The world is silent, cold and blind. The persistent cries of Ethiopians are falling into deaf ears.
Hundreds die, thousands are jailed, but the world seems shockingly unconcerned.
The African Union is silent. African leaders are silent. The European Union is silent. The United States is silent. The United Kingdom is silent. Other global institutions and powers are silent.
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In spite of their silence, Africa’s second most populous country is on the brink, and it is the making of one man, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, who came to power in 2018, vowing to make things better not worse.
For some months, it appeared he was headed in the right direction. He surprised many with a peace deal with neighboring Eritrea, a breakthrough that earned him global honors and a Nobel Peace Prize.
Two years after, the influential country with at least 109 million strong population, which shares borders with Eritrea to the north, Djibouti to the northeast, Somalia to the east, Kenya to the south, South Sudan to the west and Sudan to the northwest, is embroiled in a self-inflicted, man-made crisis.
This week, Abiy Ahmed fired defense minister Lemma Megersa, a former ally.
Megersa was replaced by Kenea Yadeta, the former security chief of Oromiya region, the most populous of Ethiopia’s 10 regions.
Nine other top officials were also replaced, including the attorney general, his deputy and the mining minister.
Lemma Megersa and Abiy Ahmed were once close and trusted allies, but relations soured in November when Megersa publicly criticized Abiy’s decision to consolidate the ethnically based-parties in the ruling coalition into one political party, the Prosperity Party.
Last week, Prosperity Party suspended Megersa’s membership.
Abiy’s father and Lemma both come from Oromiya where bloody street protests propelled Abiy to power in 2018.
But Abiy’s support there is being eroded, especially after bloody protests sparked by assassination of a popular singer left at least 178 people dead and about 9000 others in detention.
Last Saturday, Human Rights Watch warned that Ethiopian authorities have been detaining dozens of opposition members and journalists for prolonged periods and often without charge since late June 2020, raising serious rights concerns.
The rights group said a month after one of the most violent spates of unrest in the country’s recent history, police and prosecutors need to publicly account for all detainees’ whereabouts, comply promptly and fully with court bail orders, and ensure easy and regular access to lawyers and relatives for those not released.
“The actions of Ethiopia’s investigative authorities raise concerns that they have not moved on from past practices of arresting first, and investigating later,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should promptly bring credible charges based on clear facts and evidence against the detainees or ensure their release.”
“Communities reeling from the recent violence deserve meaningful justice,” Bader said. “Entrusted with this responsibility, the government needs to show that it is both doing the hard work of bringing those responsible to account and that it can adhere to the rule of law by conducting credible and thorough investigations while still upholding the rights of those accused of serious offenses.”
The arrests follow the June 29 killing of a popular Oromo artist and activist, Hachalu Hundessa, in Addis Ababa, the capital. Hachalu’s death triggered unrest and violence in several towns, particularly in the Oromia region, and left at least 178 people dead from both civilians and law enforcement. Some were mourners and protesters, killed by security forces when they opened lethal fire. Attacks on mainly ethnic and religious minority communities in Oromia also resulted in killings, massive property destruction, and displacement.
Last Friday, Amnesty International called on Ethiopian security forces “to stop the use of deadly force on protesters.”
“There is never justification for the use of lethal force when it is not to protect lives,” Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa, Deprose Muchena, wrote in a statement received by TODAY NEWS AFRICA in Washington DC.
Amnesty International was reacting to the killing of at least 16 people following protests over the arrest of zonal officials, community leaders and activists by Ethiopian security officers in the Wolaita Zone of Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Regional State (SNNPR) since August 9, 2020.
“This unnecessary force has claimed so many lives in recent days, including protesters and bystanders. Among the 16 people who have been killed are a boy who was homeless and a woman with a mental disability, neither of whom were participating in the protests. No one should be killed for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly or for being around a protest.
“The authorities must urgently stop the use of lethal force in the context of protests and thoroughly, effectively and impartially investigate these killings. All those found responsible must be brought to justice in fair trials. Victims and their families must also have access to adequate reparations,” Muchena added.
People took to the streets on August 9 after Ethiopia’s Defence Forces arrested more than 20 officials of the Wolaita Zone, as well as community leaders and activists, allegedly for holding a meeting in contravention of COVID-19 measures.
According to multiple witnesses interviewed by Amnesty International, security forces beat up and shot at protesters and bystanders while trying to disperse the protest.
Amnesty International said a homeless boy was killed in Wolaita-Soddo city on August 9 as the security forces violently cleared people off the streets following the arrests. Seven more people were killed in Bodditi on August 10, including a 14-year old boy, footballer Getahun Ashenafi and a woman with a mental disability.
According to government sources, at least 16 people have been killed to date as protests continue.
Two witnesses told Amnesty International that a woman was killed by security forces on 12 August while on her way to shop for groceries. Tension remains high due to the heavy deployment of security officers from the police forces, the SNNPR special Liyu police, and the Ethiopian Defence Forces.
Medical sources told Amnesty International that 18 injured people have been admitted to Soddo Christian Hospital in Wolaita, some of them to the Intensive Care Unit.
Abiy has promised to hold the first free and fair elections in Africa’s second most populous nation next year, but his democratic reforms have also unleashed ethnic divisions that frequently spill into violence, noted Reuters.
The news agency quoted political analyst Mohamed Olad, as saying that Lemma Megersa’s removal may further whittle away support for Abiy in Oromiya region.
“Lemma enjoys wider support and approval in Oromia than Abiy,” he said.
“Whether he will activate that reservoir of goodwill depends on two things. First, whether he will be free to exercise his political rights …(and) whether he is willing to play an active role in politics.”
Reuters noted that Lemma Megersa’s criticism joined a “growing swell of voices – some from Oromiya – who accuse Abiy of trying to centralize power and of rolling back his democratic reforms.”
Kjetil Tronvoll, professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjørknes University in Oslo, told Reuters that the debate whether to centralize or devolve power was at the heart of Ethiopia’s fractious politics.
“This is the key controversy in all federal arrangements – the power balance between the federal and regional states,” he said
Tronvoll said if the Oromo youth who helped Abiy to power turn against him, it could pose a problem during the elections.
Reuters noted that “unrest in Oromiya not Abiy’s only worry. The northern Tigray region, whose people dominated the last administration, has announced it will hold regional elections this month in defiance of a government decision to postpone polls across the nation due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.”
Despite the instability, the deaths, the arrests and detentions, the world has remained cold, blind, and deaf.
What would it take to call Abiy Ahmed to order?