Why the Swedish government should fight hard to free cardiologist, Dr Fikru Maru: Corruption, mismanagement of donor funds, and human rights abuse.

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The above photos were taken by the author of this post, Dr Frank Ashall, in January, 2017, while he was a professor at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. They show a laboratory at Addis Ababa University containing about US$ 1 million worth of sophisticated biomedical equipment, almost none of which was used in over 4 years, and much of which fell apart. One neglected $50,000 machine was “eaten” inside and severely damaged by mice. On the left, a $50,000 machine is covered up with dirty cloth; on the right, a $220,000 machine sat, covered up for over 4 years, still unused and deteriorating. In the foreground (left, photo on right), an expensive piece of laboratory equipment sits, still in its wrapping material after 4 years. The laboratory was funded with Swedish donations.

This post is about a Swedish cardiologist who, as we speak, has been unjustly suffering in an Ethiopian prison for over four years. It is about his family, who miss him badly and wonder, incredulously, how he ended up in prison, and why he has not yet been freed.

It is about ethnic and political oppression by the Ethiopian government, and its infringement of its own constitutional laws, as well as of international human rights laws, on the rights of arrested individuals to a fair and speedy trial.

It is about corruption, misuse and mismanagement of foreign aid.

It is about a regime that recklessly imprisons doctors, academics and peaceful, innocent citizens; that denies their rights to a fair trial by arresting them on false charges; delays their court hearings for months, if not years; and keeps innocent prisoners behind bars by fabricating new charges and evidence against them.

It is also about appalling wastage and mishandling of Swedish funding in Ethiopia.

I will present information that became available to me, much of it through personal experience, during my recent four years (2012-2017) as a professor, teaching medical students and graduate students at Addis Ababa University Medical School.

Who is Dr Fikru Maru?

Dr Fikru Maru is an Ethiopian-born Swedish citizen. He obtained his medical degree in Sweden and trained there as a cardiologist, specializing in life-saving diagnostic and therapeutic procedures. After decades of practicing as an esteemed doctor in Sweden, he established, in 2006, a heart hospital in Addis Ababa- it was the very first specialist heart hospital in Ethiopia.

Dr Fikru brought in specialised equipment and supplies needed for the hospital in Addis Ababa. This was a major advance in Ethiopian medicine: Dr Fikru and his colleagues at the new heart hospital were performing advanced medical procedures never done before in Ethiopia.

He should have been hailed as a pioneer for advancing Ethiopia’s medical system.

But, instead of receiving awards and accolades for his pioneering work for Ethiopian Medicine, the good Dr Fikru was arrested and thrown into an overcrowded Ethiopian prison, where he has suffered now for over four years, with no sign of being released. On the contrary, though he was cleared of all previous charges, he has now been accused  of an absurd new charge, and repeated delays of his court hearings mean that he will not be released in the foreseeable future, despite as of yet having no conviction of any crime. 

You can read more about Dr Fikru Maru, and how he and his family found themselves in a living nightmare, in the following articles. The third site is a petition, which has over 110,000 signatures, so please sign it if you can:

#FreeFikru

Who is Dr Fikru Maru, jailed in one of Ethiopia’s appalling prisons?

Petition: Demand the Ethiopian government release the good heart doctor, Fikru Maru, immediately! 

Sweden donates hundreds of millions of dollars to Ethiopia

While distinguished cardiologist and Swedish citizen, Dr Fikru Maru, suffers in prison, yet to be convicted of any crime, denied his rights to a fair trial and due legal process, prevented from practising his noble profession; and while Ethiopian citizens are denied the high quality medical care he could be giving them, Sweden continues to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to Ethiopian causes. Just recently, for example, Sweden signed a US$120 million agreement to support Ethiopia’s development:

Swedish government to support Ethiopia’s development

Yet, the Ethiopian government fails even to consider freeing one of Sweden’s most precious and valuable gifts of all to Ethiopia: Dr Fikru Maru.

Dr Fikru’s gift of his medical expertise and ability to save lives of Ethiopian citizens is priceless! And it has, like much of the donor money given by Sweden to Ethiopia, been wasted in the most ungodly way imaginable. 

Corruption and wastage of donor money in Addis Ababa University

As I said, I worked for four years as a professor at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia, teaching medical students and biochemistry graduates. During that time, I witnessed appalling corruption by senior people at the university, and I was shocked and saddened by the wastage of donor funding there. In particular, I had many discussions with students, some of them already lecturers at other universities, but in Addis to do their Masters degrees.

They shared their frustrations and stories with me, about how their education, experience and careers were seriously hindered by misuse of funding that was meant for their education- meant to advance Ethiopian science and medicine. 

In the university, there was a laboratory, established for carrying out high quality biomedical research. I didn’t even find out that this laboratory existed until I had been there for over six months, and some senior Ethiopian professors didn’t even know it existed. I managed to get access to this laboratory, and was amazed that it contained over a million US dollars worth of sophisticated biomedical research equipment. It would be a dream even to many European or US scientists. One machine was a DNA sequencing machine, which cost $220,000, and there were numerous other pieces of equipment, many costing over $50,000 each.

Yet the laboratory was empty most of the time, and, except for occasional use of a few machines, the equipment was never used.

This laboratory was funded by Swedish donations. I was involved with one of my colleagues in trying to get that DNA sequencer up and running, and I helped in producing a document about the laboratory. The attempt failed- the senior individuals at the medical school did not allow us to get the $220,000 machine running! I have a copy of this document in my computer files, and the following is an excerpt taken from that document, and it clearly states that Swedish funding was involved:

“The core laboratory facility in the School of Medicine was founded by the fund obtained from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA/SAREC) through basic research and training program (BRTP), more than a decade ago.” (Addis Ababa University document)

 

Photo 2 Core lab, 20m ETB unused covered equipment

Laboratory at Addis Ababa University, built with Swedish funding. Photos were taken by the author of this post, Dr Frank Ashall, in January 2017. Expensive equipment, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, most of it never used in over four years, covered and falling apart. One machine was even “eaten” inside by mice. Some were still in their packaging material, four years after their arrival.

On the day I left Ethiopia, which was over four years after I first arrived there, the laboratory was exactly as it always had been- largely devoid of activity, with $1 million worth of equipment sitting unused, neglected, carelessly covered with dirty material, falling apart.

I thought often during those four years, how much students could learn from using that equipment, how its inaccessibility hindered their training and the quality of their research projects. I thought often, what that $1 million could do to help Ethiopia’s poor- you could build a very good medical clinic, or a place to provide food and shelter for the homeless. Believe me, a million dollars goes a very, very, long way in Ethiopia.

I have many years of laboratory research experience, having run my own laboratory in the UK, and I knew how to set up and use almost all of the equipment, but I was told that most of the equipment  was “off-bounds.” So those machines sat, falling apart, for the whole four years that I was there. Shockingly, one machine that cost $50,000 was “eaten” inside by mice, causing serious damage. I joked, absurdly, that this was very expensive mouse food.

I can say a lot more about how funding was misused in the University. Suffice it for me to bring up two other issues, based on my direct experience and on testimony from students and lecturers there who are helpless to do anything about the problems.

First, in 2016, I was an active member of a committee that was formed to design new laboratories, based on the availability of “more funding of millions of dollars.” Believe me, the senior officials there talk big when it comes to bucks. Sometimes, when I heard them talk about how much funding was available, I mused that this could have been big business talk in Trump Tower with the US President himself! I occasionally got the urge to blurt out, “You’re fired!” Never in my career in science or medicine have I heard discussion of such huge amounts of money, as if there were no restrictions on spending, and this in the third poorest countries on Earth.

This committee sat frequently for several months to produce a document (I have a copy of this document in my files) outlining these “new laboratories,” which were yet to be constructed. My main role was to make a list of research equipment needed for the new laboratories. When I mentioned, during committee meetings, that we already had a million dollars worth of unused equipment, so we could get that working and use it in the new laboratories, the response was “Never mind about that equipment- it’s old. Just order new ones and forget about that old stuff.”

So I made a list of over $1 million dollars worth of new equipment, most of which we already had. And I can predict, based on my knowledge and experience, that much of this “new” equipment will suffer the same fate of neglect, mismanagement and dilapidation as the previous equipment. It’s common knowledge in Addis Ababa University that there were several shabby laboratories there filled with dilapidated equipment from years ago that was hardly ever, or never, used, and just gathered dust and dirt.

Second, it is well known by many that senior administrators and other officials are involved in money-making schemes that augment their bank accounts at the expense of research and scholarship.

For example, and this occurs in multiple universities, when a sales representative sells an expensive piece of equipment to a university, the representative removes an essential piece of the machine out from the interior of the equipment, so that the equipment will not work. Months later, in a predetermined plan, an administrator or senior university official calls the representative to return to “fix” the machine. The representative for the company that sold the machine then resells the “missing part” and he/she shares the profits from the sale of the “new” missing part with the senior university official. This is one of many corrupt scams that deprive students of an optimum education and training.

But mismanagement of finances, including donor money, in Ethiopian universities is, by the Ethiopian government’s own admission, monumental. Audits of financial records show, year after year, huge sums of money, much of it foreign donor money, “disappearing,” through “illegitimate transactions.” And it is getting worse, not better, because only lip service is given to the problem.

Last year (2016-2017), in 158 federal Ethiopian institutions, mostly universities, 20 billion birr ($1 BILLION) was unaccounted for in “illegitimate transactions.” And that was twice as bad as the previous year.

Can you truly imagine that? In those universities alone, $2.7 million goes missing every day in “illegitimate transactions.” In a country where 8 million people, right now, are at risk for famine because of drought, and where millions more live in poverty!

You may shed plenty of tears when you ponder what $1 billion, if properly used, could do for the millions of poor and hungry civilians. Read about this sorry and sickening state of affairs in the third poorest country on Earth:

Audit committee wags finger at Addis Ababa University

Ethiopia: Audit gaps surge, Parliament condemns itself

Ethiopia wastes billions of dollars in government projects

In Addis Ababa University alone, last year, 1.5 billion birr (US$ 75 million)- that is over $200,000 every day- is “lost” in “illegitimate transactions!”

According to one of the articles above, the President of Addis Ababa University, Dr Admasu Tsegaye, produced some weak excuses for the problems, and simply referred to the issues as “teething problems!”

Teething problems? The milk teeth fell out years ago, and the adult teeth themselves have gone rotten! The University president’s reasoning “was not accepted” by the audit committee, which is good to hear, but it’s pure lip service. And that money, which was meant for education, continues to go missing, much of it undoubtedly ending up into those fat bank accounts of corrupt senior university officials. And let’s not forget that Ethiopian universities are managed largely by government party-loyal members.

I have heard also that Dr Fikru and his Swedish colleagues brought in expensive hospital equipment, funded by Swedish donor money, for the heart hospital that they established in Ethiopia, and because Dr Fikru is in prison, and many of his Swedish colleagues returned to Sweden, some of this equipment is sitting unused, in its packaging, in that heart hospital, no doubt deteriorating, just like the laboratory equipment I have already described.

It’s an unspeakable shame!

The tragedy of Dr Asrat Woldeyes, Ethiopia’s most famous surgeon.

Arresting people with false and fabricated charges, delaying court hearings repeatedly for long periods of time, and creating new charges when previous charges are dropped, or when a prisoner is found to be innocent, are common in the Ethiopian justice system, and Dr Fikru is not alone in having these experiences.

Thousands of prisoners have been jailed, tortured and killed in Ethiopia since the current regime came into power 26 years ago.

But the experience of Dr Fikru Maru reminds us of another famous doctor, Dr Asrat Woldeyes, who, in his sixties- a similar age to that of Dr Fikru- was treated despicably and horrendously by Addis Ababa University and by the Ethiopian authorities in the 1990s.

Dr Asrat Woldeyes was the first Ethiopian Dean of Medicine at Addis Ababa University, and a distinguished doctor and surgeon, trained at Edinburgh Medical School in the UK. He was dismissed from Addis Ababa University in 1993, and jailed by the same regime that rules today, because he opposed the government’s oppressive policies, and formed a new political party, preaching unity and peace in Ethiopia.

After five years in jail, Dr Asrat’s health failed, and he was released to the UK, then to the USA, for medical care, but only as a result of international pressure. Unfortunately, it was too late, and Dr Asrat Woldeyes, now a hero to many Ethiopian medical students and doctors, died shortly after his release.

Even recently, in 2017, Dr Asrat Woldeye’s tomb was dismantled by the Ethiopian government, removed from a national graveyard in Addis Ababa, and placed in a less prominent place. Nothing id=s sacred to this regime, believe me! You can read about the tragic life of Dr Asrat Woldeyes here:

Obituary: Asrat Woldeyes

Asrat Woldeyes: an extraordinary life

Physician Asrat Woldeyes dies

The last article states that :

“His [Dr Asrat Woldeyes’] trial was something of a farce. Witnesses against the surgeon recanted their stories, claiming government authorities had pressured them to lie. Despite this, Dr. Woldeyes was sent to jail… “

While the rest of the world remembers and honours its heroes, the current Ethiopian regime arrests and jails its own nation’s heroes.

The fate of Dr Fikru must not mirror that of Dr Asrat Woldeyes. He must be freed.

Dr Fikru Maru is one of Sweden’s national treasures and he needs to be treated as such. He should be one of Ethiopia’s national treasures, too.

In my opinion, Dr Fikru’s freedom should be a major diplomatic issue for the Swedish authorities- a top priority. 

 

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