The Dawn is Not Here

In 2011, award-winning Ethiopian journalist Reeyot Alemu was sentenced to fourteen years in prison for her writing, on an accusation of “terrorism”. Her crime was having written critical texts on political and social issues, focusing on poverty and equality.  She spent five years in the infamous Kality prison. In this issue, she writes of the challenges facing Ethiopia in the coming years.

May 3 2019 Text: Reeyot Alemu Translation from Amharic: Bethel Eshetu

My name is Reeyot Alemuand I am an Ethiopian journalist. I have used my skill as a journalist to show the injustices being committed by the ruling government. I have used it to fight and advocate for the rights of citizens. For this reason, I was condemned to four years in prison. It’s true that I could have chosen to write about many other less controversial issues to make a living. If I had done that, I would have escaped prison, but not my conscience, so I picked the lesser of two evils and decided to be a voice for the voiceless. 

It may seem like picking the lesser of two evils is my luck in life. The same choice waited for me in prison. I was given two options: ask for pardon, or rot in prison! It’s scary, worrying, and sickening. After much debate with myself, again picked the only choice. Stay in prison, and potentially even perish here! I had breast pain and had begun treatment. However, since I didn’t ask for a pardon, I was eventually denied treatment for my severe pain. The prison authorities warned me this would happen. But what could I have done? To ask for a pardon seemed like such a defeat. To lose to the very injustices I was fighting against! What happens after I ask for a pardon and get released? I could easily die the next day choking on something. Or get hit by a car? Life is already out of our control, so I decided I won’t stand for something I don’t believe in. And so, I faced the gruesome life in the Kaliti Prison. The reason I was released from such a terrible existence was President Barack Obama. 

Due to Obama’s state visit to Ethiopia, the ruling government at the time released journalists, some other reporters, and me. 

Even though I was released, my heart remained with the remaining human rights activists still in prison, including the renowned journalist Eskender Nega. Upon release, I started writing about the innocent citizens still in prison. After I came to the U.S., I went from state to state to speak at diaspora forums about what Ethiopians can do to take active steps to right these injustices taking place. 

I became part of the Ethiopian Satellite Television and Radio (ESAT) network, a network established by diaspora Ethiopians. I used the skill I loved to continue the fight against injustice I despised.

It seemed like we were finally seeing the fruits of our labor. Even though the diaspora support didn’t waver, Ethiopians in Ethiopia brought the fight home and severely weakened the ruling coalition. Following this, except for some resistant members of the ruling party, most of the government agreed it was in need of reform. They started releasing political prisoners. However, the people were not satisfied.

They focused their opposition on TPLF and shook the ruling (EPRDF)[1] coalition to the core. EPRDF, comprising four parties, woke two rather dormant ODP and ADP parties, which hadn’t been playing a major role, to finally look TPLF in the eye. These two parties took the opposition’s agenda and advocated as if this agenda was their own. They, together with the people they had been oppressing, pointed the figures towards TPLF faction. The unity formed by ODP and ADP severely diminished TPLF’s power as the main influencer in EPRDF. ODP’s Dr. Abiy Ahmed accepted the role of Prime Minister. 

On his inauguration day, Ahmed did something that would never be accepted of an EPRDF party member. He asked for forgiveness for the grievances committed by EPRDF. This made people fall head over heels in love with him. 

A number of us concerned about such quick devotion and blind love tried to advise caution while opposition parties and some journalists were mesmerized by the personalities of the so called “Chang agents” known as team Lemma: few senior leaders from ODP and ADPThe response we got was ridicule and insults. This came from people who used to oppose the ruling party together with us. They cited the release of political prisoners, the ability for opposition parties to return to Ethiopia, and other positive changes; what more could we ask for?[2] Since it was a matter of national importance, undeterred I persevered to speak up and advise caution. I spoke to the fact that, after people brought about storm of political change, we shouldn’t simply leave everything in the hands of those who have been given new power, but rather through political activism ensure there is justice and equality for all. All Ethiopians have a part to play in that. 

I feared that if this didn’t happen, even those cited as the ‘force of change’ such as ‘Team Lemma’ would simply waver to whichever side the political power scale weighed. Recently my fear became reality. 

During the honeymoon, the tireless and diligent Oromo nationalists controlled today’s ODP (formally Oromo Peoples' Democratic Organization (OPDO))[3], and continued to do as they pleased. They displaced many non-Oromo Ethiopians. They took advantage of unemployed youth and preached nationalist/ethnic politics, mobilizing the youth towards this ‘ethnic-team’ based belief, to change our country into hell on earth. 

Though it’s said there are no journalists in jail under Dr. Abiy, the truth is journalists are even in greater danger than before. Let me cite an example: TV reporters and journalists had gone to interview residents who had their homes demolished by the Oromia Regional Administration in Legetafo[4]. When journalists reached the area, including a journalist by the name of Fasil Aregaye, they were severely beaten by youth in the community. The beating took place right in front of the police station, and police officers watching the incident did nothing to stop it. In fact, before the altercation officers even took away camera and recording equipment (including phones) from the journalists. 

What the Oromia Administration, police, and organized youth committed was nothing less than blatant ethnic based violence. Mob justice for journalists has now replaced prison sentences. Lemma Megersa, who got into people’s hearts and who has been recorded saying: “it doesn’t seem like there is no government, being an Ethiopian is like an addiction,” was found with a recording where he gave a speech with the exact opposite sentiment in Oromifa. This made people feel duped, and has changed him from a saint to the devil. 

Not to sound defeated, those in power have said “Dr. Abiy is by himself,” or on “his own.” On the other hand, as known by his motto ‘victory for democracy,’ the known journalist and activist Eskender Nega, in his peaceful ways, continues to fight for democracy so the light of democracy doesn’t extinguish in this extremist Oromo nationalist era. The extremists are fighting against Eskender, who is trying to save them from this devastating path. The dawn is not here.



[1]EPRDF is made up of four parties: Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democractic Party (ODP) and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democractic Movement (SEPDM). 

[2]The author says here (omitted from the translated text): “ከይጠይቁኝነበርሊያንጓጥጡኝይሞክሩ”- which is an Amharic adage to describe being teased in the circumstances that faced her. 

[3]OPDO recently changed its name to ODP.

[4]A city about 1 hour outside of Addis Ababa. Legetafo is under Oromia Regional Administration.