Open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama

Monday, October 13, 2014

By Abebe Gellaw

Note: Upon the invitation of the Democratic National Committee, I had another opportunity to attend an exlusive event with President Obama. He spoke about the opportunities and challenges that his administration is taking up at home and abroad. In the October 10 event held at The W Hotel in downtown San Francisco, I took the golden opportunity to hand the following letter to a White House aide, who promised to deliver it to the President. In any case, here it is in a form of an open letter to President Obama.

….

President Barack Obama

1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW,

Washington, DC 20500

Mr. President,

First and foremost, I would like to express my sincere appreciation to you for taking some bold steps to inspire the future leaders of Africa. The Mandela Washington Fellowship, which aims to bring 500 bright and visionary young African leaders to the White House and Capitol Hill annually for a unique experience and learning, is arguably one of the best initiatives that the government of the United States has ever taken.

I am sure many Africans support such an initiative because the future and hope of the African continent hinges upon new breed of visionary leaders that are willing to boldly take risks to lead Africa out of the darkness of brutal tyranny and corruption into the sunshine of freedom, dignity, justice and democracy. Some of these young dreamers and visionaries you are trying to inspire will certainly follow the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Mandela.

If African nations suffering under tyrannies are to get out of the quagmire of abject poverty, ignorance,  corruption, abuse of power and the indignity they are suffering at the hands of its own rulers, a new breed of African leaders with selfless mindsets have to take the lead. However, we should also remember that countless young visionary Africans who could have joined the coveted fellowship cannot even apply because most are thrown in harsh jails, some are killed and many are tortured and abused because of their views and the beautiful dreams they cherish.

Mr. President, it would be disingenuous of me if I am remiss to raise the serious concerns that freedom fighters and activists like myself are expressing in the aftermath of the African Leadership Summit that you hosted last August.  While the summit should be applauded as the first ever U.S.-Africa summit aimed at engaging African rulers, the list of guests was truly disturbing.

Just to mention a few among many, Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola even Ethiopia’s Hailemariam Desalegn, who is the front man for TPLF’s brutal regime, are among the worst human rights abusers in the continent that are shedding the blood of so many innocent people and terrorizing their own people to sustain their tyranny and corruption. Africa’s biggest obstacles to progress and change are its own abusive rulers. Without respect for human rights, progress and development has little meaning because it is not the aspiration of any nation to starve and die dispossessed of dignity in silence and fear.

Mr. President, it is true that some African countries are registering some progress. But in so many countries like Ethiopia, where crony capitalism is on the rise, the hyped up progress and development is driven by a greedy ethnocentric ruling elite. As you very well know, crony capitalism mainly benefits the privileged few at the detriment of the majority.

Mr. President, during your meeting with a delegation of Ethiopian officials that included Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom last month at the United Nations, you said: “Obviously we’ve been talking a lot about terrorism and the focus has been on ISIL, but in Somalia, we’ve seen al-Shabaab, an affiliate of al Qaeda, wreak havoc throughout that country.  That’s an area where the cooperation and leadership on the part of Ethiopia is making a difference as we speak.  And we want to thank them for that.”  It is indeed a great honor for Ethiopia to get your administration’s commendation for its role in the global war on terror.

However, any careful reading of the annual State Department report on human rights reveals disturbing facts that maybe unintentionally overlooked. It is clear that the greatest threats on the safety and security of the ordinary people of Ethiopia do not come from al Qaeda or al-Shabaab. It comes from the very people who sat with you pretending to be committed to be fighting against terrorism. As a matter of fact, after the fall of the brutal military rule of Mengistu Hailemariam in 1991, it is a tragedy that another tyranny is under the TPLF is terrorizing Ethiopia for over two decades.

The TPLF regime has killed, maimed, tortured and jailed countless Ethiopians during its reign of terror. So many journalists, bloggers, activists, dissidents and freedom fighters are being jailed and tortured accused of fictitious terrorism charges. The award winning journalists Ekinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Wubishet Taye, the young Zone9 bloggers, leaders of Muslim rights movement, activists and dissidents like Andargachew Tsege, Andualema Arage, Bekele Gerba, Olbana Lelisa and countless others have been labeled terrorists. They are languishing in rat-infested jails abused, tortured and brutalized. Such a cowardly attack against innocent civilians for speaking out against tyranny is nothing but terrorism.

President Obama, please allow me to quote just two paragraph from the 2013 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report on Ethiopia: “The most significant human rights problems included: restrictions on freedom of expression and association, including through arrests; detention; politically motivated trials; harassment; and intimidation of opposition members and journalists, as well as continued restrictions on print media. On August 8, during Eid al-Fitr celebrations, security forces temporarily detained more than one thousand persons in Addis Ababa. The government continued restrictions on activities of civil society and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) imposed by the Charities and Societies Proclamation (the CSO law).”

“Other human rights problems included arbitrary killings; allegations of torture, beating, abuse, and mistreatment of detainees by security forces;reports of harsh and, at times, life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; detention without charge and lengthy pretrial detention; a weak, overburdened judiciary subject to political influence; infringement on citizens’ privacy rights, including illegal searches; allegations of abuses in the implementation of the government’s “villagization” program; restrictions on academic freedom; restrictions on freedom of assembly, association, and movement; alleged interference in religious affairs; limits on citizens’ ability to change their government; police, administrative, and judicial corruption; violence and societal discrimination against women and abuse of children; female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C); trafficking in persons; societal discrimination against persons with disabilities; clashes between ethnic minorities; discrimination against persons based on their sexual orientation and against persons with HIV/AIDS; limits on worker rights; forced labor; and child labor, including forced child labor. Impunity was a problem. The government, with some reported exceptions, usually did not take steps to prosecute or otherwise punish officials who committed abuses other than corruption.”

Mr. President, I hope you agree with me that the disturbing testimony from the State Department is as bleak as a CIA report on al-Qaeda. It should be noted here that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front was also blacklisted in the Global Terrorism Database of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security before it came to power. Terrorist groups, whether they operate as a government or a band of pirates, have similar objectives and aspirations. They try to cause great fear and impose their will upon others through killings, massacres, tortures, kidnappings and all sort of inhuman tactics.

In the aftermath of the 2005 brutal crackdown, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy had said, in a statement, “Ethiopia has been an ally of the United States in combating international terrorism, yet it is using similar tactics against its own people…The government’s heavy handed tactics to steal the election and persecute those who sought to play by the rules of democracy, should be universally condemned.”

Mr. President, so many Ethiopians appreciate your effort to help Ethiopia. But the United States should not provide unconditional funds to the tyrants in power that are terrorizing the oppressed people of Ethiopia. The United States should not also lose its unique place as the beacon of hope and freedom. It needs to live up to its core values and creeds. If the United States needs credible allies against terrorism, it has to look into the records of questionable allies and press them to clean their own house first before fighting other terrorists.

Mr. President, as you said: “We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it’s easy, but when it is hard.”

Ordinary people like me will continue to make every effort to stick out reminders and notes so that the government of the United States continues to uphold the foundational values and ideals that have made this country truly great and admirable. I do hope that eventually we will get noticed and our voices will be heard.

Most respectfully,

Abebe Gellaw

Global Alliance for the Rights of Ethiopians

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