Pardoning Derge Officials? Time to Reflect in Due Course

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Pardoning Derge Officials? Time to Reflect in Due Course

Getachew Mequanent

Dec 25, 2010

A few years ago, I wrote in one of my “commentaries” that Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam should be given a clemency. People got upset and that was understandable. It is now a national issue, thanks to the effort of Ethiopian religious leaders. I must confess, however, that I have become less sentimental about this issue after I saw Mengistu’s signature ordering the execution of nearly the entire cabinet members of Haile Sellassie’s government. I also saw a video footage of Mengistu speaking in Derge’s Shengo (legislature) despising famine-affected people in Tigray and Wello, as if he was not claiming “the history” of Lalibela and Axum to identify himself with the Ethiopian national community. I was actually disgusted to hear this from a man who claimed to have led a “mass revolution”. Even then, yesterday is history and society as a whole should look forward and focus on the most urgent problems: decent jobs for the growing youth population, for example.

We all acknowledge that Derge had brought about fundamental change in Ethiopian society including radical land reform and establishment of autonomous local administration. In my experience, many Ethiopians also blame all political groups for creating the 1970s political anarchy and civil strife. Yet, Derge leaders adopted a policy that resulted in the arrest, torture and murder of not only their political opponents, but also innocent people including government bureaucrats. The practice of throwing the dead bodies of young people in front of their parents’ houses, and asking parents to pay for bullets (wasted to kill their children), was a humiliating experience for this proud ancient nation. No people in Africa or perhaps elsewhere had experienced such a humiliation. There are also those who allege that ethnic political agenda was hidden beneath the rhetoric of “socialism”, so that prominent Amharas were deliberately targeted by labeling them feudals, neftegna or reactionaries. Tecola Hagos has once written arguing that it is difficult to achieve a retroactive justice through reconciliation. In this respect, if people like Melaku Teferra get amnesty, does the Ethiopian government has any moral authority left to keep others who are convicted of lesser crimes in prisons? Does reconciliation undermine the rule of law in Ethiopian society? Are Ethiopians leaving a legacy by having notorious criminals released from prison? The victims of the red terror may go to international courts to sue the Ethiopian government. The release of Kinijit leaders through the same pardon process did nothing to nurture the democratization process. The diversity of opinions on the pardoning of Derge officials was evident from an online discussion moderated by Aiga Forum. There are many, many complex legal, moral and political issues. We should just pray for those religious leaders to succeed.

What about those hiding in the Diaspora? In the early 1990s, someone whispered to me that a colonel who gave an order to shoot at student protesters in Gondar in 1970s was living in Canada. I think my distant cousin died on that day. Probably this man could now be a board member of a civic organization and Diaspora church. There have been lots of whispers like this one circulating around in the Diaspora and at times it is difficult to know what is and what is not true. On the other hand, we have to bear in mind that every former Derge official would not have been an oppressor. Many bureaucrats and intellectuals had worked with Derge genuinely believing that socialism could lift the Ethiopian people out of poverty. They wrote plans and legislations to introduce fundamental changes in Ethiopian society. They were also victims of Derge oppression including imprisonment, murder and exile. Other than the strong few amongst us (like the two sisters who sent Kelbesa back to Ethiopia), I don’t think the Diaspora has any interest in taking up the issue of retroactive justice for crimes committed during the Derge era.

The case of pardoning Derge officials will test both the maturity of the Ethiopian judicial system and strength of government leadership to deal with the issue without compromising the fundamental principles that govern justice administration in society as enshrined in the constitution. International opinion will also be a factor, with many observers likely to raise their eyebrows (knowing Derg’s crimes). EPRDF may not gain much politically and diplomatically from the pardoning of Derge officials. As an elected ruling party, EPRDF will have to carefully fulfil the wishes of the Ethiopian people.

Finally, all this business of pardoning political prisons may also make us realize how EPRDF elites have managed to refrain themselves from political vengeance (we have seen how the new political elites in Iraq rushed to execute Saddam Hussein and others). We too should join the forces that are trying to give our past positive meanings and move on. I once had a supervisor who told me how her Polish immigrant father and his friends were talking about communism at a time when the Polish people had overthrown communism and moved on. Many of us living in the Diaspora have the same problem of still carrying an old political baggage. The Ethiopian people will follow their religious leaders to forgive and forget. Let us do the same regardless of whether the Ethiopian government pardons Derge officials or not.

Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Getachew Mequanent
Ottawa, Canada
December 25, 2010

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