PM Abiy Ahmed with the recently pardoned leader of the outlawed opposition movement Andargachew Tsege
By Gizaw Legesse
When you sum-up the number of prisoners released from Ethiopian prisons just in a few months, it is shocking. When you further look how almost all the people are still dissatisfied on even basic administration and governance issues, then you ask: “what was the government doing for 27 years?” Probably, just arresting. It is not intended here to neglect the development efforts and achievement by the government for all those years. However, the discontent of our people, as well as the authoritarian and untrusting nature of our government has exceeded its limit to the extent that dominated its achievements. And boasting every year while celebrating the downfall of Derg has become an empty pride.
No doubt that initial speeches and promises made by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed have inspired many Ethiopians. But it was difficult to even imagine most of the promises become real. Who thought the release of Andargachew Tsige? He was Secretary General of Ginbot 7, a group pledged to bring change (overthrow the EPRDF government) by any means necessary, and in turn designated as a terrorist group by the parliament. I remember, when Andargachew was captured in Yemen four years ago, it was broadcasted as a big ‘achievement’ of the decade by the government with regard to protecting the constitutional order.
Change in Perception
What happened now? Andargachew is released. Not only him, thousands. So, what really happened now? To bring a national consensus, to broaden the political space, or to teach the value of forgiveness – all these can’t fully satisfy my question. I think it is a change in perception! If it is not, it should. But I still believe it is. The government has changed its perception towards Andargachew, or Ginbot 7 for that matter.
In fact, these couple of days have showed us the major ‘milestones’ for the changes to come. Well-known figures from the decades lasted struggle of Oromos, personalities like Lencho Leta, were given a warm welcome to their homeland. These guys have comfortably nested in the hearts of any Oromo I encountered. These guys founded Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which as well is still designated as a terrorist group by Ethiopian parliament.
Now tell me, what is happening? If it is meant only for exemplifying forgiveness, I say it will not be sustainable. If we only forgive the persons, we are most likely to arrest the next person who does similar acts as those we just forgave. So it has to be a change in perception. The government finally wakes up and understands that there are also others who are deeply concerned for the same country we are living in.
Someone or some people in the government changed their perception towards those they call oppositions. Before, there acts have been considered as destroying the country and its constitutional order. But now, what they did is believed to be for the purpose of saving the country and to further modify or improve the constitutional order. They may have done wrong things or violated some major laws of the country. But given their purpose, they are forgiven now. And for that, what the government, especially Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his team, has and is doing perhaps requires the utmost recognition. After all, these oppositions happened to be potential allies especially if the government finally discovers the perfect alignment of its objectives. In this case, we will learn that not only there is a change in perception, but also a change in objective.
Change in Objective
The objective of a government has never been to rule perpetually. But EPRDF never had an exit plan, they always assume they will be in power forever – as if it is not even an issue. PM Abiy, in his inaugural speech, didn’t give us a clue that his premiership is too short, that all his promises has to be practiced in two-year period – before the next election. If he widens the political space and empowers other political parties as he has promised, that would mean the possibility of EPRDF losing power is high. And losing power, for EPRDF, has never been a bargaining chip. However, when you learn charges of oppositions and activists who are clear and present dangers to its power and who actually effectively facilitated three years of protests around the country are simply dropped, then don’t you ask what really is happening? I say to you, change may actually is coming. We are starting to look signs of a change in objective: from ruling forever to serving until the term ends.
Don’t doubt me, I am the most sceptic. It is hard to trust EPRDF – because of their own previous track record. However, I think now is the moment to firmly establish a strong hope on the changes we are observing. Of course there are still critics on PM Abiy; a number of questions and long-listed preconditions being forwarded by many activists and oppositions to start trusting him. They have the right to demand a perfect Ethiopia, but I am sure they also know that PM Abiy just can’t deliver a Utopia.
When Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516, he managed to unveil the endless desires of man in relation to how he or she may choose to live in a certain society. Utopia expresses a perfect society where its members coexist without any quarrel or unjust treatment, where equality is without question, and questions for freedom has different meaning than we give them today. It is a complex but beautiful societal dynamics, and yet it is unimaginable imagination of Thomas More.
If we think PM Abiy can change our Ethiopia to Utopia, you are the most down-to-earth person. I am with those citizens not yet willing to fully trust EPRDF or even its chairperson Abiy Ahmed. Because we just can’t afford that at this moment; the 27 years have taught us better. But we can simply recognize the changes. As I said above I have observed a change in perception and somehow a change in objective. Or I am willing to think like that.
Amending Terrifying Laws
One of the major preconditions set by many oppositions and activists when PM Abiy took premiership or even during the three years protests was eliminating the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. I had written subsequent Articles on the late Awramba Times weekly newspaper by the time the law was proclaimed. The law encompasses some provision that can be used as tools to abuse rights of citizens. However, what makes the law even more terrifying was the existing untrusting relation between the government and its citizens. Just take a look Article 6 of the proclamation:
“Whosoever publishes or causes the publication of a statement that is likely to be understood by some or all of the members of the public to whom it is published as a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to them to the commission or preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism stipulated under Article 3 of this Proclamation is punishable with rigorous imprisonment from10 to 20 years.”
In a country where there is limited government that actually stands for the protection of its citizens rather than for the extension of its term in power, the above provision can be seen as mild. The judgement on a publication “is likely to be understood by some or all of the members of the public to whom it is published” could be taken as fair.
However, in a country where the government considers the private media as enemies of the state, the oppositions as potential threats to the throne, the ordinary citizens as herds, or the university professors as risks of political ‘stability’, then the above provision is highly terrifying. Furthermore, in a country where there is no separation of power between organs of the government, the courts are simply subordinates of the executive without independent will or power, the legislative without any trend or culture of questioning the executive, as well as in a country where the performance of prosecutors is measured by the number of conviction, then this sole provision can easily serve as a perfect intimidating and arresting tool for the government. And we have seen its implementations for years as well.
Then, all of a sudden, we heard that the government is working on the amendment of the Anti-Terrorism law (or they are drafting a new one). This is another big happy news – Another milestone which shows the change is in the right track. In my opinion, the law should be drafted in such a way that puts control to abuse of power – in such a way that gives confidence to citizens to continue doing the everyday ordinary work. At the same time, the government also should find a way in improving the whole legal system. It may need time and a lot of effort, but we should see the start by now.
Finally and most importantly, PM Abiy also should understand why our questions are unending and many other questions will even be born after some others are answered. That is because it is natural to seek for Utopia. And that is because we have been living in dystopia, the perfect opposite Utopia, for long.