The second Wednesday of October, when soldiers were seen marching on the streets of Addis Abeba to the palace, brought back painful memories of the Dergue’s 17-year rule. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) should not take such lapses in military protocol slightly, writes Ambessaw Assegued (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The last time armed soldiers left their barracks, marched in broad daylight on the streets of Addis Abeba and entered the palace gates, they dethroned a reigning emperor and unleashed the Red Terror from which we are still recovering.
To all our collective dismay and alarm, now comes recent news and reports of soldiers, armed with Kalashnikovs and sniper rifles, marching on our streets and demanding to be let into the palace to confront the head of government, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), in his home and office.
“The soldiers were disarmed outside the compound. They were only allowed into the premises in the late afternoon, and the roadblock was lifted,” reads a BBC report.
Inevitably, the sight of armed soldiers marching in the middle of the street evokes memories of our malevolent past, the 17 years of military rule. No part of this nation was spared the dread of fear and death that the junta, the Dergue, unleashed on the citizens in 1974.
Few who came of age in the 1970s and ‘80s – students, labour unionists, civil servants, journalists, student leaders, intellectuals, artists and ordinary citizens – could escape from the roundups and abductions; from being snatched off the street and from their homes by soldiers to be impounded in prisons, tortured and killed. Thousands more would flee and enter into exile and sprout the new phenomena of the Ethiopian diaspora.
In the telling of that story, Yergalem Endashaw recoils from her experience as a witness of what took place just a few metres away from her home. Her companion, an aged and gravelly man in his eighties, affirms her truth with his nods and grunts.
The two had witnessed a grisly event from the safe distance of their nearby homes, but there is no shortage of eyewitnesses to the massacre of some students and young workers by the Dergue’ssoldiers. There are police officers, government clerks and guards who are still alive – those who saw what happened at the Debre Berhan prison in northern Shoa one night.
“We heard the rattle of machine gun fire and went out to see what was going on,” she recalls the events of December 1977 when Derguesoldiers sent from Addis Abeba in an armed convoy machine-gunned 90 young men and women, and pushed their bodies into a mass grave dug by the prisoners themselves.
“We saw the soldiers surrounding the prison compound in the afternoon, and we were already apprehensive.”
When the shooting started by 10pm or so, almost the entire town of parents, sisters and kin of the prisoners came out to the prison clamouring.
“But the soldiers kept them away at gunpoint. How could they let them see the evil that they wreaked on our children?”
This former prison is where the new campus of the Debre Berhan University is being built today. There are no placards placed to commemorate the dead, no statues are erected nor any monuments placed on the killing fields where the atrocities took place and where a mass grave was dug to entomb the victims.
After the fall of the Dergue, the tomb was uncovered in 1992, the skeletons of the dead collected and buried with formal rituals at Selassie Church in town. The new government, euphoric in its triumph and eager to highlight its mantra of liberation, organised committees and groups under the party’s patronage, and public funerals were held for the victims of the Red Terror throughout the country.
But that only lasted briefly. EPRDF, just like the Dergueand in the typical fashion of the one-party ruler, soon imposed its own hegemony. The victims, the events and the memories unleashed by the terror were quickly relegated to the obscure corners of forgetfulness. A nation that endured untold atrocities under a military junta was expected to be grateful to the liberator for delivering it from its oppressor.
Today we can see how the nation was betrayed by the liberator and left with a tattered union, exhausted treasury, broken rule of law and burdened by massive debt. Sadly, there is a clamour now to forgive those who wronged the nation and to move on.
Some cite the freed Dergue members – pardoned by EPRDF – that still live in Kazanchis and Piassa and hang out in cafes across the city as examples of this process.
Forgiveness may be tolerable if applied to low-ranking officials who joined the fray with their masters to loot the nation’s wealth and abuse their powers. But the top tier, those who built a gilded life by robbing the treasury; those who practiced nepotism and patronage at the apex of their offices against the common good of the nation; and those who unjustly imprisoned, tortured and may have even killed should be held accountable.
“Abiy Ahmed was unhappy that soldiers had brought weapons and ordered them to do 10 press-ups,” said BBC. “The smiles on the soldiers’ faces as they performed the press-ups suggest the prime minister succeeded in defusing the situation amicably.”
But the officers, and the armed soldiers who marched on our streets, should be held accountable, They are mutineers by law. They stood against military rule, norms and traditions; and they must face the consequence of their brazen actions.
The soldiers, by demanding to enter the office and home of our leader Abiy Ahmed while bearing arms, have broken the law. They need to pay dearly, for they have violated the peace of the citizens and endangered the collective security of the nation.
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