by The Strathink Editorial Team
Joshua Hammer, a prize winning journalist who writes about Africa, took on the strange and sad story of Berhanu Nega in a New York Times article entitled, “Once a Bucknell Professor, Now the Commander of an Ethiopian Rebel Army.” And why not? Berhanu Nega’s story is made for Western audiences—an Ethiopian-born professor of economics living the American Dream in Pennsylvania. Berhanu rooted for the Cavaliers and the Eagles, puttered around his stylish suburban home and gave faculty dinner parties where he served food from his country. He and his wife, an optometrist, sent their two sons to top-rated universities in the United States. Life was good.
According to Joshua Hammer, few Bucknell faculty and students knew much about Berhanu’s other life in Ethiopia. A long time political activist, Berhanu had gone back to Ethiopia in the early 1990s when the former military Marxist government was overthrown and the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front assumed power.
Berhanu grew up a member of Ethiopia’s wealthy elite and took over the remnants of his father’s businesses upon his return. He taught part-time at the university and spent his time attempting to ingratiate himself with the top leadership. Things took an ugly turn for Berhanu following the 2005 elections when the opposition, buttressed and encouraged by a group of European election observers, challenged the election results before the final count was even completed. Berhanu Nega led the charge accompanied by his lady friend, Ana Gomes, head of the EU’s election observer group.
The opposition took to the streets in a violent protest and almost two hundred people, including seven police, died in the violence. Berhanu and the opposition leadership were detained and charged. After a highly public trial, which included observers from various international organizations and embassies, the court found Berhanu and cohorts guilty of armed rebellion. They were imprisoned and after serving two years, were released. Berhanu was allowed to leave the country and continue the life he left behind in the United States.
Mr. Hammer calls Berhanu a “political prisoner” but in a report done by Reporters Without Borders, observers of the trial deemed the trial fair and in accordance with Ethiopian law.
Berhanu, having forfeited his U.S. residence card to stand for election in Ethiopia, was granted another residence permit while still in prison. The U.S. maintains a soft spot for Berhanu, allowing him to circumvent U.S. law on a number of occasions. While it is illegal for all other holders of residence permits to raise money and arms to overthrow a sitting government friendly to the United States, according the Neutrality Act, Berhanu appears to be an exception.
Berhanu’s organization, registered as a 501(c)3 non-profit humanitarian organization, according to their IRS application, is called Ginbot 7. Until recently, Berhanu was the “group’s intellectual leader and principal fundraiser.” In June 2104, when Ethiopia intercepted the group’s commander in Eritrea, Andargachew Tsige, Berhanu made the decision to go to Asmara, taking an indefinite sabbatical leave from Bucknell University. In the meantime, Andargachew vented his frustration about Ginbot 7’s leadership and detailed the gruesome details of training Ethiopians how to make and detonate bombs in public places such as shopping malls and houses of worship to maximize the carnage targeting Ethiopians going about their daily lives.
Bucknell must be taking its cues from the U.S. government, granting leave to a faculty member to lead an army against an ally of the U.S. Bucknell University must also condone the use of terrorism against civilians as long as the faculty member is tenured.
A faculty member at Bucknell, Professor Rickard, is quoted saying Berhanu’s advocacy of violence is “troubling” but “understandable.” Why? Professor Ricard cites one of the reasons as the fact that Berhanu’s sister was killed by the government. However, Professor Rickard failed to point out that Berhanu’s sister was killed by another government—the same government that was defeated by the government Berhanu is trying to violently overthrow. Professor Rickard should learn more about Ethiopia’s history before making pronouncements about what is “understandable.”
So Joshua Hammer travels to Eritrea, the “North Korea of Africa,” to meet with Berhanu and tell his story of leading an Ethiopian rebel army of “several hundred rebel fighters in Eritrea.” For the Western reader, Berhanu’s life in Asmara may seem a hardship. He only has high-speed internet in his office—yet less than one percent of Eritreans have internet. Berhanu’s access to internet, however, allows him to keep regular contact with his wife and two sons.
Yes, his wife and sons are not with him in Asmara. His sons attended excellent American universities and one is now working at a New York investment bank. It is difficult not to compare Berhanu’s sons to the young people in Ethiopia. Ginbot 7 preys upon the marginalized youth in Ethiopia to take risks not asked of the sons and daughters of Ginbot 7’s leadership. That is one of the benefits of privilege.
Joshua Hammer notes that the lights cut out in Berhanu’s bungalow. Yet, he is still able to drink his Asmara beer and chilled Absolut vodka. He sits in his bungalow with his “comrades from the U.S., Canada, Luxumberg and the U.K.” They eat their injera and watch television before driving out to the border with Ethiopia to talk to his army of 200 soldiers. They are delayed one day because there is no fuel to buy for his Hilux pickup truck. After all, this is Eritrea. He brings a few boxes of medical supplies to the front, in case one of the soldiers has a headache from the crushing boredom of sitting along the border waiting for—for what? What are two hundred soldiers going to do against Ethiopia’s massive military might?
The next day, Joshua Hammer and Berhanu Nega walk down Asmara’s Harnet Avenue, admiring the art deco cafes and the donkeys strolling down the boulevard to nibble at the grass. Joshua Hammer calls Asmara a city frozen in time. And indeed, not much has changed since the country became independent 25 years ago. No elections. No constitution. Indefinite national service. Arbitrary detention. People disappear. People are tortured. People are killed.
Yet, according to Mr. Hammer, “Nega insisted that he saw positives in the dictatorship.” Berhanu thinks the recent U.N. report documenting “crimes against humanity” is exaggerated and politically motivated. “They [Eritrea] have always been nice to us.” A former colleague at Bucknell says differently. “He [Berhanu] holds no illusions about Eritrea.” We hope President Isayas doesn’t read this in the New York Times. It could spell trouble for Berhanu.
Mr. Hammer, an experienced journalist who has written about the best and worst of Africa, captures some of the irony in the story about a Bucknell professor going off to serve as a rebel commander of a 200-man army. He juxtaposes the dictatorship of Isayas Afewerki to Berhanu’s Nega’s claims of fighting for democracy for a country clearly further along the path than Eritrea. He refrains from exaggerating the hardship suffered by Berhanu and his comrades and cites the staggering statistics of the ordinary Eritrean’s quality of life. He notes Bucknell University’s roots in the American liberal tradition while ignoring the violence advocated and carried out by one of its professors—going so far as to grant him an indefinite leave of absence.
What Joshua Hammer fails to point out, however, are the consequences of Berhanu’s decision to overthrow the Ethiopian government using “any means necessary.” What Bucknell University fails to consider is the impact of Berhanu Nega’s use of violence on the Ethiopian people. What the United States government fails to explain by allowing Berhanu Nega to circumvent the law of the land is why, by omission and commission, they are supporting the violent overthrow of the Ethiopian government.
For readers of the New York Times, it is a great story to read on a lazy Sunday morning while sipping $3.00 coffees at Starbucks. For the Ethiopian people, however, the story of Berhanu Nega is not a fun way to spend a Sunday morning. Berhanu Nega and Ginbot are spoilers to a country with definite problems but on a track moving forward. Berhanu Nega and Ginbot 7 are like the two donkeys strolling down Asmara’s Harnet Avenue—a public nuisance, braying loudly and spitting on the hard-won gains of the Ethiopian people.