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.

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