Interviews

SMOTHERED: Chronicles of Tigrayan civil society

Written by Zecharias Zelalem

Until the ascension of a reformist leader in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Tigrayans formed the backbone of what was the Ethiopian government’s oppressive establishment. For decades, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government coalition had always been a facade for a powerful clique of Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) officials. Life for the common Tigrayan on the other hand, around 6% of Ethiopia’s population of 100,000,000, has hardly been any different than that of their fellow nationals. Tigray’s infrastructure still remains heavily neglected. Electricity outages and water shortages are all too frequent, even in urban zones like Mekelle. Political dissent, criminalized and often equated to terrorism by the state, has always had equally dire consequences in Tigray like elsewhere in Ethiopia.

And yet Tigrayans (also called Tigreans) have long been accused of turning of a blind eye to years of government abuses. Many Ethiopians openly wonder why outspoken criticism of the regime had always been muted in Tigray. The misconception that this is due to Tigrayan unbridled support of a regime dominated by their kin has unfortunately led to incidents of innocent Tigrayans being targets for extremist violence. In a recent incident, a mob killed three employees of the Tana Beles Sugar factory, for their merely being Tigrigna speakers. Nothing justifies horrific acts of violence.

But should it be puzzling that in the age of the “Qeerroo” becoming a household name, Tigrayans were almost never seen taking to the streets of Tigray to denounce abuses of the TPLF led EPRDF run police state? Not really, says Dr. Aregawi Mebrahtu, a co-founder of a Tigrayan civil society group.

Dr. Aregawi, based in Geneva Switzerland, helped establish the Organization of Tigreans’ Network for Advancing Action (OTNAA). Geneva is also the city where he obtained his Advanced Master’s degree in Public Health and where he currently interns at the Geneva University Hospital. On this day, Dr. Aregawi is organizing a video conference for OTNAA’s dozen or so committee members who reside all around the world. “We have a lot on the agenda,” Dr. Aregawi assures us. “We have our self awareness campaign but we are also looking at commencing sincere dialogue with other organizations that have similar aims.”

Human rights advocate, medical professional and a founding member of the OTNAA Dr. Aregawi Mebrahtu. The refusal to politically align themselves with the government is what he feels, likely has the organization blacklisted and thus unable to operate on the ground where members hail from, Tigray

OTNAA, a Tigrayan civil society organization based in the diaspora, was founded in June 2015 by a group of Tigrayan scholars and professionals. The organization is strict in its remaining unaffiliated with any political entity. “We have made it expressly clear that not only do we not seek an alliance or partnership with the government or the ruling TPLF/EPRDF, we accuse it of muzzling Tigrayans. The TPLF has gone to great lengths to block off and exclude Tigray from the healthy, much needed debates you see elsewhere in the country. They want us to think, talk and breathe a certain way.”

“We now have over 20,000 members in Ethiopia and around the world. We appeal to Tigrayans because we are united with a common interest to create an active and participating Tigrayan civil society,” Dr. Aregawi explains. “That means working to secure basic freedoms, human rights and of course, investment. Our region requires ample investment in the education, technology and health sectors. We were willing to get personally involved in implementing grassroots level projects.”

Seeking to collect funds and harness expertise from the diaspora, the OTNAA intended to set up shop in Tigray. The idea was to get official designation as a local NGO. Members were recruited, meetings were held in Addis Ababa, all seemed on pace and the Tigray regional government appeared to welcome the initiative.

Their official apolitical stance appeared to have hampered their endeavours. The refusal to recruit TPLF party members into the board committee also played a role, Dr. Aregawi believes. “In October 2016, we submitted the forms to the Tigray regional government needed to officially register OTNAA as a local NGO. All criteria was fulfilled.”

OTNAA never got an answer for their application. They’ve sent subsequent applications none of which were accepted. The organization was left hanging and given no explanation. For now, it remains an NGO recognized and registered by the government of Switzerland.

The organization’s logo

“We know why OTNAA was refused a permit,” says another co-founder and global communications director, Fetaw Abadi. “We refused to become one of them. Most of our members have long rejected the TPLF and all that it stands for.”

“There is absolutely no such thing as civil society in Tigray,” Fetaw begins. “Civil society would encourage critical thinking. This could endanger the government’s narrative and turn the people against them. This is why organizations like our’s are never allowed into the region.”

So why aren’t Tigrayans demanding more?

Policed Society

Fetaw explains that the regional government has deployed an extensive network of cadres across Tigray that it uses to promote its narrative and listen in on what people are saying. Dubbed the “1 to 5” network, the state initiative pushes to have one person responsible for either indoctrinating or keeping five others in line. Rogue thinkers are quickly reported, detained or put under additional surveillance.

“It’s similar to the model employed by the Eritrean government. You don’t know who is and who isn’t a cadre, anyone might report you. Even families have been infiltrated by this 1 to 5 network. Once dissenters are identified they are publicly outed by these cadres. If you aren’t arrested, you will be harassed everywhere you go. You won’t be invited to weddings, family and friends will be scared to be seen with you. It’s a miserable existence. We have documented this.”

Tigray regional capital Mekele (Image: Fana Broadcasting Corporate)

Fetaw Abadi knows a thing or two about how the TPLF’s cohorts view dissent. A former member of the TPLF during the liberation struggle, he frequently clashed with superiors over their modus operandi, before leaving the group in 1989. In 1992, his outspoken nature landed him behind bars in Mekelle, where he says he met many former TPLF comrades and even captured EPRP detainees. After languishing for seven years behind bars, he fled to Sudan.“Due to my refusal to remain silent, I became the enemy,” he says. “They feared I would turn others against them.”

Fetaw spent over a decade in Sudanese refugee camps registered under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In 2012, he was granted asylum by the government of Australia. Just before he was to leave for a new life in Europe, Australian officials told him that his UNHCR documents were no longer valid. He would not be able to travel.

“I am told that Sudanese intelligence was behind the cancellation of my UNHCR file. They work side by side with the TPLF. The entire time I was in Sudan, they would harass and threaten me. They nearly ruined me at the end. My Ethiopian travel documents were cancelled years ago by the regime. All I had was my UNHCR registered status, without that I would remain stranded in the refugee camp with nowhere to go.

Fortunately, he says, Switzerland was sympathetic to his plight. “The Swiss government decided to grant me asylum in special conditions. Noone else would have taken in a refugee with no recognized refugee documents. I am eternally grateful to this country.”

On the left, Gebremedhin Sebeho, better known as “Tertaraw.” Legendary TPLF fighter and singer of the renowned single “Aybelnando.” He had a well publicized falling out with the TPLF and slammed the then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi led government for what he called inadequacies in dealing with unemployment and the AIDS crisis. Despite being a public figure, he was detained, beaten and repeatedly threatened by police. He fled into exile in Australia in 2003 where he lived for many years (Image: Tekalgn Kelemu).

Talk of the TPLF ignites Fetaw. “Tigray isn’t like the rest of Ethiopia. Under the TPLF, those who speak out like me are jailed or killed. I know many who have been killed,” he says. “The sort of oppression the rest of the country has experienced for 27 years, the TPLF had experimented and perfected in Tigray over the course of 40 years. Tigrayans have been living for over four decades what the rest of the country has lived since 1991. When I return, I intend on excavating the remains of my fellow fighters who were executed during the struggle for simply speaking out.”

Verifying some of Fetaw’s claims is currently impossible and compounding the task is the fact that there are no independent media outlets in the whole of Tigray. OTNAA’s subscribers take to the organization’s Facebook page to lament the lack of available information portals in the region. To offer alternative views, OTNAA sometimes publishes news communiques via their website as well.

Fetaw, has never felt safe enough to return to Ethiopia and left toddler twins behind with their mother. He hasn’t seen them since, but is in regular contact with them. “They recently graduated from Addis Ababa University,” he says with pride. “I miss them everyday.”

His tone is fiery once more when the subject of dissent in Tigray is brought up. “Let alone protest you can’t even organize a single meeting without permission or involvement of the TPLF. They are everywhere.”

“Our youth are being robbed of their ability to think critically. This is why OTNAA intends to restructure the education system. Currently, the system is designed to produce followers not leaders. Our kids are being pressured to submit to the regime doctrine. The quality of education is poor and youths end up disillusioned when they realize that education itself won’t get them somewhere unless they become party loyalists.”

Photograph taken from a distance at the United Nations’ Headquarters in Geneva as an OTNAA leader gives a presentation on current challenges and opportunities regarding east African regional geopolitics (Image: Dr. Aregawi Mebrahtu)

“We are smothered,” Dr. Aregawi Mebrahtu adds. “Since it has become a crime to discuss the faults of the government, OTNAA members are targeted and harassed.”

“Our organization has five global chapters. But sadly, due to consistent harassment and even death threats, we have lost many valuable members who could have made a difference. We’ve also identified TPLF members in the diaspora who have attempted to infiltrate and dismantle OTNAA. We face a lot of challenges.”

Is the Tigrayan diaspora similarly muzzled?

Ambassador Halefom is a leading member of the OTNAA’s North American chapter. Formerly a member of Addis Ababa’s Yeka district development administration, in 2009 he moved to the United States where he has since acquainted himself with the Ethiopian diaspora.

“The Union of Tigreans in North America (UTNA) organization has a history of rallying members of the Tigrayan diaspora to finance charity projects back home,” Ambassador (that’s his first name, not a title) tells us. In recent years however, it has become nothing for than the TPLF’s diaspora based political lobby group.”

The UTNA is among the most well known diaspora based Tigrayan organizations, with a storied history spanning over four decades. But according to Ambassador, the UTNA’s primary focus shifting from development to political wrangling. It’s leaders aggressively seek to indoctrinate Tigrayans in the diaspora into maintaining a hardline pro TPLF stance.

“I personally sought to get involved in the community,” Ambassador told Opride. “I thought I could contribute to dialogue between Tigrayans and other Ethiopians here in the diaspora. I realized soon that UTNA and its members were solely concerned with engaging in verbal sparring.”

Ambassador, a resident of Seattle, talked to us about a peculiar incident. “In October of 2016, the tragedy that was the Irreecha Massacre took place. I had planned on attending a planned Tigrayan community meeting, but I notified an organizer that I would instead go to an Oromo community organized event mourning the dead in Bishoftu. The pain and emotion were raw and all too fresh. I chose to go and comfort the grieving.”

PhD candidate, former member of the Addis Ababa Yeka district development administration and OTNAA member Ambassador Halefom during an interview with Oromia Media Network (OMN (Image: OMN)

Ambassador says that in response, several UTNA members campaigned against him and spread lies about him. “I was an advocate for dialogue with fellow Ethiopian organizations. I was always met by opposition from UTNA members. But when they heard I attended the memorial for those who died in Bishoftu, I was outed as an enemy.”

“Those who died that day in Bishoftu are our fellow nationals. It’s in our culture as Ethiopians to comfort others in their time of sorrow. And yet I was said to have stepped out of line.”

Ambassador Halefom continued to place himself in the firing line of TPLF apologists. He is now a renowned critic of the organization who has slammed its leaders for a track record in government marred by human rights abuses and corruption. His status as a foe was solidified earlier this year when he agreed to a lengthy televised interview with the staunchly anti-TPLF Oromia Media Network, in which he articulates these viewpoints.

“I still believe in dialogue and interethnic camaraderie. As a country we need it. We’d like to make it clear that Tigrayans are so much more than the autocratic TPLF or the inflammatory UTNA.”

In recent times the UTNA has been known for using national tragedies to issue rather polarizing communiques. In December 2017, in response to communal violence displacing a million Oromos and Somalis from their homes, the UTNA issued a communique condemning acts of violence, “especially heinous killings perpetrated against Somalis.” Snubbing any mention of Oromo victims was widely seen as a thinly veiled slight by the UTNA at the people who led the largest anti government uprising between 2015-16.

The controversial communique released by the government allied UTNA organization in November of 2017

In another incident last January, the President of the UTNA, Alula Solomon posted an update to his Facebook page in which he alluded to members of the Oromo “Qeerroo” movement being terrorists.

“The communique was horrible,” Dr. Aregawi explains. “What harms us is the fact that these remarks are being made by a few insensitive people in the name of all Tigrayans. Both the Oromo and Somali are traditionally marginalized groups. We at OTNAA strongly condemn any message that makes light of the plight of people in this manner.”

In recent months, opposition media outlets have being allowed to operate in Ethiopia, an amnesty bill being footed by parliament seeks to decriminalize a host of organizations once deemed terrorist groups. These measures are encouraging, but the trend hasn’t reached Tigray says Dr. Aregawi.

Mountains of Adwa, Tigray from a distance. The legendary battle of Adwa was fought near these mountains in 1896 (Image: Olivier Vuigner)

“Ethiopia is morphing. We are 100% behind the groundbreaking changes. But at this moment, the TPLF old guard still governs the Tigray region and has chosen to resist much of what is being introduced at the federal level. Which means that organizations like OTNAA would still be unwelcome in Tigray.”

“If anything, we might consider filing for federal recognition and operating out of an office in Addis Ababa until things change,” a contemplative Dr. Aregawi Mebrahtu says. “But we want to contribute to building a society where people think and speak without fearing the omnipotent big brother. We’d have to eventually relocate to Tigray.”

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About the author

Zecharias Zelalem

Zecharias Zelalem is a writer and journalist tackling sports and politics. He's also a contributor for Addis Standard and Ethiosports.

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