Admitting guilt in Ethiopia: Towards a truth and reconciliation commission?

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed admits there have been widespread human rights violations by the government during the EPRDF’s tenure. What will be the consequences of this admission of guilt? And, will this lead to a historic change of the culture of impunity in the country?

In a House of People’s Representatives session in Addis Ababa on June 18, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed gave a seminal speech where he outlined his intention to heal the political, historical and ethnic divisions in the Ethiopian populace, and beyond.

The speech represented yet another milestone in his young premiership, as he phrased his vision of a new Ethiopia in language that respects the long-held grievances of the people, stresses the need for individual as well as collective reconciliation, and points towards a future of unprecedented political accountability.

Ethiopians of all walks of life were touched by Abiy’s openness, honesty, and reconciliatory manner. Through his speech and actions, Abiy is establishing a new social contract with the Ethiopian people; a social contract where the government will serve the people, and is accountable to the people.

In the follow-up session, a member of parliament asked Abiy about the constitutionality of pardoning those who had been convicted of terrorist acts; therefore implicitly criticising the direction of his reforms. With an unprecedented manner of rectitude and reflection, Abiy responded:

“What is terrorism, and who is a terrorist? By going this way, what have we profited? It is necessary to look at it thoroughly. Terrorism includes using forces in anti-constitutional manner to stay in power. Terrorism includes using inappropriate ways to grab power. We have to bear in mind that everyone should respect the constitution…..Does the constitution say anyone who was sentenced by a court can be tortured, put in a dark room? It doesn’t. Torturing, putting people in dark rooms, mutilation of prisoners’ body parts is our act of terrorism. These unconstitutional acts have been done in every kebele, woreda and zone. Not only at federal levels, but at every lower level.”

The EPRDF government has over the years been routinely accused by domestic and international observers of gross human rights violations, but has rejected most claims as baseless. When violations were admitted, they were explained away by a lack of knowledge of particular individuals, or as perpetrated by overzealous local administrators.

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Despite such excuses, it is now a long time ago that it dawned upon the old cadres of the Tigrayan resistance that the struggle’s core objectives of human rights and democracy have gone astray. However, democratic centralism and the discipline of the Front inhibited a process of accountability from within, and a genuine change of guard was needed to open up this issue.

With his remarks, Abiy not only admits to the violation of human rights by his government, but the way it is described, as being perpetrated at all levels of government throughout Ethiopia, it alludes to a description of ‘widespread and systematic’ human rights violations. If so, Abiy discloses that the EPRDF government may have committed crimes against humanity on their own people.

In a democracy with the rule of law firmly established, such confessions by the head of government would lead to a range of consequences. First of all, criminal investigations against officials believed to have committed human rights violations and against their superiors for issuing orders or knowing about abuses without taking appropriate action. Furthermore, parliament would have held such a government accountable for such violations. However, following up on his ‘full disclosure’ rhetoric, Abiy explained:

“EPRDF has clearly apologised to the public. Saying we have made mistakes, blunders. Including me, thanks to you, when you named me Prime Minister, I have apologized and asked for forgiveness, standing just here. What does that mean?  There were serious mistakes. The compassionate people have forgiven us. We need to seize this opportunity.  As if we have not been doing unconstitutional things ourselves. We as party members undertook self-evaluation and admitted our own failures, as you know. The people also showed their mercy not in words but in act. Not that the people did not have the choice of putting us all into prison. There were reasons enough, the robbery, murder, theft were there. If we go to jail, that would not bring change for Ethiopia.”

Abiy is a strong believer in forgiveness: politically, religiously and scholarly. In the fragile political transition Ethiopia is currently experiencing, it seems impossible for the prime minister to conduct a mass arrest of suspected perpetrators of human rights violations from his own cabinet down to each village and hamlet throughout the country.

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Instead he looks set to chart a new course; a forward-looking path for a new Ethiopia where all individuals have the same rights, and no one is above the law. In these parliamentary comments, Abiy has begun redefining the hitherto excluding and exclusive political space monopolised by the EPRDF, thereby setting about establishing an open, just and equal public domain.

History has shown us that individuals may turn around the most entrenched political systems. Abiy follows the best of this tradition by admitting guilt, asking for forgiveness, and promising to rectify mistakes. These were the principles the post-apartheid South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) based their work on. Abiy therefore has big shoes to fill; and so far his approach to transforming the political culture of Ethiopia resembles the language used by Nelson Mandela.

But Mandela also knew that for reconciliation to reach down to the grassroots and out to each village and hamlet throughout the country, not only the top-level government had to change. A bottom-up process of truth seeking, confession and forgiveness was instrumental in a national process of healing and reconciliation; to create a new political culture and a definite breach with the past.

The Ethiopian Red Terror trials established after 1991 never managed to heal the Ethiopian people and abolish impunity for human rights violations. Maybe this is the time to establish an Ethiopian truth and reconciliation commission to reconcile public grievances and finally put an end to the culture of official impunity.

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