Saturday October 24th 2015
By Zecharias Zelalem
Barely a week has gone by since a court in Addis Ababa declared the proceedings against the last incarcerated Zone 9 bloggers, accused of terrorism among other things, were void. The euphoria of all freedom loving Ethiopians was obvious when Ethiopia’s social media sphere erupted into outright ululations as the news that the young activists, whose arrests and lengthy detentions were condemned by local and international observers alike, would be able to walk free from the prison cells where they reportedly faced physical and psychological torture and the dim prospects of spending the rest of their youth behind bars. The case against them, believed by many Ethiopians to be based on trumped up charges fabricated by elements of the ruling regime, was widely criticized as a paranoid government’s attempt at silencing voices of dissent. And although their untimely release was rather unexpected, the judges declaring the evidence and testimony against the young bloggers to be baseless was actually well in tandem with what most Ethiopians thought. Hence, the spontaneous outbreak of joy among people following the case. After all, who wouldn’t be happy to see the wrongly accused finally obtain their long merited freedom?
For those of you who remember, in July, the cases against five members of the Zone 9 group, namely Edom Kassaye, Asmamaw Hailegiorgis, Mahlet Fantahun, Zelalem Kibret and Tesfalem Woldeyes, were unexpectedly dropped. The five were freed in the days preceding the arrival of American President Barack Obama on Ethiopian soil for the first time, believed to be the EPRDF government’s way of cooling tensions between the two leaderships after repeated American condemnation of Ethiopia’s infamous record as a jailer of journalists. With these releases, the social media campaign to free the remaining Zone 9 members intensified, and culminated with last Friday’s declaration by three judges that they were to rejoin the rest of Ethiopian society.
When it comes to media personnel, good news stories from Ethiopia are extremely hard to come by. While people were relishing in the moment, drinking in the reality that these poor souls were finally unshackled from the torment that is the notorious Addis Ababa Maekelawi Prison, the realization that the court system back home is a gladiator’s arena for the politically powerful to punish and release at whim whoever they please has finally sunk in.
Meanwhile, as the dust settles and the empty champagne bottles are collected, a new kind of reality has set in for the now free team of opinionated ex-prisoners.
A couple of weeks ago, the annual Irecha gathering, the Oromo holiday of thanksgiving was commemorated in Debrezeit where thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people converged on the suburb of Addis to take part in the festivities which were covered by several international media outlets. Zone 9 contributor Mahlet Fantahun, freed only months prior in July, decided to travel with friends to attend what was a massive gathering attracting people from all over the country. While there, perhaps in an effort to get in tune with the holiday’s theme, she decided to wear a scarf adorned in the colours representing the Oromo Gadaa system. The black, red and white colours, which are also found on the Oromia state flag, have a symbolic and historical meaning behind them. Over the course of the past twenty years, these colours have been reintroduced to Ethiopian society, which is by now well acquainted with their existence. A picture of Mahlet wearing the scarf has been well circulated across the Ethiopian social media sphere and has become a discussion point since. After the release of the rest of the bloggers, images emerged showing one more member Befeqadu Hailu of the Zone 9 team clad in the same black, red and white scarf.
These images stirred up a controversy among some Ethiopians who felt that the Zone 9 bloggers in question had belittled Ethiopians across the country and around the world who have not only done their part to make their plight known to all, but who have also contributed financially to the effort to support the families in question during their trials of suffering. Their appearing dressed in a “tribal” outfit apparently insulted the national identity of all those who used the hashtag #FreeZone9Bloggers. They have been on the end of some stinging criticism over the past couple of days and it is clear to all that the way these unfortunate young men and women will proceed with their lives will no doubt be up for scrutiny.
Twitter and Facebook have seen Ethiopians furiously engage themselves in a back and forth debate between those chastising the duo for their appearing in Oromo attire and those defending their rights to do so. As if the news of our country facing a terrible drought requiring billions of dollars in foreign aid wasn’t important enough to become a central theme of discussion, the woolly black, red and white scarf has seen itself climb to the top of the relevance charts among the Ethiopian social media political elite. Despite their being on the heels of having their innocence of any criminal activity declared by an Ethiopian federal court, the two Zone 9 bloggers have all of a sudden been found guilty of high treason against the motherland by a court of outspoken far right pseudo nationalists. In this case however, there has been no trial, not even a mock trial.
There are too many inconsistencies with the newly found accusations against the Zone 9 bloggers. If as is being said, the wearing of an Oromo traditional outfit or something expressive of the Oromo identity is perceived as being anti Ethiopian, then we are actually belittling the Ethiopian identity above anything. The Ethiopian identity, which should be an all encompassing, multicultural source of pride, is being portrayed by the naysayers here as an isolated cult threatened by any sign of uniqueness or diversity. Cult members are to stay in line and not break free of the uniformity less they be accused of blasphemy. Those criticizing the two bloggers for wearing something belonging to one of Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups are basically saying that breaking free of the green, yellow and red uniformity is a crime in itself. This is not only wrong, it’s immoral. As I’ve said so over and over, the Ethiopian identity and flag are beautiful but must NEVER come at the expense of a person’s unique personal yearning. It can coexist in harmony with the various diverse backgrounds and ethnicities of the melting pot that is modern day Ethiopia. An outright refusal to accept the coexistence of personal backgrounds with the national Ethiopian identity is rejecting the gains that hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian martyrs gave their lives for.
From the countless peasant uprisings during imperial Ethiopia, to the rebellion and civil war waged in an effort to overthrow the Derg regime, Ethiopians of every ethnicity have struggled for the most basic of rights: equality. And although a righteous struggle has been hijacked into a self serving hierarchy of power hungry moguls today, it’s impossible to deny that a permanent rubber stamp liberating us from the notion of superior and inferior peoples has been etched into the mindsets of a generation of today’s Ethiopians. Refusing to accept this is counterproductive and an attempt at pushing the clock backwards.
Other than that, another huge inconsistency with the roar of disapproval is the fact that many of the judgmental self declared saviours of our national sovereignty had been rallying in support of the Zone 9 bloggers, describing them as martyrs standing up for Ethiopia’s right to freedom of speech. To turn 180 degrees and to now attack them for exercising their right to wear what they want is hypocritical in nature. These same pseudo nationalists are the ones who are constantly reminding us that it is illegal to even own the plain green, yellow red under today’s oppressive Ethiopia. But they must have illegalized the plain black, red and white flag in the oppressive Ethiopia born out of the figments of their imaginations. As far as I know, there was nothing inflammatory or offensive about the way they were dressed. The only code of law which would have Mahlet Fantahun arrested for such a display would be the one written by the Taliban, where as a woman, her visible shoulders would be worthy of a hundred lashes. It is in the best interests of Ethiopia as a whole that Ethiopians abstain from enacting the highly discriminatory practices of the Taliban which have kept countless people in Pakistan and Afghanistan trapped in the Stone Age. The paranoia induced reactions to the Oromo Gadaa banner that we are seeing Mahlet and Befeqadu’s detractors show are reminiscent of the Ethiopian government’s crackdown on Ethiopian flags which aren’t adorned with the constitutional star in the middle. Utterly ridiculous and contrary to the virtues of a true democracy.
There is a noticeable tone of hostility among many Ethiopians when it comes to the unique Oromo identity. Especially given generations of widespread depictions of the Oromo movement as one big bubble of hate out to engulf Ethiopia and pop a holy unity of peoples. But as the biggest linguistic group and a big contributor to our country’s economy, cultural heritage and Olympic effort, like it or not, the Oromo is what constitutes the Ethiopia most of us know and love. In what crazed, upside down world would appreciating fine German engineering belittle the Mercedes Benz brand? Appreciating the Oromo culture doesn’t demean Ethiopianism! In the eyes of some it might. There are a host of personalities all over the internet who are claiming the Oromo name to spread hatred and division against everything that Ethiopians hold near and dear. Yes, Oromos who believe they are benefiting themselves and doing their people a favour by engaging in petty insults. Every society has it’s scum but it isn’t every society that is labelled after its scum. Why should the entire Oromo existence bear the brunt of what a few ragtag cyber Nazis say? The reality is, a generation of young kids who celebrate the annual Nations and Nationalities holiday dressing up in the colourful costumes of our various ethnic groups has spawned and they are growing up. Those of the fossilized mindsets which equate showing cultural uniqueness to harbouring malicious intentions will only be mocked and ridiculed by the up and coming power brokers of this country. For their sake they should abandon their archaic views and get with the times, for fear of being abandoned and left in the dust of the much more open minded Ethiopians of tomorrow.
There’s an important question that we as Ethiopians in the midst of this ridiculous panel of mudslinging must ask ourselves. Why are we this quick to associate Mahlet and Befeqadu’s wearing of the Oromo scarf with something negative? For instance, how do we know the bloggers aren’t Oromo themselves? How do we know they aren’t simply trying to convey a message of peace? An Amnesty International report detailed how Oromos are distinctly targeted for abuse and especially imprisonment in Ethiopia. Perhaps the two formerly incarcerated Zone 9 bloggers were just expressing solidarity with the demographic of the prison they were in. There is this probability as well. Yet so many are quick to rush to negative conclusions. Why would that be? Ponder that one over a bit.
Simply put, the cyber lynching of Mahlet Fantahun and Befeqadu Hailu for their wearing a piece of clothing sporting Oromo colours is testimony that there are still too many of us stuck in the 18th century with a decaying and dying out sense of nationalism.
There are now some making further claims that statements given by the bloggers themselves are inconsistent with what grateful ex-inmates would say. Without going into what exactly was said, let me reiterate in the strongest possible terms that now is NOT the time to nitpick anything that is said by the Zone 9 team. They are only fresh from the trauma of a lifetime, physical and mental torture as well as facing the damaging reality of waking up every day not knowing if they are a day away, or a decade away from being back at home with their loved ones. It is a horrific way to spend over 500 days and it left them in a mental wreck, contemplating suicide. Let us be considerate and allow them to rehabilitate and recover. They aren’t in a position to be judged no matter how culturally inclined to doing so we are as Ethiopians. They have sacrificed themselves; for the sake of our basic rights they have spent a significant portion of their golden youth behind bars. The least they deserve is their peace and tranquility in a setting free from the cries of pain of fellow inmates being tortured. Do we not owe this and more to those who decided to bravely fight the fight on home soil? I would say yes.
So indeed I do oppose the chilling hostility that the two bloggers have received over the releases of their Irecha themed photos. But anyone with the most basic knowledge of our domestic politics would know that it was obvious that such images would have created a firestorm of sorts. Which is why, the sensible thing to do at a time like this was to not upload such images to the internet only days after the liberation of the group. Mahlet, Befeqadu, their colleagues, families and friends have spent far too much time in the public eye. It was time for them to disappear from the spotlight for a while and get accustomed to life on the outside without their privacy being defiled by the hordes of politically hyperactive personalities on our social media sphere. For their sake, the original uploaders of the images that went viral should have refrained from publishing the images, at least until the most affected had ample time to flip the page and start the newest phase of their lives.
Here’s to hoping that they can rise from the ashes that were the darkest times in their lives and once again become productive, contributing citizens of their country. You know, the one on the brink of a horrible drought.
My name is Zecharias Zelalem.