Fired for expressing my political views: A pilot’s testimony

By all accounts, Yalewlet Fanta was a good pilot who enjoyed excellent performance reviews during his four years of employment at the Ethiopian Airlines as a co-pilot. However, bringing politics in a conversation with a fellow employee during a work break cost him his job and forced him to flee the country and live in exile, leaving behind his wife and children, he says. In a telephone conversation with the Ethiopia Observer from where he is currently based in Seattle, Washington, he recounts his story.

My flight career began in 2012 at the age of 22, just after having earned my pilot’s license from the Ethiopian Airline’s Pilot Training School. It was a dream come true and it was an honour and privilege to serve at the venerated Ethiopian Airlines. I have come a long way from my elementary school days from south-western Ethiopian village of Becho, 20kms from Metu, 541.km from Addis Ababa. I did high school study in Metu town, the capital of Illubabor province and for my college study, I headed extreme north and joined Mekele University’s Electrical Engineering Department in 2007. While I was fourth year, I quit and joined the Pilot Training School in Addis Ababa and graduated two years later.  I was one of the top students in my class.

I came to lose my job because of a casual conversation with a colleague.

While I started enjoying my position as pilot, with its good pay and prestige, and move up in positions that benefited both the company and myself, it was unfortunately cut short by something I could not have imagined. I came to lose my job because of a casual conversation with a colleague.

What happened was on January 2016 I made a flight to Dakar, Senegal. We stayed there for three days. At the time, political protest was flaring up in Ethiopia, particularly in the restive Oromia region and the country was in the middle of a state of emergency.  During a layoff, I happened to be engaged in a friendly conversation with a security man, a covert law enforcement on the flight, named Getachew.  We were discussing the political situation in the country, I made it clear to him that I sympathised with the plight of the demonstrators back home in Ethiopia. I was aware of his political inclinations and that he was a spy. The exchange became heated, he carried on ardently defending the actions of security forces and that of the TPLF regime. He argued that TPLF made sacrifices and liberated the country from the Derg, and the dominance was justified. At some point, he even denied that dominance and I mentioned it to him that for example among the 80 security men working for the Airlines, only two are non-Tigrayans. I never thought that conversation would have a consequence. But that was what happened. When I went back to Addis Ababa, I was told to come the office by the VP Flight Operations Yohannes H/Mariam.

I was accused by the security section for being a security risk.

Yohannes told me that I was accused by the security section for being a security risk. Until the issue is settled, I would not be flying. he told me. He called right away another section and ordered that I would be grounded. My license and passport was confiscated, and walked out of the door.  I rushed home, along the way my heart sinking as I contemplated possible imprisonment. Few days later, I was called and three people from intelligence bureau interrogated me. One Ato Berhane, head of the Ethiopian Airline’s security office and two others from the National Intelligence and Security Service. The interrogations were unpleasant and the impressions I got were that they were not interested in what I was telling them, rather accusing me for being opposition member and trying to entertain the idea of hijacking the plane. A completely ludicrous accusation! I was not a member of the opposition party, but the reality was I was an ordinary card carrying member of OPDO, the ruling party in the Oromia region, which I told them. I argued saying that all evidence support that I have been hardworking and conscientious and i have had four years’ unblemished service. I did not deny single part of the conversation that I held with the security person and I told the whole truth. The line of questioning came across to me as, “if you your mom is Oromo, how is that you have an Amahra name?”  “So, you must be both Tebab and Timkitegna.” (Euphemisms used to denigrate the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups).This was the stuff of the nightmare. It was the blatant declaration of one ethnic group’s dominance and by extension, their view of who belonged in this country.

After the interrogations, I was told to write what I said in conversation with the security man and present a pardon application to the Ethiopian Airlines. It was a dilemma to demand a pardon but many people advised me to do so. I had to support my wife and children. I was my mother’s only son and I was assuming responsibility for her. I was also providing two of my nieces’ educational assistance. I wrote the pardon application, saying I shouldn’t have discussed about politics with my colleague Getachew even if it was a layover.

I remained in professional limbo for nine months

After that day, the Airline never allowed me to fly, and I remained in professional limbo for nine months, though I continued to receive my salary. Those were trying times which were very traumatising but the support from wife, Helen Hailu and my two daughters and friends gave me comfort. I tried to seek solution for my predicament. I went to see the Ethiopian Airlines president Tewolde Gebremariam and I came to understand that the decision to issue a dismissal was apparently favoured at the highest level. The Airline Pilots’ Association Ethiopia wasn’t much of help, though I saw the president several times and at the end he told me that they could only help if I had a party affiliation. I approached two higher officials, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Workneh Gebeyehu and Minister for Civil Service, Aster Mamo to bring attention to my plight. But to no avail.

A chance for new life

Finally, I realized that my chances of working again were essentially nil and I decided to leave the country. I’ve obtained a new passport and a US visa. To my great relief, they didn’t prevent me from boarding my flight. I am currently living in Seattle, Washington and I have applied for political asylum and I am still waiting for the decision.

Few months after I left the country, I received an email from the Ethiopian Airlines, stating that the company was willing to reinstate me to my previous position, on the condition that I reimburse the amount of salary I have received “while not on actual duty from February –December, 2016.” Another email written from Tewolde Gebremarim nine days later reads that the salary I have taken is too long to justify and the airline also did not know that I left the country because I used a new passport. It is not a reassuring at all.

Now I am coming out to tell my story to let people know what was happening. At the start, I decided not to speak publicly over fears of what it would do to my family, because my wife and my two children remain in Ethiopia. At one time, armed soldiers came to the house and warned my wife, one of them telling her that he would rape her and impregnate her. Because of this, I cancelled the planned interview with the US-based television station, Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT).

Now I have decided to tell, assured by the new era of tolerant politics the country is entering. The Ethiopian Airlines has yet to show its willingness to address discrimination and blatant biases in connection with ethnicity. I was not the only one dismissed on political grounds. I know several others pilots and ground technicians who were fired, depriving the Airlines and the country of the contributions of qualified and devoted personnel. Some of them are still waiting in Addis Ababa to be reinstated.

(Initial efforts by Ethiopia Observer to reach VP Flight Operations Yohannes H/Mariam have proved unsuccessful.)

Following the publication of this story, Ethiopia Observer has received a response from Aniley Eshetu, Assistant Manager Corporate Communications, Ethiopian Airlines. You could find it here.

Source: Ethiopian Observer

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