Friday, May 4, 2018

The assassination of Gezahegn Gebremeskel: Who killed the Ethiopian activist? | News | Africa | M&G

The target: Gezahegn Gebremeskel was a respected member of the Ethiopian diaspora community.
The target: Gezahegn Gebremeskel was a respected member of the Ethiopian diaspora community.

Zagbo Pascal saw it happen. He was on the corner of Kerk and Polly streets in downtown Johannesburg, hanging out with some friends, when a single gunshot rang out. It was 5pm on Saturday, April 21, still broad daylight, and the streets were busy with foot traffic.
This is not the first gunshot to be heard in the area, nor will it be the last. Reflexively, everyone on the street ducked. But one bullet was enough.
Pascal looked up, and saw a man slumped on the wooden benches outside Yamampela Fast Foods and just across from a discount supermarket. Blood was streaming from his neck. And someone — “a young boy, slim” — was sprinting away from the scene, aggressively waving a gun just in case anybody decided to be a hero.
[A single shot by the hitman left his body slumped on the bench in downtown Jo’burg (Paul Botes)]
He disappeared south down Polly Street, presumably into a getaway car and from there straight on to the highway. It was all so quick that Pascal didn’t get a look at the gunman’s face, or even his clothes.
Soon, a crowd of hundreds had gathered around the body; from the balconies of the flats above, voyeurs craned for a glimpse of the scene.
“It was horrible. Pitiful. He was lying there with blood coming out of his neck. There was no way we could help him,” said Pascal.
The police took 40 minutes to arrive, and another two hours to take away the body.
Pascal and two other witnesses — a waitress at Yamampela and a vegetable seller across the road — agree it wasn’t a robbery gone wrong. The dead man’s bag and wallet were left untouched, even though he had two expensive cellphones and R15 000 in cash on him.
A policeman, interviewed at the scene 10 days later, confirmed their assessment. He asked not to be named. “The gunman knew what he was doing. This was targeted,” he said. “This was a hit.”
Exile, activist, family man
Gezahegn Gebremeskel (48), also known as Gezahegn Nebro, was a family man. He lived in Johannesburg with his wife and two children, running a small trading business. Originally from Ethiopia, Gezahegn had lived for nearly two decades in South Africa after fleeing political persecution at home in the late 1990s.
He had become a pillar of the Ethiopian diaspora community, and was often the man to whom new arrivals turned for both practical and financial support. He was popular: at his funeral, thousands of mourners marched through the streets of Hillbrow, waving flags in Ethiopia’s national colours of red, green and yellow, and wearing T-shirts bearing Gezahegn’s likeness.
He was also an outspoken critic of the Ethiopian government, much to the irritation of the Ethiopian embassy in Pretoria. He believed that Ethiopia is stifling human rights and democracy — and he was not convinced that the new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, selected in response to widespread protests in Ethiopia, offered a much better alternative. He often participated in marches and demonstrations against the Ethiopian government.
On April 20, the night before he was murdered, Gezahegn attended an Ethiopian embassy event at the Hellenic Cyprus Club in Bedfordview, according to his friends. It was a meet and greet with a few South Korean businesspeople, and Gezahegn was not on the guest list — he had come to make trouble, as part of his political activism.
He was recognised by embassy security officials and ejected from the venue. There was a loud verbal altercation between him and embassy officials; later, when he was gone, the embassy apologised to their South Korean guests for the embarrassment caused.
At home that night, Gezahegn received a threatening message on social media. It was from an anonymous contact. The text went something like this: “Why don’t you just leave us alone? Just take care of your family otherwise we are going to make a plan for you.”
The next day he was dead.
And, although they might not know the identity of the gunman, his family and friends have no doubt about who ordered the hit.
“This is no ordinary killing. This is absolutely an assassination. More than 100% the Ethiopian government is to blame,” said Tamiru Abebe, a close friend, and head of the Ethiopian Community Association in South Africa. “Now we are all afraid.”
The Ethiopian embassy strongly denies these allegations.
Diaspora shock waves
This would not be the first time a foreign government has been accused of an extrajudicial killing on South African soil. “It’s the same as what happened in the Michelangelo,” said Tamiru.
On New Year’s Day, Patrick Karegeya was found dead in his suite in the luxury Michelangelo Hotel in Sandton. He had been strangled during a bloody struggle. Karegeya was once Rwanda’s chief of external intelligence but he fell out with President Paul Kagame and had fled into exile in South Africa, where he established a small opposition movement. Civil society groups have blamed the Rwandan government for his assassination, although it denies these claims.
Another prominent Rwandan exile, former army general Kayumba Nyamwasa, has survived several attempts on his life, for which he too blames the Rwandan government.
[Flowers left by the community near where Gezahegn died (Paul Botes)]
Karegeya’s death, compounded by the relatively quiet reaction from the South African government, sent shock waves through all diaspora communities. The message was clear: even in South Africa, with its fabled Constitution and rule of law and relative prosperity, opponents of authoritarian African regimes are not safe. Gezahegn’s death is another clear message, says Tamiru — especially given the timing, just the day after the confrontation at the Ethiopian embassy event.
“They could have waited weeks, or even months. But by killing him the next day, they are sending a message to others. They think that, by killing him, others will back away from this struggle.”
South Africa’s department of international relations and co-operation said it “is difficult to comment on speculation. The police are busy investigating.”
‘Criminal act’
The Ethiopian embassy offers a very different version of events. In a written response to the Mail & Guardian, the embassy strongly denied any involvement with Gezahegn’s murder and offered condolences to his family.
It also disputed that Gezahegn was denied entry to the Hellenic Cyprus Club event. “While the seminar was about to conclude, Mr Gezahegn came to attend the session and was allowed to enter the auditorium without any problems. After a while he decided to leave the place by his own decision and was saying that he didn’t know the event was a training seminar and he was not interested. No one has forcibly removed him at all.”
The embassy said opponents of the Ethiopian government were taking advantage of Gezahegn’s death to orchestrate “a media campaign to tarnish the good name and reputation of the embassy and its staff members”.
“On top of being morally unacceptable, aiming to politically profit from such a sorrowful event can only obscure the investigation process which can lead towards exposing the actual culprits in this criminal act,” said the embassy.
Like father, like daughter
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Berea, perched on a hill behind the Ellis Park Stadium, serves a dual purpose: it is a place of worship but also a hub for the city’s large Ethiopian diaspora community. Days after the funeral, Gezahegn’s family, including his mother who flew in from Addis Ababa, sit on a raised dais outside the church, dressed in black mourning robes.
Plastic chairs are laid out for the mourners who are still streaming into the church to pay their respects to Gezahegn’s wife and children. The family faces an uncertain future. Organisations are collecting money to help them financially.
Funds have also been raised to pay for a private investigator, because neither the family nor the Ethiopian Community Association has any faith in the South African Police Service.
For Gezahegn’s wife, Meskrem Berhane Dessta, her emotions are still raw. “I cannot talk. I am very, very sad.”
With a fierce determination that belies her age, 12-year-old Melat speaks for the family: “My dad was doing the right thing. He was fighting for freedom. His words were true, his promises were true. He sacrificed for everyone, even for people he didn’t know. That’s who my dad was.”
Like father, like daughter, she vows to continue his fight, no matter who killed him. “They thought that, by killing my father, others will back off. But it’s not going to help. It’s just going to make us fight for more.”

Thursday, March 15, 2018

'Freedom!': the mysterious movement that brought Ethiopia to a standstill -guardian

Qeerroo – young Oromo activists – drove the mass strike that helped topple the prime minister of one of Africa’s most autocratic governments
Supporters of Bekele Gerba, secretary general of the Oromo Federalist Congress, celebrate his release from prison, in Adama, Ethiopia on 14 February 2018.
 Supporters of Bekele Gerba, secretary general of the Oromo Federalist Congress, celebrate his release from prison, in Adama, February 2018. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
Today, Desalegn is a banker. But once he was a Qeerroo: a young, energetic and unmarried man from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, bound by what he calls a “responsibility to defend the people”.
Twelve years ago he helped organise mass protests against an election result he and many others believed the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) had rigged. This landed him in prison, along with thousands of others, on terrorism charges.
Since then he has married and, like many of his generations in Ethiopia, mostly avoided politics. That was until 12 February, when he joined almost everyone in the town of Adama, and in many others cities across the region of Oromia, in a strike calling for the release of opposition leaders and an end to authoritarianism.The boycott, which lasted three days and brought much of central Ethiopia to a standstill, culminated on 13 February with the release of Bekele Gerba, a prominent Oromo politician who lives in Adama, and, within 48 hours, the sudden resignation of Ethiopia’s beleaguered prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn. The shaken federal government then declared a nationwide state-of-emergency on 15 February, the second in as many years.“It was a total shutdown,” says Desalegn, of the strike in Adama. “Almost everybody took part – including government offices. You wouldn’t have even been able to find a shoeshine boy here.”
For him and many other residents of Adama, about 90km south-east of the capital, Addis Ababa, there is only one explanation for how a normally quiescent town finally joined the uprising that has billowed across much of Oromia and other parts of Ethiopia since late 2014: the Qeerroo.
Police fire tear gas to disperse protesters during the Oromo festival of Irreecha, in Bishoftu, Ethiopia, in October, 2016
 Police fire teargas to disperse protesters during the Oromo festival of Irreecha, in Bishoftu, October 2016. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
Who the Qeerroo are, and how they have helped bring one of Africa’s strongest and most autocratic governments to its knees, is only dimly understood.
In traditional Oromo culture the term denotes a young bachelor. But today it has broader connotations, symbolising both the Oromo movement – a struggle for more political freedom and for greater ethnic representation in federal structures – and an entire generation of newly assertive Ethiopian youth.
“They are the voice of the people,” explains Debela, a 32-year-old taxi driver in Adama who says he is too old to be one but that he supports their cause. “They are the vanguard of the Oromo revolution.”
The term’s resurgence also reflects the nature of Oromo identity today, which has grown much stronger since Ethiopia’s distinct model of ethnically based federalism was established by the EPRDF in 1994.
“In the past even to be seen as Oromo was a crime,” says Desalegn, of the ethnic assimilation policies pursued by the two preceding Ethiopian regimes, imperial and communist. “But now people are proud to be Oromo … So the Qeerroos are emboldened.”
As the Oromo movement has grown in confidence in recent years, so the role of the Qeerroo in orchestrating unrest has increasingly drawn the attention of officials.
At the start of the year police announced plans to investigate and crack down on the Qeerroo, arguing that it was a clandestine group bent on destabilising the country and seizing control of local government offices. Party sympathisers accused members of being terrorists.
Bekele Gerba waves to his supporters after his release from prison in Adama, Ethiopia on 13 February 2018.
 Bekele Gerba waves to his supporters after his release from prison in Adama, on 13 February. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
Though many dispute this characterisation, few doubt the underground strength of the Qeerroo today.
Since the previous state of emergency was lifted last August, Qeerroo networks have been behind multiple strikes and protests in different parts of Oromia, despite obstacles like the total shutdown of mobile internet in all areas beyond the capital since the end of last year.
Bekele Gerba, the opposition leader, credits the Qeerroo with securing his release from prison, and for sending hundreds of well-wishers to his home in Adama in the aftermath. But like many older activists, he confesses to limited knowledge of how they organise themselves.
“I only became aware of them relatively recently,” he says. “We don’t know who the leadership is and we don’t know if they have a central command.”
But in a recent interview with the Guardian, two local leaders in Adama, Haile and Abiy (not their real names), shed light on their methods.
According to the two men, who are both in their late 20s, each district of the city has one Qeerroo leader, with at least 20 subordinates, all of whom are responsible for disseminating messages and information about upcoming strikes.
They say their networks have become better organised in recent months, explaining that there is now a hierarchical command chain and even a single leader for the whole of Oromia. “This gives us discipline and allows us to speak with one voice,” says Abiy.
Their job has become more difficult in the absence of the internet.
“With social media you can disseminate the message in seconds,” says Abiy. “Now it can take two weeks, going from door to door.” Instead of using WhatsApp and Facebook, they now distribute paper flyers, especially on university campuses.
The role of Oromo activists among the diaspora, especially those in the US, also remains crucial, despite the shutdown.
Zecharias Zelalem, an Ethiopian journalist based in Canada, argues that it is thanks to prominent social media activists that the Qeerroo have acquired the political heft that youth movements in other parts of the country still lack. He highlights in particular the work of Jawar Mohammed, the controversial founder of the Minnesota-based Oromia Media Network (which is banned in Ethiopia), in amplifying the voice of the Qeerroo even when internet is down.
“[Jawar] gives us political analyses and advice,” Haile explains. “He can get access to information even from inside the government, which he shares with the Qeerroos. We evaluate it and then decide whether to act on it.”
He and Abiy both dismiss the assumption, widespread in Ethiopia, that Jawar remote-controls the protests. “The Qeerroos are like a football team,” counters Haile. “Jawar may be the goalkeeper – helping and advising – but we are the strikers.”
Supporters of Bekele Gerba, secretary general of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), chant slogans to celebrate Gerba’s release from prison
 Supporters of Bekele Gerba chant slogans to celebrate Gerba’s release from prison. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
The reimposition of the state-of-emergency has angered many Qeerroos in Adama and elsewhere in Oromia, where the move was widely seen as heavy-handed bid to reverse the protesters’ momentum.
Some analysts fear further repression will push members of a still mostly peaceful political movement towards violence and extremism.
Many in the government, as well as in other parts of the country, worry about a rise in ethnically motivated attacks, on people and property, and especially on ethnic Tigrayans, who make up about 6% of the population but are generally considered to dominate politics and business.
Late last year federal troops were dispatched to university campuses, in large part due to escalating ethnic violence, which included several deaths. There were reports of similar incidents during protests throughout the past month.
Jibril Ummar, a local businessman and activist, says that he and others tried to ensure the protests in Adama were peaceful, calming down overexcited young men who wanted to damage property and attack non-Oromos.
“It worries me,” he admits. “There’s a lack of maturity. When you are emotional you put the struggle in jeopardy.”
Gerba says he worries about violence, too, including of the ethnic kind. “We know for sure that Tigrayans are targeted most, across the country. This concerns me very much and it is something that has to be worked on.”
In the coming days the EPRDF will decide on a new prime minister, and many hope it will be someone from the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), the Oromo wing of the ruling coalition.
This might placate some of the Qeerroo, at least in the short term. But it is unlikely to be enough on its own to dampen the anger.
“When we are married we will retire from the Qeerroo,” says Haile. “But we will never do that until we get our freedom.”