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Abel Wabela: Paying the price for speaking truth to power in Ethiopia

June 13, 2019
topic:Political violence
tags:#Abel Wabela, #human rights, #Africa, #Ethiopia, #torture, #freedom of press, #Maekelawi, #Social Media Blocking, #censorship
by:Bob Koigi
He has been described by his peers as strong-willed and a true patriot, but for Ethiopia’s Abel Wabela the journey and clamour for respect of rule of law has seen him pay the ultimate price.

He is one of the founding members of Zone 9, a group formed to advocate for social justice, good governance and protection of human rights. Abel and his colleagues were arrested and charged with terrorism and were tortured which led to Abel becoming partially deaf.

In an exclusive interview with FairPlanet, Abel recalls the harrowing experience at one of the country’s most notorious torture chambers, the resolve to fight on and the future of Zone 9.

FairPlanet: How did the journey to being one of the most vocal groups in Ethiopia on social and civic issues begin and what have been the key highlight of that journey?

Abel: After the general elections of 2005, the Ethiopian government launched a sustained crackdown on opposition, civil society groups and journalists with repressive laws that sought to cripple freedom of press and curtail opposition voices.

As young people we were opposed to this move and because the government had blocked media from passing information to masses on its atrocities, we went online to share this information. Many young people were doing it. I had my platform which was very critical of the regime. I started following what others were writing and contacted some of the other bloggers. We formed an online community that strengthened our resolve and eventually started meeting in person.

We were nine of us, six bloggers and three journalists. We started attending political functions and visiting political prisoners. As we continued to find unity of purpose in what we were doing, we decided to form an association that would bolster our passion and that is how Zone 9 was born. We were from different professional backgrounds, I was working as a tool engineer at Ethiopian Airlines, my other colleagues were university lecturers, journalism and others in banking. We did blogging as a part-time activity.

Our political and activism work continued to inspire freedom of expression with even a political party for demonstrators formed to agitate for government’s respect of its people. They even used our hashtag and the story was picked by international media including Al Jazeera.

That is where our problems as Zone 9 started. The government started surveillance on every aspect of our lives from tapping our phones to trailing our family members. As the security situation worsened, people pleaded with us to seek political asylum abroad but we wondered what that would mean for all that we had worked for in the political space. We decided to stay on and wait for what would happen to us.

And the worst happened.

Yes, in April 2014, the government launched a massive crackdown where over 100 security men were deployed to hunt and arrest all political dissidents and that is how we were captured and put into one of the most notorious torture chambers called Maekelawi and charged with terrorism.

What formed the name Zone 9?

In the height of political persecutions in Ethiopia, journalists and other political prisoners were being incarcerated in an infamous state prison called Kaliti Maximum Security Prison which is divided into eight zones. We felt that the country had turned into another Zone where its citizens were held captive by the state. They needed liberation and that is how we ended up calling ourselves Zone9ers with our mantra being, ‘We blog because we care.’ We wanted to be the voice of the million voiceless Ethiopian citizens and we are campaigning for rule of law and constitutionalism.

You and the rest of the Zone 9 members were convicted of various charges including terrorism. Tell us about the experience in prison and whether it shook or strengthened your resolve?

It was one of the most harrowing experiences of our lives. We underwent the most inhumane treatment anyone could imagine. They had some prepared confessions that they wanted us to sign admitting to terrorism and disturbing law and order. I blatantly refused to sign and that is when all hell broke loose. I was beaten with thick sticks and computer cables. The prison guards forced me to lay down and stamped on my entire body including my face with their boots. They continued beating me and hitting me and in the process seriously injured my left ear. To date, I can no longer hear with my left ear. We were then charged in court and I remember how skewed the court proceedings were. I asked the judge why he wasn’t letting the accused defend themselves and I was given three months of jail time for contempt of court.

We were in prison for one and a half years before the judge dropped all charges saying the prosecution didn’t have enough evidence to charge us with the said crimes. But the government didn’t want to let us free so the prosecutor appealed the judge’s ruling in the Supreme court and after one a half years of gruelling court cases the Supreme court also threw out the case for lack of evidence.

What has life after release from incarceration been for the members? Are you still involved in blogging?

I went to my former employer Ethiopian Airlines who said they couldn’t employ me as I had been out of work for over six months. My work in blogging and political activism was widely known so the reason they never wanted me back is because they didn’t want to rub government the wrong way.

After taking a break for some time I managed to work for one of the leading publications in Ethiopia called Addis Fortune as new media editor a position that emboldened my zeal for freedom of expression. I then resigned to start my current media company called Addis Zeybe that seeks to highlight various political and social happenings in Ethiopia with a view to ensuring the country has an informed citizenry that understands their rights. The rest of the team has also been involved in running various civic and social ventures spanning civil society groups and political offices.

In November 2015 we were awarded the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Why does what you do matter so much to you?

At times we don’t know what freedom of expression is until we start writing and expressing ourselves. You then realise it is like eating food or drinking water, it is a fundamental activity of a reasonable person and it should be practised endlessly as is the case with eating and drinking. Prison life taught me that there are people who are afraid of expressing themselves or rubbing the government the wrong way. I am not that kind of person. My daily motivation is my love for society. I will criticise the government if I spot misuse of power. My resolve to fight for what is right has been bolstered now more than ever and I am always willing to the pay the price for that.

With the new political dispensation in Ethiopia and the taking of office of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed what in your view is the place and space of freedom of expression? Are you optimistic?

The Prime Minister is doing a commendable job so far. He has made major strides especially in releasing all jailed journalists and political prisoners and making it very easy to register and get a license to operate a media house. The Ethiopian media has been struggling to survive due to the three decades of repression.

Abiy is a breath of fresh air to democracy and media in Ethiopia and we are optimistic of a good working environment under his leadership. The only problem is the ethnic federalism political structure which clusters people into ethnic blocks and makes one a second class citizen whenever they visit a certain part of Ethiopia. The Prime Minister has a Herculean task of ensuring that he dismantles the strong political forces who want to cause anarchy and chaos in order to remain in power and oppress citizens.

Social Media Blocking and Internet Censorship have become prevalent not just in Ethiopia but across Africa as governments engage in mass surveillance and curtailing information flow and access. With these developments, what is the future of online activism in Africa?

To those of us who have lived in oppressive regimes, technology remains the only saving grace for the masses. It is the only weapon against government’s monopoly of power and violence. Even with the growing cases of internet censorship, we have seen how hard it is becoming for these oppressive regimes to police information. Look at what happened to Cameroon or Uganda. Information still got out and sparked international outrage. The global community of activists and journalists now more than ever need to come together to pursue information sharing because it is the only way we can put dictatorial regimes on check.

Is the international community doing enough to promote and support dissident voices in repressive regimes?

For the Zone 9 we were lucky because there was a lot of international interest in our case from media, diplomats, human rights bodies and civil society. However, the international community has in the recent past not been as aggressive as we would expect in holding governments to account and most continue to side with the powers that be, based on where their interests lie and that puts the human rights regime in great jeopardy.

How should bloggers and online activists be protected in the wake of sustained crackdown by governments and even the private sector?

Governments will always use the divide and rule or scorched earth policy where they try to divide dissidents. My advice would be for the bloggers and activists to form unions and ensure they grow their networks beyond their areas of operation so that in case of any eventualities they are able to amplify their voices across the borders.

What ultimate plans does Zone 9 have moving forward?

To create sustainable media and civic platforms that inspire a generation that is well informed and can speak about their rights while holding governments to account and cognizant of the fact that freedom of expression is their birthright.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Embed from Getty Images
Zone 9, a group formed to advocate for social justice, good governance and protection of human rights.
Embed from Getty Images
After the general elections of 2005, the Ethiopian government launched a sustained crackdown on opposition, civil society groups and journalists with repressive laws that sought to cripple freedom of press and curtail opposition voices.
Embed from Getty Images
Our political and activism work continued to inspire freedom of expression with even a political party for demonstrators formed to agitate for government’s respect of its people.
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