Are recent political gestures in Ethiopia optimistic? (Zelalem Kibret)

After the conclusion of 18 days of political jujitsu among the disarrayed members of the three-decade-old Ethiopian ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which controls every political power in the nation, many Ethiopians were anticipating a groundbreaking resolve. Nonetheless, to the dismay of many of us, on December 30, 2017, the ruling party comes up with the usual lengthy verbose statement that only iterates what it used to say in the past with few words of apologies for the Ethiopian public.

Three days after the consternating statement, leaders of the four-member parties to the ruling coalition, the Amhara National Democratic Movement, the Oromo People Democratic Movement, the Southern Ethiopia People’s Democratic Movement, and the Tigrian People Liberation Front gave a presser aimed at clarifying discussion/infighting points. However, nothing is more catching than two major decisions pronounced by the leader of the coalition, Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn. In a meticulously worded statement, the Prime Minister announced that:

“As per the law of amnesty and the constitution; in a motive to create national consensus and widening of the democratic sphere in the nation, some members of political parties and other individuals who are in prison for committing a criminal offence will be released upon withdrawal of the charges against them. However, this must be done within the mandate of the law and with no violation of existing Ethiopian laws.”

Furthermore, in a bolder statement, the Prime Minister also said:

“Maekalawi [the Federal Police Crime Investigation Sector] the place that cruel things were committed during the Derg regime, in the name of interrogation, is closed down and decided to make it a memorial museum. In lieu of it, a new crime interrogation Center has been established pursuant to international standards and the Ethiopian Human Rights Action Plan adopted by the House of People’s Representative.”

Ostensibly, the Premier’s announcement of the planned release of ‘political prisoners’ and the closing of Ethiopia’s notorious detention center, Maekelawi are news to celebrate and harbingers of political change in Ethiopia. However, the furthest we look at the pronouncement as well as some other details lie beneath the publicity stunt, facts warn us not to mount on the celebratory bandwagon swift.

L to R: Lemma Megersa, Hailemariam Dessalegn, Demeke Mekonnen, and Debretsion Gebremichael

Ethiopia: “a nation of zero political prisoners”

In spite of the fact that thousands of Ethiopians are languishing in Ethiopian jails for their political activity, the Ethiopian government, oftentimes — hereherehere, and here — asserted that there are no political prisoners in Ethiopia. Nil. Up recently, while orchestrating negotiation with opposition political parties’, the ruling party refused to negotiate on the topic of political prisoners, because there are none in Ethiopia. Yet again, in the much-hyped pronouncement of the plan to release some individuals, the Premier refused to admit the existence of any political prisoner in Ethiopia. Contrarily, he states that these individuals are in prison for committing a crime and their release is only triggered by the ruling party’s generous motive of democratizing Ethiopia with national dialogue.

After two years of popular protests that claimed the lives of thousands of civilians, the agitated regime finally resorts to its well-mastered tactics of legalization and legitimization of its ill-motivated actions. A decade ago, after jailing hundreds of the top leaders of the opposition immediately after the bloody aftermath of the contested May 2005 Ethiopian election, on July 2007, the Ethiopian ruling party released all the top leaders jailed and sentenced unto life imprisonment after cooking a humiliating pardoning scheme, whereby the released individuals were deceived to sign a self-incriminatory statement. On the other hand, although sporadic and individuated, releasing political prisoners in Ethiopia after a political clemency or withdrawal of the charges are not very uncommon.

Hence, the Premier’s pronouncement of the ruling party’s decision to resort to its old maneuver needs our cautious attention, after all, Ethiopia is still a “nation of zero political prisoners”, according to the Ethiopian government.

A torture chamber morphed into a museum?

The other puffed-up statement made by the premier was his announcement of the closure of half a century old crime investigation and detention center commonly known as Maekelawi. The center was a very infamous place that is well-known to be a torture chamber. However, the premier reasoned that the torture chamber is closed because it was used as a place to torture citizens during the ousted military regime from 1974 to 1991. His statement was devoid of any blame against the regime he is leading, which was using the detention center for the last 27 years.

Up until its closure has been announced by the premier, Maekelawi was serving as the Federal Police Crime Investigation Center, in which four major types of crimes, namely, the crime of grand corruption, terrorism and other related crimes against the state, crime of human and drug trafficking were investigated. During interrogation, police officers force detainees to confess self-incriminatory statements by using different types of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment techniques. The abuse inflicted on detainees during their stay at Maekelawi was more systemic and widespread. Systematic, because the whole investigatory process in Ethiopia is subject to abuse that the system enables abuse of power and disregard of the law. Widespread, because singularizing Maekelawi as a sole torture chamber is a misunderstanding of the scale of abuse of human rights in the nation.

Albeit it is symbolically significant, the closure of Maekelawi backing by ludicrous reasoning that links it with a regime overthrown almost three decades ago has a little to offer to democratization in Ethiopia. As long as the system that trains and enables lawless inquisitors is in place, a mere closure of an old building and replacing it with a new one is a melodramatic gesture that only serves those in power.

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