South Africa, 1960
On March 21, 1960, exactly 55 years ago today, a crowd estimated at five thousand (according to apartheid police 20 thousand, inflated to justify their extreme response) gathered in front of a police station in the South African township of Sharpeville in Transvaal (presently Gauteng, one of the nine provinces of South Africa). Many of the protesters had gone to the station in response to calls by organizers to defy the pass book (internal “passport” for black South Africans intended to limit their movement) laws and submit to voluntary arrest. Less than two dozen police officers were present at the station when the first group of protesters arrived. The crowd swelled in a short time. Reinforcements with armored cars and machine guns were brought in from surrounding areas. As more protesters arrived, fighter jets were called in to fly low and buzz the crowd in an attempt to scatter it.
Protesters began throwing rocks and tried to break the police barricades. None of the protesters was armed as a judicial inquiry later confirmed. The police responded with tear gas and batons. Apartheid police tried to arrest the leaders of the protest and scuffles broke out. A few protesters charged the gates to the station and rushed a police commander. Police opened fire on the crowd with submachine guns and assault rifles.According to official figures, police fired 705 bullets killing 69 protesters, including 8 women and 10 children. The number of wounded and otherwise injured exceeded 180, including 31 women and 19 children. The vast majority of the victims were shot in the back as they fled the scene, according to the senior district surgeon of Johannesburg who testified before a judicial inquiry.
The eyewitness accounts of the massacre cast significant doubt on the police version of events. One eyewitness reported, “There was no warning volley. When the shooting started it did not stop until there was no living thing in the huge compound in front of the police station. The police have claimed they were in desperate danger because the crowd was stoning them. Yet only three policemen were reported to have been hit by stones – and more than 200 Africans were shot down. The police also have said that the crowd was armed with ‘ferocious weapons’, which littered the compound after they fled. I saw no weapons… I saw only shoes, hats and a few bicycles left among the bodies.”
Lt. Col. Pienaar, the commanding officer of the police reinforcements at Sharpeville, did not mince words when he spoke to The Guardian. “It all started when hordes of natives surrounded the police station. My car was struck with a stone. If they do these things they must learn their lesson the hard way.” He added, “The native mentality does not allow them to gather for a peaceful demonstration. For them to gather means violence.” He denied giving any order to fire on the crowd.
A judicial inquiry failed to determine responsibility for the massacre. Within weeks, the supposed organizers of the protest were tried and sentenced up to 3 years. The apartheid government declared a state of emergency. By May 1960, 18,011 alleged participants and supporters of the protest were held in detention.The Sharpeville Massacre became a milestone in South African history.The slow unraveling and dismantling of the apartheid regime began in Sharpeville. The massacre galvanized international public opinion. Opposition to apartheid regime spread throughout the world driven by coalitions of civil society and grassroots organizations. Sharpeville stirred the imagination of black South African youth. The U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 134 which led to increasing international isolation of the apartheid regime. Coalitions of civil society and grassroots organizations mounted mass mobilizations efforts resulting in South Africa’s exclusion from the British Commonwealth in 1961. The apartheid regime responded by becoming even more repressive and consolidated its support among whites. Anti-apartheid organizations within South Africa also consolidated their roles. The African National Congress began taking a leading role in the anti-apartheid movement and established its military wing. The long march to freedom in South Africa was underway.
International efforts to isolate and sanction the apartheid regime also took a new urgency. Foreign investors became jittery about investing in South Africa under white minority rule. Following the Sharpeville Massacre, foreign investors took their money out of South Africa and ran. The South African economy teetered on the verge of collapse. In the coming years, increasing economic sanctions were imposed on South Africa.
The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 was enacted by the United States Congress. President Ronald Reagan vetoed the law calling it “economic warfare”, but his veto was overridden by an overwhelming majority of both houses of Congress. The white minority regime understood its days were numbered and majority rule inevitable.In 1996, South African President Nelson Mandela chose Sharpeville as the site for the signing of the new constitution.
Ethiopia’s “Sharpeville” 2005
On May 16, 2005, one day after the parliamentary election, the late Meles Zenawi declared a “state of emergency” after it became clear that opposition parties had routed his “Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front” (which had cloaked its true identity in a shell organization known as the “Ethiopian Peoples Democratic Revolutionary Front”) out of office. Meles took personal command of the armed and security forces and sidelined the capital’s police with “federal police” and SWAT-type special units. Meles outlawed all public gatherings and authorized his troops to use deadly force against any and all protesters.
Despite the “state of emergency”, spontaneous demonstrations against the TPLF erupted throughout the country. Protesters were outraged by the daylight theft of that election and sought to register their dissatisfaction in non-violent protests. TPLF military, police and security forces indiscriminately fired at protesters using assault rifles in a number of locations throughout the country killing scores of unarmed demonstrators.
In 2006, under intense international pressure, Meles established an <span Inquiry Commission to investigate post-election “disturbances”. The cunning Meles was careful not to have all of the post-election “disturbances” investigated. He limited the Inquiry Commission’s investigation to incidents that occurred on June 8, 2005 in Addis Ababa and in other locations between November 1 to 10, 2005 and November 14 to 16, 2005. (See art. 2, Proclamation 478/2005.)In its investigation, the Inquiry Commission examined 16,990 documents, and received testimony form 1,300 witnesses. Commission members visited prisons and hospitals, and interviewed members of the TPLF regime over several months.
The findings of the Inquiry Commission were stunning. The Commission determined
- Police shot and killed 193 persons and wounded 763 others on the specific dates and in the specific places identified in the Proclamation.
- On November 3, 2005, during an alleged disturbance in Kality prison that lasted 15 minutes, prison guards fired more than 1500 bullets into inmate housing units leaving 17 dead, and 53 severely wounded. Commission Chairman Judge Frehiwot commented: “Many people were killed arbitrarily. Old men were killed while in their homes, and children were also victims of the attack while playing in the garden.”
- Over 30,000 civilians were arrested without warrant and held in detention.
By an 8-2 vote, the Commission made specific factual findings and conclusions about the “disturbances”:
- There was not a single protester who was armed with a gun or a hand grenade (as reported by the government-controlled media that some of the protesters were armed with guns and bombs).
- No property was destroyed by the protesters.
- The shots fired by government forces into crowds of protesters were not intended to disperse but to kill by targeting the head and chest of the protesters.
- Security forces which are alleged to be killed by demonstrators were not taken to autopsy, even there is no evidence of either photograph or death certificate showing the reason of death and couldn’t be produced for police as opposed to that of civilians.
There are two astonishing facts about the massacres of June and November, 2005. The first is that the policemen sent out to contain the “disturbances” literally had a police riot shooting up anything that moved in the streets. The second is the manifest undercount of the actual fatalities and casualties of the massacres. In public presentations, Inquiry Commission Chairman Judge Frehiwot Samuel indicated that the Commission’s charge prevented it from including evidence of casualties and fatalities that occurred in close proximity to the dates and places set forth in the Proclamation. There is little doubt that a full and comprehensive investigation of the post-election “disturbances” in 2005 would reveal casualty and fatality figures that are many times the number reported in the Commission’s report.
A study commissioned by the Meles regime later revealed that there is certified list of 237 killers in the Meles Massacres of 2005.
Unlike the Sharpeville Massacre, following the Meles Massacre of 2005, the international community took no action to bring Meles Zenawi to justice. None of the killers of the 193 unarmed protesters (over twice as many people killed in the Sharpeville massacre) and their bosses who authorized the massacres were ever brought the bars of justice. Neither Meles nor his regime was sanctioned by the donors and loaners. In its March 2006 Human Rights Report, the U.S. barely mentioned the Meles Massacres. “After the May elections, serious human rights abuses occurred… result[ing] in widespread riots and excessive use of force by the police and military.” There were no U.N. resolutions condemning the massacres. The U.N. Security Council did not invoke its power under Article 16 of the Rome Statute to direct the International Criminal Court Prosecutor to indict Meles Zenawi and his accomplices on charges of crimes against humanity. (The Security Council authorized the indictment of Sudanese president Omal al-Bashir in 2008.)
In the U.S. Congress, Representative Chris Smith introduced H.R. 5680 to “encourage and facilitate the consolidation of security, human rights, democracy, and economic freedom in Ethiopia.” Human Rights Watch was one of the very few international organizations that stood up and documented the crimes against humanity committed in the Meles Massacres.
In the months following the 2005 elections, Zenawi went on a rampage of arrests and detentions. He jailed nearly all of the leading opposition leaders, civic society organizers, human rights advocates and journalists in the country on trumped up treason charges. He passed “laws” clamping down on independent journalists and newspapers and criminalized civil society institutions.
By 2010, Meles was ready for electoral revenge. He held an election in May of that year and declared his party had won 99.6 percent of the parliamentary seats. He made a laughing stock of himself and his regime by making such a silly claim. Meles’ grandiose fantasies continued. He claimed with a straight face that the Ethiopian economy had been growing by 11.7 percent over the past decade. His minions, loaners and donors continued chimed in and continued to parrot the canard of double-digit growth. I proved beyond a shadow of doubt that the claim of double digit growth over the past decade by Meles, his regime, the World Bank, the so-called “Development Assitance Group” (whom I affectionately call the “international poverty pimps”, USAID and others has been a boldfaced lie, a damned lie and a statislie (statistical lie.)
The real tragedy of the Meles Massacres was the fact that Meles was rewarded with billions in aid by Western countries. The U.S. increased its aid to his regime from nearly $1.8 billion in 2005 to nearly $3.5 billion in 2008. In 2011, “Britain chose Ethiopia to be its biggest recipient of development aid during the next four years.”
Every year there are hundreds of “Sharpevilles” taking place in Africa. Human Rights Watch has documented large scale extrajudicial killings in the vast majority of sub-Saharan African countries. One need only pick up the latest Human Rights Watch report to see the recurrence of “Sharpevilles” in Africa. In Darfur, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Central African Republic, Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere in Africa. Extrajudicial killings by regime security, military and police officers in Africa are so commonplace, the world has turned its face away to avoid having its mind and heart scarred forever.
In August 2012, black South African police officers fired on protesting miners in Marakina in north west South Africa killing 44 dead and leaving at least 78 injured. (Watch actual footage of the incredible heart wrenching massacre as unarmed protesters are cut down by machinegun fire.) President Jacob Zuma said, “We are shocked and dismayed at this senseless violence. We believe there is enough space in our democratic order for any dispute to be resolved through dialogue without any breaches of the law or violence.” I wonder if Zuma would have said the same about the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre.
In May 2014, the police and security officials of the ruling Thugtatorship of the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front (T-TPLF) massacred 47 unarmed university and high school students in the town of Ambo 80 miles west of Ethiopia’s capital (Ambo Massacres). There has been little international outrage over the massacres and no one has called for an investigation. The killers roam the streets free just as the killers of the Meles Massacres of 2005 walk the streets free.
Evil without borders
I do not believe the Sharpeville Massacre, the Meles Massacres, the Marakina Massacre, the Ambo Massacres and other massacres in Africa are random events. I believe all massacres are well calculated crimes. The apartheid regime in the Sharpeville Massacre and Meles in the 2005 massacres used extreme violence as a tactic to prove to the population that they will kill and destroy anything in their path to cling to power. The Sharpeville massacre was the white minority government’s way of “teaching the kaffirs a lesson they will never forget”. Meles’ and his T-TPLF’s aim was not much different. They wanted to teach their opposition a lesson they will not forget by indiscriminately massacring men, women and children in the streets and in their homes. Meles and his T-TPLF massacred with deliberation and calculation and sought to break the backbone of the opposition and make sure that no opposition will ever rise again. They wanted to teach the university and high school students in the Ambo Massacres that they will commit crimes against humanity to cling to power. Had Meles and his accomplices been held accountable for the 2005 massacres, there would have been no Ambo Massacres!
The legacy of evil left by apartheid still menaces South Africa. There are some who believe South Africa is so deeply divided that it is “a ticking time bomb”. According to one longitudinal survey (survey conducted every year since 2003), nearly two decades after the end of white minority rule, 43.5% of South Africans rarely or never speak to someone of another race. Little more than a quarter (27.4%) interact with a person of another race always or often on ordinary weekdays, while 25.9% do so sometimes. Less than one in five (17.8%) South Africans always or often socialize with people of other races in their homes or in the homes of friends. A further 21.6% do so sometimes, and more than half (56.6%) rarely or never socialize across race lines.
The legacy of evil left by Meles Zenawi silently grows like cancer in the “Kililistans” (Ethiopia’s equivalent of South Africa’s “Bantustans”) he created. In the rest of Africa, ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional and other divisions are ticking time bombs that continue to explode with increasing frequency. The latest example of ethnic powder keg is South Sudan where campaigns by government and rebel forces have resulted in the destruction of scores of villages, indiscriminate killings of tens of thousands of civilians, rapes of untold numbers of women and girls and the commission of other crimes against humanity. The legacy of Meles and the T-TPLF is ethnic federalism, a fire they have lit which one day will consume them.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing and to…”
Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I would add that evil also triumphs when each individual makes a conscious decision to hear no evil, see no evil and say no evil.
It seems to me that in the course of human events, most people face their own “defining moments” when they least expect it. Often that “moment” arrives when we are forced to make a choice between doing good, doing evil or remaining indifferent to good and evil because we just do not care. Not making a choice or indifference is the easiest choice to make. It requires no thinking at all. The choice between good and evil is paralyzing not because there is actual moral ambiguity or uncertainty in choosing but because evil is so much more attractive, alluring and appears to offer greater rewards. Choosing evil is the second easiest choice. It requires no moral thinking. Evil is good. Greed is good. Corruption is good. They are the easiest pathways to riches.
To stand for the truth, what is good and right is the hardest choice of all because they require moral clarity and courageous acts of conscience. One must have fundamental convictions and moral principles to speak the truth and to do good and the right thing and in so doing define the moment instead of being defined by the moment. In the face of evil, the question in our consciences is always a clear one. We can choose to be silent. We can choose to be apologists and accomplices of evil. We can choose to blindfold ourselves in the face of evil or get in the faces of evil doers. We have a choice to damn evil, condone it or openly accept it.
I chose to damn the Meles Massacres. The Meles Massacres of June and November 2005 were defining moments for me as an individual. I had to make a moral choice in the face of the evil perpetrated by Meles and his cohorts and take a stand. I explained why I decided not to keep quiet in the face of evil in my remembrance of the victims of the Meles Massacres in my 2010 Huffington Post commentary, Remember the Slaughter of November 2005”.
After I learned about the Meles Massacres, my initial reaction was total disbelief. It can’t be true! My disbelief slowly gave way to dismissiveness. These things always happen in Africa. C’est la vie! Depression and dejection followed dismissiveness. Who is this monster Meles? Until the massacres, I had known virtually nothing about Meles or his so-called TPLF. My interest in Ethiopian politics until 2005 was marginal. I vaguely remember writing a piece on Meles and his cabal in Ethiopian Review Magazine in the 1990s. I don’t remember the details but I believe the crux of my argument was that Meles and his regime should be given the benefit of the doubt as they sought to implement their promised democratic reforms and so on.
I tried to forget about the victims of the Meles Massacres. I could not. A strange surreal feeling took hold of me. It was almost like the victims were communicating with me to speak up for them. After I saw the photographs of the bullet-ridden photographs of the massacred victims, I cried my eyes out. A little voice in my conscience which whispered to me. “How can you keep silent when your people are massacred? How can you be so indifferent? So selfish?”
Disgust propelled me into decision making. But what can I do? What can I say? Then a flash of inspiration: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing.” There is one tiny, little thing I can do to fight EVIL. Use my pen (more accurately, my computer keyboard.)
On March 31, 2007, almost 8 years ago to the week, I wrote my “manifesto” and explained why I have decided to fight evil in a commentary entitled, “The Hummingbird and the Forest Fire: A Diaspora Morality Tale”. The message I tried to communicate was a simple one. “You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation.”
I write to keep fresh in the minds of my readers the crimes that were committed in the Meles Massacres and the Ambo Massacre of university and high school students. I also write to keep alive the memories of the Sharpeville Massacres, the Marakina Massacres, the Darfur Massacres, the Kenya Massacres of 2007 and all of the other massacres that are being committed in Africa today. I write to remind all who have not completely lost faith in humanity and have fallen into despair that it is possible for hummingbirds and fleas to make a difference.
Am I naïve enough to believe that my lone voice in the wilderness will make any difference whatsoever to stop massacres in Africa or rehabilitate African thugtators? Do I really believe I can end the culture of impunity in Africa? Of course not.
But I believe in sending “ripples of hope” on the Ethiopian lake and African sea of despair as Robert Kennedy eloquently expressed it: “Thousands of unknown men and women in Europe resisted the occupation of the Nazis and many died, but all added to the ultimate strength and freedom of their countries. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage such as these that the belief that human history is thus shaped. Each time a man [woman] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” The fact of the matter is that I am not writing to persuade or convince African thugtators to do or not do anything. I am writing for future generations of Ethiopians and Africans to believe, as I do passionately, in the rule of law, respect for fundamental human rights and democratic governance. Lest you not judge me, I have never denied that I am a quixotic Ethiopian or a utopian Ethiopian. I wear both badges proudly.All that is necessary for EVIL to be defeated in Africa is for enough young African men and women to do something good to end the culture of criminality and impunity.
It is characteristic of dictatorships to massacre their opposition as a demonstration of strength. History, however, shows that massacres are often manifestations of weakness, vulnerability and fear of popular uprising by oppressive regimes. South Africans were not intimidated by the Sharpeville massacre; they came out in full force to challenge the pass laws in every major city despite the fact that the masters of apartheid unleashed unspeakable violence against them. Sharpeville energized and inspired all freedom-loving South Africans to fight against apartheid with determination. There would have not been a Steve Biko but for the Shrapeville Massacre.I believe in interconnectedness of events. When the Rwandan Genocide occurred in 1994, much of the world kept quiet. President Bill Clinton said two decades after that genocide, “If we’d gone in sooner, I believe we could have saved at least a third of the lives that were lost…it had an enduring impact on me.” That would have been 300 thousand Rwandans saved. The African Union said, “We see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”Because of silence and inaction to prevent the Rwandan Genocide, there was the Darfur Genocide in the Sudan in 2003. The regime of Omar al-Bashir carried out mass ethnic cleansing against Darfur’s non-Arabs causing the deaths of at least one-half million people from combat, starvation, displacement and other acts of war. Crimes against humanity continue to this day in Darfur.When Meles Zenawi ordered the massacre of hundreds of people following the 2005 election, he knew he could do so with impunity. He learned from the Rwandan and Darfur Genocides that no African “leader” has ben held accountable for committing massacres. Meles’ disciples committed the Ambo Massacres in 2014 because they learned the art of massacre from their late boss.Uhuru Kenyatta and his accomplices used criminal organizations to commit crimes against humanity after the 2007 elections because they saw Meles Zenawi and al-Bashir get away with mass murder just a few years earlier.
In 2010, Laurent Gbagbo of Cote d’Ivoire refused to give up power after he was decisively defeated in the polls. For five months, he directed his supporters to commit massive human rights violations against his opponents. French troops arrested him and he is now awaiting trial in the International Criminal Court. Gbagbo gambled on impunity and lost. He will be facing trial in the International Criminal Court.
In 2012, the Marakina Massacres occurred because the leadership of the African National Congress knew it could not be held accountable for its actions or omissions. How on God’s green earth is it possible, is it conceivable for a black police force in South Africa to mow down a crowd of protesters with machineguns? HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE!?! When I think of that question and watch that video, I fall in total despair for the continent. If the Marakina Massacres can happen in South Africa in 2012, the land where the Sharpeville Massacres took place over one-half century ago, why should it be any wonder if similar massacres happen in Ethiopia in May 2015 or at any other time in the rest of Africa?
The fact of the matter is that “Sharpevilles” occur in Africa every day. No one wants to talk about them or take decisive action to prevent them because the criminals are black, not white. African thugtators have the gall to come out and say in public, “Sitting African leaders should be exempt from accountability for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.” That was the argument the marionette prime minister of Ethiopia and his malaria-researcher-cum-foreign minister made in October 2013. Giving so-called African leaders a “get out of jail card” is a double standard many Africans and non-Africans in high offices are comfortable with. Otherwise, there would have been universal condemnation of the Zuma Government in South Africa for the Marakina Massacres as there was during the Sharpeville Massacres. The same for the T-TPLF regime for the Ambo Massacres of 2014.
Crimes against humanity and genocide continue to occur today in the Central African Republic as well as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and of course, in Ethiopia. Africa used to be called the “Dark Continent” because much was not known about the continent to outsiders. Africa remains today the “Dark Continent” because is enveloped by the darkness of crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and thugtatorships.It could happen again: Fighting “Afrimenesia” and “Ethiomensia” and the duty to remember
As I remember the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, I also remember the Marakina Massacre of 2013 and the Meles Massacres of 2005, the Ambo Massacres of 2014 and all the rest. It is easy to lull oneself into self-deception and say it’s all a fluke, isolated occurrences. People who face constant suffering would rather forget than remember the past. It is too painful to remember. It is easier to forget or even doubt the occurrences of massacres. Younger generations may also find it incredible that such crimes could have possibly occurred.
It has been said that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” I harbor great fear that “Afrimenesia” and “Ethiomenisia” (two new words I have coined to describe what I observe to be collective amnesia about crimes against humanity) will overwhelm the younger and coming generations of Africans. The crimes of the past must be scrutinized with rigorous historical analysis so that the younger and coming generations could learn from it. That is why it is important for young Africans to remember the Sharpeville Massacre, the Marakina Massacre and Meles Massacres and the others. Understanding the root causes of those atrocities and keeping the memories of the victims alive is the most powerful way of helping future generations prevent massacres. The historical lessons to be learned are identifying and recognizing those beliefs and patterns of actions and omissions that lead to the commission of grievous crimes against humanity and preventing them.
I hope to teach a few young Africans, particularly Ethiopians, through my weekly “sermons” (as some affectionately refer to my commentaries) that there are times when it is right to stand up for one’s beliefs, to trust in one’s own judgment and point an index finger at criminals against humanity and shout as loudly as possible, “J’accuse!” It is right to stand up for right and to right government wrongs. It is wrong to stand silent as the rights of the defenseless are wronged.
It takes a whole lot of people to be engaged to bring about change. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.” Change must come from informed and civilized debates and discussions. Change that is born from ignorance is stillborn change. Change that is born from enlightenment is durable, lasting and humane. That is why Africa’s young people (“Cheetahs”) should take the words of Africa’s newest snake oil salesmen (“Old Hippos”) with a grain of salt. They should embark on their own journey to build their own brave new Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa…
Albert Einstein said, “The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” It could be equally said that Africa has been made a dangerous place to live — with rampant crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes — not because of the evil dictators alone, but more importantly because not enough good African people, particularly young ones, (and friends of Africa) are willing to stand up, speak out and do something about gross human rights violations on the continent.
There is an entrenched and pervasive culture of impunity in Africa’s officialdom. Those in power feel that they can commit any act or crime and get away with it. Africa’s “leaders” believe they are above the law, indeed they are the law. This mentality and culture of impunity must end, and a new civic culture based on strict observance of the rule of law, civility and good governance must be instituted.As I remember the Sharpeville Massacre, my essential message to young South Africans, Ethiopians and other young people in the continent is the same one Steve Biko (the late South African student leader who founded the Black Consciousness Movement to empower and mobilize the urban black population) gave to my generation: “The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”