Ethiopian Government’s Case against Muslim Leaders Collapses, Exposing Rifts within the System
The show trail of the leaders of the Ethiopian Muslim Movement, formally known as the Arbitration Committee, seem to have come to a dramatic end. The leaders were arrested during the regime’s heavy crackdown on the Muslim protest in Mid-July. That is they have been kept in jail without charge for over three months now. They appeared at court multiple times but the prosecution kept dragging its feet, asking the court for extension. Two weeks ago, the judge apparently had it enough and warned the prosecution either to charge the accused or drop its case.
Therefore, everyone has been looking forward to October 24,2012 to see what will happen. Filled with suspense, families of the accused, defense lawyers and spectators crammed the court from early in the morning. Missing were, however, the prosecutor, the police and the accused prisoners. The judge came and called for the case. Having waited for a hour, the judge pounded his gavel and announced that the pending case is closed and the accused must be freed from wherever they might be held.
Whether the regime will abide by the court’s ruling and release the prisoners is yet to be seen. Speaking to the Voice of America, Tamam Ababulgu, the lead defense attorney for the Muslim leaders, said that he expects his clients to be freed tomorrow morning, as there is no legal ground to hold them after the case is closed. This rarely happens in Ethiopia, where the prosecutor cooks up false evidence at ease, and the executive branch pushes the judiciary as it wishes. Predictably people are confused and amused by the behavior of the prosecutor and the ‘bravery’ of the judge.
So what’s happening? The cold-blood murder of five civilians in Wallo this past weekend have enraged the population, re-energizing the movement that is calling for nationwide protest during the upcoming Eid Arafa payer on Friday. Thus, the regime might be attempting to defuse the movement’s momentum by spreading the news about the imminent release of its leadership. That is velvet glove approach is not motivated by any change of heart but rather emerged out of the concern that should security crackdown fail to dampen the determination of the protesters, the government would be hard pressed to seek a humiliating compromise, which may further fuel rather than cool down the enthusiasm of the protesters for a more vigorous action.
But there seem to be larger issues at play as well. It has long emerged that as the movement grew stronger and yet maintained nonviolent discipline, the ruling oligarchy has been divided on how to deal with the issue. The hardliner faction, led by Bereket Simon, agitates for stepping up the crackdown on the protest and charging the leadership with terrorism, because doing otherwise would make the regime look weak, and potentially encouraging other segments of the society to raise similar demands–thereby opening the Pandora’s box. The other faction, under guardianship of Sebehat Nega, have been advocating a softer approach, arguing the government should release the political prisoners and reach a negotiated settlement, because the ruling party cannot afford such intense confrontation at the time when it needs to focus on filling the vacuum created by the demise of the “larger than life Great Leader.”
It is important to note that difference over how to respond to the Muslim demands is not the cause of the split within the ruling oligarchy but rather the issue has become one more component which is been used by the rivals to fight one another as they struggle to gain the upper hand. The hardliner faction would like to win the hearts and minds of the party’s rank and file by projecting tough determination to maintain the course charted by the ‘Great Leader’. The other wants to sell itself as a reformist, in order to galvanize moderates from within the party and the larger public to help it wrestle power from the hands of the rival faction.
But as the power struggle is still in its early stage, neither of the two factions have sufficient power to assert its will, but capable of distracting what the other is doing. The Muslim issue is not the only case in which the two faction are facing off. In the ongoing confrontation with OPDO, the hardliner faction attempted to return the organization to its old surrogate status by imposing its own chosen leadership, only to be undercut when the ‘reformist’ faction backed OPDO’s resistance. Similarly, after the reformist sacked the notorious president of Somali region, the hardliners have been attempting to restore him to his post, assigning his handpicked deputy to fill in the post with the aim of preventing the regional parliament from appointing a replacement preferred by the reformists.
It was this growing, yet subtle, factional confrontation that prevented the prosecution from having a clear strategy. Insiders say that the prosecutors have been receiving conflicting orders, one voice telling them that the case will be dropped and the other pushing them to file the charges. A third alternative seems to have been brokered in the last minute whereby the Muslim leaders could be released in a manner that helps avoid confrontation between the two factions. The hardliners save face by not dropping the charge officially but letting the court close it, while reformists can claim credit for the “bravery of the judge,” which by extension could be used to tout the “independence” of the judiciary.
Yet as the prisoners have not be released until this piece went online, it is not clear whether the hardliners have signed off on this tactic, and let the prisoners go. Any reversal after making the public believe that the leaders will be released, will have serious backlash, will further fuel the protest tomorrow and beyond.
Either way, the Muslim protesters have pioneered a fresh and cleverly effective approach to confront the ruling party, finding a magic formula that eluded all the opposition parties to date: How to galvanize a disciplined country-wide non-violent protest that enjoys support from a broad spectrum of the country’s diverse populace. By so doing, they have exposed not only the ruling party’s weakest links but also a clear path to possible political transformation in Ethiopia that won’t go unnoticed for far too long.
UPDATE 9 AM: 10/25/2012
After the First-Instance Court closed the case yesterday, we have now learned that the case has been transferred to Federal High Court. There appears to be no legal ground for this action but we will bring fuller analysis from legal experts.
For now this indicates that the hardliners have decided to escalate the confrontation with Muslim protesters and by doing so step up their push against their rival ‘reformist’ faction.