"They knew I would rather die than give up the fight"
Interview with Taye Woldesmiate (Ethiopia)
Taye Woldesmiate, the first Ethiopian political prisoner to be adopted by Amnesty International, was freed in 2002 following an international trade union campaign to which the ILO was associated.
In May 1996 Taye Woldesmiate, President of the Ethiopian Teachers' Association, came to the ILO in Geneva to denounce the repressive excesses of the Addis Ababa government. He was arrested on his way back and spent six years in prison. We met him recently during his second visit to the ILO, as a free man.
The man walking the corridors of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva has a smile on his face. This is his second visit to the headquarters of the UN organisation since 1996, or May 1996 to be precise. During the period between these two visits, Taye Woldesmiate, President of the Ethiopian Teachers' Association, who had come to condemn the repressive excesses of the Addis Ababa government, spent six years in prison, gaining the dubious privilege of being the first Ethiopian political prisoner to be adopted by Amnesty International. Since being freed in 2002, thanks to a global trade union campaign in which the ILO was closely involved, he has lost none of his commitment to the cause. This is his story.
When you speak to him about the conditions of his incarceration, his first instinct is to remember those he lost in prison, like Kebede Desta, the president of the Retired Teachers' Association who refused to testify against him and subsequently died from the ill treatment he received. "He was a strong man. He kept campaigning for trade union rights", Taye Woldesmiate remembered, visibly moved. He also spared a thought for Shimalis Zewdie, who took over the reigns at the Ethiopian Teachers' Association (ETA) for a while before ending up behind bars like Taye Woldesmiate, the association's president. Suffering from tuberculosis and denied medical care, his situation was desperate when he was released from prison and he died shortly afterwards. In just two weeks of the fateful month of April 1999, the ETA lost two of its leaders. Taye Woldesmiate himself lost two friends. Together they had vowed to fight for high-quality, democratic, accessible education in Ethiopia.
"As teachers, we consider there to be a need for a high-quality education policy giving everyone access to education, especially basic education for all children. Unless you have that there will be no development, and no democracy", he says today. He took up the challenge back in 1989 when, with a fistful of degrees from the most prestigious universities in the United States, he returned to his home country to take up the post of assistant professor at Addis Ababa University, "for a tiny fraction of the salary he used to earn as a visiting professor at Michigan State University", his friends in the United States remember. Certainly, with a B.A. in Agriculture and Political Science from Illinois State University, a Master's degree in Political Science and a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri-Colombia, Taye Woldesmiate could easily have opted to lead a comfortable life and definitely a much more peaceful one. But that would be underestimating the man. His commitment to his country and to teaching changed all that, though political events also played a role.
In 1991, Mengistu Hailé Mariam's regime ceded power to Meles Zenawi, leader of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front and the country's policy on education changed. "The subject of educational reform had already been raised by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank during the previous regime, but the teachers rejected it and the ruling party at the time was smart enough to postpone any changes", Taye Woldesmiate said. "The present government, with the blessing of both these financial institutions, actually dismantled the education system, which was completely privatised". As a result, the Ethiopian education system stopped working, he continued. "Privatisation meant that some people could no longer afford to send their children to school".
This observation was shared by Education International (EI) to which the Ethiopian Teachers' Association is affiliated. "Since 1993, the education system has been substantially decentralised, with responsibility passing to the provincial authorities. Mother-tongue education has been introduced in just 14 out of 80 local languages. A lack of written resources, curriculum material and trained teachers fluent in the relevant local languages have been major obstacles to effective implementation. The lack of adequate preparation, planning and consultation alienated teachers, leaving many without jobs in areas where they had lived for many years". In fact, as Taye Woldesmiate went on to point out, the government "decided to use education policy to promote its own political agenda, meaning its ethnic policy to divide the country".
At the time, teachers denounced this shift. "The regime created apartheid-type Bantustan states called 'killils', or homelands. Citizens are confined within their 'killils' never to seek education or jobs outside their homeland", they said. In any case, this method of education has patently failed, for only a third of school-age children have educational facilities within reach. The EI confirms that "in many places schools operate shifts and have class sizes of 80-100 pupils. Some 14 million Ethiopian children do not have education".
In the unions' view the situation could not be worse. "Since Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi came to power in 1991 after the collapse of the Mengistu dictatorship, he has adopted for confrontation with both the opposition and the democratic trade unions. The country's national trade union centre, the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU) was delegalised in 1994 and has since been unable to function," wrote the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the EI in a joint press release.
So the sad scene had been set for Taye Woldesmiate, who started to become active within the ETA and was elected president of the association in 1992. Woldesmiate, the new General Secretary of the organisation, Gemoraw Kassa, and Deputy General Secretary Assefa Maru, together formed a tight-knit team of which the government very strongly disapproved. At the same time as Eritrea, the former northern province of Ethiopia, gained its independence, and without there necessarily being any link between the two events, the long wave of repression began.
In March 1993, Taye Woldesmiate and 41 other professors from Addis Ababa University, most ETA leaders, were fired.
"I am positive that the reason why the government was after me was my position regarding its education policy, plus my view that labour, teachers and society cannot be organised as a whole along ethnic lines. That would endanger social cohesion", Taye Woldesmiate said in retrospect.
From that time on the repression was relentless and unmistakeable. Three times the government tried to have the election of Taye Woldesmiate and his team at the helm of the ETA nullified in court. Indeed, it even went so far as to change the judge in order to achieve its aim of putting its own people in charge of the teachers' trade union. Such subterfuge hardly deceived anybody and was condemned by both the EI and the ICFTU. The international trade unions recognised and supported the legitimate leadership of the ETA. The organisation continued to function despite repeated seizures of property, the freezing of its bank accounts and a barrage of lawsuits against it. Better still, the ETA even became a symbol of the budding new civil society in Ethiopia.
"At the time the organisation was strong. It had just reorganised itself and held elections, and had some 120,000 members", recalled Taye Woldesmiate. In fact the plain truth is that the ETA has solid roots in the country and, having been in existence for more than 50 years, has seen other times.
However the harassment took a different turn in 1996 when Taye Woldesmiate took a trip abroad which brought him, amongst other places, to the headquarters of the International Labour Organisation in Geneva where he condemned the repression which was hitting the teachers' movement in Ethiopia. Upon his return to Addis Ababa, Taye Woldesmiate was accompanied by André Dumont from the Dutch teachers' union as well as by other African and German trade union colleagues. He knew that he was a wanted man. "According to the government I was leading an illegal organisation and I was using the teachers' union as a means of overthrowing the government", Taye Woldesmiate said with a smile. Other accusations, each more ridiculous than the last, duly followed, and even his friends laughed about them. "The charges included even more absurd accusations, like kidnapping Italian experts, throwing a grenade at the US Embassy and plotting to kidnap US aid workers" one of them recalled. "What made the latter claims ridiculous is the fact that the same allegations were used over and over again to put critical opponents behind bars, causing everyone to laugh and say 'here we go again!'." On 29 May 1996, when passing through customs at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, the group of trade unionists was surrounded by plain-clothes police officers and Taye Woldesmiate was led away.
Seven days later, the EI and the ETA submitted a formal complaint against Ethiopia to the ILO's Committee on Freedom of Association. The international trade union movement prepared for action, with the EI acting as coordinator. The prison regime in Addis Ababa Central Prison was no picnic. "I have been reading a lot of books about prison. But I tell you, I have never heard of such conditions in any prison, and definitely not for political prisoners", Taye Woldesmiate quickly added. "I was shackled for 24 hours a day. Most of the time my hands were chained and sometimes my legs were, whenever they did not want me to move around. I was held in a dark room, then in solitary confinement. This was the situation for most political prisoners." He immediately went on to talk about the situation for the other prisoners: "There are prisoners whom no one will see, not even the Red Cross, as the government does not allow them to be seen. It is these people who are worst off. There are still 10,000 political prisoners in Ethiopia, including trade unionists, teachers and workers, among others". For three years, Taye Woldesmiate was imprisoned without trial.
It was in prison on 7 May 1997 that he met the person who had killed the ETA's Deputy General Secretary Assefa Maru, killed in cold blood on his way to the office. Despite repeated calls by the ILO and international trade union organisations for an enquiry into the murder, the government seemed in a hurry to close the case - and for good reason, for a special services officer had confessed to his part in the crime. The situation was rather unsettling for members of the ETA. While on a mission abroad, the organisation's general secretary, Gemoraw Kassa, learned that an attempt had been made on the lives of some ETA members in Addis Ababa. His friends advised him not to return home and to organise the international campaign from outside Ethiopia.
In July 1998, when the EI's World Congress honoured Taye Woldesmiate and his colleague Assefa Maru (posthumously) with the Trade Union and Human Rights Award, he once again found himself up before the courts. The American Embassy's human rights official who was observing the proceedings was asked to leave the courtroom by the judge and to hand in the notes he had made. Quite evidently, the presence of foreign diplomats at hearings is not very welcome. The trial was adjourned once more.
In June 1999, Taye Woldesmiate was finally convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The Committee on Freedom of Association continued to call for his release, pointing out procedural irregularities and the torture to which so-called witnesses were subjected. For six years in all, Taye Woldesmiate endured the sad lot of Ethiopian political prisoners: two visits per week, lasting 30 minutes in total and held in a visiting room surrounded by guards. No access to the library. It took him three years before he was allowed to have a tooth seen to. "Somehow I was lucky. Just imagine what happens when people have serious medical problems", he was quick to add, as if he did not want to detract from the suffering of others.
On the outside, Taye Woldesmiate's family did not have an easy time of it either. His sister and brother were laid off, and the police pressured them, saying: "You should tell him to stop. He should shut up."
But Taye Woldesmiate did not shut up. In the end his prison guards accepted this. "I made it clear that I would rather die than give up my fight. So finally they stopped interrogating me. They tend to pressure you, but you should avoid any kind of participation".
Taye Woldesmiate believes that international pressure most definitely played a part in his release. "It came as the result of pressure from the international community and from all groups concerned with human rights. The regime is seeking support and future aid. That is what they responded to".
Nonetheless, Taye Woldesmiate insists that the pressure needs to be maintained: "Many people are still in jail, our office is still blockaded and our bank accounts are still frozen. The government must respect the conventions it has signed and accept the presence of trade unions at the negotiating table".
In short, a great deal remains to be done. Yet Taye Woldesmiate is optimistic about the future. "A meeting was held two months ago. Teachers publicly said they would play a greater role in the democratisation of society and participate in its organisation". As a spokesperson for the ILO Workers' Group said last June when addressing an audience of more than 500 trade union members from across the world, the release last month of Taye Woldesmiate, the leader of the Teachers' Association of Ethiopia who had been in custody since 1996, is proof that moral pressure exerted by the ILO can bear fruit, but a great deal depends on us making it work by launching campaigns and actions of solidarity. For Taye Woldesmiate, one thing is certain, a new chapter has now been opened, a new chapter in his fight.
ILO/Bureau for Workers' Activities (ACTRAV)
Updated by LO. Approved by MS. Last updated: 29 October 2002