Once more, freedom of assembly was put on the spotlight. A Consortium of 9 parties attempted to hold a rally in defiance of the government’s warning ended up with the detention of dozens, including the leaders.
Though the detainees were released later on, the episode was not the first of its kind and unlikely to be the last for Semayawi(Blue) party – which spearheads the Consortium. More importantly, the episode cast light on the deeper problems that undercut Ethiopian party politics.
A 16 months old row
Addis Ababa’s municipality and Semayawi party have been at odds on the issue for 16 months now. The three years old party put itself on the political map in May 2013 by calling for a demonstration in front of the African Union HQ – at the very day of a Summit – and insisting on going ahead with the plan despite the municipality’s objection.
The party based its position on the 1991 legislation that allows peaceful demonstrations or public political meetings provided that the organizers notify the municipality 48 hours in advance. The latter may object within 12 hours in writing – stating the reasons and recommending an alternative time and venue.
But that has not always been the case. A mere silence of the municipality or being asked to “guarantee the peacefulness” of the rally prompts organizers to abort their plan. Especially after the 2005 post-election violence, there has been a few plans to hold a protest rally in Addis Ababa – only to be cancelled at the municipality’s request for a change of time or venue.
In the meantime, requiring a permit paper has become a norm among owners of meeting halls while the municipality asks for a lease contract to authorize the event – thereby, frustrating even indoor assemblies, as MP Girma Seifu witnessed during his book launch two years ago.
Semayawi‘s obstinacy paid off.
The municipality took the rare step of writing a letter explaining its reasons and authorizing a substitute date and venue for the rally – which was widely reported as the first protest rally since 2005.
The party followed that course each time thereafter. It threatened – sometimes actually did – to go ahead with a planned rally, whenever the municipality’s response was not communicated in writing or deemed it unsatisfactory.
Sometimes the party had it its way, at other times led to police blockade and few days long detention of its members. Between May 2013 to April 2014, the authorities and Semayawi had about half a dozen weekends of showdown – including two successful and two attempted rallies, in the Capital.
Last month, the Semayawi led Consortium of parties announced its formation and its intention to carry out a month-long “popular struggle” – which so far consisted a call for national prayer (to be conducted at religious places and in private) and two plans for outdoor events.
The first one – an outdoor gathering slated for November 16 – was rejected by the municipally due to “security force shortage as there are other scheduled events”, recommending them to pick a meeting hall of their choosing.
Semayawi deemed the response unacceptable – as it wasn’t issued within the 12 hours limit and had “vague and unconvincing” grounds – thus, went ahead with the plan. To which, the municipality responded not only by deploying a police force to disband the gathering, but also issued a letter, a few days later, characterizing it “anti-Constitution activity”.
But that didn’t sway Semayawi party and co. They came up with yet another plan: A protest rally coupled with a 24-hour long public gathering (Nov. 29 to Nov. 30 noon time) at Mesqel square – the epicenter of the city.
Conspicuously, the date overlapped with the Nation-Nationalities day, though it took place elsewhere. Such overlaps were common to most of the dates picked by Semayawi.
“Are you doing this on purpose to force the government?”, HornAffairs asked Yonathan Tesfaye, PR head of the party. He replied: “Isn’t it obvious? It is part of the calculation. You should have a leverage to negotiate”, then added quickly “but the latest overlap was accidental, it is part of the month-long plan of the 9-parties consortium”.
Predictably, the municipality objected the plan, mentioning “the increased traffic [in the square] due to ongoing construction activities”. On the eve of the event, Friday Nov. 31, an official appeared on the state-owned TV to warn against the planned gathering.
Given the importance attached to such statements on the national TV, one would expect the organizers to abort the plan. They didn’t.
The police stopped the protestors and detained some 75 individuals, including the leaders of the Consortium – after they marched 150 meters from Semayawi party office and also around Mesqel square – and held them at four or more police stations for about five days.
Legality or Civil disobedience
While the organizers are convinced of their legality, the government thinks otherwise. The legal provisions cited – by the four police stations that detained them – on Monday when Courts remanded them to 7-14 days in police custody, included “outrages against the Constitution”, “rioting”, and – a vaguely phrased – “inciting terror and chaos”.
Later that day, a press statement from Addis Ababa Police Commission accused them of being involved in “illegal gathering”, having “received financial, ideological and moral support from ESAT, the mouth piece of the outlawed terrorist group Ginbot 7” and having “distributed and posted messages in the city and used social media to spread anti-development messages”.
The inconsistency was suggestive that the government did not made up its mind at the time. When it finally did, on Thursday, all those detained during the attempted rally were released.
Yet, the core issues remain unsettled.
The party claims the attempted rally was legal – as they fulfilled the duty to notify, while the municipality’s “blanket rejection” was not in accordance to the law. City officials claim to have recommended Semayawi to consider “another venue”. The latter dispute that and instead claim the head of the Mayor’s office had merely said to them: “This is beyond my power, I can’t help you”.
Whichever is the truth, it might not have avoided the dispute. The municipality is of the opinion that its mandate to recommend an alternative venue is not limited to an alternative public square but also includes recommending a meeting hall in lieu.
A dubious interpretation – opposed by Semayawi – that may necessitate judicial review. Alas, legal action is not “part of Semayawi’s strategy”, an official of the party told HornAffairs, “the judiciary is not independent”. In fact, that is the very reason Semayawi choses to defy the municipality on the streets rather than in Courts.
Then, one may hypothesize, Semayawi‘s best defense would be to characterize its action as a civil disobedience. As their attempted rally was not secretive nor violent, it could be defended as one that was aimed at challenging the policies or practices concerning freedom of assembly.
There is a catch, however, does Semayawi recognize the existing political system – a common feature of civil disobedients? More specifically, does Semayawi party abode regime-change aspirations? The answers should be NO and YES, respectively, though Semayawi has trouble addressing the questions unequivocally.
There lies the real cause of the government’s uneasiness and its temptation to respond harshly.
Putting Semayawi in context
Yet, it would be simplistic to overlook Semayawi‘s dilemma’s and contradictions.
Granted, Semayawi has much in common with the two-decades right-wing notion that the current multinational political arrangement is an existential threat. Arguably, Semayawi is more to the right. Its founding members departed UDJ(Unity for Democracy and Justice), when it watered down its ideology by accepting some group rights and entering into the Medrek – a coalition of leftist parties.
Semayawi‘s confrontational approach was also a survival necessity. As its leaders are relatively young and new comers, their personal network is limited – specially regarding diaspora funding, which so far backed UDJ, as the files and ranks of the latter had been around in 2005.
That constraint can only be compensate by delivering what the opposition camp was longing for: Action and a defiant tone.
And, it appears to have worked.
At least it offset the impact of the deliberate attempt of the heavy-weights in the opposition camp to undermine Semayawi – by expelling it from a loose union of parties, downplaying its events and questioning its standing.
In fact, the broader impacts of Semayawi‘s approach is discernable on UDJ – which divorced Medrek, rolled back its ideological changes and beefed up public activities in the past 16 months.
The bottom line
The immediate factors of last week’s showdown may soon be solved one way or another: With Semayawi backing down or with the municipality adopting either a transparent procedure or enacting a restrictive legislation.
But, the showdown regarding the attempted rally is nothing but a symptom.
The root factors, however, point to the deficits of the political landscape: Hesitance to renounce regime-change aspirations, inadequate local finance for opposition parties, the polarized political discourse and militant activism, among others.
As long as those persist, confrontational politics will remain to be a rewarding enterprise, while the government feels compelled to keep the opposition in a short leash.