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Articles and thoughts by Peter Holslin

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

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[Dr. Berhanu Nega at the New School two weeks ago. Photo by Sam Lewis. A shorter, slightly different version of this article appears this week in The New School Free Press.]

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, 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 eastern 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.”

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Written by Peter Holslin

September 19, 2007 at 6:45 am

6 Responses

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  1. the kinijit (CUD) party is already divided in three groups. one of the sub-parties (UEDP-Medhin) left kinijit because the CUD leader (hailu shawel) acted like a dictator. Now the Berhanu nega faction inside KINIJIT is trying to split into another party. This would leave the CUD chairman Hailu shawel all by himself.NOTE: Hailu shawel was a minister during the previous government of mengistu that killed 1,500,000 innocent ethiopians. http://www.scaruffi.com/politics/dictat.html

    Anonymous

    September 19, 2007 at 3:09 pm

  2. According to VOA, the spokesman for Berhanu Nega’s CUD party, they have signed the apology letter to meles zenawi “voluntarily” and CUD “apologized to the people, to the government. “Check Source= http://www.voanews.com/english/Africa/2007-09-19-voa4.cfmBy the way, the CUD party was already allied with armed and violent groups. SOURCE= http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/5005980.stmOne of the groups allied to CUD is known by the name ONLF. The ONLF this year massacres 64 ethiopians and many chinese workers at dawn. SOURCE= http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/africa/article1701450.eceso We should ask, will the CUD opposition party finally disassociate itself from the pro-violent groups and take peaceful democratic movement seriously??? or Does this mean Berhanu Nega’s party will eventually be imprisoned by the government for keeping CUD alied with armed movements like ONLF???

    Anonymous

    September 19, 2007 at 3:27 pm

  3. Read this open letter and you will see the truth. The two Anonymous are the same people for the PM Office.Open letter to German Chancellor Angela MerkelSeptember 19, 2007 Dear Chancellor Merkel, It is with much concern that the people of Ethiopia are awaiting your reported visit to their country, which is ruled by a brutal regime that has lost the people’s vote of confidence in the elections of 15 May 2005 and has been terrorizing the citizens in violation of fundamental human rights principles.1 As the Honorable Ana Gomes, the EU observer of the May 2005 elections affirmed, “… the current regime in Ethiopia is repressing the people because it lacks democratic legitimacy.” 2 Ethiopians are concerned that your visit will give the illegitimate regime undeserved recognition, and will further embolden it to continue to terrorize the people, squander their meager resources, and thwart their fight for freedom, democracy and social justice. As holder of the European Union Presidency during 2007, you have enormous responsibility and influence on the world stage to ensure that brutal and illegitimate regimes do not oppress their people while projecting a false image of democracy to the outside world. You have said, “….Africa now has more economic growth, more democratic governments and less conflicts.” Regrettably, the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has mismanaged the country’s economy, suppressed the people’s democratic rights, and has caused instability in the region by attacking a neighboring country. In an editorial of July 18, 2007, The Wall Street Journal declared, “… [Zenawi’s] democracy is on paper only.” In a recent statement, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy stated, “…the 2005 election was not the turning point many had hoped for.” 3 On July 23, U.S. Congressman Christopher Smith called Zenawi “a vicious dictator.” 4 Even by the accounts of the U.S. State Department Country Report,5 Ethiopia is a police state. The situation in that country today evokes an atmosphere of life under siege. On the tragic days following Zenawi’s defeat in the 15 May 2005 elections, his special forces, the Agazi, mowed down 193 unarmed civilians, and maimed thousands of hapless city residents. Young college kids were inhumanly bayoneted;6 and unarmed civilians were brutally shot in the back as they ran for shelter. When the indiscriminate killings subsided, hospitals in Addis were crowded with mutilated bodies,7,8 and gruesome pictures of the disfigured bodies of the victims filled the airwaves.9 The world watched in disbelief that such atrocities and brutality could be happening in these days and ages. A commission set up by his own government found Zenawi guilty of the massacre,10 and international human rights organizations roundly condemned the action as barbaric.11 Several times earlier, the campuses of the country’s universities had also been scenes of experimentation for indiscriminate killings. On April 18, 2001 the Special Forces police opened fire12 on a peaceful protest organized by students of Addis Ababa University and killed at least 41 people and wounded 250. In January of 1993, hundreds of students were shot and mutilated by Zenawi’s police for peacefully exercising their freedom of expression.13 Zenawi’s other crimes have also been fully documented. In the Gambella area, the Anuaks have been subjected to a government-sponsored genocide, and many more have been displaced from their homes.14 The Oromo people have been targeted for constant harassment, killings and torture for refusing to submit to Zenawi’s ethnic policy of divide and rule.15 In the Ogaden region, he has continued to commit war crimes, “… burning homes and property, including the recent harvest and other food stocks intended for the civilian population, confiscating livestock and, …, firing upon and killing fleeing civilians.” 16Zenawi has suppressed freedom of speech and the press, while projecting an image of an open society to donor countries. In a recent report, the Committee to Protect Journalists found Ethiopia at the top of a list of 10 countries where press freedom has deteriorated over the past five years.17 In 2006 alone, eight newspapers were banned, two foreign reporters were expelled and several websites were blocked.18The government has used education and health as stealth weapons of oppression. According to the 2007 World Economic Forum report, Zenawi’s government occupies the dismal position of 124th out of 128 countries19 in terms of health and primary education. In a 2006 Human Development finding, Ethiopia is ranked 170th out of 177 countries with respect to a composite measure of life-expectancy, education and standard of living.20 The tuberculosis death rate per 100,000 population has doubled since Zenawi snatched the reigns of power from the previous dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.21 Added to the specter of terror is the grinding poverty that has gripped the populace, thanks to the widely publicized corruption of Zenawi’s government. According to the 2006 Global Transparency Corruption report22 Ethiopia had a Corruption Perception Index score of 2.4 out of a clean score of 10. Zenawi and his cronies continue to plunder, launder and squander the scarce resources of the country and the billions of dollars in aid money, through an elaborate financial, military and legal network. The government is run through a highly secretive and mafia-like clique that controls all the vital economic activities of that poor country through shadow corporations [see, e.g., 23]. As a consequence, the great majority of the people of Ethiopia are experiencing unprecedented economic hardships. Inflation has sky-rocketed,24 and based on a recent World Economic Forum report, 19 Ethiopia has slid to the rank of 123rd out of 128 countries in 2007 in the Global Competitive Index. Despite the grim economic figures, Zenawi and his cronies are laundering money in foreign bank accounts,25 and their spending spree on expensive lobbying is running high unbridled.26 Chancellor Merkel, In an eerie reminder of Stalin’s Great Purge, Zenawi recently coerced the opposition leaders he had illegally imprisoned into accepting responsibility for his own crimes, 27 and mendaciously announced to the world his magnanimity in granting amnesty. Goethe said, “There is nothing in the world more shameful than establishing one’s self on lies and fables.” Prime Minister Zenawi has cunningly hoodwinked Western leaders into believing he was a “new breed” of African leader. In its June 2nd, 2007 issue, The Economist summed up as follows the bitter lesson Zenawi taught Mr. Blair:“… If he [Blair] had left office a couple of years ago, his farewell safari might well have included Ethiopia. Meles Zenawi, …, was the most prominent African member of Mr Blair’s Commission for Africa but he repaid the compliment by allowing his police to shoot scores of protesters dead and arrest hundreds more in the wake of flawed elections in 2005. So now it is back to the old game of figuring out how to help people whose leaders are mainly interested in helping themselves.”Fortunately, the world is now beginning to recognize Zenawi’s lies and viciousness, and newspapers all over the world are generously reporting his crimes against humanity. However, as Goethe also counseled, “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” The people of Ethiopia are, therefore, pleading with you to exercise your enormous influence in the promotion of democracy and affirmation of the values that your government and the European Union uphold in the fight against tyranny and totalitarianism. In particular, they request that you stand on their side and support their demands for the:1. Return of power to the legitimate winners of the 15 May 2005 elections.2. Prosecution of those in power who are responsible for crimes against humanity.3. Suspension of direct aid to the brutal and corrupt regime, so that donors’ money is not used for the purpose of oppressing the very people it is intended to help. Yours sincerely, Selam Beyene, Ph.D.Beyene50@gmail.com Cc: Deutsche Welle Amharische Redaktion, 53110 Bonn, Deutschland . E-mail: amharic@dw-world.de Mr. Günter Nooke,The Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid at the Federal Foreign Office, Auswärtiges Amt, Werderscher Markt 1, 10117 Berlin References 1http://www.ethiomedia.com/courier/eu_observers_report.pdf2http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/6064638.stm3 http://leahy.senate.gov/press/200708/080307d.html4 http://www.addisvoice.com/article/markup_statement_of_rep.htm5 http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2006/78734.htm6http://newsimg.bbc.co.uk/media/images/40602000/jpg/_40602306_ethaphit203bod.jpg7 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_pictures/4398884.stm8 http://www.ethiopianreview.com/2006/may/001NewsMay19_2006_atrocities_of_Meles.html9http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=423966480953831517010http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/18/AR2006101800242_pf.html11http://www.omct.org/pdf/Observatory/2006/report/ethiopia_obs463-2_1106_eng.pdf?PHPSESSID=9fa93e1aa7dafc46a4c1ec2f2524d5c112http://www.wsws.org/articles/2001/apr2001/ethi-a27.shtml13http://www.ethiopianreview.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=3234&start=0&postdays=0&postorder=asc&highlight14http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=122906A15http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/04/16/MNGB9P99JA1.DTL&feed=rss.news16http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/07/02/ethiop16327.htm17http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/05/02/africa/AF-GEN-Ethiopia-Press-Freedom.php18 http://au.news.yahoo.com/070502/2/13bg9.html19http://www.weforum.org/pdf/gcr/africa/ethiopia.pdf 20 http://hdr.undp.org/hdr2006/statistics/countries/country_fact_sheets/cty_fs_ETH.html 21 http://mdgs.un.org/unsd/mdg/SeriesDetail.aspx?srid=64722http://www.transparency.org/policy_research/surveys_indices/cpi/200623http://www.ethiomarket.com/effort/effort_companies.htm24https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2092.html 25http://news.independent.co.uk/business/news/article485079.ece26http://harpers.org/archive/2007/07/hbc-9000063127 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/6908995.stm

    Anonymous

    September 19, 2007 at 3:35 pm

  4. Selam Beyene, the eritrean with a fake PHD, please focus on your country eritrea.eritrea is about to be labeled with a “sponsor of terrorism” tag. so try to save your sinking ship first. the united states has already concluded and they said NO MORE VIOLENCE FROM SEPARATISTS!!!! so your eritrean government arming separatists will bring UN sanctions. the american diplomat also said all human rights problem in ethiopia is the result of the separatists violence and the U.S. official frazer said the only solution is stopping separatists and replacing them with peaceful opposition parties. by the way, does eritrea even have an opposition party?? NOOOO!!!!ethiopia has more than 12 opposition parties working peacefully in the parliament.so Selam Beyene, please worry about your country, eritrea. take care.

    Anonymous

    September 19, 2007 at 5:26 pm

  5. hey everyone,i have a question, how can a party that can’t lead itself lead a country???? check this news from radio account http://www.jimmatimes.com/article.cfm?articleID=17088the question is how many splinter CUD groups will there be at the end??about those people still trying to LIE about the 2005 elections (which were the first ever multiparty elections), check these links the US STATE DEPARTMENT SAIDhttp://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2005/53355.htmDonorshttp://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900SID/VBOL-6G9DWT?OpenDocumentEven the anti-government EU monitoring group said a majority % of votes were fairhttp://english.peopledaily.com.cn/200508/26/eng20050826_204741.htmlViolent opposition protestshttp://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2006/61908.htmMore about electionshttp://www.ethiopia.ottawa.on.ca/NEWSLETTERSEPT2005.pdfmore from state departmenthttp://fpc.state.gov/fpc/57627.htmyou can get more referenced data from here http://www.ethioembassy.org.uk/news/press%20releases/Facts%20about%20the%20Recent%20Ethiopian%20Parliamentary%20Elections.htmjust More sources (meraqi)http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article14065http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/breaking/2006/0214/breaking75.htm

    Anonymous

    September 19, 2007 at 6:55 pm

  6. Read the following article in here. You are in deep shit. UN this time is deremined to tell the truth. I feel sorry for you.http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/09/19/africa/AF-GEN-Ethiopia-UN.phpUN fact-finders say situation in Ethiopia’s Ogaden deteriorating fast The Associated Press Published: September 19, 2007ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia: The United Nations said Wednesday that the situation in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region has “deteriorated rapidly,” and called for an independent investigation into the humanitarian issues there.The U.N. sent a fact-finding mission to the Ogaden in the country’s volatile east from Aug. 30 to Sept. 6.“The mission observed the recent fighting has led to a worsening humanitarian situation, in which the price of food has nearly doubled,” the U.N. said in a statement released late Wednesday in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.The mission also called for a substantial increase in emergency food aid to the impoverished region where rebels have been fighting for increased autonomy for more than a decade.The U.N. mission was sent after months of fighting that followed a crackdown ordered by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on the Ogaden National Liberation Front. The government says the rebels, who killed 74 members of a Chinese-run oil exploration team, are terrorists, funded by its archenemy Eritrea.The rebels have accused the Ethiopian government of genocide — a charge the government denies. In a statement on Sept. 13, the front said the government was punishing civilians for the rebel activities and that the fact-finding mission had not visited areas where war crimes were being committed.“The Ethiopian regime’s policy in Ogaden continues to be a campaign of state-sponsored terror that largely avoids engagements with ONLF forces and instead focuses on collectively punishing our civilian population,” the statement said. “Victims of the regime’s war crimes include victims of rape, torture, gunshot wounds and those fleeing burnt villages,” it said.The front called on the international community to stop “yet another preventable African genocide,” and urged the U.N. to investigate further in the region, saying the recent trip had been too tightly controlled by the government.Bereket Simon, the special adviser to the prime minister, dismissed the rebels’ claims after the statement was issued last week.“They said it is good that the U.N. has sent the fact-finding mission. And now when the facts from the ground are found to be not supporting their claims, they are fighting the fact-finding mission,” he said.The group is fighting for greater political rights for the region, which is ethnically Somali.

    Anonymous

    September 19, 2007 at 9:09 pm


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