Ethiopia’s PM Abiy Ahmed showed remarkable courage in admitting the practise of state sanctioned torture.
By Awol K Allo
On June 23, a granade exploded during a rally in support of Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his reform policies, killing a number of people. Clearly not everyone is happy about the transformative path he has embarked on.
Just five days earlier, Ahmed appeared before the parliament to answer questions about the performance of his government. During the session, the members of parliament began to field serious questions ranging from the government’s decision to normalise relations with Eritrea to the liberalisation of the economy, from community cohesion to the release of tens of thousands of political prisoners.
The debate was a magnificent moment in history that marked a promising turning point for a rubber stamp parliament that had been gaslighting the Ethiopian public for the last 27 years and a new beginning for the people it represents.
In his response, the prime minister offered an honest, awe-inspiring and highly robust defence of his administration’s transformational decisions. While all of Ahmed’s policy statements were clear, detailed, and nuanced, it was his astonishing admission of state terrorism and torture that signalled a new dawn for the country and the continent.
In response to a challenge about the constitutionality and legality of some of the government’s actions, particularly the release of thousands of prisoners accused of terrorism, Ahmed argued that terrorism is not just an act of trying to forcefully overthrow a government, and added that the government’s unconstitutional use of force to stay in power should also be considered terrorism.
He then admitted that Ethiopian security forces tortured people in the past, and asked the MPs whether the country’s constitution sanctions torture.
By admitting that his own party, the ruling Council of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), used torture and terrorist tactics to stay in power in the past, Ahmed showed that he is serious about changing the Ethiopian state for the better and further cemented his already ineffable magnetism.
However, it is important to note that his admission came against the backdrop of a power struggle between the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and the current administration. TPLF, a faction of the ruling coalition that dominated Ethiopian politics for the last 27 years, does not seem prepared to accept the sweeping changes unfolding beneath its feet and appear to be genuinely surprised when the violence it used to maintain its privilege is exposed.
State terrorism in Ethiopia
Over the course of the last decade and half, the Ethiopian regime used the discourse of terrorism as a political weapon to maintain and further consolidate its authoritarian grip over the population. As the “war on terror” became the centrepiece of US foreign policy, Ethiopia positioned itself as Washington’s most reliable front line counterterrorism ally in the Horn of Africa – all in an effort to benefit from its unparalleled political and economic payoffs.
At the height of this weaponisationof the “war on terror”, the Ethiopian government adopted one of the most draconian anti-terrorism legislations in the world, and used it as a justification to crush dissent and opposition.
Security forces rounded up opposition politicians, journalists, academics, activists, religious leaders, and bloggers and subjected them to politically motivated legal proceedings that bear the hallmarks of Stalinist show trials. A number of autonomous political movements that had been pushed out of the country – the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), and Ginbot 7 – were designated as terrorist organisations.
After criminalising autonomous opposition organisations, the government started to use ideological censure and counterterrorism arguments to legitimise the growing securitisation of political life in the country.
To guarantee their absolute invulnerability, the ruling elites used counterterrorism related technical and economic aid to build an Orwellian surveillance state similar to the one in East Germany. The complete decimation of the press and civil society, and the increasing use of violence against dissent and opposition, all justified by narratives of terrorism, allowed the ruling party to win 99.6 percent of votes in the 2010 elections and 100 percent of seats in the 2015 elections.
In the “war on terror”, the then Ethiopian government found a convenient validation for its authoritarian practices and deplorable human rights record. It is no wonder Meles Zenawi, the former prime minister and the architect of this police state, described the “war on terror” as “something of a godsend”.
It was these fundamentally inhuman practices of the former Ethiopian government and the consistent and widespread use of systematic torture by police and security forces that Prime Minister Ahmed finally acknowledged, recognised, and named as state terrorism.
What does this mean for Ethiopia?
Ahmed’s admission of guilt, in the name of the Ethiopian regime, is highly consequential – especially for those subjected to torture and gross human rights abuses in the hands of the very state that was supposed to protect them.
The prime minister’s admission that the government has failed in its fundamental duty of care when it engaged in terrorist acts to preserve the privilege of the few is quite therapeutic for torture victims and his heartfelt apology can go a long way in healing the corrosive effects of their trauma.
For the Ethiopian society in general, Ahmed’s admission that the army and security agencies were used as instruments of domination set the stage for a new era of hope and optimism.
The admission is also legally significant. Although the Ethiopian regime’s consistent and widespread use of torture had always been well documented, the government has always denied such accusations. Ahmed’s admission would impose a legal responsibility on the Ethiopian government to investigate those crimes and prosecute individuals responsible for the abuses.
However, Ethiopia may also need to start much broader and robust processes to reckon with its divisive and often violent past. Whatever institutional form these processes might take, the country should find a way to come to terms with its past.
Whatever the long-term historical and political significance, Ahmed’s admission of state terrorism and official torture is a triumph of courage in the face of adversity.
Ahmed’s transformation agenda
Although Ethiopia’s incipient transition took shape in the crucibles of the popular struggles of the last three years, Ahmed played a vital role in transforming the country’s political landscape. Since assuming office less than three months ago, the prime minister had remarkable success, particularly in promoting unity and healing the divided and highly fractious country.
At the June 23 rally called to support his vision of change and transformation and attended by thousands of Ethiopians of all political persuasion, the prime minister expressed his determination to bring about durable social and political change in the country.
In thanking those who paid the ultimate price to change the political direction in which Ethiopia was going, he said, “they could have lived without us but we could not live without them.”
Ahmed was rushed off the stage as a granade went off and killed a few people. Speaking after the attack, the prime minister described it as a deliberate, planned, and studied act by those who have the means to stage it.
Ahmed has been uncommonly courageous. He has taken his reform agenda to areas that were thought off-limits, to the powerful security agencies and the army.
While confronting the grim political and economic realities facing the country, Ahmed is challenging all Ethiopians to imagine and perceive their country and region differently. He tells stories of hope and transformation not just about Ethiopia but also the greater Horn of Africa region.
The prime minister’s admission of state sanctioned terrorism and torture came at a time that his popularity is soaring.
Bold, dynamic, and outward looking, he has managed to draw support from a wide cross-section of the Ethiopian society. Across the country, he is being regarded as a symbol of liberation of the self and others, a new light guiding Ethiopia’s renewal and transformation.
Awol K Allo is Lecturer in Law at Keele University, UK.