As Ethiopia boils, Minnesota’s Ethiopians feel the heat


Ali Abdifatah is out of his mind right now, understandably so.

He is desperate to discover the fate of his brother, who was abducted by men with guns last Saturday evening. Since then, his brother hasn’t been seen or heard from and Ali has sat by his telephone and computer at his home in Fridley, calling and emailing, gathering small scraps of information.

But that’s a difficult task because his brother, Sultan Fowsi Mohamed Ali, is a clan elder in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, a half a world away from Minnesota. A renowned peacekeeper in the troubled Horn of Africa, whom Amnesty International has called a “prisoner of conscience,” Sultan Fowsi has been held in the giant Ogaden Jail in the town of Jijiga since last August.

Then, last Friday afternoon, according to Minnesota Ethiopians who have spoken to eyewitnesses in Ethiopia in cell phone conversations, Ethiopian troops barged into the jail and shot several prisoners. They then left, but on Saturday evening they returned, grabbed Sultan Fowsi and one other prisoner and vanished into the night.

Razor’s Edge

As a result, this week in Minnesota hundreds of immigrants from the Ogaden region of Ethiopia are firing up Internet sites and spending hours on their cell phones every day, trying to learn the fate of a beloved leader.

“It’s shocking, it’s bad,” Ali said, thumbing through stacks of human rights reports written over the years, many of them praising his brother as one of the few figures capable of negotiating peace in the Horn of Africa.

Yet as bad as it is, Ali’s story is only one of hundreds of similar tales told these days by Minnesota’s nearly 20,000 Ethiopian immigrants, who come from all across the country and not just the Ogaden region.

What is happening in the Ogaden region is the most immediate, urgent, and largest-scale atrocity occurring in Ethiopia today.

But simmering conflicts that have been brewing for many years are flaring up today all across Ethiopia, and these are keeping Minnesota’s Ethiopian community, composed of many ethnic groups, on a razor’s edge.

U.S. Citizens

“What’s going on in Ethiopia is the government is trying to silence all opposition,” said Robsan Itana, director of the Oromo American Citizens Council, based in St. Paul, which represents immigrants of the Oromo ethnic group, the largest in Ethiopia. “They are killing people.”

When the present Ethiopian regime came to power in 1991 under the banner of “ethnic federalism,” there was widespread hope that Ethiopia’s nine major ethnic groups – and dozens of smaller ones – would for once begin to live in harmony with Ethiopia’s central government.

Instead, today, the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi finds itself fighting counter-insurgency campaigns against “liberation fronts” across the breadth of the country.

Fleeing these violent counter-insurgency campaigns, immigrants from virtually all of Ethiopia’s major ethnic groups came to live in Minnesota over the past decade. Many are now U.S. citizens.

But as they still have families and loved ones back in Ethiopia, when violence flares up over there, tempers and temperaments get riled here in Minnesota, and Ethiopian troubles soon become Minnesota’s.


Another example that is having repercussions in this state is a bloody clash that occurred in May between the Oromo and Gumuz ethnic groups in western Ethiopia, that left more than a hundred people killed.

On the surface, the inter-tribal nature of the Oromo-Gumuz conflict left little trace of Ethiopian government involvement.

Yet Oromo in Ethiopia and in the Minnesota diaspora have charged – as one or another party nearly always does in such cases – that the Ethiopian government instigated the conflict by various means, such as ceding land belonging to one party to another, as a way to foment violence and launch a brutal attack-by-proxy on a targeted ethnic group.

“It’s a nightmare what Oromos are subjected to in Ethiopia,” says Lencho Bati, a professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota, and a native Oromo. “It’s exactly what blacks in South Africa suffered under apartheid – lack of access to resources, education, power, cultural enrichment and the right to self-determination.”

Locked Out

Like Ali Abdifatah, Lencho Bati also has a brother who was “disappeared” by the Ethiopian military.

“My brother was abducted in 1992 by the then-new regime of Meles Zenawi,” Bati said. “He has been missing since then. My family is living this trauma that has left a big hole in our hearts. It’s a single story but it is also common among so many Oromos in Minnesota.”

Bati spends much of his free time researching conditions in Ethiopia and working on behalf of Oromo rights. He is a member of the Oromo Liberation Front, a political opposition group highly active in the Ethiopian diaspora.   

The Anuak of Ethiopia are another case in point. A black African tribe of only 100,000 living in Ethiopia’s western Gambela state, roughly 1,000 Anuak today live in Minnesota. They came here after fleeing ethnic cleansing attacks carried out both directly by the Ethiopian army, and in proxy conflicts instigated and then left unpoliced by Ethiopian troops, often pitting the de-armed Anuak against armed groups of the Nuer tribe.

Fertile Land

“Pushing the Anuak out of the region is part of the Ethiopian government policy,” said Apee Jobi, a Minnesota Anuak who lives in Brooklyn Park. “A government official once called the Anuak ‘scum.’ Gambela is a fertile land and if it was developed it could help feed all of Ethiopia. So the government likes the land, but it doesn’t like its people.”

The Ethiopian military has conducted four major attacks on the Anuak tribe since the Meles regime took power in Ethiopia in 1991, Jobi said. The largest one took place on December 13, 2003 when uniformed Ethiopian troops killed some 425 Anuak men in a massacre that Human Rights Watch called “crimes against humanity” that targeted the Anuak tribe specifically.    

Employed at a local bank, Jobi devotes virtually every weekend to Anuak causes, organizes meetings, helps raise money for Anuak refugees, and edits a web site, Gambela Today,  which runs news stories almost daily.

Stark Contrast

In stark contrast to the picture painted by Minnesota’s Ethiopians, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, in interview after interview, portrays Ethiopia as a country that has its problems but is inevitably marching towards peace and democracy.

“A peaceful, strong, viable opposition is part of any vibrant democracy,” he told the Washington Post in 2006. “We wish to have a vibrant democracy and therefore we wish to have a vibrant, strong, peaceful opposition.” 

But of the dozen Ethiopian immigrants interviewed for this article, only those quoted in the story above were willing to give their names for publication.  

The others said that the Ethiopian government pays spies in Minnesota to report the names of people here who criticize the government, and that family members who still live in Ethiopia would be punished.

A former reporter for The New York Times, and a London and Hong Kong bureau chief of Bloomberg News, Doug McGill now writes from a home base in Rochester, Minnesota. Doug says, “I’m a journalist in Rochester, MN who is trying to practice my craft in a way that helps me and my fellow citizens understand our place in the wider world.”