The Nobel Peace Prize winning dictator of Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, is gradually turning Africa’s second most populous country into a banana republic where people are arrested and detained in secret cells across the country with their lawyers unable to locate them.
When anti-government protests propelled Abiy to power in 2018, he quickly released tens of thousands of political prisoners who were arrested and jailed by several administrations known for using security forces to crush dissent.
However, just over two years after, Abiy Ahmed himself is using the same brutal tactics that were commonplace in previous administrations in Ethiopia.
At least 9,000 people have been arrested since the June 29 shooting of Hachalu Hundesa, a popular outspoken Oromo singer. The killing sparked days of protests that killed more than 178 people in the capital and surrounding Oromiya region.
Some of the protests, along with a police crackdown, degenerated into inter-communal violence that left hundreds more wounded, according to Ethiopia’s Federal Police Commission. Property was also damaged in many parts of the country including Shashemene, Agarfa, Arusi Negele, Dera, and Ziway.
Ethiopian Human Rights Commission confirmed that around 9,000 people have been arrested since the deadly clashes occurred last month, raising fears, repeatedly highlighted in this medium, that the government of Abiy Ahmed which was hailed for reforms has returned to the brutal tactics of past administrations.
In Addis Ababa and Oromia region, the police arrested at least 5,000 people, many of whom remain in incommunicado detention with their whereabouts unknown.
Those arrested included leading opposition politicians like Jawar Mohammed from the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), leaders of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Eskinder Nega of Balderas for True Democracy party, and journalists.The Ethiopian authorities are causing great anguish to the families of those arrested by failing to divulge their whereabouts. Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa
“The Ethiopian authorities are causing great anguish to the families of those arrested by failing to divulge their whereabouts. They must immediately disclose where each detainee is being held, and either charge them with a recognizable crime or release them immediately,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.
Families are worried about their loved ones being held in crowded, unsanitary conditions in places of detention amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
Lawyers are unable to establish the whereabouts of key officials of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) including Michael Boran, Shigut Geleta, Lemi Benya, Kenessa Ayana, and Colonel Gemechu Ayana, who were arrested on various dates since Hachalu Hundesa’s death.
They told Amnesty International last month that the Addis Ababa Police Commission, the Federal Police Commission, the Oromia Police Commission and the Oromia Special Zone authorities have all denied having any of the OLF officials in their custody.They must immediately disclose where each detainee is being held, and either charge them with a recognizable crime or release them immediately. Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa
Another OLF leader, Abdi Regassa, arrested in February, remains unaccounted for, according to his lawyer, because the police have been moving him from one place of detention to another, such that neither his family nor his lawyers know his whereabouts.
Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018 promising reforms, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his peace moves with neighboring Eritrea.
He promised to end the repression of past administrations, and to engage Ethiopians and neighboring countries in building a peaceful and democratic country and region.
However, some of his changes have “unleashed old disputes over land, resources and local power, and he now faces the challenge of protecting citizens while preserving fledgling freedoms that helped win him the Nobel peace prize last year”, per Reuters.
Billene Seyoum, a spokeswoman for the prime minister, told Reuters, “One of the government’s primary roles and responsibilities is ensuring security and stability and that the rule of law prevails … actions taken over the past weeks are a reflection of the commitment to law and constitutional order.”
But Reuters noted that “Abiy’s critics detect disturbing echoes of the past.” For instance, opposition activist Dejene Tafa was arrested by the police on July 8 in the middle of the night as he slept next to his pregnant wife. Dejene is a university professor and secretary of the Oromo Federalist Congress party.
His wife, Aselefech Mulatu, said her husband is being held without charge and has contracted COVID-19 in prison.
“We thought we had transitioned to a democratic system,” Reuters quoted her as saying.
The western medium quoted Tegene Regassa, spokesman for Ethiopia’s health ministry, as confirming Dejene had been hospitalized for COVID-19 but said he had recovered.
His wife said Dejene had already spent two years in prison without charge for taking part in the street protests that toppled the previous prime minister.
“Getachew Balcha, a regional government spokesman, confirmed 7,126 people had been arrested in Oromiya alone. He said did not know how many had been charged but said “files were being prepared” on 500 of them,” Reuters reported.