Shooting the messenger
by Mohammed Abdel Kadir
Walta, 10 Sep, 2001
In polities with where there is a degree of transparency and of accountability among
politicians, and a conscious public capable of giving them a prod lest they forget, ministers
tender their resignations if their ministries display incompetence or behavior resulting in a loss
of public confidence. This is so irrespective of whether the minister him or her self was
personally involved in the affair.
Thus we had ministers in India or Europe offering their resignations after train crashes, or the
justice minister in Belgium offering to resign because of police incompetence in the case of a
In Ethiopia we clearly still have some way to go in fostering the culture of accountability and
transparency among public servants, as evidenced in the recent attempt by the Ministry of
Justice to gag the Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association (EWLA).
EWLA’s crime was to reveal a case of staggering incompetence by the police and justice
system as a whole, and to indicate that this reflected an underlying bias against the rights of
women from those entrusted to implement a system of justice for all.
A young girl and her sisters faced a serious of aggravated assaults by a psychopath who in
any normal situation should have been detained for the safety of the public. Conditions for
bail vary from country to country, but internationally there are some general points of
agreement in limiting bail: the seriousness of the offence, whether the accused is likely to
repeat the offence if released, and whether he or she will interfere with witnesses. Time and
time again this violent and clearly seriously disturbed young man committed assaults, was
arrested, bailed out, only to re-offend against the same victims, and then to be re-arrested,
bailed out again, and so on ad nauseam.
Heads should have rolled here: whether of the judges who kept putting this dangerous man
back on the streets, or of the police who failed in their duty to protect members of the public
they knew to be at risk.
If you have a culture of accountability, and an appreciation that “the buck stops here”, in
such a case the Minister of Justice could have offered his resignation, which would probably
then be refused.
But an investigation would have been launched into how government departments had failed
so disastrously, why warning bells had not been heeded, and whether crimes against women
are somehow not accorded sufficient attention.
Here the only heads to roll are those of the bell ringers, or messengers.
The people responsible for the decision to shoot the messenger and shut down EWLA need to
be given a shake and asked: What is the real issue here? Is it that the justice system
singularly failed on its duty to some citizens of this country? Does this in itself reflect an
attitude that needs to fought, “a harmful traditional practice?” And does the prevalence of
this attitude among government institutions, to play down the significance of crimes against
women, contribute to the high incidence of such crimes? (Recent figures show that 3 women
are raped every day in each of Addis Ababa’s woredas).
Or is the issue that EWLA (a bunch of women, after all) did not show the fawning, butt
kissing, feudal deference that too many of those in authority in this country still expect and
demand, 27 years after the demise of the feudal regime?
My message to the Ministry of Justice, and I believe that the general public will go along with
“Get real. We know what the issue is. And although this is a domestic issue, a lot of foreign
friends of Ethiopia known what the issue is. You’re going to come out of this looking a lot
worse than EWLA, here and abroad. In fact you’re damaging the reputation of Ethiopia and
Ethiopians. Resignations would be too much to expect, but let’s now have some serious back
peddling, a settlement dressed up however you like, by which EWLA is allowed to get on with
its work, and from your side a declaration that this particular case and the broader issue of
appropriate punishment for crimes against women be looked into. If you want to exercise your
authority, get macho and kick butt, there are a lot of very dodgy foreign NGOs up to God
knows what that you can start with.”
Whether they buy this message or not, believe me, its time has come.