Ex-prisoner calls for support of democracy in Africa
Berhanu Nega at Bucknell Feb. 26.
LEWISBURG, Pa. -- Despite the best efforts of the people, African countries cannot become strong democracies as long as the United States and international community continue to allow dictators to maintain power through implicit support and stolen elections, Ethiopian scholar Berhanu Nega said Tuesday, Feb. 26, during a talk at Bucknell University.
Nega, a former Bucknell professor who was jailed for nearly two years as a political prisoner in Ethiopia, described democratic efforts in Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda, and how U.S. foreign policy too often chooses fragile stability over freely elected governments.
Nega, whose Trout Auditorium talk was titled "American Power and the Struggle against Poverty and Terror in Africa," is serving this spring as a Visiting International Scholar in the Economics Department.
Principle of freedom
"The principle of freedom and liberty that you believe in are the natural rights of every human being, wherever they are," said Nega, who thanked the Bucknell community for its support in pushing for his release from prison. "This is the principle that the average American shares with the forces in Ethiopia who have struggled with their sweat and blood to establish political order in their country."
Nega served as an economics faculty member at Bucknell from 1990 to 1994, when he returned to Ethiopia for a tenured position in the Department of Economics at Addis Ababa University. He established and directed the Ethiopian Economic Policy Research Organization, the first such independent research institute in Ethiopia.
Nega's scholarly work and teaching led to his becoming one of the leaders of the democratic opposition in Ethiopia. He first served as a member of the Executive Council of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, and later became the first elected mayor in Ethiopia’s history when he won more than 75 percent of the vote for mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005.
Nega described how the Ethiopian government was surprised by the overwhelming turnout of voters who were inspired by and supported the opposition candidates.
"What they didn't suspect was that the spirit of freedom that had been unleashed by our campaign could transcend the deep fear that had rendered the population powerless and submissive for centuries," he said. "But that was exactly what happened. The election fever permeated even the most remote areas of the country. People were ready for freedom and they wanted to change their circumstances through their votes. And the result was simply miraculous."
Seeing what was happening on election day, the ruling party sent out police and a "special military unit" to change the results that night. Despite international observers' polling, which showed that the opposition would have won handily, the ruling party declared victory in races throughout the country.
"What remained, so far as the ruling party was concerned, was to give this blatant usurpation and daylight robbery the necessary legal cover to make it palatable to the complicit international community," Nega said.
Following the election, Nega was arrested, along with most of the other leaders of the opposition, and jailed as a prisoner of conscience. In a move that human rights groups said was politically motivated, he and the others were charged with treason, inciting violence, and trying to overthrow the government. The prosecution had pushed for the death penalty before Nega was released this past July.
"Thus ended the Ethiopian democratic experiment that had started with such high hopes, leaving the country in the darkness of totalitarian rule," Nega said. He added, "The international community seems to listen to power more favorably than justice. The result, unfortunately, is generalized instability" in many African nations.
"Terrorists hide in places where people have lost hope and are disenfranchised." - Berhanu Nega
And as the United States and international community works to fight terrorism, he said, it must realize that "these kinds of governments are breeders of terrorists. Alliance with them is not principled, it is ad hoc. If and when (African dictators) believe it is in their survival interest to ally with terrorists, they will do so. Empowering ordinary people is the real antidote to a fight against terror."
"Terrorists hide in places where people have lost hope and are disenfranchised," he added. "Promoting democracy and standing with the struggle of people for liberty will provide a more durable victory against terrorism."
While at Bucknell this spring, Nega will guest lecture for the Economics Department and participate in various human rights activities. He participated in a panel earlier this semester on "Endangered Scholars Worldwide" and plans to give numerous lectures around the country about the situation in Ethiopia.
When Freedom Dawns
He wrote and published a book in Amharic, titled When Freedom Dawns, while he was in prison that he expects to publish in English this coming year.
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