5.17.2004

An Interview with Ethiopia's Minister of Genocide

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA -- I finally went man-to-man with Ethiopia’s Minister of Genocide.  

He greeted me with a serious nod in his Addis Ababa office and offered me an orange Fanta. He was eager to tell the world his side of the story, he said. He was fed up with the reports coming from the United Nations and from humanitarian groups about widespread ethnic cleansing of the Anuak people of western Ethiopia. He wanted to set the record straight.  

After the interview he drove me to my hotel, then invited me for a beer at a local restaurant where we spoke for another hour. His two bodyguards, grim-faced young men carrying AK-47 assault rifles, stood watch nearby as we chatted into the Ethiopian night. 
I couldn’t stop him from talking.  

“If I died tomorrow, I would die with a clear conscience,” he said. “I have made mistakes. I am not a perfect man. But I know that I have always done my best in life.”

Some Anuak relief groups have named Barnabas Gebre-Ab, Ethiopia’s Minister of Federal Affairs for the State of Gambella, in western Ethiopia, as the highest-ranking of three officials responsible for the targeted killing of more than 1,200 Anuak in the past three months in Gambella.

Last December 13, more than 400 Anuak were killed in a single day in the town of Gambella, the capital of the state of Gambella. Eyewitnesses say the Ethiopian army has since conducted scorched-earth raids against many Anuak villages killing men, women, and children.  

Justified Atrocities

Some 2,000 Anuak immigrants live in southern Minnesota where they’ve come over the past decade fleeing earlier episodes of ethnic cleansing. The newest violence in Gambella means that more Anuak refugees will ultimately emigrate from Africa to live in Minnesota.

No group has definitively linked Gebre-Ab to the killings. Yet he is the Ethiopian government official with direct responsibility for day-to-day government and military operations in Gambella state where the killings have occurred. He is the civilian chief of the Ethiopian military force that is posted in Gambella. And at least one source, the former governor of Gambella, says he heard Gebre-Ab give an order to the top Ethiopian military commander to use violent force against the Anuak.

In a column I wrote the day before I met Gebre-Ab, I predicted that he would be more Adolph Eichmann than Adolph Hitler. I expected to meet a bland functionary who saw himself as “just carrying out orders,” as opposed to a zealot who justified atrocities by appealing to a greater cause.  

Boy, was I wrong. Gebre-Ab is a zealot but not a fascist one. He is a Communist one.
“ In our revolutionary days we read one model after another – Mao Tse-tung, Sun Yat-sen, Castro, and especially Lenin,” he told me over beers.  

Strong Ideology

Like many top Ethiopian government figures, Gebre-Ab fought as a revolutionary for more than a decade to topple the cruel Communist regime known as the Dergue. Gebre-Ab was a medic in the revolutionary militia, hiding out for years until the Dergue was finally overthrown in 1991.

After the revolution, Gebre-Ab earned a doctorate degree in England before returning to Ethiopia to accept a government post. His articulate English has a light British accent, plus vocabulary words taken straight from Das Kapital. He spoke frequently of Ethiopia’s “lumpens,” or criminal class, borrowing the Marxist term made famous in the phrase “lumpen proletariat.”

During my trip to Ethiopia, I asked people many times “Why would the government of this country want to wipe out the Anuak tribe?” There are several possible answers. One is that Gambella state, the Anuak’s ancestral homeland, is geographically remote but is agriculturally fertile and contains gold and oil reserves. This makes it attractive for economic development and population resettlement programs by the central government.

The Anuak have consistently pushed for a greater degree of self-rule than Ethiopia wishes to grant, fueling tensions. In addition, the black-skinned Anuak people have historically been persecuted by the lighter-skinned Ethiopians, who in the past have even raided Gambella to abduct slaves.   

International Court

To these reasons I would add a third, which is that strong ideologies, in particular utopian ones like Communism, often breed atrocities.

The vision of an ideal society shines so brightly that any amount of brutality is justified as a means to that glorious end. Such a zealot might thus justify wiping out an entire Anuak village including women and children, just to kill one or two Anuak resistance fighters the village was harboring.

The tragedy of My Lai, and now proof that American soldiers have brutalized Iraqi prisoners in the torture dungeons of Saddam, shows that Americans have no monopoly on virtue in this area.

As we finished our beers, Gebre-Ab described how he had hungrily read through all the great works of Communist revolutionaries for inspiration. It struck me that he and his fellow revolutionaries are now discovering that revolution doesn’t work as a principle of governance.

It’s been thirteen years since the Dergue was overthrown. Today, rather than fostering democracy, the Ethiopian government is adopting the Dergue’s own former methods to keep power and maintain domestic rule.

Its future therefore belongs not as a member of the international family of open, tolerant, liberal democracies, but in an international court of law.

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report