How a World Bank Translator Became a Hunted Man

Gorom Refugee Camp, South Sudan
A woman stands outside a clinic in the Gorom Refugee Camp in South Sudan where many Anuak refugees live after being evicted from their land in Ethiopia. Photo: Andreea Campeanu

Human rights advocates criticize the bank for failing to speak up about the jailing of a former employee

Pastor Omot Agwa knew he was in danger.

“Greetings from Ethiopia in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” he wrote in an online message to friends and colleagues on March 11, 2015. “I am informing you that since yesterday I have been hunted by security.”

The gentle, round-faced church leader had long been an embarrassment to Ethiopia’s authoritarian regime. As a prominent leader of the Anuak, a heavily Christian indigenous group, Agwa had spoken out against alleged beatings and killings of his kinsmen by government forces.

Days before his message, a federal agent had come looking for him at the Mekane Yesus Seminary, the evangelical church that he belonged to in Addis Ababa.

“He wants to arrest me,” Agwa wrote. “If I keep silent without communicating I will be in custody.”

The Ethiopian regime had various reasons for wanting to arrest Agwa, but at that moment, one loomed large: he had recently served as a translator and consultant for an investigation into whether government authorities had used World Bank money to bankroll a campaign of violent evictions targeting Agwa’s Anuak community.

The soft-spoken pastor arranged interviews for the bank’s Inspection Panel, its internal watchdog, with Anuak who told World Bank investigators about beatings, rapes and summary executions by Ethiopian soldiers —placing Ethiopia’s lucrative aid package from the bank into jeopardy. Months later, Agwa translated for a reporter from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists on a newsgathering trip to Ethiopia.

Omot Agwa

In February 2015, the Inspection Panel released its report, faulting the bank for failing to properly scrutinize the Ethiopian government’s programs before giving money to the regime.  Soon after, Ethiopian government agents began hunting for Agwa, visiting his church, his family and leaving messages on his phone, he told human rights groups.

“I have locked myself in the room now,” the frightened pastor wrote in his distress message. “Please pray for me for God’s protection and I don’t know what to do.”

He was arrested four days later as he tried to leave the country on a flight to Kenya. In September, Ethiopian authorities indicted him on terrorism charges.

Human Rights Watch called the charges “absurd,” a transparent attempt to punish Agwa for exposing government abuses and to intimidate other Anuak into silence.

But another key player in the church leader’s case has made no public objections: his former employer, the World Bank.

World Bank officials say Ethiopian authorities have assured them that Agwa’s arrest had nothing to do with his work for the bank’s Inspection Panel. The bank won’t comment on whether it believes the charges against Agwa are valid. And the bank has continued its financial relationship with Ethiopia’s government—approving more than $1.3 billion in loans to the regime since it learned of its former employee’s arrest.

“The World Bank just abandoned him,” said Obang Metho, the executive director of the advocacy group Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, who once belonged to Agwa’s congregation. “Had they not told Omot to investigate this, he would be at home today with his family.”

The World Bank’s decision to continue bankrolling Ethiopia’s government in the aftermath of allegations of human rights abuse is not unusual. The bank has repeatedly refused to intercede on behalf of protesters or local communities when they are mistreated by borrowing governments or to cut off funding in such instances, ICIJ, The Huffington Post and other media partners reported in September.

The bank maintains that as a development lender, it has a specific and limited mandate.  The bank’s rules against violent evictions, abuse of indigenous peoples and other safeguards apply to the projects it finances, not all activities of its borrowers.

Jim Yong Kim.

The World Bank’s charter specifies that “the Bank and its officers shall not interfere in the political affairs of any member”—a clause that the bank has long interpreted as a prohibition against advocating for human rights.

Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, charged in a recent report that the bank has misinterpreted this ban on political interference  to justify treating human rights “more like an infectious disease than universal values.”

Alston said that while he generally opposes across-the-board sanctions as a reaction to wrongdoing by a borrower country, they could be justified in extreme cases and that the bank needs to develop clear guidelines for responding to cases of retaliation and other abuses by its borrowers.

The World Bank declined to answer questions for this story.

In a statement to ICIJ after the terrorism charges against Agwa were revealed, the bank said it often works “in places with complex political and social issues. When allegations of reprisal are brought to our attention, we work, within the scope of our mandate, with appropriate parties to try to address them. We have made several inquiries about Pastor Omot Agwa since his arrest in March 2015 and detention.”

The Ethiopian government did not respond to requests for comment to its embassy in Washington, D.C., and its Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Pastor and activist

The case of Omot Agwa offers a striking view of the bank’s hands-off approach.

Agwa was born in the fertile, low-lying Ethiopian state of Gambella, a traditional homeland of the Anuak, an indigenous tribe of several hundred thousand people living in Ethiopia and South Sudan. He attended an American missionary school and was "born again" as a Christian in first grade, establishing his lifelong ties to the Protestant church. He went on to earn scholarships for Bible translation that set him on a path to church leadership.

As he drew closer to the evangelical church, Agwa retained a strong Anuak identity. When he was a teenager, Agwa had the six front teeth on the bottom half of his mouth plucked out in a traditional initiation rite.

“If your teeth are still there they say that, one, you are not pure Anuak,” the pastor explained last July, a mischievous smile crossing his face, “and second, that your face looks very ugly because your mouth looks like a goat’s mouth.”

An outbreak of violence in December 2003 prompted Agwa to take his first steps into activism. Ethiopian soldiers and members of Ethiopia’s lighter-skinned ethnic majority slaughtered hundreds of Anuak in the state of Gambella’s capital. Agwa survived by hiding inside a friend’s house.

By that time a well-known church leader, Agwa collected the names of the dead and traveled to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to seek out human rights groups that could spread word of the massacre beyond Ethiopia’s borders.

“I went to Oxfam America, I knocked on their door,” he said, “and they interviewed me in their office where, for the first time, I weeped. I cried loudly because I was traumatized, and it was a time now that I was released.”

Human Rights Watch later determined that 424 people from Gambella had died in the massacre.

Collecting names of the dead

Hear Omot Agwa's account of hiding in a friend's house as gunshots echoed outside during a 2003 massacre in Gambella, Ethiopia.

In the following years, Agwa’s fluent English and ties to the Protestant church made him a frequently sought out liaison by human rights observers and others who wanted to know more about the government’s repression of the Anuak.    

In 2010, federal authorities launched the “villagization program,” a massive campaign in Gambella and three other rural states to relocate Anuak and other minorities into government-sponsored villages. The government said the plan was intended to provide health, education and other essential services, but many Anuak denounced it as a land grab and refused to move from their ancestral homes.

The former governor of Gambella described personally diverting roughly $10 million in World Bank money intended for the health and education program to finance a series of violent evictions of the Anuak, ICIJ reported in April.

When the World Bank’s Inspection Panel came to Ethiopia in February 2014 to investigate abuse accusations, it hired Agwa as a consultant and interpreter. Agwa travelled with the investigators through the communities in Gambella where he had grown up, translating interviews with Anuak villagers. One man who was interviewed reported that an Anuak who was a member of the Ethiopian military’s Special Forces was shot dead on the spot by a government police officer after he refused an order to evict fellow tribe members from their farms.

In summer 2014, Agwa worked with ICIJ during a reporting trip in Ethiopia to explore the alleged abuses linked to the villagization program. Despite his fears that he would be discovered by federal agents, Agwa assisted an ICIJ reporter with steady good humor, interspersing his painful recollections with an infectious smile and frequent references to his Christian faith.

When the Inspection Panel published its findings in February 2015, security police began looking for him soon after, Agwa reported to human rights groups.

The government claims the Swiss church charity’s workshop that Agwa was traveling to when he was arrested was a “terrorist group meeting.”

On a telephone call the night before his arrest, Agwa said the police were after him because of his work with the Inspection Panel, according to David Pred, managing director of Inclusive Development International, one of the human rights groups supporting Agwa.

On March 15, Agwa sought to leave the country for a food security workshop in Nairobi, Kenya, organized by the Swiss Protestant church charity Bread for All.

He made it as far as the airport.

Ethiopian security forces arrested Agwa in Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport and locked him up without charges, along with six other indigenous and pastoralist leaders on their way to the gathering in Kenya, according to human rights groups.

Church in Gorom refugee campThe arrest of the well-known church leader set off a flurry of activity by Agwa’s allies. They struggled to find out why Agwa had been detained, and pressed the U.S. State Department and European embassies in Ethiopia to appeal to the Ethiopian government for his release.

Both the human rights groups and the World Bank—as well as ICIJ—agreed to keep the matter quiet so that the Ethiopian regime could release the outspoken pastor without losing face.

On March 31, little more than two weeks after Agwa’s arrest, the World Bank made a move that surprised Agwa’s defenders: it approved a $350 million loan to the Ethiopian government. The money supported a five-year initiative to improve productivity and market access among small farmers.

Agwa was locked up in the Maekelawi police station, a site notorious for the torture of political dissidents. He was held for three weeks in solitary confinement, supporters say. For months after, his family was not allowed to visit him.  

His supporters still hoped that the Ethiopian government might let Agwa free.  Instead, on Sept. 7, Ethiopian authorities charged the pastor with terrorism, alleging that Agwa’s contacts with an Anuak activist in London were a conspiracy to plan armed attacks in Ethiopia, according to a charging document obtained by ICIJ. The government claims the Swiss church charity’s workshop that Agwa was traveling to when he was arrested was a “terrorist group meeting.”

Human rights groups familiar with Ethiopian law say if convicted, Agwa would face a sentence of 20 years to life in prison.

The Ethiopian government has not responded to repeated requests for comment about Agwa. It is possible that authorities are in possession of evidence that would support their claims against the pastor. But Ethiopia has a  history of using its anti-terrorism laws as a weapon against journalists and political activists, and human rights groups that are active in the country say the government trumped up the charges against Agwa in order to silence him.   

On September 15, just over a week after the government filed formal charges, the World Bank approved a new $600 million loan to the Ethiopian government.

The newest round of financing is for a project the bank says is intended to improve health, education and other services. It replaced a central component of the same health and education program that Agwa had helped investigate. Despite the testimony facilitated by Agwa that detailed abuses by Ethiopian officials associated with the program, the bank decided to continue funding a similar arrangement into the year 2019.

Human rights groups say they informed the World Bank of Ethiopia’s terrorism charges almost immediately after they were filed.

“I have no doubt that if they intend to convict him, they will,” said David Pred of Inclusive Development International. “He’s facing 20 years to life, which is a death sentence.”

Obang Metho, the Ethiopian activist who remembers Agwa as his former pastor, said that losing the imprisoned church leader would be a crushing blow for the Anuak people.

“Omot is not just a translator,” Metho said. “He is a husband, he is a father, he is a pastor. . . . The community loved and respected him.”

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