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Too much ado about nothing: A minor demonstration gets disproportionate speculation

Simon Hailu
Tigrai Online - June 18, 2013

Too much ado about nothing: A minor demonstration gets disproportionate speculation
There was a little demonstration earlier this month in Addis Ababa city. It started at around the area called Arat kilo and ended at the public square in front of the Ethiopian Post office.

There was a little demonstration earlier this month in Addis Ababa city. It started at around the area called Arat kilo and ended at the public square in front of the Ethiopian Post office.

Even-though it was Sunday, when people roam around the city for shopping, to visit friends and to chill-out, few people knew a rally was taking place. That is besides the participants themselves and those who happen to travel-by the rally, which occupied only one side of the road.

Yet, the police closed the relevant roads for cars given past records of street violence where opposition supporters smashed state-owned cars, esp. the city bus.

It was later that evening that the majority of residents learned there was a demonstration when the state media provided generous coverage at its prime time news, apparently to avoid the usual complaint of opposition parties.

Surprisingly, western media and pundits made a big deal out of it. Since the date of the rally until this week, they are busy speculating about the meaning of the rally. That is not a bad thing in fact that is they job - though unfortunately they often focus on doomsday and rely on inaccurate data flawed inputs.

Let's see a quote as an example.

Last week, Africa Watch journal claimed:

The government of Ethiopia appears to have tentatively dipped its toes into the waters of toleration, only to pull back at least partly. Overall, the government led by Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has not improved significantly on the record of its predecessor, the late Meles Zenawi, in terms of respect for freedom of expression and other political rights........”

The above quotes are the crux of their “analysis” - better call it speculation. A careful reading of their writings reveals their assessment is based on three things: The permission for the rally, the size of the rally and the content/merit of the rally.

Why the government gave permission for the rally?

This is a question that almost all the pundits appear to have wasted billions brain cells on it.

For example: Africa Watch said:

the Hailemariam government last month issued a demonstration permit to the opposition Blue Party....The government did not offer an explanation for its decision to grant the permit, but opposition figures noted that it came just before the African Union (AU) summit, which took place in Addis Ababa in May. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attended the summit meeting.”

BBC wrote:

BBC's Africa analyst Richard Hamilton said “the fact that the rally was given permission to be held at all, and passed off peacefully, suggests the new prime minister may be more tolerant of dissent than his predecessor”.

The Economist said:

the decision to allow the march to go ahead suggests confidence in the senior ranks of the ruling EPRDF rather than any concern that the regime will be swept away in a kind of Ethiopian spring Suggestions that the protest marks a sea-change in the country’s politics may be premature.

Some of these pundits and journalists apparently lacked information about the legal process for conducting a rally process. That is not uncommon, given the well-known journalism style in the western media regarding Ethiopia. You just ask one or two opposition politician in the Diaspora, then report that as a fact without cross checking.

Otherwise, there is no need to get busy speculating why the demonstration was given “permission”.

Ethiopian law clearly provided for this democratic right in 1991 as follows:

The Right of Assembly, Demonstration and Petition

1. Everyone has the right to assemble and to demonstrate together with others peaceably and unarmed, and to petition. Appropriate regulations may be made in the interest of public convenience relating to the location of open-air meetings and the route of movement of demonstrators or, for the protection of democratic rights, public morality and peace during such a meeting or demonstration.

2. This right does not exempt from liability under laws enacted to protect the well-being of the youth or the honour and reputation of individuals and laws prohibiting any propaganda for war and any public expression of opinions intended to injure human dignity.”

Some of these pundits, however, make a big deal of the “permission” for ideological reasons rather than for lack of information.

Journalists like Peter Heilein who used to work in Addis Ababa witnessed the rally called by the opposition party UDJ which attracted only a few hundred people in 2009.

There were also rallies called by opposition parties in the run to the 2010 election across the country except Addis Ababa. Why? Because, since there is no much private and foreign reporters outside Addis Ababa, the parties can exaggerate the rallies and public meetings which were in fact attended a few hundred people.

That is why there is no report of the opposition planning a demonstration in Addis Ababa at the election season of 2010.

Any serious media person, diplomat and analyst who spent time in Ethiopia is unlikely to miss the leaked discussion between Medrek officials after 2010 when one of the top leaders of the party suggested calling a demonstration but rejected by others as unrealistic saying: “who do you think will come for our demonstration? Let's not expose ourselves for ridicule.”

Yet, ideologically motivated journalists and analysts prefer to believe that there is a potential for a color revolution. Therefore, they continue to reiterate that the opposition parties have big support if only the ruling party allows them to call meetings and demonstrations.

That bias is reflected in their reports of the size of this month's demonstration.

The number game:

As any real believer of democracy knows, it doesn't matter how many people attended an event rather the important thing is whether they have a just and popular cause or not.

For promoters of color-revolution, that is not the case. They see every single democratic process - be it election, press freedom or demonstration - in terms of its potential to bring a color-revolution and unconstitutional regime-change.

That is why Peter Heinlein, a journalist who has left Ethiopia a year ago, wrote on VOA claiming that:

A peaceful protest rally in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, has sparked speculation the government may be relaxing its tight restrictions on political demonstrations. The large turnout at the rally has also raised the profile of a little-known opposition party that seems to be attracting a large following among Ethiopia’s disaffected youth.

Sunday’s demonstration drew thousands to the streets of Addis.  But estimates of how many thousands varied widely.  State-run television reported it was 2,000, while organizers said it was more like 15,000 to 20,000.”

This journalist, just like a magician, pulled numbers out of nowhere.  His numbers are double the figure reported by international journalists on the ground.

The interesting part is that his attempt to portray to his readers that the government is worried about the “large turnout” by claiming “the state-run television reported it was 2,000”.

In actuality, the national TV didn't bother to estimate numbers. Even government spokesperson gave the accurate estimate that the rally was attended by 4,000 people, only when a foreign journalist asked him for estimation.

The government had never bothered to argue about the number of people who attended a demonstration. If the cause is just and constitutional, it will effort to address the issues. If not, legitimate decisions would not be circumvented by a group of people on the streets.

After all, in the Constitutional democratic state of Ethiopia, legitimacy come from ballot boxes rather than street action. And, Ethiopia is a country of about 40 million voters, not thousands. But this is hard to swallow for advocates of color revolution.  

The objective of this pointless number-game becomes clear when we see the third basis on the pundits.

Conflating religion and politics:

As I noted above, the government didn't bother to debate numbers rather the demands of the demonstration.

Africa Watch tried to misrepresent the government's remark as follows:

The goodwill earned by the government for permitting the protest was probably somewhat diminished by a statement made by a government spokesman, Shimeles Kemal, on the day following the rally. The spokesman asserted that the majority of the protesters were Muslim, and included Islamic extremists. He also implied that the protest organizers had broken the law by demanding the release of those charged under terrorism statutes.

Whereas, Peter Heinlein of VOA reported that:

In actually, the number of Muslims was only one-fifth, it was not very significant. They stand out because of their clothes, but they were not that many. But the demo was espousing their cause that Muslim jailed leaders should be released, so that was one of the demands, but it has not religious sentiment to it".

This entire circus is an obvious effort to disguise the trick used by the Semayawi party to boost the participants of its rally from a few hundreds to thousands.

That is by co-opting the issue of some Muslim protestors who previously held demonstrations as a result of the conflict and contest between Ahbash and Wahabi sects, which is often mistakenly portrayed as a dispute between the government and Muslims.

As the quotes above show, Africa Watch didn't dare to argue that the fact that 90% of the protestors were Muslim protestors. It simply, vaguely, claimed that revealing that fact “diminished the goodwill earned”. Goodwill earned by whom?

Interestingly, Shimeles was misrepresented as if he opposed the demonstration in general.

In truth, he simply pointed out that Ethiopia is a secular country and political parties are constitutionally restricted from using religion as a mobilizing agenda. In other-words, taking a position between two Islamic sects is not the proper role of a political party.

Another important point from Shimeles statement was that lawyers of terror suspects (accused on charges of terrorism through religious cover) have been organizers of the event.

Whether Shimeles said it or not, it is obvious they intended to pressure the legal process of the Courts through demonstrations.

Shimeles's statement was corroborated by a remark from a well-know opposition leader Proff Beyene Petros, who is an opposition leader since 1991 and leader of the Medrek coalition party. He said:

It may sound like it is an easy road to ride on; they need to be seasoned.  They need to be addressing these complex Ethiopian political parties within a broader perspective, and not only narrow interests...I see their likes simply pick one line of thinking and then try to harp it.  And that will not be a solution.”

The neo-liberal media tried to confuse the real character of the demonstration - which was religious - by mentioning different issues such as inflation, “political prisoners”, press freedom, etc.

However, the real picture was not missed to many observers.  For example One international media pointed out that:

What was significant was that the demonstrations attracted the support of urban, Christian youth, who saw the demonstration as a chance to protest against the government. But it was the extreme Islamist elements which made the protests significant. The rally was formally organized by the secular Semayawi (Blue) Party, which received official permits for the rally, but the event was co-opted by the Islamists.”

In conclusion: The western media will do justice to its readers if it sticks to the fact and insulate its news and analysis from ideologically motivated wishful-thinking.

There is no need to “open-up”, “relax”, “tolerate”, etc. in Ethiopia, because the political space is space is as good as it could be since the adoption of the Federal Democratic Republic Constitution eighteen years ago.

Surely, it is a transitional democracy that needs to improve and deepen its democratic values and their exercise every single day.

But that is mostly a matter of institutional capacity building rather than a political decision to do or not to do at the top leadership level. Because those decisions have long been made by the Constitution and EPRDF demonstrated its commitment to respect them time and again.

Therefore, there is no need fix anything as it is not broken. Trying to fix something not broken will only end-up breaking it.

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