In May 2005, with the economy growing rapidly and the government’s popularity apparently high, Ethiopia held elections, the first truly multiparty vote in Ethiopia’s history, and invited international observers to attend. But the results were not to Meles’s liking. Nega’s Coalition for Unity and Democracy won 137 of the 138 seats on the City Council in Addis Ababa. Nega was poised to become mayor, but the government denied his party the victory and jailed him along with other C.U.D. leaders. American colleagues began a campaign to free Nega. “The Bucknell faculty approved a motion to support him and call attention to his plight,” Rickard says. “We talked with journalists, ambassadors, trying to make sure that he stayed on the front burner.” International pressure helped to secure Nega’s release after 21 months, and he returned to the United States. The experience “hardened him,” says Samuel Adamassu, a member of the Ethiopian diaspora who has known Nega and his family since the 1980s. “It made him realize these people are not willing to change without being forced.”
After our lunch in Washington, I attended a fund-raising rally for Ginbot 7 at the Georgetown Marriott, attended by about 500 members of the Ethiopian diaspora. Nega stood before a backdrop of Ethiopian and American flags. It would be a fight to the death, he assured the cheering crowd. “There is no negotiation with someone who is coming to rape you,” Nega went on in Amharic, the principal language of Ethiopia. “We have to stop them.” The contrast between the mild-mannered academic I had met on the patio of the Café Dupont and the fiery rebel leader was striking. Nega announced that he had brought news from the front lines: Guerillas claiming loyalty to his movement had carried out their most significant attack to date, outside the town Arba Minch, in southern Ethiopia, formerly the site of an American drone base. “We killed 20 soldiers and injured 50 of them,” he said, calling it “a new stage in the struggle.” (The Ethiopian government claimed they foiled the attack and killed some of the gunman.)
When Nega helped found the Ginbot 7 movement in 2008, the year he returned to teaching at Bucknell, he explained that the movement would seek to “organize civil disobedience and help the existing armed movements” inside and outside Ethiopia and “put pressure on the government, and the international community, to come to a negotiation.” Yet the Ginbot 7 platform advocated destabilizing the government “by any means necessary,” including attacks on soldiers and police. It was a discordant message coming out of a liberal American university whose first class was held in the basement of the First Baptist Church of Lewisburg in 1846. “It’s a line that he has crossed,” says Rickard, the English professor, who finds Nega’s advocacy of violence “troubling” but understandable. “He has never been a pacifist, never renounced armed struggle,” he says. “He has seen elections overturned, hundreds of people murdered on the streets. His sister died, and his best friend is in prison, in peril of his life. He sees violence as viable and necessary. It’s kind of shocking, in a way.”
While Ginbot 7 started to foment its resistance, Ethiopia was busy rebranding itself as an economic success story. Following South Korean and Chinese models of state-directed development, Meles borrowed from state-owned banks and used Western aid money to invest heavily in dams, airlines, agriculture, education and health care. Ethiopia’s economy took off, averaging nearly 11 percent growth per year for the last decade, one of the highest rates in Africa. Addis Ababa became the showpiece of the country’s transformation, with a light rail system, ubiquitous high-rise construction and luxury hotels, high-end restaurants and wine bars packed with newly minted millionaires. At the same time, the country was becoming a bulwark against the spread of radical Islam in the Horn of Africa. Today Ethiopia provides 4,400 peacekeepers to an African Union force in Somalia and helps keep the peace along the tense border between North and South Sudan. In July 2015 President Obama, on an African tour, paid the first visit ever to Ethiopia by a sitting American president.
Yet in the classroom and abroad, Nega argued that Ethiopia’s transformation was a mirage, created to placate Western observers troubled by the lack of democracy. “In 2005, it became clear that legitimacy would not come through the political process, so they started this new narrative — development,” he told me. Nega insists that Ethiopia has “cooked the books,” and that its growth rate is largely attributable to huge infrastructure projects and Western development aid, with little contribution from the private sector. “The World Bank is throwing money at Ethiopia like there’s no tomorrow,” he told me. The actual growth rate, he insists, is closer to 5 to 6 percent — per capita income is still among the lowest in the world — and the weakness of the country’s institutions will mean that even this rate cannot be sustained.
Two months before Obama arrived, the government presided over what was widely considered a sham election, in which the ruling party won all 547 seats in Parliament, But Obama, making it clear that security trumped other concerns in the Horn of Africa, stood beside Meles’s successor, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, and described the government as being “democratically elected.”
“I was shocked,” Nega told me. “ I understand the reality of power and why he supports the Ethiopian government, but to say it is ‘democratically elected’? I was disgusted.”
Three days after my first meeting with Nega in Asmara, and shortly after he returned from his border rendezvous, we drove in the late afternoon in his white Hilux pickup truck through the landscape of his new life. We passed the run-down and nearly deserted Asmara Palace Hotel, formerly an Intercontinental Hotel, and a large Catholic church that Nega couldn’t identify. “I’m a lousy tourist guide,” he said apologetically. While in Asmara, he spends most of his time hunkered down either in his residence or at a borrowed office in the center of town — one of the few places in the city with a high-speed internet connection. Eritrea has the lowest internet penetration in the world, with only about 1 percent of the population online, and this rare broadband connection allows him to catch up regularly on Skype with his sons and his wife. “I don’t think she’s very happy about my being here,” he admitted, shifting uncomfortably. “We have really stopped talking about it.”
Immediately following its independence in the early 1990s, under the rebel-leader-turned-president Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea was briefly considered one of the hopes of Africa. When I visited the country in 1996, five years after it won its liberation from Ethiopia, the former rebels were starting to revive the wrecked economy — rebuilding roads, bridges and a railway to the coast, calling on the Eritrean diaspora to invest. But after the border war between 1998 and 2000, Eritrea’s leadership turned inward, growing increasingly suspicious of the outside world. Afwerki suppressed dissent, expelled Western journalists and NGOs, turned down foreign aid, nationalized industries and discouraged foreign investment; according to the World Bank, per capita income is about $1,400 a year. In 2009 the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Eritrea, including an arms embargo and a travel ban and a freeze on the assets of top Eritrean officials, for providing weapons to the Shabab, the radical Islamist group that has carried out hundreds of terrorist attacks in Somalia and neighboring Kenya. (Eritrea called the allegation “fabricated lies.”) A June 2016 United Nations report accused the Eritrean government of committing “crimes against humanity,” including torture, jailing dissidents and the open-ended military conscription program that the government justifies as preparation against another Ethiopian invasion.
With virtually no investment coming into the country, Asmara has become a city frozen in time. Two donkeys meandered down Harnet Avenue, the capital’s main boulevard, stopping to nibble at a patch of grass around a palm tree. As we watched the crowds walk down the tidy avenue lined by an imposing red brick cathedral, a 1930s-era Art Deco movie theater and crumbling Italian bakeries and cappuccino bars, Nega defended his decision to turn to the dictatorship for support.
“Do we really have to discuss the kind of dictatorships that the U.S. sleeps with?” he asked me. “Here is a country that was willing to give us sanctuary, a country that had once been part of Ethiopia. I look at any of these people, I talk to them, and they are just like me, they are as Ethiopian as I am. Why should I not get help from them?”
Nega insisted that he saw some positives in the dictatorship. “This is the only country that says, despite its poverty, ‘We are going to chart our own course — whether you like it or not,’ ” he told me. “They are not corrupt. You see these government officials driving 1980s cars, torn down the middle. I have seen their lives, their houses. There is some element of a David-and-Goliath struggle in this thing.” He called the United Nations report describing crimes against humanity an “exaggeration.” (A Western diplomat in Asmara I talked to, who asked not to be identified because of the political sensitivities of his position, agreed with Nega’s assessment of the report, saying it was based on testimony of refugees in Europe who had “an interest in depicting their country as badly as possible to justify their status.”)
It goes without saying that Nega was reluctant to speak harshly about the nation that was providing his movement with a refuge — and that could snatch it away at any moment. “I don’t want to butt into their personal issues,” he said carefully. “They’ve always been nice to us.” Out of the public eye, however, the rebel leader can be more critical. “He holds no illusions about Eritrea,” says his friend and former Bucknell colleague Dean Baker.
I asked Nega if he was confident that pressure by the rebel groups could bring down the Ethiopian government. Nega believed that momentum was on his side. “This resistance to the state is coming in every direction now, in all parts of the country,” he said. He was giving himself “four or five years” before he and his rebel forces entered Ethiopia as part of a new democratic dispensation. “It certainly won’t be a decade,” he told me.
Until that happens, Nega will continue planning and preparing from a precarious and lonely limbo. Back at the bungalow, he led me down the corridor and showed me where he slept: a monastic chamber furnished with a single bed, an armoire and a night table strewn with jars of vitamins and blood-pressure medication. (He lost his medical insurance when he left Bucknell, but still has American insurance coverage through his wife, and he picked up a three-month supply of the medicine on his May trip to the United States.) He retrieved from the freezer a chilled bottle of Absolut and poured two glasses. We sat in the concrete courtyard, beside a clothesline draped with Nega’s laundry. The power failed again, casting us into total darkness, then returned a few seconds later. The contrast with his previous life in the States — cheering for the Lewisburg Green Dragons, his son’s high-school track team; vacationing on the beaches of Maryland and North Carolina with his extended family — could hardly have been more extreme.
“If you like comfort, and that’s what drives you, you’ll never do this,” he told me, taking a sip of the ice-cold vodka. “But sometimes you get really surprised. Once you have a commitment to something, all these things that you thought were normal in your day-to-day life become unnecessary luxuries.”