The other day Redwan Hussein was briefed about the activities of Ethiopian Olympic Committee, an office he is expected to oversee in his capacity as the new Minister of Youth and Sports Affairs. And this week he signed some agreement related to sporting events in the Southern Region. Should anyone care to know such trivial matters? And most of all when these are the tasks one is assigned and paid to do?
But these mundane chores are deliberately given coverage on state media just to show how it is business as usual for the ex-spokesperson.The former biology teacher was unexpectedly transferred from his post of director of Government Communications Affairs Office (GCAO) which used to put him in the limelight. However it is hardly business as usual.
When the Ethiopian Parliament, alternatively known as the ruling party council for its 100% control of the seats (never mind Susan Rice’s laughter) convened, the first order of business was to rubber stamp the appointment of ministers. Prominent among them: the reshuffling of high-flying head of the GCAO to the less momentous post of leading the Youth and Sports Ministry.
To avoid speculation concerning this sharp twist, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn tried to convince a rather suspicious audience saying the Second Growth and Transformation Plan calls for the full participation of the youth and the appointee has the energy and potential to mobilize that section of the society.
For a little over two odd years, Redwan was the official government spokesperson. During the frequent press conferences he acted out the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi more than any other impersonator. He has been aptly successful in looking and acting everything like his idol. In that he was actually more Catholic than the Pope. He surly passed the dedication part with flying colors.Though some tried to argue in the aftermath of the reshuffle that his successor is more competent, merit has never counted as priority in appointing officials.
It seems the squabble within the parties that make up EPRDF (Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front) got in the way of business. Now it became apparent that the dedication and the blind loyalty has suddenly become irrelevant.
GCAO, which sprang up from the ashes of the Government Spokesperson Office of the Ethio-Eritrean war of the late nineties, has become one of the most potent institutions in the country. Under the tutelage of Bereket Simon, the de facto second in command, that office has become a propaganda juggernaut. Bereket set up clones in every government offices; pushed legislations to muzzle dissent ; they even trained Internet commentators on the social media that counter criticisms of government; made sure that he and two of his deputies control the entire state media by chairing their board. That exercise has become a hitherto established tradition: the minister controlling the radio and television; and the two ministers of state leading the press and news agency. Meaning: an uncontested control of the entire state media.
The soon to be built multi million dollar complex housing GCAO, ironically to be located near the Arat Kilo Palace, is a yet another confirmation of the growing influence of that office. As such, along with defense, security and foreign affairs offices, the control of that parastatal has become detrimental. TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front), which lost the prime ministerial position when its leader succumbed, was not going to settle for less. In their effort to make up for the loss, they sought the control of that office, and their wish was Hailemariam’s command.
Now the baton is firmly in Getachew Reda’s hands. The former academician has been climbing up the party’s ladder to be member of the EPRDF council. As a spokesperson of the ministry of foreign affairs, and later as media and publicity minister of state—whatever that meant—not that he is not new to the position, he was everywhere in recent years that it was difficult to tell the exact differences among Redwan, Shimeles Kemal and himself.
All the three positions at the GCAO, that is, a director with the rank of a minister and two ministers of state have been filled. The appointment was orchestrated along party lines. While much is not known about Workinesh Birru, the minister of state representing Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO), she is expected to chair the board of Ethiopian News Agency along with other tasks at her office. Last but not least is Frehiwot Ayalew, a veteran of the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM). She was a long time editor of the party’s publication and her last position was head of the Addis Ababa Communication Affairs Office. In her new position, she will be heading the government newspapers as a board chair being the heir apparent to Shimeles Kemal. The later, is not yet assigned an official position.
While papers like the pro-government bi-weekly, the Reporter, try to paint a picture of an equal share of the cabinet pie among OPDO, ANDM, and SPDM, that is hardly the case. Crucial cabinet portfolios have always been under the control of TPLF, a reality Ethiopians learned to come to terms with for a quarter of a century. And the last reshuffle once again sealed that undisputed truth with the single act of the appointment of an official.
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 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.”
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.
Days 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.
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.