Saturday, May 7

Politburo Knows Best VI - Defending the Revolution

Committees for the Defense of the Revolution

Soon after gaining power all Communist regimes establish their presence in the daily lives of their new subjects. One way this is done is with economic controls such as rationing so that even bare subsistence becomes dependent on political behavior. This is a particularly potent weapon when the concept of private ownership of land and the civil independence it affords is rejected - especially because such societies never produce enough basics to maintain normal life.

Another way to control the people is through a system of informers and spies that reach not only into the workplace and neighborhoods but into homes and families. Ethiopia's decades long fetasha and its associated horrors subjects all to intrusion at every encounter with authority or even at random. This extension of the familiar totalitarian system of oppression to the local and personal levels creates fear and insecurity in the service of the state.

Beyond control and fear there is terror of the state or the party and their absolute ability to imprison, ruin or kill at a whim. For example, during the era of the Dergue 'youths' could not meet in groups larger than three from fear of political opposition. The punishment for any political crime including suspicions of 'thought crimes' was torture at the hands of Stasi and KGB trained brutes and / or summary execution.

During the Red Terror’s urban warfare between the Dergue and opponents, family members of government victims had to search for their children's bodies. Those not thrown into mass graves were recovered for burial after the state was reimbursed for the cost of the bullets used. Bodies could be found on the street, in the fields, at army camps, police stations and in the local government organizations established to bring control, fear and terror to the masses in defense of the revolution.

In Cuba those organizations are called "Committees for the Defense of the Revolution" and forty five years on they have still not relaxed their grip. China’s neighborhood committees have relaxed a of late but once kept track of every sex life and were the fonts of misery during the Cultural Revolution and were likely rejuvenated during the Tianeman massacre and against the Fulan Gong. Russians were the very first victims of revolutionary neighborhood committees. The lessons of totalitarian terror learned there were studied and refined by the Soviet's totalitarian kin in 1930s Germany.

passing on the revolutionary torch

In Ethiopia those instruments are known as kebeles and they have survived the demise of the Dergue to remain instruments of state coercion today. As the main point of contact that people have with the government in the form of the collection of local taxes as well as the registration of houses, residents, births, deaths, marriages, identification cards and all important evaluations of political reliability and loyalty to the government they are a potent and omnipresent force in the life of all Ethiopians.

It is very important to note that circumstances today are greatly improved than they were under the murderous Dergue. However, the same set of ideological and practical assumptions of dictatorship remain so that nascent totalitarianism can easily rise on a whim because there has been no exorcism of the ruling philosophy of past decades. Indeed, competition between the rebels in power today and the Dergue was largely an argument over who the real communists were.

The body count is today in the mere thousands per annum - Amnesty International describes "a pattern of widespread detention, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial executions" today instead of the tens or even hundreds of thousands of victims in an average Dergue year. However, the time to be thankful for that relative improvement expired more than a decade ago. Now fourteen years on raising up the past as a boogeyman is a convenient absurdity.

Ethiopians, by virtue of being human deserve human rights and dignity right now and not in some paradise of revolutionary democracy in the future. Government consideration for human rights and elections is based on the following two fluid factors that are not influenced by any internal mechanism of checks and balances.

First, the level of intelligence and understanding of political power held by the current government is very high. For example, selective applications of terror by making examples of recalcitrants works better in the long run than massacring all passers by.

Second, Western aid donors expect some minimal standard of decency or at least expect violations to occur behind closed doors. The government has chosen a path of eternal national poverty as the price for curtailing the development of political / economic / social rivals and regime security. Therefore the only constituency of importance is the Western media and government.

Most Ethiopians experience the dark side of the state through kebeles and their rural doppelgangers called peasant associations. There is nothing inherently wrong about organizing society and plans for development among local organizations. Participants may be every bit as decent as their neighbors and fellow Ethiopians of every stripe.

The problem is that dictatorship is always a fearful, insecure and frankly paranoid business - weapons such as local organizations that can peer into every life are weapons that are simply to potent not to be abused by revolutionary feudal elites.

kebele roots

The Ethiopia Country Study from the Library of Congress says that
Soon after the overthrow of the imperial regime, the Derg moved to consolidate the revolution at the grass-roots level by promoting the creation of peasant associations and kebeles. These associations had tribunals that permitted them to exercise criminal and civil jurisdiction over legal matters.

More important, the government also legitimized local defense squads, granting them police powers within designated areas. Defense squads also protected public property and enforced land reform measures, but their original function was the essentially political one of rounding up--and often disposing of--suspected government opponents.

During the Red Terror campaign of 1977-78, the power of the kebeles was virtually unrestricted, and the defense squads emerged as the regime's chief instruments of coercion within the capital.
However, in reaction to the defense squads' excessive use of violence, Mengistu curbed their powers in April 1978.
What this really means is that Mengistu had by then killed or cowed everyone who had ever had a political thought and could comfortably tug back the kebele leash until the next time. Under the Dergue's Red Terror directed against the opposition's the urban guerrilla warfare--the so-called White Terror "untold thousands of mostly young people were jailed, tortured, and killed."

The Country Study continues
Partly by default and partly with the PMAC's [Dergue] encouragement, elections in 1976 filled kebeles posts with (in the words of John Markakis and Nega Ayele) "persons of dubious character, indeterminate occupation, busybodies and opportunists of all sorts . . . . Militia units [attached to the urban associations] charged with local security mustered the perennially unemployed, the shiftless and hangers-on, young toughs and delinquents, who were instantly transformed into revolutionary proletarian fighters." These individuals perpetrated crimes against people they disliked or disagreed with.

The kebeles engaged in some of the revolution's most brutal bloodletting. Increasing criticism eventually forced the regime to restrain them. After the populace recognized the PMAC's permanence, more people participated in kebele administration. By 1990 the kebeles were part of the grassroots WPE [Workers (Communist) Party of Ethiopia] organization.

time for revolutionary democratic kebeles

A 1997 Human Rights Watch report on the curtailment of rights in Ethiopia begins with an account of the sixteen ethnic satellite parties of the EPRDF called People's Democratic Organizations (OPDOs)
This strategy ensured that the EPRDF and its allied or satellite parties detained a monopoly of power in both regional and federal assemblies following a series of elections from 1992 to 1995 that major opposition groups boycotted. In addition to its network of PDOs and other allied groups, the EPRDF has also sought to dominate local politics by reviving "kebeles" and "peasant associations" as the lowest levels of government administration in rural and urban areas, respectively. These neighborhood committees were originally established in 1975 under the Derg. They assumed important local administrative functions, while helping to consolidate the EPRDF's political control.

Representatives of the ruling coalition oversaw the neighborhood committee system and commanded the peasant militias attached to it. In short, the formal delegation of authority and responsibility to regional authorities has not been fully reflected in the reality of political control. Not only has the control of regional governments by leaders closely tied to the national ruling party made the separation of regional and federal authority more apparent than real, but, in addition, there has been little progress in creating judicial structures and mechanisms that could provide a check on unrestricted executive power.

The judiciary is far from being independent. The EPRDF's dominant role in the country's legislative and executive bodies, which was evident during the transitional period, did not abate after the proclamation of the new constitution, and the EPRDF maintained its primacy in the elected parliament and the new federal government.
A 2001 US Immigration document on the expulsion of long time resident Eritreans (actually regular Ethiopians until 1991) from Ethiopia notes that "kebelles play a significant role in social control in Ethiopia and played an important part in the expulsions and oversight of people of Eritrean origin [... and ...] "control of movement is particularly severe in rural areas".

The Eritrean liberation movement was an uneasy partner of the current Ethiopian government and the first decade after their joint victory was largely taken up with sorting out that relationship while the attractions and necessities of partnership rapidly faded. Eritreans in Ethiopia were officially encouraged to separate themselves from their friends and neighbors.

When war broke out the government tried to burnish its nationalist credentials at the expense of the very same people it had so assiduously courted for decades. There were even expressions of crafty pride that the voting records of individual Eritreans on the secession vote were known and would be used against them.

This account of the provision of health care highlights the power of the kebele in daily life "The majority of the population cannot afford treatment in a private hospital. Most patients in government hospitals have a “free paper”, “destitute card” from the Kebele. The Kebele often must be bribed [... and ...] there is no health insurance except the Kebele card. In addition kebeles provide basic staples of life for communities. This is especially important when like healthcare prices, kebele prices are the only ones people can afford.

Democracy is just another word for fraud

This report on 2001 local elections in the southern region by NORDEM, the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights sheds further light on the pretense of democracy, kebeles and the practice of rural oppression.
In conclusion, seeing this recent election as the last one in a succession since 1992, we cannot see that local repression in the preparation and conduct of the election has decreased. So far, the promises from higher officials have not been met by improvements on local level.

We have followed the process since 1991 and found that there are structural reasons for rural repression - in the elections as well as in other contexts - in the way the party and the administration are linked in the kebele and the woreda. Repression is structurally caused. Already the NIHR report on the 1995 elections observed that rural repression was increasing: the peasant association structure of the Derg had been revived, only EPRDF cadres had replaced the former Ethiopian Workers Party (EsePa) cadres.

They control the administration of the kebele and the peasants. Since then, the control over peasants - where necessary by repression - has increased. In the elections of 2000, when opposition for the first time challenged the EPRDF, it became openly visible. In 2001 it reached Addis Ababa in full force. And the present election, in spite of encouraging promises, gave no indications of improvement.

The immediate reason is that the local party officials depend on the party for their livelihood, just as much as the party depends on them. Therefore they fight for their positions with all means - also illegal ones. But the ruling party also depends on the local officials for keeping their positions: Without offering them government positions, the party (or the EPRDF-affiliated parties) could not maintain their party organisation.

This structure creates the problem: it incites local officials to fight with all means, including repression. It allowed them to deprive the supporters of HNDO from public resources and community services. And it gives them virtually total impunity.

Moreover, the local structure, with a strong executive and a weak judiciary, strengthens this trend. Judges are not in a position to challenge the administrator. Cadres order the police, and frequently can command the police to do even clearly illegal arrests and punishments. Rural people believe that there are two legal forms of imprisonment: by court decision or by administrative decision.

There are some encouraging signals indicating that the government is attempting to initiate a clear separation of legislative, executive and judiciary, and of party and government structures. There have been constitutional amendments in most regions to provide the legal base for this separation. We strongly support these reforms. But there is a long way to go from an amendment of a constitution to its practical implementation in the everyday life of peasants.

As long as peasants can not be convinced that their rights are respected, as a matter of everyday experience, the reforms will not reach their goal. As long as peasants can not feel that they have an institution to complain to if their rights are violated, they will not trust democracy, they will continue to say (as they did to us:) "Election is shaking just one hand..." or “Democracy is just another word for fraud”. Peasants feel defenceless, under pressure, and not free, if they can not hold the cadres and administrators accountable.

This said, however, we see a potential in a serious implementation of the promised reforms. We want to emphasize that a separation of institutions and powers, from central level and down to local administration, is a most essential step. It will go a long way towards establishing inclusive structures that offer the individual the security and consciousness of having civic rights –and having access to remedies if these rights are infringed. We hope that the announced efforts will succeed in putting local accountability into practice all the way down to the kebele level. Unfortunately, we have experienced unrestricted local repression in spite of sincere promises from officials. One should continue to measure promises by their results in local practice.
At the core of this system of rural oppression and democratic pretension is the feudal system of landlessness and the layers of local control that give the state totalitarian levels of control over the Ethiopian people. It is all administered through the kebele system. The contention that Ethiopia is a single party state is supported by this NORDEM observation that
in the elections in Ethiopia since 1992, the voters perceive the ruling party as agents of the state and vice versa, materialised through the omnipotent position of the kebele and woreda officials at local level. If the voters do not support the ruling party, they perceive it as an exclusion from essential resources distributed by the state.

fear and state terror

In one region the Norwegians observed that
The kebele and woreda authorities used the police to penalise HNDO [opposition] candidates and supporters. There can hardly be any doubt that the lists of signatures for the HNDO candidates served as information to penalise opposition supporters. We were told that many of them were imprisoned and kept in jail for some weeks or months without being heard by a court.

Others were punished by administrative disfavours - such as getting no access to fertiliser, being asked to pay their debts on the spot, or other unnecessary administrative obstacles. It may be true that the opposition has a tendency to overstate such incidents. But the pattern is too well known everywhere in the rural areas to be dismissed. And in Hadiya especially, there are so many indicators to the same effect that we see no reason for doubts.

For the average peasant, repression was felt first of all through warnings - and if necessary more direct threats - that lack of support for the ruling party would have severe consequences. Where such hints were not sufficient, peasants were told in no uncertain terms that they would not receive fertilisers, they would not get access to land, and they would be excluded from communal services. If this did not bring the desired result, family members were put under pressure or the person himself was threatened something could happen to his family.

The whole spectre of coercive measures designed to make the peasants dependent on the administration, and hence docile, as it is known from other areas, was applied in full measure in Hadiya. This is the conclusion we can draw after listening to many complaints of peasants and other informants who live in the area and know the rural life conditions well.

This form of indirect control and coercion was also applied during election day, and may at least partly explain why there was indeed no need for military intervention. People were afraid, and had reason to be. In particular, candidates and party organisers of HNDO were visibly afraid, and were treated almost like outcasts.

We saw in Soro a candidate of HNDO being chased away from a voting station - formally correct, as the rules forbid a candidate to be present in the station except for casting his own vote. But an official of the kebele was present in the same voting station, as kebele chairmen were in others, in spite of the rules banning also them from the station.

Also ordinary voters were conscious of being under control and kept in fear. Most visible, people who told us they had been requested - in some cases outrightly ordered - to vote for EPRDF, abided through fear. And those who dared to challenge the administration, expressed fear that they would face retaliation, imprisonment and worse. Again, individual incidents and reports might be overstated or invented to impress us. But we have by now sufficient experience from all over the country to know that this form of repression has increased in general and we are able to sense its ascent.
In December 2001, apparently, the local cadres of HPDO [government party] attempted - successfully - to assure their election victory by making sure that HNDO could not compete with sufficient numbers of candidates to gain a victory. Instead of frightening voters into voting for them, - a strategy which in 2000 led to serious violence - they used their administrative control over information and over the institutions controlling the process on local level. Kebele officials had to check the lists of signatures of each candidate.

So the kebele cadres made sure that so many signatures were either rejected or withdrawn that the candidates of HNDO could be disqualified. There were several ways to achieve this: some signatures were cancelled because the persons were considered under-age, or not residents. Others were persuaded to withdraw their signatures.

In some kebele people reported being called in and told they would have to face consequences if they supported the opposition. People have experience that the kebele officials have the power to put force behind their threats. So it did not take too much convincing to make people sign a prepared letter saying they had been mistaken, or they were cheated by HNDO, and withdrew their signatures. In some cases also candidates themselves were threatened and forced to withdraw from candidacy in the last moment.
The entirety of the NORDEM is well worth reading. In addition some of the same observers have written an excellent book on this subject called Ethiopia Since the Derg - A Decade of Democratic Pretension and Performance. Siegfried Pausewang, one of the authors of the NORDEM report quoted above and of the book mentioned here was in Ethiopia as an senior election observer for the European Union but quit after a government accusation of bias. Basically he knew too much and certainly intimidating him or his family, ‘disappearing’ or murdering him wasn’t an option like it was for some Ethiopians.

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