INTERVIEW: ETHIOPIA SWAMPING IN A POLITICAL RIFE

(Horn Spiegel)— Over the last 10 months, widespread protests in Oromia National Regional State, and later in Amhara National Regional State, have been unsettling the ruling party of Ethiopia- EPRDF.

Dr. Tsegaye Ararsa

Dr. Tsegaye Ararsa

Independent reports indicated that security forces claimed the life of over 500 demonstrators, injured thousands, and detained tens of thousands.

The regime refused UN’s call for international investigation into the killings, according to reports. The protesters have used different tactics of demonstration, from going to the streets to stay-at-home protests and now to boycott selling and buying goods during the holiday season.

Merga Yonas of Horn Spiegel talk to Tsegaye R. Ararssa*, a legal expert and Oromo academic who is active in the protest, on the objective of the boycott and its implications. He also briefly touched upon changes of protest tactics from the street to stay-at-home.

HS- A call for business and trade boycotting from 6th to 12th of September has been going on for more than a week now. What is it all about?

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Building on its gains so far, the Oromo protests movement is entering a new phase. The unrelenting killing and brutal repression of the regime continues unabated. This is calling for a change of tactics. Accordingly, the Oromo protests is now calling for a week long, nation-wide boycott of markets and trade activities in this holiday season (of Ethiopian new year and Eid el-Arafaa). The week chosen for this campaign is a week of intense economic activities in Ethiopia. The campaign targets the economic power of the system by disrupting, through boycott, of all business and trade activities in Oromia including Finfinnee.

HS- What are the aim of boycotting business and trade?

By boycotting the market and all trade exchanges for a week, this boycott campaign aims at crippling the economy of the regime.Thiswill also demonstrate that it is Oromia and the Oromo that shoulder the heavy brunt of the country’s economy. It will also help distinguish between businesses that stand with the people’s demand for social justice and those that stand in support of the terrorist regime.

The objective of this campaign is to weaken the regime’s capacity to oppress the people by crippling its economy. As we all know, this is a holiday season. It’s a season of New Year celebration and of Eid -AL Arafaa. No one needs a reminder that the year that is coming to an end, 2008 EC, the year of trial and tribulation for the Oromo people. It has been a year of intense and bitter struggle. It has also been a year of huge sacrifices made in defense of our rights and in resisting a terrorist regime and it’s killing machine.

For Oromos and other oppressed peoples in Ethiopia, the year was no ordinary year. This holiday season therefore is not a holiday season like any other. It is not one in which we spend time just enjoying ourselves, having fun, and being merry. It is a season of remembering our fallen heroes, our martyrs, and all those who are in pain from injuries, those who are in the regime’s military detention centers and prisons, those whose whereabouts is unknown, those who grieve because they lost loved ones into the struggle. It is a week of quietly consulting with each other about the future of our struggle and ways of strategizing for the inevitable victory.

HS- What are the measures this boycotting expected to take?

During this holiday season, we shall take the following measures:

  1. Our farmers shall refrain from the usual act of providing the following products/items and/or commodities that are in demand for the holiday season: A. Grains (xaafii, barley, wheat, etc); B. Honey, coffee, butter, and other dairy products; C. Cattle (sheep, goats, bulls, heifers, etc) D. Poultry products (chicken, eggs) E. Others. Households are advised to purchase food items that form part of basic necessities (such as salt, flours, etc) in time, preferably in the week before Pagume 1.
  2. Our business people and our traders shall refrain from delivering the above mentioned items to the markets of big cities such as Finfinnee and to the consumers thereof.
  3. Any business person and/or trader who violates this call for boycott shall be taken to be standing with the TPLF regime. As such, their activities shall be interrupted. Their travels to and from the cities shall be disrupted.
  4. During this week, all Oromos, urban and rural alike, shall not be spending any money or time by going to restaurants, cafes, bars, places of buying and chewing chat (manabarcaa). Everyone shall be staying at home–with family, friends, relatives and neighbors–remembering our martyrs and deliberating on tactics and strategies for the effectiveness of our struggle in the days to come. They may also choose to spend time in their chosen places of worship (churches, mosques, temples, etc) to pray and meditate, to consult and reckon with fellow travelers of their faith.

Other measures will also be taken to communicate the central message of the protest and theboycott to the people. These acts will be acts of resistance in ordinary places, in the daily lives of the people. Our young people are now adept at mainstreaming resistance in the every day lives of our people. The details of the activities will reveal themselves in all their variety once the boycott kicks off. In the end, the story of this protest will form part of the story of the everyday life of political resistance in Oromia.

HS- There are people who argue that the week-long business and trade boycotting might have a big heat on poor farmers and if they don’t sell and buy commodities they leave their children to starvation. How do you see such argument?

Yes, that is a legitimate fear expressed by critics. The starting premise of this boycott, as long expounded by the eminent Bekele Gerba, is that through our daily contribution to the economy, we are literally funding the killing machine the TPLF is using to kill our children. Oromia is in a state of war. Military rule is enforced. Every day innocent Oromos get killed for no reason. Every day, innocent Oromos get arrested, tortured, raped, and otherwise violated. Every day, every Oromo village is cowed into silence under the occupying forces of surveillance. Every human activity is under heavy security control. Arbitrary body fris king is ubiquitous. Oromos are hounded in urban areas such as Addis Ababa and are sent to jail for no reason. Sudden ID checks are done routinely in Addis Ababa and if you have an Oromo name, you are arrested and no one will know your whereabouts. The security forces that arrest them often ask what the young people are doing in Addis while they are Oromos. This suggests that there is a de facto pass law that bans Oromos from their city, Addis Ababa. This is apartheid without the name.

These things should make it clear to you that Oromia is a war zone as is Amhara since July. This is no normal time. This is not a time when trade and making money is a priority for our people. That’s why we say that these are desperate times that demand desperate measures. The boycott is no ordinary measure. It is not an easy sacrifice our people. But when the life of a whole population is at stake, when the life of a whole generation is being stolen by the regime before our own eyes, these temporary economic sacrifices mean little. Our households may lose potential gain for now but the economic system that feeds this monstrous regime is attacked from within–and that is their reward. I am encouraged by the acts of our people in some cities such as Naqamt who are literally withdrawing all the money from the banks. This will soon run down the financial fuel that sustains the regime. This is what needs to be considered. In addition, the boycott is also a communicative action. We are saying NO to the regime in yet another form. In this sense, you can think of it as a form of political expression that is being done by ordinary households in the ordinary spaces of our political lives. By making the resistance a household matter, we now make the movement an entirely social affair, allowing every individual to take part both materially and communicatively. That’s how I see it.

HS- How do you see the current political situation in the country, particularly after the grand demo in Oromia and other demonstration in Amhara region?

The Grand Oromia Rally of 6 August 2016 was the culmination of a nine months’ long protest in Oromia. The Oromo protest was at first against the injustice of arbitrary eviction from one’s land and consequent dispossession and displacement of the Oromos. Ignited in November 2015 by the regime’s decision to implement the Addis Ababa Master Plan in spite of a deadly clash over it since April 2014, the Oromo Protest had rendered Oromia completely ungovernable to the regime. As a result, the regime was forced to impose a military rule in Oromia thereby ruling Oromia by an “Anti-Terrorist Task Force” of the federal government chaired by the Chief of Staff under the Federal Prime Minister. During this time, the civilian administration of the Oromia National Regional State was suspended and the Regional Government, typified by its President, Muktar Kedir, existed only in name. This was of course done unconstitutionally—with no Federal Intervention Order, or Emergency Declaration, or no reference to any constitutional-legal norm for justification. During this time, there was a killing of over 500 peaceful protestors, maiming of thousands, mass arrest of tens of thousands (including Oromo political and moral leaders such as Bekele Gerba), and forced disappearance of thousands. And yet the resistance was resilient throughout the year.

The resilience of the Oromo Protest seems to have inspired a similar resistance movement in other parts of the country such as the Welkayit District of the Tigray Region; a district that long resisted their forced incorporation into the Tigray since the 1990s. The “Welkayit Amhara Identity” campaign group has been taking the constitutional legal route to assert their Amhara identity and to seek constitutional redress for the discrimination, political exclusion/marginalization, and cultural domination and erasure they claim to have suffered after the incorporation. It is to be noted that for over 640 years prior to 1991, the Welkayit have been recognized as Amhara and were part of the Amhara cultural category rather than a Tigrian one. Persecuted in their own district, some of the members of the Coordinating Committee of the Wekayit Amhara Identity Campaign were at times operating from Gonder town of the Amhara National Regional State when the Tigray Regional Police and Security (with the support of the Federal Security Forces) sought to kidnap, arrest, and abduct them to Tigray in Mid-July this year. Outraged by this act of the Tigray security forces, the people of Gondar fought back in protest. Later a massive demonstration was staged in Gondar to protest this and also to project a long simmering rage against what they perceived as the regime’s discriminatory treatment of the entire Amhara population. This soon flared up to become the Amhara Protest and spread to Debre Tabor, Bahr Dar, Debre  Marqos, and the towns and districts surrounding these major Amhara cities.

While this was raging, the Oromo Protests rose to a new high on August 6 when a national peaceful protest rally, called the Grand Oromia Rally by its organizers, was staged in over 220 cities in Oromia,including Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa, all at the same time. This rally showed an enhanced sense of solidarity with the Amhara Protests (which had also showed a gesture of solidarity to the Oromo Protests earlier on).

This rally encouraged the protest in Amhara region and the two protests quickly started to echo and reinforce each other’s outrage against the repressive and terrorist practices of the regime. Owing to the regime’s military approach to respond to all political demands (and the consequent mass killings, maiming, arrests, kidnappings, tortures, and disrespect of their national identities) in both regions, these hitherto rival groups started to feel united in their rage against injustice and started to synchronize their movements in such a way that they madethe entire country ungovernable to the regime. This in turn has pushed the regime to the brink of collapse.

The current political situation has become volatile as a result. Things are fast changing. And developments have become increasingly unpredictable. International ‘patrons’ of the regime have also finally started to express serious concerns and are calling on the regime to allow the United Nations to investigate the massive human rights abuses in the Oromia region in particular.

Currently, Global Solidarity rallies are raging across the globe especially in major cities where there are Oromo and Amhara diaspora groups. From the look of it, the regime seems to have lost its strong grip over the country. The two regions (which constitute over 70 % of the country) are already ungovernable. Basic public and social services have long broken down in Oromia. Many localities are virtually taken over by protestors. There is every indication that the regime’s end is very much in view. It seems to me that it is time for politicians (especially those who are in opposition) to start working towards a peaceful democratic transition to a just political order where every political aspiration is pursued and achieved only through a consensual, peaceful, and democratic political processes.

HS- How do you see the stay-at-home demo, and transport disruption for three days in Gonder?

I think this is a commendable non-violent form of resistance. It not only shows complete rejection of the regime by the people but also blunts the regime’s false narrative that the protests were violent. The Stay-at-home protest is an indication of the increasing maturation of civil disobedience in Ethiopia. However, it needs to be supported by other forms of resistance, for otherwise, it is only a matter of time until the regime goes door-to-door to hunt down people and force them into prisons (as they are doing in Oromia).

HS- Why the Ethiopian government does not want to let UN investigators?

Well, the regime is still in denial of the injustice its policies have resulted in and the atrocities it has meted out on the civilian population especially of Oromia. It is used to killing and abusing people with impunity and does not know how to do things accountably and transparently. In my view, this rejection of accountability is rather characteristic of the regime. It is perhaps the first indication to the international community of the completely undemocratic and irresponsible nature of the regime. But to the vast majority of the Ethiopian public, and certainly to almost all of the Oromo public—who know from experience that this as an utterly brutal ethnocratic regime decidedly rigged in favor of the Tigryan hegemony in Ethiopia with no tradition of accountability and transparency–this doesn’t come as a news. The people have endured (and were mostly victimized by) a quarter century of perversion of justice and shameless deployment of institutions of governance (including courts, legislators, electoral and human rights commissions) for purposes of repression of the peoples’ voices and justifying the regime’s privileging and imposition of Tigryan hegemony on the population of the entire country.

Opening up of the regime to the UN investigation will expose these untold atrocities that the world had turned a deaf ear to thus far. To the more discerning observers of the international community (e.g., Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the CERD, the UN Committee of Experts on the Right to Life and Extra-Judicial Killings, PEN International, etc), this rejection of accountability through opening up to investigation by the UN forms a long established pattern of closure of the regime to international and national democratic scrutiny.

HS- Although the western governments are well informed about the killing of protesters, why do they keep on giving support to the regime?

They keep supporting the regime, firstly, because the Westcurrently prioritizes security interests to interests to promote human rights and democracy. As you know, the regime in Ethiopia is invoked as a “key strategic ally” of the West in its ‘war against terrorism’. Of course, this is not true as the regime has been benefitting from Western financial aid, technological support, and technical assistance in wreaking havoc in the entire Horn and Great Lakes region. In my view, the Western support of the regime (which they know is clearly undemocratic, if not out rightly anti-democratic) is the very cause of the state terrorism we observe in the region. This is of course unsustainable in the longer term as it has increasingly left the region more and more unstable and increasingly more volatile than it was in 1991.

Secondly, the West is now cautioned against intervention in the third world because of the disasters they faced in Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Syria, etc. It is the age of self-doubt in the international stage now. And there is a palpable hesitation to intervene in the name of human rights, democracy, justice, and peace. This paradigm of self-doubt which counsels them against intervention makes them acquiesce in the status quo despite the atrocities, especially when regimes can somehow manage to get away with.

Thirdly, Ethiopia, as important as it is geo-politically and strategically, is not too well-endowed with wealth to attract the economic interests of Western capitalism. They see “nothing much in it” for them to stake their diplomatic and political voice therein.

HS-What are ways forward for the demonstrators? Where do you see the country in the coming years? What are you recommendation to the officials?

The demonstrators are voices of resistance. They are voices seeking justice. They are truly the voices of suffering. The Protestors are victims of one of the most brutal regimes the world has ever seen. They are victims of a terrorist regime. As such, they have put up an incredibly successful peaceful resistance that has restored agency to them and has crippled the regime’s capacity to control and oppress as it has so far. They are doing this at a great cost—and there is little one can say in terms of what they have to do. If anything, they only need to remain resilient, persistent, and stand their ground until the regime is gone. They also need to remain committed to horizontal peace, especially in relation to other groups and other political formations. Other opposition political forces, especially those that subscribe to armed struggle, need to support this civil resistance of the protestors by protecting them from the military reprisals of the regime (if need be militarily).

The country finds itself in a difficult trajectory. The contradictions that have long been left unresolved in the country are now threatening the very existence of the state in its modern iteration. However, the protests and the inevitable collapse of this regime also offers an opening for reconstruction of the state on a consensual, just, fair, democratic, and peaceful foundation. There seems to be a real possibility now to address the age-old structural injustice embedded in the state and its limitations to empower peoples trapped in the unjust configuration of the modern Ethiopian state. In the coming couple of years, I hope to see a negotiation of transition to a fair system, a system in which we will see an all-inclusive deliberation over the future, a carefully negotiated and legitimate transitional justice (where the regime will be held accountable for the violence and the injustice it meted out on the peoples of the country and the social wounds among various sectors of society are healed), a legitimate constitutional democracy is put in place, unjust relations of the past are publicly acknowledged and rectified, victims are restored, and just peace is established at last. Above all, I hope to see a system in which people are heard, a system in which ordinary people, the humble and the lowly, find their political voice and get properly heard. This protest, above all, was a demand for voice, a demand to be heard.

The officials have only to desist from their violence. They need to wake up from the state of denial they seem to be in. They need to realize that people’s voice matters. They need to realize that people are saying “Enough is enough!” So, the first thing for them to do is to stop the violence. They should release all the political prisoners they have unjustly—and illegally—arrested and detained for the last 25 years. If they can, they should start to take political responsibility and start to open themselves to the voice of the people and the various political formations that they have thus far repressed or sidelined so that they become part of the solution to the problems they have created. Knowing TPLF, and from the way their officials are behaving in recent days, I sincerely doubt that they will take political responsibility and start to negotiate a future in which they become part of the solution to the historic problems they have created so far. It seems to me that a more organized force needs to step in and remove them from office by force if, as every indication suggests now, they are bent on continuing with their brutal acts taken to terrorize the people into silence.

Any last words?

As indicated above, these are tough times. Tough times demand tough measures commensurate to our challenges. This campaign week, because it is holiday week, is a time of heavy economic activity in the country. The campaign’s modest goal is to hit hard on the economic activity of the week by a simple act of boycotting the wanton consumption and provision of products needed thereof. This is done in order to weaken the regime’s economic power deployed to repress our people. It is also done to identify businesses and traders that side with the people’s just causes and those that stand in support of the regime’s imperative of killing and brutal repression. We call upon all other justice-loving people to join our people in this campaign. We will also call upon them to understand, to pay attention, to bear witness, and to respond to this appeal to conscience.

The suffering public shall triumph.

Justice shall prevail.

*Tsegaye R. Ararssa is a Melbourne -based legal scholar closely following the developments in Ethiopia.

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