Free At Last, Kinijit Leaders Continue in Ethiopia’s Fight for Democracy –

September 19th, 2007 Print Print Email Email

A year ago, Dr. Berhanu Nega wrote Ye Nestanset Gohe Sekede—Amharic for The Dawn of Freedom—in Ethiopia’s Kaliti prison, smuggling it out a few pages at a time. (more…)

A year ago, Dr. Berhanu Nega wrote Ye Nestanset Gohe Sekede—Amharic for The Dawn of Freedom—in Ethiopia’s Kaliti prison, smuggling it out a few pages at a time. Now the book is a hot commodity in this East African nation of 70 million, but carrying around a copy is dangerous.

The Ethiopian government never officially banned the book. But in September 2006, in the capital city of Addis Ababa, police placed roadblocks around the city, according to a foreign journalist based there who spoke with Free Press. The police searched cars and people, looking for The Dawn of Freedom, arresting, beating, even killing those found with the book.

In May 2005, after a democratic election gone awry, the government imprisoned Berhanu Nega, mayor-elect of Addis Ababa, a member of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, or Kinijit, and an alumnus of The New School for Social Research. In a crackdown against demonstrations protesting the election’s outcome, the government arrested thousands. The arrests sparked an international effort, involving student groups, New School administrators, members of the European Union, Amnesty International and U.S. Congressmen to push for the release of the Kinijit leaders and implement democratic reforms. This July, the Ethiopian government finally freed Berhanu and 37 other prominent Kinijit members.

Now on a visit of Ethiopian communities in the United States, Berhanu and other Kinijit members plan to reexamine issues that have hampered the party, but are resolute in continuing the push for democracy in their country. Kinijit is taking on a government known for human rights violations, though, so many Ethiopians expect a protracted fight.

Berhanu Nega, a short, stocky man with a huge smile, began the United States tour two weeks ago at his alma mater. He received a Distinguished Alumnus Award from New School President Bob Kerrey at New School’s convocation. That evening, he spoke in Swayduck Auditorium at 65 5th Ave. to a packed crowd of New School students and Ethiopians, most of them based in New York City, some of them supporters of the ruling party in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

Berhanu said one of Africa’s biggest challenges is to overcome poverty—and democracy, he said, is the key to growth. A democratic government provides economic stability, holds corrupt officials accountable, and encourages innovation and long-term investment.

He dismissed the notion that authoritarian governments, like China, can provide great economic progress.

“That’s exactly the stance that Meles and his friends have taken,” Berhanu said, referring to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. “They say, ‘Look, it’s OK if we kill, it’s OK if we maim, it’s OK if we arrest thousands, it’s OK if we are an empire because we provide economic growth.”

“At the end of the day, economic development is supposed to provide freedom,” he said. “Freedom from want, freedom from poverty and hunger.”

Berhanu, born in 1958, first joined the Ethiopian democracy movement in the 1980s, at age 17. He joined a student organization as an undergrad at Addis Ababa University to protest the military rule of the Dergue, a military junta led by Col. Mengistu Haile-Mariam that slaughtered thousands of dissidents, both real and imagined, and led the country into a devastating famine.

Berhanu escaped to Sudan after being detained for protests, then to the United States on political asylum. He studied political-economics at The New School for Social Research, graduating in 1991 with a PhD in economics. That year, Meles Zenawi, a charismatic from Ethiopia’s northern highlands, led a paramilitary group called the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front to overthrow the Dergue. Filled with hope and promise, Berhanu returned to Ethiopia with his family.

Meles Zenawi became Prime Minister and the ruling party began to resemble the one it deposed. Two elections before 2005 were “typical,” Berhanu said. “The governing party gets something like 98 percent and keeps wondering how it lost the two percent,” he said.

The elections in May 2005 were supposed to be democratic. Independent newspapers set up shop and opposition parties campaigned openly, debating the ruling party on television. Millions showed up to vote. Yet on the day of the vote, the EPRDF claimed victory before half of the votes for parliamentary seats were counted. Then Meles Zenawi declared a state of emergency. Berhanu refused to give up his mayorship and other CUD members protested instead of taking Parliament seats, so the government threw them in jail.

News reports and human rights groups estimate that the government arrested between 20,000 and 30,000 people for protesting in the months after the election. A government investigation also uncovered that 6 police officers and 193 civilians were killed, and thousands injured, in large part because police fought protestors with live ammunition.

Government officials accused protestors of inciting chaos. “I definitely believe that [the violence] will tarnish the image of the country,” Simon Bereket, Meles Zenawi’s top deputy, told journalist Andrew Heavens after the protests. “The alternative was strife between the different nationalities of Ethiopia which might have made the Rwandan genocide look like childsplay.”

These days, according to Ethiopians, journalists and human rights organizations, Prime Minister Zenawi governs through fear and intimidation.

There is only one television station in Ethiopia and websites of pro-democracy organizations and parties are blocked. Berhanu said agents we hired to keep track of him, all day every day, before he was arrested. According to the foreign journalist who spoke with Free Press—who has connections to high-level government sources, but is unable to speak on the record for fear of endangering associates in the country—the police routinely place spies in the country’s schools, outside the homes of political prisoners and at diplomatic offices.

In 2006, the State Department released a report documenting cases of abuse and killings in prisons, poor prison conditions and the arrest of newspaper publishers, journalists and members of opposition parties. Human Rights Watch has also reported on numerous cases of Ethiopian soldiers and police torturing and abusing citizens, most recently in the western desert region known as the Ogaden, populated predominantly by ethnic Somalis. Disturbing stories have also come from native and foreign journalists.

In January, Ethio-Zagol Post—an anonymous blog widely considered among Ethiopians to be one of the country’s most accurate news sources—reported that police dragged a Kinijit organizer named Tesfaye Tadesse, 25, from his friend’s house, beat him so badly that he an lost teeth and an eye, then shot him in the chest and back. It was the sixth killing of a Kinijit organizer that week.

“Their reactions are so disproportionate with the crime,” the foreign journalist told Free Press, referring to the country’s security forces. “That sends a message: don’t organize.”

This summer, in the Ogaden, the government waged an assault on the violent separatist militia Ogaden National Liberation Front. The military ejected aid groups from the area, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, and strictly controlled the movement of journalists.

Journalists have visited the region and also spoken with refugees, and Ogadenis have described stories of widespread abuse. The New York Times—whose reporters were arrested, and their equipment confiscated, for traveling into the region—ran an article and video this summer in which Somalis describe how the army burned homes and raped villagers. One woman said she was sexually assaulted with a pair of pliers.

Will Connors, a reporter based in Ethiopia for two years, wrote in Slate recently that he secretly met with Somali refugees from the area, who described being beaten and raped by Ethiopian soldiers. One woman unveiled her hijab to show Connors a giant scar—she explained that a soldier had stabbed her with a bayonet.

The foreign journalist told Free Press, and Connors also wrote in Slate, that most aid organizations are afraid to speak out about human rights violations, fearing it will complicate their activities in the region, or that they will be kicked out of the country. Connors recently left Ethiopia because he discovered his phone had been tapped, his landlord was spying on people in their neighborhood and he was afraid of being arrested.

A U.N. fact-finding mission is currently in the area, but has yet to release any public report.

Last week, Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin told Reuters that the government had no knowledge of any violence against Ogaden’s population. “To our knowledge, there was not one village destroyed or burnt in the recent action,” he said.

Meles Zenawi recently told Time Magazine, “We are supposed to have burned villages. I can tell you, not a single village, and as far as I know not a single hut has been burned. We have been accused of dislocating thousands of people from their villages and keeping them in camps. Nobody has come up with a shred of evidence.”

A spokesperson for the Ethiopian government or the office of the Ethiopian Embassy could not be reached for comment as of press time

For now, the government seems to be making small steps towards reforms. The crackdowns have stopped in Addis Ababa, the journalist told Free Press. Last week, during the country’s millennium celebration—Ethiopia runs on a unique, Christian Orthodox calendar—the government released over 17,000 prisoners, according to Ethio-Zagol Post.

Ethiopia is an ally in the United States’ “war on terror,” and has received over two billion dollars in American aid since 1993. This year, New Jersey Representative Donald Payne introduced H.R. 2003, “The Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007,” which would make aid contingent on implementing democratic reforms. New Jersey Representative Chris Smith also introduced a similar bill, H.R. 2228. The Ethiopian government has hired a multi-million dollar firm, DLA Piper, to convince lawmakers not to support the legislation.

Kinijit is in a tough position these days—its reputation has been harmed by infighting, allegations of embezzling thousands of dollars and accusations of draconian management, according to a recent interview with a member on Ethio-Zagol Post. Berhanu did not address these controversies at Swayduck, but said the organization would reevaluate its cause as members continue their United States tour.

Tedlaw Asfaw, an Addis Ababa native who lives in New York City, told Free Press after the event that he wants Kinijit to focus on the future. But he worries about what the future will bring. Over email, he wrote, “I will not be surprised if these leaders are thrown again into jail.”

  1. | #1

    It is a clear brief true essay on the present poletics of Ethiopia. The poletics of the dictator and the democrats namely Dr.Berhanu.
    These fighters for democracy will end up in jail or something will happen to them, if they return and challenge the evil ones on power.
    God help us

  2. dinka
    | #2

    So Gash-Tesfa let us join them by returning home with them and pay the necessary price!It won’t bring democracy by standing aside while we see brave young people like Medksa,Nega…put their life on line for me, you,her,him and everyone who calls himself an Ethiopian.

    | #3

    It is a good idea Dinka, i just want to know if this is not to make fun. No need to go back, there are ways to do it. Kinijit and any movement that will come from now on should’t triamph by arm force any more. The game will be around the table in a discussion.

  4. dinka
    | #4

    I agree with you eventually we need to deal with this guys by force but right now the peacefull struggle is underway.You want to know if I was making fun?no I am not.Yes non violent struggle takes time and a lot of patience.Remember Martin Luther king stuggled with the same method today, me and you are enjoying that freedom to express ourselves.If you check out the history many people marched and went to jail for it too this is not fun it is serious.

  5. Mengesha
    | #5

    Now a day’s politics is not a complex issue to Ethiopian citizen to comprehend. The moment Woyane took power, the then Woyane Prime Minister, Tamirat Layine who is now in jail, went to the Northern part of our country in late 1991 and stated, “Dear YC peasant association members, we are democratic party and you must believe that Eritrea was not part of Ethiopia, and the Junta government or Derg was enemy of Ethiopia, etc. Is it not?” The unarmed peasant, who was surrounded by armed Woyane gangsters, bowed their head down, started coughing, eh! h! eh! Continued…. This time Woyane Minister failed to resume uttering the fabricated history of Ethiopia, and left the scene.

    I don’t want to investigate or suggest how sequentially organized material, and which contains crippled map of Ethiopia on the cover announced, it walked out of jail. I will leave this to YC peasant association for assertion. Letting the cover in to basket, I started reading the material with a party called EPRDF, and end with EPRDF. How and why? Is there a party in power that works for Ethiopian growth and development and integration of the nations, like the name, Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front? If no, then why do we use the name EPRDF instead of Woyane, the mercenary, Major General in tribalism and a party that works for the down fall of the nation?

    Although I am away from the meeting hall on Sunday, thanks to Ethiomedia I listened to the speech addressed by the two members of the delegates. And also I heard applauding almost continuously.

    What was the substance? What remedy proposed or anticipated to alleviate the society form imprisonment, killings and general suffering of millions of population by Woyane regime? Should we applaud when they tell us to work with Woyane which means extending the regime’s life span and eradicating the nation? Did any one hear the delegates speaking Woyane? Rather, I heard the willingness for dialogue with Woyane, the opposition party. Oh! Need dialogue with opposition Woyane regime? How do you assign the word opposition for a sole ethnic based armed Woyane? Secondly, “Still we are willing…. .”very astonishing phrase. Do you think Woyane relinquish power as such,
    or an attempt to make fun?

    They also want to tell us about the type of democracy like; young, old, short, long and so forth. It is a waste of time talk about such issues. People are deprived the right to live, to work, to move and need help to remove the Woyane regime, right now. If you persist to act like the then or current Woyane Minister, I will call the chairman of YC peasant association for clarification

    If any one needs to be a bridge and queue for a position of Lidetu, or Lidetua the II, III, IV, Etc. under the cover of the voice of Ethiopian people Kinjit, you will be abandoned by the public and become the wanted members of the destructive Woyane regime.

  6. | #6

    Kinijit leaders,
    if every thing that I read from every web site about you is true, please back to your mind. those who call themselves diaspora(“ye dil atbia arbegnoch”)didn’t gave their vote for you.Those who bitten by federal police sticks,arrested and died gave their vote for you to lead them.Those who live abroad can’ make a change on kinijit. The so called diaspora may support you materially or financially. the home boys and girls gave their lives and shade thier blood for kinijit. Why don’t you forget the KIC or KLC and so on? the people at home know only one kinijit. so, go back home and discuss your issues with those poor and real Ethiopians. The “dil atbia arbegnoch” can not find a solution for kinijit instead of “mabetabet” to open a wide hole for the hayena woyane to get advantage and involved in the case and confused the people as it is “azagn kibe anguach.” In Ethiopia, every one knows that you guys are respected and loved until you get out of jail. but immediately after your release, you guys I don’t really know why you run out of the country by giving the priorty for the so called diaspora. in my opinion inside should be first and you should have to thank the home those who pray for your release and came to the jail to visit you.

    God may bless Ethiopia

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