By Alemayehu G. Mariam
Groundhog Year in Prison Nation
In December 2008, I wrote a weekly column entitled “Groundhog Year in Prison Nation” summarizing some of my weekly columns for that year. I used the “groundhog year” analogy following the title of the motion picture “Groundhog Day” in which a hapless television weatherman is trapped in a time warp and finds himself repeating the same day over and over. I wrote:
2008 in Ethiopia was Groundhog Year! It was a repetition of 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004… Everyday millions of Ethiopians woke up only to find themselves trapped in a time loop where their lives replayed like a broken record. Each “new” day is the same as the one before it: Repression, intimidation, corruption, incarceration, deception, brutalization and human rights violation. Everything that happened to them the previous day, the previous week, the previous month, the previous 18 years happens to them today. They are resigned to the fact that they are doomed to spend the rest of their lives asphyxiated in a Prison Nation. They have no idea how to get out of this awful cycle of misery, agony, despair and tribulation. So, they pray and pray and pray and pray… for deliverance from Evil!
It is December 2010, the end of the first decade of the 21st Century. Are Ethiopians better off today than they were in 2009, 2005…2000?
Does bread (teff) cost more today than it did a year ago…, five years ago? Cooking oil, household fuel, beef, poultry, gasoline, housing, water, electricity, public transport…?
Are there more poor people today in Ethiopia than there were a year ago… five years ago? More unemployment among youth, less educational opportunities, less health care?
Is there more corruption, more secrecy, less transparency and less accountability in December 2010 than in December 2009…?
Are elections more free and fair in 2010 than they were in 2008, 2005?
Is there more press freedom today than five years ago? More human rights violations?
Is Ethiopia more dependent on international charity for its daily bread today than a year ago…?
Is there more environmental pollution, habitat destruction, forced human displacement and land grabs in Ethiopia today than there was in 2005?
Are businesses paying more taxes and bribes in Ethiopia today than in years past?
Is Ethiopia today at the very bottom of the global Index of Economic Freedom (limited access to financing, inefficient government bureaucracy, inadequate supply of infrastructure)?
Let the reader answer these self-evident questions. Suffice it to say, “It is what it is!”
Montage of Scenes From 2010 Time Loop
So here we are in Ethiopian Groundhog Year 2010. As a year-end overview, I decided to select and highlight a few of my columns from the multiple dozens of weekly and other commentaries I wrote in 2010 and published on the various Ethiopian pro-democracy websites, and the Huffington Post where all of my commentaries for the year are readily available.
January 2010 – Looking Through the Glass, Brightly
“Ethiopia is the country of the future,” Birtukan Midekssa would often say epigrammatically. Ethiopia’s number 1 political prisoner is always preoccupied with her country’s future and destiny. Her deep concern for Ethiopia is exceeded only by her boundless optimism for its future… To be the country of the future necessarily means not being the country of the past. Birtukan’s Ethiopia of the future is necessarily the categorical antitheses of an imperial autocracy, a military bureaucracy and a dictatorship of kleptocracy. Her vision of the future Ethiopia is a unified country built on a steel platform of multiparty democracy. Birtukan would have been pleased to explain her vision and dreams of the future country of Ethiopia; unfortunately, she cannot speak for herself as she has been condemned to “rot” in jail.
February 2010- Putting Lipstick on a Pig
Ethiopia’s dictators think we are all damned fools. They want us to believe that a pig with lipstick is actually a swan floating on a placid lake, or a butterfly fluttering in the rose garden or even a lamb frolicking in the meadows. Put some lipstick on hyperinflation and you have one of the “fastest developing economies in the world”. Put lipstick on power outages, and the grids come alive with megawattage. Slap a little lipstick on famine, and voila! Ethiopians are suffering from a slight case of “severe malnutrition”. Adorn your atrocious human rights record by appointing a “human rights” chief, and lo and behold, grievous government wrongs are transformed magically into robust human rights protections. Slam your opposition in jail, smother the independent press and criminalize civil society while applying dainty lipstick to a mannequin of democracy. The point is, “You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper and call it ‘democracy’ but after 20 years it stinks to high heaven!”
March 2010- Waiting for Godot to Leave
The politics of “succession” to Zenawi’s “throne” has become a veritable theatre of the absurd. The personalities waiting in the wings to take over the “throne” (or to protect and safeguard it) bring to mind the witless characters in Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy play Waiting for Godot, arguably the most important English play of the 20th Century. In that play, two vagabond characters anxiously wait on a country road by a tree for the arrival of a mysterious person named Godot, who can save them and answer all their questions. They wait for days on end but Godot never shows up… and the two characters keep returning to the same place day after day to wait for him; but they cannot remember exactly what happened the day before. Godot never came. Waiting for Zenawi to leave power is like waiting for Godot to arrive. It ain’t happening. He is not only the savior and the man with all the answers, he is also the Great Patron who makes everything work.
April, 2010- C’est la Vie? C’est la Vie en Prison!
When Meles Zenawi, the arch dictator in Ethiopia, was asked about Birtukan’s health in his prison on March 23, 2010, he was comically philosophical about it. He said Birtukan health is in “perfect condition”, except that she may be putting on some weight. “The health situation of Birtukan, the last I heard, is in perfect condition. She may have gained a few kilos, but other than that, and that may be for lack of exercise, I understand she is in perfect health… I am not surprised that they [U.S. State Department] have characterized Birtukan as a political prisoner, because I understand they have also characterized Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Oromia Liberation Front (OLF) terrorists… as political prisoners… But that is life; I think the French say, ‘C’est la Vie.’
May, 2010- Speaking Truth to Power
For the past year, I have been predicting that the 2010 Ethiopian “election” will prove to be a sham, a travesty of democracy and a mockery and caricature of democratic elections. Without my literary and rhetorical flourish, that is now the exact conclusion of the international election observers. The “Preliminary Statement” of the European Union Election Observation Mission- Ethiopia 2010 stated: “The electoral process fell short of certain international commitments, notably regarding the transparency of the process and the lack of a level playing field for all contesting parties.” … Johnnie Carson, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the State Department told the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee that “we note with some degree of remorse that the elections were not up to international standards… The [Ethiopian] government has taken clear and decisive steps that would ensure that it would garner an electoral victory.” Even Herman Cohen, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State who served as “mediator” in the so-called May 1991 London Peace Talks which resulted in the establishment of the Zenawi regime decried the outcome: “… I don’t think it was a fair election.”
June, 2010- Speaking Truth to the Powerless
Now that the hoopla around Meles Zenawi’s “election” is over, it is time for the Ethiopian opposition to take stock and re-think the way it has been doing business. We begin with the obvious question: “What happened to the Ethiopian opposition in the make-believe election of 2010?” Zenawi will argue vigorously that he defeated them by a margin of 99.6 percent (545 of 547 parliamentary seats). If that were the real “defeat” for the opposition, I would not worry much. Losing a sham election is like losing one’s appendix. But there is a different kind of defeat that I find more worrisome. It is a defeat in the eyes and hearts of the people. I am afraid the opposition collectively has suffered considerable loss of credibility in the eyes of the people by making a public spectacle of its endless bickering, carping, dithering, internal squabbles, disorganization, inability to unite, pettiness, jockeying for power, and by failing to articulate a coherent set of guiding principles or ideas for the country’s future.
July, 2010- Hummingbirds and Forest Fires
World history shows that individuals and small groups — the hummingbirds — do make a difference in bringing about change in their societies. The few dozen leaders of the American Revolution and the founders of the government of the United States were driven to independence by a “long train of abuses and usurpations” leading to “absolute despotism” as so eloquently and timelessly expressed in the Declaration of Independence… The Bolsheviks (vultures in hummingbird feathers) won the Russian Revolution arguably defending the rights of the working class and peasants against the harsh oppression of Czarist dictatorship. They managed to establish a totalitarian system which thankfully swept itself into the dustbin of history two decades ago… Gandhi and a small group of followers in India led nationwide campaigns to alleviate poverty, make India economically self-reliant, broaden the rights of urban laborers, peasants and women, end the odious custom of untouchability and bring about tolerance and understanding among religious and ethnic groups. Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo led ANC’s Defiance Campaign and crafted the Freedom Charter which provided the ideological basis for the long struggle against apartheid and served as the foundation for the current South African Constitution. In the United States, Martin Luther King and some 60 church leaders formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, becoming the driving force of the American civil rights movement.
August, 2010 – Steel Vises, Clenched Fists and Closing Walls
U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton gave a speech in Poland… and singled out Ethiopia along with Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo and others to warn the world that “we must be wary of the steel vise in which governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit.”… She pointed out: “Last year, Ethiopia imposed a series of strict new rules on NGOs. Very few groups have been able to re-register under this new framework, particularly organizations working on sensitive issues like human rights.”… Secretary Clinton said the acid test for the success or failure of U.S. foreign policy is whether “more people in more places are better able to exercise their universal rights and live up to their potential because of our actions?” By this measure, U.S. policy in Ethiopia has been a total, unmitigated and dismal failure. The evidence is overwhelming and irrefutable…
September, 2010- Indoctri-Nation
Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education issued a “directive” effectively outlawing distance learning (or education programs that are not delivered in the traditional university classroom or campus) throughout the country… Wholesale elimination of private distance learning programs by “directive”, or more accurately bureaucratic fiat, is a flagrant violation of Higher Education Proclamation No. 650/2009. Under this Proclamation, the Ministry of Education and its sub-agencies have the authority to regulate and “revoke accreditation” of a private institution which fails to meet statutory criteria on a case-by-case basis following a fact-finding and appeals process…. I believe the regime has a long term strategy to use the universities as breeding grounds for its ideologues and hatcheries for the thousands of loyal and dependent bureaucrats they need to sustain their domination and rule. The monopoly created for the state in the disciplines of law and teaching (which I will predict will gradually include other disciplines in the future) is a clear indication of the trend to gradually create a cadre of “educated” elites to serve the next generation of dictators to come.
October, 2010- Birtukan Unbound!
Birtukan was held for months in a dark room with no human contact except a few minutes a week with her mother and daughter. Fear, anxiety and despair were her only companions. Heartache knocked constantly on the door to her dark room needling her: “Did you do the right thing leaving three year-old Hal’le to the care of your aging mother?” Self-doubt kept her awake in that dark room where time stood still asking her the same question over and over: “Is it worth all this suffering? Give up!” But a voice in her conscience would echo thunderously, “Like hell you’re going to give up, Birtukan. Fight on. Keep on fighting. ‘Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.'” In the end Birtukan signed Zenawi’s scrap of paper making exception to convictions of honor and good sense. We expected nothing less from such a great young woman…. Prisoners can be brainwashed to say anything by those who control them. Prisoners who have endured torture, extreme degradation and abuse have been known to do shocking things to please their captors and ease their own pain and suffering. Abused prisoners have been known to deceive themselves into believing the cruelty of their captors as acts of kindness. It is called the “Stockholm Syndrome.” When the victim is under the total and complete control of her captor for her basic needs of survival and her very existence, she will say and do anything to please her captor.
November, 2010- Remember the Slaughter of 2005
November is a cruel month. Bleak, woeful, and grim is the month of November in the melancholy verse of Thomas Hood:
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member–
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,
And no justice for the hundreds massacred in Ethiopia in November (2005).
No redress for the countless men, women and children shot and wounded and left for dead.
No apologies for the tens of thousands illegally imprisoned.
No restitution for survivors or the families of the dead.
No trace of those who disappeared.
No atonement for the crimes of November.
No absolution for the slaughter of November.
November is to remember.
December, 2010- “So What!”
So what are the lessons of Groundhog Year 2010? The first decade of the 21st Century?
Lesson I. Crush your opponents with full force. Alternatively, vegetate them forever.
Lesson II. If you get into America’s face and stick it to her, she will always back down. Always!
Lesson III. “Democratization is a matter of survival.” If democracy stays alive in Ethiopia, Zenawi cannot survive. If Zenawi survives, democracy cannot stay alive.
Lesson IV: If you want democracy, you must struggle and sacrifice for it.
Lesson V. If your rights are being violated, defend them!
Lesson VI. Elections are like children’s marble game where everybody can play as long as the guy who owns the marbles wins all the time.
Lesson VII. If you want to win, you need to organize, mobilize and energize your base. You need to teach, preach and reach the people.
Lesson VIII. You want funding, don’t beg for it; dig deeper into your own wallets.
Lesson: IX. There is one law, one regime, one ruler, one circus master and only one man who runs the show in Ethiopia.
Lesson X: The greatest lesson of 2010 and the first decade of the 21st Century:
DESPAIR NOT! “THERE HAVE BEEN TYRANTS AND MURDERERS AND FOR A TIME THEY SEEM INVINCIBLE BUT IN THE END, THEY ALWAYS FAIL — THINK OF IT ALWAYS.” Mahatma Gandhi.
RELEASE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA
Alemayehu G. Mariam
A Conversation With Obang Metho
Note: A report by the Harvard Law School Human Rights Program on the Anuak concluded:”From December 2004 to at least January 2006, the ENDF (Ethiopian National Defense Forces) attacked and abused Anuak civilians in Gambella region – wantonly killing, raping, beating, torturing, and harassing civilians in response to ongoing Anuak rebel attacks. These abuses left Anuak villagers fearful of leaving their homes at night, going to the fields and farms outside of town, or fetching water from the water pumps or streams.”
These are excerpts from an extended conversation I had with Obang Metho, the well-known Ethiopian human rights advocate, in solemn anticipation of the seventh anniversary of the December 13-16, 2003 Anuak massacres this coming Monday. The interview is captioned “forgotten genocide” because very few people know what happened to the Anuak seven years ago was genocide as defined under Art. 2 of the 1948 Genocide Convention. In the interest of full disclosure, in September 2006, I was honored to be the keynote speaker at the University of California, Los Angeles premier of “Betrayal of Democracy”, a heartbreaking and gut-wrenching documentary on the Anuak massacre produced by the Anuak Justice Council, Obang Metho, Executive Director, in collaboration with the University of Saskatchewan, Canada.
Alemayehu: As you know November and December are very sad months for Ethiopians. In November 2005, following the election that year, hundreds of unarmed demonstrators were massacred in the streets. The world knows a lot about those crimes. But I am not sure if too many people other than the Anuak remember what happened in December in 2003. To be frank, with the exception of some Anuak I have met, I don’t recall having any serious conversations with other Ethiopians about what happened to the Anuak people in Gambella seven years ago. Do you think your other countrymen and women really care about what happened at that time?
Obang: First of all, I want to thank you on behalf of the Anuak for joining with them in remembering some of the darkest days of Anuak history and for bringing this tragedy to the attention of Ethiopians now in 2010. I am sure that Meles never expected that seven years after the genocide of the Anuak that others, like yourself, would have joined together to commemorate this day.
You ask whether other Ethiopians really care about what happened to the Anuak. At the time of the massacre, the only Ethiopian organization that came to the defense of the Anuak was EHRCO [Ethiopian Human Rights Council]; otherwise, it was either overlooked or was not known among most Ethiopians. This was not surprising for several reasons. First, the Anuak were a remote, tiny and marginalized ethnic group who were not part of the mainstream of events in the country. Secondly, Ethiopians were very divided by ethnicity, region, skin color, political view, language, culture and to a lesser extent, by religion; so what was important was what happened to one’s own group and the rest tended to be ignored. Thirdly, even today, what happens in Addis Ababa has always received far more attention than what occurs in the rural parts of Ethiopia where most Ethiopians live. Fourthly, the Ethiopian government does its best to cover up their crimes so it does not get out to the mainstream media. If the news does get out, they simply deny their own responsibility, twist the truth and blame others or try to excuse what happened as one of the regrettable consequences of “ethnic conflict” or use other justifications to avoid responsibility. The government even issues a whitewashed report absolving itself of any responsibility in the massacres.
It is true that the November 2005 killing of 194 unarmed protesters in Addis Ababa and elsewhere in the country created a groundswell of outraged response from many sectors of the Ethiopian community because they could identify with the victims, and the killings were carried out in plain view. It became impossible to hide, even to the international community.
However, this was not the case in the majority of violent incidents that have taken place over the past two decades all over the country. We have over 86 different ethnicities; many of them live in remote, rural and marginalized communities and are silenced violently like the Anuak were in 2003 without too much publicity. In fact, the Anuak genocide is now much better known and more remembered than most of the other incidents that have been perpetrated by the TPLF [Meles Zenawi’s party] against Ethiopians.
For example, in July of 2002, 200 Mazengers — neighbours to the Anuak in Gambella — were brutally killed, but who knows about this? In 2001, 100 Sidamo were massacred. Who remembers these victims today? Ethiopians were killed in 1992 in Badenyo and in Arba Gogu. In all few remember these anniversaries. I say ask the Oromo about the tens of thousands of their people who have been beaten, tortured, imprisoned and murdered in the last twenty years by the Meles regime. How can we remember an anniversary when there are so many incidents and they are still ongoing? Ask the Afar about the displacements and human rights abuses they are facing right now. Ask the Benishangul about the same displacements and human rights abuses in their area. Ask the Ogadeni about the genocide being committed against them as we speak. It is not all about “remembering,” but about standing with the victims against such barbaric aggression. We can keep going on for the list is endless and many cases are still unknown.
This is why the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE) was formed. We must no longer mourn alone; it is time to take action. Meles’ government cannot stop on 80 million people if we all stood up for each other and together. I believe we Ethiopians will finally come together in this way to stop this oppression. Only then will we hear the countless stories that have never been told of the immeasurable suffering of our people, and not just the Anuak.
Alemayehu: Let’s nail down the facts about what happened in Gambella during the infamous three days in December in 2003, and in the days preceding and following. What are the established facts?
Obang: Meles and those carrying out the atrocities against the Anuak believed them to be expendable people; they thought of them as road blocks on the way to the oil fields, the fertile lands and abundant water and rich natural resources on indigenous Anuak land. They targeted those individuals who were the voices of the community and have a say in the exploration and development of oil on their land. As you might remember, when the killing squads went through Gambella town looking for the next Anuak to brutally kill, they chanted, “Today there will be no more Anuak,” “Today there will be no more Anuak land”. As they raped the women they said, “Today there will be no more Anuak babies.” Within three days, 424 Anuak were dead.
When I received news, it was the darkest day of my life. My world was turned upside down. Among the 424 Anuak killed, I personally knew 317 of them. They were my family, my classmates and many others with whom I had been working to bring development not just to the Anuak, but to the region. Most were educated and outspoken. I have no doubts that I would have been one of the victims had I been living there at the time.
The Anuak genocide occurred as a surreal event as no one discussed it. When international news covered the massacre, they picked up the Ethiopian government’s spin, which described it as an ethnic conflict between the Anuak and the Nuer. That is not true. Later on, Oromo soldiers, who had not even been in the area, were scapegoated for the killings. When I testified before the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in March and April of 2004, I did not speak only about the Anuak, but spoke of the Oromo and others facing persecution.
However, it was only after I testified before the US Congress in March of 2006 that I became more involved in the mainstream Ethiopian community. By that time, I had been to the capital cities of most of the donor countries in Europe and in North America exposing the Anuak massacre and ongoing human rights violations against the Anuak. After the November 2005 killing of unarmed election demonstrators in Addis Ababa and other parts of the country, other Ethiopians joined in this effort. Unfortunately, most tended to cluster around their own individual ethnic or political party interests rather than joining together as a whole. Sometimes we were working at cross purposes. I often wonder where we would be today had we been willing to collaborate then. I hope we don’t have to ask ourselves that question five years from now.
Alemayehu: I don’t believe many of us in the larger Ethiopian community adequately expressed our outrage against the crimes perpetrated against the Anuak. Perhaps many of us did not particularly care, didn’t know or were just indifferent. After all, the Anuak are a tiny minority. Do you sense indifference among other Ethiopians to the plight of the Anuak?
Permit me to answer this question by asking another question. How many mainstream Ethiopian people you see writing about the ongoing genocide in the Ogaden or about the displacements of people as foreign investors align with this one-party government in grabbing the Ethiopian peoples’ land and resources in places like Benishangul-Gumuz, on the borders of the Amhara region or even in Addis Ababa where graves are to be bull-dozed to make room for someone who seeks “ownership” of the land? This is not just indifference to the Anuak, but it is indifference to the problems our people are experiencing all over the country. The Anuak are only one example. This is why we need a “NEW ETHIOPIA!”
Not seeing the full humanity of each of us is the reason we have so many liberation fronts created not simply to break away from the country, but instead, created predominately to protect the interests and lives of the people that are not valued by others. As long as some feel they are more Ethiopian and see others as being of less worth, we will have indifference to the plight of others. This is why we have formed the SMNE, to fight for a new Ethiopia that values all her children the same way regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion, political view or any other distinctions. The reason why many of these separatist groups do not want to associate with “Ethiopia” as they see it because they don’t see much inclusiveness in the larger Ethiopian community. Meles has had an easy time of dividing and ruling; and until we all change from the heart, we will not emerge from our collective suffering.
Alemayehu: When you came out in public in 2006 and sought help to put a light on the Anuak massacres, did you get your much support from other Ethiopians? Did you make an effort to mobilize Ethiopians in the Diaspora, and if not why not?
Obang: In the midst of the genocide and ongoing human rights crimes, I sought organizations and government officials who were in the best position to intervene. Genocide Watch president, Dr. Greg Stanton, was one of the first to respond to my call for assistance. At the same time, some Anuak and their friends in Minnesota had already decided to send a team, which soon included me, to interview Anuak survivors and witnesses to the genocide who had fled to a refugee camp in Sudan. We hoped to gather information and evidence while the memories were still fresh. At Dr. Stanton’s suggestion, we added a seasoned human rights investigator in our group. Following the investigation, we issued a report, “Today is the Day for Killing Anuak.” A subsequent investigation was also completed resulting in the report, “Operation Sunny Mountain,” which linked the massacre to the top officials of Meles in Addis Ababa.
Human Rights Watch did an investigation and issued two separate reports, “Targeting the Anuak: Human Rights Violations and Crimes against Humanity in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region“( 3/24/05) and “Ethiopia and Eritrea: Promoting Stability, Democracy and Human Rights“(5/5/05). The International Human Rights Clinic at the Harvard Law School issued another report, “We Are Now Hoping for Death“, (12/14/06). In all, the Anuak Justice Council was involved in coordinating the completion of five separate human rights investigations on the massacres.
We did not attempt to mobilize Ethiopians until 2006, following my testimony before the U.S. Congress when I made strong connections with other Ethiopians. At the time, ethnic and political divisions created competition between Ethiopians. Rather than working to advance similar goals, some tried to hijack the work of others or refused to collaborate. Even though this continues to be a characteristic shortcoming of many in the struggle for Ethiopian freedom and justice, I believe today Ethiopians are discarding peripheral differences to work together in common cause. I think Ethiopians suffering in the country would be highly encouraged if they saw real progress towards this goal among us in the Diaspora. It is only then that we can work together to mobilize the people within Ethiopia towards a national rather than an ethnic solution!
Alemayehu: How do we keep the memories of the Anuak massacre victims alive? What can we do as individuals and as a community, that is Anuaks and other Ethiopians together?
No one except the Anuak may have cried for them in 2003, but today, millions of Ethiopians know about the Anuak genocide. On December 13th, Ethiopians may remember the pain and suffering of the Anuak; speaking to others about it, praying for the survivors, joining with Anuak they know in a service of remembrance or calling them to personally talk. Many Anuak will shed tears as they remember those dark days and the subsequent grief and hardship resulting from their losses. May this remembrance be a call to all Ethiopians to reflect on the losses of their own loved ones or those of others in the country. We have suffered much as a country. We should try to lift up others with similar losses and wounds.
For me, I will join with other Anuak in Minnesota in a service to remember December 13th; honoring the memory of those who lost their lives and praying for the future of the people and Ethiopia. For me, the pain has somewhat subsided, but my memory of this horrific loss motivates me to work to prevent it from happening again to the Anuak or anyone else. If Ethiopians have forgotten the memory of the Anuak genocide in 2010, the reasons may be somewhat different than 2003.
First of all, we Ethiopians are in great distress right now. It is natural for memories to fade, but when we are still struggling for survival, it is easy to become diverted with one new crisis after another. It is important not to forget so that we can take hold of a better future, but part of remembering “rightly” will take place when peace comes to Ethiopia, when justice is finally served and when the perpetrators and their bosses are held accountable.
Another reason for the memory subsiding is that the Anuak are not alone. Many others have also suffered at the hands of this regime both before and after the Anuak genocide. Look at the genocide going on right now in the Ogaden. Look at the daily beatings, killings and imprisonment of innocent Ethiopians now carried out by this repressive regime all over our country.
Due to the current dictatorial regime, Ethiopians must first become free before official memorials will be constructed, but that time will come. Several years ago I talked about how the death of the Anuak will never be forgotten as long as there are those who care about justice. Even though the current regime would like to obliterate or “whitewash” the memory of these shameful acts, we Ethiopians must be sure they are not forgotten.
When this TPLF government finally collapses, not only do I envision a memorial for the Anuak in Gambella, but also in Addis Ababa where not only will the Anuak be represented, but many others known and unknown who have tragically died at the hands of the Meles regime. At that time, Ethiopians will build a wall of shame where we can go to remember how the government that was supposed to protect the people turned out to be their mortal enemy. It will serve as a sobering reminder of how we must work to preserve a respect for the humanity in each of us.
Alemayehu: Is there anything being done to bring to justice those who committed the crimes against the Anuak in 2003? Are there any efforts underway?
Obang: Yes! We have a very strong legal foundation in place for that day in court where Meles and others will finally be held accountable. This is due to all the human rights investigations and documentation completed by groups like Genocide Watch, Human Rights Watch and others. The case of the Anuak alone is very strong; but when combined with others, all of this abundant evidence may easily form the foundational basis for future prosecutions. The case of the Anuak is before the International Criminal Court (ICC) right now and the UN High Commissioner is looking at the case referred by Dr. Greg Stanton regarding the pattern of human rights abuses in Ethiopia at the hands of this government. I am confident that the time will come for Ethiopians to finally obtain justice. Look at the case of Cambodia where evidence collected and secured over twenty years ago produced convictions just this year. Meles is no different than Omar al Bashir. The tide is certain to change and we will be ready!
Alemayehu: From what you have been able to gather, is there systematic persecution still going on against the Anuak?
Obang: The new systematic persecution has everything to do with the “new fever” for Anuak land and resources. It is being advanced with speed and intensity in the case of the Anuak and other indigenous peoples of Gambella, but is also going on throughout the country; wherever there is resistance to this plan to dispossess the people of their land and assets. People from Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz, Oromiya, Afar and Ogaden have officially been put on notice to move from their homes to be resettled in camps. Those who speak out have been harassed, threatened or beaten. In the case of the Anuak, some have turned up dead, floating in the river or have been beaten to death. We do not know what will happen to the people if they refuse to leave their homes; something that is a definite possibility. It certainly could trigger fresh violence by government security forces.
How should we, as Ethiopians, work together to prevent the type of genocide that happened to the Anuak does not happen to any other groups in Ethiopia?
December 13th should act as a reminder of the shared pain of our people and act to bring us Ethiopians together to “mourn under one tent” as has been done in our traditional culture for many years. Inside the tent is the land of Ethiopia and our beautiful and precious people. The roof of that tent is the sky over our beloved country. Because of the pain, misery and ongoing threats to our survival as a nation, we must come together to find a common vision and lasting solution. This is at the heart of everything the SMNE and others have been trying to do.
Now is the time to change our thinking about each other and BEGIN to build a healthier, more inclusive society. No one but the Anuak and their friends cared about them in 2003, but we have a chance to do it over. The land grabs and human rights abuses going on right now; not only to the Anuak but to all the people of Ethiopia should sound the trumpet to gather together. Some only want to gather if they are in charge. This attitude will surely defeat us. We must ask ourselves how much we really care about potential tragedy if egos or hunger for power stand in the way. I do think we are better in 2010 than we were in 2003, but we are still not where we need to be.
The many loved ones I lost can never be replaced, but I trust God that their lives were not lost in vain. Ethnic domination and marginalization of others due to ethnicity, skin color, culture, education, gender or religion is unjustifiable. It was the reason the Anuak were singled out to be slaughtered among the 50,000 people who also lived in the city of Gambella. It was the reason why the government viewed them as a threat rather than as valuable human beings. As most survivors among the Anuak say, the Ethiopian government does not want the Anuak people, but only the resources. These resources on their indigenous land remain today as the chief threat to their survival as they stand in the way of the regime’s ambitions in the area; yet the Anuak are not alone as Ethiopians are becoming more accepting of each other.
Over the last seven years, I have met many wonderful Ethiopians like yourself, who have come into my life, contributing in some unique and special ways. You asked me about a story I have told many times about my experience in Washington DC some years ago with an Ethiopian cab driver who could not believe I was Ethiopian. I must say, Ethiopian cab drivers today are among the most educated and politically astute Ethiopians around. They know about the Anuak and the other diverse people of Ethiopia. Now, when I get in a cab in Washington DC, a more common experience I have is the driver who refuses to accept any fare for the ride saying, “I want to contribute to the struggle.” This is not about me or the Anuak, but about caring about the suffering people of our beautiful country. Yes, we should remember our painful history as a lesson for the future, but we must also embrace each other as we collaborate to create a New Ethiopia where there is room for all of us!
Alemayehu: With all the land-grabbing and population displacement, some 45,000 plus people from Gambella being moved to make way for international land-grabbers, do you have fears that what happened in December 2003 could happen again?
Obang: Yes, because once again, this regime’s greed for “more” is leading to robbing the most vulnerable people of Ethiopia of their land and resources. Because these people “do not count,” they are simply in the way of what this regime wants. If the people resist, the Meles government has been known to use any justification to use military force to subdue them; which could easily lead to ethnic-based killing. I do not think the people will all peacefully cooperate in this plan to displace themselves they have lived on for millennia. In 2003, the genocide was about oil. In 2010, it is about land, gold, potash, natural gas and even sand for concrete.
These are the new precipitating factors that could lead to genocide, crimes against humanity and other human rights violations. However, there is also the passive side of a new form of “genocide” that could lead to putting at imminent risk, large populations of some of the most vulnerable people of our country; not necessarily in terms of direct killings, but in terms of jeopardizing the long-term survival and well being of huge groups of people who are being forced from their homes and land all over the country. How will these people support themselves?
We need to care about the pain of each other more than we care about the power and advancement of one particular group of Ethiopians for “none of us will be free until all are free.” By the time I spoke before Congress in 2006, when our paths first crossed, I had already come to the conclusion that justice would never come to the Anuak until justice came to all Ethiopians; that until we cared about the wellbeing of others based on the God-given worth of every person–putting humanity before ethnicity–that Ethiopia would only produce serial dictators who would take turns preying on the vulnerable.
This is why when I testified I said I was not there not only for the Anuak, but also for the Tigrayans who disagreed with the cruelties of the Meles regime, the oppressed Oromos, the Somalis, the Afar and the other ethnic groups throughout Ethiopia who have been targeted by this regime. I said I was there for the Ethiopian woman whose son or daughter had been shot dead on the streets of Addis Ababa after the national elections and for the CUD leaders and young student protesters who had been taken away from their families and put in prisons and detention centers. I was there for those courageous prisoners of conscience, languishing in prisons throughout Ethiopia. I wanted my voice to not be my own but theirs; warning others that our country was in grave danger; that our nation was dying.
This was an effort to break out of our isolated boxes of caring only for our own tribe or ethnicity. It was the beginning of the SMNE. Today, the danger is greater than on that day and unless we put aside our differences and find common ground to unite, we have no hope. This regime will kill again and are doing so as we speak. Yet, God can help us change and I see a rising momentum for such change coming from many different groups of Ethiopians.
In 2003, we would never be having this discussion; yet, today, you are bringing these issues to the forefront. Both you and I have worked closely over the past four years on many issues. Through your many informed and insightful commentaries and analyses, you have contributed much to the discussion of the current situation by exposing the true nature of the regime and by creating greater international awareness and factual understanding of the dictatorship and repression in Ethiopia. This interview is just another example of your willingness to think beyond the ethnic-based paradigm that has defeated us for so many years. Because of people like you, who are willing to become the voices for a different kind of Ethiopia, a “new Ethiopia” of the future. May it inspire others to join with us! Thank you so much my friend!
Alemayehu: Thank you Obang for sharing your thoughts. It has been an honor working with you all these years. They say, “If you want peace, work for justice.” We all want peace in Ethiopia and for the Ethiopian people. So, we’ll be right there with you working for justice; we are with you in trying to bring to justice those perpetrators of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. It’s only because of scheduling conflict that I am unable to join you and the Anuak community in Minneapolis for the memorial on December 13. But be assured that all Ethiopians join you in observing this tragic date in spirit. I hope the Ethiopians in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, my old “stomping grounds”, will come out in full force and attend the memorial and show their solidarity with our Anuak brothers and sisters.
Obang: Thank you.
REMEMBER THE FORGOTTEN ANUAK GENOCIDE OF DECEMBER, 2003.
 Obang Metho is the Executive Director of the Anuak Justice Council and the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia.
Resource links on the Anuak massacres: http://www.mcgillreport.org/anuak_genocide_links.htm