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The AU’s Call for “Restraint” on the Protests in Ethiopia: Too Little, Too Late – Getahun S. Gesso

By Getahun S. Gesso
September 3,2016

A Press Release issued by the Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, on 1st September 2016 states that the Chairperson “is following the evolving socio-political situation over the last few months in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia with great concern.” It states that “[p]rotests have taken place in some regions following disputes over the allocation of farmland for development.” It acknowledges that “[t]he socio-political situation in Ethiopia has led to a number of reported deaths, temporary disruptions of public and private businesses, as well as occasional interruption of telecommunication services.”

The Press Release concludes with the Chairperson calling “for a high level of restraint as well as for calm to reign” and “encourages dialogue among all stakeholders in Ethiopia, in order to find peaceful and lasting solutions to the social, political and economic issues motivating the protests.”

What compelled me to write this article is the manner in which the AUC seems either to have failed to properly appreciate the ongoing public protest, public disobedience and peaceful resistance, or is attempting to undermine the conflict and death tolls, injuries and destructions. From the onset, I wish to state that I am surprised how long it has taken the AU to release at least such a press release on the prevailing situation in Ethiopia happening right at its doorstep.

The current state of affairs in Ethiopia is all over the media and there is no lack of information. As reported by Bloomberg News on 1st September 2016, “[a]uthorities in Ethiopia have killed more than 500 people since June, according to human-rights groups, to suppress protests by the two most populous groups, the Oromo and Amhara.” It should be noted here that this is on top of the over 400 protesters in Oromia that were reportedly killed during the dispute over the Addis Ababa Integrated Master Plan earlier.

In terms of property damage, Bloomberg reported that a company called Esmeralda Farms Inc. alone reported a loss of $7.8 million worth of of damage during the violence on 29th August 2016. The total damage should definitely run into hundreds of millions of dollars. This is on top of the threat this poses to the fledgeling foreign investment in the country.

As alluded to above, the protests started in Oromia region, which has about 35% of the total population, late 2015 and expanded to Amhara region, which comprises over 30% of the population, since June 2016. They also occurred in the heart of the capital, Addis Ababa, which accounts for over 3% of the country’s population. This brings the total of the protesting population to over 68% of the country’s population. This cannot be brushed aside, by any standards, as a protest by two major ethnic groups.

Maintenance of pace and security being the raison d’être for the establishment of the AU, within this framework, it is required to promote democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance; and promote and protect human and peoples’ rights in accordance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other relevant human rights instruments. In consonance with this, the year 2016 has been declared to be a “Year of Human Rights” and as such, AU’s intervention, albeit too little, too late, is welcome.

However, I want to hope that the AUC has not become prey to influence of the regime, which is bent on doing anything it takes and leaving no stone unturned to hold on to power. When the power struggle started in Burundi last year over the president’s third-term issue, the AUC was extraordinarily busy working with regional organizations and donor countries to ensure that the conflict is contained. When the death toll jumped a hundred, the Peace and Security Council was issuing a plethora of Communiques for military intervention. It’s obvious that there were some powerful forces behind that move. But now that the death toll from the Ethiopian conflict is growing alarmingly, with the conflict aggravating by the day, the Press Release‘s call for “restraint” is depressing, to say the least.

A call for restraint is something that should have been done months ago unless the AUC is only attempting to absolve itself of responsibility in the event the situation gets worse, which is the likely scenario anyway. The AUC should at least have the courage to condemn the wanton killings in the strongest terms possible and call for an independent investigation.

On the face of it, the Press Release failed Ethiopia at least on two fronts: one, it looks like either the AU has failed to properly analyze the conflict situation or it is being influenced by its host. Clear evidence to this assertion is that it argued, as noted above, the reason for the conflict is “disputes over the allocation of farmland for development”, which is not true at all. Land was just a trigger for the previous protests in Oromia region. The conflict in Amhara region is triggered by identity issue over the Wolkait Tsegede people. I don’t wish to delve into these issues as they are already exhaustively discussed all over the media.

Secondly, it “encourages dialogue among all stakeholders in Ethiopia”, apparently not realizing (or maybe deliberately undermining the protests and disobedience) that there’s no organized body to dialogue with. The opposition parties that exist in name don’t even seem to know what is happening around let alone to hold dialogue with the Government on behalf of the protesters. The public is protesting not over one or two issues but a host of aggregated issues ignored for the last quarter-century. These grievances include disregard of fundamental and constitutional rights spanning from the failed ethnic politics, to bad governance, to rampant violation of human rights, to rampant corruption, to biased implementation of laws and regulations, which seem to have created classes of citizenship in the country etc.

There is no organized body who can claim to speak on behalf of the ongoing public protest, public disobedience and peaceful resistance. The AU is apparently undermining the public’s cry for help and siding with the Government. History will judge it when the time comes.

What is very worrying is that the conflict is taking a wrong direction by causing attacks against certain ethnic groups simply because they are perceived to be supporting the Government or form the nucleus of the ruling party. This is another good reason why the AU should intervene and calm the situation. But it seems it has opted to be a spectator so far.

With a vast majority of Ethiopia in turmoil; the whole country put under military-lockdown; and the death toll of peaceful protesters rising exponentially, the situation is precarious. There are several forces out there looking for opportunity either to take advantage to come to power or to further destabilize the country. If not handled properly, the country could slide into the category of failed states, which I am sure, will become another headache for the AU and the rest of the world, with terrorist groups taking root in the Horn of Africa region.

The AU should muster the courage and stand for the truth, be it against its host, an influential member, or friendly regime. Promoting and protecting the cardinal principles enshrined in its Constitutive Act and subsidiary legal and policy instruments should take primacy. In addition, the AU should not wait for pressure from donor countries as that may not come any time soon.

The rate of killings are alarming and would definitely qualify for crimes against humanity and it cannot be taken as matter of domestic affair. The AU cannot keep quiet any more. It is, therefore, suggested that the AU should take prompt action, which include:

Condemnation, in the strongest terms possible, of the wanton killings of and injury to peaceful protesters and calling for respect for constitutional rights to assemble and express grievances in accordance with the constitution as well as applicable laws;

Public and official engagement of the Government to handle the grievances and protests based on applicable laws and, where there are gaps, to develop proper laws based on international standards to which the country is party;

Convince the Government to sit down and dialogue with opposition forces and chart the way forward to find lasting solution to the conflict in the country;

Present the matter urgently to the Peace and Security Council (PSC), as the responsible collective mechanism for the prevention, management and resolution of conflicts; and

Authorize an independent investigative body into the killings, arrests and injuries committed against peaceful protesters with the view to bringing those responsible to justice.

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