An Ethiopian Spring?

By Eskinder Nega

©Awranda TimesThe piece you're about to read - by Eskinder Nega, one of Ethiopia's most courageous independent journalists – underscores the possibility for tyranny when dictators adopt the permissive shield of "anti-terrorism" as cover for repression. Eskinder, who had already been jailed on several occasions for his writing, provides a chilling first-person account of a warning he receives from the federal police commissioner: Stop practicing journalism, or you will be killed.  

It is precisely this tyranny against free speech and expression that propelled me twice to Ethiopia to press for a return to constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and sanity. In both trips, my colleagues from the Committee to Protect Journalists and I spoke truth to power – in the first instance, in 2006, to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi himself. Meles surprised us then by granting permission to visit Kality prison, where many journalists were being held, including Eskinder Nega and his then-pregnant wife, Serkalem Fasil.  

We spoke with several of the journalists, including Eskinder, in a small room just inside the  prison gates. Educated in the United States and speaking fluent English, Eskinder took the lead, providing details of the journalists’ harassment by government officials following their reporting of election irregularities, including close to 200 deaths at the hands of state security forces – information confirmed by a 10-member public inquiry (the  judge heading of the inquiry subsequently fled Ethiopia after numerous death threats). We were able to deliver the journalists reading materials, which they had been denied up to that point. It is impossible to describe their gratification. Up to that point, Eskinder had also been denied the chance to visit to his then-pregnant wife, but she was allowed to attend our meeting. As they walked back to their separate prison quarters, Eskinder was able to gently caress her, and her expanded tummy, in a brief but moving exchange. 

Within a year, the journalists were released (for the moment), but Eskinder’s  newspaper was closed by the government. He then turned to online publishing, where he continued to draw the government’s ire. His latest arrest, in September 2011 – his eighth time in prison – came with the charge of treason after he publicly questioned the arrests of other journalists and iconic Ethiopian actor Debebe Eshetu.

Our investigation, which included visits to Ethiopia by CPJ members, determined that Eskinder’s only “crime” was simply speaking truth to power, including speculating upon whether an Arab Spring-type revolution could ever come to pass in Ethiopia. The prospect of such a revolution might well scare the regime in power, but writing and speaking about the subject –providing the Ethiopian people with information they can use to make intelligent decisions about their lives and their government – cannot be construed as a crime under law. 

Today, a new Ethiopian leader has the opportunity to release the remaining journalists and start a new chapter guided by the rule of law. I have often quoted Martin Luther King’s famous line: “ The time is always ripe to do right.” It's true in Ethiopia, on the one-year anniversary of Eskinder’s arrest, never more than now. - Charlayne Hunter-Gault is an award-winning journalist with extensive experience covering Africa and is a member of the Boards of the Committee to Protect Journalists and The African Media Initiative.

 

General Tsadekan, the EPRDF and the North African Revolution 

Rush, rush, rush. Time is flying. The article has not been finished. Write, edit, delete, write again, revise, it doesn’t have end. Two hours left. The last minutes are for coffee. Alas!

Friday is like that, for me, for the journalist. I have appointment on Friday morning with Ethiopians who reside Washington D.C. via skype. I am rushing to be on time for my appointment. Other Ethiopian Diaspora could meet me anytime. 

I log out my email and stand up. It is hard to sign in and out of a simple email window. Fast broadband Internet gave birth to the North African revolution, and now the revolution-phobic EPRDF-led Ethiopian government [Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front] is struggling against fast internet access. As the Ethiopian proverb goes, “Clueless dude will marry a pregnant woman”; EPRDF is trying to dry the source of revolution out of frustration, and fast Internet and social media are targets.

She politely says, “one hour and seven minutes”. I feel like I’m waking up from my sleep. I didn’t know that I spent an hour in front of the computer. Time is flying with invisible wings.

I have to leave the Internet café. I don’t even ask for my change. I leave the place. I turn right and walk down the hallway… Now I am leaving the building but should use the stairs to go to the main road. I am walking with my head down.

I hear a voice: “That’s him!”

Two Federal Police and another person in plain clothes are coming towards me. One of the officers has his police radio ready. The other has his his AK-47. He has his sleeves folded up to his big muscles. He holds the gun like a straw. My eyes meet those of this young policeman. He is in his twenties and confused. The shock and confusion on his face are his split-second's admission that he is not here to arrest a “terrorist.”

“You are wanted!” says the other federal police officer with a commanding voice. This policeman hasn’t folded his shirtsleeves to show off his muscles, but rather is busy with his radio communications. He is trying not to create a confrontation.  

“I am ready,” I answer.

I suddenly smile. This will be my eighth time to go to jail. But when I think about my son, my face changes. I feel like I’ve lost my mind. A new situation! A new feeling! I did not have a kid when I was imprisoned the last seven times.

The federal policeman stands behind me and says, “Let’s go!”

The policeman with the gun leads me to their police Land Cruiser, which they’ve parked in the middle of the road. The Land Cruiser doors are opened. He keeps walking fast. People start gathering to see the final unpleasant incident. 

We approach the Land Cruiser. The backdoor swings open; there are three more young policemen with AK-47s. All of them are in their early twenties, and ready to snap into action any time. 

The Land Cruiser is stopped in the middle of the road. Other cars behind it are stopped now, too. The one-way road is blocked and a traffic jam is fully in progress, the traffic flow halted by the sudden situation. I am the center of attention for the moment. 

The policeman (with the radio) opens the passenger-side door and says, “Get in!”

The driver, in a Federal Police uniform, doesn’t bother to look at me. He just wants to leave the place as soon as possible. I sit on the passenger side; the policeman with the radio enters and shares the passenger seat. The passenger- side door is still open as the driver peels out and accelerates away.

The Land Cruiser is speeding to De Gaulle Square. There is a silence in the car. The driver face is stony, frozen. The policeman next to me heralds the news on his police radio that I am under control.

When we reach De Gaulle Square, he suddenly orders the driver to change course: “Mexico square!”

This I didn’t expect; I thought they would take me to my second home – the Central Investigative Office. The driver increases his speed as we pass Jerusalem Building. We leave the old post office behind and start driving to Churchill Avenue, then Theodros Square, Black Lion, National Bank, Wabe Shebele Hotel…and, finally, Mexico Square. The Land Cruiser stops at the other gate of Federal Police Building. What a relief!

Another armed policeman approaches the car; the person next to me opens the window and just says, “Hello.”

The armed policeman goes back and opens the gate. The rush is over. The car moves slowly as we enter the compound. 

This is the back side of the Federal Police building – the side guarded by armed policemen. The Land Cruiser parks at the back of the building. The person with radio gets out of the car first.

“Shall I?” I ask, assuming I have to get out of the car.

“Yes,” he says.

He leads us into the building. Two policemen sit at the door, but they are unarmed.

The radioman says, “I’m going to the commissioner,” and takes out his gun.

Comments

  • Ethiopian forever
    September 19, 2012
    Thanks for sharing Dawit. I'm not a good writer so i do not write lot, i just wanted to say Eskinder is my hero, who stands for what he belives even though he is paying his life for it. I hope one day Eskinder and those who are imprisoned for there beliefs will be free and We ETHIOPIANS will live as an ETHIOPIA not as party supporters. Ethiopia was one, is one and will be one. Segregation based on nation and nationalities is not in the heart of the Ethiopian people, but only in the heart of the woyane rulers. ETHIOPIA forever, "ETHIOPIA TABESHE EDEWIHA HABE EGZIABHER"