Ethiopian official defects to U.S., decries Anuak genocide
An Anuak family arriving in the Pochalla Refugee Camp in Sudan, after fleeing a massacre in Ethiopia in 2003. (Photo courtesy of Doug McGill)
June 24, 2008
An Ethiopian government official seeking to distance himself from what he says is a continuing attempt by Ethiopia to eradicate an African tribe, has defected to the United States.
Obang Oman, who only three weeks ago visited Minneapolis as part of an official Ethiopian delegation, was scheduled to return to Ethiopia on Sunday, June 8.
Instead, the night before, he fled his Washington, D.C. hotel, spent the entire evening in a 24-hour restaurant, and flew out early the next morning for Denver, Colorado. He has not announced his defection until today.
“I know what is waiting for me if I return,” Oman said yesterday. “They would try to arrest me or kill me. I fear for myself, my wife and my children. So what is the better thing to do? I decided to keep my remaining life.”
Oman’s defection is the latest twist in the long-running saga of the Anuak tribe of Ethiopia, more than a thousand of whom live as refugees in Minnesota. According to Human Rights Watch and other international groups, the Anuak tribe has been the target of crimes against humanity and a campaign of genocide conducted by the Ethiopian government.
Minnesota has the largest Anuak refugee population in the world.
Ironically, Oman came to the U.S. last month as part of an Ethiopian government delegation whose official purpose was to persuade Minnesota’s Anuak population that conditions are now safe enough for the Anuak to return to Ethiopia to invest, to start businesses and to raise their families.
As the Deputy Director for Agricultural Research in Gambella, the western state of Ethiopia where most Anuak live, Oman sat on a dais with five other high-level Ethiopian officials at a May 31 meeting in Minneapolis. With the other officials, he promised more than a hundred Minnesota Anuak refugees in the audience that conditions in Ethiopia are now safe and secure.
Today, Oman recants those remarks. He says that the governor of Gambella, Omot Olom, who is named as a key planner of the genocide in several human rights reports, had personally threatened his life in the past and would likely have jailed him or worse if he had not lied at the Minneapolis meeting.
“He expected me to lie,” he said, referring to Governor Olom, who was the highest-ranking member of the visiting delegation. “I don’t like to lie, but if I had refused he would have taken action.”
Oman said that his wife was evicted from their government housing in Ethiopia two days after his defection, and that he fears for her life and those of his three children.
Feisel Abrahim, an Ethiopian government spokesman based in Washington, D.C. who was part of the visiting delegation to Minneapolis, denied that Oman’s wife had been kicked out of her apartment, that she or Oman’s children were in any danger, or that the Ethiopian government has any grievance whatsoever against Oman.
“This individual is looking for a better life rather than serving his people,” Abrahim said. “There is no way the government is after him. Most people when they come to the United States try to present themselves as political, that they will be tortured or imprisoned, but in actual terms it’s not true.”
Michele McKenzie, an immigration lawyer for the Minneapolis-based Advocates for Human Rights, says that Ethiopian refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. have been one of the biggest portions of their clientele since at least 1991, when the present Ethiopian regime took power.
“It’s because of political repression,” McKenzie said. “It informs a level of fear that I would say is unique in the clients we deal with. The government routinely uses torture as a means of curtailing dissidents, and they don’t soft-pedal their tactics. It’s working for the Ethiopian government to target people ethnically and it seems they are picking off the groups one by one.”
Oman, the official who defected, is an Anuak and is not named as involved in the Anuak genocide in any human rights report. He also was not employed by the government on December 13, 2003, the day on which some 425 Anuak men in Gambella were reportedly killed by uniformed Ethiopian soldiers, in one of the worst massacres ever suffered by the Anuak.
Oman says his decision to defect was largely based on having grown sick of lying to distort and cover up the Ethiopian government’s persecution of the Anuak tribe.
“Essentially,” he said, the government “is trying to eradicate the Anuak. I don’t want to lie. I decided I wanted to try to save the life of my community. I love them, I am from them, and I want to help save them.”
Oman says his relationship with Omot, the Gambella governor, turned sour in March, 2006 after he questioned the apparently arbitrary killing of two young Anuak men in Gambella by Ethiopian soldiers. The regional military commander complained about him to Omot, Oman says, which prompted Governor Omot to personally threaten his life.
“He gave me a last warning,” Oman says. “He said ‘If you do that again you will be killed or arrested.’” Following that incident, Oman says he was demoted several times. He says he was ordered to join the visiting delegation primarily because the government needed to have an Anuak testify to the Minnesota Anuak that conditions are safe to return.
Several Minnesota Anuak, reached by telephone, said that Oman’s defection testified to the actual truth of conditions in Gambella today, as opposed to the optimistic line offered by the official delegation at the May meeting.
“His defection automatically contradicts that message,” said Apee Jobi, an Anuak who lives in Brooklyn Park. “It says that that Gambella is not really stable and that things are still really bad.”
Habtamu Dugo, an Ethiopian journalist seeking asylum in the U.S. after suffering several jailings and torture for publishing articles critical of the Ethiopian regime, says that many Ethiopian government officials have defected to the U.S. in recent years.
“While they are in the regime, they do what they don’t believe in, and that haunts them,” Dugo said. “They get tired of seeing crimes committed against their own people, whom they say they represent. The time finally comes when they realize they are causing a lot of chaos. They feel guilty and they don’t want to be a part of the system, so they defect.” Copyright @ 2008 The McGill Report