Op:ED: The privatization of violence: Why chaos is making a comeback in Abiy’s Ethiopia

Zecharias Zelalem 

Addis Abeba, September 21/2018 – Monday September 17, Addis Abeba’s residents took to the streets to denounce a spate of violence that shocked the country the weekend before. A large crowd had gathered just outside the headquarters of state broadcaster Ethiopian Television as well as the city’s center Mesqel Square.  Loud and vociferous, demonstrators managed to attract enough attention to pry the local broadcaster into sending journalists and a camera team outside to meet with them. The crowd of protesters were subsequently seen on the evening news broadcast, ensuring their chants and messages were heard around the country.

But what exactly were they so livid about? September 13 -15 2018 will go down history as one of the darkest days in modern day Ethiopia. Unprovoked mob attacks targeting members of Ethiopia’s ethnic Gamo community and other minority ethnic groups, and, if not to a similar extent, the Oromos themselves living in Burayu, Ashewa Meda and elsewhere in the western vicinity of Addis Abeba took place within this three days; it took place away from the mainstream media’s beaten track. The stories that keep trickling since then are too horrific not to break every beating heart.

It’s obvious that in recent times, tracking and documenting incidents of violence across Ethiopia, from Moyale to Jigjiga to Dire Dawa, Shashemene, Chinakson, Gedeo-west Guji to Tana Beles to name just a few, has become an increasingly difficult task even for the media. There has been an upsurge in what were once sporadic attacks, both in their frequency and unfortunately in the depravity of the acts. But why? The administration of Prime Minister Abiy has done in five months what its predecessors hadn’t in decades: exiled dissidents have let bygones be bygones and are returning back home; former opponents and outlawed political parties are de-listed from the country’s terror list; the air of political liberalization in every sphere of life, online and offline, is unparalleled with anything. Ushering in a new era of political cohesion and a hope for dialogue wasn’t supposed to coincide with mayhem and bloodshed. This clearly wasn’t part of the script. This was supposed to be part of the beginning healing the country’s past.

Not just George Orwell’s Napoleon

Ethiopia under Abiy is going through something of a facelift that can be compared to what the removal of Napoleon from George Orwell’s Animal Farm would have resembled had it ever transpired. The great leader’s kin of pigs, led by propaganda minister Squealer, are now struggling to adjust from the loss of their supreme power. The eternally marginalized horses, donkeys sheep and hens are starting to enjoy the fruits of their own labor and thrive free of their oppressive former overlords. There is jostling to prevent a return of the former Napoleon led guard.

Indeed the downfall of Ethiopia’s Napoleon-esque guard is heavily documented and cheered on in most circles. Among them, Ethiopia’s “Squealer,” the former “propaganda minister,” Bereket Simon, who was once an untouchable member of the late Meles Zenawi’s inner circle. After having been humiliated by angry residents of  Debre Markos city, Berket’s decent came faster than anyone could imagine; he is now in the process of being evicted from the ranks of a party he helped form, the ANDM (Amhara National Democratic Movement). The forced resignations and dismissals of former political and military heavyweights have been feted as the new administration’s freshening up of one of the most repressive military apparatus in modern history. Abdi Illey’s downfall and subsequent court appearances have been a well publicized drama in its own right. While the unexpected ousting of formerly omnipotent Getachew Assefa, once the powerful head of the feared National Intelligence and Security Services, was taken as one of the most daring purges PM Abiy has done.

Most of these individuals were part and parcel of the EPRDF government dominated by TPLF’s (Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front) clique. At its peak, this clique was at the summit of the entire country’s political, military and economic sectors. Members of this clique were collectively termed by the people of Ethiopia as “ባለ ግዜዎቹ,” which loosely means “those who are on top in the current era.” Affiliates of this elitist clique stand accused of everything from torture and forced disappearance of dissident voices, to embezzlement and mass corruption. PM Abiy’s attempt at dismantling such a brutal network was therefore largely met by a cheer and jeer from the general public. For many, this spate of violence springing up from north to south, east and west is simply the breakneck battled for the rerun to its glorious days of this clique.  But there is more to it than just a disgruntled elite.

For much of its tenure as a government, the ruling EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) coalition has faced domestic opposition ranging from armed rebellion to blogging and street protests. Throughout this, the EPRDF did not only rule by its brutal clique, but used the same clique to assert and cement its monopoly on violence in every shape or form: be it the army, security and intelligence. It also used it to moderate and dictate society’s horizontal relationships.

In doing so the TPLF led EPRDF government succeeded in pummeling a population into total submission. The slightest jest, motion or outburst in condemnation of government policies would for decades provoke disproportionate retaliations from the government. Excessive use of violence was not a mere system of crowd control; IT WAS a mode of governance.

Many people assert the TPLF controlled EPRDF began its journey of governing by the rules of guns since the 2005 contested-turned-deadly general elections. That is an understatement. There were brutal suppression of many university students protests between 1991 and 1998. The biggest and most publicized one was the 2001 Addis Abeba University students protests, in which over a dozen university students were shot dead in broad day light by the regime’s security apparatus for taking to the streets to protest mis-governance. About a thousand more were detained and tortured. Students, who were completely uninvolved but were enrolled in different campuses, which are hotbeds of protests, were the perpetual targets of punishment. Oftentimes, the abuse of the state’s authority extends from physical to academic punishments. All students at Addis Abeba University’s Architecture Department in the Lideta area (now the Pathobiology department), were once made to “fail” their semester exams and were forced to repeat their academic year regardless of whether or not they had taken part in protests. What this did was to behaviorally condition students and the youth in general to avoid contentious issues like politics for fear of the backlash that would follow. Sports and Hollywood movies and music weren’t off limits and thrived during this era. Indeed, months after the 2001 protests, the AAU Architecture campus had a DSTV decoder installed where students could gather in their spare times to watch English Premier League.

Across the Oromia regiona states, meanwhile, anything from singing lyrics of popular Oromo songs to publicly being seen wearing clothing with distinctly Oromo resistance colors would warrant someone’s being carted off to prison. Tens of thousands of young Oromos were rounded up on trumped up charges of belonging to formerly banned groups, especially the OLF, for the slightest of gestures deemed too defiant in the face of the regime. And In Amhara regional state, showing up the plain green, yellow and red flag that is also the symbol of the orthodox Church was criminalized. Peaceful gatherings and open protests would warrant similar brutal retaliations.

The extent of the state’s abuse of its legitimate monopoly on violence often depends on the fighting capacity of the opposition encountered. Stone throwing protesters could warrant the use of live ammunition and lethal force in the same manner as armed insurrection. Reports of increased activity in the Somali region by militants belonging to the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), for example, were the catalyst to the government’s decision to virtually wage war on that entire region – the war was conducted against civilians and armed rebel groups in the same manner. In 2007, after the formation a deadly special force, the Ethiopian military launched what has been described as a scorched earth campaign to wipe out the rebels. While it more or less succeeded in doing so, innocent civilians bore the brunt of the military’s might. Entire villages suspected of harboring rebels were burnt to the ground and their inhabitants killed. Extrajudicial killings were commonplace. Over the course of a year and a half, thousands of civilians were killed. It remains the deadliest campaign of state sponsored violence in the EPRDF’s era. Ten years down the line, in October of 2017, protesting youths took over the streets of Ambo protesting skyrocketing prices of common goods. Elders and city police intervened and the situation was about to be resolved when special forces arrived unannounced and shot dead a dozen unarmed youths. For EPRDF’s Ethiopia, war was peace; violence was the language of communication between the state’s security and intelligence infrastructure and the people the state governed.

In the long run, the effect of this two and a half decades old unbridled policy of the abuse of the state’s legitimate monopoly on violence had resulted in the country’s collective fear of open expression and frank discussion. One could argue that people were a shell of who they really were. Going to great lengths to refrain from even verbally colliding with the government, self censorship was cultivated en masse. People were thus trained to suppress thoughts and their own conscious to avoid nasty consequences. So often, those who would defile the invisible boundary were made example of by the state. Journalists, authors, activists and opposition politicians were regularly detained, tortured, paraded in front of cameras as enemies of the state and charged with treason or terrorism. If and when they are released, acquaintances would be afraid of socializing with them or even being seen near them.

Fast forward to March 2018, this would all be changed, when, having been pushed to the brink and being unable to take the indignity any longer, uprisings in Oromia, Amhara and the Southern regions that first started in Oromia in April 2014 forever turned the tables on the ruling clique.

With the end of the TPLF’s controlled EPRDF era and the change in the terms and conditions of state-society relations from that of violence to that of “love” and “medemer”, came an end to this practice of self censorship. With the elitist clique no longer holding the country at gunpoint, people came to life and started to be in charge of it. Political expression was no longer limited to the single celled narratives promoted by the state. The true, diverse, colorful nature of the peoples came to the fore – literally and figuratively. Long outlawed flags, emblems and lyrics of various resistance groups and opposition factions started to be waved proudly and rang out through cities and towns. For a while, it was beautiful, until it was no more. It is no more now because there was nothing that prepared us Ethiopians to handle both our excitements and horizontal relations with dignity in times of freedom. The security and intelligence apparatus that a reformist prime Minister quickly dismantled to the cheer and jeer of the mass is suddenly missing from its job of regulating people’s horizontal relations.

The state has long enjoyed being at the helm of a massive military vessel capable of exacting punishment upon request while severely incapacitating the people’s will to self-regulate and self-govern. In his inaugural speech, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed lamented the use of violence by the government to keep the population in line and vowed to tame its wilderness. Indeed, since then, the frequency of state sponsored violence has dropped. Reports of military intervention to quell domestic uprisings are no longer stories that people have grown collectively numb to. The word “Agazi,” the name of a deadly unit of the Ethiopian military special forces frequently deployed to protester hotbeds with a “shoot to kill” orders, has all but been dropped from use by Ethiopian media; it is now replaced by words like “inter communal clashes” and “ethnic violence.”

Privatization of of violence

The state’s monopoly on violence may have served to strike fear into the hearts of the population. But it also helped deter those with sinister intentions from acting out on them. Killing was permitted if it was by the regime, it would not be tolerated or permitted for the average Joe. As such, criminal activity wasn’t condoned if perpetrators were non state elements. Criminal activity was solely a state’s luxury. The “nationalization” of crime is what led to the EPRDF government being labeled as one of the overbearing totalitarian regimes ruled by tyrants. With the shedding of its oppressive inner shell, crime has been “denationalized.” Violence is“privatized.” Criminals have been emboldened to take advantage of the fact that there is no longer a security installation leering over them, awaiting a misstep before brutally cutting them down, partly contributing to an increase in crime and the worsening security situation.

Further compounding the problem is the fact that there is a vacuum of sorts: the federal military that went through incomplete overhaul appears at times it lacks direction, and seems less than eager to intervene. Examples of the military’s inaction since PM Abiy’s administration took over are plenty. The most glaring example of the military’s indifference to its responsibilities was its refusal to stop the Liyu Police raids into Eastern Hararghe of Oromia. Throughout the months of June and July, the Somali regional government led Liyu Police would launch attacks on villages, ransack and burn homes, killing inhabitants. Several media, including the Voice of America Amharic service, have reported that despite the military being called on by local authorities to help defenseless civilians, soldiers would either refuse to mobilize, or arrive long after the Liyu Police had left.

In an interview with Opride back in July, Garri Somali activist Adan Kulow explained that despite frequent attacks on his people by a Borana Oromo militia in Moyale, the military refused to intervene. Elders from the Garri Somali community traveled and met with military officials at their base in Moyale. There, they were allegedly told by soldiers to defend themselves and that the military wouldn’t get involved as they had not received orders to do so. “Basically we were told that we were on our own,” Adan said.

After years of brutal killings and state sponsored violence, the Ethiopian army has a bad reputation and this could be what makes base level commanders less than willing to deploy their troops upon request. But the gap left by dismissed army generals and colonels has the country’s most perverse and primal freely roaming the country and carrying out despicable crimes. There’s little evidence that anything is being done to bring the individuals or groups behind these crimes to justice. The incomplete ‘reform’ in the intelligence, as much needed as it was, is also contributing to this privatization of violence in many ways than we are prepared to accept. It is not enough that a previously secretive institution opened its doors for visits by opposition party members. By all accounts, the so-called reform in the intelligence is messy and has left its key players not only disenfranchised but un-replaced with competent individuals.

It is now becoming clear that this “privatization” of violence has opened the doors to anyone with access to weapons the freedom to kill. Talk of reconciliation and democratizing the state can only bear fruit if a degree of normalcy is maintained nationwide. If unchecked Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s lackadaisical approach to domestic security will be his downfall. To enforce the law regardless of who is abusing it, is not only in the interest of the ruling party to stay in power, but of the country to stay in one piece. Whether they are lone wolves or belong to larger initiatives, it is becoming very clear that multiple interest groups are hell bent in exploiting the government’s inaction to come after criminals and murderers who have emerged determined to plunge the country into anarchy and have done so already. There is no other way. The departure of the military’s bloodthirsty head honchos of yesteryear has paved an opening for equally bloodthirsty individuals and groups to wreak havoc. It’s high time “Team Lemma” put niceties to the side and put a foot down. AS


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