The first duty of any government is to protect its citizens from harm, at home and abroad – no matter who they are, or where they are. This is the primary moral and constitutional responsibility of the EPRDF government of Ethiopia, which, as with a vast array of such obligations, they fail to meet, or even acknowledge.
In recent weeks a plethora of atrocities have befallen Ethiopians abroad: in Libya 30 Ethiopian Christians (whom we know of) were murdered (their beheadings shown on video) by Islamic jihadists, marching under a black flag of hate and violence; hundreds of others shiver in fear of being exposed to this. Earlier this month Ethiopians (together with other African migrants) living in South Africa were dragged through the streets by gangs: burnt alive, beaten, their homes and businesses destroyed, their children attacked. Thousands of Ethiopian men and women are trapped and frightened inside Yemen as that country descends into civil war; hundreds more are amongst the thousands of desperate men and women trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe from Libya. And in the Middle East and Gulf States (MENA), Ethiopian girls, working as domestic workers, are routinely mistreated by employers; many are sexually abused, most suffer psychological violence, all are trapped into domestic slavery.
To each and every one of those Ethiopians suffering upon foreign soil, the ruling regime has offered little or no support. Not content with suppressing the people at home, violating their basic human rights and denying them freedom and justice, the EPRDF government ignores their cries for help. Unlike other nation states (Malaya, Sri Lanka, the Phillipines, for example) they provide no consular support to the vulnerable young workers in the Gulf countries; have failed to organise any major airlifts for those hiding in Yemen, have done nothing to protect migrants in Durban and Johannesburg; and have taken no significant action, save prime ministerial platitudes, to safeguard Ethiopian Christians in Libya.
The government’s neglect is shameful but not surprising, and has enraged the people, who took to the streets of Addis Ababa recently in huge numbers in a powerful display of collective grief and anger. Their peaceful protest was met – again not surprisingly, given the governments intolerance of public assembly – by baton wielding security personnel, who beat men, women and girls indiscriminately and broke up the demonstrations. According to constitutionalprinciple demonstrations are allowed, but in practice they are all but outlawed, as are all types of free expression. The regime is paranoid, as all such totalitarian groups are.
Neither home nor country
The need for a quiet centre from where to face the world is common to us all. For many that haven of security is our country of birth, it comforts and reassures us, protecting us from the uncertainties and dangers of life. Home is where we feel safe, secure and loved. A wooden hut or a modernist mansion, home is the refuge we turn to in times of difficulty.
For the thousands of Ethiopian migrants abroad, they have neither home nor country. Abandoned by their government they are homeless, vulnerable and alone; they make easy prey for criminals: the traffickers and the gangs of rapists, kidnappers, jihadists and thugs who patrol the pathways along which the migrants walk.
To the untrained eye, the economy of Ethiopia appears to be developing, and the country gives the appearance of stability in a region of almost total instability. But this is a misleading image of development and hides deep-seated inequalities, endemic corruption, widespread bitterness and simmering fury towards the ruling party. Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world: it is ranked 173rd out of 187 countries in the UN human development index, and unprecedented numbers of its citizens are migrating in search of opportunity and freedom.
They travel north to Egypt and Libya – hoping to make it to Europe; south to Kenya and South Africa; east to Yemen, where some stay, others continue to try to crawl into Saudi Arabia. Many head to the other Gulf states, Lebanon, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates; countries with virtually no domestic labour laws, endemic racism and sexism, where naïve, uneducated young girls from rural Ethiopia enter into contracts (the Kafala system) with employers that trap them into domestic servitude, and, for many, sexual and psychological torture. Over two thirds make the journey out of the country illegally, entrusting their lives to human traffickers.
They migrate for one of two reasons, economic or political, or should we say humanitarian, for it is the violations of their basic human rights that drive many from their homeland.
Many see no way to build a decent life for themselves and their families: others, particularly journalists and political activists see no hope of freedom from tyranny and are persecuted by the security forces for holding views that differ from the government. For them Libya, Yemen or the Mediterranean are no more dangerous than Ethiopia, Islamic state no greater a threat than the police or military, and so they too step onto the migrant road of uncertainty, in search of a new home in a more peaceful place; a place where there are economic opportunities, better education, and where democracy, justice and freedom exist. All of which, despite the duplicitous political rhetoric from the EPRDF government, are totally absent in Ethiopia.
The regime systematically violates fundamental human rights, silences all dissenting voices and rules the country in a suppressive violent fashion which is causing untold suffering to millions of people. The upcoming May election, contrary to US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s ignorant, misjudged and widely criticised comments (that “Ethiopia is a democracy that is moving forward in an election that we expect to be free, fair and credible and open and inclusive”), is a hollow piece of democratic theatre; a total sham, with no credibility whatsoever. The result, as everyone in the country and amongst the diaspora knows, is a forgone conclusion.
The government of Ethiopia neglects and suppresses the people at home, ignores and abandons them abroad. They are in violation of a plethora of international covenants, as well as their own constitution, but perhaps more fundamentally they are in violation of their primary moral duty: To care for and protect their citizens, wherever they face intimidation, violence and abuse.