Can one accuse a tyrant in Ethiopia?
By Tesfay Atsbeha and Berhe Kahsay
For the record, re-posted on January 29, 2004
Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
Office of the Special Public Prosecutor
P.O. Box 642
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Telephone 11-04-45
Fax (251-1)55-05-74

Can one accuse a tyrant in Ethiopia?

Dear Sir,

With concerned interest we read your speech on the progress of the legal process dealing with the charges of human rights violations committed by the Ethiopian military regime (the Dergue), from 1974 up to 1991 against the people of Ethiopia.

Your Speech held on 13th February 1997, to an audience of Ambassadors, government representatives, representatives of victims, NGOs, Human Rights Organisations and members of the press underlines the importance of the process for democracy, development, and peace in Ethiopia. We are impressed by the tremendous job accomplished until now in collecting documentary evidence by yourself and your SPO staff, the special Prosecutors, investigating officers as well as the computer department. We, therefore, wish to express our appreciation for your efforts and also our willingness to contribute to the prevalence of justice in our country.

We, the undersigned, were members of the Tigray people's Liberation Front (TPLF), an organisation which played a decisive role in the overthrow of the military government. We served the TPLF full-time and gave it absolute priority. Both the undersigned served within the TPLF for 13 years.

You mention the old Ethiopian saying, that "one cannot plough the sky or accuse the king or the head of state." However, you seem to believe that this saying has lost its validity in the Ethiopian present situation with respect to the possibility of accusing the head of state. The fact that victims all over the country got organized and demanded the arrest, investigation and prosecution of the offenders soon after the fall of the Dergue is not, a complete break with the past as you claim. May we remind you that people on the streets of Addis Ababa also called Emperor Haile Selassie a "thief" as the deposed Emperor was being driven to prison in 1975? The enquiry commissions which were formed in the wake of the Ethiopian revolution of 1974 also tried to expose the malpractice of the old regime, which was on the verge of collapse.

The simple fact is that many Ethiopians, formally or otherwise, dare to speak out against their oppressors after the latter lost power, provided that the new leaders are inimical to the their predecessors. Who wouldn't do that? Therefore it does not seem to be the break with the past which encourages people to speak out. There has never been a complete break with the past as far as oppression is concerned in Ethiopia anyway. It is rather the break between the new leaders and their predecessors which creates the favourable conditions for the people to feel free to speak the truth, because it is in the very interest of the new rulers.

Ethiopian rulers, who take over power without the consent of those preceding them tend to compete with the dead i.e. with those whom they have replaced and who are not in a position to defend themselves or their deeds. The practice of portraying the successor as a saviour even seems to be anchored in our national legend of Queen Saba. The legend tells us in different versions and amateur pictures that Saba's path to the throne was paved after the killing of a huge and terrible Snake (Zendo, Gebel). The Snake - according to one of the oral versions - is supposed to have gorged sacrificial children. The legend symbolizes at the same time that many Ethiopian rulers used to live and are still living on the blood of the people. And yet our rulers have been apt to present themselves as our saviours to the discredit of their predecessors. We suffered the self aggrandising propaganda of Mengistu and we are undergoing a repetition under Meles.

Let's face the truth and forget " the ploughing of the sky ". We Ethiopians have not yet been able to bring tyrants in office, as offenders, to justice. We have an overwhelming instinct for self preservation, not only during the time of the Derg as you mentioned in your speech, but also before and after this regime. This is mainly because we have always been faced with brutes who are above the law. Since such tyrants hinder the development of our country, we live in a vicious circle of tyranny and underdevelopment. Hence the need to struggle against absolute rulers while they are in power.

Let’s not deceive ourselves by trying to make believe that bringing a deposed and fleeing tyrant such as Mengistu to justice is a proof, that we were equal before the law. We do not want to create any misunderstanding as to our conviction, that Mengistu should be brought to justice. The point is, however, that there are also people whose beloved ones were victimised by Meles. These people do not even dare complain let alone accuse Meles. How can we speak about justice, when the law is applied only to those who once were powerful and not to those who still are? If we go on accusing the past while we are living with its copy in the present, then it would be a mockery of justice and we would only leave a tradition of revenge to future generations.

May we remind you again that most of your arguments against the military regime are also valid for Meles and his party? Let's take the question of Stalinism. In the first place it is a point of controversy, whether tyrants commit atrocities because they become Stalinists or whether they are out to commit atrocities in order to hold on to absolute power and thereby find an appropriate pseudo-revolutionary excuse in Stalinism as a justification for their atrocities.

For your information the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray (MLLT) under Meles gave more ideological emphasis to Stalinism than the military regime. The MLLT followed the example of the party of labour of Albania, which was the most Stalinist of all East European parties in power. Meles could not have been infatuated by economic developments nor overlooked the poverty in that country. Meles applied the Albanian system in the TPLF-MLLT because it was a system which justified the suppression of differences of opinions. Members for instance were, according to the MLLT constitution from 1985, supposed to make a written application to the CC in order to get a permission to express a new idea (constitution of the MLLT in Tigrigna, page 9). The atmosphere was such that nobody in the TPLF-MLLT dared write an application. Therefore, the organization was built on the Albanian system of control including its mysterious liquidations rendering a peaceful internal democratization impossible.

Although Albania was extremely opposed to the Soviet Union it collapsed with the break-up of the latter. Meles followed suit and switched over his allegiance to the USA. It is true that no government of a poor country like Ethiopia can afford to be opposed to the USA, but the change of allegiance did not, and could not, make the tyrant automatically democratic. The change of the international situation in favour of the USA has not made it necessary for Meles to present himself as a Stalinist for two reasons:

Firstly, Meles had already achieved absolute power through liquidations, purges and the creating of an atmosphere of terror within the TPLF-MLLT. This power has been extended to the EPRDF, to include the other puppet organisations. This means that the atmosphere, the system of control and the structure, remained intact even without declaring any official allegiance to the ideology. Therefore, it is not an accident that there is no organized opposition in Tigray. The more the control of the EPRDF is spread in Ethiopia, the greater will be the danger that the silence in Tigray will spread to other parts of Ethiopia as well.

Secondly, Meles is still successfully mixing neo-liberalism with Stalinism without saying so. For example, Stalinist purges of inconvenient academics like those of the University of Addis Ababa need not be called purges thanks to the so-called `rationalisation', retrenchment etc. ... of neo-liberalism. In short the creation of social insecurity by means of hiring and firing according to a social-darwinistic economic policy of neo-liberalism is being used as an instrument to consolidate a one-party system, with control mechanisms adopted from Stalinism. Even the "decentralization" on paper in Ethiopia under a de facto one-party system has its roots in Stalinism. Similarly, the propaganda being made of "grass roots democracy", as the only way out for Africa according to Meles (in an interview in Forum eine Welt, 1. Quartal 1995) is under a one-party regime nothing but a system of manipulating the masses against the intelligentsia who are critical towards the regime. It must be kept in mind that grass roots democracy can complement parliamentary democracy but not replace it.

It must also be remembered that the relative peace within Ethiopia is a result of military victories and not that of a political solution. The defeated ones are not in a position to continue the war with the same intensity and weapons. For the winners there is no need to continue the war in the same form. They use the state apparatus: the police, the judiciary system, the mass media, the mass organisations, the administration down to the village level and the security network as instrument to suppress their enemies and sustain their victories. The fact that the EPRDF is in armed conflict with the main Ethiopian organizations, which fought against the military regime, is an indication that the present rulers are following the foot steps of the Dergue.

We do not entertain any illusions as to the extent of your power, because it would be naive to believe that the judiciary can be independent of those who control the political power under a one-Party-System. However, your acquaintance with international institutions due to your present position makes you less vulnerable to any arbitrary measures from the government you are serving. For this reason you can even afford to speak the truth.

Since we are not in a position to make any formal accusation against a government in which a single tyrant decides the destiny of more than 50 Million Ethiopians, we have been forced to resort to a moral appeal to the Ethiopian people in particular and to the world public at large. We know that there are individuals in the present regime who have committed similar atrocities as the Dergue. We know also that the TPLF-MLLT was more efficiently centralized than the Dergue. This extreme centralization deterred rank and file members of the TPLF-MLLT from taking any important measures on their own, without the order or consent of the leadership of the organization. Since differences of opinion were not allowed in the TPLF-MLLT, the actual decision makers were not all members of the central committee, nor were they even all the members of the Politburo. Therefore, no extra legal executions could have repeatedly been committed without the order or at least the consent of the General Secretary of the TPLF-MLLT, in this case Meles Zenawi. Therefore, the absolute centralization is a blessing in disguise in that it helps to avoid generalization. The perpetrators are very few in number, but they hold key positions and hinder any form of democratization.

A Statement in your speech reads: "...impunity breeds additional human rights violations." But you also imply one should consider forgiveness if preceded by confession. You further state that there have been neither confessions nor even acknowledgements of the human rights violations by the perpetrators (page 13). May we remind you that this also applies to Meles and his party. Since the present Ethiopian government has established the SPO which aims, according to its proclamation number 22 of August 8, 1992 (among other things) to "educate the people and make them aware of those offences in order to prevent the recurrence of such a system of government", would the present authorities set an example by acknowledging and confessing their own human rights violations within the TPLF-MLLT during the civil war? They could be forgiven in the South African way if they did so.

We know from our experience, that the impunity of those who are still in power is instilling a sense of powerlessness and fear amongst the victims as well as the witnesses of injustice. Such an impunity leads to resignation and hinders any form of initiative towards democratisation as long as the omnipotence of the rulers is not eroded. This in turn means that the liquidation of some people entails the loss of many more people for the struggle for peace and democracy, as long as the perpetrators enjoy absolute power. We were with the people whom we are now accusing of human rights violations, but we could not and did not hinder them from committing atrocities, because we also had the "instinct for self preservation" and knew only too well that we had neither the possibility to protest nor the chance to make our protest known.

The victims include: mainly teenage members of the TPLF who were coaxed by members of the CC to express their wishes to go home to their parents. Those who expressed their wishes to go home were collected and executed in 1977; members who called for an enquiry commission to deal with the case mentioned above; members who showed differences of opinion on certain - some times minor issues; TPLF members or members of the militia or civilians suspected of being agents of the Dergue, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party, EPRP, or the Ethiopian Democratic Union, EDU, and last but not least TPLF members, who had, or were suspected of having sexual relationships, being punishable by death for more than 10 years in the organisation. In the last case the leaders had full control of the intimate lives of any rank and file member. They could let some body live, or kill another if they wanted. Inquiries concerning the disappearance of members were not allowed. A member asking questions about the disappearance of individuals would either be considered a collaborator of the one who disappeared, or as some one who had lost confidence in the leadership and was disseminating scepticism.

We hope that this glimpse into the situation of the civil war as seen from our side will help the readers of this paper to perceive the lack of transparency in the organization. The atrocities were committed under this situation. Some of the victims may never be known due to this intransparency. We are sure that those who have lost their beloved ones are too intimidated to accuse the perpetrators. Nevertheless, we feel morally obliged towards our one-time comrades-in-arms who were arbitrarily killed. We further feel the need to reappraise our past, our ideals, our sufferings and the macabre result of struggling against tyranny and ending up with the same. Here are some of the people we know, who were executed by the leadership of the TPLF-MLLT:

I. TPLF full time members:

1. Atsbeha Dagnew (nom de guerre: Shewit) from Adua, the earliest single deputy member of the CC of the TPLF, a student of the Addis Ababa University
2. Dawit, from Agame, a leading member of the TPLF mass mobilisation department
3. Nigsti Woldu, a former Student from Agame, a member of the TPLF mass mobilisation department
4. Hagos Haile Selassie, a student from Adua
5. Abera Manka, a student from Inderta
6. Mulugeta Abraha, from Agame, a leading member of the TPLF cultural troupe
7. Alul, from Tembien, a graduate of the Agricultural College in Alamaya
8. Iqubazgi beyene (nom de guerre: Rezene) from Axum, a student of the Addis Ababa University
9. Nega Tecle Mariam, a student from Tembien
10. Feseha Seyfu, a student from Tembien
11. Hailai a student from Kilteawlalo
12. Gizaw, a radio technician
13. Teclu Hawaz, a former teacher from Adua, member of the CC of the TPLF
14. Abebe, a student from Erbakasa, Tembien
15. Hintsa Shiferaw, a student from Axum
16. Gidey Wolde Giorgis, a university student, from Shire
17. Tewolde (Jibuti) from Axum, a musician in the cultural troupe of the TPLF
18. Asmelash Asegehey, from Adua, organiser of the underground members of the TPLF in Addis Ababa and other urban centres
19. Wolde Hawariat(Hadgay), from Tembien
20. Gebre Tsadkan Kinfu, a student from Adua
21. Berhane Gebremikael, a student from Adua
22. Yekuno, a student from Agame, senior military commander in the TPLF
23. Haile Selassie Gebremeskel, from Adua
24. Gebrehiwot Berhane, (Bado-Bado), from Tekuz, Adua

II. Members of the militia and the mass organisations of the TPLF

25. Hagos Atsbeha, from Adua, a resident in the Sudan
26. Girazmatch Belay Gebru from Quola Tembien
27. Abadi Tedla from Dogua Tembien
28. Worki Lul, from Gera’alta, Inderta
29. Araya Asfaw, from Dogua Tembien
30. Asfaw Wolde Aregay, from Yeha, Adua - former football player and trainer
1. Kebede Gebre Igziabher, from Adiet, Axum

III. Non-members of the TPLF

32. Memhir Sema’i, a monk from Shire
33. Nasser Abdel Semed, a theologist from Shire
34. Fitawrari Embiza, from Tsedia, Adua
35. Yemane Gebremeskel, a former university student, member of the CC of the Tigray Liberation Front, TLF
36.. Yohannes Tecle Haimanot, a former teacher in Mekelle, leader of the TLF
37. Taddese Tilahum, a former Student, member of the CC of the TLF
38. G. Yesus G. Egzabher, a student kidnapped from Adua town
39. Berhe Gebre Mariam, a teacher kinapped from Adua
40. Gebre Kidan G. Tensay, a farmer from Adua

We demand that those who committed the perpetrators of the secret arbitrary killings openly confess their deeds, and that the names of the victims be officially acknowledged. In the above list we have given the names of victims we have personally konown, and, in the event that the perpetrators continue to cover up their deeds, we will call upon others with similar knowledge to do likewise. This list is only a beginning of a long register.

Kahsay Berhe
48061 Muenster 15

Tesfay Atsbeha
Filiale Koeln 1
Breite Str. 6-26
50441 Koeln


Council of Peoples Representatives
P. O. Box 80001, Addis Abab, Ethiopia

His Exellency Dr. Negasso Gidada
President of the PDRE
P.O. Box 1031, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

His Exellecncy Ato Meles Zenawi
PDRE Prime Minister
P.O. Box 1030, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Ethiopian Human Rights Council
P.O. Box 2432, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Amenesty International
International Secretariat
1 Easton Street
London WC1X 8DJ
United Kingdom

Amnesty International
Sektion der Bundesrepublik Deutschland e.V
Heerstr. 176

The above document was first written by the
authors and disseminated on 06/09/97. However, their demand for justice to be served has never been answered by the regime still in power. The document still maintains its authenticity, power and validity - despite the passage of time.-Ed.