African Path -- After a long trial of more than 100 opposition members, which Amnesty International labeled “prisoners of conscience,” the Ethiopian court has found 38 top opposition leaders guilty of charges related to the violent protests following the 2005 elections. According to BBC, the reduced charges ranged from armed rebellion to “outrage against the constitution.” More discouraging to Ethiopian voters is that the convicted democrats might face life imprisonment or even a death sentence.
Even though many wished for the prisoners’ release, most Ethiopians are not surprised by this verdict since the court is not independent in the first place. Following a post election violence where security forces killed 193 protesters & rioters, but even worse, massacred several bystanders; an independent inquiry unsurprisingly concluded that the security forces used excessive force. Not much different from what has been happening in Ethiopia for numerous decades, the government silenced this independent inquiry and charged the heroes of the victims – the leaders of the main opposition party CUD.
The government claims that it has caught the charged opposition members red-handed with audio and video evidence as well as with witnesses who testified of assassination attempts and plans to overthrow the government by unconstitutional means. Certainly, just like all political groups in Ethiopia, there are many fundamental issues with some of the opposition groups. However many remain suspicious of the government’s claims. With the exception of pro-CUD rioters disobeying the brief ban on demonstration during the tense post-election period and with the exception of the vast evidence showing a CUD faction being allied with armed militants in Eritrea who have often carried out both terrorist attacks and military operations against the government, there doesn’t seem to other reliable public evidence to charge any faction of the CUD party. In general, the charges that led to this conviction were not centered on any of the public evidence but only relied on the other vague evidences the government claims to have.
The post-election violence’s victims, including some who were taken down with single bullet wound to the head, now have families who are being ruled by a government that has let the real killers free while politically sentencing the dream of the victims. So far, not one of the security forces who sprayed bullets has been charged.
A bumpy road ahead for Ethiopian democracy
The only good news in Ethiopia during the last two years has been that more than 90% of the opposition elects have joined the parliament. But that appears to be just for looks, nothing more.
Joining a parliament demands the opposition parties to bring some kind of change, create democratic institutions and play a role in improving the daily life of the population however the current Ethiopian parliament is very constrained. Even though the ruling party has recently made some concessions to accommodate the opposition MPs, it still controls everything in Ethiopia. Evidently the court as well as the security forces, the media and high positions in almost every level of the government are completely controlled by the ruling party. Currently, there is no institution that can check the ruling party, or if does so it would be risking its life. It is an understatement to say whatever small level of democracy that existed in Ethiopia has backslided to a dangerous level.
Due to the lack of independent media, propaganda and violent media outlets sponsored by militant organizations (operating mostly from the outside) have filled the void – reducing the chance for political stability. Thus the current verdict has just added another reason and excuse for more undemocratic groups to take their fight to the front line instead of choosing the hard & democratic way. The scene is very similar to that of the previous government where institutions are dominated by one group of people. The only difference between 1980s and today is that famine is not killing millions of Ethiopia and hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians did not get executed. But for Ethiopians, who have already stopped comparing governments and have started demanding real democracy, the current situation appears worse and will stay this way unless drastic reforms take place.