Ethiopian Airlines hijacking: Why co-pilot might have taken extreme steps to leave

Repression, rigged elections and bans on leaving the country mean it’s no surprise that a co-pilot wanted out, writes David Blair

By David Blair
Desperate migrants go to extreme lengths to leave their homelands, but only a select few resort to hijacking. The Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot who landed his plane in Geneva joins a club that previously consisted of nine Afghans who forced an airliner to fly to Stansted Airport in 2000.
In reality, the co-pilot’s choice 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.

The Ethiopian Airlines flight on the tarmac at Geneva. Photo: Harriet Hadfield/SkyNews
The Ethiopian Airlines flight on the tarmac at Geneva. Photo: Harriet Hadfield/SkyNews

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 the price is spending time inside a Swiss jail.


  1. The begining of the end just started. EPRDF that ruled the country with iron feast start seeing the out come of it’s repression and undemocratic rule. The junta prisoned thousands of people like Journalist Andualem and Netsanet because they wrote the truth. The world community need to stand with majority of Ethiopian to get rid of this repressive regime EPRDF(WOYANE). I am nor surprised the co-pilot hijak the plane just to seek freedom.

  2. This is a complete under statement of the problem at the very least. The problem is much more than that… The co-pilot could have stayed in Rome where it was originally destined, but he chose to hijack the airline and land in Geneva to drive much publicity of the case. The co-pilot is making a big political statement by exposing the TPLF atrocities and the big employee resentment at Ethiopian Airlines.

    Can you imagine, if everyone who disagree with the politics of his/her country suddenly becoming a terrorist and hijack an airplane more than 300 people in it, in the name of political asylum ? ? ?
    Now imagine if your son,daughter,mother or father was in that airplane ?

    • What are you taking about, If you are Ethiopian you will understand the co-pilot case and not labeling him as a TERRORIST. The co-pilot make his point and show the whole world that EPRDF (WOYANE) is opperesive and no freedom in Ethiopia at all.Dear kasahun be part of the struggle to get rid of EPRDF (WOYANE) or shut up your mouth and do not be an obstacle for this cause.

    • First open your dictionary (if you have one) and find the meaning of “terror”, then you can comment. Just don’t repeat the only word you heard like an echo.

  4. Hi, It is absloutly wrong to say that the co-pilot can not leave the country. He can just walk away in any city he flyes to.It is not justfiable that he should hijack a plane while he has all the possiblity to seek asylum when ever he is in Europe. Imagine the country has invested a lot to train these pilots and technicians.

  5. The pilot had only two choices, prison and prison. To be exact, he had a choice of harsher or softer prison. He chose the softer one that was in Geneva. Who wants to live in Ethiopia with a racist tplf government. And another thing, he is not a high jacker. He is trying to live a horrible country with a horrible human right violation records. It is our country which is high jacked by a mysterious and unjust force that is in this planet. That force will give financial assistances and loans for this oppressive and racist government. Stay tuned, as the days go by it will get worse and ugly.

  6. Sounds a bit bizarre. The pilot does not need to take such an extreme step. I am sure he was flying to distance countries at well. He could of disappeared then. It seems to me, he wanted to send a political message to the world. Good Luck to you Mr. Pilot.

  7. I remember an Ethiopian who was a member of the imperial navy who was sent here to the USA for further education in the early 1970’s. His was given a diplomatic passport. That means he could visit any country without much visa requirement hassles. But after he finished his school he decided to stay and sought asylum in 1974. Pilots have similar passports. So why did this guy decide to hijack a civilian plane? In these days, where all of us are jittery about wanton terrorism, Thanks The Almighty that the Swiss remained cool-headed with this uninvited plane that came barreling into their airspace. There was no need for him to hijack the plane and in the process he has jeopardized the safety of the passengers. As I said before, violence should not be given the chance to be the instrument of any opposition, be it as an individual or a group. He could have abandoned his job after any flight and make a statement about the undesirable condition of human rights in Ethiopia. Now he has to deal with the possible ire of the Swiss. There are so many social media venues available to everyone these days to expose evil doers. I don’t see any excuse for such reckless action.

  8. Gideon – Did you say the pilot had only two choices? How many choices did you had before you made it where you are now? The pilot made a grave error. The way to ask for asylum is not by doing an act of terror. He broke international aviation law as well as Ethiopian law. If he is looking for a political asylum he has done everything wrong to deserve it. The higher possibility for his fate is time in prison. A better chance would of been to fly in one of his routes and ask for an asylum peacefully. By hijacking the plane he was suppose to be responsible for the care of the crew and his passengers he default his rights for a political asylum. It is really a very unwise decision he made.

  9. The co pilot must be psycotic otherwise he could have left our ETHIOPIA with out hijacking. Let alone co pilot ETHIOPIA had a capacity to live with out her supermind migrant doctors who are highly demanded by ETHIOPIAN PEOPLE .

  10. Pleas know the different between making a political statement while commuting a crime to get a maximum global attention from the media . So please let’s not gauge
    The pilot yet.

  11. Lots of Ethiopian airlines employees are pushed to resign and leave the company. They are issued release without any problem. They are immediately substituted by ruling party members of Tigrian origin. This is the climax of the response of the pushed out employees for their denial of employent in a well paid company.

  12. It is pity to read comments that reflect personal ambition about the co-pilot. some of the comments got deep into the co-pilot’s mind as if they are a witch doctor, others wants to show us how his life is messed up etc,etc. The point is this co-pilot had a better income than most us and other means to seek asylum with out taking this extreme measure. But he choice to hijack a plane is to score a point about what we are experiencing in Ethiopia each and everyday. He wanted to show the world ETHIOPIA is under Bantu like minority based system where others are seen as a second citizen.For the last 20 years Ethiopians are like a slave in their own country BY WOYANE(EPRDF). Generally, he gave him self for Ethiopian cause.He messed up his life for a better of each and every one of us. Labeling this guy as a terrorist is nonsense. Whether we like or not he will be a talking point for long time to come and he also exposed fascist and undemocratic behaviour of WOYANE. I will not surprised other incidents similar like this follows. As the oppression by WOYANE continues people will express their anger with what ever means available.
    God Bless Ethiopia

    The WEST will make sure will make an example out of this braindead insane copilot, because you decided to leave your country for whatever reason does not give you the right to kidnappe/Hijack hundreds of people in that airplane, if that is the case then any of the crew working in that airplane can hijack plane in order to justify in the name political asylum. The international law does
    Not only intolerate such dangerous offenders but treat them as terrorists, and those collaborate and provided information with such criminal also be brought to justice regardless whether it is political organization or what have you.

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