Foreign responses to the Ginbot 7 plot and arrests
Some media outlets were quick to call it a coup attempt, perhaps because a handful of serving military officers were involved, more probably because the western international media, despite the evidence to the contrary, still believes governments in Africa are changed more frequently by violence than the ballot box. The details of the plot and the aims of the conspirators were outlined by the head of the Government Communications Agency, Minister Bereket Simon who pointed out that any reference to a coup was gross mis-chacterization. There could be no basis for any such action within the current Ethiopian political dispensation as the federal system had effectively decentralized power to the regions rendering such an attempt unworkable. Today in Ethiopia, he said, a transfer of power can only take place through the ballot box. The basis for an unconstitutional acquisition of power in Ethiopia does not exist. The plot could not therefore be described as a coup attempt but should be categorized as a terrorist assassination plot.
The leaders of Ginbot 7 were quick to get themselves on media outlets, attempting to portray themselves as capable of organizing such activity in Ethiopia despite the fact they and most of their supporters reside outside. One, a British citizen, claimed over the BBC that Ginbot 7 had networks throughout the country and that the group would continue to work hard to overthrow the government in Ethiopia “by any means”. Another, who resides in the US, went on VOA to declare his group would employ “any means” to ensure the overthrow of the “illegal” Ethiopian Government and tried to use the opportunity to encourage people to support him. These reckless ambitions have been demonstrated on a number of other occasions.
These broadcasts were certainly irrelevant politically (Ginbot 7 can hardly be regarded as a serious political force) but they do call for some reflection on the norms and rules governing inter-state relations. These two individuals were using UK and US state-funded media outlets to label the elected government of Ethiopia “illegal” and calling for its violent overthrow by any means. They may not have the capacity to do so but they have expressed the intent to try to wreck the peace and stability of Ethiopia, and are openly allied with other organizations, some based in Eritrea, which are dedicated to armed struggle. This raises an issue of whether friendly states, such as the UK and the USA, should open their state-funded media outlets to individuals and groups whose declared objective is the overthrow of an elected government “by any means”. It is hardly an action to be explained in the context of the friendly inter-state relations between Ethiopia and the US and the UK. It is an all-too-frequent example of the double standards so often applied to Africa.
A similar double standard is visible in a statement put out this week by Amnesty International about those arrested in connection with the plot, making it clear the organization had been listening almost exclusively to Ginbot 7 leaders and had hardly bothered to see the actual details of the arrests and the evidence available. Amnesty’s statement, quoting Michelle Kagari, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director of its Africa Program, specified that “peaceful opposition to the government is not a crime”, and spoke of the “secret nature of their detention” because of which it claimed the detainees would be at significant risk of torture and ill-treatment. In fact, the statement does also admit that all those detained appeared in court within a day or two of their arrest and were remanded in custody for 14 days. They are therefore due to appear in court again on May 12. This is all quite normal legal procedure, and it is difficult to see what is secret about it or why Amnesty should be so concerned. Similarly, the emphasis on peaceful opposition sits uneasily with the guns and other weaponry seized at the time of the arrests, and even more doubtfully with the repeated calls for violence by Ginbot 7 leaders. It is not easy to see how Amnesty International can justify the repetition of such statements from an organization which appears dedicated to violence and which is linked to several others involved in armed struggle and terrorism. The double standards of some western media, and of international human rights organizations, appear to be clearly at work here once again.
None of this can be considered appropriate or acceptable in terms of the norms and rules governing inter-state relations based on the principles of sovereign equality and mutual respect and governed by the principles of international law. It is not clear that the allegedly sacrosanct notion of the “freedom of the press” should override this. Freedom of the press involves responsibility and it is clear that any states, large or small, developed or developing, have a responsibility to prevent individuals or groups trying to undermine sovereign and legitimate state institutions, whether their own or those of another country. This responsibility deserves to be respected and protected by all for the sake of civilized interaction. It should not be subject to this sort of double-standard. All the more so when the news outlets of these countries are used as platforms by people whose intentions are manifestly dangerous irrespective of whether they have the capacity to implement their decisions. Let it be emphasized once again that Ginbot 7 does not have the capacity to damage the process of democratization of our country or its peace and stability. But in the context of the relations of Ethiopia and the US or the UK, it could, perhaps cause un-necessary suspicions.