Why are we not listening to Andargechaw Tsige?

(Strathink website)

The Ethiopian Government is holding Andargachew Tsige, Secretary General of Ginbot 7, since his extradition from Yemen last month. Yemeni security forces apprehended Mr. Tsige while he was attempting to board a plane bound for Eritrea. His arrest brought attention from the British Government, a U.S. Congressman from California, and a number of human rights organizations.

Are we on the right side of history in condemning the Government of Ethiopia for detaining a man who simply belongs to a group opposing the current government? Is this a case of denying a group the political space to exercise its constitutional right to disagree? [1] Or, based on what the leaders of Ginbot 7 are saying publicly, does this particular case require a closer look?

What is Ginbot 7?

Ginbot 7 was created in 2006 and formally established as a non-profit organization in the United States on May 15, 2008 by Birhanu Nega, the current chairman. Birhanu Nega and Andargachew Tsige became the leaders of Ginbot 7. Birhanu Nega lives in Pennsylvania and Andargachew, formerly a resident of the U.K., was sent to Eritrea and has lived there for five years. The question is—why was Andargachew sent to Eritrea?

According to public statements made by the current chairman, Birhanu Nega, the objective of Ginbot 7 is to overthrow the Government of Ethiopia and dismantle the federal political arrangements by any and all means necessary. Birhanu Nega has stated that these means include violence, diplomacy and public insurrection. In its press releases, manifestos and public statements—all are available online at www.ginbot7.org and archived on its affiliated internet media channels—their goals and means of achieving these goals are clearly and unequivocally stated.

In 2008, Birhanu Nega and Andargachew Tsige travelled to Dubai to meet with Asamenew Tsige—a representative of Brigadier General Tefera Mamo, the leader of an armed terrorist group. There in Dubai, Ginbot7’s leadership planned to carry out assassinations against key Ethiopian government officials, including the Prime Minister and the Army Chief of Staff, and attacks on sensitive installations such as Bole International Airport, the Ministry of Defense and the Federal Police in Addis Ababa. The attempt was thwarted when the conspirators were caught with an arsenal of weapons to carry out the attacks and documents with their plans meticulously laid out.

Birhanu Nega, the chairman, has been upfront about the organization’s close relationship with Eritrean strongman Isayas Afewerki. Birhanu Nega has publicly stated that Eritrea has provided one million dollars annually to Ginbot 7 as well as training for members in how to make bombs for detonation in public spaces.Andargachew Tsige, in his last interview with ESAT, the satellite TV network owned and operated by Ginbot 7, confirmed that the activities of Ginbot 7 are fully financed by the Eritrean government.

The United Nations Security Council pursuant to Resolution 1907(2009) and Resolution 2023(2011) imposed sanctions against the government of Eritrea by strongly condemning any acts by Eritrea that undermine peace, security and stability in the region and demanded Eritrea, among others, to cease all direct or indirect efforts to destabilize the states in the region, including through financial, military, intelligence and non-military assistance, such as the provision of training centers, camps and other similar facilities for armed groups, passports, living expenses or travel facilities.

The US Department of Treasury pursuant to Executive Order 13536, also blocked the property of two senior Eritrean government intelligence officials, Col. Tewelde Habte Negash (a.k.a. Colonel Mussa) and Col. Tea’me Goiteom, (a.k.a. Mekele) who have been responsible for the ongoing bloodshed and instability in Somalia. Col. Twelde Habte Negash was identified as the principal architect of the Government of Eritrea’s relations with Al-Shabaab in Mogadishu in 2006, and as the principal coordinator of financial and logistical support to a number of armed groups, including the Al-Shabab. Similarly, Col. Tea’me, a senior Eritrean Government official, who played direct role in decisions concerning key ARS (Alliance for the Re-libration of Somalia), was identified as a key arms trafficker in the region with clients such as the insurgents in Somalia.

What Was Andargachew Tsige Doing in Eritrea?

Andargachew Tsige was stationed in Eritrea for five years. What was he doing during that time? In his own words, in a surprising turn of events heard on Ethiopian television, Andargachew Tsige admitted to organizing an armed terrorist wing of Ginbot 7, called Ginbot 7 Popular Force. He gave a detailed account of a series of trainings he carried out with members recruited from the Ethiopian Diaspora—including the United States, Great Britain, Sweden, Switzerland, South Africa and Kenya.

Masresha Badenga (a.k.a Abass), Cosmos Gebremichael (a.k.a. Abichu), Tedros Seyoum (a.k.a. Minilik) and Shita Shiferwa (a.k.a. Che Guevarra)- who had eventually escaped from Eritrea, having been recruited from the Diaspora community in South Africa, had earlier confirmed Andargachew’s stories about recruiting and training of Ethiopians in terrorist tactics. Their stories give further weight to Andargachew Tsige’s confession and Andargachew himself recounted all the names of Ethiopians who were recruited and sent to Eritrea for training.

Further support for Andargachew’s confession is the case of Abebe Wondemagn, a.k.a. Abreham, a British citizen of Ethiopian origin, who was arrested on January 23, 2013. He was caught by police providing training on explosives to Ginbot 7 clandestine operatives. Abebe Wondemagn told police he was recruited by Ginbot 7 in Great Britain and sent to Eritrea for training by Andargechew Tsige. He told police that he was assigned to blow up Edna Mall—a popular gathering place for Ethiopians that hosts an indoor playground for children—located in a busy shopping area near Bole Holy Savior Church.

Why are the British Government, a U.S. Congressman and Human Rights Organizations Supporting Andargachew Tsige?

It seems as if no one is listening to Andargachew Tsige himself. In an astonishing turnaround, Andargachew Tsige openly expressed his frustration with the leadership of Ginbot 7. He accused them of not willing to take on the hardships he has experienced in Eritrea; putting careers and family before the struggle; and incapable of providing the strategic leadership he provides in achieving their goal of overthrowing the Ethiopian Government.

Why is the international community supporting a man who has, for all appearances, been forthright in his account of his leadership in an organization that openly professes using violence against civilians to achieve its aims? Why are we supporting a man who confesses to recruiting and training members of the Ethiopian Diaspora in bomb-making?

Human Rights Watch, as it always does, wasted no time in condemning the Ethiopian government and to quickly express its deep concern for the safety of Andargachew Tsige. It warned the international community of the risk of mistreatment, including torture, that Andargachew Tsige would be facing at the hands of the Ethiopian government. Although Andargachew Tsige subsequently appeared on Ethiopian television and publicly stated that he was doing fine and his handling was good, nobody listened to him. Again, although a pro-Ethiopian government website reported that the British Ambassador to Ethiopia met Andargachew Tsige, the Ethiopian government was still being accused of denying consular access to Andargachew.

Again, why are we not listening to Andargachew Tsige?

Ethiopia is a staunch ally of the United States and is the only country in the region capable of playing a leading role in the global war on terror. Ethiopia has put its troops in harm’s way in the fight against al-Qaeda-backed al-Shabaab in Somalia.

The Ethiopian government is doing well in developing the county and Ethiopia has become one of the fastest non-oil growing economies in the world. Ethiopia’s impressive economic performance, with double-digit economic growth for several years, is significantly reducing poverty and significantly improving the lives and livelihood of the Ethiopian people. Although the government has allowed multiparty democracy and free press, human rights organizations frequently accuse the government for limiting the political space to opposition parties. The Ethiopian Government’s handling of the free press—and there is, indeed, a large and vocal free press in Ethiopia—and its handling of journalists is often criticized.

However, we should not forget that Ethiopia is just emerging from century-old feudal aristocracy followed by one of the most brutal military dictatorship in its long history. We should not therefore expect institutions of democracy to be built overnight and all conditions of democracy to be met at once in Ethiopia. We should also remember that Ethiopia is surrounded by failed states, such as Somalia and South Sudan and rogue states, such as Eritrea and Sudan, where we cannot talk of security and stability, leave alone about democracy and free press.

The United States has a dilemma. We see ourselves as on the frontlines of promoting freedom and democracy worldwide. We want to be on the right side of history. Yet, are we always clear about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? For example, we count the Government of Saudi Arabia as our friend because the alternative—a fundamentalist Islamic state that uses terror to conquer its so-called enemies—is unthinkable. Yet, the Government of Saudi Arabia denies the most fundamental human rights to half of its citizens—Saudi women. It is a country where it is illegal to practice any religion other than Islam. For years, we supported the Taliban in Afghanistan because the Taliban was not the Soviet Union. That foreign policy has come back to bite us. There are a number of examples where the United States has been and remains on the wrong side of history in promoting democracy and good governance.

In the case of Ethiopia, maybe we should take a closer and more nuanced look at the situation. Are we, the United States, again on the wrong side of history in supporting a group that openly advocates for the violent overthrow of a government and raises money in the United States to do so? Is Ginbot 7 deceiving the Internal Revenue Service by stating on paper that it is a humanitarian organization yet publicly raising money to purchase weapons for its armed wing, the Ginbot 7 Popular Force?

Maybe it is time to take a closer look and evaluate the merits of this particular case on the facts. Let’s take a look at Ginbot 7 based on what its leadership is saying to its supporters. Is the chairman, Birhanu Nega, actually raising money for weapons and has the Government of Eritrea been its benefactor? Andargechew Tsige has said that he is a terrorist—training Ethiopians in the Diaspora to make bombs and detonate them in public areas. Should we believe him?

If it turns out that the leadership is telling the truth,instead of providing critical support to the Ethiopian government, do we really want an organization such as Ginbot 7 to de-stabilize Ethiopia and, in turn, further de-stabilize the fragile Horn of Africa? Do we really want our national security interests to be threatened because we are not listening?

If Birhanu Nega and Andargachew Tsige are telling the truth, not only are we supporting a man who has himself thrown in the towel—and his comrades under the bus as well—but we are allowing Ginbot 7 to raise money and recruit Ethiopian Americans to plant bombs in shopping centers and places of worship. We do not support Somali Americans joining al-Shabaab. We do not support American Muslims from joining ISIS. Is Ginbot 7 somehow different?

Andargachew Tsige has told his story. Why are we not listening?
Foot note:
[1] Andargachew Tsige is a British citizen so it becomes a bit murky when arguing that he has a constitutional right to engage in Ethiopian politics.

* Originally published on Strathink on Sept. 17, 2014

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