Ethiopia: Andualem Aragie’s (Prisoner of conscience) Open Letter to President Obama
The president of the United States of America,
Dear President Obama,
I am a son of a poor farmer who sustains his family in subsistence agriculture and still is. I am the son of that farmer, who did not try to change the life of his father, nor that of his own, believing from the outset that, it is when societal, political and economic problems are properly dealt with first that we can prosper as a nation or as a family. Mr. President, I am the son of that farmer, who tried to peruse his dream to change the conditions of his people to the better since my university campus days as a student leader and later on as an opposition politician before finally finding myself labeled a terrorist by the Ethiopian regime. I am sentenced to life imprisonment and languishing in the worst prison in Ethiopia, Kaliti Prison
Mr. PREDIDENT, I am a “terrorist” who takes pride in his country as a cradle of mankind(as you have witnessed yourself when you visited Lucy), ancient civilization, home of Gedda Democracy , one of the only two countries in Africa never colonized, and the only country in the whole black Africa with its own alphabet. I am also a terrorist who takes pride in what our great grandmother and fathers accomplished at the battle of Adwa 120 years ago. As you know, the victory of Adwa was a landmark event for the people of Africa under the yoke of colonialism and people of African origin all over the world. I also take pride in my country’s “midwifery” role when African countries fought against colonialism.
I am also a terrorist who deeply feels disgusted and disgraced by the abject poverty, recurrent drought, famine, and age-old civil war that claimed the lives of our youth in great number for a long time now; and the prevailing pervasive undemocratic system of governance in my country. I am also aterrorist who accepts non-violent struggle as a religion and employs it to uproot dictatorship, which I believe, is a major source of our problems.
Mr. President, you said, “Ethiopians are tough fighters”. Yes, when it comes to defending the sovereignty of our country from aggressors, we are tough fighters. Sadly enough, however, we could not repeat it when it comes to defending our sovereignty from our own dictators. The Ethiopian people fought nail and teeth against the Derg military junta for 17 years, and it seemed to most of us that its downfall would herald the dawn of democracy in Ethiopia. Unfortunately, however, we cannot still have a government of different breed. We languish under the quagmire of repression since the last 25 years now. However, we are not sitting with crossed hands. As the battle of Adwa inspired people under colonialism and repressive regimes to fight for their rights, some of us were also inspired by the non-violent struggles of the people of India and the civil rights movement in America, tried to emulate it here for the cause of democracy.
During the 2005 Ethiopian National Elections, it seemed that our effort was to bear fruit, however our hope was shattered when the dictatorial regime rigged the elections. Even worse, the crackdown of the regime on the opposition was so rampant that leaders of the major opposition parties like the then Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), which I was one of its leaders, presumably winner of the elections, were thrown to jail along with thousands of members and supporters. The obstruction of democracy by the regime was so evident that the international community in general and the European election observing mission in particular denounced the sordid immoral deeds of the regime, however, the backpedalling of the regime was not easily reversible.
It was during this time, my first incarceration, that I was introduced to your brand new ideas in a given magazine. After twenty months of imprisonment, paradoxically about 24 of us were sentenced to life imprisonment but were soon released on pardon. After my release, I was married to the love of my life, Dr. Selam Aschale. During the subsequent four years that I spent out of jail, we were blessed with two boys Ruh and Nolawi. I had however, somehow sensed that I was bringing to this world children that I cannot raise. The day to day surveillance was an omen to what was to come. However deep in my heart I believed and still believe that it is an honorable thing to die in prison than to lead a docile and capitulated life in the face of brutal dictatorship.
During the post release years, I was lucky enough to witness your first campaign to the office of president of United States of America. I watched almost all your debates Live. I love Soccer Mr. President, but I would be dishonest, if I say I enjoyed it more than I did your debates. Knowing full well that what I do does not count, I joined millions of your supporters and I was one of the recipients of your e-mail updates. I listened to the acceptance speech of your and Senator John McCain Live. To be quite honest Mr. President, I was deeply moved by your country’s beautiful democratic tradition, my heartfelt yearning for the same thing to take place in my own country.
Yearning for democracy of your type is an unforgivable sin in my country Ethiopia. As Mrs. Rosa Parks was arrested because of her refusal to relinquish her seat and was fined 14 dollars, I was arrested when I was serving my party, the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) as its Vice President and Head of Public Relations Department for the cause of democracy and justice in Ethiopia. I was labeled a terrorist and sentenced to life imprisonment once again. I have been languishing in the worst prison condition even by Ethiopia’s standard for four and half years now. While staring at a sky as small as a palm, my mind wanders everywhere, and keeps on contemplating all sorts of things. I now and then ask myself in Kaliti prison, find refuge in the purity of my cause and intentions, and sleep in peace despite prison ordeal. I think of my wife, in particular my sons, who are growing without a father figure. The first, Ruh was three years old and on his first day of school and Nolawi was ten months old when I was sent into prison.
On your book, the Audacity of Hope, page 72, you discussed how you felt about your daughters and mentioned about other senators who have young families trying to discharge your responsibilities while your family is somewhere else. Mr. President, I hope you feel the pain of injustice inflicted on my family, especially on my children. My sons and the children of many Ethiopian journalists and politicians, who are behind bars are asking different endless questions that they could not find answers to, such as why their fathers don’t come home for so long. Mr. President I don’t want to waste your time by delving into torturing questions that my sons were raising for the last four and half years.
Mr. president, to what extent are people represented even in democracies I believe is a difficult question to easily find an answer, let alone in a country like Ethiopia where elections are used as a camouflage to perpetuate the quarter of a century dictatorial rule. Even if the camouflage was unmasked during the 2005 Ethiopian National elections, the regime “won” the elections 99.6% and that of the 2015 elections, which it won 100% and it is preaching that the sun of democracy is shining like daybreak in Ethiopia. The world is more than ready to be deceived. Even you, your excellence, during your visit to Ethiopia you were heard saying that the ruling party is popular. Do you really mean it Mr. President?
“All men are equal”
As your founding fathers wonderfully put it Mr. President all of us are created equal. Whether “the poorest of the poor” in a street or “the king of kings” in a palace, we all are created equal in God’s own image. Hence, we all deserve to be fairly treated. No one is created to be subjugated to anyone’s rule under any circumstance. Mr. President, no one can deny your eloquence and that you have beautifully addressed the issue of democracy and justice during your first campaign to the office of the president of the United States of America. You have also poignantly written about it in your book the Audacity of Hope. Your debates and success have made us believe that anything is possible so long as we are ready to avail what it takes. However, those of us in Africa, I don’t think are touched by your practice as by your speeches.
Whether in a far off country like Ethiopia or neighboring countries like Cuba, whether the relationship is economically viable or not, a true alliance between countries should be based on the sovereign right of the people. As you very well understand, I don’t think this is the case between Ethiopia and the United States. Where is your “clenched fist” Mr. president when the people of Ethiopia are forced to walk it? I heard you admonish our leaders during your state visit in Ethiopia. Is that all what the president of the United States of America could do to help the people of Ethiopia in their fight for justice and democracy?
Mr. President, I believe that you will go down in history as one of the greatest American presidents. I, as well, believe that what you have accomplished in your two terms tenure as the President of the United States is remembered in history as the first President of the United States of America with African origin who did little or nothing to help Africans in their fight for democracy and justice. From the outset, Mr. President many people had doubted if your rhetoric will not matches your practice because of the long-standing political tradition of Washington. I now ruefully think they sounded right. I still am surprised how a president of your great quality could simply see when people are stripped of their God given rights. Is it because of political pragmatism, constructive engagement, or because of “a soul searching inspection” that you were forced to peruse the old way of doing business, Mr. President?
To be quite honest, even when languishing in prison, deep down in my heart, I welcomed your visit to my beloved country. Deep down in my heart, I was confident of you and hoped for something that can help the cause of justice and democracy to transpire as a result of your visit. To my dismay however, you were heard officially saying, “the regime is popular.” What does it really mean Mr. President? I think free and fair election is the best thing to prove if anybody is popular or not. As far as I understand, we have never had free and fair elections in our history so far. So how can it be proven that the regime is popular? Was Saddam Hussein popular when he “won” elections 100%? It is barely one year since the Ethiopian regime “won” the national elections 100%, but the people of Ethiopia in different regions like Oromiya, Tigray, Amhara and Gambella are fighting for their rights? And people are killed and imprisoned in mass at whims. No one thinks this is what is expected of a popular party or regime. How can a regime that infiltrates, disbands and imprisons leaders of parties that it is believed to have the support of the people, a regime that stifles freedom of the press and throws journalists to jail and keeps its people at gunpoint be a popular one? In a country where the regime is claiming that the economy is growing double digit for 12 consecutive years and the income inequality is narrowing down to a small number, over ten million Ethiopians are waiting for handouts from the donor community. The so called growing economy could not even support starving Ethiopians for at least a year. I don’t think this too is a result of popular ruling party. The Ethiopian youth is fleeing in every direction from its country. Why do they flee from their “popular” government, Mr. President? As you very well know, none of the above is an indicator of a democratic government. Democracies are known for their political, economic and social stabilities.
I believe that you know very well James Meredith. Mr. president even if the authorities were hostile to him; he was able to enroll at the University of Mississippi by the order of the Supreme Court’s order. Even during the Apartheid, South African prisons had some trust on the judiciary. In Ethiopia, it is not when you are accused of terrorism that you know for how many years that you are to be sentenced. It is when you decide to join the opposition or to criticize the regime like journalists Eskinder Nega, Wubeshet Taye, Temesgen Desalenge and many other journalists, and gallant politicians like Bekle Gerba and Habtamu Ayalew and others who are paying dear price behind bars that you will know what is to come. It is not only the arrest warrant but also the verdict that comes out of palace. Institutions are used to perpetuate one party rule Mr. President. No one who loves his country tarnishes the image of his country. I love my country Mr. President, I am not doing that, but trying to show the cruel injustice from its cup even my sons’, and their mother are drinking the brunt of it. Four people were tortured to give false testimony against me. Two of them could not stand it, they did as they were trained and they were released subsequently. The remaining two Nathenael Mekonen and Kinfe Michael Debebe endured the torture however they are up to now suffering as a result of it. Both Natnael and KinfeMichael are sentenced to 18 and 16 years respectively. To put it bluntly Mr. President, we are in the dark. I am sorry that I could not join you in your praise of the regime as a popular one.
The modern time of Adwa
In your country, in 1865, John Wilkes Booth succeeded in assassinating Abraham Lincoln, but could not stop the dawning of a new era of racial justice. Because all men are created equal and his cause was not just. The Gandhi of India was able to win over independence from the British imperial rule, because the cause was just that all men are created equal. As you know Mr. President, Adolf Hitler could not succeed in his effort to establish the Aryan races because his cause was not just, “all men are created equal.” James Earl Ray assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but the sniper that killed him did not kill his dream and you Mr. President are the President of the United States of America as the embodiment of that dream because the cause of the assassin or any one behind him was not just, because “all men are created equal.” 120 years ago exactly this time, our great grandmothers and fathers stood in unison and defeated the Italian invading force, because our cause was just that all men are created equal. Nobody has the right to invade the land or the right of anybody.
Our great grandmother and fathers however were not in a position where they can be considered as men who are created equal at home. I take pride in our father’s peacekeeping missions in Korea and Congo and most of the current peacekeeping missions in different African countries. The irony is, Ethiopians who died and are dying in great number in other countries do not have a government they deem is their own. They have an unfinished assignment at home; like the civil right activists in the 60s in the United States, we truly believe in nonviolent struggle; it is not because we are very religious, but because we believe it is a potent weapon against dictatorship; to bring about lasting peace and development. I believe we will come out victorious in our struggle whatever it takes. Because our cause is just and all men are created equal. We are not terrorists, Mr. President; we are visionaries of true democracy and justice. We are freedom fighters. Like the battle of Adwa, our great grandmothers and fathers accomplished, which seemed impossible at that time, we believe we can also overcome tyranny and can write the history of modern Adwa by making Ethiopia an oasis of democracy, which I believe is a panacea for our problems. Many Ethiopians are paying untold sacrifices to make this dream come true, Mr. President.
We are not what our jailers call us. They know very well the goal of our struggle and the purity of our intentions. The thing is our goal is not theirs, nor is theirs’ ours. This is the basic issue. Dr. Martin Luther King once said that men of bad will are very smart in their usage of time and crafty at getting what they want. This is what our rulers are doing in Ethiopia. However, we will persevere and come out victorious at last.
You are casting tribute
Mr. President I am very mindful that safeguarding the interest of the people of the United States of America is your primary interest and responsibility. But as Dr. Martin Luther King said, mankind is tied up in a single garment of destiny. The goal of democracy and justice should be the goal of all humanity and this does not go against the inalienable rights of anyone, in fact, it goes in line with the lasting peace and prosperity of any country. Tyranny has never been sourced from any country nor will it be. The case of different dictators who are supported by different American governments is a case in point to prove that alliances with dictators are counterproductive. On the other hand, supporting the cause of democracy and justice is in line with the idea of your founding fathers and democratic rights cherished by Americans in your backyard. Mr. President, was Dr. Martin Luther King JR. wrong when he said “injustice is a threat to justice everywhere?” Does not this make sense in the globalized world in the 21stcentury? Do you believe that we should walk alone Mr. President?
Lack of support from democratic countries such as yours and the ever repressive acts of our rulers can delay the dawning of the sun of freedom in Ethiopia, but I have reaffirmed my faith in the struggle of the Ethiopian people that will not remain oppressed. Would I say that you have failed us Mr. President? No, I still believe you still have time, the good will and the urge to directly or indirectly use your political clout to help the cause of democracy and justice in Africa. Your lasting tribute, when it comes to Africa, I think should be related to not only the flesh, but also the spirit of the people who are stripped of their dignity in the hands of their rulers. Therefore, I would like to kindly bring into your attention, to please take your time to remember people, who are fighting for the cause of democracy and justice in Africa in general and in Ethiopia in particular and take the appropriate measures.
Andualem Aragie Wale
(Prisoner of conscience)
March 2, 2016
posted by daniel tsfaye