Third anniversary of the suppression of Ethiopia's free press

By Eskinder Nega ,Addis Ababa / October 31, 2008
I am writing from the designated seat of the African Union, AddisAbaba, home to the headquarters of that prized ideal of ours: Africa Union. Because of the inimitable standing of Addis Ababa as the political capital of Africa, and thus a beacon of hope and all that is best in us as Africans, it will hardly be too much to expect this city to be a center of learning, culture, cosmopolitanism, tolerance, arts, innovation and creativity, equality, rule of law, democracy and freedom of expression. In other words, a city suited for the twenty-first century that all Africans could like, live in, identify with and be proud of.

But the bleak reality can be no more different as November 1, 2008 marks not only the third anniversary of the premeditated brutal crackdown on democracy in 2005, but also the continued triumph of EPRDF's malice in Ethiopia.

Some two decades ago, at the end of the worldwide epic struggle between totalitarian communism and liberal democracy, Africa stood in stark contrast to the rest of the world as the almost natural habitat of dysfunctional dictatorships; with a lone, or may be two, small islands of democracies. The embarrassing and outrageous images of Idi Amin, Bokkasa, Mobutu, Botha and plenty of others dominated the continent, implying for some Africans and others darkness in the soul of the people of the so-called Dark Continent. From east to west,north to south, in the great expanses of the continent, despair, hatred, malice and spite embedded themselves in place of the optimism, goodwill and fraternity that had only two decades earlier undone the shackles of colonial misrule. Who indeed did not despair about Africa in 1988, one year before the almost magical crumble of the Berlin Wall?

But when The Wall fell, that grand moment in history abruptly changed not only Europe but all of humanity, and swiftly, confidence in humanity's ability for good things was back in full force. From the deserts of the north to the lush green lands of the south, from the lowlands of the west to the highlands in the east, ordinary men and women held their heads up while the Big Men of Africa - the dictators - retreated behind the highwalls of their obscenely luxurious palaces. And in less than a decade many of them were to be relegated to Ronald Reagan's famous dustbin of history.

Today, twenty-three African countries have met international standards for democracy in defiance of a chorus of cynical pronouncements that democracy for Africa is only possible by piecemeal, an ideal that we ordinary Africans could not possibly enjoy in our lifetime. Only in the North and in the Horn do we find multitude of dictatorships comfortably entrenched, ostensibly oblivious to the wind of change that has swept across the continent. And at least as far as the Horn is concerned, it is my country, Ethiopia, I am embarrassed and dejected to admit, which is holding the region back. But I am not entirely gloomy, for I know that the triumph of democracy elsewhere in Africa will in due course overwhelm us, too.It's only a question of time. In the meantime, however, the situation is dismal. In October 2005 the Ethiopian government closed down all independent publications in the country, following two days of low-level street protests against election results (which was also disputed by credible internationalobservers), to which the authorities deliberately and wantonly reacted with deadly vengeance.

To date, three years later, none of those publications have yet been allowed to resume work. And almost all the journalists that worked for them are either in exile or remain unemployed. In fact, this year marked the illegal denial of new press licenses, in contravention of both the constitution and press law, to owners of the two largest publishers of private newspapers in the country before the crackdown in 2005. After fifteen years of unrestricted press licensing, PM Meles Zenawi's government, true to its standing as Africa's star backslider, has this year restricted press licensing for the first time. A press license, the only means to independent media the country has ever known, is no more a right exercised by all citizens but a privilege accorded to few. But what bad news I have relayed to you can not raze the good news from our continent. We have ample reason to be optimistic, to look forward to the future we only need to look at the hope embodied in Africa's 23 democracies, no doubt prelude to a new epoch in the history of Africans, when we will at long last be full fledged partakers in the promotion of human civilization.