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Last Sunday scores were killed in the northern Ethiopian city of Woldiya in skirmishes that arose during Epiphany festivities. Their death adds to the tally of hundreds if not thousands of citizens who have died in conflicts across different parts of Ethiopia in the past couple of years. It’s unfathomable why the sanctity of human life is held in low regard and why we as a nation are unable to resolve problems without slaying anyone. Security forces should demonstrate prudence whenever they try to quell peaceful expression of dissent. Resorting to violence is not only unnecessary, but also engenders political instability and exacts a heavy toll on the economy. It’s precisely the failure of the government to safeguard the security of citizens and the occasional involvement of some law enforcement personnel in extrajudicial killings that is to blame for the political crisis Ethiopia has been reeling from for some time now.

In a press briefing they gave a fortnight ago at the end of the 17-day long meeting of the Executive Committee of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the chairpersons of its fourmember organizations took full responsibility for the crisis and announced a raft of measures they said were intended to foster national consensus and the rule of law including releasing the leaders and members of opposition political parties as well as shuttering the infamous Maekelawi police investigation center in Addis Ababa where prisoners were subjected to torture. Though many had viewed the statement with skepticism, some had hoped that it was the harbinger of betterthings to come. Sadly, the Woldiya incident put paid to the optimism and destroyed any political capital the government may have had.

The government shoulders ultimate responsibility for any dereliction of duty which jeopardizes national security. It’s particularly incumbent on the executive branch to exercise strict oversight of the security and law enforcement apparatus so that lives are not unnecessarily lost when they respond to protests even if they are deemed to be unlawful. And if they are it ought to bring to justice those who are guilty of acting outside of the scope of their authority. The leadership and security personnel of the Oromia and Ethiopian Somali regional governments who were implicated in the clashes among the border areas of the two regions that led to the death and injury of thousands and the displacement of hundreds of thousands in 2016 have to face the music. Not a single citizen should die at the hand of security forces when the public peacefully demands its rights or voices its resentment. Nothing justifies a violent response in such circumstances.

Although the “deep renewal” the EPRDF embarked on following the outbreak of unrest at the end of 2015 should have paved the way for a nationwide dialogue aimed at forging national consensus, the events since then have had the opposite effect. The unprecedented level of death, maiming and displacement that has taken place throughout the country makes a mockery of the renewal exercise. The protest that saw the youth of Woldiya clash with security forces should not have led to the loss of so many lives. What is the harm in tolerating politically charged songs during religious festivities? Had the security personnel deployed to the scene thought through the consequences of firing on a crowd before pulling the trigger the needless death of defenseless people could have been entirely avoided. How can the people have trust in and reconcile with the government when the police and the army kill unarmed individuals staging peaceful protests? How can the government do an effective job of delivering the basic services expected of it in the backdrop of incidents that in no way help to enhance its credibility? All stakeholders need to deliberate seriously on this matter.

Citizens are bound to feel disenfranchised when the government fails to respond promptly to their demands. The unrest rocking Ethiopia for over two years now is directly attributable to the widespread discontent that had been simmering for decades due to the government’s propensity to ignore the litany of grievances the public has vociferously expressed. To make matters worse the actions taken in response to conflicts was by and large disproportionate to the threat they posed. The bloodshed in Woldiya is a shocking episode which belies the joint declaration of the chairpersons of the EPRDF’s member parties that such incidents would not be allowed to recur. Why can’t Ethiopia escape from this cycle of violence? Why does it keep on making the same mistake over and over again? How can its survival be assured if stability cannot be restored immediately? We are in troubling times indeed.

A historic nation like Ethiopia and its proud people do not deserve to suffer the devastation and grief they are enduring. There should be no doubting that democracy, the rule of law and equality are existential questions for a country confronted with a slew of grave challenges. If Ethiopia is to become a mature democracy it is imperative that a sense of belongingness is instilled in its people. Naturally this can succeed when they recommit themselves to a shared vision embracing diversity while promoting unity. They have never let their differences rend them apart and actually have demonstrated a strong solidarity for centuries because of their deep love of country. It’s appalling then that a country which is home to a people who can do wonders if they are governed properly become their graveyard. It’s vital that we extricate ourselves from this quagmire within the shortest possible time. That is why the importance of resolving differences without resorting to killing can never be overstated.

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