How Do You Solve a Problem Like Ethiopia?
Why the arrest of one of Addis Ababa's most vocal critics is a huge embarrassment for the West.
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.”