Tuesday, September 20, 2022

The Smear Campaign Against the Smallest Attempt to Pacificism in Ethiopia

My observation of the repressive culture of political groups in order to monopolize the political narrative in and around Ethiopia. 

As I mostly do, I write this piece to express my frustration, not my surprise. 

Recently, starting in mid-August 2022, a few civil society organizations leaders have gathered to consult to make our voices for peace collectively; for sustainable peace. To come up with a shared statement was not an easy task to do. We have done it on the eve of the Ethiopian new year in early September 2021 and it was difficult; it is difficult again a year later even though for the past few months, major warring parties in the Tigray war, have silenced their guns for humanitarian truce after the Ethiopian government unilaterally declared and the TPLF later accepted it conditionally. Even though the guns were temporarily silenced, the war propaganda was escalating slowly. We were worried because if the war starts again, we are going back to the era which is worse than we are in. That time, even though a peacebuilding process didn't start, at least people were not dying on daily basis. Therefore, we wanted to be stronger in our calls. The purpose was to renew the peace call from last year but also to actually encourage involved parties to resume their peace talk and stop the heated exchange of words. 

In the planning meeting, everyone has their own interpretation of words and phrases to be used. Everyone is overly concerned about how that party or this party misunderstands our messages; we are worried about the reactions of the media, social media, and every other stakeholder. We didn't want the controversies over anecdotes to cover the message. We thought it is our chance to make 'peace' at the epic center of the political discourse. By doing so, we thought we can make violent conflicts difficult for any party that might choose it. 

We have managed to reach the last draft and started to disseminate it to other CSOs who want to endorse it via email. The number of signatories started to grow and we have finally reached 35. Last year, only 24 CSOs have signed on it. This year, on May 3 when we renewed the call to hold on to the humanitarian truce with a call for sustainable peace and unfettered access to media freedom, we have 20 signatories. This is by far the biggest number but we didn't do enough effort, to keep it growing. We were competing with time. We believe people have had enough to reach the fatigue of war. 

The press conference was scheduled for September 6, 2022. It was scheduled to be held in the Interluxury Hotel (aka Intercontinental hotel). Unfortunately, some plain-clothed security officers had reached the hotel before representatives of the CSOs and journalists invited arrived. They already notified the hotel that the event cannot be held and denied us permission to enter the press conference room. It was a scary moment as we are familiar with what this means. This means that the government is not only happy about what we do - it is expected as we are putting pressure on it because it is our mandate as civil society organizations - but also it has decided to be bold about it. We know the ban on this press conference is not legal, but we are aware that we live in a country where rule of law can simply be undermined by the decision of the executive branch of the government. 

Personally, I was terrified. I always lived in traumatic fear of prosecution for trying to contribute to the achievement of the dignified citizenry and democratization of Ethiopia because it is well known that the attempt for genuine contribution cannot be taken as a good sign by all political actors. They, both government and other political actors, react in accordance with their interests. Both use disinformation, smear campaigns, and physical intimidation as they find convenient. This time, the government is banning a press conference and many questions came to my mind. Would they jail me for this? No, they don't, they will make other excuses, I answer my own question. Would they shut down the organization I work for? I couldn't be sure of anything but my mind couldn't take the issue less seriously. 

Fast rewind a few days earlier, just after we have jointly started to draft the call for peace, the war in Tigray broke out. One of our colleagues at the Center for the Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD) raised the issue that we need to urgently issue a quick call for de-escalation; we agreed and it was posted on our socials. 

That quick call for peace and de-escalation of conflicts and war propaganda, rather, attracted unexpected backlash from one of the biggest opposition groups, namely the Ethiopian Citizens' for Social Justice Party (known as Ezema) and a party that is strongly criticized for its unprincipled affiliation with the ruling party of Abiy Ahmed, the Prosperity Party. Senior members of Ezema, including the Head of Public Relations, Mulualem Tegegnework, who on his Facebook post accused CARD of "passing the redline". The former head of the party's PR also said the people behind the statement "a bunch of comfortable hypocrites". Another member of the party wrote an open letter to CARD with the accusation that claimed that our call for peace has systematically supported a group that is labeled by the Ethiopian parliament as a terrorist group. Other party members cheered their opinions in their own posts and comments to these posts. The commentators included Girma Seifu, a member of Ezema's executive committee and Prosperity Party appointed Commissioner of Investment Commission of Addis Ababa, who said "they [CARD] are trying to please their payers... isn't it their job?" sarcastically implying that CSOs receive funding from international partners like the Ethiopian government does. Girma and others said this repeatedly as if a genuine peace call cannot be imagined from Ethiopians. This opinion of them cannot be changed however we tried to initiate the call by and from all Ethiopian-led and locally established civil society organizations. The smear campaign by the members of Ezema and by some supporters of the Prosperity Party continued until today when I wrote this piece of a personal note. The government seems to have heard them. 

The controversial meeting at the Elilley hotel came after the release of the banned press conference which was released virtually on the same day. On September 9, hundreds of CSOs representatives, including myself, gathered in the meeting hall of the Elilley hotel with the invitation from the Authority to the Civil Society Organizations (ACSO) informing us that the meeting was called by the Prime Minister Office (PMO). The meeting started when Alemu Sime, Coordination Minister of the Democratic System Building Center at the PMO, Jima Dilbo, General Director of the ACSO, and Fassikaw Molla, Deputy General Director of ACSO took over the podium. Minister Alemu Sime did a brief story of how the conflict between the TPLF and the Federal Army started reinforcing that the TPLF started it and asked the audience to argue if there is a difference between 'the established fact' or demanded to abide by it if there isn't. He further asserted that "the 35 CSOs" who have come up with "an urgent peace call" have made the sin of "equating the TPLF with the Federal Army that is dying to protect the sovereignty of Ethiopia". Minister Alemu reassured that the use of the term "warring parties" is not acceptable by the government of Ethiopia. The tone of the Minister speaking this to us has been more than the mentioned criticism. He surely wanted to be very obvious about the fact that we are not allowed to make such kinds of statements. "Call us dictators if you want," he said, "we will suppress you for the country". He concluded the daily briefing after the floor was opened for question and answer by saying that "if you want to back the Ethiopian Army, you are welcome; otherwise shut up!"

It was more shocking to hear other CSOs who conformed to the messages of the official who threatened the CSOs. Most of the CSO representatives who have spoken reaffirmed Minister Alemu's messages. Some of them accused us of 'selling our country for leftover food', a metaphorical expression to say that we are like paid agents, denying our agency to make thoughtful decisions. A representative of a CSO from Bishoftu was even blatant that he is a supporter of the Prosperity Party and showed it by reading a poem he wrote for the Prime Minister of Ethiopia for which the crowd applauded. 

It is not surprising that some of the local CSO representatives wanted to comfort the Minister at the cost of "the 35 CSOs" who requested a genuine peaceful resolution to conflicts. The same people have survived the repressive age of CSOs between 2009 and 2019 with a similar gesture of assurance that they stand with the narrative of the then-ruling party. 

Similarly, we have been experiencing defamatory campaigns from the political camps of the TPLF supporters online. They accused us of working for the ruling party without a single shred of evidence for the mere fact that we existed in Ethiopia. Some others laughably expected us to spare the TPLF while we demand peace from the Ethiopian government as if the conflict is happening from only one side. Others do not want us to speak anything about conflicts and its cost in many parts of Ethiopia other than the war in the North.  Though, without evidence, some have continuously, tried to kill our repetition among international human rights organizations by writing mass emails with their labels against us. None of them knew that, with or without local or international allies, some of us are here to the long struggle against violence, towards dignified life and liberty. 

I should close out this piece by reminding my personal determination for non-violent civic-engagement. I have always despised violent means of struggle. Actually, my resentment against any kind of violence has shaped most of my opinions. Back in 2015, when I was in prison for my blogging activity, I used to argue with other inmates that non-violence means of struggle is the only way forward to a stable political system building that will guarantee the safety of its citizens. My debates there even motivated me to smuggle a long piece of article on non-violent disobedience for democratization. Later, I stressed that my struggle is not motivated by a hero's adventure of violence but by the fear of violence. Many people argue in favor of the Machiavellian approach that "the end justifies the means" to mean that liberty comes after a probable victory of a war that sacrifices humans for other surviving humans' freedoms. This is far-fetched from the truth. There is no empirical evidence that warriors have brought liberty to their subjects.  Most wars end up changing repressive figures, not systems of repression. I can not support anyone's offer of violence in the name of liberty; I will die with my pacifist beliefs if that is what it takes.