Mon 17 Feb 2014
By David Blair
Repression, rigged elections and bans on leaving the country mean it’s no surprise that a co-pilot wanted out, writes David Blair
Desperate migrants go to extreme lengths to leave their homelands, but hardly any resort to hijacking. The Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot who landed his plane in Geneva joins the men who forced an Afghan airliner to fly to Stansted Airport in 2000 in the select club of those who chose hijacking as their way of escape.
In reality, this might not be as inexplicable as it sounds. At least 620,000 Ethiopians live abroad, including 10 per cent of all those with a university degree, according to the World Bank.
Ethiopians with marketable skills are highly likely to seek their fortunes abroad: the country’s emigration rate is 30 per cent for doctors and 17 per cent for nurses. A qualified pilot would fall into the category of those most likely to leave.
Two key “push factors” lie behind this outflow: repression and poverty. Ethiopia is a de facto one-party state, dominated by a small autocratic elite. Under the previous prime minister, Meles Zenawi, elections were shamelessly rigged and the opposition simply closed down. Many Ethiopians believed that Mr Meles favoured his own Tigray-Tigrinya ethnic group, who comprise less than seven per cent of the population, for the most powerful and privileged positions in the land.
The new prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, took over when Mr Meles died in 2012. Although a less authoritarian figure, Mr Hailemariam has inherited a state which imposes stifling restrictions on political freedom.
The government trumpets the fact that Ethiopia has achieved economic growth of about 10 per cent every year for the last decade. But the benefits have yet to reach most of the country’s 90 million people. Ethiopia’s national income per head is only $400, making it one of the poorest countries in the world.
All this means that many skilled people do their utmost to leave. The government has made this difficult by imposing draconian restrictions on emigration. Many Ethiopians are simply banned from leaving the country.
Three years ago, 60 technicians working for Ethiopian Airlines were given jobs by other carriers based in the Gulf. Their employer simply passed their names to the Immigration and Nationality Affairs Department – and all were prevented from leaving the country.
The co-pilot who flew to Geneva might have had no legal avenue for leaving Ethiopia permanently. He appears to have decided that hijacking a plane was his only option, even if that will mean spending time in a Swiss jail.