Five things learned from the latest Ethiopian election

Uneventful
The 2015 edition of the Ethiopian general election — the fifth of its kind since the current rulers took command of state power — is happily over. The results were so predictable and inconsequential that a government leaning private weekly couldn’t hide the apparent. “No other national elections held over the past two decades have a result as obvious as the one held today.” International media had long come out with similar views. The Economist’s latest issue incidentally carried a story about Ethiopia, there the elections were just a side note dubbed “uneventful…with a predetermined outcome.”

The curious case of the professor
professor-merga-bekanaBut the hoopla surrounding the elections unwittingly showed the true colours of the entire system, some new and some tired. Head of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) famously said the ruling party doesn’t need the support of his institution to win an election, when some raised concern about the Board’s impartiality. Lately he has come out even more strongly, his combative edge getting the better of him. And those who casted doubt about the fairness of the polls should be “ashamed of themselves,” lashed out the former veterinary science professor over the weekend.

The new face of censorship
Censorship has scores of manifestations in the country. In its latest iteration electronics media were given a carte blanche to censor the contents of election campaign materials that representatives of contesting parties were supposed to air. While a number of candidates were eager not to miss their five minutes of fame on the national media, those who took the matter more seriously decided to quit the exercise all together.

The Interview
Probably one of the most memorable part of the election was the Prime Minister’s interview on the Al Jazeera network. The Premier sat down with the former BBC news anchor Martine Dennis. The event had some intense moments reminiscent of the BBC’s Hard Talk host Stephen Sackur’s face off with Hailemariam’s predecessor two elections ago. Asked whether he wields real power: “Even during PM Meles era and period this country has been deciding collectively in the system.” Seriously? Martine got on Hailemariam’s nerves when she called the judiciary an extension of the government.“This is an insult for an independent judiciary system of Ethiopia,” the PM retorted. In his attempt to paint a rosy picture of the administration, the clichés of “developmental democratic state” and the rhetoric of neoliberalism were in full abundance. Any criticism against the system is a conspiracy of “the neoliberal paradigm and prescription,” whatever that meant. It was also interesting to hear him talk about the Zone 9 bloggers who have been detained since April 2014 on terrorism charges. “My government has a clear evidence that they are connected with one of the terrorist groups I will not tell you now.” Heaven only knows how long will it take till the “clear evidence” makes it to the court.

Blame game
The ruling party’s complete sweep is creating discomfort within the party’s rank. Now they are in the business of damage control. Some of the party’s stalwarts are coming out in various media to bash the non-existent opposition calling it fragmented and only showing up during election times. Having jailed and driving the better part of the opposition out of the country, TPLF/EPRDF has only itself to blame for the embarrassment of a 100 percent victory. “They who have put out the people’s eyes reproach them of their blindness.” Hail to the Poet!

Ethiopia: the business of telling it like it is not

The recent deceit masterminded by Ethiopian foreign ministry on a non-existent 20 million Australian dollar didn’t go that far before it was exposed as a blatant lie. While building schools in any part of the country is a noble undertaking, putting well meaning young people in the line of propaganda will only go that far. The Minister of Foreign Affairs who was “very busy in talks over GERD” finally came out on social media with a subtle confession and kind of blaming the young girl for “mistake” that “originates from innocence not maliciousness.” But he warned: “We should not write inappropriate things.” Advice well taken! Hoping the Minister will return the favor.

However, that kind of behavior the Minister likes to call mistake is deeply rooted in his office.His predecessor’s infamous press conference in April 2002 on a Saturday afternoon was a classic example. The then head of diplomacy Seyoum Mesfin declared the town of Badme has been awarded to Ethiopia by the Boundary Commission set up to delimit the border following the dispute with Eritrea over the chunk of land. To add insult to injury, the public was ordered to rally in support of the “historic decision”. Alas, it was a matter of days, if not hours, before truth was unearthed.

dr-debretsion-gebremichaelUnfortunately, lies have become the fabric of every propaganda sugar-coated as news. A day hardly goes by without the government or the party affiliated media distort reality in the name of development journalism intended to give a rosy picture of the country.

The state-run Ethiopian News Agency (ENA) is one among those vying for the top spot in this dishonest exercise. The other week the launching of the 4G mobile network took center stage in the media event. The Agency quoted the Minister of Communication and Information Technology, Dr Debretsion Gebremichael as saying that Ethiopia is one of the few African countries to have introduced the technology. A number of other government and ruling party media outlets echoed the story. Is Ethiopia really one of the few? A search on the Internet however tells a different story. Close to half of the countries in the continent already use this latest iteration of high-speed connection. One can only blame them for not making a big fuss over it.

Ethiopia can boast of developments in various areas but mobile technology is not one of them. Control rather than business driven government monopoly on the sector has made it impossible for the public to reap the benefits of advances in communication. A New York Times article earlier this month that looked like a sponsored story couldn’t help that state of affair when they say :“The internet is frustratingly slow and telecommunications are largely not reliable.” Talking international ranking in the sector would drift us far from the issue. With all these facts, it is anybody’s guess how the country can be “one of the few” in the continent.

To understand the level of white lies it is enough to conclude with this eulogy penned apparently on the commemoration of Ethiopia’s late autocrat on the second anniversary of his death. “The oppressed people of Africa and the rest of the world remember August 22 with a broken heart because that’s the day when they lost their pillar, advocate and defender.” This didn’t come from a neighborhood ruling party operative but from a former head of ENA, arguably the oldest news agency in Sub-Saharan Africa. Fortunately for Haddush Kasu, the whole state machinery works in that mode, so his is not such a big deal!

Samora Yenus’ view on the opposition; adios constitution!

Earlier in the month, amid the ongoing 40th anniversary of the founding of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Major General Samora Yenus, the Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian defense forces, was expounding on the position of TPLF/EPRDF concerning opposition parties. “If EPRDF hadn’t wanted the existence of opposition parties, it would have closed the door in the first place like the Shabia (i.e.the Eritrean leadership),” he told party affiliated media members and other guests who were invited to hear the story of the insurrection from the horse’s own mouth. “The opposition that we have now is ready to give the country’s core national interests away… it would be happy if the defense forces are disbanded. I wouldn’t call that an opposition,” he kept on lecturing. “Any way I am a service man,” he concluded. Alas that was too late!

general-samora-yenusOne may wonder whether an army chief can publicly attack opposition parties. At least the much talked about constitution in one of its articles claims, “The armed forces shall carry out their functions free of any partisanship to any political organization(s).” By the way, the 20th anniversary of that document and the day of nations and nationalities have just been celebrated with much fanfare.

Threat to the constitution
Ever since the constitution was ratified in November 1994, the preeminent threat to it came from the executive, which for all practical purposes wrote it in the first place. Not only did the government abused its own creations but also kept on making other laws and directives in utter contradiction to the constitution itself. Here are a few instances:

•    When former defense minister Seye Abraha fell out with his brother-in-arms, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, he was locked up on corruption charges along with his entire siblings. Bail was out of the question. Again the constitution has a clause that says: “Persons arrested have the right to be released on bail.” To tame the criticism, in a nick of time the government came up with a legislation that denies bail for suspects charged with corruption. To add salt to injury, half a dozen members of parliament who represented the Tigray Regional State were singlehandedly sacked by the Prime Minister who didn’t bother to consult the parliament neither their constituency.

•    Freedom of assembly has been trampled upon. In 2005 the then PM publicly announced the banning of all kind of assembly and demonstration under the guise of reducing tension following a controversial election. It would take another eight years before a hodgepodge of opposition activists and religious freedom advocates took to the streets demanding the release of their leaders.

•    Freedom of expression has been the most important victim of the government, though. Article 29, which was copy-pasted from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been trashed. As a result, according to Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) census for 2014, Ethiopia has made it to the list of the top ten jailers of journalists in the world; and when it comes to exile, it is in the fourth position even beating Eritrea.

•    Never forget that when Meles passed away, way before the official version of August 2012, it took around two months for the current premier Hailemariam Desalegn to assume his rightful position. There is nothing in the constitution that talks about the replacement of the PM in case of death or incapacitation. Why? Because the author of the constitution was none other than the former head himself who was set to lead till death do him part, in which he succeeded.

Revisiting the past
Having overthrown the Marxist dictatorship of Mengistu Hailemariam in 1991, TPLF/EPRDF suspended the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) constitution and was leading by the transitional charter. That was supposed to pave the way for a new constitution. So a constitutional drafting commission was established. Most of the members were handpicked by the party in power, some were close confidantes of the man at the helm. Professor Andreas Eshete, the late Kifle Wodajo are among the members to mention but a few.

The Commission’s mandate was to draft a constitution; present it to the public for debate; then submit the final version to the president. The president was to send it to the Constitutional Assembly, the final body entrusted with sealing the fate of the document. Unfortunately, out of the 557 members of the Assembly only 18 were independent politicians or representatives of other smaller parties. Otherwise it was all EPRDF’s show. The constitution which is more or less the country-wide version of the TPLF manifesto of 1974 was approved almost by acclamation. To ward off some unexpected legal glitches in the future, the power of interpreting the constitution was given to the House of Federation, the upper chamber of the parliament whose existence is rarely felt.

The making of a Prime Minister
When TPLF/EPRDF came to power Meles Zenawi was the president of the country. Why did he become prime minister? The ethnic politics that he espoused was to have a boomerang effect on him. If he goes for a presidential system, the chance of him being elected by all the people of the country through a direct vote was next to nothing. So he had to pull the tricks of parliamentary system up his sleeve. The public was never enthusiastic about that exercise, let alone discuss the merits of parliamentary system. As everything was a top down approach, the transitional government leaders — with president Meles at the helm — decided parliamentary system as a means to guarantee their eternal hold on power.

So after the Assembly ratified the new constitution, the then minister of information Dr Negasso Gidada was elected president. His role was largely ceremonial. Meles became the all too powerful PM.That way he guaranteed the continuity of his personal grip on power for decades to come by easily swapping hats overnight from president to prime minister. Members of parliament may change; even the president has got two term limits; but Meles’ tenure was for life.

In the name of constitution
From the four constitutions the country ever had, the last one seems to have been abused the most as it became an instrument to wage all kinds of indoctrination under the pretext of safeguarding it. Village political operatives (locally known as cadres) threaten peasants who fail to pay fertilizer arrears by saying they are trying to “dismantle the constitutional order”; when taxi drivers strike that is “crime against constitution”; if a journalist writes about political issues, it is “outrage against the constitution”.

If history is any indication, no constitution in Ethiopia ever withstood the change of government. As such it is just a matter of time before the current one will be adjusted to the tune of whoever controls the Arat Kilo palace next time around.

Temesgen Desalegn – an Ethiopian embodiment of courage.

In one of his articles Temesgen discusses how the struggle of the Ethiopian opposition and other activists were reduced from raising political and civil liberty issues to merely demanding the release of opposition figures or imprisoned journalists. Ironic as it may seem, now the 37 years old is in the later’s shoes and rest assured others certainly will not stop demanding his release.

temesgen-desalegnTemesgen Desalegn, publisher and editor of the now defunct Feteh and a couple of other newspapers, has been found guilty of articles that were published in his paper between July 2011 and March 2012.

The five-page charges for the most part interrelate to each other. On top of that, some of the charges listed negate the very essence of journalism. One of the charges states “with a view to change the mindset of the youth.” The whole point of writing is the fight for the hearts and minds of citizens; to contribute to making an informed debate and decision-making. Devoid of such ordinary logic, the charges evolve around incitement, mischaracterization of the government, manipulation and defamation.

Five articles written in that time frame were presented as evidence. After two years long deliberation, the Federal High Court found the defendant guilty as charged. On October 27,2014, he was sentenced to three years in prison.

Temesgen’s imprisonment was hardly unexpected. He was a vocal critic of the ruling party. As such he has been detained several times. He shared his prison stint with readers in various blogs he posted regularly.

Temesgen’s articles stand out as well thought, analytical and empirical. His knowledge of the country’s current affairs, with all its intricacies and complexities, is almost unparalleled. Even long after all his publications were shut down, Temesgen never missed an opportunity to pen his views and analysis on current affairs.

In an unusual tribute, a veteran economist and politician Bulcha Demeksa recently commended him as a knowledgeable, fearless journalist whose gut has inspired many a youth.

The popular Amharic weekly Feteh was shut down in July 2012 in a dramatic manner, the last publication was seized from the government-owned printing press. To add insult to injury, the printing house forfeited the money amounting to a little over $4,000.

Not to be completely outdone, the indefatigable chronicler of the country’s state of affairs had earlier managed to publish a collection of his articles in a book entitled Yemeles Amelko ( Worshipping Meles). The book was a huge success that it had to be reprinted a number of times.

For now Temesgen doesn’t seem to be that concerned about the sentence as he is adamant about his innocence. His lawyer Amha Mekonnen told VOA Amharic that they declined to present mitigating circumstances for that is tantamount to admitting guilt. So their next move is to appeal the court’s decision. As Temesgen’s favorite metaphor has it, his journey won’t stop until he gets to Golgotha! He is determined to relive that moment by challenging the judiciary where ever it takes him. Here’s to idealism.

Whatever happened to private TV in Ethiopia

Last week, the South­ern Regional State launched their own TV sta­tion. Debub TV is expected to air a ten-hour pro­gram­ming from its sta­tion in Hawassa to the region’s esti­mated 16 mil­lion peo­ple. So far they were air­ing a one hour broad­cast through Ethiopian Radio Tele­vi­sion Agency (ERTA). Typ­i­cally, they would pro­duce their pro­gram from the regional mass media agency then send the one hour tape to Addis Ababa to be broad­cast on the national TV. From now on, the Region wouldn’t use the help of oth­ers to get on air. The sta­tion is a ben­e­fi­ciary of a late-comer advan­tage, as such they are said to have acquired state of the art pro­duc­tion equip­ment installed by MJO Broad­cast at a cost of ETB 180 mil­lion (close to $10 mil).

All said and done, con­tent wise, there will hardly be much of a dif­fer­ence from what the national TV is offer­ing. It may as well be the same old chan­nel prob­a­bly with a dif­fer­ent intro to it.
Almost all the regional sta­tions are repli­cat­ing what the national TV is broad­cast­ing. The TV spec­trum is doomed to the exclu­sive monop­oly of the rul­ing party ideology.

A few weeks back word came from the most unlike­li­est of offi­cials. Speaker of the House, Abadula Gemeda was quoted as say­ing: “Issu­ing license for TV broad­cast­ing needs extreme cau­tion.” As the media can be used in nation build­ing, Abadula argued, words can have the power to break soci­ety apart.

If one already allows radio — albeit FM only — the poten­tial dam­age the “words” could bring on the screen, if at all, is quite min­i­mal. If you allow radio, which can be heard any­where and every­where, why not TV which is less ubiquitous.

A decade after the estab­lish­ment of Ethiopian Broad­cast­ing Author­ity (EBA), which is respon­si­ble for issu­ing licenses, the coun­try hasn’t got a pri­vate TV, and the chances of hav­ing one is bleak, at least in the fore­see­able future. That how­ever, doesn’t mean there are no activ­i­ties in that direc­tion. Tigray Peo­ples Lib­er­a­tion Front (TPLF) owned Fana and Walta Infor­ma­tion Cen­ter have long been in the TV busi­ness in var­i­ous ways. Both made for­tunes by pro­duc­ing fea­tures and enter­tain­ment pro­grams all to be broad­cast through the pub­licly owned ERTA usu­ally through “spon­sor­ship” schemes. In most cases the four periph­eral regional states of Afar, Ben­is­hangul Gumuz, Gam­bella, and Somali footed the bill. Why these Regional States? Bet­ter saved for another story!

ethiopian-broadcasting-corporationCur­rently the most con­ve­nient excuse to delay the licens­ing of pri­vate TV broad­cast­ing is the com­plete tran­si­tion from ana­log to dig­i­tal trans­mis­sion. While most of this is a game shrouded in tech­ni­cal lingo, it is not even clear who is lead­ing the tran­si­tion: ERTA, EBA or the Ethiopian Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion Agency, which for the most part has pre­ferred to stay mute.

The newly appointed Direc­tor Gen­eral of EBA, Zeray Asge­dom — until recently head of ERTA — told par­tic­i­pants of a sem­i­nar that after the tran­si­tion from ana­log to dig­i­tal, there will be scores of local TV chan­nels (other offi­cials are more spe­cific putting the chan­nels at 22). Accord­ing to lat­est infor­ma­tion, the tran­si­tion will be com­pleted in 2016, that is, in less than two years. Talk­ing about the buzz sur­round­ing analog-digital talk, it has noth­ing to do with the vari­ety of ideas enter­tained in the media, rather it is just about a bet­ter way of receiv­ing signals.In the dig­i­tal for­mat one either gets clear images or noth­ing; no blurry or flick­er­ing sig­nals. That’s the most basic com­po­nent of the whole issue.

What­ever the excuses for not issu­ing licenses for pri­vate TV broad­cast­ing, the more altru­is­tic motive of the delay lies somewhere else. It seems they are giv­ing Fana time to fin­ish their sta­tion which has been in the pipeline for the last cou­ple of years. Cur­rently some of their radio pro­grams are taped in broad­cast tele­vi­sion for­mat just in time for the real­iza­tion of their inevitable foray in the TV business.

Only when Fana starts trans­mis­sion that oth­ers will have a legal and moral ground at least to apply for the licenses. As to Fana, when and if they are capa­ble of launch­ing their TV, they don’t even bother to get a per­mit; that’s exactly what they did when plung­ing into the radio busi­ness in the wee hours of the cur­rent regime’s ascen­sion to power.

How to steal smart and get caught; a lesson from The Reporter

If one steals smart — the logic goes — they should get away with it. Isn’t that the case? However, some try to get as smart, then, they fumble. That’s what happened to the English language weekly The Reporter, when they ripped someone else’s story undeservedly making it their own.

When was the last time we mulled over this subject? Remember the former Ethiopian ambassador to South Africa and Uganda? That was Tesfaye Habisso whom some folks nicknamed Copysso. The gentleman was churning out articles after articles on history, democracy, governance and all the grand ideas. It was not too long before someone exposed him. His strategy was like get a good story; change the title; add a few lines in the beginning; scribble a couple of others at the end; also don’t forget to put your name. Voila a piece! Little did he know that in this age of the Internet one cannot thrive on plagiarizing somebody else’s labour of love. By the way, have you heard from him since?

Here we go again

With two decades of experience under its belt, The Reporter seems to have everything going for them. They publish in Amharic twice and in English once in a week. When others struggle to put together just a weekly, Reporter is the only one coming out three times in that time frame.They even had a monthly magazine back in the days.

As the former Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) fighter and the first post Derg head of the Ethiopian News Agency, the owner, Amare Aregawi is almost unrivaled in getting insider news from his sources in the security and intelligence. As a ruling party cheerleader, they get countless advertisements from leading public enterprises such as the Ethiopian Airlines, The Commercial Bank, Ethio Telecom and scores of others, funneling millions into their coffer. As if that is not enough, even government ministries and the likes of Anti-corruption Commission patronize them by placing ads in the form of messages, all covered by tax payer money.

Reporter’s huge financial muscle prompted them to set up their own printing press a few years ago until the plan went up in smoke, but that is another article.

With all these huge resources at hand, it is puzzling why they have to steal part of a story, the subject of which is closer to their turf than the paper they copied from.

The_ripped_storyOn the July 5, 2014, Reporter English edition a story reads: Confusion circulates over Andargachew’s extradition. A few paragraphs down the line, some sentences that have been seen elsewhere start to pop up.

Unfortunately, those paragraphs were copy-pasted from The Guardian of the United Kingdom, a paper of reference almost two centuries old. It is highly unlikely the two publications share correspondents. Could it be the vice versa? If the time on the page is any indicator, The Guardian story was posted almost seven hours before The Reporter went to press.

Free Press Free Speech Free Spirit are lofty ideals the Reporter took as its motto, but what we got instead was Free Ripping; words not to live by particularly when making hype of your 20th anniversary.

Check out a glimpse of the stories from the image; or alternatively click the links below.

The Guardian

The Reporter

ETV’s latest guest Andargachew Tsige

Secretary general of the outlawed Ethiopian opposition group Ginbot 7, Andargachew Tsige, was detained in the Yemeni capital Sana’a on June 24; and if we have to believe the official version, he was extradited to the security officials in Addis the same day.

Yemen, which never misses the top ten spot on the annual failed states index, seemed unable to contain the pressure of holding an opposition leader of a foreign country. They quickly dumped him over to his nemesis who already handed him a couple of death sentences. Worrying about international conventions and treaties is a luxury the Arabian Peninsula nation can hardly afford.

Two weeks after the arrest, Ethiopian officials were confident enough to put Andargachew on national television to prove they got their sworn enemy. One that triggered the government’s disclosure is probably to preempt whatever may come from London, a day earlier British official met the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. While the topic of the discussion was not mentioned, it is clear that Ms Lynne Featherstone didn’t travel 5,000 km to tell Hailemariam “the support of her government would further be consolidated in the future.”  Andargachew, who is a naturalized British citizen, might as well be high on the agenda.

andargachew-tsigeETV showed some images of Andargachew in military fatigue and in villages, the location of which is yet to be disclosed. But a carefully edited grainy video which is more likely taped by the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) shows him saying:

“I am at ease with myself. For me It is a blessing in disguise. I am in no rush. I just want to rest.I am really exhausted. I have no resentment, no anger and no despair.I am totally in control and stable.”

Those words barely convey any messages. We don’t know if they are given under duress. Or if the investigators want to cajole the opposition figure into getting him to give more information, if there is anything left by now. We see him shaking hands with his interviewer whose face is unseen, may be an attempt to show he is in good hands.

That puts to rest the weeklong speculation of the media and in some cases top ranking government officials. “I have no idea,” Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesperson Dina Mufti was quoted as saying by Agence France Presse. The government spokesperson Getachew Reda, who is closer to the inner circle of the leadership, was generally dodging the question by retorting to rhetorics.

So last night’s statement sets the government information officials free, at least not to deny what is the obvious. Your move Shimeles Kemal!

Silencing the Zone by hook or crook

It has been over three weeks since close to a dozen journalists and bloggers were arrested, most of whom members of the blogging collective known as Zone 9. Their site, hosted in Google’s Blogger platform, was launched two years ago with a catching motto “We blog because we care.” They coined the name after a visit to the Zone 8 of the Kaliti prison, where a fellow journalist, Reeyot Alemu, is serving a five-year sentence. Zone 9 is a metaphor to say the rest of the populace is also in jail but in a different cell block. No surprises, their page was blocked within weeks of its launch.

zone9Abel Wabela, Asmamaw W/Giorigis, Atnaf Berhane, Befekadu Hailu, Edom Kassaye, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnael Feleke, Tesfalem Weldyes, Zelalem Kebret have been locked up in the notorious Maekelawi in the north of Addis, where the tradition of torture is well alive and kicking.The bloggers were public servants,university professors,information technology professionals, full-time journalists so on and so forth.

As it has become absurdly the norm, police had detained then started to investigate the alleged crimes, dashing the hopes of a speedy trial. So far the broad allegations are: working with a foreign organization that claim to be human rights group; conspiring to incite violence via the social media. An advisor to the Prime Minister put it as “criminal activities” without delving into specifics. Police have requested more time to investigate. The courts have no problem granting the wishes of the police at the expense of the detainees.

Some papers that came out in the last couple of days said, weeks after the arrest nobody knows the reason for their detention. However piecing together the words of police and close associates of the ruling party , there are clues to indicate where this thing is going to end up.

The dots
At the beginning of April, security officials detained Patrick Mutahi, a Kenyan national and a staff of Article 19 – a London based rights group working for the defense of freedom of expression — at the Bole International Airport. His earlier visits to the country (said to be five times) have been closely monitored.

Ironically Patrick’s travel to Ethiopia was related to a training on security and safety. Talking of safety, media watchdog groups train journalists in various skills. In recent years, with governments filtering the web, the subject of circumnavigating censorship; concealing the location from where blogs are posted have gained traction. Back in the early days of Internet filtering, the Paris based Reporters without Borders produced a famous manual called Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-dissidents to help protect journalists in otherwise unfriendly political systems.

While Patrick was deported back to his country after a day in custody, his cell phone was confiscated, leaving behind a trove of information.

Enter HRW
In March of this year Human Rights Watch published a report on the state of surveillance in Ethiopia. The 100 page report entitled: ‘They Know Everything We Do: Telecom and Internet Surveillance in Ethiopia’ explains how security officials willy-nilly eavesdrop on the phone conversation of citizens. Here is a witness telling his encounter in the report:

“After some time I got arrested and detained. They had a list of people I had spoken with. They said to me, “You called person x and you spoke about y.” They showed me the list—there were three pages of contacts—it had the time and date, phone number, my name, and the name of the person I was talking with. “All your activities are monitored with government. We even record your voice so you cannot deny. We even know you sent an email to an OLF [Oromo Liberation Front] member.” I said nothing.”

Hence, the call log in Patrick’s phone will reveal all the individuals he had contacted. No matter what the conversations, it would be construed in a way that justifies the government’s paranoia.

TPLF insiders
A day after the detention of most of the suspects, Mimi Sebhatu, a close confidant of the Meles-Azeb family went on to her radio station and said the suspects had contact with Article 19. Mimi may have an inside knowledge not least because of her association with the inner circle as to her family’s history in the lucrative security business in the country.

In the closed court appearance police told the judges that some of the suspects travelled to Kenya and have received money and training from a human rights group. Police stopped short of mentioning who the rights group was.

TPLF run online media in North America are having a field day attacking Article 19 and the bloggers. They call the group “a neo-liberal extremist organization for hire, created for the sole reason of overthrowing democratically elected governments.” And the bloggers are guilty even before they are formally charged. “It’s a criminal act to make Addis Ababa turn into Ukraine’s Kiev for the sake of money, by working with the likes of ‘Article 19’ Eritrea and Egypt,” opined one.

So there should be no doubt as to what the charges will be associated with. The insiders have told us in no uncertain terms that it is all about Article 19. We, surly, will stay tuned.

The not so cheap talk of Alemnew Mekonnen et al

Amid the drama and conspiracy theories surrounding a co-pilot who had hijacked a plane, two local politicians were hitting the headlines in their own ways.

Zenebu Tadesse is Ethiopian Minister of Women, Children and Youth Affairs. Last week she allegedly tweeted: “There is no place for hate, discrimination in my beloved Africa. It’s not Governments’ business to make dress code or anti-gay laws.” The tweet was a reaction to an anti-gay bill that was signed into law by Ugandan President Yoweri Musevini. Zenebu’s comment quickly drew controversy both at home and abroad. However, the tweet was a short-lived one: deleted. The Minister later denied posting it.

In an interview with the ruling party owned Radio Fana, Zenebu said while she actively uses Tweeter to promote some of the activities of her Ministry, she denied posting the tweet. “I was out of town when I heard about the tweet. I was saddened to hear that. I didn’t even have access to network… I am not an IT expert to comment on how it was posted. We are conducting an investigation.”

Probably the most important issue here is not the content of the tweet. It is to what extent the officials are free to speak their mind. Was the Minister forced to retract her comment?Would she be as blunt to comment on such controversial issues without expecting a backlash? Is the level of IT sophistication that high to easily hack on to her account? Why didn’t the hackers go after more prominent politicians that are known to use Tweeter? What ever the answer to those questions, officials will be intimidated to say what they think, making their online life as boring as the officialdom they are caged in.

Making Alemnew famous

alemnew-mekonnenAlemnew Mekonnen is deputy head of the Amhara Regional State and the second in command of the Party that is imposed on the Region.

Alemnew – according to his own explanation – was “training” the local media staff on issues of good governance and democracy, put simply – he was engaged in political indoctrination.

A leaked audio from the “training” shows what ruling party functionaries are capable of saying behind close doors. Alemnew scorned the Amhara – Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group considered to be 30 million strong – labeling them “ultra-chauvinists” and “barefoot pedestrians.” He added: “The Amhara walks barefoot but what they say is utterly poisonous.”

Those remarks aired by Ethiopian Satellite Television and later spiraled onto other social networking sites brought about disgust and indignation. While the government was mute about it, some government affiliated “private” papers talked about the incident without delving into the content.

All sorts of discussion and condemnation ensued. Opposition party members staged mass protest in the regional capital Bahir Dar. Scores of them actually took off their shoes to make a point on the “barefoot” remark.

The deputy chief convened a press conference of handpicked journalists who read questions from a script.The caption that run on the TV screen didn’t even identify him as deputy regional administrator — a move taken by the spin doctors to distance the administration from the comment — only vaguely mentioning his position in the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM).

Alemnew took an hour to basically say two things:
First, he denied making the remark.“How can I say that?” he threw the question back to the reporters.“I didn’t say any of the comments that has been attributed to me by the opposition.I have respect for the people.Who am I to make such disparaging comment against my own ethnic group? (The whole thing) was doctored by computer technics. It is the work of the opposition politicians to alienate the ANDM leadership from the people.”
Second, he blamed the participants of the training for their chauvinistic outlook. He insisted that he was mainly trying to address issues of ethnic politics that the trainees lacked tremendously.

For whom the bell tolls

Remarks by officials that single out specific ethnic groups, particularly the Amhara, are not uncommon. To start with, the pages of the Tigrai Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) manifesto handwritten in February 1974 are packed with references to the “oppressing Amhara ethnic group.” That’s where small time ethnic ideologues get their cue from.

Former chief of Southern Region, who has since become Minister of Education, Shiferaw Shigute issued a letter akin to ethnic cleansing when he ordered the eviction of Amhara settlers from the Gura Ferda locality in southern Ethiopia. His counterpart in the Somali Regional State, Abdi Mohammed Oumer was shown in a video advising his “brethren” which ethnic group they should embrace if they happen to go to the Capital, Addis Ababa.

Such ethnic disparaging languages should not be tolerated where ever they come from. At the end of the day no body chooses where they come from. An attack on one is an attack on all. “… never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Tamrat talks politics again; should we trust him?

Former Ethiopian leaders are breaking their silence. Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam, who for the last 22 years has been living in exile in Zimbabwe, spoke about his encounters with the late South African President Nelson Mandela.

From that interview we learned: Mengistu handed a $100,000 check to the anti-apartheid icon shortly after his release from prison; the colonel is still mad at former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev for telling him to seek peaceful alternatives to the insurrection; he has a good grasp of the southern Africa political dynamics. The septuagenarian also speculated that the reason Mandela didn’t visit Ethiopia after TPLF/EPRDF assumed power was because he didn’t want to see a divided Ethiopia from which Eritrea separated. Suffice to say evidence was in short supply.

tamrat-layneDays earlier, the born-again Christian Tamrat Layne talked at length with the Australian public radio Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) host Kassahun Seboqa.

Both interviewees are thousands of kilometers away from their homeland in the true “spirit” of African leaders who can hardly walk their streets after they are booted out of office. That said, both should be commended for being gracious enough to share their side of the story.

Fall from grace

Tamrat Layne was Prime Minister of Ethiopia when rebel forces unseated the military regime in 1991. Initially the post of the PM didn’t matter at all. Then with the ratification of the 1995 Constitution, Tamrat was pushed to the deputy premiership as the ever shrewd Meles took his position.

After his relegation to irrelevance, the last time we heard from him was when in an emergency session Meles briefed the Parliament about the “repetitive ethical misconduct” his deputy committed while in office. “My Party decided that I am not capable of discharging my duties and responsibilities. In open discussions I held with fellow party comrades, I came to realize the mistakes I made while in leadership was unbecoming of me,” Tamrat told s stunned nation.

“I fully comply with the measures taken and I support the Party’s decisions and I want this House to allow me to resign my position.” The House cheerfully fulfilled his wish. That opened the next chapter of his life which lasted longer than his stint in the mountains of northern Ethiopia. By confessing his sins right there and then, he might have thought of saving some skin. That was never meant to be!

Tamrat is obviously a different person now. Seems to have found solace or a hideout (depending on how you look at it) in religion. Ever since his “redemption”, he devotes his time to the family he missed so much in the dozen years he was away from them. The father of two is currently living in the United States.

Coming back to the hour long interview, it is safe to say there was nothing groundbreaking. The talk of writing books serves to show his importance than the significance of the content of his work. After all, ANDM was a mere pawn in the TPLF politics and as such has no life of their own.

Talking legacy

As if we are not tired of the talk of legacy, now Tamrat has his own. One might think the legacy he left behind in the five uninspiring years may be as impressive as that of the last President of the country, Girma Wolde Giorgis.

Nope! He is not ready to settle for less. “For the first time in (Ethiopian) history religious equality was granted under EPRDF rule on my watch. I signed the document,” he declared. When the radio host challenged his assertion, Tamrat reiterated: “Under Dergue there was no religious equality. For example, Protestant religion was outlawed. Protestants used to be persecuted, imprisoned, banished, killed. Everybody knows that.” It is not clear whether he had foreseen his own conversion to that church. Tamrat might have presented himself as the champion of religious freedom in Ethiopia by telling the story to the laity of the U.S. mega churches where he makes occasional appearances.

To give the devil his due, the Dergue regime soon after the overthrow of the Imperial regime, not only declared the separation of Church and State but subsequently made the three Muslim holidays public holidays.

As Mengistu Hailemariam claims not to have killed a single individual to these days in the face of scores of evidences, Tamrat insists that he has not stashed away public money. He wants the public to believe the stories of the millions of dollars he was accused of embezzling were mere fabrications. Tamrat told the interviewer that the Government tried in vain to recover them.This begs the question: what was the “ethical misconduct” for which Tamrat himself confessed in public?

On a positive note, Tamrat deserves respect for apologizing to the former Dergue officials. In the days when he was flying high he said: “These people were not supposed to be alive by now.” Now they are all free. While the apology could have served its purpose if delivered in person, entertaining the idea by itself is no mean feat. He should also consider himself lucky to have made it thus far in the treacherous politics of Ethiopia where he miserably failed to make a mark.