Never Again? Inside Ethiopia’s “retraining” programme for thousands of detained protesters

Detainees rounded up in the state of emergency were treated to a six-part course that included units in “Constitutional Democracy”, “Colour Revolutions” and “Ethiopian Renaissance”.

Prison guard tower at Shashamane Prison, Ethiopia. Credit: Rod Waddington.

Prison guard tower at Shashamane Prison, Ethiopia. Credit: Rod Waddington.

Looking drained last month, thousands of Ethiopian detainees swore on their release from prison to “Never Again” protest against the government. Or at least that’s what was written on their t-shirts in the well-choreographed scenes shown by the state broadcaster.

On 21 December, this group of mostly young men was departing Tolay, a military camp turned detention centre in south-western Ethiopia. They had been incarcerated for over a month undergoing what the government refers to as a rehabilitation programme.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn attended the ceremony that marked their release. In his speech, he reminded the former detainees that they have a “constitutionally enshrined right” to express dissent, but warned that if they resort to violence, they will “pay a price”. For many observers, there was a cruel irony to seeing a government educating people about their right to protest having imprisoned thousands over the past few months for exercising it.

Until a year or so ago, Ethiopia had been enjoying strong economic growth and relative stability in a shaky region for a decade. But in November 2015, anti-government protests began to pose a threat to the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, which has been in power since 1991.

[Ethiopia’s unprecedented nationwide Oromo protests: who, what, why?]

Initially triggered by opposition to a plan to expand Addis Ababa into their lands, members of the Oromo, the largest ethnic group in the country, organised widespread protests to demand economic and political equality. They were later joined by Ethiopia’s second largest sub-nation, the Amhara, who also feel disenfranchised. Together, these two groups make up more than two thirds of the country’s population.

[“The blood flowing in Oromia is our blood too”: Why Oromo-Amhara solidarity is the greatest threat to the Ethiopian government]

Protests and the state’s response to them escalated, and by September 2016, human rights groups were estimating that over 600 people had been killed by security forces. In October, the government declared a state of emergency that allowed authorities to hold suspects without due process. About 24,000 people were detained, often without charge, and sent to camps for “training”.

Rehabilitation

One of those rounded up was university lecturer and blogger Seyoum Teshome. A week before the state of emergency was imposed, Seyoum had spoken critically about the government to the German public broadcaster Deutche Welle. “Exactly 12 hours after that interview, security forces knocked on my door,” he says.

Seyoum claims that he was accused of possessing illegal pamphlets, but that the police found nothing. Nevertheless, he was sent to Tolay where he spent the next 56 days for allegedly breaching the state of emergency, even though he says he was already detained at the time.

Seyoum says that the conditions in the camp were poor and the treatment harsh. He alleges that he endured physical abuse and that he saw many other internees being harmed. “Fear was supreme,” says the lecturer, but “fused with hope”.

These sentiments are echoed by Befeqadu Hailu, a writer and blogger with the Zone9 collective, who spent over a month in another camp in the Oromiya region. According to him, the cells were packed to several times their capacity. He says that detainees had to dig holes in the field for toilets and that they had to endure conditions of extreme heat, lack of drinking water and limited exercise. “It was ugly,” he says, but says the most difficult aspect was “the uncertainty about what would happen to us”.

According to Seyoum, security forces spent the first few weeks trying to identify the prime troublemakers so they could face the courts. The government has said that 2,500 people detained in the state of emergency nationwide are to face trial, while 10,000 were marked for training and have since been released.

Seyoum says that those detainees were treated to a six-part course run by military and police officials. This involved being instructed in topics such as “Ethiopian History”, “Constitutional Democracy”, and “Colour Revolutions”. On this latter subject, the trainers tried to discredit the series of non-violent uprisings in former Soviet nations and the Balkans in the early-2000s, claiming they were engineered by Western interests.

Other units were named “Ethiopian Renaissance” and “Ethiopian Youth”, while one was simply titled “Never Again”. In these, Seyoum says that, amongst other things, international broadcasters such as the BBC and Voice of America were accused of promoting “an agenda contrary to Ethiopia’s developmental state model”.

According to Befeqadu, the programme wrongly assumed that the protesters were misled into demonstrating and ignorant of the subject matter. But government spokesperson Mohammed Seid insists their education was crucial.

He concedes that legitimate questions were raised during the protests, but claims that many “didn’t recognise there were differences between expressing dissent in a constitutional manner and violence”. “There were illegal demonstrations; there was hate speech,” he adds.

Uncertain future

Ethiopia’s ruling party has promised “deep reform” to address the widespread discontent in the country. But while it points to a cabinet reshuffle to show its sincerity, many complain that it is yet to address any of the underlying issues. The government continues to blame protests on external actors such as diaspora activists and neighbouring Eritrea. Meanwhile, the rationale behind the prisoner education programme further suggests an unwillingness to recognise the real concerns driving the demonstrations.

The EPRDF, which was founded by a former rebel group that came into power after overthrowing a military regime in 1991, has never fully abandoned its Marxist-Leninist roots. It often attributes opposition to a lack of awareness and sees education rather than dialogue and compromise as the solution.

[Behind the Ethiopia protests: A view from inside the government]

The shortcomings of this approach are readily apparent by speaking to those who have come through the re-training. “Here is the thing though: I don’t feel any regret at all, because I haven’t done anything illegal or wrong,” says Seyoum. And, he adds, the political and economic questions raised by protesters are still yet to be addressed.

[Ethiopia: How popular uprising became the only option]

After the state of emergency was declared in October 2016, a sense of order appears to have returned to Ethiopia. The declaration is scheduled to be lifted in May, but the government hasn’t ruled out extending it. And it is probably only then that it will be clear whether the EPRDF’s mixture of indoctrination and intimidation has had the desired effect – and whether the “rehabilitated” protesters will heed the promises on their pre-printed t-shirts.

Kalkidan Yibeltal is an Ethiopian writer and journalist based in Addis Ababa.

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10 thoughts on “Never Again? Inside Ethiopia’s “retraining” programme for thousands of detained protesters

  1. In the event some of you were unaware; The FEMA camps built throughout the USA is for reeducation of some of our citizens. Most of the black population in some parts of the country is expected to pass through the camps but they are not exclusively for blacks. And now you know.

  2. The real fear with the current government is the fact that it can not win through a democratic election. it came to this conclusion right after it lost the election in 2005 and refused to respect the peoples voice. those who dominate the government come from a tigrean region that represent 5 percent of the total population of the country. it is only through divide and rule that they can enjoy their current dominance. so they will do anything to avoid any call for a genuine democratic system in the country. the people want their rights to be respected. the current government sees this as a threat. these are irreconcilable values. the only option that the government has at this time is to spread fear among the populace. But this is not working anymore. the people are not afraid any more. The tigrean elites could have reformed the system and create a a society that can forgive them for all the looting and killing they have committed. but they can not be reformed and the society is not going to let them get away with it any more. and they know it. a one word declaration is not going to stop the tsunami that is going to come.

  3. With deep ethnic divisions Ethiopia is doomed. The never ending vicious political cycle- if Oromo controls the govt what would happen with Tigre & Amhara etc? Mistrust of other ethnic groups reigns in Ethiopia. The only way out is to accept what they have now as ugly as it seems and improve on it demanding everyone follow the Ethiopian constitution.

  4. it is very surprising shameful regime enforcing people to punish themselves if they ask for their own right!!!

  5. it is balanced article based on facts but you miss from discussing the unlawful protest occurs damages in billions on investments and the driving force behind the unlawful protesters had a link with the the terrorist groups such as GINBOT SEVEN , ONLF- sponsored by Egyptians officially declared to over throw the governments and to secede from Ethiopia besides Jawar mohammed had also clearly declared on media to introduce islamic state in Ethiopia. so such negative and illegal driving motives are not mentioned on your article and if it was incorporated your article may be more acceptable and be confident to criticize such evil ideas.

  6. The only problem Ethiopia has is the Diaspora Extremist Bais Media .They will never fails to Lie ! Spreading Lies, Lies and more Lies , Racist propaganda ETC…and they are directly Responsible for the nation racial tensions and orchestrating the violence ….. these racist hate group will say anything just to make EPRDF Government to look bad … It shows lack of respect and the idea being grateful for all those who served and sacrificed their lives ,to give the freedom to all of us ! so stop insulating our Government ,our nation, and our ”Heroes”!!! and may GOD continue to bless this great country Ethiopia and EPRDF !!!!!!

  7. Hard pressed looters got a respite. They would look for places to stash away their loots. The day of reckonoing is not far. Biri’le ke neq’a ayhonim eq’a

    99% of people who matter think in this manner. They have figured it out that all the drama the regime hosts is to create a safe ground for its’ select thieves to amass wealth. The saying “you may fool some of the people some of the time but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time” holds true.

  8. your article is biased. You are shy to elaborate what happened during the protest, the cause of it and the solution.
    The problem is lack of awareness in behalf of the demonstrators and lack of willingness to change the existing condition such as democratization, justice and good governance in behalf of the government.
    you could mention that no amount of demonstration or riot can bring the change that the Ethiopian people is seeking.
    If you, as a person, or as a part of crowd of demonstrators want to bring about a real and long lasting change, the best way to start is by creating awareness of the current situation of the country followed by deliberate and matured scientific ways of solving problems.
    you also need a leadership that is not short sighted and not limited by near term hunger for power and recognition.
    The current government is working tirelessly around the clock to prove that it can curb the poverty and backwardness of the country hence to stay in power. You and your crowed in another way want to change the situation in a single day by devastating the wellbeing of the country through riot without imperative solution in hand.
    Now what? you might ask. If you are selfless and you want to change your country and help democracy flourish, throw your nets away and arm yourself with scientific tools and get ready to work not only around the clock like EPRDF did but two fold of it.

  9. This essay is disappointing for one glaring and perhaps deliberate omission, the level of violence and destruction committed by the protesters. In addition to the picture of the prison guard tower, there should have been a picture of the burned out trucks and factories and businesses destroyed by the protesters. But then that would spoil the narrative of the article which is to find fault with the government. However in the end, the government performed its sacred duty – to restore public order and hold the nation together. Ethiopia is worth preserving, Ethiopia must prevail.

  10. there is a modern day apartheid going on in the country. unless you are from tigrai, a small resource starved region where the current rulers of the country hail from, you are systematically hindered from advancing economically, politically and socially. the tigrean rulers divided the country according to tribes like its south African imagery of batustanism. By pitting one tribe against the other, they have been able to rule, loot and dominate the country. the people have woken up now. they are saying the old British play book is not working anymore. it is a shame for the government to have stayed this long practicing the shameful system of apartheid. the people are saying No more. The people are saying down down woyane which means apartheid when translated in in English.

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