Alemu Tafesse Academic and Political Analyst
The fourteen-month old Muslim civil rights movement in Ethiopia has so far had some spectacular implications for the development of democracy and democratic political culture in the country. It has affected both the cultural as well as the institutional dynamics of the country’s political situation. In the following lines, I will examine just three very inter-related, but immensely broad, points where the Muslim activism has left great impacts on the contours of the current and future democratic possibilities of Ethiopia. I will deliberately be sketchy and short, as I don’t intend to render this piece of writing a journal article.
1) Forced a deceptive government show its true nature more than any other time
Many 20th and 21th century dictators pose a modicum of conundrum to anyone who studies the nature of their power. They belie any traditional categorization of regime type. On the one hand, they style themselves as democratic and constitutional. They conduct elections, draft democratic constitutions, establish “human rights” institutions, and tirelessly speak of the need for and their commitment to democracy. On the other hand, they rig elections, embezzle public funds and intimidate, round up, torture and kill their opponents unconstrained by any notion of the rule of law. Such governments strive to have it both ways at the same time: they wish to get the benefits of holding two apparently opposite faces.
The EPRDF has been akin to this type of rule, a master of this Janus-faced game (it isn’t a game for the victims, of course). On its “democratic” face, it has deafened us with its rant of the need for the rule of law; enshrined a more or less democratic constitution; conducted several elections, and installed a parliamentary system. On its autocratic face, however, it defiled the constitutional system and the rule of law by violating the basic political and natural rights of citizens with impunity. By any standards, it has never been serving the law and the state. In fact, it has been the state and the law.
How have the two faces of the EPRDF gone along together? They have been meant to deliver certain political functions internal and external to the state. And in principle, they are supposed to be exploited in their proper places, times, and context, and hence are not expected to be contradictory. But in practice, their relationship has usually been precarious, and tense at times. The democratic face has been used to garner “democratic” legitimacy from those who have been expected to have had any voluntary reason to side by the government. Moreover, this face has also helped these supporters to gratify themselves about the “democratic” cause they have been helping being fulfilled in Ethiopia. Finally, it has helped these same people to self-boost their moral status while engaging in a heated debate with the detractors of the regime.
But the most important function of the democratic face has had to do with the international community (to be precise, major international powers). For the sake of obtaining either diplomatic or economic or military assistance or all, building such an image has always been crucial for any regime in the world that has grabbed state power since 1991. The EPRDF has not been an exception, and it has maximally used—and in many cases succeeded—in styling itself as a pioneer of democracy in this otherwise troubled region of the world we call the Horn of Africa.
But democracy and “EPRDF-cracy” do not by nature go well with each other. As a minority –based party, the EPRDF can’t afford to genuinely liberalize the country and still stay in power. Here comes the need for the second face, which has been at the heart of the persistence of the party’s reign since 1991 well into the 2010s. It has to mortify the psyche, inflict fear in the mind, torment the body, and take life in order to ensure its survival. These mechanisms have been pushed through on those who have refused to be socialized into the regime’s propaganda. The same mechanism has also been applied to those who trusted the regime’s propaganda and, taking it at its words, plunged themselves into public contestation with it. When they appeared threatening, they received the strong message–physical or otherwise–that they should back down.
But the crucial thing in assessing the Janus-faced political order of things is the one related to the balance of the two faces. The balance is very delicate, and with any disturbance, it may lead to either near regime collapse or full-blown regime brutality. When the democratic side is allowed to thrive more than the autocratic one, the EPRDF regime is bound to lose power. However, if the autocratic tactics are put in place with more severity or duration, then the benefits of appearing to be democratic withers away. Hence, striking a balance between those two apparently contradictory aspects of the regime’s image has been of phenomenal significance for ensuring its political longevity.
The regime’s capacity in maintaining this balance has been put to test many times. It has emerged successful few times, but failed in many others. Especially at the international level, the EPRDF has managed, at least in the first couple of years after its cling on to state power, to make an effective use of its “democratic” credentials in order to get multi-faceted support from the major powers of the world. But the internal dimension has quite frequently oscillated from one extreme to another.
The challenge from the numerous oppositions has largely forced the regime to emerge more brutal than democratic, although the trend has not been quite linear. The regime has expectedly turned more autocratic as challenges have mounted and gotten threatening, and it has resumed its democratic discourse when they have subsided. As a minority-based party, the ruling party could not defeat the ethnic or the Ethiopian nationalist oppositions on a peaceful political stage. The need to secure its regime at all odds has repeatedly led the party to use force or the threat of using it to silence its oppositions, something that has seriously damaged its democratic credentials. But at least in one occasion, the ruling party also oscillated in the opposite direction. In 2005, it opened up the political system, and wished to stage a more credible democracy-like contestation from which the new rulers could emerge. The results went rather disastrous to the political life of the EPRDF. It learned the lesson—which it had assumed for long—that democracy is its nemesis. Exposing too much of the democratic face might lead to the replacement of the very body of which the face is a part. As a result, the reversion to brutality has been effected once again in the aftermath of the election.
But this brutality had to wait for yet another—undoubtedly the most significant –phenomenon to emerge as the only pillar of regime survival and to appear in its darkest, most unambiguous, form than ever before. This most significant challenge that has impacted most on the image of the government is the Muslim civil rights movement that has been going on since December 2011. All the developments leading up to the challenge and the form of government response to it have most severely weakened the democratic status of the regime, and laid bare its true unbridled authoritarian nature. The rights movement has altogether shattered the ever-strong desire of the government to be seen as democratic and forced it to discard its hypocritical behaviour. With the looming danger of a critical mass awakening, and the speed at which it has been spreading, the ruling party could not help but throw away its “nicey” grab and take up its most merciless stick.
True, this is not the first time the EPRDF is being challenged, and it is not the first time it responds to challenges with impunity. Right from its contentions with the Oromo Liberation Front, to the most recent threat it sensed from Ethiopian nationalist forces, the government has responded violently. Tons of innocent people—including journalists– have been unfairly victimized, according to a plenty of independent sources. But the regime had never been, I argue, so much involved in the amount of hooliganism that it has been involved in for the last one or so year. Hence, I submit that the rights movement’s one great achievement is that it has brought to a serious end the little possibility that the EPRDF had had of running the politics of hypocrisy.
In the first few responses to the simmering Muslim opposition to its anti-secularist policies, the government tried to play it legal. It acknowledged that the Majlis (Ethiopian Islamic Supreme Council) problem was a legitimate concern and also was willing to negotiate with the committee that was representing the angry crowd. It praised the demands of the representatives, and declared that an election would be held to form a new Majlis. It was true, however, that genuine democracy and the full realization of any kind of right is against the controlling behavior of the EPRDF. Hence, the apparent opening needed to be neutralized by other means. Accordingly, it was soon announced that the Majlis election was to be held in an obviously highly controlled environment (the ulama council, a Majlis affiliate, in charge of the elections, which in turn were to be conducted in the government-controlled kebeles—both contrary to the demands of the protesting masses).
These were the kinds of government responses we’ve been used to since 1991, and there is nothing surprising about them. There have been, however, some other turn of events—some happening quite early, others very recently– that would seal the record of the ruling party as a democracy-free, totalitarian-to-the-core, group of gangs. It all had begun shortly before the Muslim activism set in and actually had led to its break out. A new chapter in the history of Ethiopian state repression began with the state-orchestrated religious indoctrination and forceful imposition of a highly controversial, arguably foreign, religious doctrine on Ethiopian Muslims. A deliberate state imposition of religious outlook on its people was I think the first of its kind among the many anti-democratic deeds of the EPRDF. It was not only deeply anti-democratic, anti-secular and totalitarian, but also incredibly rude, unintelligibly ambitious and utterly perplexing. It was an unprecedentedly bizarre experiment.
But the emergence of the unique forms of totalitarianism of the EPRDF never stopped there. Some of its reactions to the attendant activism have been most strikingly brutal as well. That some people in Harar and Asasa were shot and killed; that people in the thousands have been constantly intimidated, detained and tortured; that the whole movement is denigrated as terrorist and Islamist etc—all these are not quite staggering. But unprecedentedly staggering are, for example, the most recent developments like the state-devised night-time house break-ins and blatant robbery. Many Muslims have by now confirmed that masked thugs accompanied by security officers have broken into their houses without search warrants, intimidating them, searching for materials and taking away some of their valuables. Unconfirmed but numerous reports of highway robbery by government-sponsored thugs especially targeting Muslims with laptops have also been reported.
It is also quite odd for security officers to break into places of worship and desecrate them beyond imagination. Although this is not without precedent (think of the first Anwar incident in the early 90’s, for example), the scale of what has happened this time around and the severity with which it has happened is quite unique. It has been reported by different sources, for instance, that people were preparing food for a Sadaqa session when tons of security officers barged into the Awoliya compound in one night of July 2012, fired tear gas on the people who took refuge in the mosque, rushed into the mosque shoe clad, and deliberately messed up the praying precinct and hurled the Holy scriptures inside it. Since then, other similar incidents have been reliably reported to have occurred in other Addis Ababa mosques, too.
Moreover, security officers have also forcefully prevented the Sadaqa gatherings– that brought together people from diverse backgrounds (and sometimes even faith groups) for sharing food and sending across messages of peace, unity and the protection of citizens’ rights– from taking place. Some of the measures taken by the Police to this end have been both simply outrageous and/or ludicrous. In some occasions, they have confiscated the animal to be slaughtered, and the food ingredients to be used, for cooking. In other occasions, commercial cooks have been impeded from conducting their daily business of selling food items to the Sadaqa organizers. Still in other instances, grand mosques have been unusually closed in the morning hours for fear that Sadaqa sessions would be conducted in them. Finally, and perhaps most outrageously, many intercity busses have been stopped and “Muslim-looking” people have been forced out of the busses by security officers. The reason given: they might be travelling to attend a Sadaqa session in another town!
Also, unprecedentedly, the government, in perhaps the most glaring instance of the breach of the rule of law, has unilaterally revoked a court-issued decree to ban the broadcast of a documentary on the government-owned Ethiopian Television (ETV). The lawyers of the detained Muslim committee members had demanded that the documentary that would allegedly violate the presumption of innocence of the defendants be taken off the air, a demand that the court endorsed and issued a ban on the broadcast. According to the lawyers, however, soon after the letter from the court reached the ETV, the President of the Supreme Court unilaterally reversed the court injunction and the documentary was accordingly released at prime time on Feb 5, 2013. With utter shock and disgust, the lawyers then demanded that the ETV representatives appear in court and expound their decision to release the film in contravention to the court-issued ban. The TV station officials have never felt obliged to appear in court, though.
What do all these examples tell us about the capability of the regime in maintaining a two-forked, ambivalent image (of the kind mentioned above)? They tell us that in this particular sense, the government has been getting remarkably weak in the face of the impending Muslim opposition to its policies. It has failed—and miserably so– to put an end to it without losing the delicate, albeit much-needed, balance between its two faces. The challenge has been so strong and so persistent that it has been forcing the government to come out in what is left of its hither-to hidden authoritarian skin—all naked. The ever-flimsy attempt at justifying the EPRDF’s rule from the point of all those rosy stuffs we have been deafened with—group rights, individual rights, democracy, equality —has now been permanently laid to rest. In short, although we have always known the ruling party to be brutal, the Muslim movement (its immediate causes as well as the government reactions to it) has helped us know what the brutality looks like when it reaches its limit—completely deprived of its “humane” cover. Part 2. HERE