A Machiavellian Route To Democracy: Ethiopian Government’s Recent Actions Cast Doubt On Hopes For A Democratic Future

On Thursday, Ethiopian government authorities announced that 2,000 people have been charged in relation to the violence that followed the killing of popstar Hachalu Hundessa in June. For many Ethiopians this event, along with other recent actions, has disturbing resonances with past, oppressive regimes and cast doubt over President Abiy Ahmed (a recent recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize) and his promise to lead Ethiopia into democracy.

These charges follow the 9,000 arrests that have taken place following the June turmoil. Those detained include journalists, activists and opposition politicians.

Fisseha Tekle, Amnesty International’s Ethiopia analyst, fears that Abiy’s government is resorting to the arbitrary mass arrests of his predecessor. “The government arrests people and then looks for evidence,” said Fisseha. “This is in line with previous experience.”

One important figure is Jawar Mohammed, a media-mogul-turned politician who is widely considered Abiy Ahmed’s biggest political threat. Once an ally of Abiy, Jawar was fiercely critical of the postponement of the general elections due to COVID-19. According to Al Jazeera, appearing in court on Monday, Jawar denounced the charges as a ploy to side-line Abiy’s opponents ahead of the upcoming elections.

Speaking on behalf of the federal government, the Ethiopian Attorney General Gideon Timothewos rejected any suggestion that the cases against Jawar and others were tainted by politics, stating, “although suspects now charged include politicians, no one has been held for their political activity”.

Unfortunately for Abiy, his government’s actions speak louder than its words. According to the Economist, not only have their security forces received allegations of abuse by Amnesty International – which they have in turn dismissed as ‘fiction’ – but critics report of political freedoms being withdrawn. These infringements include internet being cut off, restriction of movement imposed on journalists and a new law criminalizing ‘hate speech’ which includes provisions that can be used to lock up peaceful dissidents.

The last straw for some was the indefinite postponement of the general elections. While COVID has threatened democratic elections across the world, the delay to this election is especially hard-hitting for Ethiopians, which was set to be its first free and fair election, according to Reuters.

“Very seldom has the legacy of a Nobel laureate been questioned so early, already during the first-year incumbency,” said Kjetil Tronvoll, professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjorknes University in Oslo, continuing that “it seems clear that the political transition has stalled, and the government is relapsing to authoritarian practices.”

“Domestically, the past one year has been fraught with violence, instability and repression of political opponents,” said Marishet Mohammed Hamza, an academic at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. “Taking the recent instances alone, the incarceration of major political figures without viable charges hitherto casts doubt on his promise to ensure political reforms.”

No one said that democratization would be easy. Ethiopia is riddled with ethnic and religious divisions, high rates of inequality and violent land disputes. Indeed, Abiy’s message is more hopeful than the militant nationalist predecessors that encouraged more divisions between regions and people. Unfortunately, his optimistic, liberal rhetoric does not distract from his administration’s increasingly disturbing conduct. If one is truly committed to democratization, the end does not justify the means and morality and ethics must be maintained in pursuit of democracy.

Rafaela Alford
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