Ethiopia: The Ethiopian Airlin controllers jailed for striking. By Hajji Jawar Mohammed OMN executive director

Many have been denouncing ‘mob justice’ these past weeks following killing in several towns. But are our activists free of mob mentality? I am not so sure after observing some reactions to the strike by air controllers and the arrest that followed. Many seem not to think twice to endorse the arrest just because they disliked the demand, timing and impact of the strikers and because they are in love with the current government. Some are citing some proclamation to justify the regime’s action forgetting that, just last year, we used to dismiss the laws of this country as ‘draconian’ meant to serve and sustain authoritarian grip. How could we forget in such short time that the laws of the country are largely made to facilitate authoritarian rule and silence dissent!
Any ways since the authorities are engaged in harassing, jailing and defaming the workers while silencing them not defend and present their case to the public, I feel obliged to present what I have found out so far. I have spoken to the strikers, aviation authority, the airlines and police. I believe I have fairly reliable info.

1) One of the main propaganda used against the controllers to delegitimize their demand is that they are asking for 1000% raise in salary. I too was shocked at first. But I found out that is not the case. They did not ask for uniform percentage. The 1000% that is being circulated in media is for few employees who are paid very low and did not get raise for over a decade despite inflation and increase in cost of living.

2) The complaint is not just about salary. Its mainly about status, respect for the profession and mistreatment by management. The air controllers are employed by civil aviation authority. While these controllers work at the airport along employees of the airlines, they say their salary, benefit and status is much lower in comparison. The airlines seems to pay much better. I have been told that few months back, many of the functions the airport was undertaken by the “Ethiopian Airport Authority.” When dispute broke out between the enterprise and its workers, the EAL took them under its wing and began paying them on scale with its employees. It appears the controllers also want similar treatment. Moreover although the controllers are civilians the civil aviation authority is run by an old school general who want to run the institution as branch of the military.

3) There is an assumption that the controllers suddenly abandoned their post without notice and endangered airlines safety. Thats not true. The dispute has been going on for couple of months and they have been threatening to strike if their demands are not met. They also announced their decision to finally go on strike days in advance. The made it clear they will continue serving air ambulance, emergencies and VIP but will not handle commercial flights.

4) The controllers and their workers have been under such intense intimidation by the general and his cronies that they are terrified of speaking in private let alone the media. Those who dared to speak are now thrown to jail. When you witness how horrified they are, you won’t believe you live in today’s Ethiopia but that of Getachew Asefa.

5) What the civil aviation and the ministry tell the media is totally different from their discussion with the strikers. In the discussion the authorities admit legitimacy of the grievances disagreeing only on amount of raise and structural change needed. But on media they totally dismiss their demands and also try to silence the controllers from telling their side of the story.
Finally as I said yesterday, if the demands presented by air traffic controllers is unacceptable, they can fire them. Reagan has done it in America. Lee Kwan Yew did it against pilots in Singapore. However arresting them is sliding back to the authoritarian era where jail was a solution for every challenge the government faces. For our activist community, I advice you to be very careful so that you don’t help resurrection of an authoritarian system you were fighting against. We should continue to support the reformist leadership but we must fight them when they are tempted to resort to authoritarian methods they are accustomed to.

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