Tedla Woldeyohannes, Ph.D.
Since the announcement made by the Ethiopian Prime Minister on January 3rd, 2018 about releasing “political prisoners”, this topic has received a lot of attention and has become a sensational news item as well. In this article, I want to underscore a few points for the public to consider in the process of understanding the news about “political prisoners” in Ethiopia. One key thing to note at the very beginning: Millions of People in Ethiopia demanded for a release of all political prisoners or prisoners of conscience. There has never been a popular demand for a release of criminals of any type. The government denies that there is any political prisoner in Ethiopia, even one. The same government goes on and releases some prisoners—whom the regime calls politicians who allegedly have committed crimes—in short, criminals who happen to be politicians. The people demand, again, the release of all political prisoners. The government insists that there are no political prisoners to release.
In this preceding process, many people have come to believe that pressure from the people on the government is bearing fruit in the release of some political prisoners when the government did not admit the existence of even a single political prisoner. How can we explain this? : — The regime claims the number of political prisoners in Ethiopia is zero. The people demand a release of all political prisoners, which in the view of the government is releasing zero political prisoners. Note that “all” for the one group means “zero” for the other. Those who demand for “all” political prisoners are by no means saying their demand is for a release of “zero” political prisoners. Also, why does the release of some “criminals” who happen to be politicians, according to the regime, count as releasing political prisoners, according to the people who have been demanding the release of political prisoners?
Let us be clear on what is going on when we use the term “political prisoners” since this term has acquired different meanings, especially intentionally given to it by the regime in power to score some important political points at the expense of what is actually happening in reality. Just one day after the news that the Ethiopian Prime Minister announced the release of what has come to be reported as “political prisoners”, the Prime Minister’s office corrected the BBC report that stated political prisoners were going to be released by claiming that those who would be released are politicians who have allegedly committed some crimes. To say that there are politicians who have allegedly committed various crimes does not mean that these same people are political prisoners or prisoners of conscience according to the regime. The way we use words can have significant consequences and hence the main reason for this piece. Let’s consider the following points.
First, to see one consequence of the government’s denial that there are political prisoners in Ethiopia when lots of media outlets report, including lots of social media [Facebook] posts talk about the release of some political prisoners, we must pause and ask: Who is benefiting from such confusion? When the regime denies the existence of political prisoners in Ethiopia, why, especially, would citizens who have been demanding the release of ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS talk about the release of political prisoners when the government releases some prisoners and calls them politicians who have allegedly committed some crimes? Aren’t the same citizens who demand a release of all political prisoners inadvertently helping the government in the government’s attempt to confuse people, especially the international community, by appearing that the government is making some important changes in its relation to political dissidents? Aren’t the people inadvertently helping the government by spreading the narrative the government desperately wants that states the government has begun making a real change in the right direction when it fact that is not the case? A realistic and a correct response to the government has to be demanding that the government clearly, unequivocally admit that there are political prisoners in Ethiopia for which the government must take a responsibility. This has never happened and it matters—it’s not just a matter of disagreement about the definition of political prisoners. The denial of the existence of political prisoners has significant practical consequences. The public must continue to demand until the regime unequivocally admits that it targets citizens for their political beliefs and begins to practically stop doing so with compelling evidence that shows there is a real change.
Second, let’s ask this question: What is the point of releasing some politicians who have allegedly committed crimes? Remember that the government is claiming that the release of some of these prisoners is to open up space for democracy and national reconciliation. But the whole premise or condition for opening up space for democracy and national reconciliation is based on a façade or farcical reason which is simply false. A government can’t open up a democratic space *without first admitting* that there is a fundamental problem, i.e., there is a serious lack of democratic space to begin with. Holding prisoners of conscience for their political beliefs is anti-democratic, or it is a clear and an egregious violation of the rights of citizens to peacefully organize themselves in order to promote their political views. If there has never been political prisoners to begin with, and consequently no political prisoners are released because there are none to begin with, why use releasing some prisoners as evidence for meeting one of the conditions for a democratic process and national reconciliation? The bottom-line: Without clearly *admitting* that there are political prisoners and without releasing *all* political prisoners without any precondition, the regime is only engaging in releasing *some prisoners*, which so many groups call political prisoners, which they actually are, but the regime would not call them as such. At the end of the day, the key difference between what the government calls some of the released prisoners and what the public call them is not a matter of semantics, or the meaning of words or a verbal dispute. The consequence of what is going on cannot be emphasized enough: Without admitting that there are political prisoners or prisoners of conscience, the government has no ground to claim that it has made a real change regarding one of the essential conditions to open up a democratic space and a ground for national reconciliation. To release prisoners who happen to be politicians and also who allegedly have said to have committed various crimes does not address the most important question whether the regime is genuinely committed to opening up a space for democracy and national reconciliation. The answer is clearly no, not at all.
The public must bear in mind this: The refusal by the government to admit that it targets citizens for their political beliefs and then arrests them and charges them with various crimes using or rather abusing laws such as the anti-terrorism law, and at times releases some of them as pardoned criminals who happen to be politicians is compelling evidence that there is no real change in how this same government treats citizens for their political beliefs. This same pattern of operation by the regime is also evidence that there is no guarantee or even the slightest assurance that the government will stop persecuting citizens for their political beliefs and peaceful activities that are consistent with their political beliefs. Therefore, to give credit that this government has made a real change and has taken a step in the right direction as many have said when it comes to political prisoners is only spreading the narrative the regime wants and to be fooled again and again by the same tricks of the same government.
Finally, note that I am not denying that some prisoners have been released and these prisoners are political prisoners. My key point is that to give credit to the regime by saying the regime is making real change in how it treats political prisoners and is now opening up a space for democracy and national reconciliation is wrong since opening up space for democracy and national reconciliation requires unequivocally admitting that there was a serious lack of democracy to begin with that led to targeting citizens for their political beliefs and consequently citizens have been arrested and tortured for their political views. There is no evidence to believe that the regime is making any real change in this important direction. Failing to demand that the regime bring about a real change is failing to fight the regime where the real issue is. Releasing some prisoners calling them politicians who have allegedly committed crimes is a cosmetic change that must not count as a real, genuine change. The struggle for a real change must continue.
Tedla Woldeyohannes teaches philosophy at Southwestern Illinois College and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org