From Warscapes: Ethiopia’s Eskinder Nega describes what it’s like to be arrested for his writing.
By: Eskinder Nega | Posted: October 3, 2012 at 12:11 AM
Introduction by Charlayne Hunter-Gault
(The Root) — President Barack Obama’s strong defense of freedom of speech at the United Nations last month was clearly directed at the sputtering young Arab and North African democracies, where violent anti-American protests were ostensibly sparked by a video (Why don’t people stop calling it a film?) that insulted the Prophet Muhammad. The president’s tough speech followed his late-night call to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, demanding that he get control of the demonstrations by alleged radical Islamists. The big stick that President Obama wielded was America’s huge aid to Egypt. And presto, the Egyptian president complied.
The same tactic could be used in Ethiopia, where not only is the new leadership continuing the previous government’s ongoing repression of independent journalists — including those imprisoned on specious charges — but it is getting even more repressive. According to the U.S. State Department: “The total U.S. government assistance, including food aid, between 2000 and 2011 was $6.226 billion. In FY 2011 the U.S. government provided $847 million in assistance, including more than $323 million in food aid. Today, Ethiopia is an important regional security partner of the United States.”
It is hard to imagine that the U.S. government condones the widely condemned treatment of Ethiopia’s independent journalists, including Eskinder Nega, recently sentenced to 18 years in prison on spurious charges of terrorism that were actually nonviolent criticisms of the increasingly repressive Ethiopian regime. Now, in the last few days, the Ethiopian government has frozen Nega’s meager assets, along with those of two others in prison with him: Andualem Arage and Abebe Gellaw.
It is also hard to imagine how Nega’s wife, Serkalem Fasil, who was once imprisoned with him, and their 7-year-old son, who was born in prison, can manage now. And without a car, how will she get to the prison on the outskirts of Addis Ababa to visit her husband and take him much-needed nutritious food? Money talks in every part of the world, including Ethiopia.
The following essay by Nega, whose release I have advocated for with Ethiopian officials, is just one more chilling example of the need to include Ethiopia in the president’s demand for what is called for everywhere: respect for freedom of speech.
General Tsadekan, the EPRDF and the North African Revolution
Rush, rush, rush. Time is flying. The article has not been finished. Write, edit, delete, write again, revise; it doesn’t have end. Two hours left. The last minutes are for coffee. Alas!
Friday is like that for me, for the journalist. I have appointment on Friday morning with Ethiopians who reside Washington, D.C., via Skype. I am rushing to be on time for my appointment. Other Ethiopian Diaspora could meet me anytime.
I log out my email and stand up. It is hard to sign in and out of a simple email window. Fast broadband Internet gave birth to the North African revolution, and now the revolution-phobic EPRDF-led Ethiopian government [Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front] is struggling against fast Internet access. As the Ethiopian proverb goes, “Clueless dude will marry a pregnant woman”; EPRDF is trying to dry the source of revolution out of frustration, and fast Internet and social media are targets.
She politely says, “One hour and seven minutes.” I feel like I’m waking up from my sleep. I didn’t know that I spent an hour in front of the computer. Time is flying with invisible wings.
I have to leave the Internet café. I don’t even ask for my change. I leave the place. I turn right and walk down the hallway … Now I am leaving the building but should use the stairs to go to the main road. I am walking with my head down.
I hear a voice: “That’s him!”
Two Federal Police and another person in plain clothes are coming toward me. One of the officers has his police radio ready. The other has his AK-47. He has his sleeves folded up to his big muscles. He holds the gun like a straw. My eyes meet those of this young policeman. He is in his 20s and confused. The shock and confusion on his face are his split-second admission that he is not here to arrest a “terrorist.”
“You are wanted!” says the other Federal Police officer with a commanding voice. This policeman hasn’t folded his shirtsleeves to show off his muscles but, rather, is busy with his radio communications. He is trying not to create a confrontation.
“I am ready,” I answer.
I suddenly smile. This will be my eighth time to go to jail. But when I think about my son, my face changes. I feel like I’ve lost my mind. A new situation! A new feeling! I did not have a kid when I was imprisoned the last seven times.
The Federal Policeman stands behind me and says, “Let’s go!”
The policeman with the gun leads me to their police Land Cruiser, which they’ve parked in the middle of the road. The Land Cruiser doors are opened. He keeps walking fast. People start gathering to see the final unpleasant incident.
We approach the Land Cruiser. The backdoor swings open; there are three more young policemen with AK-47s. All of them are in their early 20s, and ready to snap into action anytime.
The Land Cruiser is stopped in the middle of the road. Other cars behind it are stopped now, too. The one-way road is blocked and a traffic jam is fully in progress, the traffic flow halted by the sudden situation. I am the center of attention for the moment.
The policeman (with the radio) opens the passenger-side door and says, “Get in!”
The driver, in a Federal Police uniform, doesn’t bother to look at me. He just wants to leave the place as soon as possible. I sit on the passenger side; the policeman with the radio enters and shares the passenger seat. The passenger-side door is still open as the driver peels out and accelerates away.
The Land Cruiser is speeding to De Gaulle Square. There is a silence in the car. The driver’s face is stony, frozen. The policeman next to me heralds the news on his police radio that I am under control.
When we reach De Gaulle Square, he suddenly orders the driver to change course: “Mexico Square!”
This I didn’t expect; I thought they would take me to my second home: the Central Investigative Office. The driver increases his speed as we pass Jerusalem Building. We leave the old post office behind and start driving to Churchill Avenue, then Theodros Square, Black Lion, National Bank, Wabe Shebele Hotel … and, finally, Mexico Square. The Land Cruiser stops at the other gate of Federal Police Building. What a relief!
Another armed policeman approaches the car; the person next to me opens the window and just says, “Hello.”
The armed policeman goes back and opens the gate. The rush is over. The car moves slowly as we enter the compound.
This is the back side of the Federal Police Building — the side guarded by armed policemen. The Land Cruiser parks at the back of the building. The person with radio gets out of the car first.
“Shall I?” I ask, assuming I have to get out of the car.
“Yes,” he says.
He leads us into the building. Two policemen sit at the door, but they are unarmed.
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