(Source: Awash Post,
Calls grow for immediate US intervention to spare Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba, and other political prisoners on the 17th day of the strike.
Prominent Ethiopian democracy advocates Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba, along with 22 other political prisoners, are in the third week of a hunger strike, which began on January 27. Doctors, lawyers, and their families warn that the detainees are getting weaker and are now at risk of organ failure or other complications. At least five of the strikers collapsed this week and were rushed to the hospital.
On Friday, Bekele Gerba, deputy chairperson of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), was denied medical treatment after his doctors determined that he needed urgent medical attention and demanded his transfer to the hospital.
Held for more than 7 months based on trumped-up charges, the prisoners went on hunger strike as a measure of the last recourse to demand an end to their unjust detention and the harassment and crackdown of their political parties and their members. The strikers are individuals of considerable popular following, particularly among the Oromo youth, and pose a direct and significant electoral challenge to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his party.
Jawar, Bekele, and Hamza Borana are among the leading members of the opposition OFC party. Michael Boran, Abdi Ragassa, and Gammachu Ayana are among the key members and organizers for the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Together, the individuals and their respective parties are seen as credible threats to Abiy’s chances for victory at the polls. Their arrest and detention angered Oromos across the region, and their deaths would almost certainly plunge Ethiopia into an unprecedented political crisis. The Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, comprising a majority of the country’s population.
Jawar, Bekele, and Hamza, in particular, played a critical role in the pro-democracy Oromo youth movement that ushered Abiy into power in April 2018. However, as the Prime Minister consolidated power and secured his position, formidable Oromo opposition forces became targets of repression and crackdown. The arrest of these highly visible public figures was carried out last year, within hours of the assassination of the popular Oromo artist and activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa in Addis Ababa, which occurred the evening of 29 June 2020,
Charges brought against Jawar and several members, supporters, and activists of the OFC and OLF though couched in criminal terms, are unfounded. Their detention is political. The defendants and their lawyers contend that the indictment is a blatant overreach and abuse of power meant to remove Abiy’s adversaries from the democratic competition. Their trial is widely perceived as a deliberate and systematic attack against ethnonational movements and the right to self-determination of nations and nationalities protected under the current constitution. The extended detention and nearly eight months of legal wrangling are driven by the ruling party’s desire to remove its most outspoken and popular opponents from the political field before the election.
By late January, the prisoners launched the hunger strike to demand release and an end to what has become a systematic campaign of repression and disenfranchisement against Oromo and other marginalized peoples in the country. In a letter they sent to the Court, Jawar, Bekele and their co-defendants spoke about the Oromo youth who sacrificed their lives to bring about the change in Ethiopia and how those in power betrayed the cause of Oromo and others, systematically excluding genuine voices from the upcoming election and the national conversation about the future of the country. “Because we are no longer able to use the usual tools of non-violent protest and activism from inside the prison,” the letter noted, “we are resorting to the only form of protest available to us.”
So far, the government has chosen to ignore the issue. The hunger strike is taking place as international attention is focused almost exclusively on the war and the humanitarian crises in the northern Tigray region. In other parts of Ethiopia, however, public discontent was on full display this week. Secondary school students in various cities across the east, west-central, and southern Oromia came out to demonstrate, demanding the immediate release of these political figures. Members of the Oromo community across the U.S. and around the world are also staging solidarity rallies. The political crisis and the return of street protests in Oromia underscore the complete reversal of Ethiopia’s promised democratic transition.
In fact, the mounting public concerns over the well-being of the hunger strikers adds another layer to the myriad crises facing Ethiopia. The economy is in dire straits. The COVID-19 pandemic has blunted the growth of the Ethiopian economy. The already high youth unemployment is on the rise. Ethiopia is involved in border disputes with neighboring Sudan. Negotiations over the mega Nile dam with Egypt and Sudan have repeatedly broken down.
Political and ethnic tensions have characterized the tenure of the Abiy government. The last two years saw high-level political assassinations, massive displacement of civilians, and brutal and widespread restrictions on independent voices and opposition activities. Several regions have been under Command Post and communications blackout for nearly two years. Tensions reached a fever pitch in November after Abiy’s government launched a military offensive against opponents in the Tigray region. The fallout from the declaration of hostilities and humanitarian crises unleashed by that war has turned Abiy, the 2019 Peace Laureate, into an international pariah.
As the Abiy regime sets its sights on elections scheduled for June 5, 2021, crackdown and repression against Abiy’s critics and opponents, have intensified. Many of the current crises in Ethiopia result from the Abiy administration’s unilateral decision to postpone elections scheduled for August 2020 using a dubious constitutional process to claim extended legitimacy. The power struggle between Abiy and leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) escalated in September after the latter held regional elections defying Abiy’s orders. Federal authorities responded by withholding budget subsidies. Tensions blew over in November after months of war preparations on both sides.
Conflicting accounts of the war in Tigray have been made impossible for the media to cover or confirm due to a communications blackout imposed in the region. As the world’s attention remains fixed on Tigray, the crises in other parts of Ethiopia, particularly in Oromia and the Beni Shangul Gumuz region, are also unfolding under total darkness. Political discontent across the Southern region, including in Wolaita and Sidama, continue to deepen over the government’s refusal to address statehood demands and implementation.
Given the destruction and the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Tigray and the crackdown against opposition forces across the country, the forthcoming election cannot be deemed credible or seen as a reliable democratic exercise. The conditions for a free, fair, and competitive election are simply not in place. Holding an election under the current situation serves only one purpose: to consolidate Abiy’s authoritarian grip on power while his viable opponents languish in prison, silenced and facing bogus charges. Importantly, unless some dramatic and well-supported alternative is introduced and a pathway negotiated among a range of stakeholders, it would not address any of the country’s explosive challenges. It would simply sharpen and exacerbate them.
Clearly, Bekele, Jawar, and other ignominiously detained political leaders have decided that they would rather die bringing attention to these grievous injustices than being inadvertently complicit in the travesty they see unfolding from behind bars.
The political crisis in Ethiopia is urgent, and the stakes could not be higher. Dealing with this unprecedented crisis demands a sober and mature reflection on the country’s complex past and the diverse political loyalties, views, and sentiments that organize and structure contemporary debate about Ethiopia’s future. The government’s authoritarian turn and its fierce determination to silence every critical voice and impose its preferred vision of the future on Ethiopia’s diverse population will have calamitous consequences far beyond the country’s borders. Ethiopia is already facing an existential crisis, and the very continuity of the Ethiopian state as a united and cohesive entity is on the line.
The Tigray war already ruptured the thread that tied the Ethiopian body-politic together; the government’s imperious march to impose a new political settlement has proven deadly. It is the primary driver of the war in Tigray. In fact, the hostilities in the north drew attention from the mounting challenges in other regions, particularly those areas in Oromia and the Southern region where illegal Command Posts have been in effect since 2018. The risk of state disintegration is likely without external intervention to salvage a semblance of peace and balance.
To avoid further bloodshed and the prospect of state collapse, Prime Minister Abiy must be encouraged to demonstrate leadership in prioritizing the country’s well-being. If advised to return the country to the transitional process and begin the indispensable work of promoting reconciliation and building national consensus, he might play a constructive role in facilitating a plausible pathway forward for Ethiopia. The only way to avoid plunging Ethiopia into the abyss is by initiating an all-inclusive national dialogue and securing a constitutional settlement for the country. This requires, first and foremost, releasing all political prisoners and widening the political space, once again, to facilitate and foster a spirit of dialogue. Such a national dialogue must precede the election to have any legitimacy or impact.
However, it appears that the government is planning to muddle through until the election, where Abiy hopes to secure a five-year mandate in a poll in which he would be the only real contender and the outcome of which is predetermined. Having jailed popular opposition voices within Oromia, the largest electoral constituency in the country, and Addis Ababa, the metropolis where the federal government sits, Abiy seems to believe that securing the five-year mandate will allow him much needed time and authority to consolidate power further and micromanage Ethiopia’s political settlement.
Ethiopia’s allies and partners, particularly the U.S. government, could play a critically important role by understanding this broader context for the crisis in Ethiopia and acting to intervene. Abiy had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to usher in a democratic transition. Unfortunately, he has squandered enormous national and international goodwill, which was topped off by the Nobel Prize. To pursue an all-inclusive national dialogue is to try to salvage Ethiopia’s configuration as the world knows it.
This project has far-reaching geographical and historical consequences for Ethiopia and U.S. interests in the region. As President Biden rekindles relations with Africa, Ethiopia should be atop that agenda. The Biden administration must prepare for a frank and open conversation with Abiy and other players in the region, making clear that an election with only one contestant is not acceptable and cannot receive the support or recognition of the United States.
In the short run, the lives of highly visible and respected individuals are at mortal risk. The clock is ticking. The prisoners themselves point to the fates of others. More than 30,000 young people who demonstrated peacefully to bring democratic rights to Ethiopia are detained in Oromia alone.
Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba, Hamza Borana, Abdi Ragassa, Gammachu Ayana, and other pro-democracy leaders and advocates of nonviolent social change are violently treated and jailed to facilitate Abiy’s political advantage. They must be released immediately and unconditionally. To avert the enormous consequences that will inevitably follow their deaths in detention, the U.S. government must lead the international community in proactively and publicly calling for their release.