On January 3, 2018, Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, announced plans to free political prisoners, among them being politicians, terrorists, and those who support the ethnic minorities within the country. “Politicians currently under prosecution and those previously sentenced will either have their cases annulled or be pardoned,” AFP news agency quoted Hailemariam Desalegn on Wednesday.
Desalegn also announced plans to shut down Maekelawi, a detention center located in the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. Maekelawi has a reputation of committing human rights violations. Suspected criminals are held for weeks without being charged, undergo unlawful interrogation tactics, some of which fulfill the definition of torture, while living in squalor-like conditions. Detainees are pressured to confess to crimes they may not have committed, and are beaten until their confessions match what their captors wish to hear.
Human rights blogger Befeqadu Hailu was detained at Maekelawi in 2014 along with eight other journalists. Their crimes? They were part of a blog called Zone9, which dedicates its time to explaining governmental obligations to human rights and constitutional law. After being held for twelve weeks, these individuals were charged under Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, charges which were based on false confessions. Hailu is quoted as saying, “At Maekelawi, the driving principle of police interrogations is that you are guilty unless proven otherwise. Your pleas for innocence – or even for explanation – fall on deaf ears.” He also detailed acts of violence which were related to him by other prisoners, such as floggings, water boarding, and extraction of fingernails to name a few.
Given Hailu’s testimony, the decision to shut down Maekelawi seems logical considering its obvious violations of human rights and due process. However, these decisions are far from altruistic; rather, they are spurned forward by political and economic motivations that outweigh the nation’s concern for human rights.
First and foremost, Ethiopia is a founding nation of the African Union (AU), a United Nations (UN) body which deals with concerns related the continent of Africa as a whole. One of the main tenets of the AU is to disengage itself from Africa’s long history of human rights violations. However, Ethiopia has been consistently berated for failing to do so, with Human Rights Watch commenting, “Authorities regularly used arbitrary arrests and politically motivated prosecutions to silence journalists, activists, and real or perceived opposition party members. Torture remains a serious problem in detention.”
With this in mind, the decision to end such practices and free those imprisoned, likely falsely, is demonstrative of an attempt to fulfill the role and obligation as a founding member of the AU. However, there is more to the situation than a desire to please the AU and protect the rights of all humans.
Ethiopia is a nation dealing with ethnic struggle, with the government marginalizing several ethnic groups at the benefit of one. Tigraya is an Ethiopian ethnic group that the government has allowed to dominate the political sphere. The Tigrayan people are not the largest ethnic group within the nation, yet they find themselves in positions of unprecedented power. This has led to unrest with marginalized ethnic communities.
However, rather than problem solve, the government simply silences dissenters. Many of the political prisoners to be released are suspected supporters of the marginalized communities. According to Amnesty International, the government of Ethiopia has engaged in a “crackdown on the political opposition which has resulted in mass arbitrary arrests, torture and other ill-treatment, unfair trials and violations of the rights to freedom of expression and association.”
So why release these individuals now? The answer lies in increased presence of foreign nations. Resistance groups such as the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) have formed over time. Lacking in support from the Ethiopian government, these groups have turned to outside sources of funding. Eritrea has been accused of supporting the ONLF, and Somalia of providing weapons to such groups. As these groups are continually oppressed and jailed, support and morale only grows, bringing further attention to restriction of free speech and subsequent human rights violations within the nation.
By releasing them as a gesture of goodwill, the government likely hopes to ease some of the tensions within the nation. Previously, they have taken steps to imprison those even suspected of associating with or supporting these groups. By releasing these individuals, they are attempting to demonstrate their acceptance and recognition of an opposing voice, which is further signaled in burgeoning talks between these marginalized groups and the government. As a result, these groups will lessen their dependence on foreign nations, either willingly or forcibly.
The final reason to release these political prisoners and close Maekelawi is tied into economic concerns within Ethiopia. Specifically, the completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (formerly known as the Millennium Dam). This dam, which has been under construction since 2011, is a gravity dam on the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia. The dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, and the seventh largest in the world. The dam is expected to cure Ethiopia’s ongoing energy crisis as well as expedite its future development.
As such, there is much at stake with the building of this dam, both for Ethiopia and their main investor, China. To ensure that the construction is completed without issue, the nation is taking steps to make peace with the ONLF and OLF for the time being. This will curb any potential attacks on the dam by these groups, as well as keep their foreign allies out of the picture.
As it is, Ethiopia is battling Egypt over this project due to concerns that the damn may affect Cairo’s access to water from the Nile River basin. As such, it is in the best interest of Ethiopia to re-evaluate all potential threats and prevent them from becoming large-scale problems. The decision to release political prisoners and close the prison are all part of this political strategy to ease unrest and keep foreign powers out of their affairs.
While the decision to release the prisoners and close Maekelawi are a step in the right direction for Ethiopia’s human rights record, the underlying motivations undercut the actions taken. The fact of the matter is, while these changes are being made, they are not driven by a change of heart in relation to human rights. As such, they feel hollow and meaningless. Until such changes are made for the sake of human rights, rather than to fulfill a political or economic agenda, they should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, what is stopping Ethiopia and other such nations from engaging in further violations down the road?