Letter from MQX
ONE: Alien in Addis
5 October 2020
It seemed quite an ordinary August morning. I am living the routine. Is this your luggage to check in? Your ticket? And your ID card, please? While having the boarding pass processed and printed, the lady at the check-in counter offers me a verdict I least expected. “Sorry, your flight is cancelled; can you make it for the afternoon one?”
This moderately young plain-faced lady in green Ethiopian Airlines uniform is clearly multitasked. A colleague, also all too green- green jacket and pants and green necktie- comes by, murmurs, and walks on. She looks left and right at intermittent intervals, and at no spot in particular. A porter leans, aims at her ear, presumably consulting her on something; or probably sharing a joke. She cracks a smile beneath her literally veiled face. She is wearing a blue-ish mask.
The terminal has a fair share of its customers in waiting. A bunch of old women are cluttered with their tons of luggage yonder. A short line has formed behind me. A few more lines are spread across the hall. The walk-through metal detector at the gate seems to have failed to work. I am not sure it is the usual power outages that periodically define the entire city to blame. The security guys have relapsed into the handheld detectors. Body contact is happening big time. Some guys who are not necessarily doing some job- body search, room cleaning, ticket handling, whatever, and who are neither employees of the airlines nor travelers- are seen dotted down the hallway. They are the eyes and ears of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS)- the Ethiopian spy agency as I was to learn later. Many of the people in the lobby, including these aberrations, are not wearing masks. True, there are not too many in the terminal this morning. But as usual, crowded or sparsely populated, there is always a degree of disorder; lines broken, no space maintained. And six or so months into our troubled companionship with this corona-damn-virus, social distancing seems irrelevant.
This is no provincial airport in some rough country. I am rather at Terminal 2 of the lauded “gateway to Africa”, Addis Ababa Bole International Airport. With the expansion project already completed, over 22 million passengers a year are set to cross its foyers. And, yes, I am on my way to Mekelle, in the northern region of Tigray. I have to admit I was fuming inside at the rescinded flight.
As if nothing out of the ordinary, I am told to come back in the afternoon. “Your bag is put through,” the same young lady alerts me to the obvious. I see my grey, moderately sized bag trembling as it disappeared on the conveyor into the hole behind her. I pick my backpack and head out of the terminal, to the parking lot. I have five hours in between. Suddenly, I am forced to plan my travel all over again. It starts to rain faintly. I join a woman with three kids in what seems a bus stop shade. Her flight was mine too. “Cancelled,” she said in despair. She has decided to stay put under the shade until, hopefully as I will, she catches the afternoon flight. I call the cabdriver who just dropped me. I call my friend on the other end who already is approaching the airport at Mekelle offering me a ride to the hotel I will soon be checking in.
These days, having to live with the unpredictable seems to be the name of the game; more so, if you are traveling north; to any destination of this northernmost region of Ethiopia.
Was that flight cancellation an exception or some rule; or an exception that has become the rule, a regular occurrence that we have to live with?
Just before the new Ethiopian New Year, a number of local passengers and international travelers were pulled out of the plane headed to Mekelle by airport security (the likes of whom I have seen that August morning I had my flight cancelled.) They were journalists, scholars, observers who were traveling to cover and observe the September 9 election in Tigray. In the course of that week, the staff from the Ethiopian Broadcast Authority- the government arm that issues media license- had frantically called all correspondents from the international media, or those who bothered to answer, to refrain from travelling to Tigray.
Days earlier, the House of Federation, from its rallying chamber of member states of the federation, had declared the elections in Tigray illegal; hence, would not count. Its hastily elected Speaker, Adem Farah, following the resignation of Keria Ibrahim who did so knowing what was in store, took the terse lead of making that public. Earlier, in a statement via Tigray Television from Mekelle where she relocated, Keria pronounced the reasons for her decision arguing, among many others, that this was time to stay true to “my conscience.”
The majority of the passengers in that September flight were just people hailing from the northern part of Ethiopia travelling for the holidays; lucky ones doing it once a year. One of those, a young man, caught the attention of plainclothesmen who obviously must have been new and poorly trained. They decided he was a case and had him removed from the manifest. He later told reporters that he was flying back home to visit with families for the New Year.
A couple days earlier, unbeknownst to the ill-trained plainclothesmen, those who are neither employees of the airlines nor travelers, the Norwegian academic- Kjetil Tronvoll (at least two of the many books he authored that I came across, Brothers at War and War and the Politics of Identity in Ethiopia, are quite a read)- boarded the plane to Mekelle. The very day he arrived, he tweeted he was in town, visited colleagues at Mekelle University where he serves as adjunct professor, socialized with most of the competing party leaders and the ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) folks, met the election commissioners, wore an observer’s jacket and got on the road visiting polling stations including the very day a record 2.7 million Tigrayans went to the polls to vote for the regional council whose term was fast expiring. “This is self-determination, the right to self-rule,” the people stood their ground. “This is what the House of Federation is calling illegal,” one of the technical staff of the newly established Tigray Election Commission told me. Of course, Tronvoll took pictures; or others took plenty of him while on location. And they were shared.
Addis Ababa was watching.
On his way back a few days later, on September 14, his observation mission accomplished, the bearded professor was met by a group of security personnel headed by the Bole Airport’s NISS Chief and interrogated for close to two hours. He was told the evident. “NISS ‘advised’ me to cut my visit to Addis short due to my own ‘safety’, hence I am on my way home,” he tweeted. He would not spend a minute outside the terminal in Addis Ababa. As much as he would hesitate to admit it, Tronvoll was being deported. He left that night on ET’s Oslo flight.
A brief detour while I am here.
The last time I talked to him on the phone exactly 10 months back, on December 10, Kjetil Tronvoll was hurrying to the Oslo’s City Hall in the Norwegian capital. Just the day before, Abiy Ahmed had arrived in his hometown on a “commercial flight” that took off from where the professor was detained, interrogated, and deported on 14 September. Abiy, who was actually desperately hiding, and successfully so, thanks to the West feigning ignorance (of course matched by Nobel Peace Prize Committee’s absolute disinterest in obtaining facts), stories of displacement in millions, ethnic clashes and deaths, a country splitting into many enclaves was about to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for, mainly, “bringing peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea.” Tronvoll had made it to the City Hall in time to join the crowd experiencing the whole event. As expected, Abiy slipped out of Oslo fast enough avoiding the face-to-face with the press who had many questions for him; plenty of incisive ones about a country that was beginning to be on fire primarily because of his own making. Before he slipped out, however, Tronvoll met Abiy and congratulated him.
That must have been too cordial. Except that it was not complemented.
The evening he arrived from Mekelle on September 14, Tronvoll however was rudely forced to board the next available Ethiopian flight to Oslo. Not a single day more in Ethiopia. In all likelihood, Abiy- probably in his Menelik fortress cum home with the Peace Medal in proximity- must have known of Tronvoll’s deportation. “He definitely has ordered it- the deportation,” a former staff of the Ethiopian Police who has an intimate knowledge of strange events in the security sector told me recently. “Nothing of this sort happens without his (Abiy’s) direct knowledge and instructions.” Developments in Tigray that probably are detrimental to his time in power have made him progressively more erratic. And Tronvoll was there.
But, with so much baggage and a lot to be undone before being worthy of recognition in such a short time in office, many are dying to land on the details of his nomination and who else was actually in the long list of favorites. The Nobel Committee’s regulation of not divulging that info “until 50 years have elapsed” is pure sham. “I would want to know who did this,” asks an Ethiopian of part Eritrean heritage here in Mekelle. “I want to know why we have no peace between the two countries and, yet this guy gets that award for exactly doing that- no peace.” Indeed, three months after the fanfare involving the border opening, Eritrea closed its doors and surface transport came to a screeching halt. Soon after Covid-19 surfaced in February, Eritera again completely banned air travel into its territory. For all intents and purposes, the two countries are in a very shaky relationship, to say the least.
All said, I can only pray that the committee would move with utmost care in picking the best out of the 318 candidates it has in the can for this year- reportedly the highest number ever- and that it would never make a grave mistake again by missing out on the really deserving. Did I hear someone ask, like who? How about that young, stern, elegant, forceful, on the face, and yet saintly Danish environmental activist Greta Thunberg? I have never seen myself as riveted by her sheer sophistication. They shelved Greta and gave a cheat, a failed populist, the least peaceful person one can ever think of, and yes- a charlatan- that precious prize?! If this can’t shake the Nobel Committee to its core only days left to announce this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, I don’t know what would, could and should.
I am back from the detour.
Back to the reality of flight terminations in Addis, which have become quite normal at Bole Airport. Businesspeople, diplomats, scholars, politicians (the strangest of them all happened when a group from the Federalist Coalition- a name that is anathema to Abiy- were pulled out of the terminal and taken into a quarantine facility for weeks on end until the meeting in Mekelle was over); you name it; have seen their flights cancelled. And no explanation offered.
When the ill-advised new currency notes were introduced in the third week of September, the Mekelle-bound passengers at Bole airport started feeling the heat. Travel was no more fun. Those travelling with bundles in excess of 2 thousand Birr saw their money confiscated. It is as if Tigray was some foreign land. “Go help yourself…. Take it and use it for your institution’s good,” Abiy had already declared on national tv flaunting the new notes with irregular security lines that would soon be in circulation. Well, as if on cue, the army, the security personnel, and anyone who could flash a bizarre ID card were let loose and started doing the dirty job of expropriation in several locations across the country. It was a million here, a couple of millions there, and several millions somewhere else. The Tigrayan portion of the loot was being handled from the Bole airport.
The trend seems to continue to be familiar. Just in the last few days, two Turkish businesspeople travelling to Mekelle were not allowed to board their flight. Only after a series of haggling and forcefully engaging their handler did they succeed to get on the next one. Two other Turks travelling to Wolkait, to the federal sugar processing plant in western Tigray, were not as lucky. Not just were they only blocked from flying but were actually transferred to the international terminal for deportation. They may be back in Ankara by now.
What the hell is going on?
Is it all about forcing the Tigrayan boat slip away? How about article 32 of the Ethiopian Constitution; the freedom to movement? Is that too much to ask for?
The flights to Mekelle, which were 12 a day, have come down to two or even one in the last several months. Is cutting back on flights a prelude to what lays in store? Many travelers have decided to go for surface transport than attracting the wrath of the spies and undercover agents in the terminals. Even then, the trials along the road and the interrogations are so immense; and the inquisitors overbearing. A friend who drove here to Mekelle for the kiremti vacation had to pick the next town ahead when confronted by police at checkpoints dotted all along with that dumb question, “where are you headed to?”; Mekelle as a destination never bode well with the interrogators. That question often crosses that line that clearly defines what is right and wrong, and definitely settles as the first incursion into that territory of one’s right to travel at will.
As of today, only one highway that cuts across the Afar Region connects Tigray with the rest of the country. The two others running through the Amhara Region are technically closed; at least for the last two years, after a series of highway robberies of Tigrayan trucks and busses became daily occurrences. Mekellites including the governing party TPLF believe it is a deliberate attempt at subduing the region. Even then, for the federal government that owns the highways, it is business as usual. Abiy Ahmed has yet to come up public and declare that it is wrong. He has travelled several times to the Amhara Region but refused to admit the problem even exists let alone bother to do anything about it all. Two years, for God’s sake; two damn years! And as if in collusion, in their reports, many organizations- most recently the International Crisis Group- seemed to ignore that reality.
That was one of the reasons I believed air travel to Mekelle was much better and safer. I obviously was proved wrong. But there is nothing else to do than return to the airport for the August afternoon flight from five hours of doing nothing in town after my flight was cancelled that morning.
The Boeing flight was jam-packed with passengers aged anywhere between a few months to lots of years; the lots conservatively bordering, at least, on 80. These people must have come from overseas, I thought. Yes, as I was to discover later, a good half of them indeed have. The relative disregard for things they own we here hold dear, the brand-new toys their kids keep throwing left and right in downright indifference, and so on, pointed to that reality of being a stranger; a visitor. Well, the kids were desperately trying to pick (many) or refine (some) their Tigrigna with their parents. Their heavy accents were effortlessly detectible. But it was like everybody loved Tigrigna. And that effort grew from subdued voices and murmurs to loud conversations across aisles when the plane was at least 15 minutes into the sky, and safe. The sigh of relief- out of reach of airport security that could easily decide the fate of that flight- was evident. They were going home (to Mekelle and beyond) for the summer (here, kiremiti).
Well, I heard not a single person coughing or sneezing on the whole one-hour flight. Obviously, before Covid-19, coughs, heavy snorts, sneezes were what defined group presence in the terminals, and flights. I guess anything of that sort could have them landed in a quarantine facility in Addis.
Even then, some of the travelers from abroad must have been quarantined in Addis Ababa. That means, upon arrival in Mekelle, they will go straight to their homes once they produce their certificates. I will not have that privilege.
The Covid-19 driven State of Emergency (SoE) Tigray has introduced ahead of the Federal Government offers a rare glimpse into the act of independence that is now becoming all too common. It has recently been extended for another three months. If we don’t take it seriously, we will disappear as a nation, echoed across the region that has suddenly become a stronghold to be defended, as many I socialized with argue, ‘both from Covid-19 and the beast from Addis in the shape of a central government.’
At the Planet Hotel for a little over two days until my test result was set to arrive, I had to remain confined to the bedroom. It felt strange. There was nothing to do except watch tv and catch up with whatever was locally available. I was being treated to plenty of talking heads.
From my hotel window down where the poles are, I could see the Tigray regional flag blowing, unaccompanied. The first time Abiy came as Prime Minister to Mekelle, Tigray was covered with the Ethiopian flag, the star at the heart of it. “He has inflicted so much damage to the country since he was here well over two years ago,” one TPLF veteran told me. “We tried to give him the room he needed, but that must have suffocated him.” He was not alone in saying that.
A month after those boring days and nights at the hotel, as I wrap up thoughts in this essay, a friend sends me a link to what just happened in the US congress; a hearing on developments in Sub-Saharan Africa, including Ethiopia. The witness was a Mr Temin. And he has this to say;
“The government simply has to stop reaching for these tools of past repression that we really thought were relegated to history. And they need to be called out on that, frankly. The US and the rest of the world should not be in the business of celebrating Prime Minister Abiy that probably happened a little bit too much, a little bit too quickly even given some of the remarkable early steps. But we need to be in the business of strengthening Ethiopian institutions and Ethiopian civil society and those who are investigating and highlighting the abuses going on. The ethnic violence is substantial, and it is hard to contain.
Well, you are two years too late, brother!
Parallel to your confessions, the Gideo displacements in millions, the imprisonments and killings going on in Oromia at a speed we can’t catch up with- just 500 alone this week, the Abiy masquerading with impunity, the damn imbecility of the elites in the face of an Ethiopia going down the drain, the isolation of Tigray and its drifting away are ringing in my ears.
I have no immediate plans to fly back to Addis. I would rather watch all from the comforts of this renegade Regional State in all of Ethiopia that has refused to recognize both houses of parliament. And both houses are convening today continuing the game unelected; and the president, Sahlewerk Zewdie, addressing them both, probably making outrageous claims just as she had in her speech last year that “the number of displaced in the country has been brought to under 100 thousand.” The Tigray Regional President, Dr. Debretsion Gebremichael, had all along insisted that his region alone continued to host over a 100 thousand Tigrayans displaced from the other regions.
But most of all, I cannot even start to think about the flight cancellations at Bole or the very thought of plainclothesmen watching me up close when I arrive there.
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