How Do You Solve a Problem Like Ethiopia?

Tall metal gates
guard a courtyard just off a busy street north of London’s financial district.
The area, once down and out, is today much sought after, but scattered between
the newly refurbished warehouses and loft apartments are some blocks of
municipal housing populated largely by the city’s African immigrant
communities. Inside their yard, small boys are kicking a soccer ball. “Yemi’s
my mum,” one of the boys says, leading the way up the building’s aging concrete
stairwell to the fourth-floor flat.

A small, slim
woman, Yemi smiles easily. On her shelves are portraits of her parents, who
left Ethiopia for the United States in 1982 to make a new life for their
family. A black-and-white photograph shows her father as a young man in
Ethiopian uniform. “He was in the army,” Yemi explains. “But he left for
civilian life in 1972 before the Derg took power.”

The Derg, or
“Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army,” comprised
a group of low-ranking officers who deposed Emperor Haile Selassie. The emperor
had ruled Ethiopia for four decades until his failure to respond to a
devastating famine in 1974 led to his overthrow and subsequent murder. Mengistu
Haile Mariam, an obscure army major, led the coup and went on to rule Ethiopia with an iron fist,
engaging in a ruthless campaign of repression that became known as the Red
Terror. Executions were rife and tens of thousands of people were imprisoned
until the Derg was ousted by the country’s current rulers in 1991.

Yemi was lucky that
her father left the military when he did. “Yes,” she agrees, “they killed so
many of their own.”

The violent
revolutions that have marked Ethiopia’s recent history still reverberate today.
The country has enjoyed substantial donor support ever since the devastating 1984-1985 famine
and has been an important ally in the fight against Islamic extremism in the
Horn of Africa. But the government, while nominally democratic, still tolerates
little opposition — a reality Yemi knows all too well.

Yemi, whose full
name is Yemsrach Hailemariam, is today caring for her two small boys and their
sister on her own. On July 9, her partner, Andargachew Tsige, a leader of
Ethiopia’s largest exiled opposition movement, was arrested in an airport transit lounge in Yemen. He had been
on his way from the United Arab Emirates to Eritrea when he was picked up by
Yemeni security, who then bundled him onto a plane bound for Ethiopia. 

Andargachew is
the secretary-general of Ginbot 7, an opposition movement outlawed by the
Ethiopian authorities. The party was founded after the government refused to
accept the 2005 election results. Ginbot 7 has been declared a terrorist organization,
and Andargachew was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in absentia in
June 2012. Since then, he has toured the world, working with the Ethiopian
diaspora in defiance of the government.

Now, he
is in its hands. 

***

Andargachew’s
entrance into politics came when he was a college student in Addis Ababa in the
early 1970s. He joined one of the left-wing parties that fell out with the
regime. But soon, life became untenable: The Derg sent its security services
door to door to crush its opponents. Bodies were left in the streets of the capital. Andargachew’s younger
brother, Amha Tsige, was murdered for his involvement in left-wing politics.

Like many of his
generation, Andargachew slipped out of the country and sought sanctuary in
Britain in 1979. After being granted refugee status, he returned to his studies
in London. “He studied philosophy. Kant and Sartre were his favorites,” says
Yemi, with a smile.

When the current
government came to power in 1991, Andargachew decided to return home and took
up work with the Addis Ababa city council. Yet hopes that Ethiopia’s new
government, led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, would put the country’s violent
past behind them soon faded. A coalition government with the opposition fell
apart, and renewed repression followed. Andargachew fell out with the
authorities and left for Britain once more.

In 1998, during
a trip to the United States, Andargachew and Yemi met through a friend. They
started a relationship and a new life in Britain. But in 2005, with fresh
elections and a renewed hope for democracy back home, Andargachew went back to
Ethiopia to work with the charismatic opposition leader, Berhanu Nega, in the
Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD).

In the elections, the CUD managed
to take almost every seat in the capital and may have even won a majority in
the rest of the country. But the authorities were not prepared to accept the outcome. Amid allegations of vote rigging and
widespread protests, Andargachew was arrested. “For 18 days, there was a
blackout,” says Yemi. “They told us nothing.” Traveling from Britain, she
finally managed to see him. He had been beaten in detention, his face badly bruised and his eye injured.
“It still gives him problems,” Yemi explains.

After a month,
Andargachew was released on bail and slipped out of the country. With the
election effectively annulled, some 60,000 people detained, and around 200
dead, the opposition decided there was little room left for democratic
opposition. Meeting in Washington in 2008, Ginbot 7 was formed; the name, “May
15” in Amharic, commemorates the day of the 2005 election. Andargachew became
secretary-general.

Since the 2005
election, Ethiopia has proved to be a remarkable economic success story. The
World Bank recorded growth of 10.3 percent in 2013. Analysts
suggest this is skewed in favor of the ruling party and its
associates, but there is no doubt that the economy has flourished.

The political
picture, by contrast, is bleak. The U.S. State Department 2013 report
on human rights in Ethiopia documents “restrictions on freedom of expression and
association, including through arrests; detention; politically motivated
trials; harassment; and intimidation of opposition members and journalists, as
well as continued restrictions on print media.” Opposition members have been
arrested and had their phones are tapped, and exiled movements such as Ginbot 7
have had their websites blocked.

The government
alleges that Ginbot 7 engaged in active rebellion and that Andargachew has
participated in terrorist activities, a claim that Yemi adamantly denies and
that many analysts find dubious. (Groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned Andargachew’s arrest.)

Andargachew,
Yemi says, has simply been working to keep the opposition alive among
Ethiopia’s widely dispersed diaspora. He has traveled regularly across Europe and
the United States and also visited Ethiopian communities in Australia. “He is
the backbone of the organization,” she says. “He travels a great deal, and our
family life has suffered a lot. But he’s clear: His family must come second.” 

*** 

Andargachew’s
arrest is an embarrassment for London and Washington, because
Ethiopia is their most important ally in the Horn of Africa. Despite its rights
record, Ethiopia is seen by the United States as an important supporter in the
fight against radical Islamist movements. During a visit to Addis Ababa in July
2013, Ash Carter, then the U.S. deputy secretary of defense, characterized the U.S.-Ethiopia partnership as an
important bilateral relationship and expressed gratitude to Prime Minister
Hailemariam Desalegn for the critical role Ethiopia has played in addressing
regional challenges in Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan.

“Ethiopia and
the United States have shared interests in these countries,” Carter said during
his visit, “and we continue to explore additional ways that we can work
together to tackle East Africa’s security challenges.”

Washington backs
Ethiopian efforts to fight al Qaeda-aligned groups through Camp Lemonnier, the
U.S. base in neighboring Djibouti. It also maintains a base inside Ethiopia from which drone
attacks have been made against the Somali Islamist movement al-Shabab. Citing unnamed
U.S. officials, a 2007 New York Times
article
described a “close and largely clandestine relationship with Ethiopia [that] also
included significant sharing of intelligence on the Islamic militants’
positions and information from American spy satellites with the Ethiopian
military.” The article also outlined operations by a secret U.S. special operations
unit, Task Force 88. The task force was described in a separate article by Time
as a secretive “hunter-killer team” used in targeted killings.

The British
relationship with Ethiopia — though concentrating on aid rather than military
assistance — is just as close. The bond goes back many years: Emperor Haile
Selassie spent World War II in Britain, which then went on to help restore him
to his throne. More recently, the 1984-1985 famine in Ethiopia became a cause célèbre in Britain, which raised 5 million pounds ($8.56 million) in just three days. Today,
Britain gives Ethiopia 374 million pounds ($640 million) a year and has ignored
past calls for aid to be curtailed due to authorities’ numerous human rights
violations.

A case currently
making its way through British courts alleges that aid money has paid for
developments that have resulted in Ethiopians being driven from their lands. The case, on behalf of an anonymous
farmer, “Mr.
O
,” is being brought by Leigh Day, a British legal firm with a long record of winning
compensation for clients abroad. It arises from a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch
that alleged that some 45,000 families have been removed from their
lands in the western Ethiopian region of Gambella.

Lynne
Featherstone, a British aid minister, happened to be in Addis Ababa at the time
of Andargachew’s extradition and raised his case with Prime Minister Hailemariam.
Yet diplomatic engagement seems to be the only means of protest that is of any
interest. There is no suggestion that British aid to Ethiopia will be halted or
curtailed. There have been no statements from the U.S. government.

***

At around 9 p.m.,
Yemi puts her 7-year-old son, Yilak, to bed. He’s happily oblivious of his
father’s situation. “I don’t know how to tell the children,” Yemi says quietly.
“They are used to him being away, but Yilak wants to talk to his father on the
phone. I just change the subject.”

How long does
Yemi think it will be before the family sees their father again? “It depends on
how hard people can push,” Yemi replies. “If we can get Cameron” —
the British prime minister — “then maybe
things will move.” 

She has some
reason to be hopeful: Andargachew’s detention has drawn public protests in
Britain and the United States. His member of Parliament has raised the case
with the British government, as has an influential member
of the European Parliament.

But more pressure
will be required if the Ethiopian authorities are to drop the charges against
Andargachew. Threats to the multimillion-dollar aid budget might just do the
trick. Otherwise, the Ethiopian government might silence one
of its most prominent critics for good — through jail or worse. 

“They told [Featherstone]
they would not carry out the death sentence,” Yemi says quietly. “But I have no confidence in what they say.”

Photo courtesy of Wondimu Mekonnen, member of Ginbot 7

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