A 39-day hunger strike by Ethiopian political prisoners amid government repression

What do 19th century Russian dissidents, American women suffragists, and Ethiopian opposition politicians have in common? They all participated in hunger strikes while their country was at war. Russia was waging a religious war against the Ottoman Turks; the U.S. had belatedly entered the European contest for global hegemony; and Ethiopia – ostensibly to maintain ‘unity and democratic order’ – has fought against its own citizens in its northern Tigray region, killing many and sending tens of thousands into exile in neighboring Sudan. Although related, none had been directly protesting the wars; instead, each had been protesting intolerable living conditions and political repression.

War can be an intensifier, even at home. In Russia, the imprisonment of 193 dissidents occurred during a period of “repression and reprisal” of Russian revolutionaries. In the U.S., women who had long vied for political rights were accused of being “unpatriotic” and thus subjected to harsher punishment during the war.

Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia during the Session "A Conversation with Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia" at the Annual Meeting 2019 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 23, 2019 
Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia during the Session “A Conversation with Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia” at the Annual Meeting 2019 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 23, 2019

In Ethiopia, the June 2020 killing of a renowned Oromo music artist sparked popular unrest at a time of widespread discontent with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government leading into parliamentary elections scheduled for August. Dissent from one of country’s most prominent opposition leaders – and member of the same Oromo ethnic group – was no longer tolerable to Mr. Abiy and his and other’s vision for pan-Ethiopian unity.

Jawar Mohammed, a longtime proponent of Oromo self-rule and erstwhile supporter of the prime minister, had been expected to lead a coalition of Oromo parties to contest the elections. He, along with three other politicians and “at least 16 others,” has been imprisoned since July. Mr. Mohammed was arrested on charges of involvement in the murder of a policeman and of “conspiring to dismantle the constitution by force”.

Much has changed in Ethiopia since the government began locking up political oppositionists and postponed elections indefinitely due to Covid-19. As my colleague wrote last week, what began as violence and unrest largely confined to the Oromia region, has metastasized into an international humanitarian and human rights catastrophe.

Since November, the Ethiopian government has been engaged in a war against Tigrayan opposition forces; Mr. Abiy had, at the end of November, declared the national government’s imminent victory, though fighting has dragged on and the humanitarian crisis has worsened. As of February, many people in Tigray “lack[ed] adequate access” to basic necessities and 200,000 people were internally displaced, many having fled to neighboring Sudan which lacks the resources to support them.

In a harrowing blow to a regime that had purportedly endeavored to bring together all ethnicities under the Ethiopian flag and to a people long seeking a reprieve from autocratic rule, multiple international sources, including a confidential U.S. government report, have “concluded” that the Ethiopian government, acting with “allied militia forces,” (Amharan and Eritrean) has carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the Tigray region among other documented war crimes.

In the midst of this calamity, the plight of political prisoners in Ethiopia can be made invisible, even as they slowly wither away from starvation.

In 1878 Russia, tried for treason and “with no certain end to their confinement,” some political prisoners decided ­– in an act of will as much as desperation – to go on a hunger strike to protest the “oppressive conditions in which they were held”. Likewise, some members of the women’s suffrage movement could also see no end to the intensifying cycles of protests and arrests and eventually resorted to this powerful yet self-sacrificial tool. In Russia, the prisoners’ demands were initially dismissed; in the U.S., women were “subjected to brutal force-feedings”.

Mr. Mohammed, along with Bekele Gerba, Hamza Adane, and Dejene Tafa, had until yesterday conducted a 39-day hunger strike. A legal representative said they were “protesting the harassment and arrests of their supporters and family members” and demanding “the release of all political prisoners”. They also secured a request to be treated at a private hospital “after weeks” of obstruction.

Ultimately, it was a “plea from ‘elders and notable personalities,’” said Ibsa Gemeda – an attorney quoted in the Washington Post – that ended the hunger strike.

Victoria A. Wolcott, a history professor at SUNY-Buffalo, writes that a hunger strike’s power comes not only from the people that endure them, but also from what they symbolize: “the brutality of the government,” say, or the repression of freedoms. The goal is to engender  “public sympathy” – sometimes international – in a last-ditch effort for demands to be met.

Henok Gabissa, an Ethiopian and law professor at Washington and Lee University, was quoted in the Associated Press in February saying, ‘Oromo opposition parties have more legitimacy than Abiy’s administration. The public in the [Oromia] region widely support the prisoners and their demands’. Former UN Ambassador and Biden-nominee for USAID Administrator, Samantha Power’s comment on the Ethiopian government’s treatment of prisoners was also included in the AP article. In March, the UN called for an independent investigation into the “human rights violations and abuses in the Tigray region of Ethiopia”.

It is not clear whether Jawar Mohammed and other political prisoners will be released and permitted to contest the elections scheduled for June; as of now prisoners are barred from participating. Historically, after the rest of the country became aware of the horrific treatment of mainly white women, they finally achieved the right to vote at the federal level. Russian prisoners also received better treatment, though not before the director of military police was assassinated. Whatever happens between now and June, it’s clear that a group of political prisoners including Mr. Mohammed cannot resolve its or its country’s problems on its own.

Show More
error: Alert: Share This Content !!

Adblock Detected

Please consider supporting us by disabling your ad blocker