Juweria Ali, For Addis Standard
‘Ninkii moodi mowd inuuhelayow Mudane Makhtal Daahir baa yimid’
Addis Abeba, March 14/2019 – Jubilant crowds welcomed the return of Makhtal Dahir in 1961 when Haile Selassie pardoned him after serving 12 years in the same prison that his grandson was to be imprisoned in decades after. Almost 60 years later, the equally highly anticipated return of Bashir Ahmed Makhtal’s to his homeland as a free man, was celebrated in the same manner that the return of his grandfather was celebrated.
Having served 12 years of a life-time sentence as a political prisoner in Ethiopia, Bashir Ahmed Makhtal- grandson of celebrated liberation leader Garaad Makhtal Dahir, has returned home for the first time since fleeing Degahbur at the age of seven. The tale of Bashir Makhtal and his family serves as one of the most poignant examples of the decades of violence and injustice suffered by the inhabitants of the Somali Region. Carrying the name of his courageous grandfather has always been a source of immense pride for Bashir, but unfortunately, it was also going to be a cause for his misery.
Makhtal Dahir (1894-2000), is a household name in the Somali Region; his combined role of a political and traditional leader coupled with his strong sense of political convictions and unyielding commitment to fight against all forms of oppression, has elevated his stature among Somalis globally. His name has become a source of dignity and pride for Somalis everywhere and a symbol of true liberation.
Makhtal Dahir founded Ogaden Liberation Front (OLF) in the 1960s, and served as the Somali Youth League (SYL) Jigjiga representative. In 1949, he travelled to Mogadishu to participate in SYL’s congress where British colonial forces captured him and later handed him over to Haile Selassie. He was held for five years in underground detention centres at various points in his life, and served an additional twelve years in Makalawi prison (then named Alabaqa) from 1949; the same prison where his grandson was to be held 50 years later. Both were sentenced to death initially, replaced by life imprisonment. Makhtal died in 2000 at the age of 106, having left a momentous legacy on the course of Somali nationalism in his homeland and beyond.
The story of Bashir
Bashir Ahmed Makhtal was born in Degahbur just like his grandfather, he fled to Somalia at the age of seven where he attended school. In 1989, he travelled to Italy where he was sponsored to be reunited with his older brother in Canada, he arrived in Canada in 1991, and became a citizen in 1994. During his time in Canada, Bashir obtained a degree in computer science and worked as a computer technician. In 2001, he moved to Djibouti for business purposes and spent his time travelling between Dubai, Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti, and it was a 2006 trip to Somalia that was to change his life forever. Due to intense fighting between Somalia and Ethiopia during this period, Somalia had closed its airspace and Bashir was forced to travel overland from Somalia to Kenya in order to escape the violence.
On New Year’s Eve, 2006, December 31st, Bashir was arrested by Kenyan officials, he was held at the Kenya-Somalia border for several days and questioned about the escalating situation in Somalia. Following this, Bashir was transferred to Nairobi to be detained, it was then that he was questioned by two Ethiopian security agents alongside Kenyan officials. Canadian officials did little more than write two letters of concern to the Kenyan Foreign Ministry, and by Saturday 20th 2007, he was taken to Nairobi airport away from the main terminals to a cargo area where he managed to secretly make a call to his wife to alert her of the situation. Bashir refused to board the plane and protested by laying down on the runway, as a result he was severely beaten, blindfolded, tied-down and forced onto the aircraft among 34 others.
After a few days in Mogadishu, Bashir was among 16 other civilians who were flown to Addis Ababa on an Ethiopian military aircraft. Placed in solitary confinement, Bashir was interrogated daily at Makalawi detention centre where he was subjected to horrific torture in an underground cell where temperatures were below zero, and the floors often wet. Bashir was held without due process or access to any legal representation or his family members. For a period of time, no one knew of his whereabouts, but news eventually emerged of his detention and that he was potentially facing the death penalty.
Between February and August 2008, a military tribunal was tasked with deciding whether Bashir’s case would be heard by a military court, and by October 2008 it was decided that the case would be heard in a civilian court. He was then transferred to Kaliti Prison in January 2009, where he spent the following nine years. It was then that he was finally able to see family members for the first time in two years, and to eventually hire a lawyer.
His trial took place between January and August 2009, when he was charged with supporting the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), Bashir was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2009 without a fair trial. In his speech to the Canadian House of Commons on, Bashir states the following:
“The Ethiopian government accused me of everything they could possibly think of, including events that had happened while I was in solitary confinement. They had no documents or evidence to back up any of the charges that I was involved in armed activities and the only witnesses were government agents.”
Furthermore, Amnesty International has argued that the only reason Makhtal was charged with supporting the ONLF was because his grandfather had ties to the ONLF, and that his family members, along with the people of the Somali Region, have been “targeted as part of a long-standing pattern of human rights violations” by the Ethiopian government[. The systematic targeting of Bashir’s entire family is reflected in their forced displacement from their ancestral homelands as well as the treatment of Bashir’s brother which he explains in the following way:
“They threatened to go after my family as well, which they did. In mid-2007, my brother and his son, my sister and her son, and many other family members were also arrested. When my brother Hassan was finally released in late 2009 his health was so poor, including infection from a broken rib that had punctured his lung that he died only a few days after he was freed.”
Bashir described his ordeal further:
“For the first year I was interrogated constantly. Their aim was to encourage me to become a collaborator with the Ethiopian government to spy on the Ogaden people. I constantly said I had never done anything wrong and that I would not turn against my people…The conditions I was held in were devastating for my health. I was often awakened in the middle of the night for questioning. I could hear the screams and cries of other prisoners.”
On the morning of April 18th, a prison official whispered in Bashir’s ear that he was to be freed that same day, 48 hours later he was on a flight back to Canada. At the time of his release, Bashir lamented the continued imprisonment of his young nephew Mohamed Hassan Ahmed who was arrested at the age of 16 still imprisoned 11 years later. He cites that there were ‘mistakes and lost opportunities’ in the way that the Canadian government treated his case, and thanked all those who fought for his release including his family, community, his lawyer Lorne Waldman, Amnesty International, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Somali Congress. Throughout his twelve years of incarceration, Somali communities in Canada and the rest of the world campaigned tirelessly to secure his release. Bashir’s wife Aziiza played a particularly significant role in raising the public profile of Bashir’s case alongside his cousin Said who fought incredibly hard for him too. Moreover, Bashir has explicitly called for the support of the Canadian government in supporting his efforts to hold the countries tied to his rendition and incarceration accountable for the injustices he suffered at their hands.
Moreover, while Ethiopia served as an indispensable ally in the global ‘War on Terror,’ Bashir appears to have been caught up in the wave of widespread abuses on civil liberties across Ethiopia and Somalia around the time of his imprisonment. His rendition from Mogadishu to Ethiopia is reminiscent of his grandfather’s own rendition from Mogadishu to Ethiopia in 1949, when the British collaborated with Ethiopia on safeguarding her interests and silencing any form of political dissent. As such, the case of Bashir and those like him who are victims of the ‘War on Terror, is one which implicates the international community directly.
Bashir’s Future Role
Bashir embodies the same commitment to freedom and justice that his grandfather spent years in prison for, and for which he paid the ultimate price too. But importantly, at this trying time- it is Bashir’s own ability to unify the people of the Somali Region that people are in dire need of as there are growing efforts to convince Bashir to resume both the traditional and political roles of his grandfather. A sound leader, and a highly skilled orator, there is no doubt that Bashir will play a significant role in shaping the future of the Somali Region. His return to his ancestral homeland, brings joy to millions of Somalis living in the Somali region and beyond, and the grand welcome that he received at Garaad Wiil Waal airport in Jigjiga which drew exceptionally large crowds, is testament to that. A hero’s welcome is what Bashir Ahmed Makhtal received, because for million, that is exactly what he is.
Indeed, ‘Ninkii moodi mowd inuuhelayow Mudane Makhtal Daahir baa yimid’ – ‘Whoever assumed that Makhtal met his fate, know that he has returned.’ AS
Editor’s Note: Juweria Ali is a doctoral candidate in politics and international relations in London’s Westminster University.
She tweets @BJuweria