June 23, 2018 will go down in history as a day that defined where Ethiopia is going. It was a day of hope and optimism coloured by loss and tragedy.
Much has been said about the explosion that took two lives and injured many more. Barring the irresponsible speculations about who perpetrated the attack, I was heartened at the outpouring of condolences to the families of those that were hurt. The feeling of solidarity shown by the public was just as inspiring.
One thing bothered me though. It was not much after the explosion that social media was awash with images of bloodied individuals. Those were not the victims of the bombing. They were suspects apprehended by the rallying public, and a couple of them were beaten to a pulp before being turned over to law enforcement.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) had gone on national TV condemning the attack in no uncertain terms and has visited victims of the explosion. Various public figures and leaders of the opposition parties have likewise expressed that they stand against any “cowardly” attack that takes the lives of innocent victims.
But I still have not seen any criticism on how the suspects were handled by the crowd – a significant divergence from our newly found energy in political engagement and speaking truth to power.
Saturday was about showing support in democratising Ethiopia, making government institutions fair and bringing the supremacy of the rule of law. They are mighty ideals for a country that seldom had responsible public officials or a democratic culture. If change is to come about it must be as multifaceted as possible.
There are few things as devastating as the power of a mob. It is not just overwhelming in its ability to wreak havoc but in driving people to act in ways that they would not under normal circumstances.
Imagine the margin of error for apprehending the wrong person in such a crowded rally and at such an emotionally tense moment. That is why we have courts with a duty and responsibilities to deal with these kinds of situations. I doubt that any persons caught in such a moment would even have the strength of mind to resist and defend themselves.
Abiy’s words that it is “better we let a 100 people go free than wrongfully imprison one,” should have rung loudly here.
But this is assuming that those apprehended were innocent. Indeed there were hundreds of thousands of people at the rally – there is bound to be a person that was an eyewitness to what took place. Maybe there was material evidence that would go beyond reasonable doubt to prove that they were the perpetrators.
Still, what right does anyone have to administer mob justice?
It is not an isolated incident. I have seen the law taken into the hands of citizens on the streets of Addis Abeba against individuals accused of stealing mobile phones. It happens too frequently.
Apprehending an alleged perpetrator or providing support to law enforcement bodies in their investigation is one thing, but mob lynching outside the due process of the law is quite another. It is a symptom of a skewed moral and our collective failure.
Much of this has to do with our legal system. Our courts and law enforcement bodies have lost a great deal of legitimacy given the corruption and their lack of autonomy. Within a toxic environment such as this, citizens can become resentful of the government’s monopoly of force and resort to violence.
Of course, institutional reforms will not happen overnight.. The fact that no public figure has called out this mob justice should unnerve us all.
We need to speak against such actions and condemn it. It should not be seen as merely administrating justice against those that are presumed guilty. The presumption of innocence unless found guilty should be part of our moral awakening.
There needs to be a comprehensive effort to institute a regime of rule of law and justice in Ethiopia. On Saturday, one of the key reasons that people rallied was to support the rule of law, particularly as it relates to public officials. That rule of law is part of what we are fighting for and should be granted even to those that mean to do us harm.
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