Quiet riot in Ethiopia

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / October 22, 2008

Modernizing savagery?

This past week an official report on riot control entitled “Modernizing Internal Security in Ethiopia” was posted online1. The report, prepared for the ruling regime in Ethiopia in July 2008 by retired British colonel Michael Dewars, summarizes findings and recommendations of an “assessment” study completed under the auspices of an Anglo-Ethiopian “think tank”. According to Col. Dewars a “number of experts on Ethiopia, including HE the Ethiopian Ambassador in London and an ex-British Ambassador to Ethiopia” had been meeting on the subject at the Ethiopian embassy in London beginning in May, 2007. Regime official Tefera Waluwa, in a letter dated January 2, 2008, instructed Col. Dewars to “complete an initial assessment” and “make recommendations designed to create a modern security force that will function effectively by using strategies designed to pre-empt civil unrest which threatens the security of the State of Ethiopia and its People,… and on the equipping and training of such a Security force.”

Col. Dewars’ report is as revealing as it is curiously self-contradictory. Dewars writes that “it is impossible to consider any aspect of Security today without putting it in the context of Human Rights in Ethiopia.” But he found it “enormously challenging” to “teach human rights conventions and norms set against the background of a complex mosaic of age-old customs and patterns of coexistence among some eighty different geographically ethnically diverse national groups speaking some two hundred languages.” He is dismissive of the advocates at Amnesty International (AI) for their naïvete and for their lack of real understanding of the Somali situation. He claims AI “makes little or no effort to take account of the realities of the Somali situation or of the fact that Somalia is currently engaged in a counter-terrorist struggle.” He asserts that the humanitarian crisis in Somalia is not the result of human rights abuses or “largely the responsibility of Ethiopian troops.” He congratulates the ruling regime in Ethiopia for “much laudable effort put into Human Rights programmes.”

Col. Dewars offers recommendations at two levels: 1) launching a propaganda campaign to present a kinder and gentler international face for the regime, and 2) improvements in logistical and tactical support for the Riot Police. Col. Dewars recommends that since “the Western press tends unthinkingly to take AI at its word,” it is important that the “AI lobby…be countered with a PR campaign that emphasises progress in the Human Right area and underlines positive change.” Regarding the Riot Control Police, Col. Dewars documented that they “are currently three times the size they were in 2005” when “anti-government riots” took place, and currently remain in good condition. They have “perfectly acceptable set of personal equipment” which includes “helmet, including neck protection, and visor, boots, protective leggings, baton, and shield.” Col. Dewars believes “the basic equipment they now have is perfectly adequate and should remain so for some years.” But he is concerned that the Riot Police have very little to do with their time. He noted that the “Riot Police appeared to be trained as riot police only so that most of their time is spent waiting for riots to happen.” He recommended that the idle “elements of Riot Control Divisions/Battalions be ‘double-hatted’ by giving them other additional responsibilities.”

Col. Dewars visited the Police College which appeared to be “a well run and impressive facility”. He noted that during his visit “the Commandant was not available, no training was in progress, classrooms were empty and the gate was not manned.” During a three-hour conversation, the Director General of the Ethiopian Federal Police told Col. Dewars that he “ ‘regretted a lot’, the bad publicity generated [by the police killings of unarmed protesters] in 2005. He had wished very much for a better outcome. As a direct result of the 2005 riots, he sacked 237 policemen.”

Col. Dewars was totally horrified when he visited detention facilities in an Addis Ababa sector police station.” He recounted:

I asked to go into the compound where the prisoners are kept. This consisted of a long yard with a shed to one side which provided some sort of shelter. The compound had a wall around it and a watchtower for an armed sentry overlooking it. Inside must have been 70 – 80 inmates, all in a filthy state. There was insufficient room for all these people to lie down on a mat at once. There was no lighting. The place stank of faeces and urine. There appeared to be no water or sanitation facilities within the compound. There was a small hut in an adjacent compound for women prisoners but there had been no attempt by anybody to improve the circumstances of the place. The prisoners were mostly on remand for minor crimes, in particular theft. Some had been there for months. There was one young boy among the prisoners, who appeared to me to be 12 or 13 years of age, who was weeping and pleading to speak to me so I asked him how old he was. He said 13. He certainly could not possibly have been older than 15. When I asked what the minimum age for holding prisoners in this facility was, one policeman said 18, another 15. In any event, he stayed there.

Col. Dewars concluded, “Detention conditions of prisoners are a disgrace and make the Federal Police vulnerable to the Human Rights lobby.” He “recommended that the Government should investigate this situation with the intention of improving the current appalling conditions inside Ethiopian prisons, which must brutalise prisoners and their goalers equally. It is recommended that senior Ethiopian Ministers and Police Officers visit the prison that I visited.”

What is a Riot Anyway?

“A riot is the language of the unheard,” said Dr. Martin Luther King. But according to the 2004 “Criminal Code of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia” (Proclamation No.414/2004), Art. 488, “rioting” consists of an act in which a person “of his own free will, takes part in an unlawful assembly in the course of which violence is done collectively to person or property.” The punishment for “rioting” is “simple imprisonment not exceeding one month, or fine.” Inciting or conspiring to cause a riot will fetch “organizers, instigators or ringleaders” a “fine and simple imprisonment for not less than six months, or, in grave cases, with rigorous imprisonment not exceeding five years and fine.” The punishment of “rigorous imprisonment not exceeding three years” is prescribed for “all persons who have individually committed acts of violence against persons or property.” As a matter of law, “rioting” under Art. 488 is an offense against the public peace and good order; and proof of “unlawful assembly”, intent to provide mutual assistance in the use or threat of use of force or violence or other unlawful act against persons or property, and present ability to immediately act resulting in disturbance of the peace are required. Peaceful meetings, gatherings and assemblies do not fit the definition of “rioting” under Art. 488, and are perfectly legitimate forms of expression protected by the “Ethiopian” constitution. For instance, Article 30 (Freedom of Assembly, Public Demonstration and the Right to Petition) guarantees that “Everyone shall have the freedom, in association with others, to peaceably assemble without arms, engage in public demonstration and the right to petition. Article 31 (Right to Association) provides “Everyone shall have the right to form associations for whatever purpose.

The “Riots” of 2005

In June and November, 2005, troops loyal to the Zenawi regime opened fire on groups of unarmed “rioters” in various parts of the country. According to the official Inquiry Commission, the police shot and killed 193 persons (mostly young people) and wounded 763 others allegedly involved “riots.”2 Seven riot police officers allegedly died during the “riot”. An additional 65 prisoners at Kality prison were shot and killed in “disturbances” (after “1500 bullets were fired”) on or about November 1, 2005. The Commission also documented the arrest and detention of 30,000 persons on suspicion of involvement in the 2005 “riots”. The Commission concluded that the persons killed and wounded during the “riots” were just unarmed protesters. The police systematically attacked protesters and used wrongful, disproportionate, unlawful and illegitimate deadly force. By an 8-2 vote, the Inquiry Commission determined: “a) There was no property destroyed. b) There was not a single protester who was armed with a gun or a hand grenade (as reported by the government-controlled media that some of the protesters were armed with guns and bombs). (See Article 30 above.) c) The Commission members agreed that the shots fired by government forces were not to disperse the crowd of protesters but to kill by targeting the head and chest of the protesters. For this reason, it was clear that the law was violated, and government forces had used excessive force.”

Commission Chairman Judge Frehiwot Samuel further commented, “Many people were killed arbitrarily. Old men were killed while in their homes, and children were also victims of the attack while playing in the garden.” History will also remember the heartless and bone-chilling remarks of Elias Redman, one of the Commission members, who said, “I consider the motive of the protesters was to overthrow the government. I therefore fully support the action taken by the police.”

The Significance of the Dewars Report

The Dewars report is remarkable for what it reveals and for its recommendations. It should not be taken lightly. The report lends extraordinary insight into the regime’s lack of basic understanding (or willful ignorance) of the meaning and exercise of the fundamental human rights to peaceful assembly and protest. These rights include peaceful marches, rallies, demonstrations and even picketing, among others. Most importantly, they include the right to engage in civil disobedience (active refusal to obey certain laws without resorting to physical violence). Gandhi used civil disobedience as a primary tactic of nonviolent resistance against the British. He taught that “Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the state has become lawless or corrupt. And a citizen who barters with such a state shares in its corruption and lawlessness.” Many African countries got their independence through mass acts of civil disobedience. Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Steve Biko passionately advocated and engaged in civil disobedience to oppose the policies of apartheid South Africa. Dr. Martin Luther King’s leadership of the American civil rights movement was based largely on Gandhian principles of civil disobedience.

What is disquieting about Col. Dewars’ report is that his approach to “riot control” is based on outmoded “police vs. rioters” mentality, which in the Ethiopian context could encourage the Riot Police to resort to beating or shooting “rioters” as an act of first resort than using more modern psychological methods of crowd control and management techniques. That may be understandable given Col. Dewars’ field experience in riot control. He served several tours of duty in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. No doubt, there are few places in the world that have experienced more sectarian violence and “rioting” than Northern Ireland; and it quite possible that his military approach to riot control may have been shaped by his experiences there. Col. Dewar's book, War in the Streets: The Story of Urban Combat from Calais to Khafji, is all about “military operations on urban terrain”, “urban combat,” and “conventional warfare in an urban environment”. If the regime is indeed interested in preventing the recurrence of the “mistakes” of 2005, one would reasonably expect them to look for experts in more modern approaches to dealing with popular protests. As demonstrated in 2005, the Riot Police in Ethiopia are second to none in treating riots as "urban combat."

To critique Col. Dewars’ approach and “epistemic” orientation to riot control is not to diminish the significance of his factual findings or impugn his integrity. His report is factual and untainted by intellectual dishonesty. He calls it as he sees it. His findings lend solid support to an already existing body of evidence documenting widespread human rights abuses by the regime. For instance, Col. Dewars’ factual findings on the “disgraceful” prison conditions have been reported previously by a variety of international human rights organizations. In its 2008 report, Amnesty International concluded, “Prison conditions for most political prisoners were harsh. Conditions in most parts of Kaliti prison in Addis Ababa, where the CUD trial defendants and several hundred untried OLF suspects were held, were overcrowded and unhygienic.” In its 2006 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices the U.S. State Department found pretty much what Col. Dewars found in 2008, including imprisonment of juveniles with adults (which violates Article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child): “Prison and pretrial detention center conditions remained very poor, and overcrowding continued to be a serious problem. Prisoners often were allocated fewer than 21.5 square feet of sleeping space each in a room that could contain up to 200 persons…. Prison conditions were unsanitary, and access to medical care was unreliable. There was no budget for prison maintenance. In detention centers police often physically abused detainees… Authorities sometimes incarcerated juveniles with adults if they could not be accommodated at the juvenile remand home. There was only one juvenile remand home for children under age 15, with the capacity to hold 150 children.”

Turn Over the Dirty Dozens to the International Criminal Court for Prosecution

Undoubtedly, the most surprising and welcome finding in Col. Dewars’ report is his revelation that the Director General of the Ethiopian Federal Police told him “As a direct result of the 2005 riots, he sacked 237 policemen.” The ruling regime had previously denied specific knowledge of any criminal conduct by riot policemen in the killings of the protesters. The Director General’s admission to Col. Dewars conclusively establishes the existence of a list of at least 275 police officers who are now prime suspects in the massacres of peaceful protesters in June and November of 2005. THESE CRIMINAL POLICE SUSPECTS SHOULD BE BROUGHT TO JUSTICE IMMEDIATELY!

Just a few days ago in Kenya, the Commission of Inquiry Into Post-Election Violence (The “Waki Commission” headed by Justice Philip Waki and established to investigate post-election violence in the aftermath of the Kenyan elections last December) called for a special tribunal to investigate and prosecute various civilians and police officials involved in criminal conduct during the political violence. The Commission recommended that a special tribunal be created to “seek accountability against personas bearing the greatest responsibility for crimes, particularly crimes against humanity, relating to the 2007 General Elections in Kenya.” Alternatively, the Waki Commission recommended that a sealed list of suspects be turned over to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. All Ethiopians committed to justice, human rights and the rule of law should demand that a sealed list of the names of these 275 police officers be turned over immediately to the International Criminal Court for prosecution on suspicion of crimes against humanity!

Quiet Riots Taking Place Every Day in Ethiopia

Barack Obama recently talked about a “quiet riot” among African Americans “that threatens to erupt just as riots in Los Angeles did 15 years ago”. Barack captured the sense of despair and hopelessness among African Americans locked out of the American Dream when he said, “quiet riots happen when a sense of disconnect settles in and hope dissipates. Despair takes hold and young people all across this country look at the way the world is and believe that things are never going to get any better… That despair quietly simmers and makes it impossible to build strong communities and neighborhoods. And then one afternoon a jury says, ‘not guilty’ -- or a hurricane hits New Orleans -- and that despair is revealed for the world to see.” One could say a “quiet riot” has been building up in Ethiopia for the past 17 years. Today, one-third of the population is facing famine or remains on the brink of famine. According to a report a few days ago in the British paper, The Times, “Britain is to withhold future aid commitments to Ethiopia over concerns that its Government is obstructing efforts to help millions at risk of famine in the drought-stricken Somali region in the east of the country.” Inflation in Ethiopia has reached historic highs. It is not an exaggeration to say that international remittances by Diaspora Ethiopians keep the regime barely afloat. The war in Somalia drains the country’s limited resources and Ethiopian youth are sacrificed in a war of aggression that can never be won. There is a quiet riot going on in Ethiopia today!

The Fire Next Time

The massacre of hundreds of unarmed protesters in the aftermath of the 2005 elections in Ethiopia was a moral clarion call for some of us who had been observing a long train of human rights abuses and abuses of power from the sidelines, though with deep sadness and anguish. As Rome burned and Nero fiddled, some of us sat idly by from a distance watching the roaring fire consume our homeland. Everyday we worshipped at the altar of denial: “There is nothing we can do. It is a lost cause. It is hopeless.” Then we came face to face with the images of the hundreds of men, women and children who were slaughtered in the police riots of 2005. That massacre triggered in our consciences a volcanic eruption of moral outrage. The silence of the lambs slaughtered in June and November, 2005, and the thousands of other victims known only to God, became a deafening cry of help for the living, for those who riot quietly every day against dictatorship and oppression. Then we realized that Edmund Burke had been right all along: “All that is necessary for evil to persist is for enough good men (and women) to do nothing”. Never, never, never again will we find ourselves doing nothing! We know Col. Dewars was hired to do window dressing for a ruthless dictatorship that is trying to desperately avoid criticism and condemnation by Western donor governments and international human rights organizations. We understand that, but we are not fooled. We believe as Dr. King has taught us, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Those who choose to disregard this truth are well-advised to heed the words of the old Negro spiritual: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. Said no more water, but the fire next time.”

1 Modernizing Internal Security in Ethiopia

2 For the list of persons massacred by police, see http://www.mdhe.org/doc/personskilled%20.pdf

The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at almariam@gmail.com