Since Ethiopia’s ruling party (EPRDF) came to power in 1991, countless Oromo activists, students, professionals, academics, farmers, and businessmen have disappeared, been imprisoned, tortured, or unjustly executed. While the State’s tight control of information has not allowed for reliable statistics, the number of Oromo political prisoners currently languishing in prisons across Ethiopia is estimated to be more than 20,000.
In today’s Ethiopia, every dissenting Oromo is branded as an OLF sympathizer, and by extension, a terrorist, to an extent that being an Oromo itself has becomea crime in Ethiopia. Analysts warn Ethiopia is turning into a “prison house” for Oromos, citing stockpiles of prisoners around the country.
For the selfless sacrifice each one of them has made in the name of freedom; for speaking truth to power when it was least convenient; for being a voice for voiceless Oromos; and for choosing cold and grim prison cells over the safety of life in the diaspora, Oromo Political Prisoners are OPride’s Oromo Persons of the Year for 2012.
Background: The Oromo people make up nearly 50 percent of Ethiopia’s population, estimated at 94 million. The current ostentatious ethnic federalism, aside from allowing for linguistic and cultural promotion, has done little to improve the political marginalization of the Oromo within the Ethiopian state. Even the types of cultural celebrations allowed are tailored to the liking of the ruling party. For instance, the 2012 annual Irreechaa celebration was accompanied by strict checkpoints. At least 150 were arrested and as many were turned away from the celebration.
Although the Oromo language, one of the five most widely spoken languages in Africa, is the lingua-franca of Ethiopia, there is no single media outlet, other than the government-run agitprop, that caters to the Oromo in their language. There is very little that makes for international headlines about the Oromo. When the Oromo make news, it is usually for another round of arbitrary arrests or a sham verdict handed down to Oromo activists or politicians by the Horn of Africa country’s kangaroo courts.
Following the withdrawal of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) from the transitional government in 1992, the threat of arrest and lack of freedom has forced many Oromos into exile. For the last two decades, the Oromo diaspora, as Oromo expats are affectionately called, have sought to raise awareness about the agonizing lives of those left at home.
The OLF, for its part, remotely tried to pressure the Ethiopian regime to relinquish power or negotiate with them. But given the chaotic nature of diaspora politics, these efforts have failed to swing the balance of power against Ethiopia’s repressive regime despite heavy sacrifices as thousands remain illegally detained, some suffering in jail without facing charges, others unjustly convicted under trumped-up evidences.
Notable Oromo Political Prisoners Without a face and name, 20,000 are nothing more than a number. Each one of these prisoners – and many more known only to God – have lives full of stories to be told. Stories of young students, full of hope and dreams, who walked miles to get to school for a chance at a better life than their parents had led. A young father who wanted to leave his children a more just and free world than the one he grew up in. A political leader who wanted the country’s constitution applied equally to all, regardless of ethnic origin, religious orientation, or political affiliation.
Young activists who dreamed of a day when all persons in Ethiopia are treated with respect, fairness, and dignity. These are just some of their untold stories. We do not have the means and access to profile all of them. But in the spirit of profiling a few of these courageous individuals even if by putting faces to some names and stories to some numbers, we have gathered a few from around the web. Their stories are a reminder that these prisoners are much more than merely numbers; they are Oromo men and women who are continuously and unjustly robbed of their freedom to a dignified life.
Wabe Haji Jarso, a father of three and alumnus of the Addis Ababa University Law School, was born and raised in the Arsi region. After graduating from AAU in 1993, Wabe, who previously served in the Ethiopian Air Force prior to attending law school, was assigned to a high court in East Oromia. He was eventually fired from the bench in 1996 after repeatedly differing with and criticizing other handpicked judges in sentencing Oromos, especially those accused of having links to the OLF. He then briefly worked for the Ethiopian Insurance Corporation and later the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia until his arrest on Oct. 31, 2008. He is now serving a 12-year sentence.
Former classmate Tibebu Yilma described Wabe as follows:
Wabe was a quiet, apolitical, farsighted, and very considerate member of our class. He was the voice of reason and magnanimity. For these noble qualities, we all loved, respected and admired him.
Taye Danda’a Arado: Born in North Shawa, Kuyyu district, Taye attended both elementary and high school in the town of Garba Gurraacha, 155km north of Addis Ababa. As a high school student, Taye was instrumental in starting a school journal called Ibsitu and convincing school authorities to allow the establishment of an Afaan Oromo club.
Taye was arrested three days before his graduation from Addis Ababa Law School, where he also had a teaching job offer. First detained with Macha Tulama Association members in early 2004, Taye was released in late 2006 without any conviction. According to Oromo Support Group, a UK-based Human Rights organization, Taye was a member of the Afaan Oromo Club, the Union of Oromo Students, and worked on the Oromo Students Graduation Bulletin, a yearbook published by graduating Oromo students. Plain-clothed security officers arrested him again on July 23, 2009 along with Bayisa Dhaba Lata and Muse Ali. He is now serving a ten-year sentence. Taye was seen as inspiration and role model for his peers in Garba Guraacha.
Lelisse Wodajo, a mother of three, was a former journalist with the government-run Ethiopian Television (ETV). She was arrested on Nov. 14, 2008 for alleged links to the OLF. Her recent appeal to the Supreme Court was overturned and she is now serving a ten-year sentence. After her husband, Dhabasa Waqjira, sought asylum abroad following his release from detention, Wodajo’s kids were left without parents.
More on Lelisse and other Oromo journalists here.
Mesfin Abeba Abdisa and Tesfahun Cameda Gurmesa, both civil engineers, were abducted by Kenyan security forces and handed over to Ethiopian authorities on May 24, 2007 while in Nairobi seeking UNHCR protection. They were “kept in a hidden prison and tortured for more than a year” before they were transferred to Kalitti prison in Addis Ababa, according to OMRHO, a German-based Oromo Rights group. On Mar. 31, 2010, Ethiopia’s court gave Mesfin the death penalty whilst Tesfahun received a sentence of life imprisonment.
Bekele Gerba, a father of four, was born in the village of Gida, near Boji Dirmaji. He taught English at Alemi Teferi in Dembi Dolo and Najo High Schools before moving to the capital to finish his PhD. He was arrested on Aug. 27, 2011 four days after meeting with an Amnesty International delegation in his capacity as a leader of a legal opposition. He was sentenced to eight years in prison on Dec. 11, 2012, after refusing to seek leniency from Ethiopia’s kangaroo court and giving an iconic indictment of its mockery of justice.
Olbana Lelisawas born in West Shewa, Goro Sole, where he attended High School. Olbana, who worked as an agricultural specialist for the local government, was pushed out of his job after running on the opposition Oromo People’s Congress (OPC) ticket in the disputed 2005 election. Olbana was elected to Caffee Oromia, the regional parliament where he served as MP until 2010. A passionate advocate of justice, he was known for his frequent trip to central prisons to speak with prisoners.
He often granted interviews to international media such as the Voice of America. After the ruling party won the 2010 election, Olbana worked at OPC’s Finfinne-branch as political strategist and community organizer. Olbana, along with Bekele Gerba was arrested on August 27, 2011, a day after meeting with representatives of Amnesty International. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison on December 11, 2012.
Disappearances: Bekele Dawano Hebano, a geologist, was arrested on Oct. 25, 1992 and tortured at the military camp in Dodola. He was a graduate of Addis Ababa University and held a master’s degree from a Dutch university. Bekele was a senior OLF official in the transitional government and was among the 20-45,000 OLF supporters who were detained in late 1992, within months of the OLF leaving the transitional administration because of electoral abuses.
He disappeared while in detention in 1993 from Agarfa prison, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which documented his detention. He was last seen on Sep.14, 1993 at Agarfa, being escorted away from the prison centre by heavily armed men. Efforts made by his family to locate him have thus far been unsuccessful. Oromo Support Group: http://bit.ly/bekeledawano LAMMESSA BORU: One of the founding members of the Macha Tulama Association and the OLF, Boru was imprisoned for seven years under Emperor Haile Sellasie, spent ten years in prison under Mengistu Haile Mariam, and was finally kidnapped by the TPLF forces in September 1992 while undergoing treatment at the Police Hospital in Finfinne. He has not been seen since.
YOSEF AYELE BATI: Unidentified security officers arrested Yosef, a former schoolteacher from the Bale region in southern Ethiopia, on Nov. 27, 1992 in Addis Ababa. Bati’s family has searched all police stations and prisons in Addis Ababa but has never seen him since. Prior to his disappearance, he was still in poor health as a result of torture and ill treatment during a 10 years’ detention under the brutal government of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Like Yosef, thousands of members of the Oromo ethnic group had been tortured and detained without charge or trial under the Mengistu government for suspected involvement with the armed opposition Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).
Yosef then fled to Kenya and stayed under the protection of the UNHCR until the fall of Mengistu’s regime. After the downfall of the Mengistu government in 1991, the OLF joined the transitional government. But in 1992, following the establishment of a new government headed by President Meles Zenawi, some 25,000 suspected OLF members were detained.
They included both members of the OLF armed militia force and civilians, among them women and children. Most were released in early 1993 but nothing has been heard of Yosef Ayele Bati. Hundreds more Oromos were detained during 1993. Amnesty International believes that many are prisoners of conscience detained due mainly to their peaceful opposition to the government, although others may have been involved in violent opposition.
Amnesty International: http://bit.ly/yosefbati Nadhi Gamada: Born in Ziway, south central Oromia, he studied pharmacy at Addis Ababa University. One of the most charismatic and beloved leaders of the OLF, Nadhi was detained in 1994 by the Ethiopian security forces with a tip from another prisoner who was forced to disclose his whereabouts from torture. A report attributed to Hassan Ali, the President of the Oromia regional government at the time, later alleged that Nadhi was executed at the spot–somewhere at the intersection of three provinces–Arsi, Shawa, and Western Hararghe. Little is heard from him or the authorities since.
There was a report that he was held in Mekelle, capital of Tigray region. According to some other reports, he was still being held at the notorious Maikalawi central prison. The Unknowns: The prisoners profiled above are but a few whose names are available publicly. Countless others remain imprisoned, whose sacrifices and names are known only to God. They are the real heroes, and unjustly incarcerated for exercising their inalienable rights – rights that are theoretically protected in the pages of Ethiopia’s constitution.
Runner-ups: OPride operates under the belief that our people’s progress is best aided by celebrating the best in us rather than dwelling and brooding on our shortcomings. Our heroes are not flawless angels but rather men and women who err while striving to uplift the noble in us, all the while learning from their trials and tribulations, and putting to use their talents and energies to advance the common well-being of Oromos in a way they deem fit. Indeed, they are mortal souls who stumble and fall yet prevail by getting back up and moving relentlessly forward towards the true north –– for the political, economic, and social emancipation of their people.
Accordingly, the annual POY honor is bestowed on deserving Oromo individuals who make an outstanding contribution to the Oromo cause by demonstrating dedication, leadership, and commitment to the advancement, promotion, and development of Oromo culture, language, or politics during the last twelve months. As in previous years, OPride received many suggestions on such individuals in our communities.
Here’s a shortlist:
Obse Tadesse Lubo: Lubo was born in Najo, western Oromia, to uneducated parents. After emigrating to the U.S., Lubo studied nursing in Minnesota. She later moved to central California where she joined other good Samaritans to give the gift of improved health to those most in need back in her hometown of Najo. She makes annual medical trips. She has sent a full-cargo of medical supplies to the Najo hospital. She has inspired the formation of a local support group which mentors and coaches young students at Najo public schools to volunteer and give back to their society.
This year, she accompanied three critically ill children to India for a lifesaving heart surgery. She then spent two weeks volunteering in Najo. Lubo’s selfless commitment is an inspiration to many, including OPride staff; if each of us could pay it forward, however small the initiative, the world would be a much better place.
Lencho Lata Waqayo: There is no one more controversial than Lata in Oromo politics.Trained in the U.S. as a chemical engineer, Lata is part of the generation that wrote the OLF political program. During the organization’s formative years, Lata was instrumental in articulating its visions and strategies. He is the sole survivor from the first OLF leadership installed in 1977. He served as the organization’s Deputy General Secretary until 1998.
After serving as “advisor” to the OLF, Lata was dismissed from the organization earlier this year. His announcement last May of intentions to engage the Oromo by rearticulating the objectives and strategies of the Oromo struggle remained one of the major preoccupations for diaspora politicians. Lata, who had written two books on the subject, has been both praised and scrutinized in the past for his advocacy to democratize Ethiopia. While demonized by his detractors, Lata is seen as the most eminent Oromo leader.
Over the last decade, Lata’s person, service, and motives were subjects of relentless, malicious, and unwarranted attacks. A true original, Lata’s intellect, eloquence, resilience, and sense of humor are unequaled. Listening to him, one comes home after taking a glimpse, even if a fading one, into the greatness that was OLF, a greatness that is being corroded under the weight of incivility, false posturing, mediocrity, ineptitude, and senselessness. Observers say Lata’s Oromo Dialogue Forum may soon transform into a political movement.
For reawakening quiescent Oromo diaspora politics and even indirectly pressuring two rival OLF factions to unite, Lata is OPride’s runner up for Person of the Year 2012. Gudata Sado Hinika: Dr. Hinika’s remarkable journey is full of surprises. Hinika came to the U.S. narrowly escaping a required military service under the Dergue. He then put himself first through community college, and later medical school to become one of the most successful trauma surgeons in southern California.
That’s not all. He too never forgot a dream that was seared into his mind at a young age: seek light beyond the sea but don’t forget where you came from. His philanthropy has already put many Oromo students through school. He has built elementary, junior, and secondary schools in his former village of Gode.
Hinika is now building a medical school and hospital – the first of its kind – in south-central Oromia. Earlier this year, the UN Association of USA honored Hinika with the Global Citizen Award for “establishing sustainable healthcare and education systems in rural Ethiopia.” His inspiring journey from rural Oromia to southern Los Angeles is poignantly captured, much better than we could write here, in his recently published memoir: The Healers Light. We encourage you to purchase and read his book: http://www.opride.com/oromsis/news/horn-of-africa/3628
Jawar Siraj Mohammed: The Ethiopian Muslims movement took many by surprise. Ethiopia’s restive Muslim population has never before articulated their grievances in such a well coordinated manner. The government, aided by the terror-mongering western media, went to great pains to portray the basic demands of religious freedom as extremism, signaling the advent of the menace of political Islam in a “friendly” country. If the committee of 17 were the voice of Ethiopian Muslim protesters inside the country, Jawar was that voice from the outside. For keeping abreast with the movement for nearly a year, promoting, and analyzing with flair, sometimes in real-time, Jawar is OPride’s runner-up for Person of the Year.