(Advocacy4Oromia) Just a few months ago, Bekele Gerba was languishing in a high security Ethiopian jail, hearing the cries of fellow prisoners being beaten and tortured. Now, the 54-year-old foreign language professor is in Washington, D.C., for meetings at the State Department. His message: The Obama administration should pay more attention to the heavy-handed way its ally, Ethiopia, treats political opponents — and should help Ethiopians who are losing their ability to earn a living.
Gerba is a leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress, a political party that represents one of the country’s largest ethnic groups. With estimated numbers of about 30 million, the Oromo make up about a third of Ethiopia’s population.
In 2011, Gerba was arrested after meeting with Amnesty International researchers and sent to prison on what he calls trumped up terrorism charges, often used in Ethiopia against political dissidents. In court he made remarks that have been widely circulated in Ethiopia and beyond: “I am honored to learn that my non-violent struggles and humble sacrifices for the democratic and human rights of the Oromo people, to whom I was born without a wish on my part but due to the will of the Almighty, have been considered a crime and to be unjustly convicted.”
Gerba was released from jail this spring in advance of President Obama’s July visit to Ethiopia. A soft spoken man, who seemed exhausted by his prison ordeal and his numerous appearances at U.S. universities and think tanks, Gerba tells NPR that Obama’s trip sent all the wrong messages.
“He [Obama] shouldn’t have shown any solidarity with that kind of government, which is repressive, very much authoritarian and very much disliked by its own people,” Gerba says.
Since Ethiopia’s ruling party and its allies control all of parliament, his party doesn’t have a voice, he says. What’s more, he says, his people are being pushed off their land by international investors.
“The greatest land grabbers are now the Indians and Chinese …. there are Saudi Arabians as well,” he says, adding that many families are being evicted and losing their livelihoods.
Gerba says those who do get jobs are paid a dollar a day, which he describes as a form of slavery. He is urging the U.S. to use its aid to Ethiopia as leverage to push the government to give workers more rights and allow people to form labor unions.
Gerba’s case has been featured in the State Department’s annual human rights reports. He describes himself as a Christian who believes in non-violence and says he spent his four years in prison pouring over the sermons and speeches of Martin Luther King and translating them into the Oromo language for a book that he hopes to see published. The title: “I Had A Dream.”
Bekele Gerba is not sure what he will face when he returns home from the U.S. When he was jailed, his wife, a high school teacher, lost her job. His family has struggled financially and psychologically.
“Nobody is actually sure in Ethiopia what will happen to him anytime,” he says. “Anytime, people can be arrested, harassed or killed or disappeared.”
Still, he plans to return home next week. He’s expected to return to his job at the Foreign Languages Department at Addis Ababa University.
90 graduations later…. Minnesotans are changing the world one girl at a time!
WHEN: Saturday, May 2, from 5-7:30pm
WHERE: Plymouth Congregational Church
1900 Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis
Over the last 10 years, more than 90 girls completed their education in Ethiopia thanks to the support and contribution of Minnesotans and the work done by the Minnesota based organization, Resources for the Enrichment of African Lives (REAL). In a country where less than one in five girls makes it to secondary school, this is quite an achievement and a testimony to the unique education model created by the organization. REAL is celebrating its ten year anniversary and getting ready for 120 more graduations!
You can join REAL’s ten year celebration of educating disadvantaged girls in Ethiopia on May 2nd. The evening will include the Keynote Speaker, Michele Garnett McKenzie, Director of Advocacy at The Advocates for Human Rights as well as a Traditional Ethiopian dinner, music and inspiring stories of girls who changed their lives through the support from REAL.
Why Girls Education & Why Ethiopia?
The need to empower girls and women in Ethiopia is critical. According to World Health Organization study, 81% women said that battering a women/wife is justified. And there are a lot of studies on girls school dropout rates, domestic violence, circumcision and harmful practices that impact the wellbeing of girls and women in Ethiopia. Though education can make a woman to be financially self-sufficient and independent, it takes a great deal of strategizing and investment to change the attitude of the society in general. Our organization is dedicated to have lasting transformation to change the condition of girls and women in Ethiopia.
REAL helps brilliant yet disadvantaged girls and young women stay in school by providing them with school fees and mentorships to help them break the cycle of poverty for themselves and their families and, possibly their country. In sub-Saharan Africa, less than one in five girls makes it to secondary school, a fact that has a multitude of causes, one of these being poverty. Through its holistic structure, REAL aims to not only make it possible for disadvantaged girls to attend school, but to also financially empower them and their families.
Currently, over a hundred girls are supported by REAL. There are fifty three REAL girls attending universities, pursuing degrees in medicine, engineering, teaching, and law. Nine have already graduated and are currently employed. Additionally, thirty nine graduated from vocational colleges and are employed in different fields and are giving back to their communities. Over 10 years, 0ver 300 girls have been the program and impacted over 2,000 family members.
REAL focuses on educating and empowerment of girls, but the name points to the true effect of educating women—the enrichment of African lives. REAL founder Tsehai Wodajo says, “Girls, families, villages, countries are changed when girls are educated.” Ten years of this carefully structured program has proven this to be true.
REAL’s work is supported by volunteers from the US and Ethiopia, and nine fulltime employees at the eight sites. REAL proves again the truth of Margaret Mead’s famous statement: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” This is what REAL has been doing.
Please visit our website at www.real-africa.org.to learn more and to RSVP for the May 2nd celebration, or contribute online. We also appreciate if you can cover our story.
Media Release in PDF Press_Release_REAL_2015-version4
Tsehai Wodajo, REAL Executive Director
Amnesty International’s report on the state of existence of the Oromos, published last year, has been damning. It painted a chilling picture of the brutality unleashed by Ethiopian government on the hapless community to which the country’s President, Mulatu Teshome, belongs. The rights group, based in London, said: “At least 5,000 Oromos have been arrested based on their actual or suspected peaceful opposition to the government”. And most of them have been “subjected to treatment amounting to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.
Amnesty researcher Claire Beston has been scathing. She said, “The Ethiopian government’s relentless crackdown on real or imagined dissent among the Oromo is sweeping in its scale and often shocking in its brutality. This is apparently intended to warn, control or silence all signs of ‘political disobedience’ in the region”. Beston, in her report, said in no uncertain terms that she saw “signs of torture, including scars and burns, as well as missing fingers, ears and teeth” on those Oromos she interviewed.
The scenario in the country is perhaps far more terrifying. The United States, in its 2013 Human Rights Report, has pointed out that at least 70,000 persons, including some 2,500 women and nearly 600 children are incarcerated with their mothers, in severely overcrowded six federal and 120 regional prisons. “There also were many unofficial detention centres throughout the country, including in Dedessa, Bir Sheleko, Tolay, Hormat, Blate, Tatek, Jijiga, Holeta, and Senkele,” the report added further.
Plurality, respect for basic democratic values and tolerance for dissent have never been the fortes for which Ethiopia is known in the world. It is for reasons on the contrary the country has already earned a massive notoriety internationally. Corruptions are rampant and behind the façade of development the government in Ethiopia is infamous for selling out the country to the western world and foreign corporations and, of course, for its blatant violation of basic human rights.
What defines Ethiopia today is the greed and corruption of its politicians, especially those in power. The brazenness with which the government is trying to sell out Omo Valley to foreign corporation is a shame and a heinous crime. Twice the size of France and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Omo Valley is known as the ‘cradle of mankind’ which, according to ancient-origins.net, has the world’s largest alkaline lake as well as the world’s largest permanent desert lake.
The Ecologist says, Lake Turkana in Omo Valley was a prehistoric centre for early hominids. Some 20,000 fossil specimens have been collected from the Turkana Basin. Anthropological digs have led to the discovery of important fossilised remains, most notably, the skeleton of the Turkana Boy, (or Nariokotome Boy). Finding Turkana Boy was one of the most spectacular discoveries in palaeoanthropology. His reconstruction comes from the almost perfectly preserved skeleton found in 1984 at Nariokotome near Lake Turkana.
Discovery of the fossilised Turkana Boy, aged between seven and fifteen who lived approximately 1.6 million years ago was a milestone in the study of our origin and ancestry. Yet, to the corrupt, shameless and avaricious Ethiopian government it is of no significance. And neither is the welfare of the indigenous people of the valley who are believed to be the living descendants of the early hominids.
Alas! Ethiopian government wants to sell out this important archaeological treasure trove to foreign corporations where they want to develop sugar, cotton and biofuel plantations. A shameless land grab is underway in Omo Valley where hundreds of more fossilised skeletons of our forefathers are expected to be found and retrieved.
Misrule, human rights violations, hubris, arrogance and corruption plagues Ethiopia. Continuous demagoguery against the Oromos has made Ethiopia sit atop a huge mound of gun powder waiting for a spark to explode. The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), the armed wing of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) is getting ready for yet another armed struggle to overthrow the present political dispensation in power.
And given the history of insurgency in Ethiopia the country today seems to be heading fast towards a fresh bout of armed insurrection.
A low intensity struggle has already started as the Oromos are no more in mood to take the oppression, they are in no mood to suffer in silence their marginalisation. The ethnic fire the Ethiopian government has been stoking is gradually turning into an inferno.
We know human stupidity is endless and that of Ethiopia is infinite and dark. It cannot achieve growth and progress keeping its people delegitimised and aggrieved. The oppressed and tortured shall one day erupt to claim what legitimately belongs to them as well.
The author is the Opinion Editor of Times of Oman. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org