By Muktar M. Omer
The Ethiopian Government, through its foreign ministry, responded to Martin Plaut’s article “Silence and Pain: Ethiopia’s human rights record in the Ogaden” with the usual feigned shock and template denial that has long characterized the regime’s political personality. It is the established behavior of aggressive and autocratic regimes to discount well-founded reports of human right violations as propaganda constructs of the ‘enemy’. The response from the Foreign Ministry was thus nothing more than a well memorized and rehearsed Ethiopian way of disregarding documented depravities committed by the regime. As usual, the tenor of the regime’s reaction is blame apportionment, not done on the basis of reasoned assessment of the evidences presented, but prompted by the urge to bear out its political prejudice and cover-up.
This is a regime whose character has the potential to confuse even Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, former Reagan foreign policy advisor, who made a distinction between “authoritarian” and “totalitarian” regimes. In her essay “Dictatorship and Double Standards,” she describes authoritarian dictators as “pragmatic rulers who care about their power and wealth and are indifferent toward ideological issues, even if they pay lip service to some big cause”; while, in contrast, totalitarian leaders are “selfless fanatics who believe in their ideology and are ready to put everything at stake for their ideals”.
We face a regime that is an amalgam of authoritarianism and totalitarianism paying lip service to the cause of ‘development’ while fanatically believing that a small gun-wielding minority has the right to rule the country forever. Although it calls itself “revolutionary democracy”, as oxymoronic as this is, the country is run by a revolutionary autocracy, whose slogan for justifying the oppression of the most valuable asset of the country – its people – has become “we build roads, schools and dams”.
Why deign a response to Plaut’s article?
Martin Plaut’s timely and courageous article deserves appreciation. He is one man who felt his responsibility as a journalist obligates him to bring hidden atrocities to the eyes of the world, even when the most powerful countries in the world would prefer to look the other way than to see the crimes committed with their money. If his report has a flaw, it is that it has adopted a very high evidence threshold not applied for other countries where atrocities are reported from such as Syria, and consequently has omitted several large-scale violations in the Somali Region of Ethiopia, including the Malqaqa massacre of May 17, 2010, the Gunagado massacre of February 12, 2012, and the Qorille massacre of September 06, 2012.
A question worth asking however is why the Foreign Ministry chose to respond to Martin Plaut when the allegations captured in his article are not new? Numerous local and international journalists, reputed global human rights activists, thousands of refugees who run away from the region, and defected members of the repressive regime have been saying the same thing for years. In fact, the Congress of the biggest ally of the regime, the United States, has enacted a budget law as recently as January 2014, which contains important provisions that a) “put the Congress on record as noting the Ethiopian government is violating human rights; and b) prohibits the U.S. government from providing foreign aid that supports the violation of human rights”. A Senate report that accompanies the law says Congress is “concerned with the use of anti-terrorism laws to imprison journalists, political opponents, and others calling for free and fair elections and political and human rights.”
The answer to the question is that the regime is aware of the integrity of Mr. Plaut as a journalist and worries that its western funders, embarrassed by the exposé, may start asking questions. Although the Ministry’s denial of the allegations of human right violations in Somali Region was riddled with the usual ‘take our words over what you see in your own eyes or hear from everyone else”, it was astonishing that the regime put an effort to debate Mr. Plaut abstemiously without resorting to the harangues and threats that Ethiopian critics in diaspora face when they decry the regime’s atrocities.
From the day the current regime came to power in 1991, it has always been more responsive to the complaints of foreigners than to the outcry of its own people, a predisposition that affirms its utter contempt for the opinions of its citizens. Ironically, the same regime beats an anti-Western, anti-colonial drum when the foreign powers it relies for its survival raise one or two mild concerns. Geopolitical exigencies allowed the Ethiopian regime to take the money of the West while shunning its sermons on democracy and human rights. The regime is a friend of the West’s money and a foe of its principles, all at same time.
It is futile to think unearthing evidences of atrocities committed by the regime will change its relationship with its Western funders. The West has long subordinated principles to geopolitical interests, one reason why the days of universal moral outrages against injustice are the thing of the past. Thanks to the age of the internet, the world has observed, with shock, the double standards of the West. The regime knows Plaut’s report will not engender a shift in the policy of the West towards it, but it does not like to take a chance.
In its reply, the Ethiopian government made a couple of shocking and contentious refutations which deserve an answer.
First, the Government states that the Ogaden clan makes up only 30 percent of the population in the Somali Region of Ethiopia. This may or may not be true, although the source of this data was not revealed. The 2007 census actually indicated that the Ogaden clan makes up 50 per cent of the total population in the Somali region. So, is the regime confirming that they have killed or displaced 20 per cent of the community since 2007 when it launched a brutal anti-insurgency against the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF)? Whatever its number, the size of the Ogaden community cannot justify the atrocities against it. This is a regime afflicted with the politics of slicing its citizens into ethnic groups, clans and sub-clans, rather than looking at them as individual human beings each with an inalienable right for life and dignity. The focus on the number of the Ogaden community betrays a tyrannical mindset that others and undercounts people in order to rationalize killing of members of the communities it deems “recalcitrant”.
In 2011, the late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, in a press conference, claimed that his government was facing resistance from only one sub-clan of the Ogaden clan: the reer-Isaq. Here was a full Prime Minister of a country singling out an entire community under his rule as “anti-government”. Of course, the result of that reckless or deliberate finger-pointing was what followed: summarily execution, detention, and displacement of the reer-Isaq community. Whether the Prime Minister’s point was to understate the appeal of the ONLF as a rebel group or whether he was sending signals for his henchmen in the region to act against this community is inconsequential. The fruits of his speech were the Guna-Gado massacre, the arrest of community leaders such as Sultan Fozi Ali Abdi, Garad Hassan Makhtal, and many others, some of whom have perished in detention.
This is not to imply that only a sub-clan or the Ogaden clan alone is the victim of the anti-insurgency measures of the regime. The 50 innocent civilians executed in Mooyaha village, near Jigjiga town, on December 17, 2008, were from the Abaskul clan, not from the Ogaden clan. The tens of civilians killed in the Galka-boodo-libaah, Dhoobo Guduud, Raqda and Adaada villages of Gashaamo district on March 16, 2012 by the Liyu Police were from the Isaq clan, not from the Ogaden clan. The purpose of re-narrating Meles’s veiled instructions against a specific sub-clan is to highlight the divide-and-kill methodology of the supposed national leaders and the wantonness they can succumb to in order to prolong their control of the state. In fact, the same line of argument – that “only some sub-clans” were against the government – is repeated in the Foreign Ministry’s response to Mr. Plaut. Today, this politics of divide-and-kill has found currency in Ethiopia under the guise of ethnic federalism, while its genocidal ramifications are ignored and made to assume a parochial resonance by the international community.
Of pictures and audio-visual evidences
The Government claimed that the Somali region is open for journalists and that some media outlets such as the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, and Time World have compiled reports that paint a” different picture of the situation in the region and the development there”.
These outlets may have written about some infrastructural development in the region, although it is unlikely that they painted a rosy picture about the human rights situation in the region. What is instructive is the selective referencing of the Government when it comes to international media reports from the region. The regime is happy to quote reports which mention social and economic developments in the region, but denounces those that speak of violations and abuses against civilians. For each and every story on roads built in the region, there are three or four reports on forced relocations of villages, extra-judicial detentions and killings, blockage of aid and commercial food to areas perceived to be hotbeds of rebels. The New York Times, Aljazeera, BBC, and many other media houses have aired damning reports from the region.
Most of these reports, compiled by investigative journalists who sneaked into the region, presented audio-visual evidences of the violations. Interviews with victims and satellite images of burnt villages were part of the evidences presented. Needless to say, more than 30,000 refugees who fled the region and are currently in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya are living evidences – far more reliable than audiovisuals – of the atrocities the Ethiopian regime perpetrates in the Somali region. These refugees have repeatedly shown Somali, Kenyan and international media the horrors they faced in their own land before fleeing, often revealing unsightly physical damages as a mortifying souvenir of the torture they went under.
As recently as 2013, Abdullahi Hussein, a former aide of the President of the Somali Regional State, defected and released over 100 hours of videos showing soldiers kicking dead bodies, Liyu police members confessing atrocities and elders complaining about the treatment of the Liyu Police. One gruesome video was particularly heart-breaking. It showed the Somali Regional State President posing for pictures few meters from the dead bodies of what was later reported to be civilians killed by the Liyu Police in Malqaqa, a village in Fiq zone.
It is therefore laughable when the Ethiopian Government, without suffering any reflexive shame, asks “why are there no photographs taken by mobile phones that show the supposed atrocities?”
There are hundreds of pictures and videos out there, but do they really matter? Won’t the regime reject pictures from mobile phones as being photo-shopped or claim that they are taken elsewhere? If there is nothing to hide, why the tight control on internet and mobile phones in Ethiopia, including the banning of Skype? How can you ask for evidence when you do everything possible to ensure no such evidence is ever taken outside the country? When you close off entire regions from the eyes of the international media? Who sees evidence of atrocities against North Koreans every day?
By the way, what does the Ethiopian Government mean when it says the 2008 Human Rights reports about the Ogaden region are not updated? Does it mean the names of victims included in that report are no longer valid because they are released or have already died? Why does it matter if the report is outdated or not? The point is that it covered the atrocities of the time and there is no evidence that violations have stopped now. The Ethiopian Government claims that it investigated the alleged violations and found no systematic abuses. Who investigated who? Isn’t this like Saddam Hussien investigating the Halabjah massacre of the Kurds and coming up with a report that finds only a minor misdemeanor by some soldiers?
Ethiopia, heaven for the press?
There is no need to respond to the claims by the regime that there is a press freedom in Ethiopia. It is a pure baloney that even the most ardent supporters of the regime do not take seriously. It would perhaps be germane to mention that the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) lists Ethiopia as among the top-ten countries in the world who jail journalists.
Denying even the most evident facts, Al Sahaf style?
Perhaps what encapsulates the regimes pathological fixation with lying is its claim that two ONLF central committee Members, Sulub Abdi Ahmed and Ali Hussien (Ali Dheere), were not abducted from Nairobi in February 2014. These men disappeared a month or so ago and have not been seen again. All the evidence collected by the Kenyan Police shows that they were attacked while emerging from a restaurant in Nairobi and forcibly taken to Ethiopia.
In fact, the official website of the Somali Regional State, Cakaaranews.com, broke the news of the abductions hours after the men went missing, claiming that “two shiftas (bandits) were captured while trying to sneak into Ethiopia to continue their anti-peace acts”. The story was later withdrawn. It is widely believed that, realizing the diplomatic embarrassment it can cause it, the Federal Government of Ethiopia instructed the regional authorities to retract the story.
The whereabouts of these two men are not yet known, although there are strong indications that they are held in a military prison in Harar in eastern Ethiopia. These men, who supposedly have “chosen the path of peace and gave themselves up to the Ethiopian state”, are yet to contact their distressed families who do not know whether they are dead or alive. The understanding is that they are either killed or that they have been severely tortured and are not yet fit enough to face the cameras to “confess their change of heart”.
Ethiopian Foreign Ministry’s farcical story that these men gave themselves up is therefore a burlesque of the theatrics of Mohamed Saeed AlSahaf, Iraqi’s Information Minister during the second US invasion of Iraq.
Overcoming fear, the start of freedom
The abduction or killing of political opponents in other countries is not a sign of strength. It is a sign of desperation and weakness. It is nothing new as well. Tyrannical regimes do engage in cross-border assassinations and abductions. It is what Mu’ammar Gaddafi used to do in Egypt against dissidents. It is what Kagame is doing against defectors in South Africa. Despots do not rest even if they have full control over all the people in the lands they rule. They fear the truth. They fear those who defy them even if the latter live far away, for despots are aware of the frailty of their house of cards which can only survive if their subjects continue to fear them. Those who do not fear are a thorn to despots; and despots cannot rest without eliminating them.
The only way the people of the Somali regional state, and the rest of Ethiopians as well, can chart a better future for themselves is by overcoming fear and standing up to the regime. And overcoming fear starts by telling the truth and refusing to be intimidated by the medieval tactics of the regime – threats, assassinations and abductions.
The fragmented Ethiopian opposition may as well redraw its strategy. As long as they continue to partake in the divisive ‘ethnic-based’ game plan of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – the ruling party in Ethiopia – they will continue to chase the rotating tail of the regime. They must introduce a different game ball, one which emphasizes the shared democratic aspirations of all freedom-loving citizens not the sectarian interests of each ethnic group. They can’t expect to win a game whose rules are set by the regime. They must come up with a new game and new rules. And if that means jettisoning long-cherished ambitions and dogmas, so be it. The political repression we face has no sectoral confines. It must be fought from the pedestal of national consensus.
Muktar M. Omer
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