An opportune time for self-criticism

The massacre of 208 innocent civilians and the abduction of 102 children in the Ethiopian region of Gambella on April 16 by South Sudanese gunmen is one of the worst tragedies to take place in the country’s history. Naturally the catastrophe has elicited rage and widespread condemnation by Ethiopians across the board. It has also brought into sharp focus two critical responsibilities the government bears. First, it owes the obligation to defend the security of the nation and its people from cross-border attacks. Second, it is duty-bound to pursue the perpetrators of an atrocity wherever they may be seeking sanctuary and bring them to justice. Failure to discharge both obligations is an inexcusable dereliction of duty which the government has to answer to and unequivocally accept responsibility for.

The government must in particular be held answerable in the face of the fact that the Gambella region has a history of violence despite the calm prevailing in most other parts of Ethiopia. Over the past two decades the region has witnessed scores of violence which have left thousands dead and injured and caused extensive property damage. At the same time it hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighboring countries, which, in itself, poses a security risk despite the country’s laudable treatment of the refugees. Given that Gambella’s unique conditions are liable to induce a spontaneous outbreak of violence at any given moment, the government cannot defend itself against the criticism that it failed to foresee and take the necessary pre-emptive measure in order to avert last week’s barbaric attack. It has to castigate itself for failing the very people it is supposed to protect. 

The carnage forces everyone to raise an important question: when will the country have a legal framework governing the response to a national disaster? Traditionally, disasters which claim the lives of a large number of citizens prompt the declaration of national mourning and the national flag to fly at half-mast. How many citizens have to die in order for this ceremony to be formally observed? Why didn’t Parliament hold an emergency session in the wake of the massacre to declare a national mourning and instruct the administration of Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn to take proportional retaliatory measures? Why did it take it four days to declare two days of national mourning?

Providing solace and aid to the families of the victims of the Gambella attacks is an obligation on the part of the government; it is not something it should do out of charity. It is not enough to put a number on the children who were abducted. Aside from releasing their names, every effort should be made in cooperation with South Sudanese authorities to bring them safe back home. All Ethiopians think about is how these children can be reunited with their families within the shortest possible time.

Ethiopians should stand united and roundly condemn the senseless killing of their fellow citizens. Regardless of where they live they have to empathize with the plight of their compatriots and make their voices heard so that similar atrocities do not occur in the future. Aside from expressing solidarity with their brethren, they are duty-bound to extend whatever help they can to the families and loved ones of the Gambella massacre, including financial and material support.

The country’s media, especially radio and television stations, have to demonstrate grief when appalling disasters strike. In this spirit they should refrain from playing joyous songs or promoting festivitieslest they are not accused of being callous during a period of profound sadness. They have to display the same level of sorrow irrespective of the station in life of the victims. On the other hand, the kind of improper conduct playing out on social media has to be halted immediately. Sadly, the suffering of citizens is being increasingly exploited to gain political mileage. This is akin to rubbing salt on a wound and cannot result in anything other than mutual animosity and polarization.

Ethiopians should come together at a time when the nation is mourning the horrendous butchering of its citizens. While each and every Ethiopian must reflect on the ramifications and lessons of the carnage, the government in particular needs to engage in a sober introspection with respect to its inadequacies that the incident has laid bare. How did it fare in terms of attaching promptly the gravity that the bloodbath merits? What does the legal regime regulating the response to the massacre and other related matters resemble? How prepared was it in forestalling and responding appropriately to the calamity? Has public perception of the government shifted since the incident? How devastated and enraged is the public by the apparent ease with which gunmen were able to penetrate the border of a country which has an army with an impressive peacekeeping record worldwide and slaughter fellow citizens? What is the government’s response to these and similar other questions? It must come clean genuinely even as it admits to grave shortcomings.