The prison speaks Oromiffa

19 mins read

By Fekade Shewakena

The headline of this article would pass for simple ethnic politicking if it was not spoken by a founder and former politburo member of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and a former Defense Minister of the regime now ruling Ethiopia with an iron fist.

The headline is a direct quote of Mr. Seye Abraha, who was released recently after serving six years at the Qaliti dungeon on trumped-up charges of corruption for which his accuser, Mr. Meles Zenawi, could not produce any credible evidence.

For human rights groups and many among Ethiopians who follow the human rights conditions in Ethiopia, the savagery being committed against the Oromo people by the Meles Zenawi regime is more than a little dirty secret. I was amazed to see a shockwave and a jolting moment in the packed hall in Virginia on January 5, 2008 when Seye spoke the four-word sentence: “Esir betu Oromogna yinageral.” To the stunned audience, Seye said “about 99% of the prisoners in Qaliti are Oromos.” I saw many people shaking their heads in disbelief.

I have no reason to doubt Seye’s assertions and figures or dismiss them as revenge against his former comrades as the apologists of the crimes of the regime try to tell us. In fact, nearly all people who have been at the Qaliti prison tell us the same thing. As he himself alluded to during his long speech, Seye understands that he shares responsibility and has a lot to answer for as one TPLF leader for the plight of the Oromo people. Many of us know that he has been at the forefront in fighting the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) out of the political system in Ethiopia in 1992 when they suspected that it has a widespread support, and the subsequent suffering of countless number of Oromos suspected of sympathizing with the OLF or membership in it. Others who have been to the Qualiti prison that I was able to talk to concur with Seye’s assertion. As a friend who recently came from Addis Ababa told me, this is one dirty public secret of Meles Zenawi that everybody in Addis Ababa talks about when the TPLF spies are not around. I think this is a horrifying human rights abuse that must be disquieting to all of us who value our people, the country and the future of every one of us and our children.

Ato Seye to his credit has shown a sense of shame and atonement in the tone of his expressions as he spoke these words and discussed the prevailing injustice in the country. Whether Seye’s sense of justice has changed because of his own experience of facing injustice and prison personally or through his reevaluation of the system he helped build, does not matter at this point. He should be congratulated for the courage he has shown to speak the truth in public and calling for a solution. Some people vanish into obscurity when they get out of the TPLF/EPRDF system. Some simply keep sucking up to the system and pursue “tranquil” life. Others stand up to undo their misdeeds, speak the truth and keep fighting to undo their wrongs. I have more respect for the latler and think Seye is in this category.

The information that gets out of Ethiopia from multiple sources has it that this naked tyranny against the Oromo people is being committed with impunity and complete disregard for human life. Many of these prisoners are victims of suspicion of belonging to the OLF. Many prisoners, I am also told, are family members held hostage to hand in their adult relatives suspected of joining the OLF. Many are students who take the constitution and their rights seriously and demanded some freedom. They are of all age groups including 90 year olds, children being nursed by their prisoner mothers, students, toiling peasant farmers who work hard to feed their families. Many have never seen judges or are languishing in jails for years with punitive long court appointments. DWO (Dissenting While an Oromo) is a dangerous thing in Ethiopia. You will be tagged an OLF. Even some low level security operative or cadre can lock you up and throw the keys away.

For those of us who are not troubled enough by the magnitude of the injustice being perpetrated against the Oromo people, a good way of looking at it may be to look for parallels in history where a group of people identified by their ethnicity are subjected to such inhumanity. I tried to look all over history to find parallels to this kind of a disproportionate imprisonment of ethnic groups in any country. Believe it or not, the only similar parallels in history where you see these kinds of ugly features are only in countries under colonial rule, under Nazi Germany and in systems of apartheid. It is that troubling. An entire people that constitute the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia are prisoners in their own country; in a country their fathers have fought and died defending against multiple foreign aggressions, in a country they literally feed. Oromia is the most fertile region that literally feeds the northern half of Ethiopia much of which is arid. It is very ironic that the Oromia region that more than 90% of the cash crops, the export earnings, the mineral wealth and electric power of the nation also feeds 99% of the prison population to the jaws of Meles Zenawi’s filthy prisons. It is a breath taking irony.

I am by no means saying that oppression and human rights abuse being carried out in Ethiopia is limited exclusively to the Oromo alone. No. I have not forgotten the rest of the mass murders in different parts of the country and the suffering in many parts of Ethiopia, including the crimes in the Ogaden which goes on as we speak. Even the people of Tigrai in whose name the TPLF commits these crimes take their share of this injustice. There is no regime that oppresses its citizens selectively. Only the intensity and level of ugliness is different. I am only talking about proportions and magnitude of the abuse. The facts and figures we see and hear about the treatment of the Oromo people for a long time now should be disquieting to any conscientious Ethiopian.

Meles Zenawi’s regime is destroying the fabric that ties our people and all indications are an inter-ethnic hatred is evolving in the country. In fact, one other former prisoner who confirmed Seye’s assertions told me another ugly fact. He told me that the most disgusting scene at the Qaliti prison is not only the disproportionate number of Oromo Prisoners. He said that there is also a disproportionate number of ethnic Tigreans manning the prisons as prison officials and guards. He said that it appears to him not as pure negligence on the part of the officials but as a deliberately work done by Meles and his clique to foment hatred against Tigreans. The Oromo prisoner’s, I was told by another prisoner, often refer to the guards and prison officials as the “Tigrewochu” (the Tigeans). If we deny that all of this will factor into feeding hatred, we are only fooling ourselves and playing dead. If we think what is happening around our neighborhood in East Africa cannot happen to us, we are only cheating ourselves. If you don’t believe me listen to this hint from a young American law professor who teaches Human Rights Law at Mekele University. She says:

On a recent trip to the Amhara region, some young men asked me and my friends about our travels in Ethiopia. They were extremely friendly to us until we said that we were not really backpackers, but that we live in Mekelle, at which point one of the men spat on our vehicle and all but one walked off in disgust, yelling that they hate people from Tigrai. Our group was made up entirely of white people and this conversation was being held in English. It goes without saying that we could not possibly be from Tigrai, but so great was their hatred of the Tigraian politicians that the mere fact that we live in Mekelle was enough to taint us. One calmer man stayed to speak to us and told us that in order to be safe and have a better time when we travel, we should tell people, “The Ethiopian government made me work in Mekelle. Of course I never wanted to live in Tigrai.” (Read full text here.)

Yes, this is sad and I cringe to hear this coming out from my fellow Ethiopians. But I think we don’t only have to feel sad and hate hatred only sanctimoniously. We need to address the source of hatred with courage and head on instead. In Ethiopia the source of ethnic hatred is the regime of Meles Zenawi and Meles Zenawi himself. We have to understand that a few men in positions of power have the capacity and tools to make hatred a material force. Look at places where hatred destroyed millions of lives. Look at the ugly scene in Kenya that occurred only recently. Nobody can question that the people of Kenya as a whole are good people. The carnage we saw is not the making of the people of Kenya in my view. They were living as neighbors and were even intermarrying. It is the making of Mr. Kibaki and the elite around him who manipulated ethnic differences to help them stay in power. Kibaki and the elite around him never cared for the welfare of all Kenyans as much as they did for themselves. It is a perfect example of what greed for power and wealth by a handful of individuals who want to extend their stranglehold on power can do to a country by unleashing people against people. I think this is what Meles and his clique are working on hard in Ethiopia, particularly after they have found that the people have rejected them in the ballot box.

I think we can save our old, beautiful and historic country from degenerating into deeper divisions and hatred and falling into the traps set by Meles Zenawi and his clique. We can do this by standing up together across ethnicities and rejecting the inhumanity that is being committed by this cruel regime and its elite that is blinded by greed. There is nothing symbolic than rejecting this cruelty and barbarism against the Oromo people together. By so doing, we will all be fighting not for the rights of the Oromo people only but for ourselves and a better posterity too.

I know some apologists of the system would argue that this is the work of the OPDO, the Oromo Organization inside the EPRDF and that Oromos are fully represented. Give me a break. Stop giving me these sham symbols instead of the reality; or give it to unsuspecting foreigners in the embassies in Addis Ababa who seem to care less if we are destroyed as a nation. The symbols and realities are different and the Ethiopian people know it. We all know the real fact that the ethnic federalism being practiced in Ethiopia is only cartographic. All the talk by the TPLF about the rights of nations and nationalities is a modern scam for donor consumption. Ethiopia has never been under centralized rule as it is today. To be honest, Menilik’s Ethiopia is more federal than Meles Zenawi’s. At least the local kings had authority over their subjects while accounting to the king of kings, Menilik. The OPDO as an organization is made of former war prisoners of the TPLF, whose survival depends on serving Meles Zenawi. I have Oromo friends who tell me that some are selected for being downright scumbags who will never hesitate to kill their own children if Meles orders them to do so. The best and brightest Oromos are chased like prey or driven into exile. Many are herded into prisons. We all know that people like Dr. Merera Gudina and Ato Bulcha Demeqsa are subjects of insult and intimidation and abuse by Meles Zenawi not because they are powerful as an organized entity. They are subjected to daily condemnations by Meles for trying to be only a little independent Oromo voices. They are allowed to speak for two minutes a month in parliament.

I think we will all serve a great common purpose if all of us across ethnic groups rise up together and condemn this horrific crime against the Oromo people. This is not a thing to be left to the OLF. The OLF also cannot tell us that this is its exclusive problem and does not concern the rest of us, non Oromos. We do this only at the expense of the suffering of the innocent people.

At least those of us living in Diaspora should join hands across continents and cry at this injustice together and let the world know that this crime is being committed. Can any group, for a starter, rise up to organize a day of prayer and vigil for Oromo prisoners that packed the prisons in Ethiopia? I volunteer to involve in organizing this. It is a shame that we are keeping silent while this crime is being committed against an entire people. If we don’t do this now don’t ask me later to stand against Oromos when they rise to fight back and decide to go out of the Ethiopian union and form their own country. What would I answer when they ask me what I have been doing when all this inhumanity was raining on them?

The writer can be reached at


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.