Ethiopia: A Country Behind Bars

Ethiopia has been behind bars since its start as a state: its people the prisoners, its rulers as jailers.

First, the feudalist system incarcerated the poor people, kings and nobles notoriously “owning” peasants whose existence meant nothing but serving these upper echelons with utmost loyalty. Those who had “the wrong complexion” were sold in the broad daylight to Arab merchants; internal slavery lasted as late as the 20th century although abolished eventually (What a contradiction in a sub-Saharan African nation that was supposed to be a symbol of freedom and hope to enslaved black people around the world!)

Second, the so-called “socialist Ethiopia” brought another round of incarceration with it though its rulers promised to end the era of exploitation and human indignity at first. But just like any dictators, the rulers failed to deliver what they promised and made the conditions in the country worse beyond imagination. Perhaps George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” can best describe what happened in Ethiopia between 1974 and 1991. A Soviet-style silencing of dissent reigned in the country, enforcing terror and murder as a daily ritual. During this military era, the number of prisons more than doubled in the country, overflowing with innocent lives, most if not all bullet ridden and thrown in the streets like dogs: some because they were considered “anti-Ethiopia” and others “betrayers of the revolution.” Myopic army officers and their ill-advised cadres hijacked the poor people’s revolution, making it their own to fulfill short-term goal: pillaging the country. The unfortunate dissenters died a bitter death at the hands of ruthless security agents who satisfied their ego by castrating men and by raping innocent young women in harsh prison camps where human life was no more important than a fruit fly; those who had the opportunity left the country to live among strangers or ran to the jungles to fight back the oppressive system though themselves to become oppressors later on. In every direction, poor Ethiopia endured chaos.

Third, former rebels but today’s “masters,” self-ordained “revolutionary democrats,” who won the battle against the military junta, decided to lock the country behind bars once again; they installed a new form of dictatorship, recycling the same old style of oppression. Yesterday’s oppressed have now become today’s worst oppressors, invalidating the meaning of fighting for freedom and exacerbating the culture of vengeance, ethnic prejudice, and discrimination. They are also destroying the possibility of dissenting and freethinking in Ethiopia step by step. They have already let the country down, a country that listened to the wind of change carefully and hoped that a better future would come, free from state-sponsored terror, torture, rape, and murder. The last 18 years have brought more misery to Ethiopia than what people expected and hoped to see; the minor changes here and there don’t really count. Just like in the past one group still dominates the rest of the population, a one party system deceptively dressed as a multi-party system. Major opposition groups and their supporters, pro-democracy leader Judge Birtukan Mideksa, many innocents who got caught in the wrong place (some targeted because of their ethnic background and some lost without trace), and all who disagree with the current regime have been thrown to infamous jails such as Kaliti. The concept of free press barely exists. The rule of law remains a joke. Human rights: nobody cares! “You are either with us or against us!”—That is pretty much how things work in Ethiopia today.

Disguised as “revolutionary democrats,” it seems that the current rulers are carefully imitating the Communist Party of China (CPC) as their prime example. The way they aggressively recruit members, deal with dissent, and monopolize the economy, has so much similarity with CPC’s tactics. CPC is globally known as a notorious party that does not welcome opposition from either inside or outside the country. Limiting and banning local media, violating human rights, jamming and blocking foreign media, using intimidation and force to control dissent, spreading hysteria, pretending pro-democracy, and centralizing the economy, characterize the nature of CPC’s dictatorship.

Ethiopia’s current rulers lecture their audiences that “revolutionary democracy will eventually wither away, replacing itself with liberalism,” openly accepting that they are truly dictators who have not yet renounced Marxism-Leninism and who will do anything to stay in power.

So what is the solution to such cycle of the oppressed becoming the oppressor, and vice versa? Who will eventually free the country from its confinement? Do we have a guarantee that the next will be better? Will power be eventually returned to the people or will there be another era of dictatorship once more, favoring one’s group over another (or better to say: pretending to favor one’s group to further advance one’s self-interest)?

    The way forward: democratic federalism for a new, liberated, Ethiopia

Although I have very little knowledge on such complicated issue, I believe that all opposition groups based inside or outside Ethiopia, despite their multitude of differences, have to find a common ground to successfully challenge the current dictatorship, which has done its homework very well to control the 80 million people, using smear campaign and ethnic federalism as its formidable weapons, and changing its tactics from time to time just like the CPC.

A democratic system that prioritizes group and individual rights must replace and end the current system, which applies authoritarianism to enforce its presence. The will of the opposition parties, left or right, determines the success of democratizing Ethiopia. The opposition groups have not set a good example yet to be followed. Many young people, including myself, have nowhere to go. The organizational vacuum that is so obvious in almost all opposition parties disillusions the young. Party chairmen seem more concerned about keeping their chairmanship. The factionalism, the infighting, and the uncompromising behaviors that have been going on within the various parties, make one wonder if a real and meaningful change is really going to come any time soon.

Whatever the future holds for Ethiopia, I believe that democratic federalism is the way forward, where a constitution that every citizen respects and agrees with becomes the supreme law of the land; where present and past injustices are properly acknowledged and never to be repeated; where people are the boss, and leaders just employees who can be fired or replaced; where religious or ethnic tolerance prevails; where democratic institutions flourish, granting the various groups equal political and economic opportunities; where one region can act independently of the other without implementing discriminatory regional policies, allowing the free flow of people and goods, the celebration of one’s language, culture, and identity freely—under a central government, which is comprised of the various stakeholders in the country, unlike the present or the past, and which intervenes in regional affairs as stated in the constitution; and, where compassion replaces vengeance. Such and other approaches may finally set Ethiopia free from years of incarceration.

As Mahatma Gandhi said, “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” The poor people of Ethiopia will sure win one day after centuries of bad governance and exploitation.


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