Students enrolled in service learning courseIL 152 International Human Rights/PO390 Politics Seminar recently hosted a “Free Dr. Gerba Week” to illuminate the plight of Scholar At Risk (SAR) Professor Bekele Gerba and his situation in Ethiopia.
Students of Dr. Janie Leatherman, professor of politics and international studies and Dr. Alfred Babo, sociology and international studies professor, have taken up the case of Professor Bekele Gerba, a foreign language professor at the University of Addis Ababa. At the time of his arrest, Dr. Gerba held the position of First Secretary General of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), a political party. He is a nonviolent activist, who has promoted nonviolent action and translated materials on nonviolence, such as by Martin Luther King.
Free Dr. Gerba Week kicked off with a Snapchat takeover, a #Free Gerba photo booth and Ethiopian food. Day two featured a student panel in Loyola followed by a research symposium in the library. A petition was made available throughout the week which concluded with a cupcake give away.
Dr. Leatherman said Fairfield students’ advocacy efforts have helped to bring international attention to Dr. Bekele Gerba’s case. “Students were successful in raising student awareness on campus about rights to education and freedoms necessary to exercise it, such as freedom of speech.” Dr. Janie Leatherman continued, “The CT Post's coverage of their campaign was also instrumental in spreading awareness not only locally or state-wide but also internationally.” That article was republished in Europe and Ethiopia press, and via other major African news sites.
Through advocacy work and while examining basic human rights, philosophy, principles, instruments and institutions in a global context, students have learned about human rights abuses in Ethiopia and Dr. Bekele Gerba’s case, specifically the mistreatment of the Oromo people, Gerba’s leadership of their nonviolent movement and more recent episodes of oppression and killings by the government. The research they have conducted for Scholars at Risk includes a background on the history and government of Ethiopia, its current geo-strategic relations, foreign policy, domestic politics, and other concerns, such as the famine Ethiopia currently is facing in parts of the country.
Students are preparing an advocacy report on Dr. Gerba that will assist Scholars at Risk in its work to highlight his case internationally, advocate for him, and endeavor to protect his human rights and ultimately secure his release and safety. Through this process, students gain skills in research, writing, communication, teamwork and advocacy, and a specialized understanding of human rights violations in the context of higher education.
The students have carried out research on four stakeholders: UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the US Department of State's Bureau of Human Rights, Democracy and Labor, the European Parliament and the African Union.
Last year, Dr. Leatherman and her students were asked by Scholars at Risk to help work on policy research surrounding the case of Dr. Mohammad Hossein Rafiee, a retired Iranian chemistry professor, who had been imprisoned in Tehran. His case that was fraught with layers of complexities, decades of sanctions on Iran and the nuclear accord. In September, after spending 15 months prison, Dr. Rafiee was released on medical furlough and was allowed to recuperate at home, without guards. Scholars at Risk Advocacy Director, Clare Farne Robinson said Fairfield’s research and advocacy were “instrumental in moving Dr. Rafiee's case forward.”
Recognizing the efforts of Dr. Leatherman’s and Dr. Babo’s students on behalf of Dr. Gerba, Robinson said, “I have been thoroughly impressed with the students' commitment to this case, the leadership they've demonstrated in their actions, and their creative advocacy.”
Ostensibly intended to quell unrest perpetrated by “anti-peace” forces, Ethiopia’s extension of a state of emergency in March signals a continued crackdown on the country’s restive and aggrieved population. This repression disproportionately affects 65 million Ethiopian youth, who make up more than two-thirds of the country’s total population. Such brutality has increasingly left these young people—Ethiopia’s greatest asset or, conversely, a massive liability—a choice between two dangerous options: escape or rebel.
As is the case elsewhere in Africa, Ethiopia’s youth bulge is a double-edged sword. It strains scant natural resources and limited infrastructure, but, if harnessed, could be a boon to the country’s economy and the foreign companies looking to outsource operations there. But the government’s stubborn refusal to reform undermines prospects for its increasingly educated and connected youth to stay and prosper in Ethiopia. Moreover, the violent nature of the government’s clampdown has extinguished nearly all avenues for youth to legally and peacefully express their grievances, creating the conditions for violent rebellion.
Young Ethiopians are increasingly able to afford and access the internet, where they flock to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, or connect with friends and relatives on messaging applications like WhatsApp. Access to mobile data has given even Ethiopia’s rural youth a window into the political transformations taking place across the Middle East and Africa, as well as across their own country since sporadic protests began last year. The internet also serves as a conduit to broadcast malfeasance by the country’s security forces—social media was a key tool for disseminating photos and videos of the bloody crackdown on protesters to the diaspora and international activist organizations. That explains why the government has so frequently blocked the internet.
Since April 2014, Ethiopians have been taking to the streets intermittently to demand political reforms and express their discontent over issues like ethnic marginalization, insufficient land rights, corruption, and the government’s ruthless suppression of independent media and opposition groups. What started as a movement led by the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, quickly metastasized to include a coalition that crossed regional, ethnic and religious lines.
Momentum peaked last fall, when demonstrations occurred in at least 200 towns across Oromia region and dozens more in Amhara. Ethiopians of all ages turned out, though students were especially well-represented in organizing and participating in the protests. Moreover, most of those killed in the bloody aftermath were youth.
Such brutality has increasingly left young people—Ethiopia’s greatest asset or, conversely, a massive liability—a choice between two dangerous options: escape or rebel.
In response to the unrest, security forces fired live ammunition into crowds of demonstrators, provoking a deadly stampede in at least one case. Rumors of security forces raiding houses in the dead of night or bursting into classrooms to look for the protest ringleaders swirled; gruesome images of bloodied protesters, some allegedly found murdered, circulated on social media.
In October, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced a six-month state of emergency, granting sweeping powers to the police and military to quell the unrest. In an apparent win for demonstrators, the government simultaneously announced that it would enter dialogue with Ethiopia’s opposition groups to identify key political reforms. However, little progress has emerged from those talks, and the opposition’s participation appears shakier every day.
The past year’s unrest coupled with internet blackouts has damaged Ethiopia’s reputation as a haven for foreign investment, which previously contributed to some of the highest annual growth rates in Africa. But providing alternative opportunities for Ethiopia’s urban-dwelling college graduates—who find agriculture, the mainstay of Ethiopia’s economy, unappealing—remains a pressing challenge in a country where urban unemployment is already 18 percent.
Ethiopians, like other African migrants, already undertake the dangerous journey to Europe or the Gulf to join friends and relatives and to seek employment. While government repression has caused thousands to seek asylum outside the country, economic conditions have had the same result—so much so that the United Kingdom, European Union and World Bank announced a $500 million project to create jobs and stem migration from Ethiopia in 2016. Young people, and especially high-skilled workers, make up a worryingly large portion of this migration.
To date, Ethiopia has successfully fended off the kind of open conflict seen in neighboring South Sudan and Somalia. It has also successfully immunized itself against the Islamist terrorism that bedevils Somalia and Kenya, and there is little evidence to suggest that Ethiopia’s Muslim community is open to the radical ideology of either al-Qaida or al-Shabab. The brutal murder of more than a dozen Ethiopian migrants by the so-called Islamic State in Libya last year, for example, prompted overwhelming national anger and mourning.
Ethiopia has also resisted attempts by secessionist movements seeking to impose their political agendas through violence. Long-running but low-level insurgent campaigns continue in the country’s hinterlands, though the military in concert with regional militias have for the most part neutralized those threats. The military remains on high alert for sporadic flare-ups along the Eritrean border, which broke away from Ethiopia after a deadly three-decades-long war and remains an uneasy neighbor.
A large and capable military, strong border controls, advanced surveillance capabilities and an extensive human intelligence network have been integral to Ethiopia’s success in preventing both terrorism and homegrown rebellions. But too often, the Ethiopian government conflates legal political opposition or activism with membership in banned groups, allowing security forces and Ethiopia’s courts to treat all demonstrators as terrorists. Doing so exacerbates decades of ethnic, religious and political marginalization. In the end, these tactics may create the very rebellion they seek to quash.
A recent series of grenade attacks that targeted a university and two hotels follow an unsolved 2015 grenade attack on an Addis Ababa mosque that killed more than a dozen people. Should the Ethiopian government continue to dismiss nationwide discontent, these now-isolated violent incidents could become the new normal. Time is running out for the government to prove its interest in listening to its aggrieved youth—and the consequences of not doing so are dire.
Kelsey Lilley is associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
The report praises security forces for showing restraint during a traditional celebration on 2 October last year when dozens died following a stampede.
It however recommends prosecution of some individual police officers for their actions, the following day, when dozens are believed to have been shot dead.
Earlier, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn had for the first time rejected calls by the UN and EU for independent investigations into the deaths saying the country was able to carry out the investigations itself.
Mr Hailemariam told the BBC's Emmanuel Igunza that an investigation by the Human Rights Commission, a body created by the constitution, was the only way of dealing with the issue.
He said that the commission was an independent institution but admitted that it "lacked capacity" and said that it could be strengthened.
He added that Ethiopia's sovereignty should be respected and rejected the call for external investigations.
Zeid Raad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, last year called for international observers to investigate the killings after accusing security forces of using live ammunition against protesters in the Amhara and Oromia regions.
A call that was reiterated by the EU in October and repeated last week.