The way to forgive and pardon the Derg

By Eskinder Nega / January 14, 2011
 As a brutal dictator, Mengistu lived violating the sovereignty of the people (1974-1991). As a ruthless mercenary, Meles Zenawi lives on violating the sovereignty of both the people and the country”Ethiomedia 
<a class= "As a brutal dictator, Mengistu lived violating the sovereignty of the people (1974-1991). As a ruthless mercenary, Meles Zenawi lives on violating the sovereignty of both the people and the country” Ethiomedia
Even after 37 years, Makonnen Endalkachew, only son of Endalkachew Mekonnen, icon of Ethiopia’s long entrenched elite and briefly the nation’s Prime Minister, explodes with unrestrained anger when the issue of pardon for Derg officials is raised. “For those that are actively pursuing this issue (pardon for Derg officials) and suggesting that justice has been already served, I have but one thing to say……SHAME ON YOU!” wrote Mekonnen. (What Price Justice? What Value Life?) “Due process was followed, and justice according to the Ethiopian Code of Law was delivered. That is more than can be said of the mock justice meted out by these individuals during their long time in power. As such, they should suffer the consequences of their actions and serve their sentences without any interference from supposed “concerned” external factions…… justice and history demands that, at the very least,” he summed up.

Another victim,Teshome Gebre-Mariam, a prominent lawyer, provocatively decries the very initiative of pardon itself (as opposed to the act of pardon by the government) as unconstitutional. "Viewed from the perspective of the unambiguous wording of Article 28 of the Constitution, which bars pardon to genocide convicts, the very act of seeking pardon (for Derg officials) runs counter to the Constitution. And that is an infringement of the statutes that obligate citizens to uphold the Constitution," Teshome has said to news outlets.

An informal (and unscientific) tally of victims' reactions to the pardon initiative reveal that a majority share Mekonnen's and Teshome's sentiment. Of those who dared to take a public stand, only one (to my knowledge), Mulugeta Asrate Kasa, a scion of Ethiopia's nobility who relishes controversy, has endorsed the pardon initiative. “It’s my duty as a Christian,” he has said to the surprise of many.

But in sharp contrast to Ethiopia, there is South Africa, where the trauma and wounds of Apartheid indisputably run deeper but the idea of reconciliation between victims and offenders had stirred much less controversy. “ I have been bowled over by the incredible humility one has experienced from the victims, both black and white, who have suffered as much as they have,” says Archbishop Desmond Tutu of his nation’s experience with forgiveness. “By rights, they should have been hate ridden by lust for revenge. They have exhilarated me by how ready they are to forgive. I have come to believe fervently that forgiveness is not just a spiritual and ethereal thing unrelated to the real world, the harsh world out there. I have to believe very fervently that without forgiveness, there is no future.”

And in Israel and Rwanda, where real genocide is a lived experience, two sharply contrasting perspectives---akin to that between Ethiopia and Israel---on forgiveness prevail. In Israel, a 2010 Haaretz online news recounted of an interesting poll. Marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Israelis were asked “if it was time to forgive the German people and Germany for crimes committed in the Holocaust.” The results were unexpected : 51 percent said they “totally disagreed with the sentiment;”19 percent “disagreed somewhat;”23 percent “were willing to forgive;” and 7 percent “had no opinion.” But in Rwanda, a process triggered by prison overcrowding, which forced the government to release 400,000 murder and rape suspects, eventuated in broad enthusiasm for the redemptive powers of personal and public forgiveness.

Where lie the differences and similarities between these countries? Ethiopia and Israel are apparently struggling with the issue of forgiveness, while South Africa and Rwanda embrace it with evident enthusiasm. Could it be that Ethiopia and Israel reel in punitive cultures, where forgiveness is scorned as a betrayal of victims---particularly the dead?

At a glance, the answer would be in the affirmative. Both Ethiopia and Israel, after all, share national self-perceptions which emphasize austerity, discipline and military prowess. Any appearance of weakness---personal or collective---is ardently ridiculed. But dig a little deeper and the real reasons for the stark differences lie elsewhere.

In both South Africa and Rwanda, the public ritual for forgiveness involved both victims and offenders. Central to the process, however, is victim’s universal need to express and validate their anger and pain in public---at least in front of peers, friends, relatives and neighbors. Once afforded with an outlet to release their rage, victims are almost always psychologically transformed. In South Africa, there were the highly publicized Truth and Reconciliation public hearings which served as ideal forums. In Rwanda, where hundreds of thousands of victims and offenders who lived next to each other were involved, neighborhoods were mobilized to public gatherings where victims relayed their stories. In both countries, offenders followed in the immediate footsteps of victims to openly concede the harm they had inflicted and seek personal forgiveness from victims and public absolution from the community. And finally, interpersonal dialogue between victim and offender is encouraged, which in most cases has promoted reflection, compassion and reconciliation. In other words, forgiveness is the end result of a grueling process.

The Ethiopian scheme for public forgiveness, however, visualizes no role for victims. “I can categorically say that no one contacted any family that I know of to request comment on this issue. For that matter, no member of the committee which manages and maintains the Memorial for the 68 Former Officials Executed by the Dergue was asked for their opinions on this matter,” wrote Makonnen.

As originally envisioned by the religious leaders who had set off the process, public forgiveness was to be attained by no more than a nationally broadcast admission of guilt and plea for forgiveness by senior Derg members. No one pondered whether this would be enough for victims, offenders, or the nation as a whole. Even after a storm of protest ensued and victims could no more be overlooked, no one thought of a national process. The governing wisdom was that victims could be appeased with a forum or two, and a resolution in support of the initiative could then somehow be steamrolled. Everything still dangled on the grand finale: the appearance of humbled and remorseful Derg members on national media. Anything grander was deemed beyond the reach of the religious leaders. And they were right. In South Africa it took a Commission established by an act of Parliament. In Rwanda, the whole state machinery was involved. Of course, in the end, nothing less would work in Ethiopia, too.

And here lies the national dilemma: does the EPRDF, one of the world’s famously determined violators of human rights, have the moral authority to undertake such a delicate process? Of course, many people, including myself, would respond in the negative.

In the meantime, however, there is the pending issue of the Derg officials sentenced to death (absent a fair trial) for the wrong reason---genocide. Here is where the religious leaders could do something meaningful: It’s time those death sentences are pardoned!!! (Genocide convicts could be pardoned---but only to a life sentence--- if capital punishment is involved, according to Ethiopian law.) Not even the most ardent opponents of the pardon initiative are against a pardon for the death sentences. In this at least, we stand firmly united as a nation.

Religious leaders: You could do it. You must do it!