In Ethiopia the truth is stranger than fiction By Abebe Gellaw

March 4th, 2014 Print Print Email Email

The life of the young Ethiopian co-pilot who sought political asylum while flying in the airspace of Switzerland two weeks ago will never be the same again. If the amount of money people make is a measure of success, the 30-year old co-pilot Hailemedhin Abera Tegegn had a relatively “privileged” life in Ethiopia, where per capita income is around $400.

In contrast to the paltry income of the majority of Ethiopians, the average pilot working for the state-controlled Ethiopian Airlines is said to make well over $2000. That is a fortune in Ethiopia, a country where crony capitalism has widened the disparity between the fortunate haves and the unfortunate majority that barely affords to eat a decent meal.

It could indeed be puzzling how the young pilot chose to risk it all with what appears to be a deliberate and dramatic “hijacking” incident that he executed calmly despite the inevitable consequences awaiting him upon landing. But man does not live by bread alone. Man also needs guarantees for dignity, rights and freedom.

Hailemedhin is now a prisoner under the custody of the Swiss police facing air piracy and hijacking charges that carry a penalty of up to 20 years in jail. The incident is actually another testimony to the fact that people living under tyranny tend to resort to extreme measures riking their comfort and lives to call for attention and win their freedom.

According to media reports, Hailemedhin took control of the plane when the pilot left the cockpit to take a toilet break over the airspace of Sudan. He locked out the pilot and commandeered the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767-300, Flight ET702, with 202 passengers and crew en route to Rome and diverted it to Geneva, where he sought political asylum in midair, a daring action that attracted global attention.

The measure is definitely extreme as the young man could have quietly slipped out of the country to seek political asylum in the United States or Europe. Tens of thousands of professionals leave the country every year. So many pilots and crew members from the Ethiopian Airlines have fled the country without attracting glaring attention at a global scale.

The reaction of the Ethiopian government, which is dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), was not unexpected. It is a minority government that routinely makes every effort to hide its appalling human rights record from the attention of the international community. The Minister of Government Communication, Redwan Hussein, told reporters in Addis Ababa that the incident “beggars belief”.

While is it an open secret that the Ethiopian constitution is not worth the paper it is written on, Mr. Hussein said the action of the co-pilot was in violation of article 32 of the Ethiopian Constitution, which guaranteed the freedom of citizens to travel out of the country.” He also claimed that basic liberties such as freedom of expression are fully respected in Ethiopia and claimed that citizens have no reason to flee from their own country. But the citizens enjoying such privileges might be TPLF members.

What beggars belief is actually the depressing reality on the ground and the cruel way that ordinary citizens are oppressed and stifled in Ethiopia. Thousands of journalists, human rights activists and dissidents are languishing in harsh jails where torture and other forms of inhuman treatment are rampant. The Draconian anti-terrorism law is routinely invoked to jail anyone who dares to speak out against the gross human rights violations and corruption which characterizes a regime that ironically enjoys cozy relationships with Western powers as well as China.

The United States, which considers the Ethiopian government a credible ally on the “war on terror”, doles out about a billion dollars annually in the form of foreign aid to prop up the brutal TPLF-led regime. It is a crucial support for a government that significantly depends on foreign aid to survive and maintain its tight grip on power. To please its Western funders, the ruling party periodically holds inconsequential elections and regularly pays lip service about “flourishing” democracy.

Press freedom is a far cry in Ethiopia. Three award-winning journalists that have been convicted of terrorism offenses because of their critical writing are serving long-term sentences. Eskinder Nega is winner of the 2012 PEN America’s Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. Earlier this year Eskinder was also awarded the 2014 Golden Pen of Freedom by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). But the award given to him by the Ethiopian government for his courageous work as a journalist is 18 years behind bars after he was convicted of “terrorism” offenses. His most serious crime was writing a few critical articles that predicted that Ethiopia would face a popular uprising in the style of the Arab Spring. In fact, all tyrants don’t want to believe that reality but the doom is inevitable.

Reeyot Alemu is another courageous journalist who celebrated her 33rd birthday in a harsh jail last month. She is suffering from breast cancer but has been denied proper medical care. While in jail, Alemu has bagged three coveted international awards for her extraordinary commitment to press freedom and courage in journalism. She was awarded the 2012 Courage in Journalism Award by the International Women’s Media Foundation, Human Rights Watch’s press freedom prize, Hellman/Hammett award, and the 2013 UNESCO-Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. Woubishet Taye also received the Hellman/Hammet and CNN Free Press Africa Journalist Awards.

Journalists are by no means the only victims. While journalists are mostly the primary targets due to the nature of their jobs, individuals like Hailemedhin, no matter what their profession and education, sometimes tend to take inexplicable actions such as choosing to live in jails rather than living in fear and silence. The most extreme measure was taken by Yenesew Gebre, a 29 year-old Ethiopian school teacher. Frustrated by the lack of basic freedom, he set himself ablaze in November 2011 and died a horrific death shortly after the incident.

In a New York Times piece, “Letter From Ethiopia’s Gulag”, which journalist Eskinder Nega penned from jail, he noted: “I’ve never conspired to overthrow the government; all I did was report on the Arab Spring and suggest that something similar might happen in Ethiopia if the authoritarian regime didn’t reform.”

Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes live under the illusion that they can sustain repression forever through intimidation and killings. As history shows time and again, those who fail to reform create their own demise by forcing people to rise up in anger to claim their own destiny. The case of a defiant young pilot is not unprecedented. Defiance is a familiar alarm bell in nations like Ethiopia where the truth is stranger than fiction.

Hailemedihin seems to be more interested in calling for global attention to the plight of the people of Ethiopia than just seeking asylum. While he could have sought asylum quietly, he chose to do it in full view of the world over Geneva. For most Ethiopians, he is a hero and a protester against the injustice they are facing under the boots of their cruel rulers that have no regard for the rights, dignity and freedom of their subjects.

As the former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark once said: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Switzerland and the rest of the world should definitely take note of this reality.

  1. Dawi
    | #1

    It is a matter of perspective but Abebe romanticizing someone who commandeered a plane with people against their will and put them in a life threating situation is amazing to say the least.

    I don’t think you can fight “dictatorship” with terror against civilians. The opposite may have even taken place and such individual stunts of taking civilian hostages postpones the opening of the system and gives “dictatorship” more grip. So the reactionaries in Woyane/EPRDF may have probably gotten stronger because of this incident.

    Only luck prevented a major disaster; if the plane was shot by the air force following it or something the guy would have ended up a mass murderer therefore, I consider Hailemedihin a terrorist.

  2. YaleAbebe
    | #2

    “While is it an open secret that the Ethiopian constitution is not worth the paper it is written on, Mr. Hussein said the action of the co-pilot was in violation of article 32 of the Ethiopian Constitution, which guaranteed the freedom of citizens to travel out of the country.”

    I am still trying to figure out which statement is not worth the paper written on. Abebe’s or the “Constitution”? Hypothesis: The main actors of the so-called opposition parties were all able to “travel out of the country” at will under “article 32″, True or False? Before we examine this statement let us stipulate who the main actors of the opposition parties for the the last decade or so were/are. Those made my list: Merara Gudina, Ato Temesgen Zewede, Eng. Hailu Shawel, Ato Lidetu, Sieye Abraha, Gebru Asrat, Dr. Negasso Gidada, Birtukan Mideksa, Prof. Mesfin, Prof. Beyene Petros, Dr. Yakob Hailemariam, Gizachew Shiferaw, Yilikal Getnet (flavor of the month) just to name a few. Now, if those are/were the main actors in the opposition camp, this will be a best test case for our hypothesis. Are those people, despite their well documented disdain and loathe for the current government, ever been denied their rights to travel abroad as they see it fit under the above mentioned article? The answer is a resounding NO! Those people were exercising their rights under the constitution without the fear of being jailed or otherwise – even with a round trip ticket. Those people were allowed to travel not because they were going to lobby for international assistant to better the lives of Ethiopians or to invite businesses to invest in Ethiopia or to say anything good about the government. They were allowed to travel in spite of the knowledge of their destructive nature to the common good. This was allowed to let go from the supreme respect to the Constitution, which is the guiding document of its originators (EPRDF). The constitution is a living document which may be open to changes, but to say “is not worth the paper it is written on” is an outrageous statement not supported by facts. Unless you expect the government to also issue visas for other countries, any legal person with a valid visa and money willing to travel never been denied to do so unless you are confusing your facts with the Derg era. So, since the facts on the ground contradict your assertion on this very essential point, I am willing to nil and void your article entirely. If you find a cockroach in a bowl of spaghetti, you don’t look for another cockroach before you throw out the whole bowl of spaghetti. Dear readers, if you find my evidence above to be false, I’m willing to listen where I went wrong. On the other hand, if you believe that my statement on this point to be true and then Abebe essentially is lying to you. You cannot trust the messenger because the messenger has lied to you, and that means that you really cannot trust the message they’re presenting to you.

  3. Girma
    | #3

    YaleAbebe, Don’t cheat yourself, weyane style. Ethiopia has no constitution. The shitty paper you call constitution has no relevance when it comes to implementation.

  4. Eleni Zaude Gabre-Madhin
    | #4

    Why Ethiopians put their effort on having more of natural resources while they are unable to manage what they already got is for no other reason but so that the thieves get a chance to keep on stealing. There is this old Amharic saying “GIRGIR LELEBA YAMECHAL” meaning caos gives opportunities for the thieves to steal.
    A research study by the Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission of Ethiopia on the administrative shortcomings in Coffee Administration has found out that 12 thousand tons 120,000 quintals of coffee has been sold outside the country through the use of fraudulent documents since the death of the late prime minster meles Zenawi. How and who stole the coffee is under investigation. The money has also reportedly not been returned to the country.

    At the current market price 12 thousand tonnes or 120 thousand quintal of coffee can be sold for $16 million or over $300 million birr. Ethiopia has become a country where one can steal this much money with faked documents and make one wonder if there was a government.

    When the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was in power over 10,000 quintal of coffee had been lost. Asked about the issue, then, Meles said it was under investigation, the outcomes of which have not yet been revealed.

    Although the Commission says it is investigating it, it is likely that the findings of the investigation could be muffled.Attempts by the private press to get the response of officials from the Ministry of Trade and Industry has not been successful.
    Teff and hydroelectric power are the next .

    | #5


    ከጠራሃቸው ሁሉ አንዳቸውም ለምስክርነት አይበቁም::

    በአሃዱም በሶስቱም ገፁ ጠባዮቻቸው:- ሂይወታቸው አንድ ሃሙስ ሲቀራት በማሌሊት የተገዙ, እስከነገንዘባቸው ከማሌሊት የተባረሩ, ወይንም ደግሞ ገና የሆነ ዶላር ሲያሸትቷቸው ክንብል ብለው ለማሌሊት ወሬ አቀባባዮች ለመሆን ምንም ችግር የሌለባቸው ናቸውና:: እንዲህ ስል ግን የተሳፋሪዎችን ሂይወት ነብስ ውጭ-ነብስ ግቢ ሁናቴ ውስጥ ከታቹን ጀቡደኛ/ህመምተኛ ጠላፊውን መደገፌ እንዳልሆነ ይታወቅልኝ::

    ብቻ ኢትዮጵያን ማእተብተኛ ሰው የምታፈራበት ቀን ያምጣላት::

  6. gifjja
    | #6

    it was not contempt driven; it was measurable and admirable actions that that enabled this young co-pilot to make a decisive action in exposing the brutal fascist regime that has been wasting both the lives and the resources of people and the country.

    A day long life in a fascist regime too much bear the pain and suffering; therefore, all Ethiopians must intensify the ongoing struggle wide and far, deep and deeper, day and night, from dusk to dawn and beyond the horizon to bring about the victory over the enemy that has been our common enemy from the beginning to this day.

  7. Tsegay Ze Axum
    | #7

    Age 30 could be hard for many since it is an age where individuals enter the post youth generation. in San francisco , California USA a man from Ethiopia Meron Tesfamariam, a 30-year-old homeless man with a history of stalking, was arrested on suspicion of killing Freeman in 2014. We need to educate our youth on how to swiftly from youth generation to the next one.

  8. chicago
    | #8

    No matter how bad the political situation is , the CO-PILOT committed a terrorist act/crime, he should have handeled it a different way. Even though I believe the Woyana”s are opppressing every Amara in Eth, that was a wrong way to go.

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