By Victor Ozeri
How many times will an investor come to Addis Ababa to help the Ethiopian people only to be cheated out of his investment?
My name is Victor Ozeri. I am a U.S. citizen. In 1982, I traveled to the People’s Republic of China for a visit. I remained in China for a decade. I built many factories and assisted the Chinese people by bringing them a great deal transferable knowledge. I left China after a decade, returned to America to continue developing my company. Over the years, we created tens of thousands of jobs for the Chinese population.
Six years ago, I arrived in Ethiopia with a desire to help the children of this country. I spent my first 3 years working in an organization that put 800 village girls back in school. For the last three years, I have been the sole supporter of an NGO I founded in Addis Ababa. Today we have over 100 children who have gone from poverty to prosperity. These children only knew hunger. Today, they know abundance. The children in my care receive beautiful new clothing, learn computers skills, study English, attend private schools, and have every one of their needs looked after by my organization.
About eighteen months ago, I had a significant and profound vision for Ethiopia… If someone like me (who knew nothing about China or manufacturing in 1982) could create thousands of jobs in The Peoples Republic of China (and start China on its current path of prosperity) why could we not do this in Ethiopia? My vision of persuading dozens of China factory owners to invest in Ethiopia and bringing the largest American buyers and their experts to Ethiopia is not only possible… It is an idea whose time has come!
Every American company I spoke with were keen to find an alternative to garment sourcing in China. (Especially,if it were part of a grand movement to transform one of the loveliest nations in Africa into a China style powerhouse of apparel manufacturing.) We had lit the spark… And I looked forward to that spark igniting a bonfire of industry and knowledge for the Ethiopian worker.
However Mr. Prime Minister, it was unfortunate that the person I was introduced to as a proper partner for my venture in Ethiopia was Lily Betru. Since the first day I met her, all she has talked about is her strong relationship with the Prime Minister and her close personal friendship with his wife. I was convinced to become her business partner. The rest of this story is a very sad chapter of why Ethiopia remains problematic in spite of all your efforts.
On January 3, 2008 I left my home in America and made a permanent move to Addis Ababa. My commitment to my vision of a prosperous Ethiopia was so strong that I purchased a house in Addis, and was prepared to spend the next decade doing for the people of Ethiopia what we did for the people of China over the last quarter century. I left my family and friends behind committed to making a difference in Ethiopian employment and industry.
When Lily Betru told me of her relationship the Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, I felt she was the proper partner for me. I have watched over the last six years, the city of Addis Ababa opening like a flower. I have seen the glass towers rising side by side with the homes of the tattered poor. Yes, poverty was visible everywhere in Addis 6 years ago and today under your leadership we have seen great progress… If Lily Betru was the prime minister’s friend… that was good enough reason for me to become her partner.
I really thought Lily Betru would be the solution I needed. In reality, Lily was more the problem with Ethiopia than the solution.
I now swear before God that this is what has happened to me since January in my investment in Ethiopia and my involvement with Lily Betru.
In November 2007, Lily Betru claimed to have the $9 million birr needed to fund the company. In mid February 2008, she told me she did not have the funds. (It was only after I imported all of the machinery and began setting up the factory that she informed me of this issue.) She claimed another businessman stole all of her working capital.
So strong was my desire to help the Ethiopian people that I overlooked this problem and actually lent 1 million birr to Lily Betru personally, so she would at least have some money to fund the business and continue her partnership with me.
By February 15, 2008, I had set up a New York sales office, brought in the machinery to Addis Ababa, flew in the Chinese experts, located the customers, and imported over 3 million birr in raw materials (at my personal expense) to start our venture.
By mid March 2008, the children of my street shelter were reporting that “Aunt Lily” had been giving them money and asking them to spread lies about me and the other American advisers at the factory. I raised these children well and they immediately reported this to their teachers who in turn told me about this serious breach of character by Lily Betru (who is a mother of 6 children herself).
By end of April 2008, I had come to realize that this Lily Betru was not a good person at all. My partner was turning out to be another wealthy and well connected Ethiopian who thinks that due to her political connections she is above the law.
The expert American accounting management team that I brought from the United States had already informed me that Lily had withheld all the bank statements from them, and had no idea what was happening with my investment. They told me of her abuse of the workers.
I would budget a 200 birr training salary for new sewing workers only to find out that later on Lily Betru insisted (without my knowledge) that these poor people work for free during the training period. (I came to Ethiopia to change these people’s lives, not to abuse them!)
In the factory building Lily owns, our workers lived without toilets for over a month until I became furious with her and she finally installed some running water. (Her reply to me was “They don’t have toilets at home. Why do they need toilets in the factory?”)
When my American staff became suspicious of Lily’s dealings, she insisted that they be fired and leave the country. Lily was attempting to get a 75% reimbursement from the World Bank for the salaries of the foreign experts I had brought in. After Lily fired these experts, I asked her to modify the application to the World Bank, but she insisted we should still claim this money as though they were still working. Now I knew I had a partner perfectly willing to steal public funds. These two consummate experts with a combined 20 years of knowledge in the industry (and badly needed to teach Ethiopian workers how to carry on in the modern world) were fired the next day by Lily. What had I gotten myself into?
If I were not concerned enough at that point… Lily then asked me about the possibility of hiding some of our profits in Hong Kong in order for her to save on Taxation in Ethiopia. Did I come to this country to help a citizen cheat the very same government I was trying so sincerely to help?
On Friday, May 2, I sat down with Lily Betru and told her that I knew of her financial misdeeds, her lack of the required investment money, and her considerable abuse of our workers. I calmly told her I was willing to buy her out and continue my project without her. Within 5 minutes of the conversation, Lily announced that we were no longer partners and ended the conversation.
The next day, her husband, Dr. Getachew (who calls himself the newly appointed “Minister of Railroads”) called me on the telephone and told me “Serious charges have been laid against me.” I told him I did not know what he was talking about, that his wife was in breech of our legal agreement, and I did not wish to discuss this with him. He became very angry and made further threats to me. (Prior to this, Dr. Getachew had nothing to do with my investment.)
On the public holiday of May 5, Dr. Getachew called again insisting that I meet him in his office. He said if I did not meet him by 4 PM, I would be picked up by the police. This conversation was frightening to me. The man sounded irrational. I immediately called the U.S. consulate for advice and guidance.
After telling my story, I was patched through to the head of security for all American citizens in Ethiopia. I was advised to take this threat very seriously. I was told that if Dr. Getachew and Lily Betru are close friends with the Prime Minister, they could have the power to have me arrested without charges. (I was advised by the U.S. Embassy to leave Addis Ababa immediately). Three hours later I was on a plane back to New York with my remaining American advisor. I left behind my Chinese staff to hopefully run the factory in my absence.
During the few days I spent in America, Dr. Getachew telephoned me to say that he had certain documents he was emailing me. He said I should look at them before I accuse his wife of breaking our agreement. The “document” arrived. Much to my shock it contained personal photos that had somehow been stolen from my computer (presumably by Lily Betru’s son, Michael Asfaw who was our factory’s IT expert). They were intending to use these photos in a pathetic attempt to blackmail me, and accuse me of inappropriate behavior with the young children I have clothed, educated, fed, and loved these many years.
I have no problem repeating these disgusting and baseless accusations about my personal reputation. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have the witnesses of 100 children and 200 parents that are eternally grateful for what I have done for them in improving their lives and easing the suffering of their once hungry children that had to beg in order to eat!
What kind of a family would stoop to sabotage a feeding program for children in order to cover up their commercial crimes? Ms. Betru even attempted to go to our company driver (who has known and respected me for five years). She requested that in exchange for a large sum of money, he should bear false witness and said that he saw me having sex with my 15 year old son Lawgaw whom I’ve been caring for the last 5 years. The driver is a kind man and a good Ethiopian. He told Lily he would never do such a thing. She fired him as the company driver the next day.
I remained in America for a couple of weeks much more upset that Lily Betru, her husband and son were now disturbing the children I treat as my very own. Finally, due to this threat to all of my “habesha” children, I felt compelled to come back to Addis Ababa. Additionally, I had secured a donation of 12,000,000.00 (twelve million) birr from an American apparel company to build an educational center for street children. I had an obligation to purchase land in Arat Kilo and begin this building project. Now due to Lily making it unsafe for me to return, we question whether this facility will ever be built.
I arrived back in Addis on Monday morning, May 12. At about noon, I attempted to enter the factory that I legally own and hopefully talk some sense into my so-called partner. What I found upon my arrival was that Lily Betru and her family locked me out of the factory I built on behalf of our partnership.
I am 55 years old and I was attacked by Lily’s 28 year old son Michael Asfaw. I tried to enter my own factory and this misguided young man, at the request of his mother, assaulted me and prevented me from entering my own factory.
Lily has stolen all of the machinery, and 2 million birr in capital that I had put into the company. She stole 3 million birr in raw materials that I sent to Ethiopia to train 900 workers. She locked my personal office in our factory, stole all of personal documents including the deed for my home in Addis Ababa, the partnership agreement we signed, and the loan agreement Lily signed for me to loan her $1 million birr. She has even stolen the cherished photos of my deceased parents and refuses to return them.
That afternoon I went to the Lafto police station to seek help to re-enter my factory, I was greeted by Chief Inspector Ashagre of the Lafto Police Department. He heard my story and asked me to wait. This chief inspector ran and called Lily and within 20 minutes, Lily Betru, her son Michael Asfaw, and her husband Dr. Getachew appeared at the police station and were screaming all at once in Amharic at the Chief Inspector. In the next instant, this Chief Inspector accuses me of being a pedophile and says that I have engaged in sex with the children of my NGO. Before I know it, he is attempting to put me in a jail cell until he investigates.
The Chief Inspector never met me, knew nothing of my NGO, has made no investigation but still attempts to throw a loyal friend of Ethiopia in jail as a common criminal. I am a law abiding man that has never had a single problem with the police in my life. At the thought of spending time in an Ethiopian jail, I became physically ill.
Chief Inspector Ashagre agreed to let me go to a hospital if the two Ethiopian men that accompanied me to the police station would give up their ID cards as a guarantee that I would return the following day. At the firm advice of the head of security of the U.S. Embassy, I did not return to the police station but fled Ethiopia, but mostly out of fear for my personal safety and liberty.
It has now been 6 weeks since I last departed the country I have come to love. It has been 6 weeks since I have been able to visit the hundred children that depend on me for all of their childhood need. The factory has been stolen, my money has been stolen, and I have no idea what to do next.
Industry Minister Girma Biru is a fine man who met with me at least 6 times in the last few months. He believed that my vision was the answer that light industry in Ethiopia has been seeking for a long time. His support of this venture was profound, intelligent and generous. Now all of his efforts have been for nothing because of the actions of Lily Betru’s criminal family.
How incredibly sad that after so many years of dedicating my life and personal funds to helping your country that I can no longer feel safe to come back and carry my good work.
What a profound disappointment… if this ends up as my reward for dedicating my life and personal funds to help this country. I have spent 80 thousand birr every month for the last 2 years to fund and save over a hundred children from a life of illiteracy and poverty.
I stuck my neck and persuaded people from 4 countries to come and help Ethiopia and give people knowledge of the international market. I was poised to bring the biggest names in American and European retailing to fill the vastly under utilized factories of Ethiopia.
Our marketing expert for apparel in the United States was talking to every major U.S. retailer to make their apparel in Ethiopia. We were very close to bringing thousands of jobs and million in exports to Ethiopia over the next 3 years, I did this not for profit… But to change the face of a beautiful nation that deserves prosperity among its people. Because of Lily Betru, that dream, is now dead.
I beg the Ethiopian government to look into this matter properly and bring these people to justice. I can no longer return to my home or business or children’s welfare center in Addis Ababa. Lily keeps calling me in the U.S. warning me that “If you come back, no one will protect you!” She says she is the personal friend of the Prime Minister and no one will dare to interfere with her.
I still believe that Ethiopia is a great country with all the potential needed for it to become the next superpower of manufacturing for U.S. corporations. I am a man with a proven track record of a quarter century in China… creating jobs, knowledge, and prosperity for the Chinese people. I know dozens of large companies will to give Ethiopia a try. I know the top experts in light industry that could bring mountains of transferable knowledge to Ethiopia.
Please do not let the criminal element of Lily Betru’s family destroy this possibility.
Founder; Victor and Lily Bag and Apparel Makers PLC
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Condensed and revised from the original version, which was a letter to dictator Meles Zenawi)