Government bears responsibility for the lives of those taking part in the hunger strike
Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba, Michael Boran, Kennasa Ayana, Hamza Borena and several other leaders of the OFC and the OLF are on a hunger strike. Today marks the 11th day since those held at Kality prison – Jawar, Bekele, Hamza, and 17 others, stopped taking food, and the 7th day for Michael, Kennasa and others held at Galan prison.
According to their lawyers, their demands include the release of all Oromo political prisoners, an end to the harassment and persecution of OLF and OFC members across the country, and an end to the mistreatment of families of prisoners.
But why are they starving themselves, at the risk of death, to secure these legitimate goals?
The hunger strike is a purely moral weapon in the hands of those at the mercy of public authorities – whether legitimate or otherwise. The aim is to bring public attention to the plight of the hunger striker and shame authorities into concession. They want an audience. They want to be heard. So the resort to a hunger strike is an appeal to the conscience of the public and public authority.
But this assumes that the government in question cares about public opinion or that public authority has not completely lost its conscience or that it has not become shameless. Only under those conditions can a hunger strike become an effective weapon of the weak in the short term.
It is important to understand the essence of the plea by these prisoners: we are not talking about individuals legally detained or condemned to lawful punishment by a government with legitimate authority, acting in accordance with the rules. What we have here is a politically motivated legal proceeding against political opponents of the ruling elites by an unelected government whose questionable mandate from 2015 has expired in October last year.
A government with no democratic mandate, and fully repudiated in Oromia and other places, gave itself the authority to arrest, detain and prosecute/persecute its political foes, with complete disregard to constitutional norms, and the norms that apply to unelected occupants of high offices. Remember, that EPRDF’s 2015 mandate was obtained through terror and intimidation is not an opinion. We were told by the current Prime Minister in June 2018 that EPRDF used terrorist methods to remain in power.
But the same Prime Minister who promised a new chapter in the country’s history of repression and domination resorted to the same authoritarian tactics to muzzle his opponents and force them into capitulation. The politicians on hunger strike today are no more guilty than those he released and welcomed to the Palace as a statement of change.
Lawyers for the hunger strikers have been sounding the alarm over the last several days. They say the situation is alarming and the risk of significant harm, including death, could not be ruled out.
After the events of the last several months, I no longer think the government cares about public opinion, but I hope that I am proven wrong and that they can demonstrate that they care about the people they govern by doing the right thing – releasing all political prisoners and seeking political solutions to political problems.
If the government pushes these individuals to carry their protest to its deadly conclusion, then, it cannot exonerate itself from responsibility. The government bears responsibility for the lives of those taking part in the hunger strike.