Navigating Ethiopia’s journey towards reconciliation and justice

Ethiopia needs both accountability and reconciliation to come to terms with its violent and divisive past.

Abiy Ahmed Reuters
PM Abiy Ahmed's cabinet recently approved a draft legislation on the establishment of a National Peace and Reconciliation Commission in Ethiopia [Reuters]

Since November 9, the Ethiopian government has arrested more than 60 leading figures from the National Intelligence Service and Security (NISS) and the state-owned conglomerate Metals and Engineering Corporation (METEC). They stand accused of committing egregious human rights and participating in organised corruption.

This is the biggest campaign of mass arrests targeting powerful figures from the security and military establishment since the reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power seven months ago.

Days after the top leadership of two of the most powerful institutions in the country were charged, Ahmed’s cabinet approved draft legislation on the establishment of a National Peace and Reconciliation Commission with the objective of healing the deep social wounds left by years of repression under previous Ethiopian governments. While Ethiopia certainly needs both accountability and reconciliation to come to terms with its violent and divisive past, it is not clear how the government aims to reconcile the two processes.

While legal accountability and reconciliation are not incompatible, they are nevertheless separate processes, with their own unique procedures and different goals. Prosecution emphasises punishment and vengeance, while reconciliation underscores healing.

Prosecution is governed by the strict rules of criminal procedure and focuses on an uncovering the truth about a particular crime and delivering individualised justice. Reconciliation, on the other hand, is not governed by strict legalistic procedures and its primary aim is to help the entire nation confront the past by producing as complete a picture of what happened as possible.

Pursuing prosecutorial justice while at the same time promoting reconciliation of a highly divided society, particularly in a highly fragile setting in which decades of state-sponsored acts of terror and violence resulted in the gradual rupture of the social fabric, requires a strategic and holistic integration of the processes, as well as careful planning.

Detestable crimes

Announcing the charges against the accused, Attorney General Berhanu Tsegaye revealed gruesome details of heinous crimes committed by security forces. Tsegaye accused the top leadership of the Ethiopian intelligence of torturing political detainees suspected of holding critical views of the government, using cruel methods such as waterboarding, gang rape, electric shocks, hanging suspects on a tree and beating them, and tying suspects naked to a tree overnight.

The attorney general also accused METEC, the largest military-industrial conglomerate in the country tasked with building major projects, including the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), of perpetrating an outrageous plunder of the national wealth.

A recent documentary produced by Oromia Broadcasting Network (OBN) and broadcasted by several state TV channels shows how ships, cranes and aeroplanes were purchased without any formal bids for the private gain of certain individuals. The corporation, which was established as part of Ethiopia’s ambitious Growth and Transformation Plan, is blighted by incompetence, nepotism, militarised patronage, and impunity – it is nothing but a grand embezzlement scheme. 

While the routine use of torture and the plunder of national wealth by a criminal underworld comprised of members of the national intelligence, financial institutions, and other key state sectors had already been well documented by human rights organisations in the past, the latest revelations provided more substance to these allegations.

As a country undergoing a complex period of transition, Ethiopia should hold to account those who perpetrated these detestable crimes which have torn apart the nation. 

Under these conditions, the legal prosecution can be an integral part of a multipronged institutional response to state-sponsored acts of violence and organised plunder. It can contribute to the creation of a culture of accountability and strengthen the rule of law.

Reconciliation or justice?

However, the legal prosecution of these criminals would not heal the deep wounds and repair the social fabric ripped apart by decades of violence and antagonism. In her seminal book titled, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence, Martha Minow writes, “when the societal goals include restoring dignity to victims, offering a basis for individual healing, and promoting reconciliation across a divided nation, a truth commission again may be as or more powerful than prosecutions.”

For those subjected to torture and other forms of rights abuses, a trial is unlikely to heal their wounds or restore their trust in public authority. As Holocaust survivor Jean Amery wrote in his famous essay, Torture, “whoever was tortured, stays tortured. Torture is ineradicably burned into him, even when no clinically objective traces can be detected.” The adversarial nature of the criminal trial, the minimal role of victims in the proceedings, and the specific nature of truth and justice pursued in criminal justice makes trials a rather limited instrument for healing and reconciliation. 

Decades of state-sponsored violence left behind an institutional culture of impunity and a collective trauma that will continue to haunt the Ethiopian body-politic. Coming to terms with this painful past requires both accountability and a peace and reconciliation process that allows for a comprehensive official investigation and a public acknowledgement of the abuses and harms done.

An online survey of more than 2,700 individuals revealed that 77 percent of those surveyed are not prepared to forgive individuals accused of torture and other grave atrocities, even if the accused are willing to tell the whole truth and acknowledge their wrongdoings fully and unreservedly.

While the urge for retribution is understandable, the way the government reconciles the apparent tension between these two processes can go a long way in channelling the desire for vengeance towards a commitment to forgiveness and peaceful coexistence.

Making a clean break with the past and charting a new path towards democracy is no easy feat. But if these processes are to serve as a bridge to help Ethiopia transition from a painful and divisive past to a democratic future committed to human rights and human dignity, the government should consider at least the following.

First, the law creating the Peace and Reconciliation Commission must establish a threshold test for the type of cases that will be prosecuted. This is critical not only to guarantee the credibility, legitimacy and integrity of the process but also to minimise the likelihood of politicisation of both processes. Second, the law must place victims at the centre of the process, allowing them a proper place and voice to share their experiences and articulate a coherent and comprehensive narrative of what happened. Third, the government must grant and guarantee a fair trial for all those it prosecutes.

The way the government reconciles the apparent tension between these two processes can go a long way in channelling the desire for vengeance towards a commitment to forgiveness and peaceful coexistence.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.