Ethiopia and Human Rights Reform: Another Mirage for 2018?
By Adotei Akwei
Last week the Ethiopian Government announced it was going to release all political prisoners and close Maekelawi prison, infamous for being a torture site. Less than a week later the government clarified that there had been an error in its communication and that only some of the country’s estimated thousands of political prisoners would be released. For the families of the prisoners, the government had cruelly played with their hope by dangling the chance that their family member might be coming home. For long time Ethiopia watchers, the government’s walking back of its earlier announcement was dispiritingly predictable and a reminder of the urgent need for country’s international allies to press the government to implement genuine reforms.
In Washington this task has fallen on to the shoulders of Congress, which is considering two resolutions that call for improved respect and protection of human rights, accountability for the loss of life during the demonstrations and brutal government response over the last 3 years, and urge more inclusive governance. Both resolutions also call for the release of all political prisoners. The Senate and House resolutions are bi-partisan and enjoy impressive support with the House version holding 73 co-sponsors while the Senate counterpart has 22 supporters. Despite this growing chorus of concern over the deteriorating human rights situation and the implications for the country’s stability, both resolutions have been stalled under pressure from the Ethiopian government, effectively negating the wishes of the constituents who asked their representatives to support the bills, and the voices of the members of Congress themselves. If that kind of stifling of the voices of the American people and their elected officials were not enough to raise alarm bells, then surely the Ethiopia government’s reneging around the release of political prisoners, a repeat of empty promises from the last three years, should underscore the need to press the government to act.
A week ago, when the “erroneous” announcement was made, I started to think of names and individuals that might be released. People who could play a role in helping Ethiopia become a more inclusive, just society where dissent and calls for accountability are not automatically defined as terrorism. I thought of Eskinder Nega, a journalist who dared to question the government for jailing journalists as “terrorists” (he himself was later charged as a “terrorist”); or Bekele Gerba, a former English professor at Addis Ababa University and leader in the Oromo Federalist Congress; and Merera Gudina, a political scientist and another leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress. I thought of Okello Akway Ochalla, who governed the Gambella region when the Ethiopian government massacred his people, the Anuaks, and was abducted in 2014 from South Sudan for telling the world about his people. These activists are just a snapshot of thousands who have been unfairly jailed for simply exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Surely it is time for the US Congress to express its voice and support human rights in Ethiopia by passing S. Res. 168 and H. Res. 128.