgive you, EPRDF, for all the wrongs that you did. I forgive you for the death threats that you used to send my father for expressing his opinions. I forgive you for taking democracy out of our grasp in 2005. I forgive you for all the killings of innocent Ethiopians over the past two decades.
Now, your turn.
Amanuel Lemenih is from Ethiopia. He is currently enrolled in Columbia University in the City of New York.