Two years on, the winners of the 2005 Ethiopian elections remain in prison. Mammo Muchie challenges the international community to stop using double standards, and demands that it privileges and prioritises values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law over narrow national interests.
'All of us who are concerned for peace and triumph of reason and justice must be keenly aware how small an influence reason and honest good will exert upon events in the political field.' - Albert Einstein
It is exactly two years since Ethiopia experienced one of the most open elections in its history. All of us who expected that finally our country would make it by seeing lawful, legitimate, citizen-anchored, citizen-choosing and citizen-voting change from one set of parties and persons to another, found ourselves in the unhappy situation where the usual mindset of those in power refused to concede to the citizenry.
Today, those who were elected are still in prison. Far from democracy fully blossoming in the veins, arteries and soul of this ancient nation, democracy itself is in prison. How else can we describe the difficulties of those who have done nothing but run for election in the drive to express their highest form of citizenship, other than to say we are bewildered. Continuing to imprison them is to continue to imprison democracy itself.
The space once open in Ethiopia in the pre-election phase undoubtedly created opportunities for some 25,000,000 Ethiopians to manifest a will to self-govern. One can understand that the fight, the debate, the commotion and excitement was unusually electrifying and vibrant. There is no doubt, also, that given the context of a free election, any reaction could spill into overreaction.
But nothing can justify the regime’s action to convert a vibrant political process, where the stakes were so high, into the overreaction and subsequent, if not wilful, killings by the security services into a legal wrangle against the popularly elected citizens, such as the engineer Hailu Shawl, Weizero Birtukan, Dr Berhanu, and all the others who are still unjustly in jail.
Changing the political process into a criminal legal process is hypocritical and unfair. The regime cannot prove that those in jail have any criminal intention. They never had. They never will. They had the noble intention of seeing their nation achieve what it has never achieved in its long history: to enter into an era of rule of law, where those in power submit to law, respect democratic freedoms, human rights and democratic political systems of governance.
Victims of double standards
A year ago in May 2006, there was a self-initiated momentum of world wide protest. Unity of the opposition, despite many attempts to disrupt it, was at the highest it had perhaps ever been. After May 2006, opposition groups started disagreeing, and the momentum slowed.
Now there is a need for the opposition to unite and agree in ensuring that those in jail are released long before the Ethiopian millennium. It will be a shame on all of us, above all on the Meles regime, to enter the next 1000 years with democrats in jail.
There are those who say that calling for the prisoners to be released is not the same thing as calling for the release of democracy - symbolically jailed along with their imprisonment. But there is no doubt it is the same thing. If there is anything that opposition forces unite on, it must be on the release of the prisoners, in order to release the incarcerated democracy of our country. It will be shameful for all of us not to recognise this dialectic, and call for the unconditional earliest possible release of those citizens, freely voted and chosen by Ethiopians who manifested a will to govern themselves through legitimate representatives.
It is also shameful for the drivers of world politics, who claim to stand for the values of freedom, human rights, the rule of law and democracy, to fete those who continue to jail a group of people whose record speaks a million for standing for the same values. Prof. Mesfin has stood for educating citizens, through ERCHO and other press outlets, for a very long time. There is absolutely no justification to put a man of his distinction in jail. For the world to remain silent and look the other way when such injustice is visited on an elderly man is indeed a failure of will, and a triumph of narrow interest.
Ever since the US policy thinkers have used the cold war paradigm to frame that country’s national security strategy by differentiating enemies and friends with the language of 'those who are not with us are against us', it has been possible for opportunist politicians to lure the US into serving its current strategic concerns.
On 20 September 2001, President Bush addressed the joint session of congress and the American people outlining the defining doctrine of the post-9/11 world: 'Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, you are with the terrorists' (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html). The problem with this formulation is that whoever claims to fight terrorism, whether that regime upholds democracy, human rights and rule of law or not, is open to be feted by the Bush administration. The doctrine, just as in the cold war days, opens up the opportunity for those who run into domestic trouble to entice the US government to back their misdeeds and look the other way.
The US government also opens itself to the legitimate charge that it is following a double standard. One of its standards is to uphold values of freedom and democracy; and the other standards are to pursue its interests. For the US government, especially the Bush administration, fusing the two and finding sustainable allies based on principles and values, have since become a huge problem. Ethiopia’s search for a democratic history has been influenced by the American administration's contradictory posture, inherent in the tension of the current post-9/11 doctrines. Our own election has suffered and our prisoners are still in jail for two main reasons: internal opposition division and not being able to unite around a minimum programme; and the international community' double standard.
A renewed call
Always in the middle of crisis lies opportunity. We call for the opposition to unite and redouble its efforts to get the prisoners released without delay.
Ethiopia has in front of it a millennium coming. It will be a shame to enter the millennium divided: the church is divided; the political parties are divided; communities are ethnically divided. There is alarming talk of a growing religious divide. Ethiopia may not avoid these divisive fissures, but it can not afford them. It is a challenge to all of us in Ethiopia and the region, from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, to make sure that we promote rule of law, democracy and human rights; and institutionalise democratic governance as a sure remedy to deal with the myriad conflicts and create a community of security and development, not only in Ethiopia but in the entire Horn of Africa region.
We call on the international community to stop using double standards, and demand that it privileges and prioritises values of democracy, human rights and rule of law over narrow national interests and narrow global projections, and to distinguish enemies from friends. We call on it to use every possible influence and the Ethiopian millennium to get the imprisoned democrats released and demand that they express outrage against the criminalisation of those who have been duly and freely elected as part of consistently upholding of the values they claim to hold dear.
If the unity of Ethiopians for democracy, human rights and rule of law, and the international community's respect of these same values over any narrow national and foreign policy concerns and interests, evade us, then Einstein is right: 'Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the universe.'
The Network of Ethiopian Scholars (NES) challenges us all to show the limitless capacity for human stupidity is not infinite. Act and unite to release the prisoners now!
* Mammo Muchie is a member of the Scandinavian chapter of the Network of Ethiopian Scholars.
* Please send comments to or comment online at www.pambazuka.org