The long time professor of Ethiopian and African politics at the Addis Ababa University and leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress was picked up by security forces upon his arrival from a speaking engagement in Brussels at the beginning of December 2016. According to the state run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, Dr Merera Gudina was arrested “for breaching article two of the first directive (of the state of emergency) that prohibits any contact and communication with outlawed terrorist organization.” In a classic case of Ethiopian law enforcement—arrest then investigate—he had to remain behind bars for three months before charges were finally brought. As if to give credence to the case, Dr Berhanu Nega, Jawar Mohammed and the foreign based media companies of Ethiopian Satellite Television and Oromia Media Network have been added to the accused list.
Though this one came at a later stage in his political life, Merera is not new to life in prison. He spent seven years of his youth in jail for his role as a MEISON (All Ethiopian Socialist Movement) organizer when that party fell out with the military dictatorship.
For the last two decades Merera has been treading a fine line to avoid prison, a universal destiny of the country’s political opponents worthy of the name. His fate, however, was sealed with a photo shot seems to have purposefully been posted on the social media. It shows the veteran academic sitting in between leader of the outlawed opposition Ginbot 7, Dr Berhanu Nega and the Rio Olympic marathon silver medallist-turned activist, Feyisa Lilesa. Truth be told, the OFC leader looks tense in that picture, hardly an indicator of cordiality, much less a coconspirator. May be looks are not deceiving after all!
The naked truth is: the three were speakers at the hearings; equally important Berhanu and Merera were activists since their student days in the mid seventies; should we mention both were professors of their respective trades at AAU?
The born again
Merera tiptoed into the nation’s politics in the mid 1990s. He likes to say dragged into it. He may be referring to a series of articles and the ensuing back and forth with the leaders and supporters of the Oromo Liberation Front in the now defunct Amharic monthly Tobia magazine. That debate appears to have been one of the reasons for him to come up with a newly minted outfit, the Oromo National Congress.The party was formed with a craft of an astute politician that was giving the identity driven ruling pack a run for the money. Not only did ONC borrow part of their name from the legendary African National Congress but also espoused the idea of ‘one man one vote’ that served a rallying cry for the struggle in the apartheid South Africa.
When ONC made strides in the 2005 general elections, it provoked the ire of the incumbent whose long hands triggered infighting among the party ranks.Then the Electoral Board interfered and awarded the name to a splintered group. Merera had to steer the ship with a different name. Fortunately, his personality outweighed the wrangling to draw even more support. While his contribution in the Parliament is up for debate, the one-term member was famous for his sarcasm and humour that kept the sleepy House lively when he was in attendance.
Say what you will but the 61-year-old is among a handful of public intellectuals whose ideas have transcended the bounds of lecture halls. His PHD thesis ‘Ethiopia: Competing Ethnic Nationalism and the Quest for Democracy,1960 – 2000’ was published to the wider readership. The highly acclaimed 2013 semi-memoir ‘The complexity of Ethiopian politics and looking back through the years’(in Amharic) was reprinted multiple times. Scores of reviews and counter claims by people who got a mention in the publication added to the controversy. His active political engagement, the writings, the interviews he gives, and his close to thirty years teaching experience at his alma mater—which ended after months of public acrimony over contract and credential issues— makes him an illustrious campaigner.
A day in court
The statements of the charge is a lesson in sloppiness at the prosecutor’s office. A sentence can go for a full two pages without a stop, making it difficult to comprehend the specific offenses committed. The stereotypical: incitement, overthrowing constitutional system, outrage against constitution didn’t disappoint either, all on board.
The first charge simply makes Dr Merera the mastermind of all the protests that took place since November 2015. What is baffling is why the government had to wait for over a year to bring him to book? Why was he never charged while in the country? This is where the overseas travel comes in handy with a picture to prove the otherwise lame case. So it was not the alleged communication with ‘terrorists’ per se that was important but the opportunity it provided to justify the arrest.
The immediate cause for the government move “contact and communication with outlawed terrorist organization” got a faint mention in the charge stating in one line “he met with the second suspect Professor Berhanu on November 11, 2016, in Belgium” and that was exactly the day when the three addressed the European Parliament on the situation in Ethiopia. In other words, Merera was charged for a sitting arrangement that probably is not his own making. And from the list of 28 evidences none is about the contact between him and Ginbot 7.
Some of the charges are ludicrous, to say the least.Even doubting the security forces assertions comes with consequences.The fact that the academician didn’t buy claims of bravado in an interview with the Voice of America some three years ago turned out to be a criminal offense.
From the outset it seems the case is going to keep dragging for a while. Merera has been denied bail, though still fighting that one in the supreme court. In a country where all institutions are the extension of the executive, it is inconceivable to think the judiciary will be any different. While giving the courts the benefit of the doubt is apparently what the defense is set out to do, this is hardly a criminal matter that can be solved on the benches of the High Court.