With 20,000 detainees released, Ethiopia hopes to sustain restored order
(Messenger Africa) — On the day he was released from detention in one of Ethiopia’s makeshift rehabilitation camps, Eyasped Tesfaye visited a hospital in Addis Ababa. He had spent more than a month with close to 1,200 alleged anti-government protesters in Awash, 216 km east of the capital where he got sick. He was diagnosed with typhoid fever at the camp’s clinic but there was no sign of improvement in his health. “I was really worried,” he says.
With the capacity for no more than 300 occupants, the police academy turned detention camp was overcrowded. “The food was awful; the heat unbearable,” he says. “And as it turned out, I had been given the wrong medication for weeks.” His medical checkup at the hospital revealed that had had been misdiagnosed at the police camp and he really had malaria and hepatitis – not typhoid.
Ethiopia detained about 24,000 alleged protesters – mostly young men – after declaring a state of emergency on October 8th to quell a yearlong wave of unrest. Protesters from the country’s two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and the Amhara, complained of political and economic marginalization.
Foreign-owned investments and businesses affiliated with the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, were attacked. For its part, EPRDF criticized the ethno-nationalist sentiments behind the protests and said they were incited by self-interested diaspora groups abroad.
About 600 demonstrators were killed since November 2015, according to the Association of Human Rights in Ethiopia. About 300 of these victims were identified by name in a separate report by Human Rights Watch.
The state of emergency bans many political activities and allows security forces to hold any suspect without due process. Students, farmers, traders and civil servants were among those arrested, according to Tadesse Hordofa, chairman of a parliamentary board formed to oversee the emergency measures.
Late in December 9,800 detainees – including Eyasped – were released from six detention camps after taking what the government calls “rehabilitation training.” About a month and a half later came the release of 11,000 more. The six-part training included courses about constitutional democracy and Ethiopian youth. Those with alleged roles in the violence that marred some of the protests, however, are still held to be arraigned in court.
Some of those who attended the rehabilitation training questioned the efficacy of the indoctrination that they received there. Seyoum Teshome, a university lecturer and political commentator who was detained in a camp for 56 days, says that the training was founded upon “an erroneous assumption that the majority of the youth were misled into protesting the government.”
The implication of the training is that anyone truly familiar with the ruling ideology would not have been involved in protests.
Eyasped argues that with the exception of a course on Ethiopian History, the training was poor in content. “The trainers, who were mostly military and police personnel, were ill-suited to the lessons they were trying to teach,” he says. “They were hoping to indoctrinate us with the ruling party’s ideology” of developmental-statism, which he contends was not successful.
During the ceremonial release of the first round of detainees, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn pledged to them that they would get their jobs back and resume their normal lives. Seyoum returned to his teaching post at Woliso campus of Ambo University while Eyasped rejoined the state-owned Commercial Bank of Ethiopia.
“But after being stranded in a camp without contacting family, friends or a lawyer for weeks, life cannot be the same again,” says Eyasped.
Nur Hussien’s is a different story. A father of a newborn daughter at the time of his arrest, he was taken to Awash from his home Alemgena at the southwestern outskirts of Addis Ababa a little before the other detainees.
While he was being investigated, he alleges that he was beaten severely which led to the breaking of his ankle. “He couldn’t walk by himself in the camp,” says Eyasped. “So I used to carry him around.”
Because of his injury Nur couldn’t continue his work at a garage. This makes life difficult for him as he was the primary breadwinner of his family. “I haven’t recovered fully. I still feel a sting of pain when I try to walk,” he says.
Halfway into the six-month state of emergency, the government hopes to sustain and build on the semblance of order that has returned to the country. On January 24, Siraj Fegessa, head of the Command Post Secretariat tasked with implementation of the emergency decree, told a gathering of security representatives from all over the country that the maintenance of the restored calm was crucial, according to the state broadcaster.
While it’s uncertain if the government’s measures of detaining, training and releasing alleged protesters will bring stability, freed detainees like Eyasped and Nur are sure about one thing: that their experience in detention camp will stay with them for a long time.