North American office: P. O. Box 53022, Medford MA 02153. U. S. A


Human rights week observance and electronic mail conference

Violation of Human Rights of Ethiopians by the Tigray People's Liberation Front


Getachew Haile, Professor

St. Johns University, Minnesota, USA


During the last six years, under the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), Ethiopia has been looted to its bare bones by a small group of Ethiopians in collaboration with certain former Ethiopians. The TPLF has literally given away the country's economic resources to itself, to its allies and to its home province of Tigray, at the expense of all of the rest of Ethiopia. Should anyone dare to challenge the TPLF's policies, he or she comes up against a ruthless dictatorship which has no use for democracy, the rule of law or human rights. To make things worse, this regime -- unlike the Derg before it and unlike other repressive regimes around the world -- enjoys the support of the West and is thus especially difficult to challenge.

All of this is not reason to despair, but rather reason to reaffirm our commitment to fight for our fundamental human rights and to be smarter in the methods we use. We must understand what the TPLF is all about, including who its supporters are, and we must work intelligently, creatively and in unity to replace its one-party rule with true democracy.

The List is Long and Severe. Let me begin with a few examples of what the TPLF is all about.

(1) The TPLF has violated our right to live together as a nation by dividing our country into killillands and limiting our freedom of movement by quarantining us in them. Let us not forget considering this as a gross violation of human rights because the TPLF has done it against our will.

(2) Ethiopia's economy has become the sole property of the TPLF and Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). The two fronts have established business empires in Ethiopia that blur the line between state and private ownership and cooperation, thus forcing legitimate private businesses into bankruptcy (see Assefa Negash, The Pillage of Ethiopia by Eritrean and Their Tigrean Surrogates, 1995; and Awualom Aynekulu, "The Emerging Monopolies of the TPLF," Ethiopian Register (EtR), July and August, 1996).

(3) Farmers, who constitute 85% of the population, live and work on land that, as a result of the TPLF's 1994 constitution, is owned by the state. This means that rural people are the TPLF's tenants and squatters, who risk losing their lands if they criticize or anger the TPLF. Faced with this possibility, how can these subsistence farmers ever vote for non-TPLF candidates? For them it is a matter of life and death.

(4) Houses and other properties nationalized and/or confiscated by the Derg have been returned to their owners in Tigray, the home of the ruling ethnic group, but not to the majority of the population of the other provinces. This is a fact that cannot be denied. See also Bourqa Bokan's "The Housing Privileges of TPLF Officials and Supporters", EtR, January 1997.

(5) The rents in government owned shops, which should have been returned to their original owners, have been raised dramatically, some as high as one thousand percent. See the Ethiopian Human Rights Council's (EHRCO's) special Report 4, 1996, Sept. 17, 1996, reported in EtR, October 1996.

(6) Downsizing of government departments and agencies, required by international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, has become an uncontested excuse for dismissing thousands of government employees, only to give their jobs to Tigreans and Eritreans a few days later. A case in point is what happened to the officers of the Ethiopian Telecommunication. See also EHRCO's 11th Report, reprinted in EtR, January 1997.

(7) A friend who teaches at a medical school in an African country wrote me last month that he was recently approached by the registrar of the school who requested that my friend help him in identifying the girls from the boys from a list of names of Ethiopian students who would be coming on government scholarship to study medicine in that school, for the purpose of assigning the students to dormitories. According to my friend, the names appeared to be all Tigrean. While this is anecdotal evidence, it is not isolated; I have received similar reports from several countries. The aim of TPLF's Ethiopian education is to training Tigreans rather than all Ethiopians.

(8) The TPLF's drive to loot the country is buttressed by its repressive political tactics. Its jails are teeming with political prisoners. Many of these prisoners are detained without court order and are kept in jail without seeing a judge as long as the TPLF police want. Indeed, the number of such prisoners is so high that even if they were brought to court, their chance of appearing before a judge is slim because there are not as enough judges. According to EHRCO's Special Report of January 14, 1997, "The Investigation Department on its own authority detained Ato Taye for 14 days and Ato Anteneh for 11 days and then brought them to court for the first time on December 6, 1996. Nevertheless, they were returned to prison without appearing before a judge because it was said that the court would only see cases for which previous adjournments had been made" (EtR, February 1997). The scarcity of judges is not due to lack of trained legal professionals who can serve as judges, as the TPLF alleges but because the TPLF has determined that only Tigrean lawyers shall be appointed to such positions in place of the more than 400 judges which the TPLF dismissed last year for political (tribal) reason. Some of these, e.g., Taddese Atnafu, Berhanu Gebre Mikael, Milion Chernet, Belachew Antuan, Belayneh Mammo, Bisrat Mekonnen, Bekalu Tilahun, Mehrete Ab Le'ul, Abate Yimer, Bisrat Hamelmal, Abdella Ali, Fanta Ayele, Wonduante Negash and Nesibu Chako, may be know to many of you from your and their university days. They received their law degrees with distinction. At present, the court has virtually ceased to function while at the same time in jails all over the country are overflown with new by people of conscious horded and added to the others each day.

(9) It is particularly painful to report on the treatment of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in detention. For example, when Dr. Taye Wolde Semayat, President of the Ethiopian Teachers' Association (ETA), briefly appeared before a judge on October 14. 1996, he described how the prison administration was harassing him by repeatedly taking him out of his prison cell to interrogate him despite the fact that the police had completed their investigation. He complained that whenever a news story about him appeared in the press, he was taken out for questioning, insulted and threatened by his interrogators. Dr. Taye's defense counsel also complained to the court about the prison administration, stating that he and his staff were repeatedly denied access to his client. At his subsequent court appearance on October 25, Dr. Taye complained that he was being kept in tightly screwed handcuffs day and night in a dirty prison cell unfit for human habitation. He told the court that the guards began keeping him in handcuffs, even while he ate and slept, in revenge for his earlier complaints.

(10) Such complaint have evidently only pushed the TPLF to treat such prisoners even more poorly. For example, the TPLF has now imposed restrictions on such prisoners' right to receive visitors not applicable to other prisoners. As a result, prisoners such as, Dr. Taye Wolde Semayat and the All Amhara People's Organization's (AAPO's) central committee members (e.g. Professor Asrat Woldeyes, Captain Getachew Mengiste, Ato Ali Endris, Colonel Getahun Ejjigu, Ato Wondayehu Kassa and Ato Girma Enqwe Selassie) are allowed visitors only on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and only for a period of thirty minutes.

(11) According to Tobiya (Nov. 96), over the last four years, 28 of the TPLF's detainees have died, mainly for lack of adequate medical treatment and due to poor sanitary conditions within TPLF's prisons. The names of these 28 victims have been reprinted in EtR's December 1996 issue. Many of the over one thousand inmates have been detained for 3 to 5 years without being formally charged.

(12) The TPLF's crimes go largely unreported because it exercises near total control over the press. Worse, the local independent press is gagged by the repressive press law, which was laid down by TPLF law makers and which is interpreted by TPLF legal scholars when "violators" are taken by TPLF security men to TPLF courts. Ethiopia today has more journalists in its prisons than any other African country.

(13) Finally, the TPLF's desire to control the country does not stop at the political arena. I assume that most of us are aware of what happened to worshippers at St. John's Church in Addis Ababa on January 12 of this year. The service and the ceremony went peacefully and solemnly until the voice of Dr. Paulos -- the patriarch whom the TPLF appointed but the populace have roundly rejected -- was suddenly heard through the loud speaker. The worshippers protested his preaching, which led to the arrest and torture of many among them. Most of the detainees were released following 36 hours of grueling punishment and after being required to pledge not to ever appear at churches (EtR, February 1997). Preventing religious freedom in this way, not only violates religious sanctuaries, such as those in Gondar and Addis Ababa, it is a phenomena that is new in our country's history.

These are just a few examples from the TPLF record. Sadly, despite their undemocratic and abusive rule, the looters carry on with no fear of any consequence. Those who might lead the resistance to these dictators are divided into groups which so far seem to have determined not to be on speaking terms. Worse, would be oppositionists have been affirmatively slandering one another with accusations such as "They (the other groups) are no better than the Derg." "They (the other groups) are no better than the TPLF."

Our Heroes

Fortunately, we are nowhere near despondency. The history of Ethiopia shows that our country never lacked heroes at critical moments. For example, Ras Abebe Aregay was a simple balambaras when the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1936. Belay Zeleke styled himself Atse Begulbetu and, coming from nowhere, kept most of Gojjam free throughout the Italian occupation of 1936-1941. The list goes on and on.

How about today? Ethiopia's heroes are not deterred by time and circumstances. TPLF's and EPLF's jails in Addis Ababa, Meqele, Asmara, and other cities have been turned into halls of fame of our present day heroes. Again, I cannot list the thousands of such heroes in a short note such as this one. As examples, however, we may mention:

Professor Asrat, President of AAPO, though world famous in his field as a surgeon, has never been a politician. Out of nowhere, he has now become TPLF's number one enemy. He peacefully opposed the destruction of our country with full knowledge of the consequences of his position. A national hero is he or she who worries less for his or her own safety when challenging a national enemy. This is what Professor Asrat did.

Ato Aberra Yemane-Ab went to Addis Ababa, representing the Coalition of the Ethiopian Democratic Forces (COEDF) to oppose peacefully the TPLF/EPLF's destruction of our country, leaving behind his secure life with his family in the United States. A national hero is he or she who worries less for his/her safety and the well-being of those who depend on him or her when challenging a national enemy. This is what Ato Aberra did.

Fitorari Mekonnen Dori demanded that he and the group he represented, the Southern Coalition, exercise their rights, which are enshrined in TPLF's constitution. When he stood up for his rights, he was aware that the TPLF had established a dictatorship that would not hesitate to act against him; he understood what the TPLF might do to him. A national hero is he or she who is not deterred by the possible consequences of challenging a national enemy. This is what Fitorari Mekonnen Dori did.

Dr. Taye Wolde Semayat, the President of the ETA, went back to Ethiopia from his European tour to continue his peaceful struggle for the rights of ETA, and the rights of independent labor unions. He had tangible proof in his hands as to what the TPLF had in store for him upon his return to his people. A national hero is one who does not think about his or her safety when confronting the national enemy. This is exactly what Dr. Taye Wolde Semayat did.

Each of these individuals stood up for the rights of all Ethiopians without regard for their own personal safety, as have hundreds of others harassed, fired, detained or jailed by the TPLF. We are proud of them; our heroes have made us proud. It is now time for us to make them proud of us.

Brutality of the TPLF Regime

I have described the brutality of TPLF as one who has devoted all of his spare time and more monitoring the human rights situation in Ethiopia today and cooperating with others to investigate and publicize these violations. I do not mean to imply that the world has not known equally repressive regimes; obviously it has, and it continues to do so. My concern is that Western nations, which purport to respect human rights and which make human rights a principle for developing their foreign policies, refuse to see or to admit to the reality in Ethiopia. Rather they have become TPLF/EPLF's devout advocates. So, while the world is united in its condemnation of Hyanmar or Nigeria or Zaire, the TPLF enjoys the support and silence of the West. As a result, the TPLF have turned into silent killers of Ethiopians, like a leaking gas pipe in one's home. As a result of the West's policy towards Ethiopia, the international press is silent about the human right abuses of the TPLF.

The looting of the country and the human rights abuses I mentioned earlier speak for themselves, and yet the West has abandoned Ethiopia; or more accurately, it has not left Ethiopia alone. Its affirmative protection of the TPLF, which involves putting a positive spin or interpretation on much of what is going on in Ethiopia, makes the TPLF formidable political foe.


Why is the West against the Ethiopian people? That is a legitimate question.

The answer may lie in part in the hypocrisy the West has so often shown when dealing with Africa. But it is no longer a question that interests me, or should interest you. For the last six years we have been asking the same question, and what have we accomplished? Why waste any more time one methods that clearly do not work? How often should one try to fetch water with a bucket that has a big hole at the bottom? Those who inherited the dignity of their ancestors, do not go back to where they have been turned down once, unless they are invited.

The job of liberating our country is ours and ours alone. In the process we may need material help, but not proxies who struggle in our place. Freedom is worth struggling for. We can do many things to save our country and defend our rights to live in a democracy. For example, we can forgo a range of pleasures to save money to support human rights organizations, the local independent press or any one of many opposition groups. Let us do as much as we can. Each of us should make a commitment to contribute regularly to the organization of our choice and abide by that commitment.

Let us respectfully refuse to listen to people who, even of the best of intentions, tell us that unity against our enemies is not, and cannot be, possible. Let us not blame these pessimists for they might have good reasons to be nervous about an alliance with every self proclaimed enemy of the TPLF. After all, we are all victims of people who today are in exile as we are and live amongst us. It is difficult to suppress suspicion, grief, anger and differing political views, which is what unity requires. But the rancor and differences among the five hundred South African groups which came together to fight the white minority were no less significant than those among our handful of opposition groups.

The TPLF must go by all means; it has degraded us. We have to recover our human dignity; we must demand those rights. The TPLF's efforts to deny our demand reflect a dictator's decision to try to relegate us to subhuman status; it is crime against humanity.

There are people among us who fear that this vicious gang could be replaced by another group which will install yet another dictatorship. The fear is legitimate but only to a point. What better deterrent to the emergence of dictatorship is there than forging unity on equal terms now? Fear of replacing the TPLF with one or the other of existing opposition groups should not reduce the intensity of our opposition to the TPLF.

Unity and...

What shall we do? Well, we have, first and foremost, to face and accept reality. An honest assessment of where we are will help us find the right strategy to overcome our problems. And the reality is this: the TPLF and its Western supporters are not disturbed in the least by the arguments made and voices raised in an insulated room of the Ethiopian community. We have to shift gear: we must join the political organizations of the countries we are in, at the local and national level. Let us be active members in and leaders of such organizations. It is only then that we will be heard. How many of us have written letters to the US State Department about the TPLF's human rights violations in Ethiopia? Such letters can make a difference only when we are involved in local politics: reportedly, at least in part because of a letter written by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to the former Secretary of State Warren Christopher at the occasion of his February visit to Ethiopia and other African countries, Mr. Christopher refused to hold a joint press conference with Ato Meles Zenawi in protest to the latter's suppression of Ethiopians' right to freely express their political views.

Another example of the potential power we have, involves the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The Association has taken a prominent position in the protests against the April 1993 dismissal of over 42 Addis Ababa University professors because of their suspected political views. The Association took this stand, as I am told, because an Ethiopian with ties to the Association was successful in convincing the Association that it should oppose publicly the destruction the TPLF did and continues to do to the Ethiopian scientific community.

As for the situation at the home front, the strategy we should adopt must be different. We must prepare the people to be ungovernable. The last six years have taught us that we have to learn the language the TPLF understands if we want to communicate with it. We speak to the TPLF with the language of democracy, but the TPLF speaks, as Ato Meles Zenawi has put it, with the language of the high season.

Before Conclusion

Before conclusion, I feel that I must raise one more very serious matter though it may not be directly related to the theme of the conference. It is now the practice of the TPLF to use the same razor in shaving the heads of several detainees. My concern is that at a time when the transmission of AIDS alarmingly high, especially in Ethiopia, the use of unsterilized razors needlessly exposes many people to the possibility of infection with AIDS. We must make every effort to publicize this utter disregard for public health and take all possible steps to pressure the TPLF to stop the practice.