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.
Originally posted on Jan.7, 2013
Last week Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn informed the nation that the country has about 200 printing houses; and kept on to assure the public that there is no need to worry about issues related to publication of newspapers. He was responding to a concern raised by the sole opposition member of parliament that printing houses were intimidated to take orders from private newspapers. The PM advised that the papers should ask themselves why the printers are not willing to do the job.
Printing houses have become the most efficient instruments in muzzling the Ethiopian private press. The major ones have been given a discreet order not to publish papers that are critical of the government.
Former Ethiopian President and currently an opposition party leader Dr Negasso Gidada explained to VOA Amharic about the challenges they faced trying to publish their party official organ Finote Netsanet: “We tried both the government and the privately owned printing houses. They are afraid to publish our materials. Some even change their mind after receiving part of the payment.”
The top printing houses in the country are either government or ruling party owned. The privately owned do not have the capacity to publish periodicals on regular basis; and when they do, they prefer to play it safe by dealing with those who focus on showbiz, sports or medical issues.
For all the double digit economic growth for the past two decades, it is only one printing press – established close to a century ago – that has the capacity to churn out dailies and other periodicals. As a result,Berhanena Selam Printing Press (BSPP) like all the government media outlets is under strict control of the ruling party. No surprises that the board chair is a top EPRDF hand who used to be vice minister of information.
Rehearsing the script
Using the printing press to stifle the media is not new. In October 2005 after TPLF unleashed its Agazi battalion to massacre close to 200 civilians, it turned to the private press by imprisoning journalists and shutting down the papers. BSPP were instructed to monitor the contents of the papers they print. That censorship made it difficult for the remaining papers to survive.
Couple years after the brutal suppression, the government felt secure and eased the censorship; subsequently other papers started to emerge.
However, when the private media started to report on the health situation of the late PM, the government resorted to its age old tactics of making the private media’s life hard.
Now it has become even more systematic that officials of the Ministry of Justice took it upon themselves to appear in person at the printing house to make their points clear. The government spokesperson Shimeles Kemal, a lawyer by trade, spent a great deal of time explaining Ethiopian commercial law which was supposed to provide legal excuse to the censorship. He told the Associated Press that the printers have a right to refuse publishing “rebellious material and materials that are in violation [of] any written law.”
The manager of BSPP, who has been in the business for decades and by all assumptions was supposed to be the first person to address the issues didn’t even bother to utter a word since the controversy started with the impounding of the last edition of the Amharic weekly Feteh in July 2012.
And to the irony…
While the printing companies turn down the request of private newspapers, officials like the information chief Bereket Simon are not sure of the printers efficiency. The man who talks of the economy growing at “the speed of cheetah” is not confident enough in the ability of the publishers to take on his book. He had to look for printers in Nairobi to publish his “memoir” written in Amharic. The irony doesn’t end there though. The nation’s flagship carrier who takes pride in being all Ethiopian, prints their inflight magazine Selamta in Dubai and Nairobi. No wonder if some people around town seek the service of printing houses in India for their wedding invitation cards. Unfortunately those who are ready to make use of the available resources are loathed by the powers who reign by sheer force. Isn’t the pen mightier that the sword after all.Hail to the pen!
Originally posted on Oct.1, 2012
Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s presence in New York for the United Nations General Assembly will rather be remembered for the 40 minutes odd interview with the Voice of America (VOA) than the significance of his speech at the podium.
While there was nothing new in the interview that is groundbreaking or of utmost importance, the mere fact of the interview being held makes it newsworthy. Otherwise, most of the answers were similar to his late predecessor save for the arrogance the later was known for.
The PM’s maiden interview since he took office raised issues ranging from Sudan to China. From concerns of water to stories of hats. He explained at length how Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is democratic and how those who think EPRDF is “biased towards certain ethnic groups…is a false and unwarranted speculation.”
He sounded comfortable expounding on foreign affairs than that of political prisoners as he doesn’t seem to have sufficient information in that regard; or may be he served as minister of foreign affaires for two years before he assumed the current position; could be understood either ways.
His answers concerning freedom of speech is devoid of any details whatsoever except for the archaic metaphors of the “two hats” that he had to repeat dozens of times.
Talking about issues of the media and free speech most of his words were borrowed from Ethiopian information Tsar Bereket Simon, in some cases they sounded a recital of his predecessor’s signature phrases like “the red line.”
To show how there is freedom of the press in the country at one point Hailemariam says: “You know you have been there. You have been operating there,” the You being the interviewer Peter Heinlein. If Hailemariam only knew that Mr Heinlein was detained this last May for covering Ethiopian Muslims protest at the Grand Anwar Mosque in Addis Ababa. He had to spend a night at the notorious Maeklawi prison before the American Embassy in the capital intervened to secure his release. After that Peter never reported from Ethiopia. He quietly left the country to continue his work as head of the Horn of Africa Service of VOA. So much for the operation Mr Prime Minister!
The other irony is that the interview may never reach the intended audience as VOA is blocked in Ethiopia.
Though the PM mentioned he will work with VOA Amharic Service in Addis, he didn’t hide his disdain for the “people in Amharic service” whom he accused of “trying to destabilize this country in terms of instigating certain issues.”
We may not expect a lot from the new PM whose accession to office was shrouded in lots of politicking. The fact that it took him more than two months to take over the position by all earthly logic he was entitled to, tells a lot about the internal wrangling within his party. Shaking off the ghosts of his predecessor is definitely going to take a while. Until then we will be humming “Will the real Hailemariam Desalegn please stand up?”
Originally posted on March 4, 2010
Say good bye to the Walwas and check out the new guys in town
Election 2010 has already claimed its first victim in the Tigray State. Mr Aregawi Gebre Yohannes who is the candidate of Arena Tigray (one of the members of Medrek) for the House of Peoples Representative (HPR) has been stubbed to death in his own small bar. “He was killed in a personal row outside his constituency,” was the government’s spokesperson answer.
The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) has not said anything so far it is busy counting the registered voters which it says are around 30 million. But few take NEBE seriously. The Indian Ocean Newsletter says the actual figure is a closely guarded secret.
Election observers have been cautious to get involved. The Carter Center has already declined to participate. The European Union is still assessing its options as if what is going on right now is not part of an election process. The obvious reluctance is an indication what even the major donors think of the exercise.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) second man and government Communication Affairs Office chief with a minister portfolio Bereket Simon is not contesting for a seat in parliament.
There have been credible reports about the health problem of Mr Bereket. Now his bosses have decided to leave him out. The rumor that he was poised to contest in his birthplace Gondar has finally been put to rest. Bereket still may hold his ministerial portfolio but not as a member of parliament.
Another person who has long been rumored to be set aside is Tefera Walwa. The minister of Capacity Building, who has been out of the public view for a long time, seems to have fallen out with the guys at Arat Kilo. His one’s gigantic ministry was supervising top offices like Ministry of Education, Science and Technology Commission and a number of others. He was also presiding over the school net project, the status of which is known only to him. Not only will the Ministry of Capacity Building loose the supervision of those ministries but itself is going to be turned into a department within the prime minister’s office.
Tefera has been silent for long. When security forces came to arrest Tefera’s octogenarian father-in-law on coup attempt charge, his wife was there trying to defend her dad. So she was taken into custody along with her father. The once favorite son of Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) has never recuperated from those wounds. But to his credit unlike many of his comrades, Tefera has not been implicated in business and recently he advocated for property registration and financial disclosure of all government officials.
Tefera has contested for parliamentary seat in Addis Ababa three times. He lost them all. Though he has been a mayor of the city in the early 90s he has hardly left a mark. He has also served as minister of defense in a crucial moment when the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea broke out. It is a mystery till this day what he has actually been doing at the time. Many do not even remember he has ever held that position.
There is also talk of a deal between EPRDF and Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) of Lidetu Ayalew. The number and the constituencies where they field candidates look a carefully orchestrated move. Ironically their campaign symbols are complementary. EPRDF is a bee while EDP chose to be the flower. Coincidence? Anybody’s guess.
Lidetu will be contesting in the Bugna Woreda of North Wollo where his chances of winning a seat are far better than in Addis. He seems to have understood how the city residents think of him, not to mention his other name Kihdetu given to him by his onetime supporters. So the only place he can secure a seat in the House is to go to faraway places out of observers’ eyes where he can easily manipulate results with a little help from friends in high places. But Lidetu downplays such assertions.
In a recent interview he said his home town people have been yearning for their favorite son to be their voice in the HPR. Lidetu is also busy promoting his new book where he is discussing his political views. The book is said to dwells on attacking all the opposition parties and a praising the incumbent for bringing democracy to the country. Some who had read the book say generalization and sweeping statements are the building blocks of the author’s premises.
While former CUD (Coalition for Unity and Democracy) leadership member Engineer Gizachew Shiferaw of Medrek will face off the least known EPRDF candidate Dr Zerihun Kebede, State Minister of Science and Technology, in Woreda 17, EDP’s Sophia Yilma is playing the spoiler role by trying to take some vote from the Engineer. Before joining the leadership of EDP, Sophia was a journalist during the Dergue leadership. She is also the daughter of Yilma Deressa the well known finance minister during Emperor’s Hailesselassie administration.
Same scenario is playing out in Woreda 18 where former president Dr Negasso Gidada faces off Mines and Energy minister Alemayehu Tegenu, where the potential spoiler is Mr Mushe Semu the secretary of EDP. Though the chance of Mushe winning the constituency is slim, he may take some votes from Dr Negasso that might favor the EPRDF candidate. Mr Alemayehu got some publicity in relation to the Gilgel Gibe hydro electric project. The nation’s sole power provider the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo) is under his ministry.
Of codes and engineers
Engineer Hailu Shawel who has become unpredictable in recent months is one of the contestants. The 72 year old was part of an election code that has been signed by EPRDF, EDP and his own All Ethiopia Unity Party (AEUP). He has been hailed by the powers in Addis for taking the initiative in signing the code and to that effect the government threw two parties in appreciation, one of which in the National Palace. But in a bizarre twist of events, the Engineer has been denouncing the code and even threatened to boycott the elections. He has refused to participate in the debate of political parties.
Engineer Hailu, however, will face off the former Addis Ababa University (AAU) lecturer Dr Hailu Araya of Medrek in Woreda 23. Five years earlier the Engineer won the constituency by a landslide against an EPRDF candidate. This time around EPRDF is sending the political science graduate of AAU, Ms Aster Mammo. Aster has been speaker of the Oromia parliament and minister of Youth and Sports. Aster is normally shy and pleasant. Her youth, gender, confidence, and the normally calm attitude which is highly regarded in the Ethiopian society could have won her the constituency. But there are lessons to be learned from the fate of former Addis Ababa mayor Arkebe Ekubai who was popular by residents but the party he represented cost him the seat.
New kids on the block
Among the candidates of EPRDF, some who have so far played a passive role have been fielded to the Addis Ababa constituency. One among them is Mr Abdurahim Ahmed, the spokesperson of the Ethopian Telecommunications Corporation. Mr Abdurahim has for three years consistently and flatly denied the government’s suspension of text messaging in the country following the 2005 elections. He was insisting that was a technical glitch. While he is largely unknown to the ordinary voter, his calmness and reserved character is what he has to sell. Otherwise he is completely devoid of any charisma.
Though his status at the moment is not known, the director general of the Ethiopian Revenue and Customs Authority Mr Melaku Fenta is also among the ones EPRDF wants to put forward. The former minister of Inland Revenue has been silently beaten in Addis Ababa five years earlier. Right now he is riding on a success of the newly structured Customs Authority. He is expected to be among the new blood the incumbent want to capitalize on.
Mr Shimeles Kemal is the one reaping most from the seeds of his political adventures. On top of his state minister post that was awarded to him following his prosecution of the CUD members, now his party is confident enough to field him as a candidate in Addis Ababa. Even with his first term job as State Minister, he is by far the most visible cabinet members of the government. He managed to write three laws in as much years all of which aimed at curbing human rights of citizens: anti terrorism proclamation, the civil society law and the media law. That devotion earned him so much credibility that at the moment he is the de facto spokesperson of EPRDF eclipsing Bereket Simon.
A graduate of law at the Addis Ababa University, Shimeles also writes articles bullying different news papers and individuals under various pen names. Right now he is busy attacking the owner of Reporter Mr Amare Aregawi. Before joining the government he used to contribute articles to this same paper.
To wrap it up
This election is not about taking over government. The incumbent is already assessing who to reshuffle and replace after the elections. A number of ambassadors have already been called from their overseas posts to base. The election is rather a fight for some opposition politicians just to secure some seats in the rubber stamp parliament. Some want to make their voice heard against all odds. Some might be lured by the ETB 4000 salary and the perks. As the days to polling day approaches expect to see some drama in Tigray where the over confident Seye Abraha made a controversial statement about his chances of winning elections. Otherwise it is business as usual at the Menelik Palace.