Remedan Yuya fled Ethiopia to escape the hardship and strife brought upon the Oromo people by the Ethiopian government. Dr. Negasso Gidada, an Oromo himself, served as president of that government from 1995 to 2001. He is currently a member of the Ethiopan parliament.
[Photo by Ryan Callahan]
Dr. Negasso Gidada, president of Ethiopia from 1995 to 2001, speaks Thursday at the second annual International Oromo Human Rights Conference in Coffman Union’s Great Hall at the University of Minnesota.
“When I saw him, what I feel, (he is) somebody who tried to kill me, who tried to hunt me back home, I escaped from that,” said Yuya, an activist and Oromo Studies Association member. “My sisters, my brothers, my mom, my father, because of him, disappeared. Then, how can I tolerate (him) over here?”
Last week, hundreds of Oromos attended two conferences at Coffman Union to discuss human rights issues facing the Oromo community in Ethiopia.
Gidada spoke at both conferences; Yuya attended one.
“When Sept. 11 happened, I was a student in college. I was made sick by that day because of all the people dying in America,” Yuya said. “That’s the same I feel when I see (Gidada).”
The situation in Ethiopia
The Oromo people have faced persecution in Ethiopia since a transitional government gave way to the
Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front in the mid-’90s, under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the TPLF have remained in power ever since.
“We had party members in the countryside who were beating people, for example taking out the whole village, maybe about 5,000 people, and have them sit down in the sun for five days,” Gidada said. “(They were) accusing them of hiding the (Oromo Liberation Front) people and they were violating the human rights of the whole village.”
The Oromo Liberation Front works for the human rights of the Oromo people. In Ethiopia, membership in the group is viewed as illegal by the governing regime.
Gidada said while he was president there were approximately 25,000 Oromos held as political prisoners for five or six years.
“I know that in 2000, when the new president was elected … he gave amnesty to about 1,000 people,” he said. “The rest, we don’t know where they are.”
The U.S. Department of State issued a human rights report on the Ethiopian government in 1999. The report said the government’s human rights record “generally was poor,” and despite improvements, “serious problems remain.”
In the Ethiopian government, the presidency is mainly a symbolic position which serves as head of state, but Gidada said he participated in all decisions made by the ruling party.
Gidada said he is prepared to accept personal and collective accountability for human rights violations.
“How many have died … are crippled … in prison and how many have run away to other countries because of the brutality of the government, I do not know exactly,” he said. “What I can only say at the moment is I am very sorry.”
Last week’s conferences, The International Oromo Human Rights Conference and the Oromo Studies Association annual conference were both co-sponsored by the University’s Oromo Student Union.
There are an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Oromos living in the Twin Cities and more than 90 percent have refugee status, according to the Oromo Community of Minnesota.
Oromo students react
Oromo Student Union secretary, Hussein Waliye, lived in Ethiopia while Gidada was in office. Waliye said his father was imprisoned “pretty much for being Oromo.”
“Every time and anytime they want, they’d just put him in jail,” he said. “Every night, even though we were little kids, we would be sitting in the house wondering what’s going to happen to our dad.”
Eventually the government gave his father a final notice to leave the country. Officials threatened him, saying if they suspected he was involved with the OLF, he would be killed.
Gidada also played a role in the formation of the current government during four years of transitional government. Because of this, Waliye said Gidada has significant responsibility.
“Him coming here and saying sorry and then criticizing the current government doesn’t make any sense to me, because he’s the one that put this government in place,” he said. “I have more blame on him than any Ethiopian president that came after him because without him (they) wouldn’t be able to stand on their feet today.”
Oromo Student Union President Gada Beshir said he once shared that distrust of Gidada and other members of the regime. But a trip to South Africa changed his mind. There, he studied the way that country reconciled following years of apartheid.
“Going to South Africa, personally, that changed me around 180 degrees,” Beshir said. “I would like to see a true reconciliation commission based on the South African model that brings the society together.”
Despite his optimism for the future of Ethiopia, Beshir admits Gidada’s apology is not enough for him to forgive.
“As a student leader, I decided to tolerate him and accept him,” he said. “When it comes to the excuse and apology that he made in front of the public, I just know that’s not enough.”
Oromos make up nearly 40 percent of the Ethiopian population, according to the CIA’s World Factbook.
Because he is Oromo, Gidada’s role was part of the reason why the regime was able to gain power, Nuro Dedefo, chairperson of the OLF in the United States, said.
“Because he held that status (he) gave legitimacy for the TPLF regime,” Dedefo said. “He’s a doctor, he should know better man, he should know better.”
While Gidada’s position was largely ceremonial, Dedefo said the former president could have done much more while in power.
“He should speak up for the human rights violations committed against the Oromo people,” he said. “Once he left the office, whatever he says doesn’t fly in my eyes because of the action that government committed. He was part of the regime; he is responsible.”
Barbara Frey, director of the University’s human rights program, was seated alongside Gidada on the panel held Thursday at the International Oromo Human Rights Conference.
“I found it quite extraordinary that the president chose to come here knowing that he would probably face criticism from his own ethnic community,” she said. “It was a very powerful, the most powerful moment in the event, when he personally apologized for his role.”
President of the Oromo Studies Association Dr. Gobera Huluka, said Gidada brought a necessary point of view to the conference.
“I am the most idealistic person who believes in the free flow of ideas,” he said. “That is the only way we can understand our enemy; we can understand ourselves and we can understand our friends.”
Watch a video of interviews with Dr Negasso and other participants of the conference. Click here.