This article, first published in June 2011, is one of the last columns Reeyot Alemu wrote before her arrest on June 21, 2011.
Translated from Amharic, courtesy of the Media Legal Defence Initiative.
Reeyot Alemu is currently serving a 5-year prison sentence in Addis Ababa on bogus terrorism charges. The International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) honored Alemu with its 2012 Courage in Journalism Award last year, and in May 2013, the UNESCO recognized her “commitment to freedom of expression” with its Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.
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As stories about the political crisis in Cairo have been dominating the news from Egypt, there has been limited coverage on a brewing international conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia – two countries that do not share a border but are indivisibly connected by the Nile, the world’s longest river.
Amid works to construct a giant hydro-electric dam, and much to the anger of the Egyptian government, Ethiopia has started diverting the Blue Nile, a tributary of the Nile, prompting a furious debate about if and how the “Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam” will affect Egypt’s water security.
While there may not be a definite answer anytime soon on whether this dam will have any impact on water security in Egypt, there is no doubt that it has already negatively impacted press freedom in Ethiopia. Earlier this summer, for instance, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Ethiopian officials arrested a reporter seeking to interview people evicted from their homes in the region where the contentious hydro-electric dam is being built. More notable, however, was the arrest of Ethiopian columnist Reeyot Alemu more than two years ago.
A critic of the government writing for the now-defunct newspaper Feteh, [in the following article] Alemu raised questions about the funding and merits of the dam shortly before she was arrested on bogus terrorism charges and sentenced to 14 years in jail.
Periods of time do have their respective distinguishing characteristics and as a result of this, several persons are seen trying and succeeding in adapting to a kind of personality that the period of time requires. Others decide to maintain their consistent character (be it negative or positive) in spite of a clash with the times. Other “smart guys” whose real identity is inconsistent with the level reached by the time put on themselves; a cover that makes them look modern and conveys incorrect messages to others about them while they continue to enjoy their old identity beneath this cover. Many of the dictator regimes at this time fall under the latter category.
Like their predecessors, dictators of our time came to power without securing the will of the people and are unwilling to give up their power regardless of the desire of the people. However, their mode of realizing their goal is not only the use of force, unlike their predecessors (that is, unless they are an autocrat, like the President of Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki). Hence, instead of using the option of force, they attempt to look like democrats and do whatever they please without exposing their true identity. They include the multi-party system in their laws and allow Parties to participate in elections. But, they will continue to brag that “the people, who adore them” do not want to be ruled by any other party and elect them repeatedly and, in this way, they make sure that their grip on power is well secured.
In order to make their fictitious story aesthetically pleasing, they write and produce a “developmental” drama in which the people are the actors. It would be the intention of this article to conduct a brief review on the three dramas currently presented by our government to the public, investigate the purpose of their production and check their outcomes.
The Three Dramas of EPRDF: Membership, Contribution and Demonstration!
We can observe that EPRDF has been striving to increase its membership quota as much as possible especially after the 2005 national election; it has also been asking for contribution from the public in the name of development associations, developmental works and organizing public demonstration. This action of EPRDF would have been normal had the public been given the chance to express their free will and consent, but, this is not the case.
In fact, EPRDF does not use a weapon to force members of the public to become members of the party, make financial contributions or come out for demonstration. The ruling party has other means of letting the public do these activities. These “other means” can be well described by a single expression in the fiction book by Hailemelekot Mewael entitled “Yewedianesh”: “acceptance as a consequence of compulsory duty”.
As we have attempted to show in the previous sections, it is a well known fact that membership to EPRDF is the overriding requirement to join higher education institutes, to obtain employment or promotion setting aside the set standards. Citizens are left with the compulsory duty of joining the party in order to benefit from the aforementioned opportunities. Nowadays, it doesn’t ask too much to find individuals who are hidden beneath the shadow of EPRDF not only to get a better chance but also to retain what they have under the influence of life. Apart from their membership fee, these people are expected to contribute to development associations formed under the name of their respective regions.
They are also required to attend demonstrations called by the ruling party holding banners! What makes the situation worse is that non-members of the party who learn and work in governmental institutions are also put under the compulsory duty to pay the contribution and attend demonstrations organized by the state. The demonstration called on 28 May 2011 under the theme “to support the construction of the Renaissance Dam” can be cited here as an example. Although the demo was called in relation to the Nile River Dam, the state media reported it as if it was “to celebrate the 28 May event”. Though civil servants who anticipated such reporting and who had other excuses did not attend the demo, they were asked to justify their absence from the demo by the time they reported for duty on the following Monday. The notice published by the Amharic Weekly “The Reporter” on 4 June 2011 indicated that employees of the Office of Auditor General were required to justify their absence from the demo. The intention of this notice is obvious, to deter employees from missing other demos yet to be called by the government!
Why the lie?
As we have attempted to indicate in the previous paragraph, EPRDF has put the public under the surrounding of governmental institutions under a compulsory duty and it is attempting to create a picture depicting that the public has cooperated willingly. EPRDF may have several reasons for doing so. The assumption that the ruling party enjoys a membership quota of 5.6 million and the participation of a large section of the public to denounce the negative reports published against them will be considered, by EPRDF, as a proof of its victory in the election and a tool to legitimize its acceptance by the people. In addition, if western countries also buy into this assumption, huge sums of aid money will be released.
The attempt of EPRDF to create a non-existent support base is not only directed towards foreign countries, but it is also directed towards its opposing parties as a means of overawing them. Even if it fails to do this, it would certainly be able to intimidate “its own supporters”. It would also play a critical role in making citizens, who were publicly declared as its supporters, refrain from creating positive relationships with members of the opposition parties. The cadres are one other factor that leads the ruling party to consider even its non-supporters as partners. Let me once again mention the demo of 28 May here. EPRDF cadres, who were going door to door to call upon the public for the demo, were ordering mothers to wear their traditional clothes for the event. The cadres were also taking attendance at the demo. It is beyond doubt that these cadres will be required to submit their performance report and are subjected to evaluation based on that report. Hence, they will force the residents of their assigned areas to go to the demo regardless of the latter’s wish.
An article published in the New York Times in its edition of 26 May  entitled “The Psychology of Dictatorship: Why Gaddafi clings to power” led me to believe that EPRDF is not only misleading others by using the aforementioned tactics, it is cheating itself. The said article says “Dictators not only lie to others as a matter of course but also lie to themselves” citing Gaddafi as an example. The article reminds us that Gaddafi was bragging that “the people are with me and will die for me!” even when the streets were full of anti-Gaddafi protesters. Gaddafi said this is because despots are susceptible to psychological trauma and this might led him to honestly believe that the people were on his side. Other articles on this same subject tell us that dictators believe in the pseudo-identity they created for themselves. Attitudes such as “the people love me, the protesters are members of Al-Qaeda and not my people, etc.” are the lies they use to deceive themselves. The situations happening in our country have the same appearance. Compelling the public to attend state sponsored demos and taking hats off before the public under the pressure of high cost of living and fear of reprisals to express gratitude is tantamount to Gaddafi’s delusional words “the people love me”.
The ruling party takes advantage of the economic predicaments of the people and put them under a compulsory duty as a tool for membership recruitment, and this violates the rights of citizens in two ways: they are compelled to join a party they do not like and they are prohibited from joining other parties against their will! The other expression of the rights violation of the government is its interference in inducing individuals to make contributions against their will as witnessed in Arba Minch University. The creation of citizens siding for something under the shadow of fear and intimidation is also a huge transgression committed by the government. Accordingly, the repercussions would be irreversible unless EPRDF refrains from committing such offences and takes its hands off the rights of the people. A young man who obtained employment just because of his membership to EPRDF will certainly not have any self-confidence or perform his work efficiently. On the other hand, a person who is deprived of his deserved place because of his political views will be demoralized and will not be able to contribute to the country. In general, the direction being followed by the ruling party is aimed at creating a perfidious, subservient and corrupt generation and it needs to remove its pseudo cover and take corrective measures to save the generation or itself from collapse.