Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Free At Last, Kinijit Leaders Continue in Ethiopia's Fight for Democracy

[Dr. Berhanu Nega at the New School two weeks ago. Photo by Sam Lewis. A shorter, slightly different version of this article appears this week in The New School Free Press.]

A year ago, Dr. Berhanu Nega wrote Ye Nestanset Gohe Sekede—Amharic for The Dawn of Freedom—in Ethiopia’s Kaliti prison, smuggling it out a few pages at a time. Now the book is a hot commodity in this East African nation of 70 million, but carrying around a copy is dangerous.

The Ethiopian government never officially banned the book. But in September 2006, in the capital city of Addis Ababa, police placed roadblocks around the city, according to a foreign journalist based there who spoke with Free Press. The police searched cars and people, looking for The Dawn of Freedom, arresting, beating, even killing those found with the book.

In May 2005, after a democratic election gone awry, the government imprisoned Berhanu Nega, mayor-elect of Addis Ababa, a member of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, or Kinijit, and an alumnus of The New School for Social Research. In a crackdown against demonstrations protesting the election’s outcome, the government arrested thousands. The arrests sparked an international effort, involving student groups, New School administrators, members of the European Union, Amnesty International and U.S. Congressmen to push for the release of the Kinijit leaders and implement democratic reforms. This July, the Ethiopian government finally freed Berhanu and 37 other prominent Kinijit members.

Now on a visit of Ethiopian communities in the United States, Berhanu and other Kinijit members plan to reexamine issues that have hampered the party, but are resolute in continuing the push for democracy in their country. Kinijit is taking on a government known for human rights violations, though, so many Ethiopians expect a protracted fight.

Berhanu Nega, a short, stocky man with a huge smile, began the United States tour two weeks ago at his alma mater. He received a Distinguished Alumnus Award from New School President Bob Kerrey at New School’s convocation. That evening, he spoke in Swayduck Auditorium at 65 5th Ave. to a packed crowd of New School students and Ethiopians, most of them based in New York City, some of them supporters of the ruling party in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

Berhanu said one of Africa’s biggest challenges is to overcome poverty—and democracy, he said, is the key to growth. A democratic government provides economic stability, holds corrupt officials accountable, and encourages innovation and long-term investment.

He dismissed the notion that authoritarian governments, like China, can provide great economic progress.

“That’s exactly the stance that Meles and his friends have taken,” Berhanu said, referring to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. “They say, ‘Look, it’s OK if we kill, it’s OK if we maim, it’s OK if we arrest thousands, it’s OK if we are an empire because we provide economic growth.”

“At the end of the day, economic development is supposed to provide freedom,” he said. “Freedom from want, freedom from poverty and hunger.”

Berhanu, born in 1958, first joined the Ethiopian democracy movement in the 1980s, at age 17. He joined a student organization as an undergrad at Addis Ababa University to protest the military rule of the Dergue, a military junta led by Col. Mengistu Haile-Mariam that slaughtered thousands of dissidents, both real and imagined, and led the country into a devastating famine.

Berhanu escaped to Sudan after being detained for protests, then to the United States on political asylum. He studied political-economics at The New School for Social Research, graduating in 1991 with a PhD in economics. That year, Meles Zenawi, from Ethiopia’s northern highlands, led a paramilitary group called the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front to overthrow the Dergue. Filled with hope and promise, Berhanu returned to Ethiopia with his family.

Meles Zenawi became Prime Minister and the ruling party began to resemble the one it deposed. Two elections before 2005 were “typical,” Berhanu said. “The governing party gets something like 98 percent and keeps wondering how it lost the two percent,” he said.

The elections in May 2005 were supposed to be democratic. Independent newspapers set up shop and opposition parties campaigned openly, debating the ruling party on television. Millions showed up to vote. Yet on the day of the vote, the EPRDF claimed victory before half of the votes for parliamentary seats were counted. Then Meles Zenawi declared a state of emergency. Berhanu refused to give up his mayorship and other CUD members protested instead of taking Parliament seats, so the government threw them in jail.

News reports and human rights groups estimate that the government arrested between 20,000 and 30,000 people for protesting in the months after the election. A government investigation also uncovered that 6 police officers and 193 civilians were killed, and thousands injured, in large part because police fought protestors with live ammunition.

Government officials accused protestors of inciting chaos. “I definitely believe that [the violence] will tarnish the image of the country,” Simon Bereket, Meles Zenawi’s top deputy, told journalist Andrew Heavens after the protests. “The alternative was strife between the different nationalities of Ethiopia which might have made the Rwandan genocide look like childsplay.”

These days, according to Ethiopians, journalists and human rights organizations, Prime Minister Zenawi governs through fear and intimidation.

There is only one television station in Ethiopia and websites of pro-democracy organizations and parties are blocked. Berhanu said agents we hired to keep track of him, all day every day, before he was arrested. According to the foreign journalist who spoke with Free Press—who has connections to high-level government sources, but is unable to speak on the record for fear of endangering associates in the country—the police routinely place spies in the country’s schools, outside the homes of political prisoners and at diplomatic offices.

In 2006, the State Department released a report documenting cases of abuse and killings in prisons, poor prison conditions and the arrest of newspaper publishers, journalists and members of opposition parties. Human Rights Watch has also reported on numerous cases of Ethiopian soldiers and police torturing and abusing citizens, most recently in the eastern desert region known as the Ogaden, populated predominantly by ethnic Somalis. Disturbing stories have also come from native and foreign journalists.

In January, Ethio-Zagol Post—an anonymous blog widely considered among Ethiopians to be one of the country’s most accurate news sources—reported that police dragged a Kinijit organizer named Tesfaye Tadesse, 25, from his friend's house, beat him so badly that he an lost teeth and an eye, then shot him in the chest and back. It was the sixth killing of a Kinijit organizer that week.

“Their reactions are so disproportionate with the crime,” the foreign journalist told Free Press, referring to the country’s security forces. “That sends a message: don’t organize.”

This summer, in the Ogaden, the government waged an assault on the violent separatist militia Ogaden National Liberation Front. The military ejected aid groups from the area, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, and strictly controlled the movement of journalists.

Journalists have visited the region and also spoken with refugees, and Ogadenis have described stories of widespread abuse. The New York Times—whose reporters were arrested, and their equipment confiscated, for traveling into the region—ran an article and video this summer in which Somalis describe how the army burned homes and raped villagers. One woman said she was sexually assaulted with a pair of pliers.

Will Connors, a reporter based in Ethiopia for two years, wrote in Slate recently that he secretly met with Somali refugees from the area, who described being beaten and raped by Ethiopian soldiers. One woman unveiled her hijab to show Connors a giant scar—she explained that a soldier had stabbed her with a bayonet.

The foreign journalist told Free Press, and Connors also wrote in Slate, that most aid organizations are afraid to speak out about human rights violations, fearing it will complicate their activities in the region, or that they will be kicked out of the country. Connors recently left Ethiopia because he discovered his phone had been tapped, his landlord was spying on people in their neighborhood and he was afraid of being arrested.

A U.N. fact-finding mission is currently in the area, but has yet to release any public report.

Last week, Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin told Reuters that the government had no knowledge of any violence against Ogaden’s population. “To our knowledge, there was not one village destroyed or burnt in the recent action,” he said.

Meles Zenawi recently told Time Magazine, “We are supposed to have burned villages. I can tell you, not a single village, and as far as I know not a single hut has been burned. We have been accused of dislocating thousands of people from their villages and keeping them in camps. Nobody has come up with a shred of evidence.”

A spokesperson for the Ethiopian government or the office of the Ethiopian Embassy could not be reached for comment as of press time

For now, the government seems to be making small steps towards reforms. The crackdowns have stopped in Addis Ababa, the journalist told Free Press. Last week, during the country’s millennium celebration—Ethiopia runs on a unique, Christian Orthodox calendar—the government released over 17,000 prisoners, according to Ethio-Zagol Post.

Ethiopia is an ally in the United States’ “war on terror,” and has received over two billion dollars in American aid since 1993. This year, New Jersey Representative Donald Payne introduced H.R. 2003, “The Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007,” which would make aid contingent on implementing democratic reforms. New Jersey Representative Chris Smith also introduced a similar bill, H.R. 2228. The Ethiopian government has hired a multi-million dollar firm, DLA Piper, to convince lawmakers not to support the legislation.

Kinijit is in a tough position these days—its reputation has been harmed by infighting, allegations of embezzling thousands of dollars and accusations of draconian management, according to a recent interview with a member on Ethio-Zagol Post. Berhanu did not address these controversies at Swayduck, but said the organization would reevaluate its cause as members continue their United States tour.

Tedlaw Asfaw, an Addis Ababa native who lives in New York City, told Free Press after the event that he wants Kinijit to focus on the future. But he worries about what the future will bring. Over email, he wrote, “I will not be surprised if these leaders are thrown again into jail.”


I just read a particularly disgusting chapter from Michael Kelly's Martyrs' Day, an "impressionist" take on the Gulf War. In this chapter, which I read for class, Kelly tours two highways bordering Kuwait and Iraq full of bombed-out military vehicles and Iraqis blown to smithereens. I'll spare you the details, but it makes me wonder about how our newspapers of record give hardly any attention to the ineffably atrocious aspects of the current Iraq war. Is not printing pictures of dead bodies meant to stay patriotic, boost morale, or hide us from the realities of war? Or is it a combination of the three? The subject of many a debate, indeed. This is not to say that I merely enjoy seeing images of death--I just wonder how it affects the reception of the war back home.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Pop Muzak

[That's Bob Dylan jamming with Larry Campbell at Irving Plaza in 1997. That year Bob was hospitalized for heart problems related to a typically Mid Western condition that arises from breathing too much dust. So is this a before or after shot?]

I'm reading Bob Dylan's Chronicles and came across this spectacular quote on pop music:

"Popular music is usually based on the number 2 and then filled in with fabrics, colors, effects and technical wizardry to make a point. But the total effect is usually depressing and oppressive and a dead end which at the most can only last in a nostalgic way."

That makes me think of my own music, which I've been fashioning lately on Garage Band and Fruityloops under the name Two Eyes Meet Redux. Most of it is about something--love, death, war, my old, insane roommates. But if Dylan heard my tunes, he'd probably think them indulgent and largely vacant. If someone else told me that, I'd brush it off, maybe gloat a little. But to read any comment from Bob Dylan on my music would likely just be flattering.

Enough of that, though. I have a bit of information that probably set Lang's Livejournal on fire: the eminent music historian Greil Marcus is teaching a lecture called Old, Weird America at the New School. On the first day of class, Greil told us that Bob Dylan will be a whisper in our ears throughout the semester.

The other day, after discussing how murder ballads usually take place on the banks of the Ohio river, Greil related to us the first time he had seen Bob Dylan perform. (Evidently this is something he's written about, but I'll indulge you anyway.)

The year was 1963 and he goes to see Joan Baez--an artist "more specter than body," he says--play a concert on a round stage, which rotates for every artist to evoke an equality among performers.

Bob Dylan steps up to some other guy's stage. He looks covered in dust. "You couldn't tell anything about him," Greil says. But you want to know who he is. With his gnarling, twisting howl of a voice, Bob plays a song called "With God on Our Side," which starts out, "Oh my name it is nothing/My age it means less."

Bob tells the history of America through war: the slaughter of the Indians, the Spanish-American war, the Civil War, the First World War, then finally the Cold War. This was a story, Greil says, the audience knew well--at least, if they learned under America's public education system. Looking at the lyrics, his story is true even today. Just look at the verse on World War I:

"Oh the First World War, boys
It closed out its fate
The reason for fighting
I never got straight
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don't count the dead
When God's on your side."

I was an International Baccalaureate student and even by senior year of high school, my classmates and I wondered what the whole Great War was about. Franz Ferdinand, right? Ottoman what?

All of these wars, Bob sings, are waged with the blessing of God. Yet, each line is infused with just an "edge of doubt," Greil says. Bob caps it all with, "If God's on our side / He'll stop the next war." These were disillusioning years, indeed. In a few verses, Greil says, Bob was "confirming your identity, and he was taking it away."

After the show, Greil walks up to Bob, who is squatting on the dirt ground and trying to light a cigarette. "Wow," Greil says. "You were terrific."

"Nah, I was shit," Bob mutters. "I was shit."

Dumbstruck, Greil turns and walks away.

Bob was 22. "To an 18 year old like me," Greil says, "that was someone who was very, very old."

Thinking back, Greil suggests that Bob Dylan is a specter, too--as thrilling an iconic image as it is disappointing. "Dylan has refused to give people what they paid for." Let's just say he's complicated. Greil describes Bob's first show after a long bout of hiding, on a 1979 tour. "It was like watching someone who had been frozen." Horrible. A zombie performance. At the beginning and end of each song, Dylan's followers from the Church make bizarre shrieking sounds. There is no encore, little applause.

But after the show, Greil catches Bob playing a pretty little melody on a piano in the theater, over and over again. People file back inside, then Bob goes into a heartfelt rendition of "Pressing On." Jesus Christ revives Bob Dylan. Dylan's faith offers a unique groove, of its own aura. Greil says he lacks a certain sensibility to fully appreciate such music.

I'm in the 1980s section of Chronicles. Strangely enough, he got his picture taken at Jerusalem while wearing a skull-cap, but he hasn't mentioned Jesus Christ.

Vox Pop: How Has the War Affected You?

[Thousands turned out for the "die-in" on the Capitol lawn yesterday. Photo by ehpien on Flickr. I heard through friends there that the police estimated a turn-out of about 50,000 for the day's rally and march to the Capitol Building. Rounding out a week of entries on Iraq, I give you a little feature I was assigned for my journalism class. As I said before, a full D.C. report will come.]

Living in splendid isolation, 8,000 miles from Iraq, some Americans said last week that the war does not affect them.

“The war in Iraq hasn’t affected me, and that’s exactly the problem. That’s why the war continues to go on. No one is affected by it,” said James Mulcahy, 25, the Marketing Director of the stationary company Galison Mudpuppy Press.

“Screw the other countries,” said Robb Maynard, a junior at Eugene Lang College, the New School for Liberal Arts. “I'm not there.”

But the war has hit many Americans profoundly, in myriad ways. At last Saturday’s rally in Washington, D.C., organized by the umbrella group Answer to demand an end to the conflict, the radical effects were apparent. People were angry with the Bush Administration and divided amongst themselves over the Iraq war, which has claimed the lives of 3,781 American troops and an estimated 77,000 Iraqi civilians.

“We’ve never been that clean a democracy, but now we’re known around the world as torturers, kidnappers, murderers,” said Geoffrey Stetson, a Vietnam veteran from a town outside Orlando, Florida, referring not only to the war, but the Bush Administration’s policies. “They’ve violated the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal, the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions,” Stetson said.

“These people are criminals,” he added, about the Bush Administration. “They need to go to jail.”

Stetson planned to join other war veterans in the day’s “die-in.” Some of his friends from the group Iraq Veterans Against the War had called on members of other veterans’ groups to join in a march to the Capitol Building. In the largest organized act of civil disobedience in the history of the war, they planned to lie in place on the Capitol lawn until police dragged them away.

News reports later that day said 189 people, some of them Iraq veterans in camouflage fatigues, were arrested in the “die-in.” Police had to subdue some protesters with pepper spray. Some climbed the wall dividing the lawn from the Capitol Building, so cops hauled them away in cuffs.

That morning, Stetson wasn’t worried about arrest—he said he gave a friend a duffel bag filled with $5,000 cash, in case he needed to post bail.

As the crowd grew, Corinne Mauricio, 19, a Muslim convert in a purple hijab fron Baltimore County, stood with her friend and watched the speakers on a large stage. “It affects me everywhere I go, whether I’m at school, whether I’m walking down the street, whether I’m taking out my trash,” Mauricio said. “I get stares. I get the blame.”

In the march down Pennsylvania Avenue, young protesters in punk clothes and wild hair, wielding giant yellow signs saying “End the War Now,” and counter-protesters, mostly tall men in military veterans’ caps holding American flags, screamed at each other.

A long line of metal barriers divided the protesters from the counter-protesters, who were posted on the sidewalk along Pennsylvania. Police officers told protesters to ignore insults and keep walking. One counter-protester still managed to rip a sign out of a marcher’s hand and tear it up. Another mocked a young guy with a bright-pink Mohawk.

“You still need to pick a hair color. You really do,” he yelled. “And get that scrotum-scratcher off your chin,” he added, referring to the kid’s mustache.

Two counter-protesters urged this reporter to join the military and serve in Iraq. One of them, an Iraq veteran in his fifties, said he joined the forces there, “so I can save your goddamn coward ass.”

Earlier that day, a tall, scraggly fellow stood in the “free speech zone” outside the White House, separated from the house’s front gate by two rows of metal barriers. He was screaming, so someone handed him a megaphone. “We are tired of your garbage, we are tired of your butchery,” he yelled, his voice hoarse. “We need education for the poor, not bombs and war machines.”

Word had spread that George W. Bush was out of the White House that day, on a special retreat to Camp David. Regardless, the man addressed Bush directly about how the war affected him. “My friend’s brother is dead in Iraq, you son of a bitch!”