Spotlight: Living Dangerously in Ethiopia
In this African nation, a union membership card might as well be a ticket to prison.
Last year, on November 9, a 53-year-old teacher at a junior high school in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa was arrested at school. For more than six months, she lingered under harsh conditions in her prison cell, yet police never showed a warrant or charged her with a crime. She might still be there if Education International, the international education union of which NEA is a founding member, had not looked into her detention.
In Ethiopia, just being a teacher could make you a criminal—and, if you belong to the Ethiopia Teachers’ Association (ETA), it makes you all the more suspect. The ruling party of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi considers both teachers and students to be supporters of his opposition. And the ETA, the Ethiopian equivalent of NEA, has long been a thorn in Zenawi’s side.
The ETA was created in 1949, but in 1993 government officials decided they would prefer a weaker union. So the government set up its own group—with the same name. This hasn’t just been confusing for members, it has also made it much easier for the government to seize all the assets of the authentic ETA.
Every morning, this Ethiopian teacher welcomes more than 60 students, ages 8 to 16, to her primarty school class.
Photo: Dominique Marlet
Since 1993, ETA’s bank accounts have been frozen, its dues have been redirected to the shell organization, and ETA buildings have been sealed and ransacked. Last year, police occupied the two remaining ETA offices for two weeks without warrants, and seized all their equipment and paperwork.
ETA’s leaders are constantly threatened. In 1993, President Taye Woldesmiate was fired from the University of Addis Ababa after signing a letter condemning government violence against student demonstrators. Three years later, under false allegations, he went to prison for six years—spending years in chains, in solitary confinement. Although he received the EI Human and Trade Union Rights Award in 1998 in Washington, D.C., he couldn’t accept in person. (On his behalf, NEA and other union officials met with the National Security Agency at the White House.) In 2005, he left the country for his safety. One year later, in his absence, the government again filed trumped-up treason charges against him. This time, they carry a death sentence.
And he’s not alone. Members of the ETA national and regional boards are regularly jailed—or worse. In 1997, security forces assassinated ETA Deputy General Secretary Assefa Maru, while other officers seek exile abroad. Educators are constantly harassed, fired, and subjected to unfair working conditions. Even now, teachers languish in prisons all over the country.
Of course, this has taken a toll on ETA’s ability to organize. By order of the government, its meetings are illegal— attendance can lead to attack. Even ETA paperwork is considered contraband in schools.
For more than a decade, the international teachers’ movement has stood by its colleagues in Ethiopia as they have faced this crisis, writing protest letters to the Ethiopian government, filing complaints with the International Labor Organization, and networking with human rights organizations. NEA also has played an active role—the Association has sent a series of “urgent action appeals” to Ethiopia’s government and speaks frequently to the U.S. State Department on ETA’s behalf, while NEA leaders and staff have visited the country many times. In 1995, shortly before his incarceration, Woldesmiate represented ETA at the NEA Representative Assembly. He returned in 2003, giving a stirring address to delegates.
Education International also provides financial support to teachers who have suffered harassment. In jail, teachers aren’t paid, but their extended families often depend on that salary (about $50 to $80 a month) for survival.
“Our morale and energy to act is greatly enhanced with the support and helpful suggestions offered by international colleagues,” Gemoraw Kassa, ETA’s general secretary, says.