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Reflections on the Ethiopian Anti-Terrorism Law Debate between the EPRDF and the Ethiopian Opposition Parties

By Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD - IDEA Viewpoint
Tigrai Online - September 09, 2013

The purpose of this essay is to critically appraise the issues surrounding terrorism in general and the Ethiopian Anti-Terrorism Law in particular. This essay would not favor or disfavor any of the contending debaters; on the contrary it would objectively analyze the nature, characteristics, and spirit of the debate.

Addis Ababa terrorist attack
Three people have been killed and nine wounded in a bomb explosion on a minibus in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa

The debate between the ruling party and the opposition, perhaps, could signal the reemergence of civil dialogue that could ultimately lead to national reconciliation and, in turn, to national development in which both the Government and the opposition could play a role and collaborate in the making and transformation of Ethiopia.

Before we delve into the central question and points of arguments presented by members of the opposition and the Government, it is important to clearly define terrorism. There is no universally acceptable definition of terrorism, but one conceptually agreed upon definition comes from the United Nations. In 1994, the United Nations General Assembly came up with the following definition of terrorism: “Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstances unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be involved to justify them.”

The above definition, at first glance, could look cogent and coherent but on close scrutiny we could encounter the ambiguity of the word “unjustifiable”. First and foremost, in the context of the definition, what does “unjustifiable” mean given the complexity of circumstances and the diversity of situations in countries that are bedeviled by terrorism? Does it imply “warrant” or “possibility” or “reasonable” or “probability”? It is not clear. Secondly, who determines the unjustifiable nature of circumstances? It is the cabinet, the parliament, or the courts? In light of the UN definition, thus, we can now thematically highlight on the various lines of arguments presented by the EPRDF and the opposition. The aim of this essay, as has been stated above, is to delineate the viewpoints on either side of the aisle without bias to none, but also to critique the arguments in the spirit of critical social thought and objective analysis.

First and foremost I am grateful to the Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency (ERTA) for hosting such a lively debate for public consumption and the Government for its willingness to conduct such a debate. The reason I have appreciated this kind of initiative is because open political debate in Ethiopia is a rare commodity. Let me further substantiate my stance with respect to the dearth of debate culture in Ethiopia: Since 1974, Ethiopians have enjoyed ephemeral and transient debate cultures once during the formative period of the Derg rule when stimulating debates were conducted between the EPRP and MEISONE under the guise of their respective papers Goh and Tseday and by prolific pen names that represented the two parties. The second period for such debates took place during the pre-elections of 2005 and 2010. Other than these, we were not fortunate enough to witness the dawn of democratic culture in modern Ethiopian history.

Why should debates matter or be so important? Debates matter and they rare important because it is only through reasoned dialogue that members of society can peacefully resolve conflicts and iron out their differences without resorting to violence. It is for this apparent reason that I have, time and again, dealt with the necessity of debates in many of my previous essays. For instance, I have clearly delineated in one of my works entitled “Designing Continuum to Enrich Ethiopian Educational Discourse and Debate Culture” (September 2004), now incorporated in my new book as “The Contribution of Education to Ethiopia’s Democratic Transformation”. I have argued that Ethiopia, as matter of course, should adopt a culture of tolerance through debate for the sake of the larger Ethiopian society. This is how I put it then: “it is imperative, if not urgent, to implement a sane and civil debate culture for the sake of a more productive and constructive educational system. It is incumbent upon responsible Ethiopian intellectuals and scholars, to see to it that debate in educational discourse is a precondition to a meaningful social transformation.”1

Now, I see again a glimmer of hope in the three-part debate between the EPRDF and the opposition, but I cannot determine yet whether these debates would give rise to a continuous debate culture or would simply die out like the other debates mentioned above. In order to carry on the debate culture, the ruling party, the opposition, and Ethiopian intellectuals have historical responsibility but it is the Government that should be more responsible in the meaningful fruition of such debates.

With the above introductory note, we can now contextually discuss the debate on the Ethiopian Anti-Terrorism Law. Apparently, the Ethiopian draft anti-terrorism law was made public in January 2009 and appeared with some modification on July 2009. It is four years after the implementation of the law that debate has been conducted between the opposition and the ruling party, but it is never too late.

Overall, the debate was civil and the debaters respectfully disagreed on several issues in either critiquing or defending the anti-terrorism law. The EPRDF representatives, namely Shimelis Kamal and Getachew Reda, and on the opposition side Mushe Semu (Ethiopian Democratic Party, EDP), Yilqal Getnet (Semeyawi or Blue Party), Habtamu Ayalew (Andinet), and Bekele Negaá (Medrek or Forum) masterfully presented their line of arguments. Both the opposition and the EPRDF representatives have demonstrated compatibility of relevant and well-synchronized knowledge in relation to the Ethiopian Anti-Terrorism Law. In terms of substantiating their arguments, however, the attentive audience could easily underscore the differences between the two groups in illuminating the lines of reasoning. The opposition representatives, especially Habtamu, Bekele, and Yilqal repeatedly hammered the “sinister” motive of the anti-terrorism law and vented that it is intended to suppress the opposition and imprison journalists. Shimelis and Getachew, on the other hand, were trying to present the danger of terrorism on Ethiopia by providing live examples such as the bombings of hotels and other installations in Addis Ababa and elsewhere in the Regions. They further charged the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), and Ginbot 7 as terrorist organizations, but the opposition representatives were not impressed. Yilqal of Blue Party, on the contrary, seemed to have underestimated the terrorist operations in Ethiopia, and Habtamu of Andinet charged the EPRDF of dodging the issue surrounding terrorism; he repeatedly stated that it is not the plotters in bombing operations who are behind bars; it is the journalists, who have become a nightmare to the ruling party, that are charged with crime and are imprisoned.

Getachew Reda’s counterpoint to Habtamu’s charges was that some of the plotters are not journalists and they are accused and imprisoned not because they have produced stories but because they were engaged in or were connected to terrorist organizations. In due course of the debate, the opposition parties as well as the EPRDF repeatedly made references to Western experience vis-à-vis terrorism, but Mushe Semu of EDP, to his credit, admonished the debaters that it is wrong to accept the Western experience as a model for Ethiopia. Shimelis who further illuminated the uniqueness of the Ethiopian Anti-Terrorism Law, in turn, endorsed Mushe’s argument. Getachew reinforced Shimelis’ argument and repeatedly stated that the British Prime Minister can name terrorists extra-judicially without counseling the Parliament; he also made reference to the American Patriotic Act.

It is important to discuss the essence of the Patriotic Act so that Ethiopians understand why a government could sometimes operate outside the constitutional parameters. The US Patriotic Act is a Congressional act signed into law in 2001. The acronym USA PATRIOT stands for Uniting [and] Strengthening America [by] Providing Appropriate Tools Required [to] Intercept [and] Obstruct Terrorism.

From its name alone, one can safely assume the mission and objectives of the American Patriotic Act. The latter expands the powers of law enforcement agencies, including immigration authorities. In the olden days the immigration and naturalization services (INS) used to bring suspected immigrants before the courts; now it can indefinitely detain or deport immigrants suspected of terrorism or related acts without court warrant. On top of this, the phraseology governing the Patriotic Act is vague, to say the least: “to deter and punish American terrorists in the United States and around the world, to enhance investigators tools, and for other purposes.” 

The phrase, “other purposes” is vague and subject to interpretation and it could catalytically implicate non-terrorists and innocent citizens. If we now turn to the Ethiopian Anti-Terrorism Law, we see similarities between the US and the Ethiopian laws. It is perhaps with this in mind that Getcahew Reda was trying to advance his line of argument in endorsing the viability and validity of the Ethiopian anti-terrorism law. However, while the Ethiopian Anti-Terrorism Law is condemned by Human Rights Watch2 and the Ethiopian opposition, similar laws put out by Britain, Canada, and Australia etc are sanctum edicts and beyond criticism.

I am not saying that the Ethiopian opposition representatives should not criticize the Anti-Terrorism Law and the Government, but they should have a fair and balanced position on terrorism. Moreover, while the opposition has the right and responsibility to criticize the Ethiopian Government, it seems to me it should side with the Government on the issue of terrorism in order to preserve Ethiopia’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national interest. The opposition must seriously consider historical lessons in which the ruling party and the opposition could reconcile in matters of national interest. Suffice to mention two examples: 1) the united front of the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang (national government) Party against Japanese aggression in 1937; 2) the failure of the EPRP in siding with the Derg (no matter how fascistic the latter is) during the Somali-Ethiopian war of 1977, in which the Somalis had a temporary military upper hand but were defeated by Ethiopians later.

On the other hand, the EPRDF government should be extremely careful in deliberating the Anti-Terrorism Law and not to indulge in “other purposes” as alleged by Semayawi and Andinet representatives. Both of them have claimed that the anti-terrorism law is a smokescreen to cover EPRDF’s intentions; and as Bekele Negaá mildly put it, “to frighten and intimidate the opposition”. Incidentally, in one of his arguments, Bekele emphasized “that American anti-terrorism law is meant to protect democracy while that of Ethiopia has rendered hell for journalists.”  Bekele, I gather, would rethink his statement if he carefully reads the mission of the Patriotic Act mentioned above, but in very broad sense he is right because America is governed by checks and balances and it has plethora of government and private institutions that can actively counter the excesses of law enforcement agencies. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) because the latter two institutions requested “account information for users of an internet service provider.”

As stated above, the overall spirit of the debate was remarkable, although sometimes both the EPRDF and the opposition were expending too much energy by repeating the same issues that were already dissected. For instance, while the opposition imputations seemed to accuse or expose the EPRDF, the latter tried incessantly to underscore the fallacy of arguments brought forth by the opposition. Instead of expressing flawed pieces of puzzle that don’t fit together, the overarching theme vis-à-vis terrorism should have been Ethiopia’s national interest.

With respect to Ethiopia’s national interest and the ongoing development agenda, the EPRDF representatives have shown strength and the opposition seemed to exhibit a non-committal silence in this issue. On the issue of imprisonment of journalists, while the opposition showed strength the EPRDF clearly showed weakness because it was unable to delineate the controversy over freedom of expression and the imprisoned journalists. Instead of denying the imprisonment of journalists, it would have been better for the EPRDF debaters to acknowledge the detention of journalists and also recognize the right of citizens, including journalists, to defend themselves in the court of law prior to their imprisonment, in accordance to the Ethiopian constitution. And beyond these constitutional parameters, it is advisable not to incarcerate journalists unless it is proven beyond the shadow of the doubt in a court of law that they are indeed part of the terrorist network. Moreover, even if they are charged with treason, they should be entitled to due process of law and they should not be detained indefinitely.

The international media outlets have acknowledged that Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu are behind bars and per VOA, “more than ten journalists have been charged under the anti-terrorism law, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which says Ethiopia has the highest number of exiled journalists in the world.”3 Similar to the opposition debaters, Tamirat Feysa of Addis Neger Online believes that the Government of Ethiopia has used the Anti-Terrorism Law as “new opportunity to squash dissent in their context,” and that could very well be, but the Government has to respond to such challenges. However, Shimelis Kamal has cautioned his counterparts that there is a clear and present danger of terrorism directed against Ethiopia and supported his argument by tangible evidence. At one point he made reference to OLF’s one hundred and six times bombing plots and the ONLF attack on Chinese and Ethiopians who were engaged in development projects in the Ogaden, the Somali State Region of Ethiopia. He also mentioned attacks perpetrated by these organizations on humanitarian organizations that deliver aid and food to needy Ethiopians. This is quite a challenge to the opposition, and even if the latter does not buy Shimelis’ argument (and by extension the Ethiopian government’s position), it should acknowledge that there is some danger associated with domestic and foreign terrorists that could imperil Ethiopia.

The pros and cons forwarded by the EPRDF and the opposition during the entire three-part debate was interesting and enlightening and the debate was positively spirited, and I hope that this kind of debate would galvanize other important issues and serve as catalyst to future debates. In the forthcoming debates (assuming we are going to have more debates), I would like to see more vibrant dialogue sessions and for their efficacy I like to suggest the following ideas: 1) that the government exhibit tolerance to the opposition; 2) that the opposition enjoy in criticizing the government while acknowledging its achievements; 3) that Ethiopian national interest is primarily considered in all debates; and 4) that the format of the debate slightly change in order to include an audience that, in turn, can forward questions to the debaters.


  1. Ghelawdewos Araia, Ethiopia: Democracy, Devolution of Power, & The Developmental State, Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA), 2013, p. 40
  2. Human Rights Watch, An Analysis of Ethiopia’s Draft Anti-Terrorism Law, updated June 30, 2009
  3. VOA, Ethiopian Opposition Threatens Protests Over Anti-Terrorism Law (source: Reuters), June 2, 2013.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © IDEA, Inc. 2013. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org 

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