Ethiopian colleagues have the courage to keep union alive
On November 9, 2005, Mrs. Mulunesh Abebayehu was arrested, without warning, at the junior secondary school where she teaches and taken to the notorious Kality Prison in Addis Ababa.
Her crime? Nothing more than being a member of her union, the Ethiopian Teachers’ Association, and being active in its women’s wing. Although no charges were ever laid, Mulunesh remained in prison under harsh conditions for seven months. Education International raised her case publicly and appealed to the government about the injustice. Suddenly, on 9 June 2006, she was released without explanation or apology. To this day, neither a warrant nor charges have ever been produced to justify her detention. It is a frightening reflection of the reality of teacher trade unionism in Ethiopia that Mulunesh is not alone. Far from it. At least, 58 teachers and ETA members were imprisoned in 2006. Many remain in jail, some without ever being charged. Prominent among them is Kassahun Kebede, chair of the ETA’s Addis Ababa branch. Kebede is one of 131 civil society activists who face a series of trumped-up charges including high treason, genocide, and outrage against the constitution, charges that potentially carry the death sentence. Facing these unfair political allegations along with Kebede is ETA President Dr. Taye Woldesmiate, who is no stranger to the brutal conditions inside Ethiopian prisons, having suffered six years of incarceration. In 1996, he became the first Ethiopian declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. Kebede himself is currently listed as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, testimony to both men’s commitment to seek social justice, quality education and union rights through non-violent means, despite a history of violent repression by the government. A history of persecution Founded in 1949, the ETA grew to become the largest union in Ethiopia. Its leaders were outspoken in defence of teachers’ rights as workers, and students’ rights to quality education in a country where millions of youngsters are not in school. As a constant thorn in the side of government, the ETA became the target of a particularly insidious attack – a kind of “identity theft” against the union. In 1993, the government sponsored the emergence of a rival group bearing the same name: Ethiopian Teachers’ Association. The move created confusion among members and, more importantly, it deprived the authentic ETA of its assets and properties. Since 1993, the ETA’s bank accounts have been frozen, members’ dues have been redirected to the government-sponsored group, and most of the ETA buildings have been sealed. The union headquarters are regularly ransacked. In November 2005, police occupied the two remaining ETA offices without warrant and confiscated all computers and official documents. The authentic union leaders are constantly threatened. In 1993, Dr. Taye was dismissed from his position at the University of Addis Ababa after signing a letter condemning violence by government security forces against student demonstrators. He was condemned on false allegations and imprisoned from 1996 to 2002, cruelly shackled in solitary confinement for long periods. Asefa Maru, ETA’s former Deputy General Secretary, was both a respected trade union leader and an executive member of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council. In 1997, Maru was assassinated by security police. In the wake of his murder, General Secretary Gemoraw Kassa was forced to seek asylum in the United Kingdom. Kassa returned voluntarily to Ethiopia in 2004, despite the risks. However, by October 2005, Dr. Taye felt compelled to go into exile for a second time. The latest charges, laid in absentia, confirm his fears that remaining in Ethiopia would have resulted in his incarceration once again. EI provides solidarity assistance to the ETA and humanitarian support to teachers and their families who are victimized, because rank and file members also pay a price. Teachers who join the ETA are harassed, displaced and subjected to discrimination and unfair working conditions. Attending union meetings leaves them open to various forms of attack. Nonetheless, the ETA demonstrates repeatedly that, despite these enormous difficulties, it is determined to continue its advocacy. A record of accomplishment That the union has been able to survive since 1993, despite all the interference, is nothing short of amazing. In fact, the ETA remains an incredibly committed and strong organization that accomplishes much. It is powerful testimony to the strength, courage and commitment of the leaders and the members of the ETA. ETA activists continue to work on promotion of the Education for All program, health education and HIV/AIDS, professional issues, and child labour. Projects and activities for 2006 included union capacity building, gender issues, research and publications, field survey, policy development, advocacy and mentoring. Over the last dozen years teachers around the world have stood with their Ethiopian colleagues. EI has spoken out about the abuses of teachers’ rights and freedoms in many international venues. In July, the Dutch teachers’ union (AOb) hosted a series of meetings in Utrecht in conjunction with EI and the National Union of Teachers of England and Wales (NUT). The ETA leaders were heartened by the gesture and glad of the opportunity to meet with Dr. Woldesmiate, their exiled president, for the first time in many months. Later, they also discussed their plight with Kari Tapiola, Executive Director for Standards, and other key staff of the International Labour Organization. “Our morale and energy to act was greatly enhanced with the support and helpful suggestions offered by Mr. Tapiola, other ILO representatives and our international colleagues,” said General Secretary Kassa. Together the teacher trade unionists decided to make a detailed report on the ongoing abuses against Ethiopian teachers to the ILO/UNESCO Committee of Experts on the Status of Teaching. As well, they will launch the second official complaint to the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association against the Ethiopian government. Meanwhile, despite the obstacles and lack of resources, the ETA leaders courageously carried on with plans to hold their 2006 General Assembly from 30 August to 1 September in Addis Ababa. The assembly opened with about 160 delegates and all local and foreign guests present — except the Ethiopian Minister of Education, who had been invited but chose not to attend. Unfortunately, the ETA’s hopes for a constructive assembly were dashed when, for the second time this year, authorities disrupted the meeting. During the lunch break, armed security officers surrounded the meeting hall, dispersed the audience and forcibly shut down the assembly. ETA officers and representatives from EI and the NUT immediately advised foreign embassies and the ILO, where they appealed for direct intervention with the Ethiopian authorities to urge them to abide by international law guaranteeing freedom of association. This is only the latest chapter in the ongoing story of repression against the ETA and interference with its activities and finances. EI will continue working in solidarity with the teachers of Ethiopia, and urging the government to acknowledge the ETA as the legitimate voice of the teaching profession and a worthy partner to build a better school system for all the children of Ethiopia. By Jan Eastman and Dominique Marlet Jan Eastman is Deputy General Secretary of EI and Dominique Marlet is coordinator in the Human and Trade Union Rights unit.