It was the spring of 2001 and 43-year-old Berhanu Nega was optimistic. His homeland, Ethiopia, was recovering from decades of conflict, he had just given a speech to university students about academic freedom, and now he had landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport for a business conference in Paris.
Then he turned on his phone. The students he’d spoken to hours earlier had staged a peaceful protest that the police answered with brute force and live ammunition, leaving 40 people dead. A week later, Nega was back in Ethiopia, behind bars.
So began a 14-year-long ordeal that has seen Nega, one of Ethiopia’s leading activists, arrested and jailed twice — once for almost two years — exiled to the United States and finally, condemned to death, in absentia. These days, the would-be mayor of Addis Ababa (he was detained right after he won the election) is an associate professor of economics at Bucknell University. But Nega remains a prominent opposition leader: He is the co-founder of Ginbot 7, an outlawed political party that he leads from the sleepy Pennsylvania campus town of Lewisburg.
Of late, Ethiopia has been a darling of Western powers. The landlocked country is considered an island of stability in the otherwise turbulent Horn of Africa. Yes, its name was once synonymous with starving children and charity concerts, but today, Ethiopia posts GDP growth numbers in the double digits. In the past year, foreign investment has skyrocketed. The country is also a valuable partner against the threat of Islamist terrorism — here, in the incarnation of al-Shabab in Somalia, which killed 148 students in April at a Kenyan university.
In Nega’s view, that’s why the the U.S. donated $340 million to a country with such a horrible human rights record. Under Meles Zenawi, who ruled from 1991 until his death in 2012, the government ostracized the opposition and imposed a system of ethnic-based federalism, which enhanced divisions and was useful for repressing certain ethnic groups. Zenawi’s successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, has carried on his legacy of media muffling, extrajudicial executions and torturing dissidents. Nega says protecting a regime that most citizens resent will backfire in the long run: “Ethiopia is ready to explode, it just needs a little match to light it up,” he says. “The West is not going to give Africans democracy, Africans have to fight for it.”
The U.S. State Department did not comment on Nega’s criticisms of U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa. Via email, a representative described U.S relations with the Ethiopian government as “robust” and said it partners “with Ethiopia and its people, as we do with people and governments across Africa, to pursue shared goals of democracy, peace and prosperity.”
I have completely given up on the possibility of a democratic change.
Nega doesn’t look as pugnacious as he sounds. He wears small glasses and, on the day we speak over Skype, a professorial gray cardigan. Surrounded by walls of thick books in his university office Nega, now 57, looks much like any other professor. He talks like one too, explaining concepts with patience and detail. “But that’s his strength,” says Messay Kebede, an Ethiopian professor of social philosophy at the University of Dayton. Kebede says Nega’s deportment makes him seem more charismatic educator than politician. “And the crueler the regime becomes, the more people listen to him.”
The son of a prominent businessman, Nega first got involved in politics in school, in the ’70s, during the final days of Emperor Haile Selassie. He then had to flee to Sudan, where he spent two years reading philosophy in Khartoum’s public library, before making his way to the U.S. There he went straight back to the books, obtaining a Ph.D. in economics and becoming a teacher. In 1991, when the communist government was overthrown, Nega returned home only to find his country “hadn’t learned its lessons yet.” After his short stay in prison in 2001, he left his job as a lecturer and his fertilizer producing company for politics. It was a reluctant decision, he says: “The reality became so terrible that we had to do something to try to change it.”
His party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, rocked votes in the 2005 elections — Nega won the mayoralty of Addis Ababa — but the joy gave way to a crackdown. Nega was in jail for 21 months; when he got out, he headed almost straight to the United States. Last year, his friend and Ginbot 7 colleague Andargachew Tsige was detained in Yemen and presumably handed over to the Ethiopian authorities. Nega says Tsige’s disappearance and the detention of others has made the struggle personal. “We owe it to them to do everything we can,” he says.
Leaders like Nega are gone and, in the eyes of some, discredited. Without fair elections or international pressure, Nega says only one option remains: force. “I have completely given up on the possibility of a democratic change,” he says. So Ginbot is calling to dethrone Desalegn “by all means necessary.” This is a dangerous route for a country with such recent conflict and so many ethnic feuds, and, opposition leaders inside Ethiopia argue, an easy call for a man at a university 7,000 miles from Addis Ababa. As Merera Gudina, founder of local opposition party Oromo People’s Congress, says, “If there’s a coup, people will die.”
Nega says unnecessary violence would be avoided by educating those with weapons about democracy and the separation of powers; he regularly talks with members of armed groups and other dissidents about blueprints for the future. It will be based on strong institutions, an independent judiciary and economic policies that aim to serve Ethiopia’s poor majority.
Still, despite his best efforts to teach and mobilize, what’s to stop the country from falling into chaos after the last two changes in government? Nega is not sure. “History repeating itself,” he says, “that is what keeps me up at night.”