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Dissent is Patriotic: In Defense of Our Call for Peace

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By Sehin Teferra

October 11, 2022

The regrettable manner in which the press conference scheduled for Pagume 1 by thirty-five civil society organizations was stopped by security personnel in plainclothes accompanied by a terse warning to the civil society representatives present is a disturbing reminder of what we thought we had left behind. It is also indicative of why the press conference for the Call for Peace was needed in the first place. Beyond the territorial integrity threatened by the various conflicts racking Ethiopia, there exist real threats to the nascent efforts to establish the rule of law and a just and democratic national order. Despite the ban, the Call for Peace was shared and reported on major Ethiopian media outlets in Ethiopia and abroad on the same day, followed by an online question-and-answer session with a small group of journalists. The Call asked for all armed actors in the country to cease armed hostilities, for reconstruction measures and an inquiry into reported incidents of sexual violence in Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Oromia, and Beneshangul-Gumuz regions to be launched, and for the substantive representation of citizens in the National Dialogue effort. Lastly, the Call made an appeal to all media, civil society, and religious bodies to redirect their efforts to peace-building and reconciliation efforts.

 

The backlash to the Call has been predictable as it has been swift. The thirty-five organizations that signed on the Call, many of which had been founded by democracy activists and bloggers whose personal sacrifices contributed to the advent of the Political Reform process and what many had considered to be the first, tentative step toward liberal democracy, have been labeled TPLF-supporters, paid agents of foreign aggression, and, most strikingly, traitors.

 

While many people can attest to the enhanced appetite for reconciliation across all parts of the country, there remain many Ethiopians vested in the triumph of ‘their’ side in the all-out war of northern Ethiopia, a war that is increasingly looking rather un-winnable. Those of us who had prayed that the tentative peace talks between the Ethiopian government and the representatives of the TPLF would hold, who had feverishly hoped that Tigray would be reconnected to the rest of the country and world by the New Year, are heartbroken by the new wave of fighting that each side accuses the other of sparking.

 

Very few Ethiopians argued against the decision of the central government to launch an offensive against Tigrayan forces following the unprovoked attack of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian Armed Forces on November 3, 2020. However, according to the government’s own acceptance of the report issued by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, there were grave human rights abuses and gross sexual violence inflicted on innocent civilians of Tigray by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces as well as by members of the Amhara Special Forces.

 

 

Although I haven’t visited Tigray since the conflict began, I did visit northern Wello a week before TPLF forces entered Dessie and traveled through much of Afar this past Ginbot—when the war was largely considered over in the minds of many Ethiopians. Yet, it is exactly because I witnessed then the true devastation of war and the spirit of vengeance driving it that I decided to join the Call for Peace. Without a doubt, there has been no innocent side in the conflict in northern Ethiopia since its outbreak; and after the many wrongs turn made, bluffing and hate-mongering carried out, our democratically-elected government still had the opportunity in the last few months to show goodwill to the citizens of Tigray region by opening up banking, communication, and other basic services. Even if the reports that TPLF forces are starving their own people by withholding food aid that has already been delivered to Mekelle are true, then the government has been indirectly contributing to the creation of widespread ‘near-famine’ conditions as of nine months ago. Whereas the two rounds of talks that were reportedly held by the negotiation teams took place in secret, we can only hope that the discussions by the all-male participants also centered on the particular harms incurred by women and girls in the war. TPLF forces, in their narrative, applied a distinctly gendered trope, the kind we have repeatedly heard from Amhara women who were told that they were being raped in revenge for what happened to ‘the mothers and sisters of Tigray.’ However, as in all wars, this battle between men is being fought at the cost of the bodies of women and girls. We have heard no reports of Tigrayan women healing from their trauma because other Ethiopian women have been harmed in their name. There is no question that the leadership of TPLF needs to answer for its crimes in Afar, Amhara, and elsewhere; but if we do not also hold our government to account for the role of its own men in uniform in the rapes and gang rapes of women and girls in Tigray, then we will fail not only the survivors but also our hopes for a democratic future with the respect for human rights and the rights of women to live lives free from the threat of sexual violence.

 

How the war is resolved is as important as who wins it. My colleagues and I recommitted to the Call for Peace for 2014 because we understood that holding both sides of the conflict to account presents the best possible path to a future where the rest of Ethiopia can live with a politically stable Tigray—with a population of men and women who still feel like they belong to and in Ethiopia. All conflicts end with a political settlement, whether that will happen in Meskerem in 2015 or in five years’ time after more Ethiopian blood has been shed senselessly and more women have buried their malnourished children. We choose to put our collective hopes and efforts on the first option, particularly at this time, when the government has shown some willingness to go back to the negotiation table and the new budget year for the Parliament was convened by our President on Meskerem 30 with a call to ‘end the conflicts that have tested our nation in the last two years.

 

As members of civil society organizations committed to the advancement of human rights, it is incumbent on us to call all sides back to the negotiation table and remind our government that the repression tactics of the past against free speech will not serve Ethiopia well. As a gesture of goodwill that can kick off the healing process for the women, girls, boys, and men of Tigray, I call on the Ethiopian government to reconnect the region and ensure full access to humanitarian services, including access to fuel, food, and medicine services to reach vulnerable populations outside Mekelle. To do so would be to take advantage of an opportunity to puncture the desperation that fuels TPLF and clear the path for an honest attempt to achieve lasting peace, and rebuild the nation and our trust in one another. That is exactly why we need to dissent. It is our patriotic duty to dissent. We dissent against the pervasive warmongering happening from both sides of the conflict. We dissent to forge a path to healing and a lasting resolution of this unnecessary conflict.

 

 

 

 

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