The federal government claims Dembi Dollo University students hostage crisis nearly over, yet there more questions on the kidnapping and ordeal of students than answers
AS/ Mahlet Fasil & Zecharias Zelalem
Addis Abeba, January 13/2019 – The news of the kidnapping of dozens of university students from Dembi Dollo University by unknown kidnappers was first aired on December 17/2019. Speaking to the Ethiopian Satellite Television and Radio (ESAT) Amharic News segment over the phone, a family member of one of the kidnapped students said the students were singled out from the bus they were traveling in some 34 km off Dembi Dollo, located around 600 kilometers west of Addis Abeba, in Kelem Wollega zone of Oromia regional state.
The students were heading home after many universities in Oromia and Amhara regional states were hit by series of crisis involving the murder of students. On November 13/2019, a student in Dembi Dollo university has died after having been admitted to the city’s hospital for injures he sustained following a fight between students near the university’s cafeteria, the university’s president Dr. Leta Tesfaye admitted. Getaneh Bitew was a third year student at the university, according to social media reports.
Since then the teaching-learning process at the university has been on and off while several students have decided to leave campus for their families. However, a four minute video released by the university on November 21, which included interviews with various students, claimed the teaching-learning process was “ongoing in good condition.” Habtamu Abebew, a second year biology department student, gave his testimonial in the video saying: “As it’s known, there has been a problem in [many] universities including Dembi Dollo University. However currently, we can all see that calm is returning, the teaching-learning process is ongoing, the problem is getting close to [having] solutions and the students who left [campus] are returning back to their studies.”
However, from the chronology of events, the kidnapping, by unarmed group of people, took place after the above video was posted on the university’s YouTube channel. According to Asmra Shume, who was one of the kidnapped students but has since escaped after two days of ordeal in the bush, the kidnapping took place on December 03. “We left in two vehicles traveling via Gambella because to road via Nekemte was closed; we were eight in one car and nine in another,” she said, indicating the number to be 18 before her escape leaving the 17 behind. “The driver in our vehicle contacted the kidnappers and delivered us to them,” she recalls.
Asmra has been speaking to the media over the weekend including Addis Standard. “They took our phones away and walked us deep into the forest,” she said over the phone, “there were girls who were shaking and unable to walk. But the kidnappers told them to get up and keep going.” According to her, the kidnappers were a group of eight unarmed men.
As if nothing happened
For a month and two weeks there has neither been more media coverage nor a substantial online activism regarding the fate of the students, believed to be 13 female and 4 male students, all from the same university.
The management of the university, too, continued issuing statements via state owned media and its Facebook page that the teaching-learning process has restarted. In a December 24 cover story interview with state daily Addis Zemen, the university’s president Dr. Leta Tesfaye said the students were back to their studies. The reason for the temporary interruption was, according to Dr. Leta, the demand by some students who left campuses located in universities in Amhara regional state asking to be accepted in Dembi Dollo university, which didn’t happen.
In the same interview, Associate Professor Yoseph Shiferaw, deputy president of research and development services in the university, said the university was peaceful and that the teaching-learning process of ongoing as usual. “Although there are people who think there is no peace in our area, there is peace. I joined the university in September and many have told me to given up on my life before coming here. But what’s being said and what’s on the ground are a world apart. I say the media have a responsibility to amplify this,” he said.
There was no mention of the missing students in the news. However, a public notice posted inside campus on January 02/2020 acknowledged that there were students who were leaving campus without the knowledge and approval of the university and notified students that the teaching-learning process was ongoing and that students who were interested to study should proceed to attend classes.
A subsequent letter gave an ultimatum to all students that the regular teaching-learning process would begin at 8:00 AM on Monday, January 13/2020, and that all students should resume classes. The notice said other than [a breif] interruption, the university did not suspend classes.
There was no sign of any recognition of the missing students both from the notices by the academic management of the university and the interviews of the president.
Regional and federal governments’ deafening silence
But the deafening silence wasn’t limited to the university alone. Families of the kidnapped students who spoke to both Addis Standard, the BBC Amharic and the Amhara regional state mass media agency, AMMA, speak of their weeks-long frantic attempts to notify local authorities, including the police and education bureaus of the regional state; but all fell on deaf ears.
Girmaw Habte, third year mechanical engineering student, is one of the kidnapped students. His sister who spoke to Addis Standard on conditions of anonymity, shares the same frustrations of her repeated attempts to report her missing brother to local authorities in Gonder. The police provided her with words of comfort and a promise to follow up on the case but as days and weeks go by “it is like nothing happened,” she shared her frustrations.
In his account about his kidnapped daughter, Yeneneh Adugna, who is from central Gonder zone, Dembia Wereda, Sankisa Kebele, also said families of the kidnapped students have come together and went to the Amhara regional state peace and security bureau as well as the region’s police commission to explain the situation. He quoted officials as saying: “there is nothing you can do; go back to your homes, we are following the case.”
The first sign from the regional government came in the form of a message by the region’s president, Temesgen Tiruneh, which was delivered on January 06 in the eve of the Orthodox Christmas. In his message, Temesgen said, among other things, the regional state was closely following the disappearance of four university students who went missing while heading to their families. However, he stated that the federal police told the regional state that they have no information about it. Without going into details, he told the regional state broadcaster, AMMA, that he has received information about the four students who were “abducted by unknown people”, and added that the regional state has communicated the information both to the federal police and federal defense forces.
The regional government did not explain why the information submitted to its peace and security bureau and the police commission and other relevant authorities by the parents of the missing students, which included providing phone numbers used by the abducted students and their estimated locations, according to Asmra, were not acted upon. Addis Standard’s repeated attempt to speak to the communication bureau of the region since last Saturday were all to no avail.
This came in the wake of a social media rupture on Friday and Saturday January 10 and 11. The social media campaigns were led by, among others, Dessalegn Chanie, Chairperson of the National movement of Amhara (NaMA), followed by issuance of statements from various associations and civic organizations such as Amhara Association of America, condemning the kidnapping and demanding the federal government to intervene and rescue the students. NaMA also issued a statement providing the list of the 17 students and in which it also condemned the federal government’s negligence. The outcry has eventually broke the deafening silence of the federal government when Negussu Tilahun, Press secretariat of the office of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, gave a statement on Saturday.
Appearing at the evening bulletin of the national broadcaster, ETV, Negussu revealed that 21 students (13 female and eight male students) were rescued following negotiations with the kidnappers which was led by the federal government. He also said that negotiations were ongoing to secure the release of six more students who were still in the hands of their captors.
Negussu identified the kidnapped students as those from Dembi Dollo university but his account, including the figures he mentioned, has raised more questions than answers. What is more, Negussu did not explain anything about the circumstances of the release other than saying “works to secure their release were ongoing for sometime,” and that it involved the federal army, the federal police, local elders and and local officials.
Negussu’s statement not only lacks basic information such as where and how the released students were found, and how they were rescued, but it clearly contradicts the statement of that of the Amhara regional president who said on January 06 that the federal government did not have information about the circumstances. It became even more perplexing as family members of the students said they had no knowledge of the release up until the publication of this story. Both Girmaw Habte’s sister and the escapee, Asmra, told Addis Standard as late as this afternoon that they have not received any news of the release. Asmra went as far as saying that parents of the rest of the students who do not have phones at home keep calling her “many of them crying and tormented by the lack of information. I cry with them too as there is little I can say to comfort them,” she said.
Other federal institutions have also shut their doors from providing further information. Dechassa Gurmu, public relations head of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, referred Addis Standard to Negussu Tilahun; Endeshaw Tasew, federal police commission commissioner, said he cannot comment on the matter; and the ministry of women and children affairs said authorities who can comment on the issue are not available as of now.
The missing puzzle and the discrepancies of the numbers in the information provided by Negussu, who remains unavailable to other media despite repeated calls (since Saturday night he only answered one text message from Addis Standard in which he said he was in a meeting), have further fueled social media suspicions that either the kidnapping did not happen, or was deliberately orchestrated by the government for political ends.
Kidnapped by unarmed men
Yeneneh Adugna, the father, said that in the earlier days of a telephone conversation, his daughter had told him that the students were kidnapped by a group of young people after they left the campus. Asmra also told Addis Standard the kidnappers were eight unarmed young people.
The first news segment by ESAT also presented one of the abductors who claimed that the students were abducted by Qeerroos (young people). The unnamed abductor also said they were 18. “They are taken by Qeerroos; the place cannot be disclosed but it is in Oromia. They have done nothing wrong, they were leaving university campus and they are 18 in number. It’s been 14 days since they were taken and they are being taken care of…care is being provided for them.”
Many, including Dessalegn Chanie, blame members of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an armed group which split from Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and still engaged in armed conflict with the Ethiopian army in the surrounding area. But the group deny any involvement in the kidnapping. “Contrary to online rumors, OLA has not engaged in any kidnapping whatsoever,” OLA press said via the group’s Twitter feed. “Claims that 20 Amhara female students were kidnapped by OLA units are pure fabrication.”
Since December 2018, the area was placed under a federal command post as a result of escalating military clashes. And recently, there has been an escalating conflict resulting in complete shut down of internet services and phone lines in the area. Taye Dendea, spokesperson of Oromia Prosperity Party office, told VOA Amharic that the government was taking renewed military measures against armed groups in the area.
However, Major General Mohammed Tessema, head of indoctrination and public relations bureau of the federal national defense forces, failed to provide information on what is clearly a security matter in an area under the federal army’s control. Major General Mohammed referred Addis Maleda newspaper that inquires should be directed to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s press secretariat office.
But up until this moment, our repeated calls to Negussu Tilahun remained unanswered, leaving more questions on the kidnapping and ordeal of the students than answers. To make matters worse, the Asmra and the sister of Girmaw Habte have politely informed Addis Standard not to make any phone calls to follow updates. “I have received a number of phone calls since Saturday threatening me not to speak to the media. don’t call me,” Asmra said.