AS INVESTIGATES: A DECADE AGO ETHIOPIAN DIPLOMATS SIPHONED $640,000 FROM MAIDS IN LEBANON TO PAY OFF A US BASED LOBBY FIRM. WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
THIS REPORT INCLUDES INTERVIEWS WITH BOTH AMBASSADORS
BY ZECHARIAS ZELALEM @ZEKUZELALEM
Addis Abeba, (addisstandard)—-May 23, 2020 – Documents handed to Addis Standard by a whistleblower in late 2019 and our investigations that followed revealed that funds belonging to the Ethiopian expat community in Lebanon were misappropriated by the Ethiopian government and secretly used to pay $600,000 US worth of fees owed to an American lobby firm in 2019.
The contentious money transfer was carried out in April of 2009 via Ethiopia’s consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and was deposited into a back account belonging to Washington DC based legal entity, DLA Piper, best known for its PR and lobbying works in the 2000s for the Ethiopian government. DLA Piper’s name became a household name among Ethiopians for having successfully convinced American lawmakers to quash a bill condemning Ethiopia’s human rights record back in 2007.
But the whistleblower’s documents, whose authenticity Addis Standard confirmed after months of investigations, reveal that not all the money used by the Ethiopian government officials to pay for DLA Piper’s services, belonged to the Ethiopian government. They also reveal that a number of government representatives, including ambassadors to at least two countries, and Foreign Ministry staff, were well aware of this.
Among the documents obtained are letters and receipts confirming the money transfer and filed away as part of an audit carried out by the Ethiopian consulate in Jeddah in 2015. The payment to DLA Piper using $600,000 in misappropriated community donations, was overseen by former Ethiopian consul general in Saudi Arabia, Tekleab Kebede Aregawi, and former Foreign Ministry finance department staffer and Ambassador to France, Nega Tsegaye.
The money was the entirety of a fund dedicated to the interests of Ethiopian domestic workers languishing in Lebanon. The sum was accumulated through fundraisers at community events, as well as private donations by members of the community and religious organizations over the course of a decade. When scores of Ethiopians fled Lebanon’s 2006 political instability and military conflict, the money was transferred from Beirut to Jeddah, entrusted with Ambassador Tekleab Kebede to safeguard it until Lebanon had stabilized and the community could be rebuilt.
But the money was never returned, the Saudi based Ethiopian consulate hasn’t made any mention of it and inquiries by members of the community in Lebanon have gone unanswered. Ethiopians in Lebanon were aware that the money was transferred to Jeddah but weren’t ever notified or consulted about what happened to it next. Plans to use it for charitable causes related to migrant workers went up in smoke.
Migrant workers in Lebanon aren’t protected by that country’s labor law. Under the institutionalized “kafala” system, Ethiopian domestic workers are underpaid, often mistreated or murdered by their employers. Overwhelmed with the number of Ethiopian women hospitalized after jumping off the balconies of high-rise buildings to escape abusive Lebanese employers, community leaders opened the account with the goal of soliciting public help to pay their medical fees. The money was also designated for covering costs related to the delivering of bodies of deceased maids to their families in Ethiopia for burial.
It was starting in 2005 that money belonging to the Ethiopian community and Ethiopian consulate in Beirut began to be transferred to the Ethiopian consulate in Jeddah. The community was made aware of the decision prior to the transfer of assets to bank accounts belonging to the consulate in Jeddah. The then consul general in Jeddah, Ambassador Tekleab, was to return all assets once Lebanon’s political turmoil and Israel’s bombing campaign of Lebanon were over. While it is unclear how much money belonging to the Ethiopian consulate was transferred, money originating from the community’s domestic worker fund totaled 640,000$.
But the community has never recovered its money. Despite the consulate in Beirut hiring new staff and Ethiopians returning to Lebanon in large numbers, the Jeddah consulate has neither returned the money, nor has it publicly acknowledged that it even had it. Community members, who sought to use the money to build on previous efforts to assist worker abuse victims, hounded the Ethiopian government for answers as to what had happened to their assets transferred to Saudi Arabia. One community leader went as far as visiting the Foreign Ministry’s headquarters in Addis Abeba to obtain answers. Her efforts bore no fruit and the diplomats involved in the ruse remained mum. The collective silence aided in covering up all traces of the subsequent transfer of these funds to DLA Piper in the United States. The files leaked to Addis Standard provide answers for those who spent the last decade wondering what happened to the money.
In addition to uncovering the names of those who funneled over half a million American dollars in donations to an American law firm, Addis Standard has identified several other public officials, who were uninvolved but later learned of the deal with DLA Piper after investigating on their own. These officials also played their part in ensuring nobody would be held accountable for the 2009 embezzlement by maintaining their silence and refraining from notifying the public.
Among them, Ethiopia’s former consul general to Lebanon, Ambassador Halima Mohamed. Ambassador Halima was well aware that the bulk of the community in Lebanon is formed by women who in 2009, earned as little as 100$ monthly, toiling seven days a week in Lebanese homes.
Despite their low income, Ethiopians rallied around the need to help fellow nationals in distress, says Hiwot, who will only go by her first name. Hiwot has lived in Lebanon for nearly two decades and was among those who donated to the fund. According to her, the disappearance of such a large amount of money without a trace, “dealt a blow to the moral,” of members of the Ethiopian community.
“It was sad, because it took us a long time to gather that much money. Ethiopian officials in Jeddah know about it, I’m sure. No way can this much money be lost. But nobody has told us anything.”
What happened to over half a million dollars a decade ago is a discussion topic often brought up in community circles. There are those who have resided in Lebanon for decades, some of whom will still ruefully recount the various projects planned for the benefit of the people upon the collecting of the money. The truth about exactly what happened to 640,000$ belonging to the domestic workers of Lebanon has remained a closely guarded secret. Until now.
How The Money Ended Up In Saudi Arabia
Lebanon was rocked in February 2005 by the assassination of its former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in a car bombing that left 22 people dead in Beirut. The attack was the trigger for protests by outraged Lebanese who demanded and eventually forced the resignation of Hariri’s replacement, Prime Minister Omar Karami. Demands by protesters centered around the ending of neighboring Syria’s three-decade old military presence in the country and the enacting democratic reforms. The demonstrations by millions brought the country to a halt very much like the Lebanese protests of 2019-20 did prior to the outbreak of covid-19 in the country. But in 2005, they were coupled by a wave of political and sectarian violence. Bombings and targeted killings killed and wounded scores, including migrant workers.
It was during the turbulence in the aftermath of Hariri’s assassination that Ethiopians residing in Lebanon first started leaving the country. But a year later, Lebanon’s problems were exacerbated. Tensions between Israel and armed entity Hezbollah boiled over after the latter carried out an ambush in Israeli territory that killed eight Israeli soldiers. In retaliation, Israel announced it would deploy its air force to bomb Hezbollah targets in Lebanon. From July to August of 2006, Israeli warplanes reduced countless buildings across the country to rubble and killed over a thousand civilians. The devastation of the aerial campaign brought about an exponential increase of Ethiopian migrants seeking to flee the country.
Ethiopia’s top diplomat at the time in Beirut was Consul General Adem Nurhussein Adem. Based in Lebanon since 2004, he was depicted in media reports at this time as exasperated, overstretched and having trouble dealing with endless requests from Ethiopian domestic workers desperate to flee from Israeli bombing raids. “Many of them are illiterate,” he told the Baltimore Sun back in 2006. “Some don’t know what a passport is, and most have run away from their sponsor, so they are illegal.”
Hiwot recalls this period “like it was yesterday.”
“The lucky people left the country early. The Israelis bombed the airport and even roads in Beirut. So many Ethiopians packed buses headed to Syria, which was a safe destination back then.”
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) later helped fund the returns of Ethiopians stranded in Lebanon. Starting from 2005 and continuing into the 2006 Israeli aerial bombing campaign period, Consul General Adem Nurhussein authorized several emergency transfers of assets belonging to the Ethiopian consulate in Beirut, to bank accounts in Jeddah.
In Lebanon, migrant founded associations aren’t permitted to legally register. There are no formally recognized Ethiopian citizen run organizations in Lebanon, other than the Beirut based Ethiopian consulate. This complicated things for the migrant run Ethiopian community in Lebanon. Unable to open a bank account in its own name, the community reached an agreement with the consulate to collect funds and place them in a separate bank account under the consulate’s name.
The community and consulate agreed that the money would be accessible by the community leadership at any time and no amount of community funds would be moved without the community’s explicit permission. Meseret Workneh was among the community appointed treasurers. She has since relocated back to Addis Abeba where she was reached by Addis Standard.
“It was a chaotic time,” she begins. “Our community had fallen apart, people were doing everything they could to escape Lebanon.”
Meseret says that it was during the bombing campaign that Consul General Adem Nurhussein gathered the remaining consular staff and community leaders for an emergency meeting.
“He explained to us that even the future of the consulate in Beirut wasn’t secure,” Meseret recalls. “We would one day be able to rebuild our community. Until we do, the funds from our bank account would be transferred to an Ethiopian consulate in Saudi Arabia.”
Meseret tells Addis Standard that the consul general promised assembled representatives that once calm was restored, the community could request the return of their funds from the consulate in Jeddah. “I had my doubts. But what alternatives could we provide? We were in a war-zone and the fear was that the money would be stuck and even irretrievable in a Lebanese bank.”
According to Meseret, several consulate staff members had defected from their positions and there were legitimate concerns that even the top diplomat might do the same.
Consul General Adem Nurhussein did end up fleeing Lebanon sometime in 2008, defecting from the government and starting a new life in the United States. Prior to his defection, he came off as frustrated in interviews with various media outlets. Swamped with cases of abuse, imprisonment and deaths of Ethiopians, he told a Lebanese journalist that his office was dealing with 148 suspected suicides of Ethiopian nationals between 2007-08. “We receive as many as five cases of abuse per day,” The Consul General stated. He also blamed Lebanese authorities for not doing more to stop what he referred to as “modern day slavery.” In comments made to Spanish media outlet El Mundo, he again lashed out. “My complaints don’t even reach top officials.” He accused employment agencies of serving as “slave traffickers.”
From Jeddah To Baltimore
In 2010, Ethiopia appointed Asaminew Debele as its top diplomat in Lebanon. His appointment as Consul General coincided with an upsurge of new arrivals of Ethiopian citizens in the country. After the ample reports of death and injury of Ethiopian domestic workers, Addis Abeba had banned traveling to Lebanon for employment in 2008, just prior to Adem Nurhussein’s defection. The ban was the first of several such attempts at dissuading Ethiopian women from migrating to Lebanon, all of which have proven ineffective. The Ethiopian government did little to enforce the ban, which led to increased demand for the services of human traffickers. These traffickers continue to facilitate the travel of plenty of Ethiopians to Lebanon, many of whom have ended up dead and victims of horrific abuse.
Consul General Asaminew Debele quickly realized that the consulate had a disaster on its hands. Daily reports of abuse, suicides, and women hospitalized after leaping from tall buildings in a bid to escape their suffering, marked his tenure which ended in 2012. Today, retired, he made it clear to Addis Standard that he has no fond memories of his time in Beirut.
“I couldn’t sleep at night. Every week we had staff looking at dead bodies of our citizens in the morgue. Everyday our phone would ring, and girls crying, would pour their hearts out to us and beg us for help. We couldn’t keep up,” the former career diplomat said over the phone.
It is unclear if the consulate did all it could in its capacity to assist its citizens, as the institution is often slammed for its reluctance to get involved. It was during Asaminew Debele’s tenure as Consul General that the highly publicized incident caught on camera of a domestic worker named Alem Dechassa being pulled by the hair, dragged, beaten and shoved into a vehicle by Lebanese recruitment agent Ali Mahfouz, made headlines. She was later reported to have died by suicide. Ethiopians around the world criticized the general consul for his inability to save her life, especially after it had emerged that the abuse caught on camera happened just outside the consulate.
But Asaminew states that he was never given the authority to fulfill his mandate. “I realized soon after my arrival there that I was merely a figurehead. The government has never allocated us the funds nor the resources to deal with problems of that magnitude.”
“The issue of Ethiopians in Lebanon was never given the attention it needed during my tenure. They were completely helpless and neglected.”
The former general consul says he worked with the community and did what was in his power to assist his compatriots. Including, cooperating with efforts to recuperate the missing 640,000$.
“I investigated and was able to find out that after Adem sent the money to Jeddah, Ambassador Tekleab confirmed his having received it,” Asaminew told Addis Standard. “But I have never been given a straight answer for what happened to the money after that.”
“The money belonged to the community. We had so many bodies in the morgue. This money would have served to send them home for burials by their families.”
The files obtained by Addis Standard don’t specifically name Ambassador Tekleab Kebede. But according to Asaminew, the talk around the Ethiopian diplomatic circles was that Tekleab used his office and his proximity to high ranking officials to pursue business dealings. “It’s an open secret,” is how he put it. “He was younger than many of his peers and yet was allowed to retire with benefits before most of them,” the former consul general chuckled. “The man went from being a diplomat in Saudi Arabia, to suddenly being nominated for some lucrative business position in Dubai. That doesn’t just happen!”
Ambassador Tekleab Kebede’s tenure as consul general ended in 2011. He was subsequently switched to a role in government promoting Ethiopian business interests. He was part of a nine man Ethiopian government delegation led by then deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in June 2011, who traveled to Riyadh to urge the Saudi government to pursue business interests in Ethiopia. Soon after, he was employed by the Dubai Chamber of Commerce, and headed their Ethiopia office.
In 2016, Ambassador Tekleab was appointed the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the “Ethio-Diaspora Grand Mall” project and was tasked to oversee the construction of a 2.6 billion birr mall in Addis Abeba with Ethiopian expatriates serving as shareholders. Local media reported extensively on it and Ethiopian embassies around the world advertised the availability of shares. It is unclear what happened afterwards as construction is yet to begin and the project appears to have been abandoned with no explanation given.
Ambassador Tekleab spent 15 years as consul general in Jeddah. Before that, he was the consul general in Ottawa, Canada, and was a board director for the Canadian branch of the Relief Society of Tigray, an organization he served as a spokesman for over a decade.
The whistleblower who collected and eventually handed over the files to Addis Standard claims he had a breif access to some of the Jeddah consulate’s files and isisted ther could be more files revealing more wrongdoing that need to be investigated by the government. “I wanted the whole truth to come out. The public deserves to know,” the whistleblower who prefers to remain anonymous explains. “There have been rumors of corruption being carried out at embassies across the Middle East for years. If they were thoroughly searched, more files revealing more wrongdoing would be found.”
According to renowned Ethiopian rights activist and commentator Nebiyu Sirak, Ambassador Tekleab’s lengthy tenure as consul general in Saudi Arabia was fraught with allegations of corruption and nepotism enabled by his office.
Nebiyu Sirak, a long time resident of the Kingdom and known for his written activism decrying the suffering of migrants in Saudi Arabia, penned a series of articles for various blogs detailing the woes of migrants in the country. According to Nebiyu, Ambassador Tekleab’s lengthy tenure in Saudi Arabia was fraught with allegations of corruption and nepotism enabled by his office. Nebiyu wrote extensively about some of these allegations, including that of a community initiative back in 2010, which saw Ethiopian residents of Jeddah raise money to support jailed migrants in the city. The charitable effort’s leadership was disbanded by the ruling party members dispatched from the consulate, according to Nebiyu, who wrote that money raised disappeared into the coffers of the consulate.
“Corruption was rife during (Ambassador Tekleab’s) tenure as consul general,” Nebiyu explained to Addis Standard. “There are countless incidents. Around thirteen years ago, there was the open theft of around 100,000 SAR (around $26,588 US) that was raised for the building of a monument in Ethiopia commemorating Ethiopian-Saudi ties. The monument was never built and the money never retrieved.”
It’s a damning allegation about a man who, during his time as consul general, tended to avoid the media spotlight. Ambassador Tekleab Kebede appears to have only willingly courted interview requests when the agenda topic centered around Ethiopia’s business interests. For instance, he was known for his lobbying for Saudi businessmen to invest in Ethiopia’s fertile farmland primarily in the Gambella region. That endeavor largely failed and resulted in the Ethiopian government being accused of displacing indigenous people.
In Ethiopia meanwhile, Ambassador Tekleab is listed as a board member of the Parkinson’s Patients Support Organization (PPSO) and runs a number of businesses, including TKA Import and Export. That company is listed officially as an exporter of agricultural products, but on another business listing, the company is also recognized as an exporter of gold bars from Africa.
Reaching Ambassador Tekleab Kebede was a task on its own. None of his businesses contacted were willing to provide his contact information. “He’d never give anyone his number,” Nebiyu Sirak explained. “He doesn’t use social media and can be untraceable. He would use multiple numbers to avoid dealing with the multitude of issues facing Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia.”
Nevertheless, a self declared close confidante eventually gave Addis Standard a list of phone numbers said to belong to the former diplomat. Ambassador Tekleab appeared startled at being reached by phone, but surprisingly remained on the line to address queries linked to the controversial 2009 money transfer.
Ambassador Tekleab was the man in charge of the Jeddah consulate both during the initial transfer of funds from Beirut to Jeddah and during the 2009 payout to DLA Piper. But when asked about such dealings, he strongly denied knowing anything about them. “What are you talking about?” was how he reacted.
“The embassies and consulates across the Middle East sometimes transfer money from one office to another,” Ambassador Tekleab said. “But this transfer from Lebanon to Saudi Arabi never happened. And any talk of money being sent to the US is untrue.” When told that Addis Standard was in possession of a document that suggested otherwise, he simpy said: “I’ve never heard of such a thing. It’s against our working protocol.”
However, Ambassador Tekleab was willing to speak at length, a refreshing change considering that officials in Ethiopia normally dodge such inquiries. The longer he stays discussing the topic the more his position began to gradually shift. He eventually admitted that he was told a fellow diplomat in Lebanon had named him as being the recipient in Jeddah when the community’s money was transferred there from Lebanon. He claimed he stated at that time that this couldn’t be true, but he was asked if he was insinuating that Consul General Asaminew Debele had lied.
“I never said that,” Ambassador Tekleab now said. “I said I don’t remember. I can say with the utmost certainty that no money was sent to America. Money may have been sent from Beirut to Jeddah. There was a working relationship between those two consulates. It’s common to send money between offices. But the part about money being sent to an American firm is false.”
Addis Standard: “So there may have been a transfer from Beirut to Jeddah of $640,000 US.”
Ambassador Tekleab: “It’s possible. I can’t recall but it may have happened. We transfer large amounts of money and it’s impossible for me to remember each and every transfer. But I can say with the utmost confidence that no money was sent to the US. And any money that was transferred was done so with the authorization of my superiors in Addis Abeba.”
Addis Standard: “Is there the possibility that someone at the Jeddah consulate might have completed a transfer to the US without your knowledge?”
Ambassador Tekleab: “No. That’s impossible. Everything goes through me. We have a finance officer, but I was the one who had to okay anything coming in and out of Jeddah. This is why I can tell you with certainty that your claim isn’t true.”
“Beware of what you publish,” he warned. “What you are claiming is a fabrication. You are going to bankrupt your profession.”
But the documents in possession of Addis Standard suggest otherwise. The authenticated documents make it very clear that it was the money from the community’s account that was delivered to the United States. And by Ambassador Tekleab’s own admission, the 2009 transfer to DLA Piper couldn’t have been made without his knowledge. So, while his name isn’t on the document, it’s virtually impossible to rule out his own complicity. However, there does appear to be some truth about what he said regarding the involvement of a superior.
Among the files Addis Standard spent months analyzing, a faxed document from the Foreign Ministry to the Jeddah consulate. The letter sent by a Foreign Ministry official, requests the transfer of $600,000 US to a Baltimore bank account belonging to DLA Piper. The letter, translated from Amharic reads approximately as follows:
Transaltion: “The firm named DLA Piper has given consultancy services to embassies of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia in Washington DC, Brussels and London, as such for its services we are requesting that $600,000 USD from the emergency funds transferred from Beirut be sent to the firm’s bank account, details are below, via swift bank transfer.”
The letter includes information for DLA Piper’s account at a branch of the M&T Bank. It is signed off by a then Foreign Ministry finance department official, Nega Tsegaye, who went on to become Ethiopia’s ambassador to France and Spain. A career diplomat, Ambassador Nega is now back in Addis Abeba, currently working as the Director General for the Foreign Ministry’s Public Diplomacy Communications office.
Unlike Ambassador Tekleab, Ambassador Nega Tsegaye wasn’t open to discussing the matter. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” was his answer when reached on the phone by Addis Standard. “You’re talking about a matter from over a decade ago. It isn’t fit to be discussing such matters over the phone.”
When asked if he was willing to be sent an email further clarifying the matter for a story, his tone became aggressive. “Go ahead! Publish what you want. I’m in the office with someone now. Sorry.” The line went dead.
Unlike Ambassador Tekleab, his name and signature are very visible on the document and they point to his being a participant in the money transfer that has hoodwinked the public.
The lobbyist firm at the center of the story is one with a controversial track record. The Ethiopian government and DLA Piper’s crowning achievement would be the latter’s work in permanently stonewalling congress from passing HR2003, or the Ethiopian Democracy and Accountability act of 2007. The bill would have called for a US condemnation of Ethiopia’s human rights situation and would have ushered in sanctions, including barring entry into the US of Ethiopian senior officials found responsible for human rights violations. But DLA Piper staffers went into overdrive, recruiting the involvement of Republican lawmakers and circulating pamphlets which sold Ethiopia as an important ally in the war on terror. It worked. The human rights initiative was shelved, despite relentless efforts by some Ethiopian American activists.
In 2006, DLA Piper was paid a tidy $50,000 US monthly, solely from consultation and public lobbying for the Ethiopian government led by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Gary Klein, a DLA Piper spokesperson went on the Deutsche Welle’s Amharic language program and made the astonishing claim that Ethiopia had no political prisoners both prior to and after the election violence of 2005. Klein’s comments provoked outrage among Ethiopians, who on at least one occasion, protested outside the law firm’s Washington DC office.
DLA Piper incurred the wrath of human rights activists and Ethiopian political opposition figures as well as a lot of bad press. In April of 2009, likely due to the pressure, DLA Piper announced that it would be ending its work on behalf of what it referred to as the “democratically elected government of Ethiopia.” The company issued a statement that was picked up and republished by a number of Ethiopian outlets, including Opride.com. In its final notice, the firm also mentioned having “worked with the (government of Ethiopia) in London and Brussels as well as Washington DC.”
The documents Addis Standard is in possession of, show that DLA Piper’s payoff made with embezzled Lebanese community funds, came about a week after their public announcement. The documents render it clear that the money transfer to DLA Piper was for work done with Ethiopian embassies in London, Brussels and Washington DC, making them strikingly consistent with the widely publicized statement issued by DLA Piper cited above.
Phone calls made by Addis Standard to DLA Piper’s media spokesman Josh Epstein went unanswered, as did an email.
A Decade Old Dilemma For Ethiopians In Lebanon
For Ethiopians in Lebanon, the disappearance of the money was a reoccurring source of frustration that would boil over every time meetings between the consulate and members of the community took place. Hiwot remembers this well and explained the source of continued tension.
“Girls were being beaten and raped with regularity in Lebanon,” Hiwot says. “The Ethiopian community opened a shelter with its own money which we used to house victims. The consulate never helped us cover the costs and we struggled to do so.”
Hiwot says the money could have made a massive difference for the good Samaritans in the community who were forced to scrounge together whatever they had to rent a small two room apartment which would be used as a shelter. Demands for the consulate to recuperate what belonged to the community reached fever pitch as the consulate showed less of a willingness to investigate.
Meseret Workneh, who was one of the treasurers appointed to look after the community’s finances when the initial transfer to Beirut took place, made it a personal mission to get to the bottom of the affair.
“It made my blood boil because domestic workers who had jumped from five story buildings couldn’t afford the healthcare needed. Survivors with broken legs sometimes left the hospital being supported by friends because some couldn’t afford the crutches.”
She believes that due to her incessant probing of the matter, she was targeted by the Ethiopian government.
“First I lost my position in the community leadership” Meseret recalls. “Then my residency papers expired despite my submitting renewal documents to the consulate on time. Because I had no residency papers, I was arrested by Lebanese police and spent two days in jail. I’m sure someone in the consulate withheld my renewal application as a punitive measure.”
Meseret says that during Asaminew Debele’s tenure, the consulate in Beirut was far more receptive of requests to investigate the matter. “I cannot blame Asaminew. He looked into it, but I’m certain they threatened him to remain silent. He risked his pension just by asking around.”
In May 2012, after the uproar caused by the tragic death of Alem Dechassa two months earlier, the Ethiopian government sent a delegation from the Foreign Ministry’s Women’s Affairs office to meet with Ethiopians in Lebanon to fend of allegations it neglected its citizens there. Frehiwot Asrat, who later became Head of Ethiopia’s Women Affairs Directorate General, was among those who traveled to Beirut as part of the delegation.
Addis Standard obtained another document containing the minutes of the meeting between members of the community and the public officials, produced by the community and signed by round-table participants. It shows that the meeting was chaotic to say the least. Members of the community slammed the consulate for its inaction. Others demanded justice for Alem Dechasa. Meseret Workneh, the community’s finances head at the time was accused of corruption during the meeting, at the same time, the question of why her residency permit was purposely allowed to expire was also explored.
Amidst multiple accusations of corruption, the issue of the missing community funds was also raised. “Previously, the community managed to raise a sum of US$640,000 before it was sent to Saudi Arabia. Where is that money?”
A community representative, perhaps having lost hope in ever recovering the money added, “if the money is still there, we request that it be donated to the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Damn project.”
The document reveals that there was a lot of heated back and forth between community representatives, consular staff and citizens. Frehiwot Asrat is portrayed as having attempted to mediate between feuding entities and the report doesn’t describe her as addressing any specific claims.
Meseret Workneh, who faced pressure to stop asking about the missing money and was jailed when she alleges consular staff allowed her documentation to expire, wouldn’t let up. Later that year, she went to Addis Abeba and demanded an audience with the Foreign Minister’s finance department. But unfortunately for her, she was accommodated by none other than Ambassador Nega Tsegaye. At the time, she wasn’t aware that he was behind the money’s disappearance.
“At the Foreign Ministry, I told them that we lost over half a million dollars in donations,” Meseret Workneh remembers. According to her, the former Ambassador to France was furious.
“He got angry. He told me that in order to process my request, I had to bring him receipts for each donation. Receipts for 640,000 dollars in donations! It was clear to me that he was unwilling to look into it.”
When it became clear that Foreign Ministry personnel wouldn’t cooperate, Meseret says her pursuit of the money ended. She believed it was futile from this point on. When told of the existence of a document revealing that Ambassador Nega Tsegaye himself was behind the money’s disappearance, Meseret expressed dismay. “It definitely makes sense now,” Meseret told Addis Standard. “Had I raised the issue with a second employee in that office, things might have turned out differently.”
After his encounter with Meseret, the furious former ambassador to Spain rang Consul General Asaminew Debele up.
“He was angry. He said, ‘why did you send her to me?’ I tried to explain that I didn’t, but he wouldn’t listen,” Asaminew recallecd the details from eight years ago. “He silenced Meseret and that was that.”
As the years went by and the plight of Ethiopian domestic workers in Lebanon saw no let up whatsoever, the appointment of new diplomats would for some spell a new opportunity to get things right in Lebanon. Ambassador Halima Mohamed, a career diplomat and former ambassador to Italy was appointed as the new consul general. She was Oromia region’s Culture and Sports bureau head in the nineties. Her being a woman, some believed, would perhaps push her to take a greater interest than her predecessors. She remained in Beirut until 2017.
Ambassador Halima is remembered for having more resolve than the likes of Asaminew Debele. An activist in the Ethiopian community told Addis Standard that unlike her predecessors, Ambassador Halima made a sincere effort to deal with the Lebanon issue. She even tried to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the missing $640,000 US.
The whistleblower’s files appear to confirm that assertion. Addis Standard is in possession of a faxed document showing what appears to be the response by the Ethiopian consulate in Jeddah to a request by its Beirut counterpart for full clarity into what happened to the money.
Dated June 26th, 2016, the letter shows that the Ethiopian consulate in Beirut, by that time run by Ambassador Halima Mohammed, did ask for answers to what was in the eyes of Ethiopian residents in Lebanon, a cold case. It had been five years since Ambassador Tekleab Kebede had left Jeddah. The letter was stamped with the official consulate seal and that of the new consulate general, Ambassador Wubshet Demissie.
“As per the letter written on June 9th 2016, our mission has been requested to clarify what happened to money deposited from Beirut as part of emergency measures taken due to Lebanon’s instability at the time.”
Ambassador Wubshet Demissie goes on to confirm in the letter that records do indeed show that $640,000 US was sent from Beirut to Jeddah. The letter goes on to explain that due to a transfer of $600,000 US to DLA Piper made on April 15th 2009, only $39,895.00 US of the original amount remained.
The message clarified as other documents have, that the money was used to cover the expenses of consultancy sessions given to Ethiopian embassies in the US, UK and Belgium.
What this document reveals is that Ambassador Halima Mohamed was made aware that the large sum of money belonging to the women she was appointed to serve was in fact tranfered to DLA Piper. The message to her office from the Jeddah consulate’s, then headed by Ambassador Wubshet Demissie, clarifies that Ambassador Halima had learned of what happened to the community’s money by June 2016. But she never revealed the truth to Ethiopians in Lebanon to a burning question they had for over seven years. Her subsequent silence on the matter is puzzling.
Ambassador Halima, who is currenelty the Director General of Foreign Ministry’s ethics commission, wouldn’t respond to multiple calls and text messages to her phone requesting clarity as to why she never spoke up.
The author of the letter, however, was reached by Addis Standard. Ambassador Wubshet Demissie, consul general in Jeddah, was relocated to the Foreign Ministry in Addis Abeba in 2018.
The Ethiopian government’s former man in Saudi Arabia gave his version of events and made a lot of revelations.
“From what I remember, this money belonged to the community and the Ministry of Finance wasn’t aware of it,” Ambassador Wubshet said, “I recall that at a meeting with then Foreign Minister Dr. Tedros Adhanom, both me and Halima raised the issue of this money with him.”
“After learning of the facts, Dr. Tedros decided that as this money didn’t belong to the Ethiopian government, it had to be returned to the community using necessary procedures.”
There is nothing on the files suggesting that World Health Organization Director General Dr. Tedros, who was Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister at the time, was aware of the Ethiopian government’s manipulation of funds belonging to the Ethiopian community in Lebanon. But Ambassador Wubshet went on to tell Addis Standard that after Dr. Tedros had ordered the money delivered back to the community, he had believed that the money had since been returned and that the matter was taken care of. Ambassador Wubshet expressed shock when told that this wasn’t the case. Like the other diplomats, he claims to know nothing about the transfer to DLA Piper’s M&T bank account.
“I haven’t heard anything about this money being used for embassy sit downs with an American lobbyist firm,” he said. When reminded that he was being contacted due to his name and signature being found on a document confirming that he was well aware of the consulate delivering payment to DLA Piper for its services, he simply said he couldn’t remember.
“I do remember an audit being performed at that time. But I don’t remember signing any such document.”
“The audit was carried out after Ambassador Halima Mohamed requested the government look into allegations that the consulate in Jeddah had taken money belonging to the community in Beirut.” According to Ambassador Wubshet, the audit was carried out by Ambassador Nega Tsegaye himself.
He admits to having received messages from Ethiopians in Lebanon requesting the return of the money. “I understand that many Ethiopians in Lebanon live in desperate situations. It’s understandable.”
When asked if it would be reasonable in 2020 for Ethiopians in Lebanon to request that the Ethiopian government return money they lost back in 2009, he answered in the positive.
“Absolutely. We agreed to this long ago with Dr. Tedros Adhanom. This money didn’t belong to the government. There are procedures for money like this to be returned but there’s no question that it belongs to the Ethiopian community in Lebanon. The truth is, the federal government aside the individuals involved wasn’t aware of the money’s existence until we started discussing it.”
Current WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom. According to Ambassador Wubshet Demissie, Dr. Tedros ordered $640,000 US sent to the Lebanon based Ethiopian community once he learned of the affair (Image: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)
Ambassador Wubshet also appeared to agree that if a consul general was to send assets from one country to another, he’d require the participation of someone in Addis Abeba. This is consistent with the fact that Ambassador Nega Tsegaye helped facilitate the bank transfer that Ambassador Tekleab Kebede finally executed.
Ambassador Wubshet’s testimony, if accurate, would also confirm that Ethiopia’s consul general, Ambassador Halima Mohamed, had thoroughly investigated the disappearance of the money, before chosing to remain silent for the duration of her tenure in Beirut.
Ambassador Wubshet Demissie’s relative openness on the topic might be deemed the conduct of someone with little or nothing to hide. But the former consul general in Jeddah, who revealed that his office had received requests for information on the missing money, has never answered any such questions from the public. He gave nobody any indications that the issue of the money had reached the upper echelons of government and until he was told that a document with his name on it suggested his knowledge of all the details, he too, like his counterpart in Lebanon, prefred to avoid all talk on the subject.
In addition, Ambassador Wubshet’s claim that the government was made aware of the issue years later appears to be untrue. This document below reveals Ethiopia’s state coffer heads were made aware of DLA Piper’s payment package already on June 17 2009 at the latest. Barely a month after the lobbyist firm received their payment.
In 2006, another document from Ethiopia’s consulate in Jeddah revealed another side of Ambassador Wubshet Demissie. The document, a 52 page internal memo penned by Ambassador Wubshet himself, was leaked to Ethiopian media and was something of a guidebook for embassies and consulates seeking to exert influence over the Ethiopian expatriate communities they were supposed to tend to. Among the recommendations, the recruiting of community agents who would serve as ruling party ideologues in Ethiopian communities around the world.
Wubshet’s guide to “constituency building,” was focused on wiping out the political opposition’s influence and turning expat communities into regime loyalist camps that would fight to combat the spread of news or reports that counter the state narrative. All in all, it appears that Ambassador Wubshet had intended to get Ethiopians in the diaspora to do what the government ended up paying DLA Piper millions of dollars to do.
Ethiopian women who flock to the Middle East for jobs as domestic workers do so with the hopes of escaping unemployment, dim prospects and poverty. Once in countries such as Lebanon, domestic workers are at the mercy of the employers due to the kafala system’s enabling of horrific abuse by employers. Cases of deaths of Ethiopian maids in Lebanon have been reported as far back as 1995 with no known case of anyone being brought to justice by Lebanese courts.
Another reason for the staggering number of victims is the lack of involvement of Ethiopian diplomatic institutions when it comes to cases of abuse and murder of domestic workers. It would explain why none bothered to address complaints of money disappearing.
The documentation detailing the money trail of $640,000 US of money belonging to the community in Lebanon going from Beirut to Jeddah and finally to DLA Piper in the US is authentic. None of the parties interviewed provided anything that could refute what is stated and certified by official signatures and stamps. Ambassador Tekleab issued flat out denials, even initially stating that there had been no emergency transfer of money from Beirut to Jeddah, before shifting and stating that he could no longer remember. Ambassador Nega Tsegaye meanwhile, personally blocked a Beirut resident’s attempt at digging for the truth at the Foreign Ministry and hung up when a journalist sought to question him about his name and signature on a faxed transfer request suggesting his involvement.
Humanitarian Crisis In Lebanon Today
Eleven years later, Ethiopians in Lebanon remain in circumstances that are just as dire if not worse than what former consul Asaminew Debele described. Ethiopians in Lebanon have been pleading to be evacuated from the country since November as a late 2019 financial meltdown in Lebanon has put many domestic workers out of a job, penniless and at risk of starvation. It’s a situation that has been compounded by the subsequent outbreak of covid-19 in that country. Repatriation of stranded, jobless Ethiopians on the brink of starvation seems unlikely. When pressed on the issue Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew stated that time would be needed to prepare quarantine locations for large number of arrivals. However, Foreign Ministry’s Director General for Middle East Affairs, Ambassador Shamebo Fitamo sugegsted that domestic workers in Lebanon aren’t a priority for the government. In a recent tweet, Ambassador Shamebo says “Why you don’t worry about 110 million public Health not to be infected?”.
Ethiopian government officials have made it clear that the repatriations of Ethiopians in Lebanon is simply not on the cards. But for those in dire need of aid, an urgent financial support at the very least would dispel fears of an increase in hunger and homelessness among stranded migrants in Lebanon. After all, part of those who are now stranded are those who made the bitter life in Lebanon their destiny and have, a dacade ago, a US$640,000 of their hard earned money effortlssly paid to a lobbying firm that had no business to offer them with help. AS