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Free Berhanu Nega

By Fikru Helebo

It has been reported in the press today that Dr. Berhanu Nega, who has been incarcerated along with thousands of others from the opposition since November 1, 2005 by the dictatorial regime of Ethiopia for advancing his political beliefs by peaceful means, is starting a hunger strike along with three other prominent opposition leaders, to bring the farce treason allegation that was made against them by the government to the attention of the world.

As a token of my support for Berhanu’s plight and that of the thousands of political prisoners in Ethiopia today, irrespective of their political party affiliations, I would like to share with you an email I shared with a group of Southern Ethiopians on an email list called Enset on September 6, 2001. I wrote the email a few days after attending a meeting on September 1, 2001 in Silver Spring, Maryland, that was hosted by the support committee of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) for the Greater Washington, DC metropolitan area.

Here is the email in full and unedited:

I was also present at the meeting and enjoyed Dr. Berhanu Nega’s presentation. Being an economist by profession, Berhanu discussed how his change of view led to his involvement in human rights issues in Ethiopia. When he left the US for Ethiopia in the mid-nineties, Dr. Berhanu said he was of the opinion that Ethiopia, as a poor country with no sizable middle class to speak of, did not have a constituency to make the transition to a democratic form of government viable, and that the country first needed to go thru a development phase similar to that of South Asian countries. But, when he saw first-hand how the Ethiopian government was stifling the emergence of a middle class that he saw as key to development and the hopelessness of his country men and women, he said he gradually realized that the assumption he came with to Ethiopia was wrong and that is when he started to get involved in human rights issues. [To support his conclusion that authoritarian rule impedes development, he mentioned a study by a prominent Harvard professor which showed that democracy and economic development are complementary to each other.]

I was also struck by Dr. Berhanu’s description of the dire hopelessness and despair that pervades Ethiopians. The level of hopelessness and despair has gotten so bad that everybody in the country wants to get out, both rich and poor, he said. The damage done by successive regimes to the Ethiopian consciousness is also so deep that the population is terrorized to the point of total submission. This is what surprised him about the struggle for democracy and justice in the South, he said, and to know that there are people in Ethiopia who are standing up for their rights as has happened in the South has given many reason to hope for the future. This comment of Berhanu’s was made during his initial remarks. Later on in the Q&A session, he added that the movement in the South should be a lesson to Ethiopians in other parts and that he himself has been energized by witnessing their courageous actions.

Dr. Berhanu also mentioned that the “Oromo Question” is something we can not afford not to address. What surprised him the most about his two months of incarceration in Ethiopia was the sheer number of Oromos in jail. He said, he was once invited to speak to a meeting of University students, and, practically, all the Oromo students said they were not Ethiopians. If we want a country called Ethiopia, he said, we must be able to address the Oromo people’s concern in an open and civilized manner.

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